25 September 2016
Before Commando broke his leg he was scheduled to run as a pacer for the Winchester Half Marathon. It was an event I’d been looking forward to because it would give me a couple of hours to wander around Winchester while he was running. Of course the injury meant this wasn’t to be. Then, a couple of weeks before the event, I was asked if I might like to be a tail walker. Of course, as soon as I found out no running of any kind would be expected, I jumped at the chance. With Commando’s recovery well under way he decided to tail walk with me.
All this meant I had to officially enter the race, even though the tail walkers would be walking in relays, each team walking half the route. It seemed to me it would be far easier if we walked the whole thirteen point one miles but tail walkers had already signed up for the first part with all the steep hills and I didn’t want to argue in case they decided they didn’t need me after all. It seemed I’d got the better part of the deal, walking from Hursley back to Winchester.
We set off for Winchester on a crisp, bright Sunday morning full of excitement. The VIP pacers changing room turned out to be in Winchester Guildhall, a rather grand building with three porticoed arches looking out over The Broadway. Sadly, with the start line set up right in front of it, there was no chance to take photographs from the outside. Inside we found a long arched corridor but we were whisked into a side room before I had a chance to really look around.
There wasn’t a great deal in the way of changing to be done as we’d driven down in our race gear. The large room we’d been ushered into had duck egg blue walls and a row of interesting looking chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. I was still blinking and staring at them, feeling it was a far cry from the more mundane changing rooms for the Southampton Half Marathon, when Winchester’s lady mayor in her full robes greeted us. In my leggings and race t-shirt I felt decidedly underdressed.
Photos of the tail walking team, including Commando and I, were taken for posterity. Commando had a bright orange t-shirt with Motivator written on the front instead of the pace time the other pacers had and I had a bright green Winchester Half Marathon shirt. Whatever happened there was no chance of anyone missing us in the crowd.
Tea, coffee and biscuits were laid on for us at the end of the room. We took full advantage and spent our pre race time looking out of the windows over the crowds below. One very tall chap stood out amongst the gathering runners, spectators and ambulance crews. It took a while to realise he wasn’t a giant but a stilt walker.
Another pacer, who works in Winchester, pointed out that the top windows on St John’s House opposite were actually not windows at all but were painted on. I don’t think I’d have noticed if he hadn’t told me. Apparently, in the late eighteenth century, the roof was raised by seven feet and an assembly room created. Concerts, balls and dinners were held there but, for some reason, the new part of the building wasn’t given windows. Instead, a row of pretend windows were painted on. They’re very realistic but I’m wondering if the room behind them is a little on the dark side?
Soon enough it was time to leave the fancy room behind and go outside. All the pacers were lined up beneath the arches we’d walked through earlier so the crowd below could get the chance to see the pacers they’d be following or, in our case, who’d be following them. Then it was time for most of the pacers to take their positions. Of course, we wouldn’t be starting right away so, with wishes of luck, we watched the race begin and went back inside to wait for our lift to Hursley.
Before long we were in a car with one of the race organisers, heading for Hursley. As half the roads were closed off for the race this was not quite as simple as you’d think. We found the tail walkers somewhere around mile five. It seemed rather silly to drive at walking pace behind the race for another mile so it was suggested we swap places with them there and then. This might have been slightly easier if Commando and I weren’t in the back of a very small three door car behind the sweeper van and two tail cyclists.
By the time we’d extracted ourselves and got past the traffic the last place runners were some distance ahead. Luckily, they weren’t running fast and we were soon gaining ground. Neither of us knew the area very well but it was more or less one long, straight, leafy road at this stage and we now had the sweeper van and tail cyclists behind us so we figured they’d tell us if we went the wrong way at any point. When we reached the sign for Hursley we knew we must be close to mile six, our planned starting point.
By the time we spotted the mile six marker, next to an interesting looking house with exceedingly tall chimneys somewhere in Hursley village, we’d more or less caught up. Then things began to go a little awry. The pedal fell off one of the tail cyclists bikes and he had to drop out. This wasn’t much of a problem for us as we still had one tail cyclist and the sweeper van. There was a water stop just after the mile six marker outside the Kings Head pub. As I had my own water bottle, still almost full, I marched on past, more intent on the runners right ahead than water. Then I realised Commando wasn’t with me any more.
Looking back I could see him still at the water station. He’d spotted a lost looking woman in a race t-shirt and stopped to ask her if she was part of the race. It turned out she was and she wasn’t the only straggler, there was a man too, not really dressed for running a race and already wearing a finisher’s t-shirt. They must have both stopped at the water station and got separated from the runners ahead. We gathered them up and carried on.
Neither the woman or the man were runners and neither actually knew each other. The woman told me she was from Italy and had been in England for less than a week. Her friends had signed her up for the race but then abandoned her. She’d done no training, had never run before and was slightly bewildered by the whole thing. She probably needs to find some new friends too. The man didn’t really seem to understand what he’d let himself in for either. He was very talkative but decidedly eccentric. Over the next mile we slowly began to lose ground on the group of jogging ladies we’d been following earlier.
Around about mile seven the man decided he needed to stop for a toilet break. He clambered over the hedgerow and disappeared from view. Commando and the woman waited while I walked on, trying to keep the jogging ladies in sight. For a while we carried on like this. Pretty soon I’d all but caught up with the ladies but, when I looked behind, I could see I was in danger of losing sight of Commando and the stragglers. In the end I decided it was best to give up any hope of us all walking together and dropped back to walk with Commando.
It was a beautiful day for walking, even if the pace was far slower than I’d expected. We carried on, following the race signs along leafy country lanes. Occasionally we passed marshals and water stations. The poor Italian woman struggled when we came to a steepish hill. For a while I thought she was going to give up and get in the sweeper van behind us so I gave her some of my walking snacks to boost her energy and a little talk about how good she’d feel when she crossed the finish line and got her medal. All this seemed to work and, when the going got flatter she cheered up a bit. At every mile marker I texted the race organisers to let them know where we were.
When we got to St Cross Road I knew for certain where we were for the first time. Now we were passing familiar landmarks. There was the chip shop I stopped at on my twenty seven mile Moonwalk training walk and the bus stop I’d sheltered in when it began to rain. There was another water station and the eccentric man picked up at least five water bottles and a huge handful of running gels. Commando tried to warn him not to take more than one, especially as we weren’t that far from Winchester at this point.
By the time we reached Five Bridges Road and lost the sweeper van several gels had been consumed, despite Commando’s warning. Strangely, our speed increased a little after that and I even found myself lagging behind when I stopped to take a picture over one of the bridges. At the St Catherine’s Hill car park there was a gell or possibly water induced toilet stop. Commando waited and the Italian woman and I walked on to Garnier Road.
This was when we got a little lost. My normal route into Winchester would be along Domum Road and through The Weirs but there were no race signs. We stood, looking at the sparsely detailed race map and dithered until Commando and the man, by now slightly high on sugar, caught us up. Luckily, Commando had had one practice run with the pacers before he broke his leg and he knew which way to go.
Shortly after this I got a text from the race organiser I’d been texting.
‘Can you confirm you are over the finish line?’
This was puzzling as I’d not long texted her we’d passed mile twelve. Then the tail bike got a similar question on his radio. As I texted back that we were still on the course I could hear the tail bike man saying the same on his radio. After that things became eerily quiet.
Without Commando I’d probably still be leading the unfortunate stragglers around the back streets of Winchester now. There wasn’t a single race sign or marshal in sight. As it was, Commando’s memory got us back to the finish just in time to see the timing mats being taken up. Even the medals and race packs were being tidied away as we crossed the line and I felt terrible for the poor Italian lady who I’d kept going with promises of medals and joy at the finish.
The lack of ceremony at the finish, along with the lack of signs and marshals was down to miscommunication. The first half tail walkers had gone back to walk the last mile with the ladies they’d been with since the start. Seeing tail walkers cross the finish line, someone had assumed it was us, told the marshals to stand down and started packing everything away, including all the signs.
When the mistake was realised, mostly because we were there crossing the rapidly disappearing finish line, medals were hastily found for our charges. It wasn’t quite the finish we’d expected. Commando and I got medals too, even if I don’t feel I’ve earned a half marathon medal when I only walked eight miles. My reward came as we were walking back to the Guildhall to collect our things. The Italian lady caught up with me and thanked me for getting her through the race. She was proudly wearing her medal.
Coming last in a race isn’t high on most people’s list of achievements but in this race that was exactly our brief. When the race results were published later that day mine was the name in last place. We crossed the line in 3.42.5, ten minutes behind the jogging ladies. It wasn’t fast by any means, even for me, but, as the expected finish time was 4.10, I think we did a good job. Maybe next time I’ll walk the whole thing.
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