Every race is different. This one would be fairly unique for me. First of all, I would be running with five colleagues from work rather than with my running club, Gosforth Harriers. Secondly, it would be a combination of the mass participation element of a major public race and the team element of a relay. I was really looking forward to it. I did the full Yorkshire Marathon in 2014. It’s a nice course; mostly pretty flat, taking in the beautiful city of York at the beginning and the end and the country lanes of North Yorkshire for the rest, closed to traffic for the duration. Each leg was of different lengths and I was quite happy to do the longest leg. Leg 2. 6.1 miles, between 4.8 and 10.9 miles of the full marathon.
The morning did not start off well. Let down by the taxi companies of York, I ended up having to run almost 4 miles from my friends’ house, where I was staying, to the University of York, which was the base for the race. I arrived with twenty minutes to spare before the shuttle bus to my start point was due to leave. Not great preparation and I felt a little tightness in my right thigh, while finding the rest of the team in good spirits. Teamwork came to the fore as the others helped me with my rushed final preparations, pinning my bib on our bright pink relay T-shirt that every relay team had, stashing my bag in the baggage zone and posing for pre-race photos.
The company I work for, Venator, had entered a team of three men and three women, making us eligible for the mixed race, but we also hoped to do quite well overall. All of us are decent runners, training regularly at lunchtimes around the Wynyard estate. The whole Yorkshire Marathon event, including the Corporate Relay, is one of many events in aid of the Run For All charity. By entering a team, Venator was contributing to this excellent charity and providing the opportunity for its employees to participate in an event promoting health and fitness for all. That has to be a win-win.
We quickly discussed handover strategies. The ‘baton’ was a chip-embedded armband which had to be passed onto the next team member from start to finish in order to record a time. However, it was also absolutely chucking it down with rain, forecast to continue for the whole race, so we also needed to hand over warm, dry clothes for the incoming runner to change into so as to avoid freezing during the inevitable wait after finishing for transportation back to base. Plans made, us second leg runners left to wishes of good luck to board the bus to our start point, ironically only 400 yards from the house where I had spent the previous night.
We knew from previous year’s results, that we stood half a chance of performing well in the mixed competition, but it all depended on who turns up on the day. It was obvious from conversations with fellow leg 2 runners on the bus that there were quite a few teams in it who were not too bothered about their time or finishing position. It was the taking part for the charity that mattered. There were also teams who were pretty serious. It was apparent which ones they were when I started warming up about 20 minutes before Helen, our first leg runner and team organiser, would appear up a nasty hill to hand over to me. As a team, we had worked out approximate times when we should all be ready for the changeover, based on our best-case individual paces. This added up to a total race time of about 3 hours 03 minutes. Spot on a team average of 7 minutes per mile. The race started at 9:30am and the leaders ran past us at 9:55. At just over five and a half minute miling, elites seem a lifetime away from the times I can post, and these guys were a full minute per mile slower than Eliud Kipchoge managed while breaking the world record a few weeks ago. A few minutes later, the first relay participant appeared in view. There were spotters a hundred or so yards down the road radioing the number forward so that the next leg runner was ready. The first runner carried on, shouting to the changeover marshall that he was doing the second leg as well. While the team can continue, that is an immediate disqualification from the competition. It is a six-legged relay, requiring six individuals. Usain Bolt isn’t allowed to run two legs of the 4x100m for Jamaica!
My warm-up had gone well. I had remembered to squeeze my caffeine gel down my neck and the tightness in my thigh had gone. I was just hoping that the unexpected run to the university hadn’t taken too much out of me. About six more relay teams, including a male runner from at least one mixed team, handed over before our number, 15, was shouted by the marshall. Helen was approaching. I saw her pink T-shirt in the middle of a pack of male runners, driving up the hill in the rain, giving absolutely everything. She was the first lady home from the first leg of the relay and must have been under her predicted pace of 6.45/mile. A cracking run. I could tell my adrenalin was pumped. I had been chatting to the changeover marshall beforehand and she offered to take the fleece and poncho to give to Helen, leaving me to concentrate on taking the arm band. I shouted encouragement and a ‘well done’ when she was about 10 metres away and grabbed the arm band from her outstretched hand in a perfect changeover. I slipped it on my arm as I set off, remembering to start my Garmin GPS watch.
I had predicted a time of 38 minutes to complete my 6.1 mile leg, which would be roughly equivalent to my 10k (6.2 miles) PB. That’s a pace of about 6:15/mile. The first 200 metres were quite steeply downhill and I immediately started overtaking the marathon participants. After a quarter of a mile, my usual look at my Garmin to gauge the right pace told me I was apparently doing 4:50 pace. That was a load of rubbish. The heavy cloud cover may have made it difficult to get an accurate satellite reception. I knew the downhill would have made for a quick start, but not that quick, although I did moderate my pace a bit, just in case. I saw the 3 hour pace bus ahead of me. In marathons, pacers have big flags strapped to their back and are normally accompanied by a mass of runners, collectively called a bus, aiming to beat that time target. It was no different here. They completely filled the width of the road ahead of me, which I could see narrowing a hundred or so yards ahead for a water station. I put on a burst and managed to get round them before the road narrowed and then moderated my pace again, running through the water station without taking anything. I had only just started, so I didn’t need it. I saw two relay participants in their pink shirts ahead and was happy to overtake both. By my calculations, that put us fifth, excluding the guy who would be disqualified.
The road ahead was largely flat. I passed the famous Yorkshire Marathon high-fiving vicar, braving the rain which seemed to be getting heavier, and was now on mile 2, still passing marathon participants regularly. The first incline appeared, not steep enough to be called a hill, but, at about 100m long, worthy of some respect. There was another incline about half a mile further on, a bit steeper this time, on which I passed the next relay competitor, putting us in fourth place. My pace was now in the 6:20s and passing others was becoming less frequent. It is worth mentioning that the marathon competitors with whom I was now running were on for a 2 hour 45 finishing time and a top 30 finish. That’s an excellent time in a marathon – one I can only dream of. They were running at the same pace for a marathon that I was running at for less than a quarter of the distance, as fast as I could. Kudos to them all.
I was now on the mental part of a 10k. The third quarter. It would be easy to let the pace drop. You’re tired. It’s wet. You’re still a long way from the end. Support is mainly limited to the brave marshalls standing in the heavy rain for which every one of them deserves a huge thank-you. I was working at my limit, so my appreciation was limited to a thumbs-up rather than a vocal ‘Thank-you marshall!” I was also running on my own now. There was a group about 40 metres ahead that I just couldn’t close the gap on. The road now consisted of long straights with one particularly nasty uphill that went on for a quarter of a mile. One of the group in front of me dropped back going up that hill and I overtook him as we passed the water station at the top, which was now very welcome. I was especially proud of hitting the bin target with my water bottle from a distance of about 10 metres! Not an easy feat when running at pace. I could now just about see what looked like the pink shirt of what I thought must be the next relay competitor about 200m in front of me. He would be my next target. Could I make up that distance in two miles? Then again, I still wasn’t making much ground on the remainder of the group just ahead.
I found mile 5 tough, but, at the end of it, I was telling myself just one more mile to go. I reasserted my efforts and increased my pace. It was only a few seconds per mile faster, but I was now starting to reel in the group in front of me. The pink vest ahead was still at least 150 metres away. I wasn’t going to catch him, but the important thing in a relay is to carry on giving your all, right to the end of your leg. You don’t know what is going to happen in future legs and every second might count. Just as I was drawing level with the group, I went round a bend and saw the changeover zone about 200 metres away. It had crept up on me a bit quicker than I was expecting, so I went into an extended sprint. I saw our third leg runner, Rachel, waiting for me. I ripped the chip band off my arm, as I heard Rachel’s shouts of encouragement and, nicely, applause from the rest of the waiting relay competitors . Another perfect changeover as Rachel took off, pointing to the fleece and bin liner on the floor. She must have been hyped up as well as she took off like a rocket. I doubled over, trying to get my breath, half-hearing words of congratulations from the people around me through my haze of exhaustion. A lady handed me a banana and bottle of water that Rachel had thoughtfully left for me with her and, thanking her, I made my way through the crowd really hoping I wasn’t going to start retching!
I’d remembered to stop my Garmin and saw a time of 38:11. That’s about as close to my predicted time as I was going to get. I’ll put the extra 11 seconds down to the unexpected extended warm-up, but it was the equivalent of just 8 seconds outside my 10k PB on a net uphill course! The rain was still heavy, but it was important to cool the muscles with a warm-down jog, splashing through the deepening puddles, before getting onto the bus and into dry clothes. I was mostly happy with the run. Perhaps I could have ramped it up a bit earlier at the end, but it is what it was. My bit was done. Now all I could do was to track the team’s progress on the race app as we waited for the rest of the 2nd leg runners to finish before heading back to base on the bus. I ended up sitting near the runner from the team that was now leading, The Gastronauts. A quick look at the app showed he done the same leg as me in 32 minutes! A stunningly fast run, even if he was about twenty years younger than me. It was during the journey back that I heard from our team chat that one of The Gastronauts runners had pulled up due to injury, meaning his team would DNF (Did Not Finish). I felt sorry for them, but didn’t have the heart to tell him. That would put us third, but, little did I know at that time, that Rachel had passed another two relay participants during her leg, putting us first. For now. Still a long way to go, with our fourth runner, also Helen, now out on the course and making good progress. I was surprised how many people were sitting on the bus freezing in just their wet T-shirts. We have a good safety culture in our company, meaning we had thought about this beforehand. In fact, my team’s safety share the previous week had been taking care at sporting events.
I arrived back at base, met up with Helen from the first leg, put on some more warm clothes and got a sausage and egg bun and a protein shake in my stomach as we tracked our fifth leg runner, Mike, as best as we could on the app that wasn’t always accurate. We knew we were doing well, but sometimes we were second, then first, then fifth! The goody bag had a nice medal and some snacks and there was free alcohol-free beer available as well. Helen from the fourth leg arrived back next and the three of us tracked our last runner, Paul, on his leg to the finish. The app confirmed he crossed the line in a total team time of 3 hours and 03 minutes. Fantastic. Bang on to our prediction, to the minute, calculated over a coffee a couple of days before, based on our best-case times. Clearly, every one of us had excelled ourselves. Not long after that, Mike and Paul and, shortly after that, Rachel, who had the longest return journey of all, arrived back at base. After plenty of mutual congratulations, we began speculating on our actual finishing position. It wasn’t easy to track any other team on the app as you needed to know the name of the team. It didn’t provide a leader board so to speak. The organisers explained they would confirm the results later on in the week after various checks had been done, for example, having a full team of six (different) individuals and at least three women in the mixed event etc. After some of Rachel’s delicious homemade flapjack, it was time to head home. For me, that meant another 4 mile run in the incessant rain back to my friends’ house. I’d definitely logged my miles that day.
Fast forward a few days and the results were finally published. We had won! Not only the mixed event but the overall marathon corporate relay. And by a margin of 17 minutes in front of second place, so quite comprehensively. Prior commitments dependent, we’ll be heading down to York to receive our trophy next week and to have some promotional photos taken to be published in the local press, getting great exposure for Venator.
Relays are excellent. A real team spirit is created, even though running is a very individual sport – a genuine benefit to a business or indeed any other organisation that provides such an opportunity to its employees. The six of us have become friends rather than just colleagues through our training, preparation and competing and, when our jobs require us to work together, this can only be a good thing. There were also families and groups running for charity in the ‘corporate’ relay, both of which are great to see. It doesn’t matter too much which team wins as the vast majority competing for the enjoyment of it suggested, but, as someone who always strives to give their best at everything, it’s nice to win all the same!!