Saturday January 4, 2020

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time than this.

It couldn’t have gone any worse.

On a night when I really needed to get some sleep, I woke up constantly and frequently, uncomfortable, pain emanating around my left ear. My back ached simply from being unable to find a comfortable position. I needed around six hours of quality sleep that night. I would be surprised if I managed four slightly unsettled hours instead.

I’ve been suffering now for a few weeks from a build up of wax in my left ear. It’s been blocked up since just before Christmas after taking a shower. I had it diagnosed by a doctor less than 24 hours before race day. I thought it was an ear infection, but I’d rather it had have been. I had a terrible night of sleep. I woke up twice, unable to get comfortable from the pain in my left ear. Eventually I needed to use the bathroom. It was about 5:30am in the morning at this point. I gave it up as a bad job, deciding there was no chance I could sleep in because, well, I couldn’t sleep.

Of all the possible things that could go wrong before a marathon, ear wax. That is lame. The stupid part is that it doesn’t even seem to bother me when I run! But it was enough to make me consider taking painkillers before the race. In the end, I wouldn’t. I trusted that the short run I’d carried out two days prior, without trouble, would carry firm for the marathon itself.

That aside, my morning preparation went as planned, the usual porridge/peanut butter/blueberry combination, plus a banana, plus a few pretzels for good measure. Why pretzels? Because salt. Yep, after Blackpool, what with the cramp and all, I was keen to learn more about the effects of sodium depletion in a marathon, and with that considered, I opted to snack on a few of the salty treats and avoid the morning cup of tea that used to be part of my routine. I’d been low or no caffeine for a week, and I would be drinking a Maurten 320 Hydrogel drink before the race, so I made sure a glass of Cherry Active was all I drank before setting off. Didn’t want to be flushing out the saltiness in my body before the race now, would I?

The River Aire by Roberts Park, Saltaire, early on 04/01/2020.

This said, it was noticeable upon setting off to Saltaire for the Sir Titus Trot Marathon that the weather was bitter. Grim, one might say. There was a positive windchill and the baselayer I wore felt inefficient against it. Still, I got out in plenty of time, got to Saltaire ahead of schedule, to finally pay attention to the sight of the River Aire in its peaceful setting beside Roberts Park.

Organised by It’s Grim Up North Running, I ran the half marathon version of this race back in 2017, finishing 3rd, one week after a fall on a drunken night out to celebrate a family member’s birthday, and suffering a badly bruised knee, elbow and ribs in the process. With this race taking place just after Christmas, I’d been careful not to overindulge over the holiday season, and to not have any pratfalls. The earwax issue aside (which it turns out, didn’t bother me while running), I was arguably in the best shape possible.

Admittedly, my race prep at the venue was fine, loading up my kit, and preparing my hydration drink, and doing a few warm up exercises as runners went back and forth to register, use the loos, pin their race numbers, etc. But my warm up felt slightly hurried. This was because I was loading my Garmin Forerunner 610, which I’d bought second hand and turned out to be a duff with poor battery performance. It was fully charged today, and it located satellites, but it wouldn’t load any screens aside from elevation, the Virtual Partner and the clock. I heard the instructions sure enough, but my concern at the watch further malfunctioning at a time where I wanted it to monitor my pace, meant I hurried slightly upon the end of the instructions to leave my bag under the bridge just past the start/finish, and then back towards the start line to amass for the start with the ultra marathon runners, and the 20 milers.

We set off, taking a few seconds to cross the timing mat, and it didn’t take long to establish myself in second place, although the lead runner was quick about setting a gap between himself and the rest of the field. The first part of the run was a slightly muddy, slightly puddly section of towpath, but fairly comfortable. Within a mile and a half, the base layer I had put on underneath my race vest felt too warm. It had been perfect for the chill in the air that morning, but now morning had well and truly broken, it was too much. On the way back to Saltaire, I took the opportunity to remove my race vest, then my base layer, and then put on my race vest again, all while maintaining my pace and only stopping for maybe a half second to ensure I put my head through the correct hole of my vest. I kept going, and passed through the 6 mile mark having chucked my base layer roughly back to where my bag was situated, between the masses of cake that would await the finishers. I caught sight of Byron, a runner I met previously down at London Marathon (I think), who was doing the half marathon here, waiting to start his race. It was about this time I took my first gel, and in contrast to my 20 mile time trial, I took the Maurten gel rather than the Torq caffeine gel. I had given consideration to my nutrition tactics and came around to thinking the caffeine would be better towards the latter stages of the marathon.

I looked forward to the challenge of the upcoming Three Rise Locks and the Five Rise Locks, some of the finest works of engineering seen on Britain’s waterways. It is quite staggering how steep the latter’s hill is in particular. I’m not sure on the exact gradient but it must be at least 10%, probably higher. I chose to conserve my energy up these hills before getting back into my rhythm. Following the Five Rise Locks, however, I had a bit of a rough patch. I knew I’d set off quicker than planned, but it wasn’t the pace that was the issue. It was a salt capsule I had to swallow whole, with my hydration drink instead of proper water, and my gut probably wasn’t ready for that first time. I’m not the best at taking tablets standing still, never mind on the move. The importance of trialling stuff in training! At the next 20 minute interval, I took another Maurten gel and that settled things down, and gave me a good boost.

I think this was around the 10km mark. Flying feet and in good nick here!

Further ahead, I really enjoyed the section between Keighley and Riddlesden. The canal had a lovely sweeping bend at one point and either side was sheer beauty, with moors to the left and a bevy of lush green hills to the right. I put in some faster pace here and then it was onwards towards Silsden. This was arguably the hardest part of the course, in the sense that my footwear, the Asics Gel-Fujitrabuco trail shoe, was woefully inept at dealing with the muddy grass towpath, occasionally on a camber. I was grateful to turn back, for the final 10 miles, but I saw that my second place wasn’t as secure as I thought. I perhaps had 60 seconds back to the third and fourth place runners, but they were gaining on me for sure, as I had looked back earlier on the outward leg to find I was pretty much alone. I coped better on the mud coming back, putting my foot down a bit, and I was glad to have my footing back on something a bit firmer.

I knew I had a shot at getting the sub-3. I seemed to be running really well and holding my form, but key to the sub-3 would be to maintain that level as much as possible, and getting to the Five Rise Locks again with time to spare, and I knew I would need to maximise any boost I got from the steep downhill. This descent, plus the Three Rise Locks and Dowley Gap, were going to be critical. But first and foremost, I had to get to them and stay in reasonably good shape.

Going back through the canal past Keighley, I think, I was caught by the guy in third. We had a brief chat, which he quipped that he was bored seeing all this water, and he was away. I wasn’t too sad to lose second place. A trophy would have been nice, but it was much more important to focus on myself and not to chase after a runner who was evidently in better shape than I was. I would be overtaken again before we even got to Bingley, out of the podium positions, but it didn’t feel my performance was dropping, even though I knew I was into the final few miles, and trying not too hard to think about how far I’d run for fear of invoking something to go badly awry. I was going a little bit loopy though, asking one marshal how far to the Five Rise, and upon receiving the answer of ‘three’, I downed the drink on the table and made haste, grumbling that I hoped she meant in kilometres. It felt more like miles. Indeed, if I felt at ease in my body, I was getting a little uneasy at mind.

The bevy of homemade treats from the IGUNR team. Would I get to them within 3 hours?

Indeed, the scariest moment came at a road crossing where I had to stop for a few seconds. Back at Blackpool, I tried to stop to have a stretch at 21.5 miles and that is when my hamstrings detonated. Here, I pretty much came to a sudden stop with no choice but to wait for traffic to pass, at around a similar sort of distance into the race. Fearing the worst, I set off again, tentatively, and thankfully, nothing strained, cramped or pulled. My tired, aching legs were put back into action. I tried not to pinch myself, but I couldn’t help notice – my body was holding up. I had plenty of energy to run. And there were no signs of cramp.

I took my last gel, a High 5 Aqua gel, around 2:20 into the race. I came to resolve at this point that no matter what happened from here, I could be happy with my performance. I had gone further than ever without stopping, there was still a chance I could get the sub-3 and even if I didn’t, I could have no regrets. I’d put my confidence in my body, and in the stuff I was fuelling myself on, and that positive frame of mind kept me going. Although around every turn I was still pretty much begging to see the Five Rise Locks. They felt further away the more I thought about them.

I thought I might be having a wobble when getting to around 2:30 into the race. I had no gels, but I had another Soreen bar, the small bag of pretzels and one Saltstick capsule. I nibbled on the pretzels while getting overtaken for 3rd place, and I struggled to eat them. Everything felt slower as a result. I resorted to a big glug of my hydration drink instead. After all, it was meant for this stage of the race, so best to make use of it as intended. A short while aftet that, I took the remaining capsule, necked it OK, and soldiered on.

I estimate that I reached the Five Rise Locks with around 20 minutes to go to the 3 hour mark. I knew that I would have to account for starting my watch late, but I was mega pleased to see the steep drop. I let gravity carry my legs down and I eased into pushing the pace again. I hit the bottom of the hill and I found my stride again. I couldn’t make it last all the way to the Three Rise Locks, but I got a good distance and I repeated the trick at the bottom of the Three Rise.

I crossed the bridge to the other side of the canal with less than 10 minutes to 12:30pm. It was now or never. I knew if I got to the junction with Hirst Wood in a decent time then I had half a chance. But that was it. I guessed it wasn’t far, but having less than 10 minutes to the finish placed a small element of doubt in my mind that I was on target. But before I knew it, the junction of Hirst Wood approached. In the distance, I could hear the noise of runners getting cheered in. An older gentleman, running the half, beckoned me to pass him with hearty encouragement, but I initially had nothing. I gathered myself, found a slight kick and passed him gratefully. The finish line then came into view, in the distance. It was 12:28pm. The crowds of people in the distance at the finish, fluorescent jackets of the volunteers glowing in the winter afternoon sun, and sounds of cheering, a rising crescendo of noise.

This was it. The moment I’d played out in my head countless times. The sub-3 was on. No relying on dodgy tech now. It was entirely in my own hands to go for it. No more calculations. This was knee deep in mud kind of running. By that, I mean the type where you have to dig in and leave absolutely nothing behind. The adrenaline kicked in. I managed to navigate the other canal users and surged. I was sprinting, raising my knees, suddenly any discomfort washed away. It was me versus the clock. My breath was heavy and strained. Pushing back the rigour of the race, I felt unstoppable, like a freight train crashing through. The noise from the finish line was mega, people cheering me as I approached. Finally I crossed the line.

I stopped my watch, which had given a time but obviously for a shorter distance. Someone said it looked like I was going for a time – I said sub-3 hours. I thought I’d got it. But it was the chip time that mattered. I knew it was at least a PB. Someone then said the results were online straight away. The chip meant my result was available in seconds. And then it was confirmed.

2:59:48

I was that overjoyed to hear the time that I literally fell on my backside!That was possibly exhaustion, but more likely disbelief. Happy disbelief. I quickly got up. Everything now seems a blur. I’m pretty sure Byron gave me a handshake which turned into a celebratory hug, and I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Yes!

2:59:48!

I was given a choice of chocolate bar and a choice of ale, lager or cider, plus a medal for finishing. I noticed the plaques for 1st,2nd and 3rd which had just eluded me, but it didn’t matter – I had finally joined the sub-3 club.

The older gentleman I passed near the end caught up with me at the finish. I thanked him for his encouragement because, looking back, at that point it was arguably the difference maker between me pushing on to get the sub-3 or missing out. He joked my time was rubbish! He was absolutely a true gentleman though. A class act.

And then, in true It’s Grim Up North fashion, there’s the cake. It’s been just over two years since I last experienced their delicious home made baking!

Sure enough, upon leaving, I posted it all over social media and Strava, and it went berserk for a bit. But really, the scale of the response was huge!

If there was a downside to this day, it’s the lack of good race photos. From what I’ve seen, there were photos taken at the finish line, but I’m checking my watch – yes, the duff watch – as I cross the line. What a palava!

The start and finish, around 30 minutes after I’d completed my race

I entered the Trot because it was a natural end to an accidental block of training, rather than just letting my training tail off over Christmas to start again. I didn’t even run how I planned to. But it’s great to know I still did it another way, and it gives me a platform to now try and better it in Liverpool. The weather conditions certainly helped, turning out absolutely perfect for marathon running, with only a few gusts of wind now again and even a little bit of sunshine. And this was on a trail course as well. Not the easiest to tread in parts, particularly up by Silsden, and I nearly fell in the drink once or twice.

I later found out that the time I’d been given was my gun time. My chip time was 3 seconds quicker, so I actually ran 2:59:45.

It was great to be back at an It’s Grim Up North Running event. The company have quickly established a prescence and a loyal following with their assortment of races around the four counties of Yorkshire. It had been just over two years since I last ran one of their races – nothing much had changed. The two ladies who run things, put together a great event. You know what you’re getting with their events – always well organised, always delivered with a smile, and a great spirit amongst runners and volunteers alike. And lots of delicious cake! But seriously, IGUNR feels to have really grown into something more than just an events company. Its a community, with a loyal following that brings runners back to enjoy more of their events, and a real inclusiveness. This was my first time back at one of their events since December 2017 and I can only say positive things about how the whole event was run.

Following this day, the big question is ‘what’s next’. But January 4, 2020 will now be a day I can look back on with satisfaction.

Roughly 4 years and 9 months after my first marathon, I set off on an ambition to break the 3 hour marathon target. I’ve always believed it was possible. I was always confident it would happen.

I’ve endured injury, near misses, and occasionally horrendous weather. Seeing my improvements over shorter distances accumulate, and the marathon performance seemingly stagnate. I’ve sacrificed comfort, sleep, and gone to extremes to fit the training around my work/life balance. I’ve suffered frustration, heat exhaustion. The joy of riding high and the agony of cramp, reduced to a hobble. The heartbreak of realising where it went wrong. The doubt that followed it, and the reset I needed to clear my head, refocus, re-energize…and believe again.

It finally happened on a mild winter’s day. The day I joined the sub-3 marathon club.