Farewell Neneh Cherry.
Racing a Half Marathon on about 2 ½ hours sleep is the best way to ensure you get a cracking PB – isn’t it? Sometimes, just sometimes, things go largely the way you want them to, and give you a nice wee confidence boost.
My main running goal for this year – other than to do relatively well at, but also enjoy, the Chicago Marathon in October – was to get a Half Marathon PB. If you’ve read my Dundee Half DRAM report from last year, you’ll know my 2018 Half PB is soft compared to those for other distances. It was also tantalisingly close to being sub 1:40, but the wrong side of that line. That’s why I decided to sign up for the Stirling Half Marathon rather than the Angus HAM: it seemed like it would be an easier (though not exactly flat) route, gave me more time to recover from the Tay Ten, and had pacers.
For various reasons though (mostly an uncomfortable mattress and lack of safety pins with which to attach my baggage label – the latter of which was solved by my long-suffering partner heading to a supermarket at 4am to purchase some, narrowly avoiding the wrath of a guy wandering the aisles with a tv and muttering about stabbing someone), I only got about 2 ½ hours sleep the night before. The prospect of racing on around 2 ½ hours sleep filled me with some trepidation, and I was a bit disappointed. I said to Michael that I thought a PB was looking doubtful. His response was that I would probably die on the course! Then people could say “At least she died doing what she loved: Getting trampled to death by hundreds of other runners on their way to the finish line.” He’s hilarious. Seriously, his delivery had me laughing out loud. It didn’t make me feel any less sleep deprived though.
Michael dropped me off near the entrance to Kings Park about 45 minutes before the start of the race. I found the Info Point, who directed me to the Baggage Buses, and I deposited my bag before joining a queue for the portaloos. The queues were brisker than at Loch Ness thankfully, but I’d picked the one nearest the entrance to look for Charlotte and some other folk I knew were running, so it was of course one of the slowest moving ones. I was clear of them in a little over 15 minutes though.
Charlotte and I were hoping to meet up and I’d said I’d be in the White Wave next to the 1:40 pacer. But when I jogged over to the assembly area, it turned out there were no areas, other than that the Half Marathon runners had to go to the right-hand side and the marathon runners to the left. I asked one of the marshals and he confirmed there were no restrictions by bib colour. “I’ll never find my friend” I bemoaned, but he said “Maybe she’s already in there.” It was still pretty empty so I made it all the way to the front, which enabled me to confirm she definitely was not there. I found the 1:40 pacer though, and was very happy when Charlotte appeared a couple of minutes later and gave me a big hug. She said she was injured and would be lucky to get round in 1:40, so we could run together for a bit and see how we both felt. The 1:40 pacer was called Neil and had his mile splits printed on a bit of laminated paper. He had been third Vet at Angus HAM a couple of weeks ago in 1:27 flat. As 1:40 pacer though, he was aiming for 4:44/km and got round in a perfect 1:39:58. He said he’d talk us through it every mile.
There was a brief introductory message over the tannoy, and it was interesting to hear who the big contenders were in the Marathon, including the amazing Jennifer Wetton who holds the course record at my local parkrun and has a fantastically long stride. Then we were off at pretty much 8:30 on the dot.
As we were fairly near the front, it only took about 35 seconds for us to cross the start line. Both the Marathon and Half Marathon start at the same time, and follow the same route for the first 800 metres or so along the side of Kings Park and Stirling Golf Club, before reaching a roundabout where the marathon runners turn left and the half marathoners turn right onto Albert Place heading East. As a result, these first few minutes are very congested, and it’s hard to stick with people. Our pacer got a couple of rows ahead of us and I was struggling to get through without losing him and Charlotte. She opted for the pavement side of the road and nearly ran into a yellow cone. I was a little concerned that I was already behind pace for 1:40 and we were only in the initial kilometre. Once we’d headed off right, though, we were back with Neil and he and Charlotte both said it had been to get out of the crowd as soon as possible, and we were a bit up on pace. We stayed ahead of pace slightly, settling in around 7:25 pace, sometimes a little quicker. Neil thought he should slow it back to follow his plan, and Charlotte asked if I was comfortable at the current pace. I said I was, and she told Neil we might see him later but were going to try for a slightly faster pace, at least until the first climb.
The first mile buzzed in at 7:19. After that initial 800 metre dash to get out of the congestion, it had felt comfortable, being a nice gentle downhill. We turned left onto the pedestrianised High Street. There weren’t too many spectators this early in the morning, but there were people to cheer us on, and we’d be coming back this way later. This led on to Murray Place and Barnton Street. There’s then a hairpin bend as you get to freewheel down a bridge or overpass road to join onto Goosecroft Road, then the route diverts you quickly off the main road and through a retail park before heading into a little (1 mile) loop around the side of the football stadium and St Modan’s High School. The gradient in this section was fairly flat with a slight overall downhill, but there were a lot of twists and turns, so it was hard to work out whether we were overtaking many people, and there were still times when we needed to weave in and out a bit to get past some runners. The second mile buzzed in at a fairly nippy (for the distance) 7:08, with the third and fourth mile – which included this loop – a little slower at 7:18 and 7:15. Still well up on the game plan of 7:30 I’d gone in with, so some buffer in the bank for the climbs.
This 1 – mile loop (which is presumably there to get the distance right without adding further climbs, as it’s not the most scenic part of the route) comes back out at the same roundabout as we went into it, just at a different junction. I hadn’t noticed any runners at the other junction on the way in – so perhaps nobody, or at least very few, runners were already a mile ahead of us by the 2.7ish mile point. I did notice huge crowds of runners heading into it as we were heading out though. As I have a poor sense of direction at the best of times, compounded by not really noticing where I am going when running fast in a sea of other runners, I didn’t realise we were pretty much back where we’d started, and asked Charlotte if those other runners were doing the Marathon. She’s clearly more observant, and correctly identified that they were doing the Half and were behind us on the route.
We headed along the end of Forthside Way to turn left onto the A91 and across the River Forth to head out of the city. This is still mostly flat, but there is a shallow climb approaching the roundabout and we went past the sole wheelchair athlete at this point, shouting encouragement to him as we did so. Left at the roundabout and onto Alloa Road towards Causewayhead. There was a nice downhill at this point, and we got our first really scenic views of the Ochil Hills. Mile 5 had been a slower 7:31, but not bad given the slight climb and still on pace. I was happy for the downhill though. Charlotte and I were chatting, and I was telling her about Michael going to Grangemouth in the early hours for safety pins. She said she’d seen my post on Running Friends Scotland. I said “That’s how you know you’re a runner: when Facebook told me I had 65 friends in that group and I realised that’s nearly 20% of my friends list.” A guy who was passing us looked round, looking a little puzzled, and said “I don’t have 60 friends”. To be fair, the bar for Facebook friend status is probably “friendly acquaintance” but some of them are definitely more than that!
There were some spectators at junctions and roundabouts, and they were all very encouraging. It was especially nice when they picked you to read your names and give you a personal cheer. Charlotte and I got more of that than the guys as it was still far too busy for spectators to cheer on everyone, and we probably stood out more as there weren’t too many women around us. There were a few spectators in their gardens as we headed into Causewayhead. This was a very gentle climb and we kept the pace fairly steady, with mile 6 coming in at 7:13. We were chatting about upcoming races and our plans for Chicago. Charlotte thinks I should be aiming for a 1:35 Half Marathon time (not today, though she was confident I’d smash 1:40) by July to set myself up well for a 3:20 in Chicago. I’ve never thought I had a 1:35 Half in me, and when Joni (who’s doing her first marathon at London today and is going to smash it) asked if that was what I was going for today I‘d laughed and thought it was impossible. But now someone else was saying this should be my target, and that I have the potential for an even better Marathon time. You only get to do one marathon a year though – at least if you approach them as seriously as I do, and a lot can happen in the lead-up and on the day, so I’m really grateful that I got the time I wanted at my first one (in part thanks to Charlotte) which takes the pressure off if this years doesn’t go exactly to plan.
Last year I had no idea how to pace a Half Marathon. I only did two, and wasn’t optimally trained for either. This resulted in a Neneh Cherry earworm after my 1:40:07 at the Dundee Half DRAM, on a humid day immediately after getting back from a fortnight vacation in Romania, and a much slower 1:43:33 at Glen Clova when I was definitely still very fatigued from Loch Ness even though it was 7 weeks after that. This might be partially why I thought getting a Gold Club Standard for Half distance (1:38) would be really tough for me. Having now largely recovered from the marathon but still having the distance in my legs though, and of course a great running buddy to chat to, this Half was feeling a lot more comfortable even though we were at my recent 10 mile race pace. I was a little concerned I’d struggle in the last few miles, but it was still feeling really comfortable.
There were lots of spectators at the roundabout near Wallace High School, and a group of 4 or 5 small children on the central reservation with their arms outstretched for high fives. I decided to take a second to do that, and they looked really pleased, which made me smile too. A tall youngish guy across the road from them was reading our names and said “Charlotte, that’s a posh name. Well done.” Presumably Pauline isn’t a posh name, but we got more personalised cheers heading past the High School from a couple of ladies who told us we were doing really well.
It was about to get tougher though. Just after 6 ½ miles, there’s a right hand turn into the University of Stirling campus. My other half had been telling me that it has the best campus in the country, and it was very nice, but it also involved the first steep climb of the day (with gradients of up to 5.6% – so not Cat 4 or anything, but definitely noticeable at speed). Charlotte didn’t slow much, but I did and a few folk went past me. I managed to catch Charlotte back up reasonably quickly afterwards without her having to slow down too much. A young lady had overtaken me on the hill and went past Charlotte as she was slowing so I could catch her. I said “I wish I felt as comfortable as she looks”. Charlotte said “she looks comfortable from the back but if you’d seen her face she looks as comfortable as you do”. We never caught her though. The climb though was rewarded as we turned a corner and got an impressive view of the Wallace Monument. What goes up must come down, and we also got a nice downhill section between 7 ½ and 8 miles with lovely views. The overall result was a 7:38 mile so the slowdown wasn’t too bad. And we only had a little over 5 miles to go.
The road then flattened out and there was a sharp right onto the A91, re-joining it about a mile before the point where we’d left it on the way out. This section was fairly flat and mile 9 buzzed in at 7:16. I’m sure someone passing us said something noteworthy during this section, but it’s completely gone out of my mind. We were still slowly working our way past some of the other runners, I hadn’t had a slump in concentration yet (which definitely happened at Tay Ten) and my legs weren’t feeling any lasting effects from that climb, so it all felt good. As we approached the 9 mile marker Charlotte asked if I was feeling comfortable. I said “Yes, but not completely.” To which her response was to ask if I could run 4.2 miles in 38 minutes. Clearly the answer to that was yes! Even if the final climbs slowed me substantially I could do that. I hadn’t really been stressing about times even though Charlotte had mentioned 1:36 something – which I thought was beyond my current abilities: I knew that 1:38 something was almost definitely in the bag unless something went terribly wrong.
At the next roundabout there were barriers down the middle of the road and we had to stick to the left-hand side. There was a slight climb for a bit, but Charlotte was still cheering on runners on the other side of the road. Again, I had no idea if they were on the Marathon route, but it turned out they were on the Half Marathon route, around the 5-mile point for them. I was finding it a bit tough on the climb – and the gradient is only about 2.5% so that wasn’t a great sign – but it was soon downhill for us for us until the road crosses the River Forth again, and I shouted encouragement too. I hoped it wasn’t patronising, but a lot of the ladies did smile and say thank you. A few shouted encouragement back at us too. There were a lot fewer of them than on our side of the road, and so they had more space to move, but for the ones running solo I could imagine it might get a little lonely if nobody is around you for large stretches of the route in the latter stages. There was a guy in a Marie Curie vest who went past us for about the third time in as many miles. I mentioned this to Charlotte and she said “He’s leapfrogging us because he’s surging, and he’s surging because he’s tired. We might catch him again.” Maybe she did, but I never saw him again.
We had to start climbing again – only at a gentle gradient but my legs must have been more tired than I thought. Or maybe it was that the adrenaline that had got me through to this point despite the severe sleep deprivation was wearing off. Either way, I lost Charlotte on the incline around 10 ½ miles in, and couldn’t catch back up with her on the descent back towards the retail park. Shortly before the 11-mile water station I caught up with a lady wearing a baseball cap and said “Could you help me catch that lady in the black top”. She said “How could I do that?” I explained that I didn’t think Charlotte was trying to race away from me and so our current pace (about 7:15) would probably do it. I asked what time she was hoping for and she said 1:38 as she was tired and her legs felt heavy. I said she’d feel better after getting some water. The young girls at the water station cheered me by name, but struggled with her name (Jurgita). She took some water and told me to go on and catch Charlotte. I thought she was going to ease off the pace, but either the water clearly rejuvenated her or she’s better on climbs than I am as she ended up finishing about 30 seconds in front of me. I’m not entirely sure if she passed me on the final climb or if it was because she started over half a minute further back than we did.
Having lost my running buddy and the new person I had tried to latch on to, the return route through the retail park (no detour through the school this time) wasn’t overly exciting, but I was boosted by the fact there were a lot more spectators now. One of them shouted “Keep going Pauline, only a couple of miles to go.” Pedantic to the last, I checked my watch and said “Hopefully only 1.5 miles, but thank you.” I was looking forward to this being over now. Without Charlotte to tell me predictions, I was back to doing mental arithmetic in a tired state. With 1.5 miles to go, did that mean I had about 10:45 to go? Or was it nearer 12 minutes as my watch had been buzzing before the mile markers, probably due to a bit of weaving adding on a bit of distance, and that steep uphill finish still to come? I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be under or over 1:38 now, and that uncertainty made me grit my teeth and keep the pace up as best as I could whilst it remained relatively flat. I really wanted that sub 1:38 and a Gold Standard result now.
The steep climb before the hairpin bend was tough but I tried not to drop much below 8:30 per mile. There were several guys walking this incline, and, checking my watch on the way past, I said to one to keep going as it was just over a mile to go. I know that’s the last thing guys probably want to hear when they’re shattered and being overtaken by a middle-aged woman near the end of a race, but he was nice enough to say “Well done” rather than getting irritated. Then round the corner and I was heading back through the town centre towards the High Street. The crowds were there now, and the encouragement was a real boost. I got a bit distracted though and scuffed my foot on one of the speed bumps. I was looking for Michael: he’d said he wasn’t going to come to the finish, but he says a lot of things and you never know where he might show up. It didn’t matter too much though, as I was getting a lot of personalised cheers. Big organised races have pros and cons compared with club organised ones, but having your name on your race number is definitely one of the pros. It’s also nice to be more noticeable as one of a few women in a sea of guys. And I was still going past some of them, though I was also being overtaken. All of this kept me going along the pedestrianised section as I tried not to think too much about the coming climb, and I was checking my watch only for the distance, not the time.
Finally, with half a mile to go, and after a very short but appreciated gentle downhill, we were out of the town centre and onto the road back to Kings Park. The gradient doesn’t go much over 4.5%, but it’s not conducive to a sprint finish. There’s also a jig in Kings Park road – something of a gentle S curve around a roundabout – so I couldn’t see where the finish was. I was looking expectantly for the 13 mile marker, but I’m not sure if there was one because it was all a blur of spectators lining every inch of that final stretch. I must have looked completely spent by this point as I was gritting my teeth and trying to get past some more guys on the way to an attempted sprint for the line, and several spectators were telling me to keep going and that I’d done really well. I was so happy when I saw the finish line. I think the clock was at 1:37:30 or so by the time I saw it. There was only a hundred and twenty or so metres at most to go by that point so I dug in for an attempted sprint, determined that the gun time would be sub 1:38. I knew we’d taken several seconds to cross the start line, but I wanted to be nearer 1:37 than 1:38 if possible. It felt like a strong sprint, but looking back at Strava it was only 6:45 per mile pace and I’d been faster than that at several points earlier on the route. I guess that’s the impact of an uphill finish after racing fairly hard though. I think I dipped over the line just before the clock hit 1:38, but I’d have to see the video to be sure.
Charlotte was still in the finish area waiting, and looked delighted to see me. She gave me a hug and I lost my balance a little. I was fine after a few seconds though, and she congratulated me and gave me a high five. A few more seconds of recovery and trying to get my breathing and legs under control, and we left the finish area to go and meet her friend. Charlotte was really encouraging as always. I asked if she’d managed to catch the 1:35 pacer, but she hadn’t dropped me early enough for that. She had run a 1:36 though. She said I’d run a blinder, and I am capable of even better things if I could keep dialling up the discomfort. Later, she mentioned that when you’re having doubts and are racing in the pain zone, you need to remember the wise words of Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” That’s definitely something worth pondering. I was very happy to have taken a decent chunk off my PB, but a little part of me was thinking it would have been nicer to do a 1:36 something than a 1:37:30 (which is what my watch said when I remembered to stop it a few seconds after crossing that finish line), but how much more would that have hurt – and did I have it in me?
My official finish time was 1:37:24. I was 209th out of a field of close to 2,500 runners, and was 27th female and 5th in my age and gender category. Although I know several of the strongest women would have been doing the Marathon rather than the Half for the Scottish Championships, I was still happy with my relative performance which was comparable to where I’d placed at BHGE 10k last May. It was also a boost to my confidence to do this proportionally quicker than the two recent 10 mile races I’ve done. Maybe I’m finally recovering from Loch Ness? Onwards and upwards, and I’m looking forward more to the rest of the racing year now that I’ve seen a bit of payoff from the training. I think I’m getting the hang of this distance more, and can handle it better than last year. It’s funny that I was only interested in getting faster at parkrun when I first joined a running club 18 months ago: now I know I’m definitely not a sprinter, but I’ve got a better than average ability to keep going for a very long time without slowing the pace much compared to my 5k pace.
We collected our finishers bags, and bumped into Jurgita. I congratulated her on beating me. She’s only been running slightly longer than I have, but it wasn’t a PB for her. She must have a strong sports background as she’d run her first Half in an incredible 1:30, a time I could only dream of! She kindly took a photo of Charlotte and I before Charlotte headed off, and then I headed to the Baggage buses to collect my bag. Now armed with my phone, I could try and locate Michael. I was hoping I wouldn’t have too far to walk to find him. His first message had said he couldn’t find anywhere to park in the city centre, let alone near the park. Thankfully, the next one said he was at the speaker. Maybe he’d even seen me finish. It didn’t sound like it though as he was asking where I was. I had been standing shouting on the finishers (now around the 1:50 point) whilst booting up my phone, and a lady there recognised me from having gone past earlier. She told me I’d done really well. She said she still runs but hasn’t raced in a few years. I told her it was a good PB for me and she mentioned that she’d plateaued at the distance for a while, then got a massive PB at Half Marathon when training for a marathon. I’m hoping that’ll work for me this summer.
I headed for the speaker after getting Michael’s message but he wasn’t there. It turned out there were 3 speakers: he sent me a photo of his view, and I quickly found him. I punched both arms in the air, and he got a photo of me looking super happy. I gave him a hug then had a wee cry on his shoulder. I haven’t welled up after a race since Tay Ten 2018, and until that point I hadn’t realised how emotional I was about finally breaking that soft PB and feeling like my training was paying off after several months of underwhelming 5k times and being slower over 10 mile races compared to last year. He finds my emotional investment in running perplexing, but was happy for me. I asked if he’d seen me finish, but he’d been at least 5 minutes too late for that. He said it was partly because of the time he spent searching for parking (I’d told him to get the Great Run app but he hadn’t) but also because I’d not been optimistic enough about when I’d get over the start line and when I’d get finished. He got a few photos of some other random runners though.
Despite the lack of sleep and worries about its impact, I really enjoyed Stirling Half Marathon. A couple of the sections inside Stirling, like the retail park and the High School, are fairly uninspiring, but the views in the countryside sections are breath-taking at points, and I loved running through the pedestrianised part of the town centre on the way back as it’s pretty and the crowd support was a massive boost when I was getting tired and it was most needed. Stirling and the surrounding shire are very pretty, and most of the route is lovely. It’s not pancake flat, but it’s gently undulating compared to something actually hilly like Angus HAM. The organisation at the water and fuel stations, by marshals and Police on the course, and at the Finish was excellent. It was a little odd that they didn’t organise the waves more strictly at the start, but other than that the organisation was flawless, and the pacers are fantastic too. The crowd support is great and lots of locals also volunteer at the race. It’s more expensive than club-organised races, and the t-shirt wasn’t my favourite, but the cost is mostly for the road closures and after Loch Ness I’ve reassessed my view of mass participation races somewhat. For shorter distances I love club races and smaller fields. And Club races can also get some decent crowd support along the route. But certainly for Marathons I couldn’t imagine doing them without a big enough field of runners and lots of crowd support for the final few miles when you’re really having to dig in deep. There are pros and cons to everything in life and I think, for Stirling Half, the pros definitely far outweigh the cons. If you enjoy races that are busy but not congested, the option of using pacers to help you get a goal time, and some beautiful views on a slightly undulating course, this is definitely one to consider.