Having toed the start line at the Angus HAM four times before, I felt like I had a slight advantage compared to some of the other runners; I knew what I was letting myself in for. It’s a long single anti-clockwise loop through open tarmac roads, with scarce civilisation and spectators to cheer you on in between. The first half is predominantly downhill, but the latter half is very much up, with a final mile of steep upward slope just to knock any remaining strength out your legs and remove any hope of a sprint finish. It’s a good race, one you can really get your teeth into, and almost seems to be a test of willpower as much as it is one of endurance.
Since I first started getting into the half marathon distance, the Angus HAM has been the first race on my calendar every year and is usually indicative of how the season will go and how much I’ve let my training slump over the winter. I regularly recount my terrible performance in 2015, having assumed I would survive on some sort of residual fitness from my autumn races the year before. I came in dead last that day, and made it under the three-hour time limit by the skin of my teeth with a time of 2:59:11.
This race is always something of a reality check for my ambitious inner runner. I’m very much a plodder that will for some reason quite happily sign up for every race under the sun despite my notoriously slow finishing times and constant fretting over race time limits. Upon completion of the Angus HAM, I normally find myself frantically adjusting training plans and nutritional strategies for races later in the year.
My course record from the year before was 2:37:40. It had been an impressive feat for me at the time. My training plan had been going well, I had tapered, and carb-loaded, and the stars aligned and I knocked an impressive 11 minutes off my course PB.
This year I was worried. Preparation was a bit of a disaster. With the Stirling Marathon looming just 2 weeks away, I hadn’t tapered at all. This 13.1 miles would be one of many training runs to prepare me for that. My February-long holiday and the terrible snow/flooding in March meant I was behind in my training, and the new road shoes I had bought for the season back in January had yet to leave the treadmill, leaving me to choose my partially destroyed old faithfulls. In my morning doziness, I ate my regular breakfast instead of my more stomach-friendly race breakfast.
All in all, it wasn’t looking good. But I had somehow fluked a PB in training earlier in the week so I knew there was some potential for a course PB somewhere. Not a half marathon PB, because the latter half of the race is an uphill slog, but a course PB might prove possible.
We arrived in plenty of time to collect my number and timing chip – the timing chip was a foam ankle bracelet this year, a novelty that I was convinced would throw off my stride but which I in fact entirely forgot about before we even left the park. A while later and all the runners were called together for a race briefing followed by a warm up which I half-heartedly followed. Being small and at the back of the crowd, it felt like trying to follow a physical game of Chinese whispers, copying the confused movements of the people in front who only had a slightly better idea of what was going on than I did.
After the warm up, we shuffled over the bridge and lined up behind the timing mat that would act as our official start line. Being a plodder, I took my place at the back and prepared to set my watch for the moment I passed the mat, my Fitbit acting as my official time tracker and the race clock as my gun time.
Now, this is usually the point where I take off like a lumbering bat out of hell, a whole minute and half per mile quicker than I can possibly sustain and end up gasping for breath as I desperately try to keep on the heels of the backmost pack. Of course, it’s taken me far too long to realise that the backmost pack I’m always so desperate to pursue can actually vary in speed. Sometimes they’re just a little bit faster than me and I can cling on for a few painful miles until they edge away. This was not one of those times. I didn’t stand a hope in hell.
I was left in the dust from the very start, looking bewildered at the last purple shirt pulling away just as we left the park. I somehow managed to overtake two other runners, before one of them returned to reclaim her position in front barely a few minutes later. Believe it or not, I was actually quite happy about this. I was able to settle in to my own pace instead of sabotaging myself early on like I usually do, nipping at the heels of the runner in front like some sort of Jack Russell on a mission.
The one-mile marker came encouragingly quickly. A glance at my watch confirmed that for once, I had started the race at an almost sustainable 10:30 mile. I kept a-plodding. The village of Monikie was soon in sight and I was rather proud to be jogging gracefully up the slope instead of the gasping mess I had been in previous years.
And then the sun came out. Despite the weather reports of clouds and some potential drizzles, the sun burned through the harr and I had totally forgotten sunscreen was even a thing that morning and so had to resign myself to burning. Great weather for my support crew sipping coffees and munching on bacon rolls outside, not so much for me sweating buckets out on the roads. Thankfully, my February holiday had prepared me for warmer climes and I was able to hold my pace, somehow keeping Purple-Shirt in sight.
The 2.5-mile water station was a welcome sight, and I threw the cup of water over my head like I was some professional 4:30 miler chasing a 1 hour 10 finish. It was a good call, because once I break pace to try and guzzle water I usually can’t settle into a pace again for a while, and my water bottle was still sloshing happily.
I left the water station in good spirits, pace intact, and better yet, the fluorescent 3-mile marker just in sight. Somehow, I was going fast. A potential 5k PB flitted across my mind, the sub-30 temptingly close. Yet for several frustrating minutes, the sign wasn’t getting any closer. It wasn’t until the damn ‘sign’ turned a corner that I realised it wasn’t a sign at all, and poor near-sighted me had mistaken a distant runner’s fluorescent yellow vest for the mile marker. Please, I beg you, do not dress in fluorescent yellow unless you happen to be a marshal or a mile marker!
I passed the real 3-mile sign in 33 minutes, tied flush to a closed farm gate by the side of the road. Purple-Shirt was a distant spec and moral was low, my sub-30 5k remaining a distant dream. Mile 4 was undulating but predominantly downhill, and I tried to focus on the rural scenery and what on earth I was going to write about in this blog post rather than the pain in my sides that told of an upcoming stitch.
It’s around this time that it finally occurred to me that I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me, and thus whether I was still going in the right direction. Despite being relatively local and having ran the race before, I’m not blessed with anything resembling a sense of direction. However, a glance back showed that I had one single runner in sight behind me, so I figured we couldn’t both be wrong and kept on.
Mile 5 sloped up towards Wellbank, one of the many little rural villages I usually forget exist until I see the 30 MPH sign on the road out from Dundee. The stitch was truly burning at this point and with the nearest runner about 200 metres behind and safely out of earshot, I left my dignity behind and tried to breathe through it while running uphill, making a noise somewhere between a honking seal and a woman in labour.
Somehow it worked, and the stitch was a distant memory. I treated myself to a Starburst as a job well done and to prep my stomach for the gel I was about to choke down after mile 6. I could tell I was towards the back of the race when I noticed the folk at the water station scurrying to grab water for me as I went through Kellas. They had been waiting around for a while since the runner ahead. They gave me a cheer and I walked long enough to pour my water cup into my bottle. And then I heard a second cheer barely a few seconds later. The runner behind me was catching up!
Knowing she was a few seconds behind and loathe to give up my admittedly close-to-last position, I somehow achieved a feat I have never managed in training before; consuming a gel while in mid-run. I swooped down the hills and narrowly avoided a tempting left-hand turn by catching glimpse of the 7-mile marker sign. I could see the wind farms of Dundee looming ahead and knew I was approaching the latter half of the race.
The weather had cooled down some and the sky had grown a bit overcast by this point. I tried to focus on the refreshing breeze instead of the Dundee traffic that had suddenly picked up, growling behind me as the cars waited for a chance to overtake. I was forced to duck into the verge more than a few times, always glancing furtively back to see the runner shadowing me was gaining ground while I was trying not to join the roadkill.
I left Dundee almost as quick as I entered, barely a half-mile of city outskirts before heading back to the rural farmlands. A stone clattered behind me and I realised that my shadow was now literally on my heels, so I picked up the pace a little despite becoming horribly aware that my sock had somehow moved within my shoe and was rubbing in a way that would surely leave a blister, but there was no way I was wasting any time fixing it. I was also becoming increasingly aware of how robotic my legs felt, moving constantly in the same way for close to nine miles. Knowing it was mostly uphill from that point wasn’t helping. I took a gel and huffed my way up yet another hill to the 3rd water station, disappointed that I was finally being forced to walk.
I skipped the offer of Haribo and threw another cup of water over my head when I hit the 3rd water station, face as bright as the lucky red race shirt I was wearing. It sort of helped, but my stomach was finally starting to rebel as it always does when I attempt to run at any sort of speed. I started to miss my trail shoes when the traffic picked up, Sunday drivers presumably lured out by the morning sunshine. I spent most of that mile somewhere between the verge and the road-long pothole at the side of the road, two-way traffic forcing me to turn it into a trail race.
And then the inevitable happened, just after mile 10 I was forced into the long grass to hack up my gels and starburst. This gave my shadow the opportunity to finally catch me, and to her credit, she didn’t seem at all put off by the creature retching at the side of the road. She asked if I wanted a buddy for the last 3 miles and having slogged the majority of the race on my own, a friendly face was more than appreciated. With a ‘hell yeah’ from me, we took off at a steady jog, walking whenever my new Arbroath Footer pal’s stitch flared up or I felt a bit green about the gills.
We rounded the last water station at mile 11 with cheer, swapping race stories and PB times, and the slight downhill to Newbigging gave us a boost, even though we could see the final mile-long hill looming just up ahead. The 12-mile marker was partially hidden amongst the trees, but as soon as I spotted it I was already calculating my course PB probability. I had 15 minutes to complete the last 1.1 miles. Easy on a good day, wish fresh legs and a flattish course. With 12 hilly miles already accumulated and one hell of a hill to go, I really wasn’t sure. We gave the traffic the finger and hiked up as quickly as we could, refusing to jump into the verge now that we were really racing the clock. The signpost for Monikie park came into sight at 2 hours 33 minutes, and I pulled away from my buddy in a bid to beat my previous record.
The exact same path that I had happily jogged down earlier suddenly seemed insurmountable going back up, but the clock was ticking and I wasn’t to be intimated. I estimated the distance and started steady, figuring I’d beat my course PB with a minute to spare, the giant inflatable finish line promisingly in sight.
What I had failed to take into account that I was bloody knackered. Despite the cheers of other exhausted runners and the dedicated spectators that had stuck around to watch the last of us trail in, I was taking too long. Constantly checking my Fitbit, I realised that steady wasn’t going to cut it, and reportedly turned an interesting shade of maroon in my best attempt at a sprint finish at that point. The finish timer said 2:38:11, but I didn’t care about what the gun time was. My Fitbit and later my timing bracelet gave me 2:37:36 as an official result. A course PB! It might only have been four seconds faster, but it felt like four minutes.
My buddy pulled up a scant 10 seconds behind me as a lovely volunteer was helping me remove my timing band from my ankle, because I doubt there was any way for me to bend down without falling down. We threw our medals over our heads and with a ‘thanks for the company’ limped our ways to our respective spectators.
In the end, of the 230 or so runners that ran on the day, I came in 225th. It’s taken a while, but I’ve slowly started not to care so much about what position I finish in, especially when I’ve got my own goals and bests to beat. Does my little victory make me feel ready for the upcoming Stirling marathon? Hell no! But now I know I’ll do it anyway. That’s what the Angus HAM teaches you. Grit.