Part 1: The Taper
The taper began officially the week after the Grunty Fen Half Marathon. The intervening week though was significant for a couple of injury niggles that affected the taper period. It began well enough with a bias on cross training and easy paced runs as I allowed the legs to recover from Sunday’s race. However from Wednesday through to Saturday I began to notice increased discomfort and sometimes pain across the top of the right foot somewhere near the toes. At first I thought it might be over-tightened laces or even the chip worn on Sunday that had irritated the foot. By Saturday though, which saw the only hard session of the week – a pleasing ten miles at marathon heart rate averaging 6:04 per mile – the pain was enough for me to fear it may have been the onset of a stress fracture or some form of tendinitis.
The pain continued into Sunday’s run – ran over the bulk of the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon course – but it was nothing compared to the discomfort that seemingly came from nowhere from the onset of the run on the outside of the left ankle. Despite stretching and some gentle massage the pain began to intensify in the final miles so that by the end and when I stopped running there was a noticeable limp.
What I also noticed was that, unlike the right foot, the pain in the ankle stopped the moment I took of my trainers (A pair of recently purchased Nike Vomero 9s). I was therefore initially more concerned with the right foot which continued to ache. Having exhausted all ideas of what could be causing the pain I returned to my injury bible and soon found a plausible explanation and simple solution. It suggested the pain was not coming from the foot but from two points on the outer shin, one in line with the bottom of the patella, the other around a hand’s length from the patella, not too far from the ankle. Low and behold both spots were tender to massage – the lower point even had a bruise that had surfaced mysteriously. The book said results would be quick and it didn’t disappoint – from the next run onward there was no discomfort.
The ankle though was proving more troublesome, it was even difficult to go on the elliptical trainer or join the spinning class without loosening the trainers to the point of them becoming slippers. After two days of no running I was determined to run on my (cough cough) 40th birthday, so in a moment of inspiration opted to try running in my Nike Flyknits with the elastic laces I added for the sprint triathlon I took part in back in June. The lack of pressure on the ankle joint meant the relatively short run was more or less pain free.
I wore the Flyknits for the rest of the week – except for the long run coming on the Saturday, where I wore the Frees I planned to use at the Marathon, which were thankfully also pain free. As a stint of overnight shifts covering the Japanese Grand Prix took its toll, Sunday’s run was a short affair – I attempted to run in the Vomero’s but the pain was instantly too much, so I reverted to the Flyknits and they were fine. For now the Vomero’s are on the naughty step to be maybe worn again at some point in the future.
The final taper week was not a happy one. It rarely is with the effort of abstaining from exercise proving tough, but this week it was complicated with the onset of a cold that I tried my best to ignore but couldn’t help but notice on my final run on the Wednesday a definite lethargy in the opening miles that only went away when I ran three miles at marathon HR, which averaged 5:55. If I put that lethargy down to post Japanese GP pseudo-jet lag, I couldn’t ignore the rather unpleasant streams of snot on my training top after a final hour on the elliptical trainer on Thursday. It was not a heavy cold but it was enough to potentially dent performance and by Saturday it still hadn’t shifted…
Part 2 – Pre-race Build Up
The packing was done Friday morning, the depart for Chester to take place on Saturday morning. I was taking the family and planned to spend the afternoon in Chester to get a taste for the city and to maybe see part of the route. The journey to Chester was easy enough – until we approached Chester and the traffic slowed to a crawl. Chester has perhaps a worse traffic system than Grantham and, rather desperate to find a toilet, parked in the first NCP car park I came to (Which was ludicrously expensive but I was past caring). We spent a few hours wandering around Chester town center, trying to stay warm as I’d dressed for temperatures in the high teens, but persistent cloud and mist left temperatures barely above ten Celsius. I doubt Wilson Kipsang spends the day before a marathon rescuing children from a climbing frame, but that’s the way I found myself resting up.
We weren’t staying overnight in Chester – hotel rooms were elusive when I looked a few weeks before the race. Instead I’d booked into the Dibbinsdale Inn lured by the establishment doubling up as a rather good looking Italian Restaurant – ideal for pre race carbo loading. Disaster nearly struck on our arrival when it transpired I’d forgotten to include our two children on the booking form. Thankfully the owners were able to transfer us to a different room than the one assigned to us that allowed the kids to be with us (By 10pm and the pair of them still jumping around like mad rabbits, we kind of wished they’d been forced to find accommodation elsewhere).
It wasn’t long before it was dinner, a meal shared with fellow Grantham Running Club member Mark Wilson, who was hoping to break 3:20. The restaurant was an Italian tapas restaurant, which meant the portions weren’t huge (I had to order two Margherita pizzas as they were only 5″ apiece) but the food was delicious and none of us could resist a more regularly sized dessert – I devoured the vanilla cheesecake.
We finished in time to retire to our rooms and wound down by watching Australia destroy England in the Rugby. I feared I wouldn’t sleep well, but with the ear plugs in and my head on the pillow by 10:20pm, I was soon asleep and before I knew it it was 5:50am and the alarm clock was ringing.
The race morning went very smoothly, the hardest part was trying to make a cup of tea at 6am in the dark trying not to wake anyone. I failed miserably. Mark and I left the hotel at 6:30am, still pitch black but thankfully not foggy. We arrived at Chester Racecourse at 7am. We were not the first to arrive, but it wasn’t busy. Two hours allowed a relaxing build up the race – a chance to get a £1 long sleeved technical top from last year’s race (A bargain!), to peruse the merchandise stands and use the Portaloos before the queues became long.
It was chilly, under 10C, so the bin bag I packed came in handy once I handed by bag into baggage storage and made a last trip to the loo. I emerged with ten minutes to spare, ducked under the rails on the racecourse and lined up right at the front of the field, save for around 20 elite runners who were ushered into their own little pen as the town crier made a largely inaudible speech, ironically enough.
Part 3 – The Race
Lining up at the start I caught a glimpse of fellow GRC second claimer Chris Limmer (Wearing his Hinckley top) and bumped into fellow Kenilworth Runner Stuart Hopkins. We very briefly discussed tactics: he was going to target 2:40 pace from the off; I was going to do my usual heart rate thing and see where that left me.
Whatever the town crier had been saying it must have excited the organisers because the starting horn fired two minutes early, which would have caught out a fair few. Running along the racecourse was an odd experience, it was hard to keep the tempo under control, I had a firm eye on the watch to make sure the planned 150 bpm wasn’t exceeded. The opening mile took us out of the racecourse, I had allowed a lot of runners to pass me but I wasn’t concerned. Indeed I was delighted to hit the opening mile split in 6:42 – which was near enough spot on what I’d envisaged.
The second mile was meant to see me not exceed 155 bpm, but this was hard as it featured one of the longest climbs of the race and then a brief tour of Chester City Center, which was full of people cheering us on – which stirred the adrenaline from within. So mile two as a result was a touch high on the bpm average (157) and a touch quick on pace (6:23, Strava GAP (hills) adjusted was 6:04). Mile 3 took us downhill initially, over the River Dee and uphill again out into the country lanes which formed the majority of the race. The max HR for mile 3 was set at 160 and this I achieved. I was pleased therefore with the mile split of 6:15.
From miles 4-20 the plan was not to let the HR exceed 165 bpm. At Rotterdam last year it was an effort to keep the HR down. This year it was difficult at times to reach that figure – the body far more comfortable at around 161-162 bpm. As long as the mile splits were reasonable I was happy with this – to me I felt it maximised my chances of staying strong to the finish. The field began to spread out, sitting in around 40th position, I started to pick off other runners. The sun was shining but temperatures were comfortable at around 12C. With very little wind, conditions could hardly have been better.
Miles 4-6 were uneventful – which is exactly what you want in a marathon. They were run in 6:06; 6:05; and 5:56, with the HR only averaging 160 bpm. This was pleasing. The left ankle was fine, the legs generally felt good and there was no sign of the cold I’d had lingering reemerging. I passed the 10 km chip timing mat in a shade over 39 minutes. The three runners ahead of me beeped reassuringly. As I passed over – nothing. My chip had not been registered. I looked around at the marshal who seemed as puzzled as I was. I made a point of showing him my race number so he could maybe take a note of it.
My mind began racing. What if my chip had failed? What if I got no time? What if I broke 2:45 but was denied a time due to some shoddy technology. What if they accused me of being the British Kip Litton? I could feel the adrenaline pumping and my heart rate racing. This wasn’t good for the race and it took a number of minutes before I bought myself back to my senses and reasoned I’d be able to argue my case if necessary.
I knuckled back down to the business of marathon running. The seventh mile was 6:04 (5:54 once hills are taken into account). I kept the pace consistent through miles eight and nine, 6:06 then 6:00 exactly. The tenth mile apparently took us into Wales, but I missed the welcome party and only sensed we may be in a different country from the Araf signs on the road. The pace wasn’t slowing much: 6:05; 6:06; and 6:09 for miles 10, 11, and 12.
Mile 13 saw a right hand turn and the start of a three mile loop which saw perhaps my best miles of the race. I went through the official 20k split in 1:16:53 and was delighted to hear the beep as I crossed the mat. I was officially in the race! It wasn’t long before I crossed halfway in 1:21:11, which meant a 2:42 marathon time with neutral splits, but I was hoping I could go a little quicker in the second half with the pace still strong. Mile 13 was 6:12 (6:00 GAP adjusted). I spotted Stuart around 300 meters in the distance and began the long gradual effort of chasing him down.
Mile 14 was 6:03 (5:52 GAP), and a net downhill mile 15 was 5:57 (6:07). We briefly crossed path with runners at mile 13 before heading on an undulating section of road, which tested the legs a fair bit. Still I was strong: mile 16 took 6:09 and mile 17 was 6:15 on the second hilliest mile of the race. It was here I passed Stuart, who gave good encouragement and I reciprocated likewise.
It was on the narrow relatively steep descent following a climb shortly before crossing a bridge taking us from Holt to Farndon and back into England, that I felt the first warning signs of trouble in the race. I’d eased up on the descent worried about cramping in the quads that has beset me over the past year. They were fine for now, but I began to feel a nagging ache in the right calf. Not enough to slow me at the time, but persistent enough to concern me.
I think it was around mile 18 we had the metric marathon runners join us on the course. In a way they were a good thing as it gave us other runners to try and tag onto on what was by now a spread out field. On the other hand it was difficult to know who you were racing against when people began coming past you. The eighteenth mile was 6:12, mile 19 6:10, and mile 20, the planned last at a 165 max bpm, was 6:02. We had the metric marathon runners passing us on the other side who were full of support and it was spurring us on. But I was beginning to struggle.
Normally at 20 miles I’d give it full beans in terms of effort and heart rate, but the right calf was beginning to get worse. I was also beginning to get tell-tale signs of cramp in the quads. Mile 21 though was still okay – 6:13. I’d hoped that after mile 21 the road was going to be a gradual descent to the finish. There were descents but there were plenty of upward undulations too. Mile 22 was 6:09, I was still just about able to ignore the calf pain as I took my last Powergel (The first had been taken at 3 miles with subsequent gels at four mile intervals, with a 3 mile gap after mile nineteens).
Mile 23 was tough: 6:20 (6:10 on GAP), but I was just about holding it together. Mile 24 and the pain was starting to really take over. I was able to just about maintain pace but I didn’t want to push the calf too much in case something popped and I was unable to run (Monza 2008 and Windermere 2009 sprung to mind – the last time I’d suffered a right calf problem). The 24th mile was a 6:22, but with an unexpected uphill section into the city center at mile 25, the pace slowed significantly. It was now a case of survival as the calf sent shock waves of pain with each stride and the quads began to show signs of wanting to cramp dramatically. Mile 25 was 6:45, the equal slowest of the race, matched by the subsequent and thankfully last full mile of the race.
If I was feeling good, mile 26 would have been blissful. Dropping down past Grovesnor Park and along the narrow path by the River Dee back towards the racecourse, the atmosphere from the crowds were sensational. There was no doubt they dragged me along to another 6:45 mile – the calf in particular felt it should not have been running at all.
The spray painted 500m to go marker on the footpath towards the racecourse was a most welcome sight. Confident that even if the calf popped I could make it to the finish, I began to pick up the pace. With 300 meters to go we returned to the race course and I could see the finish line around the gentle bend. Spurred on I began the best sprint finish I could muster under the circumstances. With just under 100 meters to go I spotted my wife and children, and gave them a beaming smile and a wave for the official clock had not yet struck 2:44 and I had less than 20 seconds left to run.
With the crowd cheering, the announcer shouting my name, I sped to the finish. I stopped my watch and looked at the finish time: 2:43:41! Project Sub-2:45 had been successfully accomplished! I beamed, I looked to the sky, I turned around to check the official clock just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. I wasn’t. Sub 2:45 really had just happened.
I shook the hand of someone official looking and then collected my t-shirt and medal. A Lucozade and a (not particularly good) official post race photo later and the race experience was over.
I heard Stuart’s name called out a few minutes after I finished. I headed to my family who greeted me warmly. Stuart and his girlfriend came to join us and we shared race notes and took post race photos. My youngest daughter took too much of a liking to my post race Lucozade and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to chase her playing tig.
Thanks to modern technology we were able to track our club mates as we approached the finish. We missed Chris, who came home in a fine 2:55, but cheered loudly as Mark came home in a superb 3:11, nine minutes up on his planned time and a well deserved Good For Age place at the 2017 London Marathon is his. The last of the GRC clan, Penny Hodges, was a little further down the road. I would have waited were it not for the kids demanding lunch and generally entertaining. So it was with a tinge of regret we left without seeing her finish in 3:48. I did though manage to meet up with Mark, who was suitably delighted with his performance.
And then we were off on the long journey home, stopping at a country pub for some lunch and entertaining of very tired children, and then stopping again for some ice cream at a very popular ice cream shop. By the time we approached Nottingham I was the last one awake (Which was just as well as I was driving). We were home just after 6pm. I looked through my emails and a link to the official results had arrived. My time was confirmed as 2:43:41 (Chip), my finishing position a very creditable eighteenth and (whisper it) I was third V40 finisher. No prizes though for third, alas.
And once the kids had been fed and put to bed and the champagne (it was some rather cheap Cava) had been poured, my achievements toasted and the glasses raised to the hard work and subsequent success, it was declared that the adventure had ended.
Project Sub-2:45 was over and done.