As a runner whose main ambition is the marathon, I really only have one chance to perform each year – and last year did not go well. After a series of increasingly strong performances (2:53 in 2015, 2:46 in 2016, 2:44 in 2017), I hit the Championship Start at the London Marathon, and it all went wrong. An attempt at going under 2:40 on a warm day with blue skies, when I possibly wasn’t as fit as I thought I was, left me in a world of pain less than half way in and a performance I was far from happy with.
This year I felt much more confident going in for two reasons. My form was exactly where I wanted it to be. After only going sub seventeen for the 5K for the first time last year immediately before the marathon, I’d run under the mark three times in a month this year. I’d lowered my 10K PB and gone under 34 minutes for the first time. I’d run a strong half marathon on the tough Liversedge course. My training and long runs had gone well, and a week prior to race day I went out and ran 10 miles at 6:03 – under race pace (6 minutes and 6 seconds would be exactly sub 2:40 and no more) and it felt easy. Secondly – the weather report in the run up was for cold temperatures and an overcast day. Bliss.
That’s not to say I wasn’t without some worries, precursors to excuses if it had all gone wrong. I had a little bit of a sore throat, nothing major, but my main worry was physical. At some point one to two weeks prior to race day something had happened to one of the toes on my left foot, somewhere between being bruised and swollen and being broken. It was a concern, but was actually more painful when walking. Once in a running shoe it was fair less painful – my final 10 miles at race pace the week before was also a tester of whether the pain in my foot would flare up at the pace.
After humming and hawing over whether to attempt sub 2:40, and not just some indeterminate range between there and the 2:44 PB, by the time I got to the start line I’d settled on the 2:40 attempt – in part thanks to encouragement from friends just to go for it.
The start line experience was a bit odd. With the start line pens reorganised this year to have gates to each section, I went past one gate for zone C (I was looking for the fastest zone, zone A), past another for zone B, and then went up to a steward to show my bib number with ‘zone A’ on, only to be asked “are you an elite?”. I was confused, and just pointed to my zone A number saying “well, I’ve got a white number?”. The confused steward ushered me in, and I realised why they’d asked the question. I had missed the entrance for zone A and I was standing amongst the real elite potential race-winners, looking very out of place. The elites were warming up in proper top layers, almost all of them with the Nike Vaporfly 4% on, and I was standing there with a bin bag over me to keep me warm. I stayed quiet about my unexpected upgrade, and got ushered to the front of the pack ready for the start with all of the other elites.
The first part of the marathon to me is all about not getting too excited. Being on the very front of the start line I knew a lot of good runners were going to come past me as we set off. For the first mile I was holding back the pace, slowing myself down – not enough as the first mile came in on my watch as under six miles – but this set the tone for the first half of the race. I knew that getting to ten miles at race pace was something I could do every day of the week, the mystery was what came after. I wasn’t going to be able to work out that mystery though if I let myself slip unconsciously into reaching ten miles ahead of race pace.
The Manchester course goes out into the south-west suburbs, although in 2020 it will take an opening loop into the city centre. The half-way point by distance is also the furthest away you are from the start and finish area, but it’s far from the case that you are on the home stretch. Unlike at London in 2018 where I was off pace and struggling before the half-way point, this year I dipped in under 1:20 at the 13.1 mile mark, and was feeling fine. I wasn’t overheating, I wasn’t trying hard to run faster but was concentrating on holding back, and physically I was fine. My toe was a dull throb in my running shoe, but there were no sharp pains and my stride was unaffected.
I was seeing my other half at seventeen miles as I moved into the key fifteen to twenty mile area of the race. If my first 10-13 miles had been too optimistic it would start to tell here, and after this point I could start ticking off the final six miles – as long as I was still on pace. There were a couple of groups I fell in to at this point, a bunch of about six runners running with, I think, the fourth and fifth placed ladies. I was running my own race though, and I stuck to my own pace and stopped running with this group – I can’t recall if this meant running on ahead or letting them go.
Keen readers will know that last year at London I had an odd experience with David Wyeth (of wobbly legged London Marathon fame), where it turned out he knew all of my times from research after having appeared in all of his race photos at the Manchester Half previously. At around 17 miles David was there and gave me a cheer, and I then fell in step with one of his fellow Chorlton Harriers, Ben McCormack. Ben was a perfect running companion, sharing water from each bottle he picked up, and forming a pair pacing each other perfectly with the 2:40 goal in mind.
Conditions had been perfect, and as I got to 20 miles some quick calculations reassured me I was well on track – at this point I was on 2:01, stay on pace and I was looking at 2:37 plus a bit for the final .2 of a mile down the long, long – putting the straight in finishing straight – finish. The sun started to come out and Ben initially whinged a bit, before saying “if we can’t run what we want to in conditions like this, we may as well pack it in”. And he was right – he had also reminded me at this point in the race you just need to tick the miles off – this was also right, and I mentally moved myself into ‘the final six’.
Many don’t like this part of the course – 20-22 miles some think is a bit of a no-man’s land through Carrington, and then they argue the remaining four miles through Urmston and Stretford are also far from inspiring. But I love this part of the race. I know it well, I have good memories of success and strong finishes here, and I love ticking each mile off knowing that each one at pace is one step closer to the goal. It started well – there’d been the odd faster mile at various points in the race and 20 and 21 were both under six, but 22-24 went by in 6:05, 6:04, 6:05 – at this point Ben had dropped away – but I was well on track.
I was grinding out the miles now. Even at this front part of the race people were stopping and walking ahead, but in a very odd way – stopping and then restarting at six minute miling. I was gritting my teeth and pushing on, now desperately pushing to record each 6:06 mile that I could.
In the final mile before you turn right to the long finish straight, a huge screen was showing the finish line. I had been looking at pace per mile on my watch, so this was the first time I’d clocked the time – 2:35. I had five minutes to get to the end of the finish straight, just over half a mile. It should be possible, it must be possible, I thought – but that long stretch just never seemed to get closer and the finish line gantry remained as small as ever.
I wasn’t sure I was going to make it – right up until maybe 20 metres to go, when I could finally look up and see 2:39 on the clock and know it wouldn’t have chance to tick over another minute before I crossed the line. I’d made it – 2:39:08.
My immediate reaction was relief, stopping moving, my arms being able to stop from the effort of graspingly pushing myself on in the final stretch. Then clenched fists and a muffled roared ‘yes!’ of sucess. This was a time and a mark I’d wanted to put down for two years, since starting thinking about it with my first sub 2:45 at Manchester in 2017.
In some ways it was all the sweeter for the previous disappointment. Running is not logical and I can’t often describe why it is that I really want to achieve the times that I want to, but the feeling of intense satisfaction and childlike giddiness (I mean I shook hands with a giant bee mascot before getting my medal) was enough to tell me it was worth it.
The logical part of my mind tells me that I want to run times as a legacy – to have a ‘landmark’ PB to look back on, and although I’ll probably never run under 2:30, having a 2:3-something marathon is nice.
Of course looking ahead I know I’m not done – come the end of the year I’m sure I’ll be plotting my way to 2:35, but for now I’ve conquered the marathon for the year.