The 29th year of the Great South Run was billed as a battle of the Brits.
In the women’s race, Eilish McColgan, Scottish middle-distance track specialist, was running the longest distance race of her career, competing against defending champion Gemma Steel and in-form Steph Twell.
In the men’s race, Andy Vernon was out to stop long-time rival and friend Chris Thompson from winning his third consecutive title.
Every athlete had their concerns, mostly fatigue due to recent races, but there could be no excuses. Portsmouth laid out ideal running conditions for the 10-miler with little wind and even some warmth.
Surge at the right time to test your competitors
The top women were together at 10km until Twell surged. She looked determined as she pushed the pace, quickening her leg turnover. Steel couldn’t respond, and for the next mile it looked as if McColgan was almost beat. But she hung on, and by 8 miles they were side by side again. At the start of the final mile McColgan turned the tables on Twell and made a decisive move. Her lofty, bouncy stride was majestic as she stormed to an impressive victory.
Vernon executed a similar tactic to Twell, trying to break Thompson early in the race. By 5km through to 10km Vernon was staying ahead of Thompson. But no discernible gap had formed, so when Thompson surged before 7 miles, Vernon couldn’t respond, and instead focused on maintaining second place.
Don’t show your best move too early
It’s easy to think that Twell and Vernon made a tactical error, forcing the pace early in the race. However, when you consider that McColgan had never raced beyond 10km, and Thompson felt heavy in his legs from the recent win at the Great Scottish Half Marathon in late September, Twell and Vernon were smart.
The problem was McColgan and Thompson had that slight advantage in persistence and endurance that the 10 mile distance requires.
Although it appeared to play into McColgan and Thompson’s hands, if they had any weaknesses, the strong pace early on would have given them too much to claw back. As it was, McColgan and Thompson not only dealt with the early leaders’ surges, they had the superior strength to counter-surge when Vernon and Twell were starting to fatigue from their unsuccessful breakaways.
Pain is easier to take when achieving your goals
David Moorcroft, the former 5,000m world record holder, remarked in commentary that pain is more bearable when winning. This was certainly the case for both champions; visibly fatigued but still running strong and fast during the final mile of race.
But their efforts were rewarded with new personal bests and impressive victories; Thompson gaining his third successive title and McColgan following in her mother’s two victories in the mid-1990s.
Although the 20,000+ recreational runners weren’t able to experience the highs (and lows) of running at the front, they could execute similar strategies to the elite field.
Runners should play to their strengths; if they know they can endure (and not slow in the final stages of the race), then they must be disciplined early on. If, however, they feel their speed is their best attribute, then getting through two-thirds of the race at a fast pace can allow sheer determination to kick in until the finish.
Either way, runners must embrace the pain of muscle soreness and keep believing that the end is in sight. After all, a new personal best is never that far away when the conditions are right.