The marathon has developed a very special place in our culture. As I discussed in my last post I feel it brings out the best in people: supporters, volunteers and runners alike who invariably come together to create unforgettable experience on the streets of our cities. The people of Manchester certainly created another set of beautiful memories yesterday for everyone of the 15000 runners taking part. Thank you Manchester.
The challenge of the distance can bring with it fear, self doubt and of course when it is accomplished it also brings loads of positive emotions associated with the respect from others and pride in oneself. Those that have never run a marathon are often aware of the mystical “wall” that apparently awaits at around 20 miles. Maybe this is the reason that so many show their support for marathon runners (both with their physical presence at the events and financial charity support) to help them overcome their own walls. Is it physical, mental or a bit of both? Probably a bit of both but the size of the wall can certainly be made much, much higher through negative thinking.
My own wall or demon had been building for 26 years. In 5 marathon attempts since 1991 I’d struggled to execute a really good race and so my demon of self doubt was deeply entrenched. Could my body deal with the physical punishment that training and racing over 26.2 miles requires? Even though for the last 5 years I’ve been pushing my body to new physical limits on a regular basis through triathlon and duathlon I still allowed myself to think that this was different. “Isn’t the impact of running the thing that really does the damage?” I kept asking myself.
Even two weeks ago I made a call to Annie, my Coach, to question whether or not I should be doing the Marathon. “I’m not sure I’m ready. We haven’t done any really big mileage. I’m not sure I need to do it” was the gist of my pathetic appeal to her. “You are ready, you will love it” was the unequivocal response. That was the end of the conversation. I guess I’m doing it!
It was really important for me to have that conversation, because to quote Steve Peters “Chimp Factor” theory, “I needed to exercise my Chimp” ( now I’m really getting my metaphors mixed with walls, demons and chimps all present. Mind you, It can be pretty crowded inside my head at times!!) Having “exercised him” I could now move forward. The last couple of weeks leading into the event was positive and energising. By the time the race came around I was genuinely excited.
If Annie says I’m ready then I trust her. I knew that I had been putting in lots of volume, just not that much running and as I was about to find out it didn’t matter that I hadn’t gone over 15 miles in training. The balance of swim, bike and run is really beneficial to the body, building strength, endurance and importantly keeping the mind fresh.
So to the race.
I explained in my pre race blog that I intended to use the 3:15 pace runner as my guide to help me judge the race and see if I could keep with them until around 20 miles when I would re-evaluate according to how I felt at the time. Well, this plan didn’t quite work out, but my plan B was superb. In chatting to a marshall beforehand he advised me against trying to run with the pacer as he knew that huge groups amass around them and it therefore becomes difficult to get into a rhythm. He suggested laying off behind them so that you could see them but not be obstructed. This made sense but just before the race began the volume of runners mingling around the poor 3:15 pacer was so huge that I couldn’t work my way through them to take up a position behind. Strangely in front of this group was an oasis of calm so I decided to begin in front, take it easy over the first few miles and then see if the pace group came through.
It took a couple of minutes to cross the start-line and then we were underway. Almost immediately there was clear road to run in and so I got straight into a really comfortable rhythm and began the 2nd part of my plan to chat to lots of people. Everyone was in high spirits and we were floating along. I went through the first mile in 7:14 and thought wow that’s very easy. It was a tad quicker than the plan but only just 6-7 seconds ahead. I kept chatting and as we went past the 2nd mile marker I checked again. Oops, under 7 minutes is definitely too quick. It was time to let my new mate, who had run 80 marathons, go and consciously slow down. I realized that in order to get the pace right I needed to focus on what I was doing and so for the next few miles I ignored the rest of the runners and allowed my body to settle into a 7:20 mile rhythm. Once I’d got it by 6 miles I switched my attention again to the brilliant crowds and the other runners. I was loving it and it felt so comfortable that I forgot about the 3:15 pacer somewhere behind me. My heart rate was really under control, my form was relaxed and effortless.
I remembered London, New York and Chicago as races where the crowds were wild and noisy for the whole of the 26.2 miles. Manchester was different. The noise of the crowd support came in waves at different points around the course and this made it even better. As a runner I could really feel the atmosphere building as we headed into the various communities around the course. We’d be able to soak it all up and then we’d then move on into another pocket of calm where we could relax and run through our little mental routines of checking how things were going, before anticipating the next welcome. It was brilliant.
I went through the half marathon in 1 hour 35 mins and whilst I was feeling really good I did have a moment of concern that maybe I’d gone out just a tad too quickly. Was my wall being built somewhere down the road? I allowed this thought to pass as quickly as it had emerged and got back to enjoying the occasion. Whilst I didn’t realize it at the time I did slow up slightly through this 3rd quarter as my only miles over 7:30 were recorded at miles 16 and 18. It was during this phase that I also began to wonder about where the 3:15 pacer was. At times I’d heard various announcers on the course alerting the crowd to the imminent arrival of the 3:15 pacer but id not seen him nor had any sense of just how close behind the group might be. By my crude calculations based on my mile splits I assumed that I was still a few minutes ahead of 3;15 pace. Reaching 20 miles was a key milestone and it gave me a big metaphorical pat on the back as I was still feeling great at this point. Hold on or kick on was the question? My conscious thought was to hold on as I was ahead of where I wanted to be and I’d just keep it going until the last 3 miles. Interestingly though, my splits show that I did indeed kick on as I was back to knocking out each mile in around 7:20 pace. I’d been saving my caffeine gels for the last hour of the run and so taking these at 19 and 23 miles probably gave me that mental boost that kicked me on.
Once past 21 miles I was counting down. 5,4,3, 2,1 to go and I was still feeling good and holding it all together. I’m not sure counting down helped as I did notice that I was looking forward to stopping more as each mile went by. I was also aware that my hip flexors were tightening, a few blisters on my left foot were building , but there was no sign of fatigue or soreness through my neck or shoulders where I’ve always felt it before. This is surely an indication of just how relaxed I was.
Turning left at 25 miles was euphoric. I could see Old Trafford ahead. We were now on the final stretch. I knew I was going to make it ahead of the 3:15 group and more importantly I knew I had extinguished my demons around the marathon. My body can cope. By pacing well, almost metronomic, by staying relaxed, by getting nutrition and fluids right I had avoided the dreaded wall. This was such a massive step for me. I think I was beaming from ear to ear as I headed towards the barrier section over the last 365 yards. The crowds there were huge and I wanted to thank them all for helping me to achieve a huge PB and an even more important mental accomplishment.
I crossed the line in 3:12:33. I was so happy. Just writing about it now makes me emotional. The Erdinger Alkoholfrei team were there at the finish line and it was truly special to enjoy a pint with Pete and the crew afterwards. My sister Judith had been chasing me around the course giving lots of support at 6,12,16, 25 miles and so it was brilliant to find her after and know that she had shared this important moment with me.
Coach Annie deserves huge credit for getting me prepared mentally as well as physically and I’d also like to mention Alan Murchison for his brilliant nutritional help. My body felt so strong as I knew exactly what to do to keep myself optimally fueled throughout.
With this team around me all I had to do was execute the plan!
Finally I want to make a special reference to my Mum who passed away two months ago. She showed me what real strength, determination and dignity look like during her final days. Observing the way she dealt with this puts marathons into perspective. Thanks Mum, I miss you.