They say a lot of running is done with the head, so it’s a good job mine is massive. This weekend was a reminder of the importance your head and the little voices play in performance.
Sunday saw me at the MK Rocket, a quick 5k point to point run as part of the marathon weekend. It’s touted as a PB course as other than a few inclines is net downhill. It’s my PB course but I think as much for the straight run with only a single gentle right hander. I have the turning circle of a super tanker so a straight course is ideal for me.
Having not raced anything short since October, and due to ultra training being at 1300 miles for the year I was doubtful of a good time. I’ve gone sub20 in previous years so had that as an aspirational A-target. To get my head in the right mood I put on my Adidas Adizero lightweight racing shoes that had sat unworn for over a year, with no place in the wardrobe of an ultra runner. There’s a definite element of imposter syndrome strapping on light shoes when I’m still tipping the scales around 84kg. I skipped breakfast and had a slug of coffee before leaving as I run better on shorter stuff if not full of food.
After the countdown I set off surrounded by clubmates, many from the 6m40s paced session by Redway Runners. Surprisingly I felt good, the pace felt quick but I made a conscious decision not to check the pace on my watch and have the confidence to run to feel. Positive thoughts.
Gradually moving up the pack I fell in beside clubmate Chris and we pounded out a good pace. Confidence was growing. I had this. I had my fast shoes on and seemingly borrowed someone else’s fast legs.
Then we hit the two mile marker. I resisted checking my watch. Chris didn’t “doing well, that’s a 5m55s mile”. Bugger. My best track mile has been 5m54s, so what the hell was I doing hitting that for mid-point in a 5k? As Chris cruised on my brain succumbed to the inner doubts and I slowed. Then my brain decided I couldn’t feel my left leg at all. It was now manufacturing ailments to force me to slow. Bugger. When your mind starts to remind you how much nicer a gentle jog is it’s not easy to disagree despite it being the exact point you need to push and double down.
After some internal struggle I managed to regain my composure and get back on it, realising that with only a mile left I was still on for a good time. Having dragged my sorry bum over the line on multiple ultras it felt churlish to be considering backing off with a mere mile left.
The crowds built a bit and shouty Gary was bellowing at me as I crossed the line feeling like I had more to give. Official time was 18m42s, my first ever sub19 which was a welcome surprise and I wondered without the mental melt at mile 2 how much faster I could have managed. The other highpoint was a marshal handing me back my car keys that had dropped out my pocked on route without me even realising.
Monday morning and I’m back at the stadium for the marathon. This time I’m official pacer for 3h45 and the nerves are not for me but for those that are about to run with me. I’ve already lost one balloon and had to be given a replacement so my care-giving abilities are a little suspect already.
In the start pen and it’s a far cry from the previous day. I have few doubts I can manage the time. The confidence could be viewed as arrogance but it’s based on over 100 marathons. Nothing is given but it would take some pretty unforeseen events to stop me especially after yesterday, and with perfect weather conditions.
I’ve had my traditional pre-marathon McDonalds breakfast (this may explain the 84kg), strapped on my tried and tested Adidas Supernova (not sponsored by Adidas but find them perfect for my odd feet and dodgy running style). The rest of my kit is proven and I’ve got a baby food fruit pouch in my shorts for halfway having found them easier on stomach than gels. My Garmin has signal, I’ve got the mile splits printed out on my wrist so I can check pace to the mile markers rather than rely on GPS distance which is often a little patchy on some points on the course.
Around me people aren’t as confident. If you’re running with a pacer it’s because you have some doubt you can make the time on your own. You can feel the doubts and nerves. As much as you re-assure people the hard work is done, they can’t help thinking of this as a test, the outcome of which will decide in their minds if the months of hard work and training were worthwhile.
We set off in wave 2 and although the wide roads help spread the runners it’s still a little congested and I balance nipping through gaps to keep pace against losing those around me. After the lap of the city centre we’re approx. 8 secs up on pace due to some downhills and break off onto the redways. Although thinned out we’re in a large clump and I need to warn people about kerbs or bollards. No one wants to miss a PB due to a bollard in the bollocks, or in the words of my clubmate Emma, a ‘nasty minjury’.
Halfway comes and we pass over the mats around 30 secs up on pace, more than I’d like but given the second half has a couple of inclines it’s handy to have some seconds banked. The group around has thinned a little as people have either felt good and gone ahead or sadly dropped off the back. What’s left is a determined bunch who look strong but most are aware now is too early to count their blessings.
The miles tick past and on a couple of occasions the size of the group is such that I can’t make it to the side to get water at aid stations but it’s cool enough not to be an issue and one runner passes me theirs to share (cheers if you read this Vanessa).
Gradually I notice some of the faces go, and when I check over my shoulder the pack is smaller. My group is thinning and I’m constantly checking pace to ensure I’m not speeding up. Each mile marker I’m within a few seconds, so sadly it’s the fatigue kicking in. Mile 18-20 is always where I struggle when going for PBs. You’ve covered so many miles but with a significant distance left, able to remember when 6 miles would be an achievement, not something you’d undertake at pace after a 20 mile warmup. The confidence needed to keep plugging away when your legs ache is not always easy to come by.
We run through Loughton and the teardrop lakes, bearing down on the mile 23 marker. My group is thinning again and it feels like I’m spending more time looking at my watch than the route. I have a lovely selection of race photos of head bent down checking watch and pace band.
Milton Keynes is predominantly flat but the course does have a couple of inclines and the one here is fairly significant as a little switchback up to the road level. I back off, using up the few seconds of grace but start to lose a few more runners, consoling myself with those that I pick up ahead and spur on. We pass clubmate Brian who despite great training is cramping up and reduced to a shuffle on this, his first marathon. Then comes Warren, back from injury and running well.
The final slope up the side of the college comes and I lose more runners. I resolve to keep on pace, a target they can follow and control their fade. I’ve spent countless marathons languishing in purgatory, fixing on a runner in front and trying to exclude all else. Hopefully they will be able to do this too. I may have lost my runners but I’ve kept my balloon. Moments later a tree takes a fancy to it and it’s gone.
The last two miles of the course are net downhill and potentially fast. I keep to pace, hoping some will make the most of the hill assist and close the gap. If they started behind me they could well still be on for a sub 3h45 time, enough to gain a Good For Age for London for the women. A few do pass and it’s great to see them in full flow on the home stretch, the culmination of months of training.
Finally we reach the stadium and the slope down before the lap of the pitch is such a magic moment you can’t help but pick up the pace a little and I cross in 3h44m34s.
It’s an odd feeling finishing a marathon within yourself and trotting off to collect your medal rather than finishing in a heap on the floor. I spent years failing to break 3h45 now it seems comfortable. A few runners thank me for getting them home, then it’s off to the bar to enjoy a beer or three.
Back at Redway for the 6m40s paced session. I’ve not been on pace all year but making gradual improvements. Thanks to the Rocket boost I have the confidence to push and make it hurt and get a course PB for the same 4 mile loop I’ve run 47 times before. The next day I run a hilly 9 mile loop for the 150th time and get another PB. All from confidence to push. If I cold bottle confidence I’d be a rich man.