My first marathon was in Edinburgh 2010 in temperatures nudging 30 degrees and melting tarmac. I followed that with an appearance at the legendary storm lashed hurricane that was Manchester 2012, before heading off road for a run around the mountains of Coniston in skin crisping sunshine last year. Consequently I wasn’t at all surprised that in the days leading up to Manchester 2014, a large portion of the Sahara desert paid us a visit to add a bit of exotic pollution to the smog laden skies of the North West.
As race day drew closer we were reassured to hear that the orange dust that was coating cars and clagging lungs was due to pass. The downside was that it was due to be moved on by rising wind strength and a day full of speciality Manchester rain: the double drop ones from the very black cloud shapes you see on all those weather maps: the type of rain that disproves the oft quoted fallacy that “skin is waterproof”. It isn’t. Move to Manchester and say that.
As part of my pre-race build up I’d gone along to see the Marathon Mania event staged by the chaps from the Marathon Talk podcast. Kevin Edwards and I were immediately start struck by the presence of Liz Yelling with Kev obviously considering switching his stalking target now that Kerr Katona has moved out of the area. It was a highly entertaining evening of sketches and comedy songs from Tony Audenshaw, (Bob from Emmerdale for those who watch it, but more importantly a Stockport Harrier and accomplished runner), next to interviews with the likes of Andi Jones and Dave Norman.
There were a few of us in that audience fighting pre-race nerves but the most hyped man in the room was without doubt Andi Jones. He spoke at a million miles an hour about the race and his desire to put right two consecutive years of defeat after leading all the way. He was fizzing with energy and had already started the race in his mind. There was a fascinating contrast between the scientific, structured training of Dave Norman and that of Andi Jones who said the hills round Bacup made a right mess of any consistent pacing so he kind of just ran hard a lot.
At the QA session our Kevin asked the panel what advice they could give him to get over the fear of finishing the race in a medical tent or taking a trip in the back of an ambulance. This isn’t just paranoia. Most runners can give you a recommendation on the various marathons they have completed based on the speed of the course, quality of the T-shirt, organisation etc. Kev can give you a comprehensive race by race guide to the standard of drugs available in the emergency tents and the efficiency of the local ambulance service. I’m not sure they took him seriously but Martin Yelling did share some advice about focussing on a positive end to the race.
After a largely sleepless night interrupted by the standard issue marathon nightmare, (lost race number, missed start, getting lost on the route etc), I was up at the crack of dawn to force toast and bananas down my increasingly dry mouth. Just to calm nerves and assure a stress free race day, my car had chosen to cease functioning on Saturday afternoon meaning I risked serious pre-race injury with my Basil Fawlty impression as I tried to fix the car by kicking it and screaming obscenities about the French, (its a Renault – don’t buy one).
It was a relief to actually arrive at the superbly well organised race village at Old Trafford. I dropped my bag with a military looking chap who gave me some confidence that it would still be there when I got back, (anyone who did Manchester 2012 will never quite trust a baggage drop-off again). I then went through half an hour of the usual indecisiveness about running with or without baselayers before deciding to man-up, ditch the kit and go out in proper vest and shorts style. Despite doom laden forecasts the weather was actually perfect for running; overcast with a cooling breeze but warm enough for “proper” running kit.
The route initially heads in towards the city centre along the right hand side of a dual carriageway, before looping round after a mile and coming back up the left hand side. this gave a chance to see look out for fellow Harriers before or behind me. I missed Kevin and Howard on this first section, but Gary Wane and I swapped pleasantries as we passed.
The first few miles wriggle around Salford quays and the Old Trafford stadium before heading away from the city and off towards the half way mark in Altrincham. A race wouldn’t be a race for me if I didn’t hear the voice of Sally Howarth at some point. From Trafford 10k a few weeks ago to the pre-dawn darkness at the start of the Ultra Trail 100k, I have been surprised and delighted by her sudden presence like the man from the shop in Mr Ben! There she was again on the roads through Trafford with her camera handy to capture the pain.
A couple of weeks ago on one of my taper runs I had experienced a horrible shortness of breath and wheezing when trying to do a few miles at race pace. 5 miles into the marathon and I had to admit to myself that I could feel it again. I didn’t know if it was the remains of a mild chest issue or simply excess adrenline and nerves but my heart rate was oddly elevated also. Each time we encountered an incline or the effort level went up I was immediately gasping and working much harder than I should have done. Luckily for me it only became anything more than uncomfortable when my pace drifted above target pace, and so it almost acted as a natural speed limiter. An unpleasant feeling but not race threatening.
Just after the 7 mile marker I got a boost from Sandra and my mother who were to spend the day tram-hopping up and down the route. It was then a case of settling into that steady rythym along the super flat roads to Altrincham. Barry Abram popped up and jogged a long for a few yards telling me I was looking good, which I chose to believe. At the 11 mile point my spirits were raised further by a fabulous pair of work colleagues Chris and Pat, who were holding aloft a home made banner supporting “Wigan Wonder – Milly Whizz”, which had me almost laughing out loud!
A great feature of the Manchester Marathon are the various choirs, rock bands, acapella groups and brass bands offering support and entertainment throughout the route. My all time favourite though is the lone gentleman with a saucepan and wooden spoon wearing a Man City scarf and bashing hell out of the pan as accompaniment for his random football chants. He was there in 2012 in a bus shelter all by himself, and he was back this year. I don’t know what he is doing or why, but he seems very serious and intense about and is probably best left alone to get on with it. I also caught sight of Frank Sidebottom on a pantomime horse in Timperley and I do hope he was actually there and it wasn’t just fatigue.
As I approached the outskirts of Altrincham the elite runners were already on their way back out on the opposite side of the road. Andi Jones came tearing past like he meant it causing a few runners to comment ironically on how he had obviously learned his lesson from previous years and was taking it easy this time! It seemed an awfully long time before the chasing pack came into view, but I was gratified to see they had the decency to look like they were working hard!
With a flow of runners heading in the opposite direction I edged to the right hand side of the carriageway to keep an eye out for Kevin and Howard. Just past the 12.5 mile mark I spotted the familiar gait of Kevin Edwards and I split the air with Harriers now traditional battle-cry, “come on Kevin!”. He either didn’t hear me or chose not too so I gave it another blast on the foghorn and got a wave in reply! Moments later Howard was hurtling past looking very comfortable and giving me a shout as he went.
Another boost from my family who had tram-hopped from Sale to Altrincham and I was heading through the half way point just 30 seconds ahead of my target time. The legs felt good but the slight inclines through the town centre had my chest heaving a little more than it should have done once again and I backed off a little to get the cardio back under control. As I left the town and passed the family support squad I used the international language of mime and patted my chest and shook my head to communicate the fact that my chest was troubling me a bit. I later learned that my mother immediately decided I was telling them I had a probably fatal heart problem even though I followed it up with a cheery wave as I carried on into the second half of the race.
Gary and I passed each other once again with a shout and a wave with Harriers (current) Athlete of the Year looking good value ahead of the 4 hour pacer. I was then woken from my trance by possibly the loudest single voice in Manchester that day. A booming Brummie baritone split the air with a “Come on Graham” and it took a couple of seconds for my mind to register that along with Darren Jackson there was what seemed to be half of Wigan Harriers.
It really is quite incredible how much of a boost a runner gets from a bit of roadside support from friends and family. Time and again I saw fellow runners suddenly put on a burst of speed as a pocket of supporters exploded into life at their arrival. I felt the same surge of “free energy” myself each time a familiar face appeared. At 15 miles I was beginning to feel the miles in my legs and getting increasingly worried about the breathing issues when Barry Abram popped up once again to offer some calming advice and a few words of encouragement as he jogged along with me once again. This time I knew he was lying when he said I was looking good though!
16 miles came and went and I was joined by a lad from Chorlton Runners who suddenly materialised next to me and asked if he could run along with me for a bit. I’m not much of a one for chatting in races and I’m usually happy inside my own head focussing on my race and running through the mind tricks little games that keep you going. However this chap didn’t want to get into a life story swapping conversation and we happily paced each other with just a few words over the next 5 or 6miles.
17 miles came and went, and although my legs were beginning to ache we were still travelling at a decent pace and only a minute or so behind schedule. I don’t know a lot about Chorlton Runners but there do seem to be an awful lot of them, and they certainly know how to back their club mates! Every half mile or so my running buddy was getting a shout from a spectator who recognised the vest. By now it was simply a matter of ticking off the miles and distracting the mind from the increasing desire to stop for a moment and take a little break.
As ever, the real marathon didn’t start until the 20 mile mark and the hardest section of the race. The final 10k is the part that makes or breaks many a runner and right on cue the serious pain began to arrive shortly after passing the 20 mile marker board. The cramp sniper got a lucky shot in and prompted an outbreak of Tourettes from me as my calf tightened up for a few seconds and had me hopping for 20 yards until it thankfully loosened up again.
21 miles: a struggling runner stops dead in right front of me, and chooses to bend over and step to the right just as I choose to go round him to the right. I consider leapfrogging him but settle for a glancing blow which has me staggering across the road desperate to stay upright, and effing and blinding again as the sudden change in direction kicks off another bout of cramp. I realise that voice inside my head saying “Feck yer legs” isn’t inside my head – I’m saying it out loud.
22 miles: and its purely a mental battle from this point on. The legs feel lifeless and heavy, feet ache, glutes throb and quads scream in protest at every step. The desire to stop and walk is almost overwhelming with only pride and all those miles of training preventing me from giving in. My stomach begins to clench ominously in protest at 3 hours of gels and water. I try to pick up speed, surge and pay for it. I realise that I could still fail to finish this race if I’m not careful – there isn’t a lot left.
23 miles: two little lads have their hands out for a high 5. The kid in front looks like the Milky Bar kid and he’s saying something that takes me a few seconds to process: “high 5 me and yer ace – high 5 me mate and yer crap”. Too late, I’ve already high fived his mate – I’m crap. Only 3 miles to go but that seems like 30 at this point. I cant do the mental maths to work out my finish time but I know 3:30 has gone. This mile is taking forever. Where is the 24 mile board? Have I missed it? Surely to God I’ve done 24 miles now?
A cyclist appears. The Chorlton runner has been asking for isotonic drinks and the biker has chased us to hand him one. He passes it to me and I have a swig. Mistake. Water station: a quick mouthful and the stomach goes into full rebellion. Hands on knees retching – up comes the water, the isotonic and the last gel – and then I’m running again.
24 miles: The support from the locals is incredible. I’ve lost my running buddy somewhere – probably when I was vomiting. I no longer believe this race is ever going to end. This is my life forever now. I want to feel sorry for myself but fight it. I’m still running and its all that matters.
25 miles: I can see old Trafford. I can’t decide if its fairly close, or if it really is a huge stadium and its still a long way off. It isn’t getting any closer: so its a really big stadium then.
25.5 miles I begin to shout out loud at myself like a crazy person: “come on Kevin!”. He’s probably in a medical tent by now. I envy him. I’m swearing at myself now and it works – I pick up speed. There’s sally Howarth pointing a camera at me. How can she do that to me when I’m such a sorry looking mess? I smile for the camera, (and it turns out to be quite a good shot!).
26 miles: The crowds get thicker. They must be 10 deep by now but strangely quiet. Lots of worried looking faces hoping to see their runner. I wave my arms to raise some noise and cup my hands to my ears using that international language of mime again. It sounds like someone has scored a goal. The noise is stunning and the boost I get is incredible. Suddenly I’m sprinting.
26.1 miles: turn the corner – see the finish – shout something I cant remember and run like a man possessed. I begin to fade way before the finish line and for a few fleeting, horrible seconds I think I’m actually going to fail, right here within sight of the finish as my legs go wobbly…
26.2…and then its over. I can finally stop this ridiculous bloody running malarkey and simply wander in my happy daze towards a lovely lady with a medal and a banana.Then a man stood on my toes and I caught Tourettes again.
My watch tells me I ran for 3 hours, 37 minutes and 9 seconds. I know that’s not true. It isn’t marked on the course maps but there’s a breakdown in the laws of time and space somewhere around Carrington and I can tell by the pain in my body that it actually took me 3 years and 37 days. I’m keeping that to myself though and I’ll have the official time.
I’m very very happy with that official time too. It was a little short of my aspirational target but I couldn’t have done any more on the day, and left Old Trafford with the satisfaction of having given it everything. It felt like an honest run and justification for all those hours of long runs and obsession with this race over the last 3 months.
I can highly recommend Manchester as a fast, flat course, with a good t-shirt, cracking big medal, and brilliant atmosphere. I couldn’t give much advice about the medical provisions and for once, neither can Kevin!