The Down Tow Up Flow half marathon is a scenic multi-terrain run along the banks of the Thames. Multi-terrain in this case included running through fields, along trails and on road. It is run in opposite directions each year, hence the name. This year, it was run “Down Tow”, from Marlow to Windsor. I’d heard good things about the beautiful setting, and had never run a a multi-terrain race before, so when Dave Cregan suggested it, I agreed.
My weekend began with Charlie Dark’s excellent remix of The Hare and the Tortoise. This was a children’s show which took place in the Olympic Park as part of the Open East festival, which marked the handing over of the park to the public. For me, the highlight of the performance was the “Big Belly Man” poem, which had me cracking up and the kids and their parents fully engaged. However, the wisdom in the old fairy tale was something I should have heeded more carefully, as I set out for this race like the hare but finished like the tortoise.
I found myself getting out of bed at 6am on the Sunday of the race, which shows how much my life has changed in a year. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge and fruit toast, and set off at 7am to Paddington, where I met my friend Richard. We boarded the first of two trains and on the second one Richard took the opportunity for a power nap, impressively keeping my coffee upright. This proved to be a clever race strategy, and I’ll try to incorporate it into my routine in the future.
We arrived in Marlow and promptly set off in the wrong direction from the station, followed like lemmings by all the other runners and supporters. After a few minutes, my Spidey-sense started tingling, and a quick look at Google Maps confirmed we were going the wrong way. Cue amusing mass turn-around of people.
On arrival at the start line, the main down side of the organisation became apparent- there were huge queues for the toilets. Picking up our race packs was easy enough, but the PA system wasn’t working properly, so it was hard to make out what was being said. A fairly lame aerobic warm-up followed, so we spent most of our time chatting to the birthday boy, Dave Cregan- and My-Ha, who was returning to the scene of her first ever race a year on. Those are my only gripes with the race organisation, however. Once the race actually got underway, it proved to be an excellent event.
As I set off after the gun in the first wave of runners, I was feeling good. Various people had said that this wasn’t a PB course, and that had only made me quietly determined to try to prove them wrong. I quickly settled into 6.30 min/ mile pace, knowing that if I could maintain it for the whole course, I’d get a PB. I felt comfortable, avoiding the temptation to run the suicide pace of the front pack. 6.30 is roughly the average pace of elite runs with Run Dem Crew on Tuesdays, so when the adrenaline of race-day is pumping, it’s pretty easy to cope with. The difficulty would come later, when running beyond the usual Tuesday distance. We sped out across a field before hitting the path beside the river, negotiating several kissing gates with relative ease. I hadn’t heard the expression “kissing gate” before this race, so that’s one of many things I learnt from the experience.
The field was competitive but quickly stretched out into a line, so there weren’t issues with trying to find space early on. However, I quickly realised how much harder my legs were working compared to normal in order to cope with the uneven running surface. Running on uneven roads in Hackney, I thought I knew all about challenging surfaces, but this was another level. My calves and thighs felt like they were getting a serious workout, akin to the feeling in the gym when you’re lifting weights at your threshold. I wondered how this would affect me later in the run.
Mile 3 was a little trickier, as we ran along a dappled trail and safely overtaking became impossible. I was mentally prepared for bottlenecks like this, as the race organisers had explained that this would occur on their website. Although I was forced to drop below 6.30 pace for this mile, I didn’t worry about it. I’d resolved not to try to make the time up elsewhere- I’d just get back to 6.30 on the next mile if possible.
We then hit the first of two bridges on the route. This was a big surprise. I’d never encountered bridge climbs in races before, where you have to actually run up the steps before you can cross the bridge. We do this very regularly when running with the crew, but we often stop at the end of the bridge to allow others to catch up. Stopping wasn’t an option here, and it made a big difference, tiring me out. I’ve just done a bridge session working on cadence with Barbara, my coach, and I’m going to incorporate these into my runs as often as possible now.
Still, with that mile behind me, I was able to resume normal service for miles 4-6. I was enjoying the beautiful scenery and in a good place physically and mentally. It felt good to be racing along the Thames, and I was looking forward to passing Eton Dorney, scene of the Olympic rowing competition, later in the run.
Nevertheless, the bright sunshine began to bother me a little, so I was thankful for shady areas when we ran through them. I have a vague memory of possibly seeing some balloons tied up along the route at this point- more on this later- but I didn’t pay much attention and just continued focusing on my running form and pace.
Miles 7 and 8 proved to be somewhat harder. Despite my best efforts, my pace began to slow. I tried to focus on my cadence and form, moving my legs as quickly as possible, but 6.30 pace was beyond me. I accepted this and thought that it would be alright if I could stay at 6.36 or so for the rest of the race. I’d not been able to do many long runs in my training for this half marathon, as I’d had a succession of bugs, so on reflection, it’s not surprising that my body began to slow down once I’d gone beyond my usual six mile distance. In a way, that makes the achievement of completing this race even more special.
However, from miles 9 to 13 my pace got slower and slower. At this point, I have to be honest and say that no matter how tranquil and beautiful a course is, when you’re suffering, you don’t really notice or give a damn. I didn’t even notice Eton Dorney. I was getting overtaken with increasing regularity, and I began to worry that Richard, who had set off in the second wave five minutes after me, would overtake me. I wryly reflected on the moral of the hare and the tortoise and felt like a living example of it.
Mile 11 was a 7 minute mile, and I have to admit that at that point, I really considered stopping and walking. I was physically tired and my legs felt like lead. It was just no fun as the sun beat down ever stronger. However, knowing that I’ve entered the Bournemouth Marathon, which takes place in October, I was able to take this humbling experience on board as a warning sign. I knew that I had to get my long run training up to scratch from now on, because the marathon distance will be on another level entirely. I also remembered a conversation that Charlie had had with Simon Freeman when running a PB at a recent marathon, that went something like this:
Charlie: It hurts!
Simon: It’s meant to hurt!
(Suddenly, it all falls into place for Charlie and he speeds home like a veritable running god).
Somehow, I managed to keep going, but I slowed still further on lap 12 and 13, to over 7.30 min pace. However, when I came to a sign that said 400m to go, I briefly rallied. Looking at my watch, I saw that if I ran a 60 second 400 metres (practically impossible, I know) I would still be able to PB. I picked up the pace as much as I could, but rounded a corner and found that we had to climb two sets of stairs in order to cross another bridge. The 400m started after that. I knew a PB was now out of the question, so I just kept picking my legs up until the finish came in sight.
A really nice touch in this race was the organisers call your name out as you’re approaching the finish. I’ve never experienced this before and I have to say that it really gave me a lift as I hit the home straight. I may have finished like the tortoise, but I was still smiling as I crossed the finish line. I picked up my rather fancy medal and gulped down several cups of water. I’d completed the race in a not too shabby 1:27:51, and was more than happy with that, all things considered.
About 5 minutes later, Richard crossed the line in a very similar time, and we lay down on the bank beside the Thames enjoying the sun and rehydrating. Dave finished a few minutes later, and was pretty whacked- he’d found it really challenging in the heat. We chatted with some other runners and I was able to buy ice creams for me, Richard and Dave. Then, like an angel from Heaven, a friend of Dave’s arrived with a cool-box full of food for the birthday boy, and we eagerly dug in- except for Dave, who was not feeling up to it, sadly.
It later emerged that this friend had gone to great lengths to help Dave celebrate his birthday. She had tied balloons on every mile marker on the course, and had even phoned the race organisers the day before to find out where would be the best spot to put a large banner (see below). Unfortunately, Dave, Richard and I had all completely missed this, presumably because we were so focused on the race. It was an absolutely lovely gesture, and we all felt a bit sheepish about not having taken it in properly. Once Dave had recovered, he was driven out to go and appreciate the efforts that had been taken.
My-Ha finished and we all posed for a picture on the winner’s podium. The race winner came through in a beastly 1hr 14 minutes, and I had come 20 places behind, averaging 6.45 pace. I learnt a lot from the race. I’m looking forward to doing more off-road running, more long runs, and working on my cadence on those stairs.
All in all, this is an excellent event. The organisation at the start could have improved, particularly in terms of toilets, but the race is lovely and the marshals and the organisation at the end was as good as I’ve experienced. The medal is clearly all kinds of awesome. I suspect that I would have enjoyed the race more if I’d been able to do more long runs, and am on the case with my preparations for Bournemouth. I whole-heartedly recommend this race if you’re thinking of doing it next year, when it will be run in the opposite direction, “Up Flow”.