I definitely jinxed it last week. Smugly signing off with “we I’ve got nothing to train for have I?” was asking for trouble, it really was. I thought I was done for the year, all the heavy stuff behind me for now. No more tempo runs. No more long, slow Sundays. No more bloody hilly interval sessions. Just a two or three gentle jogs home from work a week to keep the legs ticking over while thinking about what to do in 2014.
Well that didn’t last long, did it? Last week was nearly 30 miles, including runs on both Saturday and Sunday which made up nearly half of that figure, the first time I have run on a weekend since Standalone over six weeks ago. Three weeknight runs, including a couple of 10ks. When I’ve finished writing this, I will be off for a ten mile effort, the furthest I have run since September. But why? Why start all that rubbish again? Why not just spend the rest of the year enjoying my weekends again? Re-acquainting myself with friends, family and a normal social life? Instead of running for hours on end in the freezing drizzle at 9am on a Sunday morning?
Unfortunately, the answer is “because I have to”. Well, I don’t have to per se. No-one is forcing me to do it. There’s no gun to my head. But, despite not actually having an entry in for anything at all in 2014, I thought it best to have a quick check when I needed to start getting myself ready for a tentatively pencilled in early April marathon and the absolute horror set in when I realised that a typical 18 week training plan starts on…ready for it? The second of December. Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Way to kill the mood, kicking me in the nutsack as I sat basking in the glory and basically winding down for the year. Not only does training officially start in like, two days time, I suddenly realised that I need to actually make sure I am ready for it, hence last week’s exertions. Otherwise, I’ll be going from around 13 miles a week (all slow jogs home from work with my clothes in my bag) to 39 in the first week, 47 the week after, 50 the week after that, and a maximum of 61.5 miles in March. The last time I threw myself straight into a training programme when I wasn’t ready for it, my knee decided to feel like it was falling off. Could really do with that not happening this time.
Another horrifying thought is the fact that for the first time ever I will supposedly be training over the Christmas period. Since getting into all this utter nonsense back in 2008, I have usually built up to an event in spring as a means to blow away the Christmas excesses and give myself something to aim for in the new year. But it’s only ever been 10ks and half marathons with much shorter build up periods, twelve weeks usually being the longest. With this programme being half as long as that again, and the race coming much earlier than anticipated, it looks like becoming a rather depressing new experience. The plan I’ve devised actually has runs scheduled for Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Realistically, I’ll probably sack most of those off – after all, Christmas Eve back home is the biggest drinking day of the year and the thought of running five miles through Biggleswade town centre the morning after instead of opening presents, eating chocolate and generally feeling like utter crap until lunchtime after does not exactly fill me with festive joy. Last year I was sick like a dog on Christmas morning when my nan decided to tell me in great detail about the salmon Christmas dinner she had eaten at 5am thanks to her slightly eccentric body clock, so I would rate my chances of getting that one done as somewhere between “extremely unlikely” and “no fucking chance”. Similarly, a Boxing Day run with 8lbs of Christmas Dinner sat in the belly will almost definitely end in a horrific manner and no-one needs to see that.
Nevertheless, I would imagine I will probably end up doing quite a few of the sessions scheduled in over the two week festive period. Not all. But most. Why take it all so seriously at this stage though? After all, I’ve been here before. I can miss the odd session here and there without feeling guilty, can’t I? Or even a whole week so early in, surely? I did last time, spending large chunks of my summer of marathon training away boozing at festivals and stag dos in Somerset, Suffolk and Brighton. The training plan itself was a fortnight shorter, and I started it late anyway. And then a little over three months later and I got round the bastard at first attempt without stopping. Apart from when I fell over in front of EVERYONE, ahem. But the important thing was I bloody did it all, so surely I can enjoy a nice long break with my friends and family, stuffing my face with what I want and generally letting myself go for a bit?
Yes and no, really. If I just want to finish and “enjoy” the day – yes. Probably. Although I had a few months off running over the summer, I’ve generally kept myself in pretty good nick this year, with two big periods of training sitting either side of my little cycling odyssey. I have a fairly decent base already and plenty of time to build up the stamina ahead of April. But, and this is the big but, I have a bit of a target in mind now. I want to do the London Marathon. Don’t ask me why, I just do. I always have. It’s been an ambition since I was about nine, when my uncle and cousin both did it in the early 90′s and I saw them on the tele. Short of raising two grand for charity though, 2014 is not an option so the following year is now officially in my sights. Of course I’ll chuck a ballot entry in again, and yet again have to rely on the wheel landing on me, and more than likely get the dreaded SORRY! magazine in October as my dreams are shattered for another year. Or, I could take matters into my own hands and bloody earn it.
It’s pretty bloody straightforward. Run a marathon in under 185 minutes and I’m in. That’s it. Simple as that, right? Well, obviously not. If it were that easy everyone would be in. I’m guessing it already started to get a bit too achievable as they cruelly reduced the time by five minutes last year, which must have been absolutely dreadful for all those poor buggers that aimed for 3:10 only to find it wasn’t good enough. But the point is, there is a glimmer of opportunity.
So sod it. I’m gonna have a bash. It’s a massively long shot, trying to shave nearly 15 minutes off a PB. My one and only attempt at the marathon distance was pretty much at the limit and I came home four minutes outside my target on the day, which was 10 minutes slower than what I am aiming for in April. It’s a big ask, a ridiculous target. But conversely, it’s nice once again to have something to aim for, however improbable. I’m up for it, I think. I just never in a million years expected I would already be back training already before the year was even out.
Merry fucking Christmas.
So as the evenings draw in and even I of freakishly warm disposition begin to feel the increasingly wintery chill in the air, and with nothing more in the calendar apart from looking forward to the Christmas excesses, I thought I might take a few minutes to reflect on how 2013 went ahead of tentatively drawing up my schedule for next year. This time a year ago this little blog was becoming somewhat moribund; stale and rarely updated, even directly after an event. It took me over four months to get round to writing up the Standalone 10k for crying out loud. The year in general had been one largely of excuses and failure, as illness and poor preparation meant that I failed at everything I had aimed for and subsequently found it pretty difficult to write anything without sounding like the miserable bastard I am. Even one of the best holidays of my life, visiting Iceland in October and seeing Sigur Rós live for the first time, and in their home country to boot, failed to inspire me to get something published, with scatterbrained incoherent ramblings of the week sat in my drafts probably destined never to see the light of day. The blog was slowly dying.
To say a lot has happened since though is something of an understatement. In just under 12 months, I have got engaged, got a new job, hit both my targets at half marathon and 10k and completed a half century on a pushbike. Never one to set myself new year’s resolutions, even aiming for and achieving just one of those would have pleased me immensely, so to be able to say that they all came in has left me chuffed to bits with my year so far. And without exception I can say that I did not see a single one of them coming 12 months ago.
It’s not all been rosy though unfortunately. It’s also been a year of loss as varying degrees of absolute mindnumbing stupidity and of terrible luck meant that I managed to lose both an entire holiday to Optimus Primavera Sound festival in Porto and of course my beloved racing bike. It really knocked me for six the bike in particular, and I have yet to feel comfortable investing in a replacement until I can find somewhere much safer to keep it, away from the twin threat of absent minded landlords and opportunistic shithouses.
On a lighter note, there have been new arrivals in the household as my running shoe family grew bigger, swelled by pairs six and seven. I am sure all of you were on the edge of your seat waiting for news about that. However dull it is though, I’m chuffed to bits with the lightweight Mizuno pair I got back in February to use as my race shoes. I definitely feel like these gave me an edge over the clumpy (but necessary) GTS shoes I use for training in. The fear about whether my legs would last without the extra support I’m told I need, especially at 13.1 miles, was tempered by the reality of actually running in them and the practical difference that 50 grammes less per shoe makes over thousands of steps and subsequently smashing my half marathon PB by nearly a minute and a half in the very first race wearing them. Maybe lighter shoes are the way forward for me from now on, which is obviously great news considering I have just spent £80 on another pair of GTS support shoes.
So what is next year likely to bring? After being knocked back by the London Marathon for a fifth year running, and then somewhat more surprisingly getting rejected by Berlin as well, at this stage there’s nothing confirmed in the diary. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas and I am beginning to feel like I want something bigger to aim for, rather than plodding through the year hitting the same old races again, good as most of them are. Since proving to myself that with some hard work and a bit of luck I can still run under 40 minutes for a 10k and 90 for a half marathon, I feel now is the time to aim a bit higher. I really want to do London one day, and I’ll keep entering the bloody ballot until they let me in the bastards. If only they still did the guaranteed entry after four rejections, eh. I’d probably be totally shitting myself now with around five months to go thinking about it.
Another route in could be to have a bash at another marathon in attempt to get a “good for age” (GFA) time which automatically grants you entry. Back in 2009 when I first started looking at London, I thought this might be doable. I needed to be able to hit a 3:10 to get in, and fresh from running a half marathon in under 1:30 at the first attempt I thought it might be a possibility. Since then though I have actually done a full marathon and – albeit on a hilly course and a wet and windy day – recorded a time almost ten minutes outside what I need as the extra mileage sapped my limbs. To make matters worse, they’ve since reduced the time further to 3:05 and that seems an awfully long way off right now. I’d need to run over half a minute quicker per mile on the day and that really does not seem at all realistic, not to mention the fact that all my friends and family would probably disown me for the months leading up to it.
I have yet to make my mind up yet to be honest, and a lot of the uncertainty surrounds the fact that I have lobbed an entry into the RideLondon-Surrey 100 ballot again, perhaps rather foolishly with not actually owning any form of wheeled transport anymore. If I do want to do a marathon to get a GFA time for London 2015, I have three options around the North West between April and October. Trouble is, with the bike century landing in August that may throw a spanner in the works should I get in, and I won’t know if that’s the case until February. I also have one or two slightly more extreme ideas but more on that another day I think, should I somehow summon the balls from somewhere to actually go for it.
For now though, I’m content just to sit back and relax with the knowledge that I’ve achieved everything I want to this year, and then some. The last few weeks in particular have been absolutely amazing once the Standalone result was in the bag, with one of the best beer festivals I have ever been to, followed by a brilliant little music festival, then a fantastic engagement holiday in Barcelona, then a boozy birthday weekend and finally a lovely, relaxing family holiday down in Dorset all on respective weekends. For the rest of the year I’m thinking I’ll just keeping things ticking over by jogging home from work most evenings, maybe the odd Sunday LSR and that’ll do for now. After all, I’ve got nothing to train for have I?
Me and Standalone go way back. Not as far back as for some no doubt; now in its 26th year, it’s an incredibly well-established event and I bet there’s at least one person out there who’s run the lot of them. I obviously never got in that early (I would have been five when it first started), nevertheless, it’s still a proper blast from the past for me. I ran it for the first time back in 2008, only my third ever event as I was still finding my feet as a runner. With only a few months running under my belt, I was encouraged to enter by my uncle who has been heavily involved in organising it over the years. A veteran runner himself, he is usually to be heard over the tannoy on race day encouraging the hundreds of participants and even entering it himself last year to celebrate its 25th anniversary, receiving a hero’s welcome upon arriving back on the farm at the end of the race.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I took much enjoyment from that first go, with the excitement of lining up in a proper race tempered by heavy rain and gusting winds. I went in without much training; in fact I had been away boozing it up round Eastern Europe for the majority of the summer leading up to it. My training plan when I got back in September involved a couple of jogs around the six mile mark to make sure I could last the distance, then off I trotted on race day, far, far too quickly on the initial downhill sections of the course and subsequently proceeded to blow up completely on the uphill second half, staggering up the bypass with rain blowing incessantly into my face at 90 degree angles and eventually coming home a minute or two outside my personal best in 42:12. Not one of my better days at the office.
I missed the 2009 edition after accidentally letting it sell out before getting my entry in, and then in 2010 I dropped out after planning to run it with my Dad, only for him to be forced out with injury. 2011 it fell the week before my marathon so it wasn’t until last year before I had a chance to avenge that 2008 failure and attempt to put right what had gone wrong before it. Four years older, four years wiser, I went in with big ambitions of hitting a sub 40 run only to get man flu and end up coughing round the course with barely a week’s training in the legs and another result over 42 minutes for only the second time ever. My two slowest 10k runs now belonged to Standalone and I felt restless and unsatisfied, like I still had a job to finish.
Which brings me nicely onto Sunday and my third attempt round the country lanes of Norton and Stotfold. This time last week, I had little confidence that it would be much different to the past two attempts as I had leapt into a fairly hardcore training plan a little too quickly for someone who hadn’t run for over three months, and my knee decided it was going to feel like it was trying to grind its way off the top of my shin and onto the tarmac. As soon as that went, I had a couple of weeks off and began mentally preparing for failure.
With a couple of weeks to go to race day, I eased my way back into the training plan but I was regularly missing sessions trying to manage the knee, making sure I only ran when it was really beneficial, such as the horrendous interval and tempo sessions in the week and then the Sunday LSR to get my stamina up. I didn’t bother with the full on month of abstinence from alcohol, and even shared a bottle of wine with my old man the night before the race. I wasn’t going to be able to hit my sub 40 target after all now, was I? A practice effort on Thursday evening was nearly a minute off the pace after I failed to maintain the required 6:26 per mile beyond half distance and so that was that. I’d just enjoy the day, rounding off my 2013 season with my Dad, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend and 1,151 others on a gorgeous sunny morning in Hertfordshire. Nevertheless, I still found myself lining up near the front with all the other 40-minute runners. Force of habit, I guess. And after a short delay while the record crowd of starters lined up, we were off onto the 10,000 metre loop and the race was on.
Before I’d ever run Standalone, I’d heard many people say it was a fast, flat course with good PB potential. All I can say is I’d hate to see what they consider a hilly one. For me, it’s easily the most undulating 10k I’ve done and a short sharp incline after less than 400 yards is a particularly vicious introduction. I kept an eye on my Garmin on the way up as my pace crept up over seven minutes per mile and instantly thought, oh well. That’s that then. I felt drained and dehydrated already and I still had six miles to run. The dream was over. I’d have to come back again another year and finish the job.
It didn’t take too long for my perceptions to switch again though. That first mile may be uphill, but I had done it in 6:23 and was slightly ahead of schedule. The next two miles were both mostly downhill and I dropped in a 6:18 and then, unbelievably, a 6:12. At half distance I suddenly had 25 seconds in the bank. Could this actually happen? I thought back to Thursday’s practice run where I was also up at half distance only to blow up and finish nearly a minute outside. I remembered the We Love Manchester 10k last year where it all went wrong from the fourth mile onwards. The second half of this course has a few gentle inclines and I knew I would lose time there, so I got my head down and tried to get more time in the bank before it happened. Mile four was another six seconds inside my target and suddenly I began to get seriously excited. I was feeling strong and running at a consistent pace, gradually working my way up the field past several people that had left me for dead at the beginning and had found they couldn’t sustain it. No matter how hilly the fifth mile was, surely I couldn’t lose over half a minute? And in any case, the final half a mile is massively downhill so I could possibly win it all back there. The dream was fast becoming a reality.
The fifth mile was a real struggle in all all fairness as my pace crept up towards seven minutes per mile on the two big slopes, and I began to panic as I knew that could blow the whole thing out the water. Riding the crest of the final hill and into the last section of the race, I didn’t dare check how much I had lost and just tried to run as fast as I could on the flat and onto the big descent to the finish line. Surely I can’t have lost the full half a minute. No, it can’t be. I’m so close. It was flat and I was back below 6:20, and then there was the plummet downhill for the last half mile. Suddenly I was below six minutes per mile and feeling like I still had a kick left in me. Someone steamed past me but I barely registered, it was becoming a bit of a blur like those last few yards in Liverpool as adrenaline took over. I could see the finish, I flashed past my other sister in the crowd who seemed shocked I was hammering past her already. My uncle shouted my name over the tannoy and I saw the timer at the finish line was still on 39-something and then it was suddenly all over. I could hardly breathe, I was dizzy, lightheaded, I could barely bring myself to check the time on my Garmin in case I had missed it by seconds like that day on Merseyside in 2011 when all this sub-40 bollocks had begun. And when I did I was absolutely elated: 39:42.
It really shouldn’t have happened as it did. It was warm. It was hilly. I’d been drinking the night before and I definitely hadn’t felt anywhere near hydrated enough on the morning. I’d missed big chunks of training. I’d trashed my knee. And yet, somehow, it had. For only the second time in my life, I had broke that God damned 40 minute barrier. I left Standalone feeling satisfied for once, job done. I had closure.
It was a special day all round as my fellow runners all put in strong efforts, coming in comfortably inside the hour mark that they had set themselves as targets. My sister had never run a full 10k before and my Dad had been unable to run even three miles only a week previously due to illness, and wasn’t even going to run going into the weekend of the race. I’m so pleased he did as seeing him come steaming onto the finishing straight ahead of hundreds of people half his age was one of my favourite moments of the day. Good on you old boy.
The icing on the cake came late in the afternoon, sat in my parents’ back garden enjoying a well earned beer with the crew. The official time was exactly as I had clocked it at 39:42, and this had placed me 50th overall, my best ever result. Both previous efforts round Standalone had left me well outside the top 100 and, parkrun 5k excepted, I had never finished in the top 50 of anything before. After the failures of 2012, missing every target I had set myself, I had finished 2013 strongly and ensured that everything I had aimed for I had achieved. Ending on a high, you might say. And with that, I’m done for the year. Nothing else in the calendar, no more events to look forward to. Just back to the routine of a couple of jogs home from work a week and planning for 2014.
It’s like I’ve never been away.
Sweating. Breathlessness. Aches, strains and pains. Stumbles, fumbles and near tumbles. Late dinners, early nights. Hungry. Tired. A new pair of running shoes. A target. Over confidence followed by crushing self doubt. Lack of commitment. Too much bloody running. For the second time in 2013, I sit here with days to go to a run, a run where I have decided to try and do something I have only ever achieved once in my life. For March 19th read October 6th. For the Liverpool Half Marathon, read the Standalone 10k. And for getting round in under 90 minutes, make that under 40. It was never supposed to be this way.
As I hinted at back in August, I’ve decided to chuck myself into this one a bit more than I originally intended. I was hoping to spend the late summer weekends out on the bike, swearing blind I could get up Blaze Hill in one go before the nights began to draw in, or maybe some epic half century rides on the flat out to Cheshire. Then, come the last week of September, a couple of jogs to loosen up and then a quick 6.2 miles round the outskirts of Letchworth on October 6th along with my Dad, my sister, my cousin and perhaps my uncle again. A nice, pleasant affair, much like last year, to round 2013 off still basking in the memory of hitting my big target for the year of a sub 1:30 half marathon.
As you all know though, it wasn’t to be. So, with my bike still missing in action, I sat down and decided to get a training plan together. A plan aimed to get my body back into some sort of shape to have a tilt at getting round the 10,000 metre course in less than 40 minutes for only the second time in my entire life. At the last time of writing, I had done a grand total of one run. It had been a horrible three mile affair, involving nearly vomiting in only the second mile and then a couple of days hobbling around with every muscle from the waist down begging for mercy. Just six months earlier I had been able to run five times that figure without suffering too many ill-effects, and now here I was, a pathetic heaving, aching mess after essentially a 5k. I needed to get back in shape.
Nearly two months on and I’m starting to get back into the groove. I’ve now done 25 runs since that awful day in August. The dreaded Sunday LSR is once again a staple of my weekend – a long, slow plod around for up to an hour and a half at a time. Tuesday evenings usually involve of some of the most hellish interval sessions I have ever done. Thursday Fartlek and tempo sessions. Up to six runs a week. And therein (quite literally) lies the rub.
Six months ago, my body could handle this sort of thing. Sure, I felt like sleeping all the time and was eating myself out of house and home, but generally speaking my stupid wispy legs were taking everything I threw at them and then some. This time though it’s different. Those first couple of runs gave me crippling calf pains, no matter how much I warmed up and down. I realised my shoes were knackered so for the first time since I wrote this I welcomed a new pair into the family, my fourth pair of Brooks GTS and bloody lovely they are too. I was so excited to go out in them and hopefully keep the muscle injuries to a minimum. I went out in them. I ran. Within a week my knee felt like it was about to fall off.
Since then, it’s been a case of managing it. I run – it feels like it is going to fall off. I walk downstairs – it feels like it is going to fall off. I’m nearly 32 now. Is this it? Has my body given up on me? I rested it for two weeks, I went for a run and, well, you can guess the rest. Thankfully it has yet to actually fall off. It’s a weird one really. I can’t describe it much other than it feels like someone is smashing the bottom of my kneecap up with a tiny, tiny (but very real) hammer. It’s not constant. It’s not linked to a particular type of running. Fast, slow, interval, tempo, LSR. It doesn’t matter. It just hurts, sometimes. Sometimes I do a hard session and there’s barely a niggle. Sometimes I walk to work and it’s bloody agony. On Sunday I ran twelve miles from Wilmslow to Gatley and back and it only hurt twice. Since then, it’s given me no grief whatsoever. Tonight I ran six miles (including nearly three at around six minutes per mile) and it was absolutely fine. Not a dickybird.
Maybe it’s healed. Maybe it will flare up again something chronic 200 yards into Sunday’s race. Who knows? What I do know is it’s cost me a couple of weeks training when I needed it most. I so wanted to hit a sub-40 this weekend and keep the run of success going this year after obliterating my half marathon PB all the way back in March. Instead, I go into the Standalone 10k with little confidence for the second year in succession. Last year I was ill for the first time in years and had barely trained; this year I have put in over 170 miles to hit a specific target and I have no idea if my body actually will let me do it. I know I’ll get round the course, and most of all I know I’ll enjoy doing it, and boring you all about it afterwards. But can I do something I have not managed to do since May 2009 and drag myself round the thing in under 40 minutes? Let’s just hope my bloody knee doesn’t fall off.
A week on and the poor girl still isn’t home. Where is she? I hope she’s OK, wherever she is. On that front, I’m beginning to think I’m going to have to stop referring to my bike as “her”. For one, it’s a bit embarrassing for a grown man attaching a gender to a collection of metal, rubber and cables, if not downright cringeworthy. No matter how beautiful she was (and how much pleasure she gave me, ahem). Also, it makes it all a bit too personal. I need to move on. My bike is gone. I may get lucky and get it back. I’m 99.9% sure I won’t. Assuming it gets punted on, I hope that the person who ends up buying it – presumably oblivious to the fact that it’s been stolen from me – looks after it, enjoys it and generally has a whole heap of fun on it. And most of all, I hope that the person that stole it gets some form of horrible comeuppance, although I will leave this up to your own imagination as to what this should be.
It’s been a week of mixed emotions since the initial confusion / horror on Thursday morning when I realised what had happened. After convincing myself that, yes it has definitely gone and no, I’ve not left it somewhere else and forgotten, it’s been pretty much all just a general sadness that it happened really, especially with the added sentimentality of it being my birthday present. Even some of the accessories being little personal touches that people had seen and bought for me. There’s been anger too of course, that someone thought that they could come into my flat and take my property away. Frustration that I spent (another) £20 on accessories only a few days before and they were taken with it. Then there is the massive annoyance that it now takes me half an hour extra each way to and from work, walking through Ardwick to catch a bloody Magic Bus with the heating on full whack. It’s enough to make me glad that summer appears to be over.
Hopefully this will all be temporary anyway, I’m on the lookout for something else already. Nothing too flash, nothing too attractive to potential scumbags. Tempting as it is to get a lovely new shiny racer on the Cyclescheme, I’ll probably go with something more along the lines of my old Peugeot Premiere; a project of sorts. Something with imperfections, something that needs a bit of love, care and attention. Something a bit old and knackered, like me. A bike I can grow to love. A bit of me thinks that I might even go back and fix up the old girl (being a ladies bike, it’s OK to refer to it as “her”) but unfortunately one or two of the issues are pretty severe and for now she most definitely is not roadworthy, with a collapsed rear wheel and a loose headset. Not to mention practically non-existent brakes, slippy chain and no tyres. Some work needed methinks.
Anyway enough of all that. Faced with my main outlet for exercise no longer being with me, I’ve begun to grow a little restless. Suddenly, eating that huge triple burger from Mud Crab Café, after a full Saturday at the Marble Beer Festival (with meaty burger grill), after a Friday night post-work Tiger Lounge cider session with a free pizza all to myself, isn’t then going to be balanced out by 70-100 miles on the bike the following week. I need an outlet. A challenge. Something to aim for, and most of all, to take my mind off the theft. Something to set the pulse racing. And, unfortunately for all of you, something to blog about.
It’s time to get back on my feet. Lace up my poor, neglected running shoes. Swap the padded lycra shorts for something a bit more, erm, flattering, and head out to pound the Manchester concrete for the first time in weeks. Apart from a quick sprint for the bus here and there, this is probably the longest I have gone without running since I went travelling in 2008. My last run was the Port Sunlight 10k back in May, which in itself was the first run I’d done for a month before that as I began to fall in love with my bike instead. I did 54 runs in the first three months of the year; I’ve only done eight since, seven of which were in April, and then none since that singular mid-May jog around a bizarre model village on the Wirral, which left me hobbling around for nearly a week afterwards in agony and vowing to only travel on two wheels from now on.
Now though, I have no choice. My feet are all I have left. I went for my first run in over two and a half months last night, and today I hurt on all of the bits of my legs. ALL OF THEM. I only did three miles, and I was knackered, sweating and nearly heaving. My legs are used to going round and round, now I am telling them to go up and down and carry my entire body weight (and my massive face) with them. How did I ever run a marathon for crying out loud? Even a half seems an awful long way away. I have the Standalone 10k in the diary for October 6th, and I was planning on doing it in a similar manner to last year, with just a couple of training runs to loosen up a bit and then a nice jog round Hertfordshire enjoying the scenery. Now though, who knows? I’ve suddenly got two months spare to actually train for it, and it’d be a shame to waste that now, wouldn’t it?
Today, I am mostly feeling a bit numb. I didn’t really intend to do a blog this week. In fact, with nothing to train for, I’ve been struggling to even think of a theme for the piece, let alone when I could be bothered to actually write it. It’s just been a lovely, relaxed few weeks really, enjoying my friends, my family, the Tour de France and most of all, the weather. Summer beers in the park. More barbeques in one summer than I’ve ever had before. New and interesting street food. Pleasant walks. A day at the seaside. All good, but probably not blogworthy stuff in all fairness (insert your own joke here).
Unfortunately though, I have felt compelled to write a short piece today to l explain how absolutely and completely heartbroken I am to discover that my bike has been stolen from my Manchester flat overnight. I still can’t quite work out how it happened, all I know is I came downstairs this morning to find an empty hallway, The White Arrow having been cruelly snatched from her home by some opportunistic shithouse. The nagging feeling that I have had since buying my first ever “decent” bike, that one day she would be taken from me when I least expected it, has now become a horrible reality. I’ll never love again.
I really don’t want this to just become some massive emo blog though, with me just mewing about how sad I am and everything. You can take that as a given really. I won’t bore you (any more than usual etc etc). I just thought though, why the hell not try and do something about it? Get a bit of coverage going on that there internets that she’s missing? Who knows?
Unfortunately, being an off-the-shelf Halfords Carrera job there’s no real distinguishing features, save for the grey Bontrager tyres that I fitted rather than the white / black standard ones that came with the bike. You never know though, the twat who stole her might have left the singular mudguard on there, or the saddle bag packed with various accessories and a present from my old man, a ridiculously useful multi tool. If the saddle bag is gone, there is a bracket mounted under the seat which they might have left, and I’ll know it’s mine because I did a proper bodge job on it and one of the two pieces is fitted upside down as it’s the only way I could fit it. And to think I used to be an engineer.
Maybe (and this is a massively long shot) someone will read this, see the photo, then see said opportunistic shithouse pedalling around on the poor girl and let me know so I can get the Old Bill on the case. Maybe you yourself will catch a glimpse of the her on an eBay or Gumtree listing, being mercilessly hawked out to all and sundry. Maybe you stole her (you utter bastard) and are feeling guilty enough to give her back to me. No hard feelings, eh. I just want her back.
A 30th birthday present from my Mum and Dad, something that has given me immense amount of joy and pleasure, struggling up hills in 30 degree heat or hammering on the flat for over 50 miles is now MIA. I’m sad. If you can be arsed to share this, please do. If you don’t, no biggie. I can’t imagine it’ll work anyway. She’s probably in Guatemala, being stripped and sold for parts already. But if you see her, let me know yeah? And if I get her back, I’ll buy you all a choc ice. Deal?
All that worrying. All that stress. Would I last the distance? Most importantly, would I even be allowed to complete it? I had literally had nightmares in the days leading up to the race, about everything from crashing, having punctures, getting left behind, being late for the start and many others too bizarre to go into. I struggled to get off to sleep the night before, and as soon as I woke up on the morning – a good hour or two before I needed to – I couldn’t get back to sleep under any circumstances. Constant thoughts of failure prevented me from nodding off, and when it was finally time to get up and about I was so nervous I could barely eat my breakfast. Only twice before have I felt like this on the day of an event; on marathon day back in 2011, and then on the Liverpool half earlier this year. And yet once I’d actually done it and all the dust had settled, this will possibly go down as one of the easier days at the office. Not bad for a double marathon on a pushbike.
Full of butterflies, I checked my bike for any issues, fixed my number on the handlebars and peddled the few miles to the start at The Etihad Stadium. It was no more than 200 yards from my flat before I’d already seen some fellow Great Cyclers, a pair in full team kit and hammering along at twice my speed while I gently pottered along trying not to knacker myself up before we’d even set off. I suppose we all warm up in our own way.
It was a nice buzz arriving at the stadium as hundreds of people milled about on their bikes. The little trundle over to East Manchester had settled my nerves a bit and I’m glad I did that instead of driving and spending the last half hour pre-KO getting myself worked up in a lather while I sat in traffic. I lined up with (I’m told) around 2,800 people and waited, patiently. I felt eerily calm, despite not knowing even what the first 100 yards would bring, let alone the next 50 miles. I probably hadn’t trained enough. I’ve never ridden the distance in one go before. And yet I was a sea of tranquillity, my mind at rest. I was focused and ready for action.
The klaxon went off we trickled over the line to, inexplicably, Mumford and Sons, those well known bastions of inspiring exercise music. Enthusiasm for a 52 mile bike ride plunged instantly but luckily after navigating a small chicane I was out onto the course proper, and their oddly repetitive blend of privileged poshboy hoedown wankery was but a distant memory. It was just me and my bike, and a lovely stretch of open road.
The early stages were nowhere near as congested as I was expecting as we rattled into the City Centre for the first time. The past two running events I’ve done have been proper clogged up at the beginning, both my fault due to where I was stood, here there were no issues whatsoever despite starting a good halfway back from the front of the pack. It was brilliant in fact, straight onto Alan Turing Way then Ashton Old Road at over 20mph and feeling comfortable. If it could be like this for the next three hours or so I’d be laughing.
Looking at the profile beforehand it looked like it was generally downhill for the first half of the lap, which explained the early pace. It felt quite strange, but wonderfully liberating, chipping along, running red lights and shooting across junctions without worrying about a lorry suddenly turning left and wiping you out or a Magic Bus pulling out from its stop without indicating. It was even more bizarre heading onto the Mancunian Way for the first time, a stretch of motorway I would never normally get a chance to ride on. The natural inclination was always to stick to the left, as if the road was open to traffic and no matter how many times I consciously positioned myself in the middle, within minutes I would be back on the left running over drain covers and kerbside debris like an idiot. It was quite an adjustment to make.
The first lap was pretty quick at just under 37 minutes and an average speed of over 20mph. I was a little bit worried I had started to overcook it, but everything felt smooth and comfortable. The little inclines were barely registering and apart from nearly wiping someone out navigating a hairpin in Salford Quays, it had passed off entirely without incident. I was sad to see a few with punctures on the way round, even within the first mile or two of the event. It just goes to show how common it can be running skinny tyres on shitty inner-city roads. I felt for those I saw, and prayed it wouldn’t happen to me on the way around. I’d had quite enough of that over the past 12 months, thank you very much.
Worryingly, I started to feel a bit of fatigue as we hit the Mancunian Way for a second time. The wind was gusting a bit, but I wolfed down a flapjack and kept my head down, aiming for the feed station at Old Trafford and a well deserved drink. I saw some poor bloke absolutely stack it on an innocuous bend onto Chester Road and again felt tremendous empathy. No one needs that. Luckily he was up and smiling as we whizzed off down to Old Trafford. A quick pit stop and feeling revitalised, I headed for half distance.
The third lap was an absolute revelation for me as I was dealt a lesson in cycling tactics and I began to grasp exactly how important they can be. For years, I’ve watched road racing on TV and understood the concept of racing in a bunch and how you use less energy doing so, but I’d never experienced it myself, only ever riding solo or with one or two mates at best. As we swung onto the A57(M) for a third time, I found myself just behind a couple of other lads riding at roughly my pace. I followed them for a bit and felt I was being held up, so I ducked out of their slipstream and was instantly hit by gusts of wind which meant I could barely get past them. I cycled a few hundred yards then watched as they both pulled out and overtook me before slotting in front of me. It instantly became a whole lot easier and I felt they were holding me up again. A couple more cyclists joined us, and we began to take turns at the front. Without ever saying anything to each other, we were working together as a group, sharing the load and taking rests in the slipstream when it called for it. The group swelled to around 15, and we were suddenly hammering along a good 6-7mph faster than I was doing on my own the previous lap without expending anywhere near the energy. It was incredible, and genuinely one of my favourite ever moments on a bicycle.
Sadly a quick splash and dash pitstop for a drinks refill at Old Trafford as part of my two stop strategy meant I was left behind by new accomplices. I was flying solo again, the roads around me almost totally deserted. I could never hope to catch them up again but luckily the return back to East Manchester to start the last lap was relatively easy with the wind behind me and another flapjack down the hatch. I had begun to lap people now which was playing havoc with my “tactics” as I looked for some more cyclists play peloton with. It wasn’t until I headed out onto the motorway for the final time when I finally found someone who was riding at a similar speed, and again we began swapping position, taking turns fighting the headwind. It was beautiful; ne’er a word spoken between us, just a silent understanding of how to work together on the three mile stretch up to Old Trafford and conserve a bit of energy for the final push.
It was more or less plain sailing after that, the remaining six or seven miles to the finish passed by in what seemed like a flash. My legs were cramping a bit and my back was aching, but it was nowhere near as bad as I’ve felt on most of the runs I’ve done in the past. Unbelievably, I had more or less maintained a 20mph average speed over the entire ride and I kept having to revise my target in my mind. I originally wanted to avoid being hauled off the course after three laps, but after last week’s revelation I knew I could do that barring a crash or a puncture. Lining up on the startline, I thought it would be nice to beat my marathon time of 3:19, after all, this was double the distance. Why not do it at double the speed and hit the same time? After the first lap though I knew I’d piss that even if I slowed up considerably once I approached the uncharted waters of 40 miles and beyond. So I decided to aim for under three hours. Then to get finished by 11am. Then under 2:45. All unthinkable before the start, but eminently achievable in the cold light of day, to my great surprise.
In the end, I came home in 2:34:30 and an average speed of 20.26mph according to the official results. I actually clocked it at slightly slower, possibly because it wasn’t quite 52 miles (50.2 by my reckoning) but it was still a result beyond my wildest dreams going into the event. I was placed 836th, just inside the top 30% of the field, which pleased me but definitely shows I’m a better runner than a cyclist as I am usually roughly in the top 1-5% depending on how arsed I have been about training. Still, an amazing result that I couldn’t possibly have imagined beforehand, and a brilliant day out on the streets of Manchester, riding alongside real people in a real race for the first time in my entire life. A really well organised event, fantastic value at £20 considering all the free energy drinks, gels, bananas and so on, not to mention the cost of closing and policing all the roads for a full day in the middle of (supposedly) summer, and I can honestly say I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. All 154 of them. All that was left was a short ride back to my flat and a well deserved beer.
There was a nice little extra in the run up to the event too as I posted my pre-race blog and was informed by WordPress that it was my 50th post. Again, probably not a massive deal in the grand scheme of things, but an interesting piece of symmetry ahead of the ride on Sunday anyway. That’s two half centuries nicely in the bank now, neither of which I would probably have thought I would be capable of achieving back in April 2011 when I first set this little place up. I suppose I need a new target now, something else to aim for. Something else to bore you all with. More cycling. More running. Who knows? For now though, I’ll just focus on what I achieved on Sunday: my first ever double marathon on wheels, and it was bloody great. Entries are already open for 2014. Who fancies it?