Memories of My First Competitive Run

Castle Run, 29 April 2004 (Diver Training, with me leading the session in yellow jacket).

On my daily morning walk yesterday my thoughts turned to my first competitive road run, reminiscing on a run I did in 1995.

It was a 10-mile road race organised by HMS Sultan, a Royal Navy base located on the South coast of England. It was a largely flat route with some slopes.

I used to train with a fellow soldier, George Allen, a marine engineer by trade, who used running as a means of losing and then maintaining his weight. He was also pretty fast, and always had to run slower so I could keep up!

After a few weeks of training together, he told me about a road race coming up at HMS Sultan and if I would be interested in doing it. Yes, I said. I had two reasons to do this race. The first was personal ambition and the second was because I was training for the Army diving course at the time and thought it would be good to push myself.

The race was held on a Sunday, and I met George and his family at his house, which was just across the road from the start point.

I was already feeling nervous, and this only increased as we made our way to the start point. It was getting closer to the start time, 10am, and I took off my outer clothing when a bout of nausea like a lead balloon was sitting in the pit of my stomach. Other runners started to surround us at the start point, and my last chance to escape was cut off!

There was a quick group warm-up and then everyone turned to face the start point, and George and I shook hands and said “good luck” to each other.

The start horn blasted and off we went. Everyone raced off at a thunderous pace, and I was caught up in the adrenaline rush starting off too fast. The pace was just to fast for me and I had to slow down – quickly regretted my foolhardiness. My legs felt heavy, my heart was pounding, and my breathing was totally out.

I felt like I had already done 10 miles when I spotted the 2 mile marker! I felt totally out of my depth and demoralised, and for the next 3 miles I felt like I was running with a 100 lb backpack and lead boots.

At about 4.5 miles I finally got myself sorted; feeling like a ‘new man’ – I had never experienced getting a ‘second wind’, and it’s a strange feeling. I moved from a sensation of being a weedy Bruce Banner to an almighty Incredible Hulk. The heavy, sore feeling had left my legs and my breathing was back in sync. I was now looking forwards, rather than head down. My pace increased, but I continued to control my breathing. I’d never felt anything like it before and it was exhilarating.

I saw the 5 mile marker at the top of a small slope, and increased my pace up it – motivated by the fact I was now overtaking other racers who had previously passed me. I kept the pace up, noting racers who had passed me earlier on.

Up to 9.5 miles I kept a steady, but fast, pace. For the last half mile I sprinted overtaking 30-40 people in the process and boosting my final position. I finished the race in 1 hour 2 minutes, just two three minutes behind George.

I was happy with my time, as I was hoping to complete the race in around 1 hour 10 minutes. However, I wasn’t happy with my overall performance. Getting caught up in the rush at the start of the race had totally flummoxed me, having a profound impact on my initial performance.

As a consequence, I learned to start competitive races at my own pace, attempting to ignore other racers at the starting rush when the start horn blasts. This worked in future races I took part in, dropping my time to 50 minutes.

The race also had a benefit during my Army diver training. Whenever I felt tired or lethargic during the various PT (physical training) sessions (especially at 5am or 10-11pm), I just needed to think back to that first 10-miler and how my body responded – that I just needed to ‘hang on’ and wait for the second wind (effect) to kick in. Unfortunately, I sometimes I to rely on bloody tenacity to get through, as the second wind decided to blow somewhere else!

Two main points I took away from that race:

  1. Don’t start too fast. Ignore everyone else and go at your own pace; and
  2. Keep going, and you will surprise yourself at what you can achieve.

I haven’t done a competitive race for a long time, mainly doing indoor rowing, 5-6 mile backpack runs, and speed walks. Now that I’m classed as a ‘veteran’ racer, I might have to train up again and complete one. Of course, living in Scotland, that means hills – marvellous.

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