Yes, time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me
I have been training hard all summer. In fact, I think this was the hardest training cycle I have ever put myself through. Because the Cork City marathon had been as late as June, it meant a shorter than usual buildup for Dublin, and I made one big change: I sacrificed miles for speed. I was following the “Brain Training for Runners” program, with all its various types of speed workout, and with fewer miles than in previous training cycles. Unfortunately the training didn’t go quite as hoped for, I was consistently unable to achieve the training paces I was aiming for, and eventually I cut back on the speed training because I felt tired and stale. At that stage I was happy to settle for less. But then I had two great preparation races, running 1:25 in the Blarney half marathon, and then did even better, running the 15 miles from Cork to Cobh in 1:37 and feeling absolutely fantastic all the way. This reset my expectation: I was again aiming for sub-3 hours.
Prior to the race I had been in contact with two runners, John Desmond and John McLaughlin. John D wanted to set off at 6:45 pace (minutes per mile, that is), John McL was in favour of 6:55, with my preferred pace of 6:50 right in the middle, which left me wondering if I would be running on my own. I met John McL at the Expo the day before the race, and I bumped into John D and the start of the race, all by chance.
It was a freezing cold day, and it made me swap my trademark green singlet in favour of a t-shirt, and I also wore gloves. Despite that I was shivering at the start, and the gun could not come soon enough. When it finally sounded I was originally blocked in by the sheer number of runners, and it took almost half a mile to push through the worst. I am used to much smaller races, and after half a mile the field is usually settled. Not so here, which I found confusing, but I put my head down and tried to run my own race.
I could see John D ahead of me, and by the second mile I was just a few steps behind. I thought about pushing ahead and joining him, but when I looked up a few minutes later I could not see a sign of him. I hoped for his own sake that he had not started too fast, and just got on with running on my own, surrounded as I was by plenty of people.
The first miles passed in 6:54, 6:42, 6:59 and 6:44. I am quite surprised now to see the figures going up and down that much, I felt I was running at a much more even pace, around 6:50.
That’s the pace on my Garmin GPS, of course. The official miles were always a few seconds late, adding about 2 seconds per mile, I guess. I had taken that into account, which was why I was aiming for 6:50 pace rather than 6:52, which is the pace required for a sub-3.
By mile 3 my calves already felt heavy, which was a seriously bad sign; it was far too early to get into trouble. I was especially surprised that it would be my calves acting up. If it had been my left hamstring (sore since April), my left foot (inflamed since April) or my right foot (dermatitis since September) I would have understood, but my calves had waited until now to act up. But I was still on pace, I was still feeling strong, and eventually the heavy feeling went away as I settled into the race. By mile 5 someone called “Hello Thomas”, and, unaccustomed as I am to that, I was too startled to really react to the call from a spectator who had come up all the way from Killorglin with a group of 28 runners from my company who were all running for charity today. Sorry.
Miles 5 and 6 (6:44 and 6:58) went through Phoenix Park towards the 10k mark. We had climbed a bit by now, not that I really noticed it. But I was right on time (6:50 average), and I was running behind 5 runners from Athenry AC, a rather well known running club. I figured that they were all aiming for sub-3, and stayed close by. I also saw a guy in a “Runner’s World pacer” t-shirt. I was not aware of any official pacing group, and the organisers certainly had not mentioned anything on the web site, but he was certainly right on pace for 3 hours. I kept in close proximity for the next mile (6:52), and then the course dropped steeply over the next mile towards the river Liffey.
When running in a race, any race, I always run faster than everyone around me on the downhill, and slower on the uphill. I don’t push the pace on the drop, and I don’t take it easy on the climb, but it always happens. Accordingly I left the Athenry runners behind me on my 6:30 mile. There was a water station at the bottom and I took a carbohydrate gel, which I had bought the day before to be taken at that point. I felt good and was at overall 6:48 pace by now, just where I wanted to be. Not too fast, but with a little cushion for the climbing miles that were to come. First of all we climbed rather steeply out on the other side of the Liffey valley, then there were a few slightly undulating miles until we turned into Crumlin Road at mile 11. Anyway, I did better than expected on that stretch, covering those miles in 6:47, 6:52 and 6:45.
The day before my sister-in-law had asked me where the worst part or the race would be, and I had pointed to Crumlin Road, from mile 11 to the halfway-mark. I hate that stretch. It is uphill, and for some reason unknown to me it is always against a headwind. Even drafting doesn’t help, and all I could do was to get it over and done with, without losing too much time, and without exhausting myself in the process. I did more or less as expected in 7:02 and 7:04. My Garmin was back to 6:50 average pace, just as it had been before that big drop in Phoenix Park. I was pretty pleased, but when we crossed the timing mat at the halfway stage, the timer displayed 1:30:27. It had taken me only a few seconds to cross the starting line, and I had assumed up to now to be a few seconds ahead of target, not 20 seconds behind. This definitely knocked me back psychologically, but I was still optimistic. Two years ago I had aimed to break 3:30 on that course, and managed it by running the second half faster than the first one. Since I had managed that in Cork as well, I was reasonably confident that I would be able to pull it off once more.
I like to think that I had been confident rather than cocky before the race. My confidence had come from previous race results, and I always tend to finish races strongly. In Cork I had made up a whopping 47 places during the second half, catapulting me from position 118 at the halfway mark up to 71st at the finish. With this in mind, I think it was well justified to expect a good finish here as well.
Alas! Maybe it was the blow from that timer, or maybe I had worn myself out a bit too much over the last few miles, but I got overtaken by at least a dozen runners immediately after halfway. I recognised a few runners from earlier, and when four of the Athenry gaggle came by I figured that this was the 3 hours group. Then I saw a yellow vest with a black bar across, and realised that I was a step behind John McLaughlin. I caught up, and we started running together for a few miles. I admitted to feeling rather low at that point, and John warned me not to push too hard. But the idea of settling for a mere personal best wasn’t on my agenda today. “I will run at sub-3 pace for as long as I can, and if I blow up, so be it”, or words to that effect were my response. In reality I was struggling with stomach cramps at the time, and the idea of taking any more carbohydrates was rather unsettling, but with 90 minutes of running ahead of me I would have to take some on board.
I managed to keep pace with John, just behind the 3hrs group, and eventually I felt better again. Maybe the signals from my stomach were merely hunger pangs? Anyway, I had struggled through mile 14 in 6:57 and recovered to mile 15 in 6:51. There I took a gel that was provided by the course organisers. I had never tried that brand before, which meant I was committing sin number 1 in marathoning: never do anything during the race that you haven’t tried in training. To my defence, I had sinned on nearly all my previous marathons and always got away with it. My stomach seems to be rather sturdy, which is why I never took heed of that advice.
To cut it short, two minutes later I almost threw up. I just about managed to keep myself from bending over, but it wasn’t pretty, and I’ll spare you the details. Then I got side stitch. John, who was oblivious to what I was going through, slowly pulled away from me. I concentrated on my breathing, exhaling forcefully in synch with my footsteps, and after a minute or two it slowly subsided and I could run on without losing too much time. Even though it was a downhill stretch I am quite surprised I managed to run that miles as fast as 6:55. On the next mile (6:44) I slowly caught up with John who seemed rather surprised to find me at his side again. I was quite pleased myself. Catching up after you’ve been dropped isn’t easy especially not at mile 17. We did increase the pace a bit and drew closer to the 3hrs group again. This was a downhill mile, but 6:33 was still rather fast. Maybe we had overdone it a bit, but it had felt fine at the time.
Alas! The downhill didn’t last, and I remembered that I had nominated the following stretch as my second least favourite part of the course. There are two hills. The first is short and sharp after a viaduct at Milltown Road. I will never forget that road, because on my first marathon I had started cramping at that point, a problem that had stayed with my first the entire painful rest of the race, which as not something I like to be reminded of. Today it wasn’t nearly as bad, the hill seemed a lot less steep than it was in my memory, but I still fell behind John again. This didn’t worry me. As already mentioned, I always slow down on the climbs. But I could not draw level again on the next, short downhill (mile 19 in 6:54), and I knew that this time I really was in trouble. The next, last, long hill was yet to come and I had no cushion whatsoever. It was bad. I struggled and I decided I had a new least favourite part of the course. It took me 7:13 to pass the 20-mile marker.
Basically, at mile 19 I knew I was in trouble, but with the memory of my strong finish in Cork still fresh in memory I still reckoned I was in with a chance. By the time I crested the last hill (around the 20.5 mile point) I was not only behind in time, my calves had started cramping, I had trouble lifting my knees (a sign that the quads are gone), and I knew it was over.
This might sound defeatist. I assure you I didn’t take it lying down. I surged a few times, hoping to make up time and get through that stretch. I fought on. Niamh and the kids were waiting at mile 21. I had told her that I would be there 2:23 into the race, and if I was a few minutes late I would not break 3 hours. Niamh told me afterwards she was thrilled to see me at exactly 11:23am. At that point she was convinced her husband was on his way to achieving a lifetime goal. I, on the other hand, felt differently.
I had given Niamh a bottle of de-fizzed Coke to pass on to me. This is a very old-school runner’s remedy. It had worked brilliantly in the Cork-to-Cobh race, where it had given me an incredible boost, which is why I decided to take some today. Unfortunately, I was already dying on my feet at that stage.
My stomach cramps, which had started shortly before the halfway mark, had never stopped for long and by now they were really bad, and I felt like curling up in foetal position. This wasn’t really an option at that point, and I struggled on. When asked about the race course I had always mentioned the fact that it is downhill over the last 6 miles, and whoever still has intact legs will finish strongly. Of course, I had expected to be amongst the lucky few, because that is exactly how it had played itself out in Cork. Not so today. My quads were shot, and my calves kept cramping. I hated the downhills. I tried to shorten my stride and increase the turnover to make up for it, which worked for a while, but not for too long. The figures on the Garmin don’t lie. I managed to keep things somewhat together for a while. Mile 21 took 7:11, mile 22 7:03. While it was clear that 3 hours was out of reach I was not far behind, and at that stage I was still looking at a 3:02 finish. The other problem was that the
Garmin’s and the official mile markers were coming increasingly further apart. By mile 10 the discrepancy was only a few seconds, by mile 20 it was about a minute and it became worse the longer it went on. By now I was almost glad that I was out of the 3 hours race. Missing the target by a few seconds because the course may (or may not) have been long would have been incredibly annoying. As things stood, I didn’t particularly care. 3:02 or 3:09 were all slower than my target but faster than my previous PR, and I would just accept it.
However, things were going downhill rapidly, and I’m talking about my pace here, not the course elevation. The miles were pure agony, and I kept being overtaken. A few runners were walking at that point, and those are the ones I managed to catch, but I definitely lost a lot more places than I gained. This is very unusual, and of course I hated it. I still didn’t give up. I tried to latch on to a few runners as they went past, but with my cramping calves I was never able to keep up for long. Things went from bad to worse, mile 23 in 7:33, 24 in 7:57 and 25 in 8:03! Goodness gracious me! I was not running, I was crawling, and the projected finishing time got pushed back further and further.
At least the crowds, who had been rather sparse for most of the course, were now lining the path. I felt somewhat unworthy of the praise they heaped upon us, and was mildly embarrassed. They helped psychologically, but I was still getting slower rather than faster, with a last mile of 8:11, but, as I’ve said, that’s a Garmin mile, and the official 26 mile marker was still far ahead of me when the last beep from the device sounded. To my surprise I actually managed to speed up again for the last half mile; it’s amazing how the brain can loosen the brakes once it finally cops on to the fact that we’re almost done. A 7:10 pace for the last stretch gave me hopes of a sub-3:05 finish, but I had long missed that boat. I crossed the line in 3:05:37, which, even with all the ugliness of the last 6 miles, was still a PR by almost exactly 4 minutes.
I had expected to be distraught to miss out on a sub-3, but I was fine. I’d had the last 50 minutes to come to terms with it, and by now I could accept it, but of course I was disappointed and did mutter a few choice words. I met John McL who had crossed the line 2 minutes ahead of me, and just like me had a new PR but no sub-3. I looked up John D’s time when I got home, and at least he had succeeded, coming home in 02:58:26. Congratulations, John. I’ll target that for my next marathon.
I still have one big consolation: I have now managed to take more than 1 hour off my first marathon time, set here in Dublin only 4 years ago. Even though I missed out on my real target, this is still something I am immensely proud of.
- 27 Oct
- Dublin City Marahon, 3:05:37, 344th/11700, 74th in M35 age group
average pace 7:04, average HR 164