1st September 2019

by Rodney McCulloch

The Maidenhead Half Marathon was a couple of months back, and most definitely one of my favourite races I’ve ever done. So, it’s about time I finished the race report for this one!

New York Marathon target

During 2019, my number 1 goal for the year was to achieve the required GFA (Good for Age) time to qualify for the 50th New York City Marathon in November 2020. The New York City Marathon is the largest city marathon in the world and one of the 6 marathon majors (along with London, Berlin, Boston, Tokyo and Chicago). The NY course takes in all 5 boroughs of the city, starting on Staten Island and finishing with a few undulating miles in Central Park in upper Manhattan and has over 50,000 finishers every year.

New York City Marathon allows for Half Marathon times as well as Marathon times for GFA entries, and the GFA time I required for New York was sub 1:23 - and with a half PB of 1:22:30 at the 2017 Hampton Court Half Marathon, this felt like it was within my reach.  

In the Spring my plan was to build up the 10k fitness and tempo sessions for a sub 1:23 attempt at the Ranelagh Harriers Half Marathon in early May. Unfortunately, I picked up a minor hamstring injury during the Maidenhead Easter 10 Mile race in April, so I pulled out of a few races in May – including the Ranelagh Half and Staines 10k, to ensure a steady recovery and to rebuild (notwithstanding the two long stages at the Green Belt Relay at steady/tempo pace – the best weekend of year and not to be missed).

Summer training

The summer months were simply about trying to build up the base easy mileage again, incorporate a few bits of speedwork incrementally and then the odd race to see where my fitness was. I had a good race at the Wedding Day 7k in 25:31, as well as getting back under 18 minutes at parkrun which showed my fitness was returning, and throughout July and August I was building up the tempo sessions at Half Marathon pace on a weekly basis.  

Each Tuesday I’d do a tempo at HM pace, adding another km to the tempo each week through July and August (thanks to Aaron’s advice!), starting with 6k before building up to 10k, as well as doing the parkruns in mid-19 minutes (ie not racing them every week!) to get mentally used to running at the required HM race pace as much as possible. The last 10k tempo was at the required race pace of 3:55/km (around 6:15/mile), and that gave me a big confidence boost that I had a decent chance of getting sub 1:23 – now I just needed to find a Half Marathon to go for!

Through most of September I was going on holiday to Provence, Corsica and Tuscany, and I wanted to find a Half Marathon pre-holiday to go for the GFA target, and this was when I found the Maidenhead Half Marathon on the 1st September – just a few hours before I was due at Heathrow Airport! Luckily, I had chauffeur Aaron with me to make sure I made it to Maidenhead on race day and for support on the course as well.

Maidenhead Half

The Maidenhead Half was first run in 2011, organised by Purple Patch Running and is usually on the first Sunday in September. The course is very flat with long stretches on closed roads on a two-lap course starting in Maidenhead town centre, heading north towards Cookham before returning to Maidenhead.  

Maidenhead is known for being a particularly fast course, and at the start I was surrounded by England Masters athletes in their white England Athletics events – as this was also the English Masters Championships for 2019 for age categories from V35 all the way up to MV80 and FV70! With a good block of training from June to August, I felt confident I had a decent chance of getting the required time. Looking at previous half marathons I’ve done, the key was to settle into the required 3:55/km pace as early as possible without getting carried away at the start and wasting energy. I had a good warm-up beforehand, taking in what would be the first 500 metres and the last 500 metres of the race.

At exactly 9am with temperatures around 14C and a clear blue sky, I set off with about 1,500 others charging towards Maidenhead High Street and out on to the two-lap course. After a slightly too fast first km of 3:49 (adrenaline), I settled down into the low-mid 3:50s and relaxed with a group doing a similar pace as we headed towards Cookham for the first time. The drink stations were at frequent intervals every 5k, and as it was a warm morning, I made sure to get a few sips at each station as well as over my head to keep the core body temperature down. I went through 5k in 19:26 and 10k in 38:57. Aaron gave me a shout out somewhere near 10k that I was on required pace, I still felt quite relaxed at this point.

By 10k the field was much more spread out, but I still had a few people to work with who were doing similar pace, and by lap two I could start to mentally break down the remainder of the course into smaller chunks, as well as trying to find any shade where I could, as I went through 15k in 58:29 (5k splits of 19:26, 19:31 and 19:32), projected finish time of 1:22:30-ish at this point. After 15k it was gradually getting more difficult as the pace dropped closer to 4 min/km, the group I had been running with were breaking up and bigger gaps opened. No-one was overtaking me at this point, but the pace had collectively dropped in the group to over 4 min/km which put the sub 1:23 at risk.

It was around 19k that I gave myself a good talking to and tried to increase the pace slightly and break it down into smaller efforts, trying to visualise laps of a running track counting it down and trying to focus on runners ahead. I hadn’t got this far to do a 1:23:01, no point looking at the watch from here on in, just push on and focus on closing to runners ahead. It was at this point near 20k when I saw Aaron and he gave me the hurry up as I headed towards the finish, I knew it would be a really close call if I was I going to make it but just kept pushing on as hard as I could.  

When I reached the High Street at 20.5k I recognised this section from the warm-up at the start, and I began picking up the pace for the sprint finish, as I knew I had less than 2 minutes of running to go. As I made the final right turn and could see the race clock, those last 10-15 seconds were wonderful knowing I was going to make it under 1:23! I crossed the line in 1:22:46, the last 100 metres were at 3:10/km pace, just to make sure, target achieved by 14 seconds!

I had missed my PB by just 16 seconds, but I couldn’t have cared less. It wasn’t about getting a PB for once, it was about trying to run an even paced race without attacking too much to give myself the best chance of getting a 1:22 time. The 5k splits were 19:26, 19:31, 19:32, and 19:58, although I hadn’t got a PB it was the first time I had run 4 consecutive sub 20 5k’s in a race.

A big thanks to Aaron not only for being my chauffeur on the day and ensuring I was on a bus en route to Heathrow in good time for my evening flight to Provence, but also for his support, encouragement and advice during the key summer training period when a lot of hard tempo sessions were rewarded in the end! And with the GFA time in the bag it meant I could go away on holiday and enjoy it without worrying too much about training. Mission accomplished!

A few points I would add – the organisation was first class, very smooth drink stations, fast course, good value for money. If it is possible, I would always recommend trying to do your warm up including the last 500m-1k of a race, then when you get there at the finish you will know exactly how close you are to the finish, without relying on the Garmin! I would definitely recommend this race if you’re looking for an early Autumn Half Marathon for a fast course.