Warning – this post is a bit longer than usual!
Last Saturday was a strange and exciting day. After entering the Greater Manchester Marathon six months ago, then going through 16 weeks of training it was almost impossible to believe the race was now only ‘one sleep’ away, and that the next day I’d actually be attempting to run 26.2 miles for the first time. My longest training run had been 20 miles, so I just kept telling myself “It’s only another 10K more”! I’d done the hard work, eaten well, abstained from alcohol for a fortnight, had a sports massage and been consuming two litres of water a day for a week. Now I just had to trust that everything would come together as it should – in theory!
As this was my first marathon I’d decided to treat myself to the luxury of staying over in Manchester the night before so I wouldn’t have to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning. Steve came with me and we booked into the Premier Inn, Salford Quays. I can highly recommend this by the way, very quiet location and comfortable rooms. I was actually born in Salford but hadn’t been back for many years as I no longer have family there, so it was interesting to see how it had changed, especially around the waterside – mainly lots of shops and restaurants. Yes, I am a rare beast – a Manchester United fan born only a short distance from Old Trafford, where the marathon starts and finishes! We had dinner in the nearby Bella Italia, very handy for pre-race pasta munching. It was quite good fun playing ‘spot the runner’ – they were obviously the ones eating lots but not drinking!
There didn’t seem much point having a super-early night as I was too excited/nervous, so I laid out my kit and watched a bit of telly until about 11 pm, then actually managed to get off to sleep quite easily. However, I woke at about 3 am and don’t think I really slept properly after that, just dozed fitfully – but that seems to be how it is for most people on Marathon Eve! Apparently it doesn’t affect your performance though. When the alarm went off I made my instant porridge pot and looked out onto a grey morning as I ate it. It was forecast to start raining at around noon; Steve quipped that as long as I ran sub-3 hours I’d be fine. Ha ha! I went through all my preparations and we left the hotel for the ten minute walk to the start, which was a nice warm-up for the legs. It was quite cold though, so I’d opted for t-shirt and capris rather than vest and shorts.
I didn’t visit the race village, so can’t comment on the facilities there, but the starting area certainly seemed quite a chilled affair. Unlike the Great North Run, where you’re basically penned in like animals for ages, there were no real barriers, so runners stood around with people seeing them off until just before the gun. The legendary Ron Hill made a short speech (I think maybe he’d been warned about going on for too long as he apparently did last year!), followed by Steve Kenyon. Then we had a 26 second silence followed by a 26 second applause in honour of the people of Boston. To be honest I didn’t see that much evidence of people wearing ‘Boston’ stuff. I had a blue and yellow Boston Athletic Association ribbon, but I only saw a couple of other people wearing them, which surprised me.
We got underway right on time. I wish I’d fired up my Garmin a bit sooner actually, as it took quite a while to lock onto the satellites – maybe because there were so many others doing the same? Anyway, it meant I had to hang back from the start line until it got going, which was annoying as I’d joined the four hour pace team and could see the pacemaker disappearing into the distance! I decided it would be silly to try to catch him up, so would just have to do my own thing. Luckily I’d also put on a Pacetat so could see what my split times should be. Obviously there was quite a bit of crowding and jostling for the first mile or so, but it was soon fairly easy to settle into a comfortable pace. The course loops out and back towards Old Trafford for the first four miles, which is great for spectators as they get a few chances to take some action shots without having to go very far. Steve was keen to test the sports function on the new camera he’d bought a couple of weeks previously!
The route heads out through Stretford and Sale towards Altrincham. Manchester is famed for being the flattest marathon in the UK, but there are still some inclines, with a bit of a climb towards and around Altrincham, but nothing too troublesome. The support on most parts of the course was amazing; loads of people out on the road clapping, cheering and shouting people’s names. I’d been a bit apprehensive about running such a long distance without music, but needn’t have been, as this crowd gave just as much of a lift as any running tunes! In fact if I’d been wearing headphones I might not have heard people encouraging me by name as I ran past them. A few of the best supporter memories: a row of old people outside their care home clapping, wrapped up in blankets and sitting in wheelchairs; a choir of primary school children singing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ as I passed; a lovely old lady standing at her garden gate surrounded by Union Jacks shouting “Do it for me!”; and so many more. It makes such a huge difference when you have support like that, and the people of Manchester certainly did us proud. I even high-fived a little boy in a Manchester City shirt, so I must have been in a good mood!
Facilities along the course were great too. There were loads of stations handing out Iconiq water in a very handy plastic pouch; easier to carry than a bottle and I guess less wasteful too. Energy products were supplied by Clif, with a couple of stations offering Clif Shotbloks, a couple more with Isoconiq isotonic drink and one near the end with much-needed Clif Shot gels. I’d tested these in training and found them good, but you do need to drink water with them. I still haven’t mastered the art of taking a gel with water on the hoof, so had to stop to open and knock back the shotblok/gel and then jog on whilst drinking the water; this does take up valuable seconds, so I need to get to grips with that really!
I seemed to be going pretty well, having heeded the advice given to me by many people of not setting off too fast. I was aiming to stick to 9:09 minute miles (on course for four hours) for the first half, then see how things went. The time seemed to pass by much quicker than I’d thought it would. At about 18 miles I wondered whether I would hit the wall, but nothing happened. I was about 30 seconds adrift of target time, but then put in my fastest mile split times at 18, 19 and 20 miles. I remember someone shouting out to me “Come on Angela, looking strong”, which really spurred me on – thank you, whoever you were! There was a weird point at about 20/21 miles when we were running along a road that went through nowhere; there was no crowd support and everyone had stopped talking, so an eerie silence descended. Then we turned back into civilisation and I really started to believe I could break four hours, which I’d never imagined possible. I heard a spectator shout ” Come on, only 7K to go from here” and thought “Yes – keep doing this now then give it everything in the last mile”. And then… craaamp!!
It was just a slight twinge in my calf to start with. I thought maybe if I made an effort to strike with my heel it would stretch the muscle a bit and it would go away. But it gradually got worse. Pain is temporary, quitting is forever they say. But with cramp there comes a point at which you simply can’t move any more. Eventually the spasms forced me to stop, stretch and rub. I ran on a bit, trying to get back up to speed and it happened again. Unfortunately this became the pattern for my last couple of miles; run about a quarter of a mile til I couldn’t go on, stop, stretch and carry on. My four hour target was well and truly gone; I stopped looking at the Garmin and just jogged on as best I could. I was so annoyed because otherwise I felt great, not out of breath or energy and my legs felt good, just crocked by something I couldn’t control! At one point a nice first aid official kindly asked if she could massage my calves, but I didn’t want to lose any more time than I had to. At another stop a lovely lady spectator was so sweet to me I thought I might start crying. “You’ll be OK” she said, “It’s not far now and it’s all downhill. Just take it easy and you’ll be fine.” I’ve no idea who she is, but I love her! When I saw Old Trafford looming in the distance I knew I’d get there, however slowly. Suddenly I turned a corner and there was the finishing line – closer than I thought! I managed to pick up the pace slightly and found myself welling up a bit. I was looking out for Steve, as I knew he’d be around somewhere – then spotted him standing on a wall, waving, camera in hand! I waved back and suddenly felt really happy despite the cramp and the missed deadline. I crossed the line arms in the air and smiling – I was finally a marathoner! It was a fantastic feeling that you can obviously only experience once in a lifetime.
So what were the scores on the doors? Well, my Garmin timed it at 4:08. Steve says he looked at the official clock as I crossed the line and it said 4:11, which seems right for the gun time. However, my official time is posted at 4:13. I know a lot of people are taking issue with the times they were given yesterday – some seem to be out by up to two hours! The organisers are still trying to sort it all out. I noticed when looking at my split times that it says I crossed the line and then didn’t move for four and a half minutes; so my guess is that while I was waiting for my Garmin to fire up I got too close to the start line and it detected my timing chip – that would account for the extra minutes. Whatever the time, I’m just happy to have finished and lost my marathon virginity!
*Stop Press: my official time was later confirmed at 4:07:16*
In the finishing area were bananas, Clif energy bars, water and very generously-sized foil blankets. If you like a bit of race day bling, the Manchester Marathon is definitely for you – it’s the biggest, heaviest medal I’ve ever had! The t-shirt is fab too, a technical Brooks tee that actually fits. Some people were moaning that there wasn’t much in the goody bag (just some shampoo and toothpaste samples) but personally I’d rather have generous on-course refreshment, a great medal and a quality t-shirt than a load of old rubbish with no real purpose. Top marks all round! I’d say Manchester would be a great marathon for an experienced runner to get a PB as it’s so flat.
We didn’t hang about at the finish for long but drove straight home, and after a bath I put on my 2XU calf sleeves and felt much better. “Why didn’t you wear them for the race?” you might ask. Good question. I had tried them in training, but they rubbed my ankles on long runs so I didn’t wear them on race day. Today I feel surprisingly OK. My quads and calves are stiff, but I’ve no pain in my hips, knees or ankles and only a tiny blister on my left foot. I think the core training I did in the first half of my marathon programme really helped me to become stronger and therefore run better – I would really recommend strength training to anyone undertaking a marathon programme.
So, my mission before the Yorkshire Marathon is to learn how to refuel without stopping and find out how to minimise the chances of getting cramp again. If anyone has any advice to share I’d love to hear it. Roll on October, it’s going to be epic! Oh, and I entered the London Marathon ballot this morning…