As with all races, preparation is key and for me that means making sure everything is ready well in advance, that I know where every piece of kit I will need or think I might need is and then double checking to make sure. It also means getting everywhere early to make sure I have sufficient time to… well I’m not quite sure what I need to do. I just get nervous if I’m not ahead of schedule.
So I’m always happy when I can travel up the day before a race, check in somewhere, scout out the transport for the next morning to get to the start line and still have time to relax. So it was that we arrived at Manchester on Saturday afternoon and headed straight to our hotel – INNSIDE Manchester.
Normally I wouldn’t comment on a hotel when reviewing a race, but this one’s slightly different. INNSIDE was hosting the collection of race numbers for those who hadn’t received them in the post and had jumped full into the marathon spirit – offering me (and all other runners) a free late checkout for the following day so that I could shower off and relax after the race. Thanks!
Having checked in, I promptly upturned my bag and sorted through my things, followed by the obligatory flat-lay. The weather was looking good for a vest and the decision on shoes was easy – I find it difficult to see me ever wearing anything other than a pair of Vaporfly Flynits again.
Then it was off to Pizza Express for dinner, meeting an old friend who lives in Manchester and his sister who would be running her first marathon. Then time to rest.
It was an easy job in the morning to make my way down to the start. Naomi and I jumped on the tram at Deansgate. Three stops and five minutes later we were at Trafford Bar and a ten minute walk took us to the starting pens. The area was busy but Start Wave A was still remarkably quiet when I arrived. Saying goodbye to Naomi, I headed in.
I ended up having a long chat with someone else who was attempting their first sub-3 hours. Given he overtook me and shot off into the distance with 10km remaining, I’m assuming he did it! At 8.55 the starting gun went off for the wheelchair race. Queue lots of coughing from Wave A as the coloured smoke they set off drifted straight into the pen. And then we were moving forward as our countdown began.
The first half
The gun went and everyone surged forward. Remarkably I found my space almost instantly. Last year I started too far back and it took a good couple of km to find a space where I could comfortably settle into my pace without weaving around others. This time I seemed to have judged my starting position in the wave just right and my legs settled in to their natural pace.
A few glances at the Garmin to make sure things were right (I had to slow down ever so slightly – I always have a habit of setting off too fast) and things settled down. The first couple of km looped around Trafford Bar before heading down towards Gorse Hill. I’d agreed with Naomi that she wouldn’t try and spectate on the course – it’s largely one long loop that goes out of the city itself and I didn’t want her having to rush around. However, I knew she was at the 4km point when my Garmin suddenly connected to my phone which she was carrying.
The course carried on down and out of the city proper, through residential areas which still had great crowd support despite the early hour. Passing the 10km my legs felt good and my pace was on track, averaging at around 4:05 per km. After the race I found out that I passed the 10km marker in 440th place.
Manchester is a really flat course but the highest elevation gain comes on the approach to km 18. A long incline takes the runners up and over the bridge towards Altrincham, before the course turns into a mini-loop through the village and then back up and over the bridge in the other direction. I hate the bridge but quite like the fact that you run past the others runners in the opposite direction. There’s always a lot of mutual support and people calling across to those they recognise as they pass.
Coming down off of the bridge on the return, I reached the half way point – still in exactly the same position. 440th. Pretty consistent! That didn’t last much longer.
The second half
By this point the race had returned to residential surroundings. My legs were doing ok but I was starting to feel it. The first half had felt effortless. I knew the second half was going to be different. My average pace was still around 4:05 per km. A sub-3 hour marathon needs an average pace of 04:16 per km or thereabouts. I could average 4:26 per km over the second half and still hit the target.
It was around the 27km mark that things started to go wrong. My legs were beginning to ache, but not badly and stomach cramp hit. Neither of which would be an issue in isolation but my brain decided to turn them into one. The mental struggles had begun. I have an ideal running state, in which my mind can switch off and the kms pass unnoticed. This… was not that. I was acutely conscious of every step, every twinge.
Things got worse. The course was heading through a residential area which I recognised from last year. The spot where my legs blew up in 2018, resulting in walking for several km. I was determined not to do so again. I consciously battened down the mental hatches, pushed my way down the road and around the corner. I’d made it past that mental blockage. And turned onto a road that looked identical. Was it actually this one where I blew up last year? And the next road was the same. And the one after that. A constant battle against nothing but my own brain.
Eventually the residential area ended and we headed out into the countryside. Due to the nature of this part of the course, there’s little crowd support. No cheers to carry you onward. My legs were lagging. My pace was dropping. I would find out later that by km 30 I had fallen from 440th place to 1,115th place. I knew I needed to regroup. At the next water station I took a bottle and walked as I drank. 20 seconds of walking. But it was enough to mentally rally and carry on, albeit slower. The same at the next water station a few km later.
My mind was at war with itself. A part of my brain was telling me that I’d missed the sub-3 hours so what was the point. Might as well just drop out and go home. A slightly bigger part of my brain told the other where to go. You don’t stop just because you’ve missed your goal. You finish, learn, go again. You’d think by marathon #34 I’d have learned to put that nonsense to bed.
The end and aftermath
And then I was back into the city. The crowds had returned, fuelling me on. Music was blaring. I was vaguely aware of it but only as indistinct noise. And then, turning the corner, I was on to the final straight. I could see the finish line. And it seemed miles away. But the faster I got there, the sooner it would be over. I stretched out my legs. They responded. Speed picked up and somehow my final split was the fastest from the race. Which meant my legs did have something left – I need to get better at spreading that reserve over the course of a race.
But I’d crossed the line. I staggered on. Someone put a medal around my neck. A photographer took a picture. I’m not sure I was in the mood. I entered the finishers’ area and Naomi met me, telling me how proud she was. I didn’t know why. I knew I’d set a PB (by almost 11 minutes as it turned out) but I’d missed the sub-3. My brain was too tired to balance results against expectations.
Back to the hotel for a shower. Pain everywhere. My mind turning on itself. A long train back to London. Reassuring Naomi that I was fine. Everyone telling me how well I’d done. I still wasn’t understanding that bit. It took until the next day for my mind to finish its infighting. I’d finished in 1,039th place out of 13,652, somehow clawing back over 100 places over the last painful miles.
Sleep. And… happiness. And pride. Almost 11 minutes off of my PB. 20 minutes off of last year’s time on the same course. Over 1 hour and 20 minutes taken off of my PB in 18 months. The sub-3 will come. It feels inevitable. For now, the PB feels like it already has.