No doubt about it, the Greater Manchester Marathon is a terrific event. Not the most scenic or inspiring route, but all the colour and personality comes from the wonderful people who line the streets and cheer you on.
For support, it’s about as close as I’ve come to London. And goodness me did I need a lot of support out there on the course.
Sorry to say but this wasn’t my day. I’d trained hard, felt good and had a clear target in mind – close to, our better still marginally sub-4 hour. But all the time there was a niggle, an underlying concern that the injury I picked up in training around week 10 – a suspected groin strain – would come back to haunt me. It did.
If you want the edited highlights, then here goes. Bang on target through half distance, pulled up around mile 16, got going again, stopped again, by and large walked it home, crossed the line in a lot of pain with a 5hrs 13 time.
If you want the full account, please read on. It’s going to be a long one, so cuppas and biscuits at the ready. But I want to share what I’m feeling because it’s a strange combination of emotions, and not just the obvious one of disappointment.
In a twisted kind of way, you could almost say I’m glad it happened…
Let’s rewind to the beginning. I arrived early on Sunday morning having booked parking at Old Trafford. As is often the case for us runners, my car doubled up as a breakfast table and then a changing room, but at least I didn’t have to faff around with a bag drop.
A few toilet stops later and I’m in the pen, ready to roll. It took 15 minutes to get over the line and to my right was the 3:58 pacing group. How convenient! I’m notorious for going off too fast so used the group to get me through the first four miles safely.
The pacer was literally sticking to his target speed like glue – just over nine minute miles, meaning his first was going to be about the same as his last. I wanted more of a buffer to allow for some slower running in the final 10k, so crept ahead. Nothing silly, I just took the mile splits down by about 10 to 20 seconds.
I’ve already mentioned how well supported Manchester was. I especially remember the 10k point, with the official photographers and a pathway that passed several bars and restaurants (I think it was by the canal). The cheers were loud, the encouragement superb. I was thoroughly enjoying the experience.
There’s a stretch at around ten miles where the course doubles back on itself, so I was lucky enough to see the elites coming towards me at breakneck pace, something I always find inspiring. We were heading out towards Altrincham and half marathon distance, which I passed in 1hr 57. Perhaps a little slower than expected in order to achieve that aforementioned buffer, but irrespective of the four hour goal, my PB of 4hr 11 was seriously in danger of getting a good kicking!
As I passed through 14 miles I saw another Teenage Cancer Trust runner (my chosen charity) and we high-fived and wished each other luck. I thought there might be more of us representing TCT given how high profile the charity is, but as I would soon discover it was quality that mattered and not quantity…
And then it started. My worst fear. Into mile 15 and I felt the pain in my groin and hip on the right hand side. Dull at first, but it soon started to grow in intensity before spreading to the back of my leg, into my calf and around to my knee.
I stiffened up to the point of almost running lopsided and my pace dropped to a ten minute mile. Not disastrous, so I told myself not to panic, grit my teeth and bear it. You want this, you need to fight for it so prove you’re up for the challenge.
My pace slowed some more and everyone seemed to be running past me. That included the 3:58 pacer, which did nothing for my morale. Slowing down had also made me need the toilet so I stopped at the next water station, queued for a cubicle and stretched while I waited.
The stop actually really helped and when I crossed the 16 mile marker my watch told me it was a 13 minute mile, so not too much time wasted. There was a chance I could salvage this and, for now, the pain had subsided.
Mile 17 passed – another ten minute one. Keep going, Nick, hang on in there. But the relief was short lived. The pain came back and was off the scale. I couldn’t run – I could barely walk and I knew, deep down, it was game over.
I felt angry, frustrated, there was even a tear or two. In desperation I asked a marshal if there was a first aid point nearby. She looked apologetically and said not until 19.5 miles.
So I made a decision. Forget four hour marathons, forget PBs. I’m a runner who thrives on targets and goals. This is now your goal – get to that first aid station and see if there’s anything they can do to help.
It was a slow, painful walk with the occasional jog where possible. The crowd and marshals could see I was struggling and were hugely supportive, so much so that I pulled out my earphones to properly soak it all in and try to draw strength from their comments.
I made it eventually, hoping for some advice and pain relief, but in reality there wasn’t much they could offer. The paramedic gave me a choice – a couple of paracetamol, or a lift back to the finish line. My response was swift: pass me the pills because there’s no way I’m quitting!
So that became my new target. I will be finishing this race, I don’t know how exactly but I’m not prepared to pull out because I need to come away from today having achieved something.
The rest did me good, freeing up my leg a bit and I ran steadily for about half a mile. I saw another Teenage Cancer Trust runner who came over to speak to me and introduced himself as Ted. I warned him I was carrying an injury and would slow him down, but he was fine about it and offered to stay and help me get through it.
We chatted and it turned out Ted was running in support of a schoolmate who died from cancer. Suddenly a running injury felt very irrelevant. I shared my story about how Teenage Cancer Trust is our nominated charity at work and the amazing things we’ve done together to raise £32k over the last 12 months.
The distraction helped, but it wasn’t enough and I reverted to walking. I urged Ted to run on, but he wouldn’t and instead coaxed me through to 20 miles, after which we parted company. Ten kilometres to go…
I wasn’t alone for long. I spotted a guy stretching on the kerb and asked if he was OK. “Nah mate, groin strain.” I said “snap” and something daft like “we’re brothers in injuries,” and we stretched together before breaking into a very gentle trot.
This was Craig, a young lad in the forces who was out to beat a PB of 4hrs 30 – now, sadly, well and truly out of the window. He was suffering for sure, but had more pace in him than I did. And yet, just like before, he wouldn’t run on.
I was experiencing a totally different side of running, one where competitiveness makes way for compassion and camaraderie. Where people aren’t just running for themselves and will put their own aspirations to one side in order to help others.
And this is how it continued. By mile 21 it was getting hot and we were both dehydrated. We reached a water stop, but it was too late for me and I literally dropped to the floor. I felt tired, disorientated and physically sick from the constant pain. I remember saying “I can’t do this” and had there been a marshal present I think they would have pulled me from the course.
I kept telling Craig to go while I rested, but he said it was fine and he was happy to wait. I eventually summoned up the strength to walk again, albeit slowly. When my watch pinged out the mile split it was a whopping 21 minutes, so you can see how much time Craig was throwing away on my behalf.
My salvation took an unusual form, a women in the crowd who reached into her shopping bag and said, “would you like a Wagon Wheel love?”. Random, and yet it really helped, not least because it was different to the usual sickly-sweet onslaught of gels, jelly babies and sports drinks.
We completed mile 23 together and Craig eventually agreed to run on ahead. I took another toilet stop, stretched and set my sights on running the final 5k. I gave it my best, even staying with the five hour pacing group for a while, but I couldn’t hold on and had to run-walk instead to stave off the pain.
My final big decision of the day was to adopt the ‘pay it forward’ approach. People have selflessly helped me – now you can help others, because there were plenty of people around me struggling. I should give something back.
I approached a guy running for Cancer Research (I didn’t catch his name) and asked if he was alright. His feet were really hurting and so he was walking to the finish. It turned out this was his first marathon and he’d taken on the challenge because his brother in law had died from cancer last year.
He ran his first ever mile in May 2016 and less than a year later was taking on Manchester – I think that entitles him to a little walk. Later I stopped to check on a woman who was visibly in pain who said she was grateful for the words of encouragement but was happy to carry on by herself.
Back to my own race and I got to mile 25. From here, I was determined to run to the finish, irrespective of the pain. The crowd support got even louder and helped me no end. I ran a ten minute mile and could see the finish.
Time to go up a gear and finish strong. There were cries of “you’ve got this” and “great running Nick” (top tip – always have your name on your shirt!) and at long last I can enjoy this experience.
It turns out, according to Garmin, that I ran the final part of the course at eight minute mile pace. That would explain the comment I overheard from a supporter along the lines of “Blimey, he’s got plenty left in the tank”..! If only they knew what I’d been through to get to this point.
As I crossed the line a complete barrage of emotion hit me. I’d achieved everything, and at the same time absolutely nothing (at least nothing I wanted). In one breath I was a hero, in the next a failure. Then the blame game started – why did you push so hard a fortnight ago at Stafford, glory-chasing a half marathon PB? Why did you continue to train when you knew you were nursing a suspected injury?
But ultimately the positive atmosphere around the finish line and the medals area lifted me and stopped me beating myself up. I had my photo taken, chatted to other runners, before someone called my name and rushed over to congratulate me – it was Craig, who had hung around to catch me at the finish. What a fantastic guy. I hope he realises how much he helped me.
Since Sunday I’ve had time to let everything sink in. I am gutted after putting so much in but still not getting the reward I wanted. And yet I’ve benefited from a brand new experience that makes me feel proud to be part of the running community.
Selfless acts; giving rather than taking; kindness; encouragement; and team spirit. It was the best worst day I can remember and has shown me that running doesn’t always have to be competitive in order to be worthwhile.
It really can be the taking part that counts.
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