Monday, 2 November 2015

Home runs: Oxford Half and Abingdon Marathon

Ten years ago this autumn, I ran my first marathon in Amsterdam. It started a passion for seeing new places by running around them with friends. I’ve enjoyed races around the UK, and sampled post-marathon beers across Europe, but one crucial luxury has been missing: waking up in my own bed on race morning. A decade on, I finally decided to enter my local marathon this October.

A week before Abingdon Marathon, I had a chance to test my new race day ritual and finish my taper by trying out the new Oxford Half Marathon route. The race has only been back on the scene for a few years and, until this year, had comprised a jaunt along the eastern bypass and a short detour through the local car plant before heading back out to the football stadium past a queue of confused and grumpy motorists hoping to go out go out for their Sunday lunch. It was more crossed wires than dreaming spires but it was local and easy for me to get to. This year, now supported by Vitality, the run had been completely revamped with a city centre start and a route that took in many of Oxford’s sights, and most of my local training runs.

The new course had attracted more than just a few locals and, with a field of 7500 runners entered, the event was bigger than ever. The Park and Ride ferried out of town runners in and the start was delayed slightly to allow people stuck on a disrupted rail service into town the chance to make it. Despite the larger numbers, the race village set up in the University Parks had a friendly buzz and didn’t feel too crowded. The first mile felt the same until an event motorbike drove the wrong way down Broad Street, parting the mass of runners, beeping at us to clear the way. Behind him was one of the frontrunners. I wondered if it was an oversight with course design to bring the leaders back down the same piece of road so early in the race, or whether he was just heading back to the start having realised he’d forgotten something. It turned out someone had forgotten something – the map – and the leader had been taken off course early on.

Oxford was looking its best in bright autumnal sunshine for the rest of the run, with green and oranges boughs across the familiar roads, made partly unrecognisable by the sea of fluorescent vests and bobbing heads filling the course ahead. The masses had thinned out by the time we went back through the parks in the second half of the race. This is one of my favourite places to run in Oxford so I was a bit sad to see someone throw their water bottle into the flowerbeds. Later, as I cycled home along what was left of the course, I was really impressed to see that every cup and bottle had been cleared up in record time by the event team – if you don’t think twice about littering at a race normally, you will when it’s your hometown. If there’s water provided, there are generally bins provided too.

Any home advantage was lost in the last mile: while I could see a direct route back to the finish, the course was busy twisting and turning and taking in some iconic Oxford sights, like the Radcliffe Camera, to make up the remaining metres. The finishing straight was packed with spectators, which gave it a ‘big city’ event feel, and we were handed a nice medal and t-shirt. There might have been one of two organisational hiccups to iron out for next time but it was already a far more inviting race than in previous years and one I can see the appeal in travelling from out of Oxford to run.

One week later, with the dress rehearsal complete, I was running around at home having left sorting my marathon kit out until the last minute. While there’s always a risk of forgetting something, travelling somewhere for a race does at least force you to get organised early. Abingdon Marathon itself is a well-rehearsed affair, running for the 33rd time this year. Often described as flat and fast, it attracts a loyal crowd and the 1200 places sell out quickly each year, partly because it hosts a number of county championship events too.

While the course was quiet compared to Oxford Half the week before, there were some great pockets of support, particularly running through the centre of the town, and where the lapped part of the route started and ended. There was a brilliant turn out from my running and triathlon clubs, be it racing, supporting or marshalling, and a familiar face and a cheer on almost every corner. I started out running with a club mate and we chatted happily and ran at a decent pace for the first half; things certainly became quieter at 13 miles, then slower at 15 miles, until my legs were setting their own pace and I let Dave go on ahead. I ran by myself until I ended up alongside a couple of guys on the final lap of the athletics track and tried out my best attempt at a sprint finish.

Being flat and fast might be Abingdon Marathon’s main attraction to many but it also has some other notorious features, namely by enforcing a 5-hour time limit and a strict policy on disqualifying people listening to music - the latter being something that many races claim to uphold but don’t appear to. It’s a great race if you like your marathons straight up with a slice of serious but it’s probably not for everyone; that said, it was very well organised with lots of cheerful and friendly marshals, and I would certainly run it again.

This was neither my fastest nor slowest marathon in 10 years, but I was happy to be enjoying another one and very grateful for the support from friends, family, and from people simply cheering a runner in a local club vest. After all, waking up in your own bed isn’t the only luxury of running an event close to home.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...