50,000 steps in the right direction

Posted on: 11 Oct 2018

That felt better.  A return to Chester three years after I first ran the marathon there and it remains by far my most successful hunting ground.

In my head, I had decided that this was going to be an experimental marathon.  I wanted to try out a new strategy for race nutrition and at the same time force myself to take a more disciplined approach to distance running.

The goal?  Ideally get a little quicker, but first and foremost see off the wretched wall that seems determined to spoil each of my 26.2 mile parties.

The outcome?  I did indeed get a little quicker – 41 seconds if we’re being precise, and while it was hardly an earth shattering improvement on 2015, it did mean a new PB for the marathon.  The achievement stands and I’m down to 4:11:17.

As for the wall, well I had my eye on a full on demolition job before lobbing the bricks deep into the River Dee, however that wasn’t quite the case.  Let’s just say I shifted the bugger, so instead of hitting it at the customary 20-odd mile mark, I only encountered issues in the final mile.  Definite progress!

Those are the headlines, so allow me to elaborate on what exactly happened on Sunday.

The day started early – out of the house before 6am in order to secure parking on the infield at Chester Racecourse, where the marathon starts and finishes.  It’s so worth it though, because you end up just a few hundred yards from the pens and don’t have to faff around with bag drops. 

Another advantage was being able to keep warm.  With the temperature hovering around three degrees and a touch of overnight frost still lingering, I stayed in the car with the heated seat blasting forth, only venturing out for a quick toilet stop and mooch around race HQ.

Nevertheless things soon warmed up and actually it turned out to be perfect running weather.  By mid-morning we were blessed with lots of autumn sunshine which made the Cheshire and Wrexham countryside (yes, the course briefly crosses the border into Wales!) look even more beautiful.

I mentioned doing things differently.  For fuelling, I decided to give the on course provisions, including gels and Lucozade Sport, a wide berth and carry my own supplies in a hydration vest.  As per my training, that meant water with electrolyte tabs, a second bottle with flat Coke in it and an energy bar. 

Sure, carrying the bottles is a bit of a faff, but I was willing to try and fortunately the Camelbak vest doesn’t rub, bounce excessively or cause me any notable discomfort.

I drank every two or three miles, alternating between the two but ensuring there was plenty of Coke left for 18 miles and beyond.  The energy bar was eaten in four parts every five miles.  I had a few jelly babies and a small malt loaf bar stashed away too, but didn’t need them.  So far, so good. 

Next was to take heed of all the Buzzer advice from recent months.  Put simply, don’t go off too quickly.  Hollywood, Bolty and all the rest of you wise and experienced runners and walkers – I listened.  For once, I actually listened!

From the start, I sat behind the 4:15 pacing group and forced myself to stay there for at least the first 5k.  In the end, I held station for about four and a half miles.  I was itching to go sooner, but resisted.  And even when I did break from the pack, I kept my pace firmly in the low nine minute miles.

Half marathon distance came up in 2:01.  Just about perfect.  Compare that to 2015 and I was through the turn in 1:50 – 11 minutes faster – but fell apart in the second half of the race and, of course, finished in a slightly slower time.

I remember how desperate and dejected I felt that year, starting to falter as early as 18 miles.  The course crosses the river at this point and then climbs sharply into a village.  Last time out I was forced to walk here until the road levelled out.  No such drama in 2018.  I had conserved enough energy to get through it and stay on pace.

Moreover, I was genuinely enjoying myself.  Chatting to other runners, trying to motivate and encourage those doing Chester’s Metric Marathon as the two courses merge, thanking the amazing marshals and drinks station volunteers.

I spotted a vest from Knowle and Dorridge running club, where one of my former work colleagues is a member.  We got talking and it turned out they knew each other – a happy little coincidence.  Then there was the Tommys runner.  I never did catch his name, but he was wearing a bright green top for the charity and we seemed to be trading places for most of the second half of the marathon.

I would urge him on when he was slowing, and vice versa, all the way through to about 23 miles.  Then it occurred to me – I haven’t walked yet.  I’ve never gone this far into a marathon, or a long training run, and not had to take a walking break.

But while the legs were fine (as fine as tired legs that have covered 23 miles can be!), I was definitely feeling the need for a toilet break.  Experience says you lose more time trying to plough on and fight nature, so I conceded and found a suitable place to stop.  It cost me a few minutes – a 12 minute mile – but no matter, I was soon back on pace.

The next challenge was the hill that rounds off mile 25. It’s a nasty one just when you don’t need it that leads into the city centre and the final kick for home.  I knew it was coming and I knew I wanted to run it. 

Race Angels were covering this section and I hoped I might spot one to give me some encouragement.  Turns out I didn’t need them – Tommys runner was right alongside me again.  With lots of grunts and grimacing we both got up that hill, together, and I was totally elated.  

Even more encouraging was the time – 3:56.  OK, so sub-4 was out of the question, but I was on for a strong PB with just 1.2 miles of largely downhill tarmac to cover.  What could possibly go wrong?

Ah yes, the wall.  We haven’t spoken about him for a while.  Tommys wanted me to run with him to the finish but his pace was too strong.  I found my own rhythm and was soaking up the atmosphere as the crowds started to build. 

Then, pretty much from nowhere, nasty stomach cramps with about half a mile to go. Seriously?  Again?  It was like a replay of 2015, only mercifully much closer to the finish line.  I told myself I was going to make it, but equally I could sense it would be a crawl. 

I was having to physically stop, never mind walk, and let the cramps pass or else I was in serious danger of… how shall I put this… losing control of my faculties?  Not a good look as you enter the final 400 metres on Chester Racecourse with everybody watching!

When I eventually hauled myself across the line I dared to look at my Garmin.  I feared the PB had slipped away, but amazingly there it was.  Forty-one seconds, but truth be told it felt like 41 minutes.  Save for that last ropey half mile – and let’s face it, tummy trouble can happen to any of us, at any time – I had run my best marathon in every sense.  The time for one, but perhaps more importantly the consistency.

Two hours, ten minutes for the last 13 miles.  And they’re tough miles at Chester.  The second half of the course is fairly undulating (for a road marathon – I hear you, trail runners!) and gets quite lonely too from 20 to 24 where it’s virtually all empty county lanes with no supporters.

Obviously there’s room for improvement.  I also needed a lot of recovery time, with an unpleasant wave of sickness coming over me about ten minutes after the finish (just the feeling, nothing actually happened) followed by cramp in my left calf (that’s a first… hopefully not to be repeated).

Nevertheless, this is a massive jump forward.  And it means I can go to Snowdon a seven times marathon runner without any points to prove, fully relaxed and ready to enjoy a spectacular weekend with friends.  Not bad, considering Chester was only a training run… Plus a bit.  A ‘bit’ that, at long last, didn’t get to beat me.

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