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.