Training for a marathon takes time. It takes enough time that there's plenty that can go both wrong and right during the months it takes. I like to start my marathon training off a base of regular running so I've got something to build on - usually for a spring marathon that means a run streak in December to see how many miles I can do, a day or two off over Christmas, and then the training begins proper.
This time my plan was different - I'd booked a couple of races in December so was going to use this as an early build-up so I could then have a few months of being almost marathon-ready so I could work on speed and a little consistency. I wanted more than anything to get that little bit closer to a Boston qualifying time. As is usual for me, my plan at the start of training was to achieve one of three times:
- Gold: 3:05
- Silver: 3:14
- Bronze: 3:17
I didn't realise at the time how unrealistic they'd become.
The first of these races was a little slower than planned, but that was okay. The second however, never actually took place - it coincided with the first snowfall of the winter season and caused the race to be postponed until the new year. Not wanting to change my plans too much I tried to run in the snow, but had to cut it short due to the ice.
Fast-forward to January and amidst more snowfall and ice, training still wasn't going entirely to plan. I'd not managed any runs as far as the two 16 mile ones I'd done in December, and was fast approaching an early start to race seasaon. At that point, things started to turn around, even if only for a while - I made the leap from the slow 10-12 mile long runs I'd been doing, to try my first 18 mile run since that time running with the lovely @EmaJoyC in November.
In February the bouts of snow and ice continued and interrupted long runs and speed sessions. Racing a 10K in London felt controlled and easy - I got a satisfying time without needing to go "all out" to get it. Perhaps it'd be okay. I then managed a personal best of almost a minute at a half marathon where I'd not gone "all out" either. I had hopes that a sub-90 half would soon be on the cards.
March should have been focusing on distance, with a couple of races thrown in to see how I was progressing. The first of these got delayed due to heavy snowfall and would instead take place the weekend I'd ideally be doing my longest run - 14 days before the marathon. The second of these was another go at the half - but again snow was forecast and this was cancelled on the morning of the race. With the ice as it was - I couldn't run at all. A week later was the postponed Ashbourne 10, and very little time to get more miles done. By race day I'd done 22 miles once, but four weeks before race day.
I've never felt so unprepared for a marathon, least of all a spring one. Worrying I'd given myself food poisoning a few days before certainly didn't help.
Me being me, even though I'd not packed until the last minute I'd made a list of what I'd need to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything. This made it a nice casual start to the day until it was time to take the train north. I'd be arriving early, but had no plans, and nowhere to be. I couldn't even check into the hotel until after 15:00.
Fortunately one of my favourite people lived in Manchester for a while and suggested a few places for me to check out. I was a little dubious as they sounded like shopping places, and I'm not really a fan of that - but knew I could trust her. The train journey felt longer than normal, it didn't help that there was standing room only for the first hour which isn't what you want the day before a marathon. For the second part of the journey I was sitting in front a couple of ladies, one of which told me she'd got a Championship place for London in a couple of weeks. It shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise to hear she planned on setting off at 06:00/mi. What a pace!
In Manchester I walked around slowly, I didn't want to tire my legs out too much. I walked from Picadilly to the New Quarter to photograph grafitti, and then found Affleck's Palace - another place that had been suggested to me. It's an emporium filled with loads of small, privately run stores. It was quirky, but cool. I really did need my camera!
For once I was booked into a hotel that would be comfortable to give me the best chance of sleeping before the race. The lady on the front desk commented: “you have a nice name, it just rolls of the tongue” then repeated my name a few times. Hang on, I have no idea about this sort of thing, but was she actually flirting?! I wouldn't have thought so, but it was amusing.
After a couple of hours relaxing I went over to the nearby Pizza Express and ate with some fellow #ukrunchat-ers. As usual, even though it's not on the menu I asked for spaghetti bolognaise - it's always worth asking as they often don't advertise everything they can do. Sure enough they had something that closely resembled it.
With carbs consumed, all that remained was the race. I wasn't sure I really wanted to do it, but I wasn't going to back out.
I awoke at 00:30 and then never really went back to sleep. It’s strange that even with eleven marathons and four ultras behind me I still don’t sleep that much before a big race. I do know it’s likely I slept in chunks after that though.
After the usual pre-race breakfast, I thought a warm-up jog of just over half a mile would be a good idea. It’d loosen my legs, and keep me warm. This took me to the usual #ukrunchat meet-up before the race, outside of Hotel Football. A fog shrouded the city, and it seemed like it could rain at any minute. Maybe that waterproof poncho I’d packed would have come in useful.
My stomach bubbled as I made my way to start area B. I’d signed up for this race with hopes of a new PB but now it seemed impossible. I looked around me, and it looked like they’d all be faster runners than me. They were all in club vests, and were like giants. I’d never started a marathon so close to the front; I wasn’t sure I fit in. It didn't even feel like I was about to run a marathon.
When the running legend Ron Hill fired the starting pistol we shuffled forward and began to pick up speed approaching the start line. With Manchester, at least, I have a habit of starting too fast. Usually I’d try to reign in the pace a little after the first mile but this time I was thinking I’d be doing really badly so I may as well get some speed in whilst I could.
The first mile through Trafford passed by in 6:48. I could see the 3:00 pacer ahead of me and over the next eight miles or so I kept on his heels. It was faster than I would normally risk, but I suspected my legs would give up earlier than usual no matter what speed I went. Seeing a notification on my watch early on from one of my best friends really helped give me the kick I needed.
I felt surprised that the miles through the housing estate lasted longer than I remembered - I'd pictured the race as a quick loop around the houses, and then straight down to Sale and Altrincham. It's funny how memories can play tricks on you.
At mile 6, entering Sale, I decided I should have water; but it was too crowded so kept on going. There’d be another chance in another three miles anyway. Some of the runners did pass their water bottles around to other runners if they needed it, but I didn't manage to get one. I'd not seen this sort of camaraderie in a marathon before.
When I reached Altrincham I'd just started using jelly babies, for fuel, and I realised I had a chance to get a half marathon PB. It was tempting. Very tempting. Instead I held my pace, and eased off the speed when I thought it sensible. I reached the half way mark in a time that would have been a PB before the MK Winter Half just over a month ago. It felt like proof that if I can get this close to it in a marathon then it really has been bad luck that I’ve not yet managed sub-90. It could have happened today. I have hope now that I'll get that elusive time this year.
I'd started to lose sight of the 03:00 pacer, but felt I was still on target for 03:05. For my age group, as it stands until May, that would be the GFA time I'd need for London. That is, if I wanted to do it again. What on Earth was happening?! With training as it'd been, this should not have been a possibility.
I had to admit though, in my concentration over those miles I'd forgotten to fuel. I grabbed three jelly babies from the bag in my pocket and slowly chewed on them - not wanting to introduce them into my digestive system too quickly. I was also starting to feel the miles in my legs and decided it was time to ease off. So miles 15 onwards were the first miles consistently slower than 07:00/mi. It was probably for the best as this was the long hill up to Brook Corner and the turn towards Ashton upon Mersey and Carrington.
On this long hill, the only real one on the course, I spotted @designrach whose birthday it was. She was waving frantically, so I waved back and wished her happy birthday as we passed.
From Brook Corner things were really starting to become hard work. It was looking more likely that I'd get a time between 3:10 and 3:20, though I couldn't be sure what. I figured anything around 3:15 would be nice, as then I'd at least be close to me 3:15 goal (which coincidently is actually slighty slower than my "silver" goal for this race). I wanted to keep going, I didn't want to walk and thought slowing down might just do it.
As I passed the mile 18 marker I needed a brief rest. I slowed to a walk, and stared at my watch - making sure I walked for no more than a minute. How much more time would I lose by walking? Could I still maintain my streak of PB-ing at Manchester? It'd be nice.
For each mile that now passed, mostly, I was getting slower. It was getting harder to minimise the walking time during each mile split. I found myself walking more frequently, but in most cases for less time. When I realised I'd got 5K left to go, it felt like I could run what was left. I couldn't, but it felt like I might have been able to. This resulted in a couple of slightly quicker miles, but it didn't leave my legs in very good shape for the finish.
I tried to sprint along that last straight, but every time I increased speed my legs cramped up causing a sort of weird hobble. Okay. Not ideal, but I'll work with it. I crossed the finish line in 3:12:26 - position 897 of 9340 (first 9.6% of finishers). I couldn’t believe it. How was this possible when I’d been behind on training, and it hadn’t gone to plan. I sailed past my goal of 3:15, the first of my 2018 goals. Malawi marathon will be slow, it’s on sand; but now I have a new goal in mind for Chicago should I manage to fit in enough training.
I think with this race comes a lesson. Never give up on your goals - you never know what will happen on race day. Thank you to all those who supported me, and congratulated me after the race - it was very much appreciated!
In terms of recovery, my legs actually don't feel too bad. I walked at least three miles around Manchester after the race and by the time I got home they were feeling pretty good. One hot bath later, and now I'm ready for active recovery to begin tomorrow with some cycling.