No Half Measures - A runner's perspective of the Hastings Half Marathon
Stretching is impossible. Bodies cram together. With the adrenaline simmering there’s no room to move, so its arms strictly by sides and an expectant wait for the inevitable surge. Finding our correct running zone will be impossible, but that’s not important now. The clock underneath the starting gate is almost down to zero. The announcer’s voice becomes fuzzy and crackles. Nervous chatter ceases. 5, 4, 3, 2... Its 10.30 exactly.
The night before the race I was, in truth, tired. It had been a busy week, all travel and meetings and hectic running about in the office. I’d promised myself my race preparation would be good: plenty of decent food, just a little light exercise and crucially, rest. Instead, as I lay in bed after another hard day, my legs ached and my mind raced with anxiety. I’d never run this far before.
Suddenly there’s music coming from the sound system…It’s Chariots of Fire!
Space frees up, it’s a few steps forward and suddenly the crowd is running, a colourful mass streaming onto the seafront. There’s a strong temptation to gallop away in crazy abandon, to feed on the euphoria of the moment. But energy reserves are limited, I remind myself, and there are big hills to come.
The 13.1-mile Hastings Half Marathon takes place every year at the start of the spring running season. Organised by Hastings Lions Club, the race offers big event experience and regularly attracts a top quality international field. Alongside all the local running clubs and sponsored-for-charity part timers, there are some serious athletes to be found. The fastest ever course time was made in 1999 by Kenyan Samuel Otieno, who made it round in an incredible 1.01.37.
That time, I work out, would put Samuel on an average of under 5 minutes per mile. A more stately 9 minutes per mile is my aim, a pace that should bring me to the finish gate in just under 2 hours. It’s not a time destined to break records or set the event on fire; it’s just my personal goal.
It’s back to reality with a bump as we hit the first punishing rise behind the promenade. Staggering around a couple of tight steep bends, runners are already panting and gasping for air. There’s much worse to come, of course, and soon. Within 15 minutes we’ll hit dreaded Queensway, an energy-sapping climb stretching right to the top of town.
As the gradient kicks in and I check my pace, I notice all manner of runners around me, male and female, young and old, skinny and rotund. Some of the runners sport club-colour vests; others wear Lycra and retro headbands. Representing the more outlandish, I see a man in a furry spotted Dalmatian suit, and someone dressed as human-rhino, a grey-green costume complete with horn and snout. A runner pounds past me wearing only Speedos and gas mask and there’s another guy who looks like Begby out for a stroll: lank greasy hair, dirty flannel trousers and navy blue jumper. He’s only missing the roll-up.
It’s the ordinary people that make these events. Each year hundreds of thousands of Britons run the 13.1 or 26.2-mile distance in an effort to raise millions for charity. A staggering 36,000 finished the London marathon last year, and the race is so popular an entry ballot is required with minimum levels of sponsorship running into the thousands. Coming exactly one month before London, the Hastings Half is seen as "ideal preparation” for the big one, and this year 3772 runner’s push through the pain barrier to the finish line on the seafront.
I hit the top of the rise with a burst of acceleration and thankfully, for the moment, it’s flat. An energy gel goes down the throat and there’s a paper cup of water to be grabbed from a drinks station. Despite all the pain and the sweat and the strain there’s shots of adrenaline coursing through the body, and clean bolts of energy to the head. I guess that’s why so many people run: it’s a superb cleanser of body and mind.
The support here in Hastings is awesome and cheering people line the entire route. By the side of the course stand friends, families and neighbours, and live bands and choirs feature along the way. Patients from the hospital and care homes turn out to cheer, and several pubs have emptied onto the roadside, their clientele grinning as the racers sweat past. There’s a strong sense of community and spirit in the town that gives the runners an extra wind. Many will have raised hundreds for individual charities, and for that there’s generous recognition from the local crowd.
Somewhere around the 9-mile mark, my momentum starts to ebb and without warning I’m down to a crawl. The spring in my stride is replaced by fatigue as my pace drops off and runners steam past. It could be that I’ve finally hit the wall - my reserves are gone, my muscles drained. I’d hoped this wouldn’t happen. Dreams of making 2 hours are fading fast.
There’s no lack of gas from the Africans this year, with Kenyan Gordon Mugi winning the event in 1 hour 8 minutes exactly. Seyoum Negussie of Ethiopia takes second, just 18 seconds behind.
For the ladies, Rebby Koech of Kenya wins the battle over Bristol and West’s Lucy MacAlister, clinching victory in a time of 1.15.13. To run so far so fast seems a sensational effort.
Almost down to the seafront now but with mild despair setting in, a good friend appears at my shoulder with a bottle of Gatorade and some much-needed encouragement. At a crucial time I’ve gained someone to stick to, a buddy to pace me right to the end. The last 2 miles along the sunny promenade are clouded by pain as we both now grimace against stiffening legs. Then, just as it seems bearable no more, we’re over, together as mates and a picture of exhausted elation. I glance at the stopwatch….1.54.47. Victory!