by Paul Thompson (pictures Shamala Thompson)
This race proved to be a humbling experience as I went in search of faster M50 runners and found some that were faster than me. Long ago I’d decided that while it was a nice accoloade to be crowned World Champion in the half marathon there were bigger fish out there and I had to find the opportunity to race them. The European Masters Athletics Championships (EMACS) in Aarhus, Denmark was one of them. Europe hosts a large number of elite masters athletes, perhaps more than any other region.
The lead up to this race did not bode well. On vacation with friends in Boulder CO., three weeks out, I developed shin splints. A stint of timely altitude training quickly turned into a desperate attempt to shrug off an untimely injury. I managed to shake it and by race day was injury free. I was just short of that final heavy training load that was more to do with building confidence and sharpening than laying the basis for the race.
Aarhus proved to be one of the more difficult places to get to from New York. We flew New York to London, changed planes and touched down in Copenhagen. The next day we boarded an inter city train for the four hour journey to Denmark’s second city. While a pleasant enough city with great facilities, it begged me to question why EMACS opts for less accessible second cities: even British based athletes were unable to fly direct.
As the race approached and I tapered my shin splints improved markedly to the point that when doing fast strides on the eve of the race I could not remotely feel them. I have Heather North (Red Hammer Rehab) and Russ Stram (Runner Clinic NYC to thank. That boosted my confidence enough to make me plan to run at 5:30 pace that would give me a 1:12 finish time, a time that should have put me in the mix for a medal.
On race morning I jogged to the start from the hotel, following the route the race would take in the final few miles. Ben Reynolds, annoyed and embarrassed to have just learnt his flight departure time meant he’d only have time to run 10K then bail out and head to the airport, and Steve Watmough joined me. At the venue we lined up for check-in, a rather pointless exercise designed to verify you were actually there and had pinned your numbers on correctly. It was a scrum of athletes. After registering I went through the final drill of strides and knee lifts.
The starting corral was packed and many (obviously) slower runners were in front, including M70 runners and women, stubbornly refusing to allow faster runners to move ahead. There’s a clear lack of common sense in some masters runners. At their age they should by now know better. As a result when the gun went I had a horde of slower runners to navigate. I could see my main M50 rivals, including the favorite with the fastest season’s best (SB) time of 1:09:31, Miguel Ángel Plaza Benita of Spain.
I weaved and jumped on and off the pavement as I desperately tried to close the gap to my main rivals. I passed the mile in 5:30 but the latter half of that was at 5:00 and I was still some 20 metres behind them. Ben cruised past me and I jumped on his tail. In so doing he helped me bridge the gap. Over the next two miles, each covered in 5:19, I managed to claw my way to the back of the pack that had all the M50 medal contenders – Benita, Luc Van Asbroeck (Belgium) and Mike Poch (Germany) – and fellow Brit Kerry-Liam Wilson (M45).
At 5K, reached in 16:40, I saw Sham roadside taking pictures. For the next 5K the race would twist and turn its way through the city centre. The course boasted over 60 tight turns, more than any other race I can remember. It felt like we ran up and down every street like as if on a life size pin ball game. Into the mix was an uneven cobbled road surface encouraging regular hopping on and off the pavement in search of a smoother surface. My fourth mile slowed to 5:31. I slowly drifted off the back of the group. I was paying the price for trying to get in contact with my main rivals while battling with a strained quad. I had one last go at rejoining the group throwing in a 5:25 fifth mile. I failed. Fortunately the pain in other parts of my body smothered that in the quad.
As I passed mile five in 27:02, isolated, I was adjusting to the idea of finishing 4th. It proved hard to get motivated knowing 4th was perhaps the highest placing I could hope for. It would mean no place on the podium. The next few miles, with wind behind, I was able to maintain around 5:30 pace but the gap to the medal contenders kept growing. My motivation to run for the best finish time came from thinking I might be needed for the M50 or M45 team, the latter if we did not have a ‘natural’ team of runners aged 45-49 and so needed me to help them form a ‘composed’ team . Running for a team, whether it be Urban Athletics or Team GB, is another compelling reason to give your best. This was reinforced by spectators, Brits and locals, cheering “Go Great Britain”.
The course exited the town centre and headed north along a straight cycle path. Approaching the U turn around the 12K point I could see the top three M50 locked together duking it out without me. I was just the spectator. The next few miles wound their way around the newly developed waterfront. It had us running a few sections of gravel and jumping up and over some curbs. The flat course had promised fast times but this was undone by the numerous turns and varied surface. Altogether the course was not the best – spectator friendly, competitor unfriendly. And then there was the wind. Aarhus is popular for kite flying and wind surfing so this was no surprise.
The closing miles were mostly into a gale force head wind whipping in off the North Sea. Combined with the fatigue from my failed attempt to get on terms with the M50 medal contenders this weighed heavily on my splits. My 5:30 average for the first 9 miles, which had I maintained would have given me 1:12 and a shot at a medal, slowed to 5:50-55 for each of the final 4 miles. I ran most of it chasing the coattails of an M35 runner. In the closing mile I caught a rapidly slowing runner from the open race that the EMACS squatted on. As the stadium entered my sights I ran hard for the best possible time in case I was needed for a ‘composed’ team (if there were insufficient M45 finishers to make a ‘natural’ team older runners like me can be co-opted to make up the numbers). Turns out I wasn’t. Team GB’s M45 team got silver while M50 came 9th.
Once in the stadium we ran clockwise for 300m finishing midway down the finishing straight. I crossed the line 4th M50 with 1:13:22. Benita won in 1:11:14 with Poch 2nd in 1:11:56 and Van Asbroeck 3rd in 1:12:10: the full M50 results are here and the overall race results here. My Garmin data tells the story. In marked contrast to my Brooklyn Half I spent little if any of the race in my comfort zone. And little if anything had gone to plan.
In the finishing area I got acquainted with the medalists and said I was looking forward to competing against them at the World Masters Athletics Champs in Malaga, Spain. The shin splints had been safely put to bed but I inherited a badly strained quad on the same right leg. After sharing stories post race with Team GB team mates and M50 runners I went to see if the highly professional GB physios were on duty. Turms out they were. Paul Parkin had given me a flush, a light massage, on the eve of the race. Post-race Nicola Nicol did the same. Team GB’s physical therapy team are the business.
The race revealed that Europe was home to a number of M50 distance runners, some faster than me. I need to step up my game and find a minute if I’m to medal at the half marathon in Malaga.