Marathon memory lane part 2

3. London, April 2016

Time:  2:51:29

Halfway: 1:26:57

With: John

Conditions: Freakishly perfect. Sunny and cold again

Fresh from breaking 3 in Rotterdam, I waited eagerly for the London Marathon Good for Age entries to open in August 2015, and secured my place for 2016. I’d been living in London for 8 or 9 years by that point, had been in the marathon crowd most years, and half-heartedly applied (unsuccessfully) for a ballot place a couple of times too. So, this definitely felt like my home race, and a big moment.

I was working in central London by this point too, and was clocking up most of my training miles either running to or from my hospital in Paddington. Looking back at Strava, what strikes me is how little training I was doing. I’m sure it felt like loads at the time, but it’s amazing how perception of training mileage shifts so dramatically with time. In January 2016 I covered 176km, and just 127km in February. Having said that, February also included a two week trip to Sri Lanka with friends (the freedom!) which not only meant that plenty of surfing and cricket but very little running took place, but also that I returned home with a tropical disease. I never had it fully diagnosed but the tropical diseases centre narrowed it down to either dengue fever or chikungunya. And whichever it was, it was the sickest I’ve ever been: debilitating aches from head to toe and drenching my bed with sweat for a week. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

So there was no training at all for three weeks, other than one loosener before the Bath Half in mid-March. To my surprise, I PB’d there in 1:23, and it looks like this gave me the confidence to ramp things up. As per previous training blocks, all runs were done at maximum effort, close to 4 min/km. I ended up clocking 182km in March, and 120km in the three week taper in April.

Enough about training – on to race week. I went to the expo at the Excel Centre after work to pick up my race kit and goodie bag, and as always, absolutely loved this bit and allowed myself to get ludicrously hyped up.

The day before the race, my then new girlfriend (and now wife), Holly, accompanied me for a 5k shake out around the block, and my parents came up from Somerset for the weekend too.

I remember feeling full of pride as I met up with John (who’d also qualified via Rotterdam – see blog 1) in the Good for Age pen, although in reality it was just another field in Greenwich with perhaps slightly shorter queues for the portaloos.

As usual, the race itself is something of a blur, although I remember being staggered by the size, consistency, and noise level of the crowds. This was a totally different level to Berlin and Rotterdam. I also remember getting my biggest ever runner’s high when Champagne Supernova came on my shuffle as I ran past Cutty Sark.

I went through halfway in 1:26:57, and must have been feeling good at this point, because I sped up and finished with a decent negative split, covering the second half in 1:24:33, and a big PB overall of 2:51:29. There is no doubt the cool, sunny conditions had been kind again, and that I got a huge boost from the crowd in the second half, not least from Holly, my family and all the noisy Prostate Cancer UK stands (as I was wearing their vest).

Looking back at my splits, this has to be one of the best races I’ve ever run. Once again, a ridiculously happy day in the sunshine followed – once we’d got the dreaded first meeting of girlfriend and parents out of the way, obviously.

4. London, April 2017

Time:  2:53:54

Halfway: 1:25:43

With: Solo

Conditions: Sniffly

I duly booked my Good for Age place again for 2017, although knew that my winter training was going to be pretty different this year, having arranged a sabbatical from work to live and travel in Argentina and Uruguay for four months with a couple of friends. This had been arranged before meeting Holly, but she whittled me down to four months from the original six. A fair compromise, I would say.

They were four truly incredible months, as we covered 8000km on a month-long road trip, helped on a conservation project in Uruguay and spent much of the rest of the time eating and drinking far too much. The running trainers came with me everywhere, but in all honesty, didn’t get used much. That said, there were some unforgettable moments, and some of the solo runs in Patagonia were the most beautiful I’ve ever done. I covered 80km in each of October, November and December, but by the time we got to Christmas in Cordoba, it was over 35 degrees Celsius every day, and those runs will also live long in the memory, for all the wrong reasons.

Uruguay in January was fresher (relatively speaking – probably still close to 30 degrees), and I got a bit of rhythm with 143km in the month, before coming home in February…to snow. February was productive, with 176km, before 193km (my biggest ever month at the time) and a Bath Half PB of 1:22 in March.

Logistics on race day couldn’t have been much easier, as I stayed with my brother who lived within walking distance of the start, but annoyingly, I had a cold. Particularly annoying as I get them about once every few years. I felt fine, but it was one of those when my nose was a tap that couldn’t be turned off. I made light of it at work, but I remember my ICU colleague on the Friday asking whether I should really be running. It didn’t cross my mind not to, but in hindsight, having now worked on ICU and seen plenty of runners (mainly men, and mainly at the faster end of the recreational spectrum) push themselves too far and end up in one of our critical care beds, perhaps I should have listened.

Anyway, I got lucky in that nothing serious happened, but I can see that my pace dropped off quite significantly in the second half. I went through halfway in 1:25:43, but got slower with every 5k split thereafter, and ended with 2:53:54. Perhaps it was the cold, or that I’d left too much to do after very little running in South America, but this was the first time I’d not PB’d at a marathon. It was no disaster though, and I seemed happy enough when I wrote about it in this blog.

5. London, April 2019

Time:  2:47:30

Halfway: 1:21:22

With: Solo

Conditions:  Battling

Looking back on this blog in 2018, it seems that those last couple of months prior to London 2017 had really taken it out of me (hardly surprising when I was still running every training run flat out), and I’d made the early decision to skip a year in 2018.

And I got lucky. That race day I missed in April 2018 was unseasonably hot, and knowing me at the time, I would have stuck stubbornly to my target pace, and probably suffered massively.

However, I soon had the running bug back (thanks in part to a belated discovery of parkrun), and in autumn of 2018, signed up for London 2019 again and also joined my local running club, London Heathside. As I have previously written about, I had arrogantly assumed that I wouldn’t benefit much from a running club, as I pushed myself hard enough in training anyway.

Needless to say, I was wrong, and besides some healthy competition on the track, I also learned so much about how to pace different training sessions to get maximum performance benefit. Not only that, but I was surrounded by loads of clubmates who were also building up to London, and sessions were all geared specifically towards this.

Looking back to Strava again, the year started steadily enough, with 159km in January, before (I think) my first ever 200km month in February, and 241km in March that included a first sub 80 half marathon in Bath (1:19:37). This felt huge at the time, and proved to me that the training was paying off. 200km more were squeezed into the first three weeks of April, including a 22 miler along the Thames that one toenail has still not recovered from – not even joking.

On to race day again. After a year off marathons, I was more hyped than ever as I walked up to the Good for Age enclosure from my brother’s house again. And while this adrenaline is normally a good thing for me and something I can channel into performance, I let myself get carried away and broke the number one golden rule. With my tapered legs feeling amazing, I set off far too fast. I went through 5k in 18:44, which was not far off my actual 5k pace at the time, and this laid the foundations for what would be a horrible race.

I went through halfway in 1:21:22, but remember even at this point knowing I’d overcooked it. Inevitably, every 5km split after this point was slower than the last, but I was desperate not to let it unravel completely. As I wrote about in this blog, I really didn’t enjoy much of this race at all, and it was essentially a non-stop mental battle where I tried to work out how much I could afford to slow down and still PB.

As ever, the crowd (and particularly family and friends) kept me going, and I covered the second half in 1:26:08 and with a four minute PB of 2:47:30. If this ends up being my lifetime PB, then I wouldn’t be too unhappy, but I’ll also know that I was capable of more if I’d not been such an idiot with my pacing!

That concluded my trilogy of London races. If you’ve got this far, then thanks for indulging me with my trip down marathon memory lane. Two years later and with the pandemic settling down (and having written this blog), I’ve got the itch to go 26.2 again. I haven’t been to the club track in well over a year, but I’ve kept myself ticking over in the background and I’m ready to give it everything again. I haven’t got a place in London in October, but I’m keeping a very firm eye on a few Spanish races (and travel restrictions) this winter. Watch this space.

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