Mark Armstrong: Killer hills, a new PB and why it’s time running clubs get their thinking caps on

Mark Armtrong in action at the Blickling Half Marathon. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Mark Armtrong in action at the Blickling Half Marathon. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

‘Uncoachable’ - that’s how Neil Featherby described me in the run-up to the Blickling Half Marathon last weekend.

I couldn’t really argue given I ran a marathon when advised to only do 16 miles in preparation for the half on Sunday.

That didn’t stop it riling me up... which I’m certain is exactly what Neil intended.

I wanted to show him that even with a marathon in my legs that I could still run a new personal best, and not get injured!

I daren’t mess this race up, I thought – I’ll never hear the end of it!

So, in more ways than one, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I turned up at the race HQ at Aylsham Recreation Ground early on Sunday morning.

Like a lot of other runners around the country, I’ve been desperate for a road race scene to return in a safe way and this was my first road event in a world living with Covid.

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My wife, Alison, and I arrived nice and early for it to just start raining...

After scanning the QR code on the Track and Trace app in the car park it was time to make our way to the start line. With my buff as my face covering I lined up in a socially distant way alongside two other runners and suddenly we were off. I enjoyed the low key nature of it as someone who can often waste a lot of nervous energy on the start line. It’s never best to over-think things and running is no different – have your plan and execute it the best you can.

After one lap of Aylsham Rec I was out on the country roads. I settled upon a steady pace of around 7.30minute miles to start as I knew the first five miles were particularly undulating. I had it in mind to push a bit more in the second five miles before seeing what I had for the last three.

It felt like a race, but everyone was in their own bubble in more ways than one, as you had little idea of when others had begun their race in their wave. It’s the only time I’ve ever got near runners like Kyle Brooks and John Moore before as they both cruised past me mid-race with the latter kindly reminding to ‘mind the foliage’ - bloody conkergate.

The hills were definitely having an effect and I started to feel in need of a little energy lift as I hit the five-mile point and a gel (after some difficulty in the opening) set up the second part of my race as I tried to increase my pace. It was also here that I stopped looking at my watch as I just wanted to run in a comfortably hard way and not be a slave to my Garmin.

I was chasing down a Bungay Black Dog runner for what felt like a very long time. I was probably only cutting a few seconds off him each mile but it at least provided a target.

After passing him in the 10th mile (socially distant of course!), a Norfolk Gazelles runner came up behind me and we pushed each other on for the rest of the race. These were the kind of situations I have been missing in virtual races – nothing beats having a physical target in front, or behind, you pushing you on.

The end of the race was a killer with a steep hill into the Market Place but I managed to finish with something approaching a flourish and clock in at 1:37:38 – 33 seconds quicker than my previous half marathon best set on a much flatter course at Cambridge last year.

Neil and I can kiss and make up although I know there’s a quicker time in these legs yet, which hopefully I can prove in races over the next few months.

But the most important thing about Sunday was that it provided proof that a safe event could be put on in these worrying times. I know for those at the really sharp end of races that it won’t be seen as proper racing given it was staged in a time trial way.

But it’s something for the wider running community to cling to and I hope now that our running clubs can start putting plans in place for a race calendar to start forming for the new year.

If they don’t then event companies will fill the void and I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather see runner’s money going into the pockets of our running clubs.

It’s not going to be easy – I’ve spoken to enough race directors over the years about the stresses and strains of event planning in the best of times.

But the appetite from the running community is there and if our clubs don’t put these races on then someone else will.

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