A Marathon Weekend……Memories of Manchester
April the 8th, 2018. Sunday. Old Trafford.
One minute to nine in the morning.
Thirteen thousand runners are squeezed inside a snaking line of narrow pens that seems to zig-zag for miles around the streets of Stretford. It’s a strange feeling being caged in like this before the start of a race. There’s a sense both of safety and vulnerability. Herded together within this fragile prison there’s an air of togetherness as if the condemned are waiting to be discharged from their cells into the freedom of the joy and pain they are about to experience. The pens are colour-coded and have been arranged in alphabetical order. Runners assemble in their respective zones, corralled tightly into spaces that have been organised to allow the smooth transition from fast to not so fast. The first moments of any race can be chaotic and hazardous.
In certain places the barricades that mark the boundary between the participants and the rest of the world have been burst open to allow a last minute toilet break. There’s little room for modesty, at least among the men. If you’re further than 10 feet from the railings and facing away from the throng, it’s fine. We’re runners after all: we’ve done worse than this in the middle of a 20 mile training run!
In about 60 seconds time the Greater Manchester Marathon will start.
At the front of this buzzing swell of life are a small, select band of elites who have come from all parts of the country (and beyond) to pit themselves against the best. Shadrack Tanui, brother of the 2011 London Marathon winner Emmanuel Mutai is here. He’s the hot favourite to win today. There are bonus prizes for course records and more. The incentives are good. In stark contrast, those who are simply looking to complete this gruelling feat of endurance in whatever time it takes are at the back. A finisher’s medal and t-shirt is their best reward, along with the pride in the achievement. And in between these two groups are thousands upon thousands of PB chasers, charity runners, first timers and club racers. Every single one will have a target in mind, hoping that when they throw the arrow of chance at the daunting distance ahead they come as close to the bullseye as possible . What happens during the course of each runner’s race can never be predicted. The only certainty in any race is that someone will be the last to cross the start line and someone will be the first to cross the finish line. The spectre of the dreaded DNF lingers too but no-one dwells on that.
Every runner here today shares the same fundamental goal – to reach an absolute location on planet earth that marks the end of a 26.2 mile journey on foot – a point to point journey across a seemingly arbitrary distance. It unites them all, from the super-fast to those whose average pace is less important than their will to finish. They say the marathon can be a cruel mistress and she’s to be treated with respect, but never feared.
For the select band of elite runners at the front of this seething mass of humanity it’s a race against one another as well as their own previous best. There are furtive glances and nods, handshakes and sometimes hugs. There are those locked in stony faced silence and there are those who chose to calm the nerves with a one-liner about it being “A nice day for a jog”.
Months of meticulous training have led to this moment. Speed work on the track, shuffling recovery runs and longer efforts alone or with a group have been plotted, programmed and executed. Facebook discussions, coaching tips and advice from magazine articles have been absorbed and devoured in an effort to prepare for this event. Faith in your training is a good relaxer. Doubting your training can send your confidence into a spin. Mile reps, long runs, fartleks and intervals: they’re all in the bag. Memories of blizzards in March, biting headwinds in February and freezing nights in January come to mind. Today the wind is calm, the temperature is cool but ideal and the famous Manchester rain has held off.
On the front row the tension is palpable. Elbows and hands clash, knees bend and flex, the leading leg is spring loaded in anticipation. Tendons are tightened, skin is dotted with goose bumps and eyes are wide with concentration. Now and again one or two runners will suddenly break their tethers. They race out of the traps as if startled by a phantom gunshot only to stop dead like they’d hit a wall of glass, before turning back to re-join the huddle. Back and forth, glowing with nervous energy like tethered greyhounds they watch the clock countdown. 8:59:50am.
Further back the mood is different. Handshakes and banter abound. Experienced runners crack jokes, trade trench humour and offer words of encouragement. Novices anxiously check shoelaces, adjust vests and check shoelaces again. Everyone is packed in tightly. Some are standing sideways having slithered in from the edges trying to get a good starting position. There are smells of tiger balm, shampoo, sweat and nerves mingling with a whiff of bacon that’s drifted across from the catering van. Someone suggests one of them goes and gets a few to share out: everyone laughs. Further back the costume wearers offer high fives and there’s giggling and shouts of “good luck” and “do your best”. A quick glance at the watch (checking that the GPS signal is locked on) and then ‘bang!’: the start gun is fired, the tannoy crackles something indecipherable and slowly this rolling tide of bodies spills across the timing mat that gives a reassuring beep, almost as if to say ‘enjoy this’.
Just over three hours after I’d heard the first timing sensor beep its good luck message, I hear the final timing sensor beep its congratulations. The end. The finish. The destination. No other spot in the universe held more significance for me at that moment than this one. An otherwise ignored, unseen point in space had become a symbol of achievement. Hours later, when the huge finish line structure had been dismantled and the timing mat folded away and the discarded clothes and space blankets gathered up, that spot became just another nondescript patch of road in Greater Manchester. But at one-minute and thirty three seconds past twelve on this now mild morning in Old Trafford it was the site of personal triumph and failure, rolled and kneaded and shaped into a rough and battered ball by the efforts of 40,000 footsteps.
The end in sight
800 meters from the finish line – that point in space that’s both unseen and solid at the same time – I felt like I’d slipped into a trance. I’d become obsessed with the blue and white pattern of the sponsor’s logo that decorated the imposing rectangular frame ahead: the frame that held the mocking, finger-wagging, head-shaking clock in its middle. A shimmering oasis in the warm Mancunian sunlight. It was all I could look at. I fixated on it. As the end grew closer a new obsession took over: cross that line before the clock shows 3 hours and 2 minutes. I mustered everything I had left in my failing legs for the final 150 meters – the crowds screamed, the tannoy blared something that may have resembled my name and the road took on the consistency of thick treacle. Then almost in the blink of an eye I found myself going from running to not running any more. I heard the final beep of the timing sensor. It seemed to squeak ‘Congratulations’ or maybe ‘Hard luck’. Then another beep as I stopped my watch. ‘Save or Discard’. Save, save! A small stagger. A glance at the time and a headshake. Somewhere back there I’d lost a potential 2 hours 55 minute marathon. Somewhere on that stretch of road that snaked and weaved and twisted back to the very start I’d absent-mindedly mislaid something that I’d had in my hands for over two thirds of the race. And I think I knew exactly where I’d left it!
Into the unknown
Mile 22 and a half. I was deep in the unknown. Running into the teeth of pain. Not a stinging, burning or aching pain but the pain of a body systematically shutting down its compartments, one after the other in a bid to survive what it’s owner was forcing it to do against it’s will. The pain seemed to come out of nowhere, even though the needle had been in the red for two miles. I recall feeling it happen and I’m still trying to figure out which came first, the mental or physical or both – all I know was that there was a boundary – a wall – between feeling good and feeling bad. Around me others were hitting the same wall. It was as if invisible bricklayers had scurried onto the course and had deftly laid unseen barricades right where we were trying to run!
A tall runner in a hooped vest stopped in the middle of the road and swayed like a boxer who’d just taken a deft uppercut. The last thing he wanted to hear were the shouts of encouragement from fresher runners surging past shouting “Keep on going son”. He was in survival mode. Further down a few more athletes had stepped off the course, some shaking their head, others in a daze. I fumbled for my fruit pastilles and managed to shove one into my dry mouth. The warm, sticky sweet did nothing but cause me to pray that the next drink station was close. I was thirsty as hell and running on memory. I stopped and walked for 20 seconds grabbing my aching hamstring and tried to preserve what energy I had left. Maybe the 7 calories from this clammy chew would fire me back up. That was ridiculous. It was like trying to send the Millennium Falcon into hyperspeed using the power from a wind up torch. I began a painful stop start routine that would last the course of the next 3.7 miles. Every water stop became a refuge. I’d grab a drink, slosh my face and try to jolt myself back into a rhythm. The body took over and the mind joined in. Together they conspired to limit the amount of effort I could put into something that I was normally proud to do with relative ease.
My quads became stiff and my troublesome hamstring was pulling and twanging like a banjo. Runners streamed past. Runners who’d got it right. Runners who’d previously been minutes behind me. Throughout the past 22 miles the 3 hour pacer with his flag proudly waving from his backpack was somewhere down the road, out of sight. I hadn’t been focused on him but figured that for as long as he was somewhere back there, I was on for a sub 3 hour finish. And that would be a good run. By mile 23 he and his well-paced herd stomped past, swallowing me up and spitting me out the rear end like some kind of human tornado thundering by. Club mate Paul Gilder – who I’d run with for a few miles at the start – gave a demonstration on how a sub-3 hour marathon should be run as he breezed past looking comfortable. He would ultimately be rewarded with a superb PB of 2.58:31 for his efforts. I tried to go with him but failed, then I decided to try to hang onto the three hour pacer (who Paul himself had eased past) but there was nothing there – for all the effort it was taking to stay with him it felt like this guy was running at world record pace. I dropped off, stopped again and gripped the back of my leg. I vaguely recall a humped bridge going over the motorway near the 40km mark that felt like running hill reps in winter on ice, and then working out that I needed to cover the last 2k in about 8 1/2 minutes to get close to 3 hours. But that would mean catching pacer-man and he was long gone. And it would also mean running a similar speed to that first, fresh and easy mile way back in space and time.
I was annoyed – it didn’t take much to annoy me at this point – because there were mile markers and kilometre markers all mixed up along the course. It was just confusing and to my frazzled brain it seemed completely unnecessary. “Make your mind up”, I screamed with my faltering internal voice, “metric or imperial, imperial or metric. Just bloody stick to one!” Whatever rational reason there was, I just became irritated by this minor detail. My throat was dry again. I fumbled for another fruit pastille and shoved it into my parched mouth which only made my thirst worse. Drinks stations became more frequent and I grabbed a bottle at every one.
After what seemed like forever the course turned a corner and in the far distance the painted steel framework of Manchester United’s Stretford end appeared like a puzzle of jagged triangles cutting into a cobalt blue sky. The Theatre Of Dreams, the home of the Red Devils, or as City fans know it, ‘The Swamp’. Right now I was fighting a few devils of my own and wading through a quagmire of despair. My heart sank: “Jesus, that looks miles away”. One final stop to clutch the hamstring before someone shouted “only half a mile to go”. Half a mile, 800 meters, two laps of the track, I can do this! I fixed my eyes on a feint blue rectangle deep in the distance and asked a fellow struggler “Is that the finish?” It was. Running down that final corridor of noise was incredible. I probably looked like a broken man but I felt like I was giving it my best Eliud Kipchoge impression, summoning a frightening sprint finish at the end of 41,800 meters of easy jogging, legs flashing as I glided to a stunning finale. No doubt I actually looked as fresh as a crumpled daisy that had been stuck between the pages of a book for 50 years. Probably a book on how to run a marathon properly.
In life you have two types of people. There are those who learn through advice and knowledge. They absorb the wisdom and teachings of others and apply the formulas with success. Then you have the other type, those who almost need to fail first in order to learn from their own mistakes – the dress rehearsal bunch. There’s room for both in this world, makes it a more interesting place. I reckon I’m definitely the latter, though I do take advice, too, honest! The final 10k of the marathon was the yawning chasm of hurt that I had been warned about, and no end of rationalising beforehand could save me from its heavy, syrupy grip. The marathon is humbling and if not run right, it will lift you up and dump you on your backside. I was learning this, slowly and painfully.
A small win
Mile 20 was a boost. Glancing at the watch I saw 2:13 displayed. I’d moved faster – about seven minutes faster – than I’d ever run the distance in training. This was a race after all and the pace always feels different when racing. Maybe it’s the crowds and the proximity of other runners or maybe it’s because the road is yours and yours alone: no cars screaming out of side streets, no wayward dogs pulling on their leads to get at your ankles. With this kind of freedom your sole focus is on that invisible thread that you follow, nose first, all the way to the end.
Some miles are a blur and some are forgotten. Others seemed to pass by almost unnoticed, but certain moments stick in the mind.
On the more isolated, rural section of the race a small crowd had gathered by the road side. I overheard someone say to her friend ‘He looks relaxed’. The field had spread out by now so I was sure she meant me. It was a small boost at a time when I was trying to forget that I still had 9 miles to go: more than an hour of movement ahead of me.
Earlier in race there was the incredible wall of sound that hit us in Timperley. As we rounded the corner we were greeted like heroes. In a 10k you might grunt a “Thanks” if someone offers encouragement, in a 5k you’re running in a corridor of grit and pain, but in a marathon you have the time and the spirit to give the rows of little hands a big high five as kids scream and cheer for you. It takes a while to realise how all these strangers know your name, then the penny drops: it’s emblazoned across your chest with your race number.
Other moments and miles are indistinguishable, becoming patchy memories that may or may not have happened when or where you remember them.
There was the guy in the purple vest who’d become the unofficial cheerleader for the pack that we’d unwittingly formed around the 6 mile mark. He was the guy chatting away, surging and falling back and dragging people along. At some point he turned and shouted “2:55, yeah, YEAH!?” to which a few voices growled “Yeah” in reply. About 800 meters down the road I swear I heard the same guy utter the classic line “I’m blowing like a tramp on a bag of chips.” He and the rest of his small gang would slowly but surely peel away from me in the next 5 miles as I tried to stay focused on running steadily. That bag of chips began to sound more and more appealing.
There were other moments that come to mind long after the event. The bands lining the route, the incredible support from complete strangers, the endless supply of jelly babies (wish I’d eaten the lot now) and the sign that read ‘Tired legs are sexy legs’. They didn’t feel too sexy at that point.
And who could forget the angel of the North-West who I swear appeared like an apparition not once but several times along the course. Dressed all in white and finished with a pair of wings on his back he must have put in a five hour shift out there. His energy and general craziness offered a welcome uplift from the hell that was slowly consuming many runners as he boogied away to a tiny Bluetooth speaker by the side of the road. Legend!
In the early stages, when running felt easy and I couldn’t imagine this marathon lark ever being hard work, I’d caught up with Paul who’d previously been caught up by fellow club runner Jon Heaney. Jon had been unsure about whether he’d run or if he did run, if he’d drop out or ease back. It was clear from the first two miles that Jon intended to put the hammer down and throw his arrows at the bullseye. His reward was a superb 2:52 finishing time, a bit like chucking three darts right into the epicentre of the board. Paul and I ran side by side for a while and I recall him saying something about not letting him hold me back.
My pre-training target had been a laughably ambitious 2:50 but during the course of the previous 14 weeks it became clear this was out of sight. Illness, injury and the weather had probably played havoc with a lot of training programmes and those lost weeks between 9 and 12 really put a dent in my own schedule. What’s more, even though I’d followed a marathon plan (with a few tweaks) I didn’t really feel like a marathon runner. I’d never gone over 20 miles. The weeks lost through illness and injury were the big weeks, the 23/24 mile weeks, and I’d not practised any nutrition strategies, apart from discovering that two slices of white toast and some water before a run could get me through 2 hours and 20 minutes of running. That doesn’t work for the other 6 miles of a marathon, though!
When it came to taper week I didn’t have that ‘thank god it’s taper week’ feeling, that mental and physical exhaustion where you feel as if you’ve made all those gains and now deserve a rest. My last week of training had included two runs and a couple of lengthy cross trainer sessions to preserve the legs but add some cardio work. My hamstring trouble had eased slightly but the last training run I’d done had left a tender lump on my sketchy left shin. I feared a stress fracture was building and days of icing followed.
I shifted my target again. The new injury worry, the illness and all the lost sessions: they combined to shape a new philosophy. This time my aim was less ambitious and more realistic given the interrupted plan and my inexperience at this race. It became simply a quest to run the event, understand the distance and enjoy the experience. I had none of the nerves or expectations that precede a 5k, none of the trepidation of a 10k and none of the swelling dread of a half marathon. On the start line of the 2018 Manchester Marathon I felt relaxed and calm and ready for a nice Sunday long run with around thirteen thousand other lunatics. I was about to become a fully paid up member of the marathon runners’ club and this cool spring morning was as good a day as any to begin.
Back to beginning
Glancing at my watch it read 8:59:50am. Ten seconds to go. I tightened my shoelaces, adjusted my race number and smiled. Then I stooped and tightened my shoelaces again. As I stood up the starting gun suddenly boomed, the tannoy crackled and in the blink of an eye I was swept along with the bobbing tide of humanity, all following that invisible thread to a glorious spot 26.2 miles away. My marathon journey had well and truly started.
For the stats nerds here are the splits. Those last 4 miles…ouch!
1 – 6.27
2 – 6.45
3 – 6.40
4 – 6.29
5 – 6.34
6 – 6.36
7 – 6.39
8 – 6.24
9 – 6.42
10 – 6.33
11 – 6.39
12 – 6.39
13 – 6.48
14 – 6.36
15 – 6.48
16 – 6.41
17 – 6.41
18 – 6.50
19 – 6.54
20 – 7.01
21 – 7.08
22 – 7.12
23 – 8.06
24 – 7.40
25 – 8.24
26 – 7.56
26.2 – 1.11
Author: Jason Stirland