Race Report – Greater Manchester Marathon – Sunday 7th April 2019

Prerace 

Despite Manchester from Grantham being comparable distance to Grantham to London I’d decided fairly early that I wasn’t going to travel on the morning of the race to Manchester from home. I balked at the idea of paying large amounts of money for a hotel room so opted, for the first time, to use the family caravan to stay close to the race and then stay up in the Manchester area with the family for a few days as the race was taking place during the Easter holidays.

We were staying at a Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Bury, which is in the outskirts of the Greater Manchester district and, crucially, on the tram network that I planned to use to get to and from the race. We left for Bury on the Saturday morning and was immediately grateful for Richard at Grantham Leisure Ltd who was able to immediately identify a terrible sounding (but actually relatively harmless) issue with our tow bar that hit us when setting off on our journey that was remedied with some sand paper and brake cleaner that he very kindly let us keep at no cost.

That drama out of the way the journey to Bury was straightforward enough. The site was pleasant enough, set in Burrs Country Park with constant reminders of the area’s industrial past, including a steam train running on a line just behind our caravan, which bought great boyish pleasure! Once set up and lunch eaten most of the afternoon was spent relaxing as much as possible.

Idyllic caravan scene

My pre marathon meal of choice is pizza, which isn’t so easy to cook in the caravan so was relying on takeaway. After googling for Bury’s finest pizza establishments I settled on my first ever Domino’s Pizza. I was impressed with the app and collection procedure; less impressed with the actual quality of the pizza and that they are still texting me six months later in the feint hope I may actually use Domino’s Bury while living in Grantham. I washed the pizza down with a small glass of white wine – the habits of caravan lifestyle proved too hard to resist.

The rest of the evening was spent playing the usual parlour games we play with the kids in the caravan before heading to bed at around 10pm. The beauty of staying in the caravan was that, so long as the weather was not biblically bad, I was almost assured a good night’s sleep in a familiar bed – something that I rarely get when staying in a hotel room.

I woke at around 5am and let the legs slowly come to life as I made the short walk to the site’s washroom facilities. I was sure I’d be the only one who’d hatched the same accommodation plan for Manchester but there were at least two or three others who clearly had the same intentions. After a breakfast of 5 small cereal bars washed down with a large mug of black coffee I got the wife to drive me the couple of miles or so to the main tram stop in Bury. The plan was for her to return back to the caravan for a bit before getting a later tram with the kids to watch the race at various points alongthe course.

Again for some reason I was sure that I would be the only one racing at Manchester who would consider getting a tram from Bury but as it turned out there were already many runners on the platform waiting for the first tram to depart at around 7am. They were mostly from local clubs, mostly far too enthusiastic for six something in the morning, but at least the platforms were not as busy as they are when trying to get to the start of London at Blackheath.

Busier than I expected at Bury Station!

The tram journey took around 45 minutes, including a change in the heart of Manchester when I met Jack Dodwell of GRC, who was racing, and his father, who had driven them from Grantham that morning. Once off the second tram it was a few minute’s walk before we came to the boulevard of Portaloos where I stumbled upon quite a few of the other GRC contingency who were taking part in the race. It was then on to drop off the bag at baggage near the finish line. By now the time was around 8:30 and not too long left before the 9am start. There was time for a quick photo with around half the GRC runners before I made my way to the start.

On one of the last unofficial toilet stops I happened to bump into Vince Riviere who I’d first met at the Leeds Abbey Dash. He’d gone on to have quite a winter with a string of great races including a brilliant low 2:37 at the Valencia Marathon. We wished each other well and I dreamed of whether it would be my day to break 2:40 for the first time.  Working my way through the crowds of runners starting from slower pens, I finally got to the front pen with around ten minutes to spare. I found somewhere where you could lighten the load in relative privacy (albeit with a load of other runners doing the same thing) one last time before making my way to the start line. I looked up to the skies and blessed the weather gods for providing pretty much perfect conditions – cloudy skies, a light easterly breeze and temperatures maxing out at around 11C. I could conjour up plenty of excuses for a poor performance, the weather couldn’t be one of them!

The Race

As the final countdown began and the pre-race nerves around me became almost unbearable it was with great relief that the starting horn was sounded dead on time at 9am.  Despite the large numbers running we were able to run unrestricted from the off and some around me clearly were going off way too fast, almost totally out of breath in the opening couple of minutes. Despite swathes of runners coming past me I stuck as closely as I could to the game plan of max 150 bpm for the opening mile, 155 bpm for mile two, 160 bpm for mile three and a maximum of 165 bpm to twenty miles.

This deliberately easy start meant I felt like I was chomping at the bit, which was potentially a good sign as sometimes the opening miles can feel quite laboured. The opening mile was 6:34 which I hoped would be by far the slowest mile of the race. Mile 2 was 6:15 and  I went through mile 3 in 6:09, which coincided with the course completing its mini loop east before heading southwest towards Stretford, Sale and Altrincham before heading back to the start via Urmston.

The fourth mile was the first where I allowed myself the luxury of getting to 165 bpm and I was pleased to clock a 6:01, which was right at the top end of what I thought I might be able to hit after all the weeks of training at marathon heart rate. Better was to come in mile five when I ran a 5:58 (the fastest of the race) before I ran 6:05 for mile 6. Thereafter the splits to mile 20 were very consistent with only nine seconds covering the quickest (6:00 – mile 13) and the slowest (6:09 – mile 12). The difference in these two miles could be explained in that we climbed the biggest ‘hill’ of the race (no more than a bridge over a railway) in mile 12 at Altrincham and came down in mile 13.

Around mile 8 of Manchester Marathon – looking happy!
Picture c/o Dean Riggall.

Given the consistency of mile splits you may be forgiven for thinking it was plain sailing. Alas this was not the case. All was well until around that bridge at 12 miles. I’d already seen my family out once on the course at around eight miles and taken the first of three gels (SIS that I was using in a race for the first time). Without warning I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring. At first I thought it was cramp but the pain disappeared as soon as it came. Anxious I wasn’t in the mood for high fiving the Altrincham football club mascot as I passed the family for the third and final time before the finish. Indeed the family were worried I might punch him as he generally got in runners’ way – I was very restrained under the circumstances!

I got through the convoluted Altrincham loop – complete with odd run through what looks like the back of a Boots car park without drama and was hoping that the pain in the hamstring was a one off as I passed through halfway in just outside eighty minutes. However at the next left turn where crowds were perhaps at there biggest, I felt a sharper, longer more sustained pain in my left hamstring. This forced me briefly to a slow jog and, assuming it was cramp, I was already wondering whether it would be a good time to consider dropping out of the race.

Mercifully almost as quick as the pain came on it disappeared entirely. This led me to make some quick assumptions that it wasn’t cramp, wasn’t a muscle pull or tear and was almost certainly some kind of sciatica similar to what had struck my calf muscle at the Retford Half Marathon.  Considering I had slowed for a period mile 14 wasn’t nearly as disastrous as I feared clocking, 6:07. The mind has a neat way of blocking out painful episodes from the memory bank so I can’t recall how often I suffered a repeat of the sciatica pains, but I estimate I had a couple more in mile 15, then perhaps two or three more up to around mile 18. They must have been still troubling me at mile 17 as there was a photo of me uploaded to Facebook shouting at fellow GRC runner and spectator at the race due to injury Dean Riggall that I was suffering from Sciatica.

Mile 17 – Moaning about the Sciatica….
Picture c/o Dean Riggall.

The follow up bursts of discomfort weren’t as severe as the blast of pain that had forced me to slow, indeed they barely caused me to slow at all, they served more to not have me push on quite as much as I perhaps could have, the heart rate veering closer to 160 bpm than 165. One other precautionary tactic was that on all the remaining ninety degree corners, of which there were plenty on this course that uses a lot of residential streets, I made sure I took a very wide, cautious line through the corner, using plenty of road and trying not to force any sharp turns. This may have added a few extra meters per turn but I sensed it would perhaps help minimise any further distress to the leg.

By mile eighteen nearly four miles had passed since the bad pain and I was gaining a little more confidence that I was able to make it at least to the finish. The mile splits were still good, hovering just over six minutes a mile. It was around here I made an adjustment on my Garmin’s race pacer to allow for the distance creep that had built in compared to the official distance markers. The news was positive, I was on course to run just outside 2:40 – a PB was on the cards and if I could muster something special perhaps, just perhaps a sub 2:40 was possible.

The twenty mile marker is a key moment in any marathon, it’s where a race begins if you abide to the famous maxim a marathon is a twenty mile steady run with a 10K race at the end. It’s where at many marathons the crowds are at their deepest and most enthusiastic. At Manchester it coincides with where the race becomes, for a mile or two, its most rural and most sparse in terms of support. For some this is a bit of an issue, to be honest it doesn’t really bother me too much, I quite enjoyed being able to focus on the task in hand of getting to the finish as quick as possible.

Reasonably content that the dodgy leg wasn’t going to get any worse I guzzled down the third and final gel (A double espresso one, which I felt certainly gave a good buzz) and put the gas down at 20 miles as per the best case scenario race strategy. This simply meant I abandoned the 165 bpm max limit and attempted to run as at high a BPM as the body will allow me.

Most times I find this unattainable, today was one of those rare races where I was able to increase the HR to between 166-169 bpm. Because the body is by now pretty fatigued the reality was that I wasn’t getting any quicker, but crucially I was able to more or less maintain the same pace I’d run the previous seventeen miles at. Three consecutive 6:06 miles saw me pass a lot of runners, many of whom were beginning to see the wheels well and truly fall off.

Mile 23 saw a little blip in the pace as it dropped to 6:14, but this mile contained a quite noticeable climb for part of the mile. Having had no repeat of the sciatica since around mile 18 I’d by now all but forgotten the injury and was giving it everything I could, concentrating on picking off runners and trying to keep my predicted finish time as quick as possible.

Mile 24 was pleasing at 6:03, with mile 25 much the same – another 6:06. The final mile is a bit marmite – some love the ability to see the finish line from nearly a mile away, I found it a bit annoying as it never seemed to get any closer. It became more annoying as I had a runner in front of me who saw fit to have a couple of his friends recording him from a bicycle that was sheltering him from the wind. As I passed him his friends urged him to stick to me and kick past at the finish. This made me doubly determined to ensure it didn’t happen!

A screen grab of the finish at Manchester. Looking suitably worn out!

More annoying still was a giant screen that showed the finish line that from a distance looked just like it was the finish until you realised there was another slight right turn and around a third of a mile to the finish. This produced a protracted and painful attempt at a sprint finish as I made my way to the finish line. I crossed the line tired, but happy in 2:40:47.

With my medal!

I was delighted to break my PB by nearly a minute and set a new club record; a little frustrated that without the sciatica issues there was every chance I could have broken that 2:40 barrier. I must have recovered quite quick as I was soon having a good old chat with the winner of the women’s race, who had set a big new PB. Then collecting my bag a few minutes later I bumped in again with Vince, who had clocked another sub 2:40 time despite suffering a fall and inflicting damage to his Vaporfly 4%s. I looked longingly at his shoes wondering what I may have achieved if I were wearing those rather than my tried and trusted Hoka Cliftons….

With the race done, medal collected, and repatriated with the family, it was just a case of getting the tram back to the Caravan site, treating it as a badge of honour of sorts that I was at the station at the same time as Steve Way, who had collected a considerable number of fans asking his opinion of the race.

Post race ‘Champagne’ in the caravan.

Once back at the Caravan I wasted no time in fulfilling a promise I’d declared on Facebook that I would be back cooking chicken on the barbecue and drinking sparkling wine by 2pm. By 10pm and some drinks later and plenty of hours sitting in a caravan, the hamstring sciatica had turned into a full on case of a locked hip so painful that I almost had to ask to be picked up in the car when I couldn’t get back from the toilet block to the caravan!

Post marathon barbecue by 2pm as promised. The chicken came later….

The next couple of days were spent recovering and enjoying Manchester. I managed a fairly short exploratory run on the Wednesday morning before heading back home – seemingly with no lasting damage done to the left leg.

Having run it twice now (Once in the infamous short course days) I would certainly recommend Manchester as a great alternative marathon to London – it’s flatter, has less crowd support (Which is a perverse positive) and coming early in April is more likely to have cooler conditions. I enjoyed the pre-race caravan experience so much I have decided to do something similar if I take part in the 2020 London Marathon.

 

 

Preparation for the 2019 Greater Manchester Marathon

The 2019 Manchester marathon training plan was a continuation of the key principals I have used in 2017 and 2018 with a few tweaks here and there based on what I thought worked well (and vice versa) in 2018 especially. These key components were:

•  The marathon paced effort, in most instances run to a maximum HR (165) which is at the upper limit of my Zone 3. This has been at the core of my marathon training for well over ten years now. I build these up over the course of the weeks before the marathon, beginning with three miles (within a longer run) and building up a mile per session until I reach eight miles at marathon HR (MHR). After 2018 when I inadvertently ran around 13 miles at MHR on a twenty mile run when the Newton’s Fraction HM was cancelled, I used the Leicestershire Half Marathon in February to do much the same. This came when I was up to six miles at MHR, so in March I ran the seven and eight miles at MHR on March 5th and March 20th respectively.

Normally I would leave it there except run three miles at MHR a few days before the marathon. This time though I decided to do a reverse pyramid of sorts, running 7 miles at MHR on Saturday 23rd March then 6 miles on Tuesday 26th,  5 on Thursday 28th, 4 on Saturday 30th and the conventional 3 miles at MHR in a 10 mile run on Tuesday 2nd April. This was something of a high risk strategy as the MHR runs are quite demanding sessions. I think they were of some benefit, they certainly got me used to running at MHR and as they were diminishing in length certainly gave an impression of tapering.

As in previous years the majority of MHR runs were run a fair bit quicker than I anticipated running in the marathon itself – coming in anywhere between 5:45-6:10 minutes a mile. I usually see marathon pace on the day around 10 seconds a mile slower than I averaged during the build up, which tends to make the effort on race day seem less. I guess adrenaline accounts for the reduced pace at the same HR.

Training breakdown 90 days out from the race.

•   The long run (with parkrun thrown in) and the back to back long run. The long run is a staple of any marathon training plan. Mine is no exception except for the past couple of years I’ve tried to incorporate a parkrun somewhere during the run. I kicked off on January 5 with a twenty miler, with the Belton House parkrun (17:35) coming after twelve miles.  On January 19th I ran 22 miles with parkrun (18:16) at 14 miles. The other two Saturdays both had parkruns, one was shorter though at 10 miles due to the Oundle 10K on the Sunday, the other a mere 13.3 miles as I was feeling a bit rubbish.

February saw much of the same. The second saw a twist in that I ran just 2.5 miles before doing parkrun and then 13.5 miles to make it 19 in total. This wasn’t planned, it just happened that it snowed overnight and the paths were mostly too treacherous until it warmed up later in the morning.  I then ran 17 miles the next day. The following weekend I was unwell so did nothing at all. The week was the Leicestershire Half so I didn’t run on the Saturday.

The following weekend (23rd-24th) I ran 21 miles (15 then parkrun (17:23) 3 to end) on the Saturday then ran a further 21 miles on the Sunday at 6:45 pace average. This back to back long run was something I inadvertently did once in 2018 due to bad weather preventing me from cycling and thought it offered significant training benefits so opted in 2019 to repeat the process with a little more regularity and intensity. This meant that the Reliability Rides with Witham Wheelers, which I’ve done for the past four years were sacrificed entirely.

Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd March saw the peak of long run mileage in the 14 week training plan. Saturday was the 24 miler which I’ve done since 2000 as my longest training run, except for the past two miles I’ve done a couple of extra to make it slightly over marathon distance. As in 2018 I ran the Newton’s Fraction HM course, running 21 miles before running Belton House parkrun in 17:51 then heading home to complete 26.4 miles in 2:55:46.

I’ve often used the time it’s taken to run 24 miles in this training run as a very good barometer of what I will clock at the marathon – it’s nearly always been accurate to a minute or two barring bad weather or a hitting of the dreaded wall. In 2018 I went through 24 miles in 2:39:10 (my quickest ever) this time around it was 2:40:10, which was a fair reflection of where I thought my fitness was – which was very good but not quite at 2018 levels, when I think I was in my best shape ever. The following day I ran a training half marathon in 1:29:58 or something like that, pleased that I could run such a distance in a reasonable lick a day after a 26 mile effort.

Thereafter the long run diminished quite rapidly. The following weekend was the Retford Half, the following weekend I opted out of running entirely as I was exhausted working crazy hours for the Australian GP. Two weeks out saw my last long run on the Sunday at 19 miles. That came the day after running seven miles at marathon pace and was so quite fatigued. It also saw some weird back spasm in the upper back in the final miles that didn’t materalise again. The following week, a week out, I ran my conventional final long run of eleven miles.

The stats state that for the ninety days preceding the marathon, I ran nine times over 15.72 miles totaling 182.74 miles in an overall total of 748.34 miles.

•   The vast majority of the other runs were easy paced i.e. Zone 2, most of which ten or so miles in length, many of which on my familiar town loop – clockwise or anticlockwise. The average pace of these was around 7:10 a mile although the ones solo were more likely to be under 7 minutes a mile average and the runs with Grantham Running Club closer to eight minutes per mile, on average.

•   I ran two intervals sessions, which is 200% more than 2018 and double what I ran in 2017. They were both 10×3 minutes with 90 seconds recovery, done on the road outside my house. I don’t really know if they had any benefit. It’s something I may look into doing more of over the summer as there must be some point in doing them?!

•   As in previous years I cross-trained – cycling this time being used almost exclusively – the elliptical trainer saw just one outing when I had a sore calf after the Retford HM. This year was different from recent ones in that I didn’t venture outside once, doing all my cycling on Zwift. The main reason, other than wanting to do more back to back long runs over the weekend, being that I really did suffer far too much in the cold in 2018 especially and indoors on Zwift in the winter is so much more comfortable!

I spent a total of 65 hours 47 minutes on Zwift from January 1st through to the Manchester Marathon. I ran for 92 hours 38 minutes and spent just 2 hours on the elliptical trainer. The volume is similar to what I rode in 2018, the main difference being a lack of long Sunday rides. The majority of the rides were an hour or so in length, most of them relatively easy in effort, although I did push it on the Tour of Watopia and did ride 110 miles over the course of a very long day between F1 testing duties. As well as enjoying the cycling I think it compliments my running very well, especially the low effort rides which are the rough equivalent of recovery runs. Interestingly early indications suggest that the winter of Zwift has left my outdoor cycling legs in very similar, if not slightly better, shape to what they were at the same stage twelve months ago.

My weekly running mileage was similar to 2018. Coincidentally the biggest mileage of any week (82 miles) was the same, albeit in 2019 this was three weeks out from Manchester, in 2018, it came six weeks out from London. Interestingly though in 2018 there was only one other week where I ran over 70 miles (a 79 mile week). In 2019, I ran four other weeks over 70 miles and a further week where I ran 69. In January I ran 309 miles which is only five miles off my record, set in January 2014.

There was though one fallow week with very little mileage. This was due to to a spot of injury after Retford and opting to use Zwift rather than run during the Australian GP weekend. This was a conscious choice I made before the event looking back on previous years where I attempted to work through the Aussie GP weekend and have broken down at some point afterwards.

I don’t think this did me any harm at all.

Training Calendar in the build up to Manchester

All in all I think it was a very successful marathon training preparation, up there with the past couple of years as being the best ever. From an injury point of view it was very good, with just a couple of days lost after Retford with sciatica and an ongoing issue with a sore big left toe that hasn’t hindered my ability to run.

Is there anything I will do differently next time? In an ideal world I would probably want to add some more interval sessions in – something like some mile reps or two mile reps. But I seem to loathe interval sessions and as I run because I enjoy it I am reluctant to do them when I can be doing something that produces a similar benefit and I don’t mind doing (I’m reluctant to say like, as I dread the thought of marathon paced runs beforehand, but once I’m a mile or two in to them I really enjoy them!)

An important thing to note is that, aside from a minimum 24 mile run 4-5 weeks out and the marathon paced efforts over the course of the training, very little of what I do is planned weeks and months in advance. I have a rough idea of what I will do but take things very much on a week by week and day by day basis. I know some will question this but I’m comfortable with it. I much prefer to train according to how I feel right here right now rather than how I think I might or should feel months in advance then get frustrated when reality doesn’t quite pan out that way. Perhaps I may do better sticking to a plan, but things seem to have gone quite well for me in the years when I’ve been a bit more free form!


If you are wondering where I get all this data from. It comes from the very wonderful Fetcheveryone.com

I’ve been using this site since 2006 and all my exercise is recorded there. It has proven invaluable as a source of reference since then, I probably still use it more than Strava as the go to when I am looking back on my training history. Highly recommended!