Not the Boston Marathon

Sunday 19 April should have dawned with me in a Travelodge near Boston, Lincolnshire, ready to drive the final distance to the town to arrive about 8am ready for the marathon later in the morning.

Instead, I rose at 6am at home, had a banana for breakfast, and Lucy and I left home at about 6.40am to travel the short distance to the less than half-built Suffolk Business Park on the edge of Bury St Edmunds, for the ultimate in long training runs – a Sunday morning jaunt of 42,195 metres – better known as a marathon.

The Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in the race being postponed, ostensibly till 13 September, though I’m now having doubts about that – other races into October are already being cancelled, including the Great Eastern Run which I would have entered. Will we ever again live in an era when we can casually gather in our thousands?

With the spirit and science of the new laws being about minimising the risk of coronavirus transmission, we needed to be somewhere that minimised the likely number of other people around, while maximising scope to keep distance from any that were around. But I also needed and wanted scope for Lucy to be my crowd support, and my drink and food station.

So three weeks ago, I did a trial run, doing 32 km (20 miles) on two loops each approximately a mile long, sharing an edge where Lucy could be positioned so that I passed her regularly, as was the plan at Felixstowe. The run was mentally challenging (the more so being on my own) but demonstrated the practicality. I found more people there than I’d expected, with a fair few dog-walkers and family groups taking their exercise and probably adopting a similar approach of seeking a quieter spot. But I had no difficulties maintaining distances, with wide footpaths/cyclepaths on both sides of the road, and the road itself being available as a route with hardly a vehicle about.

But to reduce potential people-contact further, on 19 April we were ready for a 7am start. The weather was a bit breezier than ideal, but not really windy. The temperature started at 7° and rose to 14° over the course of the morning – very satisfactory. Lucy was well supplied with water to offer me, mileage signs to wave, gels to supply every 5km, clean handkerchiefs every 10km, a clean sweatband at halfway, and instructions as to what to do when. She’d also brought Start and Finish signs borrowed from Rally Obedience, and a water pistol as starting gun to get me underway.

So, at 7am on the dot, I was off. My Garmin watch was set to synchronise with my phone and initiate a Livetrack so that various people could keep track during the morning. I looked down at it after about 20 seconds, and it seemed to have crashed, which was a bad start. I stopped running, stopped the watch, whereupon it leapt into life, and I set off again with the technology now behaving itself.

With just over 26 miles to go, the concept was 26 sections each of approximately a mile – a quiet eastern loop which was to be the bedrock of the run, planned for all the odd numbered miles, and potentially available for others if needed. The western loop was to be for the even numbered miles, at least in the early stages, though I was a little concerned that it might get busier later in the morning, particularly on the northern edge which borders the residential area. I also had three out-and-back options available, which could keep me away from the residential areas, add variety, and were also useful in regulating the service – by checking whether I was over or under the required whole number of miles at the start of an out-and-back, I could make it shorter or longer as needed to bring the whole run back into alignment with the concept.

My aim was a marathon time of 4 hours 29 minutes. There was a deliberate ambiguity there as to whether it was 4:29:00 or 4:29:59. My pace was planned to get me to 4:29:00, but knowing that I could slip slightly (but only slightly) if needed and still get in under 4½ hours. That gave me a target pace of 6:22/km, or 10:15/mile.

My general strategy was to walk about 120 metres of each kilometre – ideally at the end, but sometimes at least partly in the middle of the kilometre when that fell alongside Lucy and I was walking to receive gels or other items, or more particularly walking to take on water.

I deliberately put about 30 seconds “in the bank” over the first two loops (3 km or so), then tried to maintain the correct 6:22/km pace thereafter, albeit not obsessing about the odd second either way, and with my natural caution tending slightly more towards 6:20 or 6:21 so that the buffer slowly grew. This 6:22 was the pace I’d trained for, and the pace I believed I could probably achieve, but I was not truly confident about it – but even less confident that I had much scope to go any faster, so I needed to be careful that I didn’t get carried away in the early stages.

Lucy was great and offered encouragement, waved her “Go Stephen” flag from the London Marathon, and always had the right supplies on hand even when I’d forgotten what was due when. Getting water every 3.2 km and a gel for every 5 km seemed to work well – and having a clean handkerchief regularly was a great luxury. Lucy had even brought along a couple of spare hats, so that she could be various different members of the crowd each time I saw her. Then one time I found her hiding behind a piece of paper on a stick, and using a strange voice. All soon became clear: she was also clutching a version of our friend Paul’s extendible “Go Luphen” sign that had first appeared at the MK Marathon, and subsequently at several parkruns, and she was hiding behind a printed photo of Paul. It brought a smile to my face, and was a reminder that Paul and Christine were among those supporting me, virtually, from afar.

One of the advantages of the run/walk approach, in addition to avoiding my legs getting too tired and my knees giving out, is that I have a short while to check messages on my phone in the walk breaks. I can in theory see short messages on my watch, but it rapidly becomes overwhelming when there are several or they are long, and can’t display emojis or pictures.

I found messages of support from Mum, Dad, Mark & Debbie, and pictures of the banner I’d last seen in 2018 during the London Marathon.

Thomas and Ben with their banner, with Lucy’s flag in the background

The run went well, and though no multi-hour run can be said to be easy, when I got to half-way at 2¼ hours I was feeling reasonably strong. I’d had no real problems with other people – one instance of pedestrians on opposite pavements chatting to each other across the road, so I’d had to run down the road, and a small number of instances where I’d had to cross the road back and forth to avoid people, but nothing challenging, yet still enough people to wave or say good morning to.

I ran the entire thing listening to Test Match Special of the 2019 Headingley test against Australia, which was interesting, amusing, soothing, and not critical if I dipped out, so that I was able to remove my headphones to interact with Lucy every mile.

The route wasn’t thrilling, but it was comfortable and presented no route-finding anxiety, no social distancing anxiety, and as with other lapped races I’ve done, once you find the right frame of mind, you just keep going. The out-and-backs added a bit of variety and some slightly better scenery, but also a little more ascent so I did them a total of just four times.

They also provided a mental arithmetic challenge – having to work out how many kilometres (to two decimal places), say, 17 miles, is, then look at how many kilometres I’ve actually done as I pass Lucy at the nominal 17-mile point, then work out how many metres it will be till I get to 18 miles, then the difference between those two figures and thus how many metres I need to do before I should turn around, and then add that back to the first figure to find out how far I should have gone at the turn-around point.

In London, I said that once I got to 20 miles, and I turned west and for “home”, I started to believe I would succeed after all and despite my knee, and understood the oft-quoted adage about a marathon being a 20-mile warm-up followed by a 10km race. Today, 20 miles or 32 km was when it started to get harder. Not a lot: I didn’t “hit the wall”, I just started to suffer a little from mounting fatigue – or at least it felt that way at the time, though by the time I got to kilometres 35 and 36 I had a little fresh energy and gained a few more seconds. The fatigue was real, but was well within the ability of my brain to override my legs and push me on for a bit longer.

Apart from the slowly growing fatigue, I wasn’t suffering from pain in my knees or feet, my digestive system was behaving itself, and I generally felt pretty good. I pressed on and the number of kilometres to go started to sound encouragingly few. The 41st kilometre was the hardest, and as I was ahead of schedule I let the pace for that km drop to 6:27, but the 42nd kilometre was relatively easy by comparison – the second half of it really was the home straight, heading with the breeze behind me and the gentlest of downhills in my favour straight towards Lucy. I had enough energy not to need even to contemplate doing the walk break for this kilometre.

Lucy was waving her “385 yards to go” sign, the amount remaining after 26 miles, but in fact I was slightly past that, with about 210 metres left, deliberately planned as a short but variable length out-and-back to enable me to finish at the Finish sign she then held.

I was able to collapse into the chair Lucy had brought with her, and be given my medal from Lucy, certificate from Paul, served recovery drink, food, and have my shoes taken off – this really was the luxury way to run a marathon. I’d finished in what I’d recorded as 4:27:21 (deliberately about 30 metres too far, to avoid Strava or Garmin rounding it down below marathon length), knocking 25 minutes off my marathon PB set in London.

I’m really pleased with that. Weather conditions were excellent even if not quite perfect, and I had the benefit of personalised supplies delivered to me. But I had no other crowd support, no other runners to help motivate me. I had to be constantly vigilant for other people to ensure maintenance of social distancing. And although the course was fairly flat, it was still hillier than Boston.

I achieved fractionally faster than I’d aimed for, but consistent with that aim. I achieved a very balanced pace control throughout. Ignoring the deliberately slightly brisker first three kilometres and the last one, then kilometres 4 to 41 were all between 6:15 and 6:27/km.

I had no problems with “hitting the wall” as at Milton Keynes – interestingly with only a banana for breakfast beforehand, and no focus on pre-race nutrition in the previous day or two.

Afterwards, I had great tiredness, and suffered a bit of soreness from sweaty fabric along the top of my shorts – I guess my Runderwear boxers weren’t pulled up enough. I inflamed my existing plantar fasciitis somewhat, but not unduly – it was no worse than it has been previously. But no blisters or other rubbing on my feet, no problems with my knees (hooray!), no digestive issues, no insatiable hunger, no soreness of muscles either immediately or in subsequent days (wow!), no cramping during the rest of Sunday or overnight, no overnight twitching or inability to settle.

As I write this, the “real thing” is due to be on 13 September, but the Great Eastern Run in October has already been cancelled. Outdoor events with fleeting contact pose a very small risk in comparison to indoor gatherings with prolonged proximity, but at the moment it is difficult to be confident that things will be sufficiently back to normal by September, but we’ll see. But in the meantime, at least I’ve satisfied myself and achieved what I set out to do from a personal performance perspective.

Thanks to Lucy for her wonderful support in person, and to everyone else from a distance.

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