Wednesday 22 August 2012

Hot Running in the Scottish Highlands: The Nairn 1/2 Marathon

When we signed up for the Nairn Half Marathon, the goal was to have a bash at setting some fast times after a Summer of focus on speed rather than just endurance.  I looked high and low for a flattish half in August or early September, and found one just a short drive from Nic's sister and her family - the bonus of a family get-together made the race too good to pass up.  Of course, it's a 10-12 hour drive to get there, so a little planning was needed to make sure we arrived in condition to run!  Luckily, Nic's folks live about 2/3 the way there, so we got to stop off and enjoy even more family time on both the out and back, as well as breaking up the drive.

The Nairn Half has the unique (to my knowledge, anyway) feature of being part of the local Highland Games.  So, unlike many local races, the spectators at the finish actually outnumber the runners by quite a large margin.  It also means that there's plenty going on when you finish, so the post-race is quite enjoyable.

We arrived around 11am to register and avoid getting stuck in traffic heading for the Games, and took in as much of the grass track and arena as we could.  Nic particularly enjoyed hearing the sound of a lone piper playing a short distance from the park as we wandered along the seaside paths.  You can take the lassie out of Scotland...  With around 30 minutes to go, we started our gentle warm-up, as usual checking out the 1st and last mile of the course, loosening limbs, etc.  The clouds that had threatened to keep things cool for this afternoon race began to blow past, leaving us in no doubt that the weather would be abnormally warm for a visit to the northern beaches!

The clouds start to drift off as we get into our warm-up.

At the start, the local runners were looking up, worried that the foreign yellow disc might stay put throughout the race.  I had already added five seconds per mile to both of our planned first half splits, to allow for the added warmth in this cold and dreary Summer, so was confident that we would survive without too much damage from the sun.  Nic's sister had kindly leant us some sunscreen, since it's not normally in our Scottish travel kit.  It was a good thing, too, since our shoulders hadn't spent much time in the open lately.

Nic sporting the new prototype Cotswold Running vest.

At 12:30, I found myself in the second row, waiting for the fast runners to come and line up in front of me.  Only a few did, because everyone wanted the inside line for the initial lap of the track.  When the gun (and it was actually a starter's pistol!) fired and the short stretch of jostling was finished, I found myself in around 6th place on the inside of the track.  By the time we left the track, I was in the more sensible and lucky 13th position, keeping a close eye on my watch to make sure I wan't going dangerously quickly.  Within a quarter mile, nearly 20 runners passed me as I maintained my pace.  I was confident some would come back eventually, based on previous years' results.  This year's field was nearly twice the normal size, so I was curious to find out how many would come back if I finished in my goal time of sub-1:30.

The first two miles of the course are fairly innocuous.  The goal was to keep in the region of 6:50 before hitting the little hill in the 3rd mile.  By the end of the 2nd mile, the field in front of me was at its largest, and the combination of the warm day and early enthusiasm was already starting to take its toll.  When the hill approached, the first few runners came back quite quickly.  I kept a beady eye on the watch to make sure I wasn't riding the "thrill of the hunt" to blow my own race as I steadily worked my way back towards the top 20.  At the first water stop, I encountered my first "grab-and-stop" of the day.  What is it that causes otherwise sensible people to grab the first available cup of water and suddenly break into a walk, making it impossible for the next runner to access either the way forward or the next cup of water?  I'd like to say I pushed the offending runner into a ditch rather than simply running through him and spilling his water, but he apologized and I carried to get my own drink and douse without losing too much pace.

From the "top" of the hill to the half way mark is a very gentle slope, or "false flat", which means that every now and then, you can look down the road and wonder why it feels a bit harder than it should to maintain pace.  As I approached the 5 mile marker, I encountered my first "walker" - he was definitely suffering from the searing sunshine and lack of a breeze.  I noted a windmill turning well in the distance and immediately realized that the lack of air movement was essentially a tail-wind - a bit of a worry on what is basically an out-and-back course.  At the next water stop, I tried to let the runner in front and the 1st volunteer know I was aiming for the 2nd volunteer's water.  Too late, the runner stopped right in front of me and the volunteer kindly tried to hand me water as I was passing through.  I got an extra douse, apologized my way to the 2nd volunteer, grabbed some more water for a sip and shower and again continued on my way.  At around 6.5 miles, a kind man had placed a sprinkler over the road to help cool us off - a welcome burst of cool since my vest had dried quickly after the water stop.

Then, we turned into the wind and I stopped feeling hot.  At first, the breeze was refreshing - it was only just starting to really get up.  This section of the course was broadly down hill, with occasional short tree-lined stretches to offer a bit of shade.  I had expected a reasonable amount of wind, but it was becoming quite an obstacle.  I managed to maintain my pace through to 9 miles with an effort, losing a second here and there and finding it more difficult to recover the time.  The 10th and 11th miles had some small hills, but nothing particularly taxing.  Unfortunately, they also had some significant sections into the stiff headwind, and I dropped 50 seconds as I struggled against it.

With the final push to the line, I got back onto pace with a good downhill and some changes of direction, but the damage was done.  Sub-1:30 would take a superhuman effort, and even getting a PB was at risk.  I needed to leave everything on the road to have any chance of a good result, and pushed as hard as I could.  The race finishes with a lap of the grass track, surrounded by cheering spectators, but I honestly couldn't hear anything.  I focused on following the yellow line and the runner a few seconds ahead and speeding up for all I was worth.  In the end, I was about 200 yards too slow, finishing in 1:30:38 - 55 seconds faster than my previous best set in March.

The flags got a good workout, and the beer tent had to be dismantled and turned into an open-air bar, as the wind got up.

Nic suffered even more in the wind, having turned into it after it had already stopped just being a breeze.  She still took a minute off her previous best, and is looking forward to a slightly more favourable day to pick up a couple more minutes.  The day had been scheduled for some fast times, but the conditions were not the best on the day.  We found out later that the wind had even been strong enough to cause problems at the beer tent at the Games - a temporary tragedy that was dealt with by removing the tent and running the bar under the blazing sun.

A little music to entertain us as we lounged in the grass.

We enjoyed a different recovery from the usual (the beer tent was being dismantled as we finished), sitting with Nic's sister and our nieces enjoying the track races, Highland dancing, tug-o'-war, caber tossing, and marching pipe bands.  I think we both suffered a little sunburn and no little windburn, but it was an amazing way to wind down from a hard race.  I guess next year we'll just have to train a little harder!

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