Category: Marathons

Manchester Marathon 2015 – PB!

What it's all about - the medal
What it’s all about – the medal

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.

The only positive I recall is being scraped up off the road at 25.5 – when I was staggering across the route unable to remember my name – and being dragged to the finish by Simon and Mike.

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.

Me with the Timperley Massive at the start
Darren, Andy, Me, Richard and Jonathan at the start

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.

Simon and I wave to his support crew
Simon and I wave to his support crew

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.

Me with my support crew afterwards
Me with my support crew afterwards

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.

Simon, me and Andy at the end
Simon, me and Andy at the end

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

Taking off
Taking off
Gunning for a PB?
Gunning for a PB?

 

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Chester Marathon

It’s been two weeks since High Peak 40, and what have I learned?

I’ve learned that two weeks is exactly how long it takes my achilles tendon to stop hurting with every step I run after completing something like the High Peak 40.

I’ve learned that two weeks is about the time it takes for a footful of blisters to heal and peel.

Two weeks is long enough for your legs to start feeling like normal, but it is not long enough for the (somewhat misplaced) feeling of invincibility to subside.

So it was with that sense of invincibility, plus the fact that I had surprised myself with how fit I was at Warrington Half, that I lined up for the Chester Marathon.

If you only know one thing about running marathons, know this: If you think you’ve started too fast, you’ve started too fast; if you think you’ve started too slow, you’ve still started too fast.

Unless of course you’re a surprisingly fitter-than-you-thought-you-were ultra-marathon runner. In that case, feel free to decide on a pace comfortably inside your PB, then start out even faster than that!

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, not the weather for a start. Clear blue skies but still not too warm (it being October) meant the conditions were perfect for running a marathon.

Not the course either – Andy and I had done a recce of the final mile the previous day, and studied the map that comes with your race number, and it looked fantastic. The only small section that wasn’t being run on beautiful country roads around Cheshire went straight through the historic and picturesque city centre.

ImageAnd not the company. I’d met Catherine at a few races before Chester, but never run for more than a few yards with her. For the first mile, we could even see Mike (right) twirling around for the crowds as he prepared to pace Simon to a hefty new PB (Mike had set his own 16 minute PB the week before at the Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham!).

In fact, for the first half, nothing at all could go wrong. Chatting away, the miles flew by.

In no time at all (or 51:12 to be more accurate), we had gone through 10k.

Before we knew it, the half way mark approached with 1:49:24 on the clock. More or less on target for the 3hrs 40 marathon I’d decided I was capable of.

And then a wobble. Not much of a wobble, but a wobble nonetheless. A slow mile that hadn’t felt at all slow until we saw the split come up on our Garmins.

Having joked that I needed one of Mike’s twirls to take my mind off things, I decided to try my own. And guess what? It worked! The sheer relief that I had (very) narrowly avoided falling flat on my face took my mind right off my legs and we were back on pace.

Another 5k disappeared under our feet and we were both feeling good. So when we got to Holt – where I can only imagine every man, woman, child and pet in the village had turned out to cheer runners on – I was riding the crest of a wave.

ImageUnfortunately, the wave that was carrying me soon crashed against the rocks and spat me out because by the time we got to Farndon and the crossing of the River Dee, my legs were beginning to send messages that they weren’t for keeping this pace up for another nine miles.

And in case they were in any doubt, this was the point where the route entered its ‘undulating’ section – better known in the flatlands of Altrincham as ‘hilly’.

Catherine kindly waited at the top of each rise, reminded me that it was all in the mind, and cheerfully skipped over what were, to her, no more than molehills.

When the 3:45 pacing group then overtook me (remember – 3:45 is the new cut off for Good for Age for Catherine, and was a target that must be hit, even if the main goal 3:40 was missed) I knew I had to let her go. Slinking into the crowd, I knew that when Catherine turned around – probably to check why I had finally stopped talking! – I’d be gone.

And so began the last eight miles. The last, hilly, hot and slow eight miles.

I’ve never hit the wall, but in every marathon I’ve run, I have gradually run out of steam – the pace not so much suddenly falling as dropping mile by mile until, sooner rather than later, I was shuffling more than running.

And that’s what happened here. With every drink station I gulped down water or Lucozade until I felt full, only to feel thirsty within seconds of discarding the bottle.

From around mile 20, I adopted High Peak Technique – walking purposefully up the hills.

I even grabbed the hand of one fellow runner who was about to stop and made sure we both kept running up one particular incline … only for her to quickly refind her feet and leave me in her wake! That’s gratitude for you.

The goal of 3:40 had long gone, as had the 3:43 that would have marked a new PB. My ‘silver’ target, therefore, was to dip under 3:53 to record my second fastest marathon.

As we closed in on the city centre, I knew it was going to be close.

Running along the river, I got to the section Andy and I had walked the day before: 5 minutes to go. My silver target was still possible.

Approaching the racecourse car park: 2 minutes to go. It’s now or never.

Digging deep, I found that last bit of energy I thought I’d left around mile 23. I sprinted round the corner and down the finishing straight. I suddenly felt good.

And then I crossed the line. 3:54. I’d missed that silver target by a whole minute! The results later showed I’d overtaken 23 people in the final 2km, but the fact remained: I set out with three targets, and had missed two of them.

Sub-4hrs felt, briefly, like scant consolation.

I say briefly because it was not long before I reminded myself that 4hrs had in fact been my goal when I entered after completing Manchester Marathon in 4:36 in April.

I also knew that, had I run more sensibly, I could have got my silver target comfortably. And I was happy to miss out on silver because I had (rather recklessly, as it happened) gone for gold.

I had had a great run. For 17 miles of it, I had run in great company. And at the end, I got to hear about a lot more great efforts: Andy’s 3:05, Andrew‘s sub 3:30 and PBs for Catherine (3:40), Simon (3:34 – paced by Mike) and Gia (3:31).Image

And I had finished my rather daft 79 miles of racing in a month. Each race had been amazing in its own way, and each one I would do again in a heartbeat, but something had definitely been lost by doing them so close to each other.

The past month’s running had seemed rather aimless – almost every run was either a recovery from or tapering down to, a race of some description, and not enough runs were actually enjoyable in their own right.

And surely that’s the point. For as wonderful as they are, running isn’t about the races for me. It’s about the training that goes into making them. It’s as much about the 400m intervals in the dark and the rain at 6am before work as it is about the days in the sunshine running through Cheshire. It’s about the Sunday runs with neighbours, and runs home from work with colleagues. It’s about all the hard work that makes race days so enjoyable.

If the races become more important than the training, then the cart is before the horse. Something has to give.

But then, I’m not always good at learning lessons or being sensible when it comes to running.

Will I opt for two out of three in 2014? Or will I compromise each one by running all three … again? Time will tell, but I’m making no promises.

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Manchester Marathon 2013

Manchester Marathon 1
Manchester Marathon 1

What a day!

My fourth marathon, and while not my best (nor my worst) it was the one I’ve enjoyed the most by far. Without the pressure of chasing a time, I was free to meet up with some friends, soak up the atmosphere, thank as many of those who cheered me on as I could, and smile for most of the 26.2 miles.

It used to annoy me when TV commentators talked about “fun runners” as it always sounds so condescending. But (as you can see here) this was fun!  Chatting and laughing with other runners as we all tried to help each other round the course, even having to persuade one that I was “on the telly” because of the numbers shouting my name, and generally playing the fool to those who’d turned out to support me.

This was another side to marathon running, and one I’d forgotten about since first crawling around London in 2000. The other two have all been about the time, about the battle with myself to beat my own personal goals, especially over the last six miles. This was the carnival that Kathrine Switzer was referring to when she said: “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” And I watched it from the inside.

Manchester Marathon 2But I’ve learned that marathons aren’t about the three, four, five or however many hours it takes you to get round. They’re about the countless hours in training; the 5:45 alarm calls even at weekends; the snow, sleet, hail and wind; the good runs when everything goes right but also the bad ones where you want to give up after just a few miles; the bugs and niggles,   the bleeding nipples, the DOMS and the bonks.

Part of what made Manchester Marathon 2013 so special was that I’d had all of those and more. Yes, there were also a few glorious sunrises on country lanes and leisurely runs with friends, but this spring has been about graft – and yesterday, it all paid off.

For me, Manchester Marathon – and the idea to write this blog – started back in August 2012, sat beside a pool in the Vendee. My knee had been giving me a bit of trouble for a few weeks, and after a short holiday test run, I was resigning myself to a few weeks’ rest.

At the same time, I was reading Keep On Running by Phil Hewitt and reliving the pleasure and pain of last year’s ‘Manchester’. The unexpected pleasure of reading somebody else’s marathon experiences got me thinking. I decided to start blogging again, with the aim of writing one post for each race I ran, covering the day itself and the various training tales that went with it. The first posts would be for the English Half Marathon in Warrington in September, then the Chester Marathon in October.

Or so I thought.

When I got home from France, I decided to take my sore knee to the GP, who diagnosed achilles tendonitis in the opposite leg. Without even realising, I’d overcompensated to avoid one niggle and ended up with something far more painful. But while the knee cleared with a couple of weeks’ rest, the Achilles didn’t.

Foolishly, it took me another few months’ rest before I finally went to see a physio and it was only at Christmas that I was given the green light to get running again – building my miles up slowly and doing lots of stretches and exercises in between.

By then, though, the damage was done. I think my pace had been the first thing to leave, followed by all the stamina from all that mileage (1,000 miles between Jan and July last year), then the time (all those little windows of time I’d found in my daily routine had long since been filled by other things, mainly work), and finally, the mojo.

That’s because when I was told I could start building up the mileage again, the enthusiasm to get my trainers back on lasted no more than a few days. The thought of all those hours training when it would take months and months to recapture the times I was setting last year was not in the least bit appealing. I had no inclination to run half marathons in 2hrs 30 when I’d been clocking 1:37 last year, and shorter races were even worse: more than 25 mins for a 3-mile training loop that I last ran in 20:09 – and every bit as hard.

So with pace no longer a friend of mine, I decided to go for distance; a marathon is an achievement no matter how long it takes.  But even with a target, the motivation didn’t return. Several long runs were aborted with declarations that I was giving up on this marathon lark – but four months on, I’ve got my medal.Manchester Marathon medal

The 26.2 yesterday was definitely the easy bit.

After yesterday, the mojo is most definitely back. My next race is the Sheffield Half on May 12, scene of my 1998 PB, and I can’t wait. While I won’t run it as fast as I did 15 years ago, and I doubt I’ll enjoy it as much as Manchester, at least the road to the start line won’t be anywhere near as long.