BTR Liverpool Mersey Tunnel 10k © James Stratford Photography 2013

Tunnel vision

As an adopted Mancunian, I probably shouldn’t say this but I bloody love Liverpool. It’s a genuinely great city and holds a fair few memories. For starters, I met my fiancée there all the way back in 2005, and we are due to marry there next year sometime. In running terms, it was of course the scene of my very first marathon back in 2011, as well as my fastest ever half last March. Both races finished in front of the mighty Liver Buildings with loads of people cheering us on and congratulating us after the finish, some of the best crowds I have ever experienced on a run. The organisers behind pretty much all the big runs over there, btrLiverpool, always put on decent events: well organised and often diverse and with quality medals to add to the ever-growing collection. I usually try to do at least one of their races a year, to the point now where I’ve done pretty much all of them at least once and I’m running out of new ones to try. So, I’ve started going round again and almost exactly three years after I entered my very first run over on Merseyside I decided it was time to have another bash at that very same event: The Mersey Tunnel 10k.

It all seems so long ago now. Back then, I was still finding my feet as a runner. Or, more pertinently, I was rediscovering them. After all, I’d not run in a race for nearly two years since the Great North Run in 2009, after instead joining a local football team for a weekly kickabout thrashing in the mud. For some reason, I’d gone straight back in the deep end and signed up for a bloody marathon and, somewhat intimidated by the tunnel section at half distance, lobbed an entry into this one to get a bit of race practice in and see what it was all about. And despite the crappy weather that morning, it all went rather well. A real race with real people, finishing only a few seconds outside the magic 40-minute mark and a solid 90th place. I was back in the game.

Fast forward three years and it’s all gone a bit more, shall we say, obsessive. I’m now a double marathoner. I have a new half marathon PB. I’ve even managed to get under 40 minutes for a 10k and I thought that would never happen again. I’ve run a further five 10k races since then, and goodness knows how many more in training, to the point now where I no longer have a lot of fear of the distance and have basically done three of the last four as an excuse to go and visit somewhere and sweat all over it. And to think people say us runners are an odd bunch, eh

Needless to say, the “training” for the last couple of races has been somewhat light, to put it mildly. I’ve not actually had any sort of training plan in place since the marathon at the beginning of April, instead just mixing the odd Saturday parkrun in with the daily commute on the bike. The Sandgrounder 10k a couple of weeks before this one had proved to me that I could still do a 10k pretty well so I just chucked in a couple of bonus runs mid-week to make sure I didn’t end up a crippled mess in the aftermath and then that was that. An 11pm pint, pork pie and storm-delayed England match finishing well past my intended bedtime the night before and I was ready. Game on.

The morning itself was slightly more panicky than I would have liked as the coach driver cheerfully announced as we left Manchester that the M62 was closed and we’d be diverted round the houses on our route over to Liverpool. There was suddenly a very real chance that I’d miss the baggage buses and have to lug my rucksack round the course with me, or face the nightmare prospect of missing the start entirely (something I have form for in btrLiverpool races, admittedly). Usually, this would have been enough to send the nerves completely overboard but as I wasn’t taking this one entirely seriously I kept a lid on it pretty well, and in the end we still made it there in plenty of time, primed and ready for action in the early morning sunshine.

Startline

The new startline this year meant that the Liverpool side of the run was cut down to barely half a mile, and it’s safe to say that the scenery as we lined up wasn’t the greatest I’d ever seen. With some of the previous runs I’d done over there showing off some of the best of what Liverpool has to offer it was a bit of a shame, but necessary I guess to limit the road closures in that part of town and stuff. I lined up fairly near the front of the estimated 3,100 field and we were off, scurrying down the escape ramp onto the A59. Within less than half a kilometre the great cavernous tunnel entrance was looming in front of us as we slid under the River Mersey and for the third time in my life I was making the crossing by foot. On this uncomfortably warm morning, I was already glad to be in the shade.

It has its ups and downs, tunnel running. Quite literally, obviously, with the gradual (amazing) descent being all-too-quickly followed by the long ascent up the other side, which still goes on for a good third of a mile after bursting back out of the tunnel exit. Generally, it’s pretty great down there; no wind, rain or baking sun. You’re completely protected from all of the elements and it’s such an odd, eerie feeling as you trot along with only the pitter-patter of thousands of pairs of feet breaking up the gentle hum of the ventilation fans. The trouble is though, it’s bloody difficult to pace yourself properly. If you’re someone like me who relies pretty heavily on a device with GPS to tell you how fast you’re going, you’re buggered. Back in 2011 I went like an absolute lunatic on that downslope and paid for it shortly after, but it’s hard to do anything else really when you feel that good that early in the race and you’ve not got anyone telling you any differently.

With my Garmin giving me all sorts of nonsense thanks to the mile and a half spent underground, it wasn’t until we were back out in the open air and going over half distance before I could get an idea of how I was actually doing. I went past the 5k board a few seconds outside the magic 20 minute mark and of course THE TARGET began to flash across my mind. I felt pretty rinsed already due to the heat and that bloody slope, but I knew that if I could manage to put in a strong second half there was an outside chance it could happen. We threaded onto the promenade and all the uphill stuff was behind us. I gritted my teeth and decided to go for it.

On probably the warmest day I have ever raced on, the temptation was pretty strong to just stop at the water station and admire the view back across the river at one of my favourite skylines in the world. The contrast to the wind and rain of 2011 could not be more marked, and as with the last race in Southport, the lack of training was kicking in big time the longer we went on. I’d managed to claw back a few seconds over the fourth mile but then the fifth was just outside what I needed again and I knew that if my Garmin was telling me the truth then this one was going to go right down to the wire. The sixth mile was just inside and then as we ran out to Fort Perch Rock and in sight of the new finish line I glanced down and saw I had around thirty seconds left to cover the last hundred or so yards.

Unlike last time out, I had the big finish left. I remembered 2011 where I missed out by nine seconds and I knew I couldn’t let that happen again. It was within my grasp. I heard my name over the tannoy and the strong crowd along the finishing straight seemed to appreciate the extra effort, the cheers getting louder as I punched the air crossing the line. It was all over and when I checked my time I was chuffed to bits to see it read 39:51.

How, I’ll never know. Training was pretty much non-existent. I didn’t have a great deal of sleep. I was smashing the premium-strength IPA less than 10 hours before the race. And did I mention the heat? It was probably the hottest run I’ve ever done, but despite the extensive suffering over the last couple of miles I couldn’t believe it every time I glanced at my pace and saw it sitting below 6:27. My final training run (i.e. the second of two) was a practice 10k and was nearly a minute and a half over what I needed, so going into raceday I was pretty convinced it wasn’t going to happen. And yet somehow, it did. It just goes to show how much the adrenaline of actually racing with real people can give you that extra little boost.

So a decent morning all in all. According to the official results, 2,761 people completed the distance and somehow I had finished just outside the top 50, another extremely proud morning and a great way to sign off my spring racing season. Since the turn of the year, there’s always been something in the diary playing on my mind and although nothing came remotely close to taking over my entire life as the marathon did for the first three months of 2014, it’s still been the most competitive start to a new year in my living memory with nearly 750 miles covered by foot (almost as much as the whole of 2013) and three new medals to add to the collection.

Blue_steel2Writing this now just over a month later, I have not run at all since that day on Merseyside and as with this time a year ago, I’ve rather enjoyed that. I’m fully back on two wheels again, loving the feeling of speed hammering along a country lane on a rebuilt 30-year old steel racer, sweating up hills and stopping off at country pubs en route. Glastonbury came and went, and I have no runs in the diary now until September with a pair of 10ks and the results of the London Marathon ballot. The calm before the storm you might say, and bloody brilliant it is too.

Featured image (top of page) of btrLiverpool Mersey Tunnel 10k
© James Stratford Photography
Startline

I do like to sweat beside the seaside

What better way to spend a bank holiday Monday, hey? The first sunny day of a miserable weekend, a lovely park by the sea and, with me being me, a 6.2 mile race during the hottest part of the day. A late entry thrown in for the Sandgrounder 10k all the way over in Southport and then just like that, my second race of the year was all done and dusted.

It was all a bit last minute this one. I only found out it even existed on Friday, but as a lover of a good old fashioned day at the seaside I rather foolishly decided that the best way to enjoy one would be to run ten kilometres first in the baking sun. Perfectly normal behaviour.

Due to all the lateness, the training was pretty much non-existent. Not quite to the level of a full on month of running abstinence leading up to last May’s Port Sunlight 10k, but certainly nothing you could seriously consider as decent race preparation. Since staggering over the marathon finish line nearly two months ago, there’s only been three parkruns, nine gentle jogs home from work and a few miles on the bike. That’s it. Needless to say, expectations of a decent result were pretty low.

With the race kicking off pretty late at 11:15am, we had plenty of time to head over and get signed up, but it’s safe to say that I didn’t take the pre-race preparation entirely seriously. A final meal the day before of an old Fray Bentos pie I’d found at the back of my cupboard followed by a couple of glasses of wine and a late bedtime is certainly not how Mo “Quorn” Farah would do it, but as I was planning on running this one just for the sheer hell of it I thought it wouldn’t do too much harm.

However, when I realised on the way over that this was my tenth race at this distance, I began to think perhaps I should have chosen a bigger run to mark the occasion, aiming for something a bit more special. A high placing, a fast time, a big charity total. Perhaps another tilt at last week’s Great Manchester Run with 40,000 others would have been cool, coming almost exactly six years after my very first 10k in the same event. In the end, my décima 10k did end up being pretty special, but not in the way I would ever have imagined it.

Arriving at Victoria Park for registration, there was a nice little buzz around the place as a couple of races had already taken place that morning and plenty of people were milling round the tiny race village ahead of the main event. It looked like a pretty serious field, with a lot of affiliated runners in vests adorned by their club colours, and I kind of felt a bit out of my depth stood there in my old school PE shorts and my unruly mop of hair flapping about in the gentle sea breeze. We lined up on the startline and with barely a second’s pause, we were off heading round the park for the first of many laps.

Start
The opening mile brought back some unpleasant memories as I’d inexplicably found myself right at the very front of the field. Without the usual congestion at the start of a race, it was easy to hit a fast pace early on. Too easy, in fact as I noticed I’d started at well under six minutes per mile on the flat, wide pathways around the park. I remembered the City of Manchester 10k all the way back in 2008 where I found myself sucked into the pace of those around me, far, far beyond my capabilities and then suddenly completely melted not long after. I tried to hold back and let a few go past but it was easier said than done. I felt amazing on the first few hundred yards and it was mentally difficult to keep the exuberance down and concentrate on the race as a whole.

I’d let a few go on ahead as we headed out of the park and onto the perimeter road for the first time, but I couldn’t be sure quite how many. After a slightly ludicrous opening 6:04 mile, my mind predictably began to drift towards the sub-40 minute target that always sits on my mind on these races, despite finally hitting it last October. I still felt remarkably fresh and although it was a warm morning, the conditions were pretty damn good for running. The course was nearly pancake-flat and it doubled back on itself so frequently I lost count of how many times I saw my support crew cheering me on to give me that extra little push. I started to reel one or two of the faster starters in again as we went over half distance, and then with the first four miles all falling under that magic 6:27 pace, I suddenly had over half a minute in the bank and began to feel, quite seriously, that this might actually be on.

The thing with a 10k though is that it’s always just that little bit longer than you remember from the last time. Because the time spent PROPER SUFFERING is – relatively speaking – quite short, then when looking back on a race it’s often forgotten the bits where you felt like you were about to collapse in a sweaty, broken heap. Unlike the latter parts of a marathon, where the pain builds and builds over literally hours, it’s usually just the case that you have a bad mile or so and then suddenly you’re on the home straight and it’s all over. Heading out onto the park perimeter for the second time, I had that bad mile. The combination of heat and poor preparation began to take its toll and the ever-so-slight incline up to the furthest point absolutely ruined me. I’d had one chap on my horizon for almost the entire race and with all of my recent races ending with a huge sprint finish I’d felt like I could take him and nab another place back, but after that fifth mile I knew there was no chance. It didn’t matter a great deal though; the bad mile was just ten seconds outside my target pace and I still had a chance of the sub-40. I just had to finish the job.

The last mile was pretty horrible as well in all fairness. We looped back into the park and round towards the finish, but I was pretty much spent by then. The adrenaline of seeing my supporting crew again and then the finish line spurred me on a bit, but not enough for the big finalé. I noticed the clock on the line was already showing over 40 minutes but didn’t pay much attention to it. My splits had been good enough, so I just figured the gun time must have started a little early or something. I staggered away from the finish line and checked my watch and was gutted to see it read 40:19. Nowhere near.

I couldn’t get my head around what had gone wrong at first, but the disappointment was tempered somewhat when I was told I’d finished in a very respectable ninth place. I could scarcely believe it. A field with the number of entrants in three figures, chock full of members of actual running clubs and whatnot, and I’d beat all apart from eight of them. My best ever result.

Results

The time thing was still nagging at me though and I eventually realised it was because I’d clocked the distance at 6.31 miles, around a tenth of a mile longer than it should have been. Whether my Garmin had let me down on the way round or the course was slightly too long I’ll probably never know, but whatever it was, those extra 200-odd yards made all the difference. According to Runkeeper, my average pace was 6:23 per mile: well within what I needed to hit that magic barrier, and in fact on target for a 39:35 which would have been my second fastest ever. If (and this is a massive if, considering how completely rinsed I was at the end) I’d managed a big finish like Standalone, steaming over the line at 5:10 pace, it could even have even been a brand new PB. Not bad considering the almost complete lack of preparation.

In the end though, my décima will just go down on my results page as an above average time coupled with a surprisingly good result. Ninth overall and sixth in my category is something I’ve never come remotely close to achieving before. It was a real effort at times as the lack of training kicked in over the last couple of miles, and I only wonder what could have been achieved had I gone all in for this one. A decent event on a flat course, really well Finishorganised with a friendly atmosphere and a cool little medal, maybe I’ll come back again one year and try again with a bit more training in the legs and see what happens. Maybe not. But this was a proud morning regardless, and all that was left was a well deserved cider in what was left of the sunshine and a fish supper dodging the seagulls. Job done.

SORRY

Throwing my hat back in

It’s a familiar feeling, the beginning of May. For the sixth year in a row, I have my ballot entry into London and now I sit here with baited breath, clutching my virtual lottery ticket tightly against my chest ahead of the six month wait until the dreaded SORRY! magazine flops through my letterbox and crushes my dreams for another year. I watched it on TV again this year, with the memory of my own exertions the previous week still fresh in my mind, and thought to myself how bloody amazing it would be to be there one day. Finishing on The Mall. Crossing Tower Bridge. Chipping round the Cutty Sark. Big Ben. The Houses of Parliament. All while roared on by hundreds of thousands of fans lining the course. The very course I saw my uncle and cousin on TV all those years ago, inspiring me to (eventually) become a marathon runner myself. Thanks, I guess.

As with entries in the years previous, it’s ballot or nothing. The two grand minimum to raise for most charity places rules that avenue out, and with the Good For Age time predictably staying at 3:05 this year, my 3:07 from four weeks ago just isn’t quite enough to get in that way either. It’s a bit of a shame that; the Good For Age crew get their own startline and everything, away from the 30,000-odd at the mass start and the huge queues at the portaloos, but I suppose at least starting with the majority will make it feel like the massive event it really is, rather than just having a pretty lonely opening three miles with only a few other Proper Runners for company ahead of the race all coming together.

The other familiar feeling at this time of year is the slightly odd one of “I don’t know what the fuck to do with myself now”. It’s the same old routine at the start of every year; plan event, train for event, run event. Then: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like waking up from a long, deep sleep, I suddenly emerge back into society, bleary eyed and confused. Re-integrating myself with my friends, my family, my social life. I can go to the pub on a Saturday, I can lie in on a Sunday.  It’s bloody great, if not a tad disconcerting. It takes a bit of adjustment in any case.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, it’s all a bit up in the air. As a family favourite, I’ll probably do Standalone again, and might even chuck in another 10k or two before then. The masochist in me could have a go at the Chester Marathon in October for a second attempt at a 3:05, but on a hillier course I don’t fancy my chances of making up that two and a half minute gap. Not to mention the fact that training would have to start in a month’s time and would probably kill me in the summer heat. That’s if the other half didn’t get there first. And anyway, what sort of wrong’un does two marathons in six months anyway? Or three in a year if I actually managed to hit the target? Nah. Not for me thanks.

So for now, it’s quiet time. The calm after the storm. A nice, tranquil period with nothing to train for, enjoying the spring warmth in the park or a beer garden. I’m jogging home from work every so often, and I’ve started doing the Saturday parkruns again with a few chums. I’ve got a new (old) bike which I’ve spent the past two months gettingBike roadworthy, and hopefully she’s not that far away from spreading her wings on the open road in search of new and exotic places. Or country pubs I’ve never been to before, if you want to put it that way. But ultimately, that’s all there is. A long, drawn out summer, waiting to see if I’ll be on the startline in Greenwich Park in a year’s time and that’s about it. Safe to say, I’m pretty bloody used to it.

Finish

A bridge too far

First up, apologies for the few days’ radio silence. It’s been really difficult trying to get down into words quite how I feel about Sunday morning’s exertions on the streets of Greater Manchester, and a thankfully successful attempt at running 26.2 miles before lunchtime. I’d also like to apologise for the length of this one (that’s what she said etc etc) but trying to condense the full range of emotions into a standard blog-sized post isn’t easy sometimes, and I’ve always lacked a bit of quality control anyway. But I digress. I did it. I ran a marathon. I am now a double marathoner. I am, quite possibly, a bit unhinged.

Old TraffordAs predicted in the pre-race blog, the nerves on the morning were pretty bad. The couple of days leading up to it I had been eerily calm, taking it easy, resting and casually ploughing through sandwiches, bagels and as much pasta as I could fit in me. Despite the great unknown as to whether I would be capable of taking 14 minutes off my previous best and hitting my 3:05 target to get a Good For Age time and qualify for London next year, I had felt relaxed. Content with how my training had gone and simply eager to get the thing done. For once, I had slept well the night before but waking up early Sunday morning it must have suddenly hit home what I was about to attempt. The other half said it was the most nervous she had ever seen me before a race, and certainly the hour or so milling around near the start was pretty hellish with multiple visits to the portaloos. Thankfully, unlike the last marathon attempt, there was no unexplained 45 minute delay and so at 9am on the dot we were on our way. It was showtime.

It’s pretty safe to say that first couple of miles were definitely not what I was hoping for though. Despite feeling like I had drunk plenty of water leading up to kick off, I already felt a bit thirsty and seeing a Stella advert after half a mile showing a delicious, cold pint didn’t help the mental state. Knowing that the thirst meant I was probably already a bit dehydrated, I started to panic about what this could mean later on in the race. Had I made some sort of basic schoolboy error and ballsed the whole thing up before I’d even started? My mouth started to feel like cotton wool and although I managed the opening couple of miles at target pace, I was feeling a bit slow, a bit leggy, a bit lethargic. I was worried – the last time this happened at the Silverstone half back in 2012 I ended up having an absolute mare in the latter stages and this would be double the distance again. Surely I’d not ruined months of training with such a stupid mistake?

Happily the first water station arrived after around three miles and that coupled with a claggy energy gel a mile or two later meant I felt like I was getting back on track. I settled into my target pace, hovering nicely around the 7:03 per mile mark I needed and started to almost enjoy myself a bit. This was it after all: the culmination of all that hard work. I was actually out there, doing it. Running a bloody marathon. The miles started to trickle by as I broke the thing down into chunks in my mind to try and rationalise exactly what it was I was attempting. Five miles, OK, that’s nearly a fifth of it done. Six and half, that’s quarter distance. The forecasted biblical rain hadn’t hit us and but for a slight breeze I couldn’t have asked for better weather for running in. The support out on the course was incredible in some spots with all the little kids going mad and shouting the names of every runner as they went past, as well as plenty of (mostly positive) references to my choice of Tottenham shirt for the day. Some of the shouts from the crowd were genuinely amusing, like the chap who noticed me rummaging through my carrier bag of energy gels and yelled out for me to put the packed lunch away. It all helped.

Altrincham

It wasn’t 100% plain sailing though as I was having nagging feelings about the l pace I was running. I had never completely shaken off that initial lethargy and I started to notice a couple of miles going in at a few seconds over my target pace. One or two of these wasn’t a massive deal in the grand scheme of things but I couldn’t afford to make a habit of it. Approaching half distance and coming into Altrincham after posting a 7:16, I had began to suspect it might not happen and then there was the confirmation as I ran under the halfway gantry: 13.1 miles completed, 1:33:00 on the clock. Already half a minute outside what I needed. In theory, not a disaster as a lot of people swear by running a race as a “negative” split, i.e. with the second half faster than the first, but I had never trained for this and I knew I’d find it hard going an hour or so further down the road. I suddenly had a big decision to make: go for glory and deal with the possible consequences, or go sensible and make sure I actually finished. It was a battle between my body and my mind; my head and my heart. I wanted that time that would get me into London so, so much but was it actually realistic?

With a heavy heart, I reluctantly had to listen to my head and stop trying to chase the time. I still had a significant job to do, although now I was over half distance the chunks of the run in my mind were becoming ever smaller. Suddenly it was 17.5 miles and two thirds done. Only an hour of running left. Over the twenty mile mark, three quarters of the run in the bank. Just a 10k to do. I watched helplessly as my pace crept up over 7:20 per mile but I didn’t care about that now. It would still be a new PB so long as I didn’t suddenly hit the wall or fall over again. Through 22 miles; only the second time I ever I had run this far. My mind drifted back to this stage last time in Liverpool and alone in Princes Park, stood against a fence in the drizzle trying to stretch out my battered limbs. Here, I was merrily plodding along through patches of enthusiastic spectators and the water stations with all the amazing volunteers there yelling my name. And then, for the first time ever in my life, I was glad to see Stretford Mall and we all turned back onto Chester Road with just over a mile left to do.

The final section and the finish at Old Trafford will live long in the memory, and not just because it seemed to take about two hours to get up there, with the giant stadium seemingly remaining resolutely on the horizon and refusing to come any closer. It was a real struggle up the most modest of inclines, but a few well placed members of my support crew along that stretch gave me the final boost I needed, and then turning left onto the final section with hundreds of people I’d never met cheering, clapping and roaring my name was pretty bloody special. I saw the clock at the finish line ticking over the 3:07 mark confirming what I already knew about my target, but it didn’t matter to me in the slightest. I had done it. I had finished. I had run a marathon.

For the first time in 187 minutes and 30 seconds, I stopped running. Someone wrapped me up in bacofoil like a leftover turkey on Boxing Day and a medal was placed around my neck. I stumbled around in a bit of a daze and I vaguely remember being given a banana before I sat down against a fence and tried to take in exactly what had just happened. FinisherThe opening bars of Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey could be heard in the distance on the tannoy and for some absolutely unknown reason I felt like having a really good cry. I’m not quite sure why. I’d done this before after all. It wasn’t my first marathon. I’d not hit my target, but that was okay with as I had long since accepted that wouldn’t be happening. I can’t explain it, but I just felt incredibly emotional and although I managed to ultimately keep a lid on it, I nearly went again when I reconvened with my fantastic supporters a few minutes later outside the race village and I realised how much it had taken out of me mentally as well as physically. It was time for a beer.

I’ve now had a few days to reflect on how I feel about the whole thing and I am definitely comfortable with the choice I made down in Altrincham. If I had carried on aiming for the 3:05 and then come in a few seconds outside it then yes, I would have been pretty gutted, but sitting here with hindsight I now know that it was 100% the right decision to stop chasing it and I have absolutely no regrets. Discovering later in the race how hard it was to even keep my pace below 7:20 per mile vindicated the decision and if I had blown up at mile 15 or something stupid it would have been a long old morning from there, with the nightmare scenario of failing to finish if I hit the wall completely like some of the poor buggers I saw stumbling around. I simply set my target just that bit too high and there’s no shame in saying that I don’t think. When I first decided to attempt this all the way back in November, I said then it was a massively long shot and so to even come as close as I did to actually doing it (and to take twelve minutes off my PB) is immensely pleasing. A job well done.

So that’s that. Unless they put the Good For Age time back up to 3:10, or I even more miraculously I actually make it through the bloody ballot, I won’t be at London next April. I think I’m cool with that. The thought of starting marathon training again in seven months isn’t especially appealing anyway. It’s a shame that my time would have been good enough to get into London a year or two back but them’s the breaks I guess. I’m still proud of what I achieved on Sunday and some of the texts and Facebook messages from my family and friends in the aftermath were genuinely a bit overwhelming. It really kind of hit home what a big deal it all was. And now, it’s gone and I suddenly have my life back. For the first time since last summer, I have nothing in the diary. I’ve had one of the hardest yet most rewarding starts to a new year in my living memory, out running for hours on end, six days a week, in some of the worst weather we’ve ever had and now it’s all over. I’m “normal” again. And it’s good to be back.

IMG_20140403_184350500_crop2

Day of reckoning

So. Here we are. The pre-race blog. The calm before the storm. The culmination of months of hard work; of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a strange mixture of feelings with just a couple of days left before I have to run 26.2 miles for the second time in my life. Two and a half years since the last time I put my body through the pain and suffering, running for over three hours on my stupid little feet, this time for no other reason than I want to get the chance to do it all again next year on the streets of London town. It seems like only yesterday I was writing this and worrying that I was halfway to having to do the bloody thing already; now we’re talking hours (60) rather than weeks. WHERE HAS ALL THE TIME GONE.

I’m getting nervous writing this you know. I even felt a few butterflies a fortnight ago just reading the race info booklet and looking over the course and stuff, so God knows what I am going to be like on Sunday morning. I almost always get a few pre-race nerves, mostly as I head towards the start and line up amongst all the other idiots, unless it’s one I’m really really not arsed about such as Standalone 2012 or Port Sunlight 2013 where I’ve hardly trained. It’s normal. Good, even. The big ones though, those where I am aiming for something a bit special and have spent weeks training, blogging and generally being a tedious bore about the whole thing, are the ones where they really kick in. I’m thinking the original marathon in 2011, or the Liverpool Half last year. The Great Manchester Cycle in June attempting a half century on a pushbike for the first time. These are the ones that really stick in the mind, where come 9am I’m a bit of a mess, barely able to stomach any breakfast and constantly worrying about needing the loo. Usually in a slight daze after a sleepless night following a week of overnight restlessness, full of bizarre dreams of failure in weird and unexpected ways. I’ve already had a dream about this one, except it wasn’t really this one because the course was full of water and everyone had to ride the course on a piece of wood, hammering along the rapids like a terrible depressing version of Alton Towers. Someone had already jumped on my piece of wood (a front door) and so I had to stand there like a chump waiting and watching my dreams of a Good For Age time disappear into the distance. What on earth does this all mean? Probably that I have fairly deep-seated mental issues I suppose.

I’m fairly sure it won’t pan out like that anyway, although given the amount of rain we’ve had this year you can never entirely rule anything out. At least I’m pretty used to getting soaked these days, which I might add is (at the time of writing) Marathon weathera very real possibility looking at the weather forecast for Sunday morning.  Other than that, it’s impossible to know at this stage how it’s going to go. I know, I know, I always seem to say that before a race, but in this case I genuinely don’t. Sunday will be the first time I’ll attempt to run this fast for this long, nearly half a minute per mile quicker than I went in 2011 and trying to stay under 7:03 per mile for over three hours. Easy as that eh. Shit.

I’ve done a ludicrous amount of preparation anyway, training harder and longer than I ever have for anything else I’ve ever entered before. I’ve sacrificed almost every aspect of my social life since the turn of the year to ensure I hit as many sessions as possible on my training plan and the numbers are dizzying: 18 weeks, 94 runs, 767.4 miles. Three consecutive months running over 200 miles each, something I had never done before heading into 2014 and now it’s happened three in a row, with last month the record month at 216.8 miles from 26 runs. Each and every session tailored towards a finishing time 14 minutes quicker than my previous best. There’s been changes in diet, changes in footwear, changes in race strategy and nutrition.  I’ve spent hours thinking about fucking socks for crying out loud. Everything I can think of to do differently that might make a bit of a difference and help me shave off some of that valuable time, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may appear on the surface of it.

Looking at The Dreaded Target, I feel there might actually be an outside chance of hitting it, which is something I never dreamt possible when I first mooted this hairbrained idea all the way back in November. Knowing that a 1:25 half marathon was about right for a sub-3:00 full, I had began to mull over what my 1:28 equated to and stumbled across this little tool which suggested that, unbelievably, I might even be capable of as low as 3:03:28, which would be amazing quite frankly but probably not entirely realistic. In all honesty, I am expecting to be on target for much of the race, until perhaps around miles 18-20 and then probably watch helplessly as the pace begins to creep up while my legs cramp beneath me and it all goes to shit.  And that’s assuming perfect conditions, but there’s a lot that can go wrong on the day. Just look at how many attempts at the 10k it took me to get under 40 minutes again, and that was something I had already done once before.

I have a few main worries, the weather for one. An attack of the Paula Radcliffes for another, necessitating a splash and dash visit to one of the portaloos on course. Always a danger on the longer runs. Are my lighter shoes going to give me enough support over a full marathon? Will this head cold turn into something more severe? Will I hit the wall? Will I fall over again? Will I make it to the start on time? Are we all going to be struck down by thick smog anyway? There are so many variables and it’s the waiting, the not knowing, where all the nerves spring from I think.

So now I sit here now writing this, full of nervous energy and just wanting to get the damn thing over with. Since my training began to taper off a couple of weeks ago, the mileage has reduced drastically and now I have just one solitary training run left, a two mile job on Saturday morning to loosen up ahead of the main event 24 hours later. It’s weird, tapering. I feel under prepared. I don’t feel like I’m doing anywhere near enough running, but this is the most important time. Rest, rest and more rest, allowing all the hard work to soak in while smashing as many carbs as I can into my massive face. Putting the final pieces of the jigsaw into place ahead of an attempt at something I don’t even know if I’m capable of achieving. It’s weird to think that come Sunday lunchtime, this will all be over. It’s taken over my life again all this bloody marathon nonsense, and the past few weeks have reminded me exactly why it’s taken me so long to have another bash at the full distance. And then, just like that, it’ll all be gone. But first, the teeny tiny matter of a 26.2 mile run through the Manchester drizzle. I’ll see you on the other side.

Princes Park

Familiar ground

I wasn’t planning on doing a full blog so soon after last week’s. For one thing, my time has been pretty much exclusively divided between running, sleeping, eating and working for literally weeks now, with very little in the way of free time for anything else. Last week was the absolute monster week too; potentially as high as 61.5 miles and with the final huge Sunday run taking up over a third of that at a daunting 22 miles. Only once in my life have I ever gone further than that: Sunday 9th October, 2011 and the Liverpool Marathon.

Which brings me nicely onto this week’s unscheduled entry. Last week I took a few days off work and ended up staying over that neck of the woods for the other half’s birthday, and as such, I had to take my running kit with me to fit in a bit of training around the general carnage. Thankfully there were no heavy sessions scheduled in for the days I was over there, meaning that the afternoon tea, the beers, the cocktails, and the great, quivering breakfast and dinner behemoths from Moose Coffee and Almost Famous respectively were all relatively guilt-free. Nevertheless, on Saturday morning it was finally time to lace up my shoes and head out for a quick jog to get the juices flowing ahead of the dreaded Sunday slog. And with my intended route taking in some of the roads and pathways from marathon day all those years ago, I took my phone out with me for the first time in months and planned to grab a few shots and do a quick liveblog on the way round, much like these feeble snippets from 2011.

For some unknown reason the blog never uploaded from my phone, so I thought I’d go back and flesh it out a bit since I haven’t got much else to write about other than feeling absolutely shattered after successfully completing the beast on Sunday. Because after all, I know you’d all like nothing more to look at a couple of blurry, low quality photos of a gloomy morning on Merseyside, right?

Parliament Hill

The first (and probably worst) part of the day was an early re-acquaintance with an old nemesis of mine; Upper Parliament Street. Twice before had I run up this nasty little hill, and both occasions were pretty horrible in their own way. In 2011 it cruelly fell at around 16 miles on the marathon route and only a couple of miles after the hellish incline in the tunnel under the River Mersey. Up until that point, I was on for my target of three and a quarter hours and generally going well (apart from falling over on my fat arse in the city centre, of course), only to melt completely on the way up. I never really recovered after that and ended up coming home around four minutes outside my target. My return in 2013 wasn’t much better as we had to climb it in the opening couple of miles of the Liverpool Half Marathon and despite having much fresher legs, I was faced with trying to fight through the crowds after accidentally starting dead last. Thankfully, Saturday was a much more enjoyable affair, leaving my hotel early morning and taking it steady, a nice casual pace up heading for Princes Park. No stress, no crowds, just a breezy morning blowing the absinthe-drenched cobwebs away ahead of the big one on Sunday. It felt good trundling along, able to take my time and admire my surroundings this time. Recognising things; glimpses, memories.

The grand tree lined boulevard of Princes Road was next, with flashbacks to marathon day, struggling along in one direction with over a third of the race still to go and then motoring back along on the opposite side an hour later with less than two miles and 15 minutes left as the adrenaline kicked in and carried me home. Then there had been the return 18 months later for the half marathon, running frantically down the middle of the avenue trying to overtake the slower runners and keep my pace on target without falling off the massive kerbs and snapping my pathetic ankles to bits.

Pretty much bang on halfway through my Saturday morning run and as I was trotting down a fairly nondescript pathway through Princes Park, one horrible memory suddenly resurfaced that I had obviously locked up and repressed somewhere deep in my mind until now. Despite approaching from the opposite direction I recognised it instantly. The very spot on marathon day where I probably felt the lowest of all as my legs cramped like nothing I’d ever felt before and I had started to wonder if I’d make it. The wind that day had suddenly whipped up, the drizzle had begun to saturate my clothes. I was cold, wet, miserable and in pain. There were no spectators, hardly any other runners as the field had thinned out so much. We had been doubling back and forth through Sefton Park for what felt like hours and now this? Another desolate, deserted green space in Toxteth, still miles to go until the crowds and the finish in the city centre. So I stopped. I leaned against the fence, stretched my poor battered calves out and gritted my teeth. I’d come too far now to give up after all. Too many people had put their faith in me. It was a bleak moment, but I knew that I had to finish the thing. And so I bloody did, but not before vowing never to set foot in Princes Park again.

I hadn’t planned on running that way on Saturday. If you’d asked me beforehand to stick a pin in the map where I thought it was I couldn’t have done it. I had no idea where it was; I didn’t know Liverpool that well, and most of the parky bits of the marathon had all blurred into one seemingly neverending nightmare as the pain and boredom became all-consuming. It was good to finally see it again though, in a way, this time with only a couple of miles in the legs. It was strange that it was so recognisable even when approaching it from the other direction. There are no distinctive features there, nothing that really stands out. I could have been stood in any municipal park the world over, yet as soon as I saw it I knew where I was and what it meant to me that day. The very spot where I managed to summon the inner strength to complete my personal battle against the elements, the distance, the challenge. And then without a second thought I turned around to head back to my hotel, and just like that the little stretch of pathway was nothing more than memory once again. Until next time, whenever that may be.

Sun

Through the glass ceiling

What a glorious day out there today. For the first time in 2014, I woke up for the Sunday long run without dread. Where was the rain? The wind? The storms? Awoken by a stunning sunrise, and with the temperature approaching double figures already, suddenly, everything seemed right with the world. For once, I would not lose all feeling in my hands and feet after a few miles, or have to wring the precipitation from my shirt, hat and gloves while traipsing through Gorton, stuck miles from home. It would be running like it used to be; warm, bright, satisfying. Enjoyable, even. Five miles less than the last three Sunday 20-milers, what could possibly go wrong?

In the grand scheme of things, not a great deal. Such is the ludicrousness of some of the runs in weeks previous, this would actually be the shortest I have run on a Sunday for over a month and half. And as with that previous day back in January, this would be a practice half marathon, therefore aiming to break that previously impenetrable 90-minute barrier. A target that I had achieved once before, in 2009, and then taken years to get anywhere near again before finally shattering it on the streets of Liverpool twelve months ago.

A mile into today’s run though and it wasn’t going well. I had totally misjudged the 10-15 degree difference in temperature compared to last weekend. Accidentally opening with a stupidly quick opening mile, I was already thirsty, a bad sign. If you feel like you need a drink, it’s too late. You’re already dehydrated. I needed a drink, yet I had none. The sun was (comparatively) beating down, my mouth becoming ever drier. I was flagging. It turns out that despite considering myself a “runner” for around seven years now, covering thousands of miles and entering countless events, I am still more than capable of making really bloody obvious schoolboy errors.

Anyway, I got round the bugger this morning in the end, probably saved by the fact that I’d plotted a route through Wythenshawe Park and inadvertently stumbled across a Great Run Local and a stash of icy cold watery beverage.  With the team there kindly letting me grab a bottle, I powered through the last few miles and suddenly I was done, the half marathon chunk of the run down in 1:28:43. My second fastest ever.

I sit here now, weary, but proud. Extremely satisfied with my morning’s work, and mulling back to this time last year, a week before the Liverpool half marathon. I had set myself the challenge of the sub 1:30, but didn’t have any idea if I was capable of it any more. I figured I was over the hill, that 2009 effort as a 27 year old was now set in stone as I moved into my 30s. I’d failed on multiple occasions in the intervening years, but then, despite getting the race tactics completely wrong and getting stuck behind the entire field, I absolutely obliterated my PB and steamed home two minutes inside my target.

Suddenly, the goalposts had shifted. I did still have it in me; if I trained right, ate right and looked after myself a bit, I was still capable of doing something I managed half a decade ago, the ravages of time perhaps had yet to wreak their full havoc. Just like that, the unachievable became the routine. I waited four years to go under 1:30 and I’ve now done it four times since and twice in 2014 already. The hard work is paying off.

So how does this affect me looking forward to April 6th and a tilt at 3:05 over double the distance? No idea, in fairness. It’s obviously not a case of simply doubling the time and going bosh, there you go. I am pretty bloody sure I haven’t got a 2:56 marathon in me after all. They say to get under three hours you need to be able to run a 1:25 half, so I’m some way off from that. But, just taking that school of thought slightly further, is a 1:28 enough for a 3:05 and the cherished Good For Age time?

Who knows, but I haven’t got long to find out. Terrifyingly, there are now just four weeks left until it all happens for real. One more hellish week of BIG TRAINING (including, gulp, 22 miles a week today) and then a gradual taper, dialling back the mileage and laying off the booze as my body absorbs the punishment of the past 15 weeks. And then, who knows? Is the 3:05 doable? Will I be sat here in twelve months time having done it four times, thinking “what was the big deal worrying about that you nugget”? It’s just a case of how impenetrable the ceiling is, I guess.

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