The road to recovery: The Great Manchester Half Marathon 2022

Sometimes things just happen for a reason.

Those of you who read my last blog will be well aware of my recent struggles, a heady cocktail of getting old, getting covid and getting just plain old shit. Somehow, in amongst it all I managed a more-than-decent run at the Wilmslow half marathon, which I still look back on even now and wonder how on earth it came about coming barely a fortnight after finally testing negative from the old ‘rona. That though was the anomaly in amongst a period of general malaise.

A couple of months on from there though came a chance to see where I was at on my road to recovery as an unexpected discounted entry for the Great Manchester Half Marathon landed in my lap. At the start of the year I’d targeted a half marathon at some point in 2022 as a possible PB attempt; here it would be a case of seeing how far off that I was. Still, something to aim for I guess. A target of sorts.

It was never going to be my best race, but it was a race and that’s what counts. Most importantly, it was my home race. Well, my adopted home race anyway. Living in the North West for nearly half my life now, the Great Manchester Run and me go way back, from the 2008 edition being literally my first ever timed race, to the 2009 edition being my PB which stood for seven long years. The 2016 edition and a new PB. The incredible emotion of 2017 coming literally days after the terrible events at the Manchester arena. Two races in one day in 2018. And many, many more besides.

2022 was destined to fall somewhere in the middle of all that. Despite all the success over the 10k distance here, the Great Manchester Half holds a peculiar place in my race history at 13.1 miles in that it doesn’t hold a single sub-90 effort, in fact not even close. OK, so there’d been lots of mitigating circumstances over the years (and there’d be plenty of those as well this time around as well) but with even a bloody virtual half marathon back in April 2020 coming in the 1:27s you’d have thought at least one of the attempts over the years might have come in under that magic barrier. Not so.

Keeping nicely with the theme, 2022 would be no different, but that’d be fine. I’d long since accepted that. After getting over the absolute nadir of April where every single run seemed to either lead to illness, injury, or both, I was starting to get back into the swing of regular running again, sometimes even two or three days in a row. Absolutely nowhere near the levels of 2020-21, but it was a start after falling within six months from the fittest I’d ever been in my life and running a sub-three hour marathon back in October, to finding myself struggling to get round a local 5k without feeling like death and watching my heart rate go through the roof.

It’d been a crap start to the year post-covid, stuck in a bit of a cycle of finding running a struggle, not enjoying myself, running less as a result, seeing the fitness drop even further, then finding it even more of a struggle, and so on, and on, and on, with a few injuries thrown in to boot. A bit of a negative spiral all in all but then finally, barely a fortnight from raceday I had an epiphany.

A two mile jog round my local park two weeks before kick off wouldn’t usually be my ideal preparation for a half marathon, yet it was the first run for weeks where I got back and didn’t feel any twinges in my knee, back, ankle, hip, thigh, foot or wherever else my 40-year-old body had decided to complain about. Even better, nothing hurt the next day either so I went out for another run. That also passed without incident and there was a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I might be OK. A week later came my first run into double-figures for nearly two months. Things were definitely on the right track, except for the continued issues with my heart rate being miles over what it should be of course. The only question was whether I’d done enough to be able to get round the bloody thing on the day itself.

Over the past few years, with marathon after marathon coming thick and fast (no more marathons, and all that), the half distance had become barely a footnote to the bigger picture, with many recent races merely being training runs for the full 26.2 effort. Hell, when I was pushing for that sub-three I was often running a half marathon in training before work twice a week. I’d become totally desensitised to the fact that I was running the equivalent of from Manchester to Macclesfield each time, but here we were in Spring 2022 and things were very different. For the first time in literally years I had a genuine fear of the distance.

A crap night’s sleep the night before thanks to a house party on our cul-de-sac didn’t help matters, especially with the already-early 9am start time dropping back even further from 2021 onwards to 8:30. To make things even worse, my stupid brain woke me up wayyyyyy earlier than I needed to and so bleary-eyed and heavy-legged I staggered across town from station to startline, the route across central Manchester dotted with the occasional Saturday night casualty still going from the night before. It was time for my second race of the year, and my fourth go at the Great Manchester Run Half Marathon.

It was a weird race. The first four miles, despite being mostly uphill, were OK. The next four miles despite being largely back downhill in the opposite direction were pretty crap. It all felt like hard work despite running a good half a minute per mile off my best, but at least I was able to enjoy bits of it with most of the little pockets of supporters making an effort to clap, cheer and shout my name which was nice, despite the fact I probably looked like I was about to keel over at any given moment.

The second half of the race was similarly up and down but before long we were on the home straight down from Old Trafford, with the Beetham Tower looming in the distance marking the end of the journey. I was now the furthest into a run for over two months and although it was hard work I knew that barring a disastrous injury suddenly appearing out of nowhere I should be able to bring it home. Unlike last September’s training run I didn’t have anywhere near the big finish left, although I did manage a bit of a spurt as the roaring crowds along Deansgate brought me home and then that was that. 1:32:42, somewhere down the bottom of my list of results, but not bad overall. Hard work, but satisfying. I’d grafted for that one.

What was odd though was looking back on the cold, hard data. My average heart rate was the same as the Wilmslow Half earlier in the year, despite running it six minutes slower. It was miles higher here than the 2021 edition despite the pace being largely similar. Yes, I was miles fitter in 2021 but it still felt like something was lingering there somewhere. It doesn’t really explain how the Wilmslow Half went so well two weeks after having covid and this one was so much harder two months down the road, but then nothing about my recovery has been straightforward, with crap runs and good runs coming up whenever they felt like it without any indication of which one it was going to be on any given day. This had been one of the harder ones.

I’m glad I did it though. I had thought about pulling out as the race drew closer, not least at 1am the night before when someone on our estate appeared to be holding a mini-Creamfields in their back garden. It was the hardest half marathon I’ve done for years, possibly as far back as the 2012 Silverstone Half. But I’m glad I did it, if only for the amazing medal and t-shirt combo, one of the best I’d ever earned.

It was all in all a valuable learning experience. 2022 as a whole has been a bit of a learning experience. After feeling pretty much invincible for a good couple of years, running almost every single day and racking up thousands and thousands of miles, I’ve had to reset all my expectations and it almost feels like I’m starting from scratch again at times. Learning how to manage myself better, and reminding myself how everything isn’t always rosy. Having to battle and graft for things which came so easily to me only a few months previously.

It’s getting better, but there’s still a sting in the tail every so often when I least expect it. Even as recently as last month – after a full week of the best I’ve felt running for ages – I was out cruising on a routine Sunday chug when all of a sudden I started feeling a bit crap after a mile, even worse after two and then calling it a day completely after four and a half, my heart rate almost at its maximum as if I was on a full interval effort and ending up collapsed on the sofa all afternoon, feeling as drained as I’ve ever done after all those Sunday 20-milers over the years.

Is this all still covid-related? Is this the beginning of a gradual decline as I approach middle age? Or am I just a bit unfit as I’ve been running less and it’ll all come back to me, eventually? Who knows really, but as I said – it’s been a learning experience. Garmin Connect backs up how my body feels, with my heart rate frequently higher than it was and my VO2 max still resolutely stuck five points – or whatever the bloody scale is for this – below what it was at my peak, and no matter how much better I feel when running, it still refuses to get anywhere near where it once was. It’s hard to know anymore though whether this is cause or effect of my lack of fitness.

Still, onwards and upwards. I’m still largely enjoying my running which is the main thing, especially when I get a chance to run in a new location such as some of the absolutely epic efforts on a recent two-week jaunt travelling round Portugal, 36-degree heat and massive hills notwithstanding. I’m basically in the “running when I want, how I want” phase at the moment, which is less frequent, and less intense than the last couple of years but that’s cool.

It’s all good. There’s things in the pipeline to keep me ticking over, to keep me blogging and hopefully most of all, keep me motivated to keep on running. Another race or two for this year hopefully, and then potentially the next big adventure in early 2023 (no more marathons, remember?). Watch this space.

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