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!
The day dawned bright and sunny in Rotterdam. I turned on the TV, caught up with the news on BBC Breakfast News, and slowly went about preparing for the marathon. I continued by watching the rerun of Match of the Day whilst I meticulously consumed muesli bars at exactly the right moment, followed by a lot of liquid – the air con in the hotel room had left me seriously dehydrated. Having the BBC on whilst preparing was oddly comforting – I may have been in a hotel room in Europe, but this is pretty much exactly how I prepare for a race when I am at home. At 9:30 the BBC began their coverage of the London Marathon – the familiar stirring anthem of a theme tune (AKA Rod Goodwin’s The Trap) producing the appropriate level of goose bumps and the curtain call for me to head out and run a marathon that was, for today only, a little closer to home.
I had goose bumps of a different kind on exiting the hotel. Although sunny, the wind was stiff and cold, blowing in off the North Sea. Wearing only my club T-shirt (I hadn’t thought about wearing disposable clothing when it came to packing) I walked as slowly as possible to conserve energy, but as briskly as possible so as not to get too cold. Ten minutes or so later and I was at the race HQ, a confused mass of runners, fences, precious little in the way of information or Portaloos… No one seemed to be particularly concerned, I guess I’ve grown accustomed to British race standards which, with the London Marathon somewhere near the top in terms of slick organisation, seem to just be a little more organised. Still this race has something of an old school feel to it – not a charity tent nor fancy dressed runner Z list celebrity runner to be seen for instance, and that in its own way, felt positively refreshing.
I queued patiently by one of the few Portaloos for around half an hour. By the time my turn was done there were less than fifteen minutes to the start. A small panic ensued as I realised I had no idea where the start line was and queues to get anywhere were frustratingly slow. I found Pen B to be told Pen C (My pen start) was over the road and I’d need to go down into the Metro station to get there. Fine, I thought. A little odd, but it worked well, and with seven minutes to spare I found myself in the familiar position of being warm, packed like sardines, toe to toe with hundreds of other runners awaiting the start.
Making final use of a urinal placed next to the start line (Very handy), five minutes before the off, a man in a cherry picker was slowly raised above all the runners and, to great applause, began to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, best known to the British as the anthem of the Kop at Liverpool FC. Crazy Dutch! I thought to myself as I found myself singing along passionately to the rousing finale with 14,000 odd other runners. With Britain commemorating 25 years to the weekend of the tragic events at Hillsborough the singing of this song had an unlikely poignancy to a few of the runners lined up.
I later found out that the singer was a famous local, broadly the equivalent of our Susan Boyle, and that You’ll Never Walk Alone was also adopted by the fans of Rotterdam’s Feyenoord FC. This rousing rendition is apparently a pre-Rotterdam Marathon tradition and it certainly did the trick of bringing the anticipation of the rapidly approaching off to boiling point.
Part Two – The Race
With some spine tingling build up music just about drowning out the noise of the helicopter above – the race was being shown live on Dutch television – there was a swift 5 down to 1 countdown and – we were off! It took around 30 seconds to cross the start and it was apparent any fears of making too fast a getaway were redundant here in Rotterdam. Indeed anyone who likes to get into their stride and pace as soon as possible would have been in mild panic mode as we struggled to break eight minutes per mile for the opening couple of minutes.
Those first minutes were anxious. I’d not run at all since Wednesday and I’d no idea how the legs had faired in terms of recovery from the injuries I’d suffered, especially the left thigh and hip, which just a week earlier had seen me forced to stop every ten minutes or so on my final long run of training. The first steps were promising: there was a very mild discomfort in the left hip but nothing of the shooting pains I’d suffered in the Coventry Half Marathon, nor the old man shuffle hip trouble I’d suffered for pretty much every run in the past three weeks. Coming towards the end of the mile and I felt no need to stop, stretch, or cry in despair, so I was relatively confident the first hurdle had been tackled.
For those I haven’t bored to tears a thousand times – here is my simple plan to running a marathon (Too simple to market for profit, sadly. Or maybe not, looking at the efforts of others…), tried and tested with 100% success (One injury inflicted race excepted) since 2006. It is all a matter of listening to your heart rate (And the figures are personal to me, not necessarily relevant to other people):
First mile: Build up slowly to a maximum of 150BPM, ideally this should be around 30-40 seconds slower than your planned marathon pace.
Second mile: Allow heart rate to rise to a maximum of 160BPM, the pace should be 10-15 seconds off your planned marathon pace.
Miles three to twenty: Allow the heart rate to rise no higher than 165BPM – this restriction will determine your marathon pace on the day of the race. Therefore if you were finding yourself running 5:59 at marathon heart rate four days earlier, if, on the day, you are only able to max out at 6:20 per mile – so be it. Hard to take, maybe, but the philosophy is you only have reserves to sustain racing at <165 BPM; stray into the red zone beyond 165BPM and you will pay for it at some point in the closing stages.
Miles twenty to the finish (26.2): The maximum heart rate limit is waived, allowing you to go full beans. On a great day, you will run the final 10k faster than any of the others; on a good day, you will maintain the pace you’d maintained from miles 3-20; On an average day, you’ll see a gentle fade in mile splits; on a bad day – something goes wrong.
The plan, boring, clinical, unromantic as it may be, has never seen a bad day. I’ve not yet hit any kind of wall in the closing stages of a marathon. The first time I tried running to heart rate – 2005 – I was disappointed that my pace was slower in the race than it had been in training. I put the increased HR down to adrenaline, so I allowed it to run closer to 170 BPM than 165 BPM. The last seven miles were slow and very painful. Since then I’ve stuck religiously to plan, accepted no excuses for going into the red zone and I’ve come up trumps. The somewhat tedious business of being restricted to a figure on your watch for the opening 20 miles rather than running uninhibited is usually more than made up by running free for the final 10k, usually passing loads of runners who were a little too enthusiastic in the opening miles and who nearly always pay the price.
So Mile 1, I stuck to 150 BPM max. It took most of the mile to be able to run at pace thanks to the volume of runners and it included perhaps the biggest incline of the race over a large bridge, so it was clocked at 7:02. Not a disaster, but slower than was planned. Mile 2 though made up for it as we were descending over the other side of the bridge plus had the stiff breeze blowing behind us. My heart rate a little too easily climbed to the second mile limit of 160 bpm, a forewarning of what I was to face for much of the rest of the race. The watch clocked the second mile at 6:12, quicker than planned and probably had me back on schedule.
Mile three was more of the same and a similar split as I settled into a rhythm and allowed the heart rate to reach its maximum of 165bpm. All too readily though it would creep above by 2-3 beats and I’d have to peg it back. This was frustrating but a necessity. I think one reason for this creeping was a lack of marathon heart rate runs in the build up. In previous years they were at least once a week; this year it was more once a fortnight. Something to think about for future races.
Approaching 5k and I was to take my first of six Powergels (To be taken at 3, 7, 11, 15, 19 and 22 miles), all neatly fastened with pins to my gel belt. The gel was consumed without problem but the first station was something of a farce for me. The first things to be handed out were paper cups with a sponge on top and water a filled around a third of the way up. I don’t need a sponge, I need a bottle of water! I said to myself (And probably said out loud too) and dropped it to the floor. These were being handed out for some way down the road, then the next two tables were handing out the local brew of isotonic drink. Damn! There are no bottles of water at this race! Realising my error and aware that with the gels it was important to take on liquid, I grabbed some isotonic and drank as much as I could without spilling the contents all over me (A hazard of drinking from cups whilst running). This was a big risk as it is considered something of a racing sin to try a brand of isotonic in a race without having first tried it out in training. I made that mistake once before at the London Marathon when I was offered a pouch of L****ade and promptly vomited the contents back onto the streets of London. Thankfully on this occasion the green liquid was kind to me and I happily quaffed a bit more at some of the subsequent stations.
The run to 10k (I was starting to think as a local in kilometres, although Garmin and my mind deep down were still very much in miles) had two surprises – one good and one not so. The pleasant surprise was the crowd support. Whilst we are not talking London Marathon volumes or Boston delirium there was, for the majority of the course, lines of spectators enthusiastically cheering us along our way. A major bonus was that every runner had their Christian names printed on their running number. I’d first seen this at last year’s Manchester Marathon, although they printed the names a little too small – only those with 20-20 vision could make out your name unless you were close enough to get intimate (and a marathon is no place to be intimate, no matter who is cheering you on). Here the names were writ large and it wasn’t long before the chant of Martchoo! Martchoo! (Roughly translated from Dutch as Matthew) became a familiar and welcome addition to my race.
The unpleasant surprise was that, after four miles of not realising we’d been running with the wind behind us, the course turned 180 and we were faced with a fairly potent head wind – the kind strong enough for you to want to find a tall runner and take shelter. Up to around 15 miles the head wind would be a sporadic affair, more often than not it was a benign side wind, but you knew at some point it was going to be a feature – the question was: when?
At 7.5 km there was a race sign for Refreshments. This had me intrigued, what morsels were on offer here then? The answer: Sponges. The Dutch, it seems, love their sponges. Not only were the drinks stations semi-sponge stops, they complimented them every 5km with dedicated sponge stations. I wasn’t complaining though, I’ve long lamented the apparent demise of the sponge station in Britain – the cooling effect on the skin can be more effective than a mouthful of water that you may or may not half choke on. They are also useful for cleaning the hands and face of Powergel residue that didn’t quite make it into the mouth. Although sunny, the race was not particularly warm, only around 14C, so the sponges were only partially beneficial, but they were still a welcome addition.
I nearly became a cropper approaching the second drinks station at 10k, a sign in Dutch appeared to take us into a slip road which I assumed was the drinks station area. WRONG! This was the first stop for the marathon relay race taking place. Thankfully I was guided onto the right path at the last moment and went though the 10k chip mat in 39:52. Miles 4-6 were pretty much spot on what I had in mind to run at for the race, but I was around 30 seconds down on my watch for sub 2:45 pace, a figure that stayed stubbornly similar for much of the next 14 miles.
It was at this point in the race I became aware that I had three injury concerns to nurse through the race. Firstly was the left hip and thigh, which was nothing but a grumble and I was happy that I could manage that without too much concern – even if its presence was likely costing me a few seconds per mile. Secondly was the left calf which gave worrisome twinges of tightness every few minutes. There was nothing I could do about that except hope it didn’t turn into a race ending pull or cramp (Thankfully it didn’t). Finally there was the right Achilles. This had crept up on me in the two weeks or so before the marathon. It was so minor I didn’t think to mention it to my massage man on Thursday, reckoning only that it should be something for his attention when I next see him. Now I was wishing I had alerted him because it was hurting, and hurting a fair amount. The last time an Achilles had hurt like this was on track in January 2013. Then though the pain went from bearable to f*** I’m never walking again in seconds. After a couple of miles of this mild Achilles pain I was satisfied it wasn’t going to stop me dead in my tracks. It was now just a case of ignoring it as best as possible, and maybe not racing in these Fly Knit trainers again.
Mile seven marked a turning spot for the race. It was when the marathon suddenly seemed like a very long way. With no discernable change in conditions, the 6:06 – 6:10 miles suddenly became a trio of 6:17 miles. Still spot on for a sub 2:45 but a sign that this was not going to be the dream 2:40 race. I continued to struggle to keep the heart rate down. I don’t normally talk to people much in races but at this point I chimed into a conversation an Irishman and a Dutchman were having (Not in a bar….) I was only with them for a mile or two but I thought the distraction may ease up the heart rate a touch. Whether it worked is debatable but it was enjoyable to just run a couple of miles and enjoy the race without fretting too much over splits or heart rates.
I left them at around 11 miles as they had a time a little slower than I had in mind. Miles 7-12 were mentally quite tough. Thankfully miles 13-20 were generally much happier and flew by relatively speaking. I went through halfway in 1:23:34 which was disappointingly around a minute down on 2:45 pace. I thought though if I could hold it together to 20 miles I would be able to make up some or all of the time in the final 10k. At around 15 miles we headed back on the road we took in the opening 5k and had a pretty tough head wind to face back over the bridge and to the city centre. They were tempered however by some of the largest, most vociferous crowds of the race. At sixteen miles I started to suffer from mild stomach cramps, not enough to see me bent over double (Or even worse, squatting Paula style (Which I had the misfortune to witness first hand with a white Lycra clad man in bushes at 21 miles), but enough for me to quizzically look round for the availability of Portaloos should the worst happen. Miles 14-16 were just under 6:17 pace, 17-19 just over. A spur of inspiration came as race winner Eliud Kipchoge came flying past us as he was hitting 39km, en route to a pretty special 2:05:00. I went through 30km in 1:58:50, which was around six minutes slower than I’’d run at the infinitely more hilly Stamford 30k in February.
The run to mile 20 was pleasant as we left the crowds in the City Centre and headed onto a wide, tree lined, road. I was feeling pretty fresh, all things considered, and with the 19 mile gel quickly digesting, was looking forward to the watch clocking the 20 mile split, which meant the start of heart rate restriction free running. The Garmin was telling me I was 36 seconds down on attaining a 6:17 pace and with a gentle acceleration I went about chasing those seconds down.
Those extra heart beats, in reality amounting to no more than three to six more than I had been beating per minute for the past 120 minutes or so, were the equivalent of a race car driver winding up the turbo boost on his race car. For a couple of miles I felt fantastic, clocking 6:01 at mile 21 and 6:03 at mile 22 and was on 5:50 pace for the first half of that mile. I looked at my virtual race partner – I was ten seconds up on sub 2:45 pace. The dream was alive again!
I took my final gel then made a ninety degree turn and slowly the dream began to unravel. Running more or less alone, there was a stiff head wind that slowed me uncontrollably. For most of the remainder of the race, the head wind persisted and the pace slowly faded with it. Mile 23 was a 6:17 – the dream was hanging by a thread. Mile 24 was 6:28 – it was passing through my fingers.
37k was meant to be a spot for some light relief in the form of friends and family submitted messages appearing on a big screen we passed there and again 500m from the finish. I saw it in the distance and there they were, messages of support scrolling down. I knew that some had been written for me. There were just two runners ahead of us, surely mine would appear as I passed the chip mat below me? What I got was an extended advert for New Balance trainers. Just my luck! For a second I thought I might stop and wait, but I thankfully came to my senses
What I couldn’t control though was the inexorable late marathon fade. When it hits, the game is a battle of half the body and mind saying – come on! Just a couple of miles more effort! You’re nearly there! Put everything in and you have as long as you like to rest later! whereas the other half is saying – you’re tired! Why don’t you quit?! It would be nice if you quit! It won’t hurt so bad if you quit! Quit! Go on – QUIT!
Thankfully my salvation came in the form of othernovelty of marathon running – the lack of sensible brain function late in the race. As my watch clicked on 24 miles, I reckoned that all I had to do was maintain 6:17 pace and 2:45 was mine. As I passed through 40 km in 2:38:08 I was under the impression that this confirmed it – all I had to do was run 3:20 or so kilometres and the target was mine.
And so began a very, very long sprint for home. I gave it everything: eyeballs out; blanking out the head wind; the crowd; the Garmin (which was actually telling me I was barely speeding up at all, despite it feeling like I was putting in a sub 4 minute mile effort); the aching legs; the pain; the doubt. I totally missed the supporters’ message board at 500 meters out (I’m not sure it was even there). I turned the final corner – 400 meters from home. I looked at my watch – 2:45 ticked over. The dream was over. I pushed on, the PB of 2:50:23 was breakable(!) I dug deep and deeper, the 100 meter boards slowly ticking down. 2:46 passed, surely I’ll break 2:47?
Finally I crossed the finish line. I’d done it. It was all over, nothing more to do. I looked at my watch. It read 2:46:39 – not far off the official time given later as 2:46:38 (Which, nearly a week after I raced, I’ve just realised meant I ran a 1:23:32 > 1:23:06 negative split – that alone I am happy with!) My average pace was 6:18, just one second outside the 6:17 required to break 2:45. Why the minute forty odd difference? A few seconds later I glanced at the distance – 26.48 miles, 0.28 of a mile over the official marathon distance.
Then it twigged. In relying on the Garmin for mile splits and because there were no mile markers on the course, only kilometre marks (Of which I only have a limited grasp of their meaning, relatively, in race, terms), I’d no idea that the pace on my Garmin was slightly misleading because it had me down as running a fair bit further than the supposed course distance (Indeed, post race when I uploaded to Strava, it had me down as running the marathon in 2:45:11. Much closer, but, still, no cigar). I’m not usually that naive – indeed one of my mind preoccupation tricks during a race is to calculate the difference between the Garmin splits and the real mile markers to come up with the real pace needed to complete a race in a certain time. I’d paid the mistake of not taking a note of the times needed to pass through 5km splits at 2:45 pace. Another lesson learned for next time.
Part Three – Post Race
Sometimes when I finish marathons I am all smiles, relatively sprightly and comparatively unaffected by the demands of 26.2 miles of racing. Not today. I was spent. The adrenaline of the final sprint rapidly leaving me, I struggled to walk. I spotted a Portaloo and visited it, expecting the inevitable consequences of mid race stomach cramps to produce themselves. A few minutes later and there was nothing, but I was grateful at least for the sit down.
I collected my medal, a chunky affair, with ribbon in matching Kenilworth Runners / Grantham Running Club green (It turns out Rotterdam’s colour is green – not orange). There was one last cry of Martchoo, Martchoo, from the enthusiastic kids who’d handed out just 200 or so medals, and would have a long way to go before all 11,000 were handed out. Next was a banana – pre peeled, and not taken by myself, my stomach not one keen to demand food after a long run. Bottles of the local brew isotonic, as found on the course, were handed out. I happily took two, feeling very thirsty all of a sudden.
Then the strangest moment of the day. I was given a cup of tea! No milk for the British; not even lemon or sugar for the locals; just black tea. At first I scoffed at the idea, but, being a tourist again, I was willing to give it a try. Not hot, so able to be drunk in a couple of gulps, it was surprisingly delicious, the perfect antidote to hours of nothing but sickly sweet gels and energy drinks. I almost turned around and back to get another, but the effort of walking an extra 20 meters at the time outweighed any perceived benefits of an extra cup of cha.
A final cup of water later and that was it – we passed through a gate and the marathon was over. A little underwhelming, there was no goodie bag filled with tat and no space blanket, which with the wind and the walk home, may have actually been handy, It was just me, my medal, two bottles of isotonic and a long walk back to the hotel.
What took 10 minutes before the marathon took the better part of 45 minutes post marathon. The legs simply didn’t want to know. Instead I tried to savour the atmosphere of runners coming into the finish. It seemed an eternity since I’d crossed the line but these guys and girls were coming home in 3:03 – still highly respectable running. I think it was then it hit me that, despite not coming away with the dream of breaking 2:45, the 2:46 was still a huge personal best and, in terms of taking all runners into account and not just looking ahead at those better than you and who you aspire to match, I’m sitting in pretty rarefied territory.
I wanted to clap and cheer all the runners home, but my legs wanted the warmth and relaxation of my hotel bed more. I shuffled slowly along. When I stopped passing the runners coming into the final four hundred meters I passed runners who were at only around 16 miles. A lot looked in terrible misery then and had an awful long way to go. In many ways I have more respect for those to whom running doesn’t come easily or quickly who take on the challenge of a marathon. Running for four, five or six hours is an awfully long time, especially when the majority is spent in suffering. In reality although my marathon was never easy, it only became difficult around three miles from the finish – and that’s just 20 minutes or so of real suffering.
Around an hour after I finished, I made it finally back to the hotel, the two kilometres or so of walking far and away more taxing than the 42.2km of running that preceded it. The wife was the first to know my result sent by (not quite so) Instant Messaging. Then came a couple of hours break, when I showered, rested, and enjoyed a thrilling Paris-Roubaix cycle race. A Dutchman won, Feyenoord would then an hour later beat PSV to keep their title hopes alive. I PB’d in Rotterdam. Holland was happy. Rotterdam was happy, I was happy. Project Sub 2:45 continues to be targeted for another time, but the consequences of chasing that time has left me happy.
And that is what running is all about. It makes me happy. Except when I’m injured. And except when I am sh*t. And except when it is cold, wet and windy……
I was like a bear with a sore head for the day or two leading up to Coventry’s half marathon (Which for the remainder, where applicable, will be referred to as the Coventry Half Marathon, dropping the possessive apostrophe – which, bizarrely, was the theme for the finishing medal – and resurrecting the redundant capitalisation). My left leg is not a happy bunny, it has been prodded more often than a fussy five year old’s unloved dinner, and is not responding well to massage and stretching. As with most of my injuries – I’m sure the origins lie somewhere in the back, and until the sweet spot is found, a cascade of soreness and tight bits proliferate. Three weeks or so ago I was looking at a near sure-fire HM PB; now I was unsure of whether I’d even finish. Miserable doesn’t even begin to describe my mental state. It’s ridiculous but the life of a running addict can literally swing from boom to despair on the tweak of a tendon.
Back when I was a Coventry resident, the Half Marathon was less than a mile from home. I revelled in being able to leave home around 10 minutes before the off, jog to the race start and be off racing minutes after arriving. Now living in Grantham and with the race kicking off at an ungodly 9am, it meant an early start and rushed preparations in order to get out of the house in time. This led to the biggest mistake of the day when I failed to notice the kids’ car seats were in the back of the car I was taking, which wasn’t much use for the wife who was set to drive them to a party in the other vehicle. The error only dawned on me as I hit the M69; luckily for me the venue for the birthday bash was within walking distance.
I parked up around two miles from the start to allow the warm up to be the run into race HQ. Trialling my new running rucksack for the first time, this was pleasingly comfortable. The left leg, in particular the thigh, was less so. But at least it was bearable. The pain was forgotten briefly as I passed my old home, looking exactly as I left it save for two To Let signs in the miniscule front garden, which were infinitely more aesthetically pleasing than the (presumably broken) Nescafe vending machine that took pride of place in the garden a few doors down. The house that always gave trouble had truly excelled itself with the most bizarre piece of house furniture they’ve ever left outside.
I reached race HQ just 35 minutes before the start, which is around an hour less than I usually allow. It was hence a fairly rushed affair changing, stretching, pit stopping, dropping baggage etc.. It was a shame that I bumped into some fellow Kenilworth Runners literally as we were about to head to the start line. Never the chattiest at the best of times before a race, there was little in the way of meaningful conversation other than the most basic of pleasantries. My mind was focused on the impending doom I felt certain was going to strike me somewhere down the road during the race. That was a great shame as I was really looking forward to meeting old friends again, and time and circumstances sadly conspired against us.
I got to the start line just four minutes before the scheduled depart. I spotted fellow Kenilworth Runner Connor Carson, who is the club’s leading runner based on WMA age grades. He talked down his expectations for the race; I should have known better for he ended up finishing with a one second PB and an agonising six seconds away from breaking 75 minutes. Still, another 84%+ WMA performance is something to be pretty proud of, one that I’d be willing to a fair few creature comforts for.
The first mile was a fairly quick affair, although the 5:36 opening mile my Garmin clocked up I reckon was a touch enthusiastic on its behalf as the mile marker came around 15 seconds further up the road. That opening mile saw me hang on to Connor’s coat tails and even pass him at one point, but that seemed to inspire him and he soon eased himself away into the distance. I settled into as best a rhythm I could, trying my best to ignore the persistent ache in the upper thigh and a myriad of other weird pains in the left leg.
At around three miles I was in a group of four which I considered sticking with to take advantage of sheltering from the headwind. They weren’t however quite running fast enough so I pressed on. As we passed through Allesley and continued a protracted drag uphill, there was some impressive crowd support which spurred me on a little. The legs felt a touch heavy, no doubt from the heavy mileage, but I was moving reasonably swiftly. In the distance was the unmistakeable frame of local legend Garry Payne, who in his heyday won more road races than I’ve probably entered. Fifty seven years young, the man can still knock out a swift half marathon (He won the Coventry Half as recently as 2011), and I was particularly pleased to catch him, run with him for a mile or two before easing away at eight miles (I was even more chuffed when he came to congratulate me on my run at the end of the race – that was definitely a highlight).
Miles 5-8 were tough. Exposed and into a headwind as we tackled the greenbelt land near Corley, we climbed to the highest point of the race at eight miles. Thankfully I knew once we turned right onto the main road back into Coventry it was going to be as near as dammit all gently downhill to the finish, with the added bonus of being aided most of the way by a strong tail wind. With Garry dispatched it was now a lonely race, with just a couple of Godiva runners to try and chase down in the distance. All I had to spur me on was trying to reduce my average pace which, after the opening mile, had slowly slid to just outside six minutes per mile.
The average pace over the next five miles came down, but not by as much as I would have liked. The left thigh ached just enough for me not to be able to run flat out. This is shown in my heart rate which was pretty much on my marathon threshold and should have been a fair few beats higher during the closing stages of a half marathon. I battled on as best I could whilst not wanting to risk everything by overdoing it. The long downhill stretch was rudely interrupted by a slight rise at 11 miles then another in the final mile. At least the crowds were cheering in the final miles to will us to the finish, and the PA at the end was plenty loud enough to hear my name called out to the crowd as I came home in 14th position.
I knew I was outside my PB; 1:17:32 should be a pleasing result given the circumstances, but I left Coventry a little disappointed. Twisting my thoughts full circle I was then enthused that I should be disappointed with a 1:17, showing that my standards have risen in recent times. But ultimately I felt a bit flat.
Fearing my leg would stiffen and knowing I had a run back to the car and a journey in it to survive, I had my first second ever post race massage (I’ve just remembered I had one after my first ever half marathon, when I couldn’t walk for a week afterwards). God bless the numerous and very enthusiastic students of Coventry University, who gave their services for free, but I received, without a shadow of doubt, the most ineffective massage ever. I was requested on several occasions to let them know if the pain of the massage became unbearable; at times I had to turn my head and see if they were actually touching my legs – for they felt nothing.
I jogged back to the car, running more slowly than on my warm up on a longer route, retracing parts of Coventry I ran most often as a resident. The leg didn’t feel too bad considering, I had to consume a Snickers on the way though, suffering from a bit of hunger knock as the cyclists call it. Back at the car I no doubt bemused the residents of a part of Hipswell Highway as I changed outside their house out of lycra and into regular clothes. From there it was onto Warwick and a chance to catch up with some more club mates, some of whom had taken part in the Warwick Half Marathon. I would have spent more time with them had I gone to the right pub in the first instance though…. Time flew by and before I knew it my two hours of gratis parking on the expensive streets of Warwick was up and my time to head home had come.
It was fun racing back in Coventry but the race there left me with no regret over leaving. The warm down especially had me wondering how I was able to train efficiently when I was stopping every mile or so to cross a road or be dodging errant pedestrians. There’s now less than three weeks until marathon day. A cure for the leg woes is urgently required….
After what feels like months of wet and windy weather I think the entire country rejoiced this morning when the day dawned bright, sunny, and minus most of the wind which has battered us relentlessly for the past few weeks. It would be a great day for distance training and a great day for road racing.
I woke at seven to prepare for the Stamford 30k, which has a very sociable start time of 11am. I watched some Winter Olympics for a bit before downing my morning coffee and consuming my now regular pre-race breakfast of three cheap and cheerful cereal muesli bars. I showered and changed and then changed again at the last minute based on a weather forecast posted on Facebook which suggested the wind during the race would not make things quite as warm as I’d first dressed for.
It’s a short journey down the A1 from Grantham to Stamford – I arrived just as GRC runners Andrew and Scott arrived; my Kenilworth Runners team mate Stuart Hopkins was already there and waiting in the hall. We’d raced here together last year – Stuart beating me to the tune of ten minutes as I clocked 2:04 on a difficult day made tougher by Sciatica and the dreaded tummy trouble.
After collecting my number and generally pfaffing around trying to change into my race kit, I headed out for a mile’s warm up with Stuart. We passed the group containing Folksworth 15 winner Aaron Scott, who I pointed out to Stuart as being the likely winner of today’s race. One slightly interesting point to note is that whilst Aaron likely ran an extra half mile or so in warm up, it was at a pace more sedate than our leisurely stroll. There is no point doing drills or strides in a long distance race it seems.
Back at base I queued at the paltry two Portaloos. After ten minutes or so of standing impatiently it was apparent the queue had barely diminished, so I jumped ship to find alternate facilities. Thankfully there was a set of toilets which also had a number of people waiting, but at least they were slowly moving. I made it out of the toilet with just five minutes to the start – cutting it a bit fine but ultimately near perfect timing.
I made my way to the front of the field and met up with Stuart. We’d agreed to start together but not commit to running the whole race together. Stuart was full of cold and had plenty of miles in his legs following some heavy weeks of racing. I, thanks to my injury in the last couple of weeks, was relatively fresh – effectively tapered for this training race. After a brief pre race instructional briefing – which amounted to look out for traffic – we were off.
I’d said to Stuart I’d planned to run the first mile in around 6:30. I’d set the virtual partner on the Garmin to run 6:17 (Sub 2:45) pace, but in reality I was looking at something around 6:07. At the very least I wanted the race to be run at marathon heart rate. I think I said to Stuart we’re going too fast seven or eight times in the first mile as the pace read significantly under six minute miling. We clocked that first mile in 5:53 and thereafter I stopped worrying about going too fast. The heart rate was fine and the legs felt fairly good, so I decided to go with the flow.
We ran the second mile in 5:50 and passed through 5k in around 18:20. It wasn’t too many kilometres after that, on one of the infinite drags on the course, that I eased passed Stuart and pulled clear. No words were said but it was clear Stuart was not having a great time. I thought briefly about easing up and waiting for him but decided to push on. Despite the undulations the pace was good, breaking 37 minutes for 10k.
Heading into the eighth mile there was a wake up call as we turned sharp left at Careby into a long drag and a fairly stiff breeze. It transpired that much of the opening miles of the race had been wind assisted. The long uphill drag seemed to last forever. My morale wasn’t helped much on the following descent when I was caught by a rapid runner. We chatted for a while and even traded places to around 10 miles before he eased ahead. I went through ten miles in just over 60 minutes and went through the hardest part of the race with what seemed like hill after hill after hill.
I took my second of three Powergels and by twelve miles began to feel more comfortable again. I worked on being relaxed and it seemed to work, bringing the splits back down closer to 6 minutes. It helped too passing the 20km marker, knowing that there was just 10km to go. I went through 13.1 miles in c. 1:19:00, which even with my exercise addled brain worked out at 2:38 pace for the marathon. This was way ahead of expectation and that spurred me on further.
A runner caught me at around 14 miles when I took my final gel. At 15 miles, when we turned right to retrace the route we took from the start in the opening kilometers, I caught a runner ahead of me. After tackling the hardest part of the race along a narrow partially flooded road with a stiff climb which totally destroyed me last year, the runner I’d just passed caught me back and we ran together for a while, discussing marathon plans and the number of hills remaining in this race.
Until now the legs had felt great – the memories of the injuries of the past weeks just those. At 16 miles the right groin just began to ache a touch and the legs felt really tired and almost numb. It was then I looked at my legs and my arms and realised they were covered in goose bumps. They weren’t so much tired as really cold.
This realisation seemed to spur me on. It had looked as though the guy I was running with had the better of me up the penultimate drag but I seemed to up my level on the final rise and as we turned left into the housing estate – which was just about a mile from the finish – I seemed to find another gear from nowhere. I began to close on the runner who had passed me at 14 miles. I wasn’t to catch him but closed a gap that was around 30 seconds at one point down to something much less. The final whole mile all but matched the fastest mile of the race and I increased the tempo all the way to the finish.
The final bit of the Stamford race is a real killer. Once into the school they send you on a lap of the playing fields. Mercifully dry despite all the rain, it was nonetheless heavily rutted and a real trial to run on. I hadn’t looked at my overall running time since I past the Half Marathon stage. As I crossed the line I glanced at the finish clock and saw 1:52:38! This was a couple of minutes quicker than Stuart ran last year and 12 minutes faster than I ran twelve months ago. Moreover, aside from a couple of difficult patches it felt pretty comfortable – plus Rotterdam is going to be infinitely flatter than the course I raced on today.
Stuart came home five minutes later, complaining of persistent stitch and hacking his lungs up with a violent cough. The first Grantham runner – Andrew – came in at 2:13:51 and was followed not long after by Abi who put in a storming run to finish in 2:17. I watched the rest of the Grantham runners come home, but made a reasonably swift exit – the cold breeze beginning to wreak havoc with the back.
All in all with the injuries of the previous weeks, the Stamford 30k went better than I could have hoped for and bodes well for Rotterdam. I just need to stay injury and illness free!
Back when I entered this race in November I believe the plan was always to target breaking 1:30, representing sub-6 minute miling, for the 15 mile race. In the week or so building up for the race I swayed a little on whether to treat it more as a training run; I relented by Thursday and went back to plan A, resting up on the Saturday to leave the legs fresh for race day.
Waking at seven am, I was allowing myself plenty of time to prepare ahead of the race which kicked off at 11am. My pre-race routine, especially what to have for breakfast, has varied over the years – currently the thing that works for me is a cup of coffee with three cheap and cheerful cereal bars around three hours before a race, followed by a Sugar Free Red Bull (Actually Lidl’s near as dammit the same rip off) and a Snickers (Again Lidl’s Mr Choco finest) around 45 minutes before the off. Touch wood, this has minimalised any tummy trouble I have been somewhat prone to during a race.
I left home at 8:30am, filled the car with diesel, and made the 50 minute journey to Folksworth, a small village just south of Peterborough, made very easy with a quiet A1 taking me 98% of the way there. The early morning rain cleared during the journey down, by the time I arrived the conditions were near perfect for racing – 7C, partly sunny and just a gentle breeze. The wind wreaked havoc with the race last year apparently, so I was most pleased to see this would not be a factor this year.
We were parked over a mile from the start, thankfully a shuttle car service provided a lift to race HQ and I found myself with an hour and a quarter to kill before the start of the race. I duly changed into my running gear, ate my pre race snack and made small talk with some Grantham Running Club team mates. Nowadays I normally do a two mile warm-up before a race, but as this was a little longer than usual I made it just a mile and a quarter – leaving it quite late so as to minimise time spent at the start. The legs felt good during the warm-up and as I made my way forwards to the front of the field at the start line, I was hopeful of good things.
The race began promptly at 11 and we were running pretty quickly from the off, mostly because the start was slightly downhill. I settled into a group containing the lead ladies for the opening mile or so, already the race winner Aaron Scott of Notts AC had disappeared into the distance en route to clocking 1:18:18 – breaking his own course record. 5:54 was a quick first mile, but I felt comfortable and didn’t worry over it being a little fast.
The second and third miles contained the two biggest climbs on the course. On the first climb I pulled clear of the ladies group to sit eleventh and made up the gap to the next small group, passing a couple of runners. On the next climb I think I passed another to find myself eighth and some way down on the next two runners – although they were, crucially, within sight. Miles four and five were a bit of a grind – although they were mostly on the flat plateau, the headwind made going a little tough. Wanting to practice my gel intake for the marathon, I took the first of three gels at 4 miles, taking as much water as I could from the paper cup without spilling most of it all over me.
Thankfully the sixth mile saw us take a left turn with a flat to downhill mile and a tailwind, which allowed me to post my second fastest mile split of the race (5:36). I made no inroads into the pair ahead (who were running together) on this section, but did on a stiff little climb at around seven miles, which gave me hope for overhauling them on the second lap.
Completing the end of the first lap I had a near disaster when I came to a junction and I shouted to the marshals ahead which way I should go. They both pointed in the same direction, so I duly went that way, only to hear plenty of shouts from them and a small crowd saying I’d made a wrong turn! It transpired they had both beckoned an approaching car to stop and give way, which I misunderstood for me to go in that direction. Thankfully any seconds lost with that mishap were compensated by the sudden rush of adrenaline and increase in pace to make up for the perceived loss of time.
I completed the first lap with my 6:00 Garmin Virtual Partner showing I was around 30 seconds up on schedule – a big improvement on around 4 miles when I was around 20 seconds down. I was feeling strong but knew I had to put the work in over the next few miles if I was to pass the pair ahead of me.
As I’d hoped I reeled the pair of them slowly on the first climb, but they were still around 10 seconds ahead as we plunged down the steepest downhill section on the course. The second climb – which I found to be the longest and hardest of the three climbs per lap – saw me close the gap to the seventh placed runner to just a couple of seconds. On the following plateau section – into the headwind – I seized my opportunity, closing and passing, then putting a surge on to make sure he didn’t take my slipstream.
This surge saw me rapidly close on the sixth placed runner and I wasted no time in passing him and continuing the push. I took on my last gel at 11 miles and continued to work hard to try to make the gap as big as possible before the left hand turn and the flat/downhill section. It was mission accomplished as a 5:45 mile meant I put around 15 seconds on the pair of them – with the runner I passed first taking the opportunity to put his move on the fading seventh placed runner.
As I turned the corner and felt the welcome breeze push me along, I encountered my only trouble of the race in the form of a tight abductor in the right leg causing some discomfort near the knee for a mile or so. This is still a legacy of the Christmas Eve run incident, and is something I need to address soon. Despite this worry I put in my fastest mile of the race, through mile 14 in 5:30.
Comfortable in my sixth place with no opportunity of catching anyone in front of me, I paced myself up the final climb, before pushing on for the final half mile down a slight descent into the finish. Crossing the finish line I was delighted to see I’d clocked 1:28:39 – eighty seconds or so faster than I’d planned, and aside from the slight issue with the right leg, feeling relatively comfortable throughout. I beamed as I had my chip removed, collected my bright orange technical T-Shirt (definitely the vogue colour for races at the moment) and set about getting changed before seeing my club mates come home.
There was then a long old wait before the prize giving ceremony, there was a slim chance that, depending on how the rules were interpreted, I could have taken a prize for fifth male. It turned out I wasn’t to receive that honour – hence first of the losers. However, as the recipients took home wine glasses of varying quality I didn’t get too upset by missing out. Indeed I was somewhat relieved as some of the prize winners seemed pretty concerned about how they were going to get their glass wear home. They were though presented by the widow of a man who tragically died racing the Folksworth 15 ten years ago. In his memory the award to the first V60 is presented first – a genuinely touching gesture for one of those impressively efficient club races, their efforts into producing a slick, well run event, put a lot of larger, more professional operations to shame.
So the race done, it was a simple matter of walking back to the car park, watching the final finisher slowly, but determinedly make her way towards the finish line. For me, a good day in the office. Hopefully the right leg will see itself right in the coming weeks and continued progress will be made.