Run the race, then get the t-shirt; that’s how it usually works – reward for effort. But in 2015 and 2016 the organisers of the Reading Half-marathon enabled me to do things in reverse by sending the t-shirt with confirmation of my race entry and then I failed to turn up. Inertia was the reason for the first no-show; shingles the cause of the second.
This year they got wise: run the race and your t-shirt will be in the goody bag. It was clearly time for me to make amends, despite not having run anything longer that ten miles and mostly limiting my efforts to nothing more than six miles and a weekly mileage hardly into double figures.
The appeal of the Reading race is that it is billed as flat and fast. Hills have become something of a no-go area in recent times and I relished the idea of competing on even terms with my upcountry peers, who tend to race on far flatter courses than we face in Cornwall. However, it is far from completely flat as, say, the Manchester Marathon course is (good luck James Davies). There is a longish uphill section (akin to Kenwyn Road hill) at about three miles, another (a bit like Lemon Street) at eight miles and one or two other testing short sharp inclines.
As this is one of the several Big City events run under the Vitality banner the organisation cannot be faulted. Words such as clockwork, smooth, well-oiled and so on spring to mind. There’s everything runners and their supporters could need, including a shuttle bus service ferrying people from Reading railway station to the race village at the superb Madjeski Stadium and back again.
The organisational efficiency no doubt accounts for the overall impression of a relaxed day out. There’s no rush and bustle, everyone’s so laid back, volunteers and runners alike. The walk to the start is a fairly long leisurely stroll, with much chat and plenty of room for everyone. We are shepherded into our sections according to our colour-coded race numbers, which in turn are based on our anticipated (hoped for?) finishing time. I had optimistically nominated a 2:05 finish while wishing for a sub two-hour but continually wondering if I would actually complete the distance.
A big pre-race decision was that for the first time I would curb my tendency to go off too fast by running along with one of the official pace setters. But which? Was it to be the two-hour guy, the one waving the 2:05 banner or, further back, the 2:10 marker? I plumped for Ian, the cheery two-hour pacer with scheduled times for every kilometre and every mile taped to his kit. He said he was working to a 1:59:30 finish at a 9:02 mile pace but would slow it slightly for the uphills and speed up slightly for the downhills.
He gathered a small group of two-hour hopefuls and geed everyone up with his positive enthusiasm and assurances. He had plenty of time for this; we had been marshalled into place well before the start time of 10.15 and were told to expect a 15-minute walk to get to the actual beginning of our 13.1-mile journey.
After a long wait in a strong and chilling wind there was another stroll, a bit of a jog, a complete standstill and then a sudden quickening of pace. We were under the gantry, crossing the timing mat and on our way.
And so began a totally new experience. I did not worry that I was not going fast enough. I did not fret about the people passing me. Instead, I stayed close to Ian and his 2:00 banner waving in the raw strong wind. He was the leader of our pack and in him we would trust. As promised, he cut a path forcibly but always politely through slower runners; He had a job to do and did it purposefully, precisely and with lots of positive comments and advice.
And it really worked, at least for the first three miles. Then came the first, longest and steepest hill and I began to fall behind. But thanks to not having pushed it earlier, I gradually caught up with Ian once we hit level ground again. Three miles went by in 27 minutes – a time I have yet to achieve at the Trelissick Parkrun. The next, slightly undulating, three miles went by in similar time … and the same relaxed fashion. This was great: a steady pace, feeling good and no struggling to keep up. Maybe a sub two-hour was possible.
The people of Reading come out in droves to watch and cheer the 10,000-plus runners. They line the entire length, shouting encouragement, beating drums, banging pots, offering jelly babies and drinks, waving placards and doing everything they can to urge us on. Someone calls “well done, Tony” but it’s no one I know – merely a stranger reading the name on my bib. Many more such shouts follow all the runners. It buoys us up and pushes us along for we have no wish to slacken off and disappoint these supportive fans for the day.
It’s music, music, music all the way. Numerous bands, belt out all manner of sounds: rock groups, jazz combos, brass bands, drummers, steel bands. All that’s missing is a string quartet. Four cheerleaders, swirling their pom-poms, urge us on around yet another of the many corners that add interest and variety to the route. At another turn, a fruit and veg shop is handing out oranges.
The route cuts through the heart of downtown Reading and at no time are we far from the city centre. One sector twists its way through the middle of the university (the wind here was at its strongest and coldest), others through commercial areas and residential streets. Apart from Bath Road, with three miles to go, and the last mile towards the stadium, there are few of the long mind-sapping dreary stretches of some other races.
It was as we emerged from the university that I began to lose contact with Ian and the rest of his group, although I did pass a couple of the other two-hour hopefuls who had been with us at the start. It wasn’t a huge gap – I could still see his banner up ahead – but enough to show I was off the planned pace. And a couple of sharp inclines didn’t improve things. But at least I felt good and confident of finishing.
That was until just past 12 miles and with the stadium in sight. Suddenly it was if someone had kicked my right leg from under me. It collapsed, I stumbled and oaths were uttered. Loudly. The best I could manage was a hobble. I looked at my watch: still under two hours and therefore a pretty good finishing time was in reach. Rubbed the leg, stretched, did a tentative walk and gradually eased into a sort of run. Time to grit teeth and keep going.
As always, the final 800 metres felt more like a whole kilometre – the elastic last mile! – and the circuit of the stadium seemed to go on forever before we entered the tunnel and ran down on to the track to be greeted by the cacophony of thousands of spectators.
I pushed STOP on the Garmin and saw it said 2:01. Ecstatic! Slightly miffed to later learn my true time was 2:04. But what the heck when for the past two years I was increasingly convinced my running days were well and truly over. My time for 10km was faster than that for the Newquay 10 and I went through 10 miles faster than I clocked for this year’s Storm Force 10. But of course, there were far fewer hills to climb.
So I had to be happy. Anyway, it was a time that put me at the top of the UK rankings by some 11 minutes. At least, until a few days later, when someone emerged who had apparently clocked an astounding 1:58 in the Eastbourne Half. But that, as they say, is another story which was very short-lived thanks to some admirable detective and admin work by Colin Bathe.
The finish ran as smoothly as the start with everyone being wrapped in foil blankets – which just as quickly got blown away in the wind – and given drinks, medals and a goody bag, complete with that elusive t-shirt! At least this time I had truly earned it.
Overall, it’s a race to be recommended – for organisation, excellent transport and car-parking facilities and a course that offers fast times and enormous community support to cheer you on every step of the way.
As for the perennial issue of toilets, rest assured relief awaits around every corner. No one need be taken short.
One big lesson learned which I feel worth passing on is to think of using an official pace-marker when the opportunity arises. They keep you regular [a bit like All-Bran], stop wasteful surges and encourage you every step of the way.
The final icing on the cake was to be given a smile and hug by Anne Maskell who was there to cheer on her daughter who finished almost at the same time as myself.
Entries for next year are already open!
Words and images by Tony Berry.