Purple October

So here we are, approaching the end of 2018 and as I get stuck into my final challenge of the year (more on that later) I thought first it would be good to reflect back on a little spell a couple of months ago which I’ve not had the time to really get round to writing up properly yet, including the third running of one of my favourite events at the Manchester Half Marathon.

I’ve already told the story of the part one and the surprisingly quick Standalone 10k but as I’ve mentioned a few times now, that was supposed to have been just the warmup to the main event in Manchester. In the end though, that practice 10k became part of the story as a whole as I hit a real purple patch of running over three consecutive weekends leading up to my 37th birthday and lowered my PB at three different distances: 10k, half marathon and then 5k. I’m not over the hill yet lads.

The Manchester Half Marathon was the centrepiece however and this year’s was extra special, not just for how it all panned out from a personal point of view, but because for the first time since its inauguration in 2016 I was running with people I knew, two of them making their half marathon debuts. My amazing wife somehow lined up to race despite still feeling the after effects of the weird virus that had already caused her to pull out of Standalone the week before, which had also knackered the final part of her training for this as she could barely get out of bed without feeling sick and dizzy, let alone run. Her curtailed training meant that the Manchester Half Marathon would be over three miles longer than she had ever run in her entire life so it promised to be a big challenge to get round, especially as the weather forecast grew more and more apocalyptic the closer we got to raceday. Also running with us would be Adam, glad to be running half the distance here after his heroic performance at The Hottest London Marathon On Record™ earlier this year, and his wife Nicola who would be joining Jenn in attempting the 13.1 mile distance for the first ever time.

As we’d all signed up earlier in the year I’d praised this race as one of my favourite ever, mostly off the back of last year’s beautiful autumnal affair under warm, blue skies with the leaves on the trees showing the full spectrum of colours as we raced through the Greater Manchester suburbs. Unfortunately it seems that this race – with its mid-October slot – is very much a race of extremes and the 2018 edition sadly proved to be almost a carbon-copy of the 2016 deluge. The rain began to gently fall in the hour or so leading up to KO and then gradually built to a crescendo, probably hitting its absolute peak for the final few miles of Jenn, Adam and Nicola’s races. Thanks as always, Manchester. You never let us down.

Thankfully from my point of view, the weather was the only real bit of bad luck this year as there was no repeat of the last year’s car, tram and vomit drama before the start, although a mildly stressy few minutes were spent trapped in the wrong starting pen along with several others with no way of getting forward until the organisers managed to arrange a small passage for us all to squeeze through. Normally I wouldn’t have minded too much where I was starting from but aiming for a PB and packed uncomfortably tightly in the “B” pen when I would be going for a time probably a good fifteen minutes or so quicker than those around me, I started to get a bit anxious and was majorly relieved to get through to the “A” pen eventually. I lined up in my customary half marathon position just ahead of the 1:30 pacer and after a short delay we were off. It was time to see what I was still capable of.

I knew before we started that keeping it under 6:43 per mile would be enough to beat my previous PB but the first couple of miles were well, well inside that and I kept trying to hold myself back so that I wouldn’t melt in the later stages. The ever-so-minor descent though, coupled with the excitement of seeing my friends in their usual spectator spot, meant that they actually came in only a handful of seconds outside my 10k pace which was absolutely bloody ridiculous. My mind kept drifting back to my last blog where I’d calculated a 1:24 half might actually be possible and I kept wondering if I should go for it or not. The opportunity seemed to be there and maybe I’ll try and aim for that one day but I couldn’t risk it on this occasion in case it went tits up and I crumbled completely, wasting months of training for the time I was actually aiming for.

We swung back out onto the A56 with the first quarter of the race in the bag and I could hear the tannoy announcing the waves of those still to start. I couldn’t hear which specific wave it was at that point but with Jenn starting in what I think was the final one I knew at the very least she would still be waiting to get going, stood in the cold and rain just wanting to get the bloody thing underway. I felt incredibly sad for a moment and just wanted to jump over the barrier to try and find her to offer a hug and a mug of tea.

I didn’t have too long to dwell on it though as us early birds were motoring along, off on the long schlep down to Sale. I was feeling pretty strong as the miles were dropping off one by one, all well within my target. I hadn’t seen much sense in pushing any harder in those early stages but as we got further and further into the race I began to wonder if I could actually have done a little bit more. Had I played it too safe here? I knew from races in the past how much time you can suddenly lose when the wheels come off completely, but as with the previous weekend at Standalone the stamina seemed to be there and I was quite merrily chugging along, feeling like I was almost holding myself back at times. There was almost a sting in the tail at mile 10 as my knee problem from a couple of weeks before flared up out of nowhere and for a couple of minutes I began mentally preparing to have to pull out, the PB dream dying in the final 5k of a journey of a few months and several hundred miles. But then just as quickly as it had reared its head, it disappeared completely, I never felt it again and I was right back on track. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: the human body can be bloody weird sometimes.

Disaster averted, the PB was back on. I knew by now that I had enough in the bank to get the job done, so long as I didn’t fall on my arse or have the knee flare up again. This was my fourth time finishing up this loooooooooooooong home straight – if you include the 2016 marathon – and this one was the strongest I’d felt by a long way as I cranked up the pace, picking people off ahead of me one by one. I saw the clock approaching 1:27 and I gave it absolutely everything, remembering that God damned 1:28:00 at Liverpool 2013. And then…it was all over.

When I set myself this challenge earlier in the year I said I’d be a chuffed to beat that previous best by a just one single second. It was all I was aiming for. It has always nagged at me that I could have got into the 1:27s had I just pushed that tiny bit harder, but to be honest I didn’t know if now, with the big 4-0 beginning to loom ominously on the horizon, I was actually capable of getting anywhere near it. I just kinda thought, let’s go for it and see what happens. It gives me an excuse to do some proper training for once. I didn’t realistically think I’d be able to actually do it. So you can imagine how I felt when I first glanced at my Garmin to check my time and realised that I’d not only beat it, but actually smashed it into bloody smithereens to set a brand new PB of 1:26:51. For the second weekend in a row I had run the absolute race of my life.

I didn’t have much time to reflect on things though as I needed to get changed and head down to see the others finish. The weather had taken a serious nosedive and the usually-refreshing free pint at the end didn’t really hit the spot as I stood there just longing for a cup of tea to wrap my cold, numb hands around. I had a great time stood on the side of the road cheering people on though and it was 100% worth it first seeing Nicola and Adam finish together, and then Jenn shortly after.

I can’t put into words quite how proud I felt when I picked her out amongst the crowd with a couple of hundred yards left to run, looking a bit broken but not beaten. For once she didn’t have her usual big grin as she went past but considering the weather, considering she was three miles further than she’d ever run before, considering she couldn’t even get out of bed a week ago without feeling like being sick and considering she’d hardly run at all for a fortnight, I think this was more than understandable. But she had done it; an absolutely astonishing achievement. A victory against all adversity and over £500 raised for the Alzheimer’s Society.

It was time for us all to find solace in a warm, dry pub and celebrate a historic morning with each and every one of us doing ourselves proud. Adam also hit a PB which was pretty remarkable as he’d not had a chance to get much training in, and then of course Nicola and Jenn both successfully ran 13.1 miles for the first time in their entire lives. We all had plenty to talk about and we all sat thawing out in The Tollgate for probably longer than we needed to, enjoying a few rounds of well-deserved beers before heading home for the comfort of a long, hot shower.

So that was that for the 2018 Manchester Half, but as a minor footnote to this piece, it wasn’t quite the end of my little run of success. With PBs already set at 10k and half marathon, I headed out the following weekend to my local parkrun to see what my 5k time was like and duly lopped 20 seconds off that as well. Three shiny new PBs, all of which I’ll probably take to the grave with me. And then a week later came the celebration on my birthday weekend with a top 10 finish at the Manchester Beer 10k, starting and finishing at Beer Nouveau‘s brewery. It wasn’t my fastest 10k ever but it was (just!) a sub-40 and it was certainly one of my favourites as we literally drank the place dry after the race. A superb way to round the whole month off.

As I mentioned at the top of this post though, that wasn’t my final challenge of the year as now it’s Marcothon time: 31 runs over 31 days. Running at least 5k every day for the whole of December, to try and raise a bit of money for The Wellspring. I’m eleven days in now and it’s going OK so far, even though we’re currently in the midst of some of the grimmest weather we’ve had for a few months. But that makes me even more determined to try and raise as much as I can as these horrible cold, wet nights draw in, to try and help those with little or nothing at Christmas time. So if you have a bit of spare change lying around, please consider donating to the cause – no donation is too big or too small – and if you click here it will tell you a bit more about where your money will be going and the amazing work The Wellspring do.

Merry Christmas everyone. xxx

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