Race Review: Newcastle Winter Warmer Half Marathon 2023 (and also some thoughts about consequent rejigging of spring race plans)

I’ve been having a lot of ankylosing spondylitis flare-ups recently, and they’ve been really scuppering my long runs (and sometimes my shorter runs). It’s not just the pain; it’s also the seized-up stiffness that means my legs won’t move properly and running becomes impossible – or at least not possible without the kind of limp and imbalance that will cause inevitable further damage in the long term.

I’ve been managing this for the last few weeks by taking a lot of extended walk breaks on my long runs (e.g. run a mile, walk a mile – or do this for alternating half miles). I’ve been able to maintain a steady speed doing this and I’ve felt quite good, so even though I was a bit nervous about the distance, I didn’t have any doubts about starting the Winter Warmer half this last Saturday.

The half distance for this race is four and a bit laps of the Town Moor, rather like when I did the Town Moor half in 2018, although the lap route is different. The half starts an hour before the 5k and 10k, and it was a fairly small field, the rest of whom hared off at what looked like eight or nine minute miles in the first hundred yards! As such, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t see anyone else.

I let this get into my head a bit during the first lap. I’d planned to take the usual walk breaks but I was nervous about getting further behind. I ran the whole of the first lap, but by the end of it, I was limping really badly due to my stiff, painful hip. At that point I felt like I wouldn’t be able to finish the whole distance, but I decided to powerwalk the second lap and see if I could ease things up a bit.

I felt a lot better on the second lap – I was able to keep a good brisk pace up and there were a lot more people out on the course once the 5k and 10k races got underway, so there were lots of lovely supportive comments. By the halfway point I was in a really good mood, but I still felt stiff so lap three needed to be a powerwalk lap too.

Unfortunately everyone had disappeared from the course on the third lap, so it was a bit lonely again! I wasn’t sure if they would let me go out for a fourth, but Geth appeared at the end of the lap, having long finished (along with everyone else) and also having confirmed with the race director that they would wait for me. I was determined to get the distance done by that point, so with Geth accompanying me for support, I headed out again for the final lap, vowing that I would actually run bits of this one (as apart from anything else, I was feeling really bad about keeping the race volunteers out for so long).

I took up a strategy of running to one marshal point, then walking to the next, then running to the next, etc. I got about two-thirds of the way through the lap before it became too painful to run, and I had to walk the rest of the way before limping over the finish line at a slow jog. All the volunteers were there to cheer me in, along with the Benchies in attendance that day who had all waited for me, and I got fairly emotional. My time was 3:27:51, which was the second half in a row (after last year’s disastrous GNR) where I’d ended up over an hour slower than my PB. I am hugely grateful to the race organisers and everyone who waited, but I do not want to be in this situation again.

Some decisions made since the race and some general feelings:

  • Geth and I have deferred our places for the Manchester Marathon to 2024. I am absolutely gutted about this, but I simply cannot guarantee that this series of spondylitis flare-ups will go away in the next couple of months. I’m really grateful that Geth offered to defer as well, as I would have found it incredibly hard if he’d done the race without me.
  • We will still go to Manchester that weekend. Our hotel is booked and it will be nice to take in the atmosphere, do some reconnaissance for when we run the race next year, and finally get my sub-40 at South Manchester parkrun (six years after I last ran it!).
  • Our replacement race for Manchester this spring will either be The Nearly But Not Quite London Marathon (Team North edition) or the Gateshead Half Marathon and 10k. The choice will depend on Geth’s soon-to-be-decided work schedule. If we do the former, Geth will go for the full marathon distance and I will do as many laps as I feel I can; if we do the latter, Geth will try for a speedy half and I will do the 10k.
  • The above replacement race will be Geth’s spring goal race, but not mine. My plan is to train properly for the 10k distance and try and get a PB this spring/summer. As such, I’ll be running several 10k races, starting with the North Tyneside 10k on 9th April. Training for this will give me a break from the longer distances and hopefully get some speed back into my legs.
  • However, given that I can’t currently run more than three or four miles nonstop without pain, I need to go back to the hospital consultants looking after my condition and see if we can change strategy. I phoned up today and was able to get my next checkup moved forwards, so fingers crossed we’ll soon be able to find something that works a bit better.
  • I also need to be absolutely religious with strength training, foam rolling etc. I’ve been gradually getting back into these habits over the last few weeks and need to prioritise them. Regular physio visits feel like they’re helping too.
  • Lastly, this is a chronic condition, not an injury, so at the end of the day there’s only so much I can control. But I had a great few years from roughly 2017 to 2020 when the spondylitis basically left me in peace to get on with my running. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I was close to target weight during that time, putting a lot less pressure on my joints. Losing the weight again is proving really hard, but I have to keep trying.

I feel like I keep saying the same things and making all the same resolutions after these bad race experiences. I don’t know if any of it will work this time. We’ll see.

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