A Weekend at the World Half Marathon Championships

A race report by Tom Brian

I'm sat on a flight to Glasgow from the amazing city of Valencia having competed and earning a medal at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. OK technically I wasn't racing in the World Championships itself and technically I didn't win a medal but I was there and I was running! Chris Richardson and I have been talking about how we can spice up the club's online content recently and we agreed that race reports and experience sharing is something we're lacking so where better to start than at a major championships!
The World Half Marathon Championships were held this year in Valencia under the promise of "the fastest course Valencia has ever seen" to entice not only the world's best, but a trio of Metro runners as well to make an assault on our half marathon bests. Since the 1st IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in 1992, which was incorporated into the Great North Run, the event has been held every two years and includes a mass race which gives the average club runner the opportunity to experience a world championships course and atmosphere. I was aware of this having seen a team of Metros head down to Cardiff two years ago to run in the 2016 championships and, even closer to home, my dad ran in the masses in the 1992 race in Gateshead. At the end of last year when I heard that the race was in Valencia and the timing worked out well as a tune up before the London Marathon (4 weeks out), it seemed a great idea for a long weekend as Fiona was keen for a target spring half marathon and it sounded like a cool city to visit. Chris had already signed up with the same pre London plan in mind, making a strong trio heading over!

New vest ready to roll!

Our trip plan was pretty much dictated by direct flights out of Scotland meaning taking a red eye from Glasgow to Valencia on Friday morning, returning Monday morning. With the race being a Saturday evening start, this worked well giving us Sunday to explore the city and indulge without the race looming. Arriving into Valencia on Friday morning, we dropped our bags at the hotel then walked to the super modern and generally stunning Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias where the race start, finish and expo were all held.

Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias with race finish on water

This state of the art science park is an incredibly attractive curved development resplendent in glass, mirrors and white walls, and surrounded by vibrant turquoise water. It's sat in the middle of the Jardines Del Turia which is a lovely green belt that winds up through Valencia complete with dedicated running and cycling lanes, cafes and play parks. As i discovered on my outbound flight reading, this park stretches along the former course of the river Rio Turia which was diverted years ago to the outskirts of the city due to it's flood prone nature - the result is an amazing green ribbon that winds like a river through the city! Coupled with the modern buildings of the aforementioned Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias at the southern end and the older Torres de Serranos - the only remains of the old city walls - it's an incredible place to locate a big city race. They call Valencia the "cuidad del running" which is a fair claim - there are people running everywhere on what must be tens of kilometers of dedicated routes!

Jardines del Turia

Running and cycling lanes everywhere

The expo was pretty basic which I like as means less time faffing, so after a quick stop to grab our numbers and generously packed goody bag, we spent the rest of the Friday afternoon wandering around the park and museum area. The whole area was a bizarre contrast of groups being shepherded around - groups of elite runners in their matching tracksuits and groups of school children in their uniforms (it's a friday afternoon in a museum!) - with media and event teams erecting cameras and sponsor signage all around. With the race on Saturday evening, we went for an easy run in the park on Friday evening which must be the pro thing to do as we passed some USA women and the full South African team out doing much the same. It always amazes me how slowly these elites are running for their easy runs - lesson to learn! During our run we spotted a guy in a pair of calf guards and some outrageous shorts that can only be described as spiderman themed - must be Chris! Turns out he had exactly the same plan as us and it was good to catch him to align our plans for tomorrow.

Friday night fuelling was a large plate of pasta in an Italian near where we were staying - we ate slightly later than usual (about 9PM) with the evening race in mind. The timing of this race really threw me - usually I'm well fuelled for a morning race by a big dinner then standard breakfast in the morning, but when racing later in the day, should I be moving my meals accordingly? Porridge for lunch?! In the end it seems a late dinner, a big breakfast (i.e. a couple more slices of toast than usual) and a decent lunch did the trick. We got up on the Saturday pretty late after being knackered from the 04:30 start the day before and were keen to rest up as much as possible. After breakfast, we spent the rest of the morning leisurely wandering around the gardens and start area whilst becoming more and more concerned about the strong wind that had developed and had even prompted a yellow weather warning for wind. Nothing we could do about it except hope it calms before the evening (spoiler alert - it didn't). We shared a great pizza for lunch in a nearby Italian, grabbed a coffee to go in McDonald's (#culturevultures) then headed back to the hotel about 3 hours before the race. Standard race prep then proceeded - bottle of Active Root and a banana, all to the sound of some pre race tunes - before meeting Chris outside our hotel for a 2 mile warm up jog about an hour before the race started. Fortunately we were staying only 800m from the start so were able to warm up, use toilet at hotel, change into racing flats and jog over pretty much ready to get into the pen.

Turns out the heavyweights stay in Holiday Inn Express too

The hilarity of breakfasting next to Team Malta was all too much for Fiona

The start was well organised with plenty toilets well spread for the various pens and a very slick bag drop. The pens were arranged with the elites up front, then a yellow pen for sub 1:20 women/sub 1:12 men which Fiona was in, then a green pen for sub 1:30 women/sub 1:20 men which Chris and I were in. Weirdly, they held the mass runners about 100m back from the start line right until the gun. Usually at these big races they bring you forward slowly up to behind the elites just before the gun, but here they held us back until the gun went which meant an absolute rammy at the start. One poor guy just in front of me went down and ended up fully spread eagled on the tarmac and every time he tried to get up, someone stood on his back pushing him back down. The first mile was quick due to the monster tail wind and the chaotic nature of the start and when my pace finally settled down, it turned out I'd gone out about 10 secs ahead of pace (5:19 first mile - exactly the same split as when I PB'd at Inverness 2 weeks ago). I came to Valencia hoping to match or slightly improve on the Inverness time (72:44) but with the wind really picking up I started the race really hoping just to go sub 73 again and consolidate that.

Start Line

The first 3 miles wound through a newer part of Valencia with most folk reporting that their GPS went a bit AWOL resulting in some strange splits. I was on pace after the second mile (targeting low 5:30s) and settled in with a group of guys at that pace. Bizarrely at this stage it started raining - that was not in the script! At the fourth mile, we turned direct into the headwind and the whole field strung out into a single line of runners, all desperate to shelter. This mentality continued through to about 8M as we battled a tough wind that really slowed the pace. By 5 miles we had looped back to the park and followed the road on the north side of the park into the wind. I hit a bad patch at this point and lost touch with the group in front of me - an older guy in a Serrano ham vest who had been just in front of me was was suddenly 15 metres ahead. I looked around to see if I could sit in behind another group but turned out I had been on the back of the train and was now on my own. Feeling worse than I did in Inverness a fortnight ago at this stage of the race, I sunk my gel early and tried to push on to get back onto the group who were about 20 metres up the road. I caught them at about 7 miles and settled in, accepting the slightly slower pace for the remainder of the head wind section. The splits were not where I needed them to be during that section and I started to realise that I'd probably lost more time than I could hope to claw back to match the Inverness time... That last mile into the wind seemed to go on and on but finally, we swung left onto a bridge over the park and into shelter! We all know the feeling of coming out of the wind, it's like the resistance band that's been attached to your back has just snapped and you can run normally! From there the race moved into the old town and the crowds appeared which all helped to boost us at that stage of the race. It may be because there was a big elite race up front, but the crowds were really narrow in parts which was really cool - think Alpe d'Huez style in the Tour de France! Passing the impressive city bull ring and the grand train station, my splits suddenly came back together and I strung together 3 consecutive miles on target pace to take me to 11 miles where after the old town tour, we joined the south side of the Jardines del Turia. In a sudden contrast of visuals, you could now see futuristic buildings at the finish area in the distance so I started to push on and felt like I was really moving through the field. Surprisingly I passed a fair number of tiny nation elites at this stage - visible thanks to the bib numbers on their backs which we didn't have - and my old friend Mr Serrano Ham who I turned the tables on! The 1 km to go sign arrived just before we dropped back into the museum complex and a glance at my watch and some quick maths told me that despite a quick previous mile I wasn't going to go sub 73 today. This was damage limitation time but feeling like I still had another gear to go to, I wasn't about to ease off the gas. 800m to go - everything is stunningly white and blue around me, I'm on my own and just focussing on holding this hard effort. Bizarrely the crowds have disappeared as we're now on a standalone path through the museum park. 400m to go - my legs are aching and I feel like I'm slowing but I'm still moving past people. 200m to go - a sharp right hand turn into a short wind tunnel takes the sting out of my pace. 150m to go - a sharp left hand turn onto the amazing blue walkway across the water and the finish gantry is in sight. 100m to go - I can see the clock and my time is going to be around 73:30 so I get my head up, take it all in and enjoy running through what is without a doubt the most stunning finish I'll ever run.

New Vest!

Walking on water to the finish!

Once through the line and having shaken some hands with the guys around me (Serrano ham man cruises in about 30 secs behind me), I turn around hoping to see Chris and Fiona very soon. I spot Chris hurtling towards the finish, bibless but clutching it in his hands and the finish clock runs past 75 mins. Knowing he started with me a good 10 secs after the gun, he's still on for sub 75 and when he crosses I know it will be very tight! Not far behind, Fiona appears, moving down the straight at what looks like a faster pace than either of us and crossing in a high 75 time before her standard post-line hunching over. It later turns out both of them ran PBs on a day where most of the elites were 30-40 secs off their seasons bests (I'm ignoring the suspicious women's only half marathon record...) which is fantastic and shows what they can do on a better day - Chris did go sub 75 after all (74:58) which is a great indicator ahead of London Marathon and shows he is ready to run a very strong time, and Fiona was 3rd in the masses race (i.e. excluding elite women) taking her PB down by 14 secs to 75:34. Top running!

Chris rocking the new vest with 800m to go!

Immediately after the finish line was the usual medal + banana + water dispensing plus the nice surprise of a cold draught beer - always welcome after a race. All in the race organisation was really good - plenty water on the course which itself is flat and takes in some really amazing sights, and there was plenty good freebies before and after. The race atmosphere and experience was great but sadly I didn't really enjoy the race itself - likely because of the conditions which made it a constant battle and the relatively early acknowledgement that I wasn't going to run the time I hoped to. Don't get me wrong, I had a great time at the event but just didn't come off the course having enjoyed being out there - sometimes you don't. In better conditions, this would be a brilliant race to run and the annual version of this very event (Valencia Half run in the autumn) which itself is an IAAF Gold Label event is one that I'll definitely consider coming back for.

Told you I got a medal at the World Championships

Post race gave us the opportunity to start to enjoy some more standard Spanish fare involving meat and sangria! The three of us and Chris's friend Doug headed out for a few beers and a Spanish style late dinner, celebrating their PBs and collectively rueing the conditions. That's the last mention of the wind!

Well earned Sangria

Fiona and I spent the Sunday exploring old Valencia (more shuffling leisurely than striding around) and eating paella which was a great way to recover from a half! The old town is beautiful and it was cool to actually take in the the bull ring, the city's cathedral and the Torres de Serranos, all of which we fleetingly passed during the race. Then steak, duck and red wine to finish the weekend before heading home on a Monday morning flight.

As I opened with, I'm sat on the flight writing this race blog which Chris and I think we need to do more of as a club to share race experiences with out club mates and beyond. So what did I take from this race and Valencia? Only positives!

- Valencia is an amazing, diverse city definitely worth a trip

- It's a great city to go and run a half or a marathon - it might as well have been designed for runners with all roads flat and attractive sights galore

- First race in Nike Zoom Flys - proven to be a great shoe for training for me but my feet really ached racing in them during the last 4 miles and was probably my biggest source of discomfort - good lesson and something to think about ahead of London which is the A race

- First race in the new New Balance club vest - good job Mo, it's brilliant and looks sharp

- Thoroughly enjoyed feasting on Spanish cuisine - must go back soon

- It was great to have a group, albeit small, from the club racing overseas - must organise a wider club race trip before I hang up my captain's vest (Valencia might even be a good shout since they've already produced a logo for the trip)

Look familar?

- A 73 minute half marathon wasn’t even on my radar a year ago - gives confidence that the training is going well ahead of London

- I’m still faster than my wife but the gap is closing!

Thanks for reading! 4 weeks to London!

Captain Tom

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