My number, alongside a comprehensive race day booklet, arrived exactly on-time. If the Chester Marathon has a reputation, it is for being a slickly organised event that has maintained its human touch in all that it does. While other marathons have opted for exponential growth, Chester has clearly aimed to ensure that all who run experience good times by delivering exactly what it says it will: good times.
I ran the event back in 2012 and, at the time, it was my second marathon. I’d enjoyed the event immensely and as I arrived at the racecourse which dominates the city centre, the warm memory of running 4:16:14 became palpable.
I parked in a car park opposite the race course. It couldn’t have been any closer to the start line. The on-course parking had been cancelled the day before as heavy rain had fallen in the week, and the race course, being so close to the river, is prone to becoming boggy. Not that either rain or dampness was an obvious concern to us runners: the air was mild, still, and without a trace of humidity to be felt.
I made my way into a cafe area to buy coffee. Despite being early, many runners were nervously munching energy bars and drinking from bottles promising electrolytes and various energy forms. Some were going old school and opting for the coffee and banana combination that I favour. Each to their own. I chatted to a first time marathoner who informed me that he’d been training specifically for this event for 9 months. He’d done four twenty-four milers in the build up and yet he still wondered if he could ‘make it round in one piece’. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d like to bet that he did, such was the steely look that he had about him. My brother arrived minutes later. He was in Chester to run the event as training for next year’s Comrades Marathon. And then yet more arrived too. By 7:30 the place was full of the sound of running related chatter as well as the distinct smell of various balms and embrocations being liberally applied to a multitude of aches.
Just before 8AM I left the cafe area and went for a walk. I came across the England team being photographed before a swish looking digital poster. They looked as nervous as I felt. In my twitchy state of mind I’d forgotten to ring my Burnden Road Runners club mate. We’d previously arranged to meet up before the off. Luckily I managed to get in touch, and we too took advantage of the photo opportunity afforded by the digital signage and podium.
On the walk back to the car to get changed I mentally checked in with myself. All felt good. No aches or pains. A quick change of socks and shoes, vest on, warm clothing off, and I was ready to get started.
The start line of a marathon is always a special place to be. I opted for a noisy slot behind the 3:30 pacers. Although my target time was 3:25 I wanted to start deliberately slowly and build through miles 5 – 13 to an average pace that would bring me in at 3:24. A few minutes after carefully positioning myself in an appropriate slot we were off.
The opening miles passed by pleasantly enough. The course winds through the city, under the famous clock, past the Roman amphitheatre, and then it’s out into the countryside for the bulk of the race. By mile four the 3:30 pacers were far away in the distance and I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake by starting too cautiously. I had to remind myself several times what my race plan was: start slowly, build through the middle and push on at the end of the race. Mile nine passed in 7:38 and mile ten in 7:38. I ran mile eleven in 7:35 and all felt good. It was on this stretch that the distinctive signs of the 3:30 pacing group became visible, and I relaxed even more as I eventually caught the bus. Although I was pleased to get back to the group, I hadn’t thought that the road would be quite as congested as it was. Put simply: there was no way I could get past the all of the runners. I’d simply have to wait until the road widened.
Miles twelve to twenty-four passed without incident. The miles were being ticked off with the steady consistency that I’d planned on at the outset. Things were progressing nicely. And then… and then I experienced cramp like I’ve never felt before. The whole of my right leg locked rigid and within the space of two strides I found myself shouting out in painful surprise. I thought that the offending area was my hamstring, but to be honest the pain felt so severe that it could have been coming from anywhere in my lower half. My right calf had locked rigid too. I managed to get myself to the side of the road before falling in a heap on the ground. I genuinely couldn’t stand. However, I could get both of my hands round my leg and I instinctively found the energy to squeeze it as hard as I could. For the first time I thought that I would not be able to complete the marathon, such was the way in which my leg refused to unlock itself. With a final squeeze, I resigned myself to the fact that the Chester Marathon was probably over.
And then it went. As quickly as it came, it went. It subsided really quickly and then left, almost without a trace. The whole episode took just over two and a half minutes, but lying there on the pavement it felt like much longer. Oddly, I was able to resume the pace that I was running at before being struck. I just had to hold it all together for the final two miles and I would still be able to sneak in at under three and a half hours. My A target of three hours and twenty-five minutes was now blown, but the B target was very much still on. Right on cue a light drizzle started to fall and the crowds started to thicken. I saw my sister-in-law at somewhere around the mile twenty five mark, just as dark thoughts of cramp were beginning to surface again. I needn’t have worried. Despite the change in surfaces over the last mile, it never returned. I was quickly over the line in 3:28:11, comfortably under 3:30:00, but also comfortably over 3:25:00.
Walking back to the car I reflected on what I’d learned. Obviously, I was delighted to have gained such a large PB. My previous best of 3:42:14 was well and truly smashed. Not only that, I’d managed to do so comfortably and had managed my pace well throughout. I hadn’t hit the wall, and I hadn’t experienced the stomach discomfort that had blighted the Manchester Marathon last year. But I also started to think about my training. It had gone well inasmuch as I had maintained great consistency throughout the summer, but what could I achieve with a rock solid focus on the marathon? It would be a few days later before I could answer this.