plymouth half

Running and hitting the wall : my Plymouth (UK) Half marathon experience

Back buzzing from the Plymouth Half Marathon, which I entered as a prep for the Torbay Half in three weeks time (!) Trust me to record a personal best of 1:51.59 (nearly 7 and a half minutes faster than recorded at the Bath Half), thus setting myself a standard. Today’s run was exhilarating though for the great satisfaction it bought, though at times it was a tough cookie. Here are reflections on the run itself, and about the Plymouth Half specifically, along with a bit of what it’s like to live a runners identity.

The first 10 miles

Ok, so, my running prep is meticulous, meaning I have definitely got the bug and the buzz, which makes some things hard to understand. Like we’ve been running less than a mile and guys are heading to the toilets already…though I guess one explanation could be they missed the toilet before the start cos of the queues there, which were long. Like people having mile times written over their arms, unnecessary pressure, but perhaps it’s important to them.

We had the best possible weather…well near enough…cloudy, very cool, a bit of drizzle, a bit of wind gust at times. The gun goes off but of course I don’t hear it and don’t need to cos the surge starts and everyone moves ahead. It took four minutes to pass the start line at the Bath Half, this one took 1 and three quarters of a minute. A dreaded bottleneck slowed everyone to a walk just a few minutes into the race, but as my plan is to run the first mile slower anyway, that could be excused.

We are continuously warned by race organisers never to run the first mile fast, but a lot do, and that is 99.9 % of why runners struggle later on. Unless you are real racer I guess, but it’s wise advice. In my practice runs I often shoot away, feeling good, do a good first couple of miles or 3 and then struggle. So the plan is to run the first mile above a jog, but below ‘race pace’.  It always works out, getting the body, specifically breathing, used to the pace.

Ok, so Plymouth. The first time I have been there. Does look pretty cool. The first mile was pretty straightforward, a bit of a downhill before a slight uphill and then it goes through the lovely narrow street shopping centre, as well as around the harbour and bay, and flattens out, little ups and downs here and there. Immediately I liked it, and by the end came to prefer it to Bath, for reasons I’ll return to later.

So, getting into the rhythm by the third mile (which was the plan), I could begin to enjoy it…apart from having to continuously clear my throat of phlegm (which isn’t always the case, it depends on the day, and today the phlegm decides to pay me a visit). Pretty good run, nice and cool, along the Plymouth streets, it then enters Saltram Park. Cue lots of guys running to the trees to go for more pee!

[As a side note, how do I prepare? Well, the race starts at 9am, so I am up eating breakfast before 5am, since my body works when stomach is empty-ish. I drink water and sports drink, small amounts but regularly, more or less up to half an hour before the start, plenty of toilet visits during this time! I did have a very slight urge 5-10 mins before, but after a couple of miles it disappears.]

The big hill

So, running into the park I was expecting a hill. The website and booklet gives no such information, humph, but I had read other runners reports beforehand so knew what to expect. But as I paced myself through the park, ‘the hill’ didn’t seem to come, although it was a gradual climb from about point mile 5.5. And then, around just after 6 miles, the hill hits.

[Now, I do not mind hills. I ran the Southdowns Ten three times back in the 80’s, which was then known as ‘the tough one’ cos of its hilly nature. When I started re-running last year, I lived near Brandon Park (Bristol), and ran a lot of hills around there, because it’s great practice.  In fact, I bust my hamstring up a bit for a few days cos of those hills, cos they are so steep in places. And I used to put in the killer-steep Coldean Lane, in Brighton, as a training aid.]

It does rise, rise and rise this Saltram hill – the first sign is when you approach it and you look up and see a stream of runners heading upwards with no flat bits visible. So, up and up you go. Half way up, a miracle appears in the form of the drinks point! That’s at the 6.5 mile half-way point, bottles handed out by army cadets. The absolute perfect position! Pounding upwards (at near race pace, but a bit slower), the water is useful for pouring over my neck, face and head. [It is *not* so good to drink in my case, in fact I don’t like to take anything other than sips to take away any dry thirst, because otherwise it makes me feel sick.]

Up, and up and up, trying not to look up and lose focus. Then, after what was at least half a mile, the top is reached, and is the reason why hills are good for running…the feeling when you get to the top! As long as you haven’t exhausted yourself slogging up the hill, you can feel a real high at that top – in my case, it was back to normal race pace and it somehow felt faster. [Incidentally, I was so focused on getting past the hill challenge I just forgot to check my watch, as planned…and then when I did get to the top of the hill I just didn’t want to check, I wanted to enjoy!]

The downhill is not as steep as the uphill, it tapers down gradually, but at around the 7.5 mile mark is another hill. Not as gruelling as the park one, but a hill is a hill, and once through that, again, a high feeling, and carry on running.

There is an absolutely wonderful point after 8 miles, when the runners are ushered into a dark underpass. That made me smile, something different, unusual.

From there it is mainly a flat run, with little hills going up and down…it was at this point I witnessed a one and only casualty. A guy around my age suddenly pulled up and fell down into a grass verge, his face winced in clear agony. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but he was in pain from his leg, maybe cramp. Thankfully not a serious collapse like through exhaustion, but a painful leggy one.

On hitting ‘the wall’

[I was feeling pretty good all through the race till here…expected to hit a wall around 7, I didn’t, so was able to run on pace, and enjoy it, especially as it was also outside my ‘comfort zone’. But then, when I got to mile 10, the wall hit.

It is difficult to describe the little bugger, but it mainly seems to happen because I suddenly start thinking outside my body, because 10 miles done, means only 3 to go. It doesn’t feel like 3 miles though, but a lot more.

It is like, suddenly entering a Salvador Dali dream scene, when everything around me feels dream like, most runners around me are like they are also in the dream, with one or two zipping past obviously in the Tango advert. On and on it goes, even though it’s pretty flat.

‘It’ll be ok by 11 miles,’ I say, a very bad mental focus, because when that finally arrives, the wall continues, ‘perhaps by mile 12 then,’…no, no, focus on how I feel, breathing, pace, nothing more.

But I did get some help through that tough 10-11 mile, by taking jelly babies from the crowd of people holding them out; I didn’t do that at Bath Half, and eating these was different to water…if anything, it took my mind off the wall. I know there is a drinks station at point 11.5 miles, but it never seems to arrive! Eventually it does and I can pour water over me, and so by the time 12 miles comes up, I leave the Dali dream and get back into the Plymouth scenery, the harbour in view, the centre (and finish) soon to come.]

The last mile and a bit

Now, I did have a bit of a strategy, it’s true. To ease into the run for the first 3 miles, which I did. To maintain a consistent pace, probably for 7 miles, and then I would expect to slow down, before picking up speed at 11 miles. It didn’t happen that way, since all the way up to mile 10 was good, then the wall for 2 miles, and I found myself upping the pace as the 12 mile marker appeared and runners head into the narrow lane shopping centre. There were still remnants of Dali about – for example, for a time the street we ran on was cobbled, argh – but it felt ok, and then, came a hill.

Ok, fine. But the hill went on and on, up and up, one corner after another. When it looked like, at last, the corner would lead to a straight way, it pushed us into yet more hill, albeit with a very welcoming crowd lining the roads. I actually laughed. I imagined the race organisers being a real wicked bunch, deliberately making this pathway a torturous one, just to make us suffer. It was during this hill run that I noticed a lot of runners stopped and walked, and for once, I really couldn’t blame them.

Once again, however, getting to the top brings with it much joy…finally, at last, around 400-500 metres away, the finish line, straight ahead. Once I had got over the hill, I picked up pace, and sprinted the last 200 metres.  Sprinting at the end is always a sign that I have run a good *and* enjoyable run, and seeing the gun time of 1.53.46, I was able to work out my chip time would be at the 1:52 mark. Personal best, personal joy.

A few things about the Plymouth Half

The Bath Half will always be special because it was the first time I had run a half-marathon, it was run with friends present, and I recorded a good time, running non-stop, and ended with 1:59.21. Not bad for a first timer. Now, however, there is a comparison to be made from Plymouth, and I much preferred this one.

First of all, it felt far more ‘down to earth’ than Bath, with minimal stewarding at the beginning. You simply entered the starting line depending on what time you expected to finish so I just about squeezed in between the sub-45 and the sub-2hr times. It was pretty crowded, and some of the runners had to queue up at various points at barrier openings, but there was no number checking…it meant that I could easily have run the run without entering the competition, possibly, unless stewards would pull me out along the way.

That also meant that there would be many opportunities to cheat! A couple of times we ran long stretches of road only to turn back into them on the opposite side, for example. But no serious runner would cheat (although a friend saw cheating going on in the Bristol 10km).

The other good thing about Plymouth is that you go round a route once only. And that route is so varied it makes it much more interesting.

There are no cones in the middle of the road (an irritating feature of Bath), and apart from the bottleneck after a few hundred yards, the road is lovely and wide enough to enable faster runners to pass through the slower ones. It did really help that Plymouth was cool today, but, nevertheless, I would definitely do it again.

That said, if you don’t like hills, it’s best to get in some hill practice before tackling Plymouth. You don’t need to worry about hills in the Bath Half.

And one of the loveliest things about Plymouth was that just one minute after you have crossed the line, you get a text message, confirming your gun time and chip time! The goody bag was very nice, but the Bath one comes with a nice t-shirt, as does the Bristol 10km, but the organisers had already let it be known there would be no t-shirt at Plymouth this time (something to do with price rises, etc.). Instead we get…a bottle of shower gel!


Plymouth University provides physiotherapists to give runners a leg massage, lasting about 10 mins, and I took advantage of this little treat at the ‘Prostate Cancer’ tent, and I think it helped the legs recover. One of the therapists was wearing a ‘free hug’ t-shirt, so I took advantage of getting a hug too! There was water at the end, and also red bull (!) which I drank eagerly and quickly, plus a mars bar and…runner jelly babies! I had already a sports lucozade and that was gulped down quickly, such is the toll the run takes on hydration.

I tried to find a pub on the way to the station to have some Plymouth Gin, but didn’t find one, and my legs were aching, so I got the train back home to rest. And treated myself by buying some junk food and a beer…just for once…really!