Race 52: IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, Valencia, Spain, 24 March 2018

Get ready to fly with the best in the world”. “The fastest course ever seen in Valencia”. It was almost as if the race promoters had foreseen a few months ago the 85kph (!) winds which were scheduled for Saturday afternoon and had taken a quite literal interpretation of the words ‘to fly’. Spoiler alert, the wind – though bad – was thankfully not quite as abysmal as forecasted so only barriers and banners went flying. But, boringly, no runners.

Having raced what may end up being one of my best races ever 2 years ago at the previous IAAF World Marathon Championships in Cardiff , I was really looking forward to this race: not only would the weather (theoretically…) be incomparably better than in Cardiff – where torrential rain and crazy gusts of wind were strong enough to make the BBC lose signal mid broadcast – but the Valencia course was pancake flat, as opposed to an undulating course in Cardiff. And, by pancake flat, I really mean it: the whole city seems to be built on a perfectly horizontal plain.

Start and Finish area for the race – wow!
Sarans Gate (and Pippa and Jack pissing about)

In Cardiff, I had for the first (and currently only) time got under 80 minutes in 1h19.49 and I’m sure the buzz of the event partly led to it. At that point, my running was still going upwards with every few races leading to a PB. Since then, well … let’s just say it gets to a point when you question the value of shaping as much of your life as possible around running when results just don’t improve (and worsen), no matter what you try: strength & conditioning, massage, yoga, less sugar, more sugar, more miles, fewer miles, more speed, less speed, buying ‘cheat shoes’ (Nike Zoom Fly – incidentally, they were shit and worst running shoes I’ve ever had for pain, though I know I’m in the 1% for that review!) … I’m sure there’s a solution out there tailored to me. I think. Answers on a postcard please.

Anyway, I’ll go back to being melancholic and melodramatic later. For now, the race review.

Before flying into Valencia, I knew pretty much diddly squat about the city. Being honest, I had assumed it’d be a fairly mediocre provincial town with nice weather and just about enough sights to keep us busy for a couple of days. Well, I was wrong. It is a stunning city, full of historic Roman (and other) castles, churches and other grand buildings and has a ton of stunning architecture, none less so than the Science and Arts Centre, from which the race would start and finish.

The 1957 flood

The Science and Arts Centre itself is plonked right on what used to be the riverbed of the Turia river. For once, it wasn’t poor environmental management or climate change which had caused a river to go dry. Valencians had decided, in a rather dramatic fashion after a horrific flood in 1957 to … divert the entire river out of town. It took a good ten years but, sure enough, the river now runs underground south of the city and avoids all human contact. I’m fairly sure (actually, I am sure) that there are a few questionable environmental merits to this approach but that’s for another day. For the Valencians, it left them with a dilemma: what to do with a 10km long giant riverbed running bang through your city (imagine London after the Thames being entirely redirected out)? Their spectacular answer was to transform it into a beautifully landscaped park which runs through the whole city.

Only a matter of time ’til we teach Bubbles and Squeak to do this too…

So, the race. The first odd thing about the race was that it started at 5.30pm. I’m not sure if that was to accommodate TV schedules or what but it was very odd having to wait a whole day to race. Normally, you scrape out of bed far too early, eat a bit, get distracted by your pre-race routines and, before you know it, the gun has gone. Here, you had a full day to stress out about the race, and when would be too late to have your lunch (we went for 1pm).

‘Thankfully’, constantly checking the increasingly deteriorating weather forecasts had a positive effect for me: I knew I’d have an excuse to blame other than myself if the race didn’t go to plan so I was actually very relaxed. On the other hand, I did a good job at stressing Pippa and Jack, a fellow Herne Hill Harrier runner who was staying with us, by providing them with apocalyptic hourly update. Oops.

After a trip to the expo (which was very small, though we did get half a kilo of nuts and 32 chewing gums: you never know when you might need to chomp away and freshen up mid-race!), a trip to a pastry shop (unnecessary, but very nice), a wander in the park where we met a man carrying his cat on his back through the streets (life goal!) and a nap, we eventually made our way down to the start, a good 2 hours early.

Carb-loading…

The warm-up area was decent enough though, like all mass events, you end up spending half an hour penned in like cattle cooling down before the start. Finally, 20 minutes after the Women’s World Championship race had begun, the gun went and we were off. As were the gloves. For the first few minutes, it felt like we were witnessing the first day of sales: barging, pushing, shoving, the last man standing would win. It’s the third race I’ve done in Spain and they all make my top 3 for the worst races for pushing I’ve experienced. Maybe they just have smaller starting areas. Maybe I’m being kind.

Look, I’m on TV!

Eventually, the runners spread out as we headed eastward and we settled into our early pace. The course was straight forward and essentially a (badly drawn) circle. Ish. The wind, which by now was blowing significant gales, came from the north west: a quick look at the course accurately suggested that the first 7 or 8 km wouldn’t be too bad, 8-12km would be very bad and the last 6km would have the wind behind us pushing to the end.

This doesn’t quite fit in in middle of text here but hey!

Quickly, what is turning into a common theme for me started again. My first few kilometres were fine at my target pace (79 minutes) but, even then, my hamstrings were straining. Not enough to stop me racing, but probably enough to marginally reduce my stride in the long run and therefore hinder my ability to maintain my pace. Trying to reflect on my body, I think it’s been so long since I’ve NOT had that nagging pain (like 18 months?) in races that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to run comfortably. It’s not a problem for short races as I can run through it, nor is it a problem for marathons as I never need to reach too high a pace but, for half marathons, it just seems to be disastrous.

In actual fact, if I compare my Cardiff race (hamstrings: good) with this race (hamstrings: bad), my cadence follows almost an identical pattern but my stride length collapses totally after 6-7km this time round which makes sense if you assume that the muscles just aren’t stretching as far. It was the same three weeks ago in the London Big Half . The fact that my physio described my hamstrings as the most gravelly hamstrings she’s ever seen may have something to do with it.

One of the many pieces of ‘wall-art’ in the city

Despite the wind – and the on/off heavy rain showers -, I was amazed by the number of people out cheering us on. I’d actually said, almost word for word, to Pippa and Jack the day before that I didn’t think anyone would even know that the race is on: they’d know about their normal annual half marathon and marathon but this one will probably pass them by. Well, here too, I was very wrong. I’d say there was a thick crowd for about 75% of the race and this is probably, after Rotterdam and London, the best supported race I’ve ever done.

The course, while forgetting about my performance, was super flat as predicted: I still went through the 10km mark in 38.30, a minute off target pace but within respectable times. Those kilometres were the worst for the wind. It certainly wasn’t a constant 85kph but I reckon a few gusts were and, the rest of the time, it wasn’t far from 40-50kph (30mph for the old-fashioned folk). I tried sheltering in packs to get their slipstream but wasn’t too successful. In fact, at times, it felt more like I was the Pied Piper with a whole row of shorter runners behind me making maximum use of my frame. Which, being fair, is fair!

As we continued circling the city, we went past various landmarks. To name but a few, these included the Torres de Quart gothic towers, the Porta de Serrans gates, the Bullring of Valencia etc etc.

Finally, after 15km, the wind was now thoroughly behind us as we ran alongside the ‘riverbed’. In my instance, it helped … barely. But, probably a little bit still, as I did noticeably run 15-21km 10 seconds/km faster than 10-15km. However, at the front of the race, it was an altogether different story. While 29 runners had plodded at a fairly pedestrian 62 minutes pace together for most of the race, Kamworor decided to inject some pace into the race at that point and ran the 15-20km section in a scarcely believable 13.01. To put that in context, the last 10 Olympic 5,000m races were won in 13.03, 13.41, 12.58, 13.14, 13.35, 13.08, 13.12, 13.12, 13.05, 13.21. Granted, the wind was strong and the course was slightly downhill but still!

I gradually picked up my pace as the end was in sight. In fact, my last kilometre was my fastest of the day. Ok, maybe the wind was helping by now…but I reckon the Science and Arts Centre setting did too. While my time was frustrating and disappointing (83 minutes), I at least had the mild satisfaction of beating 3 male ‘elites’ and 9 female ‘elites’ (I suspect some countries don’t have a huge running pedigree. Talking of which, how does one become a Gibraltar citizen?).

The finish line
A very happy Pippa with a huge new PB

Pippa, meanwhile, was having the race of her life! While my running is stagnating, we’re at least getting the pleasure and massive pride of her hard training paying off.

She’s now knocked 12 minutes off her half marathon PB in 12 months and, with a 1h45 in the bag, is now the fastest member of her immediate family!

Jack, who was targeting a sub-75 race, just missed his target in 75.26 but still got a huge PB and I’m sure the wind was worth at least 27 seconds.

So, all in all, mixed feelings. As whinged about earlier in the report, running is becoming increasingly frustrating. I’ve tried many different approaches in the last 2 years and none are working.

While hobbies are, after all, just hobbies, running has that peculiar pain-in-the-butt (or hamstring) skill of overwhelming everything else in your life: your travel plans get set around it, your social life gets steered to fit and even your work location gets carefully picked to allow you to jog to/from it.

And let’s not start about the lack of interesting chat for non-running friends. So, with that in mind, it’s proving quite difficult not to be grovelling and negative about it all. Who knows, this last race is still very fresh in the mind so let’s see what happens in London in a few weeks’ time.

After that, maybe it’ll be time to hang the half marathon shoes up for good and focus on a different distance?

Maybe I should start 100-mile races. My social life and chat would definitely improve. Right? Anyone? Helloooo?

Time: 1h23.11 (828th/12,551)

Scenery:

Weather:

Injuries:

Speed:

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