The days before the marathon I was deliberating what shoes to wear. People in the know tell you not to wear racers unless you're a 2:40 marathon runner, but this advise is a few years old, and shoes, even racing shoes, have improved since then. I knew I had problems in my left foot, which may or may not be Plantar Fasciitis, and I knew that the much reduced cushioning could cause problems in that area, but in the end I decided that some extra pain was a price I was willing to pay for the possibility of shaving a minute off my time, and against better advice I decided to wear the lightest shoes in my arsenal.
The weather forecast on Sunday had promised 22C/72F for Monday, which was not what we wanted to hear, but even then I kept my resolve of trying to go for a sub 3:10 time. I awoke well before the alarm was supposed to go off at 6am, the conditions were humid and hazy, and we expected that to lift by the time of the race start at 9 am. We got to the start without problems, and 10 minutes before the start, while I was doing some dynamic stretching exercises, I had the first ever celebrity moment of my running career. Someone came up to me and asked “Are you Thomas? I recognised you from the photo in your blog”. Well, Richard, thank you, I was flattered, and I hope you had a good race yourself.
We started on time, and I set off immediately at target pace. The Cork marathon also has a relay in operation. I experienced that once, in Belfast 3 years ago, and hated it, because it meant that every 5 miles you were overtaken by yet another batch of fresh runners. However, today I was planning to run 3 minutes per mile faster than back then, which should drastically reduce the number of relay runners around me. Nevertheless, for the first 2 miles they kept streaming past me, and it was difficult to swallow my pride and keep on pace. Eventually the field got somewhat settled and the constant overtaking stopped. I didn't feel comfortable yet, my left shin started to hurt, and I did not feel relaxed, but a look at the HRM told me that my heart rate was still in the low 160s, which was lower than what I would have expected. At least I didn't start too fast for once.
My target pace was 7:10, but that left me with a little bit of a safety margin. On the other hand, the lesson from Bantry, 4 weeks ago, had been that the official mile markers tend to be a little bit further apart then the once measured by my Garmin, and adding 2 seconds per mile was prudent (i.e. run 7:10 on the Garmin for an actual 7:12 mile). It took quite some time to get into the groove. By the time we passed the first relay point after the 5 mile mark I was about 10 seconds off pace. Good enough. I took my first carbohydrate gel, but can't tell if it made any difference. Soon after, the course sported a rather unique feature. We went down a tunnel, which apparently goes as low as 5 meters below sea level, and then went up again. Obviously I lost the satellite signal on my GPS, but it picked it up immediately at the other end. At that point I saw a female relay runner walking, looking utterly exhausted. I tried to be supportive and told her that she was already halfway through her stage, but was quite unprepared for the angry reply and being told to f*ck off. Suit yourself, then. B*tch.
I managed to speed up just a little bit, enough to hammer out 2 consecutive 7:10 miles, and then the course dropped a few meters over the next miles and I used that to basically get back on track, time wise. Something that I have noticed in all of my recent races (with the exception of Connemara) is that I'm good at running downhill. I basically relax and let gravity do its thing, and even with the reduced effort I always manage to overtake a number of runners. The Cork course did not sport a lot of ups and downs up to that point, but on the few occasions I always managed to make up a few places. More importantly, I felt good. The shins had long stopped causing trouble, and the rest of my legs were in good shape.
Unfortunately by now the haze had well and truly disappeared, and the sun was beating down rather mercilessly. Luckily the water stations were almost every 2 miles, but with the water in plastic cups rather than bottled it was difficult to take sufficient fluids on board without slowing down. After about 11 miles we were back alongside the river Lee, and the trees above us provided some welcome shade. What was less welcome was the concrete beneath our feet, and I felt like my legs got an extra bit of hammering from the unforgiving surface. A look at the watch also told me that I was slowing down again. I tried to speed up a little bit, but to no avail. I was soon back in the old, slow groove, and the pace dropped first to 7:15, and then even further to 7:20.
At that point I made a serious mistake. Shortly before the 13 mile water station I took another gel, but was a bit late. I was still trying to get to grips with the zip at the back of my shorts when I passed the first water line. I declined taking a cup because I could still see more volunteers further on. However, by the time I finally had my hands free I realised that they were no longer handing out water but soaked sponges. Damn! Now I had a belly full of sugar and no water to dilute it. After a moment of hesitation I decided to ignore basic hygiene rules, and started sucking the sponge! I don't know how they had treated the sponges before handing them out, but it did the trick, I got some water down my belly, and I could still wring the sponge on top of my head to get some cooling.
I passed the halfway point in 1:34:52, which meant that I had an 8 seconds cushion for the 3:10 target. Not a lot, especially taking into account that the hilly part of the course was yet to come. I had always known that breaking 3:10 would be a big challenge, and that sure proofed to be the case. At that stage I gave myself a 40% chance of making it.
Just before mile 15 I overtook two guys who were rather attached to each other – literally. They were attempting to break the world record in three-legged marathoning. Two of their legs were connected by a short rubber band and two of their arms were tied together completely. They had been doing good pace, but were slowing down now. I have no idea what the previous world record was, but apparently they made it. Congratulations! Still, that was completely mad.
We were now entering the toughest part of the course. It went uphill for the next two miles, and the sun still felt mercilessly hot. The next drink station had both water and gatorade, and I was really, really thirsty. I grabbed a cup of water, gulped it down as quickly as I could, and then took an entire bottle of gatorade. I'm sure I still had the gel in my stomach, and the additional water finally gave it the chance to be digested properly, but I could not resist, and over the next half mile I drained the entire bottle. I don't know if that was a good move or not, but I do know that I basically followed my instinct and drank according to thirst. My hunch is that it was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately with all the climbing I was getting slower and slower, and by now 7:28 miles were all I had in me, and I could feel the 3:10 slipping away. After mile 17 we were running around “The Lough”, a little lake up on a hill, and maybe it was just my imagination, but I felt cooler again and finally I could speed up again a little bit. It also helped that the following mile was downhill. The overall average pace on my Garmin, which had been around 7:11 until mile 12, had by now dropped to 7:14, and I was desperately trying to stop it from slipping even further. However, the course is rather tough at that point, after each downhill the next uphill followed with some vengeance, and we were slowly working our way towards the highest point of the course. By now my left calf muscle had started to hurt, which was most likely a result of all the uphill sections. For the two miles leading up to mile 21 I could only average 7:26. At one point there was a sign “This is the last hill”. I asked the people if this was true, but they just laughed. Turns out, it wasn't, it was the second from last. But at least we were at the highest point of the course. The next 2 miles would be downhill and then it was flat all the way to the finish. Anyone who still had full use of his or hers quads would be able to take advantage of this. The question was, would I be one of the select few?
Numbers don't lie. By now the average pace on the Garmin was 7:15, and since the official mile markers were by now almost a minute after the ones from the Garmin it meant that I was scheduled for a 3:11 finish. That would still be a personal best, but I knew I would not be satisfied with that. My goal was still 3:10, and by now I gave myself a chance of 10%. That wasn't much, but the downhill section once more gave me renewed vigour, I started passing people again, and I had one last bit of gel.
I had taken a gel at mile 5, and it didn't seem to have any effect. I had taken another one at 13, and that nearly brought on a disaster. But this one hit the spot. I took it right when I needed a boost, and I'm sure the effect was mostly psychological, but that didn't matter. I slowly but steadily started gaining pace again.
Just before the 22 mile point the course turns onto the Straight Road. That isn't the official name, but that's what the locals call it, and for good reason. It is totally straight for well over two miles. The first mile was downhill, very gently downhill, but that was enough. My pace soon went under 7:15, and I was still speeding up. I don't know how accurate the Garmin was at that point, and I had better things to do than keep a constant eye on the display, but the three or four times I looked I saw better and better figures. 7:10, 7:00, 6:50, 6:45, and by now I didn't even need the downhill any more, I could keep the pace even on the flat. At mile 23, a spectator shouted “nearly there” for the first time. I hate it when they say that. Three miles from the finish is not nearly there. Usually it's the hardest part still to come at that point.
My heart rate, which had been fluctuating around 160 for most of the race, took off as much as my pace went down. It kept climbing all the way to the finish, from 160 to 165 to 170 to 175 and even higher than that for the finishing kick. It reflects the effort I put into those miles. I don't know where the energy came from, but I think it's fair to say I really, really, really wanted to break 3:10, and I was prepared to suffer for it. My left foot was really hurting by now. That was the result of wearing racing shoes, and I was ok with that. I had made my choice before the race, and now I was prepared to pay the price. It didn't slow me down, and that was the only thing that counted at that moment.
I kept shooting past runner after runner. I didn't count them, and even discounting the relay runners I must have passed well over a dozen race rivals, maybe even as many as 20. There was never a question of anyone passing me. I haven't seen any photos, but if anyone took any of me at the final 4 miles, they must be exceedingly ugly. My mouth was either wide open in a desperate attempt to suck in a bit more oxygen or just a grimace from the effort, and it sure wasn't pretty.
I just happened to look at the Garmin as it showed 24.3 miles, and because it was about 0.1 miles ahead, this was the 24.2 miles point of the course, exactly 2 miles to go. I can't remember if there was a timer beside the road, or if I checked the time on my own watch, but I had been running exactly 2:56 at that point, and even my oxygen deprived brain managed to work out that two 7-minute miles would get me there in time.
Two miles earlier I would have scoffed at the preposterous thought of running 2 miles at that pace. Things had changed, however, and all of a sudden I felt really calm and relaxed, and I just knew I would do it. I knew it would hurt, I knew it would be by far the best finish I had ever produced in a marathon, but I was in The Zone, and I wasn't going to snap out of it. I still kept passing runner after runner, and I knew that I would be able to push on until the end. The last mile finally spots a decent number of spectators, and they finally made some noise, which was good. It was just after the 25 mile marker, with a mile to go, that I got hit by the first cramp. In my last marathon, in Loch Ness, a similar thing had happened over the last two miles, and I had slowed down a lot. This time it was different, however; the cramps were not caused by mere fatigue but by the fact that I was basically running faster than my body was able to do for a sustained period of time. However, the cramps never took hold. One painful spasm would should through one of the calf muscles, I would give a shout, and then it was gone again for half a minute or so until the next one. I kept looking at the Garmin, half a mile to go, .4 go go, .3 to go, and then the spectators were packed three deep all of a sudden, made a massive racket, and you just couldn't help but get carried into the finish by that. With a few seconds to go I saw the timer and it was one of the most satisfying sights ever to see it at 3:09:22. A few seconds later I was over the line, utterly elated, pumping my fist in triumph like a complete lunatic. 71st out of about 1400 runners, almost three minutes faster than my previous personal best, and yet another little bit closer to the 3-hours target that I crave. My official time was 3:09:38, and that was my gun time. It had taken me about 5 seconds to cross the starting line from the gun, which meant my net time was slightly better than that, but let's not be picky.
When changing back into civilian clothing I got cramps in my feet, my calves and my hips, much to Grellan's amusement. Glad to entertain you, mate. Dignity is overrated anyway.
I did not care. I'm a sub-3:10 marathon runner.
- Official Time:
- Net Time:
- 3:09:33 (self timed)
- First half:
- Second Half:
- Calories burned: