Race Review: Inverness Half Marathon 2020

It was meant to be the start of a fantastic race season. Training was going brilliantly for my second London Marathon, and I was also looking forward to improving my PBs at all my usual spring races before spending the autumn exploring a few races that I hadn’t done before. While the Tokyo Marathon had been cancelled for all but its elite runners a couple of weeks previously, it just didn’t seem likely that the coronavirus pandemic would have that kind of effect here in the UK.

That was early March, of course – we had absolutely no idea what was about to hit us – and six months down the line, with everything else now officially postponed to next year, it is definitely the case that the Inverness Half Marathon was, and will remain, my only race of 2020, not counting the two virtual ones that I will be running in the next month.

I’d probably better get round to reviewing it, then, seeing as how in hindsight it was the highlight of my ‘season’!

Inverness Half Marathon
A stream of runners along the banks of the River Ness. (Photo © John Cooke 2020)

My initial, fairly modest, aim for Inverness was to run sub-2:35 (for context if you don’t know, I’m a slow runner who has been gradually bringing my half marathon times down from 3:46:45 in my first Great North Run in 2016). I had run a new PB of 2:36:32 at the 2019 GNR, and at that time had set the goal for my next half as sub-2:35, with the additional hope that I would further improve this to sub-2:30 by the end of 2020. (There were a lot of half marathons planned for 2020… sigh.)

However, the combination of my London Marathon training and my new habit (started on New Year’s Day 2020) of running every day meant that my pace was really improving, and it was starting to seem possible that I would be able to run closer to 2:30 by the time of the Inverness half. Geth was predicting an even bigger improvement of 2:25 based on my recent times, and I knew that if I had a good race I would probably be able to do it. However, I kept my goal time modest, because – as is always the case in half marathons – I was worried about pushing myself too hard and burning out. I promised myself I would be happy with anything under 2:35, which would be a good PB.

Pre-half marathon
All ready to run! Pre-race in the sports centre.

Inverness is a great course. Most of it is fairly flat, with the exception of a long-ish climb round about miles 4-5. This climb is early enough in the race that it feels like you’re getting it out of the way early on. The middle section is a bit suburban and twisty, but the first and last couple of miles feature stunning views of the River Ness (the last mile back to the stadium is a bit of a slog, but you just have to power through at that point!).

It was cold on the start line (though not as bad as 2019!), with everyone eager to get going. As such, I went off far too fast for the first mile, and it took until about mile 3 for me to settle into my target pace. I was a bit worried that this would come back to haunt me; however, I was able to maintain my pace really comfortably for the rest of the race. I finished in 2:23:42 – a huge PB of 12 minutes and 50 seconds. This was massively promising for the rest of the year!… at the time.

Obviously, that planned ‘rest of the year’ did not transpire, and I have a general rule of not thinking about the parallel universe where coronavirus didn’t happen, so I’m not going to dwell on what might have been this year. However, I’m hopeful that when races finally start back up again, I will be able to get back to chasing down those PBs – my next scheduled in-person half marathon is Edinburgh in May 2021, which is meant to be really flat and fast. 2021 could be the great race season that 2020 originally promised to be, assuming that things continue to move slowly back towards normality.

Plus, of course, I’ve got the Virtual Great North Run this Sunday with the local social run group – and my long runs with them have been promising pace-wise, so you never know…

parkrun tourism: Inverness

With the – tentative! – news that parkrun events may be starting up again in England by the end of October, I thought I’d better finish off my pre-hiatus tourism reviews!

Geth and I were in Inverness on the first weekend of March for the Inverness Half Marathon. It was our second year running the race, and last year the Saturday was a bit hectic (we got the train up on the Saturday and due to rail issues didn’t arrive in Inverness until very late at night). This year, I wanted a much more relaxed Saturday before the race, so we spent a couple of days driving up (staying in Edinburgh en route) and arrived in Inverness on the Friday night, in time to attend Inverness parkrun for a shakeout on the Saturday morning.

I’d been worriedly following the Inverness parkrun social media pages for the previous few weeks, as the bad winter weather had meant that they’d been cancelling every week. Inverness has two different courses – the primary course in Bught Park and the backup course in Whin Park – and thankfully the weather leading up to the half marathon weekend stayed dry enough that they were able to use the Whin Park course. We were on for Geth’s 100th parkrun!

Inverness parkrun
Post-run selfie with that poor collapsed pop-up sign! I think Inverness maybe need to order a new one from HQ…

The Whin Park course is three and a half laps of a pleasant park with a nice lake. There was a section that was a bit difficult and muddy due to recent flooding, but other than that it was fairly secure underfoot. Geth and I jogged round together at a fairly leisurely pace, saving our legs for the following day, and it was a really nice run.

Post-run and post-return-to-hotel-for-showers, we headed into town for cake. There’s got to be cake on a milestone parkrun day!

parkrun milestone cake
Milestone cake! Geth managed to squeeze in his 100th parkrun before lockdown started – he’s been on 100 ever since!

I don’t know when I’ll be back in Inverness, but I’d be happy to do this parkrun again!

parkrun tourism: South Shields

In February, I attended my twentieth different parkrun venue (a big deal in the parkrun world – you get various unofficial virtual badges and things like that). I’d been meaning to try out South Shields parkrun for ages, as I’d enjoyed lots of nice days out around the area, and it finishes along the same straight as the Great North Run does.

South Shields parkrun
Pop-up sign (love these) at South Shields parkrun.

It was a fairly cold winter’s day when I went – not really a day for enjoying the seaside! However, the route is an enjoyable meander through the sand dunes for the most part. This long section isn’t very flat or fast, but the tarmac downhill finishing straight makes up for it. Maybe it was just memories of multiple Great North Runs, but I found myself overtaking far more people than I usually do as I raced for the line!

Like a lot of the parkruns I attended this last winter, I would really, really like to do this course again in the summer. Of course, parkrun is very unlikely to return in the next few months, but hopefully we will be parkrunning again by summer 2021, and I can return to South Shields on a sunny day with Geth in tow 🙂

My five-year runniversary

On the 31st of May 2015, I was sitting on the sofa, about a third of the way through my first playthrough of Mass Effect. It suddenly occurred to me that videogame characters could run forever, never getting tired or slowing down, and as Commander Shepard ran forever on my TV screen, a fleeting notion came to me. ‘I’d like to be able to run forever,’ I thought wistfully, before being launched into another space gun battle and forgetting all about it for a few more hours.

On the 1st of June 2015, I started running.

Great North 5k 2015
On the start line of the Great North 5k 2015, next to a rain-soaked River Tyne.

My first running route was a 1.1k loop around where Geth and I live. On that first day, I had to take two (planned) 50-second walk breaks; the total route took me about ten or eleven minutes, nearly twice the time of the fastest kilometres that I do nowadays.

I got home and had to sit down on the stairs for a while, my breath icy and my chest aching. I had spent 2010-2011 doing Wii Fit on and off, and had attended a Zumba class twice a week for the last eighteen months before we moved from Southampton to Newcastle in February 2015, but running was a whole new level of cardio and I wasn’t used to it. As I thumped at my chest to try and bring it back to life, Geth looked at me pityingly. ‘This isn’t going to last,’ he observed, and in that moment, I also had my doubts.

However, I’m a stubborn cow, and so I went out again to do that 1.1k loop for the next four days in a row, cutting the duration of the walk breaks down by five seconds each day. I decided to run five days a week, Monday to Friday, and do a bit of strength training at the weekends. At the end of week one, I signed up for the Great North 5k, already feeling the need for a target race to help with motivation. By the end of week two, I could run the whole loop in one go (slowly!), and by the end of week three, Geth was convinced enough to buy me my first pair of running shoes (Karrimor trail shoes, because I didn’t know anything about running shoes). For week four, I doubled the loop to 2×1.1k and started again with the 50-second walk breaks.

Training for my first 5k was not without its challenges. I was a lot heavier then, and so I suffered from a lot of debilitating hip pain that really slowed me down. I also spent a week in the south of France with my family, and every morning I diligently staggered up the steepest hill I have ever run on, in 30°C heat! I later had to take a week off training due to an attack of runner’s knee, and found this a bit panic-inducing, not yet realising that training plans can be flexible. In the event, I only managed to run my final 5×1.1k training loop without stopping once… but that was enough, and I completed the Great North 5k 2015 in 35:51, a 5k time that I wouldn’t be able to beat for nearly two years, even after I started parkrunning most weeks.

While I had big running ambitions and dreams when I started, and always hoped to be able to run faster and for longer, I’m still amazed sometimes when I look back over the last five years. I have run approximately 1,770 miles (Strava says 1,769, Smashrun says 1,771, FetchEveryone says 1,773!), which isn’t huge mileage over five years by a lot of runners’ standards, but I’m more than proud of it. I’ve completed three 5k races, 112 parkruns, ten 10k races, two 10 mile races, eight half marathons, and one full marathon – my proudest achievement, even though my time wasn’t much to write home about. In the early days, I regularly staggered in with the tail runner at parkrun, and came last out of thousands of runners in the Great North 10k 2016. I am still slow, but on my good days I’m almost a mid-packer now. On New Year’s Day 2020, I started running every day, which has massively improved my speed along with my mileage.

I can’t express how much running has enhanced my life. I prioritise health and fitness in everything I do now, and I’m not sure that I would have lost five stone or managed to get sober if running hadn’t made me more aware of my general wellbeing. I’ve made friends through the wonderful running community that exists in the north-east of England and beyond. Above all, it’s an amazing hobby that I’ve been able to share with Geth – he was inspired by that first Great North 5k that I did, and started running himself the following year.

This morning, I ran that first 1.1k route again as part of my regular 2k-ish easy run, and cast my mind back to that first difficult attempt. I think that on the 1st of June 2015, if you’d told me that I would one day be able to run that loop without even really noticing I was running, I would never have believed you.

I still can’t quite run forever. But a marathon feels like forever, and for the time being, that’s enough.

Post-run
Post-run this morning. The best way to start the day.

parkrun tourism: Gibside

I continued my parkrun tourism around north-east England in February with Gibside parkrun, which takes place at Gibside National Trust in the northernmost area of County Durham. It wasn’t that far to drive, but the turnoff is easy to miss!

Gibside parkrun
Volunteers at the finish line of Gibside parkrun.

Gibside is a very pretty course, but it’s the opposite of flat. The hills are fairly brutal for most of the way round, and I think I was about seven or eight minutes slower than my PB. It does have a nice finishing straight though, and the paths are nice and wide all the way round, meaning that there’s no congestion – especially as it’s a fairly rural parkrun and thus doesn’t have a huge attendance.

I found it to be a bit of a theme over the winter that I ended up doing tough, traily, muddy parkruns that would probably have been more enjoyable during the summer months. Gibside wasn’t overly muddy, but it was scenic, and I think that scenery probably looks a bit nicer now that leaves exist again. Sadly, I likely won’t be able to test this theory until 2021, as I reckon parkrun won’t be back until then. Maybe by then I’ll have forgotten the hills and be willing to give Gibside parkrun another go!

parkrun tourism: Windy Nook

Before lockdown happened, I was trying to visit more of the parkruns local to me in the north-east of England, in the hope that I could one day tick them all off the list and achieve parkrun ‘regionnaire’ status! New parkruns spring up a lot in normal circumstances, so it would have taken some time, but it looked like an interesting adventure. I don’t know when that adventure will resume, as I expect that when parkrun does start back up again (2021?), I will be focusing on enjoying my home parkrun (Newcastle Town Moor) and nearest parkrun (Jesmond Dene) instead.

In January, however, I was very much in tourism mood, so one Saturday Geth and I got in the car and drove to Windy Nook parkrun, in Gateshead.

Windy Nook parkrun
Summiting one of the many hills on the Windy Nook parkrun course! Geth and I apparently had similar form on this occasion… (Photos from Windy Nook parkrun Facebook page.)

Windy Nook is a bit of a grim place on a cold winter’s day – iced-over puddles everywhere and scrubby-looking winter trees. The parkrun course is a very tough and traily three-lapper with lots of hills and a series of steps at one point (i.e. at three points due to the laps). As such, neither Geth nor I managed anywhere near our fastest times, although Geth did make it into the top five finishers due to the small field.

Post-parkrun coffee and cake was on offer at the nearby community centre, which was very welcome after a tough run! If I do this parkrun again, it will definitely be in the summer, as I imagine the area looks a bit nicer at the moment.

parkrun tourism: Vogrie

For part two of the New Year’s Day double, Geth and I got back in the car and headed out to Vogrie parkrun, which is south-east of Edinburgh.

Vogrie parkrun
One parkrun down, one to go!

It’s a really interesting experience running a second parkrun the same morning, making it up to 10k distance for the day! Obviously you get a break (typically spent frantically driving between parkrun locations), so it’s not quite the same as running an actual 10k, but I would imagine that most people take the second one easier. Geth and I certainly did – I came in more than three minutes slower than I had done at Portobello earlier that morning – although that was partly to do with the fact that Vogrie is very traily and hilly in places, and quite muddy on the day (requiring a lot of care on downhill sections!).

While I’m not ruling this one out for future New Year’s Day doubles, I think I would prefer to visit it in the summer, when there’s less chance of mud. It’s unlikely to happen this summer, of course, but maybe next year!

parkrun tourism: Portobello

Geth and I managed quite a few new parkruns during our Christmas trip to Edinburgh. We’d only ever previously done the main Edinburgh parkrun at Cramond while visiting Mum and Dad, but this time round we found ourselves with multiple reasons to go further afield. One of these was my desire to mark my first sober Hogmanay with my first ever New Year’s Day parkrun double the following morning – and the main Edinburgh parkrun doesn’t run on New Year’s Day, having done its special event on Christmas Day instead! As such, I had to select two alternative local parkruns for my Edinburgh-based double.

Portobello parkrun
Another pop-up sign. I’m collecting a lot of these photos!

The first of these was Portobello in north Edinburgh. I’d been meaning to do this one for a while but had never got round to it – the lure of Cramond and its lovely flat, scenic course is usually too strong. It turned out to be a nice fast three-lapper round the very pretty Figgate Park. The course isn’t as flat as Cramond, but it’s a lot more shielded from the wind! Geth fell in love with Portobello parkrun and immediately planned to do it regularly during the several weeks that he was (at the time) planning to spend in Edinburgh for work in May. For obvious reasons, that trip won’t be transpiring, but I still hope that we’ll both get to do Portobello parkrun again sooner rather than later.

parkrun tourism: Oriam

I’m a bit behind with my parkrun tourism blogs, but seeing as we won’t be parkrunning again any time soon due to the coronavirus lockdown, it’s a good time for me to catch up with them!

Oriam parkrun
I love those pop-up signs and am always really disappointed if I’m visiting a parkrun and they don’t have one out! Geth had to ask the volunteers to put this one out again specially for the photo as they’d already packed it away by the time I finished. Sorry, volunteers, but one’s 100th parkrun only happens once!

On the 28th of December, while visiting Edinburgh for the Christmas period, Geth and I got in the car and drove to the new local parkrun at the Heriot-Watt University campus in Riccarton. The parkrun takes place in the woodland trail behind the Oriam sports facility (hence the name), which is a much nicer setting than I’d originally assumed – I’d thought we’d be doing laps of a football pitch or something!

Oriam parkrun was only a few weeks old when we attended, and the Scottish winter weather had resulted in a lot of mud. Like, a LOT of mud. More mud than I had ever seen on a parkrun course, by quite a considerable margin. The trail is not at all flat, either, so you’re basically staggering uphill through a quagmire at various points. Not one for your PB. (Apparently the mud was more manageable by the end of the winter – whether this was due to weather or land management I’m not sure – but I still don’t see this ever being a fast course!)

It also happened to be my 100th parkrun. I had hoped to do my 100th at home, either at Newcastle or Jesmond Dene, but a really nasty cold took me out of the game for most of December and so the date for my 100th ended up coinciding with my Christmas visit to my hometown. (I could have done it on Christmas Day… but I’ve never yet made a Christmas Day parkrun, as Christmas morning with the family is fairly sacrosanct, and 2019 was no exception!)

As such, while it was too busy and disorganised a time of year to organise any real celebration, I did wear my red 50 shirt for the very last time, and after the parkrun, Geth and I drove back to Mum and Dad’s and ate lots of the cake that we already had in due to it being Christmas. You can’t have a parkrun milestone without cake!

I will return to Oriam at some point… but it will almost certainly be in the summer!

parkrun tourism: Gateshead

Something that I’m going to be doing a lot as part of my parkrunning in 2020 is hopping in the car on a Saturday morning and driving to my current NENDY (nearest event not done yet). This will hopefully enable me to explore all the parkruns in the north-east of England by the end of next year! I made a start on this project a few weeks ago when I drove over the Tyne Bridge to Gateshead parkrun, which is one of the closest neighbouring parkruns to Newcastle but one that I hadn’t done until then.

parkrun barcode
Forgot to take a picture of the park, but I did have my new barcode with me!

Gateshead parkrun is a three-and-a-half-lap course through a very pretty park with a lake and a bowling green and all sorts. It’s a slightly confusing course for a newcomer, so for me it really was a case of ‘just follow everyone else’! It was a nice sunny day when I visited, so I was able to appreciate the park properly.

The course is slightly undulating, with a fairly steep climb about two-thirds of the way through the lap and then another shorter climb on the finishing straight. I’d say it’s probably middling in terms of parkrun difficulty.

Geth was Keyforging so he didn’t attend with me on this occasion, but he now seems interested in checking out Gateshead parkrun at some point so I’m sure I’ll be back!