Marcus Chester at the Chester Marathon 2017

Chester Marathon 2017

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.

Marcus Chester at mile ten of the Chester Marathon
Somewhere around mile ten

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.

Marcus Chester at mile twenty-five of the Chester Marathon
Somewhere around mile twenty-five

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.

Marcus Chester at the Chester Marathon 2017
Chester Marathon 2017

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.

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Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, Sheds, books, review

A Shed of One’s Own

I recently read Marcus Berkmann’s  A Shed Of One’s Own.   I’ve always liked titles like this ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own some 20-odd years ago.  As a literature student I developed an enduring fascination with the concept of rooms as metaphors for containment and restriction.   It really has stayed with me.  Indeed, a few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View to an A-level group and found myself once again captivated by literature which uses the conceit of rooms.  There is something immediately understandable about the fact that rooms can speak to our common understanding of, and need for, inclusion.

Of course, as a runner, I spend much time outside of rooms, outside of buildings.  I often find myself looking back into them as I shuffle past.  I’m often not conscious of my doing so; but when I am I love seeing the little vignettes of domesticity that always appear to be caught in a freeze-frame.  Of course,  I am grateful for the freedom that running offers.  But, I can’t help thinking as I run that such freedom is only meaningful once I’m back inside my home.  Running is as much about the return to a warm home and my family as it is about escape.

Sheds are a different matter.  I’ve been only been vaguely interested in these since I bought and built one of my own a couple of summers ago.  I found the whole process an enjoyable way to spend a few sunny August days.  Largely though, my shed has served a literal purpose.  I’ve not, in the pursuit of metaphor, been able to push the shed into the service of anything other than storage for the lawnmower and various bikes. 

So, it was with some surprise that I read Berkmann’s argument that ‘a shed of one’s own’ could also be understood as an internal shed: a sort of psychological space which is a defence against the havoc that middle age may bring.  So far, so good.  But I also stumbled upon a small paragraph in which sits the idea that marathon running can be likened to having a shed of one’s own.  Here the running-as-a-metaphor-for-a-shed-as-a-metaphor-for-having-one’s-own-internal-space actually works.  Weirdly. 

Marathon running is the construction that you erect around yourself in order to exclude yourself from one world (the sofa; the bad food; the rust of middle age) while allowing one to embrace the possibilities of another (the open road; the better choice).  Marathon running might not always exude the same comfort level that the idealised Berkmann shed offers; but, like the garden shed, it is always there: unassuming, tucked in the corner.  There might not be anywhere to keep the spades in your marathon shed.  But improved quality of life?  You’ll have that in bucket loads.

Review: The Way of the Runner, Adhanarand Finn (Faber and Faber, 2015)

I came to The Way of the Runner really wanting to gain an insight into the world of Japanese ekiden.  I’d heard Adharanand Finn taking about the depth of Japanese running on the brilliant Marathon Talk podcast.  He seemed sold on the idea that there was something unique about the ways in which the Japanese trained that helped to account for their undoubted depth, particularly in the marathon and half marathon distances.

In this respect the book failed.  The text offers nothing beyond some bland statements about the fact that high school and university coaches can be incredibly tough; that runners train hard at a relatively young age (and subsequently burn out);  and that it is possible to earn a decent living from running even at a sub-national level.

The main issue is the fact that we never really get to know any of the runners that pop in and out of the narrative.  Whether it’s the language barrier or the reserve that many of the coaches have for a foreign journalist is not particularly salient.  What is evident is the fact that we don’t journey into the psyche of any of the runners.  We are none the wiser about what makes them capable of running such good times in such large numbers.  This is the real shame. Finn is, undoubtedly, a good writer.  He is capable of evoking the ennui of an overland train journey, and at times he movingly captures the essence of what running means to him.  He would have been onto something much more captivating if he’d been able to gain any significant insight into the psychology of the Japanese runners. He is a natural storyteller, but he’s stuck with a narrative that refuses to be told in any meaningful depth.