I hadn't done a marathon for three years, mainly because as I've got a bit older I've found that doing higher road mileages is neither all that interesting nor all that good for joints and muscles when compared with the altogether more rewarding pastime of running in our hills and forests.
But I had a couple of reasons for this one.
Firstly, I had a feeling that I was not keeping up the level of fitness that I had done when I had the discipline of the occasional road race to keep me honest. Nowhere to hide on the roads, you can't blame the weather, the mud, or any number of things you can use to kid yourself that you really could have run an ultra faster but you were somehow prevented by circumstances beyond your control. If you take out the more extreme examples such as Snowdon, then a marathon is a marathon, and your time will tell you what state you're in. So running a marathon would be good for me.
And secondly, I had a feeling I would like to run London again sometime. I'd done this back in 2006, but entry was easy then, I was working for the sponsoring company and we got a good number of places for company employees. Nowadays it's more difficult. I can't sign on to the ethics of running for a charity - probably the subject of a whole post so I'll just leave it at that for now - and tales of the ballot were pretty depressing, people being unsuccessful for five years and so on. So my remaining option was to get a "good for age" place, for which I needed a recent "official" time; the requirement gets progressively easier as you get older, for me it's now 4 hours (and in a couple of years or so goes up to 5 hours!). In my last run at Blackpool in 2013 my time was just under 3 hours 43 minutes, so I assumed with a bit of training that the intervening years would not have removed 17 minutes from my potential and I ought to be OK.
I chose Manchester because it's local, I hadn't run it before, it's (in theory) logistically easy because it starts and finishes in the same place, and the course goes through the area where my son and his family live so I could probably get a bit of personal support at least at one point! For one reason or another the training hadn't really gone as I'd planned, but I'd done at least one road run each week since Christmas with a couple of half-marathon jaunts and one 16 miler at just over 9 minute pace. Not really enough but I assumed that it would be OK.
On the day it was a beautiful but chilly morning as I drove over to Old Trafford, parked at MU and walked over to the start/finish area at the cricket ground. I got a coffee and queued 10 minutes to drop off my bag - this contained warm clothes for the finish and the exercise was a mistake in hindsight as the car was only a 10 minute walk away - then made my way to the start pens. It was all quite low key and unstressful, I guess as a result of this not being "big" for a city marathon, I think there were about 12,000 starters on the day. Among the other starters was Katrina Kynaston, here with John; I didn't know that at the time or I would have looked out for them.
The starter was the evergreen Ron Hill - a strange coincidence for me as he started the last marathon I ran at Blackpool in 2013 - and we were soon under way. The course wandered around Old Trafford for a couple of miles then headed out towards Sale. The organisers must have generated some clout because they had got the main road through Stretford to Sale closed for the event - impressive. I set out to maintain an 8.50 mile pace to give me a workable but not excessive cushion on my 4 hour target, but I noticed after 3 or 4 miles that my watch was reading high against the course mile markers. Either my watch was a bit out or the markers hadn't been too carefully sited. To be on the safe side I assumed the former and took my target "watch" pace down a bit to 8.45. This seemed pretty easy so I was happy enough.
There were more than enough water stations so I was able to go with the plan I had used on many marathons previously of taking on about 200-250ml every 10k. I normally walk through the water station as I'm doing this, I think the time you lose is more than paid back by the ease of a comfortable drink and something to eat at the same time, maybe a bit of ultra technique spilling back into marathons. Today I just ate a couple of squares of Shotblok every time I stopped for a drink, it works for me OK.
The crowds at the start had been a bit sparse but at soon as we hit Sale and Altrincham they were brilliant, lots of people and lots of noise. Shortly after turning into Brooklands Road at about 10 miles I saw John with his wife Jade and our two granddaughters on the other side of the road, we all waved furiously but it came and went quickly of course. The course is advertised as flat but there is a steady climb from Brooklands up to Altrincham, where there is a little loop before it works back down to Sale. The halfway point was in Altrincham and I was pleased to see it go by at around 1:55 - just nicely inside 4 hour schedule, my watch seemed solid at 8.45 average from the start.
On the return leg back up Brooklands, now approaching 17 miles, Jade and the girls had gone home but John was still there, now on my side of the road taking photographs and close enough for a quick high five.
From Sale, the return course wanders north out through Urmston, an area I don't really know. This, probably combined with the effects of distance run and the rising temperature now that the sun had really got a grip, gave me the first thoughts of tiredness at around 20 miles. I was still solid on my 8.45 pace "on the watch", but then a quick calculation told me that I was now pretty "safe" on my target and could allow the pace to drop a bit and still get comfortably inside 4 hours. The problem then of course is that unless you are really determined to resist it, once a thought like that that gets into your head then that's what you do! At half way I had considered re-adjusting my target to 3:50, but now although I'm sure it was perfectly possible it wasn't a powerful enough motivator for the bit of extra effort required. I drifted down a few seconds a mile back into a comfort zone, but then was surprised at how many runners I was still overtaking this late in the race. Looking at the splits afterwards it was somewhere around here that I must have passed Katrina, but as I wasn't looking out for her I wouldn't have noticed. She went on to finish in just over 4 hours.
Before long we were back into known ground, turning into the main road in Stretford with barely a mile or so to the finish. Good crowd support again and in a few moments it was done. My finishing time was 3:52:56. I was pleased enough and feeling pretty good, but still slightly kicking myself that I had let that 3 minutes get away over the last 6 miles because basically I couldn't be bothered to make a better fight of it. Still, if I can still get under 4 hours in London next year I guess I'll be happy.
The finish had its good and bad points. After collecting your medal and goody bag, all runners were offered a free pint of chilled alcohol-free lager; I normally wouldn't touch the stuff but in this situation it absolutely hit the spot. a brilliant idea. Less good was the enormous queue to pick up your clothes bag, which was clearly going to mean a wait of hours rather than minutes. I thought about the rather well used items of clothing I'd left, inside an old dry bag, and decided it wasn't worth spoiling the day over so I abandoned it, walked back to the car in the warm sunshine and drove home.
I later heard that some competitors had been on the baggage queue for nearly three hours. The organisers took it on the chin that they had cocked up, apologised, said they would sort it next time, and offered everyone a discounted entry for next year. More surprising, without my even contacting the organisation (everyone makes mistakes, it's what you do next that counts), three days later my bag arrived home by mail. Well done, Manchester.