9 mile

I’ve been struggling to write anything lately, I won’t lie. This post in itself is an amalgamation of about three or four different ideas I’ve started, not finished, left, come back to, left again, etc etc, so apologies if it’s all a bit disjointed. Why change the habit of a lifetime, I guess. But to be brutally honest, even with all this extra time on my hands over the past few months thanks to yet another lockdown, it’s just been really hard to sit down and start telling a story, and then actually finish said story so I can bore you all with it.

Why is that? Well, simply put – what stories are there to tell? I know my decade (and it has been a decade now – 17th April 2021 marked this blog’s 10th birthday) of writing about running hasn’t exactly provided you all with the most exciting content in the world, but at least when there were actual races there was something more to say then “yea I went out for another run around the block yesterday”. Okay so I dropped a sofa on my big toe at the start of the year which was pretty funny (don’t worry, I’ll spare you the photos) but other than that there’s not been a huge amount else going on so far in 2021.

Last year was an incredibly difficult year for many reasons, but even with pretty much everything cancelled there were a few virtual challenges to keep us all occupied. Some solo, some as a team. All incredibly rewarding. But even those have dried up now and so since my marathon back in October there’s been absolutely nothing at all. No races, no medals, no T-shirts. Just a few months of going out when I can be bothered, trudging round the same few routes to keep my mind and body in check. And who wants to read about that?

Usually around this time of year I’ll already have a race or two under my belt and be starting to plan the rest of the year, putting my training plans together for autumn events and whatnot. Even last year in the depths of lockdown #1 I’d managed a virtual half. The year before that a pair of actual ones. 2016-2018 were all April marathons. This year: nothing. In fact, kinda the opposite as I actually received my annual London rejection at the start of February, which I suppose is a nice change from being kicked in the nuts in October, even though the result was the same as it ever is. For once though I can’t say I’m too fussed and to be honest I can’t even really remember entering it.

Firstly, it’s the week before my Manchester Marathon, which (whisper it) might actually go ahead at the third time of asking. I’m not sure doing a marathon on consecutive weekends is really the one. Secondly, and most importantly of all in the present climate is the actual logistics of the bloody thing. I know October is a long way off at the moment and we’re seeing some green shoots of recovery as cases plunge and vaccination levels rise, but just the concept of being part of a marathon major with 50,000 runners and over a million spectators just seems an absolutely alien concept to me when I barely saw anyone except my wife and my dentist for the first three months of the year. The thought of being on those packed trains running us up to the startline wasn’t actually filling me with a great deal of joy either, it’s safe to say.

So yea, as yet no actual races, virtual or otherwise. One little challenge that did materialise though was one of those that came about more by chance than anything, and then as is often my way subsequently became something to obsess over for a bit until I eventually achieved it. Out on a routine Saturday morning run back in late February, after a bit of a sluggish start I suddenly hit a bit of a groove.

It was one of the first sunny days of the year (seriously) and after a suffering from a niggly foot injury for the few weeks previous, everything felt great for the first time in ages and I started to push the pace bit. My fancy new carbon-plated Nike Zoom Fly – a shoe I wish I’d had for that October marathon, but I digress – were getting their first run in anger and giving me that little extra mental boost you always get with a new pair of kicks. It was all beginning to click and around three miles in, aiming for nine, I began to ponder if I could get the whole run done in under an hour. My useless brain couldn’t work out the pace I needed to hit to achieve it so I had no idea if I was on track or not until the last mile or so when I realised it wasn’t happening, eventually coming over the line a minute or so outside it.

Nevertheless, I had run it close. Close enough to actually achieve it on a proper attempt, going for it full bore from the get go? I had no idea. If it were to happen, I needed to hit nine miles at or under 6:40 pace, basically six seconds per mile quicker than that initial attempt. I didn’t really have any races to look back on and compare to see if I had that kinda pace in me over that distance, with everything either being 10k or 13.1 miles. A nine mile “race” sat annoyingly in the middle of those more standard distance so it was all a bit of an unknown quantity. There was only one way to find out.

I prepared for the day itself as if it were an actual race, which to be honest was quite difficult to actually remember with my last one coming back in 2019. Predictably as with pretty much all my races, my unreliable bowels decided to let me down before setting off, but once that was all behind me off I trotted off out into the spring sunshine. And I absolutely ripped the lid off of it.

Seriously, it went so much better than I even imagined it would. I’d picked a 1.5 mile rectangular course with minimal road crossings to prevent holdups, and on nice wide pavements to enable safe distancing from any pedestrians out and about early doors and so off I went, onto lap one of six and the first mile came in at 6:14. Shit hang on, was this all too fast? Would I pay for it later? Completely out of race practice my pacing strategy was totally non-existent and it was clearly a case of, okay just go hell for leather and see what happens. You’re not running a marathon here, just bosh it and deal with the consequences. Sensible stuff as always, cheers brain.

Remarkably, there weren’t any real consequences. The pace slipped a bit of course but with the first few miles giving me nearly a minute in the bank, the closer I got to the end the more I realised it was going to take a serious meltdown to not bring this home. For whatever reason nothing remotely close to that happened and a final time of 58:56 smashed the target to bloody smithereens, over a minute inside what I was aiming for. Job done, my sole “race” of the year was in the bag. No proper finish line, no medal, no T-shirt and no-one to really give a shit. A pretty meaningless personal achievement. I mean, what even is the nine mile record anyway? Doesn’t exist. Pointless. But it was done and dusted anyway and so off I staggered, back to my flat for a beer and to ponder just what it all meant.

So what does it all mean? Well, first of all that average pace of 6:33 would easily give me a new half marathon PB if I were to be able to hold that kind of level for just four more miles. And then what would that 1:25 half mean for an all-in effort at the full distance? I remember years ago wondering if I had a sub three marathon in me and I think at the time I read you needed to be capable of a 1:25 half to really give it a decent whack. My PB back then was 1:28 and then when I eventually went for the sub three, I ran it damn close.

So of course now my brain is going into overdrive thinking about October’s marathon. Is that sub three actually possible? Before last month I’d have said no fucking chance, my fortieth birthday looming ominously on the horizon, coming just a couple of weeks after marathon day. Now I’m thinking: am I capable of one last hurrah before the performance begins to fade away and old father time has his say? Can I finally achieve something that’s been playing on my mind for over a decade?

Probably not. But it’s been a while since I had anything to aim for, and to be honest just the thought of actually doing a real race with real people again is pretty exciting, so long as we can do it all safely of course. October seems a long way off right now and plenty could go wrong between now and then, but at least there’s a semblance of a plan in place now. Next month it’ll time to start all over again, my third block of marathon training in just over a year. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be an actual race at the end of it all. It might be one last chance to see what I’m truly capable of.

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