So that’s that then. Round #1 is now complete, the Greater Manchester Marathon is officially done and dusted. 26.2 out of 1000 miles for motor neurone disease are safely in the bag. We’re finally underway people, and we’ve hit our original fundraising total already with 973.8 miles still go. You are all ridiculously amazing, aren’t you?
What a day it was. The stresses of getting there with Manchester’s Metrolink trams stitching us up in their time-honoured manner and requiring a hasty change of plan, only to then get stuck in traffic as we drove up instead. Getting there and constantly feeling like I needed the loo. Wondering if I’d eaten enough to get me round as my belly was so full of butterflies I could barely stomach my usual pre-run porridge onslaught. The bumps and strains on the way round running in a large group for the first time. And the usual feelings of helplessness over the last few miles as the pace started to shoot up and I felt like I was never going to make it to the finish line. All of that is forgotten about now as I sit here basking in the knowledge that while I was plodding round the course we officially went over the £3,000 mark and hit a target we thought too optimistic little more than a month ago. Fan-bloody-tastic.
Despite there being one or two extra hurdles to get over there, to be honest I wasn’t nearly as on edge before the start as I was last time around. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the confidence in how well prepared I felt. Getting there slightly later helped too so I wasn’t aimlessly milling around for an hour with the smell of burger vans doing my fitful insides no good whatsoever and my tiny mind constantly going into overdrive. For the first time in any race ever I even did a gentle warmup to get the old muscles going on this chilly morning; a light jog down Chester road, quick stretch, jog back.
By the time I’d done all that there were only around 15 minutes left before the big kick off so I bade my farewells to my one lady support crew and after being papped by one of the official photographers I went to line up with 15,000 others and then just like that, a little after 9am after nearly eight long months of planning and preparation, we were off. For the third time in my life I was running a marathon.
Of the three I’ve now done I can comfortably say that the first half of this one was easily the best. It was an absolutely perfect morning for it: bright, clear and crisp. The stunning weather meant some big, big crowds along chunks of the route and I was also chuffed to bits to see people I knew at 1, 5, 7, 9, 13 and 13.5 miles as I wound my way round the course and it helped so much; a little spurt of excitement as you forget the sheer bloody mentalness of what it is you’re undertaking for a spilt second and feel a bit like a celebrity. A panting, sweaty celebrity in a tiny vest and short shorts, but a celebrity nonetheless. I felt pretty good, I was keeping a little ahead of the three hour pacer and doing my best to enjoy my day. I’d worked so hard to get here that it would have been a shame not to have drawn at least some semblance of enjoyment from it and although it may sound glib to admit that, being as it was that I was halfway through one of life’s great physical challenges, this was where all the blood, sweat and tears over the dark winter months was paying off. Why shouldn’t I be enjoying my morning in the sun?
The first sign of trouble though was around the half distance mark as we came into Altrincham. The Manchester Marathon may be the flattest in the UK but here is where you get the only real incline on the whole course, a gentle up and down as you loop into and around the town centre. I felt a bit leggy on the up bit and began to be swamped by the crowd of runners sticking with the three hour pacer and it all became rather stressy; clipped heels, clashed elbows. The water stations, previously calm oases, were suddenly dangerous minefields as people weaved across to grab drinks and energy gels, and as someone who runs very much as a lone wolf I felt cramped and claustrophobic. I struggled to keep a consistent pace and even though I managed to move back ahead of the group on the way back up to Brooklands I was eventually engulfed again and finally decided it would be best if I just dropped out the back a bit so that I could stick to my own pace.
Which was going rather well, I might add. I’d been keeping an eye on my splits knowing that if I kept it below 7:03 per mile I would bring it home in under 3:05:00 which would hopefully be enough to qualify for the London Marathon in 2017. Regular readers will know this has long been an ambition of mine since seeing my uncle and cousin doing it on TV when I was knee high to a grasshopper, and armed with several ballot rejections in a row since 2008 (plus two charity rejections) I’d had a pop at this “good for age” time back in 2014 only to lose a big chunk of time in the last few miles and finish in 3:07:30. As I mentioned in my pre-race blog, I’d trained harder for this than any other race to date with a new training plan and various other improvements in race kit, footwear, nutrition and whatnot, even giving up booze for a month in the run up to it. And here the results were pleasing as I approached the 20 mile mark well ahead of the original target and remarkably still on for a sub three, just clinging to the back of the pacing bus and feeling relatively strong. My average pace over the first three quarters of the race was nicely sitting at 6:51/6:52 which was almost exactly bang on for a three hour finish and my mind began to run away with me slightly, visualising the finish line clock still on 2:xx:xx as I staggered over it. Was this actually on?
No, to put it bluntly. Finally the effort began to tell and I started to slide away from the pacer as my splits crept up towards seven minutes per mile. The race was thinning out, the crowds were sparser. Round the country lanes on the way out of Sale before winding back into Urmston; beautiful to run along on such a stunning morning but bloody hard work when it’s the final quarter of a marathon and no bugger is there to cheer you on. I noticed a bit of a headwind for the first time as the remaining miles began to drop off and I started going over in my head how much running I had left to do to try and rationalise the effort still required and keep myself sane. Four miles remaining; less than half an hour to go. Three miles, a little over 21 minutes; two miles, just under a quarter of an hour. And suddenly just like that I was hammering past Stretford Mall and into the last mile. It was time to bring it all home.
The final stretch was horrible for so many reasons, both physically and mentally. I could see the finish line but in its new location it was such a long, straight drag up there it seemed to take an absolute age to actually get to it. I glanced down at my Garmin and saw the time tick over three hours, with the finish line in sight, and even though I had prepared myself over the last 45 minutes or so for missing out I suddenly felt a twinge of genuine sadness about how close I’d actually come. The carrot was dangling tantalisingly in the distance and I thought I’d missed out by mere seconds on something really special.
Then the reality hit home. Why wasn’t the bloody finish line getting any closer? The clock went over 3:01, then 3:02. My crazy, tired, pessimistic mind suddenly began to wonder if I’d even hit the magic 3:05. I flashed past a couple of members of my supporting team, acknowledging them with a sweaty grimace before looking back ahead of me and realising how close I finally was to the finish line. I felt a rich, glowing pride wash over me: this was actually going to happen. This crazy challenge I’d set myself all the way back in November 2013 was about to come to fruition. I could walk to the line and still hit the target. It was in the bag.
I duly crossed the finish line of the Greater Manchester Marathon just under three minutes into the afternoon of Sunday 10th April 2016 and that was that. I no longer had anywhere to run. If I’m being totally honest I don’t adequately remember the next few minutes properly, sort of stumbing around full of weird emotion, absolutely delighted with what I had achieved and yet feeling like I was close to bursting into tears in front of hundreds of people. I grabbed my (massive) medal and a my free pint and stood still trying to comprehend what had just happened.
It had been a morning of amazing success. Around £200-300 of sponsorship monies flooded in before, during and after the event as supporters followed my progress via social media updates from those on the course or live tracking my blue dot trotting round a map on the internet. And so within a couple of months of setting up the JustGiving page we’ve already raised enough to buy the Motor Neurone Disease Association a lightwriter, the original target smashed to pieces. A target we’d set as something tangible to aim for; a physical piece of hardware that will give someone diagnosed with MND the ability to communicate with their loved ones. A physical piece of hardware that sadly due to the immense demand Neil Scott never managed to get hold of.
As a personal aside I was happy with my time and hopefully that will be enough to finally realise a life’s ambition and be able to run round the streets of London town this time next year. If they reduce the good for age time again to under three hours I’ll cry obviously (my previous 3:07 would have been good enough two years ago before they reduced it to 3:05), but for now I’ll just park those pessimistic thoughts and revel in what was achieved on the streets of Trafford last Sunday morning. My third marathon and probably my best by some distance. Great weather, great support, a great medal. A bloody ridiculously great start to the year of fundraising. And now we all look forward to the next challenge on the list as Jonny will be kicking off his own 2016 with the Stockton Duathlon next weekend. I pass the baton over to you, good sir.