Once upon a time, not so long ago, I would have killed for a time like that…
The taper is always my least favourite part of training. Doubts creep in, the body sometimes repulses the idea of suddenly dropping the volume its been accustomed to in the past 4-6 months. This, I found out today when reading over lunch, is why some don’t bother with a taper. I think, next time, I may do the same.
The 2016 London Marathon taper did not go well. The Chinese GP meant I was tired and virtually jet-lagged. My final long run was a disaster with my weird cramp afflicting me after just three miles of running and crippling me to a halt after seven miles. I ran twice subsequently without a repeat of the episode, but the legs didn’t feel great. The last two sessions on the elliptical trainer especially felt really bad, a cadence of 8-10 rpm less than what I’d easily managed a week earlier felt too much like hard work.
Then on Thursday evening – Prince died. Those who follow me on Facebook will know what the Purple One meant to me. I’ll spare you of the emotions I’ve felt over the past week, suffice to say I took the news fairly badly, a bottle plus of wine later and not getting to sleep until nearly 3 am meant I felt dreadful most of Friday and not a whole lot better on Saturday.
Added to that my eldest daughter came home from school midweek with a cold. Over dinner she decided to cough all over my face. Twice. By Saturday I could feel the onset of a cold trying to envelop my body. I tried my best to dismiss it, put it down to the moderate pollen count, but the tickle in the throat and the slightly heavy legs were a tell tale sign that I was not quite 100%. Ironically this was confirmed with just how easy it was for me to fall asleep on Saturday night. Normally the night before a big race I’d be tossing and turning until the early hours, especially if I decided to get an early night (9:30 pm). This time however I was sound asleep by ten, not stirring until the alarm clock chimed at 4:30 am.
I checked my phone to confirm it was indeed that early. It was. I was informed that Gwenda Williams had taken six of my Strava segments, none of which by legal means. Somewhat oddly I insisted on firing up the PC to flag each and every one of her poorly veiled bike rides pretending to be runs, before downing an espresso, grabbing my bags and heading out the front door.
I made a very late decision to catch an earlier train from Stevenage to Kings Cross than first planned. It’s possible the 7:38 would have been fine, but the night before doubts crept in and I insisted to my passenger, Scott, that the 7:03 would have to be the train we caught. And so it was we were on the A1 heading south at 5:30 am, the roads blissfully traffic free. Scott sat beside me, taking part in his first London Marathon, barely having slept a wink the night before. In the back my eldest daughter and my wife.
We arrived at Stevenage in plenty of time, just as well as the ticket machine proved to be very reluctant to produce any ticket at all. We were joined at the station by fellow Grantham Running Club members Paul and Helen, who were also taking part in the London Marathon and had also plumped for the drive to Stevenage and catch the 7:03 to Kings Cross option.
We were soon on the train and before we knew it we were at Kings Cross. I bid farewell to my wife and daughter who enjoyed coffee and croissants at the station cafe. I was a couple of tube journeys away from Charing Cross. Last year the train to Blackheath was rammed beyond comprehension. This year, thanks to being 40 minutes earlier, we had a choice of empty seats. It soon filled, but this was far more civilised.
It should be pointed out at some point that all the talk before the marathon was the weather and the threat of snow on race day. This was no Daily Express sensationalist crap that failed to materialise. Yes, the snow failed to materialise, but it snowed at Liege Baston Liege, it snowed at the Zurich Marathon, and it snowed in London a day or two after the London Marathon. As it was the forecasters were a little out in their prediction, conditions were a little wet first thing, but then mostly cloudy, a little breezy, and temperatures of around 8-10C – perfect for marathon running.
At Blackheath and at the Blue Start I wished Scott and Helen the best of luck as I embarked on the Championship start, which turned out to be a rather small, somewhat underwhelming, enclave within the Blue Start. Arriving over an hour before the start I had plenty of time to arrange a me in front of the Championship start photo. It has taken nearly 20 years of training to reach this start, it may be the only time I make it here. So I was going to get a (not that great photo).
After showing my number and confirming that my Kenilworth Runners T-Shirt met with the regulations I had an hour or so to kill before the start of the race. This was made much easier when I stumbled upon my good running friend Stuart Hopkins. Our running and sporting paths have followed very closely together – we last raced just a few months ago at the Chester Marathon, where I passed him at 19 miles en route to my 2:43 PB. Stuart has PBs at all distances just a bit quicker than mine but we have been fairly evenly matched over the years.
By the time we’d caught up on all the happenings of the past few months it was time to get a wriggle on, get in the queue for the toilets (Disappointingly we weren’t assigned one each…) and get the baggage bag on to the lorry. As an acknowledgement of our running talents it had been decreed there would be a road open for us to warm up on. However, it turned out this stretch of road was somewhat smaller than in previous years. You therefore had the rather amusing sight of hundreds of runners trying to run in an area no larger than a small playground. It meant that running was reduced to a jail yard shuffle. I wasn’t that fussed, I’ve never warmed up before a marathon and I wasn’t about to waste my energies now.
The championship starters begin their race just behind the elites. Disappointingly we were around 10 meters behind them. Moreover Stuart and I joined the start a little late, so we were quite near the back, back with the majority of the female championship runners, some of whom were only looking to run around 3:15. This meant potentially we could have a more congested start than when I competed from the Fast Good For Age start. I really wasn’t that bothered though, for a fast start is never in my plans at a marathon.
I was very calm when the gun fired for the start of the race. I’d tried my hardest to not get worked up and that had paid off handsomely. I now had to make sure I wasn’t too laid back and not be able to get into my running. The early miles worked out near perfectly. I like to run the first mile at a maximum of 150 BPM, the second mile at 155 BPM max, then the third at 160 BPM max, before running miles 4-20 at a maximum of 165 BPM. I had little difficulty keeping the heart rate down, as has often been the case. The first mile was 6:43, compared with 6:40 at Chester, 6:23 in the second mile (6:22 at Chester) and 5:56 in the significantly downhill third mile, compared with 6:15 at Chester. I felt comfortable and restrained.
With the crowd support in full voice as usual and the throngs of equally able runners around me, it was not difficult to maintain the pace and pleasingly the heart rate was the lowest it has ever been at the kind of pace I was running in a race, typically 2-3 beats lower than at Chester and well under the 165 threshold. The fourth mile was 5:57, but then I slowed a bit in miles 5 and 6 with 6:08 and 6:11. I ran the first 5k in 19:51, the second 5k in 19:12.
Miles 7-9 were much the same as the comfortable, restrained running continued – 6:04, 6:10; 6:04 for a third 5k of 19:14. I saw my wife at just over 9 miles – a fleeting glimpse. She would have seen me looking happy. It was the last time, metaphorically speaking, I had a smile on my face.
At nine and a half miles I started to get the familiar cramp feeling in my left quad that I suffered on that fateful last long run a week or so earlier. It didn’t manifest itself immediately into full blown cramp, but I knew from the five or six runs over the past 15 months where I have suffered this weird cramp (weird, because it typically happens very early during a run) that it would eventually take control of not just the left leg but the right leg too.
I also knew that, as at the Maverick trail race I won last summer, where I got the cramp at just two miles into the fifteen mile race, I could potentially run a good distance at relatively undiminished pace with a moderate amount of discomfort before the pain would become intolerable. So I tried my best to ignore the discomfort and run as well as possible for as long as possible.
Mile ten was another 6:04, mile 11 6:03 and mile 12 6:07. This wasn’t 2:36 pace but it was possibly a sub 2:40 if I could run a negative split in the second half. As we crossed Tower Bridge and were blown away, once again, by the sheer ferocity of the crowd support, my confidence took a knock as the discomfort intensified on descent from the bridge. Mile 13 was 6:14, the slowest since the second mile and I passed halfway in 1:21:39 having actually just run the fastest five km of the race (19:10). My mental maths worked out that basically if I matched my first half I would match my PB to virtually the second.
This actually didn’t inspire me that much. The main motivator in my training was the lure of possibly breaking 2:40. It now appeared that, barring a miracle and the weird cramp leaving me the best I could hope for was a marginal PB, the likelihood a performance a little way short. Mile 14 gave me brief room for hope. Inspired by the lead women runners on the opposite side of the road. I ran a 5:58 and still felt comfortable. Three gels down, three to go. Maybe I could still do this.
Mile 15 bordered on the surreal. At no point in the run did I really feel the need to visit a portaloo. By mile 15 there was small feelings, shall we say, but I could have comfortably held it all in for safe disposal after the race. Running down the appropriately named Narrow Street I had a flashback to the ill-fated 2011 marathon where, having just made it back from China / Vietnam / Moscow in time for the race thanks to the Icelandic ash cloud, I made an urgent visit to the portaloos in the 15th mile en route to a 2:55 clocking. Before I could snap myself out of it I found myself barging through the unsuspecting spectators and sitting in what could have been the very same portable toilet I found myself in five years earlier.
And there I sat. For quite a few moments doing nothing in particular. This was frankly ridiculous. I pulled myself together and made sure my trip to the WC wasn’t fruitless. I lost a minute or so before the shorts were back where they should be and I was on my way. The crap may have left the body but the cramp sadly hadn’t. The left quad still aching away.
That fifteenth mile was 7:22 including the stop, mile 16 showed I was still running well with a 6:02, followed by a 6:06 and a 6:11 as we headed into the Docklands. Mile 19 on the Garmin is listed as a 5:57 but I have my doubts as I could feel myself slowing and we passed Canary Wharf, which is always known to wreak havoc with anything relying on a GPS signal. To my surprise I chanced upon my wife, daughter, brother and his fiance cheering me in a prime spot at aforementioned Canary Wharf. This put a smile on my face and a small spring in my step. Sadly it wasn’t to last.
It was just after this point I caught and passed Stuart. Amazingly I believe it was almost the exact same duration into the marathon at Chester I passed him. He has been struggling in the past weeks with a hamstring injury and was clearly slowing. At Chester I had no doubts I would finish ahead of him. Here I wasn’t so sure.
Mile 20 was 6:11 but by now the left quad was awash with cramp and the right leg was beginning to suffer too. I mentally gave up at almost exactly the same point as I did last year – the temporary bit they’ve put in on the A6121 where you double back on yourself somewhat awkwardly. It’s wholly bereft of spectators. This year they put on a mobile disco to offer encouragement but, for me, it was not enough. I slowed, mile 21 was 6:57. Sub 2:45 dreams were over.
I think had I not have run 2:43 last year I would have doubled my efforts, tried to ignore the cramp, and battled through to a heroic 2:47 or so. Because I have now broken 2:45 and my only motivation was to try and break 2:40, now that was clearly not possible I switched off, slowed down and went into damage limitation mode. I thought of the upcoming World Duathlon Championships, the Summer Solstice 10k I want to run, the half marathons in the Autumn. What was the point in killing myself now for a time that would be five minutes outside my best? I set my sights on running sub-3 and dismissing the 2016 London Marathon as just a bad day in the office.
Mile 22 was 6:52, but that was the last respectable mile. By mile 23 I was having to stop and walk on occasion as the pain in the left quad especially was bad – as bad as it was on that last long run. The problem at London is that the spectators simply don’t let you stop and walk. They scream and shout, willing you to being running again. Last year I took the pressure off myself, expected fully to hit the wall and embraced the crowd when I did, almost enjoying the experience. This year I hated it. I hated the London Marathon and wondered why on earth I was doing it.
Still though I carried on. Mile 23 – 7:30. Mile 24 was really bad – 8:56. Mile 25 a little better at 8:25, but that included a spell of not moving at all, a few steps run backwards in a desperate attempt to cure the cramp – as it partially did a week earlier.
Thinking back now, bizarrely it may have. Either that or a conscious attempt to increase the cadence and reduce the stride length. The intense discomfort In the left leg subsided a little and I was able to shuffle the remainder of the way to the finish line, even mustering a little sprint finish near the end. In the meantime I had been re-passed by Stuart, passed too by GRC club mate Chris Limmer who was running strongly to a 2:53 clocking, and spotted the wife and family once again, who had managed to get from Canary Wharf to bag a prime spot right next to Big Ben!
As for me, well at 23 miles I figured I had 33 minutes to run the last 3.2 miles. I reckoned that was possible and so indeed it turned out to be – stopping the clock at 2:54:50. There was no fist pump, no smile, almost no emotion at all as I collected my medal and goody bag other than disappointment mixed with resignation and even a little optimism.
As I told, somewhat hastily as is usually the case, anyone who cared to listen that this was the last marathon I’d ever run, I also reflected that aside from the marathon itself, the training for the marathon has possibly left me in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I was second at the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon in my fastest ever spring HM time. I’d qualified for the World Duathlon Championships at my first attempt, and up until 20 miles I was running comfortably the fastest I’d ever done at the London Marathon.
2:54:50 would have been a time I’d died for ten or so years ago. When I first broke 3 hours I never thought I’d get down to 2:43 with the real possibility of going faster yet. The very fact I’m so disappointed by a 2:54 clocking shows how far I’ve come.
I’m always touched when the London Marathon gives me my own repatriation area (K-L…) Sadly it is the furthest possible distance from the finish line. My wife was suitably restrained in her congratulations, she knows me well enough to know that today was not one to be celebrated. As for my daughter, well she was thrilled at the thought of a packet of popcorn and a Nutri-grain nestled in my goody bag. She turned down the Beef Jerky (any takers please do call me…).
We headed to Covent Garden for a post race meal and drink – I just had two large black coffees. Last year after the race I could barely move for cramp for hours after the race. This year two hours after the finish the legs felt almost fine – confirming my suspicions that this was no ordinary cramp. That was almost more frustrating than had I fully smacked into the regular marathon wall.
It wasn’t long before we were on the train back to the car and driving the car back home. The champagne stayed in the fridge, a glass of Baron St Jean rose (Suspiciously pleasant for £2.99 a bottle at Aldi) my reward for my efforts.
The next morning I woke and put in an hour on elliptical trainer. I was stiff, but frustratingly it was still better than Thursday’s efforts. I spun in the evening, by now the throat sore. The next day I was in the throws of a full blown cold. I almost certainly had the cold virus in the body during the marathon. More fuel to the fire that misfortune afflicted my marathon dreams.
The 2016 London Marathon summed up exactly why I prefer the marathon training to the race itself. I love the hard work required to run a good marathon, I dislike the reality that during a marathon you spend the entire race running with a ticking time bomb hoping it doesn’t go off, knowing full well that, despite all your best efforts, there is often little you can do to stop it if it decides to detonate – sending its painful acid through unsuspecting muscles in your body, rendering you powerless and pathetic.
It detonated for me at London 2016. I was wounded, maybe scarred permanently, but hopeful I’ll bounce back stronger and really do forget the painful memories that were the concluding miles of the greatest race in the world. Don’t let the past 3000 words put you off. It really is a fantastic race, the overwhelming crowd support an affirmation that the vast majority of human beings are wonderful people, and that it is the one race that all runners should indeed take part in – at least once.