I sang the praises of the Ashby 20 Mile race in my 2017 review, thinking it could get no better, but after 2018’s cancelation due to snow, this year saw it return stronger and add:
- Greater involvement of the local community and businesses: It’s almost as if more local businesses recognised that the arrival of 1,500 runners, plus their supporters and families was good for business! Beeches pub for example offered every runner a free carvery meal: We took advantage, and as you can imagine it was heaving with runners sporting the characteristic Ashby 20 finishers’ hoody and their families and friends!
- The return of the smoothie vendor to the finishing area, accompanied by a number of eateries, drinkeries and ice-creameries!
- A new cotton goody bag: more durable and stylish than the usual plastic ones, better for the environment and another Ashby innovation!
There was a one-off change to the location of the race HQ and changing areas this year, which were moved from the Hood Park Leisure Centre to the adjacent Ivanhoe College. While this made no difference in terms of travel or parking, the smaller space available in the College meant that while some of the runners congregated there, the majority went straight to Bath Grounds (the area where runners sort themselves by expected finish time before walking to the start line). This meant that when the call went out to us in the College to make our way to the start area, it seemed that only a handful had turned up! Which wasn’t the case of course, as we soon discovered arriving at Bath Grounds, but it felt… different! Fortunately it was a sunny day, so no one had to wait in the rain.
As I said, this is only a one-off change, and I am reliably informed that the whole of Hood Park Leisure Centre has already been booked for next year’s race, so normal service will be restored!
That aside, in this world that seems to be going to the dogs (particularly if you have recently joined the Veterans age group and are more prone to grumble!) it is disarmingly heart-warming to see a well loved institution not only maintain its very hard standards, but make well-judged improvements from one year to the next (remember 2017 saw the closure of one lane throughout the course, making running much safer and comfortable) while remaining true to its character and without sacrificing those things that made us love it in the first place!
As for me… as joyous an ocassion as Ashby race day is, I found myself feeling quite nervous on the day: The two years that had elapsed since I ran it last hadn’t been enough for my body’s memory to forget the last 6 miles of the 2017 race, and it wasn’t relishing the prospect of repeating the experience. The race is run over two laps of a beautiful yet challenging course, with hills which find time to grow between laps 1 and 2, and then an uphill return leg back into Ashby-de-la-Zouch and the finish in Bath Grounds.
Still, the weather was fine, Demi and Philip had joined my friend Kyriakos and me this year, I was back on familiar ground, amongst familiar faces… it was hard to keep a smile from my face!
And what about the race, I hear you ask.
Well, I started well, and by this I don’t mean fast, in fact quite the opposite: I put great effort in not running fast, especially not the first three miles, as I had in 2017! I was determined to finally put some hard-learnt lessons into practice, and to run the first half within myself. That would, I hope, give me at least a shot at maintain some consistency in the second half!
I remember having all sorts of niggles on the first mile, particularly my right knee, but I put that down to nerves: true enough they were gone by the time I had reached the end of the outward mile and turned onto the loop proper.
From then on I maintained a pace that was slightly more comfortable than what I’d normally use for a race this distance, and respected the hills on the first lap more than I had in the past: I knew that when I saw them again on lap 2 they would have grown (how do they do that!?) and I wanted to have something in reserve to help me deal with them – and with the uphill mile / mile and a half to the end.
In my training I had been relying on Lucozade sport for both hydration and energy intake, and have not used any gels since… I suppose it was the 2017 London marathon! I had been happy with the results (after all that’s how I ran my first ever marathon in 2011, and my latest half in October 2018, and on both occasions I had surprised myself at how well they went), so I decided to do the same in Ashby. Unfortunately, there are no isotonic drinks given at the drinks stations (an idea for next year’s improvement perhaps?) so after much deliberation I decided to run with a Camelback full of Lucozade on my back. I was worried about the effect of the extra weight (which was made worse by the addition of a heavy torch, forgotten in it after one of my dusk long runs!), but decided that keeping my fuelling and hydration consistent to my training was more important. My upcoming marathon (Prague, 5 May) give out isotonic drinks and I intend to rely on them for fuelling on the day, so I wanted to use this race as a dress rehearsal).
I still dipped in at the odd drinks point for a sip of fresh water to rinse out the sweet taste of warm Lucozade and appreciated the warm and very vocal support of the volunteers manning them. Once again, these were extremely well staffed, with volunteers maintaining high levels of enthusiasm, even as that of runners began to wane as the race wore on…
So on and on we went, along the familiar route. It was a pleasant, sunny day, with just enough of a breeze to cool you down but not slow you – although talking the race over with some other runners a few days later, I was surprised to hear that some found the day too warm and the breeze too strong… which I suppose shows the extent to which different people are comfortable in different conditions!
The field had by now settled into a string of runners running alone or in little groups: for the first part of the race I seemed to be keeping pace with two runners, one from Ivanhoe Runners (the club hosting the race), who understandably got lots of encouragement by the spectators and marshals, and the other was a female runner in an all-black kit.
I was running at a steady, easy pace and trying to maintain a consistent effort (rather than pace) approaching the hills (which meant slowing down); I made up for it on the downhills though (the flip side of maintaining a steady effort), so my position in relation to the runners around me tended to vary a bit, as I was losing ground uphill only to recover it later on the course.
The one word that I can think of to describe my attitude on the day is “Respect”: From my previous runs here, I knew that Ashby 20 was capable of both filling my heart with happiness, and breaking it before the race was even over: on the day, it was only my attitude and the decisions I made that could determine which of the two it would be. And I didn’t want to run the last six miles with a broken heart (again)!
Respect, but not timidity: Given my training and a mini-taper in the week leading up to it, I felt I had a chance to get close to my (4 year-old) PB of 02:40:46. But with my own watch in for repair and not wanting to change any settings from Demi’s which I had borrowed, all I could monitor was my total time through each lap point: I would compare that to what it should be for an 8’ mile, and get a rough idea of far ahead or behind I was: I seemed to be within my target on every mile of the first lap, although my margin fluctuated from 30 down to 5 seconds overall.
Throughout the race I made a point of smiling as often as I could remember, but for some reason I also found my eyes closing quite frequently; I had been running not far behind Kathryn, another Huncote Harrier runner, approaching her very gradually half way through the first lap: I almost ran into her with my eyes closed, but I fortunately opened them early enough to run next to her instead. We ran together for roughly the second half of the first lap, and had a bit of a chat, which was a great distraction at that point in the race. She started to edge away again as we approached the half way mark and I decided to not try to keep up : I was happy with my running, the trade-off between effort and pace, and I knew there was a long, hilly way to go.
I approached the half way point chugging along merrily enough. Up the hilly sequence that precedes it, down the downhill and onto the flat-ish section. And that’s when the doubts set it:
While I was happy that I had kept close to my target pace, I was conscious that this had given me but a very narrow margin which could easily evaporate or even be reversed on the second lap. Deep down, I think I also dreaded the encounter with the first hills of the second lap: If they felt significantly worse, I would know this was going to be a long, uncomfortable, heart-braking race. If they didn’t… well, it would still not mean much, there’d be plenty more to come!
The straight leading to the half point and what on the second lap is close to the turning back towards Ashby, is always very busy with spectators and supporters, and is probably my favourite part of the course. This year Philip and Demi had made their way down to see me go past (the advantage of the farm with baby lambs being closed!) and their cheering and smiles could not come at a better time!
On I went, the straight drew to a close and up the road led, to the first left turn of the second lap. Sure, the hills were hilly, and my pace dropped. But not enough to make me feel I should worry, at least not yet. I was running steadily, overtaking and being overtaken, both at a very slow rate, but my feeling was that I was edging up the field. I was still mindful of the last hills though, and while my perceived effort had gone up (10+ miles of running saw to that!) I tried to keep it in check.
I was still a few seconds ahead of target, but only a few seconds: I reminded myself of the positive of that (“before the race, would you have taken a 10’’ advantage on lap 16?” – the answer was always yes), but I was also very aware of how easily 10’’ or 15’’ or 5’’ or whatever my margin happened to be could evaporate on the latter part of the course. All I could do was continue to judge my run as best I could and keep up a decent pace which would not tire me too soon…
…but of course we all know that this illusion of a rational decision is a lie, don’t we?
The truth is that by that point I had settled in a certain pace and effort ( or “groove” as the coaches on Nike’s NRC+ app call it), and was just sticking with it: The pacing of the first and a half lap meant that the groove was around PB pace but sustainable, but I did find my thoughts begin to wander towards the green grass of Bath Grounds: I fantasised crossing the finish line and diving onto that cool, fresh, soft green grass for a long, long rest…
But there was more running to be done: I passed the 18th mile maybe 8’’ within my target (from memory), and I was getting nervous: After a little dip it would all be uphill till the short descent to the finish straight, with the incline raising more over the last mile. This meant that I expected to lose time over the last two miles, probably more than the 8’’ I had in hand. All I could do was dig in and try to keep the pace steady. A thought skirted the margins of my conscious mind, that perhaps it would have been easier if I was irretrievably behind, or suffering from some slight injury: I wouldn’t have to try then, I could just cruise to the end knowing that my pace over the last two miles didn’t really matter. But I was healthy, I was ahead and I felt a duty (to whom?) to give it my best. The thought disappeared before it was even formed, but I have – obviously – not forgotten about it, and I think I’ll spend some long runs dwelling on this version of “The Quitter”… (a poem, I am sure, that must now be even less fashionable than “If”).
My running over the last two miles was neither fast, nor pretty. But I am proud of it. Yes, the legs were heavy and beginning to seize up a bit, but it was determined running, thinking how close I was to the finish and how – relatively – well I felt. I hugged the racing line as much as I could, and gave good notice to runners I approached of the side I’d be passing them on. I found that shouting “passing to your left / right” had a greater impact on me than the runner I was alerting to my intentions: It was me telling myself that I was coming through, that on the last, infamous hill into Ashby my momentum was forwards and that I was not going to lose those 8’’!
I finally reached the half mile to go, turned left on the uneven (but finally downhill!) Prior Park Lane and spotted the first finisher hoody! It was a strange colour, but I reserved judgment and concentrated on the last few hundred yards. Entering the footpath around Bath Grounds I picked the pace up a bit and with about a hundred yards to go heard Demi, Kyriako and Philip cheering: I waved back, looked up again and saw the clock count down from 02h 39’ something – I sprinted to the finish line and stopped my (or rather Demi’s) watch: 02:39:38! Those 8’’ somehow had grown to 22’’ and I had set a new PB by 1’ 08’’!
I collected my very fetching cotton goody bag and hoody and walked over to where Demi, Philip and Kyriako (who had finished a few minutes before me) were waiting. I regretted every yard of grass I passed that I didn’t collapse down on, but I was with them presently and I could have my rest…
I let the moment sink in: I was finally on the sweet grass I had dreamt of over the last miles of the race, and I had a big tired smile on my face. I had run a smart race, kept it up when it mattered and was rewarded with a resounding PB! My family and my friend were there to celebrate the moment with me and I had a carvery lunch to look forwards to! And I had decided that the hoody colour was pretty cool, probably the best Ashby 20 have given us yet!
After a few minutes, as I was thinking about standing on my feet again, I noticed Philip wander to the line of spectators a few yards away. At just over two years of age, he watched the runners come in and applauded each one as they did so – and I realised that perhaps the true fruit of all the miles his mother and I run weekly (“mummy / daddy gone running-running!”) might be something far more important than our ephemeral PBs…