The first time I ran a marathon the famously grey and drizzly city of Edinburgh was blessed with a 30 degree heatwave leaving swathes of lycra clad casualties strewn across the city suffering from heatstroke and sunburn. Combined with my lack of training and abence of natural ability, the stupendously hot conditions led to a time I wasn’t particularly pleased with, although I remained happy to have finished without a trip to A and E.
For my second attempt at 26.2 I chose Manchester, and the Gods of Marathon thought it would be ironic and amusing to test out the other end of the weather scale with artic temperatures and a rain storm of bilbical proportions. As I arrived at Longford Park at 7.15am I was met with a shower of hail and a gale that quickly had me digging through my post race bag to add an extra layer to the 2 tops I had decided would probably be enough to run in. As luck would have it, I had donned a rubbish old pair of running tights to wear until the start when I planned on ditching them and running in my shorts. Those rubbish tights, (Crane – £6 from Aldi and too big for me), are still in my possesion and having saved me from frostbite I have become so fond of them I may keep them forever!
The realization began to spread amongst those runners huddled under trees or sheltering in the toilets that this wasn’t just going to be a bit wet and a bit nippy. As the Trees of Longford Park bent double in the gale, and rain squals lashed the park, the thought of taking off pre-race fleeces and coats filled us with dismay. It was weather you wouldn’t take a dog out in! It was weather I wouldnt take my mother in law out in.
The start line huddle provided a little bit of warmth in the same way those penguins in the Artic take it in turns to be on the outside whilst the others shelter together in the middle. We could probably have done without Ron Hill regaling us with tales of past victories and delaying the start as the 5,500 asembled souls desperately wanted to start running to generate a little heat! At a couple of minutes past 9 Ron had run out of stories and we were off up the road and splashing our way past Old Trafford.
I had attached myself to the 3:45 pacer group with the intention of steady 8:35 pace until at least half way. My marathon pace was a little quicker than this, but I was determined not to make the usual mistake of going off too fast and paying for it in the second half. One quick pee stop later and I was going too fast to catch back up with the pacer! At this stage the weather was bad but not horrific. The wind was generally at our backs so that although soaked to the skin we were able to keep body temperatures high enough for this just to be thoroughly uncomfortable.
The general consensus amongst those chatting was that nobody minded a bit of rain, (this was Manchester after all), but the sleet and hail was a bit uncalled for! The first few miles the spectators seemed to be suffering more than the runners as they cheerfully clapped us on wrapped up like polar explorers. I got a boost at about 3 miles in when I passed Maria Lowe who was energentically picking out the club vests and shouting support to everyone who went past. Her husband Shaun was probably blasting through 5 miles with Dave Collins at the point I passed her at 3!
Throughout the route the people of Manchester were out in numbers making a fabulous racket in support. They crowded into bus shelters banging wooden spoons in cooking pots, whistling and yelling and cheering. As we trotted past one particular bus stop packed with noisy supporters, the guy next to me made me chuckle with, “they’ll be a while waiting for that bus…” My own support began at 10 miles on the road into Altrincham where a couple of work colleagues, (Pat and Chris), were waiting for me. It really does help to break the race down from an overwhelming 26.2 miles into smaller chunks with milestones like friends and familly waiting at points on the way. I had been looking forward to spotting these two for a couple of miles and it was a delight to spot their fab banner:: ” Go Graham – theres a pie in it for you!”
A quick systems check and I realized that with only 10 miles gone I wasn’t feeling as comfortable and easy as I would have hoped to at this point. I wasnt exactly struggling but the effort required to run in the now blustery winds was taking more out of the tank than expected. Altrincham gave a huge boost to the spirits with hundreds upon hundreds packed into the town centre making as much noise as I have ever heard at a football match. It was a real shiver down the spine moment to run through this wall of energy, particularly when I spotted a big Wigan Harriers banner waved by my main support crew in the form of my old Ma!
Any boost from the crowds in Altrincham was quickly used up ans the nasty secret of this race came next: someone had sneaked a small mountain into Altrincham. The long, twisting horrible climb out of the town went on for ever! This may be a pretty flat course all told, but thats a serious bit of hill on the way through 13 miles! As I crossed the timing mats around 1:52 I was still bang on target for my 3:45 finish but I had an idea that things may begin to slip.
The weather was getting worse with the drizzle turning to proper rain and the gusts building so that on occasion they were strong enough to blow me sideways. Runners all around were hunkering down and starting to “dig in”. This also happened to coincide with a ramble through a part of Dunham Massey that I am sure is quite picturesque and pastoral in anything but a monsoon. At mile 15 of this marathon the meandering track through the park was now a flooded quagmire of ankle deep puddles, tree roots and mud. Running cross country at this point was very very difficult!
Things were to get tougher though. Just through Dunham Massey the route turned north, and for the first time we realized the full power of the wind as we began to head directly into it. At some point in a Marathon even the fastest or most experienced runners needs to slog their way through a tough patch, dig deep inside themselves and find that bit of steel and determination that marks out a long distance runner from just a runner. This low point usually happens at around 19 to 21 miles and is something you can prepare and ready yourself for. Just past mile 15 that low point arrived with a gale force wind that ripped across miles of open countryside, slamming rain and sleet into the quaking bodies of tiring runners.
It now became less of a race and more a matter of slogging it out and keeping going against the elements. My body temperature leaked away quickly. My hands had cramped up into claws and went from a stinging redness to bloated white sausages. I have been out on the Fells in Cumbria in some nasty conditions, but I’d usually have my full hill walking kit on to protect me. It was a different proposition to face those elements in a couple of layers of running kit and lycra. I felt very exposed and very very cold.
Like a mirage in a desert the water station at 16 miles came into view and my spirirts were suddenly lifted by the unmistakable sound of Julie Platts voice roaring out my name, accompanied by an unreasonably cheerful looking Dave Waddington. It is incredible how much your spirit can be lifted by a face you know and as I neared the aid station I was truly boosted by the club. What brought a real smile to my face was the fact that the Harriers couldnt just stand around and offer support to the passing runners: they had to take control of the aid staion, and pitch in with handing out water and gels and encouraging all the passing runners!
I was due to pass my Mum at 17.5 miles and this became the next target to focus on with the thought that she had with her my lightweight Montane running jacket. If I could just keep going, I could grab the jacket and hope to trap a little warmth.The rowdy pocket of supporters stood out in the storm at 17.5 miles were a fabulous tonic, but Mum wasn’t amongst them, (it turns out later that she was actually there but I didnt spot her). My spirits really flagged with the knowledge that the next point we had arranged was mile 21, which seemed more distant than the moon.
From here to the 21 mile mark was probably the toughest physical experience of my life. The cold was down to the bone causing shivers even when running. My hands were useless and the quads had tightened up so that every footfall was met with with a jolt of pain up the outside of my legs. Calf cramps began to come and go and mentally I began to struggle: beset with thoughts of walking, or if I could take the shame of bailing out and recording an DNF at 19 miles. For anyone who did want to give up the main problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere with not a building, shelter or race official for miles around so pretty much the only option was to keep running. I’m not sure what would have happened if I could have got myself inside a McDonalds or a pub to shelter in…..
20 miles came and went and that mile marker has always given me a mental boost. Its a big figure that means you have broken the back of the big miles and its just an ordainary 10k to go! I passed a lady with a sign reading “be brave” which seemed wonderfully appropriate at the time. Then a huge cramp bit the inside of my hamstring and I was staggering about the course like a drunk. I came to a wobbly halt as the cramp eased, and another runner patted me on the back and said “come on lad we’re not stopping here…”
There is always a good cameraderie in a marathon, but the horrendous conditions united those suffering it together even more than usual. That runner got me going again, and a mile or two further down the road I was able to return the favour when I came across the same guy walking.
“Come on mate – we are finishing this you and me…” and he laughed and broke into a painful trot again.
Mile 21 and at the last second I spotted my Mum, and more importantly that beautiful orange Montane jacket! I grabbed it and carried on down the road bouyed by the idea that once I got this on I would be warm and bullet proof and safe the race would be easy. Then I had to stop and ask a spectator to zip it up for me as my fingers didnt work!
The coat really did insulate me against the weather to enough of a degree that I managed to forget about the rain and concentrate instead on the agony from my legs! The countdown through 22 and 23 miles brough the finish ever closer but it still seemed such a long way off. I had long since dropped off the back of the 3:45 pacer, but the 4 hour crew hadn’t passed me yet. There was still hope of getting home in under the magic 4 hour mark. At 24.5 I stumbled and had to stop to prevent myself from falling, whereupon another runner suddenly appeared and said, “come on we’ll just walk to mile 25 from here.”
“Cant – got to finish under 4 hours”, I replied.
“No chance of that now” said the voice of doom, “just walk with me and we can run from mile 25.”
Runners are usually a pretty positive bunch but I seemed to have just attracted my very own mood hoover. It was as though all those negative thoughts in my head had just taken on human form just to drag me down! I looked at my watch and worked out I had about 16 minutes for 1.7 miles, and that I needed to get away from Mr Negative.
I broke into a trot again an kept going all the way to the point whre the route went under the subway, and agonizingly back up the other side. Whoever decided we needed that with half a mile to go is evil! I managed to run up the out ramp, but as I turned back onto the road my legs sort of gave way and I eneded up on my knees. I tried to get up but the legs went again and I was on all fours. A spectator grabbed my arm and began to lift me asking was I ok: “been better” I mumbled and somehow I was running again… but really running now – really properly dragging something up from somewhere and actually running down the hill towards the finish!
A lady marshall shouted outthere were 50 metres to go and a glance at my watch showed 3:59 something and before I knew it I was sprinting hell for leather down the finish tunnel, arms raised roaring like a lunatic. I crossed the timing mats and found myself on my knees holding onto the barrier for support utterly elated that the pain was over but with legs that no longer performed any useful finction! A marshall hoisted me up and walked me up the tunnel and sorted me out with a space blanket and an energy drink and I was soon on my way clutching the most precious medal of my collection!
My official chip time was 4:00:06. Before the race I would have told anyone that I was ready for a 3:45, but that the primary goal was sub 4 and anything over that I would be very upset with. I totally take that back! Given the conditions I still cant believe that I ran that race in 4 hours and I’m pretty damn chuffed with that! I dont think I could have put any more effort into the run and have no regrets that I could have tried harder or dug deeper. On a better day I’m sure I could have run a 3:45 but thats for the next marathon. Right now I’m just happy to be warm and dry and that I gave my best on the day.
The weather outside is predeicted to be 18c today…. great isnt it?