Milton Keynes Marathon–Monday 5th May 2014

Back at the beginning, when Project Sub 2:45 was just a tadpole of an idea, the 2014 Milton Keynes Marathon was the target race where I hoped to break that still elusive time. Then I heard rumours that the fast flat PB course the good folk of the home of concrete cows promised, was maybe not quite as flat and fast as it could have been. Sensing my results of training may be compromised by a slow course I chose to enter the Rotterdam Marathon and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rotterdam done and dusted, I still had my entry for MK to opt to take up. The post marathon recovery phase and more specifically injuries meant that any chance of properly racing MK was out of the question. Not being one to give up a race entry unless totally injured, I opted to offer my services to Scott, a Grantham Running Club member, who had hopes of breaking his marathon PB. The deal was done on the Thursday before the race and so I had three days to prepare.

Friday was spent on a six mile run where I rehearsed the planned pace for Monday’s race. The hips were sore after a long run on Thursday but I was just about able to nail the splits. Saturday and Sunday was spent resting, recuperating, stretching and generally doing everything to get the left hip and right Achilles ready for 26.2 miles of pounding.

Bank holiday Monday saw an early start – 6am, and just over an hour later, four members of GRC were heading down to Milton Keynes – Scott driving, myself in the front with Ben H and Andrew in the back. Despite a little pfaffing we made it to the football stadium in good time (Well before 9am – over an hour before the start). Unfortunately the parking plans for the race had seemingly turned to mush, no cars moved it seemed for the best part of 35 minutes, In the end we were left to pretty much dump the car on a grass verge on the edge of a shopping complex – along with plenty of other race entrants forced into the same stunt.

With just half an hour to the start preparations were rushed to say the least – changing into race gear whilst queuing for the somewhat inadequate in quantity stadium toilets. No sooner had the necessary been done and bags were dropped off and we were making our way to the start. With no estimated time markers and marathon plus half marathon runners all lumped together, we were left to guess roughly where our rightful spot should be for a 3:20 planned run.

It turned out we were someway too far back but we weren’t overly concerned. The plan was to run a slow first mile and not pick up to the planned race pace of around 7:35 a mile until the fourth one. The sun was out and it was already pretty warm; a noticeable breeze was present but mostly to our backs in the opening miles. The gentle introduction to the race worked well for us and Scott was doing well. A little drama at three miles and the first water station: the dispensers of the bottled water were not ready it seemed and I had to stop and wait for several seconds to pick up our water. But I wasn’t overly concerned, this was my job to be Scott’s pacer, water carrier:domestique, in cycling parlance.

The course by five miles was in danger of being interminably dull – running through the centre of down, up and down the numerous boulevards of MK Central. The only benefits of this tedium was that we were able to look out for team mates on several occasions – Andrew, running the half marathon, already looked pretty peeved, Tom was looking good, Ben rather more serious at five miles than when we first saw him at two. The crowd support though was great and it would continue for most of the rest of the course – never huge in volume but very supportive when needed.

At six miles the course headed out of town and onto one of wide long straight roads that MK has many of. I stopped briefly to make a quick pit stop, soon back into my running, I enjoyed the three or four minutes of running close to six minute miles – the legs feeling more comfortable at that pace. Generally though I was feeling good – the Achilles was no more than an ache and didn’t get worse from the off to the finish. The left hip and thigh ached occasionally but was generally fine.

Miles seven to ten were spot on pacing wise despite the gradual inclines, descents and variable wind conditions. Scott was comfortable and running well. We saw Scott for the last time, clearly thoroughly annoyed with the state of affairs; Tom was looking a little less happy and Ben looked exactly the same as he did at five miles. We turned sharp left at this point leaving the main road that the half marathon runners continued along for a while. Amusingly we saw at least four half marathon runners – all wearing headphones it should be said – who didn’t hear the loud instructions for them to carry on nor the signs, and found themselves inadvertently tackling the full marathon. I wonder at what point they noticed that the race was a little longer than they’d anticipated.

At around 11 1/2 miles the first signs of trouble from Scott came when he said he was starting to feel tired and that the legs were aching. He rallied a bit and I took my chance at 12 miles to visit a well placed Portaloo. A couple or more minutes later (I didn’t rush…) I was back out running, taking my first and last High 5 gel (Nothing too offensive about them – they were just totally ineffective). Miles 13 and 14 were fun for me catching Scott back up. I was running my marathon pace – 6:10 – 6:15, which felt pleasingly easy and at the same time difficult as the course – by now using footpaths or redways as the locals apparently like to call them was twisting and turning, diving up and down relentlessly.

I caught Scott up shortly after fourteen miles and things were not good. He was clearly struggling and gradually slowing. 7:35 miles were edging nearer 8 minutes through miles 15 and 16, just outside eight minutes for miles 17 and 18. This was a little disappointing but understandable considering the harsh descents and  ascents of the course and its overabundance of underpasses, and if we could maintain this pace a time well under 3:30 was still possible.

However, around halfway through mile 19 the wall was well and truly hit. Scott pulled up sharp in agony, a cramp searing through his right hamstring – apparently in the exact same spot as last year. I tried my best to keep calm and to reassure Scott that he would be good to continue. I think the lack of panic helped – we took what felt like a minute or so to regain composure and then power walked up the remainder of the hill before resuming with the running.

The hopes of a sub 3:20 now clearly gone, my job now was to help Scott make it to the finish inside his PB – which stood at 3:46. I knew that as long as we could keep him largely moving with around 3/4s of the time spent running, this would be still well achievable, despite the pain he was going through. First job was to get some gels and Gatorade into Scott, to try and get him some energy back in his weary body. This was a calculated gamble as I knew that too much of both, plus the water he was consuming, could leave him nauseous and bloated. Indeed it wasn’t long before he was suffering stich and no more gels could be stomached.

It was now his pre race confession that he had had no breakfast came back to haunt Scott. Not wanting to upset his normal routine he chose to forsake that crucial pre-race calorie hit. I managed to give him a banana 30 minutes before the race start, but deep down I was worried that he would have the energy reserves necessary. True enough at around 15 miles, the same spot as last year when he also had no breakfast, he began to run out of gas. The lesson has been learned the hard way, next time pre-race nutrition will be better considered.

The last seven miles were painful – the course showing no mercy with its most relentless section of undulations, twists and turns. This was not kind to Scott who would cramp up either in his hamstrings or calves at basically every incline or the bottom of any descent. The only sections we could run with a fair chance of success were the flat bits – which were in short supply. We soon opted to power walk up the hills – little point, it seemed, in wasting energy and bringing on more cramp. Scott, like many of his fellow runners, was fantastic, battling resolutely and utterly determined to break his PB no matter what. He even induced a nose bleed from his efforts which I was most impressed by.

If nothing else from this run it served as a reminder of how hard the marathon can be. At the sharper end of a race field runners slow in the final miles, but normally the ones who stop dramatically in agony are relatively few. Running in the mid pack and the agony was abundant and dramatic. I’m sure it was doubly worse here because the course was brutally unforgiving, but no sooner had Scott pulled up in agony with cramp, you could hear the cries of another distressed runner not far behind suffering the same fate. After around the sixth cramp we both almost began to see the funny side of our predicament – seeing the amusing side of things maybe distracted Scott briefly from his suffering.

I helped Scott as best I could – counting down the miles, encouraging him to visualise a four or five mile route he was familiar with to try and make the distance more manageable. I held his drinks, sheltered him from the wind, gave him realistic, yet optimistic predictions of his finishing time, which were still well up on his personal best. We had slowed considerably but at least we were moving, and no mile was slower than ten minutes.

The final mile and a bit was an eternity, especially as my Garmin was reading the race the best part of half a mile long (Not saying it is, just stating what the Garmin said). Scott only pulled up once with cramp and, at 8:37 was his fastest mile since mile 18, which speaks volumes for his determination. As we entered Stadium:MK I pointed out to Scott that we had around 80 seconds to break 3:40. With only around 300m to go I encouraged him to give it all he had and with style he replied, managing a sustained sprint around the final corner and to the finish. We broke 3:40 with 21 seconds to spare.

A personal best by over six minutes, it was very much mixed emotions for Scott. Pleased with a PB; frustrated with the manner of his blow up which denied him a time potentially 20 minutes quicker than he finally ran. It was mixed fortunes for the rest of the Grantham team – Scott was not happy with his half performance nor the course, Ben battled through late race cramps – which persisted for the best part of an hour after the race – to knock two minutes off his PB, and Tom struggled after a strong opening, eventually coming home just a few minutes ahead of Scott.

As for me. Well I thought the course was poor and not conducive to PB running. I enjoyed the atmosphere of running further down the field, pleased to make it to the finish relatively unscathed and appropriately tired after what was eventually the second longest I’ve ever run in terms of time (The longest being 3:46 at my first ever marathon). Would I do the MK Marathon again? In its current form probably not. Would I help pace someone again if required? Without doubt. It was most rewarding and better for me than spending the day drinking cider, which I may well have done on a normal Bank Holiday Monday and went about doing not long after getting home courtesy of a lovely gesture from Scott. Cheers!

(L to R): Me, Scott, Ben, Tom - the GRC Marathon finishers.

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