September is something of a spike in birthdays in our social group – presumably all my friends’ parents had more than their fair share of fun on New Years Eve – and 1984 seems to have been a particularly popular year. Obviously, all the coolest people were born in 1984. Ahem.
So how do we celebrate three 30th birthdays within the space of 8 days? Why, by watching QPR play away of course! Duh.
Which is how I found myself, the day before the Ealing Half Marathon, smuggling four bottles of vodka onto a rattler train from Southampton Central to London Victoria via most of the south of Britain (including a stop on the Isle of Wight, I’m sure of it), accompanied by eight miserable QPR fans all lamenting a poor display by the team and an even poorer one by the fans. St Mary’s is a ground QPR had never lost at before the game and Southampton are often excellent value; not for no reason did they start the day nudging the Champions League spots. Last time we visited St Mary’s we got a stopping service there which took us on a grand tour of the Home Counties, costing less than a tenner for the return fare. We ended up with a win for QPR (one of only four that season), our photo in the local paper with a man in a bath full of baked beans, a disco in the first class compartment, and one of our number spent the night in Paddington hospital. Yeah, we’re that sort of football fans. Sorry.
That was great fun last time, we thought. Southampton are terribly good hosts, QPR have half a chance of getting points, and the two and half hour journey back on a basically empty train will doubtlessly turn into something even the Romans would find OTT. Not so.
Bad enough as it was that QPR lost – despite a swoon-worthy second half volley from Charlie Austin – the day was pretty much ruined when a coked-up meathead two rows away rounded on a guy and his 8 year old kid in the row in front of us – ostensibly for the crime of complaining about a poorly executed short corner but odds are anything would have set him off – and started laying into them. I mean he properly went for them, screaming and throwing arms and everything. And after he’d been removed by the authorities his son took over, shouting abuse at a terrified (now crying) kid and his dad, for no reason. Scum of the earth.
A little shaken by the episode, and having missed about ten minutes of actual football by now, we turned back to the game when an unfamiliar chant came drifting down from the back row of the visitors stand. It had been going for parts of the first half too, but we couldn’t hear then what they were saying over the rest of the cheering. We heard them now. Suffice to say, it succinctly covered every angle of bigotry and violence imaginable, aimed at a black ex player who recently left for a rival club. Never have I been more embarrassed by a QPR fan. Although it has to be said I never saw that cokehead family or the racist idiots make it to Yeovil away or Sheffield Wednesday away (midweek) or Middlesbrough away; there’s maybe a handful among the thousands of decent people, they only really come out of the woodwork for the brief spells QPR spend in the Premier League, and they represent only themselves.
So, Saturday night was not a well slept night. Obviously I didn’t get drunk, I’m not completely stupid – the four bottles of vodka were an ambitious gambit on Andy’s part – and I made sure I was in bed by half ten at the latest. But I still couldn’t sleep for hearing that poor kid’s terrified cries and the racist chants ringing in my ears. Some things cannot be unheard.
I got up at 6.15 on Sunday morning, bleary eyed and heart already racing, and stumbled to the station. At risk of a real first-world-problems moment when I got to Wimbledon and found all the coffee stalls still closed, I rounded the corner for the District line trains and found a bunch of similarly bleary eyed runners and a girl manning the till alone at Costa, somewhat surprised to see so many people before 7.30 on a Sunday, and still trying to find the scissors to open the milk. Insufficient baristas in a coffee shop on race day is like insufficient bar staff on match day: playing with fire.
I’d been looking forward to this race for months – this fixture is always a highlight for me, it would be the first race I’d run for six weeks and it was my first time running a half marathon since Ealing last year – but I was far more nervous than I’d like to admit. Since last year, I’ve lost a fair bit of weight and my form, pace and stamina has improved in leaps and bounds. Question is, how many leaps and how high the bounds? I knew in theory I should be aiming for sub 2:00, which would mean shaving over 8 minutes from my previous time, but was that really realistic? Would I be knackered from the night before (attendance at which, needless to say, was a three line whip), and was I overestimating how long I could hold up a decent pace? I’m not fast, I’ve never been fast, I kept telling myself. Just keep around the 9 minute mile mark for as long as you can.
So I squeezed into the starting pen behind the 2:00 pacers, switched on my iPod, and shuffled towards the timing mat. Ealing is very well organised, but like any large race it takes a while to let the pack thin out through the opening straight. Hovering too near the pacers was a dangerous game, and a game that plenty of others were playing too, so I pulled in front of them into clear air where I could follow them from the front, so to speak, and if I dropped my pace too much later in the race they could scoop me up.
It was a gorgeous day; slightly too hot and dry to be classed a perfect day for running, but just sunny enough to come away with some dodgy tan lines. Feeling strong but not taxed around an 8:30 minute mile pace, I basked in the sun for a bit and enjoyed stretching my legs. Before I knew it, the 2:00 pacers were nowhere to be seen.
Race tactics is a thing you only really learn through experience. How do you strike the balance between going out too hard and leaving it too late to make up time? While there’s anything more than a mile to go, the only strategy I know of is to run easy. By that I don’t mean within my capacity or slower, I just mean listening to my body, allowing my limbs to move the way they want to rather than forcing them into an uncomfortable rhythm or straining to keep pace. Sometimes, that means speeding up when a slow plod is making me feel heavy, or lifting my knees when my feet hit the ground too hard, or pulling my shoulders back when I find myself reaching forward for the next step. You’d be surprised how much faster you can run with good posture.
Another good reason to keep your back straight and head high is the local support. Despite being only three years old it’s clearly already very popular, and although it doesn’t exactly have the party atmosphere of London or Brighton there’s rarely a ten yard stretch without someone clapping and cheering everyone on. In fact I quite like the civilised, genteel applause that follows you round and the dozens of kids eagerly waiting for high fives – although you know me, I’m not exactly a party person. Unless I’m on a rattler train to Southampton.
And then I realised what had been making me smile all the way round. It wasn’t the sun, although that was lovely. It wasn’t the high fiving kids – well, it was, but it wasn’t just them. It wasn’t the exuberant and tireless marshals, or the local residents cheerfully helping out at the water stations so no one would have to wait for a bottle. Everywhere I looked, among runners and supporters alike, I saw QPR shirts. A community of fans wearing their colours with pride; dads and their children in matching strips, a gang of girls with hand painted hooped vests, middle aged men running in their replica shirts, all reminded me of the motley gang of Rangers fans that kept an eye out for me when I first moved to South Africa Road. These are the people I call my fellow fans, not the cokehead clan or the bigoted Neanderthals with their nasty songs. This is West London – not glamorous or perfect, but home to me and home to my team.
Unsurprisingly, given that it’s a London race, there are quite a few switchbacks along the course which means plenty of opportunities to see the elites and faster runners glide by. It also means, on a course with a few short sharp inclines, that what goes up must come down, so it’s rare that you’ll have to climb a hill and not get to freewheel down it later on. In actual fact, the course isn’t quite as hilly as it seems but there’s definitely enough twisting and climbing to keep you on your toes.
I’d been keeping half an eye on my pacing band, but I was way ahead of it by the time I turned the hairpin on Cuckoo Avenue at seven and a half miles and even spotted the 1:50 pacer about 300 yards ahead. Of course, I’ve done this before – ooh look, I’m on track for a good time I KNOW I’LL SPRINT THE REST OF THE WAY oh no crash – so I kept my cool and held my pace steady, reasoning that I could gradually catch him up over 5 miles without too much extra effort. Having run it twice already I knew where the sneaky inclines were hiding and when I could really open the throttle, and when I finally saw the 12 mile marker I switched to my playlist of upbeat music to carry me home.
The last mile wraps around Lammas Park – site of both the start and finish lines – before turning in towards the centre so it’s quite easy to think you’re closer to the end than you actually are. For most of this stretch the route is lined with supporters cheering you on to the end, giving everyone a hero’s welcome. The last two times I ran this race I peaked too soon and found myself tiring before even reaching the final 400 mark, unable to appreciate the crowds, but this time I shifted up a gear and kept an even pace all the way home. I crashed into the finisher ahead of me at 1:50:39, nearly 18 minutes faster than before.
I’m always saying I’m a long runner not a fast one – and I’m under no illusion here, after three years of busting my balls to reach a pace many others start off at – but my improvement didn’t come through a program of intense speedwork, or high-altitude training, or eating only minted peas for a month. It came from a gentle increase in miles every week, drinking a little less alcohol and eating slightly less junk food. The weight loss made running easier, and the running helped the weight shift quicker, simple as that. But most importantly I ran only for enjoyment, not as a chore, and without denying myself the little pleasures that get me through a week.
Last time I made a concerted effort to improve my speed I did too much too soon, became disillusioned with the lack of improvement and almost gave up running altogether. It became an exercise in self-flagellation. I had to convince myself to leave the house, I felt guilty about every pint or packet of crisps and started to compare each lost second to potential culprits – was it that Snickers bar that made me go slower? Did missing that run to go to the football ruin my chances of a PB? I was miserable.
Since Ealing last year, the only sub-marathon distances races I’d run were the Petts Wood 10k and Bromley 10k, and they were both pretty taxing. I knew then it wasn’t the race’s fault, it was mine. I knew I had to change my mindset, incentivise myself with something that wasn’t finite or unsustainable. And I had to stop punishing myself. The 50 Mile Challenge back in July – and the inspirational Gil: “miles mean smiles” – switched on a lightbulb for me.
So, I’ll continue to follow QPR around the country with my obnoxious little band of train yobs, and I’ll enjoy that as much as I always have. And at the same time I’ll continue to run whenever and wherever seems like fun. I’m 30 years old this year. I’m too old not to have fun.