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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Review: Running, Ronnie O’Sullivan (Orion Books, 2013)

Perhaps Ronnie O’Sullivan’s autobiographical account of how running has anchored his life should be called Meandering.  Running seems too simple, too direct as a title for a book that, at times, descends into a disjointed series of tales about periods of his life that have been dominated by snooker, drinking, smoking, and yes, running.

I came to this book with high expectations.  I’d listened to him on marathon talk a few years back and was intrigued by how he came to run 10K in 34 minutes.  Although I know very little about snooker, I knew enough about O’Sullivan to assume that he must have seriously cleaned his life up to enable him to go from being overweight and drinking alcoholically, to someone who could knock off a 10K so robustly.  Perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part; perhaps part of my disappointment with Running is the fact that I like tales of redemption, of clearing out the wreckage of the past, and of starting afresh; this autobiography seems a tad reluctant to go beyond the acknowledging of his character flaws into a more considered and mature narrative.

However, it must be said that there are some elements of maturity within the book. O’Sullivan describes periods of his life in which he seems to want to devote his entire time and energy to running.  But there is such a lack of detail of either the physical or emotional journey that this entails that the reader is left feeling a little short changed.  There is no significant insight into how he achieves such periods of stability.  He drops a few names (the sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters is one of them) and he mentions some of the detail of how he accomplished rare periods of calm, but the issue with the book is that it not exactly meticulously or even solidly outlined.  In this respect the book lurches from one period where he seems to have it all together…to another in which he quiet clearly hasn’t.  The result is an addiction narrative with, ironically,  a lack of substance.  It’s neither a book about running, or snooker, or drugs, or life, or insight, or psychology…despite touching on all of these topics at various stages it simply meanders along.  But, and this is important, it does capture something authentic of O’Sullivan’s mindset as both he and the narrative lurch from episode to episode.  Maybe the book is masterful in the way that it’s disjointed; perhaps it’s a transparent depiction of O’Sullivan’s uneven way of understanding the world.  Perhaps.

That’s not to say the book is without strengths either.  I completely admire the honesty with which he lays bare his demons as he talks about the psychological difficulties that he still encounters.  The only way in which mental health issues are ever going to be treated with the same respect as physical difficulties is through such openness and honesty.  In this respect the autobiography succeeds as it depicts O’Sullivan as arrogant as he is frail; as masterful on the table as he is feeble; as professional as he is flawed.  It reads like a chat with a likeable human; rounded yet throughly imperfect.  It’s overwhelmingly clear how much he benefits from the cleansing discipline that running brings to his life.  I hope he continues to run more than he drinks.

Casey Neistat – My Addiction

Casey Neistat is a prodigiously talented film maker.  His youTube channel is testimony to his skill in allowing the everyday and the commonplace to speak.  There’s an undoubted truth in his work.  His relaxed visuals and humorous approach belie an almost obsessive attention to the details, the patina, and the texture of life.

His latest offering resonated with me on so many levels.  Not long ago I wrote a short piece about why I run.  Neistat’s film energetically explores a similar question and it’s wonderful.

Marcus Chester, MArcus Chester runner, Chadderton Hall parkrun, parkrun

Sixteen weeks to go…

Ok then…

Obviously, New Year’s Day lends itself to reflection and projection: learning what you can from the past and setting goals for the future.  Three weeks ago I wrote about my goal to break three hours at the Blackpool Marathon in April.  It’s now 16 weeks until marathon day, and with the Christmas break now over it is time to get focused on doing everything that I can to realise this ambition.

In the last three weeks I have: 

  • Run 92 miles, an average of just over 30 miles per week.  My intention for this period of time was to tick over through the Christmas period, and I feel that I’ve done this productively.  However, the next few weeks will see this average mileage increase steadily.
  • Placed first in a parkrun.  Admittedly it was against the smallest parkrun field that I’ve ever competed against!  But, it felt nice to come first in something.  The results are here.
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Chadderton Hall parkrun, 17/12/16 – First

02/01/17 – 08/01/17

The aim for the next week is to bookend the week with a couple of long steady runs.  Monday’s will be 12 miles at 8:40 minute miles and Sunday’s will be 13 at 8:30.  I’m going to complete a parkrun on Saturday and the target time for this is 20 minutes.  On Wednesday I’ll do a track session with the group that meets at Leverhulme.  Like last week, the emphasis will be on form rather than on flat out speed.  I don’t want to overreach myself, particularly in the early stages of the training.  All other running will be recovery runs/easy runs for a total of 50 miles.

Another aim for the week is to start to cross train.  I’m using body weight exercises and the emphasis is simply to become much stronger throughout the core.  These will be mixed with some stretching.  There will be some element of this each day.

Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, Bolton parkrun, parkrun

Finally, nutrition.  I’m not adopting any formal plan for this, but I will be following some rules to ensure that I get onto the start in April feeling healthy and 28 pounds lighter.  The main rule is to completely cut all refined food.  As my weight has stabilised around 13 stones (down from 21), I have been less strict with the amount of refined food (particularly sugar) that I have consumed.  I’m not really happy with this, and I know that the effect of this are deleterious on both general wellbeing and performance.  A central plank of placing greater emphasis on nutrition will be through using the Nutribullet.  This really is a great way of making quality, nutritious drinks within a matter of minutes.

So, whatever challenge you are planning, I wish you well.  We can all #BeHappier.

Blackpool Marathon (2017)

Sunday 23 April 2017.

It’s a significant date: Shakespeare’s probable birthday.  St George’s Day.  And, of course, the day when I’ll break three hours for the marathon.

I’m nowhere near capable of doing this now.  On Saturday I ran Bolton parkrun in 21:00 – Although this was not a flat out effort it is indicative of how fit (or unfit) I am.  Other indicators of how difficult this challenge are:

My marathon PB is 3:40 set in Manchester 2015 – this was subsequently found to be a short course!

My half-marathon PB is 1:38:29

MY 10K PB is 41:15

My parkrun best this year is 19:29

So, putting it bluntly, the chance of achieving this is pretty low.  That is my first thought, but as I said here, just because your first thought seems natural is not a good enough reason to act as if it is the only way of viewing things.

I’ve been using this blog as a way of demonstrating some ways in which I’ve learned how to become more fulfilled and happier.  One of my main motivations for doing this is to promote my belief that through striving to realise our potential we can become more fulfilled.  I believe that it is time to practise what I preach with regard to running.  I am to become my own experiment: I am to become my own coach and coached.

I think I’ve learned some important lessons over the last few years about how to extract every last drop of willingness out of myself.  Outstanding teaching has at its heart the conviction that we can all be so much more than we initially think.  It’s time to utilise this belief with regards to running.

Now, I run mainly because of the positive impact that it has on my happiness and wellbeing, and this will continue to be the case.  But, I’m intrigued by the simple question of how fast I can become over such a challenging distance.  It would be dishonest of me to train for this marathon and then subsequently blog or podcast about how I’m not really bothered about the time I’m aiming for.  The truth is that although I recognise the totally arbitrary nature of breaking 3 hours, I am also highly motivated to do so.  I want to be honest with my intentions.  I don’t want to say to people that I’m not concerned about what time I run when really I am.

So, I’ve made my intention public.  My target is verging on the delusional.  But, I hope you’ll see that (for me) being transparent about what I want to achieve is a great way (for me) of getting focused, gaining momentum, and remaining committed.

I also hope you’ll see that if I can do this with my own very obvious lack of innate talent, then maybe you can turn your hand to whatever it is that you want to achieve but have, maybe, been putting off.

I’ll be posting a weekly update right here.

Target:

To run the Blackpool Marathon on Sunday 23 April 2017 in a time of sub 3 hours.

Marcus Chester, Marcus Chester runner, Marcus Chester coach, Marcus Chester mentor

The Great Run Manchester 10K

The Great Run Manchester 10K is a race that has been on my ‘to do’ list for a while.  I think that I’ve previously avoided it as it’s a huge event which uses a number of different waves to ensure that all 40,000+ runners are able to participate safely.  In many ways it’s a series of separate events that are run one after the other.  Perhaps it’s the eye-watering £38 entry fee, which for a 10K race is bordering on the obscene.

Whatever the reason for not running previously, this year I became part of a team of colleagues that was attempting to raise money for the Christie Hospital in Manchester.  With a cause as worthwhile as this, and with the added bonus of being able to encourage colleagues that had never participated in a race before, it would have been churlish not to run.  And I’m really glad that I did.

My usual race day earliness meant that I could park my car on the free on-street parking and make my way up to Costa on Albert Square for a customary pre-race caffeine fix.  The sun was out, the air still and warm, and to watch the city slowly wake up to a perfect Sunday morning while I looked out onto the majestic town hall was an added bonus.  I’m always advocating that people arrive early to important events as I believe that it removes unnecessary stress.  The Costa slowly filled with runners, supporters, and loads of Great Run marshals who had all volunteered to ensure that the event ran smoothly.

I was running in the first wave which meant an 11:37 start.  I jogged back down to my car, left my kit there, and ran back up to the start line. By this time I felt quite warmed up and would have been happy to start racing.  However, as is the way with these mass participation events, you find yourself on the start line waiting for a long time: in this case 30 minutes.  With the sun and the crowds of people it because quite warm and it felt like waiting for a giant carnival to commence.  At the start of a marathon this is not really an issue as a slow start works to your benefit much later on in the day.  However, in a 10K it can be a distinct annoyance.  But perhaps more annoying still were the people who insisted on inching ever further towards the very front of the pen.   The rule of thumb is to try and start in a position that represents where you think you’ll finish.  That way runners spread out appropriately.  As it was, many runners started very quickly, only to tire and slow during mile two.  Given that many of these were running as groups and teams it made for a very difficult mile or so as I, and others, manoeuvred round them.  It was very warm on the carriageway that the course takes out towards Old Trafford and it would have been much better for all if more thought was given to appropriate starting positions by those taking part.  Many of those that did set off too quickly would probably have enjoyed it more too.  By mile three lots of people were shuffling along with another half of the race to go.

Mentally, iIMG_1375t was an odd run; I never really hit my stride.  Perhaps the stop/start nature of the opening accounts for this, or the heat, or simply the fact that in the midst of ultra training, 10K races are tough.  I did enjoy it though. I enjoyed the sun, the crowds, the support.  Most of all, I enjoyed the fact that runs like this do a great job of encouraging those who wouldn’t consider themselves to be runners to…well..run.  Although, my usual caveat here: parkrun does this much more effectively.  However, it is a brilliantly organised event with a great goody bag too.

But the best thing of all was to be part of a team that raised over £7500 for The Christie.  That fact alone is worth £38.

Haigh Hall Trail Race

My objective for this race: run as hard as I could.

With an opening mile of 5:41 it could be an easy mistake to think that I was running well. I wasn’t, I was running downhill.

The first mile or so of this 3.7 mile race is a sharp downhill on paths that lead from the newly refurbished playground at Haigh Hall down to Bottling Wood.  From there the course loops round before heading back uphill towards the finish.  I could feel the burn of lactic acid everywhere.  My shoulders were complaining as much as my calves.  The uphill section of the run was an exercise in willing my legs to keep moving forwards.  I’m always trying to see the bigger picture and I wanted to run this race as hard as I could as an exercise in pushing myself forward.  This race achieved exactly this objective.  I had to concentrate and run hard downhill; I had to concentrate and run hard uphill.

In the end I fnished in 24:52 for 34th place from 229 runners.

As I jogged back to my car I felt the familiar glow of achievement that comes with knowing that you have met the objective that you’ve set for yourself.  I couldn’t have put anymore in to this race and I couldn’t have got anymore out of myself.

Results