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.

The National

Motivation and sacrifice

I really, really didn’t want to have to whinge about the weather again this week. I mean, how predictable, right? How very British. Look at the silly little marathon man, moaning about a bit of wind and rain. But seriously, come on. It’s been nearly a month since I last posted complaining about it all, and it’s still bloody going on isn’t it? In fact if anything it’s got worse. What an absolutely ridiculous year to pick to do my first ever spring marathon. Now twelve weeks and fifty-odd runs into my 18 week plan, I can honestly count on one hand the amount of times I have managed to get a run in without having some form of weather misfortune. At least I’ve had plenty of practice if race day is as bad as it was in its début year I guess.

As you might expect, it’s been rather difficult to summon up the inner strength to go out during all this, and there’s been more than a few occasions when the temptation to sack a run off has been pretty overwhelming. Lying in bed on a Sunday morning, hearing the wind howling outside and the rain smashing against my window (like today). Opening the front door and being hit in the face by a hailstorm at 50mph. Being sat in my toasty warm office, actually lusting for a broken, stinking (but warm) Magic Bus to take me home when I know instead I have to slap on a tiny football shirt and face the wind and rain head on as I struggle back to my flat, via a 10+ mile detour to get the requisite mileage in.

Nevertheless, I am proud to admit that I have yet to miss a single serious session since all this nonsense kicked off. Interval sessions, tempo runs, light recovery jogs home from work. Sunday long runs smashed every week so far and now standing at a horrifying 20 miles. Most pleasingly of all, the Wednesday long run. The absolute worst of the lot, usually somewhere between 10 and 13 miles. On a weekday.

There are many reasons why these are so terrible. The fact
that they fall on a schoolnight is bad enough; finishing around 6pm and knowing I still have a couple of hours running is pretty grim, usually with a rucksack of office clothes just to add to the whole experience. Back to the world of 9pm dinners and 10pm bed times it is. The fatigue on these runs is usually pretty bad too, falling on the fifth consecutive day of running and directly after the hellish Tuesday interval sessions. Worst of all though, the shitting weather. For some reason, pretty much always wet and usually windy, the icing on the cake was last week with hurricane force winds, torrential rain and a 10 mile “steady” run, directly into a headwind, dodging falling trees and shattered rooftops raining down from above. I will never complain about summer training again.

So where does the drive come from to actually head out and run in all this, rather than take the easy option and stay inside playing Grand Theft Auto and drinking cups of tea? Last time around, I had the incentive of cold, hard cash to get me going. Running for charity, the ever-increasing total helped spur me on, knowing that everything I did was helping the Children’s Heart Association and I simply couldn’t let anyone down. This time though, it’s a bit less clear cut. Why am I doing this again? So that if I succeed on April 6th I get to do it all again next year. Right. Okay then.

Despite this, every time I think, yea, okay, I’ll stay in tonight and dodge the weather, I remember the target. 3:05, 3:05, 3:05. Come on, Joe. You can do it. You have to lop 14 minutes off your PB you twat. It’s such a big leap that I need to look at anything I can do to make a difference. Imagine if I missed it by five or ten seconds? If I blow up and come home half an hour outside, that’s OK. I wasn’t ready for such a challenge. Fair enough. But if I miss it by a small amount, I’ll always look back to the day I bottled it because I didn’t want to run in a bit of wind or rain.

So with all THE TARGET in mind, it’s a bit depressing having to give a few things up that may hinder it. I’m yet to see any of my mates in 2014, even for just a casual pint. I’ve not been to a single football match. I’ve had to turn down a weekend away housewarming. On Monday I missed a gig I already had tickets for because I was too tired from the weekend’s running. Evening stupid little things like saying no to a bacon sandwich from my mum when back home over the weekend as I had to go out running shortly after. I couldn’t even smash the family buffet with my usual gusto at my Grandma’s 90th last week because I had a five mile tempo run in the evening. And now, worst of all, I’ve had to turn down tickets to gigs on successive Saturdays including seeing The National at the BBC 6 Music Festival next weekend.

I know what you’re probably thinking. Why not just go? You don’t have to get drunk or anything, surely you can go and enjoy a gig without having to get tanked up? And the answer to that would be undoubtedly yes, of course. I’ve done it many a time over the years when training for some sort of nonsense or other, and it has the added benefit that I’ve remembered more of the gig and saved a few quid to boot. The trouble this time around though, is the timing. And it all boils down to the importance of rest.

It sounds weird, but when training for a big event, putting your feet up and relaxing or simply crashing out for a twelve hour sleep, is just as vital as the mega beefy Sunday slogs or the horrible weekday tempo and interval sessions. It’s where all the benefit of the training is felt. What you’re essentially doing every time you run is battering your body, breaking it down. It then needs to rebuild, stronger, to enable you to improve as a runner. It makes sense, otherwise the training schedules would just be seven days a week, running your legs off all day long. I think it was Team Sky’s Shane Sutton who said something like the body needs to “recruit” and let all the work soak in and let the muscles repair themselves. Therefore spending all day on my feet the day before the Sunday long run, in a week of over sixty miles total, just isn’t doable, no matter how utterly awesome it promises to be. I’ll be in bed at 10pm as usual. Loser.

It’s been a strange old start to 2014. A combination of lack of funds, shite weather and most importantly, being a marathon idiot has meant my time is pretty much split evenly between running, sleeping and eating. The benefit is being felt though as a lot of the sessions are beginning to feel (a bit) easier. And soon enough, I will be tapering, after week 15, where it all starts to wind down to ensure I am fully recruited for battle on April 6th with all the training in the bank. First though, the little matter of three sixty mile weeks, no doubt face first into another series of Atlantic storms. It’s been nice knowing you.

Rain

Mid term report

Well that didn’t take long. A little over two and a half months ago, I sat here tapping away, writing my closing blog of 2013, wrapping up for the year and gently pondering whether or not to throw myself into a marathon for 2014. I mooted various options; London (virtually impossible, short of raising two grand in five months), Berlin (denied), Chester (possible, plenty of build up time), Liverpool (familiar), Barcelona (too soon) or Manchester (local). And that’s all I was doing really – pondering. After all, that bloody thing in 2011 took over my entire life for weeks: my summer, my work, my social life. I became a hermit, only venturing out to run myself silly in 20 degree heat shortly followed by collapsing in my flat, sweating in a pile, before waking up and devouring everything I could get my hands on in an attempt to rebuild my shattered body. So I want to get into London one day? So what. I’ll just keep entering the ballot every year. That’ll do me. One day they’ll let me in won’t they, the bastards. Except that’s not what happened, is it.

So now, I sit here once again, tapping away at my little blog, becoming increasingly panicked about quite what it is I have let myself in for. And it’s getting frighteningly, pant-soilingly close now. This is the ninth week of my training plan; nine remain. WE ARE INTO SINGLE FIGURES PEOPLE. And when I think about how quickly those nine weeks have gone since all this kicked off at the start of December…sheesh.

With half of the bugger behind me I suppose it’s a good time to take stock of things. It’s still too early to tell whether or not my target is in any way feasible, with several long Sunday runs still to do and only one so far being attempted at anything approaching my intended pace. The mileage has crept up gradually, yet all but one have been a tedious plod, at over a minute per mile outside what I will be aiming for on Marathon Day, and with only my tiny mind for company for well over two hours. TWO. HOURS. I really, really haven’t got anywhere near enough thoughts to fill all that time, especially first thing on a Sunday morning when I should be in bed dozing, recovering from a normal weekend with friends and family, instead of going to bed at 10pm full to the brim with Italian carbohydrates.

My current record for the Sunday long run on this regime now stands at 18 miles, a figure which pleased me upon completion for many reasons. For one thing, it’s the furthest I have run since the marathon. In the two years since, I have thrown myself into various 10k and half marathon training plans with varying levels of self-discipline, and although the Sunday chug was still a feature of those, most topped out at around 12-15 miles. Beyond that it’s marathon territory, son. 18 again for the next two weekends. 20 for three consecutively after that, then a week’s “respite” (15 miles) before the furthest I will run before the big day: 22 miles. That will be only the second time in my entire life that I have gone over 20, and it’s probably the one I’m fearing the most.

Hitting that 18 miler laid to rest a few ghosts and also made me realise how much I have improved as a runner since the last time I was building up to the marathon distance, as a callow, naive idiot. Summer 2011, and my first lesson in how not to look after yourself on a long run. OK, so the weather was a hell of a lot cooler this time around, and I paced myself properly from the very off, but when I compare the utter devastation I felt, both physically and mentally, after failing to get round the thing on that sweaty day in August, and how (relatively) fresh I felt after managing it with energy to spare a fortnight ago, it’s definitely started to give the old confidence a bit of a boost. Until I realise I still have to run another eight miles on top of that, and with the whole thing a minute per mile faster to boot. Shit.

So yea. The weather. Forgive me for getting all British about this, but it’s been a right grim old few weeks out there. Seriously. It’s probably just karma for the amount of times I’ve said “I love winter training, me”, going out all wrapped up on a crisp winter morning and jogging round the water parks or along the River Mersey. Pretty much as soon as I started banging on about that, the Atlantic Ocean decided to smash us all in the face with one storm after another for what seems like weeks on end. Rain. Wind. Hail. Freezing rain. Thunderstorms. More wind. SO MUCH RAIN. I don’t think I have ever had so many runs in such a short space of time where I have ended up soaked to the bone, running shoes trashed, and totally unable to feel anything in my hands and feet. Honestly, I swear there is a little cloud following me as it’s becoming somewhat unnerving how many times have left my office for the jog home and got shat on by the very first rain of the day. I’m absolutely sick of it. A bit of drizzle; quite refreshing, actually. A torrent of freezing rain blown into my face at 90 degree angles, fuck right off, if you wouldn’t mind. Christmas Day was OK (pretty pleasant, in fact) with clear blue skies blowing away the lingering Guinnessy cobwebs. That’s it. Everything else has been a constant stream of horrendous, soul-destroying experiences, battered left right and centre by Mother Nature, the sadistic old witch.

Sunday was the absolute nadir, and possibly one of the grimmest runs I have ever done in my entire life. A half marathon attempt at race pace, I tried my best to plan it so I missed the worst of the forecasted carnage, and up until around four miles in I thought I’d done it. Then, all hell broke loose and for about 20 minutes it was like someone was constantly emptying buckets of water over me, shipped from the freezing Norwegian fjords and fired from a cannon at over 50mph. Right into my massive face. I felt like quitting right there on the spot, but being stuck miles from home with no money or phone, the only option was to plough on, wringing the water out my top and gloves as I went and weeping to myself while dreaming of a roaring fire and a Heinz Big Soup.

Somehow, despite all that horror I managed to get round the 13.11 mile course in 1.29.13, my second fastest ever. This time last year I was becoming obsessed with hitting a sub 90-minute half marathon; now I have done it three times in less than a year. Two of those in absolutely appalling weather conditions and the other starting dead last and having to waste time overtaking over 90% of the field just because I can’t tell the time properly. Considering I’m not really training my body for that sort of effort any more it was a bit of a surprise. In your face, Mother Nature.

Now the really hard work begins though. Six weeks of building up to the absolute monster week, a 61.5 mile effort in March encompassing that daunting 22 mile Sunday, followed by a gradual taper through to race day so that, in theory, I’m rested and full of beans ready to give it the big one on April 6th. Despite still being some way out from kick off, this month has already broken all sorts of personal records. Most runs in a month (25).  Time spent running (26:18:42). Calories burned (23,493, whatever the fuck that means).  Yesterday, I went over 200 miles in a single month; the only time that’s ever happened before was last June when I racked it all up on my beloved bike (sob) for the Great Manchester Cycle. I’ve never done it on foot before. I ran 818.2 miles in the whole of 2013, and now I’ve done more than a quarter of that in only first month of 2014. This is all complete and utter madness, yet hopefully crucial if I am going to have any chance of hitting the ludicrous target I have set myself. And terrifyingly, I’m over halfway there already.

Mizuno Sayonara

Losing weight

Whisper it, but it definitely appears that I may now have actually entered another marathon. I have paid someone a sum of money. I have an email confirmation from them. I have a reminder in my diary. And, most importantly of all, I have a target. A ridiculous, ludicrous target. Essentially, trying to shave 14 minutes off a personal best, just so that I can get the chance to do it all again in London a year later. Er…hang on a cotton picking minute. Why exactly am I doing this again? Regardless of the lack of sanity involved, the fact is I have a confirmed entry in a 26.2 mile race for the first time since 2011 and I’m gonna have a real good bash at it. Back then, I just wanted to finish. This time, I want to finish faster.

So, with that in mind, it’s natural to try and look for ways I can shave off those precious seconds (OK…minutes) come the big day. One massive thing in my favour is the fact that it is the UK’s flattest marathon. Liverpool certainly isn’t the hilliest, with such “delights” as Snowdonia and the like probably taking up that dubious honour, nevertheless the second half of that race was a real bitch at times making the flat, derelict docklands of the opening half over on Birkenhead almost appear a bizarre industrial paradise after the twin challenges of running a mile uphill at half distance underneath the River Mersey, and then even worse the beast of a climb up Upper Parliament Street, with nearly 10 miles still left to run and having just fallen on my arse in front of everyone in the city centre. I am hoping the relatively pancake like nature of most of Trafford’s byways should give me some sort of edge over that initial effort on Merseyside and enable me to trim some of the time down.

There are other ways of doing this too, of course. I have a more intensive training plan this time around and it’s actually geared towards my target time rather than 15 minutes slower as it was in 2011. I have my beloved Garmin Forerunner to help pace me properly and prevent disaster on the longer runs. With over two years more experience I like to think I am better at judging how fast I should be running, and what I may or may not be capable of. I have a slightly better idea about nutrition and race strategy and all that jazz. All relatively tiny differences, but hopefully important when combined.

The final piece of the jigsaw though, is trying to shed a bit of the old weight. Now let’s get this right, I’ve never really been one to worry too much about how much I weigh, kind of thinking along the lines that I’m not a pro athlete by any stretch of the imagination and I’d rather be content enjoying myself and generally munching what I want, rather than making sure every single meal is 100% balanced and never rewarding myself in any way. Everything in moderation I reckon, apart from the odd aberration when anything goes such as Christmas or summer festival season. Or any visit to Bem Brasil or Red Hot Buffet come to think of it. Nevertheless, I do sometimes find it interesting to carry out a few “experiments” when I know something big is going down just to see just how quickly it can go wrong, and with the parents owning a set of digital scales, Christmas back home with the family is usually a fine time to really go for it. I think the record gain over a festive week was around 8-9lbs, so to only pack on just under half a stone this year was a bit of a result, probably down to running on Christmas Day like a total bloody nutcase and the like.  And to be honest I once put on 7lb eating a single carvery dinner while at university, so I’m never quite sure how much you can read into these things.

So yea, I’m not too fussed about all that really. But one thing I am taking a lot more interest in this time around though is a continuation of my thinking twelve months ago when I was heading towards the Liverpool Half Marathon. As with then, it’s either going to be an absolute masterstroke or one of the most wrongheadedly stupid things I have ever done in my life. And essentially, it all boils down to probably the most important aspect of the whole bloody thing: the rubber beneath my feet.

It all began back in September 2011 as I approached that very first attempt at the 26.2 mile distance, when to be honest I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. After going through pretty much the full life of a pair of Asics running shoes over the course of a 16-week training plan, I needed another pair for race day and for the first time, I decided against going to the shop and having the gait analysis and letting them recommend me a pair. Instead, I just went online and bought the latest version of the pair which had served me so well all the way in 2009; Brooks GTS. A fairly chunky stability shoe, I never thought to check if it was still the right shoe for me. Looking back now with hindsight, some of the reviews weren’t great and the first long run I did in them resulted in pretty serious cramps from around 16 miles onwards. Marathon day was very much the same with a couple of enforced breaks in Sefton Park as I had to stretch my poor, ruined calves out in a (thankfully successful) attempt to get to the finish. The worst thing though was the pain in the days afterwards. Largely focussed around hip and knee joints, I began to think maybe I had got it all very wrong indeed, a feeling backed up a few months later as I began to fall to pieces in the run up to the Silverstone Half Marathon.

From then on, I vowed to look into the alternatives. One of the biggest debates amongst the running community is how much support your feet actually need as a runner, and I still have no idea as to what the correct answer is. Personally, up until last year I’d always been in the stability / support category only by virtue of the fact that I was told by a man in a shop that was what I needed. But as I started to suffer a bit on longer runs I decided, based on absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever, that I was going to start using something with a bit less support, which would hopefully make me a more efficient runner and have the added bonus of less physical weight around my little feets.

Elixir 8

After a lot of really boring research, I eventually settled on the Mizuno Elixir 8 and after the very first run, a gentle three miler just to check for any rubbing or discomfort, felt thoroughly decent I thought, OK, these will do for speedwork and 10ks in future. I began to push them a bit in training, running first six miles, then eight and eventually building up to a ten mile Sunday effort in them, which ended up one of my fastest ever. It was only three weeks before the half marathon and I started to ponder; could I use them for even longer than that and actually make it through a full 13.1 mile race? By swapping them for the stability shoe I would be losing 50 grammes from each foot, which over several thousand steps could make a world of difference. And so it proved – obliterating my PB by nearly a minute and a half and not picking up a single injury along the way.

So now I’m looking at taking it a whole lot further. Exactly twice as far, in fact. Will the reduced support be enough over double the distance though? I have no idea, but the support shoes fucked me up anyway after two-thirds distance so what is there to lose? Part of me thinks, “lots, you complete idiot”. A marathon places unique demands on the human body and it’s not the sort of thing you can mess about taking risks. I should be looking to make myself as comfortable and supported as possible. And yet science (and my body) seems to be suggesting that it’s mechanically miles more efficient to just run more the way nature intended. Without inches of over-engineered foam attempting to hold my body into the form the shoe manufacturers have intended.

The risk seems worth it to me, in fact the more I think about it the less of a risk it even seems to be. Today was the third weekend in a row with a 15 mile Sunday, and as the second half had to be done at target pace I whacked on the Elixirs for the first time in 2014 and to say it went well is an understatement, accidentally running the last two miles at close to 10k pace and I’m sat here six hours later with barely a niggle in the legs. It’s all completely unexpected and feels utterly ridiculous, but it’s started to fill me with a bit of confidence ahead of this most daunting of challenges. Sadly the Elixirs will be knackered by the time race day comes around, already nearly halfway through their short life despite my best efforts to limit the mileage on them. So I’ve taken a punt on the replacement, the Sayonara. I’m yet to test them, keeping them fresh for closer to the big day with hundreds of miles of training still to do. It feels odd though, sat here twelve weeks before raceday, knowing pretty much exactly what I will be wearing but having absolutely no idea how it’s going to go. The uncertainty is unnerving, but if I’m going to shave those damned minutes off and get into London 2015, I’m going to have to take a few risks along the way. Starting with shedding some weight. I just hope the old legs are up to the challenge.

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