Paul Thompson (pictures Shamala Thompson)
Here I was again standing on the start line of the half marathon hoping to make up for the disappointment of finishing 4th in the 10K a week earlier. The half is my preferred distance. I appeared to be over a hamstring strain and resumed coach Troopy’s inter race schedule. And I was fully adjusted to the time zone. So this was the day to put it right. I needed to run my own race, stay composed and make adjustments for the hot and humid weather. Turns out a few seconds would make all the difference.
Rather than jog from the apartment to the stadium I got the metro with Sham and decided to run the area surrounding the stadium to get familiar with the course near the start and finish and midway: the course was one small lap and two large with our passing the stadium three times before finishing with a lap in it. I was more relaxed about this race than the 10K though more nervous about the effects of the hot weather. My game plan was to run 5:30-5:40 miles to close in around 1:13, a minute slower than what I figured I could run in more favorable weather.
I met Edo Baart, who’d gotten silver in the 10K, on the metro ride in. Baart had a similar game plan to me so looked like we’d be running together, collaborating, and then start competing in the latter stages. But time was a secondary consideration. The goal was to get best possible finishing position, preferably one that came with a gong. That meant racing rather than time trialing as I tend to do in club races in New York where I take for granted winning my age group in distances of 10K or more. In the entry list my best recent time of 1:12:01 from Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon 2017 ranked me 7th fastest and there were 5 guys who had beaten me before. Pre-race favorites were Benita from Spain, gold medalist in the 2017 European Masters Half Marathon, Eichwein from Germany, silver medalist in the same and gold for 8K XC and 10K road in Malaga, and fellow Brit Tim Hartley, silver medalist in the 5000m a few days earlier. But Benita and Hartley did not show up.
We were lined up in corrals by age – M35-49 men and women in the first corral, M50-59 in the second. This meant having some 200 athletes, many much slower, in front. I reconnected with Baart. As a few older guys and girls ducked under the corral tape to join the first corral Baart and I, suspecting the floodgates would open, decided to follow suit. But the floodgates did not open. As I did not want to find myself beating someone simply because I started ahead of them I told Baart he was on his own. As I rejoined my corral I got that ‘look’ from many M50s. Turns out it would all prove academic as just before the start the corral breaks were removed and I forged my way nearer the front. So near I was able to tap Baart’s shoulder. He looked relieved.
And then we were off. I still had around 100 athletes in front of me but figured I had time to pass and settle into a group nearer the front. I went through the first mile with Baart, and Eichwein, in 5:39 (Garmin data is here). Slightly slower than goal pace but Baart said it was OK for him. I felt relaxed and we shared words. Though we sped up to 5:30 in mile two Eichwein started to charge away from us. Looking down the road I could see at least three M50s ahead of us: Eichwein, Joaquim Figueiredo (Portgual) who had gotten bronze, just ahead of me, in the 10K road race and the 5000m behind Hartley, and Luc Van Asbroeck (Belgium) who was just behind me in the 10K. Likely there were others. But how many?
I covered the third mile in a solid 5:29. I was torn between holding back and hoping the M50s ahead would start to fade, or chasing them. Baart dropped away seemingly preferring the former (after the race he confessed to tight achilles, a result of his tip toe style). But I was now starting to cautiously chase or at least prevent them getting further ahead. Figueiredo and Van Asbroeck were some 20 seconds / 80m in front (in a race I often keep count of the seconds I’m behind a few key runners). Shortly before the U turn around 5K, covered in around 17:15, I could see all the runners in front as they ran in the opposite direction. I saw at least one Spanish and another Portuguese M50. So I was in 6th. Or worse. (reviewing pictures after the race revealed 7th – this picture shows a 3rd Portuguese M50 in front me.)
The conditions were deteriorating. They were starting to be reminiscent of my races while living in South East Asia. Only it was later in the day, there was no shade and the sun stronger. Unlike other half marathon races I was taking on water at each drink station. A few quick gulps, a splash on each arm, and a few drops over my head. I did not fancy getting my head too wet. Despite my writing this a few days after the race I have little memory of much of the race. I just ground it out, chasing M50s that came into view.
In the 4th mile a taxi passed me, its passengers bellowing encouragement with Swedish accents. It turned out to be New York-based Swede Stefan Lingmerth, who later that morning would finish 12th in the final of the 1500m M40, and his brothers. I covered the 4th, 5th and 6th miles in 5:39, 5:37 and 5:39 passing the Spanish M50 at some point. Figueirido and Van Asbroeck were locked together still some way ahead. I was passing other runners one by one, including the first lady, jumping from one small group to the next. And yet my pace was starting to slow. I guessed I was slowing slower than most. I ran 5:44, the slowest of the race so far, for mile 7. I was running solo at this point and thinking I needed to dial back a little for the next 5K to ensure I would run strong in the final 5K. I was running by feel now pretty much ignoring the watch.
That plan lasted less than 5 minutes. Soon after mile 7 I realized that Figueirido and Van Asbroeck were slowing and I was closing the gap which was now around 10 seconds / 40m / . Van Asbroeck had dropped off Figueirido. I sensed blood and my killer instinct kicked in. No wonder a young family member once said I resemble a shark. I chased hard and accelerated. My race was on. In earnest. I was committed. I covered mile 8 in 5:36 and mile 9 in 5:34.
Soon after mile 9 I breezed passed Van Asbroeck. Under his breath I heard “shit”. It sounded strange coming from a Belgian. Clearly “shit” is part of the universal runners vernacular. Translated it meant “I’m toast”. And he was. For a fleeting moment he tried to follow me. But soon his heavy signature breathing ebbed away. And I was now closing on Figueirido whom I gobbled up soon after the final U turn around mile 10 after a 5:44 10th mile. I figured I was now in the medals. Eichwein was way in front and there were no other obvious M50s ahead of me but somewhere I must have passed Manuel Ferreira (Portugal).
I was now heading home, for the stadium. I was startiing to struggle like I do in the latter stages of the marathon. But I ignored the watch as it started to chime slower miles. And yet I was catching other runners including Melvin Wong an M35 from Singapore. Mile 11 took 5:43. I was now in damage limitation mode. And then into survival mode. Kerry-Liam Wilson, Team GB, who I’d only seen on the switchbacks way ahead of me, was now just 20m down the road. He was clearly slowing fast. So I made chase. And in so doing caught and passed Albinio Costa, a Portuguese M50. Surely I was now in silver spot! And yet mile 12 was my slowest so far – 5:53.
Passing the stadium with just a mile to go – a small 1K loop around an arena followed by one lap of the perimeter of the stadium track – I caught Wilson and urged him to follow me. Which he did for a few metres. Can you imagine this was how he’d chosen to spend his 48th birthday? I can. With 1K left I passed a very slow M50 Spaniard – was I lapping a back marker or passing an elite M50 in trouble.
Entering the stadium I realized we had an extra big lap to complete. As the 1500s were underway we ran the outer perimeter, lane 10 if you like. I eked out a slight increase in pace – I covered mile 13 in 5:49 – and finished in 1:14:53. I saw Wilson wobble as he crossed the line and pasesd him a water bottle. Wong followed soon after and a little later friends Francis Burdett, USA (11th M50) and Stephen Watmough, Team GB (6th M55). Now the race was over all runners were my friends again.
I breathed a great sigh of relief. It had been a battle of attrition and I seemed to have come out on top. Almost. The hardest part of the day was to follow. Dehydrated and hungry we now had to wait some 3 hours for the results and medal ceremony. When the results did come I got confirmation of a silver medal. I was happy. While the time was ugly, I’d executed well, running with my head for 15K and my heart the final 5K. I’d left it all out there and placed as high as I could have hoped.
I spent hours in the tent hanging with Team GB team mates, including the aforementioned, Mike Trees and Guy Bracken who won the 1500m M55 gold in emphatic style We were comrades in arms. The battle had been fought and the war was over. Once we’d got our gongs, individual and team, a group of us then headed to the city to refill the tank with alcohol and food. The following day I realized just how important it is to eke out everything you’ve got. Team GB topped the medals table, edging the Germans by one silver medal. There were many silvers won by Team GB but I’d like to think mine was that one. Won by 10 seconds in the final kilometre.
Results for all age groups are here while the overal results, showing me in 24th place, are here. A short race video is here: I can be seen at around 7 miles at 0:29. And a comprehensive gallery of pictures is here with me at the finish line here.
On reflection Malaga was far more than just a competition. It was a great holiday, in a fascinating place with friends from around the world. Friends who get you and care. It was a time to represent, to vacation, to chill, to endure and test, and much more. Thanks to many for getting me here, especially my wife Shamala, Urban Athletics and Team GB team mates and coach Troopy.