Every year that has gone by my ambitions at this race have grown. In my first year I took on and completed my first sub three hour marathon – a two fifty-three. In my second I set off with the goal of going under the two fifty mark, and did it again – two fourty-six. So for my third attempt there was only one thing for it – my first goal for 2017 was to be a crack at going under two hours and fourty-five minutes, the qualifying standard for the championship start at the London Marathon. This had been my target and my motivation since I started my training block, unfit and slow, back at the beginning of November, and has kept me going all through the winter months and hard, high mileage weeks as race day got closer. And as that day approached, the form was there. After all the work the final key sessions which test my final form and pace showed that 6:13 a mile and a two fourty-three marathon was possible. So going into race day I had an A, B and C target to try and manage my expectations – go under my PB of 2:46:45, then under two fourty-five, and then to try and get close to that two fourty-three finish.
I was asked in the run in if I had any ‘taper niggles’, imaginary demons that make you skittish and nervous in the run up to race day. I didn’t have any taper niggles, I had taper problems. Two weeks or so out I picked up a problem in my right calf and ankle which was just about settling down in race week, and then on the Thursday of race week I picked up a bit of a cold. I was pretty grotty on the Friday, then a little bit better on the Saturday, and spent most of that day napping on my reasonably priced hotel chain bed and praying I would wake up better still.
I woke up – mercifully as cold free as could be expected – and made my way to the start at Old Trafford. The more big marathon races I’ve done the more I’ve noticed how quickly everything rushes up towards the race start. The race seems so far away as you build up through all the training, but in the final week and on race day itself the time just flies by without the opportunity for nerves to build. I got into my pre-race bin bag, dropped off my bag, made my way over to the start meeting current and former fellow Harriers, and then got into position to toe the line.
The great Ron Hill fired the gun and we were off, heading out for a loop around the Old Trafford area before heading out to south-east Manchester for the rest of the course through Sale, Timperley, Altrincham, Urmston and Stretford. I wasn’t half a mile in until I ran past the many Hyde Park Harrier cheering squads I was to see out on the course, some of which I was expecting and looking forward to, and others which were surprises and little morale boosts when they popped up.
The start of the race was a little different from the previous year’s marathon, but having taken part in the half the same events company put on in 2016 it was familiar to me – a bit more wiggly than before, and unlike other runners I took a wider berth of the kerbs to be extra cautious and avoid accidentally tripping. The miles ticked by, and soon I was at the five mile mark and heading out past the M60 for the main ‘suburbs’ section of the course, and tucking into my first energy gel. For nutrition nerds, it was one gel every five miles up to twenty miles.
I knew that in terms of the pace I was trying to run that I was more ‘on the bubble’ than before – I wasn’t pushing hard to stick to the pace per mile, but I wasn’t also slowing down to stick on the pace. Being on such a knife edge I was finding it hard to judge what to do with my pace, but I didn’t feel it was tough enough to consider slowing down. I was sticking to my own race – near me for most of the race was the second place woman and her running partner from Edinburgh AC, but I focused on myself, floating off the back or clipping off the front to stick to my pace. Checking the printed wrist band for exactly 6:13 a mile I was on pace to the second through the half way mark after Altrincham, and continued to stick close to it on my way back through Brooklands, and then out to where it starts to get serious – mile 20 and the stretch out to Carrington, before heading back in to Old Trafford.
Before I’ve felt as though I’ve had a lot in the tank here. In 2016 as I passed a guy counting runners through at mile twenty (I was between 100-110 and was spurred on to finish in the top 100) I picked up the pace in a move I’d been thinking about since mile eighteen or so. As the same man ticked me off in the seventies and I shouted ‘I remember you from last year!’, the plan was not to push on but to hold on. My thoughts were turning to desperate mental maths – if I was on for 2:43 but only really wanted to go under 2:45 then I could afford to lose twenty seconds a mile, but if I made it to four miles to go then I could lose thirty seconds a mile. So it wasn’t a very positive mindset, but judging from the way my body was starting to feel, pretty realistic.
Miles twenty-one and twenty-two were pushed through in 6:12 and 6:13, putting me on to the final four mile stretch heading, via a few twists and turns, east back to Old Trafford. That was when the real struggle started – compared to the fade some might experience it was relatively minor, and wasn’t a full blown cramps starting to walk affair – but miles twenty-three and four drifted out to 6:18 each, and as I went through the Erdinger alcohol free beer cheer zone, with flags waving and music blaring, the announcer shouted over a loudhailer “Is that a smile or a grimace? Oh, that’s definitely a grimace…”
It’s a cliché but it’s also true that you always forget how painful the end of the marathon is. The combination of pain, the desire to maintain forward momentum, and the fear of the goal slipping away. Again I was losing more time – from losing five seconds a mile from 6:13 pace I lost double that over mile twenty-five to 6:24. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but a bad final mile could see the two fourty-five slip from view.
I passed another Hyde Park Harrier cheer point as I started to dig deep through the final mile, trying to smile through the continuing desperate grimace. The final finish straight is 0.3 of a mile long. I know it well, having run that long straight road at the 2016 race, and at the half the same year. Despite your calculations and knowledge it seems to make the finish seem further away, and then closer, and then as you can make the digits out on the clock on the gantry over the finish line, suddenly further away again. As I got to a hundred metres to go I was close enough to breath a sigh of relief – two fourty-five was done, but two fourty-three was gone too, crossing the line in an official 2:44:04.
Summing up emotions about a big race is hard. It’s safe to day that I absolutely rinsed myself. I’d trained hard, and there was nothing left in the tank, regardless of going back and reliving every part of the race I could have changed or sprint finish a could have summoned. Training went as well as it could, by race day I was just about physically niggle free, and a glorious window opened up in my illness to allow me to run – on Monday my cold was worse (though that may have been because of the marathon). It was another big result, confirmation that the two fourty-six wasn’t a crazy outlier, and another stepping stone towards more future success. I put the club record out by another two minutes fourty-one, and I would be able to fly the club colours off the championship start at London in 2018. I was pretty happy.
You can only bask in the glow for so long though. There’s standards to keep up, faster times I want to achieve, and more importantly people out there – perhaps who I don’t even know yet – who might come and take this club record from me one day. So the planning for London 2018 starts now…