The Final Countdown

When I mapped out my plan for 2021, with it looking increasingly like the Manchester Marathon would actually go ahead, I decided a practice race before the big day would be a good idea just to reacquaint myself with the old raceday routine after close to two years away. And very well it all went over at Wilmslow last month, but what I didn’t expect was to get a second bite at the cherry a fortnight later, with The Christie emailing me a couple of days before the Great Manchester Run asking if I’d like a place in either the half marathon or the 10k. It worked out nicely in my training plan, with the final 16-mile long run in the bank the weekend beforehand, so I jumped at the chance to get another race in the bank, polish that routine and even better raise a few extra quid ahead of the big day itself.

With the entry going in less than 48 hours before kick off it was probably the quickest turnaround I’ve ever had for a race and a bit of a rejig of my weekend to suddenly fit everything in. Saturday I used my training run as an opportunity to have a little jog into town in the absolute pissing rain to pick up my race number which was all relatively painless, and then Sunday morning required an early rise to get myself fed and into town ahead of the unusually-early 8:30am kick off.

This was now my third go at this race so there were no great surprises; a trot out over the Mancunian Way to Manchester City’s ground, before turning back more or less the same way and then looping onto the 10k course out to Manchester United’s and back. Just like Wilmslow I’d be using it as a training run and so would have to ensure I kept a lid on my natural enthusiasm, which had worked out mostly okay last time around. I didn’t want to risk an injury or knackering myself up as I headed into the taper period of my training plan and the early stages of the race were duly more or less on target, maybe a tad quicker than I’d like but nothing too mad.

It all felt pretty much in control and I generally enjoyed the vast majority of it. With so many training miles in the legs, as well as the mile splits coming in a good half a minute or so off my intended race pace for next Sunday, it was again just a nice day out, a chance to get a training run in some different surroundings and earn a nice little medal at the end. Seeing The Christie’s cheer point at miles 9.5 and then again at 11 as we doubled back on ourselves was nice, the small group of volunteers giving enthusiastic whoops and cheers as I ran past, and then I was on the stretch back home, aiming for the finish near the foot of the Beetham Tower I could see looming in the horizon.

The pace in the second half ended up being probably a little bit quicker than I should have been running but I don’t think it was anything too much to worry about, apart from another slightly foolish big sprint finish when I realised about a mile out that I’d nearly reeled in the 1:35 pacer and decided, for no good reason, to try and finish ahead of them. Which I did, comfortably, enjoying a big push as I streaked past the sizeable crowds you get at the finish for this one. The eighth time finishing on this stretch since my 2008 debut after three half marathons and four 10ks in years gone by, it was no less special this time around, a job well and truly done and after a quick visit to The Christie’s stand in the charity village followed by a double sausage and egg McMuffin I could set my sights firmly on the big one a week today.

I’m nearly there. Nearly two years in the making, with three full training cycles since January 2020 as the race date kept shifting, I’m nearly there. My first official race marathon since the immortal words “no more marathons” after London 2018 nearly finished me off is nearly here.

Working in education for over a decade now, I swore I’d never do another autumn marathon again after the logistical nightmare of my first ever one back in 2011. Trying to run 50-60 miles per week during August and September in my line of work is a bloody nightmare and yet somehow, despite picking the most advanced training plan for a marathon since 2016, I’ve hit every single session on the with only a gentle taper week left until we do it all for real.

Long run, tempo, interval – they’re all in the bank. So, SO many laps of the grass running track on the top of a hill near my flat. 16 consecutive weeks of getting up before work to hit the Tuesday and Thursday speed sessions, which as they grew longer in distance week by week, coupled with work requiring me back in the office on a more regular basis, became harder and harder to squeeze in. The last few weeks have basically been a blur of sleeping, running, working and eating and very little else and by the time I got to the final few sessions I was having to get up at 4:30am to get them done, starting and finishing in the dark and with the final one of the lot taking place in torrential rain as the Mancunian autumn unleashed its full fury. It’s been character building stuff and I genuinely can’t believe I’ve actually made it to this stage.

Writing this back in June I honestly didn’t expect to be where I am now. There were so many things conspiring against me – and I will genuinely say this has all been during one of the hardest and most stressful periods of work I’ve ever had – that I’d already resigned myself to dropping to a less advanced plan at some point and concentrating on “just finishing” rather than pushing for any sort of time. I literally cannot believe I’ve managed to hit every single session of substance and I was genuinely a bit emotional on Thursday coming home at the end of the final one, a half marathon before work with ten miles at target pace and the whole thing nearly five minutes quicker than both my recent races at Wilmslow and Manchester. It was never supposed to be this way.

Yet here we are. A week out from the big day and it’s pretty much all banked, just a relatively gentle few days left to keep it ticking over while eating all of the carbohydrates and trying not to catch Covid or get injured before the race, accompanied by all those familiar worries as it draws closer. Feeling as if I’m not running enough, eating or drinking enough, or if this stomach pain is anything to be concerned about. My brain always goes into overdrive when there’s a target in mind with every little niggle manifesting itself into a race-ending disaster in my mind and ruining what will probably be my last ever attempt at a marathon PB.

So yea. That target. I’ve flitted back and forth over the last few weeks and months, almost veering on a daily basis from “I might actually have this in me ” to “you’re far too old for this, grandad” and everything in between depending on my mood at any given time. The margins with what I’m aiming for are pretty fine but, somehow, I’ve given myself the best possible chance of actually doing it. All those weekend events I’ve driven to and left early because of the long run the next morning, or those 5am sessions running through the student district with people still partying and making me question at exactly what stage in my life my early morning priorities changed from that to this.

Come this time next week though I’ll know if it was all worth it or not. Whatever happens, I’ve raised a really nice amount so far for The Christie and so finally, well over a year and a half since entering, it looks like I might finally get a chance to run and justify everyone’s incredible generosity. There is also the little matter of that target though, and it’s something I genuinely don’t know if I’ve still got it in me. In less than seven days time I’ll know for certain.

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