Up early as usual for Bedford Harriers’ Oakley 20. It’s one of our biggest races of the year so we need as many volunteers as possible. I usually do the car park but decided to opt for a change and do something different. Good move in the end as I was doing chip/number issue and it was pelting down with rain!
After the umpteenth inquiry as to what the infamous Oakley hoodie colour was this year (answer – I don’t know it’s a secret), I was relieved of my duties and had a chance to get myself ready to run. The hall was more packed than usual due to the weather so it was tight timing to get changed and my bag to the baggage area. But more helpful Harriers were on hand to take bags and put them in the baggage room for you so off I trotted to the start about 1/4 mile away. I think we started 5-10 mins after 1000am, I presume to give everyone a chance to be ready.
After a few grumbles from the assembled masses around me I could see the club chairman with his hand in the air and the countdown began. Unlike previous years (this is my 5th Oakley, one of my favourite races of the year) I had an actual plan. Therefore (again unlike previous years), I did not set off with a ‘see how I get on’ plan, I set off with a clear 8.30 min/mile pace strategy to target a sub-2:50 finish. So far, so good.
The first half was relatively uneventful. The marshals were as brill as ever (Angie, Angela, Bev, Gill, Pete, Sue, Gordon, Chris, Tony, Val, Bill, Richard, to name but literally just a few – too many to mention!) and the course ran its usual route, which I am very familiar with. I was a bit concerned that my stomach was rumbling at the start line, I had eaten my usual porridge but realised I probably needed to top up as that was about 3 hours before the race, but I took a gel at the first water station and hoped for the best.
The course can best (and charitably) be described as “undulating” but the various inclines were not causing me too much concern as my race pace plan meant I was stretched but not overstrained. I also met a few nice people on the way round and had enough in me to hold a reasonable chat. One person was on her second back-to-back run of the weekend (23 miles the day before), as she was training for London to Brighton 100k. We had a good chat about ultra training prep, nutrition, etc. and then I pushed on a bit as I realised the pace was dropping a little.
What was starting to be tough though was the wind. It had been particularly blowy all weekend, reaching over 30 miles an hour and it was certainly affecting the race. People were struggling and I noticed as I passed the half way mark it was getting tougher and tougher. I even started to wonder if a DNF was worth taking on the chin as miles 8-12 seemed to be in a constant headwind. I’ve never given up on a race, having historically run (quite foolishly) with everything from a crippling chest stitch, to a twisted ankle (see race report for Oxon 40) and even torn cartilage in my first marathon. However today my spirit felt broken and I was really weighing up what the harm would be. However this is where the sneaky nature of the Oakley 20 route plays against me.
The course is made up of two loops from Lincroft School in Oakley. A large one (12 miles), followed by a smaller one of 8 miles. Coming through at the natural drop out at mile 12, not only does the course even out for a mile in a built up, more sheltered area, but it also has a concentration of marshals. So just at the point I may have dropped out I not only had a bit of a breather from the wind, but I was surrounded by people that my pride wouldn’t let me fail in front of! Damn pride…
Anyway, on I went with a grimace and determination to complete the last 8 miles, which turned out to be horrendous. A combination of tiring legs and increasing winds meant that my target 8.30 min/mile pace was starting to seriously slip and every time I dug back down to up it I used up a bit more of my dwindling resolve / energy. I passed a number of marshals (and a lovely group of Harriers enjoying a pint in Pavenham – you know who you are) and my once-smiley response was somewhat tempered!
About 15 miles in came a hill with a direct headwind and at that point I could have sworn I not only slowed down but was going backwards. Luckily a water point was at the top and I stopped for a drink and a gel for 20 seconds. Knowing I had to keep going though I gave one of my legs a quick slap to jolt it on (a la Dick Whittington I realise as I write this) and shuffled ahead. As usual on races of a decent length you tend to settle into a routine of a number of familiar people running around each other and I have to say from about this point I just saw a number of them stretch away from me so I knew my pace wasn’t great.
18 miles in and my body decided to have a last poke of fun at me and I started to have one of the aforementioned “crippling stitches”. Joy, just an extra element of discomfort to manage, along with the screaming IT bands and tight calf. I was fantasising at this point about a sports massage at the end as I knew I had to get some treatment otherwise the next week would be unbearable. I did have a brief distraction as two runners ran past me talking about the race, describing it as “quintissentially eccentric” with one or two marshalls straight out of the ‘Vicar of Dibley’! “Hey those are my friends” I exclaimed, but they weren’t meaning it maliciously and we did have a brief giggle.
Coming into Oakley for the last time I dug in for the last mile, remembering the joy that is the windy route through the housing estate in the last half a mile. Although I had nothing much left I tried to inject a bit of speed as I saw a Harriers t-shirt ahead and fancied trying to gain an extra place up the club finishers. I did go past him about 400 metres from the end figuring that if he didn’t have much in him he wouldn’t be able to hold on. I was wrong of course, he just hung on and went past about 200 metres later on the school field. I tried the same tactic and about 50 metres from the line I put a last effort in. He was wise to me though and upped his pace by half a step and I was broken! Ah well, worth a try…
Final time was 2:56, 6 mins shy of my target and 2 mins off my previous PB in 2014. But to be honest with gusting 30 mile an hour winds and a hilly, exposed course I was happy just to finish! I went straight for food and then a massage before collecting my well earned hoodie (black by the way with 30th anniversary logo in yellow print).
Another well organised Harriers race, marshals second to none and DOMS for days afterwards. When is the sign up for next year?