Do you ever get slightly unnerved by shuffle mode on your music player? I mean, I know it’s entirely random and whatever comes up from those thousands of digital files is just luck of the draw, but how is it that my iPod can sometime judge the mood of a situation down to a tee?
I remember going out for a training run the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. Headphones in, shuffle mode selected and Galvanize by the Chemical Brothers comes on. You know, the one about pushing the button. Heck at one point it even says ‘my finger is on the button’ – let’s just hope that doesn’t prove prophetic given all the tensions surrounding North Korea at the moment…
Anyway, why all this blab about iPods? Well I hit shuffle again on Sunday after getting back to my car to drive home from the Birmingham International Marathon. First track? The Superman theme. Not my preferred choice of listening, but I’d loaded it on there years ago for a charity event at work and that was probably the last time it had ever been played.
Now before you think this is a self-indulgent blog bigging up my own running achievements, you need to remember who else was running Birmingham on Sunday. Our very own superhero Hollywood Dave. And it was HD who came to my rescue that day, 24 miles into an exceptionally gruelling 26.2.
HD needs no introduction on here, neither does his epic ten marathon challenge of which Birmingham was number nine. We’d agreed to meet beforehand and hopefully at the finish. It was an absolute pleasure to finally put a face to the name and I only wish we’d got to the start line even earlier so we could have continued chatting – an hour simply wasn’t enough.
The sign of a genuine, approachable and welcoming person is one you can meet for the first time and five minutes later feel like you’ve known them for years. HD is that person. Any pre-race nerves were forgotten. More chat, a bag drop (on baggage bus number nine for marathon number nine – it had to be), the obligatory photo, a few stretches and before you knew it we had to head for our respective pens.
More about HD later. I didn’t know it at the time, but we’d be meeting up again sooner that I had expected.
So what about the race? I’ve dropped enough hints for people to realise that things didn’t go according to plan. That plan was to take on my fourth marathon and have a third attempt at hitting the magic four hour mark.
Birmingham was to be payback for the disappointment of Manchester back in April. The one that got away thanks to a nasty muscle tear shortly after half distance. Surely lightning wasn’t going to strike twice…was it?
Trouble is, the storm clouds were brewing weeks ago. Deep down I knew I wasn’t fully recovered. I hadn’t left sufficient time between finishing Manchester and embarking on training for Birmingham. We can all get impatient when pursuing something we want. In hindsight, I should have waited.
The race started in two waves, with the bulk of the field (us included) going off at 9.30am. A four mile stint from Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr into the city centre to begin, then picking up the established course for the Birmingham Half Marathon (which would run later in the afternoon) for two laps. I hate lapped courses and many people have expressed their disappointment that a city the size of Birmingham couldn’t find a way to route a single lap marathon, but that’s a debate for another day.
I drilled it into myself not to go off too fast (remember Chester) and found the four hour pacing group within the first half mile. Target acquired, locked on and I didn’t leave the pacer’s side for the next 17 miles. Through half distance in 1hr 59 and our pacer reckoned we were consistently around 30-40s ahead of schedule as he called out the splits. My Garmin agreed – game on.
The atmosphere was great within the group too – lots of chatting and words of encouragement, that was until someone asked if any of us had got into London through the ballot. There was a chorus of disappointed boos and we jokingly teased him for putting a downer on our day!
It was also satisfying knowing I had friends in the crowd and elsewhere in the field. I got cheers at mile eight and saw two fellow runners coming the other way where the course doubles back on itself. Such a boost – so far, so good.
Mile 17 beeped out and the pacer congratulated us for doing so well. I remember calling out something wonderfully clichéd like “come on guys, we’ve got this, keep pushing”. Truth be told, I was trying to motivate myself because I’d become acutely aware how heavy my legs were feeling. Another reason I hate lapped courses is that you know what’s coming. And I knew there were two nasty hills to tackle at miles 19 and 21.
I faced a choice – keep pushing for four hours and risk a blow-up, or back off and just focus on beating my 4hr11 PB. I chose the latter and for a while it worked, but then it happened. HD uses the Coke bottle analogy with his recurring calf injury, and that’s exactly how my thigh felt – fizzing.
First rule, the Dad’s Army approach – don’t panic! I stopped, did the same stretch routine I’d been forced to do in training a few times, walked a bit and then got going again. It got me through 20 miles in 3hr10, so a finish in around 4hr15 was actually still on the cards.
But Birmingham wasn’t done with me yet. Injuries became an irrelevance when I hit the dreaded wall. And hard. Jelly legs, stomach cramps, dizziness, seeing spots – the whole works. A friend from work was watching at mile 23 with the coach from her running club and she called out my name. I stopped, hoping that a hug would somehow reinvigorate me and make the nastiness go away.
She was reluctant to let me walk on (“you look awfully pale”) and asked a nearby marshal to call up a medic. Her coach kept telling me to stand up straight and take deep breaths, but there was a patch of grass next to him that looked as inviting as a king size bed with a feather down duvet. Just a quick rest…
I honestly don’t remember much else. The medic never came – the marshal had got the wrong end of the stick and ordered the recovery vehicle to take me to the finish. That was all the incentive I needed to get up and plod on, no matter how slowly.
It didn’t feel like I’d stopped for that long, until mile 23 finally beeped out on my Garmin (which I’d totally forgotten was even still on) – 43 minutes. Wow, there’s one for the scrapbook. The day I ‘ran’ a 43 minute mile.
Before the race, and in previous blog posts, there had been a running (no pun intended) gag about Birmingham and not letting the rhino catch you, in reference to HD being out on the course. Right now I’d have given anything for that to happen so I could draw strength from someone who is adept at coping with adversity.
I think you know where this is going… Right on cue, at about 24.5, a head coach hug was mine for the taking. No question of not finishing now. We walked together for a bit (although I did have to remind him his stride is an awfully lot bigger than mine!) and then, with a mile to go, sod this – we’re running it to the line.
And we did. Shoulder to shoulder, as the motto goes. Five and a quarter hours on my clock, just over five on his. Hooray for Hollywood indeed.
He won’t mind me saying that it wasn’t the ending I wanted to my marathon. He knows how much that four hour goal means to me and how hard I keep working to try and get there. He knows how upset I am at yet another catastrophic meltdown on race day.
But there are positives to take away too. I’ve been privileged to share a small part of HD’s epic ten marathon experience, and got to meet two more Buzzers waiting for us at the finish line as well in Bev and Tony.
I also had a short amount of time to see first-hand the sort of person our head coach is. Selfless to the last, it’s all about what he can do for other people and not the other way around. Every marshal we passed got a thank-you, every spectator who called out our names got a thumbs up. And every other runner around us who was tired, struggling or gritting their teeth got words of encouragement to spur them on.
All this while he’s carrying significant injuries of his own (not that you’d know, there are no complaints) and squaring up to very real and very frightening challenges at home with his family. Humbling, to say the least.
I’ll take a lot of memories from the Birmingham weekend. Some good (I’ll save the Mini Run with my daughter for another blog – that was terrific), several bad, but others to savour and hold onto. Cheers, coach.
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