As an adopted Mancunian, I probably shouldn’t say this but I bloody love Liverpool. It’s a genuinely great city and holds a fair few memories. For starters, I met my fiancée there all the way back in 2005, and we are due to marry there next year sometime. In running terms, it was of course the scene of my very first marathon back in 2011, as well as my fastest ever half last March. Both races finished in front of the mighty Liver Building with loads of people cheering us on and congratulating us after the finish, some of the best crowds I have ever experienced on a run. The organisers behind pretty much all the big runs over there, btrLiverpool, always put on decent events: well organised and often diverse and with quality medals to add to the ever-growing collection. I usually try to do at least one of their races a year, to the point now where I’ve done pretty much all of them at least once and I’m running out of new ones to try. So, I’ve started going round again and almost exactly three years after I entered my very first run over on Merseyside I decided it was time to have another bash at that very same event: The Mersey Tunnel 10k.
It all seems so long ago now. Back then, I was still finding my feet as a runner. Or, more pertinently, I was rediscovering them. After all, I’d not run in a race for nearly two years since the Great North Run in 2009, after instead joining a local football team for a weekly
kickabout thrashing in the mud. For some reason, I’d gone straight back in the deep end and signed up for a bloody marathon and, somewhat intimidated by the tunnel section at half distance, lobbed an entry into this one to get a bit of race practice in and see what it was all about. And despite the crappy weather that morning, it all went rather well. A real race with real people, finishing only a few seconds outside the magic 40-minute mark and a solid 90th place. I was back in the game.
Fast forward three years and it’s all gone a bit more, shall we say, obsessive. I’m now a double marathoner. I have a new half marathon PB. I’ve even managed to get under 40 minutes for a 10k and I thought that would never happen again. I’ve run a further five 10k races since then, and goodness knows how many more in training, to the point now where I no longer have a lot of fear of the distance and have basically done three of the last four as an excuse to go and visit somewhere and sweat all over it. And to think people say us runners are an odd bunch, eh
Needless to say, the “training” for the last couple of races has been somewhat light, to put it mildly. I’ve not actually had any sort of training plan in place since the marathon at the beginning of April, instead just mixing the odd Saturday parkrun in with the daily commute on the bike. The Sandgrounder 10k a couple of weeks before this one had proved to me that I could still do a 10k pretty well so I just chucked in a couple of bonus runs mid-week to make sure I didn’t end up a crippled mess in the aftermath and then that was that. An 11pm pint, pork pie and storm-delayed England match finishing well past my intended bedtime the night before and I was ready. Game on.
The morning itself was slightly more panicky than I would have liked as the coach driver cheerfully announced as we left Manchester that the M62 was closed and we’d be diverted round the houses on our route over to Liverpool. There was suddenly a very real chance that I’d miss the baggage buses and have to lug my rucksack round the course with me, or face the nightmare prospect of missing the start entirely (something I have form for in btrLiverpool races, admittedly). Usually, this would have been enough to send the nerves completely overboard but as I wasn’t taking this one entirely seriously I kept a lid on it pretty well, and in the end we still made it there in plenty of time, primed and ready for action in the early morning sunshine.
The new startline this year meant that the Liverpool side of the run was cut down to barely half a mile, and it’s safe to say that the scenery as we lined up wasn’t the greatest I’d ever seen. With some of the previous runs I’d done over there showing off some of the best of what Liverpool has to offer it was a bit of a shame, but necessary I guess to limit the road closures in that part of town and stuff. I lined up fairly near the front of the estimated 3,100 field and we were off, scurrying down the escape ramp onto the A59. Within less than half a kilometre the great cavernous tunnel entrance was looming in front of us as we slid under the River Mersey and for the third time in my life I was making the crossing by foot. On this uncomfortably warm morning, I was already glad to be in the shade.
It has its ups and downs, tunnel running. Quite literally, obviously, with the gradual (amazing) descent being all-too-quickly followed by the long ascent up the other side, which still goes on for a good third of a mile after bursting back out of the tunnel exit. Generally, it’s pretty great down there; no wind, rain or baking sun. You’re completely protected from all of the elements and it’s such an odd, eerie feeling as you trot along with only the pitter-patter of thousands of pairs of feet breaking up the gentle hum of the ventilation fans. The trouble is though, it’s bloody difficult to pace yourself properly. If you’re someone like me who relies pretty heavily on a device with GPS to tell you how fast you’re going, you’re buggered. Back in 2011 I went like an absolute lunatic on that downslope and paid for it shortly after, but it’s hard to do anything else really when you feel that good that early in the race and you’ve not got anyone telling you any differently.
With my Garmin giving me all sorts of nonsense thanks to the mile and a half spent underground, it wasn’t until we were back out in the open air and going over half distance before I could get an idea of how I was actually doing. I went past the 5k board a few seconds outside the magic 20 minute mark and of course THE TARGET began to flash across my mind. I felt pretty rinsed already due to the heat and that bloody slope, but I knew that if I could manage to put in a strong second half there was an outside chance it could happen. We threaded onto the promenade and all the uphill stuff was behind us. I gritted my teeth and decided to go for it.
On probably the warmest day I have ever raced on, the temptation was pretty strong to just stop at the water station and admire the view back across the river at one of my favourite skylines in the world. The contrast to the wind and rain of 2011 could not be more marked, and as with the last race in Southport, the lack of training was kicking in big time the longer we went on. I’d managed to claw back a few seconds over the fourth mile but then the fifth was just outside what I needed again and I knew that if my Garmin was telling me the truth then this one was going to go right down to the wire. The sixth mile was just inside and then as we ran out to Fort Perch Rock and in sight of the new finish line I glanced down and saw I had around thirty seconds left to cover the last hundred or so yards.
Unlike last time out, I had the big finish left. I remembered 2011 where I missed out by nine seconds and I knew I couldn’t let that happen again. It was within my grasp. I heard my name over the tannoy and the strong crowd along the finishing straight seemed to appreciate the extra effort, the cheers getting louder as I punched the air crossing the line. It was all over and when I checked my time I was chuffed to bits to see it read 39:51.
How, I’ll never know. Training was pretty much non-existent. I didn’t have a great deal of sleep. I was smashing the premium-strength IPA less than 10 hours before the race. And did I mention the heat? It was probably the hottest run I’ve ever done, but despite the extensive suffering over the last couple of miles I couldn’t believe it every time I glanced at my pace and saw it sitting below 6:27. My final training run (i.e. the second of two) was a practice 10k and was nearly a minute and a half over what I needed, so going into raceday I was pretty convinced it wasn’t going to happen. And yet somehow, it did. It just goes to show how much the adrenaline of actually racing with real people can give you that extra little boost.
So a decent morning all in all. According to the official results, 2,761 people completed the distance and somehow I had finished just outside the top 50, another extremely proud morning and a great way to sign off my spring racing season. Since the turn of the year, there’s always been something in the diary playing on my mind and although nothing came remotely close to taking over my entire life as the marathon did for the first three months of 2014, it’s still been the most competitive start to a new year in my living memory with nearly 750 miles covered by foot (almost as much as the whole of 2013) and three new medals to add to the collection.
Writing this now just over a month later, I have not run at all since that day on Merseyside and as with this time a year ago, I’ve rather enjoyed that. I’m fully back on two wheels again, loving the feeling of speed hammering along a country lane on a rebuilt 30-year old steel racer, sweating up hills and stopping off at country pubs en route. Glastonbury came and went, and I have no runs in the diary now until September with a pair of 10ks and the results of the London Marathon ballot. The calm before the storm you might say, and bloody brilliant it is too.