24 September 2017
Feeling rather unwelcome in the churchyard, I took a few random photos and left. Back out on the road with the race parading by me I stood in front of a rather ornate wooden bus stop and watched the runners stream past the Hursley chimneys. The road had been partly closed for the race and an unfortunate marshal had the job of holding up a stop go board to let cars trickle through when there was a safe gap between runners. It wasn’t a job I envied. Some of the drivers were less than patient despite the road closures being widely publicised weeks in advance of the race.
There was a car park just beyond the bus stop. It belonged to the Hursley Parish Hall and was, as far as I could tell, used by the people who’d been to the morning church service. There were a couple of near misses as they drove across the stream of runners trying to squeeze into the traffic queue on the opposite side of the road. The villagers watching the race beside me were not impressed and grumbled about them loudly. As the race organisers were donating money from the race to the Countess Mountbatten Hospice and many of the runners were being sponsored for various charities I wondered why the drivers didn’t welcome the race, or at least have more patience and understanding.
The 2:20 pacers came past and I cheered wildly, although the time on their shirts told me I still had quite a while to wait for the tail runners. Once they’d gone I looked longingly at the pub across the road, wishing it was open so I could get a coffee while I waited. They could have made a fortune from the spectators and marshals.
The next orange shirts to come through were, predictably, the 2:25 pacers, led by Big Dave who organises and trains all the pacers for these events. He waved when he spotted me cheering. Moments later I spotted my tail walking partner in crime, Mal, across the road in the car park and went to join him. Rather than being driven to Hursley, he’d chosen to run there taking a short cut to avoid the race route. He’d left Winchester when the race started but, in a feat only I could have usually managed, got a bit lost on the way and added several miles to the journey.
While we were laughing about his getting lost and I was telling him about all the times I’d added miles to a journey by taking a short cut, Rosie the 2:45 pacer, came past. She’d got a little ahead of her partner, Rachel and was desperate for water. There was water to spare at the pub car park water station but, she told us, there was none left anywhere on the first part of the route. As the day was far hotter than expected, this was causing a few problems for the runners. Later I learned the water that had been laid out overnight in preparation for the race had been stolen. Why anyone would steal hundreds of bottles of water is beyond me. Whoever did it should be ashamed of themselves.
A minute or two later Rachel arrived. She was hot and dehydrated. She gulped down a bottle of water gratefully and carried on. Now we knew the Next pacers to pass would be the tail runners and it would finally be time for us to get moving.
As it was, the tail runners, Kim and Vicky, were not far behind the 2:45 pacers. When they reached us with the last runner, a very plucky lady called Sophie, they were also desperate for water. There was a short stop while everyone rehydrated and then we were off.
Relieved of their tail running duties, Kim and Vicky, ran ahead at their own pace and Mal and I took charge of Sophie. This was the moment I’d been worrying about. As we set off along Port Lane it became clear Sophie was a runner and, for a moment or two, I felt slightly panicked about being left behind and holding everyone up. Luckily for me, her running pace and my power walking pace were fairly evenly matched. We marched up the leafy lane with Kim and Vicky slowly disappearing into the distance. Pretty soon we came to the 10k marker where a timing mat and marshal waited patiently for us.
The Winchester Half Marathon has a great deal of uphill to it right from the start. It is certainly not a race for PB’s. Although we’d missed the first steep three miles getting out of the city we couldn’t get away from the hills. The pretty lane wound ever upwards towards Oliver’s Battery and we puffed up it barely registering the views of farm fields beyond the hedges. Soon we passed the seven mile marker.
When we reached the junction with Old Kennels Lane Mal said, “we’re nearly at the top,” but I knew things were about to get steeper still. A photographer was crouched beside the pretty thatched cottage. I snapped a picture of him taking a picture of us but kept quiet about the hill ahead. My job was to motivate after all, not be a harbinger of doom.
As we passed the eight mile marker I could see the corner where the hill gets stupidly steep just ahead. Last time I’d had to use all my powers of persuasion and a few of my walking snacks to get the final walker to keep going. Thinking ahead I offered Sophie a snack but she refused and kept doggedly plodding, at normal walking pace now. Mal said, “I don’t remember this hill from last time.”
”I do,” I laughed. “I wondered why you said we were nearly at the top earlier. Maybe it was so traumatic you’ve wiped it from your memory.”
We made it to the top of the hill with our calves screaming in protest. On we went, through Oliver’s Battery with never a sight of the Iron Age earthwork or Bronze Age burial mounds the place is famous for. Of course I couldn’t help thinking about Cromwell’s camp where he and his parliamentary forces made good use of the ancient earthwork to besiege Winchester back in 1645.This area was downland, dotted with grazing sheep until the beginning of the twentieth century when a military camp was built. During World War I There was a vetinary hospital for war horses here. After the war the land was split into small holdings and the modern day village grew up.
Soon we had left Olvier’s Battery behind and the hill was just a horrible memory. We were now heading through Badger Farm a new development of boxy 1970’s houses build on land once owned by John O’Loughlin and named after tennant farmer William Badger. The modern buildings were a shock to the system after the farmland and pretty cottages but the nine mile sign was a welcome sight.
When we came to the railway bridge on Stanmore Road I didn’t need a sign to tell me we were getting close to Winchester again. A few moments later we saw the ten mile sign as we rounded the bend. Sophie was doing brilliantly for someone running her first Half Marathon. Despite the hills and the warm weather she was still smiling.
Turning onto St Cross Road brought back memories of all my Moonwalk training walks. We passed the chip shop where I brought chips but couldn’t eat them on one very long rainy walk. There was the bus stop where I sheltered from the rain. Then we were passing St Cross Hospital. Stopping to take photos meant I was falling a little behind so I had to run to catch up.
Turning onto Five Bridges Road felt like coming home. It has featured in so many of my walks it feels like an old friend. From now on we’d be leaving the roads behind us until we reached Winchester. Now we had fields and beautiful views of the river to keep us company.
Close to the Hockley Viaduct we found the eleven mile sign. The marshals didn’t need to tell us where to go next. We passed under the old railway arch and onto the old Twyford road. Now we were on the Itchen Navigation, at least for a little while.
In my excitement at seeing the old canal I took an accidental photograph of the path. It may not be the best photograph I’ve even ever taken but it certainly captured the moment.
On we went with the hill beside us. Soon we were on Domum Road where we passed the twelve mile marker and the marshals waved us on to College Walk. Last time this was where things got tricky, mostly because someone had removed the route markers. Today the markers were still up but I didn’t need them. For once I knew exactly where I was going.
At intervals along the route we’d passed marshals and all had cheered encouragement as we went by but I knew there were some very special marshals in the city centre. When we got to the end of College Street we met up with the first of them. The welcome we got was so loud you’d have thought we were the winners of the race, not the last people heading for the finish line.
These were, of course, Spitfire marshals, the very best marshals there are. Their cheering was just what Sophie needed at the end of such a long hilly walk. Luckily I’d warned her to expect a lot of noise.
On the corner of Great Minster Street there were more of them and these ones were even louder. Unwisely, someone had given Sarah Min a megaphone and she was using it to full effect. For someone so small she certainly can make a lot of noise.
Over the last few hundred yards we accumulated Spitfire marshals as we went and Sophie crossed the finish line to a hero’s welcome. Her parents were waiting there for her looking very proud.
For the second year running I was officially the last person across the line at the Winchester Half Marathon. Of course that was my job. Last year the welcome hadn’t been great and I’d felt bad for the two people I’d been walking with. This year it couldn’t have been more different. With a gaggle of raucous Spitfire marshals to see us across the line Sophie got the welcome she so richly deserved to end her first Half Marathon. Maybe next year I’ll join the cheering squad myself.
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures. * Members of the Itchen Spitfires Running Club may copy and use any of the above photos.