Friday 14th June 2013
Marston Vale Millenium Country Park, Marston Moretaine, Bedfordshire
I last ran the Marston Forest 5k back in 2011, and it was my first ever race. I was new to running, I was slow and I was clumsy. My enduring memory of that race is how I felt like a bit of a fraud as I lined up at the start with hundreds of speedy-looking proper runners.
This year I entered again and although I’m no longer new to running, not a lot else has changed.
The Marston Forest 5k is organised by the Ampthill & Flitwick Flyers running club (www.affrunningclub.org.uk) who are currently celebrating their 25th anniversary. The race is in its 9th year and attracts around 400 entrants, the majority of whom seem to be club runners. The course itself is a single-lap lakeside path, clearly marked and with plenty of marshals to spur you on. PB hunters will be glad to hear that the route itself is pancake-flat and the paths are wide enough to allow for comfortable overtakes*. As you’d expect for a 5k race, there are no water stations, but there were plenty of refreshments being handed out at the finish line. No wine list, but I suppose you can’t have everything. I decided to park my car a couple of miles away to allow for a nice warm-up, but there’s a decent-sized car park next to the start line and registration area. The Forest Centre has toilet facilities and a café, but no bag drop or showers. There’s also a gift shop, because no race is complete without a selection of reasonably-priced ceramic wading birds.
So, onto the race itself. Warmed up, I collected my timing chip and race number from the registration desk. When I last entered this race a couple of years ago, I had no idea how to attach my chip, and was in the process of dismantling my shoes when a fellow runner kindly gave me a few pointers. That had been my first experience of the “we’re-all-in-it-together” bonhomie of the running community, and this small gesture has stuck with me ever since.
As I walked to the start line I bumped into work-buddy and bloggy ultrarunner Dan, who’d just watched his son in the free 1k fun run. Dan has run all manner of races, including obstacle events, trail runs, marathons and ultras, but this was to be his first ever 5k. Wishing each other good luck we took our respective places at the start; Dan with the steely-eyed vest-wearers and me nearer the back, where there are sweets and sometimes a nice sing-song.
I only had two gripes about the race, and the first was the lack of warning before the start. We were all stood around in anticipation of a countdown or 2-minute warning, when suddenly a klaxon sounded and we were off. The sight of dozens of runners jogging along while holding one arm aloft as they desperately appealed to the gods of GPS to grant them a quick satellite lock would have been a lot funnier if I hadn’t been one of them.
Once the initial throng had spread out a little, I settled into a nippy (but hopefully maintainable) pace. A recent training PB at this distance was 24:20, which was a world away from the 29:53 I’d managed the last time I’d done this race. I was happy with how far I’d progressed, but still hoped that a combination of race-day atmosphere and the constant threat of being picked off by angry flesh-eating rabbits if I slowed down would be enough to spur me on to a sub 24 finish.
My legs did exactly as they were told, and I soon found myself cruising past dozens of the very runners I’d felt so inferior to just minutes earlier, as I settled into a steady 7-and-a-bit min/mile pace.
Was I grinning like an idiot? Too bloody right I was! One thing I’ve always liked about races is getting to know people by the back of their heads; something that the likes of Mo Farah rarely get to enjoy. I spent a while behind Hotpants McPonytail, before she found an extra gear and zoomed off into the distance, at which point I spent a mile behind Johnny Neckboil. I moved up and down the pack a little more, until I found my final quarry: Steve “Baggy” Baggerson. Dressed in navy tracksuit bottoms and a matching T-shirt, both a couple of sizes too big and topped off with a baseball cap, he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the svelte vested club-runners he was zipping past. He looked like he worked in a car wash, and as I tried my best to keep my pace going for the final mile, I idly wondered if one of the front-runners had nicked his squeegee. To use the official IAAF term, he was proper legging it. Those trousers were very baggy, and it’s entirely possible that he was concealing a little Kenyan in each leg, which would only be classed as cheating if they’d thought to mention it in the rulebook, so fair play to him. I finally managed to edge past him, by which point I was breathing through my ears and willing my legs not to fall off. But that didn’t matter, because I could hear the cheers from the finish line so I knew I was almost there.
Remember earlier, when I mentioned that I had two gripes about the race? I think there must be a chapter in the So You Want To Organize An Evil Race handbook entitled “How to sap a runner’s will to live” which suggests putting the biggest crowd of cheering people a full quarter-mile before the finish line. I rounded a bend expecting to stagger across the finish line, only to instead see a couple of minutes more pain stretching out in front of me. The cheering did the trick though** and I found a little bit extra in the tank***, enough to propel me across the finish line.
Once across, the first thing I did was shake hands with Baggy and share a few congratulatory comments. Then it was medal time 🙂
Small races such as this don’t always have chip timing, but not only was Marston Forest 5k chipped, it also provided a fantastic text alert service. Just a minute or two after crossing the finish, my phone went bingly boop and I received a text telling me that I’d got round in 23:38, taking a huge slice off my previous time.
I celebrated by having my photo taken with a banana, then jogged back to my car, still grinning like a simpleton who’s found the keys to the fudge-and-kittens cupboard.
The great thing about being a humble plodder rather than a racing snake is that victories are so much easier to come by. For the likes of me, PBs can often be won purely by persistence rather than needing to spend months on a regimented training and nutrition plan for the sake of shaving a second here and there. I’m happy to just be a runner. For me, it’s a constant source of wonder and amazement, and something I’ll never take for granted.* That’s an unfortunate choice of words, as anyone who saw the look on my face yesterday would have known that my overtakes were about as comfortable as a jockstrap stuffed with broken glass and scorpions. ** Someone once said “if you want to feel like a rock star, run a race with your name on your shirt”. It’s the first time I’ve done this and it’s so true. I think I may have stretched the metaphor a little though by demanding crates of Jack Daniels and headbutting that photographer. *** Incidentally, the use of tanks in a race is yet another thing the IAAF rulebook doesn’t bother to mention.