I had been looking forward to running the Whissendine 6ix (Six) mile race for some time – several years in fact. 2019 was the first year, I think, since moving to Grantham where there hadn’t been a Grand Prix on that weekend so I was able to make the short journey from Grantham to Whissendine for the Friday evening race.
The race marked the debut appearance for my Nike Vaporfly 4% race trainers. This hadn’t been intentional. Although I was curious as to their powers having seen many pro runners in them performing unbelievably and having been beaten by runners in races either wearing them or variants thereof, I had balked at the price of them considering the limited mileage they have before apparently falling apart.
By chance the day before Whissendine The Lincolnshire Runner posted on its Facebook page that they had been able to acquire a few pairs of Nike Vaporfly 4% and one of the sizes they had was mine (a 10). Not only did they have them in stock (A rarity indeed as they are usually only available in a select few outlets) they were selling them at £170, a significant saving on the RRP.
Normally you are just expected to comment on the post to secure your intention to purchase. I took no chances and was straight on the phone and giving them all my details with the promise that I would be there the following lunchtime to collect. The fact Lincolnshire Runner had them was particularly fortuitous as I had a fair amount of gift vouchers from them awarded as prizes in local races. Add to that cash I had also won and it meant that effectively I was going to pick these 195 gram wonders gratis.
As promised the following lunchtime, around seven hours before Whissendine, I was over in Lincoln in the running shop about to try on the shoes. As you are encouraged to whenever trying on a pair of trainers there the sales assistant suggested I head outside and try them out along the high street. This I did. I took three steps and was sold. No need to push them any further. I could see straight away what all the fuss was about.
While in store I tried on some other shoes I was curious about. The Hoka Carbon X disappointed – they felt less zingy than my Cliftons. The brand new Hoka Rincons however felt great – I vowed to grab a pair when they inevitably come down in price a little. I also ended up buying a couple of pairs of heavily discounted Nike Frees of various vintage. They have for many years been one of my staple training and racing shoes and was pleased to have some pairs to replace my ageing models. With the addition of some new Goodr running sunglasses I was distinctly lighter in the pocket than I had planned but pleased with my purchases and itching to get racing in the 4%s!
I headed to Whissendine with my friend and training partner (bike especially) Stephen. He had, the previous week, completed the insanely hard Wasdale X Triathlon – an Ironman length triathlon held in the Lake District and without doubt the hardest triathlon in the country, if not Europe and the world! Having done brilliantly to finish well inside the top ten but having suffered badly with the heat of what turned out to be the warmest days of the summer, he was happy to just be supporting rather than competing.
Once in Whissendine and having worked out where the start and finish was in relation to the car park, I left Mr Hobday to his own devices exploring the village and its pub while I warmed up and killed a bit of time. I did the mile and a half long warm up in my Hoka Cliftons, my race shoe of the previous year or so and now a back-up to the Vaporfly’s which were to be saved for races only. The first steps in these shoes, other than walking to the start would be when racing! The warm up was unspectacular, the right Achilles needed plenty of stretching before it stopped becoming annoying.
Once back at the car park I gathered the GRC troops for a group photo and then went for one last comfort break before changing into the trainers. Feeling like no other trainer I’ve worn, I walked a little gingerly the 100 meters or so to the start line where I made small talk with several competitors – mostly discussing the weather, which at around 22C and sunny was pretty warm but for me, not an issue other than the (recently found, having been lost for nearly a year) GRC vest received a rare outing! Club mate Chris Limmer pointed out who he saw as my main threat – a 16 minute 5K runner who, as it happened, was also wearing the Vaporflys.
On time at 7:30pm we were sent, with little fanfare, on our way. Having discussed the race several times with another club mate Jonny Palmer (not racing this year, but who won the 6ix in 2017 having finished second a year earlier) he had urged me to start cautiously on the lightening fast downhill start for after around half a mile in the heart of the village the road kicked up for a stiff climb out of the village itself before heading out on an undulating loop with the bulk of the climbs between miles three and five miles before a quick downhill half mile to the finish.
I very briefly took the lead before team mate Chris took the helm and led a group of five us down towards the pub where Stephen was waiting with a load of other supporters basking in the pleasant warmth of the midsummer evening sun. The shoes felt great but, as the second placed finisher at Sleaford told me a mile or so into the race, they were going to take a little while to get used to, particularly the sensation that my feet could burst out of the flimsy fabric of the trainer at any second, especially as the laces felt a little looser than I prefer.
We slowed inevitably up the hill out of the village. I was happy to sit at the back of the group in fifth and make my way up the climb as economically as possible. We turned left not long after leaving the village for a spell of flat before a long descent. Chris lost the lead to the young runner who he had touted before the start of the race, and another runner who took on the pace and began to eke out a gap ahead of everyone else.
Passing the first mile in a solid, if unspectacular 5:38, my fears that the lace on the left shoe was actually coming undone proved unfounded and as we headed gradually downhill I found my feet, so to speak, in the new trainers and began to pick up the pace, passing Chris and another runner to move into third. The second mile may have been entirely downhill but I was encouraged to clock a 5:20 mile, the kind of split usually reserved for a good mile in a 5K race.
Going into the third mile I passed the touted lad in the Vaporflies which confirmed my hunch that although the shoes were undoubtedly very fast, you still have to have someone doing the pedaling, so to speak. With the leader by now 15-20 seconds down the road I was content to finish second and just focused on running as well as possible. To my delight I actually found myself halving that gap as we hit halfway in 16:34 after a 5:36 third mile.
Taking a left turn I instantly recognised the road as the one I had driven along to get to the race and knew that it would be a test with a set of rollers to contend with. On the first climb I quite quickly closed and pulled alongside the leader. He said ‘Well done!’ and with that I pretty much knew that, barring disaster, the race was won. Without actually realising I pulled out a race winning gap on that climb, which was almost a mile long and saw a 5:45 fourth mile clocked. After a quick descent it was time for a second shorter, but steeper, climb. It was here where Stephen had come out to cheer me on, expecting me to be well up the order but not actually leading. He commented after the race how the ‘flys had made my running form look far more efficient, even on the climbs. All I was interested in was how big the gap was to second which he said was plenty.
Heading back downhill and going through mile 5 in 5:33 I must admit I’d forgotten there was a final climb into Whissendine itself before the finish. I was tiring but the predicted finish time on my watch of 33:33 was scarcely believable! This meant around 34:30 for a ten KM when a month or so earlier at Whissendine I’d struggled to break 35 minutes on a flat course! It also represented an 82 second improvement on my six mile PB, set at Stratford way back in 2012.
With this quick time in mind and the stress of holding my lead diminished with the assurance of victory. I relaxed as I made my way to the top of the final hill and enjoyed the lightening fast descent to the finish just as Jonny promised. I crossed the line, hands aloft but barely out of breath in 33:33 – just as my watch had predicted earlier in the race and with a 5:30 final mile to close.
The first thing I did after the race, after stopping my watch and grabbing a cup of water to juggle with alongside the memento beer glass and unwanted beer was remove the Vaporflys! I was determined to not put an extra meter on them that wasn’t necessary! After some congratulations from the officials I was grabbed by a reporter from the local radio station who asked if i could be interviewed live. I reluctantly obliged and duly gave what must have been an excruciating spiel on what had just unfolded.
Keen not to embark on any more media relations I decided to head back along the course back to the car so I could change into my Hokas for a warm down before the prize giving. Taking it easy in only my socks I was given the hurry up via a phone call from Stephen who alerted me that the awards were going to be handed out without me!
I jogged back down to the finish just in time for the traditional prize of crystal cut glasses to be handed out. With that done and the end of race group GRC photo done there was little left to do but to head back to the car with Stephen and head home triumphant and very pleased with a most unexpected victory!
Despite Manchester from Grantham being comparable distance to Grantham to London I’d decided fairly early that I wasn’t going to travel on the morning of the race to Manchester from home. I balked at the idea of paying large amounts of money for a hotel room so opted, for the first time, to use the family caravan to stay close to the race and then stay up in the Manchester area with the family for a few days as the race was taking place during the Easter holidays.
We were staying at a Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Bury, which is in the outskirts of the Greater Manchester district and, crucially, on the tram network that I planned to use to get to and from the race. We left for Bury on the Saturday morning and was immediately grateful for Richard at Grantham Leisure Ltd who was able to immediately identify a terrible sounding (but actually relatively harmless) issue with our tow bar that hit us when setting off on our journey that was remedied with some sand paper and brake cleaner that he very kindly let us keep at no cost.
That drama out of the way the journey to Bury was straightforward enough. The site was pleasant enough, set in Burrs Country Park with constant reminders of the area’s industrial past, including a steam train running on a line just behind our caravan, which bought great boyish pleasure! Once set up and lunch eaten most of the afternoon was spent relaxing as much as possible.
My pre marathon meal of choice is pizza, which isn’t so easy to cook in the caravan so was relying on takeaway. After googling for Bury’s finest pizza establishments I settled on my first ever Domino’s Pizza. I was impressed with the app and collection procedure; less impressed with the actual quality of the pizza and that they are still texting me six months later in the feint hope I may actually use Domino’s Bury while living in Grantham. I washed the pizza down with a small glass of white wine – the habits of caravan lifestyle proved too hard to resist.
The rest of the evening was spent playing the usual parlour games we play with the kids in the caravan before heading to bed at around 10pm. The beauty of staying in the caravan was that, so long as the weather was not biblically bad, I was almost assured a good night’s sleep in a familiar bed – something that I rarely get when staying in a hotel room.
I woke at around 5am and let the legs slowly come to life as I made the short walk to the site’s washroom facilities. I was sure I’d be the only one who’d hatched the same accommodation plan for Manchester but there were at least two or three others who clearly had the same intentions. After a breakfast of 5 small cereal bars washed down with a large mug of black coffee I got the wife to drive me the couple of miles or so to the main tram stop in Bury. The plan was for her to return back to the caravan for a bit before getting a later tram with the kids to watch the race at various points alongthe course.
Again for some reason I was sure that I would be the only one racing at Manchester who would consider getting a tram from Bury but as it turned out there were already many runners on the platform waiting for the first tram to depart at around 7am. They were mostly from local clubs, mostly far too enthusiastic for six something in the morning, but at least the platforms were not as busy as they are when trying to get to the start of London at Blackheath.
The tram journey took around 45 minutes, including a change in the heart of Manchester when I met Jack Dodwell of GRC, who was racing, and his father, who had driven them from Grantham that morning. Once off the second tram it was a few minute’s walk before we came to the boulevard of Portaloos where I stumbled upon quite a few of the other GRC contingency who were taking part in the race. It was then on to drop off the bag at baggage near the finish line. By now the time was around 8:30 and not too long left before the 9am start. There was time for a quick photo with around half the GRC runners before I made my way to the start.
On one of the last unofficial toilet stops I happened to bump into Vince Riviere who I’d first met at the Leeds Abbey Dash. He’d gone on to have quite a winter with a string of great races including a brilliant low 2:37 at the Valencia Marathon. We wished each other well and I dreamed of whether it would be my day to break 2:40 for the first time. Working my way through the crowds of runners starting from slower pens, I finally got to the front pen with around ten minutes to spare. I found somewhere where you could lighten the load in relative privacy (albeit with a load of other runners doing the same thing) one last time before making my way to the start line. I looked up to the skies and blessed the weather gods for providing pretty much perfect conditions – cloudy skies, a light easterly breeze and temperatures maxing out at around 11C. I could conjour up plenty of excuses for a poor performance, the weather couldn’t be one of them!
As the final countdown began and the pre-race nerves around me became almost unbearable it was with great relief that the starting horn was sounded dead on time at 9am. Despite the large numbers running we were able to run unrestricted from the off and some around me clearly were going off way too fast, almost totally out of breath in the opening couple of minutes. Despite swathes of runners coming past me I stuck as closely as I could to the game plan of max 150 bpm for the opening mile, 155 bpm for mile two, 160 bpm for mile three and a maximum of 165 bpm to twenty miles.
This deliberately easy start meant I felt like I was chomping at the bit, which was potentially a good sign as sometimes the opening miles can feel quite laboured. The opening mile was 6:34 which I hoped would be by far the slowest mile of the race. Mile 2 was 6:15 and I went through mile 3 in 6:09, which coincided with the course completing its mini loop east before heading southwest towards Stretford, Sale and Altrincham before heading back to the start via Urmston.
The fourth mile was the first where I allowed myself the luxury of getting to 165 bpm and I was pleased to clock a 6:01, which was right at the top end of what I thought I might be able to hit after all the weeks of training at marathon heart rate. Better was to come in mile five when I ran a 5:58 (the fastest of the race) before I ran 6:05 for mile 6. Thereafter the splits to mile 20 were very consistent with only nine seconds covering the quickest (6:00 – mile 13) and the slowest (6:09 – mile 12). The difference in these two miles could be explained in that we climbed the biggest ‘hill’ of the race (no more than a bridge over a railway) in mile 12 at Altrincham and came down in mile 13.
Given the consistency of mile splits you may be forgiven for thinking it was plain sailing. Alas this was not the case. All was well until around that bridge at 12 miles. I’d already seen my family out once on the course at around eight miles and taken the first of three gels (SIS that I was using in a race for the first time). Without warning I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring. At first I thought it was cramp but the pain disappeared as soon as it came. Anxious I wasn’t in the mood for high fiving the Altrincham football club mascot as I passed the family for the third and final time before the finish. Indeed the family were worried I might punch him as he generally got in runners’ way – I was very restrained under the circumstances!
I got through the convoluted Altrincham loop – complete with odd run through what looks like the back of a Boots car park without drama and was hoping that the pain in the hamstring was a one off as I passed through halfway in just outside eighty minutes. However at the next left turn where crowds were perhaps at there biggest, I felt a sharper, longer more sustained pain in my left hamstring. This forced me briefly to a slow jog and, assuming it was cramp, I was already wondering whether it would be a good time to consider dropping out of the race.
Mercifully almost as quick as the pain came on it disappeared entirely. This led me to make some quick assumptions that it wasn’t cramp, wasn’t a muscle pull or tear and was almost certainly some kind of sciatica similar to what had struck my calf muscle at the Retford Half Marathon. Considering I had slowed for a period mile 14 wasn’t nearly as disastrous as I feared clocking, 6:07. The mind has a neat way of blocking out painful episodes from the memory bank so I can’t recall how often I suffered a repeat of the sciatica pains, but I estimate I had a couple more in mile 15, then perhaps two or three more up to around mile 18. They must have been still troubling me at mile 17 as there was a photo of me uploaded to Facebook shouting at fellow GRC runner and spectator at the race due to injury Dean Riggall that I was suffering from Sciatica.
The follow up bursts of discomfort weren’t as severe as the blast of pain that had forced me to slow, indeed they barely caused me to slow at all, they served more to not have me push on quite as much as I perhaps could have, the heart rate veering closer to 160 bpm than 165. One other precautionary tactic was that on all the remaining ninety degree corners, of which there were plenty on this course that uses a lot of residential streets, I made sure I took a very wide, cautious line through the corner, using plenty of road and trying not to force any sharp turns. This may have added a few extra meters per turn but I sensed it would perhaps help minimise any further distress to the leg.
By mile eighteen nearly four miles had passed since the bad pain and I was gaining a little more confidence that I was able to make it at least to the finish. The mile splits were still good, hovering just over six minutes a mile. It was around here I made an adjustment on my Garmin’s race pacer to allow for the distance creep that had built in compared to the official distance markers. The news was positive, I was on course to run just outside 2:40 – a PB was on the cards and if I could muster something special perhaps, just perhaps a sub 2:40 was possible.
The twenty mile marker is a key moment in any marathon, it’s where a race begins if you abide to the famous maxim a marathon is a twenty mile steady run with a 10K race at the end. It’s where at many marathons the crowds are at their deepest and most enthusiastic. At Manchester it coincides with where the race becomes, for a mile or two, its most rural and most sparse in terms of support. For some this is a bit of an issue, to be honest it doesn’t really bother me too much, I quite enjoyed being able to focus on the task in hand of getting to the finish as quick as possible.
Reasonably content that the dodgy leg wasn’t going to get any worse I guzzled down the third and final gel (A double espresso one, which I felt certainly gave a good buzz) and put the gas down at 20 miles as per the best case scenario race strategy. This simply meant I abandoned the 165 bpm max limit and attempted to run as at high a BPM as the body will allow me.
Most times I find this unattainable, today was one of those rare races where I was able to increase the HR to between 166-169 bpm. Having set an alert for the race on my Garmin to let me know when I had exceeded 165 BPM I had planned to switch this off fearing the nagging beep and buzz would get annoying. As it happened the opposite happened and I found the alert a reassurance that I was still able to push the effort.
Because the body was, by now, pretty fatigued the reality was that I wasn’t getting any quicker even with the extra BPM, but crucially I was able to more or less maintain the same pace I’d run the previous seventeen miles at. Three consecutive 6:06 miles saw me pass a lot of runners, many of whom were beginning to see the wheels well and truly fall off.
Mile 23 saw a little blip in the pace as it dropped to 6:14, but this mile contained a quite noticeable climb for part of the mile. Having had no repeat of the sciatica since around mile 18 I’d by now all but forgotten the injury and was giving it everything I could, concentrating on picking off runners and trying to keep my predicted finish time as quick as possible.
Mile 24 was pleasing at 6:03, with mile 25 much the same – another 6:06. The final mile is a bit marmite – some love the ability to see the finish line from nearly a mile away, I found it a bit annoying as it never seemed to get any closer. It became more annoying as I had a runner in front of me who saw fit to have a couple of his friends recording him from a bicycle that was sheltering him from the wind. As I passed him his friends urged him to stick to me and kick past at the finish. This made me doubly determined to ensure it didn’t happen!
More annoying still was a giant screen that showed the finish line that from a distance looked just like it was the finish until you realised there was another slight right turn and around a third of a mile to the finish. This produced a protracted and painful attempt at a sprint finish as I made my way to the finish line. I crossed the line tired, but happy in 2:40:47.
I was delighted to break my PB by nearly a minute and set a new club record; a little frustrated that without the sciatica issues there was every chance I could have broken that 2:40 barrier. I must have recovered quite quick as I was soon having a good old chat with the winner of the women’s race, who had set a big new PB. Then collecting my bag a few minutes later I bumped in again with Vince, who had clocked another sub 2:40 time despite suffering a fall and inflicting damage to his Vaporfly 4%s. I looked longingly at his shoes wondering what I may have achieved if I were wearing those rather than my tried and trusted Hoka Cliftons….
With the race done, medal collected, and repatriated with the family, it was just a case of getting the tram back to the Caravan site, treating it as a badge of honour of sorts that I was at the station at the same time as Steve Way, who had collected a considerable number of fans asking his opinion of the race.
Once back at the Caravan I wasted no time in fulfilling a promise I’d declared on Facebook that I would be back cooking chicken on the barbecue and drinking sparkling wine by 2pm. By 10pm and some drinks later and plenty of hours sitting in a caravan, the hamstring sciatica had turned into a full on case of a locked hip so painful that I almost had to ask to be picked up in the car when I couldn’t get back from the toilet block to the caravan!
The next couple of days were spent recovering and enjoying Manchester. I managed a fairly short exploratory run on the Wednesday morning before heading back home – seemingly with no lasting damage done to the left leg.
Having run it twice now (Once in the infamous short course days) I would certainly recommend Manchester as a great alternative marathon to London – it’s flatter, has less crowd support (Which is a perverse positive) and coming early in April is more likely to have cooler conditions. I enjoyed the pre-race caravan experience so much I have decided to do something similar if I take part in the 2020 London Marathon.
Immediately following the Sleaford Half Marathon, my bruised knee, which had survived the race itself, began to rear its ugly head and forced me to change my training plans. I rode for a couple of days (Including a 10 mile TT) without pain but on a 11 mile social run with Stephen Hobday (which included introducing him to Minnett’s Hill) the discomfort in the knee was sufficient for me to decide to take a week off running and try and let the knee heal.
This meant a lot of time on Zwift, with quite a few races where I was finding myself well inside the top 20 which was pleasing. A session on the elliptical trainer caused some discomfort in the knee which made me suspect that a muscle or tendon running to the kneecap may have been causing the discomfort, so I began targeting the likely suspects with some massage and strengthening exercises.
The Zwift sessions appeared to pay off at the Witham Wheelers 12 mile circuit TT, where I finished sixth in a new PB, over a minute quicker than I’d ridden previously – done on a road bike rather than the (Broken) TT bike and with clip on time trial bars rather than a proper TT cockpit, and pleasing considering I averaged 298 watts just a day after a very hard race on Zwift. The improving cycling form didn’t seem to cure the knee alas. I went for a brick 5k after a Zwift session on the Thursday morning (eight days after my last run) and the knee soon began aching again, not getting to the point where it was affecting my running (I averaged 6:01 for the 5K effort) but enough to not make running much fun. This discomfort repeated itself a day later with a mile brick run the next day.
Saturday came, three days before the Lincoln 5K, and I was in Bakewell taking part in the Brewin Dolphin Peak Tours Sportive. I may end up writing about this at another time, suffice to say it was 99 miles of hills in glorious sunshine. Enjoying a good ride and enjoying the likes of Winnats Pass, I managed to get a gold standard by just over 10 minutes having spent just over 6 hours in the saddle. With the weather still glorious on the Sunday I rode another 70 miles, this time with Witham Wheelers on one of their Sunday morning socials. I considered a brick run but with the knee still an issue when running I relucantly waited until the Monday morning before heading out early in the morning for a 10K recovery run from the rides over the weekend. While the legs benefited from the shakeout, the right knee continued to grumble, beginning to hurt a mile into the run and seemingly getting a little worse all the while the run continued. Like on the other runs though as soon as I stopped running the pain went away, which made me inclined to believe the pain wasn’t critical enough to be that much a cause for concern. This was backed up with an easy hour on Zwift in the evening, where the only issue was tired legs.
Tuesday came and the only exercise of the day prior to the race was the school run in the afternoon, where I stopped by at the chemists for a tube of Voltarol gel. I’m loathed to running with painkillers but I thought in this instance it may be worth the risk as one of the suggested remedies for a bruised kneecap was to use some anti-inflammatory painkillers, which I had, up to now, resisted using. Before I even got home I rubbed some gel into the right knee cap and also into the lower inner thigh, where I suspected any referred pain was coming from. I felt no immediate benefit, but then again I’d not expected to as the pain had not been evident when walking for a couple of weeks.
Once home I was still undecided on whether I was going to race the 5K or take part in the club TT. Like on two other instances I went out for a short half mile run close to home to assess the state of affairs with a late fitness test. To my relief I felt nothing in my knee, Both Achilles though felt quite sore so I swapped the Nike Frees for the Hoka Hoka One Clifton 3s which felt a little more comfortable on another half mile test – and once again there was no pain in the knee. I decided I would take part in the 5K. I knew that on the previous instances I’d passed a late fitness test I went onto enjoy good runs (Second place at the Newton’s Fraction and the Sleaford Half) so in a weird way I was enthused by the need to have a late fitness test.
So at 5:45pm I left for the Yarborough Leisure Center in Lincoln, arriving at 6:30pm – an hour before the start of the race. I was fully expecting to not be able to find a space to park, but I got very lucky and found a space recently vacated as I drove past. I went to the small race HQ, filled out an entry form, queued for a few minutes, paid my £5 and went to get changed. Once changed I returned to the car to drop off my bag and then put in a one mile warm up which, at 6:34 pace was a fair bit quicker than my normal relaxed mile or so before a race.
With the warm up out of the way I found a wall to shelter behind and to do some stretches before the race. The weather was not bad for racing – sunny, and at around 19C pleasant enough for a 5K without being overly warm. The issue though was the wind. A steady, bordering on the stiff, breeze meant that around half of the broadly rectangular shaped loop we would run on would be affected by a headwind. Of course what blows into you also blows you along when there is a tailwind, but the consensus is that generally you’d rather have little or no wind at all for the fastest possible conditions.
While stretching I got to ponder the possibilities of the race for a few minutes with club mate Rob McArdle. I was uncertain about whether the knee would hold, but fairly confident that if it did I could clock a good time, given the time at Sleaford in poor conditions. The unknown mitigating factor would be whether I’d fully recovered from the weekend’s cycling efforts and whether the paucity of running in the three weeks following the bike crash – only around 25 miles excluding the Sleaford Half – would be detrimental to my running fitness.
Five minutes before the start I lined up and just put in one burst of 50 meters or so at race pace. Rather pleasingly any heaviness that I’d experienced in the warm up had left the legs and they felt pretty race sharp. On the start line I bumped into young Jake Richardson, a runner I first ran against when he was a junior when I had only just moved to Grantham and had recently become more aware of his exploits having followed him on Strava and having run with him in a recent GRC training run. He expressed his hopes of a quick time, ideally sub 15 minutes. I knew that if he managed that he would become the fastest runner I’ve trained with, indeed he only had to break 15:50 or so to take that prized mantle. (In the end Jake would run 15:30 to finish second – a cracking effort!)
The race began promptly, too promptly in fact for a couple of young lads had failed to understand the starters’ instructions that we start with the firing of a horn and not the preceding whistle. With that short amusement out of the way we were off. With this being the third time I’d run a LWAC 5K I was confident of three eventualities:
The majority of the field would go off at a ridiculously fast pace they had no hope of maintaining.
The quality of the field should ensure runners at around my ability to race against.
My Garmin would dramatically overstate the distance of the race, perhaps by as much as a minute on my real time.
The first eventuality came to fruition just as planned, I found myself swamped by a load of runners who, once we turned the first corner around 100 meters after the start, began to inexorably slow. As in previous years I knew that this was not a huge drama as a glance at the Garmin showed we were tootling along at just over 5 minute mile pace. A bit boxed in, it took a little longer that desired to find a gap and escape the slowing runners, but within a minute of running I was on the coattails of a bunch of runners who appeared to be at a pace that suited my one goal in the race – to secure a 5K PB. My fastest two 5K times had come at this LWAC 5K race – 16:55 in 2014 and 16:57 in 2017. I’d somehow managed a 16:36 at Ferry Meadows parkrun in 2015 but I’m in the parkrun is not the same as a 5k race camp so 16:55 was the time I was looking to eclipse.
On the coattails of a bunch of five runners I’d sussed the wind direction out and knew that if I wanted to maximise the opportunity of sheltering from an imminent headwind I had to put in an effort to catch them. This I did on the corner before the finish line, just before the headwind came into full effect. If you believe the pace graph from my Garmin (And I’m more than a touch skeptical) I put my quickest effort of the race in here save the finish sprint which rewarded me with the goal of being on the back of a bunch of five runners, who all seemed willing to take the pace at the front into the headwind and not play tactics and ease up when at the front.
The short lap is just half a mile and we were then off on the first of three larger laps. I had already though seen club mate Penny drop out of the race (it transpired she had a dodgy hamstring which didn’t want to play ball on the night) and it made me aware that I couldn’t fully trust my knee would hold out. For all the while it was okay though I would make hay. Into the head wind on the first large lap I duly tucked into the group of runners, one of whom I recognised as the Lincoln Wellington runner I passed at around 4 miles in the Sleaford Half. All struggling into the headwind we were relieved when we turned the corner once to face a crosswind and then soon curved around once more so we enjoyed a tailwind. You could feel the difference in pace, confirmed by the data post race which suggests that we were slowing to around 5:30 into the head wind, and running just under 5 minute mile pace with the tailwind.
This of course is all purely subjective, for when my watch alerted me that I’d tackled the first mile in 5:08, I knew from bitter experience not to get too excited by the prospect of a 16 minute 5K. Back in 2014 the same happened and I excitedly saw 15:55 or so on my watch as 3.1 miles clicked over on the Garmin only to realise I still had at least another minute of running, finally clocking 3.3. miles. Half expecting it in 2017 I once again ran something close to 16 minutes for 5K only to find myself with plenty of the race to come. I’d half hoped that changing a setting so that the watch recorded every second would help matters, but I knew when the first mile clicked over that it was going to be a case of ignoring the splits and judging the race more or less by feel. (What makes this all the more frustrating is that it only seems to be my watch that has this inability to measure this course anywhere near accurately – I guess though it’s a good think in it’s consistency in being wrong!)
At the same time I glanced at my HR. This more reliable (although not infallible) guide to effort was reading 171 BPM at a mile, which was pleasing because this is in my upper limits for a half marathon. With this knowledge at hand and feeling as though I was a bit faster than the group I was with, I considered pushing on and attempting to leave the group, but I felt that the benefit of a shield into the headwind was arguably worth more than a few lost seconds not running at maximum possible pace.
I cannot really remember much of the second lap other than it was more of the same: sheltering and working hard into the wind and recovering while being pushed along by the wind. Mile 2 was 5:10, the HR had crept slowly but consistently up to 175bpm, which is at around 10K limits. Most importantly I was still feeling quite comfortable for the all important last mile – when the comfortable can very quickly become the unbearable as lactate build up peaks and wreaks havoc with the legs.
Things began to change on the final lap. I think we last a couple of runners in our group of five because I can only remember there being a couple in front of me. We passed young Will Tucker of Grantham AC, touted as the quickest distance runner in Grantham, which he undoubtedly will be very soon, but on this evening, I was looking like I would go a little faster. I kept behind the two left in the group for the duration of the headwind section. As soon as this became a tailwind, I let the breeze do its best to propel me on, passing the two in front of me. I knew I had just a couple of minutes left of running and had to empty the tank but this suddenly became a much easier proposition in the mind than in reality as the lactate overflowed with the HR at 178.
Mile 3 clicked over on the Garmin. A quick glance, another 5:10. A quick look at the elapsed time – 15:28. If only I had just another 0.1 mile of running to go! Alas, as in previous years, my Garmin had overstated the distance (3.26 miles to be precise), which meant I had a quarter of a mile, or around 400 meters left to run. With all thoughts of knee pain long forgotten, I pushed on as hard as I could. Thankfully one of the two guys I’d passed recently was now using me to pace themselves to the finish, which meant I had the physical impetus to keep the effort high. Heading around the final bend and with the finish funnel in sight, I put in one last effort, trying to lift the heavy legs as high and as fast and as far as they could.
I crossed the line and stopped the Garmin. I looked at the time: 16:45. I gave a rare shout of Yes! as an irrefutable 5K PB had been clocked. It would take a few days for the official results to confirm the same time. I finished 9th on the night and first V40 runner, which was a pleasant surprise, but not one I was really targeting as this race was all about the time. I had achieved the aim of a new PB and good age grade score (82.72%) for my club’s Grand Prix Series, of which this race was a round of.
A little out of breath, I declined the opportunity to collapse on the floor as many around me did, but did put hands on knees for a few moments to regain my composure. Once again this made me think that perhaps I don’t try quite as hard as those around me…. The benefit of being quickly recovered was that I was able to head back down the course to cheer each of the 14 other Grantham Running Club finishers home, eleven of whom also claimed Personal Bests on the evening.
Once all accounted for there was time for a rather pleasant sunset kissed group photo before heading back to the car for the journey home, very pleased with the way things turned out, not only in terms of the time but because the knee injury, which I had feared would be a potential season ending crisis, was perhaps not quite as bad as it could have been. I now had a twelve days to prepare for the next race: The Woodhall Spa 10K.
Training for the London Marathon built upon the structure laid down for the 2016 race, which I felt was highly successful, even if illness and some injury issues culminated in a sub-optimal race performance. As with that effort and efforts of recent years, there was no rigid plan laid out, just a few key sessions that I tried to perform every week.
January was a month with base building in mind up to the Folksworth 15 on January 22nd.
not just for running but for cycling too – the Clumber Park Duathlon in March an event I was not training specifically for, but definitely had on my mind. Actually the only session missing from this month compared to later months was the lack of a marathon paced run. These are one of the two key run sessions in my weekly training – the other being the Long Run. These began in February starting with four miles at marathon pace or heart rate, depending on how I felt, and increasing week by week until I was running 8-9 miles at marathon pace in a run varying between 11-16 miles.
A difference from previous years is that the long run was long pretty much from the start of the year. Another feature of the long run was that it was always on the Saturday (I cycled on the Sunday) and it incorporated a parkrun at some point in the run at pace. I’d tinkered with this in 2015 and early 2016, but made it a regular event in late 2016 and decided to carry it through into my marathon training. The first long run in January had 8 miles, then parkrun and a three mile jog home.
By the second week of February this had increased to 13 miles, then parkrun, then eight miles to finish. This was unusually early for what is usually my longest distance when marathon training. I trumped that a month later in March when I ran 14.5 miles, then parkrun in 18:02, and then eight miles to make up a 26.6 mile run. This is the first time in training I’ve ever run the marathon (Slightly more than, mirroring the likely finishing distance on my Garmin down in London on April 23rd) distance and moreover the time taken to run a marathon was 2:51! This gave me great confidence going forward as the run felt very comfortable – I could have gone much faster if needed. Following that effort I ran twice more in excess of twenty miles – an equally important run was the last twenty miler in early April, which was 10 miles, then the Grantham Cup (a hilly, off road 10K – where I finished 6th) and a four mile jog to conclude.
In total I ran 10 ‘Long Runs’ (Runs I marked as Long on my training log) totaling 200.5 miles at an average pace of 6:40. There were numerous runs of 12-16 miles that I didn’t classify as long runs as I had run longer elsewhere in the week. Suffice to say I really rate the long run with the fast parkrun thrown in at some point.
There were no two weeks that were identical in layout, but roughly a week’s training looked a little like this:
Monday: An easy paced run in the morning (typically 10k or 10 miles) with a spinning session in the evening. When the clocks went forward I jogged to and from the spinning session (10K).
Tuesday: Most weeks I spent an hour or perhaps two on the elliptical trainer, followed by 11 easy miles in the evening while my daughter was at Brownies. Once I did a long run in the morning. There was one intervals session in March (The one and only during my marathon training) and in April I began time trialing (cycling) again in the evening.
Wednesday: The morning was usually when I ran my marathon paced run – typically 10-12 miles. In the evening I was on my Turbo Trainer. Most efforts were easy and no more than an hour.
Thursday: Most evenings saw me take a marathon paced session for Grantham Running Club, where we’d run anything from 3-8 miles usually at between 7-7:30 pace. Overall distance for myself was anything between 11-15 miles. Quite a lot of weeks saw me on the Turbo Trainer in the morning.
Friday: Most Fridays in January and February either saw me on the elliptical trainer or on the Turbo Trainer. I ran once and in late March I did a 118 mile very hilly cycle ride in anticipation of the upcoming Fred Whitton bike ride. In March and April, Fridays frequently became a rest day.
Saturday: This was usually long run day – usually with a parkrun thrown in.
Sunday: Most Sundays up to the middle of March saw me take part in the Witham Wheelers Reliability rides, which began at 32 miles and peaked at 68. I made a point of running a 5k brick after the ride. Once these ended I ran on a Sunday.
The taper began two weeks out. I kept the intensity of effort fairly high but gradually reduced the volume. The Saturday before (eight days out) I headed to Beeston to run 11 miles with a quick parkrun after 3 miles. warm up. The Sunday was a little unusual as I went on the elliptical trainer for 2 hours 40 minutes – a kind of marathon simulation if you like, but relatively easy on the legs. This had the effort of making the legs quite sore for a few days, but I still put in a 90% intensity TT on the Tuesday and then a 10 mile run on the Wednesday with 5k at marathon HR. The 5k was 17:35 which proved to me at least that I was peaking at just the right moment.
Reverting to my old ways, I decided after that effort to take three days of complete rest, save the school runs and a fair amount of stretching and strength work. Mentally this was quite hard but I think my body enjoyed the rest! By Saturday I was chomping at the bit to get out running.
I raced three times before the marathon – the Folksworth 15 in January (7th, 1:28:23), the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon (4th – 1:18:01) and the Grantham Cup 10K (6th 40:34) There was also the Clumber Park Standard Distance Duathlon where I finished third in my Age Group, qualifying for the 2017 European Duathlon Championships.
Some things worth noting: I used the elliptical trainer a lot less than I did for training in 2016, but I did compensate somewhat by using the turbo training a fair amount compared to not at all during the marathon training of 2016.
Apart from a half-gas club pyramid session in early January and a more concerted 10×2 minutes effort in late March, there were no interval, rep, or hill sessions.
Injury wise I was very fortunate – I don’t recall having to miss nor compromise a session due to injury, whereas in 2016 I spent a good deal of the time battling niggles. However, while I didn’t suffer injury, I was plagued with colds mostly brought home by my daughter who began nursery. I reckon there was only a week in total up to around mid February where I wasn’t either suffering from a cold or feeling run down from having had a cold. This was shown starkly on the bike and elliptical trainer, where power was measurably down on previous years, and running, where I felt I was unable to maintain pace when the HR climbed high. I knew that the fitness was there though, as on the days when I was illness free, the expected watts and pace was present and correct.
There was also a suspicion at times that I was over training, which is one of the main reasons why I opted to tone down the volume of elliptical trainer sessions in particular. This meant that perhaps more than ever the emphasis was on quality rather than quantity, although there was still a fair amount of quantity and not a lot of rest days in the build up.
Part 2 – To The Start
The conclusion to my taper was three days of rest. I stretched, massaged, tried to do as little as possible. Many things remained constant to previous marathons – pasta on the Thursday and Friday; pizza the night before. I had contemplated doing the old school carb depletion but thought better of it in the end having read about how horrible it can be and no definitive consensus on whether it works. I headed to bed shortly after ten pm with a 5 am wake up call to look forward to. My wife, suffering a heavy cold along with my two daughters, generously offered to sleep in another bedroom to minimise the chance of infection and so I didn’t have to hear her coughing through the night. This martyr like behaviour paid dividends as mercifully I was asleep within minutes and I slept well – perhaps a little too well.
I woke wondering what on earth I was doing waking at 5 am before coming to my senses and remembering I had a marathon to run. I made those first tentative steps out of bed (I’m getting old, I always creak a little these days on waking up). All was well except a little tightness in the right hip – tightness I’d not been aware of in the whole of my marathon training. I put it down to having perhaps slept in a slightly odd position and tried not to think too much of it.
I made myself a strong coffee and changed into my Skins A400 compression shorts and 2XU calf sleeves. Since the bitterly cold Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon, where my quads especially suffered, I’d invested in some quality compression half tights. I first wore them for my 26.6 mile training run and loved the feeling they gave – very similar to the brick runs I often do in my cycling shorts. I find the compression in the quads somehow makes me run faster or at least give the impression of running faster. I’ve worn them numerous times and despite learning a painful lesson that some kind of wicking underwear is strongly advised on warm days – I chafed where no man wants to chafe – they have now become my turn to shorts for hard training sessions and races, so much so I have invested in four (heavily discounted) pairs of them.
I left Grantham by car with my wife and my eldest daughter at 5:45. I had planned originally to leave at 6 am but my wife looked at the train time table and noticed that the 7:20 or so train I thought I’d caught in previous years was now either a 7:03 or a 7:39 – much later than I thought it was. So I made good use of the near empty A1 to safely drive to Stevenage station with a few minutes to spare to catch the 7:03 to Kings Cross, bidding farewell to my wife who drove off to park the car.
Ticket bought I went down to platform 6 as the departures board suggested to catch the train. I noticed the platform was empty; platform 1 had a reasonable volume of nervous looking folk carrying the same Marathon baggage bags I had, so I assumed there had been a platform change. So I ran up the platform stairs, over the concourse and down to platform 1 where I heard the tannoy announcement, something along the lines of ‘Arriving now on platform 1 is possibly the 7:03 to Kings Cross which will wait at the station until the driver finds out what he is meant to do.’ Cue audible groans from 90% of the platform who sensed the passage to central London was not going to be as smooth as hoped.
The train arrived and waited for a few minutes. Another announcement ‘we are really sorry but the 7:03 has been cancelled due to over running engineering works. We are really sorry if this is going to ruin your day.’ Cue more consternation followed by another message a minute or so later ‘This train is going to leave the platform, turn around and return to platform 6 where it will be the delayed 7:03’
Cue around 100 potential passengers and marathon runners bounding up and down the platform stairs to platform 6. The train duly pulls out and returns. We get on board. We are then told ‘The train on platform 6 will be the 7:39 to Kings Cross. A train shortly arriving on platform 1 will be the delayed 7:03 to Kings Cross. We are really really sorry if this is going to ruin your day’ repeated the clearly concerned station announcer, who likely knew that this is the only early Sunday morning at Stevenage train station which sees any more than a handful of passengers and now she had the onerous task of possibly announcing to hundreds of runners their marathon plans had been ruined because someone had screwed up not screwing back up the track in time.
So we all got out of the train on platform 6 and bounded up the stairs to platform 1 where indeed a train was waiting. I got on the train and phoned my wife, who was just buying tickets, to make it down to platform 1 so she could catch the same train as I. Just as she came down she overheard another message which informed us passengers that the train on platform 1, which was to be the delayed 7:03, was now going to be the 7:39 and the train that was the 7:03 on platform 1, was cancelled, but then left to go to platform 6 to become the resurrected 7:03, only to become the 7:39, had, once again, become the delayed 7:03.
With some now literally in tears at the ridiculousness of the situation (Well one was in tears and that was because she was meant to be catching a plane to Canada) we all, once again, hot footed it off the train, up the stairs from platform 1, across the concourse, down the stairs to platform 6. A confirmation from the station guard that this would be the delayed 7:03 while the station announcer now just repeatedly apologised for ruining our day.
At around 7:25 the delayed 7:03 to Kings Cross did finally get on its way. The driver apologised 2 or 3 more times for the frankly shambolic situation and promised to try and make up as much time as possible. He kept to his word – in the end we arrived at Kings Cross at about the time I’d expected to arrive had I caught the 7:20 I imagined existed, but didn’t.
Of more concern was that my right hip, around the hip flexor, was now aching quite a bit and beginning to cramp up. I became increasingly agitated. My wife gave me optimistic vibes – such as better the cramp happens now rather than during the race. But I was not a happy bunny. As we disembarked the train we said again our farewells and I headed to the Northern Line, to catch a couple of trains to get to Charing Cross.
Exiting the station at Charing Cross there is a lengthy walk from the underground station to the mainline station. As I approached the main station itself my right hip almost locked up completely and I was reduced to a slow, limping, painful, shuffle. What on earth was going on? An almost injury free build up and now rendered almost useless by nothing more than getting a good night’s sleep!
It turned out I was a little earlier than last year, the train I caught was nearly empty when I got on, still limping heavily. One runner on the train commented ‘That doesn’t look good!’ I simply replied ‘NO IT IS NOT!‘ and with my tone he thought better than to offer any more commentary on the situation as I sat head mostly in my hands save for the two or three times I banged it against the back of the chair in front of me. The only saving grace is that no-one was particularly inclined to sit next to me as I went through a maelstrom of mental torment.
I literally began to message my wife informing her that I wouldn’t be able to start the marathon, when I pulled my self together somewhat and thought it would probably be best if I at least tried to make it to the start the marathon before deciding whether I could compete. The train journey seemed to last an interminably long time. Finally we arrived at around 9 am and I left with hundreds of others to make it to the start. Last year I was full of excitement at the prospect of my first Championship start, this year I almost wanted to be anywhere else, convinced that I would be one of the 200 or so who doesn’t manage to complete the London Marathon – possibly one of the very few who makes it to the start tent, but goes no further.
There was a glimour of hope when the pain in the hip appeared to ease somewhat as I walked across Blackheath to the Championship start. At the Championship entrance I went through the protocol of showing my race number and the club t-shirt I’d planned on using. I’d bought along a vest just in case the official insisted that a vest be worn, as per the strict definition of the rules. He seemed purely preoccupied with whether the manufacturer’s logo was not too large, and as it isn’t I was fine.
I headed straight to the changing tent, grabbed a bottle of water and made a small patch my own. With only around 40 minutes to the start and with threats already being made that the baggage lorry would leave imminently, I swiftly got changed, opting to wear the Hoka One One Clifton 2 I had mothballed since last wearing them at the Folksworth 15 back in January, then put in a deep piraformis stretch. I noticed a few friends who were also on the Championship start but my mood was dark and I was in no mood for small talk. Instead I grabbed the three gels I planned on using, tucked them in my handy back pocket on my Skins shorts, put a hole in the black bin bag I’d brought to keep me warm, left the tent to put my bag on the lorry and queued for the loos. While queuing I performed all manner of hip flexor, hip, quad and hamstring stretches. By the time my time had come to enter the Portaloo of relief, there was less than 20 minutes to the start.
There was 15 to go when I exited the slightly heavier portable toilet and made by way to the start via a short jog up and down the strip of road reserved for Championship starters. To my relief I noted that I could run relatively pain free and with no noticeable change in gait. I kept the warm up to the minimum and joined the other runners, just behind the elites at the start line. In a last attempt to rectify the hip I performed a Psoas massage (or what I considered to be the Psoas) on my stomach. This was very tender – I surmised I had found the likely cause of the problem. It appeared to give instant relief so as the final countdown began I was a little calmer and a touch more optimistic. I fully expected to hit trouble at some point, but, at least I may be able to get some miles in the bag before I did.
With seconds to go, I discarded the bin bag and took stock that weather conditions could hardly be better, light cloud that threatened sunshine (Justifying the sunglasses), the temperature around 10C and barely any wind. It wasn’t meant to get that much warmer, although the sun was expected to make more of an appearance. As the clock struck 10 and the horn was sounded by our Royal guests, I was ready to race.
Part 3 – The Marathon
As in previous marathons, no matter how worked up I got myself before the start of the race (And this year surely set some kind of record) once I crossed the start line an almost serene sense of calmness came over me, borne largely from a sense of relief that within around half a minute of running, I noticed that the right hip was neither hurting nor causing me any kind of obvious bio-mechanical disruption.
On the same start in 2016 it took me a good few minutes before the congestion eased enough for me to get into unhindered running. This year there was no such problem, indeed within a couple of minutes I was having to curb my enthusiasm to avoid getting up to full speed too early – the plan being to use the tried and tested routine of 150 bpm max for the first mile, 155 bpm max for mile two, 160 bpm for mile three then 165 bpm from miles 4-20 before letting the HR climb as high as it could muster for the final 10km. A few seconds before the official opening mile marker, the Garmin clocked the first mile at 6:28. 13 seconds faster than my opening mile in 2016 and almost certainly my fastest opening mile in a marathon. The HR was a few beats higher than planned but I think, such was my relief in even being able to run, I didn’t concern myself over a few beats discrepancy.
The slightly high HR continued for the second mile, albeit at 159 bpm average, well under my marathon max of 165 bpm. By now I was settled into my running, enjoying the already dense and enthusiastic crowd support, but doing my best not to get carried away by it. Mile 2 was clocked in 6:10, 11 seconds up on 2016.
The third mile on the London Marathon course is mostly downhill and as a result usually one of the fastest of the marathon. Coming down the long gradual downhill I felt a touch of tightness in my right IT band, quite low down near the knee. I had no doubt it was related to the tight hip before the start. It concerned me greatly but hoped that once we hit the roundabout at the end of the hill, the discomfort would ease off. Thankfully it did and the IT band would not grumble for the remainder of the race.
Something to take my mind off the IT band was the fact I’d caught up with a female runner wearing a vest adorned with Chrissie on the back. I eyed her up and down and soon realised by the cyclists’ calf muscles it was Ironman legend Chrissie Wellington. I was expecting the crowd to be shouting her name vociferously given she was probably at the time one of the leading celebrity runners, but very few seemed to recognise her. Indeed far more attention was given to the fancy dressed Viking sticking resolutely to her shoulder. I sat behind the pair of them for a few minutes as I passed passed through the third mile in 5:55 (5:58 in 2016) and through the official 5k split in 19:16, before sensing their pace was just a bit slow for me and I pressed on. Chrissie would go on to finish in 2:49:01, the Viking I’m not sure about but he is mentioned by character in Athletics Weekly, so he likely continued to do pretty well.
The run from Woolwich to Greenwich was where it all began to fall apart last year, the early onset of cramps, or myofascial pain as I’ve been instructed to call it, slowly rendering me a walking, miserable mess by 21 miles. I was very concerned I was going to go the same way given the hip scare and the IT band discomfort, but for now I was running pain free, running quite quickly and it was feeling very comfortable. Mile 4 was 5:58, (5:57 in 2016), mile 5 was 6:06 (6:07 in 2016). The HR average for mile 4 was 159, pleasingly much lower than the maximum I give myself of 165 bpm. I did though notice near the end of the mile that my HR was showing well over 170 and at one point registering 183, which would be the highest I’ve seen it since a very hard 5k a couple of years ago. These weird readings continued in miles 5 and 6 – my theoretical max of 188 was all but reached in mile five and the sixth saw my heart go into overdrive – 210 BPM! It’s never been anywhere near that high and I assumed that either I was picking up someone else’s HR or something was amiss with the strap.
It was annoying in one sense as I do like to run my marathons to HR. However I had established a pace and a perceived effort for at least one mile at (slightly less than) target HR, so could instead fall back on trying to stick to that pace and effort for the rest of the race. Somewhat old-school, it felt strangely liberating. I sporadically looked at my HR during the race. Sometimes it would look half realistic, then I’d look again and it would show something crazy like 215 BPM, It did this for the rest of the race. I assumed the strap had broken, but I’ve worn it a number of times since and had no issues – so I’ve no idea what caused this to happen.
Back to the race. Mile 6 was 6:04 (6:10 in 2016), the discrepancy in my Garmin mile splits and the real mile markers was up to 25 seconds. From past experience I knew this was going to happen and would grow over the course of the marathon. It’s not a big deal, just something to factor in when trying to calculate your likely finishing time on the fly. I passed the official 10k approaching the right turn at Greenwich in 38:19 – 19:03 for the second 5k. I was loving the enthusiasm of the crowds. Strangely though, as we passed the Cutty Sark and Greenwich itself, the crowds, although vast in quantity, were perhaps some of the quietest on the course. This suited me as it’s usually an area where it’s impossible to avoid an adrenaline surge.
I took my first of three gels at seven miles and with it the only the second water bottle of the race thus far. In every marathon since 2005 I’ve taken six gels, this year I decided to go with three, at 7, 14, and 20 miles. The reasoning was twofold – most of my long training runs are done without breakfast beforehand, let alone sustenance while running itself. Therefore I reckoned that six gels may be a bit excessive. Moreover I wondered if some of the gastro distress suffered in recent marathons may have been partly down to having to cope with digesting too many gels and the water that is needed to go with it. For the remainder of the race I pretty much stuck to taking on water at the mile where I’d taken a gel and the water station a mile later. With the weather not being particularly warm, this tactic seemed to work well. I was reasonably dehyrated at the finish, but not in a state that affected my performance.
The third 5km chunk of the race was fairly uneventful although I do remember a section with a small incline around a supermarket featuring some of the loudest crowds of the race as I coincidentally passed a runner who was walking dressed as a bricklayer. He had no number and clearly had never been running from the start of the race. Indeed en route during the race I must of seen a handful of runners who didn’t look as though they had been at the start line or spectators who appeared to be undressing in a manner that suggested they were about to take part in the race. I guess there is little that can be done to stop this. I found it more amusing than anything, a welcome distraction from worrying about how far there was to go. For the record, miles 7, 8 and 9 were 5:59, 6:03 and 6:03 (6:02, 6:08, 6:07 in 2016). I went through 15k in 19:01 – this would be the fastest proper 5k split of the race (I’ll explain why it might not be the fastest in a bit…).
The tenth mile is one of the quieter miles in terms of crowd support, but this year there was really no such thing as a quiet part of the course. It was where I caught up and eventually passed Joe Spraggins, who turned out to be the fastest of the numerous fancy dressed runners, finishing in 2:42:24. His attire was hardly restrictive however, dressed in little more than a pair of Speedos, a swim hat, goggles and snorkel. He certainly caught the attention of the crowd, who all knew his name thanks to Joe being scrawled on his bare chest!
The tenth mile split was in 6:09 (6:02 in 2016), 1:01:00 exactly on my watch for ten miles. I hadn’t yet clocked any indication as to what my final time may be, especially as the Garmin was around 40 seconds out on the official distance. More worryingly bang on 10 miles the right hip that had caused so much distress before the start of the race, now decided it was the right time to give some quite painful distress signals. Rather than massage the hip itself, I decided to prod firmly the same bit of tummy that I had done on the start line, which mercifully appeared to give some relief. I don’t know if what I was doing actually made any difference, but the pains seemed to subside whenever I did prod myself. So this I continued to do, with increasing regularity, for the remainder of the race.
Mentally that was a low point in the race. I knew that my wife, daughter, brother and his fiance, had planned to try and spectate somewhere around the 11 mile point. I gave serious consideration to dropping out when I spotted them, to save them the bother of trying to see me further along the course. Luckily at the moment when they saw me and I saw them, giving a quick wave as I passed, I wasn’t in pain so that thought quickly left my mind and it was back to hoping and waiting that the wheels wouldn’t fall off the wagon. Just after passing the family I caught long time former training partner and club mate Stuart Hopkins, who was hoping for a time similar to mine – as he has done at each of the last five or six marathons we have run in together. Sweating somewhat (he’d suffered a cold before the race) I felt cool in comparison as I greeted him on passing with the somewhat negative comment I’m waiting for my hip to give up on me as he wished me well for the rest of the race.
Pained or not, the hip wasn’t slowing me for mile 11 saw me speed up to 5:56 (6:03 in 2016) and mile 12 was a 6:04 (6:07 in 2016). I was still for the most part feeling comfortable as we turned right and took on the legendary Tower Bridge. Like Greenwich, this most famous of spectator vantage points didn’t seem to be quite as densely populated or as vociferous in it’s support than in previous years. I’m guessing that spectators are making use of the excellent official spectators guide to visit previously less well populated areas that are just as good if all you want to do is pick out your loved one.
The fourth 5k at 20km was 19:06, As we went over the other side of the bridge we soon passed 13 miles – 6:02 compared to 6:12 in 2016. For the first time I looked left at the bottom of the bridge and spotted the unmissable sight of the Tower of London, which I had managed to miss on each of my ten or so visits to the London Marathon. Barely any time had passed before another significant time check came – halfway. My watch read 1:20:30 as I hit the chip mats. This was pretty much spot on for what I could have hoped for – it gave me a sporting chance of a sub 2:40 with a negative split run, or a very good chance of a new PB – my best being 2:43:41 set at Chester in 2015.
The 14th mile is the section where one side of the road is heading out to the Isle of Dogs, the other side is heading back towards the finish at 21 miles. It’s where I usually get to see some of the lead ladies and this year was no exception, although Mary Keitany was long gone by the time I arrived. Given the opportunity to see runners twice it is now one of the the most popular places to spectate – with crowds five or six deep for the entire mile or so stretch. Two who always get there early to grab prime real estate on the 21 mile side of the road are Kenilworth Runners legends Pauline and Tom Dable. Although I’m no longer a member of that Green Army, they spotted my GRC club colours and shouted me on with enthusiasm that couldn’t help but spur me on. Pumped with adrenaline mile 14 was a 5:59, exactly the same split as in 2016 but feeling much more comfortable as I took on my second Powergel washed down with a good helping of water.
One reason for feeling more comfortable is that the 15th mile for, I think, 4 of my last 5 marathons, has been the spot where I’ve had to call in to one of the roadside portaloos for an emergency pit stop. I’m happy to report that this year, aside from the odd exhale of extra exhaust fumes there was no gastronomic distress. Whether this was down to the reduced gel intake or the switch to granola bars from soft cereal bars, I’m not sure, but I’m not complaining either way. This meant that mile 15 was comfortably faster than in 2016 – 5:54 compared to 7:20. That fastest mile of the race meant that 20 – 25 km was (if my maths is correct) the fastest of the race in 18:54.
Just into the sixteenth mile is where we head into an underpass for the first time in the race, bearing right and into the Isle of Dogs. It’s where the Garmin can go haywire (It did indeed lose satellite reception) and where the legs have failed me on numerous occasions in the past. Thankfully on both accounts I had a positive outcome – the Garmin lost no more accuracy than it already had (it was now up to around a minute out) and my legs, although still with hip aching, were feeling good, bouncy, and very comfortable, certainly better than in 2016, where the pace was comparable, but I felt terrible.
Mile 16 was a 6:04 (6:03 in 2016). Miles 17-19 – around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf – used to be one of the loneliest points of the course. Nowadays the crowds are immense, intense, and with the sounds of the screams and cheers reverberating around the closely packed skyscraper walls, quite overwhelming at times. Holding it all together, blessing every minute where I didn’t come to a screeching halt, mile 17 was a 6:03, mile 18 was 6:07, and mile 19 was 6:04, compared to 6:03, 6:12, and 5:56 in 2016. It should be said though these splits should be taken with a little pinch of salt as GPS accuracy is, putting it mildly, not the best around this part of the world – the GPS trail on Google maps showing a very jagged path rather than the smooth, controlled lines I was able to hold.
One runner who could not say the same as we passed through Canary Wharf was a poor chap ahead who had begun staggering violently from one side of the road to the other, and as I closed in was clearly in some kind of delirious state, frothing profusely at the mouth and seemingly not in control of his body. One runner went into offer assistance – a noble act indeed – but one I decided that today wasn’t the right choice for me considering a PB was in the making. Instead I alerted marshals just a little way up the road that there was a runner in distress. As I turned round a few seconds later and saw the hi-viz angels running towards the afflicted runner, I felt comfortable that he was in safer hands than I would be able to offer.
With that drama out of the way I pressed on, leaving Canary Wharf. I went through 30km in 1:54:24, the 5k split being 19:07. Shortly after this split, with continued development work taking place there is a rather contrived section of the course in place where we climb up a ramp, past a hotel, I think, then down onto the A1261 looping out and back on a road closed to traffic and spectators. It was here two years ago I blew up and it was here last year where I began to really suffer. Thankfully this year, although the right hip was nagging, I passed through the 20th mile in 2:01:15, without slowing, even perhaps speeding up as the Garmin clocked a 5:56 (6:11 in 2016).
The old saying that I hold dear is a marathon is a 20 mile jog with a 10k race tagged on at the end. Part one of this had been successfully accomplished. Despite passing through 20 miles over a minute faster than I’d ever run before, I’d felt as though almost all those miles were done with little perceived effort. As I sank down my third and final Powergel I was looking forward to putting on the afterburners for the final 10K, hopefully cranking up the pace to a glorious sub-2:40 finish.
Alas, almost literally a matter of meters past 20 miles, both quads gave the ominous feelings of deep fatigue. I didn’t feel as if my pace was slowing much, but the effort to maintain the same pace was now a whole lot harder. It also felt like at any moment the legs would quit on me, as they did in 2016 in the the 21st mile, when I slowed dramatically to run a 6:56 mile. Mile 21 was a 6:11. Mile 22 was hard, but it was a case of digging in and taking heart that while I was struggling, I was passing plenty of runners who were suffering like I was last year and the year before that.
Clocking another 6:11 (It was 6:50 in 2016), the 23rd mile was the hardest of the race. It’s the mile where you have the runners on the other side of the road just starting the second half of the race to the deafening support of thousands of spectators packing both sides of the large road. On the way out the road felt perfectly flat; now the tiniest undulations felt like monster climbs to negotiate. I battled on, praying that I could keep going, bemused at the sight ahead of a giant banana apparently running at 2:41 pace. I passed him, keeping an eye out for Tom and Pauline, who I spotted, but who missed me. I wasn’t aware of them, but apparently I’d missed my family shouting my name a couple of miles back. It’s hardly surprising given the cacophony all around me – there’d been numerous shouts of Go On Matt! or Matthew! which I’d turned to acknowledge, only to realise it was for a Matt or Matthew behind me. So perhaps one of those shouts was for me and I mistakenly ignored it.
I made it through Mile 23 – it was the slowest mile thus far at 6:22, but compared to the 7:27 in 2016 it was a very successful six minutes of running. I knew that what lay ahead was perhaps the most dangerous bit of road for my failing legs – the curved descent just past Tower Hill station down onto Lower Thames Street. If there was ever a stretch of road that would overpower the quads into a painful submission it would be here – it was at this spot in 2016 that I succumbed to the inevitable – stopping, before being annoyingly urged by the crowd to keep on going, which I did, albeit very slowly.
As I began gingerly descending, fully concentrated on not succumbing to cramp, I heard over my left shoulder the loudest shouts of Go on Matt! I think I’ve ever heard. The crowds were dense and it was hard to make out all the faces, but I spotted the unmistakable figures of friends and long time work colleagues James Moy and James ‘Beaver’ Bearne. I gave them the proverbial thumbs up and carried on. Moysee certainly was making his marathon spectating debut. They were there primarily to cheer home another F1 friend Will Buxton, who was expecting to take over 5 hours to finish his first ever marathon. That they had made the effort to leave the pub to watch me pass renewed my vigour and determination to battle hard to the finish.
I made it down to the bottom of the ramp in one piece, passing through the 35km marker in 2:13:49 clocking a 19:26 5k. It’s not long after here you head under the dreaded long and lonely underpass where nothing exists except other suffering runners. It was here I decided that I’d take a bit of risk by attempting to push on through the discomfort. My rationale at the time was I reckoned that I if I could get another quick mile or two in the bag, even if I slowed horribly and clocked an 8 or 9 minute mile at the finish, I would still bag a sub 2:45 performance.
Exiting the underpass, spurred on by the crowds and loud music up the drag and onto the embankment, I drove on. Mile 24 I clocked at 6:07, and mile 25 approaching Big Ben at 6:16. They weren’t the fastest miles of the race but the fact I’d reversed the trend of slowing miles gave me a tremendous morale boost, especially as I had etched on my mind the same miles in 2016 took an agonising 8:59 and 8:26. I went through 40km in 2:33:24. The 35k to 40k split was the slowest of the race in 19:35, but I sensed that the bad patch I’d gone through was long gone, and with nearly 12 minutes in hand to run just over 2km, one of the key objectives of a sub-2:45 clocking was looking very likely.
Turning right onto Birdcage Walk I apparently missed my family cheering me once again. By now, although heavily fatigued, the adrenaline was pumping and I began a very long mile and a bit sprint to the finish. The rather excellent personalised stats on Runpix show that on the final 7.2k I passed 84 runners and was passed by just two. This is the dream runners dream of when racing a marathon, finishing strong, picking off runners and feeding off that to drive yourself on not necessarily faster and faster, but not getting slower and slower.
I passed the 800 meters to go banner and picked up the effort once more. There is no 26 mile marker on the course but my watch had clocked it some time earlier (it ended up registering 26.57 miles) as a 6:04 mile (It was 7:47 in 2016). Turning right passing Buckingham Palace it was a welcome sight to see the cones that they have out for the elite finishers still in place. Ushered into the middle lane I turned right into the Mall and saw the official clocking reading something like 2:41:00. Already running hard I summoned every last ounce of energy for the mother of all sprint finishers, According to the Strava segment I ran the last 385 yards in 56 seconds, which is 5:20 pace. I’d run the last 0.6 mile on my Garmin at 5:44 pace.
As I crossed the line I looked to the sky and thanked the running gods for seeing me to the finish line in one piece. I’d broken 2:42 on the official clock, and I knew that my chip time would be a few seconds faster. It was. My official time, already posted on the brilliant London Marathon app for all those who followed me to see, was 2:41:42! A new PB by as near as dammit two minutes! I pumped my fists and whooped in elation – something of a rarity for one who is usually fairly composed at the finish.
It was a good job I had my sunglasses on for I recall I got a little too emotional at the finish, not exactly blubbing away, but certainly the eyes got a little moist. The culmination of months, years of training, the stress at the start and the uncertainty whether I’d make it to the finish was a little overwhelming. Then reality kicked in. The legs, fueled on adrenaline to surge me nearly pain free to the finish, found themselves bereft of adrenaline and began to really hurt! Last year I found this pain utterly dejecting, this year I nothing was going to spoil my delight as I gratefully received my goodie bag and medal, posing for official photographs that I had no intention of purchasing as they are stupidly expensive.
Part 4 – The Aftermath
The first familiar face to greet me after the race was fellow club mate Rob McArdle. After the congratulations and very concise post race review, he took a post race picture to replace the one I wouldn’t purchase, and we spent a few minutes charting the progress of other GRC runners. Not long after leaving him and wearily collecting my kit bag, Stuart caught me up. He had run 2:50, not what he’d hoped for but highly commendable given his restricted preparations for the race. We chatted about the race, training, duathlons, as we wandered slowly and painfully to the K-L repatriation area, where I was enthusiastically greeted by my daughter, then my wife – who knew that this would be a more congenial afternoon than 12 months earlier.
Changing trainers proved nearly impossible, I had to call upon the services of my wife to assist. I didn’t bother with much else other than putting on my tracksuit bottoms. This meant that as we left the marathon building my medal and race number were on full view. This wasn’t a deliberate attempt to garner attention, but it is incredible how many people, even hours after the race would congratulate me on my efforts. It’s days like these when you are reminded that 99.9% of the world are good, decent folk – a shame then that it was sadly necessary for the security at the finish to be evidently ridiculously high – possibly one of most locked down places on the planet at that moment.
In previous years I have hung around the Covent Garden area after the race for a celebration / wake. This year I was calling on the local knowledge of my brother who, after we finally got on a tube train after some confusion at Charing Cross, took us to a pub in Chalk Farm, near where he and his fiance used to live. It was a bit of a trek and my weary legs didn’t thank him at first, but from the sight and smells of the giant roast dinners put in front of us it was well worth the walk. I though, as usual after a marathon, couldn’t stomach the thought of food, and was happy to have just a few chips from my daughters’ plate. I did patake in a welcome pint or two of cider as I caught up with the exploits of all the others I knew taking part in the marathon and replied to the numerous congratulatory messages on Facebook and Strava.
After the meal we walked down to Camden Town, taking in some stunning views of London en route at Primrose Hill – we could see most of the sights I had passed during the marathon a few hours earlier. A walk through Camden Town itself was a nostalgia trip from twenty years or more ago when I was a near weekly visitor to its market. The walk from Camden to Kings Cross nearly killed me and my daughter but in the long run I think the 3-4 miles walk did wonders to help ease the pain in the legs.
At Kings Cross we bid farewell to my brother and fiance and got on the first train to Stevenage, before my wife drove us home back to Grantham. Too tired to consider cooking and eating alone after my better half had basically eaten a whole chicken for lunch, I ordered a large Indian takeaway, my first in many many months. It tasted bloody good as we sat down to watch the recorded live coverage of the race. I made it to around 22 miles of the ladies race before I resigned myself to not being able to stay awake and headed to bed. All in all a most memorable day, a highly successful one. One that won’t be forgotten.
The taper began officially the week after the Grunty Fen Half Marathon. The intervening week though was significant for a couple of injury niggles that affected the taper period. It began well enough with a bias on cross training and easy paced runs as I allowed the legs to recover from Sunday’s race. However from Wednesday through to Saturday I began to notice increased discomfort and sometimes pain across the top of the right foot somewhere near the toes. At first I thought it might be over-tightened laces or even the chip worn on Sunday that had irritated the foot. By Saturday though, which saw the only hard session of the week – a pleasing ten miles at marathon heart rate averaging 6:04 per mile – the pain was enough for me to fear it may have been the onset of a stress fracture or some form of tendinitis.
The pain continued into Sunday’s run – ran over the bulk of the Newton’s Fraction Half Marathon course – but it was nothing compared to the discomfort that seemingly came from nowhere from the onset of the run on the outside of the left ankle. Despite stretching and some gentle massage the pain began to intensify in the final miles so that by the end and when I stopped running there was a noticeable limp.
What I also noticed was that, unlike the right foot, the pain in the ankle stopped the moment I took of my trainers (A pair of recently purchased Nike Vomero 9s). I was therefore initially more concerned with the right foot which continued to ache. Having exhausted all ideas of what could be causing the pain I returned to my injury bible and soon found a plausible explanation and simple solution. It suggested the pain was not coming from the foot but from two points on the outer shin, one in line with the bottom of the patella, the other around a hand’s length from the patella, not too far from the ankle. Low and behold both spots were tender to massage – the lower point even had a bruise that had surfaced mysteriously. The book said results would be quick and it didn’t disappoint – from the next run onward there was no discomfort.
The ankle though was proving more troublesome, it was even difficult to go on the elliptical trainer or join the spinning class without loosening the trainers to the point of them becoming slippers. After two days of no running I was determined to run on my (cough cough) 40th birthday, so in a moment of inspiration opted to try running in my Nike Flyknits with the elastic laces I added for the sprint triathlon I took part in back in June. The lack of pressure on the ankle joint meant the relatively short run was more or less pain free.
I wore the Flyknits for the rest of the week – except for the long run coming on the Saturday, where I wore the Frees I planned to use at the Marathon, which were thankfully also pain free. As a stint of overnight shifts covering the Japanese Grand Prix took its toll, Sunday’s run was a short affair – I attempted to run in the Vomero’s but the pain was instantly too much, so I reverted to the Flyknits and they were fine. For now the Vomero’s are on the naughty step to be maybe worn again at some point in the future.
The final taper week was not a happy one. It rarely is with the effort of abstaining from exercise proving tough, but this week it was complicated with the onset of a cold that I tried my best to ignore but couldn’t help but notice on my final run on the Wednesday a definite lethargy in the opening miles that only went away when I ran three miles at marathon HR, which averaged 5:55. If I put that lethargy down to post Japanese GP pseudo-jet lag, I couldn’t ignore the rather unpleasant streams of snot on my training top after a final hour on the elliptical trainer on Thursday. It was not a heavy cold but it was enough to potentially dent performance and by Saturday it still hadn’t shifted…
Part 2 – Pre-race Build Up
The packing was done Friday morning, the depart for Chester to take place on Saturday morning. I was taking the family and planned to spend the afternoon in Chester to get a taste for the city and to maybe see part of the route. The journey to Chester was easy enough – until we approached Chester and the traffic slowed to a crawl. Chester has perhaps a worse traffic system than Grantham and, rather desperate to find a toilet, parked in the first NCP car park I came to (Which was ludicrously expensive but I was past caring). We spent a few hours wandering around Chester town center, trying to stay warm as I’d dressed for temperatures in the high teens, but persistent cloud and mist left temperatures barely above ten Celsius. I doubt Wilson Kipsang spends the day before a marathon rescuing children from a climbing frame, but that’s the way I found myself resting up.
We weren’t staying overnight in Chester – hotel rooms were elusive when I looked a few weeks before the race. Instead I’d booked into the Dibbinsdale Inn lured by the establishment doubling up as a rather good looking Italian Restaurant – ideal for pre race carbo loading. Disaster nearly struck on our arrival when it transpired I’d forgotten to include our two children on the booking form. Thankfully the owners were able to transfer us to a different room than the one assigned to us that allowed the kids to be with us (By 10pm and the pair of them still jumping around like mad rabbits, we kind of wished they’d been forced to find accommodation elsewhere).
It wasn’t long before it was dinner, a meal shared with fellow Grantham Running Club member Mark Wilson, who was hoping to break 3:20. The restaurant was an Italian tapas restaurant, which meant the portions weren’t huge (I had to order two Margherita pizzas as they were only 5″ apiece) but the food was delicious and none of us could resist a more regularly sized dessert – I devoured the vanilla cheesecake.
We finished in time to retire to our rooms and wound down by watching Australia destroy England in the Rugby. I feared I wouldn’t sleep well, but with the ear plugs in and my head on the pillow by 10:20pm, I was soon asleep and before I knew it it was 5:50am and the alarm clock was ringing.
The race morning went very smoothly, the hardest part was trying to make a cup of tea at 6am in the dark trying not to wake anyone. I failed miserably. Mark and I left the hotel at 6:30am, still pitch black but thankfully not foggy. We arrived at Chester Racecourse at 7am. We were not the first to arrive, but it wasn’t busy. Two hours allowed a relaxing build up the race – a chance to get a £1 long sleeved technical top from last year’s race (A bargain!), to peruse the merchandise stands and use the Portaloos before the queues became long.
It was chilly, under 10C, so the bin bag I packed came in handy once I handed by bag into baggage storage and made a last trip to the loo. I emerged with ten minutes to spare, ducked under the rails on the racecourse and lined up right at the front of the field, save for around 20 elite runners who were ushered into their own little pen as the town crier made a largely inaudible speech, ironically enough.
Part 3 – The Race
Lining up at the start I caught a glimpse of fellow GRC second claimer Chris Limmer (Wearing his Hinckley top) and bumped into fellow Kenilworth Runner Stuart Hopkins. We very briefly discussed tactics: he was going to target 2:40 pace from the off; I was going to do my usual heart rate thing and see where that left me.
Whatever the town crier had been saying it must have excited the organisers because the starting horn fired two minutes early, which would have caught out a fair few. Running along the racecourse was an odd experience, it was hard to keep the tempo under control, I had a firm eye on the watch to make sure the planned 150 bpm wasn’t exceeded. The opening mile took us out of the racecourse, I had allowed a lot of runners to pass me but I wasn’t concerned. Indeed I was delighted to hit the opening mile split in 6:42 – which was near enough spot on what I’d envisaged.
The second mile was meant to see me not exceed 155 bpm, but this was hard as it featured one of the longest climbs of the race and then a brief tour of Chester City Center, which was full of people cheering us on – which stirred the adrenaline from within. So mile two as a result was a touch high on the bpm average (157) and a touch quick on pace (6:23, Strava GAP (hills) adjusted was 6:04). Mile 3 took us downhill initially, over the River Dee and uphill again out into the country lanes which formed the majority of the race. The max HR for mile 3 was set at 160 and this I achieved. I was pleased therefore with the mile split of 6:15.
From miles 4-20 the plan was not to let the HR exceed 165 bpm. At Rotterdam last year it was an effort to keep the HR down. This year it was difficult at times to reach that figure – the body far more comfortable at around 161-162 bpm. As long as the mile splits were reasonable I was happy with this – to me I felt it maximised my chances of staying strong to the finish. The field began to spread out, sitting in around 40th position, I started to pick off other runners. The sun was shining but temperatures were comfortable at around 12C. With very little wind, conditions could hardly have been better.
Miles 4-6 were uneventful – which is exactly what you want in a marathon. They were run in 6:06; 6:05; and 5:56, with the HR only averaging 160 bpm. This was pleasing. The left ankle was fine, the legs generally felt good and there was no sign of the cold I’d had lingering reemerging. I passed the 10 km chip timing mat in a shade over 39 minutes. The three runners ahead of me beeped reassuringly. As I passed over – nothing. My chip had not been registered. I looked around at the marshal who seemed as puzzled as I was. I made a point of showing him my race number so he could maybe take a note of it.
My mind began racing. What if my chip had failed? What if I got no time? What if I broke 2:45 but was denied a time due to some shoddy technology. What if they accused me of being the British Kip Litton? I could feel the adrenaline pumping and my heart rate racing. This wasn’t good for the race and it took a number of minutes before I bought myself back to my senses and reasoned I’d be able to argue my case if necessary.
I knuckled back down to the business of marathon running. The seventh mile was 6:04 (5:54 once hills are taken into account). I kept the pace consistent through miles eight and nine, 6:06 then 6:00 exactly. The tenth mile apparently took us into Wales, but I missed the welcome party and only sensed we may be in a different country from the Araf signs on the road. The pace wasn’t slowing much: 6:05; 6:06; and 6:09 for miles 10, 11, and 12.
Mile 13 saw a right hand turn and the start of a three mile loop which saw perhaps my best miles of the race. I went through the official 20k split in 1:16:53 and was delighted to hear the beep as I crossed the mat. I was officially in the race! It wasn’t long before I crossed halfway in 1:21:11, which meant a 2:42 marathon time with neutral splits, but I was hoping I could go a little quicker in the second half with the pace still strong. Mile 13 was 6:12 (6:00 GAP adjusted). I spotted Stuart around 300 meters in the distance and began the long gradual effort of chasing him down.
Mile 14 was 6:03 (5:52 GAP), and a net downhill mile 15 was 5:57 (6:07). We briefly crossed path with runners at mile 13 before heading on an undulating section of road, which tested the legs a fair bit. Still I was strong: mile 16 took 6:09 and mile 17 was 6:15 on the second hilliest mile of the race. It was here I passed Stuart, who gave good encouragement and I reciprocated likewise.
It was on the narrow relatively steep descent following a climb shortly before crossing a bridge taking us from Holt to Farndon and back into England, that I felt the first warning signs of trouble in the race. I’d eased up on the descent worried about cramping in the quads that has beset me over the past year. They were fine for now, but I began to feel a nagging ache in the right calf. Not enough to slow me at the time, but persistent enough to concern me.
I think it was around mile 18 we had the metric marathon runners join us on the course. In a way they were a good thing as it gave us other runners to try and tag onto on what was by now a spread out field. On the other hand it was difficult to know who you were racing against when people began coming past you. The eighteenth mile was 6:12, mile 19 6:10, and mile 20, the planned last at a 165 max bpm, was 6:02. We had the metric marathon runners passing us on the other side who were full of support and it was spurring us on. But I was beginning to struggle.
Normally at 20 miles I’d give it full beans in terms of effort and heart rate, but the right calf was beginning to get worse. I was also beginning to get tell-tale signs of cramp in the quads. Mile 21 though was still okay – 6:13. I’d hoped that after mile 21 the road was going to be a gradual descent to the finish. There were descents but there were plenty of upward undulations too. Mile 22 was 6:09, I was still just about able to ignore the calf pain as I took my last Powergel (The first had been taken at 3 miles with subsequent gels at four mile intervals, with a 3 mile gap after mile nineteens).
Mile 23 was tough: 6:20 (6:10 on GAP), but I was just about holding it together. Mile 24 and the pain was starting to really take over. I was able to just about maintain pace but I didn’t want to push the calf too much in case something popped and I was unable to run (Monza 2008 and Windermere 2009 sprung to mind – the last time I’d suffered a right calf problem). The 24th mile was a 6:22, but with an unexpected uphill section into the city center at mile 25, the pace slowed significantly. It was now a case of survival as the calf sent shock waves of pain with each stride and the quads began to show signs of wanting to cramp dramatically. Mile 25 was 6:45, the equal slowest of the race, matched by the subsequent and thankfully last full mile of the race.
If I was feeling good, mile 26 would have been blissful. Dropping down past Grovesnor Park and along the narrow path by the River Dee back towards the racecourse, the atmosphere from the crowds were sensational. There was no doubt they dragged me along to another 6:45 mile – the calf in particular felt it should not have been running at all.
The spray painted 500m to go marker on the footpath towards the racecourse was a most welcome sight. Confident that even if the calf popped I could make it to the finish, I began to pick up the pace. With 300 meters to go we returned to the race course and I could see the finish line around the gentle bend. Spurred on I began the best sprint finish I could muster under the circumstances. With just under 100 meters to go I spotted my wife and children, and gave them a beaming smile and a wave for the official clock had not yet struck 2:44 and I had less than 20 seconds left to run.
With the crowd cheering, the announcer shouting my name, I sped to the finish. I stopped my watch and looked at the finish time: 2:43:41! Project Sub-2:45 had been successfully accomplished! I beamed, I looked to the sky, I turned around to check the official clock just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. I wasn’t. Sub 2:45 really had just happened.
I shook the hand of someone official looking and then collected my t-shirt and medal. A Lucozade and a (not particularly good) official post race photo later and the race experience was over.
I heard Stuart’s name called out a few minutes after I finished. I headed to my family who greeted me warmly. Stuart and his girlfriend came to join us and we shared race notes and took post race photos. My youngest daughter took too much of a liking to my post race Lucozade and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to chase her playing tig.
Thanks to modern technology we were able to track our club mates as we approached the finish. We missed Chris, who came home in a fine 2:55, but cheered loudly as Mark came home in a superb 3:11, nine minutes up on his planned time and a well deserved Good For Age place at the 2017 London Marathon is his. The last of the GRC clan, Penny Hodges, was a little further down the road. I would have waited were it not for the kids demanding lunch and generally entertaining. So it was with a tinge of regret we left without seeing her finish in 3:48. I did though manage to meet up with Mark, who was suitably delighted with his performance.
And then we were off on the long journey home, stopping at a country pub for some lunch and entertaining of very tired children, and then stopping again for some ice cream at a very popular ice cream shop. By the time we approached Nottingham I was the last one awake (Which was just as well as I was driving). We were home just after 6pm. I looked through my emails and a link to the official results had arrived. My time was confirmed as 2:43:41 (Chip), my finishing position a very creditable eighteenth and (whisper it) I was third V40 finisher. No prizes though for third, alas.
And once the kids had been fed and put to bed and the champagne (it was some rather cheap Cava) had been poured, my achievements toasted and the glasses raised to the hard work and subsequent success, it was declared that the adventure had ended.