It’s fair to say my feelings at the start line of the 2016 Manchester Marathon were not what I thought they would be back when I started training for the race, twenty weeks ago. Last time out the Manchester Marathon was a triumph. I started the winter of 2014 not in top form, but neither was I out of shape, and built steadily with one clear goal in mind – to break three hours for the first time. I achieved that goal with time to spare, running 2:53:23.
My training for the 2016 Manchester Marathon had a much more inauspicious start. Heading into the winter of 2015 I was in terrible running form from a cocktail of laziness, illness and injury. Through much of November I was pretty crocked, and I was just attempting to start the training block running without pain. My goals were unambitious – rather than aiming to take a huge chunk off my personal best, I was thinking about *only* running another sub three time. If everything went well, then I might possibly be able to think about going faster than 2:53.
However by the time I reached the start line this April, everything had changed. My training had gone better than I could ever have hoped for. Far from playing catch up, I already seemed to be fitter and faster than I was at the same point the previous year in in my training by February. In February I ran a half marathon best and finished 5th again at Liversedge.
I was clearly running myself into PB form, but I was still stuck in an unsure no-mans land of what time to go for. I wasn’t confident enough to go all out for a time under 2:45 for a ‘championship start’ qualifying time for the London Marathon, but I also felt that I was now back in the form to go for it and take that ‘huge chunk’ off my 2015 time. I tested out what I thought was a comfortable pace, and when the gun went I was aiming to run 6:25 a mile – this would have me finish in 2:48, and as I was hoping to increase the pace in the final miles as I was able to in 2015, the goal for this year was 2:47.
But before we go from the gun, let’s go back to my preparation immediately before the race. I headed across the Pennines the day before race day just before lunchtime, arriving at my hotel in Manchester with the rest of the afternoon ahead of me. This left me plenty of time to prepare as well as possible; laying out my kit for the obligatory Instagram, drinking plenty of fluid, having a solid afternoon nap and waking up in time to eat the heap of pasta and chicken I’d bought with me. In short I had the perfect preparation. It was time to get some sleep, and prepare for the go.
And I was off, through the typical congested start, through the typical attempts not to go too fast in the first mile, and thankfully through the typical feeling of a comfortable goal pace. Every runner, no matter what distance, thinks of different ways of breaking their race down mentally. For me I had a few different sets of mental targets throughout the race; breaking the race down into the 5, 10, 15 and 20 mile points where I would take each of the gels I was carrying, the 10 and 12 mile points being the furthest I’d run on marathon pace test runs in the final few weeks, obviously the half-way point (signed by a huge inflatable archway), and then either the 20 or 23 mile mark where I planned to pick up the pace – if possible.
The first five miles of the route is a set of two out and backs around Trafford, before the route starts heading southwards. For me this was perfect, with the route not feeling as if it had started properly until we were heading south, and subsequently allowing me to feel like the ‘race proper’ hadn’t started. I focussed on running steady and comfortable, and ticking off those first five miles.
The next five miles takes the route out through Sale, before a long out and back ‘lollipop’ starts just before the ten mile mark, heading out through Brooklands, looping around Altrincham town centre and the half-way point, and then back through Brooklands. But before the lollipop there was another ten miles to tick off, and the first of those marathon pace test run distances to hit. The pace was still incredibly comfortable – more comfortable than I’d found it on those test runs. The taper beforehand, cutting down the distance and intensity of training, and the rest had clearly worked.
Then we were through ten miles and onto the lollipop down through Brooklands. I remember the wind picking up a bit here which made me push a bit harder to stick to my pace. I was pushing a bit harder in general than in 2015 when I was aiming for between 6:40 and 6:50 a mile, when I found myself slowing myself down for most of the race. This year, with my watch showing me my average pace for that mile, I was spending half my time trying to slow my pace down, and the rest trying to speed my pace up. I also remember in that mile going past a section of fellow Hyde Park Harriers spectating and cheering us runners on, and I was already looking forward to coming back past them on the way back, and seeing fellow Hyde Park Harrier runners on the long out and back sections.
I passed twelve miles, again through that test run distance but more comfortable than that run was, and then through the half-way point. There was a clock there with the gun time displayed. As I crossed the start line in the first few rows of runners this was accurate for me. I went through in almost exactly bang on 1:24 – in other words, perfectly on the race pace. Then it was time to turn, and head back to Trafford.
Every mile that you add to your distance covered during the marathon acts as an amplifier to your emotions during the race. If you’re struggling and in a negative mindset, your mood can get worse and worse, motivation drops, fear for how much more gruelling the following mile and the mile after that grows. Conversely if you are happy and running well, every mile in the bank lightens your mood. Between miles fifteen and twenty I was feeling fine, spending more of my time reminding myself to slow down than I was before. Maybe it helped that the wind was behind me, but I was looking forward to the twenty mile mark. The route heads west there to go towards Carrington, and I had decided it was there and not at twenty-three miles that I was going to make my move.
My watch beeped to alert me I had completed the twentieth mile. It is set up to do this at every mile, but this was the sign to go. The choice to go was part logic, part instinct. I knew I had little to lose. With 2:48 being six minutes under my previous best, I would have to lose a minute per mile for the rest of the race not to record a best. Logic. I also knew that I felt good – since my performance at the 2015 Manchester Marathon I felt that I’d perfected how to run well and speed up at the end rather than hit ‘the wall’, and in myself I knew that I was strong. Instinct.
My first thought was to try and speed up to 6:10 per mile. After the first half a mile of this final section of the race I settled on 6:15. Although the marathon is physically taxing, you have so much time to think, and I was actively working it out as I went along. Ten second per mile under 6:25 pace for the final six miles would be one minute in total, so that would bring me down to 2:47, and I factored in that I had probably completed each mile in a bit under 6:25 rather than a bit over.
I tried to push these thoughts from my mind. For much of the race I had focussed on the mantra of ‘stay comfortable, run your own race, keep your head in the mile’. What this told me was to focus on the here and now rather than what was ahead, what other people were doing, and sticking to that planned pace. When I was running easy this had one meaning, but as I sped up it took on another one. The finish line became every mile, the goal was to get to every beep of the watch in under 6:15.
At mile twenty-one a spectator was counting the runners through. I heard the numbers of the runners ahead, and remember hearing those ahead of me being counted through around one-hundred-and-three, one-hundred-and-four. I laughed and called to the spectator “Don’t tell me that!”, meaning that it would only encourage me to race, and not focus on my own performance. He called back “If you can talk you aren’t running hard enough!”
That was soon to change. The change of gear was not as easy or dramatic as it was in last year’s race. I was having to push really hard to keep the 6:15 pace up, and only a mile after joking with the spectator I would barely have been able to think of an attempted joke, let alone utter one. I did enjoy passing runners (at one point in the final six miles passing the first female runner, who was rightly getting more cheers than me) and knowing that I was moving into the top 100 – although I was still focussed on my race plan. I was pushing hard, over a couple of what would have been barely perceptible bumps if it weren’t for the stage of the race and the pace I was trying to run.
The final two miles were, and this probably isn’t a surprise, so tough. I knew what was happening in my body. My heart rate was rising, my internal body temperature was rising, the amount of lactate in my body was rising. The pace I was pushing was a lethal cocktail that the body isn’t designed to sustain for long periods. I could feel that I was right on the edge of overcooking it (literally, in the case of the body temperature), and although my pace from mile twenty paints a picture of me flying, I was toughing it out inside and grimacing and straining on the outside. That said when someone took a photo of me with probably a mile to go, I looked fine.
The route, slightly reworked this year to finish at Old Trafford cricket ground rather than the football ground, now has a final mile consisting of a half mile straight before a slight turn right, putting you onto the final, dead straight half mile. The finish gantry can just be made out in the distance. The fanciful thought that I was on for a time under 2:45 disappeared as I realised how long the straight was and how far away the finish was still. Soon I was close enough to look up at the clock, and push to stay inside the minute that it was on, and as the second digits ticked up I pushed as hard as I could for the final time before crossing the line – 2:46:45 on the watch, and eventually on the official results as well.
So far on my immediate reflection I’ve been ecstatic with the performance I put in. Firstly as I felt that I executed the race as well as I could, and through a combination of logic and instinct I wrung almost as much time out of myself as I had in me on the start line. Secondly because of where I came from back in November, when my fitness and the pain I was in when running meant that I never thought that I would be in the position to put in the performance I have.
To put forward the question though – what comes next? I have a lot of thoughts on this, but briefly this result has yet again made me think that there is a lot more still to come. In the immediate future I am having a well deserved few weeks of rest, or at least of unstructured running and training. Then it’s back to the grindstone for another twenty week block before the Manchester Half Marathon in October and an attempt at a time under 1:15 (another London Marathon championship start qualifying standard).
I will of course be back to take on the marathon again next Spring. What will I be aiming for by then? As I signed off my 2015 Manchester race report, who knows?