This is another race I should have done in 2020, but it was delayed twice by the pandemic that swept across the world, changing life as we knew it in its wake. Manchester, up until 2019, had been a race that I'd got a new Personal Best at year after year. In 2019, I didn't have much luck, and for every marathon after that it's been slower and slower for one reason or another. In Berlin, it was the unexpected warmth of the Autumn sun. Maybe though, it was just me. Maybe I'm slowing down, and can no longer hit the targets I'd hoped to.
I didn't really know what to expect for this race, having done Berlin Marathon two weekends ago followed by a lot of miles on foot for the nine days that followed I certainly wasn't anywhere near as rested as I could have been going into a marathon. I also had last minute things to sort as this race would require a lateral flow test in less than 24 hours before the race start. I'd only just had my first ever PCR test less than 72 hours before the race start due to having just gotten back from Germany. At least this one I wouldn't need to post off. Apparently in an email the week before they'd said it was needed within 48 hours of the race, but at 72 hours to go they changed this to 24. For those that knew about this, it shouldn't really be a problem, just a change of when to take it.
Despite everything, I decided to not really think about this race, I'd vaguely aim for the same goals as Berlin, but knowing that I wouldn't achieve them. They were:
- Bronze: Sub-3:10
- Silver: Sub-3:05
- Gold: Sub-3:00
The bronze goal, whilst unachievable, would be almost the bare minimum required to get a new PB. Really though, I think just beating my Berlin time would feel like an achievement, and would be something I should be pleased with if I could do it. It'd be the start of clawing my way back to faster times I'd hope.
On the day before the race I travelled by train using an FFP2 mask, just like I had done around Germany. I felt as it'd worked there, it'd be a good idea to use one for trains in the UK also. Even though masks are no longer mandatory here, I'd rather not catch COVID-19. The plans I'd got to meet up with a friend the day before the race never worked out, and I was unable to change my 19:00 booking for pasta either, so would be a later meal than I'm used to. Perhaps though, with a 10:30 race start that'd be a good thing.
If you've read the epilogue for my Germany trip, then you know to a degree how this day went. I had the stress of being pinged by NHS Test and Trace to deal with, but during the course of the day I had a voided Lateral Flow Test, and then after a trip to boots, a negative one. Not wanting to wait until 19:00 for food, I tried chaning it for an earlier time, and seeing if any other places had a table for one. Unfortunately with two races and a 'home' football game being played, Manchester was very busy. You certainly wouldn't realise there was a pandemic still happening.
Not yet ready to give up, I tried JustEat, and the first place I tried cancelled my order, but Zizzi's were able to come through and got some spaghetti bolognese to me at around 18:00. I was unsure of the place I'd got a reservation for 19:00 would charge me, so I also walked over there a second time after I'd eaten in order to cancel it in person so I wouldn't be a 'no show'. It was okay though, they were incredibly busy and I wouldn't have been seated before at least 19:30 at the best anyway.
That evening my PCR test came back negative as well, so I could go into race day knowing I was COVID-19-free, and ready to run. I'd certainly not taken on anywhere near enough fluids throughout the day though with everything I'd need to do.
I'd only been asleep for a couple of hours when suddenly I sat bolt upright, clutching my left leg due to cramp. It seemed that answered the question of whether I'd had enough fluids or not, and I was able to relax the muscle again fairly quickly. However, it was still very sore. An hour later I tried walking on it, but it wasn't that keen. I wasn't ready to give up just yet, whilst I realised this could be my first DNF, I needed to see what it was like to run on. So, at 07:00 I gave up on trying to sleep, and had breakfast.
I'd packed a collapsible camping bowl, a spoon, some cereal, and a teabag so I could have my usual breakfast before the race. Fortunately, this being the UK it meant that the room did have a kettle for a cup of tea so I didn't need to worry about the portable immersion heater that'd broken at the end of my Germany trip. With a race start that's ninety minutes later than normal, I was a little unsure of my pre-race plan. Just as with previous years, the planned transport strike had been called off, so at least that would in theory be okay. It's the first year I'd be taking the tram to the start and not running all the way there though, so it'd be a new experience for me.
At 08:30 I checked out of the hotel, leaving my backpack behind, and took the tram from St. Peter's Square to Old Trafford. From there I was able to do a mile warm-up (finding my calf coped with it okay), before the window of entering the race village between 09:35 and 09:45. It didn't quite work that way though, everyone had to wait next to Tesco until 09:49, and then walked us all down as a group to the start, just behind the wheelchair athletes and the elites. I was a little too close to the front, so deliberately held back. I could see the 03:00 pacer not too far in front of me, and a 03:15 pacer behind.
During the pre-race announcements they asked people to maintain social distancing. Quite a few people laughed, whilst standing shoulder-to-shoulder and not really having any space to move. We were all packed in like that from about 10:00 until the race started. The race was intended to start at 10:30, but due to them still checking the course, the mass race didn't start until 10:44. I caught up with the 03:00 pacer fairly quickly, and then for the next few miles I stuck with him. I think it may have been the first 5K, but not too long after that first water station I started to edge forward slowly.
After a few more miles I could no longer see the pacer behind me. It didn't feel like I was working that hard, and most miles were between 06:40/mi and 06:50/mi. This was pretty pleasing considering how the leg cramp had been. I started to think that maybe it was going too well. Something had to go wrong. I decided to slow down a bit to conserve more energy, and by this point had started my fuelling plan of 1 jelly baby per mile from mile 8. It was nice to run through the city, and to know I'd be reaching the familiar territory of Trafford soon. I was also trying to visualise where I'd be on a similar training run, sometimes it helps to not concentrate on where I am - I was sure that had got me around the 20 mile training run in the time I had.
Around half way into mile 12 I started to think I should walk, but didn't want to walk. I don't know why I thought I should, my breathing was fine, and sure I could feel some tiredness in my legs but they weren't that bad at all. I then convinced myself if I wanted to, I could walk after I'd reached the halfway point, so I kept going. Eventually I reached the halfway point, and I'd still not slowed down that much. At the pace I was going it might be less likely to get sub-3:00, but it'd still give me a reasonable PB. Then the voice in my head telling me I could walk now got louder. I managed a fraction further, until I reached the hill, and gave in to it. Whatever my time was, this would be yet another marathon that has involved walking. It was frustrating, knowing my training runs, although marginally slower, had gone so much better than this. In some ways I wished that my 20 mile training run that had gone so well was one I'd carried on until 26.2 miles for - at least I'd have known then if I was capable of more.
My plan now was simple: run as much of the remaining miles as possible, and to try and limit walking to just once per mile if I needed to. If I could keep that to around 0.2 miles each, then I might just come close to getting a PB. Plans rarely survive a race though - within a couple of miles I found myself wanting to run twice in the same mile, but I decided that if I only walked the hills, maybe that'd be okay. To a degree, that did help me find the motivation to keep running at times when I felt I may as well walk, but it didn't last.
Around mile 16 I decided to stop fuelling - if I wasn't running consistently then it felt I didn't need or deserve the fuel. Shortly after this I hit the 2 hour mark and that did make me smile briefly - it wasn't a complete disaster maybe as I was almost at 17 miles, but it was going down hill fast. My performance that is, not the race course. Altrincham and Sale were very different experinces to what I've had before. I don't think I've ever walked through Altrincham, but this time I probably walked 50% of it. By now both of the sub-3:00 pacers had passed me, and it wasn't too much longer before the first of the 3:15 pacers passed me, and then shortly after the other. I thought it might rain around here briefly, but within ten minutes the dark clouds, had passed.
It was a shame almost to have not run into the countryside at Carrington, and past the horses as the race has done previously, but by staying in residential and commercial areas it meant this race was well supported pretty much all the way around. I think maybe the quietest part was just after mile 20 where there was a stretch with no supporters, probably because on the other side of the road were other runners heading towards Altrincham as well.
Having had my race fall apart so early, it meant the miles after 18, the point when it traditionally gets hard, for the most part didn't feel that different to mile 14. I was running as often as I felt I could, and having a single sip of water when passing fuel stations. Around mile 20 was when I passed someone being helped by paramedics - the only one I saw on this race, so a much better rate than during Berlin anyway! Whilst it was a tad warm, it certainly wasn't that bad. For the next few miles, I just sort of switched off, and didn't really think about anything.
One of the people performing for the runners, just after mile 22 kept saying: "Only 3 miles to go!". It was just under 4 miles left though! At only 5K left to run, it felt like the countdown was finally on, and I felt I needed to do what I could to beat my Berlin time.
Around mile 24 a runner caught up with me during one of my jogging periods, and asked me if I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. That threw me for a second, "yes?". It turned out he'd been there to, so he was in a similar position to me, but was doing far better at it. I felt so out of practice at doing back-to-back marathons. Looking at my watch I knew it'd be a close call whether I could beat Berlin today or not. I kept doing calculations in my head and felt that I'd get a 3:20-somthing time unless something catastrophic happened now. My calf was starting to feel a little tight,
Once I passed the 26 mile sign I decided I should start running again, and built up the speed a little, and this turned into strides, which turned into a sprint so I could finish the race the way I used to, something I've not done since before the pandemic. For a few seconds after crossing the line it was difficult to catch my breath, but I'd done it in 3:26:59. It wasn't a great time, but on the other hand, I had at least managed to beat my Berlin time - which considering the better conditions shouldn't have been so hard to do. This time put me in position 1,943 of 13,454 finishers.
About thirty minutes after this race, on the tram to St. Peter's Square, there was a moment when I felt sick, though I also felt incredibly hungry. After the race they'd given out water, but other than that there were only gels, electrolyte drinks, and non-alcholic bear. No snacks! I thought we usually do these races to get a free banana. I felt the main positive from this race was that it'd be practice for April 2022 - maybe then I could do something better. Though I was very aware that it wasn't bad luck, it was me. I started to wonder though whether instead of trying to maintain the 06:50/mile pace, whether I should just do 07:05/mi for the next race as that may go better, and I might just get a PB. A difficult decision to make, but it could be a way to turn my running around.
Whilst my previous Manchester race was 3:18, that was in spring; if I look back over other autumn races: Amsterdam and Chicago were both 3:15. To find comparable autumn races I need to look back to 2018 when I got a 3:20 and a 3:30. Just like this year. That was also the year I'd set my 3:12 PB in spring though, so maybe this isn't so bad. A few things have changed since then: a pandemic, a run streak, and I do my long runs in training slower now as it's one of those things that runners more experienced than me harp on about frequently.
Next up is the Leicester Half Marathon in a few weeks time, and will be hoping to get as close to sub-85 time again as possible. I never learn…