Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Point of No Return: This Is My 2013 Moment

Ladies and Gentlemen o’t’Internet: Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye!!!
…this, you’ll be delighted to know, will be my last pre-Greater Manchester Marathon post!!! By extension, hopefully, my last post as a marathon virgin… as a non-maratoneta…

I hope to return from Lancashire with a happy post but I wouldn’t bank on it:
1) firstly, post-marathon blues is a recognised condition: you work towards a major goal, you have your target to get you out of bed on those dark, cold and windy mornings… and suddenly it’s gone. It’s the same as with major projects in any other field of life. From a running perspective, suddenly you’ve nothing to work for or towards. I may be naïve, but I’m not overly concerned about this – not least because two weeks on Sunday I’ll be back Up North, running the Sheffield Half
2) secondly, I have no idea as to how Sunday will go. In my mind I have three times (more on those later): here’s hoping I make one of them…
3) last but never least, I’m a mardy bum. By nature. It’s my default setting.

Right – as a starter, let me try and offer a brief answer to the question I’ve been asked many a time this week:
“How are you feeling?”

My answer has been fairly consistent:
“Nervous as an adult, excited as a kid”

Bizarrely, the concept of what we know as kids and forget by growing up is examined in great philosophical detail in the book I’m currently reading, Mark Rowland’s
“Running With The Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality”. It’s a great read, although a challenging one – just about right to set me up for a 26.2mi slog, I guess. But I’d come up with my answer before I began reading it. Because I am nervous: I’m nervous about the logistics, about the practicalities leading up to the race going smoothly, about sleeping well the night before… that’s why I’m packing a mixture of muesli and granola cereal in an old Nesquik tub and taking it Up North with me, together with some bread, bananas and a jar of peanut butter, just in case they run out at what is set to be a runner-filled, carb-hungry Premier Inn Old Trafford. Someone from the hotel rang me today, incidentally, to advise me that the Manchester Marathon’s taking place on Sunday and it will entail road closures… excellent service, just not that relevant to me. And not because I don’t drive.

So yes, I’m nervous. The adult in me knows how much I’ve invested in getting this right, how much can go wrong before and during the race, and is inevitably aware of, but not daunted by, those possibilities. The adult in me has drawn up a 30-row spreadsheet with all the key timings for the weekend – and I don’t mean pace or race times, rather wake-up times, bus times, train times, meal times and… pub times! As for the kid in me…

Hey, he just wants to get out there and run!

On the whole, I know once I cross that line I’ll be fine. Which is not to say all will be perfect, or will have been up to that point. It just means that, once the curtains are opened, once you walk on stage, you just need to do the best you can. There’s no point in worrying at that stage. Beforehand, yes: to reduce the risk of things not going according to plan. Afterwards, yes: to learn lessons for the future. But during? During you just need to give it your best shot.

As for those three times to which I hinted earlier…

…let’s first take a quick glance at p. 42 of Phil Hewitt’s “Keep On Running: The Highs And Lows of a Marathon Addict”, one of the early sections of his book in which he quotes advice from Pamela, a surname-less runner from Macmillan’s Cancer Charity Team (for whom Phil ran his first marathon) who guided him through that and set him on his way to become an expert in his own right/write:
“[…] Pamela was wonderfully wise. She was at great pains to point out to me the dangers of fixating on a particular time. Her theory was that you need to have three times in mind: one you would be overjoyed with, one you would be happy with and one that you would consider adequate. In reality, an experienced marathon runner will probably take a more zonal approach, with the range of emotions -over the moon at one end and severely hacked off at the other- shading one into the next over a spectrum”.
Well, I’m no experienced marathon runner, so we can do without the zonal approach and take a more time-marking one (scusa Arrigo).

From the moment I signed up for Manchester, I made it quite clear that I’d be delighted with a sub-4hr finish. And let me make it most and unequivocally clear that I would still be delighted with a sub-4hr finish!!! But…

…yes, there is a ‘but’. I signed up for Manchester 205 days ago. Since then, I’ve run 1,541 miles, clocked a 1h35’54” half, run 16.2mi in 2h05’ and embarked on seven 20mi+ training runs between February 12 and April 7. So, much as I’d still be delighted to join The Sub-4hr Marathon Club at my first attempt, that has become my ‘adequate’ time. Which means that:

my ‘adequate’ time is 3h59’59”

my ‘happy’ time is 3h44’59”;

my ‘overjoyed’ time is 3h29’59”

Let me just sit back and take that in. Whilst they are numbers I’ve had in my mind for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually stared at them on a screen..! Eeh bah gum…

OK: let me put some disclaimers in place before going any further.

I am under no illusion as to how tough it is to clock 3h30’. OK, so three weeks before Manchester I ran a 3h13’ 23.2-miler at 8’20”, setting off at 5:52am with no crowd for company. Does it follow that the crowd, the adrenaline and a more awake body will help me shave off 20 seconds/mile and add three more miles to my run?

No, it blinkin’ well doesn’t!

What does follow is that I feel entitled to give it a go. I feel entitled to join a 3h30’ Brooks Pace Team in the hope that I will find it easier to hit 8’/mi mile after mile after mile, the way I did for 16 miles last week when I averaged 7’46”/mi without ever going into 8’/mi territory. The company will help, might even reduce the impact of “race traffic”. Mind you, even that’s a cause for concern in so much that I thought I’d updated my Pace Team preference from 3h45’ to 3h30’ yet that’s not reflected in what I’ve been sent, so now I’m concerned about being able to reach a 3h30’ team from my starting zone B…
...anyway, just as I feel entitled to give 3h30’ a shot, I feel unquestionably entitled to drop off that pace if… if…

…well, if I blinking well want to! No excuses / explanations required!!!

I am aware that my goal is extremely ambitious. It’s ambitious for most runners, let alone a marathon virgin like me. But, as I’ve said before, I’d rather drop off that pace than reach the finishing line knowing I had more to give. If I slow down, so be it: better that than find I can accelerate but not sufficiently or over a sufficient length of time. Better to aim for a higher star and fall onto a lower one if I miss it than aim too low and find myself falling all the way back to earth if I don’t reach it. And, Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s an expression that came to mind when I was out running earlier in the week: it is my gift to you and I hope you like it.

Besides… OK, so I ran 16mi in 2h05’ last week. Whoopi-do for me!!! Ra ra ra!!! G-O-S, G-O-S, G-O-S!!!
Bullocks. Means nothing unless I can repeat that come Sunday. So let’s try to reach mile 16 in 2h08’, given that the pace team will run at 8’/mi but go by mile markers rather than Garmins, meaning it’s how much of the route, rather than how much I’ve run by dodging other runners, that will matter. And then?

Then, my friends, we’ll see. I’ll be 10.2mi from the finish line. If I can cover that distance in 1h22’, I’ll be absolutely ecstatic. But you know what? It could take me 1h37’ (9’30”/mi) and I’d still clock a highly satisfying 3h45’. For that matter, it could take me 1h52’ (11’/mi) and I would still hit my initial goal and join The Sub-4hr Club. But let me make another thing categorically clear:

I am not taking those first sixteen miles for granted! Nooo Sirrreee!!!

What’s in the past is there forever: dirt under the soles of my shoes that’s long gone. I might have picked it up in France, in Italy, in the USA, in Sweden, in Germany, back here in the UK – but it’s gone. Looks good on Strava but that’s about it. There is a lot that can go wrong on Sunday, from overnight rest to breakfast, from race traffic to injuries, from epileptic seizures (hey, let’s not discard that little possibility) to…

To just not being in the zone. I have proven to myself that I can run at 7’46”/mi over a decent distance in the past, just as I ran a Half Marathon at
7’15”/mi pace: but that counts fer nowt nah. It’s all about Sunday. It has been for 205 days, but never as much as now. And, for all those long runs, I’ve never run 26.2mi. Neither my body nor my mind know what’s going to hit them in those final three miles. I feel I’ve prepared well, but no rehearsal can prepare you for the real live performance.

Whatever the challenge, there are always balances to be struck. Cometh Sunday, here’s one that will be critical to my performance:
a) On the one hand, I need to be realistic. I need to respect the marathon the way I respect ‘even’ a 10k. Yes, folk will tell you that, if you train adequately, ‘anyone’ can run a marathon. But folk say lots of stuff: some even reckon man set foot on the moon. Personally, I believe I can get round the 26.2mi but I know I mustn’t get too cocky when it comes to pace. Lest we forget: the first fella to ever run a marathon, good old Pheidippides, died virtually upon arrival!
b) On the other hand, I need to push myself. I need to believe the likes of Martin Bown (ever the flatterer, as per my last post) when he tweets me:’re a great runner, with the potential to be exceptional.

It’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness. It’s a fine line between having faith in your own ability and taking success for granted. Swagger can be good; arrogance rarely is. It’s a balance every performer has to find when they set out on stage, carrying with them their nerves and fears whilst conscious that there are people waiting for them who have parted with time and money to be there. And we’re all performers at the end of the day, whether our stage is Wembley Stadium, guitar or goalkeeping gloves in hand, whether it’s the local school or whether it’s the dirty streets of Manchester, filled up or lined up by enthusiastic locals. When I step over that line on Sunday morning, around 9am, I will be putting on a performance: for the locals but also for those who’ve sponsored me, all the well-wishers, all the relatives whom I want to make proud…
…for those whom I’ll be carrying in my heart: those who, no doubt, will carry me through the hardest moments, just as they’ve done ever since I first laced up the Asics…
…and, last but by no means least, for myself. I’m not that generous that I’m only doing all this for other folk. This matters to me.

To surmise these thoughts and emotions, let me turn once again to the words of Bruce Springsteen:

“You've got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind without going nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. I've also got to feel like, well, it's only rock and roll. Somehow you've got to believe both of those things”.

And that’s exactly what I need to do on Sunday when I cross that starting line shortly after 9am. For the following four, five, whatever hours, the 2013 Greater Manchester Marathon will be the most important thing in the world – in my world. But, ultimately, hey, it’s just a run. Just another run. One for which fortunately I am in the shape of my life, the form of my life. ‘Fortunately’, but also because I’ve put in the effort, the miles, and I know that. I’m ready, Manchester… yes I had bacon with my egg-fried rice tonight, yes there’ll be bacon in tomorrow’s carbonara sauce (unless I cast mine aside), yes I feel guilty about that but, nonetheless, I’m ready

…quite helpfully, the legs feel ready. I’ve been tapering over the past few days and it’s been really good to feel in control, to run around or just under 8’/mi without it feeling as if any major effort was being expended. Certainly nowhere near as much effort as that milestone 5k I ran last May – you know, the one that took me 34’..!
It’s also been interesting to run in a bit of sunshine, around lunchtime. It still doesn’t bring back memories of my best-of-five set singles matches against Mauro between noon and 2pm in Italy in July 1992 but hey, that’s no bad thing. Manchester’s not set to be scorching on Sunday: forecast at time of writing is for a dry day with a maximum temperature of 8C: I’ll take that! But hey, if that changes so be it. There are thirteen water stations, after all.

Legs ready, mind ready: focused, confident yet not stressed (give or take a few moments) or cocky. So thanks, one and all, for keeping me company along this ride from buying a pair of running shoes to heading towards my first marathon. It’s hard to put into words just how much it’s exceeded my initial expectations, when I first crossed The Point Of No Return and felt that it was My Moment. That was a year ago, when I bought those Asics and took them out for a 20’ run/walk. On Sunday, April 28, 2013, when I cross that starting line and my chip beeps, I will pass a second “point of no return”; on Sunday, when I cross that finishing line and my chip beeps again, I can but hope it will be “my moment”. Just a different point and a different moment to April 2012.

At some point on Sunday, I will cross that finishing line, too. And that will be the moment when, regardless of the time, I will become a maratoneta. Lovely word, ‘maratoneta’: a single word, ten letters to say “marathon runner”. To say: You put in the effort, you mix that with whatever talent you’ve been given, and you crossed that line. To say: You pulled off what was written on the back of the Brighton Marathon 2012 shirt, as per Martin Bown’s photo:

One final quote from Mr Bown: here’s hoping he got this one right, an’all:

Thanks again for your support over this year. Thanks for every tweet, every text, every comment, every answer, every pound donated… it’s been onehelluvaride. Now pack your bag: we’re going to Manchester!

Oh yes, you’re coming too! In my heart. It doesn’t mean you can claim to have run a marathon if I pull it off, but it does mean I’ll be thinking about you when I cross that finish line, #handsoverhearts. But now, so-called ‘Greater’ Manchester, this fat lad from Sheffield’s coming to getcha. I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd. Give me my armour, my polyester short-sleeve shirt. And my White Rose. I’m on my way...
…running, stumbling On My Way.

We made a promise we swore we’d always remember… no retreat, baby, NO SURRENDER!

For my Brothers, always

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