Breaking 3: The Manchester Marathon 2021

I’ve been a runner a few years now. It all kinda started back in 2007 after graduating and realising my waking life was basically split solely between eating, drinking and playing Football Manager. Deciding to go for a run two or three times a week gave me a bit of an outlet to not be a completely unhealthy mess, and I quite took to it all. As you may have noticed.

In May 2008 I duly ran my first timed event, the Great Manchester Run 10k, coming home in 41:14 and literally since that day I’ve wondered if I had a sub three marathon in me. Of course, it’s not simply case of multiplying that time by four-and-a-bit to give a predicted time over the 42km marathon distance, but it still played on my mind a bit. A lot, at times. My first half marathon in 2009 coming in under an hour and half made me think even more that I might have a chance, that was however until I ran my debut marathon in 2011 and struggled to even hit my loose 3:15 target, staggering over the line in 3:19:07. The prospect of shaving nearly 20 minutes off that seemed extremely unlikely to say the very least.

A decade on from there, literally almost to the very day, I lined up on the startline of the marathon of my adopted Mancunian home. Five marathons later, only once had I seriously had a crack at the sub three, falling just short in 2016 with a 3:02:41 after losing my way over the final few miles. By far the hardest I’d ever trained for anything in my life, ever, I said for years afterwards that time was set in stone. I could do no more.

For whatever reason, possibly the 628 days I had to think about it between entering and actually running the bloody thing thanks to a couple of Covid postponements, I gradually came round to the idea that my 2021 marathon would be the final hurrah. Try and see if I could get anywhere near those 2016 heights despite being a few weeks out from my 40th birthday. One last chance to see what I could do before old Father Time had his say.

I’d need a lot to come off I were to have a chance though. Back in the planning stage there were a number of hurdles I’d identified, least of all the fact that my heaviest weeks of training were due to fall during my busiest period of work. Working in education, there’s a reason why I hadn’t run an autumn marathon since that first one back in 2011 but somehow, through some careful juggling and some seriously unpleasant 4:30am starts, I lined up on the startline with every single training run in the bank and on target.

Everything had, somehow, come together. I’d avoided catching Covid, or having to self-isolate again. I’d mostly dodged picking up any significant injury, just carrying a small niggle in the groin / stomach, which I wasn’t sure where it had come from but didn’t seem to bother me too much while actually running. Even the weather on the day was pretty much perfect, the biblical rain of the past month a distant memory as we lined up under clear, blue skies with just a tiny autumnal chill in the air.  A decade since my first marathon, and three and a half years on from the immortal words “no more marathons”, it was time to attempt to run my best.

It was an oddly relaxed morning compared to marathons past. I don’t know if it was confidence in my training or whatever but I had pretty much zero stress and barely any nerves. I even managed nine hours sleep which is absolutely unprecedented on a normal night, let alone before an attempt at the greatest challenge of my life. I simply rocked up an hour or so before kick off, strolled about, took a few photos then said goodbye to my wife before trotting up to the startline ready to roll. I could do no more now other than run the bloody thing.

Not long before 11am we were off, the second and final attempt at the challenge that had been hanging over me for pretty much my entire running life. The new route taking us into the city centre over the first few miles was great, with big crowds pretty much all the way around it and I found myself nicely inside my target pace, consciously not trying to push it too hard but banking just a couple of extra seconds per mile here or there, which I’d come to cherish much further down the road – more on that later.

The first half of the race in general was pretty relaxed. I even managed a chat with a mate from the running / beer drinking club I frequented occasionally as we both trotted down towards Altrincham, a nice little interlude as we both discussed our targets for the day before he dropped back a little aiming for his 3:15. We were running just ahead of the three hour pacing bus and I was conscious of how stressy it had been in 2016 when I was caught inside it, which was a nice motivation to keep me pushing if they ever threatened to overtake me. So far, so good.

With the revised route for 2021, we hit Altrincham a little later than years gone by, coming around miles 16-17 rather than its traditional halfway point. I’ve got history with this place; in 2014 it was where I realised I wasn’t going to hit my target for that race, in 2016 it was where I got swamped by the three hour bus and started to lose my way for that one too. This time around, it suddenly began to feel like a similar story. The tiny inclines around the town centre knocked me for six a bit and out of nowhere the – now somewhat depleted – three hour crew passed straight through me in seconds as I put in my first mile outside my target pace. I’d been here before and I began to recognise the signs. It started to feel like the beginning of the end.

The next couple of miles were a real struggle. I kept catching my average pace sitting over well over what I needed, and I tried to calculate in my brain if I had enough in the bank to mitigate it. I was consistently hitting mile markers 0.2 of a mile further down the road from what my Garmin was saying and the horrifying thought began to kick in that I’d paced it all wrong if my GPS had shat itself at some point earlier in the race and I was actually further behind than I thought. The three hour pacers were disappearing up the road and without even being at mile 20 yet it looked like, just as with 2016, it was all going to unravel in the final third of the race.

Somehow though, despite those little dodgy spells, the average pace over each mile as a whole was still on track. We went into the final 10k where it usually goes completely up the wall and I was delighted to see my wife for the third time, right when I needed her the most. She was going nuts, whooping and cheering but the grimace from me said it all – the target was on a knife edge. Those extra 400 or so yards were bothering me, and with those pacers pulling away into the distance it was starting to feel completely helpless.

Was it still on? I had no idea, I just had to keep doing what I could, hitting those mile splits and hoping for the best. Every time I caught my pace over what I needed I had to grit my teeth and push. It was getting so close I had to keep telling myself this was almost definitely last chance saloon if I was to ever hit this target. This was it. This was the chance. You will never get a better chance to do this” I said to myself, over and over and over again. I dug in and kept pushing. One last shot for the moon.

It was so hard mentally trying to understand where I was at though. It was on, it wasn’t, it was back on again. My brain started trying to work off a total distance of 26.4 miles rather than 26.2 due to whatever had caused me to be slightly behind, and then I suddenly realised with two miles to go that, assuming my legs didn’t fall off completely, I still might actually have just enough time left to bring this home.

I flew past my wife for the last time inside the final mile, and I remember shouting out to her “it’s so fucking close” or something along those lines, almost in desperation more than anything as I felt trapped in the nightmare realm of potentially missing out by mere seconds, which would have been absolutely devastating. By this point back in 2016 I’d long accepted my fate after over an hour of watching it gradually slip away, and then coming in a couple of minutes outside I felt at peace. It was never really on. Here, the worst case scenario of a 3:00:01 filled me with absolute dread. I turned onto the final straight and at last I could see the finish line, tantalisingly in the distance. You will never get a better chance to do this.

I absolutely emptied the tank. If I missed out from here I knew I’d never forgive myself if I hadn’t given it everything I had left. My calves were crying out to me, shooting pains creeping in as cramps kicked in, on and off like tiny daggers jabbing into the backs of my legs as I ran. I tried to push through it, I couldn’t pull up now. I literally had seconds to play with. I was in agony, my stomach felt like I’d been hit with a baseball bat, but then suddenly I saw the timing mats on the finish line a few yards up the road and I, finally, realised it was actually going to happen.

I vaguely remember raising my arms, shouting in a combination of elation and pain. I staggered over the line, calmly stopped my watch and then couldn’t help but cry out repeatedly in pain, trying to manage whatever was going on down the side of my stomach, unable to enjoy what I thought, what I hoped, I’d achieved. A medal was thrust in my hands and I paused, then glanced down at my Garmin. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

2:59:24.

It had happened. It had actually happened. The target I’d had in mind for almost as long as I’d been a runner, the target I never, ever thought I’d actually be able to achieve. A sub three hour marathon and one of the greatest achievements of my entire life, one of my proudest ever days on planet earth. Two hours, fifty-nine minutes and twenty-four seconds.

I stood in a daze for a bit, trying not to cry or fall over as my legs refused to operate as they should. An SMS with the official time came through within minutes of finishing and I relayed the news to my wife over WhatsApp as she scurried off to the pub to get the isotonic recovery Stellas in. A quick visit to The Christie tent to thank them for all the support and it was time to head to the pub an incredibly emotional reunion with the marathon widow of 2021 who had put up with all my shit for weeks on end. Waking her up at 4:30am heading out for a run. Cancelled plans. Leaving social events early. Separate meals, and so, so many evenings left watching TV on the sofa alone while I was already in bed trying to get some kip ahead of yet another early morning run before work. And then after all that, giving up her Sunday morning up to head over and cheer me on at multiple locations along the route, the spur I needed to bring it all home. And finally, there waiting for me with one most satisfying pints of beer I will ever drink in my entire life. It was impossible not to burst into tears.

So now, a couple of weeks later with the dust all settled, I can reflect a bit better on things and try and make sense of what it all means. I can’t help but think back to how lucky I was for everything to come together as it did meaning that, for the first time ever, I hit my target on a marathon, but only just. 36 seconds over an entire marathon is nothing really, barely a second per mile. It was that close.

I’ll be forever grateful to the extra time I banked early on thanks to that apparent discrepancy in distance. To have ran the whole thing on target and then missed out by seconds because the course was possibly too long doesn’t even bear thinking about, but thankfully I don’t have to worry about that now. Strava actually suggests my “marathon” time over 26.2 was in the 2:57s, which is amazing, but it matters not. Beating it by one second or one minute, it matters not. I am a sub three hour marathoner and still can’t quite believe it.

2:59:24 are the numbers that I will take to the grave with me, etched into my brain forever. The Manchester Marathon 2021: my greatest ever race.

My marathon is dedicated to my Grandma, 1924 – 2021. The flame goes out, the glow remains.


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