What: Half marathon
Where: Oxford, UK
Who: Just me, with Drew and the Bairn offering their support in the muddy race village
Time: 02:30:47 Personal record!
Splits: *I messed these up a little, when I accidentally hit the lap button while trying to read a text from Drew on my watch. Most are 11:something, with an average pace of 11:31 per mile
My gosh, where do I even start?? I have a feeling this is going to be an epic recap, so here is the nutshell version: I ran my #1 bucket list race, in one of my favorite cities in the world, in the pouring rain, nabbing a PR, and every race from now on has been ruined by the awesomeness of this one.
Phew, okay. For those adventurous and/or bored enough to want to read the whole thing, buckle up because here we go:
Back in 2014, I listed the Oxford Half as my number 1 bucket list race. I spent a semester in Oxford during college, and since then the city has had a special place in my heart. When I got into running and then learned that a race goes right through Oxford and right by the library that put me on the path to becoming a librarian (see below photo), I decided that I needed to run that race someday.
I don’t remember why now, but back in the winter I found myself looking up the Oxford Half. I saw that the 2019 race would be the first time runners would need to enter a lottery to run it (or else run for charity), since the race has exploded in popularity recently and the numbers were raging out of control. Just for grins, I threw my name in the lottery, then booked an airbnb with a flexible cancellation policy, just in case. Then I kind of forgot about it all until March 6, when I got the fateful email:
I still remember how my heart stopped for a second when I read that! Drew and I gradually planned out the trip, which included a stop in Ireland to visit my ol’ running buddies Colin and Gina (trip post forthcoming… maybe?) before spending a few days in Oxford. In the meantime, I was training for and posting about the Half-Marathon-by-the-Sea, which I had signed up for as a bit of a consolation in case I didn’t get into the Oxford Half. Maybe I should have waited to see if I got into Oxford before signing up for that? I was certainly kicking myself after destroying my toes in the HMBTS, knowing Oxford was only 3 weeks later (for those morbidly curious, you can check out those toes here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you – they’re gross).
Pre-Race: Number Pickup
I had opted to pick up my bib, rather than have it mailed, figuring I’d save on postage. I ended up regretting that decision a bit, after I found out bib pickup was only the day before the race from 10-5, and we had made plans to take the train into London early that day, to bring the Bairn to the London Transport Museum. With some fancy finagling we made it all work; Drew and the Bairn rode the bus to the train station and met me there, after I left early and walked to the race village to grab my number. I took the scenic route through Mesopotamia (a path between two branches of the River Cherwell):
It gave me a chance to scope out the race village a little, and I pictured myself wandering the vendors post-race, getting coffees and cupcakes and picking up samples and swag (ah, such a naive mental image… read on!). I had heard from a few people that this race is known for being incredibly well organized, and I could see evidence of that in the race village – they had six meeting points marked with flags (which can be seen below) in the village, and the village itself was mapped out on the website, in emails sent to runners, and in the Oxford Half app – yes, the race even has its own app! (Fun fact: my mom downloaded the app and was able to follow a little avatar of me as I ran the race, how cool is that? And hi Mum!)
Another cool and efficient thing about number pickup – I was emailed a QR code beforehand, and when I handed my phone over to be scanned at the pickup tent, it told the volunteer which start pen I’d be in. All the numbers had a letter of the start pen, but those were just stickers that the volunteers added on at pickup, so the numbers themselves didn’t really matter – at least for non-elite runners like me. Rather than the volunteers needing to dig through number piles, they could just grab the next one on the stack, pop a sticker on it, and we were all good to go. A simple thing, and weird to dedicate an entire paragraph to it, but I thought it was a great idea.
Anyway, I got my number and my bag-check bag, took a quick selfie, and walked to the rail station to meet the lads.
I set my alarm for what felt like an absurdly early hour, especially after a late night of wrangling an un-napped toddler into bed after an overstimulating day of train rides and museums and chocolate muffins. My kit was all laid out downstairs, so I snuck not-so-quietly down the creakiest stairs known to man to get dressed, have a cup of tea, and eat some instant porridge before the lads woke up.
The race was slated to start at 9:30 sharp, with all runners needing to be in the start pens by 9:10. There was also a group warmup scheduled for 8:45; anyone who reads this blog should know by now that I’m terrible at warming up, so I thought an awkward group warmup would at least force me to do a bit. (Can I just say that I love how each run I’ve done in the UK has involved awkward group warmups? They make me so happy.) That, and the walk to the race. Our airbnb was off Cowley Road in East Oxford, just shy of 2 miles from the race village at University Parks (you can see the route I took below):
I planned to just walk as a warmup, to be followed by whatever the group warmup was, but I ended up running a chunk of it. You see, it was raining that morning, and I had splurged on a spiffy new rain jacket at a running store in Headington two days prior, knowing that a bit of rain was forecast for race day. I had been stalking the weather for as long as my weather app would let me, and there had been anywhere from 30% – 80% chance of rain for the day, as well as all the days prior. Since the other days had been a bit drizzly early on and then just grey (ah, England), I thought race day wouldn’t be too bad. By the Friday before, I started internally panicking that there would be more rain than I was prepared for, hence the splurge on the fancy jacket. So, as I stepped into the not-really-heavy-but-heavier-than-drizzle rain that morning, I figured I should put my new jacket through some paces to see how it felt. Plus, I was just really excited to run through Oxford, so I ran maybe a half-mile before walking the rest of the way.
The jacket was awesome. It fits perfectly, it’s a nice bright color, it covers everything well, it’s nice and light, and it’s water resistant… for maybe 90 minutes. I had it on when I stepped out of the house around 8 and kept it on until just before the race started at 9:30. By that point, it had soaked straight through and I was wet under it, and I was worried that it would just chafe me if I ran with it, so I took it off and tied it around my waist. It almost felt like a waste at that point… if I had thought ahead, I could have bought a cheap touristy poncho to wear over it and then chuck when the race started, but as it was, the jacket was essentially my poncho. A very expensive poncho. Oh well. I’m sure I’ll get more use out of it!
Where was I? Oh yes. I got myself to the race village just in time for the group warmup, which was just as awkward as I’d been hoping. Some folks from a local gym were up on stage doing some dynamic stretches/dance moves to some sick beats, and there was even a big screen projecting them so we could all see. Except I placed myself just past a path that was full of people carrying huge umbrellas, so I couldn’t see a thing. I just did sorry versions of what the people around me were doing (most people around me were just standing around under umbrellas), so I’m not sure how great of a warmup it was.
Not that it really mattered, I suppose, because then I spent over 30 minutes standing in a pen elbow-to-elbow with a few thousand of my closest friends. Any warming up I had done surely would have been mostly cancelled out by my standing still in the chilly rain. But that’s okay, since I was just about bursting with excitement to be there, and not planning to race my heart out, so I figured the first few miles would be a warmup anyway.
I was in pen F, which was the last one. All the other runners were on Broad Street, and we were off on a side street somewhere. The mood was jolly in spite of the rain, which was still a bit more than a drizzle and not showing signs of letting up, and we could hear everything at the start thanks to giant speakers. It would have been nice to be on Broad, to soak up a bit more of the atmosphere and see the big screens and everything, because once we all started moving toward the start, I was so focused on not getting trampled or trampling anyone else that I didn’t really look up and take any of it in. What can you do?
My running goal going in was mainly just to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience, but I also wanted to try for a PR, after coming so agonizingly close in the HMBTS. I figured I’d start near the 2:30 pacer and try to keep them in my sights for as long as possible. However, once I was getting into the pen, I didn’t see any pace flags anywhere, so I just kind of positioned myself near where I thought it might be. Just before the start, I looked up and saw I was near the 2:10 pacer, and the 2:30 was waaaaaay behind me. Whoops. Plan B was to keep up with everyone around me until there was space to move over, and then cruise at my own pace along the side and just do what I could, hopefully sticking close to the 2:30 pacer when they caught up to me.
Then the man on the PA was telling us to wake up Oxford and get out there and “smash it,” and then suddenly we were off.
I don’t remember much about the first few miles, other than that I was so cold. I had taken my jacket off before the start, worrying that I’d be fussing with it during the race and it would be a pain while running, but that meant I had stood around in the chilly rain (it was about 50* F / 10* C) in just a singlet for quite a while, and I was cold. It was one of those weird times of being cold where your body does strange things… like each time I tried to straighten my arms, painful tingling shot up each one and made me vaguely worried that I had damaged my circulation. I tried to push that and other weird panicky thoughts out of my head while dodging puddles and trying to find a decent pace without tripping up anyone around me.
I wish I had paid a bit more attention to my surroundings in that first mile or so, mostly so I could soak up the amazing novelty of running through Oxford city centre with all its beautiful architecture, but honestly, I was trying to a) not get run over, b) avoid stepping into any of the many massive puddles that dotted the course, since I didn’t want to run 13 miles with soaked feet, and c) warm up my body so that I wouldn’t have any of the strange medical incidents that kept playing themselves out in my brain.
The course was pretty crowded at the start, and I was very aware that I was running with faster people than usual. I also learned pretty quickly that British rules of the road – like driving on the left – are true for runners as well, and that people pass on the right rather than on the left. When my autopilot kicked in and I made my way over to the right so I could slow down a bit to find my pace, I realized I was getting in the way of some speedy people. A quick glance over to my left revealed that the other side is where people were going to slow down and take walk breaks, so I had to keep telling myself to run on the left.
Around mile 3 or 4, the rain really started coming down. Like, the skies opened up Biblical-style. I was up in Summertown, and one section of the street had flooded. As I sloshed through ankle-deep water, I felt very silly for having so diligently avoided all the puddles in the first few miles, and started worrying about the god-awful blisters I’d surely end up with after running more than 10 miles with literal puddles in my shoes.
I think I had been worrying so much about the rain because I’ve never run more than a 5K in the rain, so I wasn’t sure how to avoid all the awful things that come with long distance running while wet – namely chafing and blisters. I also kept thinking how absolutely miserable it would be to run a silly amount of miles in sub-optimal conditions. And while I sloshed through Summertown in an absolutely pissing downpour, super happy that I was wearing a hat that kept the rain out of my eyes, I was surprised to find that I was kind of having fun. To be totally cliche, there was a very Keep Calm and Carry On vibe among all the runners around me – we were in it, we were wet, might as well just laugh it off and keep going – and that buoyed me. Had I been on a desolate course like HMBTS, or surrounded by people grumbling, it would have been miserable. But runners around me were laughing and joking and smiling, as were the supporters who were out in force despite the weather, and that made it fun.
The race organizers had promised entertainment at every mile, and while that ended up not being entirely true (maybe the weather made some groups not turn up?), there were still tents at key points along the course with awesome bands underneath. At the “top” of Summertown, where we turned around and ran back the other way, there was a jazz band totally grooving in the pouring rain. Along the course there was a pipe and drum band, steel drums, a brass band, and a Taiko drum group, and others. At one point, during what was the most desolate stretch of the course – between Summertown and Marston, where the crowds of supporters all but disappeared and there were just fields and a few cows – there was a random tent with a DJ spinning fun tunes, and it was seriously the best placed spot for music, because I was starting to drag and it boosted me just when I needed it.
At some point while I was out in Marston, the rain let up. It almost felt strange to run without getting rained on! And then between miles 9 and 10, I came upon the Zipcar Wash – a gate over the course that was a big misting thing. It probably would have been amazing had it been a warm day, but it felt incredibly silly to have it out on such a rainy day. Thankfully, the misting gate didn’t take up the whole road, and runners could opt to go around it (you can see the edge of it in the above photo).
In the previous half marathons I’ve done, I hit a place somewhere between miles 7 and 10 where I question my decision to run the race, and I spend a few miles being completely miserable and wanting to stop. The desolate stretch mentioned above, between Summertown and Marston, made up miles 5-9. I was dragging a bit (especially when the 2:25 pacer passed me and I started to worry that I’d miss a PR) but trying to bolster myself by enjoying the novelty of running through a bit of English countryside, and looking forward to the last 3.1 miles, which I had in my head would be a piece of cake. I kept thinking about my first half, and remembering how in the last bit of it I felt like a machine that couldn’t stop running… but that didn’t happen until the last mile of that race. During that long stretch in Marston, I was somehow convinced that the whole final 5K would be like that.
When I approached the water stop around mile 10, I was lifted a bit by the fact that I was back in civilization and the crowds of supporters were still there and being awesome, but I was hurting a little. I ran more in this race than I did in any of my other halves – I took fewer walk breaks – and I was going at a faster clip than those other races too. Most of that was because I was cold and just trying to stay warm, but I think it was also due to the presence of so many supporters… I tend to run faster when people are cheering, likely because I don’t want them to think I’m slow! Either that or I just thrive on encouragement. Whatever the reason, I was pushing myself, and my hip flexors were angry. I had finished my last gel just before the water stop, and was starting to wonder how I’d make it the last 5K, when one of the water stop volunteers started screaming so much encouragement at me that it was almost a bigger boost than a gel! She handed me a water and yelled “Yes!! Dana!! You made it TEN MILES AND YOU’RE DOING AMAZING! KEEP GOING!!” and I booked it away from the water table feeling amazing. Having random supporters cheer for you by name really does wonders! (I also love that English people always say my name wrong – Dah-na instead of Day-na. It makes me feel like I have a cool English alter ego.)
That boost lasted maybe a mile, as I wound through residential neighborhoods full of cheering supporters. But then I hit University Parks. Race village, effectively the end of the course, was in University Parks. I was only at mile 11, but I could literally see the end, just at the other side of a big field. I could hear the man on the PA cheerfully announcing people’s names as they crossed the finish line. But each glance at my watch told me I still had so much more to go. It was torture. It was also a difficult stretch of the course, because we were on a narrow path of rocky material that felt harsh under my feet after so many miles of asphalt, and any attempt to pass someone meant having to slip through muddy patches. It was a little disheartening after feeling so awesome when the volunteer shouted at me, and my official photos from this stretch all show me having a “can I just be done now??” look on my face:
Leaving University Parks was wonderful – back to the slight give of asphalt under my feet, away from the mud, onto wider streets, and away from the torture of being able to see the finish area. The crowds also thickened a bit as we wound our way into the busy, touristy bits of the city centre, and I also was within my right mind enough that I was able to look up and breathe in the Oxfordness of it all.
When I hit the 12 mile marker, I sped up. Now there was just over a mile until I could stop running, and a glance at my watch showed that I had a really good chance at PRing. I wanted it. I wanted to PR in my favorite city, running past these places that were so formative and special. I ran past so many places that meant something to me – here is the building where I had my history tutorials, there is the tuck shop where I used to buy chocolate to make myself feel better after bombing those tutorials, here are the libraries I spent so much time in, and on and on.
Now the machine feeling kicked in, but it was different this time. Rather than feeling like I couldn’t stop if I tried, like something was controlling my legs, this time it was all me. I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to go faster. I had just run a stupid long distance with the fewest walk breaks ever, and I suddenly had all this faith in myself that I could do hard things. Also, I just wanted to stop running, and if I got to the finish line faster, I could stop sooner. So I pushed.
I ran through Radcliffe Square, past the Bodleian Library (“the Bod”) and the Radcliffe Camera (“Raddy Cam”), two of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and the inspirations for my becoming a librarian. (I was thankful that the race organizers had put down mats over the cobblestones in the square… I wasn’t looking forward to running over those!):
Just after that above photo was taken, I turned onto Turl Street, which made me smile. During my semester there, my friend Emily and I would make a weekly dash to Balliol College to turn in our papers to our history tutor, always leaving it to the last minute because, well, because that’s who I am. I nicknamed it the Turl Street Sprint, and just thinking of it makes my heart beat a little faster as I remember trying to make it to the porter’s window by the 4pm deadline. And here I was, 15 years later, running (not quite sprinting, because my tank was nearly empty) that same stretch of road, still racing the clock but thankfully without all the stress!
I knew the finish line was lurking so agonizingly close, and with a mental nod to my Turl Street Sprints of yore, I reached as far down into my tank as I could and kicked a little faster, all the way to the end. I ran that last stretch at an 8:30 pace, trying to pose for a cool finish line photo, but just wanting to collapse:
It had taken me almost 15 minutes to get from my spot in the start pen to the starting line, so I knew the finish line clock showing 2:43 wasn’t my finish time, but I didn’t quite trust my Garmin time of 2:30:51 since I had messed with the laps and didn’t want to get my hopes up for a 7-minute PR (my previous best time was 2:37:58). I let my zombie legs carry me through the finish chute, loving that I was handed water almost immediately, as well as a shiny new medal. I saw the 2:25 pacer wandering around and realized with hope in my heart that I had never noticed the 2:30 pacer pass me. I guzzled water out of my fancy cardboard drinking vessel – the Oxford Half was totally plastic-free with its bottles and bags – and followed the herd of runners to the race village.
I had made plans with Drew to meet him and the Bairn at Meeting Point #3, but when I approached the area with the meetup points, all I saw was mud. Race village was in University Parks, which is basically a giant grassy field… a field that had essentially turned into mud during the earlier downpours. My shoes, my brand new beautiful running shoes, were soaked through but very clean. But not for long. If I wanted to experience any part of the race village, I had to squelch through the mud. Telling myself that I was just christening my new shoes, I squelched my way over to the meetup flag and texted Drew. He was otherwise occupied, because the Bairn was having the time of his life:
Drew later told me that he had intended to find a spot along the course so they could cheer me on, but the Bairn had thrown a fit when Drew tried to remove him from his mud puddle. So they hung out in the race village for most of the time I was running. At one point, a small crowd of runners had gathered and would cheer and clap every time the Bairn splashed. He was truly living the dream.
I found the lads and the big puddle, and by that point I was starting to feel miserable. It was still pretty chilly, even though it wasn’t raining anymore, and I was wearing a singlet and shorts that were soaked through. I didn’t stretch, because I’m me, and my muscles were starting to seize up in the cold. I’m sure the shivering wasn’t helping either. My usual race day assistant/photographer/pack mule was otherwise occupied with a splashing (and later, tantruming) toddler, and I hadn’t thought to check a bag with a change of clothes or even a jacket, so I just stood there shivering until Drew put his raincoat on me. I felt like such a n00b, with all the runners around me changing into their warm, dry clothes and me standing there like a frozen weirdo.
Drew also pointed in the direction of a cupcake cart that was selling poffertjes, mini Dutch pancakes, which are one of my favorite foods ever. He had bought some for the Bairn, who still had chocolate sauce on his face along with streaks of mud. I limped over to the cart and bought some topped with sugar and lemon, and, reader(s), post-race food had never tasted so good. They were warm and tasty and heaven-sent, and gave me enough energy to haul myself out of the muddy race village in the company of a screaming, angry toddler and a very annoyed husband.
Gone were my imaginings of a tired but happy me strolling around the race village, sampling different bits and bobs and buying coffees and making Drew take pictures of me near the giant poster photo-op thingies. Races and post-race experiences are a whole different animal when one has a toddler in tow! The Bairn was NOT happy that we were removing him from his mud puddles, and he made his anger known to all as we wrestled him into a carrier and squelched our way out of the race village and across town. I almost had to manually move my legs for each step, my hip flexors were so stiff. And we had quite a ways to walk to get to a bus stop, because there was no way in heaven or hell I felt capable of walking the almost-two-miles back to our airbnb.
We finally caught a bus and got back to our house, the Bairn screaming and/or crying the whole way, where I immediately dragged myself by the lips to the bathroom so I could run the hottest shower known to man. A hot shower has never felt so amazing, and was made all the better by the cup of sweet milky tea that Drew made and brought in to me. Some people relax with a shower beer, but that day I experienced the glory of a shower cuppa. Ahh. (The glory was only slightly marred by the die-cast London taxi that the Bairn kept throwing at me while laughing maniacally… I guess that’s what I get for trying to kill two muddy birds with one shower stone.)
After I was finally thawed out, I remembered to check my results and found that I had officially PRed, with a time of 2:30:47! I was chuffed, and proud of what I had accomplished in less-than-perfect conditions, with less-than-perfect toes. Interestingly, the worst of my blisters and bruising from HMBTS totally cleared up after running Oxford… the rain must have had magical healing powers! Or, more likely, the race was essentially a two-and-a-half-hour-long foot soak. Either way, I’ll take it.
I am so, so glad that I was able to run this race. When I put my name in the hat, I really didn’t think I’d get in, and even when I did, I didn’t think it would be as awesome as it was. It was incredibly well organized, amazingly supported, and the course was gorgeous. Yes, it had a wee desolate patch, but I’d take running over streams and by cows in England over running through random stretches of woods or by abandoned buildings any day. I also loved that there were pace flags for “joggy” and that the race organizers acknowledged those who’d be running at “party pace” and finishing after the roads re-opened at the 3-hour mark. It all felt so cozy and inclusive. And the group warm-ups, and people running in costumes for charity… runners in the UK – if I may make a sweeping generalization – seem to take themselves less seriously than runners in the US, and I’m here for it.
I remember saying to Drew, after all was said and done, that I don’t want to run any other races now… this one was too awesome, and all other races have henceforth been ruined for me. [At the time of writing, 3.5 weeks later when I’m finally able to wrap up this epic post, I’ve already run another race, so fear not! I’m not really swearing them off.] Before running Oxford, and after running HMBTS, I told myself I wouldn’t run any more half marathons. It’s just too many miles, it destroys my poor toes, and I’d rather spend my time focusing on getting faster at 5 and 10Ks. But after Oxford, I think maybe I’d run another… if I could get into Oxford again 😉