MK Marathon 2023

The day of the Milton Keynes Marathon 2023, following on from the account of the training for this race.

So eight months after entering, and after a nominal four months of much-interrupted training, it was marathon day.

Nowadays, there’s the traditional option to listen to your own body, but also to listen to the array of data from wearable tech. My own body told me I’d slept not very well last night, and indeed for most of the last week, that I felt a bit run-down, and that I was thoroughly lacking in confidence.

My Garmin watch told me that my “body battery” was starting already depleted (only 40% when I woke up), that my sleep score was poor and had been for that last few days, that my heart-rate variability was “low” and had been for a week, that my resting heart rate had become more elevated, and that my training status was “strained”.

So, not a lot of immediate things to be positive about there!

I had my chocolate porridge for breakfast, along with a can of Coke as a small contributor of caffeine as I’d forgotten to bring my usual caffeine capsules with me – not important, but another small negative.

I’d done most of my equipment preparation last night, but the final step was to prepare my electrolyte drinks – a really intense 500ml for drinking in the half hour prior to the race, and three moderately intense ones for drinking during the race. I’d got a set of sports-capped water bottles (harder than you’d think to find – those caps seem mostly to be on 750ml or 330ml bottles), but I now found they were designed with a cap which couldn’t be removed, so I had the extra challenge of getting the packet of powder through the 2 to 3mm-wide spout, using the equipment available in a Premier Inn bedroom.

About half past eight I went out and met my friend Paul, who had travelled to cheer me on and to top up my supplies – he would be giving me a 500ml bottle of electrolytes and more Jelly Babies at approximately 10km intervals, and while doing so replacing my sweaty headband and handkerchief. I could have carried the water on my back and the Jelly Babies in my running belt, and put up with the sweat running in my eyes, but this way is much to be preferred. We chatted for a while and then Paul continued on, via a visit to the start and finish areas, to his first cheering point at about 2.5km into the race.

My Premier Inn was only a few minutes’ walk from the start, so I was able to stay in my room, resting and having final visits to the bathroom, until after 9.30, after which I checked out and put my suitcase in the car. I walked to the start and did some final stretches and drank the rest of my pre-race electrolytes, and soon the Yellow Wave crowd gradually thickened.

Back in September (eight months ago) I’d boldly chosen a 4:19 prediction to give to the organisers in order to get myself in this start wave that spanned 3:30 to 4:20 (notwithstanding what the pictured notice said), but past experience in races has been of a lot of slow people in front in the early stages so I gave a finish time I was far from confident about, in order to get myself in amongst a quicker bunch, and only over the months that followed did I settle on 4:15 to 4:19 as my target pace, eventually and serendipitously finally settling on 4:19 as I bore in mind the interrupted training.

We were soon underway, a few seconds in advance of the estimated 1005, with a crowded initial funnel and then spreading onto the roads of Central MK. One chap fell over in front of me after about 700 metres but seemed well enough for me not to stop. My legs told me they were feeling heavy and they did not add to my confidence. Although the first couple of kilometres were downhill and so could have been easier, I’d planned for a faster pace here (even effort taking into account hills) – I might have been feeling better in these early stages if I’d had a warm-up run, but while I’ve usefully done that before shorter fast races where warming up the heart and leg muscles beforehand is very helpful, I was wary about using extra energy today.

Me approaching Paul at about 2.5km

I got a good cheer from Paul at the planned bus-stop, before we turned off the dual carriageway and onto the first of the paths that constitute the large majority of the race: this was crowded, as was to be expected, and the pace slowed a little for a short while, but we soon sorted ourselves out and could again run at the planned pace. Another cheer from Paul about a kilometre later as we doubled back on ourselves to pass close to the bus-stop, and then I knew he’d be moving to the first of the more critical rendezvous points where he’d be passing me supplies.

Me approaching at about 3.5km

The first drinks point was at about 5km, and was frantically busy. A decision to use paper water cups rather than plastic bottles (all of which were collected for recycling) has greatly increased the demands on the volunteers staffing these water stations – someone needs to set out all the paper cups on the table (and hope it’s not windy), someone needs to pour water from the jugs into the cups, someone needs to refill the jugs. And potentially move away discarded cups that are put onto the tables by runners who’ve finished with them. And because the cups are smaller than the bottles, I suspect a fair few people want two of them. At the first station, lots of people were clustering round the first couple of tables, waiting for more water to be poured, with a frantic volunteer calling out that there was more water further down, but without actually looking at what the situation was. I duly moved further down, and found there was none at all at the last table, not even empty cups yet, so I ran on without any. This error by the volunteer was later repeated at another drinks station, but I avoided falling into the same trap again.

At the second drinks station at 9.5km, therefore, I drank two cups. My legs were still feeling heavy but no worse, and I hoped that I could maintain things. The pacing on my watch and its information fed back to me was working well, and I kept at a total of 10-20 seconds ahead of my overall pace plan. As I approached Paul towards 11km, he wasn’t looking and my waving failed to attract his attention. As I pulled up in front of him, he remarked that I wasn’t supposed to be there yet – at the time I took that to be a positive observation about being just ahead of plan, but it turned out that the data with my position from my Garmin LiveTrack was lagging by several minutes (as well as suffering from a bug which mis-numbered a couple of the kilometres) so he thought I was about a kilometre away. No harm done and I took up my electrolyte bottle, topped up with Jelly Babies, and gained sweat-free items.

Dealing with those four items and making sure not to drop them while running was a little tricky, but I managed to get everything stowed and drank down the bottle which was then stuffed into my shorts until the next official drinks station where I could dispose of it. I continued to run at about the expected pace, and so maintained the 20 seconds or so lead on the plan at the end of each kilometre, at the end of each of which I ate another Jelly Baby – my first marathon without the gels that always seemed a good idea but may have contributed to stomach issues, whereas the JBs seem to go down well and being literally bite-sized make it easy to consume a little and often.

After a while I saw a WhatsApp message from Paul flash up on my watch, to comment that at that rendezvous point I’d been on 3:57 marathon pace: he hoped I wouldn’t regret that later. So did I, but it was only 3:57 if I’d maintained that pace throughout, a pace which was skewed by the initial downhill section and my intention gradually to slow throughout the race. An extra little out-and-back around 18km was added to what was in the published route, presumably to make sure of the accuracy of the course distance, and which took an extra 20 seconds, so though I’d crept up to 34 seconds ahead of plan, that took me back to 14 seconds ahead – with another 20 seconds to be taken out on the second of the two laps.

Although I had originally thought I might not take on “official” water when close to getting electrolyte water from Paul, I ended up drinking two cups of water at each water point, regardless, and as a copious sweater I think that was right. Paul was well prepared for me at the 20km rendezvous with another friendly cheer and more of the same supplies.

Once the half-marathoners had left us and we started on the second lap, the runners started to thin out, though the crowds intensified. I’d put on my bone-conductor headphones, not quite sure what I would do with them – most of my solo running is done listening to audiobooks (or Test Match Special cricket if that’s on), and I almost never listen to music, but I’ve inclined towards not using them in races so as to absorb the atmosphere. Something today prompted me to put on my running music playlist. I regularly switched it off when I wanted to enjoy the camaraderie of the fellow runners, the support of the crowd, the potential instructions or cheering of the marshals, or when I just wanted some quiet, but I regularly switched it on for a bit when I was in an otherwise quiet section, and I think it helped keep up my spirits.

I found myself bounding along, and all thoughts of my early heavy legs had gone – I felt really good, and allowed myself to run at a natural fairly consistent pace. As I’d planned gradually to slow, this had the effect of me gaining a few seconds each kilometre to start with, but that “few” grew bigger with each kilometre as I ran at a steady pace which was becoming ever faster than the planned pace at that point. I started to reel in and overtake other runners, and began counting them.

I saw Paul for the final time as planned at around 29km, and rather counter-intuitively I started to feel stronger and stronger. I’d overtaken the 4:15 pacer very near the start: not a huge surprise as she was supposed to run at an even pace rather than my plan gradually to slow, and I expected to be overtaken by her in due course. But as my margin grew to 251 seconds (just over 4 minutes) by 30km, I began to wonder if I could stay ahead of her and I determined that if she should catch me up, I was going to give it a good go to latch on to her.

My legs felt good, increasingly bouncier, and as the margin grew still further and I overtook my 100th runner on the second lap, I was in a self-reinforcing spiral of growing optimism and belief which in turn made my legs feel that little bit lighter. By 35km I was 437 seconds (more than 7 minutes) ahead and felt no real weariness, and now decided 4:10 was potentially within my grasp simply by continuing at more or less the same pace.

My counting was wandering from time to time, but somewhere I overtook my 200th person, and many of them were walking or otherwise wilting, while I felt strong.

I’d picked up a stone in my shoe about 2km into the race, and had contemplated stopping to take it out, but rejected that several times. Then a couple of times I’d decided to wait for a bench or somewhere suitable to sit to do it, but then failed to find one, and then forgot about it as the stone found a quiet nook for a while. But now the stone was hurting and really cutting into the bottom of my heel (with hindsight, by this point it was probably the blister it had caused that was more painful than the stone itself), but I wasn’t going to stop so close to the finish, and adapted my running technique a little to reduce the pressure – creating an unplanned even more bouncy running style by avoiding so much heel strike and perhaps spreading the load on my muscles across the race by changing my technique.

I had two people fall over in front of me, one at about 700 metres, and one much later – the latter was the only person who threatened to overtake me, but whether due to the fall or other causes, I then pulled away from him too – I think the shot of adrenaline it gave me was as strong as that it probably gave him. At 40.7km we had to pass carefully a woman who was lying on the floor receiving medical attention: I hope she’s ok.

The finish was uphill, something I’d known since I saw the first saw the new 2023 route and saw its elevation profile. I’d expected that to be a killer, but although I slowed slightly, I soon realised I still had a decent amount of energy left, and so picked up the pace, overtook more people, and though there were a couple of false dawns wondering exactly which was the last corner and where the finish was, when I eventually saw it, I was able to break into a thrilling sprint and pass a few more people.

I crossed the line in what was given officially as a chip time of 4:05:41 (though I measured a few seconds less), thus knocking 21:40 off what I regarded as my marathon PB (my lockdown 42.22km run in April 2020), though 25:06 off my “official” PB set in a race (MK 2021).

With the exception of the drinks stops, I ran the entire thing, ran it with negative splits (faster second half than first), sprinted at 4:40/km uphill at the end, had no foot ligament pain, had no digestive distress, and on looking at the results later found that I’d overtaken 229 people after the 14.1-mile checkpoint, and not one person overtook me. I’m thrilled with the time, which was so much better than I’d planned and expected, but equally pleased with so many other aspects. It really went incredibly well – I just wish I’d found the moment and the determination to remove that stone earlier!

I chatted briefly with Paul, made up and drank my recovery shake, then collected my medal, t-shirt, banana, brioche and goody-bag (declining the alcohol-free beer), and then sat down with Paul for a short while, finally removing that stone which had not only given me a blister but created a hole in the shoe where my foot had pressed it down.

After a short rest, we walked back to the car by the hotel, where I thanked Paul for his marvellous assistance, both practical (on the day and beforehand) and spiritual in his support – and for the photos some of which are on this page with his kind permission. If you’re going boating, or exploring the towpaths on foot or bike, or just like to watch informative and entertaining cruises around our beautiful waterways, do check out Paul’s Waterway Routes canal and river maps, and canal and river DVDs – thoroughly recommended and not just because I’m in some of them.

So, what can I learn? Be confident – and don’t let feelings or data on the day sway you too much if you’ve got evidence of being in good form. The Jelly Babies and electrolyte drinks strategy can work well (and lends itself to ad hoc top-ups as someone in the crowd may well be offering Jelly Babies to runners, though I wouldn’t want to rely on that too much, though I did have a couple extra today). Allow yourself to go faster from half-way if your body is saying it’s happy. Eating a lot in the day/week beforehand is more likely to be beneficial than otherwise. Take stones out of your shoes. And wear a sunhat – sunburn was the only significant impact afterwards other than the blisters: I ran 6.5km at a reasonable pace on Wednesday morning with only slightly stiff legs.

So what’s next? Sub-4 hours one day has to be tempting, but getting my 5km time under 23 minutes and a brisk half-marathon in the early autumn are probably next on my list, along with just running for the joy of it. Maybe a return to MK in 2024 if an April holiday doesn’t impact too much on the final stretch of training – to be considered.

All photos on this page except the first four are copyright Paul Balmer and used with his permission.

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