Manchester Marathon Diary – Peter Brown

Manchester Marathon Diary by Peter Brown

In 1999 Batman passed me on the Embankment in the London Marathon. For the pretentious yet untalented individual who took his sport far too seriously this was a turning point for sub three would forever be a thing of the past. Whilst the man in the Batman suit turned out to be Olympic race walker Les Morton that didn’t help for, despite posting a decent time at the difficult Spen 20 a few weeks earlier, this was the moment that it became clear that my 10k and half marathon times would never really convert to the marathon.

Subsequent dabbling with the distance proved to be ineffective with the gradual realisation that the Grim Reaper had his beady eye on me. O.K., so there was a half marathon pb as an M40 a year later but this was surely the sign of a mis-spent youth. The cup is always half empty isn’t it? As you get older descent into ineptitude isn’t even gradual; it comes with jolts and bumps as after every setback or injury you never quite get back to where you were before.

As a 50th birthday present to myself, much to the surprise of those who knew my distaste for the distance, a further marathon attempt was made at Nottingham. Holme Pierrepoint was another turning point and the mental scars from running 3x2000m along the rowing venue at around 15 miles still remain. A positive was that the good for age qualifying time for London was achieved. The performance five months later was uninspiring. Against this background, again, those who know my running philosophy were surprised when they discovered that the 2015 Manchester Marathon was on the agenda.

Through 2012 to Autumn 2014 I had been doing sessions with Nick Scott who was running marathons with James Fulcher also making these when he could. These involved 7:45am starts at Woodbourn Road track and turning out for long runs at the weekend. As Nick’s fitness improved, attendance for the long run was more to man the water station but still, being there and providing him with that appointment to get up and do it must have helped.

In March 2014 an absolute thrashing at the Norton Nine was like having a cold bucket of water tipped over the head. With sub 40 for 10k a now sadly distant memory a change of approach was needed. Having been de-facto training for the marathon for the past two years it seemed sensible to return to the dreaded distance itself – which is how I ended up running the 2015 Manchester Marathon.

Nick is a disciple of Peter Pfitzinger. Using his approach to training he had used and adapted his schedules to achieve the London qualifier at Blackpool 2013 although London 2014 was a disappointment, hampered by a training setback of cracked ribs achieved on the Cross Country course of Campsall in 2013. With Barry Gyte and Jennifer Rich joining in, Nick set a schedule of Long Reps or Hills on Tuesday, Tempo on Wednesday, VO2 Max on the track on Thursday with a Long Run at the Weekend. Without the marathon background of the others I didn’t always do the tempo. The Long Run was the crucial part of the schedule for if you don’t get the trip then everything else comes to nothing. During the 18 weeks prior to Manchester we each did at least eight sessions of 20 miles or longer including a 20 mile race. More than Pfitzinger prescribes perhaps but what else do you do at 8:00am on a Saturday? This was a strong, committed, group turning out in all weathers with a “gun and hand grenade” attitude to those who couldn’t keep up.

There were some salient points for all of us and the others will undoubtedly have their own tales. One February morning I struggled up the slope to the roundabout at Rother Valley thinking I had run 22 miles only for Nick to announce that I had to run another 400 meters to make up the distance. Now 400m doesn’t make the session any more or less effective but having been set the challenge, it had to be settled. Another Saturday Jenny did a similar thing to make sure that she had run 23 miles. Thursday 18th February was another important date. Suffering from that horrible hacking cough that had infected much of Sheffield around then, Thursday’s track session wasn’t as bad as it might have been but how would Saturday’s twenty miler turn out? Sitting in the pub later, experienced marathoner Dave Oldfield of Sheffield RC put me straight – take a rest, recover and come back stronger. Pfitzinger allows for a ‘cushion’ in his schedules too. Sound advice; readily given to others but rarely heeded. Later, Tuesday 31st March a set of 6x1200m with Jenny at Woodbourn Road was another marker. In hideous conditions (some may remember the hailstorm) +/- only one second with it blowing a gale was a good sign.

Twenty mile races in March were important to all of us. Jenny ran Wymondham in 2:21, Nick ran Hull in 2:12 whilst my own performance at Hull was a good omen too. At the beginning of this enterprise, given current fitness, 3:30 was the target for Manchester but clearly this would have to be revised. Would it be possible to maintain this pace for the next six miles; as Jenny put it “you always run to the finish”. Barry’s experience was less encouraging and as it turns out he had to miss London due to a rather nasty bug that he picked up. Somehow he still ran 2:40 at Hull but for those who know Barry this was not so good.

Skipping the boredom and inconsistencies of the taper, preparations were made for race day. Sod getting up early. With the first Manchester train arriving at 8:40, after all this investment a hotel was booked. Never mind that it turns out to be three miles from the start, Manchester has taxis. Premier Inn Manchester Centre West is like any other Premier Inn except that when you go to dinner (to avoid wandering around the Trafford Centre itself) they’ve run out of pasta. The waitress simply didn’t understand. So it’s the short walk to Manchester’s shopping hell to eat but forgive Premier Inn for they have organised a shuttle bus to the start the following morning.

At this stage we must discuss beer. Well yes, for whilst Nick and Jenny (allegedly) abstained in the lead up to London, Matt Surgeon cautioned about getting the shakes. Consumption was indeed reduced but it is often found that a bottle of ale the night before gives way to a decent night’s sleep.

Furthermore, The Beer Drinkers Guide to Sports Psychology is essential marathon preparation for any athlete. This chapter in Charlie Spedding’s autoboiography From Last to First recounts how Spedding confronted and changed his self image. Over the years I had persuaded myself that I couldn’t convert to the marathon but as Spedding showed me the last 18 weeks training had left me more prepared for the distance than I ever had been before. I might not run my fastest marathon but I would achieve my potential given my circumstances; age being the most obvious one. Spedding makes a point that sport isn’t all about being the best, it is also about being the best you can be given natural ability. My training had been assiduous but not run till you drop, for, if you train hard all the time then how can you run harder on race day? Spedding’s story illustrates how some race better than they train whilst others have left their best races on the track. This only works if you’ve done the training however for if you haven’t, the marathon can break you.

Marathon day, with two alarm clocks set, starts by being woken at 06:00 am. A good nights sleep. Loads of time to shower, breakfast (Oats so Simple, just add boiling water) and further  the hydration process with Tesco’s isotonic drinks. The first bus is scheduled for 7:30 but as I check out there’s already a gang of people standing outside. It’s now 7:35, plenty of people and no bus. Spedding also talks about the good and bad sides of stress and I need to sort this out. There’s a couple packing up their car. “Can I have a lift?” I ask. “We’re getting a cab, but you can share that if you like”. 7:40 and there’s still no sign of the bus as people arriving for the 7:50 shuttle begin to appear. Thank you to the chap from Canterbury Harriers, I hope you got what you wanted today. We never saw the bus.

The race venue is a scrum. Sort out where the baggage drop and start are but no time or inclination to look at the last half mile as usual. I seem to be the only athlete not wearing a utility belt stuffed with gels and other stuff. Why carry a bottle when there are water stations every few miles? I find a quiet corner to fiddle with socks and shoes and try to keep the lid on everything – no photoshoot for me but then I’d break the lens in this mood. Then Chris Ireland, from Sheffield RC spots me. He’s a tremendous athlete, out of my league his target is to simply get the qualifying time for London as he has a 1500m race the following Sunday. It’s good to talk to a neutral. He runs 3:03 with a negative split – so much for an easy run.

Standing in my start pen, one part of me can’t wait whilst the other, knowing what is to come, feels that this is the last place in the world where I want to be.

The start is a scrum too. I hate big city centre races, twits charging past, even running on the pavement and then I get stuck behind the 3:15 lollipop. He’s like a celebrity running the London Marathon, surrounded by people who want to get onto the television blocking the road for the other competitors. This is intolerable and I have the choice of either slowing down or going past. I run on the pavement to get past him even though this puts me in the position where pace is faster than desired. It’s disconcerting that the first mile marker is such a long way out; if this one is wrong then how accurate will the others be? It’s not until five miles until things settle down but the next fifteen miles are relatively uneventful with time to say hello to the Totley chap nearby and 20 miles is reached ahead of schedule.

Then the demons arrive as we knew they would. Companions for the rest of the race they sidle up alongside and trick us into losing concentration as we engage in complex mental arithmetic. Ahead of schedule, instead of “Wow! We can get such and such a time” our potential time is translated into “even if we blow up now and run eight minute miles until the end then we might just get this time.” What did Spedding say about critical thinking last night? Betteridge had Robinson Crusoe, I have Spedding.

We catch ourselves looking at our watch for no apparent reason. What was that all about then? Then we start worrying about the people going past. Run your own race we say, they don’t matter just concentrate on the athletes that we’re catching. That’s the lass from Serpentine that cut us up early on. Now try and get the girl from Sheffield Tri Club. (We can’t but she eventually ran 3:11 which explains that one). There’s a chap who looks like he’s got MS. That puts it all in perspective. “Dig in mate” is the best we can offer as we go past.

Taking stock of our situation we remember Nick’s experiences and tell ourselves that now is the time to make a commitment. Keep with those two guys in black, at least for the next mile. We eventually lose track of them but we’ve made a stand and we now know that we’re close to the end. At twenty four miles I tell the demons that I do 3x2000m on the track on Tuesday evenings so this last bit will be a piece of cake. But twenty four to twenty five miles takes an eternity; the mile marker is in the wrong place. But still the demons won’t leave me alone. It’s not a question of finishing, it never has been, it’s a question of time. Where is the finish line? The demons ask me why didn’t you warm up over the last half mile like you usually do?

Then the lollipop goes past. Forgotten, that was twenty five miles ago. “You’ll make 3:15, no problem” he says and with those words the demons are exorcised. A man who can run 3:15 with a lollipop deserves respect and can be counted on to tell the truth unlike the mile markers.

Why is it that the winner of the race can find the strength to jump in the air and salute the crowd whilst the athlete who is second crumples into a sad dishevelled heap? At the finish line, the space blanket I’m given has never been more welcome for suddenly I’m cold and I let the helper wrap it around me. The world disintegrates as I join the slow moving line of individuals to collect my goody bad, stealing some extra bottles of isotonic drink along the way. I get a small t-shirt for my daughter; I wonder if she’ll understand how much this cost for this will be the only tangible reminder of the event for the meaningless medal will go in the bin. Sadly, my first drink is an alkoholfrei Erdinger which I nearly throw up.

On the bus back to Manchester Picadilly, unable to work out how to get to Old Trafford tram stop, there have been a host of text messages congratulating me. For the first time in years my family had been taking an active interest in my activities apparently enthralled by the virtual race that they have been following on the web. Messages from my training partners are there too whilst Barry rang up later that evening to say well done. I’m pleased with my time, especially when I learn much later that the chip time is nearly a minute quicker, but what pleased me most was how well the strategy worked – get to twenty in 2:30 or quicker and then see what happens. In the marathon the race starts at twenty.

The bus home from Sheffield station was hideously busy and I had to stand part of the way.

You may leave here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.

Full result, including Peter’s 3:14:48 available on the Manchester Marathon Result page.

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