Hitchin Hard Half Marathon - a Runners Perspective
9th July 2012
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It was on April 1st this year that a tweet popped into my twitter feed announcing the return of the Hitchin Hard Half Marathon, so I was obviously a little sceptical as I clicked on the embedded hyperlink....after all this was a race that was last run in 2002 (I ran that day and pb’d with a time of 1:49 dead). The following year the race was cancelled almost as quickly as it was announced. From what I can recall the bureaucrats pulled the H&S card ....council refused to sanction it, police wouldn’t authorise road closures, and without that backing I believe the organisers were unable to obtain insurance, and that was that....a great race had seemingly bitten the dust.

So as I say, I clicked on the hyperlink and was transported to a refreshingly “does what it says on the tin” website, and like a phoenix from the flames, the Hitchin Hard Half Marathon was reborn!

Before I realised what I was doing, I’d clicked on the Registration button and a couple of minutes later an email had dropped into my Inbox confirming my entry....yikes!...I’ve done a number of half marathons before and my track record is pretty good...I’d always managed to come in at under the 2 hour mark, but I’d reached my last fitness peak around 2006/2007, and 5 years of fatherhood since then have gradually whittled away at that. I was reminded just how much of a test this race is....the course profile looks like a crazy version of one of those biorhythm charts with two particularly punishing hill climbs, and a route that definitely deserves the description “undulating”!

Fast forward 3 months to 5:30am on race day, and I’ve just been woken by what is fast becoming the sound of summer of 2012...a torrential downpour.....oh great! 90 minutes later, the rain had reduced to a light drizzle. I got out of bed feeling surprisingly energetic, and popped downstairs for a coffee and a bowl of porridge...more carbs to pile on top of the two bowls of pasta from the previous evening. Then it was into my race gear, which featured the red and white race vest for my chosen charity for the race, Beating Bowel Cancer (their website is http://www.beatingbowelcancer.org/

I walked to the race start point which was in the magnificent grounds of Hitchin Priory.The nerves had begun to kick in....not of finishing the race as I was pretty confident that I could make it round barring any unforeseen injury...but of whether I could keep my Sub 2 hour streak going.

I arrived to a hive of activity, as organisers did a magnificent job of processing the 300 runners who had entered. The facilities were great, with a male and female changing tent for those that needed them, a bank of remarkably clean portaloos, a secure bag drop stall for those valuables, catering facilities and a massage stall which was sure to see plenty of action post-race!

I managed to catch up with Keith Yexley the husband side of the husband and wife team that do a tremendous job of promoting all things Hitchin via this very website. I’d met Keith and Louise at the last Hitchin Tweetup.

Keith and I exchanged training stories, discussed race strategies and generally talked off a bit of nervous energy ahead of the start. I’d asked Keith what his target time was and although he claimed to be 2 hours, and that he’d be really chuffed with 1:50, I saw a little glint in his eye that suggested he was definitely aiming more at the latter time (after all, this is a guy who had recently run a sub-4 hour marathon), and I made the decision to try and keep him within my horizon during the race to try and get myself inside 2 hours. There was a slightly surreal music-free mass aerobic warmup before the race to get those muscles warmed up and loosened, and then it was 9:30am, and right on schedule we were off and running.

We’d been warned beforehand that there was a fair amount of standing water along the course, and we had our first  taster of that within the first mile as we headed down a muddy lane.

Mile 3 to 4 brought two challenges in the shape of the very steep hill that leads up the back road into Preston Village...which has a short sharp  killer of an incline! As if that wasn’t enough, I’d just reached the top of the hill when the torrential rain that was to accompany us pretty much the rest of the race decided to make an appearance...within a minute myself and fellow runners were drenched!

On we went and into Preston Village, whose residents deserve a special mention for turning out in numbers, despite the downpour, to cheer on the
runners....all apart from one irate driver who took exception to being made to wait for a bunch of nutty runners, and let us all know about it...very
 loudly...and with lots of expletives! Charming!

Once out of Preston, it was off into the long narrow country hilly lanes beyond. I’d got it into my head that this would be a solid downhill section of the route where I could pick up a bit of time, but the route lived up to it’s undulating tag, and it was tough going for the next 4 miles, particularly because of the amount of water running and surface water...there was so much in places that you almost expected to see lifeguards in place of marshals!! Talking of marshals, I was fast approaching the halfway point of the race, and I was about to receive my wages for writing this blog post!! Louise Yexley was waiting for me at the 10K point (which is where she was marshalling!) with the best looking
Mars bar I’ve ever seen! It tasted good too, although it’s pretty difficult to swallow bits of sticky chocolate under those circumstances!

...And it just got wetter and wetter....I’m pretty sure that for most of mile 7 to 8 my feet were underwater and I was beginning to wonder if I’d have been better wearing flippers, but we were soon heading back into Preston and into the last third of the race, with one big downhill section to pick up a bit of time followed at mile 11 by the last of the big climbs up to Gosmore!

I’m normally a strong finisher, and I felt surprisingly good as I reached the top of the hill. I remember thinking it was time to turn on the afterburners....what I actually got was a couple of those cheap fireworks you get from a pound shop....the big spurt lasted about a minute, and then it got really hard for the last three quarters of a mile! I managed to put on a bit of a Hollywood sprint as I headed back into the grassy Priory grounds and the finish line loomed into view. Julie and Ben were there to cheer me over the line along with a fairly sizeable crowd who had braved the elements, and I was handed a goody bag, drink, energy bar and a piece of fruit! My finishing time was a very satisfying 1 hour 51 minutes 48 seconds...maybe the fitness is coming back! :-)

So all it all a great day, despite the soggy conditions. The Hitchin Hard Half certainly lives up to it’s billing. The Rotary Club have done Hitchin proud in resurrecting the race, and the level of organisation and marshalling they provided was outstanding! A special mention for the quality of the medal that every finisher received....most races hand out some pretty average medals to be honest...and OK, you may argue as to whether they’re really necessary...but as a runner I think it’s great to to have a momento of a hard race, and I’m really chuffed with the solid, top quality medal handed out by the organisers for this event...I for one applaud you for not taking the cheap option!!

Well done to all those that took part this year....if you’re into your running at all, I would definitely recommend it for your race calendar next year...just make sure you put in some hill training!!

Right...I’m off to Wikipedia to look up the symptoms for Trenchfoot!!  Ant Stansbie

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