Boston via Britain, Or… Running Back Home

This coming Monday, April 16, I will be running the Boston Marathon, for the second time (in three years). It’s an honour and a privilege to be doing so, albeit a well-earned one, allowing that Boston, as well as being the world’s oldest marathon (at 116 years and counting), is also the sole elite marathon, the only one that demands of all competitors a qualifying time specific to age and gender. Though there are a handful of back-door entries, the basic rule of Boston is that you don’t get in via money or lottery; you have to qualify, and the standards are stringent. This year, they get even more so: I’ll need to run 3hrs 25mins or faster either at Boston or over the next six months to stand a chance of competing again next year.

In training for that goal, I took an interesting tangent: a 3-week visit to Britain in the month leading up to the race, the point at which one’s training typically peaks and then tapers. My trips “back home” tend to be exhausting, as I run around catching up with friends and family, taking meetings, attending gigs, and finding myself very easily slipping back into a British way of life that, even for those in business, often revolves around social drinking. As such, trying to stay in peak physical shape was bound to be a challenge, which partially explained why I decided to run the Hastings Half Marathon on Sunday March 25.

I love half marathons. They’re not as speed intensive as a 5 or 10k, and they’re not as exhausting as a full marathon. If you can hit the right pace and keep to it, you can get the job done in a reasonable amount of time, register the hard work engaged in doing so, and still go about your business for the rest of the day (and then celebrate your achievement at night). Then again if, like me, your last half-marathon put you just a few seconds the wrong side of the 1hr 30min mark, the prospect of breaking through such a psychological time barrier would likely loom as large on the horizon as the finish line itself. My main concern was whether I would be able to achieve such a goal on my first ever race in the UK. Because, odd as it might seem, I never knowingly (or should I say, willingly!) competed in a British race in the 22 years I lived there before emigrating. Hastings, then, would be a first.

The Hastings course

The choice of race was hardly arbitrary. My best friend and former Apocalypse band mate, Tony Page, himself emigrated from London in the 1990s, to Bexhill-on-Sea, just a few miles west of Hastings, and has long encouraged me to run the race alongside members of his Bexhill Rowing Club. And the timing of the race, 22 days before Boston, was, in theory, perfect. Such a gap is considered ideal to get a final long-distance race under the belt before commencing the “tapering” process. (It’s no coincidence that the New York Road Runners Club arranges for the last of its 5 Borough Half-Marathons to take place three weeks before the New York Marathon.) Hastings offered the chance to apply the training I’d put myself through all winter, including a group run of a half-marathon distance or longer every single weekend morning early January, before then taking my foot off the proverbial pedal and allowing myself to “taper” via a social two-week working holiday in the UK.

The only real problems I saw for myself were, 1): as noted, I was staying with my best friend, and, as best friends do, we have a habit of staying up late and enjoying ourselves. The chance of getting to bed at his place early on Saturday night seemed remote at best. Challenge number 2) was with jetlag; while I’ve frequently cured the transatlantic time change by getting in a good energizing run the day after my arrival, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get in a respectable half-marathon time just three days after traveling, let alone a Personal Record. I decided therefore to “play it by ear.” If I felt good on the morning, I would go for it; if not, then I would vow to “just have fun.”

Bexhill on a beautiful spring Saturday. The De La Warr Pavilion looms over the English Channel.

The first potential problem was cured by the fact that Tony and his wife had been down with the flu all week – so much so that they nearly recommended I stayed elsewhere to avoid catching the bug. Fortunately, the day I arrived they rebounded, and while this presented its own set of challenges – Tony was keen to celebrate his renewed health with a couple of pub Guinnesses over the Saturday evening Premier League match and some wine over an Italian meal – I found that I was able to meet my typical pre-race abstention half way. I had, in fact, stopped at a couple of lovely Sussex wineries on my way to Hastings (report to follow) and I decided to further relax and enjoy a glass of red wine over a carb-loading dinner at the local Italian restaurant in the evening. My reward was two-fold: my hosts were sufficiently exhausted as to go to bed early (on a Saturday no less!) and I was sufficiently relaxed, and still somewhat jet-lagged, as to manage an astonishing eight and a half hours sleep, even as my bed consisted of nothing more than a mattress on a floor in a study barely big enough to contain it and even though the clocks went forward an hour (for me, for the second time in two weeks, both on the eve of a half-marathon race). I didn’t get up until 8:30am (admittedly 7:30am by body clock), and yet, thanks to proximity, was warming up on the Hastings seafront by 10am for a 10:30 starting gun. I felt rarely fantastic: well rested, fully energized and raring to go. If only every pre-race night’s sleep could be so good.

The weather also helped. I had landed in the UK, three days earlier, at the start of a rare sunny spell that was to last for ten days, uninterrupted by more than a few little fluffy clouds. The irony about Britain is that while grey and wet weather is the norm, and contributes to many of the national characteristics, the rarity of genuine warmth and sunshine is such that when it occurs, people seize it with an exuberant vengeance – helped, no doubt, by just how beautiful everything suddenly looks under a bright blue sky. We woke on race day with the temperatures still hovering just above freezing, but the blue skies and the prospect of increased warmth serving to put us all in the mood for a good morning out. And by all of us, I mean not just the car load that I traveled over with – including one member of the Bexhill Rowing Club who was running for charity, in a bee costume, with speakers attached – but the other 3500 runners who had signed up for what is fast becoming one of Britain’s premier long-distance races.

The elevation of the Hastings Half Marathon. It looks worse than it is. Or maybe not.

I had been warned that the course was hilly. Piffle, I responded, I live in the Catskills; I eat hills for breakfast. Even a look at the race course’s topography – a steep climb, a brief plateau and a steep drop – seemed to have been gerry-mandered on the web site to look worse than it was. The few hundred feet of climbing, after all, paled in comparison to the couple of thousand feet that we frequently take on in our mountain and spring trail runs. But our mountain runs are taken at a much slower pace. Which meant that my friends were right. The course was hilly. It set out from the waterfront and started climbing. And continued climbing. And for all the occasional downhill roll, it then kept climbing some more, with miles 3 to 5 involving a relentless onslaught up Queensway towards the Ridge. I should have remembered as much; I used to spend many weekends in Hastings with my school friend and band mate Jeff Carrigan, whose family had a weekend place at the “top” of town, from where the jaunt to the seafront on a weekend morning was always that much easier that the long slog home at night. Trying to maintain some sort of sub 7-minute mile average while following a long line of runners and facing an equally long hill ahead of me proved no easy task. The fact that, by the time we crested the hill, the pubs were open and grown men who could have afforded to lose a few pounds themselves were taunting us on by waving full pints of beer in our faces didn’t necessarily make it easier.

Then again, I do live in the Catskills. Hills are hard work, but they rarely defeat me. On the latter half of the uphill climb, I began dropping some of my fellow runners. And when we finally crested, and my heart rate was still mellow, I knew that I had a strong second half ahead. Though it was murder trying to judge my overall pace based on such an uneven course, I suspected that if having climbed the hills at a 7:30 pace, I ought to regain my necessary sub 7:00 average once Newton’s Law took effect. In fact, my biggest concern for the last few miles, and it was a highly legitimate one, was the toll that the steep downhills would take on my knees and my shins.

Fortunately, there was just enough of a break in the downhill portion to avoid the risk of injury. The race would descend steeply, but then turn a corner in to a side shopping street and climb again for a minute or so, and while the process was taxing on the runner’s psychology, it was good for the body. Somewhere around mile 9, I was overtaken by the second of the males I had driven over with: a 30-something triathlete who would have been ahead of me from the start line but for the fact that he’s a new parent and short on training (and sleep). I let him go, figuring he had the best of me, but caught up with him once the race flattened out on the seafront around mile 11. By that point, I figured that if I could just keep on my current pace, I had the 90-minute benchmark in my grasp, and as I came alongside him, suggested that we stay together through the finish. He agreed. It proved a good call, as coming onto the flat after a steep downhill had the effect of making us feel like we were running uphill again, and the fact that we had a solid two miles ahead of us, that we were going almost flat out to beat the clock, and that the sun was now that much higher in the sky and the temperature accordingly warmer, made those last 14 minutes especially daunting.

Bexhill College put together this video of the Hastings Half. Since first putting this online, my 7-yr old has spotted me running the beachfront at 18 seconds in. More videos of the race can be found here.

But we did it. We crossed the line together at the 1:29:42 mark; my chip time was a comfortable 1:29.25. That was a 6 minute 50 second per mile average, though the topography of the course saw my speeds range from 7:33 (the steep uphill fourth mile) down to 6:17 (on the correspondingly steep downhill 11th mile). Either way, on my first ever race in the UK, I had scored a PR (or PB as they call it Britain), passing a benchmark I really would not have considered possible even just a couple of years ago. Had I banked such a time just 60 days earlier, I’d have qualified through the back door for this year’s New York Marathon. (Sure enough, they too have cut the qualifying time for next year; looks like I’m not the only one getting faster.)

As much as anything, I had had a great time out. The atmosphere in Hastings that morning – helped, admittedly, by the weather – was festive as could be. Every runner and spectator alike seemed to be in a fantastic mood. The race was extremely well organized, with copious water stops, a gel stop, and lots of music on the course, ranging from bands and bagpipes to someone DJing loudly in their back garden; the finish line supplied us with plenty water, and Clif Bars (which I live on) were out there promoting their goods with enough bite-size morsels to fully replenish me. This turned out to be necessary as I lost my running partner immediately and somehow missed the bumble bee coming across the finish line as well. It was an hour and a half before we all hooked up again, enough time for the pantomime horse – operated by two other members of the Bexhill Rowing Club (can you imagine being the back legs of a pantomime horse for three hours of slow running on hills?) – along with the knight in armour and various other fancy dress costumes to finish the race.

As I wrote last time I printed this picture: I can’t print this picture often enough. One of the best bitters in Britain.

A couple of hours later, after an enormous PBJ sandwich, a shower and a brief lie-down to accommodate the inevitable stomach cramps that come from so much exertion on a hilly course, I found myself with Tony and his wife, sitting outside at the Waterfront Club in Bexhill, the sky a brilliant blue for once, the English Channel doings its level best to match, and a pint of locally brewed Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter in hand. Beer never tastes as good as when you’ve earned it, and beer rarely tastes as good as Harvey’s: not for nothing was it voted Best Bitter of Britain at CAMRA’s Great British Beers Festival in 2005 and 2006. The evening duly progressed through a visit to the Rowing Club bar itself, and a home-made curry over a bottle of fine English sparkling wine that I had picked up the previous day. Tony’s record player may well have been called into action, the Apocalypse scrapbooks brought out, an unmarked bottle of red liquid uncorked and duly poured away as vinegar, and a belated Christmas bottle of spirits called up in its place. It would be denial to pretend it wasn’t all enjoyed – and, at my end for sure, well-earned. And best of all, I had done something I almost never do in the UK: I had refused to schedule the next day, a Monday. I knew now that the weather would be yet more glorious and that I would therefore be spending it in Brighton, on what unions label a “personal day.” It was, at this point, hard to argue with anything; in such all too rarely ideal circumstances, England is golden. And Boston, still a full three weeks away, was looking that much more inviting.

Brighton Beach on a beautiful spring Monday. In March. At Mid-day.

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