Reminding my legs of the pains and pleasures of hilly half marathons

Last Saturday I ran my first half-marathon for a few years, and my first race of any kind in Spain, in a gorgeous little town called Cangas de Onis perched on the northern outskirts of the Picos Europa National Park.

I hadn’t done any specific training but figured I was in fairly reasonable shape from a generally active couple of months living in the mountains. Besides, I didn’t have a specific time I was aiming for, or any idea of how the route would compare to my previous battles with hilly-half’s back in the UK; where my PB is a 1-hour 36-minute slog I ran back in 2015.

My knowledge of the route prior to the race was somewhat vague, it being described to me as an out and back with 10 kilometres very gradual climbing and the same 10 kilometres gradually descending. Flanked by scenic views of the surrounding mountains. A friendly 200 metres of elevation in all. With a welcoming glass of vino tinto waiting patiently for me at the finish. This – unfortunately for my unsuspecting and ever troublesome right calf – wasn’t an entirely accurate description!

Given the location – nestled in the mountains – a measly 200 metres of climbing does, now at least, seem a tad tame. Those pesky lumps of picturesque rock had a lot more in store for me than that. I’m not sure why I expected anything different. On the drive in we were treated to pretty spectacular views up and down the valley, but spectacular views invariably come with a vertical price to pay.

At the start line, I fidgeted in anticipation with 900 odd other runners fidgeting in anticipation. BANG! The gun said go, and off we all shuffled, collectively emitting that familiar buzz of beginning something we knew would be painful and difficult and perversely fun. It was a comforting reminder of a half-forgotten feeling.

I started out with the 1.40 pacer, which was comfortable and in the ballpark of my PB, for the first 6 km’s. Quick aside; pacers are wonderful in theory and terrible in practice, they always seem to be too close to each other, in this case, the 1.40 guy wasn’t far from the 1.35 guy for the first quarter of the race. On top of this suspect positioning, the pace seems pretty difficult to standardise if there is substantial elevation in the race. According to the pacers preference for either spinning uphill and attacking downhills, or attacking uphills and recovering on downs – surely the pace will fluctuate?

Maybe this pacing rant/revelation is obvious. But it’s a thought that occurred to me and my 1.40 pace amigos were rudely jolted out of our rhythm by a sharp increase in incline. It went up and up and up. Merciless switchback after merciless switchback.

It was, of course, bloody painful, but I actually enjoy up hills. Something to do with the mental effort of maintaining a certain pace being in a way reduced, in sync with the physical effort required to climb the suddenly formidable lump of concrete in front and above you being increased. I can just switch off and climb rather than having to think about maintaining a pace set by a pacer I have very recently decided that I don’t trust.

The 7-10 km stretch went by fairly quickly despite the succession of switchbacks and the aggressive gradient, and the route plateaued at a beautiful church overlooking the entire valley. I wish I could have enjoyed the view but I was an unequivocal mess after attacking the climb. At least it was all downhill from here, although, they too can be difficult. In a different but by no means less agonising way!

My calves and toes protested progressively as the downhill kilometres ticked by. As the protests became shouts, and then screams, I remembered – vividly – why downhills are the devil. I had forgotten how punishing each step was when the whole weight of your body is bounced back off the concrete and into your bones. It’s jarring once, let alone hundreds of times.

The last few kilometres back into Cangas de Onis weren’t pretty – they weren’t even in the vicinity of pretty – but I stumbled across the finish line in a familiar 1 hour and 36 minutes. The last 20 of these minutes that went on for hours were spent wondering if my toe-nail on my left foots big toe was quite where it was supposed to be. As I lay on the road beyond the finish line, contemplating staying in that exact position forever, I couldn’t muster the energy to check on the condition of my toe-nail.

One good thing, it turns out, about Spanish races is that they shower you with food and drink afterwards. As you shuffle slowly through the area that you shuffled excitedly through an hour and a half earlier you are given an empty plastic bag (that seems to weigh more than it should) before a bunch of calorific-angels fill said bag with cakes, Powerade, fruit, yoghurt, and more cakes.

As I and many other broken humans around me consumed this bag of goodies with a truly impressive absence of grace and self-awareness – pouring a yoghurt and Powerade cocktail all over ourselves like toddlers – I started to get that feeling that makes all the agony dissipate. It’s that floaty-feeling of having absolutely exhausted yourself, of all those spaces in your body where energy was being filled with a warm and fuzzy satisfaction and the contented urge to have a nap for the next decade or so.

A week later I’ve just about recovered, and brokered peace with my right calf after much negotiation. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Ruta De La Reconquista to anyone who has forgotten and fancies remembering the pleasures that are almost definitely worth enduring the pain of a hilly half-marathon.

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