Wings for Life World Run 2015

Being caught by Coulthard - look closely, you can see him smiling!
Being caught by Coulthard – look closely, you can see him smiling!

Even before Manchester Marathon, I knew I’d need to set myself another target to focus on pretty much immediately to avoid Post Marathon Syndrome.

My main criteria were probably a race that would give me enough time to recover but not so long I could stop training, something local to spare my family from another weekend of me running too much, and somewhere between half marathon and 20 miles to make it interesting.

On that basis, the Wings for Life World Run failed on at least two counts and – on a really good day – could fail at all three.

Why? Well, it starts at Silverstone, which is a good 2.5hr drive from home – so with the Well Done cards from Kate and the girls still stood on the windowsill following the marathon, running it would mean a full day away from them.

Secondly, it was two weeks after Manchester – so it wouldn’t help me keep my long runs going simply because I wouldn’t be doing any long runs in the fortnight after Manchester.

And then there’s the distance. Or lack of one.  Toeing the start line, runners simply don’t know how far they will run – but more of that later.

Having almost zero interest in motor-racing, the novelty of running on a Formula One racetrack didn’t hold any appeal.

So why am I sat here writing about it? Because as soon as I started reading about it (and asking for reviews on Twitter), I found myself being drawn to it.

I’ll explain: The World Run is unlike any other run I’ve done in that you set off not knowing how far your race will take you. Rather than have a fixed finish line, runners set off on a 80km loop around the Northamptonshire countryside. Half an hour after they start, a ‘catcher car’ starts to track them down, and the idea is that you run until the car catches you.

Rather than run towards the finish line and hope to get there as quickly as possible, you run away from it and hope to stay ahead for as long as possible.

The novelty appealed. Tapping in a few possible ‘race paces’ into the online calculator, I predicted I could run around 18 miles before the car would catch me. I was hooked: Long enough to be interesting, but not like entering another marathon.

At this stage, I should have reminded myself of the half marathon trail race in the Lake District I’d already entered in early June, or my first solo ultra later the same month. But I didn’t. Instead, the credit card was out before I could spell David Coulthard.

Andy Oates duly found his arm twisted and without even a pint to bribe him, he was just as quickly enlisted as moral support. As it happened, Andy chose to run with me all the way around, which meant that, come race day, I was looking forward to it all even more.

The other thing that makes the World Run different is that it’s run in 35 separate locations around the world simultaneously. Watching all the countries counting down to the start, seeing celebs being interviewed on camera, the helicopter overheard broadcasting pictures from our own start line around the world, it all felt like some kind of Live Aid for runners.

I couldn’t wait to start.

This was the running community at its best. Thanks to Red Bull, every penny of the £40 entry fee was going straight to Wings for Life, a charity committed to finding a cure for spinal injuries. Sure, there were some people around who wanted to win, or beat personal targets. But most of all, this was carnival atmosphere.

Once we got running, I was immediately conscious that we were running faster than my initial 8min/mile pace, but already the different mentality of this race was pushing me on. Instead of warning myself that I could blow up by starting too quick, my brain was willing me on: So what if you blow up, all that means is that the finish will come sooner. Bring it on!

I’d like to say that running the ‘wrong’ way around the famous Silverstone circuit felt wrong, but of course, I only knew that because the start lights were pointing the wrong way. Anyway, all too soon, we were turning out of the racecourse and onto beautiful country lanes.

Chatting away, the miles flew by. Chocolate box villages were packed with supporters, while overhead, the constant buzzing of that helicopter reminded us of the global event we were taking part in. In fact, we’d long since gone through the half-marathon point (1:44, I think) before we noticed that the reason our pace was erratic was that the road hadn’t been flat for quite a few miles.

“The next hill’s a ****,” added a fellow runner, helpfully.

It was at this point that I began to realise that 18miles might be a stretch too far today. Whether it was the marathon in my legs, or my hopeless inability to run uphill, the 8-min-mile average we needed was sliipping away all the time and, from mile 15, I threw all caution to the (head)wind and tried to push on.

Tried being the operative word. It seemed like the road only went upwards and, sure enough, as Andy turned back to check on me midway up one of the ascents, I saw the reaction on his face.

“It’s coming.”

This is it. Cue the first real push. The hill leveled off (a little), and I managed to get my pace back down towards 8min/mile. A rare few hundred yards of flat saw it fall closer to seven. The car wouldn’t catch us so quickly at this pace.

But it wasn’t to last. Another hill meant I was giving it everything and barely moving forwards again.

A nod to Andy and he set off to hammer his final mile or two and, in my head at least, it was just me and the car.

Another picturesque village and this time the cheer was a roar. They could see it. They knew that we were the last runners they’d support today. For them, hours of clapping had come to this. Maybe they too believed we could somehow outrun a Range Rover Discovery with a former Formula One driver at the wheel!

Another burst, another few hundred yards, and then another short incline.

I looked over my shoulder. I could almost see Coulthard’s smile behind the wheel.

We go again.

Motorbike passes. The photographer cheers us on.

I find some more left in my legs to give.

I can hear the engine.

For a second, the encouragement of the rest of the procession takes over and I throw in a heel click for the photographer. He cheers. I think he caught that one, but I still try another just in case.

One. Last. Sprint.

Ultimately, sprinting against a car is futile. I feel like I’m running like Usain Bolt, but it still glides past. Probably in second gear. A high five from the crew inside, and I reach to stop my watch.

The chase is up. My race is over.

Wow! Within a few minutes a minibus offers me a lift to the next aid station, from where I’d be picked up and taken back to the racetrack. As I get out, Andy is already there – having only just been caught by the looks of it.

Official results will eventually confirm my distance at 17.06 miles. Not so far from 18 after all. And so much fun.

It wouldn’t be a Red Bull event without something death-defying extreme sport thrown in, and as our crowded double decker bus teetered on the edge of a deep ditch on a single lane country road, I started to recall the end of The Italian Job.  The cheers when we finally made it back onto open road suggested I wasn’t the only one.

Before long we were back at Silverstone, with more Red Bull and Haribos than we could carry, and heading towards a free bar. But having had one beer to be polite, our priority was getting home and that 2.5hr drive.

No PBs had been set, no targets smashed thanks to a carefully thought-out race strategy or months of training. If anything, our woeful choice of kit (two layers at the start, down to one within 5k) could have been disastrous.

But you wouldn’t have known it from the conversation in the car. It had been a really great day, a race like no other we had done before, or like anything we’d got planned for the rest of the year.

What we needed was something similar to put in the diary to keep us motivated.

Or maybe just enter again next year.

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