Sheffield half marathon – report by Jeni Harvey

Once more up That Hill – the Sheffield Half Marathon 2018

It’s fair to say I went in to this race with a lot of hope, a lot of anticipation, and a huge amount of nerves.

Me and the Sheffield Half Marathon have got history. It was my first half marathon in 2011, on the old route from Don Valley Stadium (I finished in 2:19, absolutely wrecked but determined to come back for more), and I’ve run the race every year since it got an overhaul by Run For All, with a new and hilly route incorporating a Peak District climb and a city centre finish.

During that time I’ve completed it in 1:57 (2015), 2:08 (2016, nine weeks after giving birth to my daughter), and 1:40:30 (2017). Breaking that 100 minute barrier has therefore been my aim for the last year.

And after the emotional finish of the Liversedge half in February, in which I missed out on that 1:40 goal by 15 seconds, the stakes were high for Sheffield on Sunday. I desperately wanted that 1:39, but knew it was a tough ask on a course that incorporates more than 1,000 ft of ascent.

After the finish line, downing a very welcome Erdinger Alcoholfrei

The race plan was simple enough. Stick with my friend and clubmate Dave, who was the 1:40 pacer, until fairly close to the end, and then see if I had anything left to sprint for the line. So, as planned, I found Dave at the start line and we set off together, after examining the split card taped to his wrist one last time, to see just how we were going to pace the hills to end up on that 7:30 min mile average.

The excitement and sheer atmosphere of the event, teamed with a slightly delayed start that raised tensions even further, meant that I went off slightly too fast, bounding off in front of Dave and belting out the first mile in 7:07. I carried on at my tad-too-fast pace from mile two, as That Hill began. Despite the crowds and encouragement all around, I began flagging by mile four, with around 700ft of ascent already done. I’d already got through two energy gels and was starting to slow when Dave and the other 1:40 pacer passed me. And I couldn’t catch them.

Mentally, this was tough. The 1:40 was visibly running away from me. At that point, it was only the thought of my husband and children waiting for me at the top of the hill that kept me going and desperately trying to catch the pacers. I knew that if they saw me lagging behind, they’d be worried and would know my race wasn’t going as planned. So I pushed, and pushed some more, and as we crested the hill – and saw my family shouting from the Norfolk Arms – I’d caught up with Dave and his 1:40 flag.

I’d thought the steep downhill would give me a bit of a break, but in reality my legs were so shot by this point – only five miles in – that I had to keep pushing even as we dropped around 250ft in a mile. I knew that my 1:40 aim was anything but in the bag, as I struggled through miles six, seven and eight, passing cheering crowds handing out jelly babies and oranges in Dore village. The next real challenge came on the climb out of Dore and back up to Ecclesall Road South. I was exhausted and it was showing. Once again, on the hill, Dave and his 1:40 flag went further and further into the distance as I desperately willed my legs to keep moving. On mile 9 I dropped to 7:44 as I struggled to keep up. The race, at this point, was being lost not only in my legs but in my head, as I thought that 100 mins was all but gone.

It’s amazing how a change of pace and ascent can change things, though. And as the route began dropping downhill towards the city centre, plus the reassuring sight of the 10 mile mark (less than a Parkrun to go!), I began gaining not just on the 1:40 flag but on other women runners from my club who are ordinarily faster and stronger than me. Mentally, that gave me the push I needed to pick it up a gear, and I pulled it back with a 6:56 on mile 11 and a 6:47 on mile 12. Just a mile to go.

The last mile of the Sheffield Half has a slight uphill climb, which is a killer at that stage in the game. It was the sheer roar of the crowds and the sight of the 1:40 flag just a few seconds in front of me that kept me pushing for the line, giving everything I had. I crossed the finish line in 1:39:22 (chip time) and 1:39:38 (gun time), well and truly breaking that 100-min target. Dave then turned around to check I was with him and I swear I saw relief on his face when I realised I’d caught up. I’m not ashamed to say I fell, overcome with pain and absolute joy, into his sweaty arms and gave him a huge, grateful, tearful, hug. It was done.

The Sheffield half is right up there with the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere, and unsurpassable in terms of scenery. It’s the only race I’ve ever done that truly has it all – the city centre finish, the national park views, and the level of support that indicates a whole city pulling together for one fantastic day out. Yes, it’s a tough course. And I know that I could go a few minutes faster on a flat course, without that small matter of 1,000ft of ascent. But the experience was incredible – and, already, I can’t wait for next year.

Running 1:39 is also a milestone for another reason – it’s exactly 40 minutes faster than I ran my first Sheffield Half Marathon seven years ago. I’m not a natural runner, I’m not super-fit, and my training often goes to pot due to a combination of children, full time work and studying. So I’m proud of how far I’ve come, and hope that my times continue to come down even further in the year and years ahead.