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.

Results

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Manchester Marathon

It’s hard to describe the pain that I felt on Sunday from just mile three of the Manchester Marathon.  I know I suffered more than I had ever suffered before. But now, several days later, I’m finding the words to describe it eluding me. If there is a memory of pain, perhaps it is an ill formed shadow that language just cannot pin down.  I hurt.

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After leaving the car at Salford Quays I walked over to Old Trafford Cricket Ground. Despite a perfect Sunday morning of cool temperatures and bright sunshine it was hard to block out the negative thoughts that crept into my mind.

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Perhaps it had all started the week before.  I’d found it difficult to sleep with the same soundness and depth that I would ordinarily.  It’s the easing off of the training that did it.  I’m happiest, and I sleep the soundest, when I am exhausted before getting into bed.  A reduction of training, and the fact that I was on holiday, meant that I didn’t feel particuarly tired when I went to bed; I found myself reading in the small hours having been awoken by nothing other than my own thoughts. But disrupted sleep was to be the least of my problems; by Friday my stomach was starting to complain too.

My stomach is always the first thing to suffer if things become out of kilter.  On Friday I felt very bloated and on Saturday I didn’t feel hungry at all.  The food that I did eat tasted slightly metallic. By Sunday morning this meant that I struggled to eat a solitary bagel and I could feel it sitting in my stomach.  As I walked away from the car I could hear the fluid that I drank sloshing around: an unwelcome sound and an uncomfortable feeling.

By mile three of twenty six I knew I was in deep trouble.

My target time was 3:30.  This would respresent an improvement of 10 minutes over last year’s time when I ran the marathon as an Ironman training run.  My plan was to run 2 equal halves as I truly believe that success in the marathon is about pace judgement, best demonstrated through an even (or negative) split. Amongst other things, my recent 1:40 Darwen Half on a very hilly course gave me confidence in being able to run 1:45 for the first half on the flat in Manchester.

But it wasn’t to be.

I felt very uncomfortable from the outset.  I’m not a marathon talker.  If anyone makes small talk in the early stages of a marathon I’ll reply, but I’ll never instigate a conversation.  I prefer getting into the metronomic rythm that I like to adopt and I need to concentrate to be able to do this. On Sunday the conversations that several people started with me jarred and annoyed. I was concentrating on trying to settle my stomach and simply, calmly, make progress without throwing up.  It just wasn’t to be.  I could feel the little food that I’d managed to eat and the liquid I’d had sloshing around.  The annoyng thing was that my legs felt great, my breathing fine, and other than the increasing discomfort in my stomach it would appear that I’d arrived on the line in shape and ready to run.

The early miles passed without too much trouble.  Although I felt very unwell I could manage it.  I can, however, barely remember anything about the first half.  Last year I really enjoyed the sections of the race that ran through Altringham and Sale; I enjoyed hearing the crowd and seeing the efforts that people had gone to to become a part of the event.  I’d enjoyed being part of the celebration that is a marathon.  This year all I could do is concentrate on not throwing up.

My first bout of sickness came just after the half way point which I passed in 1:45 – exactly on target. The relief that it bought lasted for a couple of minutes, by which time my head was pounding with the onset of dehydration. The fluids that I sipped from that point on simply sat in my stomach too.  It was as if I couldn’t absorb anything and whatever was in my system wanted out.  Thank goodness for the understanding public, pub bar staff and for a particularly dense bush on a roadside path.

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From half way I was in real trouble. Every step jarred my head and irritated my guts even further. To feel like this when your legs feel OK is frustrating. I had to really dig deep to keep moving towards.  I ran this marathon last year and finished strongly with an even split having had just 2 small bottles of water on the whole course.  I felt stronger on the Ironman marathon than I did on Sunday.  To say that my stomach cramp had me doubled over in parts of the course is the truth.  I contemplated lying down in the foetal position just to try and alleviate the distress that it was causing me.  I’ve had cramp in my calves and feet after long open water swims, but stomach cramp was an entirely new experience. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t focus my vision properly. At drinks stations I fumbled for much needed water and my general form was so poor that I finished the race with four separate areas of my body that were bleeding through my kit. Again, an entirely new experience for me.

It was then, with some stubbornness, that I managed to get myself to the finish line in 3:59:52. I expected to feel relief. Instead I just felt broken and empty. For the rest of the day I felt hollowed out, I knew I’d stopped running and yet my stomach felt no easier. As I write these words some six days later I’m still struggling to get comfortable in my chair.

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It’s my belief that there’s a certain magic in misery. So much of life is designed to provide levels of comfort which insulate us from finding out what we are capable of.  I went to the marathon believing that I could run a marathon in 3:30.  Instead those 26.2 miles taught me a lesson about the value of suffering, moving forward, and having faith that things will work out in the end.  And for that I’m truly grateful.

Results

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.