It was another early start on Sunday to get to Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, near Oxford, for the rotary 10k. I had gone prepared with woolly hat and gloves (much to M's amusement), but I had the last laugh because it was bloomin' freezing when we arrived. I'd just furnished us both with padded jackets to wear before and after winter races (cue much resistance from M who tends to eschew warm layers in favour of shorts and t-shirts in a hard-man sort-of way, regardless of the time of year, but I was fed up with worrying about him turning blue after races), and boy did they come into their own yesterday. The remnants of Storm Brian was making itself known and everyone was shivering and jumping up and down to keep warm.
I'd not been to Blenheim before; the house is a wonderful, honey-coloured Cotswold stone creation, home to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill. The park, which we ran through, was created from 1763 by Capability Brown, including the marvellous bridge above, which we ran over.
200 or so runners gathered at the start and set off at 10am towards the house. I was being cautious with my knee, so ran the first couple of kms on the grass either side of the metalled estate roads. After a while of this I got fed up with the number of people who were overtaking me, so decided to push on. It was a decision I did not regret- my knee was fine throughout and I have no pain, stiffness or discomfort in it today, so it was the right thing to test it a bit more.
The first hill bit and the people around me began to drop back. I caught up with the back runners of the lot who'd streamed past me over the first 2 kms and managed to hold my position once we'd reached the top of the hill. I don't think many people do hill work; it's the one area of a race I'm pretty much guaranteed to over take (my peers - not the speedy guys out front) and as such makes a difference to my mental approach when I'm racing.
Anyway, we went on, me chasing a lady way ahead in a silver jacket whom I'd set my sights on. She was running really strongly so I figured it was going to take me a while to catch up with her. In the mean time I caught up with a much older lady who'd zoomed past me at the start and was pleased when I got past her. Then came a tubby chap who was puffing and heaving away. I got past him and ran on to catch the next person on my list: another bloke, this time one who tried to speed up as I drew level. I could tell from his breathing he was working quite hard and was pretty sure he wouldn't keep up the increased pace and I was right. After struggling to stay with me for a few paces he dropped back too.
Next I was overtaken by a young woman in full-length running tights and a full-length top with a pony tail that swished back and forth as she ran. Too many clothes, I thought, she'll never keep that pace up, and I was right: no sooner had the second hill bit than she slowed right down and I sailed on past.
The lady in the silver coat was still too far ahead and I didn't seem to be gaining on her. I prayed silently for a proper hill and one appeared. I made up a few more places there and gradually, gradually, began to catch up with her. She looked a very proficient runner with a strong, economical, competent style and an elegant stride- she was fast and she made it look easy. As we came to the top of the long hill my lungs were aching fit to burst and my legs felt like someone had superglued a pair of irons to my feet, but I'd closed the distance between us to a few metres and there was no way I was going to let her extend it again. I pushed on, and, as the land did me another favour by sweeping downhill for the next km or so, I decided it was worth quickening my pace more in order to catch and go past her.
This is where training helps. My fitness has got a lot better over the past couple of months of concentrating on competing at 10k level most weekends (these races are faster than half marathons), and I was able to draw on that, accelerate and go past her. I called out a well done! as I went, which she called back. Then I felt a moment's panic that I'd gone past way too soon in the race because I knew she'd be chasing me and I wouldn't be able to see how near she was. There were still about three miles to go. If I'd worked too hard too quickly I'd soon run out of energy and she'd get back in front. Grimly, I ran on, trying to get my breathing back under control without slowing down.
It didn't last long; as the land levelled out she drew alongside and sailed past, looking strong and serene. Her breath was steady and rhythmic too. Hmmm. The battle was on, clearly. I decided to let her do the work for the next couple of kms and slotted in behind her for a rest, trying to not let her get too far ahead of me.
At the start of the race I'd done my usual, breezy: oh, I'm not competing today; my knee isn't quite there yet. I'm just going to enjoy a nice trot round. I think M has stopped bothering to contradict this as he didn't say anything. Of course, it's complete rubbish: I simply can not run in a race and not find at least one person I want to come in ahead of. So it continued; the lady in silver effortlessly sweeping on ahead and me running determinedly behind.
Another hill; I overtook her; another levelling out; she sailed past me. I hung on grimly to her heels as we turned into the final 2km of the race. I felt she was stronger and I was tiring. The path turned off the metalled roads at this point and onto rough stones. Yipee! I thought this is my kind of terrain! Maybe it gave me a mental boost, knowing how much other runners detest grass and stones.
A little further up I could see a grey-haired man walking. As we drew up beside him I asked him if he was OK. I glanced at him and could see he looked a bit pale. He said yes then a minute later appeared at my elbow, running once more. Thank you so much for checking I was OK, he said, I was actually just being lazy, although I do have to watch my heart rate doesn't get too high. We fell in beside one another and started chatting, and before I knew it, because I'd stopped concentrating on catching the Silver Lady, suddenly we'd gone past her. She picked up her pace to catch up and the three of us ran the next half kilometre together, talking about the course, the winds that had been a struggle to run against and how pretty a setting this was for a race.
As the course turned left off the grass and back out onto metalled roads, a km from the finish, she said she was going to try for the finish, and off she went. I stayed with the grey-haired chap, who had told me he'd wanted to get round in under 60 mins, one minute per mile per year of his age. I told him we'd run together and each make sure the other made it. Silver Lady was now some way ahead but I was having such a nice chat with the grey-haired chap, who told me he wouldn't have started running again if I hadn't asked how he was, that I thought well, I'll just stay with him and make sure he gets back under his 60 mins. I'd had a great run, felt I'd run strongly and had no knee pain, I didn't really need to get in ahead of Silver Lady.....did I?
A short while on there was M with the camera, waving and yelling. We were now only a hundred metres from the finish. Do you want to sprint? I asked Mike, but he waved me on: No, you go for it. So I did. Silver Lady was close to but not yet over the line. I wonder, I thought to myself. I went for it (of course). I ran as fast as I could, to the point that my legs stopped feeling like they belonged to me and I was convinced I would either a) fall over or b) not be able to stop.
I caught her with seconds to go before the line and zoomed over it just ahead of her. Woo Hoo!
I turned back to see her finish and we grinned at each other. She came up to get some water and I told her I'd been chasing her the entire race and thanked her for making me up my game. She was lovely, congratulated me on pipping her to the post and told me she'd been training for a flat (and therefore fast) half marathon, which was presumably why she looked so competent in the 10k. M appeared and then shortly after that my grey-haired friend crossed the line. I introduced him to M, and he said your wife got me to the finish line, which I thought was very nice of him. He'd beaten his 60 minute time comprehensively.
The new puffy jacket went on and I felt warm as toast as we headed back to the car, another great race under our belts.
Onwards and upwards, eh?