In which I describe my attempt to run my first marathon, in Manchester.
I’m up early. The hotel restaurant has a special early breakfast for runners. It appears to be their usual breakfast, only earlier. I eat a lot of cereal and fruit, and for some reason decide that bacon and sausages would also go down well.
The race village and start/finish are at Old Trafford. The journey to the start line is uneventful, the tram packed with other runners who all look more prepared than me, with better gear, in better shape. Most are quiet, in their own thoughts – a few joke nervously. Outside Old Trafford cricket ground we pass groups of large, tough looking men with shopping bags full of beer – surely they’re not queuing for the cricket? It dawns on me – United fans getting ready for the trip to London to watch the Arsenal game.
The preparation area is crowded. The bag storage is run by an efficient group of army cadets, but the changing area is cramped. Again, my gear looks worse than anyone’s, but at least I’ve tracked down some safety pins to hold my race number on. Long queues for toilets. No reason to hang around, I head for the start.
We’re lined up according to our predicted finish times. There are pace markers, people running a set pace while holding a sign showing what pace they are running. It’s crowded, but not overly so. Friends taking photos. The announcer alternating between jokes and words of encouragement. A 26 second silence to remember the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by 26 seconds of applause. Ever since Princess Diana’s death it seems as though applause is the way we remember people. It makes sense at a football game – a minute’s silence can be ruined by a few drunk or obnoxious fans chanting – but that wouldn’t be an issue today. I still find it odd.
And then after waiting what seems like forever, the gun goes. And then more waiting – I’m so far back that it takes me several minutes to even reach the start line. The first few minutes are mostly jostling for position, trying to get into a rhythm on the crowded roads. And the cliches are true – a huge number of runners head for the toilets as soon as the race starts, apparently out of nerves.
The first few miles take a lot of concentration, as there’s a lot of people trying to run at different speeds, trying to find their comfortable pace and position on the course. A lot of overtaking, and I’m trying to be careful not to move into one runner’s way while giving another runner room.
Even with my headphones on, the support is impressive. A lot of people on the course, even though it isn’t a particularly residential area. A lot of banners as well – “run, bitches!”; “my mascara runs faster than you”; “only 23 miles to go”; “you’re burning enough calories for 14 pints” [though I wonder if that one was viral advertising, as they mentioned a particular brand....].
A few miles in and things get easier. I’ve found my rhythm and feeling good. The race starts to thin out, slightly. I’m sitting in a comfortable position, about 200 metres behind the 4:00 pace sign. It’s still crowded, but manageable. Up until the halfway point or so, this is how the race goes. Steady running, with the same people around me. I’m mostly paying attention to myself and the music I’m listening to.
Around 11 miles in I pass my support crew (OK, Rhonda), and again when we turn round just after 13 miles. I stop for a photo. I’ve gone through the halfway mark in a fraction over 2 hours, and I’m feeling OK.
I cruise through the next few miles, but then my problems start. I need to use the toilet, but there’s a long queue – after waiting a few minutes I give up. I up my pace to get back to my target time. A few miles later there’s another toilet which again requires a two minute wait and again I raise my pace. The inspirational music of Arnocorps comes through my headphones and again I speed up. This was a mistake – I suddenly feel a sharp pain in the back of my knee, where I’ve never injured myself before.
I stop and stretch for a while. A fellow runner who’d stopped earlier comes over to me and commiserates, suggesting that the flatness and lack of variation of the course is causing us problems. I text Rhonda to tell her I might be late finishing. I try jogging a couple of times but soon have to stop, so I walk a couple of miles. At this point I’m obviously being passed by a lot of people. But after those miles, I’m able to alternate walking and jogging without too much pain.
The support is great by this point. Lots of people cheering, calling out our names. Young children holding out their palms for us to slap as we pass them, or offering us trays of sweets for energy. I’m amused by the spectator who shouted ‘looking good Emma, looking good Claire…..come on Simon!” (clearly I wasn’t looking good at all….).
For much of this time we’re on fairly quiet country roads, but we reach the city again for the last few miles. I can see the Old Trafford stands ahead of me, but they don’t seem to be getting any closer. After what feels like basically forever I reach the final few metres, the Bishop’s Blaize pub (where the hardcore United fans come up with chants before games); United legend Lou Macari’s fish and chip shop, and then turning the corner into the final stretch, which I stagger down (somewhat annoyed at the people who are sprinting past me to the finish, notably the women running hand-in-hand. Show-offs).
But I made it. Not quite in my target time (4:15) but not far off (4:22). And I was surprisingly OK afterwards. My knees felt terrible when walking up or down stairs, as usual after I run long distances, but I made it…for a few hours afterwards I was vowing never to do it again, but within a day or two I was thinking about a training programme to run a sub-4:00 marathon. We shall see.