Winchester and Storm Ali

23 September 2018

At the end of the driest, hottest, sunniest summer since 1976, it was a touch disappointing when the day of the Winchester Half Marathon turned out to be one of the wettest, windiest days of the whole year, thanks to Storm Ali. The doom and gloom weather warnings didn’t exactly fill us with confidence but Commando was pacing the race so we wrapped up as best we could and set off bright and early.

The bad weather had given race organisers, Rees Leisure, a few headaches too. They’d had to dispense with the start finish arch for fear it would be blown down and the balloons they’d bought for the pacers to run with never made it as far as being blown up. They’d also had to arrange for the pre race gathering to move into Winchester Guildhall to try to keep the poor runners dry and warm as long as possible. Of course, the pacers still had their own special VIP changing room, but it was a little harder to get to through the crowds. Frankly, the way the weather looked, it was a wonder anyone turned up at all.

As the race start drew ever nearer there was a lot of looking out of the window at the torrential rain. It did look to have calmed down a little by the time the call came for the pacers to gather for their photo and then go out onto the balcony to be introduced to the crowds. Even so, I for one, was sorely tempted to stay inside with the food and drinks laid on for the pacers.

Of course, as I was meant to be taking photographs to mark the occasion, there was no choice but to zip up my waterproof coat, pull up the hood and brave the elements. The slightly reluctant runners were gathering by the time I found a spot opposite the Guildhall. By the time the pacers came out onto the balcony my glasses were already so wet it was touch and go whether I got a photo at all. In the end I just pointed the camera, shot and hoped.

For me the rain was the main problem. My glasses don’t like it and the camera likes it even less. For the runners, the wind was going to be the biggest challenge. The Winchester Half Marathon course is tough and very hilly. Factor in gale force winds and rain and getting round the thirteen point one miles in one piece seemed like an impossible task. The poor pacers, like Commando, also had to do it all in a specific time.

In past years I’ve acted as tail walker for this race but this year I’d volunteered to take photographs instead. Given the weather, this seemed like a good choice, even if it did still mean being out in the elements. Once the runners set off, my original plan had been to go for a little walk and check out the views from the top of Magdalen Hill and revisit the Soke. Now, as the High Street slowly cleared, this didn’t seem like such a great idea. With so much cloud and rain, it was unlikely there’d be much in the way of views from the hill and I didn’t really fancy a windy climb for nothing. In the end I only made it as far as Abbey Gardens and, even then, I spent most of the time sheltering under the trees, half afraid of a branch dropping on me. Basically, I was waiting for the crowds in Costa Coffee to die down.

When I judged the coffee queue was likely to be manageable I returned to the High Street. The runners had all gone by this time and it struck me there is nothing quite as sad as an empty finish funnel in the rain. A few race officials were wandering about on the course looking slightly bored, but, other than that, Winchester High Street was more or less deserted. Sadly, my queue judging had been fairly poor. The coffee shop was packed with all the people who’d normally  be outside and, to my disappointment, the croissant I had my eye on was snapped up before I got served. At least queueing for my coffee killed a bit of time.

When I finally got back outside the rain had more or less stopped. Even with the long wait for my coffee it would be ages before the fastest runner made it to the finish but I knew some of the marshals on the last mile of the course so I thought I’d pay them a visit. The more time I spend in Winchester the more my knowledge of all the little alleyways grows. If I ducked down Little Minster Street,  I was fairly sure I’d end up on the west side of the cathedral where I knew some of the marshals were stationed.

Surprisingly, I was right. The narrow alley took me onto the southern end of Great Minster Street where I found Rosie, smiling despite standing in the rain all morning. We had a chat and then I followed the race arrows until I found Julie, also smiling and very well wrapped up against the weather.

Standing on the corner of The Square were Kev and Chris, looking very dapper in their dry robes, patiently waiting for the first runner and trying not to think about going into any of the nearby pubs.

On the corner of Market Street a whole group were practiced their cheering as they saw me walking towards them. Heather had even managed to grab a take away coffee to keep her hands warm. As mine was gone by this time I felt slightly jealous.

Sue and Tina were so well wrapped up I almost didn’t recognise them when I came to the next corner. Their cheeky grins gave them away though and Sue shook her tambourine for me as I passed. Both were sure the first runners would be along soon but it sounded like wishful thinking to me.

As I turned back into the High Street the crowds were beginning to gather on the finish straight. Amongst them were Laura, James, little Roo and brand new baby Flower. We had quite a chat and I got a lovely smile from possibly the warmest, snuggest member of the marshalling squad.

Just then a lot of noise and tambourine shaking alerted me to the first runner. I turned just in time to see him speeding around the corner and running down the High Street towards the finish. It was time for me to get off the race course and find somewhere to watch the runners coming in.

In the end I didn’t actually get off the course at all. Instead I stood with the marshals just behind the missing finish arch and did my best to capture the pacer team as they crossed the line. Being friends with Nikki Rees, MD of Rees Leisure and today’s Event Director does have some advantages, as does chatting to her brother Chris, the Race Director.

Of course the rain started up again at this point so it wasn’t all joy and rainbows but I did manage to capture most of the pacers. When Commando crossed the line at an incredibly slow (for him) two hours and five minutes I finally conceded defeat and followed him back to the Guildhall to get warm and dry. This was where I caught up with Kali and Sam, the two hour ten pacers. Now it was just the tail runners to go and my job would be done. Of course it would be quite some time before they arrived.

A little over an hour later we heard a whisper that the tail runners and walkers were on their way. As Kim and Vicky were tail running we all piled outside to cheer them across the line. Unbelievably, the sun had come out.

With the smiling tail runners was the lovely Sophie, the tenacious lady I walked the last six miles with last year. She’s obviously been training hard because today she was not the last runner to cross the line.

In fact it was another hour or more before Russ and Jan marshalled the final runners across the finish line. It had been a hard race on a tough course in terrible conditions so crossing the line at all was a tremendous feat of endurance for all concerned. From the first to the last everyone earned their medals today.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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