Six Star Finisher by Mike Duff

Blood (clots), Sweat and Tears

Seven weeks removed from finishing in Boston I’ve had a chance to think about the journey to my six stars. My Six Star certificate has just arrived this week so now seems as good a time as any to try to write this blog.

People have asked what made me decide to aim for the six stars and assume it must have been some sort of long term goal that I’d been planning for years, but the truth is there was no plan and it was really just a series of random coincidences and unconnected events that led me to it.

London 2016 was going to be my last marathon – I’d already done five previous marathons and my body was feeling broken and battered from them. I’d had to defer from the year before and I didn’t think there was any way I could train for another one without completely breaking myself.

So, the first step on this journey was Angela’s suggestion of joining the Eagles in September 2015 and her getting a coach to train her for her secret marathon debut in Rome. As I’d basically made up my own training programmes for my previous marathons based on very little knowledge, I thought maybe asking for help wasn’t such a bad idea and might get me round London in one piece. Enter Coach Mirka and a complete overhaul of the way I trained so that I was no longer trying to do every training run at flat out pace / kill myself. This is definitely the only reason I’ve managed to get through all six and make the massive PB improvements that I have across all distances so never underestimate the power of knowing when and how to train! I know my approach baffles a few people when I regularly run but hardly ever race Club Champs events and don’t pile up 60 mile weeks every week but it works for me.

Halfway through my training and amazed at how much better my body felt for the change, by chance, I spotted a post on the Facebook page saying that the ballot for New York was open so I decided to stick my name in thinking “my body feels OK - maybe I can do one more and then quit”. By race day I’d found out that I’d been successful in the ballot and so I was going to finish my marathon career in New York – not a bad place to finish – but chance had other ideas…


I had never heard of the Abbot Marathon Majors – no idea what they were, what the races were or what it meant. After picking up my number for London I happened to spot the Six Star medal as I entered the expo section and thought “that’s a pretty impressive medal”. I vaguely noticed that New York was also one of the races but didn’t really give it second thought. Subconsciously, something had obviously struck a chord somewhere as three days later sitting on the Eagles bus to the start line Mirka asked me what was next after London. After a few seconds thought I replied “well, I’ve got New York in the autumn and then I’m going to do the majors and get that big medal”. That was it. No lifelong masterplan, no deep research into, just a spur of the moment decision without knowing what I was getting into.

London itself didn’t go particularly well – my target of sub-3:30 went (along with my hamstring) at 16 miles and to this day I still have no idea who was at Mile 23 as I was in so much pain and desperately concentrating on trying to make some sort of passable impression that I was actually still running as I went past. People ask which has been my favourite of the majors which is almost impossible to answer but I can say without doubt London was my least. Controversial, but I hated almost every minute of it and honestly wouldn’t be disappointed if I never ran it again. Of course, every so often that little voice says “well, obviously you still need to put that performance right don’t you…..” so we’ll see.

After London, my next major should have been New York that autumn but it didn’t quite work out. As some of you will know, having done most of the training I returned from a two-week holiday in California to be diagnosed with a Deep Vein Thrombosis in my right calf. With only a couple of weeks until New York my thoughts ranged from “I could still do it – there’s only a small chance I could die on the flight over” to “I might not actually be allowed to run again so this six star journey might be over before it’s really begun”. Spoiler alert – I didn’t run New York, I didn’t die and I can still run.

Instead of New York my second major ended up being Tokyo the following February. I’ve written about my recovery and training in my Tokyo race report so I won’t bore you with it here. Suffice to say, it was an amazing experience from start to finish and the Eagles I’ve spoken to that have run it since have said the same – the city, the atmosphere and the people make it an unforgettable trip with locals amazed that you would want to visit their city and going out of their way to welcome you.


Post-Tokyo with some random bloke we met on the street             


A rather damp Berlin in front of the Reichstag

Third up was Berlin that autumn. Fully recovered I had optimistically targeted 3:15 and upped my training considerably. Anyone who follows me on Strava will have noticed that since the start of my training for Berlin I have an almost OCD approach to doing every training session scheduled, on the day it’s scheduled, at a scheduled metronomic pace. Ok, so there’s no “almost” about it, but sticking to this and not racing races for the sake of it during training has meant that I’ve got to the start line in each major feeling stronger than the one before.

Berlin always has that added buzz to it that you might just be in the same race where the world record is broken – I can’t think of any other sport where us mere mortals take part in the same event, in the same arena at the same time as the elites. That year Wilson Kipsang was rumoured to be targeting the record but failed to finish and a certain Eliud Kipchoge won but weather conditions put paid to the record and my 3:15. If rain and high humidity are a good enough excuse for not breaking the world record then it’s a good enough excuse for me. Still, ending up with a big PB, a large post-race pizza and a few steins of beer on Unter den Linden with a flock of fellow Eagles more than made up for it.

Next up was my deferred New York entry from the previous year. Having run Berlin six weeks before I went into this one with the target of taking it easy and enjoying it – do the first 20 miles in 8 minute miles and then slow down for the last 6.2 and soak up the atmosphere. It’s amazing the difference it makes when you’re running well within yourself rather than constantly trying to set a new PB in a race whether it’s a parkrun or a marathon. I enjoyed every minute of it with the exception of the Queensboro Bridge between 15 and 16 miles which was an absolute killer even at training pace. The last two miles through Central Park were truly memorable.

New York easily has the best on-course support of any of the majors. Other than when you’re on the bridges, there isn’t a road that isn’t lined at least 2 or 3 deep on both sides which helped overcome the miserable weather. From the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge right at the start of the race you should have majestic views over the Statue of Liberty and New York skyline but the driving rain and mist meant we could only see about halfway across the bridge. I didn’t realise until we were on the ferry to the statue the next day how close we’d been to it but it was completely obscured.

Crossing the finish line in New York

Crossing the finish line in New York


Chicago race day

I had a brief diversion from the majors to run Vienna in spring 2018 in 30°c heat but got back on the chase in the autumn with Chicago. Qualifying to be in Corral B was quite an experience and pretty daunting. I could just about make out the elites up ahead and looking around at the other runners in the pen was rather intimidating – I felt a serious case of imposter syndrome. Another attempt at a big PB was thwarted by torrential rain and howling gales (anyone starting to notice a pattern here?). It was probably better than the heatwave they’d had the previous year and, to be fair, it was as much my over-ambitious push from halfway to 20 miles as the weather so I can’t really complain about ending up with a 10 second PB instead of the 10 minute one I’d imagined.

And finally to Boston.

Up until this point I couldn’t tell people which of the majors had been my favourite but even on the Saturday, two days before the race, I could tell this was going be special. Yes, the fact it was my final major might have helped but, even without that, there is just something special about Boston in race week. The other majors have huge crowds, big expos, but seem to be confined just to the race route and the “fans” whereas the Boston marathon seems to simply take over the entire city and suburbs. Shops, restaurants, bars all have marathon specials and every person you meet is running, has run it or is congratulating you on running. Everywhere you look there are Boston Marathon celebration jackets from years gone by mixed in with the current edition. They even go to the extent of repainting the finish line once the race has finished so people can spend the next week being photographed on it.

I approached this one a bit differently to the previous ones given that it was my last major. I’d trained for around 3:05 and was going to start out aiming for a PB but see how I was at halfway. If I felt good, I’d keep pushing and if it was a struggle I would slow down and enjoy it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it was the latter. The crazy weather conditions that hit the city for the whole time we were there meant any thoughts of a time went out of the window but also meant that I could fully soak up the atmosphere and really enjoy the experience. The last mile or so was an emotional experience for a number of reasons which I mentioned in the Facebook group and there were a few tears shed as I collected my Six Star medal and then again in the reunion area with Angela but I couldn’t have asked for a better place to finish the journey.

Finish straight in Boston

Finish straight in Boston


Doing these majors has taken me around the world – I would never thought of visiting Japan, Chicago or Boston but would go back to all of them. The journey has left me with so many amazing memories and provided me with so many different experiences. There has been the general camaraderie between the runners – meeting people you’ll never see again but share a few minutes with at the expo, the bus ride to the race start with or spend a couple of hours running along side during the race. Then there are the individual things you take away from each race.

From Tokyo, the two girls dressed as geishas at the Friendship Run that were giving out origami good luck messages to the marathon runners, the seemingly endless number of weird and wonderful mascots, the genuine warmth of everyone to the overseas runners and the strange mixture of neon and noise with temples and zen gardens.

From Berlin, the inline skating marathon on the Saturday, running amongst so much recent history from the site of JFK’s 1963 speech to running through the Death Strip between East and West where 30 years ago you would have been shot dead, passing under the Brandenburg Gate and running the same course that the world record has been set on so many times.

The incredible crowds of New York – coming from the silence and solitude on the Queensboro Bridge and then being met with a wall of noise as you turn onto 1st Avenue, the mini-version of the Olympic parade of nations for the runners and getting a handshake and look of amazement from an NYPD officer when he realised I had finished, gone back to the hotel, showered, changed and made it back to meet Angela as she finished (she’s asked me to point out that she wasn’t THAT slow, she was in a later wave!).

In Chicago, taking the school bus to the expo, starting so close to the front, potentially having the race cancelled due to civil unrest and eating Pizano’s pizza.

And pretty much the whole experience of Boston.

So, what advice can I give?

  1. If you’re thinking of taking up the Six Star challenge or even just an overseas marathon or race then go for it. The experience is fantastic (if expensive) and it’s a great way to see a city and experience the culture.

  2. Have a supportive wife who doesn’t mind going on holidays around the world (thanks Angela!)

  3. Have a supportive coach who tells you when you’re being an eejit (thanks Mirka!)

  4. If you qualify for Boston, run it!

  5. Never run a marathon that I’m also running in. There will be rain, thunderstorms, howling gales, hailstones, 30°c heat, humidity, baking sun or, in the case of Boston, all of the above.