After the calm prediction of a personal best the night before, I woke on race morning alarmed to find I could barely walk. Not struck down with flu or any viral malaise, instead the tops of both hamstrings were unfathomably tight.
I thought long about what could have caused this bizarre turn of events and concluded it was almost certainly the dynamic forward lunges I’d done as part of the Strength and Conditioning program in the morning the day before. Although at the time they felt fine, I imagine they’d just strained some muscle fibres enough to give this overnight reaction. I should have known better, similar afflictions have struck me twice before when doing these lunges – I just shouldn’t do them, especially the day before a race.
For the best part of the day I really didn’t think I’d be able to race. I went out at midday for a one mile new trainer foot pod calibration / fitness test. The trainers (A new pair of Nike Lunar Racer) felt great; the legs less so. It wasn’t a showstopper couldn’t run at all affair, more a I can really feel this and it doesn’t help with the running issue.
I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting over whether to run. I began to prepare at 5pm to leave at 5:30pm. At 5:35pm I decided I wasn’t going, when my wife texted me to wish me good luck. It was then I decided the very least I could do was go along, warm up, and see what happened. If it didn’t feel good I wouldn’t race, I’d sit back and enjoy the others run whilst I enjoyed the sunshine.
And so I left for Nottingham, enjoying the glorious weather in the car that would not make for quite so idyllic racing conditions, with temperatures still in the mid twenties Celsius and a blustery breeze that would slightly cool, but slow us too when exposed.
I arrived in good time, happening to park just ahead of the start line. I changed into my running kit, gently stretched the hamstrings and began to run. Slowly. A slow shuffle with both hamstrings not wanting to work and only wanting to hurt. After a couple of minutes I stopped to use the official race toilets – inside the Riverbank Bar & Kitchen. It was a little surreal to see a stream of runners using the facilities of what is quite a swish establishment, certainly the first time at a race I’ve got to wash my hands using cocoa butter enriched hand wash.
Whether that luxury hand wash permeated its magic to my hamstrings I doubt, but when I began running again, the hamstrings were a little less tight. For the warm up I ran most of the 2.5 mile loop that formed the course. After a mile I began to do some strides and surges and the legs felt as though they would cope. The race was on! I also noted that the return leg along the Victoria Embankment saw the headwind grow and grow in intensity as we curved around towards the finish line. Something to note for the race which would commence in twenty minutes time.
I was very relaxed at the start line, as though all the pre-race angst had been used up many hours earlier when I was fretting over whether to race. A little humour ensued as a credit card was found at the start line, a relieved member of BRAT sheepishly came up to retrieve his plastic from the race starter, declaring that post race drinks would very much be on him. I lined myself up next to what looked like the strongest ladies in the race and a gentleman who looked like he was determined to be up front for the first 200 meters at least before the inevitable severe and prolonged fade for the remaining 4.8 miles.
The starting pistol fired and we were off. As predicted some went off too exuberantly. I was steady but not slow, the hamstrings still a little tight but thankfully loosening off all the time, so that after 2-3 minutes of racing they were hardly a factor. The race, which was relatively small with just under 200 starters, was soon strung out and I found myself quite quickly running alone, albeit with runners not too far in front of me and behind. The first mile took us out on a loop away from the Embankment and then back on it. I went through the first mile on the watch in 5:25 – just a second quicker than at the Summer Solstice the month previous. I felt strong to the turning point half a mile or so later, where we headed down onto the footpath by the River Trent and enjoyed the support of the local fishermen and other hecklers – albeit the heckles were mild in tone and arguably supportive.
I knew this was a crucial point in the race. I was running alone but around 20 meters ahead was a group of five runners. If I could catch them in the next couple of minutes I could sit in the pack and take shelter for the 3/4s mile or so when there was the testing head wind. A short burst of sub five minute mile running and I was in the pack. I felt good, it was tempting to push on as I felt the pace was not quite as I could have managed, but I figured the shelter from the wind and the energy saved could probably result in bigger gains later on in the race.
And so I sat at the back of the pack whilst a pair of well built athletes provided an excellent wind break. The pace inevitably dropped, for a short period we were running at around six minute miles, but I kept calm and stuck with the plan. Mile two I went through in 5:29, the average pace for the third mile slipped to 5:45 as we completed the first lap and turned 180 degrees to begin the second.
Without hesitation I picked up the effort and the group disintegrated around me. I left them and pushed on closing down rapidly on my old friend from Coventry Godiva Harriers, Namir Batavia. I first raced with Namir back in the 2008 Coventry Half Marathon when he was clearly a talented, but very inexperienced, young runner. He stuck in my mind because he would furiously sprint up all the hills during the race, then slow to a jog at the top, where I would catch him up and we would recommence racing together. I thought he’d have no chance of making it to the finish, but earned my eternal respect when he did, and beat me comfortably too. Since then we’ve both improved – he has posted some quicker times than me, especially at the start of the year, with a low 27 minute five mile race performance, so it was a big mental boost when I surged past him just before three miles.
Although the Garmin was a bit up on the official mile markers, I knew that with the 5:34 third mile and 5k on or around 17:00 minutes I was on for a good race. The wise words of a 15 year old I’d read about in Athletics Weekly at lunchtime rung in my head: the best races are always the ones that feel the easiest. This is so so true, and tonight was one of those races. It felt pretty easy. I knew by my heart rate that it was no picnic in the park, I was pushing pretty close to my maximum, but it felt comfortable.
Two more miles – ten more minutes or so – I thought, to a good time, so I pushed on again. I went through the fourth mile in 5:28 and as we turned at the top of the course for the second and last time to run back to the finish, I had the lead lady, Juliet Potter, around 10-15 seconds ahead of me. I’d have no chance of sheltering from the head wind on this second lap, it was just a case of giving it everything and minimising any losses. I focused on Juliet ahead and steadily reeled her in, catching her with around half a mile to go. I thought for a second about tucking in and recovering but felt it would be best to surge on ahead, going for a long sprint for home.
Juliet doubled her efforts and stuck close to me as the wind made the going tough in the closing stages. The five mile split came up on the watch (5:23) and we were some way from the finish. I wanted to know what elapsed time was but I kept missing it on my Garmin as it scrolled through its four pages of data (My choice, it wasn’t ideal today). Then I could make out the finishing clock as it read 27:20. The PB was assured, clocking a sub-28 performance wasn’t. I pushed on again as the seconds clicked by, the finish line taking forever to appear. Finally it did, I stopped the watch. 27:53 it read – a PB by 26 seconds! I shook the hand of Juliet, who came in just four seconds later, then waited for Namir to come home and a Grantham runner I’d seen from afar during the warm up.
I was obviously delighted with the PB but there was no real euphoric outpouring. More a contented punch of the fists, then on with business. I find that’s often the case with midweek summer evening races, the atmosphere is usually far more relaxed than at a weekend race. Races are run, runners disperse and head home.
I was surprised to find I finished eleventh, far higher than I expected to be. Then came the two mile warm down, where the hamstrings showed how tight they were – not enjoying in the slightest this final hurrah in the fading sunlight. Still I didn’t care too much – the gamble to race had paid off, another PB achieved, this one an unexpected surprise.
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 planning on making today a rest day – Friday has been my most frequent day off from running for some years now and with the final day of F1 testing in Jerez, the only chance I would have got to head out and run would be in the evening: a Friday night run is something I can count on the fingers on one hand I have done.
But the planned rest was planned beforeI realised yesterday I could break my mileage record for a calendar month. After yesterday’s effort I calculated I needed to run seven miles. As the day wore on I found myself less inclined to head out; the weather looked and sounded truly horrible – wet, windy, and, by all accounts, cold. I tried to talk myself out of it but in the end the lure of a PB of sorts proved too great and so it was, at 7:30pm, I left the comfort of my home to run seven long miles.
Once again this week I got lucky in that the icy cold rain had relented and all I was faced with was a stiff wind, which, although cold, was thankfully not the arctic blast I’d been hearing so much about on the TV weather forecast. the first couple of miles were a real trial – the legs were stiff, bits ached, and the mind was constantly asking why? why? as I struggled into the wind and up the first of two climbs.
Salvation came, not for the first time this week, from the Sansa Clip, who almost seemed to sense my mental frailty and chose to play, once again, Kingdom of Rust by Doves. Despite my legs determination to not run easily, the song seemed to override the pins and before I knew it I was running 7:20 miles and getting quicker. It helped too that I’d literally turned a corner and the wind was a cross come tail wind that began to blow me ever quicker back towards home.
Heading up to Barrowby Gate, it was Strava’s turn to will me on as I knew there was a trophy to be had if I just upped the pace a touch along this hilly road. That tackled, the run was psychologically as good as done with just a mile and a half of downhill or flat running to tackle. Before I knew it I was home – seven and a half miles run, Best of all, I managed to make it indoors just as the heavens opened again.
I barely had time to shower before I was uploading my run to Fetcheveryone and Strava. Fetch was the most important, official confirmation of my mileage was up and there for all to see.
314 miles – two more than March 2012 when I was training for the London Marathon that I was unable to run and then took part in the Shakespeare Marathon that wasn’t (That story is for another day, it took many months to come to terms with that one and it still winds me up just thinking about it…).
Hopefully this year my marathons go to plan. If they don’t well at least I have my Strava Gold Trophy for Barrowby Gate to treasure (although someone could easily beat that). January is done. All in all a very good month, as good as I could have hoped for, and well on track to, hopefully, Sub 2:45.
When, back in late September, I got whiff that I may, despite all expectations, be entering a spell of good running form, I entered the Leeds Abbey Dash 10k. It was a calculated risk, it was on the day of the United States GP, which meant a late evening of work on the Saturday night followed by an early start to the race before rushing back home to cover the F1 race.
Leeds seemed a smart choice. A club mate, Chris McCarthy, had set an excellent time there a year before and the quality of field on a fast flat course was high. After entry things continued to go well, a strong run at the Robin Hood Half Marathon, more good weeks of solid training followed. A parkrun in Peterborough was one second outside my PB; had I paced that run properly I would have smashed my 5k best. A rare race off road at Seagrave saw me come home in the top ten. A quick look at my nearest rivals on Power of Ten showed I was running in good company.
Training in the week of Leeds was atypical. A big drinking session on Saturday night saw me incapacitated on Sunday. I punished myself by running long on Monday, a hills session on Tuesday, eight miles on Wednesday and then sixteen miles on Thursday. I was knackered on that Thursday run. Overdoing it, I thought, so two days rest before the race on Sunday. Working on the US Grand Prix meant I had odd work shift patterns to contend with. I finished work at around 1am on the Friday night and not much earlier on the Saturday night.
I woke at around 5:45am and thankfully the plan of having everything packed and laid out ready came to fruition, for I was out of the door in less than 45 minutes. Sticking to the new policy of consuming three cereal bars for breakfast two and a half hours before the race, I had driven a fair way towards Leeds before breakfast was taken – washed down with a shot of beetroot juice for good luck.
I arrived in Leeds at 7:45, a long time before the start of 9:30 but I wanted to be assured of finding a spot in the most convenient car park, within easy jogging distance to the start line. Parking was free, or maybe free, because in the time it took for me to walk to the race village, use the amenities and return to the car, the signs saying it was free to park on a Sunday had been replaced with ones saying it cost £1! Much confusion reigned; a local assured us that it was free on this Sunday and that charges were to be introduced the following Sunday – the council slyly putting the signs up early to catch as many runners as possible. I believed the local gentleman as I was sure my eyes hadn’t deceived me 20 minutes earlier; plenty didn’t and stumped up the unnecessary cash for peace of mind.
I only usually do a mile or so for warm up, today I decided, especially as it was only 10k, to do a two mile warm up. I jogged along the A66 Kirkstall Road, which would form around 95% of the race. What was immediately apparent was that this section of the course was wide and pancake flat. Moreover the weather conditions were looking perfect for racing, overcast and windless, maxing out at around 9°C. After a mile I stretched a little, refastened the laces and headed back at a quicker pace. What gave me confidence for the race ahead was that as I came to the end of the mile I glanced at my Garmin and it said that in the final 1/3 mile I had averaged 6:02 pace and that felt ridiculously easy.
I headed back to the car and changed into my race kit. I walked towards the race village, but when I saw the queues for the Portaloos I realised there was little hope of being able to use them and be anywhere near the start line. I remembered that the TGI Friday’s opposite the car park clearly had its doors open where their toilets were. I took a chance and jogged back to the car park. I was right and a few others were taking the opportunity to use facilities far plusher and less popular than the official race provided amenities.
Thankful I was that crucial bit lighter I made my way back to the start, still with around 15 minutes before the off. Realising there was little point in placing myself in the start chutes I joined the hundreds who had already decided to queue for the start. It was there I met club mates Richard Simkiss and Chris McCarthy, a.k.a. the MrCarkiss Elite Project. I’d not seen either of them in months and it was good to meet face to face rather than on Facebook or the like. They were clearly both nervous – both looking to break 33 minutes – and both anxious that we were nowhere near the front of the pack waiting to start the race. The event may have been chip timed but positions would be hard to make up if it took ages to cross the start line. Moreover there was no knowing who would be lined up in front of you. Many a time there has been a 16 minute miling MP3 player wearing loon getting in everyone’s way because they decided they had the right to stand at the head of the race.
With a couple of minutes before the off I caught eye on quite a few other Kenilworth Runners, some of whom had higher expectations of how they would race than others. I wished them all luck and, with a minute to the off, truly focused on the race ahead.
At exactly 9:30 the gun fired and we were off. It only took around 15 seconds to cross the start line but it felt like an eternity. Richard and Chris were clearly peeved at this and set off on a mission, darting left and right to pass other runners and assume their rightful positions in the race. I did a little bit of the same but was a little more cautious, I too felt I was being held up, but a quick look at my Garmin showed we were averaging 5:30 in those early stages – that was quick enough for me and I was actually grateful I was unable to go off as fast as maybe my body would have liked. I made that mistake at the recent Peterborough parkrun and blew up in the final stages. Hopefully this enforced slightly more reserved start would pay dividends come the closing stages.
We soon navigated the roundabout that contained the car park where my car was and onto the road I had warmed up on not long ago. The section that followed, from there, to around where my Garmin flagged one mile, was probably my favourite moment of running to date. Here I was running fast, surrounded by people in front, almost as far as the eye could see, and behind, to either side spread along the width of a wide dual carriageway, We were all running fast, yet silently. With no traffic and precious few spectators, the only sound that could be heard was the pitter-patter of hundreds of runners, all seemingly striding in unison. It was an ethereal moment. I’d run in large groups during races before, but usually during a marathon or maybe a half marathon, where runners were, understandably, running well within themselves. Here everyone was running nearly flat out, it felt how I imagine it must be to be in a horse race.
I went through the first mile in 5:35, fast, but crucially some 24 seconds or so slower than my opening mile at the ill fated parkrun, so, in the scheme of things, comfortable. The ethereal nature of the race was broken not long after when the race took us through the carpark of an out of town shopping complex, complete with some poorly placed and not well highlighted sleeping policemen. It barely slowed us, but it felt a little odd at this, one of the country’s premier road races, for us to be utilising a car park.
Not long after rejoining the main road I passed another club mate, Pete Matthews. He has improved year on year, but I was surprised to see him this far up the field, as his target was a 37 something 10k. Maybe it was birthday exuberance or how he prefers to attack races, I wished him well as I passed him and continued on. The second mile was 5:31, quicker but still comfortable.
The third mile was a bit of a shock as it contained something of an uphill drag. Nothing too difficult to slow too much, but enough to make itself apparent. I was under the impression that the race was pancake flat and here it clearly wasn’t. Whilst I cursed the climb it was obvious, as the lead runners began to pass me on the return home, that the climb would be a pleasant descent not long after.
The third mile was a 5:38, not bad considering the climb, and I passed 5km in approximately 17:30 – just 10 seconds outside my 5k PB. Metres after this split it was a sharp U-turn and the return home. Feeling good and strong I made a conscious effort to increase the pace a touch, feeding off the energies of the runners behind me I began to pass on the opposite side of the road. I began picking off runners ahead of me, but unlike most races where running at this pace would see large gaps between groups, there were no gaps to be seen.
I passed the fourth mile in 5:29 and spurred on by this quickest mile yet continued to pour on the coals, revelling in the perfect conditions and the quality of the field around me. I passed through the fifth mile in 5:24 and although I started to feel just a touch tired I was spurred on by the thought there was just over a mile left to run. I was also spurred on by my Garmin Virtual Partner, who was set to run the 10k in 35:00, and I was around 20 seconds up on him. Just one more mile at this pace and a new PB would be mine!
The end of mile 6 saw us leave the flat road and onto a slip road that took us briefly up onto a ring road. This was a pretty short, but steep, climb, not before used in the race, and thought to cost as much as 20 seconds. Undeterred I pushed on almost oblivious of the climb, passing 6 miles in another 5:24. Coming off the ring road and swinging right towards the finish line I caught sight of the finish line and gave it everything to ensure that I would break 35:00 on the clock, let alone by chip time.
I crossed the finish line in around 34:50, stopped my Garmin, which read 34:34 and I was simply elated. Thirteen years in the waiting, I had finally broken my 10K PB, the PB I’d considered to be my strongest as it was set when I was in the previous peak of my powers. I couldn’t help but throw a few fist pumps as I made my way out of the finish area, forced along by an insanely loud PA system.
I met upon Richard and Chris, who had both broken 33 minutes, both clocked PBs and Richard indeed set a new club record. Both though looked as miserable as sin and I struggled to reconcile with them – telling them quite bluntly to ‘Get over themselves’. Maybe its because I’m a fair few years older than them that I’ve learnt to cherish a PB no matter if it wasn’t quite what you are hoped to achieve. When you are punching at this sort of weight it won’t be long before those PBs become very hard to achieve, so enjoy them whilst you can.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We went off on a two mile warm down, cheering on some of the slower runners as we passed. We then enjoyed a meal at TGI Friday’s trying our best not to let on that it was Pete’s birthday for fear of a waitress attack of Happy Birthday singing and dancing. I soon had to say my goodbyes and hot foot it back home to work on the US GP. I was lucky not to be held up on the A1 by a crash – I’d pulled off at the last minute before the tailback, and followed my nose to rejoin the road around 10 miles further south, where mercifully the traffic was clear. I’d barely pulled into my drive and my phone was busy with requests to get on with my work – my success would have to be enjoyed another day.
I knew I’d put in a strong performance, it transpired that it would statistically be my best ever to day, scoring a WAVA score of 80.98%. It was the first time I’d broken 80% – a goal I’d targeted for some years and was thrilled. I also knew it was a strong field, I didn’t realise that I’d been part of one of the deepest quality road races in Britain for many a year – finishing 242nd or so. Thankfully Athletics Weekly saw fit to publish all finishers who broke 35 minutes – a mere 250 of us!