If you're a distance runner, particularly one like me who is prone to crashing in the latter stages of a marathon, then the Race Angel concept is (with apologies for the pun) something of a godsend.
It epitomises everything that is great about the running community. Supportive, encouraging, motivational and, above all, selfless.
For those unfamiliar with it, Race Angels started (in the UK at least) at the 2015 Chester Marathon, an event which, coincidentally, I also happened to take part in. A team of volunteer runners placed themselves along the final few miles of the course and stepped in to help those who appeared to be flagging.
Their brief was to walk or run alongside the competitors and use their own experience to try and get them back on track for a strong finish. Simple, but very effective and if you've ever been in that situation yourself you'll know that even a conversation with another person can sometimes be enough to boost your morale and trigger a recovery.
I mention this now because on May Day Bank Holiday I found my own Race Angel during mile 24 of the Milton Keynes Marathon. Except she wasn't – an official Race Angel that is – but her running club, Redway, had adopted the idea and deployed a squad of a dozen or so members to offer help to those in need.
More about Emma from Redway later. First of all you might be wondering what I was doing running the MK marathon in the first place given there's been no preamble and I haven't mentioned it in any of my plans for the year.
Well, you can't plan everything and this run was very much impromptu. I entered with just hours to spare before the closing date, feeling suitably recovered from Brighton and keen to make my tenth marathon one where I'd have company.
Brother James had booked in a while ago and had local friends who would be out supporting. I also knew head coach Hollywood was due to run, despite being battered, bruised and far from physically fit to take on another marathon (except we all know what exceptional mental strength he has to compensate for this – once again he delivered).
And so the lure of 26.2 pulled me in again and the sneaky hope of an improved time after the somewhat disappointing result at Brighton.
Milton Keynes is only about 80 miles from home and that meant it would be easy enough to drive down in the morning without the need for a hotel. I found somewhere to park that was about a ten minute walk from the MK Dons stadium where the race starts and finishes. And after catching up with James, Dave, his friend James and another runner I know from Aldridge Running Club it was time to head to the pens.
For the record, this is a really slick event in terms of logistics. The stadium ensures plenty of room to meet people, an easy bag drop and minimal toilet queues. And that's with them also staging a half marathon and kids run at the same time – some of the big city marathons could definitely learn a thing or two.
The only thing that wasn't so good about the day had nothing to do with the organisers. It was the runners. Or more specifically, us three – James was full of cold, Dave was nursing more injuries than an A&E department and I'd spent most of the last two days with an upset stomach.
I think we all questioned at one point whether we should run. But despite challenging moments out on the course for each of us, I think it's fair to say we all got something positive out of it. Dave has eloquently said his piece on Facebook, go back if you can and see how he effectively spent his race helping others – playing the head coach role to a tee.
James found the going difficult, drained of energy thanks to unwanted germs, but dug deep to bring it home. He also completed the final stint in tow with HD, who it seems is forming a habit of helping battle weary Truemans get to the finishing line of a marathon having hit the dreaded wall (Birmingham 2017 anyone?).
Captured on film as ever, take a look at the vlog. It's quite literally a Hollywood production!
That just leaves me.
Things started well enough for the opening city centre stretch. The conditions were perfect, the supporters suitably loud and my pace was mirroring that of Brighton three weeks earlier. I stuck to the fueling plan of drink every three miles, eat something every five, and what was going into my body seemed to be sitting well enough.
After the first 10k, the course became more rural and at 7.5 miles the marathon runners split from the half marathon route and looped around towards Willen Lake.
Trouble flared up during mile nine with stomach pains. I contemplated stopping at the drinks station because there were toilets there, but ran through in the hope it would pass. A mile later I regretted that decision!
Fortunately I was saved any embarrassment by a convenient convenience by the side of Willen Lake that was only yards off the route. I was back out and running within a few minutes, feeling considerably more comfortable and still hopeful of a decent time, which was confirmed when I got to half distance in 2hrs 04.
More problems at mile 15, this time it was fatigue – inevitable I guess when you have...ahem...shall we say 'offloaded' all the pre-race fuel and fluids. I switched to run/walk, roughly a quarter mile walking and the rest running and in doing so I could maintain a pretty respectable ten minute mile pace.
But by mile 20, I was done. Dizzy, wobbly, seeing stars – the full wall-smashing bonk. Yuk. I'd also used up my two drinks bottles and was desperate to get to the next aid station at mile 24 to stock up.
Seeing stars is one thing. Now I was seeing an angel.
Remember where this all started? Emma spotted me way before I spotted her and had water at the ready. Moreover, she had crisps. Salt and vinegar crisps. She said her club mates had teased her for it, but I couldn't have been more grateful as my tastebuds had gone way beyond the sweet stage.
We stopped briefly next to the first aid tent and because I'd gone my usual colour of post-crash grey, the St John's volunteer was getting quite twitchy. She wanted me to come in and sit down for a bit – if I had done, I doubt I would have got back up again.
I suspect the medic was close to pulling me, but Emma took control of the situation. With a wonderful air of authority, she turned to me and said “do you want to finish this?”. I said “absolutely”. In which case, she said, “I'll stick with you for as long as you need me to. Let's go”.
With a full water bottle, and even more crisps, was started walking and chatting about her club and other events we'd both done. Then a walk became a jog and a jog became a run and before long I was doing 11 minute mile pace.
We completed mile 25 together and she was happy to continue, until we caught sight of a man sitting on a grassy bank clearly in some pain. I knew straight away he needed far more help than I did, so I told my angel to work her magic somewhere else, gave her a massive hug and a heartfelt thank-you kiss on the cheek.
The finish line was within a mile and I felt sure I could run it in. Mile 26 beeped out on my Garmin and to my amazement it was sub-10. And as I entered the stadium for the final stretch, who do you think I saw alongside me? A rhino!
Not that rhino, unfortunately, it was actually a Save the Rhino costume runner – but the irony was definitely not lost on me. And it meant I got an unexpectedly loud cheer as I approached the line. Sure, it was the rhino that had them on their feet, but I fed off it all the same and put an almighty sprint on to finish in 4hr50.
So another marathon is done and while the race plan went astray – again – I can't say I regret entering. It was somewhat fitting for a milestone run that I experienced a bit of everything out there: highs and lows; strong miles and painfully slow ones.
As I waited at the finish I took enormous pleasure in seeing other runners cross the line, many overcome by emotion and bursting with pride. Likewise it was a delight to see James and Hollywood finish shoulder to shoulder and overcome difficulties of their own.
You don't always have to run fast to run well – I know that having marathon times across my ten races that span four and a bit hours all the way up to six. I'm not done with the distance yet and Milton Keynes would be well worth a repear visit, but time chasing is becoming less of a priority.
I'll be back when I'm well again and we'll see where it takes me.
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