As you might remember from my last post, this was a race I’d been targeting for a long time as redemption for my disappointing run at the 2014 London Marathon.
It’s perhaps not always wise to put so much pressure on myself for just one race. But then, I like a bit of pressure. I love the feeling that it matters, that the pressure’s on to perform. Standing at the start with a sense of urgency and expectation. Feeling the adrenaline and the tension. And with redemption for VLM2014 at stake, there was plenty of it…
Given my experiences in London, I was extremely keen to stick to meticulously tried-and-tested food and timings in race prep the day before – easy to do at home during training, difficult when staying away at a hotel and eating out. Tough on the family (wife, seven year-old daughter), who had to put up with me.
The forecast for race day was warm and sunny – around sixteen degrees and bright sunshine – but when we pulled back the curtains our window, ten floors up, was wrapped in thick morning mist. Heading down for breakfast was atmospheric, despite my meticulously rehearsed timings being a little out again. Hotel breakfasts on the day of a big marathon are usually good for kindred spirits and friendly conversations with other runners, and this was no different. Hoodies, tech tees, shorts and lycra abounded, with a shared sense of excitement and anticipation.
From the hotel I walked down to the race village and start at Victoria Embankment in the cold and mist. We were due to be holding a UKRunChat meet-up (‘tweet-up’) at the baggage tent but the area was so busy that a lot of folk were late arriving, and finding us among the crowds was difficult. However, as usual, the support and good-luck tweets from this wonderful community had been flooding in since the day before. That day we had runners here at Robin Hood for both the full and half-marathon, and also in Berlin, Loch Ness, at the Cheltenham and Ealing half-marathons, at the Great Yorkshire Run, doing 42-mile ultras, plus others who’d run 10Ks and done moonlit marathon night walks the previous day – impossible not to feel buoyed up and supported amid the swirl of well-wishes and motivation going back and forth. I met up with David (@jedi58) and Jake (@jakerobbomax) in the race village, and Lou (@LJWTweets) on my way to the start.
I positioned myself at the front of the blue starting pen, hoping not to be boxed in as I had been so badly in London. Added to the usual tension at the start was the anxious wait for my Garmin to find a signal – which took a nerve-jangling ten minutes – and shortly afterwards we were off, into the mist and cold. Finally, my shot at redemption had come.
Instead of defining a single target time, I was working in ranges:
- Gold: Sub-03:40:00 (dreamland; I ran two full distances in training and hadn’t run this fast)
- Silver: 03:40:00-03:44:59 (realistic; this was what I was aiming for)
- Bronze: 03:45:00-03:59:59 (meh… but sub-four hours so I’ll take it)
- Disaster: 4+ hours (I am not a valid person)
(These targets and judgements are, of course, mine and mine only. They are based on my pace, expectations and capabilities only. I cannot emphasise enough that a 4+ hour marathon is not a slow marathon. Nor is a five-hour marathon, or a six-hour marathon, or any other time. There is no such thing as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ in absolute terms. There is only fast or slow based on your own pace, expectations and capabilities. If you’re running hard, it’s hard running – absolutely and utterly regardless of time.)
My pace, like everything else, had been tried and tested meticulously. I was aiming for 08:20-08:25 minute miles. Happily, and unlike London, the runners around me were all at my pace right from the start, so there was no need for darting and weaving around to find room to run. I hit the first mile with ease, in exactly 08:20. Perfect.
Then we turned towards Nottingham Castle.
And the hills happened.
The hills weren’t supposed to be there. Flat and fast was how this marathon was advertised when I signed up for it. Flat and fast. Ideal PB material.
I think not. This was steep. And I really mean it: it was severe. This was mile two and I’d dropped to almost ten-minute mile pace. On and on it went, with precious time bleeding away. And then resolved itself into merely a general uphill incline. Finally we overcame it and hit a steep downhill, but I was unable to take advantage of it because the climb had left me with tight calves and a wicked, agonising stitch (I hadn’t experienced stitch in years).
The flipside of this was the amount of support out on the course. The people of Nottingham were superb. Loud, encouraging and lots and lots of them. Signs, shouts, cheers, sweets being handed out – fantastic. The marshals were superb too. I drank a few swigs of Lucozade Sport every five miles or so (also tried and tested meticulously in training) from drinks stations which were long, manned plentifully, and never overcrowded. Every drinks bottle went straight into my hand, with more encouragement and support. After the first station, every bottle had already been opened. Perfect. There were bands out on the course. And cheerleaders. It was signed well. Wonderful.
Once actually running, the biggest mistake in a marathon is to push too hard early on and use up precious glycogen (long blog post to come about what I’ve learned about glycogen/nutrition/fuelling). So even though I’d dropped time on the hills, I didn’t push to get it back straight away. I was comfortable recouping it a few seconds per mile. However, we kept hitting uphill stretches and inclines, and the runners around me had dropped the pace a little. For every mile I made up time, another uphill mile came along and I dropped precious seconds again. I decided to push a little.
I gradually caught and passed the 03:45:00 pacer around six or seven miles, and pushed on. I felt very, very strong. Often a danger sign of overestimating ability on the day – which I’ve done – this felt different. This felt like my last two training runs where for the first time I’d been able to hold 08:10 minute miles over long distances. So where I could, where we weren’t going uphill (again), I began to run a little harder and upped the pace to 08:10.
Oh my, it felt good. I hit ten, eleven, twelve miles with ease, feeling smooth and strong. When we completed the first circuit of Nottingham and headed back into the park, the half-marathoners diverted to their finish. I felt particularly ‘hardcore’ (for want of a much better word) to carry on the full marathon route, looping back out of the park and alongside the river.
This was now a marathon runner’s dream. We’d dropped almost all the other runners; they’d been doing the half. There were a handful of marathoners ahead of me. A handful behind me. I had the route almost to myself – just me, my pace and my concentration. Instantly I felt faster and stronger. For a while we left a lot of the support behind too, but that just made it more quiet, focused and intense. Bliss. And when there was support, it was all for me. Especially with my name on my UKRunChat #teamred tee.
And for a few miles this is how I continued. Pounding the miles in, feeling strong and very, very happy. I was flying, as much as that’s possible at 08:10-08:20 minute miles. This is where the repeated 20+ mile training runs kicked in, the two full marathon distances I ran, and the long-distance fasted runs. I hit fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen miles with determination but also with ease. By now the cold and mist had long since cleared and the sun was blazing down. I think something must have been up with my perception because it all seemed slightly uphill, even when running around the lake in Colwick Country Park, which I suppose must have been flat. But it didn’t matter because I had power and strength to burn. With less runners, the support continued to be more direct and personal: marshals on the course called my name and gave encouragement, and the cheerleaders went crazy with support for me (quite an experience).
On the out-and-back from the country park, with incoming and outgoing runners on both sides, I heard my name called and scored a high five with UKRunChat’s own Sherie (@sherieamore1). High-fiving other runners has become something of a cause which several of us have taken up at UKRunChat (at this point I offer a nod to @SaulBee), so to score one while actually running a marathon, and with the lovely Sherie, a fellow #teamred member, was an even further boost.
So it was all back on plan. I don’t track my cumulative time when running; I go mile by mile and let the overall time take care of itself. But I knew I’d made back the time I’d lost, and I was on for sub-03:40:00.
And then the hills happened.
After the race, others tweeted words such as “horrendous” and “horrific” about miles 19 and 20. I’ll add “diabolical” and “murderous” to that. The organisers proudly changed the course this year. We were now running up the same severe uphill to the castle, but from the other side. Why, oh why?
I’m proud (smug) to say I ran every step of the way – I would not allow myself to walk and let London happen all over again – but some of it was not much faster than walking pace. And from worrying about dropping precious seconds, minutes were now bleeding away.
And this was followed by more and more uphill right through the city centre.
Finally we got to the same downhill stretch where I’d had stitch in the early miles. I regrouped mentally and physically, put a smile (grimace?) back on my face, and banged out my fastest mile of the marathon; my only – and very deliberately – sub-08:00 minute mile. The marshals at the water station I passed through went crackers for me – maybe I was the only runner still smiling (grimacing?) and running at that point. I passed a lot of people walking.
But I’d put so much effort into getting up those hills I’d burned through the last of my energy. Back on level ground, which still looked like an incline to me, I dropped to 09:00-minute miles. The temptation to walk was almost overwhelming. Only sheer determination not to let London happen again kept me going. I knew from bitter experience that if I stopped running I wouldn’t be able to start again. Yet I also knew from London just how much faster than walking I still was. How many times I’d regretted not forcing myself on there. Never again, never again. Spectators kept calling my name, cheering me on. I couldn’t let them down; couldn’t let myself down.
The start of mile twenty-five was another highlight of the race. Some of the roads had been partially re-opened to traffic, albeit with policemen very carefully and attentively stopping it for the remaining runners. With traffic and pedestrians watching from both sides, the police stopped all the cars for me to run right across a major dual carriageway, with shouts of “Come on through, sir! Keep running, sir! Don’t you worry about the traffic, we’ll stop them for you. One more mile to go, sir! You can do it!”
How could that not spur me on? An incredible experience.
We transferred through a side road into the park for the race village and finish. The lead race cars were parked there, still showing the gun time. Sub-four hours was all but assured, if I could keep going. Sub-03:45 was all but gone (the 03:45 pacer had just re-passed me). But sub-03:50 could still happen.
I pressed on into the park, slowly. Where the finish section peeled off from the main pathway I knew I’d gone sub-four and probably sub-03:50. The grimace was replaced by a smile. With the crowd lining the route, photographers in position on the course, and elation in the air, I built up to a sprint finish that I didn’t know I had, and went through the finish.
And nearly keeled over from the effort and emotion. I checked my time: 03:46:03 on my Garmin (later 03:46:04 officially).
I’d done it. A minute outside my ‘silver’ (realistic) target range of 03:40:00-03:44:59 but still sub-four hours, still sub-03:50:00, and a thirty-seven minute PB. With those hills, which weren’t supposed to be there, I declared myself very, very happy. Sixteen months of training, and I’d done it.
I could have gone faster on a flatter course. But I’d run hard, and I’d run very happy. So this was a race that had everything: redemption for VLM2014 and something to aim for in my next marathon.
Lots of damn steep hills.)