I’m starting to write this piece about my experience at the John Carr 5k, the day after the final race, but won’t finish it till later, but it has been such a great experience for me as an introduction to road racing and running competitively that I felt compelled to write about my experience as a first time racer at the age of 47.
I decided to enter the series because my times at the parkruns had started to come down quite dramatically from 45+ minutes to 33 minutes 15 seconds. Spurred on by this improvement I began to think about entering a race and was told about the John Carr 5k series which is held every May on the first three Wednesdays in the month in honour of a runner who died at the age of 30.
The races are held on land owned by Yorkshire Water and the course is fairly flat and fast which makes it appeal to runners of all abilities as the potential is there to set a Personal Best for the 5k and you have three attempts at it too. Add in the reward of a free beer at the end if you enter all three races and you can see the appeal of the series!
Once I had entered the series I decided that I wanted to break the 30 minute barrier at the final race. Whilst for many people 30 minutes is very achievable, for me it was a challenge. In addition to my improvement in running was a massive weight loss going from 18st 3lbs to 15st 10lbs. Whilst this was still quite heavy I was interested to see if my weight loss would also contribute to a new PB and hopefully one under 30 minutes.
The day of the first race came and I was in a mess to be honest. It was held on the first Monday after the bank holiday and stupidly I had decided to do a 7 mile run on the Sunday to collect my car from a golf club and a 7 mile walk around the hills near me on the Monday. This turned out to be a very bad idea. On the Tuesday my hamstrings were reminding me they were there by aching. This made me worried that my performance would be compromised and I would not be able to run at my best. In addition my left Achilles was aching once again, an old injury from many years back, so I approached the first race poorly prepared and with my legs aching.
As it turned out my fears were unfounded and I plodded round the course with the only memory being when I was told to turn right at the end of a short straight and saw the other runners all going at speed down the other side. I assumed it was a short straight only to turn round the corner and be confronted by a long, long straight! All the other runners where going a lot faster than I realised and I was a lot slower than I thought I was!
Near the end of the race is a 4k marker and a drop back down into Esholt. I decided to put a sprint on and managed it for a short while but then gave up, just stopped going at pace and as a consequence I was passed by at least two other runners from memory if not more. I made a vow there and then never to give up near the end of a race and to give it my all. No more giving up near the end, go for it and give it my absolute best. I finished in a time of 31:37, a new PB for me but it didn’t seem worth celebrating, didn’t feel like an achievement for some reason.
The next day my left Achilles was in pain, a lot of pain and I was having difficulty walking so I decided to give my Thursday night club meeting a miss and see how I was on Saturday for the parkrun. Saturday came and my Achilles was still in agony but I decided to do the parkrun anyway. At the parkrun I tried to warm up but I was in a lot of pain and decided not to risk running 5k that day.
At the parkrun however was a guy called Peter May who I had heard about as he is one of the more elite runners at my club Queensbury Running Club and a sports massager too. I had a word with Peter about my injury and booked an appointment to see him the following week. During this week I did no running or walking and it was a very, very difficult week because of this. I never realised before how much I would miss running and not being able to get out in the fresh air and feel free.
So the following week I went to see Peter and this is very relevant to the rest of my story. Peter asked me what was wrong and I told him, left Achilles, what shoes do you wear, support shoes. Wrong shoes, wrong problem. It turns out my problem was really bad tightness in my right calve and I needed neutral, cushioned shoes. For 20+ years I had believed I had the wrong injury and I was wearing the wrong shoes.
Peter sorted me out and gave me very good advice on how to prevent my injury getting any worse. I immediately went down to town and bought a cheap pair of neutral cushioned shoes for the next race. Wearing them was a revelation. My feet felt lighter and had more movement, I felt like I could run.
On the day of the second race I was looking forward to it excitedly. I decided to wear my old support shoes for the race simply because I had not run yet in my new ones. This time I got there early and proceeded to warm up doing around 1.5 miles. My legs felt good, still aching but a lot more movement and flexibility in them. Off I went at the start and my legs felt like lead. I went 100 yards and wanted to stop. My Achilles was killing me. My legs felt like lead, I didn’t feel like running at all.
But then something in mind clicked and I decided to see how I felt after a mile. The first mile went by and I was running at a good pace so decided to do another mile. After the second mile I was still going at a good pace so decided to keep going. My pace slowed over the last mile but I had enough left to kick for the finishing line and this time I did not give up. I went for it, giving it my all and crossed the line in a breathless and slightly dizzy 31:06. Another PB but still way off my target of sub 30 minutes.
I was in pain though. My neck was aching, I had a headache and I was struggling to catch my breath too. This was all too apparent to a good friend of mine who tried to talk to me but only got a load of incoherent nonsense and after quickly making their excuses I was left to try and work out where I was and how to get home!
But this week was different to the week before. This week I went to my Thursday night running club and I went out on my own. Running felt different, it felt fluid and natural, it felt right. I was doing non-stop runs and most importantly for me running up hills, something I had not done before. Mentally and physically I had changed for the better and my running was proof of this.
On the day of the third and final race I had another session with Peter and my legs felt better than ever. I had been running in the cheap shoes but felt far more comfortable in these than in the expensive support ones which felt like a pair of hiking boots in comparison. I was starting to believe I could go under the magic 30 minute barrier.
I got to the race in plenty of time and proceeded to warm up. My legs felt good but I was also aware of not overdoing things and leaving something in the tank for the race. And then there I was once again at the start line, ready to go for the third and final time this year. I set off and once again 100 yards in my legs felt like lead and I felt like stopping. I remember wondering to myself whether I should just stop there and then and go home.
But I didn’t. I carried on and my running freed up, I was moving smoothly, I felt good. The first mile went past in under 9 minutes, very fast for me, but I was enjoying myself. I saw people in front of me and I moved out and passed them and they didn’t come back at me. This was a new feeling, I was passing people and moving away from them. This felt good.
And this continued into the second mile too. This feeling of running and not just going through the motions was still here and I was enjoying it. after two miles my watch said just over 18 minutes. It was now I realised that my dream of a sub 30 minute 5k was on. All I had to do was keep going and believe.
Inevitably I slowed up, my watch showing my pace at 10:30 minutes a mile. But I knew I could still do it so I dug deep and kept going. I remember thinking if I didn’t do it today I would have to wait a year and that was something I was not prepared to do.
Back up over the start line and I could see the village of Esholt coming into view. I knew the finish line wasn’t far away and put a bit more pace into my run. Downhill into the village and seemingly the roads were lined with people cheering for me, ‘keep going’, ‘you’re doing great’, ‘you can do it’, everything just a blur.
And my mind was blank, nothing there at all, no thoughts just a deep intense concentration, focusing on not just finishing but on breaking the 30 minute barrier. And then it was over. I had finished. I ran for the nearest wall in order to try and get some air into my lungs. I was gasping for air but had to queue with everybody else in order to register my time. And I looked at my watch and it said 29:26. According to my watch I had done it, I had broken the 30 minute barrier and achieved my dream. But would the organisers find 30 seconds from somewhere and take everything away from me? I didn’t dare celebrate just yet, although I told friends what my time was. I was sure something would go wrong somewhere and my dream would remain just that.
In the bar I stood with my friends waiting for the official results to come out, still thinking I was dreaming, still trying to get my breath back and return to reality. And then the results were out and I looked for my name and there it was officially in black and white, Andrew Smith 29:26. I had done it, I had done what I set out to achieve and I had proved to myself that I can achieve so much more when I want to.
But I didn’t feel like celebrating. I was so tired, in a sporting sense this was the hardest I had ever worked physically and mentally to achieve a goal, a dream. But I did it and went home to a nice glass of red wine to relax and unwind with feeling satisfied and feeling like a runner for the first time ever in my life.