Before today, my marathon PB was 3:43:40, set at Manchester in 2012. Those who ran that race remember it vividly. In fact, like me, they probably have flashbacks every time the weather is truly horrendous. Even though I’ve not come close to that time since, looking back on that day has never filled me with the warm pride of a 10-minute PB – the only thoughts are about the cold; the pain not just in my legs but in my hands and my face; and of being unable to warm up for what felt like days afterwards.
Today was the opposite of that.
Today, everything went right. The weather was perfect – overcast and cool without being cold. I had a realistic plan, and I followed it. When it hurt, I dug deep. And, without any planning, I ran 16 miles or so of it with Simon. Perfect.
The result was an eight-minute PB: 3:35:22. Absolutely chuffed to bits.
And I wasn’t the only one. Manchester rained PBs today: Mike and Alex both broke 3hrs with impeccably paced runs; Steve ‘Teetotal’ Taylor converted four months of dedication to a 26-minute PB in 3:09:29; Philip Kelly got his Boston qualifier by clocking 3:11:36; and Gia clocked a best of 3:08:56, which should be good preparation for the 53-mile West Highland Way in six days’ time! It was also the day my usual training partners, Darren, Richard, and Jonathan ran their first marathons – in 4:16, 3:31, and 4:10 respectively.
But most of all (for me), Andy Oates took 3hrs and tore it to pieces.
Like me, Andy’s previous PB was at Manchester 2012, when he ran 3:00:04. Think about that for a second. Horrific conditions, and he missed breaking 3hrs by five seconds – or 20 metres. The time it’s taken you to read this paragraph. Barely the length of a swimming pool. I’m sure they were the longest five seconds, and the furthest 20 metres, of his life.
He’s been in great form since, but a succession of injuries – whether suffered on the day or in training – have meant he’s not been really close to beating that since. Until today. Setting off with a plan to build up a bit of a buffer to allow for any slowing in the final few miles, he had so much in reserve that, when he did slow (a little!) from 22 onwards, he still came in in 2:56:55! That’s hero status right there, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
So back to my race. Well, the first thing to note is that it’s been four months in the making. After a nasty dose of flu just before Christmas wiped me out for over a week, I’d left myself with 60 miles to run in the last 10 days of 2014 to hit my target of 1,500 miles. Of course, that’s easier to hit with so much time off work and, in the end, I ran almost every day for 10 days so that my 11-miler on New Year’s Eve took me to 1,510.
Having proved to myself that I could still run a 50-mile week, I tried to run another. And another. Encouraged by Darren and Richard, who had taken up doing intervals with Altrincham & District AC, I even went back to track night for the first time in more than a decade. As we came to Helsby Half in mid-January, I tapered a little and still clocked 47 for the week. It also dawned on me around then that I’d not missed a day running since Dec 29 (marathon day was Day 111).
Back then, the plan was to try to get a PSB at Manchester – a personal second best time of somewhere between 3:43:40 (Manchester 2012) and 3:53:20 (London 2003). But by the time I got to Stafford 20, I was already wondering whether something better was on the cards. A little foolishly, I raced Stafford as hard as I could but without tapering beforehand. So, when I narrowly missed my 2012 time, the optimist inside always had cause to think that – had I wound down before it like I did three years ago – I could have beaten it. I couldn’t say with certainty whether I was in better or worse shape than 2012, but it was close.
And so to Manchester. The plan was to run on 3:30 pace until 20 miles, then race as hard as I could in the hope that I’d only drop 5 mins (instead of the usual 10-15) in the final 10km. Setting off, my only thought was not to go off too fast. I knew everything had gone to plan since Christmas. The weather was perfect. I’d had the pleasure of meeting up with all those mentioned above before the start and could sense it was going to be a great day for so many of them. Just manage the adrenaline and don’t go too fast.
Around two miles, I saw Simon overtaking me. Having said he was in no shape to trouble his PB (3:34), he looked very comfortable to me, and pretty much on my pace. We started chatting. Where the course doubles back on itself, we took turns in spotting friends on the other side of the road, and then spotting his wonderful family out supporting. And we carried on chatting.
Another tactic for today was not to obsess about my average pace. When a mile split came along, I took a second to check whether it was on target or not (they were) and before we knew it, we had wound our way through Old Trafford, Stretford, Sale and on to Brooklands. Seeing David and his family outside their house gave me a boost and, a mile later, we were in Timperley – where my own support team were waiting for me.
Timperley has always been really good for supporters in the marathon, but this year was the best it’s been. By far the best support in the whole course (apart from the final 200 yards, maybe) and the cheering – together with seeing my girls – gave me another huge rush of adrenaline.
Altrincham was also good, and having officially rejoined the club in April, it was great to hear so many clubmates cheering my Altrincham vest for the first time in years. Coming back through Timperley, I made sure I got to the side of the road to high five my girls.
Between this point – around mile 14 – and the top of Brooklands at 16, I’d started to realise that we were dropping off pace a little, and that what had been coming naturally for two hours was now needing some effort. So when we came past David’s house again and I heard him shout that I was owning my new PB, I got a real lift. Don’t think about the fact it’s getting harder, think about the PB. The right words, at the right time.
Spotting me coming (and perhaps showboating just a little) the support from everyone at LifeChurch simply took my breath away. I knew that was the last support we were likely to get for a good few miles, so with a quick reminder to Simon that we were now within single figures of the finish, I tried to focus on the task ahead.
Not long after that, Simon explained he was going to drop back and, for the first time all race, I was on my own. I’d been expecting to running alone all race, so to have ‘got a lift’ to the 18 mile mark had been amazing. And running with Simon is always a pleasure. Now, I’d just got eight miles to race hard for all the work to be worthwhile.
Shortly after mile 19, the 3:30 pacing bus caught up with me. At mile 20, I was 20 yards behind them but still inside 3:30 pace. Was there any chance I could keep up with them until the end? At mile 21, I got my answer as the pacers stretched further ahead and out of view.
At last, the race had started. I knew this section of the course really well and started to dig deep. Get to mile 23 and then kick. But when mile 23 came, it was as much as I could do to just hold the pace without losing too much time. I had slipped to 9:30 pace by now, and was breaking down each 300-metre chunk or so to see if I could hold my pace for just a little longer. I was succeeding, by and large, and at mile 25, the pace even started to come back down.
Running up to Old Trafford (it’s not as close as you think), I knew 3:35 was possible, but only just. Seeing Kate with 600 metres to go gave me the final lift I needed. A short sprint, an attempted heel click for the cameras, and I’d done it.
Having collected my bag, it was time to find Kate, Andy and anybody else who was still around the finish. Fortunately, I am quite a reserved and macho man, so I absolutely did not bear-hug Andy with all the strength I had left when he told me his news. I definitely did not do so twice. I also had no need whatsoever to choke back the tears when I told Kate how pleased I was with my time. Or hug Simon to thank him for keeping me company when we met up with him and his family.
What a day! Kate was obviously confident as she had bought me a congratulations card in advance, which she’d personalised with the words: Pain is temporary, achievement lasts a lifetime. I don’t know about a lifetime – I’m already hoping my PB only lasts six months – but if I never beat 3:35:22 again, I can at least look back on the day I did it with nothing but amazing memories. And I don’t have to think about Manchester Marathon 2012 ever again!
Update: The photographer didn’t capture my heel click, but did get me gunning for him at half way. I really need to start taking this marathon lark a bit more seriously