Sunday April 28th, 2019

So it all boiled down to this. I was awake at 5:15am, and without a moment’s hesitation, I got out of bed on my alarm and into my groove. It was marathon race day. Marathon number 5, following Manchester, London, Snowdonia, and London (again) was about to be undertaken. I loaded ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears on Spotify. It served as a motivational track for today, indeed, ‘there’s no turning back‘ from what I was about to take on. This was going to be the day I would break the 3 hour barrier for the marathon, and I had seen the Blackpool Marathon as the perfect race to do it.

When it came to deciding which spring marathon I would like to attempt, now I no longer had a Good For Age time for the likes of the London Marathon, I was free to choose whichever reasonably priced marathon fit the bill, and Blackpool ticked all the boxes – not too hilly, reasonably priced, PB potential, and, well, a trip to Blackpool. For Blackpool, like a good many in the UK I suspect, is very much a part of me, or so it has become over the years. Memories of childhood holidays with my family, mucking about on the beach, spending all my loose change in Coral Island, the Pleasure Beach, etc. I even once roller bladed all the way from roughly South Pier to North Pier, and back again. In the rain. More recently, its been great to revisit the place with my kids, and five years ago I secured my first ‘podium’ finish at the Blackpool Beach 10K Run. I didn’t have my stag do here though. Oh no!

I was feeling grateful at this point to my Halifax Harriers club mate Niall, who was running his first marathon today. I was due to get a really early train from Huddersfield that would have resulted in a three hour commute to the race. His mother was driving him down and he offered me a lift. True, I would have wasted around £25 in cumulative rail fares, but that’s a price worth paying on avoiding a fairly tricky journey with changeovers, to get a much more straightforward route to the race, plus an extra hour or so of sleep, and the opportunity to actually eat my pre-race porridge before travelling.

Positioned in the calendar as the alternative to London (both events fall on the same day), the Blackpool Marathon was now in its 16th year since being launched in 2004. The route runs from the Middle Walkway just past North Pier, and after a short loop heads up to the Promenade, leading south all the way to Squires Gate, and looping back to head north all the way to Bispham via the Promenade, before heading back along the coastal path in a u-turn just before reaching Cleveleys and heading south along the coastal path to complete the lap, before doing it all again to reach 26.2 miles.

The weather was initially a bit windy and chilly, which made getting out of the warm clothing down to my vest and shorts race kit somewhat trepidating, but the weather would calm down as the start of the race approached. Marathon runners were to line up in one lane on Middle Walkway facing south (facing towards the Tower), and half marathon runners facing north in the opposite lane. The race set off pretty much on time with a mass start, which initially felt bottlenecked but quickly opened up as we approached the hairpin turn onto the lower coastal walkway.

Immediately, I was inside my target pace. It was a weird sensation. I felt like I was running at really easy pace but my watch said otherwise. I recorded a 6:34 for the first mile, and gradually settled into my target pace – around 6:40-6:45 per mile. Initially, it was great running in what felt like a festival atmosphere, as the marathon runners weaved past the half marathoners, and there was good support on the streets. The turn at Squires Gate meant the opportunity to spot club mates and other fellow running friends still running towards Squires Gate.

In good spirits on the first lap

The race got a bit lonelier after leaving Blackpool town centre as it became a bit more spread out. I was quickly learning how undulating certain parts of the course were, particularly up towards Bispham. But I kept on my minimum pace of at least 6:52 per mile through some of these sections and made further inroads on the coastal run back towards the halfway point, increasing my pace back towards my target pace. I went through 13.1 in 1:27:50. The first time I’d gone through the first half of any marathon in less than 1:28. I felt pretty good at this point.

The actual finish line felt further away than where I recorded 13.1, and I did wonder if that might become an issue later on. Then again, I’d probably run a bit extra weaving around other runners in the earlier part of the race. And that earlier tram.

Running as well as I’ve ever done at this point. (Mick Hall Photos took this picture. I absolutely love it).

I stuck to my task. While the effort to keep pace intensified, I gradually reeled in a couple of runners as I completed my second journey down towards Squires Gate. One at a drinks station, the other past the Pleasure Beach. It didn’t feel like many runners had passed me on the way back up either. Right now, I was on target and continuing to run well, and reached 30km in a little over 2:03. My first three 10km splits were fairly even, a little over 41 minutes for each of the first three 10km segments. The consistency I’d sought was bearing fruit. 57 minutes left to run the next 12km back to the finish. But before long, the race began to bite back.

The run north was into a headwind and coupled with refuelling on salt tablets and a Soreen bar, I recorded the next two miles in 7:02 and 7:07 respectively. I wasn’t too concerned at this point. I’d accounted for slowing down a bit when taking on nutrition, whether that was through the gels I’d been using, or more natural food like flapjack and malt loaf. I had to make sure I ate it in small sections too, so I wouldn’t suffer from having the sticky loaf clag me up. The wind hadn’t really been a factor until now, and the Golden Mile northbound is slightly uphill. I just had to keep my form. I was still at least two minutes up on my time goal with six miles to go. But then came a wobble as I struggled up the long hill. The next mile was a 7:44. I had to keep calm. I knew a bad patch was going to happen and it would come down to how I reacted to that. If I could get past this section and on to the flatter part coming up, I was confident my later gels and the caffeine effect would kick in. Not so.

Pushing on through 19 and 20, but feeling the strain

Before I, or my gels even had chance, a small cramp went up my left hamstring, quickly followed by a sudden tightening in my right hamstring. I had to stop and stretch. I got going again but now it was proving harder to generate the power needed to kick on. Indeed, I had no power. I wasn’t sure if this was the wall. My legs had pretty much gone. My calf muscles were fine, my quads were fine, but I couldn’t move my legs as freely as before due to the cramp I’d suffered in my hamstrings. This wasn’t like before, like at Manchester where I properly hit the wall. But the sub-3 target was slipping away fast. Everything below waist level seemed to be suffering, and my now caffeine induced mind was all too aware. I couldn’t get up hills. I couldn’t gather any sort of pace. I was walking probably two or three times every mile. The jig was up. Sub 3 was out of the picture.

As I finally reached the turn to the lower, coastal level, for the final run back to the finish, I stopped to stretch a few of my limbs. I got back into my stride for about two minutes. I was getting slower and slower. With about a mile and a half to go, I got a mega cramp in my right hamstring which threw me off balance and into the nearby coastal wall. A half marathon runner, who saw what happened, asked if I needed assistance. I assured her I was OK, but I spent the next few minutes walking alongside her as we discussed our respective struggles. The time goal had long gone, and it gave me good opportunity to walk some feeling back into my leg. I eventually got going again but it was probably the slowest I’ve ever finished a race. I even finished the White Rose Ultra with a surge, after suffering for 12 miles on my lonesome. Here I had spent the last four miles going backwards.

About to cross the finish, very much worse for wear

I mustered enough to finish inside my London 2018 time, crossing the line in 38th place, 3:20:48. As I trudged off, I was handed my medal – a really nice one too – a Freddo bar – that chocolate shyster was the last thing I wanted after a race consuming sweet gels – and a t-shirt. I got my bag and spent the next ten minutes pretty much not saying much, although I got plenty of reassuring words from my club mates who had either spectated or come in just behind me.

I can look back at my race with positivity and perhaps still a little bit of negatively. It’s a bugger trying to figure out how what went wrong happened and how much of that is tied into different aspects, whether I’d gone out too quickly, whether I was strong enough, etc. I’ll probably cover these in a separate blog post because I could spend several paragraphs drilling down into everything. It’s not worth it. And I’m not sure my nutrition was fine on the day – the Maurten gels, yes, but other things, maybe not so much. Instead, I can at least be proud of how I ran up to that point. Pretty much even 10km splits up to 30km, the fact that up to mile 19 or 20 I was continuing to move forward through the field, and that I was estimated to have been in 8th place at roughly the 20 mile mark. I had a race plan and stuck to it. I can’t fault myself at all for leaving it all out there and going great guns to chase the sub 3 hour time. I was realistic before that it wouldn’t be the ‘be all and end all’ if I didn’t hit my target. Alas, it wasn’t to be today.

It just wasn’t to be on this day.

To rate the event itself, the Blackpool Marathon (and Festival of Running) is one of the best events held by the Fylde Coast Runners, in so much as getting Blackpool’s attention, celebrating the joy of running and in terms of being an alternative to London. The course wasn’t exactly as pancake flat as I imagined – the hills aren’t too steep, save for one or two little hills up at Bispham. They do drag a bit on the north bound laps but it’s nothing to particularly fear, and as such it is a great course for all abilities. There were enough marshals out on course, and the support from people on the route, mainly around the Golden Mile, was brilliant. Post-race, finishers received a medal, a tech t-shirt and a Freddo bar. I was somewhat resentful of that chocolate shyster when I received it! Personally I’d have liked a bag of crisps, but you can’t be so choosy (they did also have watermelon, I think, so there was that choice). The frog was mandatory. As a gift anyway. Its still sat in my bag at time of publication.

The t-shirt will be great for training in the summer, and the medal is beautiful, one of the heaviest I’ve received and one of the nicest, too.

I suppose the minimal goody bag is in one way reflective of the price to enter the marathon. I paid £34 as a UKA affiliate member to enter. That is a really attractive price for a road marathon. Don’t rely on the volunteers at water stations to give you anything but water. That’s not a problem per se – whether you want to drink isotonic or take on another gel ought to be up to the runner to decide if they need it – but maybe, just maybe, it would have been nice to have the option. And when the London Marathon is making headlines for environmentally friendly initiatives, here runners could only receive 500ml water bottles. It felt a bit excessive and quite a waste of water. I guess I’m a bit more aware of stuff like this but then this is an event where on the Sunday, there were probably a thousand or so runners, if you include the half marathon, so the scale is somewhat different – it’s a much smaller event – but I do think there is pressure on race events to get with the times and reduce waste from their events.

So to go back to the point I was making, I’m not saying it’s a race done on the cheap – certain not considering the closed part of the Promenade to traffic either, but if you do race here, make sure you do your own preparation based on whatever your nutritional strategy is. Maybe you fuel entirely on water, which I take my sweaty neck gaiter off to you if you do.

Thank you ultimately to Fylde Coast Runners for a great race and a fabulous two day event in the calendar. And thank you to Mick Hall photos for my official race photos. I absolutely love the photo taken with the Tower in the backdrop.

A big thank you as well to my Harriers team-mates (all five of us who ran finished, so well done all), to April for the photos taken before, during and after the race, and to all who have offered me supportive messages in person and on social media in light of my immediate thoughts after the race. I honestly, initially felt dejected, but I’m wise enough to know anything could go wrong in a marathon, and a lot of people would be thrilled to run a marathon in the time I did. I didn’t stay down for too long. Nor will I be kept down for too long either.