It’s easy to motivate myself for a club champs race.

Familiar faces. Pre-race chat. Post-race analysis. Bodies to chase.

Throw in an organised bus, five gels, and a home-made Nespresso coffee with heated milk and I’m raring to go.

The build-up to this year’s Alloa race was clouded somewhat. Up to a dozen members dropped out of the race with injuries and ailments stretching from damaged knees, to turned ankles.

Alloa was becoming cursed.

Despite this, 31 souls took advantage of the Portobello Bus. The 6.45AM departure failing to dissuade them.

We arrived on schedule at roughly 8.05AM, our driver Brian dropping us off in the car park, a stones throw from the race HQ at Thornhill Academy.

Two of the sports halls were open for bag drop but we didn’t notice the second, much quieter one, until it was too late. Not causing any bother, we ditched our bags quickly, with small groups of 2 and 3 heading out to the track for a warm-up.

Not taking any chances, I immediately joined the indoor queue for the loo.

Started queuing, 8.35.

Operation complete, 8.45.

Quick, efficient. No problem.

Gathering my prune gel (Aly pretty much forced me to take this one – while I’m totally convinced she only gave it to me because she didn’t want to eat it herself), I also had two gel soft flasks which hold two gels each.

Knowing this was going to be a suffer-fest, I used up all the remaining caffeine Kendal mint gel, putting it into the pouches and mixing it with a little bit of water. None of this ‘delay the caffeine hit’ nonsense I usually do. I needed today’s hit from the off.

The Race

Holding the flasks didn’t really cross my mind until we got running.

I’d scoffed the prune caffeine gel on the start line. Spending the rest of the time before the gun looking for my right-hand man Christian.

Christian is a brilliant runner.

Efficient. Consistent. Moves with grace.

A knife through butter.

But much more importantly, he’s extremely patient and lacks any kind of ego.

We ran together at Alloa last year and in our discussions for this year, he instilled belief in me when I alluded to a pacing strategy for a time around the 1:35 mark.

“What? No.” He remarked when I mentioned this was my plan.

In my head, I was wondering whether he’d completely forgotten that I’d run 140-odd miles less than two weeks ago.

But I think he just knows how to spark a fire.

This conversation alone switched my mindset from 1:35, to hang on for dear life and pray for sub-90.

This is the goal I had when I started the race.

Good wishes were passed around as Mark, Chris, Christian, Craig and George all hovered around. I felt out of place. Too slow for this place in the field. But equally, I relished the fun of trying to hang onto them.

I could see Donald in the distance and beyond him, far away in the front, lay David McNamara.

We were off.

Photo by Shona in the opening miles. Our roaming Porty Support

The race got underway and I began telling myself that I’d skimped on the warm-up as the opening 5K is the warm-up. A mantra I usually save for the opening 10 miles of a hundred miler.

I thought about the Winter Talk by Matt Holland. Using my arms, getting my legs into the right state. Switching both bottles to the left hand.

This felt good. Natural.

Christian sat just in front, beyond him I could see a Porty vest or two.

Left-hand side of the road. Crowded streets. Lots of shouting.

“Well done Alan!”

I looked over and saw Shona! What the hell was she doing here?! Shona had run 20 Along the Forth only yesterday and was out supporting us all here. What a woman! (It later turned out her daughter Zoe was also running but we’re claiming Shona as Porty’s personal supporter!).

The Alloa course begins with a loop. Straight-forward, with the hint of a hill climb before a sharp left swings you back around to the opening straight.

There was a kid with his Dad here. Wrong side of the road this time but while I couldn’t reach out for his ‘slap here to power up’ sign, I mentally transferred the energy he was giving us. He might well grow up to run this half marathon, and this might be the day that sparks the fire.

Passing the left-hand turn, Christian kept things light-hearted, telling me that I was to go round the loop again. He nearly had me.

Breaking It Down

Alloa can be broken down into a 4 part course.

Part 1, get the loop done.

Part 2, get to the Ochils straight.

Part 3, don’t blow up on the Ochils straight.

Part 4, turn left and hang on for dear life.

Part 2 is where Christian comes into his own.

Runners all around us were either beginning to flag from a fast start or looking around for groups to hang onto. As we cruised through Devonside – naturally, I did the “Oh, I think we’ve gone too far if we’re in Devon” joke – a couple of runners behind mentioned how they were tucking in behind the two Porty runners (us). This provided a couple of boosts. One, it meant we were pacing it right, and two, the element of competition kicked in a little and we stayed strong as the descent turned into a climb.

I opted to pass the first water station, mainly due to busy hands with the two gel flasks. Christian rocked up alongside me with half a bottle to spare and I gratefully accepted it, drinking some and pouring a healthy amount down my back.

Running a half-marathon is very different to running a hundred miler.

Whether there’s science behind it or not, it feels like vastly different muscle groups. Whether my activation sequence was better or whether it was down to a change in form due to speedy road shoes, the pain wasn’t the same as long mileage fatigue. It was isolated and arguably worse.

My right calf showed signs of cramping from mile 4 or 5. This is fairly normal, my right side is weaker. But it was the sharpness of feeling in my glutes and thighs. A burning sensation increasing with every mile. My body was reacting to the pace. But in spite of it all, the consistent zone I was in, both form and speed, meant that it felt under control.

When you go neck-deep into cold water, the initial reaction is for your body to go into shock. You want to move, either in panic or in the theory that you’ll heat up the water around you with that exchange of energy. But you’re not heating the water up. You’re fatiguing yourself. If you’d fallen of a ship you’re taking minutes off your survival time with every flail of an arm. The advice? Stay very still. It’s tough but it’ll save your life. Close your body into as small a shape as possible to preserve heat and hold it there.

When you’re immersing yourself in cold water for recovery, holding a similar position provides a similar relief. I imagine a buffer zone is created between my skin and the water. An insulated pocket. If I move, I break it. The cold gets in again.

This is what I did at Alloa.

Keep the form stable. Keep everything in control. Breath. Keep sipping at the gels. Let the terrain relieve the pace. Hold the form for as long as possible.

On the Ochil straight Christian and I separated. Not deliberately. I kept looking back expecting him to pull up alongside, hoping that he would. The gradual descent was coupled with the trigger of a memory from last year.

This was a section of suffering last year, with the wind blowing directly into our faces. None of that this year. Slight tailwind, downhill. Cruise it. A few runners overtook seeking to take advantage of the conditions. I was roasting. Another couple of water stations and the same story. A little in the mouth, most of it on my head or down my vest. And people run marathons in Spain, eh?

Knowing the course paid dividends this year.

Feeling the fatigue of a hard effort slowly start to creep in, I caught up with a couple of runners and exchanged a tiny bit of chat. One asked where the hill was, so I gave him a distance I hoped would put his mind at ease. I then used the energy from the exchange and started to imagine the gel hitting my stomach like Nitrous Oxide in one of the Fast and the Furious movies.

The goal from here was simple. Don’t get overtaken on the climb.

I’m not sure why I did this last year but I’d convinced myself that I could work harder on the climb than those around me. It’s all relative, and totally depends on who is there on a given day but on this day, I hammered it. The end isn’t far away, and with a flat stretch across the roundabout, there was time to recover.

Hitting the final climb to the finish, my eyes darted up the road for Shona. I needed a bit of inspiration and knew she’d be on that final tough climb. Pacing off two guys in front, I kept the effort hard, knowing that I was within sight of an Alloa course PB. The surprise of this spurred me on again and I caught sight of Shona.

I caught up with a runner just in front and urged him to kick for the final few hundred metres. Knowing that I’d join him when he surged. He did, I followed. Then as we rounded the finishing straight I spotted the clock closing out the 1:24s. Kicking the final few metres I threw myself across the line hoping I’d scraped it.


Beyond anything I thought I’d get.

A young lad came up offering a banana but I was ready to throw my breakfast back up. I had absolutely nothing left. I turned and saw Christian cruise over the line as though he was out on his Sunday long run. Grabbed my stuff from the hall, seeing the earlier finishers on the way. Everyone buzzing with their day.

On returning to the finish line I saw more and more Portobello faces cross the finish line. A mixed bag of emotions, from tears to big smiles. All happy with their run.

As some cooled down, and others filed in, our bus driver began a successful operation to get back into the Academy car park to save us the hike to town.

We were packed up and on the bus back to Portobello by 12PM. With a large group of us straight into the beach huts at Foresters for beers, food and a good solid debrief.

Blethering to Patrick on the bus back, I received possibly the greatest text I’ve ever received.

Journey juice

The day was great for a whole host of reasons but the coming together of a running club is top drawer. Running the same race means you’ve shared the same course with so many others, each having their own unique take on the day.

For some, Alloa was the goal. For others, a building block. For many though, it was simply a cracking day out with like-minded souls. Each on our own wonderfully mad running journey.

Thanks to Shona for the support and photos.

Big shoutouts to Aly and Tracy, who continue to inspire me with their volume. And to Craig Taylor, who ran to feel in a time of 1:28:42. On the back of saying he felt 3:30 marathon fit on the bus through.

The takeaway message is simple. You never know it’s going to be your day but if you show up, it just might be. If it’s not? Enjoy the experience and company with like-minded souls. We’re all in this together.

Portobello bus crew (return leg)

Race results below