To talk about why Oxford Half Marathon 2021 was one of the proudest running days of my life we have to go all the way back to 2015. Back then I was very much at the start of my running life. I had only really started running a couple of months before and honestly had no idea what I was really doing. Oxford Half would be my first half marathon and arguably the worst in terms of race day experience. I ripped through my shoes like the Incredible Hulk, felt pain unlike I had ever before and ran out of energy/the will to live at about mile 6. I felt like a broken man coming across the line but I had done it; I had run my first half marathon.
The race did not go well, I had not trained well, not respected the distance and hated a lot of it. Yet it marks one of the key milestones in my running story. It was my first huge step up distance wise and was the same day I found out I was in the London Marathon. Monumental and miserable intertwined.
I don’t know when the idea of trying to go an hour faster then I did back then came to fruition but it, twinned with going sub 4 hours in the marathon, have been my northern stars in road running. The big goals that pull me forward when motivation dwindles.
But if I am honest Oxford Half 2021 I had no intention of going for the time. First of all, I had forgotten I had even entered the race until about a month before it was due to start thanks to Covid postponements and wedding planning. Also with Newport Marathon a week away (which I was hoping to go under four hours in) and having consumed mostly carbs and sugar for the past two weeks at our wedding I thought that I would start at marathon pace and just enjoy myself. But I am a runner and more often than not we don’t listen to the sensible side of our brains. This was exacerbated by me of 2019 filling in my finishing time as a speedy 1:45 so I was in the fast pen. I was still telling myself I would be sensible; “stick to the plan, James” was on repeat in my head. Then I crossed the start line…
The pure jolt of adrenaline I get from starting a big race is unlike anything I have ever felt. This intoxicating chemical pulsing through me silenced all that my head was saying and I ran fast, way too fast. First mile was sub 8 minutes, I remember looking down at my watch and laughing at how hard I had gone out and how much this was going to hurt in the miles to come. I would slow down in the next mile, I thought, the adrenaline would dwindle and the pace would too. Mile two was 7 minutes and 30 seconds. What is happening I thought to myself in pure disbelief. This was a minute and a half per mile quicker than I should be going and yet my body screamed at me not to slow. That now was the time to reach for the goal I had dreamed of. The next two miles were exactly the same pace and still under 8 minutes. The thought that I can do this no longer felt like an impossible dream jotted down, it felt tangible and reachable for the first time ever. But I was only halfway through and I knew that while this race is flat and fast the tight turns and park running in the final miles are a pace and dream killer.
So as I crossed the fifth mile off, again under 8 minutes, I switched my goal for the year to this race. I knew that if I failed to once again go sub four hour at Newport Marathon I would be heartbroken but in these blissful miles I didn’t care. I was only concerned in the here and now and how utterly incredible I felt. The atmosphere at the Oxford Half feels like any big city race and with it being my local half there were plenty of familiar faces along the route which jeered me along. There are a few out and back sections of Oxford Half which also gives you opportunities to see other runners you know which I think really adds to the joyful atmosphere this half has in abundance.
The next few miles passed by in a blur as my mind dreamed of that finish line, looking down at my watch and achieving something I thought deep down would always be out of reach. Then as I moved into double digit miles my body began to crumple under the stress I had been putting it through. My legs stuttered and without thought I was walking, Runners sped past like cars on a motorway and I just stood there helpless, anger boiled up inside me and I shouted at myself to run. At the time I thought it was internal shouting but having met a runner who past me that day, it was not and I can only apologise to any one who had to witness me swearing at myself. I managed to pull myself on but after another mile I was back to walking again, I had run out of gas and it was now completely up to my head to keep going. The last few miles of Oxford Half are through a park and with the sharp turns my legs cried out and I would stutter to a walk at every one, resulting in pace that yoyoed by three minutes per mile! I knew that if I could just keep going for this final mile I could still go under an hour quicker but it would be painfully close. I feared how I would cope if I fell short here and in doing so mean that I would fall short in Newport Marathon too. As we rounded the Radcliffe Camera I knew that there was only a few hundred yards left. My music knew it too and it shuffled on to the song that I listened to at the start of every run back in my first year of running, including that first Oxford Half. I let my mind pull memories from that year like a cheesy montage and I delved into the last shard of strength. It would come down to seconds now and while I was probably moving like a a drunk sloth down that finish line it felt like I was sprinting to a race win.
I looked down at my watch as soon as I crossed the line and there it was 1:46, one hour and one minute faster than 2015. I bursted into tears, uncontrollably and unashamed. The marshals at the finish line looked at me like I was utterly mad but I didn’t care, I had achieved what my mind had told me was impossible for so very long.
As I type this now I wonder what the 2015 version of me would think of who I am now, that I would even chose to do another half marathon after that day let alone 29 more. I hope he would be proud of everything that has come since that horrific day because sat here right now I sure am.