Like a lot of people I took up running 8 years ago, fairly late in life to fill a void. In my case it was a fast developing sedentary lifestyle, expanding waistline, stressful job and something to replace football to satisfy my craving for competition. It started with one lap around Hove Park, gasping for air, and several walk breaks. However, even back then I loved the feeling of satisfaction when it was over. However, I was still overweight, and I was a hopelessly addicted smoker of 25 years, so I needed a proper challenge. That challenge came from entering the London Marathon on a whim off the back of being dared by work colleagues. I knew nothing about training plans, every run seemed hard at that point, but my own pride and vanity made sure that I was going to give it everything I had (a trait that would become my best friend and worst enemy in equal measure). I set myself the aim of running under 4 hours, and proceeded to try and seek as much advice, mainly from Kurt Hoyte and Runners World. It also gave me the discipline to finally quit smoking for good, go for months on end teetotal and introduce some form of healthy eating. I ran London 2007 on a swelteringly hot day in 3.39 literally falling over the line, and vowed to myself I would be much better prepared the next time. I shed 3 stone, joined Arena 80, introduced structured training, and the next goal for me was a sub 3.15 or to be officially termed good for your age.
It was at this point, that the worst parts of my obsession would hold me back for several years. I had discovered that although I was severely handicapped by having the speed of a turning oil tanker (an accurate description by my former team mates at football), I found that I had one advantage over a lot of runners, in that I could run exceptionally high levels of mileage without incurring injury, fatigue or loss of interest. That was it, that was my USP to competing with other runners and getting my times down below 3.15. 22 weeks of 80 to 100 mile weeks, regular double days, never mind the quality, if I was running that mileage, the quick times would automatically follow, or so I thought ……………..
At that point, it didn’t occur to me that I might be turning up to races flogged to death, having peaked several weeks earlier, I knew best, despite some very good advice. I posted 3.15.03 at Berlin, and at the first Brighton Marathon, had a very public meltdown, where I completely overheated and had to be helped over the line by two people, like a drunk at closing time. Still it didn’t put me off and April 2011, ran 3.13 at London, and so I decided my next target would be the Holy Grail of serious marathon runners, the magical sub 3 hour marathon.. 2012 and 2013 were lost years to injury brought about by poor strength and conditioning work and still overtraining, and unrealistic pacing, all brought about by the obsession of running under 3 hours. It consumed me, and I ignored all sensible indicators that I was lining up to these races nowhere near prepared. Then something changed. In New York 2013, I stopped thinking about the time, and instead looked at preparing to run the face and finish strong, and it worked. The last 6 miles have some energy sapping hills, but I finished strong and ran a pb, albeit by one second, but the feeling of striding across the finish line was one I wanted to replicate. I made adjustments to my training, cutting back on mileage, running with Mark O’Gara who had the same aims as me, and resizing my targets in smaller chunks (3.10 and then 3.05). I went to Tokyo, and despite a congested start where my first 5k was the slowest, I ran 3.09. Then six weeks later at Brighton 2014, I registered 3.04, again with near perfect pacing. That was it, I had cracked it, the sub 3 was in the bag, I just had to turn up to the next race and it would fall in my lap. However, redemption was still some way off.
I signed up for Amsterdam, and just to prove that obsession without logic is bordering on insanity, I trained like a madman, 100 mile weeks back on the agenda, still keeping hard tempo runs along with marathon paced runs. A 3 minute pb at the Maidenhead Half convinced me I was doing the right thing, and I was averaging 6.44 minute miles at the 19 mile point at Amsterdam, when the wheels came careering off, with cramp, dehydration and crippling stitches meaning another limp performance and a 10 minute split in halves. I realised that day I needed help and needed to change. I still wanted to achieve the goal, but I wanted to enjoy running again, and the positive aspects it bought, and ditch all the negative stuff. I took some advice from Bob about building my leg speed in the winter months, did some proper strength and conditioning work, cut my schedule from 20 to 15 weeks, cut out all double days, and had a beer from time to time, whenever I wanted, without feeling guilty. I saw the improvement in my form, suddenly my back and hips were strong, and I was feeling fresh, positive and looking forward to the hard sessions with an increased sense of vigour and determination. I then ran 1.23 at the Brighton half, and all of a sudden some people started taking notice of me, and were thinking I had cracked it again. Suddenly there was a different pressure created by the expectation of others (instead of my own), oh hell, they all think I am going to do it, but I am not sure I do anymore. I didn’t say I was completely cleansed at that point.
A swollen ankle out of nowhere in the week before did little to help me, and a horrendous weather forecast for Sunday, with gales of 25mph predicted, just added more and more doubt. However, despite all that fear and uncertainty, I found some calm and serenity. I would have a sensible race plan, execute it, take on fluid and energy when I needed to, and I would taper properly, and if it didn’t happen, it was going to be because I wasn’t good enough on the day, and not because of anything within my control. Having known the course, the first four miles are lightening quick, and from the elite start, it is almost downhill, so I would try and bank some 6.35 miles for when I hit the exposed coastal part, not knowing how strong the wind was. I knew the test would be running up Basin Wharf at 20 miles, and could I hold target pace at that point, when fatigue, doubt and loneliness swamp you.
Race day came, ate a lighter breakfast, downed my concentrated beetroot juice and walked down to the start. I was pleased to see weather conditions looked a lot more favourable and meet a few familiar faces. I felt as calm and relaxed as I can remember. Forget the time, do all the right things, don’t panic and the rest will take care of itself. 6.31, 6.37, 6.35, 6.40, First part negotiated, how did I feel, pretty good, now let’s get up St James Street and on to the coast. If I could average 6.45 for the next 6 miles in and out of the wind, I would be on track. I took my gels, and despite the fact I dislike drinking from paper cups, took a few sips of water from each station. The wind was swirling all over the place, gusty at times, but in all directions, and now the sun was shining, it started to feel really hot. I am mildly claustrophobic, so I tend to avoid running in the crowds, so run wide, but I also found it comfortable latching on to some groups to carry me through phases of the course. I found the route to Ovingdean really hard and it resulted in two of my slower miles (6.47 and 6.50). I thought Christ, I am expecting a strong westerly wind when we turn and head back into Brighton, and I have gone off too fast, first wave of doubts. However found 6.42, 6.43 and 6.44 for the next 3 miles, and I was averaging 6.41 for the race with the worst of the hills over, so I was still on track. I picked up the pace again coming through Kemp Town and the pier and clocked 6.38 and 6.37. I didn’t know what I did at halfway, but I was still on 6.41 average, and I set myself the challenge of not being above 6.43. Coming up the drive, started to experience some really uncomfortable stomach pains, which meant I skipped a planned gel and water stop. Previously this would have thrown me, and I would have put the handbrake on, and it meant that Church Road and New Church road were mentally and physically the worst parts of the race. Bloody hell New Church Road goes on for ever, when is it ever going to end, but I just remember running past Ray Matthews and him shouting “stay compact” and immediately I shortened my stride, lowered my arms and went a bit more upright and just focused on the next mile, which really helped. At the turn on Boundary Road, I had only gained one second on race average, and was approaching the key part of the trace. Stay on track, and don’t blow it. The return stretch was a lot better, and I was enjoying the crowds and overtaking a number of runners approaching the drive, and inside my target.
I came down to the seafront and BOOM cramp in my left leg, like an electric shock. This was history repeating itself, it was just a matter of time before the stitches came and I would have to stop and stretch or slow down to make it more comfortable. However, until it made me hobble I am just going to keep running, I was angry now, so without focusing it, or looking at my watch, the seafront part had come and gone and I was at my nemesis at Basin Wharf. I had not even checked my watch, but a friend of mine shouted at me that I had over 2 and a half minutes in the bag on the tracker. I totally blanked him, which was very rude, but I just thought I may have that cushion, but I am slowing, the onset of cramp is flooding my mind with doubt and I have a track record for folding in the last six miles. Looking back now, those 4 miles to the peace statue were the nearest thing to pure flow I had experienced. I felt a calmness guide me and just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and maintaining a good form. People I have spoken to say they have never seem me so focused, and looking at some of the photographs and my mile splits at that time (6.54, 6.49, 6.48, 6.47), would indicate that I found something I didn’t think I had.
I knew once I got to the King Alfred, if I was still on track, that unless complete disaster struck, I would have a chance, but again if I had to stop and stretch, that could balls the whole thing up. Just get to the peace statue and the crowds will carry you along. That came and passed, and most people were shouting at me that I was going to do it, and for the first time I allowed myself to think I was going to do it. I had visualised and dreamt running down Madeira Drive coming into finish a sub 3, hundreds of times in training. However my emotions got the better of me, and I descended into a ridiculous comedy celebration, blowing kisses to the crowd and waving my arms like a mad man. I was running six minute miling for the last 600 meters and felt very dizzy when I crossed the line. I even managed to run past my family who had come to watch me, without even acknowledging them. I thought I would be crying or screaming with joy, but I was just completely exhausted. I met a few of the Arena runners and Lee was brilliant, and I just envisaged walking on air, but it didn’t really sink in until I saw the results on the website.
Does being a sub 3 hour runner define me as person or a runner, does it make me a better runner than my friends and colleagues, does it make feel more special. The answer to those questions is an emphatic No. It has however become a symbol of my frailties, weaknesses and the journey to overcome them, and if you want something badly enough, then go out and reach for it. I also think when I stopped obsessing about the outcome, and focusing on the parts I could control, I found mental strength I didn’t think I had, which served me just as well 2 weeks later, when I missed running another sub 3 at London by 32 seconds.