Race 39: Riga Half Marathon, Riga, Latvia, 15th May 2016

Riga Half Marathon Map Question: is it worthwhile having a slightly slower than planned race if you spend the first 5km on Latvian TV alongside their national running hero? Mwell…probably not but it was kinda fun at the time!

As to why the Latvian TV crew was there…well, we were both running in the Riga half marathon – she was defending her title and I was using it as an excuse to discover a city whose charm Pippa and I utterly fell under.

View of Riga and the Daugava
View of Riga and the Daugava

Riga Half Marathon ClockMy running expectations for this race were pretty limited as I’m starting to reach a bit of a running plateau: my last races were 1 second slower than my PB (marathon), 18 seconds faster (half marathon), 8 seconds faster (3000m) and 0.5 seconds faster (1500m). Or maybe I’ve just got very very good at pacing myself… And yes, I might be omitting a slow 10k last weekend from this narrative but it ruins the story and it was under tough conditions…

Riga spoiled us for our first two days there: sunshine, friendly people, nice sights, thin people (no KFCs here as a taxi driver told us), a surprisingly western feel to it… it even has a good vegan restaurant! The expo was swift, I got given a folkloric running number (118) and we spotted Jelena Prokopcuka – 2 times New York Marathon winner, whose autograph I sheepishly asked for. I was about to return the favour but she was too shy to ask…

Riga Town Centre
Riga Town Centre

Then, on race day, Riga became very British: the wind, rain and cold blew in from the sea and it was bloody miserable! It was a shame for the organisers who’d already had a washout last year and really did a great job at organising the event, which is one of the few to get an IAAF label. Although the crowds were relatively thin (the weather won’t have helped, nor would the long section along a motorway!), the sea of volunteers were some of the most enthusiastic I’ve seen and they went way over the top on the refuelling stations, of which there were about 10!

Off we go!
Off we go!

Anyway, after scraping ourselves out of bed at what was 4.30am UK time (ugh), we made a slightly soggy way to the start line outside Riga Castle. Although the sky looked ominous, the rain was holding off at that point which was a blessing. Sensible souls would have just gone back to bed at that point if it had started bucketing it down.

With my nice and low bib number, I made my way to the front, one row behind the elite. The announcer counted down from 10 to 4 in Latvian (“desmit , deviņi , astoņi , septiņi , seši , pieci, četri” as you’re asking) and, aware that people like me were clueless as to what on earth was going on, thankfully switched to English with three seconds to go.

Bang. We set off. A few people seemed intent on knocking an hour off the course record as Pippa cheered us on from the Vansu bridge… After I realised I was set for knocking 20 minutes off my PB (…), I slowed down to some sort of pace near enough my natural limitations. Then, out of nowhere, a little lady in yellow appeared to my left. It was Jelena! She was clearly begging me to run with her so who was I to refuse… Natural limitations? Screw that.

Cruising through the backstreets of Riga
Cruising through the backstreets of Riga

As we twisted around some of the back streets of the capital, two things were becoming clear: 1) this was a sustainable 10k – not half marathon, pace 2) this man on the motorbike with a camera following us everywhere really wasn’t letting us blink without recording it. This last point clearly trumped the first for excitement so I kept going, hoping to at least stick with her to the 5km mark on the Vansu bridge where Pippa was still shivering away. Although I couldn’t feel it at the time, the bridge was bouncing up and down under our footsteps (as I experienced later while Pippa was running her 10k). That’d be fine if I knew it’d been designed to withstand this and other earthquakes but, having seen the foundations from below earlier, it was dodgy as hell! This alone was a good enough reason to keep up with Jelena and get off the bridge. I did but, sure enough, it didn’t take much longer for her and the rest of that group to break away just after the bridge.

Keeping up with the pros...
Keeping up with the pros…

Looking at the photo again, my outfit makes me look a little like I was out on a Sunday morning jog while everyone else (who can pull the “running in tiny shorts or pants look” off better than me) was out for an actual sporting event.  Based on Jelena’s look in the photo, she was clearly thinking something along the same lines…

The sleeves are gone ... I mean business
The sleeves are gone … I mean business

The bridge, incidentally, was the sharpest climb of the day so this course is about as well suited to me as it can get… After the bridge, we spent a few kilometres going through the suburbs and dodging a few humungous puddles which crossed the whole road. The crowds were….non-existent but, once again, the course was flat so I was still happy…

A few more kilometres came and went before we did a u-turn, went back over the bridge again and towards town. I went through the 10k mark in 37.50 which had me on track for a fast time but, considering I did the first 5k in 18.14, it was pretty clear I was quickly slowing down…! Interestingly (well, to me), my cadence normally stays more or less identical regardless of my speed while my stride length increases or decreases with my pace. Here, it was the opposite, as my stride stayed the same but my cadence was almost 10% higher for the first 5km. I assume I’d probably unconsciously synced my steps with Jelena and the other fast runners to keep up with them.

Riga's Freedom Monument
Riga’s Freedom Monument

We quickly reached the scenic canal near the Latvian University before taking a 90degree left towards the Freedom Monument – a striking tower topped by a woman carrying 3 stars, one of Riga’s few monuments which survived the soviet days. At this point, the organisers had a cool guard of honour made up of volunteers in traditional outfits dancing away and cheering us on. Just after, they had a row of army men lining the row with flags of all the countries taking part (thankfully, there were only about a dozen …larger races might struggle to copy this idea!). We went past the Orthodox Church, did another u-turn and headed back towards the Old Town. In the process, you go past one of the many museums we tried to visit the previous day. Advice to anyone who ever goes to Riga: they close at extremely frustratingly odd times on a Saturday, like 3.30pm…

Riga's St Peter's Church in the background
Riga’s St Peter’s Church in the background
One of the many imperial/Soviet statues
One of the many imperial/Soviet statues

The only bit of the course which was a bit of a bugger to run on was the next section which went straight through the Old Town past St Peter’s Church on cobbles. It was dry, so bearable, but a bit of a hazard all the same.

After this and a couple more imperial statues, we joined the highway for the last 7km. This was essentially a 3.5km slog southwards along one lane before turning around and coming back alongside the Daugava river. There were approximately zero supporters at this point but the volunteers who were there were loud and cheerful. I’d known for a long time that there was no chance of getting a PB and, as it mathematically (and physically) became clearer and clearer, my motivation for each additional painful kilometre was waning.

Riga Half Marathon MedalAs the finish line approached, I sprinted one last time and crossed the line in 1h22, a couple of minutes shy of PB but alright considering the stupid start. As we took my finisher’s photo, Jelena was in the background. I could have asked her for a photo with meat that point but I think that probably starts officially classifying as creepy stalking by then …

Final time: 1h22.02 (43rd/3,559)

Speed: sonic3

Weather: rain2

Scenery: palmtree3

 

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