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.
And 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.
Unfortunately, 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).
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.