Just before it went down.
It was nearly 10am and a capacity field was called to the start line. I stepped across onto the track and found myself at the front. Oops, how did that happen? Imposter alert! Tony Audenshaw (fellow Stockport Harrier and Emmerdale actor)’s animated commentary over the PA gave way to a countdown and hooter blast to send a capacity crowd of nearly 1000 runners on two laps of the track to spread the field before we exited into Woodbank Park. Bashir Hussain had taken over the commentary and remarked: “What an amazing sight”. I looked across to the other side of the field. He was right. A mass of colour was swarming around the track. We would lap the back-markers before exiting into the park, so marshals on the track and instructions over the PA system ensured that there were no crashes and everything went like clockwork.
Now into the park we could ‘get into the zone’ and ‘do our own thing’ to get ourselves back to the finish. At least we didn’t have to worry about the cold rain now that we were generating our own warmth. Our route zigzagged through back roads with spectators watching from their front rooms before bringing us out onto the Marple Road. A short coned-off stretch without pavement took us to the bottom and up the other side past Offerton Sand and Gravel and the petrol station. Then came the left turn and first proper downhill blast down Bong’s Road to the valley bottom, followed by a flat jog to the drinks station just before halfway. Amazingly, the marshals had managed to rustle up some more cups from somewhere, while the local cattery allowed the use of their tap water. A stone wall served as the table.
The halfway mark was passed as we began our first climb up the other side of the valley beside the road (again no pavement and the car drivers were inconvenienced; I heard one clash of door mirrors). Before the top our route mercifully turns left onto minor roads, but it still climbs. Then we enjoy another zigzagging but more undulating route along side roads on the other side of the valley, with marshals at every street corner to guide and encourage us along.
We begin our second descent and the characteristic pear-shaped dome of Pear Mill comes into view in the valley below, but we still have a way to go yet before we pass it and begin our second climb of the day, up New Zealand Road. It’s not that it’s steep but it does go on a bit, and it continues after the left turn onto Turncroft Lane. More ascending finally brings us to the entrance to Woodbank Park where we return via our outward route to the athletics field. Now, allow me if you will to indulge myself with a little personal perspective.
Two consecutive PBs on the Woodbank Parkrun in the preceding two weeks (giving me my first sub-23 on that course) made me sense that a PB was on the cards. Not only that, I’d eaten and slept well in the lead-up and I’d eased off the ‘sauce’ in a serious way (including no bottle of wine the night before like in most previous years). That sealed it. A 'PB' had to be certainty.
I set off at what felt like a comfortable pace around the track and into the park, just like I always do. I wasn’t getting overtaken by herds of runners, meaning I’d set off too fast (like I always do). By the time I’d exited the park and turned left onto Turncroft Lane, I was burning up. I’d overdressed (you guessed it, like I always do). Why do I never learn?
I adjusted my clothing and continued at a pace that felt at the limit of just sustainable for 10 miles. A steady stream of runners was overtaking me. It was all so familiar but I knew that as long as I continued to put in this effort, the PB would come. Running down Bong’s Road the fell-running legs kicked in and I passed other runners as if they were standing still. The descent was too short. Once onto the flat valley bottom, they trickled past me again as I jogged along at my limit.
At the halfway point I was taken aback by a time split of 0:37:49. Last year’s PB was 1:17:27. I didn’t think this would leave enough cushion for the inevitably slower second half, which contained both of the major climbs. I would not let up for one second, though. It's not over until it's over. I did not even allow myself the wasted effort of wiping the rain drops off my watch face to read the time until I’d ascended New Zealand road and turned left onto Turncroft Lane and was halfway up the hill to the park. “1:12:??.” My heart skipped a beat. That was better than I could have hoped for. “It's in the bag. Bring on the PB!”
I pushed even harder to make sure I didn’t let it slip through my fingers. The gradient levelled out as I entered the park. I began to overtake one or two who had overtaken me on the final climb. I glanced at my watch. “1:14:??.” Other runners jogged in the opposite direction clutching their goody bags (show-offs). I began to hear Tony’s excitable commentary drifting across the park. The stadium still seemed a long way away and time was ticking. I turned the corner and wiped the rain off my watch face one final time. “1:16:??.” That’s too close but I should just make it with seconds to spare. I beasted myself on the final push along the straight into the stadium and my heart sank. I’d forgotten that we had to turn right and do a half lap of the track to finish. Tony shouted out over the PA: “And here comes Nick Ham, ultra runner extraordinaire …..”. I missed the remainder of what he said because I was barely surviving the unplanned-for half lap of flat plod. I think he went on to pass a joke about the skeleton cycling top I was wearing. A male runner sprinted past as if he were starting a 5k. “If you can do that now you've not been trying hard enough for the past 9.9 miles”, I thought to myself with my last vestige of lucid thought. The female runner who had overtaken me on the final climb and who I'd re-overtaken in the park, overtook me for the final time just before the line. I just about held off another runner who was rapidly closing on me to cross the line and stop my stopwatch.
As I recovered in the finishing funnel queue I checked the time – 1:18:16. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. 50 seconds outside last year's PB. So much for abstinence and healthy living, eh? What's it to be next year, a bottle of white or red? One of each? I might just complete the set with a rosé as well and win the race.
We were presented with a medal in the form of a soap on a rope called STOCKPORT STENCH REMOVER. The always original and very quirky goody bag contained a variety of bits and pieces including lollies and 'tattoos' for the kids. Useful items included pens, a paper pad and, most importantly, a long-sleeved technical shirt in fluorescent yellow-green and black – ideal for glowing and standing out on those runs into the cool evening as daylight fades to black.
Once again the Stockport 10 did us proud. I shall be back next year for a 7th go. After a little recovery I was back on the bike to cycle home into the teeth of the cold wind and rain.
I only took a few pictures before the race this time.