The day had arrived. The 16th October has loomed in the far distance for many months and as you know I have been posting updates about my training and fundraising throughout that time. But when the day became a reality, I seemed to be living in a parallel universe – it didn’t seem possible that by the end of the day I would have (hopefully) completed my challenge. In fact, the16th arrived rather earlier than was appreciated, for sleep left me in the very early hours as my mind was spinning about the realities of the event – not the running specifically for I would either manage that or not, but I was still suffering from a sense of Imposter Syndrome and fearing that when I arrived among the dreaming spires of Oxford I would simply not fit in or know where to go and what to do. I had been reassured by a number of runners that they had all felt the same way in their first big events, but that everything had been fine, and the atmosphere was nothing but friendly and supportive. I had packed a bag the night before and eaten the requisite meal of pasta, so on getting up at 7am on Sunday morning I had little to do. I ate a breakfast of porridge and fruit, followed by some toast and honey (all on advice of my running friends) and changed into my kit: black shorts, a yellow shirt and my Brain Tumour Trust vest proudly over the top, with the number 1391 pinned to it.
It was a slight struggle for Liz and me to encourage our daughters to leave the house at 7.45 on a Sunday morning, but I needed to be in the centre of Oxford by around 8.15 and with the many road closures around the city it may not be easy to achieve. We had devised a route that should get me close to the University Parks, where the race village was situated and indeed Liz was able to pull to the side of the road give me a quick kiss of good luck, and I joined the procession of runners who, like salmon, appeared to be swimming upstream towards a common destination. Some were in groups chatting happily, some seriously adjusted their attire and occasionally stopped at a lamp post to do some more stretches (these reminded me of pet dogs, but it would be unfair to mention that observation outside brackets). On entering the park, the atmosphere was everything that had been promised, it was alive with energy and expectation and huge signs guided me to wherever I needed to go.
I noticed that there was one banner which said ‘Oxford Half Marathon’ and there was quite a crowd around it, which seemed slightly unnecessary as I assumed we all knew why we were here, but drawing closer I realised that it was made up from the names of every participant in the race, so I dutifully found mine, just under the cross bar of the ‘F’ in half (‘the Effin ‘Arf’ doesn’t sound a polite way to describe this fine race), and photographed it.
The next job was to drop my bag off, ready to collect at the end of the race. I took a long drink of water from my bottle, and made for the tent taking belongings from runners with numbers between 1,000 and 1,500. In one corner of the park music was belting out for a ‘warm up’ session, but with a fear that I might pull something or damage something before I’d even started, I decided to give that a miss. Instead, I followed hundreds, maybe thousands, of others to join a series of long queues which culminated in the toilet facilities.
We all had a couple of hours ahead of us, and everyone was drinking lots of water, so this was an essential part of the day. There was much talk throughout the crowds of not wanting to ‘do a Paula Radcliffe’ during the race. I was hopping a little by the time I reached the front of the line, so was glad that I had followed the herd when I had.
The start of the race was carefully controlled, and the runners were divided into separate pens, with the elite runners in A and the novices (of which I was one), in F. Groups A – D had been called already, but in no time the energetic announcer on the PA system announced that groups E and F should make their way to the start – actually this was quite a route march, maybe a mile, but soon we were gathered in Holywell Street waiting for our turn to go over the top.
At first the crowd remained still, but little by little we started to edge forward, emerged into Broad Street with the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre to our left and the gardens of Trinity College to our right. Ahead an arch marked the start, and another energetic announcer sent us all on our way, commenting on various participants, including a yellow submarine, a giraffe and, yes, two men carrying washing machines on their backs. I assumed that these gents had constructed some clever costumes, but it wouldn’t be long before I discovered otherwise.
More useful advice from my various running chums was not to go off too quickly at the start, and this was something that I had worried about, but the crowd was so thick that it was impossible to go off at a great pace, until we left Broad Street and turned into the even broader street of St Giles, by this time I could settle into my normal pace and found that I overtook some runners and was overtaken by others as we all found our natural place in the order of things.
Liz and the girls had found a clever spot to watch from, for the route came off St Giles and double backed towards The Parks, before making another loop to return to St Giles once more, meaning that they could see me pass by twice in quite a short space of time. I gave them all a quick (and rather sweaty) kiss first time past, and then a high five each on the second, before I headed onto the long stretch of the Banbury Road towards North Oxford. It was on this stretch that I saw the reality of the washing machines, the intrepid runners were indeed lugging proper, full-sized metal washing machines on their backs. As everyone ran past, we all shouted encouragement to them as they lumbered on. The expression on their faces suggested that they were somewhat regretting their fundraising decision!
Up to Summertown and past the first drinks station where I took the advice of my good friends Chris, ‘drink whenever it is offered’. Just past the drinks tables was a small battery of loos….and a long queue.
Towards the top of The Banbury Road the field looped round and came back down again, meaning that the elite frontrunners were on the other side of the road. They were going through 5 miles as we passed the 3-mile marker, and their pace and strength was truly impressive, if somewhat disheartening, but on we went.
Having made the u-turn and run half-way back down the Banbury Road, we then turned left and headed off down a very long and uninspiring road towards the little village of Marston and this was where the field began to spread out more. A strange phenomenon occurred in Marston, for instead of a water station there was an energy drink one and everyone eagerly sloshed the red liquid into their mouths and tossed the little cups into the large recycling bins provided. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the drink spilled onto the road, which meant that rather than running becoming easier (with a shot of isotonic drink), it became more difficult because the road became tacky and everyone’s shoes stuck to it, peeling off with the sound of a hundred strips of Velcro ripping apart.
Back up the dull road and towards Oxford again, and into the last few miles. I admit that I began to struggle a little now and, on a few occasions, lapsed back to a walk, as most people around me did at various times too, meaning that the bunch of people with whom I had shared the journey maintained their relative positions to each other. Back to the Parks, back into Holywell Street, around the Sheldonian and Bodleian, turn left and there were two signs in front of me. One said, ’13 Miles’ and just past that (.1 of a mile past it, to be precise), was a large arch saying FINISH!
Maybe in my imagination I had pictured myself bursting across the finish line, arms aloft, feeling a huge surge of satisfaction and pride, but in reality, I just sort of stopped with a sense of relief! I was given a medal and told to keep moving so that those behind me could finish too. I had been running with my phone strapped to my arm and as I checked my time, I saw that I had completed the course in 2 hrs and 18 minutes. Alongside the official notifications were messages of congratulation from family and friends, many of whom had been following my progress on the event’s tracker app.
I made my way back to the Event Village and retrieved my bag, before setting off to find Liz and the girls. Everywhere families were reuniting and hugging, tales were being told, tired limbs were being stretched, water drunk, and energy bars being consumed. Gradually the competitors drifted away to their various homes, where real life would resume, and I did the same.
Although the entire day, in fact the entire 6-month process, had been one of personal challenge, discovery and achievement, the main motivation of my run had been in memory of my sister-in-law, Liz’s sister, Sheila, who died on 16th April as a result of a brain tumour. It was to further aid the struggle to research the terrible disease that my family and friends around the world have been donating so generously to my fund. Towards the very end of the event, as I came back into the University Parks, there was a lady standing at a corner, just a regular spectator shouting encouragement. She was short, had white shoulder length hair and had a beaming smile on her face. I am not going all spooky-ghostly here, but she had something of the look of Sheila about her, and as I ran by, she made eye contact and called out simply ‘Well Done!’ And that was the moment that all of the effort and toil, the worries about injury, the fears about acceptance into the world of running, the fundraising and the eventual success in completing 13.1 miles around the city of Oxford, really made sense.
So, this is my final account of the running, and the last opportunity to donate to the cause. Including the proceeds from my show, the fund is now over £2,000 which is incredibly generous, thank you all so much, and if anyone is reading this who like to add to that figure, then we will all be profoundly grateful.