Three Steps Along the Road to London by Gary Hobbs

Step One: Middlesex County Cross Country Championships

Why oh why am I unable to just say no to Kieran? What is this strange power he has over me? After somehow letting him talk me into another cross country I am standing frozen in a bleak field somewhere in Greenford learning more than I ever wanted to know about mud, hypothermia and despair. My lesson in pain starts with me being too cold to screw in my new fifteen millimetre spikes (I learnt from staggering down Parliament Hill last year like a new born deer that when it comes to mud six mil just does not cut it). I am so cold that putting in the spikes becomes a three man job (many thanks to you Jeremy and Nils) and we still manage to drop most of them. Then I try to put on my shoes and realise my fingers are no longer working well enough to untie the laces. Fortunately I am standing next to two very helpful strangers who show their kindness by untying them for me and trying to hide their laughter. Unfortunately it carries on going downhill from here when I start pinning on my number. By now I am shaking so much that I end up pinning it to my own fingers more times than I am willing to admit in public. I wipe off most of the blood and, thankfully, the run itself is pretty straightforward.


Step Two: Winter Windsor and Eton Half Marathon

It is snowing. With the benefit of hindsight that could have been a sign.

Today is colder than a Greenford cross country and Trevor Pask and I are off to run around Eton Dorney lake. There was a duathlon before our race so it starts at midday and we can take our time getting there.

When we arrive we find out that after the duathlon there were ambulances packed full of people suffering from hypothermia. Maybe that could have been a sign too. I mean, with the benefit of hindsight of course. If it is, it is too subtle for us and we decide to stay.

Out of courtesy I am not going to say who is in charge of the day (F3 events. Remember the name) but they seem to be a little out of their depth. They (F3 events) are stopping cars coming in and telling everyone the half marathon is being replaced with a 10k as their remaining medical cover is limited. Unfortunately this slows down traffic and causes a long tailback. Runners are unable to get in and the tailback is on one of the roads along which we are meant to be running.

Trevor and I spend the next two hours getting colder and hoping for an announcement that fails to come. To this day I do not know if it was some kind of runners’ grit that stopped us all leaving or just that our feet had literally frozen to the ground.

About a hundred people are still queueing to get their race numbers but the race organisers (F3 events., Did I mention that?) decide to start anyway, setting off later runners in waves. Ready, steady… a few of us set off and are soon running around the lake as the wind freezes our faces and hands mercilessly and slowly turns our eyeballs into ice.

Step Three: Marathon International de Marrakech

I am now in Morocco and I seem to have brought the cold with me. It is warmer than London but still unseasonably cold for Marrakech. The city strikes me as having a very distinctive beauty to it but, as I huddle next to the other runners on the start line, most of what I am going to be seeing for the next few hours is my own feet.

I am not proud of my start. Everyone starts moving and I trot along looking out ahead for the start mat. I see no mat but it slowly dawns on me that the people around me are already going a bit fast and I have the awkward experience of having to ask another runner if we have started yet. It seems we have so I hang my head a little and speed up.

The marathon route is mostly on wide, straight roads that seem to go on forever. After about a mile I hear a ‘hello Ealing’ from behind me and I start chatting to a runner from Kingston on Thames. We fall into step with each other and end up running the next twelve miles together, letting our optimism get the better of us and egging each other on to a pace that is much faster than either of us planned. Steadily, step after step after step, we run smoothly and eat up the distance to the finish. He falls back around the midway stage and I keep my speed up until about the eighteen mile mark.

At this point I look at my watch and see my average pace has dropped by one second a mile. I am not too concerned about this and had planned to pick up my pace around this point anyway: I normally try to push myself a little from about sixteen miles, push harder from twenty miles and then even harder from twenty three.

Thanks to a warning from an extremely helpful member of the crowd I avoid joining the list of runners who have accidentally taking the wrong turning over the years and ending up going along the half marathon route and ending up reaching the finish early.

Left, right, left, right. I push my work rate and that feels alright but when I look at my watch my speed has slightly fallen again. This happens a lot from now on. Left, right, left, right. I keep increasing my effort and I keep getting slower.

We are now running outside the city along almost deserted roads with very few spectators. It is getting hot now. This race does not have the enthusiastic voluntary marshals I am used to seeing at most races. Instead, the route is lined by silent men in uniform – maybe police,  maybe army – standing rigidly to attention. They stare with what I take to be a mixture of indifference and hostility. On the plus side, this does work as great motivation: I feel like they are just looking for an excuse to shoot us and that definitely keeps me going.

At mile twenty four I am starting to cramp and even my fear of imminent death by shooting cannot prevent me stopping to stretch a few times. The next two miles are slow, hard, hot work. Left……………………………………………………………. Right……………………………………………………………. Ouch……………………………………………………………. Stop……………………………………………………………. Stretch……………………………………………………………. Left……………………………………………………………. Etc.

Then I see the finish and the final point two miles are joyful and quick.

I have missed a PB by just under two minutes but I know I will get another chance at my next one in thirteen days’ time.

The aftermath of the race is not particularly smooth. When the results come out I am not on them. Eileen Imrie, showing the same determination and impressive organisation skills she showed to make the Eagles’ stay in Marrakech an enjoyable one, harasses the race director until my result finally gets added.

The marathon was on Sunday and I do not run again until the club run on Wednesday and then parkrun on Saturday, both of which are fine. However, on Sunday I do a 10k in Regent’s Park and it is like the end of Marrakech again: my legs stop listening to my brain. After the race we ditch our plan to run home along the canal and decide that a hot drink is a much better option. On Monday I decide to force myself through eight miles at just under my marathon pace (if I am honest I have no real notion of why I make this decision – I genuinely have very little idea what I am doing when it comes to training for marathons). As I write this, I am in the middle of four days of not running to give my legs a chance for my next one, which is on Saturday.

In this horrible tale of first world problems what I have failed to mention so far is that I bloody love this stuff. I do not know why, but I do. What is more, F3 Events do some lovely races I have really enjoyed. I look forward to my next run and the one after that.

This whole blog does leave me thinking about where I stand for London. What have I learnt from my last marathon? Maybe I started too fast. Maybe I need to start doing track and following a coherent training plan. I have some things to think about now.