To date, the Ashbourne Half Marathon, run annually in September, is my one and only half marathon. I’d decided to compete after taking up jogging after years of sloth and over-nourishment. Ashbourne is a great place to run because there are lots of hills and safe scenic places to go -it inspires. Like many in the area I ran around the estates, progressing on to runs out to Osmaston and then regularly around Carsington. I did the 10k at Kedleston Hall and then the day arrived.
The race started at the top of Dig Street. There were just under 200 runners and I felt hopelessly out of my depth. In my head I was thinking about a. survival and b. completion – nothing more. Seeing athletes running before the race started, surely wasting precious energy they would need later on, filled me with awe. I stretched and then wondered what to do until the race started.
And then we were off. The bit I remember about going along St John St was just how quickly people were running. Before the race I’d been told I would run quicker than I normally do because the rest of the runners pull you along. I actually felt sick that I was having to go quicker than I wanted just to avoid the humiliation of being at the back of the group before we even left the town – there was a wheelchair being pushed that was snapping at my heels and pensioners racing ahead.
Things improved slightly in the stretch along the Green Road up to the junction with Windmill Lane. It’s only when you are running that you realise where the hills are. The long stretch is a steady gradient and everyone started to be a bit more realistic at my end of the race. Windmill Lane itself was a pleasant flat section with a bit of roadside support and the first drinks station manned by brownies – and here was my first dilemma. I’ve seen the races on the TV where you get a drink and then just throw the cup on the floor – but this is Ashbourne and I couldn’t see a bin!
The next part of the race was a nice steady run down the A515 with some traffic control to avoid fatalities. Little groups had begun to form and I seemed to be accompanied by the very senior section of local running clubs who seemed to be able to run and hold a lengthy conversation at the same time – I was struggling to breathe by this point. The route takes a turn off and then another long steady upward slope towards Thorpe. I did quite like hills and I got my head down and gained some places. There were walkers by this point and it was apparent from the conversations that some people had entered on impulse and were regretting it by this stage (about 20 people failed to finish). Legend has it in the past that entrants for the Fun Run have accidentally ended up in the Half Marathon and, if so, this is the point where the feeling of uncertainty would start to emerge in the pit of their stomach. By the top of the rise to Thorpe the field is well stretched. Amazingly on the hill down to the gates of the Peveril Of The Peak some people put a sprint on – surely ill-advised – only to be overtaken on the next short rise into Thorpe village. The view as you come over the top on a sunny day is breathtaking. This is the part of the course that earns the Ashbourne Half Marathon an 85% rating in Runners World (typically 100% for scenery and 55% for beginner friendliness – I didn’t read this in advance). Seeing Dovedale on the right hand side, Blore Hill on the left lifts the spirits. It lifts them very briefly because as you make your way down to Ilam you can see the leaders tackling Blore Hill – a long, long way ahead!
The section through to Ilam is a pleasant shady flat area and then comes Blore Hill. This is a twisty, and very steep section at about 9 miles. To my credit I ran the whole race. Some people advise not to attempt running the hill but I wanted to say I’d done it the right way. Accordingly I passed a few of people on this part of the course and got lots of encouragement as I went up. In my head I was thinking that once this part was over it was more or less downhill all the way. This isn’t strictly true and the next drinks station is not immediately at the top either.
The rest of the course is surprisingly long and not as downhill as my drives round the course previously had suggested. There were some hobblers I came across who had either pulled a muscle or were burned out. The section through Okeover Park is another pretty part of the run with only sheep for company although the last bit through the lane to get to the Hanging Bridge junction has a bit of a hill to it.
From Hanging Bridge you know you have managed to complete it and thoughts turn to setting a good time. At the last drinks station I decided to try a sponge on the back of the neck as well as a drink. If I ever do one again I will have a sponge at every station – truly an elixir. I felt very pleased with myself as I picked up pace along Mayfield Road and Church Street. My family drove out to find me and offered encouragement and then headed to the finish. the Lions Club provide excellent marshalling even at my end of the race so I was safely guided across the road. I understand the finish is a little different these days but for me it was a sweep through the Rec car park and a final 100 yards on the springy turf with a commentator announcing you home.
I felt real satisfaction crossing the line and my family in attendance – only tarnished a little to see my white running shirt sullied by blood from abraded nipples (great for the victory photo) and knees that were already feeling tender. My official finishing time was 2 hours 7 minutes and 7 seconds and I finished 154th out of 178 finishers. The winner had finished 50 minutes earlier.
I found it very difficult to motivate myself to run afterwards without an objective and I’ve never been close to that level of fitness since despite starting the build up on a few occasions. I am full of admiration for anyone who completes any half marathon and bewildered by anyone who can complete a marathon. Give those running today, and those at the Great North Run, some support and maybe some sponsorship – they will earn it.