Cheltenham half marathon 2017 was my 10th half marathon. I ran my first one in Nottingham in 1995 and have been running them pretty much annually since 2011.
I was feeling stronger, fitter and more ready for this year’s Cheltenham half marathon than I have for a long time. I’d changed my training this year and it had worked – instead of only doing two long runs a week, I’d done three shorter runs and just one long run.
This year I was taking my husband and brother-in-law along with me. It was also my husband’s 10th half marathon, but actually only the fourth one we’ve done together. My dad gave the three of us a lift to the racecourse. We’d debated how far we should actually drive, following last year’s traffic chaos, but it was a lot better this year and we got within half a mile of the course. We could have probably driven all the way, but the walk was good to warm our legs up. Once we got to the racecourse we were able to stay inside to keep warm and dry and there were plenty of toilets available.
At 8.40 we went to our starting pen. We’d all opted for the 1:45 to 2 hours pen. My brother-in-law was running his first half marathon, so was just happy to complete it, but two hours seemed a realistic target for him. We didn’t plan to run together. My husband and I did in Nottingham in the 90s, but didn’t last time we both ran Cheltenham.
At just after 9am, we crossed the start line. This year the Cheltenham half marathon was being run by a different company and the course was different. It started the opposite was round to the old course, so we began by running down New Barn Lane into the village of Prestbury. I was surprised that the three of us naturally stuck together for the first half a mile or so. I was running at about 8:34 minutes per mile, which is a bit slower than I like to be at the start of a race, but the route was very crowded. I didn’t even say goodbye to my husband, I just gradually got faster, as I knew I would, and left him behind. My brother-in-law was in front of me for a short while, taking advantage of running downhill, but I got ahead of him after a mile and didn’t see him again.
It started raining heavily within a mile or so and we were soaked by the time we got to the town centre, but the rain was short-lived. The mile markers seemed to be coming very quickly. I was running at a steady and quite fast pace.
We ran through the town and the route was nicely spaced out. I was keeping pace with the same people, including a man dressed as a chicken carrying a charity bucket. All the way along the route, kids were shouting ‘Chicken!’ excitedly. There were spectators EVERYWHERE, which was brilliant. Kids were handing out bowls of jelly babies to runners. Some kids were still in their pyjamas! I saw a few people I knew and always yelled their names out and gave them a wave. Only one person yelled my name rather than the other way round. It’s lovely to see people you know.
We ran out of the town centre to a point where the faster runners had already looped round another mile or so and were heading back in the opposite direction. At five miles, I realised I was still running at 8 minutes and 9 seconds to the mile, which was too fast. I’d had a drink from the water station, so wasn’t sure when to have my own drink. Dehydration starts to mess with your head.
At the furthest point of the route, I knew I would see my daughter. She was travelling up there with my sister, niece and nephew. I spotted them from a distance as my sister is tall and had my nephew on her shoulders. It was lovely to see them. They were there with my sister’s in-laws too and they all cheered and took my photo.
I realised I’d run six miles faster than I’d ever run it before. It was the time I’d always dreamed of running it in, but had never achieved, not even when running six miles on its own and certainly not when I was running it as part of a half marathon.
The route was back in town at seven miles and at eight miles it joined the Honeybourne Line, a disused railway line used as a footpath and cycle path. The half marathon has never used the Honeybourne Line before. At the moment it’s looking amazing with some brilliant street art from Cheltenham Paint Festival (you can see some of it on my Instagram). One day I’ll have to have a proper look at it, but this wasn’t the time.
It was at eight miles that running fast hit me. I could very happily have walked. My legs felt so heavy. But I didn’t.
After the Honeybourne Line, the route weaved backwards and forwards between Evesham Road and Albert Road, two parallel roads heading for the racecourse. It was like the organisers were desperately saying ‘OK, we just need to squeeze another mile out of it, how are we going to do it?’. Rather than take the route further out of town, they’d decided to desperately zigzag backwards and forwards. We ran in front of the beautiful Pittville Pump Room, but blink and you would have missed it. In fact, my husband did miss it.
At 10 and a half miles, after a nasty tight bend, we entered the racecourse. I say it every year. I hate running round the racecourse. You’re exhausted and all you can see is vast open space with runners EVERYWHERE and you have to run on it for nearly three miles. The good thing is, I knew my family would be near the entrance. And they were. I spotted my eldest first. He was with my parents, my younger son, daughter, sister, niece and nephew. My daughter and niece were holding up a sign my sister had made for the three of us.
I still had an overwhelming feeling of needing to walk, but I kept ignoring it. Looking at my watch, it looked like I might get a PB, which I hadn’t expected at all. It is surprising that the racecourse isn’t as flat as you would imagine. We don’t run on the actual course, most of the route is tarmac, although there is a little bit of bark and a nasty surface which is like mud full of rubber. That kills your legs.
I’d decided the way to cope with the racecourse was to tell myself ‘It’s only a Parkrun’. I know how quickly a Parkrun goes and that’s how long the racecourse would last. But the longest space between mile markers was definitely between 11 miles and 12 miles. And then I was nearing 13 miles. Then I was at 13 miles.
And I still couldn’t see the finish line. I’d expected the usual inflatable thing, but instead it was just a brick bridge which was part of the racecourse structure. As I crossed the line, I was still questioning whether I’d actually finished.
I finished in 1 hour 52 minutes and 8 seconds – just 13 seconds off my PB, set in 2014. I was very happy with that. I was 970th out of 3,133 runners and 168th out of 1,286 women.
My brother-in-law finished in a few seconds over two hours and my poor husband finished in 2 hours and 5 minutes. He’d been determined to finish in under two hours, but had suffered a huge energy dip around eight or nine miles and had already missed the one drinks station which had energy drinks and energy sweets. In the end, he was happy just to finish.