My first attempt at the fine art of concise race report writing.
Somewhere there is a little about the running itself, I promise.
I dare you to read the whole thing in one go!
- "Sub-3 Train To Manchester" -
We had it all worked out, early doors.
Sometimes in Nov 2018, Bernard Twinkle-Toes Sexton, Nils-Kristian The-Fastest-Norwegian-In-The-UK Liborg, Laurence Still-Wonderkid Elliott and I (known as the No-Faff Raf) - booked an AirBnB house and train tickets to Manchester.
Greg The-Honeymoon-Fatty Fernandes-Lawes also wanted in, but decided against the bachelor’s team. He shall be travelling and staying with Kimmy F. We fully supported Greg's decision, naturally. Greg sets up a chat group, gives it a pet name "Sub-3 Train To Manchester".
What can go wrong?
- Manchester is the new London! -
No, there's no other mile 23 quite like the one in London, but, as we will learn later, the power of Matt Kay 's high-five counts for plenty and Olivia Parker-Scott 's agility in getting between multiple cheering points is second to none. She must have run a good few miles.
Also - Manchester is cheaper, guaranteed place, it's colder, flatter and, on occasion, even significantly shorter than London! Surely that's the one to go for.
In early December most of us start the focused training - some decide to follow the highly regarded P&D (the minimum mileage version, which we call "The Baby P&D" - up to 55 miles per week). Hardly a stretch for most, really. Some P&D first-timers get impatient in the early weeks due to suspiciously low mileage. Some top it up, race here and there. I just stick with it. I've done it twice to a tee and know that what's coming will test my body to the limits. Unfortunately.
For the next 18 weeks we often meet for group training sessions, in various configurations and places. Be it an extended Sunday Club Run, MP miles around Battersea or Regents Park, joining the Perivale 5k PB Tuesday Track, you name it. It's going great. It's going to be fantastic!
- Casualties -
Apart from fact that where there's marathon training, there are always casualties.
My back flared up in January. At first I thought it's as bad as back in 2017. Pinched nerve, I fell to the floor a few times before getting to a doc. But they gave me some super anti-inflammatory drugs and within a few days I'm back to "normal". Phew. Well, the doc may have mentioned 2-6 weeks "rest", but I was busy reading the dosage instructions and didn't quite record that.
Others are not quite as lucky.
Bernard is out with an Achilles drama. Takes some time off, then resumes the training, but eventually it becomes clear that he's not recovered fully and needs a longer period of more comprehensive physio. One of our main group of 4 AirBnB crew is out. That meant we no longer had to decide which two of the four were going to share a bed (originally 4 boys, 3 beds in the AirBnB house). Boo.
One of Oliver's legs also stops cooperating. Initially it seems like a temporary thing, but the reality is - he needs to make the same tough decision and pull out.
Pretty much everyone else has some sort of a niggle or issue (weak and twitchy bum for Laurence and myself, non-running related groin strain for overly active newlywed Greg), but somehow, luckily, we can fast forward to the race week and no one else is forced to pull out.
- Race week -
Now, to clarify - the "No-Faff Raf" is actually my New Year resolution. And it's 2nd year running.
Therefore I'll just quickly go back to my back. 7 days before the race it flares up again. Surely the nerves must have something to do with it. I only fall to the floor twice (on Sun and Mon). But any sort of movement causes discomfort, I can't lift my left leg to put the shoe on. Bending over without falling over is impossible.
Luckily - I saved half of the drugs from January - I start popping the pills and take the week as easy as possible. Andrew Guy somehow finds new levels of extreme patience, reads (via chat) all about my drama, doubts, worries and manages to help me focus and relax. Accept what may (not) happen. Listen to the body. Let it rest. See how it goes. The magic, carefully timed "you've got this".
By Friday morning - the pain is pretty much gone, I'm just left with the back a bit stiff and an occasional twinge. I'll take that.
So - I focus on having a lovely time with Laurence and Nils. We go shopping, we cook, carb load, we squeeze on a small sofa and watch a blockbuster movie on a phone (there's no TV in the house, instead - the hosts went for a load of female reproductive organ posters, weird hipsters). We drink some awful beetroot juice and pass pink urine. On repeat.
We meet Greg, Kim and Rebecca Jackson at the Stretford Parkrun - does it get any better than this? Life's a dream.
- The Race Day -
Number 2 + 1 (pink, or rather bloody red).
Coffee with clarified butter and coconut oil. Two soft boiled eggs. One piece of toast with avocado. One final Beet-it shot.
Banana. Water with rock salt and lemon juice.
Walk to the race village.
Number 2 (3rd and final, like a pro).
Number 1 - last minute urinals. Finally, feeling empty and ready!
We realise it's 8:45 or so. Start "walking" to the start line.
We enter our pens 2 mins before the gun goes off! Never in doubt. No warm up. No stretching (planned it this way this time).
I high-five Nils and wish him luck for the last time. Laurence, Greg and the rest are in pen B behind us. They'll soon come past with the 3h pacers going for a 1:29 half split, I'm sure, we can say hi then. I tell myself for the final time that the back will be OK, the weather is near perfect, I've never been fitter. I've got this. I'm weirdly calm. What's wrong with me? I luckily have no time to answer this, because...
My pacing strategy - slight amendment from Berlin: cross half-way around 1:29:15 to allow for a slight fading at the end (circa 1min30 positive split).
Aim to run the first 5k/3mi a tad slower than the avg pace required for sub-3 - to get going. But only 3-5s per km slower.
Then try to average 4:12km/6:45mmi for 27km/17mi.
Finally, "allow" to slow down in the final 10.2km/6.2mi to that initial pace again. 2:59:45 or thereabouts. All I need is 2min 19s off my Berlin time, 1.3%.
"Hi Raf" from Tom going past as soon as 1km in I think. He must have been right behind that pen tape. I learn after the race that Laurence was there, too, but sneaked round the other side, didn't want to stress me - what a gentleman. They're racing their own little race. Off you go, boys, I don't want to see you before supper!
Soon after the 3h pacer with the group catches up - they were in pen B at the start, close behind. Together with them: Greg, Jon and Richie arrive. We're all so focused there isn't much of a pleasantries exchange. You wouldn't tell we're club mates! Everyone's saving each and every breath. Well, apart from Richie, who seems the most relaxed of us. Gives me a big old smile. Looks like he's just jogging lazily on the side of a football pitch, before even being told to warm up properly. How do those youngsters do it?! Different league.
I let them go past, as planned. I'd thought this through and focused on not stressing about being left behind by the 3h pacer (or any of the Eagles, especially). I'm racing myself, my back, my pronation, my sweet little bunion, my mediocre economy, my fear of never finishing what I started. Chasing my dreams! That's the one!
So - it's just me and the tarmac. I knew the pacer would go a bit faster, probably around 1:28-1:29 half pace. So I happily let them all go and stick to my pace. Breath in, out, head high, knees up, shoulders relaxed, elbows back and forth. Or at least I picture it this way. And smile.
The 3h group (and Jon, Greg, Richie) are in sight for ages, 50m ahead, tops. It seems that my 3-phase plan works out pretty well. Slightly increased pace keeps me within a short burst of the group, should I get really anxious and want some "shelter". But I'm sufficiently behind to be breathing fresh air instead of their testosterone and sub3-ambition-fuelled sweat and farts.
Fast forward to 15km or so. I feel a little crisis, the concentration goes a bit, and with it the stride, breathing. Some negative thoughts creep in like an unwanted 6-monthly Thames Water bill. It takes me a while to realise. Ha! Almost got me! Nah. "Relax. Take a gel. Spray your face with some water. Focus!". I have a water bottle from the drinks station. Nice and cold, thanks to the weather, hence super refreshing. All over my face. Down the spine, chest, shoulders, groin / quads. That's better.
Someone helpful says "A bit early for that, you better slow down, matey". For a brief moment I smile nervously and feel embarrassed. But then I hear my voice responding: "Thanks. What's your bib number? I bet I'll beat you to the finish". Someone else asks me for the water bottle with a smile. I'm feeling pretty good again. I've got this.
I go through the half way and check my watch for the first time in ages. 1:29:41. Phew. Not bad. About 25s later than planned, but still have a little play. 30s quicker than in Berlin and I'm feeling better.
At some point I realise I'm inside the 3h pace group. They must have slowed a tiny bit, or my rhythm is picking up a tad. I've not really been checking the splits, running to feel. That's good. What's not good is that I was right about that air. It stinks here, like you wouldn't believe! And it's too warm. Surrounded by oxygen-sucking, smelly diesel engines. I've got to get out of here. I feel that running with the group has also forced me to pull up and shorten my stride. So I quickly decide to weave my way out on the next downhill (yes, we hit a series of innocent looking, but pretty steep bridges, it's not all that flat here). Greg must have felt the same, as he's slightly ahead of the group, 50m or so. Good, we're both ahead now. Let's just make sure it stays this way! For me, especially, since the pacer started 10-15s behind me.
I get to Greg around 24km in. He's chugging along nicely, as he does. Jon and Richie are out of sight by now. I speak to Greg a bit, tell him we're doing well. Good pace, not too fast, but gaining that time reserve with each km. Just keep going, relax. We'll be good. We've got this.
I think we were close until around 32km. Not a single word after that initial "chat".
20 miles! It did go fairly quickly I guess. I could say "time flies". I think I'm meant to be fading away a little by now. But I feel like speeding up instead. I mean legs are hurting, I'm not exactly breathing easy, but this is the best I've ever felt at the 20mi mark. I grabbed a gel at the drink stations a couple of times, just to keep my own for a crisis later. They were pretty good tasting. I used the water to cool myself down a couple more times when having a little mini crisis. I let a big "F" word out when tackling another short, steep incline around mile 22 (that made me feel better).
With around 6km to go, I really started feeling the legs. My right quad, hamstring and glute were getting twitchy. I tried changing the stride but immediately felt a near-cramp sensation. It relaxed with me getting back to the previous stride and slowing down a little bit. That's fine, I said to myself, that was always the plan. I can afford a few seconds per km until the finish. Relax! I turn around - the 3h pacer isn't even in sight. I'm good. It's annoying, because I can feel I could go harder than this. But can't ignore the legs.
This is where I knew I needed some positive thinking to get that pain out of my head (and legs, hopefully). I started going through my previous races, especially those successful and most enjoyable ones. Welsh Castles in 2017. Berlin. 37min 10km in Fulham. Ladywell 10.000m. Summer League. Willan XC. River Relays. Edinburgh mara trip with the family. And so on. Then - the Eagles. The social. The banter. Tier 2. Perivale track. All the support from the guys. Andy Guy, putting up with my faff and helping make the right calls. All those previous sub-3 achievers, telling me I'll get there soon. The cheer squads in numerous races.
And then my family. Junior Parkruns together. My wife, somehow still putting up with it all. I picture how I will call her in 30 mins or so and tell her that it didn't work out, but it doesn't matter, because I love her (and she'll fall for it, then I'll tell her I did it!). I laugh out loud. My kids, playing with the medals and asking if I won. Hanna, who I'll soon run with in a buggy (for the first time!). I keep running and smiling to myself.
- The Finish Straight -
Before I realise - I get to that final straight. It's the longest straight in any race on Earth. I've done it 2 year ago, so I remember. You can see the finish line in the distance and you think it's 200m at most. But it's 900m! You immediately speed up. Ouch! That right leg, I forgot. It almost goes. The left isn't much better. I return to the cruise gear. I don't need that sprint finish. It doesn't matter. Keep it together. You can still blow it! I really am stressing now, the legs are very twitchy. In pain. On the edge of cramping up. But I check the watch. I have circa 5 mins. It can't be more than 200-300m, surely?! Around half way to the finish I spot Jon, maybe 200m in front. He's wobbly... Slows down. I get closer, but can't sprint to go and help him! I tell myself "he'll be fine, he's fine, a marshal will help if need be". I get closer. Jon stops. I can't quite see if he collapsed or just slowly crouched. A marshal helps him get up and move. Then lets Jon go. I get closer. Jon struggles on, a few steps, starts bending forward. "F..., he's going to fall on his face!" I get to him in time. Give him a hand. Not sure he knows what's going on. "Come on, Jon, look, it's just there! We've done it! Let’s go, just a few steps! We've got this!". Maybe 100m and we cross the finish line.
The speaker shouts:
- "Wow! Ealing Eagles! West London in the house!"
I check the watch. We have bloody done it!
Laurence comes back to see us. Then Richie. Greg finishes 30s or so later. He's done it, too!
We all do a long, super sweaty group hug. Sit on the road for a few minutes and smile. Do high-fives every minute or so.
Everyone's smiling. Richie looks just as fresh as he did at the start, slacker. More people are coming in now, so we have to get up and go. We get our bling and I spot a photographer, so quickly get the guys together for a group photo. That'll be a good one.
Life's a dream.
Running is life.