Leicester Marathon Past and Present

It’s a crisp October morning in 2008, somewhere in Watermead park just outside Leicester. I am 21 miles in to the Leicester marathon. I am also in not inconsiderable pain. I had trained really hard over the previous months and was in tip top shape, so it was with great hubris that I set off at a hilariously optimistic pace. I was over confident and decided I wanted to be ahead of as many people as possible and pushed the pace right from the hooter. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really realised that the marathon and half marathon races set off together and around 6 and a half miles in pretty much everybody around me that I had been racing turned left, running, as they were, half the distance I was.

Undeterred by the realisation I had clearly set off too fast I continued to run uncomfortably quickly, even when I started to have waves of mild cramps and even when I felt a sharp pain in my knee mounting a curb at mile 19. Two miles later it all went, I think the technical term is, tits up.

Riddled with crippling cramps in many of my major leg muscles, including some I was previously unaware of, and a persistent pain in the outside of my knee, not dissimilar from being stabbed by a hot knitting needle, I hobbled, stumbled, walked and shuffled the remaining 5 miles. I was in such a state I failed to notice Rugby legend Martin Johnson enthusiastically cheering the runners on with about half a mile to go. I wasn’t carrying a watch so I will never know what kind of preposterous pace I went through the first 21 miles in but a conservative estimate is that those last five miles took 80 minutes and I finally collapsed over the line in Victoria Park in 3 hours 39 minutes and 21 seconds.

Fade to the same park, its raining heavily and an older, greyer and slightly anxious looking me is hopping up and down quite far back in the toilet queue whilst a PA announces it is five minutes to race time. A big caption runs along the bottom of the screen. TEN YEARS LATER.

It is such a long time since I last did a big city road race I had forgotten quite how many people turn up for these things. Hence, we arrived late (my fault), couldn’t find anywhere to park (my fault) and I had to stuff my breakfast in to my face in the car with twenty minutes to go (also my fault), before jumping out and jogging to the start. Did I mention I also forgot my phone?

I was so flustered when I finally got out the cubicle I wasn’t even sure which end of the mass of waiting runners was the front, so squeezed through the barriers about half way down to play it safe. I was still tying my laces when the claxon went.

After setting what transpired to be my marathon PB in 2008 and picking up an incredibly painful ITB injury that lasted months in the process I drifted away from road racing in any meaningful sense. But this summer I started to get a taste for the rhythm and focus of distance road running again and wondered what ten years had done to me physically. What could I do on the tenth anniversary of the race. Yes, it was an unmitigated tactical disaster but I was in excellent shape. Could a less fit, slightly ahem heavier, veteran version of me employ experience to compensate and get somewhere close to my PB. I didn’t really have any expectations but secretly I hoped to have not lost more than a minute a year. So around 3:50 would be acceptable.

Training didn’t go entirely to plan, I only gave myself a couple of months to train and had two weeks off training to go on holiday 6 weeks before the race and a few days after coming home on my first run out I badly sprained my ankle. Then on my final long run I felt really unwell and had to phone home to be scooped up and woke the next day to sinus problems and headaches that dragged on for ten days. I have been suffering with a painful tennis elbow (ironic as I hate tennis) exacerbated by holding my arm bent at the elbow and swinging it for three hours at a time – which is unfortunate – and even had to have emergency dental work two days before the race. All in all, I have been feeling every one of my ten extra years recently. Worst of all the race instructions came through and in all caps on the bottom it said;

HEADPHONES ARE PROHIBITED IN THIS RACE. ANYONE CAUGHT WITH THEM WILL BE DISQUALIFIED.

So, I was on my own. If times got dark I would have to pull myself out, there was no reaching for Taylor this time!

I was experimenting with a novel approach to the race this time; a plan. I had broken down the race into small chunks. Step one was to keep my cool until the marathon and half marathon fields split. Easier said than done when the same runner cuts diagonally across your line twice within two hundred yards and whole clumps of people suddenly pull up in front of you without warning because of a puddle. It was lashing it down! I mean really lashing it down.

I applied the same zoning out idiots technique I use in open plan offices to stay calm and remembered what the late great Brendan Fraser (is he dead, maybe not) London Marathon coverage mantra – Start slow get slower. Every time I felt like I was running well I just eased back slightly. When the split came I peeled off in a loose group of four and settled into phase two.

The Depeche Mode phase. Enjoy the silence. After the chaos of a mass start down a dual carriageway within a quarter of a mile I was running on my own down jittys and country lanes. Relax and find a rhythm until my first predetermined time check at ten miles. My intention was to roll along at a consistent 8min mile pace, that meant mile ten should come at approximately 10:07 on my watch, eighty minutes after I crossed the start line. With some trepidation I flicked my wrist over as I passed the mile marker for the first time since we set off to see the uncanny sight of 10:07. I have always been tragically punctual but that was something else.

I had my first scheduled food intake, despite not being hungry, just before the drink station and carried on plodding. I was unsettled for a while by an unfamiliar feeling. I was serene. I have never felt serene during a race before. It took some getting used to. I continued through the next phase of my plan which was plod, one or two mouthfuls of water at each drinks station, no more no less, plod, check watch every three or four miles, no more no less, plod, continue to eat a little bit every few miles, plod. And for god sake whatever you do don’t think about running. At about seventeen miles my ankle and elbow were hurting so next water station I popped a couple of ibuprofen and continued to plod.

The final stage of my plan was a bit fluid, it basically depended on what my watch said at twenty miles and how knackered I was. Options were, continue my relentless rhythmical plodding, give it everything and go for a good time or hang on for dear life and haul myself over the line at all costs.

I knew my pace had slipped ever so slightly but I made a deal with myself, if I passed through 20 miles by 11:30 I would choose option B. nervously I turned my wrist over and there it was 11:29. Done. Suddenly I it was the mid-nineties and I was playing mariokart on the Snes. Time trialing on rainbow road. Ahead of me was a little ghost me of performances past that I was chasing down. Much like a pudgy, wrinkly, shiny dome topped tortoise – that is obviously not a metaphor – I was closing in on that springy youthful hare.

I set myself little goals each mile had to be covered by a specific time and as I achieved each target my spirits lifted and this time around as the course snaked back through the city centre I cut a fine (eg not a shambling zombie) figure as I weaved through the Sunday shoppers.

My last target was 12:15 for mile 25. I passed the marker, 12:16. 11 minutes to cover the final 1.2 miles. Easy. Except it was all uphill. It was torture, I am sure an old lady with a shopping trolley was keeping pace alongside me as I covered the final rise to the end of the finishing funnel but I was slightly delirious by then with the exhaustion and had torrential rain in my eyes.

I knew if the big clock said anything less than 3:40 when I crossed the line then I had beaten my ghost. But there wasn’t an effing clock! So, I expended every last ounce of energy to dip for the line without any idea if it was worth it.

It didn’t really matter though because I had kind of triumphed (bit grandiose that, sorry) anyway because I hadn’t run like an absolute tool. Which is pretty much a first.

My bedraggled family were waiting in the rain and lead me back to the car (they had found the car park) where I rung about a gallon of water out of my kit and we ordered a pizza.

Later that afternoon I fired up the internet and there it was, the result. 3:38:21. 49 second pb. Get in. Old me rocks. At this rate of improvement I will break 3 and a half hours when I am 152, so there is that to look forward to.

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Leaden Boot Challenge – 21st May 2017

Overweight – check

Unfit – Check

Insufficient training – check

Ill thought out race plan – check

Perfect preparation for 26 miles of relentless hills around Dovedale and the Manifold valley. But, I am not going to let that put me off. You have to be in it to…..well…obviously not win it that would be ridiculous.

Now, no one wants to listen to excuses, we’ve all dropped a jar of salsa on our toes or put our back out doing karaoke the night before a race, but this has been a testing year for me. I had a chest infection over Christmas that triggered latent asthma that I only got diagnosed 6 weeks ago. In April I contracted a nasty stomach bug, a consequence of which, I discovered I had been suffering with an ulcer for some time and have been taking medication since.

As a result of this I haven’t been running as much or as well as I normally do which then has the knock on effect of destabilising my precarious mental state. I am a well balanced person. No really, the two halves of my bipolar disorder cancel each other out perfectly. Thank you, I am here all week. Seriously though, running cheers me up when I am down and takes the edge off when I am bouncing off the walls.

All of which is to say that simply making it to the start line and feeling generally positive that I won’t collapse half way around and start crying into my chocolate raisins is a result.

After a week of torrential down pours the weather was looking pretty good. this was further reinforced by Bill Withers assuring me it was going to be a lovely day via the medium of Smooth FM on the way there. I am not sure he is a trained meteorologist but it put me in the right mood.

My mood improved further on arrival, because walking right in front of my van as I parked was former Harrier, erstwhile Sunday running buddy and lapsed friend Paul ‘Captain’ Marvel. This man once ran the London marathon in 3:07 on a twice a week training schedule and I have seen him run 20 miles with a hangover of the type that only normally happens to TV private eyes. It was great to catch up and discover that he tore his hamstring 10 weeks ago playing hockey so was equally trepidatious about the route.

The race started and I was staggered to be left behind almost instantly by at least a dozen people who had made even more comically ambitious pacing decisions than me. As someone who steadfastly refuses to learn his lesson from going off too quickly I have sympathy, but these guys hurtled down the slope from Alstonfield to Milldale like they thought they had entered the Dovedale Dash, rather than a brutal marathon distance cross country.

I resisted my instinct to be pulled along, but nevertheless when the first climb came to the Nabs I was already going forward through the placings, passing sweaty and slightly panicked looking runners, puffing heavily. At the top of the hill, about a mile or so in I was in a nose bleed inducing 8th position. I knew I was going to fast and I knew I would pay later, but when people start slowing in front of you its hard not to push on.

Pushing on was a concept that a runner from Shelton Striders was taking to epic proportions, being as he was a good 200 yards clear of second and about a quarter of a mile ahead of me already.

The first of 8 check points arrived and I was in the now ridiculous position of 4th and descending back down to Dovedale I realised I was now only 50 yards behind a distinctly ‘wheels coming off’ Shelton – bearing in mind we still had about 22+ miles to go, he was going to have a very long day – and it wasn’t long before, whilst climbing out the outside of the valley, I slipped past him to crest the Ilam side in 3rd.

Now, I’ll just put this out there now, don’t get excited by the prospect of a plucky underdog making good, I will go backwards later.

A long winding descent through sheep fields took us into Ilam Hall and CP2. I gave the old thumbs up to the waiting runners families’ necked my squash and ploughed on feeling pretty good, but also quite aware that I really wasn’t fit enough to sustain this for the full distance. Still its good whilst it lasts right.

And despite that nagging sense you get that someone is approaching behind you but you know you’re not supposed to look around and check because that spurs them on, lingering in the back of my mind, I kept moving through the next stage, up a long slow ascent through a pretty glade and over the next hill to CP3.

The marshals looked all flustered and said that I had arrived too early, which is odd as two people had already been through before me, but I felt a little glow of pride that I was going so well. I of course undermined this immediately by running the wrong way out of the check point and mistaking the shouts and gesticulations of the marshals as encouragement for a good couple of hundred yards before I realised that cheering someone on doesn’t usually take the form of everyone pointing repeatedly with increasing fervour towards a gate. By the time I got back on course the runner who had been trailing me had nipped through and thus ended my time in the medal positions.

Then it was the point of the race when you just keep moving. Everything hurts, you’re really tired and you zone out. We descended to the manifold valley and picked up the cycle path for a bit before turning off on to an abrupt climb to Grindon. Wow. That was steep. even walking it was tough and my legs were screaming. Time for a sausage break. Cold sausages are my refuel of choice. Self contained, fit in your hand, perfect. Anyway that distracted me to the top of the climb and CP4.

There was a little out and back to the check point and it confirmed what I suspected. A group of four runners who had set off at a more realistic pace were gaining on me. I eyeballed them as we passed. I gave them my best intimidating death stare. The one where I nod and smile and say well done and they were gone, but I knew my days were numbered.

Nevertheless I still worked hard and made it through another couple of miles over the hill and down to Wetton mill before the inevitable and they passed me as we crossed the river. All in all I had held my own for 10 miles.

We turned off to the right and immediately started climbing again, up to Ecton trig point. I was starting to suffer quite badly now, but so, it seemed, was everyone else. We trudged in a slow spread out single file for what seemed like a very long time up and over the top. On the way down the other side my thighs decided that they had had enough and responded but agonising cramps on every foot fall. the only way I could descend was to turn my whole self sideways and come down like a cautious pensioner on their way downstairs to breakfast.

At the bottom was CP 5 and a depressing sign informing me I still had 11 miles to go. But whilst shuffling along the cycle path to the next, all to imminent, ascent I passed someone looking worse than me and was briefly back up to 7th. Then began a long climb to Sheen hill. And by long I mean about two miles. Still I knew, from my recce, that this was the last substantial climb and if I could make it up there I might just survive the race. So through a combination of walking, jogging and yomping, I topped out and turned into CP6. Somewhere along the way three people cam passed me, but hey, I was alive so mustn’t grumble.

The next stretch was bleak, the weather had turned and I could see no other runners, in front or behind, and three miserable miles later I self clipped CP7 only 5.5miles to go. And then I reached my nadir (I got that from a dictionary, it means shittest bit). I was exhausted and I knew I had another hour to run. it was all my effort to put one foot in front of the other.

So I turned to the one thing I always turn to in the darkest moments of an event. The one thing I know will save me. Taylor Swift. Ear buds in. volume up. shut out the pain. shut out the world. By the time I got to ‘Are We Out of The Woods’ – which I obviously don’t need to tell you is track 4 – I was. Figuratively, not literally, as I was actually running through some woods down to Hartington at the time.

Out of the last CP in Hartington after sharing some jovial banter with the marshals and consuming more chocolate raisins than is strictly speaking sensible, I moved into Narrowdale and within a couple of miles of the end. By now I was on ‘Wildest Dreams’ (track 10) and had reached the state of delirium that often effects me at such times. So that is how it came to pass that a slightly pudgy forty something man was running along in the middle of nowhere ‘grobbing’ (grinning like an idiot whilst simultaneously sobbing)

A mile from the end and the course opened out, and much to my utter amazement I was no more than 2 or 3 hundred metres behind the group of four that had passed me two hours before. far from being cut adrift I was actually closing. It didn’t matter as there was no time left to catch them but I felt great because I was not dead and buried. I was not just hanging on I was going well again.

Unfortunately I also caught site of the runner behind me who was running like a man possessed. charging towards me like his trousers were on fire. I knew we had 5 minutes of running left and to hang on to my precious top 10 position I had to work as hard as I could. I pushed and pushed, ripples of cramp surging through my legs. Stopping and starting again at every gate was torture and he was getting ever closer. Finally I turned on to the road and passed the village sign. I could hear the crowds clapping. I used the last little bit of energy I had to stumble in to the car park and through the village hall doors to claim my place.

5 hours 20 minutes. 10th place.

And who came in 2 minutes behind me? Bloody Paul Marvel that’s who. I had no idea he had been chasing me for miles, it turns out.

So, in summary, pretty good day at the office. Got sun burnt, I can’t really walk anymore, but happy. And Smooth FM played me ‘I’m Doing Fine Now’ on the way home to emphasise the point.