My alarm goes off at 5.45am, I am so fast asleep that it takes me a good while to work out what the noise is, and how to stop it. I’m in the front cab of my van, in the pitch black of an industrial estate, and it’s bloody freezing. I start the engine, turn up the heating, rub my hands, and drive off to get some porridge.
Sitting there, in an empty McDonalds, I am cuddling my coffee to try and bring my fingers to life. It is still dark outside, my legs are achy and sore from a long day yesterday. I am questioning my decision to run a marathon this morning. I play with the idea of pulling out, no-one knows I’m here. And Nina will totally understand. But even in that moment, I know I’m kidding myself. The adrenaline and nerves warm me up. I’m always going to do it.
The race venue is Chester Racecourse, and I arrive as soon as it opens, half 6. I am told I will not be getting VIP parking today, no matter who I think I am. I am directed to park with all the other cars, furthest from the start line, a good 200m down the wet field.
I plea with a steward;
“look, I’m hoping to win today, I need to be as close as possible to the start line, I can’t be wasting energy traipsing back and forth through this field, my racing shoes will get soaking wet, and and and…”
While I am going on with my messy plea, he is chewing away on his breakfast bap, and looking at me quizzically. It is at this point I remember I’m wearing a bright pink hat, hoodie that I slept in, grey jogging bottoms, and along with the white van, I’m not looking like the type of guy who might win a marathon. But he gives me full-marks for effort and allocates me the perfect spot.
So far so good. I make my way over to registration. When I pick up my number I can see a list of the leading contenders, Mo Abu-Rezeq is on there.
A word on Mo: I’ve heard a lot of athletes complaining about him – He rarely turns up unless there is money on the line. He does just enough to win, get any time-bonus, and no more. He is a mercenary, running for money, not for the joy of running.
I think the people who say that stuff have mostly never met him. Before a race he can look intimidating and aloof. But that is all part of the plan. He is getting every psychological advantage he can. When it’s over, he is the warmest, friendliest guy. Personally, I wish there were more people like him, unashamedly trying to make some money out of our sport. It’s a very hard thing to do, and he adds a level of professionalism to the dusty amateur era that is holding running back.
He doesn’t wear a watch, he is hungry, and will often run through injuries to get the job done. There is a real purity there, that I respect. It is no different to what Mo Farah or Eliud Kipchoge are doing.
So when I see his name on the start list, a guy who has run much faster than me for a half marathon, who I have never beaten before (although he did DNF once), I could be thinking;
I’m running for second place here, he’s going to wipe the floor with me
But actually, I am motivated. I know there is a time bonus for a sub 2.20 clocking, so he may shoot for that. Which means I might get pulled to a fast time. Also, to my knowledge, he has never run a marathon before. So that might give me some experience over him in the last 6 miles.
The air is cold but the sun is bright. There is a gentle breeze, it is perfect weather for running. I stand at the front of 5000 nervous but excited people, it is a fantastic buzz.
The gun goes, we are underway. I have a quick chat with Pete Tucker, a good marathoner and friend from way back when. I push the pace a little bit, nothing crazy. Mo is looking around a lot, not wanting to make a move yet. I notice a Kenyan guy ghost towards the front. The first mile seems like a jog, we are ducking and weaving around Chester city center, the crowds are brilliant and I am already loving it. You never know how you are going to feel until the gun goes.
After a slow 5.30 mile, Mo decides to pick it up, and as we leave the city we are operating at around 5.20 miling – the pace needed to run a 2.20 marathon. Myself, Mo and the Kenyan have pulled away. We fall into a V formation, with me leading. This suits me fine, the pace is easy to maintain and there is no wind to shelter from. These are very early stages in the marathon, if you are straining at all, you are going too fast.
After around half an hour of running, Mo decides to pull out of formation, he moves wide and infront, then looks back at us. I know that he is just checking us out, to see how we are coping. He wouldn’t make a break here, at mile 5, and on a fast, straight section. Anyway, this spooks the Kenyan, he panics and darts straight infront of me to cover Mo’s move. Pete Tucker, who saw the incident from a little way down the road, said he knew that clash was only going to go one way. I must weigh about 2 stone more than this poor guy, and he smacks down hard into the tarmac road. I stop to ask him if he’s ok, he says nothing but gets up to run.
After a moment of indecision, I crank back up to race pace. There is nothing more I can do, I feel guilty but it wasn’t my fault, and I reason with myself that if he can run at all, he can’t be too badly injured. Mo knows the guy, and selflessly drops back to help him catch me back up, he manages it, but I can tell from his breathing and form, he is not going to stay in contention for long. I spend the next mile trying to relax and regain my rhythm. We go through mile 6 in our quickest of the race, 5.05, and as the adrenaline dissipates, I realise I have picked up a knock in my foot.
If I were a footballer, I could roll around on the grass theatrically for a few minutes, grab hold of my foot like it’s about to fall off, then get helped to my feet to raucous cheers, limp and skip about abit like some wounded hero, and then probably feel much better. But in the middle of a marathon, I am landing on that foot 90 times a minute, with 2.5 times my bodyweight. There is no way around it, I can’t adjust my running to compensate, can’t stop and walk it off, I just have to keep going and hope it eases by itself.
Mo keeps looking back on the guy, then tells me he is finished, and we can relax abit. I am not interested in doing that, 5.20 miling is feeling good, and I want to keep going. We pass halfway in 70.20. Mo has been letting me do most of the leading, but then decides to break away. He doesn’t get far up the road before our paces equalise, and the gap remains constant. He is a very powerful runner, big legs, and bouncy stride, but he makes a lot of noise against the ground, which is not effecient, and he doesn’t drink or take any gels at the stations, very risky. So, on the one hand I am thinking this race is still on, but then, my foot is getting more and more painful. It is like trying to run with a stone in your shoe, it becomes all you can think about, arrests all your focus. I am trying to block out negative thoughts and worries.
It is a beautiful day, you are running well, just keep running the mile you are in
This is getting harder and harder. My pace is slipping, the course is getting hillier, but actually I enjoy the hills as less force goes through my foot. At mile 22, Mo is out of sight, and my foot is burning so badly that I grind to a halt, and find myself stopped in the road. At this point there are hundreds of runners passing in the other direction. The cheering and encouragement they give me is unbelievable. Half a dozen people cross over to pat me on the back or offer me their drinks. At the time I want them all to disappear, so I can wallow in my own misery. I look behind, there is no one there, I start jogging, just to get these guys to leave me the hell alone (I am, now, very grateful to all of you by the way)!
I often contemplate why it is that the marathon is so compelling, magnetising, for so many people. I think, for me, it is those conversations you are forced to have with yourself in those last 6 miles. Where everything is stripped back to you, and your most authentic voice. Have you really got what it takes? Do you really want it badly enough? Is your ‘why’ strong enough?
Here I am in Chester Marathon, 22 miles run, 4 to go, standing still, with searing pain coursing from my foot.
I don’t like this deal any more. I don’t want to do this any more. I want to go home, and pretend this never happened
Oh, you don’t like the deal? And what deal was that? The deal you invented? Where you cruise round in 2.25, win the race easily, drowning in applause and social media adulation, and walk off into the sunset with a cheque for £1000?
Well, this is the real deal, right now. Mo has just run off down the road with first place, and he is making you look stupid
Well it wouldn’t be the first time. Let him go
But if you finish 2nd, you can still win £750
Have it! Have it all, and double, just to take this pain away
You can still run a good time, a season’s best!
Nope. Don’t care. Try again
If you don’t finish, how will you justify it to everyone? How will you write it on your blog?
F##k the fucking blog! I’m never writing on that stupid thing ever again anyway
Your wife and kids are waiting at the finish line. Are you going to leave them there worrying about you, because you have a “pain” in your foot?
That one sticks.
4 miles out, a direct route back to the finish, roads all closed; by far the quickest way for me to get back to my family, who are waiting by the finish line, is to run. No matter what position I come in, or what time I get, I know I have to keep running. One painful foot at a time. Just getting back to my family consumes every sinew of my body.
It is a beautiful sunny Sunday, I am re-entering Chester, the crowds and the atmosphere wonderful, with music by the river, laughing and cheering. But in my head, it is dark, cold and raining. There are thunderclouds threatening above, as Nina, Jim and El are standing in a field, all alone, soaking wet and shivering. Mo has finished ages ago, and my kids are asking Nina, where is daddy? Nina is trying to reassure them that I’m fine, but I can see the worry on her face. This visualisation becomes so real in my mind, that my body produces incredible surges of adrenaline, enabling me to accelerate, pain free, for 100m bursts, only for it to wear off, and my foot to scream at me, don’t do that again!
3 miles to go, just one parkrun.
2 miles to go, El’s lip has curled up and she is beginning to cry. Jim’s head has dropped as he thinks his daddy has given up. Nina is still putting a brave face on it, but desperately checking her phone for any updates. Everyone else has gone home. The finish line is all packed away, the car park is empty.
My sight has completely closed in, I have no peripheral vision, the streets are lined with people, I know there is a river to my left, but I am in a dark tunnel. I am twisting every bone and muscle to just get home. I am in unbearable pain, I am bending my foot in a weird way to try and avoid it. But, I have been in unbearable pain before. I am somehow scraping through in 6 minute mile pace, I have never been so proud of my legs. Every single step hurts, time is standing still, a mile seems so far. I promise myself that when I get to the last mile it will feel easier, I get there, it doesn’t.
Just one more mile.
Every step forward is eating into that mile. I finally reach the race course, and it is packed with spectators, I can hear Nina above them all, I have no idea where she is, I am still half blind, but she sounds happy, like maybe I haven’t let her down after all. My family come into view, it is very confusing having to run past them, when they are the only reason I am still running. I see the clock at 2.27, whatever, I finish. I don’t really know where I am. The sun comes back out, the storm clouds begin to lift, slowly I begin to realise that it is over, and I’ve done it.
I fluff my way through an interview, and go and lie down in the grass. The blood is coming back to my brain. I am euphoric. I can’t believe I’ve done it.
Peter Tucker has finished in 4th, not far behind. We share tales of woe.
It takes my family a bit of time to get to me. I give my kids the medal, and they fight over it. Pete kindly offers his to El, but she refuses. I smile to myself. Picnic and prize giving, I am still light headed and not really with it, can’t eat anything, want to lie down. So many people come and shake my hand and say they read my blog, I can’t remember everyone’s names (sorry, I’m so bad with names), but I really appreciate it. Hi to Kelly (read her brill race report here), Steve, Kieron and Sha. The pride is numbing the pain.
Later, I am driving home in van behind Nina’s car. The sun is setting and I get this epiphany/ moment of clarity. The simple, silver Skoda infront of me, looks no different to all the thousands of other cars sharing this road right now. But, to me, it contains the most precious things in the entire world.
The Hollies come on the radio with the opening line,
“If I could make a wish, I think I’d pass, can’t think of anything I need”
I choke up. At the point of suffering, where no amount of money, glory, ambition, or respect meant anything any more, my family were enough to get me through. The sense of completeness fills my heart.
When we get home, my foot has completely seized up. I am hobbling quite badly, hoping it is just a bad bruise. We play Dobble, with pizza and icecream, on the rug by the fire. Nina tells me she is proud of me – then performs the real 2hr marathon, getting the little brats into bed, kicking and screaming, while I doze by the fire, completely useless, as always.
I get up for work the next day. Have a 5 minute chat about my race, and then onto the roof to fix some slipped slates.
Massive thankyou to all the organisers and volunteers at the MBNA Chester Marathon. This is my second race within the series, and both have been exceptional. Makes such a difference to the experience, being looked after so well!