Monday, April 11, 2016

Don't Look Back In Anger

In one way it was the perfect weekend: City on Saturday, marathon on Sunday. In another way it wasn’t entirely ideal: with the race number pickup early on Saturday and the match moved to an evening kick-off it meant a lot of hours in Manchester when ideally I would have been resting with my feet up. Some things just can’t be helped and logistics for a race away from home sometimes do come with less than optimal conditions attached.

Steve and me. Photo by Martin Lever
Never mind, as I lined up for the start of the Manchester marathon I was reasonably hopeful of a good race. I knew from my training that a sub-3 marathon was a possibility but only on a good day. It certainly required a lot of things to go right. Since there was a 3-hour pacer it meant I would invariably be running in a group, want it or not. I have never run with a pacer so wasn’t entirely sure how it would work out but it did make for a very simple race strategy: run with the pacer. If at halfway I would feel good I could try and push ahead. If I felt bad I would try to hang on for dear life as long as I could. Simples.

The start area was suspiciously empty 10 minutes before the start but then filled up very quickly. I tried to line up where I thought the pacer would be and got it almost right – when he finally turned up I was just slightly ahead of him. Ideally I would have been just behind him but it had gotten so crowded that I decided against shuffling back. When the start gun went off very loudly (“we don’t start races like that in L.A. for a good reason!”) I got up to pace quickly but took it just a tad easy until I spotted the pacer beside me, maybe half a mile into it. It also meant my friend Marty, who I was staying with and who had to skip the race due to injury and decided to be a photographer for the day instead, missed me as he could not identify anyone in the sea on humanity streaming by.

The early miles passed quickly and the pace felt easy enough but running in such a packed group wasn’t particularly comfortable. In most marathons there are only a handful of runners in the sub-3 group and marathons like Dublin have 3 pacers per time band which helps to spread out the group. In Manchester they can have up to 500 runners under 3 hours and only one single pacer, which meant it was a very big group in a very small space. Invariably people would touch legs and at one point a runner tripped and I think he fell, and I had a few close calls as well, both for being tripped and accidentally almost tripping others. When we passed Old Trafford a bit after 4 miles I somehow got to the front of the group (I think I took a very slight uphill section a bit faster than the others) and decided to skip ahead a bit, not to build up a cushion, just to give myself some space. The difference was huge, just being able to stride out without fear of tripping someone made things so much easier and at that point I actually started to enjoy the race. It’s a bit strange that I very much enjoy running as a pacer but not at all with a pacer but that’s how it worked out.

There was still a group of us and I quickly started to focus on 3 or 4 other runners that seemed to be running well and at just the right pace. At times one of us would be ahead, at other times we would drop back a bit but in general we were running together. The pace felt doable but it was still very early.

The crowd support over those miles was brilliant and half of Manchester seemed to be out and about to lend their support to the runners. The best area was Brooklands where they were on the left, on the right and even on the middle of the road, and they made plenty of noise. Having the name printed on the bibs also meant that people would shout out your name for support, which was even better, even coming from total strangers.

I had expected Marty to be here but could not see him and wondered if I had missed him but what else was there to do than to keep running. The legs started to feel the first bit of strain as we closed in on 10 miles but I knew I would still be able to hold the pace for a lot longer, even if it wasn’t as comfortable any more.

The course is very flat, which is of course the main draw for this race. You do have to go over a few overpasses/bridges but the grade is always very gentle and none of them are very high. The weather was a bit cold with not much wind, though that was supposed to pick up later. All in all it is a great, fast course and we had excellent conditions and no excuses.

Photo by Martin Lever
Just before the halfway point we got to Altrincham and the only bridge that resembled a hill, and the loop through Altrincham itself was a bit hilly as well, but it probably only stood out because the rest of the course was so flat; on most other marathons I’ve done that would have counted as one of the flat parts. Marty was here with his camera, so I gave him a short wave. I didn’t look at  the watch but since I was still ahead of the 3-hour pacer I figured I must have run the first half just a bit under 90 minutes. I had no idea how far ahead of the pace group I was but it could never have been very far. I never once checked the watch for pace, just paced myself off the runners surrounding me, and I’m sure they did the same.

On the back out from Altrincham we saw the slower runners coming the other way, just like we had seen the elites and the wheelchair athletes speeding by shortly before. I noticed all the pace groups from 3:15 to 4:45 but it always seemed to be very, very busy even between pacers.

According to MC, 15 miles is the point where you should have expended a third of your mental energy, though I suspected I had spent more than that, though that has been the case in a lot of my marathons, even the good ones. I was definitely starting to feel tired and that would only get worse. Soon after we had passed the 16 mile marker the runner beside me muttered a slightly exasperated “10 miles left”, though to me that seemed challenging but doable at the time.

At that point, as we headed towards Carrington, the crowds thinned out considerably as we basically left the urban area and headed into the countryside. Fatigue started to play an ever bigger factor and I had to increase the effort just to remain on pace, though I was still holding steady. I started to calculate what my finishing time would be if I slowed down now, which is probably not particularly helpful but something I tend to do a lot. As we got further ahead, to 19, 20, 21 miles, gradually the runners in the group seemed to drift back one by one and I was left focusing on just one runner in a yellow singlet just ahead of me who seemed to be able to hold the pace. It did not help that, as we turned right, we were now heading into the wind for the final miles. There was not much wind but it was definitely noticeable and it definitely became a factor. With about 5 miles left I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to hang on and gradually I became aware that runners were passing me. At one point one runner from Galloway told me he was a fan of my blog, which was a nice surprise as I felt a long way from home, but obviously I do know that I do have readers from across the Irish Sea as well. Anyway, I appreciated the shout-out and tried to hang on to him but didn’t manage it for long because around mile 22 the first spasm hit me.

In Tralee it had been the left calf. This time it was the right one. I have no idea why.

The first thought was that at least the cramps had stayed off for longer than in Tralee but I knew this was only going to get worse, and since I knew that I could not have much of a cushion this really was bad news. I tried to look behind me once or twice and once thought I saw the pacer’s flag but wasn’t sure. Anyway, all I could do was to keep running, try to relax just a little to stop the calf from going into full cramping mode which would have made running virtually impossible, and just hope those isolated spasms would somehow remain manageable. But the pace slowed invariably and seeing the runner in the yellow singlet almost pull up with his own cramping problems was unlikely to help.

I kept it going as fast as I dared for as long as I could but inevitably shortly after 23 miles the 3-hour pacer caught up with me. The group had thinned out significantly, so at least the confined space and danger of being tripped was no longer a factor. I wasn’t going to give up without a fight so I increased the effort, trying to hang on to the group, just as plan B had been before the race. The effort level required seemed to increase exponentially. Again and again I fell a few steps behind and had to put in a big effort to catch up again, constantly on the verge of cramping and by now in serious pain. My breathing had become very ragged and I knew this would not be sustainable for long.

Earlier at the race I had once noticed the heart rate at 165, which seemed just a bit high, but it went down to 163 and then 161, which seemed just about right and on the very few occasions when I checked the watch, that’s where it always was (I was not pacing myself by HR, though). Now it just went through the roof, well past 170. I was surprised that I was able to lift the effort to that level so late in a marathon but with a couple of miles still to go and cramping legs it really was the equivalent of barely hanging on by your fingertips.

From mile 24 on the crowds gradually increased again, finally! I really needed the support right now. Since this marathon was a goal race, but only a B-goal, I had wondered if I would have the gumption to really go into the pain cave when things got bad but I think I can honestly say that I made myself hurt as much as I have ever done in a marathon. Lack of effort was not the problem today.

A world of pain. Photo by Martin Lever
Something seemed strange about the pacer late on, all the runners in the group seemed to fall back as we neared the finish while he sped ahead. Try as I might I was no longer able to completely hold on but the gap was still very small until we came to a final overpass. It was so gradual that I might not even have noticed it earlier in the race but at that stage even a tiny gradient was enough to send the calf cramping and I had no choice but to ease up and struggle to the top, at which point the pacer was gone. I chased with all I had left, though that was very little. The finish banner just seemed stuck in the distance for ages but eventually got closer.

All hope was not lost. When I pace a marathon I try to come home about 15-30 seconds ahead of target and that was roughly the distance between me and the pacer, so maybe I could just sneak in just under 3 hours. However, when I finally saw the timer it had already gone well past 3 hours and I was still about half a minute away, so a sub-3 was not going to happen today. I think the pacer crossed the line as the timer said 3:01, and I was a bit further back, too demoralised for a finishing sprint, though with my cramping calf that might have ended badly anyway.

My watch said 3:01:03, the official chip time was 3:01:02, and that was that. My first words after crossing the line were unprintable but thankfully I have broken 3 hours before so it was never going to be a major disaster. The margins between success and failure were tiny, just 2 seconds per mile and a finishing sprint.

Maybe if I had spent less time on my legs on Saturday; maybe if I had not gotten sick in January; maybe if I had not have to deal with all that stress of the last few months; maybe if I had not run Tralee 4 weeks before (no regrets about that one, though), maybe, maybe , maybe. Ah well.

Funnily enough, when I uploaded the data onto strava it gave me a sub-3 marathon because the watch said 26.37 at the end, but marathons are run on the road and not on virtual GPS tracks. My mile splits were (according to GPS, so add about 3 seconds for “real” miles):

6:59, 6:43, 6:51, 6:50, 6:45, 6:49, 6:45, 6:49, 6:42, 6:48
6:54, 6:45, 6:48, 6:44, 6:50, 6:48, 6:55, 6:46, 6:50, 6:55,
6:54, 7:04, 7:12, 7:09, 6:57, 6:55 (6:50 for rest)

which looks like a well paced race to me. I did falter after 21 miles but managed to pick it up again when the pacer caught me (btw, the pacer must have run the last mile in 6:20 or 6:30).

It is what it is. I gave it a good go but missed out on another sub-3. I still very much enjoyed the race, can recommend it and may well be back another year.

10 Apr
Manchester Marathon
   3:01:02, 6:54 pace, HR 165, (6:51 pace on the watch)
   420th place, 49th M45


  1. Hi Thomas. I'm the guy from Galloway that said hello. Like you I was hoping for sub 3 and missed it by 53 seconds. This would have been my first sub 3. I should have been far more disciplined with my pace ensuring that each mile was run at 6;47 especially given that like you my garmin said 26.40 miles. It also said an average pace of 6:51 which would have given me a time of about 2:59:30. I wonder whether the race organisers re-measured the course once they'd taken the decision to move the finish to the cricket ground. I've emailed them and it will be interesting to see what they say. Anyway great race and will hopefully be back next year for my sub 3. Happy running for the rest of the year.

  2. Well done Thomas. You showed real guts to pick it up again in those last few miles. That has to be a major positive for you. It would have been so easy just to roll on in 3.05ish and blame the cramps. Be proud of that fighting attitude

  3. Interesting about the GPS, now I understand why it always gives a different time. Huge congrats, Thomas, excellent work!

  4. What a nail biting race, such great pacing that only went astray because of cramp. You did well to hold pace together in spite of the cramp.

    I've hunted for a solution for cramp myself, but have yet to find a robust solution. Bottom line it seems to be mostly down to fatigue for me, if I push myself to the limit the first thing in a race is cramp. The only thing then is to back off pace and try to run smooth as you did. This coping strategy works consistently, but I'd much prefer not to get cramp...

    I suspect your aerobic fitness is good enough to sub 3hrs, just a bit more structural resilience in the muscles would have carried you over the line cramp free. A different day would likely to have seen a different result.

    Well done on another well executed race and report :-)

  5. Great report Thomas! For mine a gutsy effort and a slower time is worth more than PB done relatively easily. Know that you still have a fast marathon in you and keep at it. You're still a young man! ;)

  6. Great report Thomas! You're still running well and like you say, just a few seconds here and there and maybe a little more rest the days before. Well done ;-)

  7. Enjoyed reading that report Thomas. You ran well. I reckon you still have the ability to run a low 2:50 marathon. Hope you can squeeze in a few serious attempts in amongst your ultra commitments.