Virtual October

Anyone who’s read more than a couple of my blogs will know that I have a pretty familiar autumn routine, hitting one or two of the same races almost every year, going as far back as 2008. The Standalone 10k is by far and away the most common race on my list of race results, featuring seven times overall and almost every year since 2012. I’ve run the Manchester Half every year since its inauguration in 2016 and enjoyed all of them, despite torrential rain on three out of the four races, not to mention nearly crapping my pants halfway round last year’s. And there’s the always-fun Beer 10k to usually finish the year off around my birthday time.

This autumn things were a bit different. 2020’s been “a bit different” to say the least and needless to say, none of the above were ever likely to go ahead in the traditional sense. The Beer 10k was cancelled outright, not surprising since one of the main draws of the event was cramming us all into Beer Nouveau’s brewery at the end of the race and drinking it dry, which sadly was never going to be able to be done safely in the present climate. The Manchester Half also failed to make the cut, long since cancelled after happening to fall on the same day as the rescheduled full marathon, which also then itself got cancelled. And then, finally, Standalone went virtual for the first time in its 30+ year history, although that didn’t stop The Standalone Curse hitting my Dad (who was racing) and my mum (who wasn’t). It was destined to be an October quite unlike any in recent history but then, well, that’s 2020 for you isn’t it.

Despite that cancellation of the full marathon I’d been keeping at my training plan. Why? I wasn’t sure really. Part of me just wanted something to keep myself focused and motivated to go out for a run on a regular basis. Part of me though was still clinging onto the fact that there might be an official virtual challenge. I’d received a fair bit of sponsorship already including an incredibly generous £100 from an anonymous donor and so I kept it in the back of my mind if there was a chance to go for the full distance as part of an organised event then I wanted to be in a position to take it and justify the money people had pledged.

Finally, after months of radio silence from Manchester Marathon HQ and only three weeks before what would have been raceday came announcement I had been waiting for: run 26.2 miles at any point in October and receive a lovely chunky medal and a finisher’s T shirt. An official chance to have a tilt at the full distance and try and achieve what I’d pledged to do all the way back in January. A Marathon For The Christie. Challenge accepted.

Thanks to the way the calendar had fallen, Standalone’s virtual 10k landed the week before, which actually was pretty ideal as I was well into my taper and could knock out a relaxed 6.2 miles in my marathon kit as a bit of a warmup for the big one seven days later. Not wanting to push it and risk injury before the marathon, it was my slowest “race” 10k ever but it mattered not: I’d marked the occasion, raised a bit of cash for Headway Herts and earned another treasured Standalone T shirt, the eighth in my collection and this year coming in a rather fetching stealthy black.

The next few days ticked off pretty much everything on my usual marathon checklist. Massive overeating. Winding down the training and feeling like I’m not running enough. Anxiety about absolutely everything. What would the weather be like? Was this niggle in my hip all in the mind or was it an actual injury rearing its head and about to ruin everything? With it being a virtual race there were some new worries too. Would I be able to cope with running the full distance on my own? How bad was it going to be as I went over that 20 mile mark and had nobody to cheer me on? How could I plan to eat and drink properly without any proper feed stations? What if my notoriously unreliable bowels let me down again, stuck miles from home with no portaloo to save me? And then there was my new training plan, a totally different way of approaching things that meant my longest training run was “only” 16 miles. How would I cope with another 10 miles tacked on top of that?

Regardless of all my worries, at least the weather wasn’t one of them. After literally weeks of torrential downpours I had a massive stroke of luck on the day itself, a bright, crisp autumnal morning with clear blue skies and hardly any wind at all. I’d planned a route carefully to head out and back for the first 18 miles, covering a bit of what would have been the final stages of the race including the finish straight past the cricket club, before swinging back to my flat to pick up water and energy gels and heading off again onto a couple of smaller loops so I could tick off the rest of the distance before collapsing on my soggy lawn and crying while my wife fed me chips and cans of Aldi pilsner.

With many of my usual raceday anxieties removed I managed a half-decent sleep the night before, rising early-ish to a stunning sunrise. There would be zero stress about travel to the startline or needing to queue for the bogs or anything like that. No worries about my car breaking down or Metrolink’s ever-reliable trams letting me down.  There was still a considerable feeling of dread about exactly what it was I was about to try and attempt, but I chowed down as much muesli as my fitful stomach could take and then after the usual multiple visits to the loo and a couple of photos in the back garden to stick on the socials and stuff later along with my charity link it was time to see what I could do.

As is usually the way with a marathon, London 2018 excepted, the opening miles came pretty easily with the benefit of all those hundreds of miles in the legs. Everything looked pretty stunning in the early morning autumnal sunshine, a sea of orange, yellow and red leaves turning and about to drop as I crossed east to west along the Fallowfield Loop, aiming for Trafford and what would have been the finish line had it been the race proper.

I didn’t really have a target in mind, that dream at the start of the year of qualifying for multiple World Marathon Majors long since scuppered by the little matter of a global pandemic. I’d just been trying to run at a pace I was comfortable with but for some reason around mile 10 I suddenly started to feel a little “odd”, long before the usual window of hurt usually opens. I can’t really explain it other than, occasionally, I just felt a bit weird and lightheaded and a bit flat and devoid of energy for occasional short periods of time, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for half a mile or so. It was really strange. I’d not felt like this on any of my training runs but every so often there it was, and every time it happened it knocked me for six a little bit and it was hard to see a way past it and through to the finish. I’d not even hit half distance yet.

Happily, things never actually got any worse, I just had this strange feeling on and off, for the next couple of hours or however long it took me to get the job done. Over what would have been the finish line: no crowds, no free pint of Erdinger and no medal.  Just the little matter of 14 miles still to run. I stopped to pap a couple of photos and chow down an energy gel before plodding on and then suddenly I was over halfway and a huge psychological barrier had been lifted. And then, just around the point when the wheels usually really begin to fall off at two thirds distance came the best part of the day and a beautiful, unexpected surprise.

First I heard the “whooping”, then the clapping. Then I saw her. My wife had told me she had plans with her mum and dad that morning so it was such an incredibly lovely surprise to see her stood outside the local Coop cheering me on, shouting her little head off as regular punters queued outside wondering what the hell was going on. She offered some sweets but I declined, I just gave her a wave, a sweaty grimace and then after I’d gone past I nearly broke down in tears completely through sheer joy. I forgot all about my struggles and suddenly we were back on track. Less than an hour of running left and it would be done and dusted.

Usually, these final miles are absolute hell on earth but apart from those odd waves of tiredness still popping up every so often, it wasn’t actually that bad this time around. My hip was starting to become a bit of a problem (turns out it very much was not just All In The Mind) and I had a bit of tightness in my quads but generally I felt in the best condition I’d probably ever felt at that stage of a marathon. I remembered back to the despair I felt in Princes Park on my debut marathon in Liverpool 2011, leaning against a fence in the incessant drizzle trying to stretch out my battered calves and wondering if I’d ever be able to walk again. The dual sadness of Manchesters 2014 and 2016 as I slowly watched my time targets slipping away from me. The absolute horror of the final hour of The Hottest London Marathon On Record in 2018. There wasn’t really any that nonsense here, my radical training plan had seemingly done its job and I duly rolled home to my most anti-climatic race finish of all time on my gravel drive, three hours and 23 minutes after setting off from the very same spot.

I stood for a second or two in silence, trying to take in what I’d achieved and then after a quick selfie to send to friends and family of me sweating outside my front door I was faced with one final challenge: the stairs up to my flat. The reward though was a beer then a long, hot shower. Marathon number six was in the bag, two and a half years after saying number five would be my last ever.

This time, I’m not saying it’s my last. For a start my official entry has rolled over for a second time and is now pencilled in for next October. Beyond that, who knows? Another Marathon Major or five? A couple more virtuals? None at all? I have no idea. For now, I’m just looking forward to a few months without having to follow any sort of training plan. Had the event been rescheduled for its usual April slot instead of October then I’d already be working my way through my third marathon training plan in less than a year so it’s nice that I don’t have to be doing that. I’m back to just running when I want to which is a lovely change, I won’t lie. A nice relaxed way to end my epic year of running.

It really has been quite a year. After a couple of days rest from the marathon, I was back plodding round the block and the second of those recovery runs put me over 2000 miles in a year for the first time in my entire life. My previous best was 1,294.7. Writing this now, with less than a week left of the year I’m up to 2,418, well over a 1000 more than that previous best. In a year with no actual races I’ve run the furthest, and most frequently, in my entire life.

2020 has served up some absolute shite at times but one of the few positives to come out of it is the amount of running I’ve racked up, and I’m delighted to have something to show for all of it. My marathon medal turned up a fortnight after completing the race and it is an absolute beast this year, one of my favourites ever with a lovely Manchester skyline across the top of it. I’ve amassed quite a collection of medals and T shirts this year, which isn’t bad in a year where everything has been cancelled since March, and as it turned out the marathon wasn’t even my last medal of the year. There was just enough time for one final team challenge as a few of us aimed for 500km over the November lockdown period, earning lovely little trinkets to complete the 2020 collection.

I have no idea what 2021 will bring. If someone asked me where I thought I’d be a year from writing this it’s fairly safe to say I wouldn’t have arrived at where we are now. But there we go, we make the best of whatever shitey hand we’re dealt with don’t we. All that’s left is for me to wish you all a very happy new year and say thank you for reading. I hope 2021 treats you well.

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