All that worrying. All that stress. Would I last the distance? Most importantly, would I even be allowed to complete it? I had literally had nightmares in the days leading up to the race, about everything from crashing, having punctures, getting left behind, being late for the start and many others too bizarre to go into. I struggled to get off to sleep the night before, and as soon as I woke up on the morning – a good hour or two before I needed to – I couldn’t get back to sleep under any circumstances. Constant thoughts of failure prevented me from nodding off, and when it was finally time to get up and about I was so nervous I could barely eat my breakfast. Only twice before have I felt like this on the day of an event; on marathon day back in 2011, and then on the Liverpool half earlier this year. And yet once I’d actually done it and all the dust had settled, this will possibly go down as one of the easier days at the office. Not bad for a double marathon on a pushbike.
Full of butterflies, I checked my bike for any issues, fixed my number on the handlebars and peddled the few miles to the start at The Etihad Stadium. It was no more than 200 yards from my flat before I’d already seen some fellow Great Cyclers, a pair in full team kit and hammering along at twice my speed while I gently pottered along trying not to knacker myself up before we’d even set off. I suppose we all warm up in our own way.
It was a nice buzz arriving at the stadium as hundreds of people milled about on their bikes. The little trundle over to East Manchester had settled my nerves a bit and I’m glad I did that instead of driving and spending the last half hour pre-KO getting myself worked up in a lather while I sat in traffic. I lined up with (I’m told) around 2,800 people and waited, patiently. I felt eerily calm, despite not knowing even what the first 100 yards would bring, let alone the next 50 miles. I probably hadn’t trained enough. I’ve never ridden the distance in one go before. And yet I was a sea of tranquillity, my mind at rest. I was focused and ready for action.
The klaxon went off we trickled over the line to, inexplicably, Mumford and Sons, those well known bastions of inspiring exercise music. Enthusiasm for a 52 mile bike ride plunged instantly but luckily after navigating a small chicane I was out onto the course proper, and their oddly repetitive blend of privileged poshboy hoedown wankery was but a distant memory. It was just me and my bike, and a lovely stretch of open road.
The early stages were nowhere near as congested as I was expecting as we rattled into the City Centre for the first time. The past two running events I’ve done have been proper clogged up at the beginning, both my fault due to where I was stood, here there were no issues whatsoever despite starting a good halfway back from the front of the pack. It was brilliant in fact, straight onto Alan Turing Way then Ashton Old Road at over 20mph and feeling comfortable. If it could be like this for the next three hours or so I’d be laughing.
Looking at the profile beforehand it looked like it was generally downhill for the first half of the lap, which explained the early pace. It felt quite strange, but wonderfully liberating, chipping along, running red lights and shooting across junctions without worrying about a lorry suddenly turning left and wiping you out or a Magic Bus pulling out from its stop without indicating. It was even more bizarre heading onto the Mancunian Way for the first time, a stretch of motorway I would never normally get a chance to ride on. The natural inclination was always to stick to the left, as if the road was open to traffic and no matter how many times I consciously positioned myself in the middle, within minutes I would be back on the left running over drain covers and kerbside debris like an idiot. It was quite an adjustment to make.
The first lap was pretty quick at just under 37 minutes and an average speed of over 20mph. I was a little bit worried I had started to overcook it, but everything felt smooth and comfortable. The little inclines were barely registering and apart from nearly wiping someone out navigating a hairpin in Salford Quays, it had passed off entirely without incident. I was sad to see a few with punctures on the way round, even within the first mile or two of the event. It just goes to show how common it can be running skinny tyres on shitty inner-city roads. I felt for those I saw, and prayed it wouldn’t happen to me on the way around. I’d had quite enough of that over the past 12 months, thank you very much.
Worryingly, I started to feel a bit of fatigue as we hit the Mancunian Way for a second time. The wind was gusting a bit, but I wolfed down a flapjack and kept my head down, aiming for the feed station at Old Trafford and a well deserved drink. I saw some poor bloke absolutely stack it on an innocuous bend onto Chester Road and again felt tremendous empathy. No one needs that. Luckily he was up and smiling as we whizzed off down to Old Trafford. A quick pit stop and feeling revitalised, I headed for half distance.
The third lap was an absolute revelation for me as I was dealt a lesson in cycling tactics and I began to grasp exactly how important they can be. For years, I’ve watched road racing on TV and understood the concept of racing in a bunch and how you use less energy doing so, but I’d never experienced it myself, only ever riding solo or with one or two mates at best. As we swung onto the A57(M) for a third time, I found myself just behind a couple of other lads riding at roughly my pace. I followed them for a bit and felt I was being held up, so I ducked out of their slipstream and was instantly hit by gusts of wind which meant I could barely get past them. I cycled a few hundred yards then watched as they both pulled out and overtook me before slotting in front of me. It instantly became a whole lot easier and I felt they were holding me up again. A couple more cyclists joined us, and we began to take turns at the front. Without ever saying anything to each other, we were working together as a group, sharing the load and taking rests in the slipstream when it called for it. The group swelled to around 15, and we were suddenly hammering along a good 6-7mph faster than I was doing on my own the previous lap without expending anywhere near the energy. It was incredible, and genuinely one of my favourite ever moments on a bicycle.
Sadly a quick splash and dash pitstop for a drinks refill at Old Trafford as part of my two stop strategy meant I was left behind by new accomplices. I was flying solo again, the roads around me almost totally deserted. I could never hope to catch them up again but luckily the return back to East Manchester to start the last lap was relatively easy with the wind behind me and another flapjack down the hatch. I had begun to lap people now which was playing havoc with my “tactics” as I looked for some more cyclists play peloton with. It wasn’t until I headed out onto the motorway for the final time when I finally found someone who was riding at a similar speed, and again we began swapping position, taking turns fighting the headwind. It was beautiful; ne’er a word spoken between us, just a silent understanding of how to work together on the three mile stretch up to Old Trafford and conserve a bit of energy for the final push.
It was more or less plain sailing after that, the remaining six or seven miles to the finish passed by in what seemed like a flash. My legs were cramping a bit and my back was aching, but it was nowhere near as bad as I’ve felt on most of the runs I’ve done in the past. Unbelievably, I had more or less maintained a 20mph average speed over the entire ride and I kept having to revise my target in my mind. I originally wanted to avoid being hauled off the course after three laps, but after last week’s revelation I knew I could do that barring a crash or a puncture. Lining up on the startline, I thought it would be nice to beat my marathon time of 3:19, after all, this was double the distance. Why not do it at double the speed and hit the same time? After the first lap though I knew I’d piss that even if I slowed up considerably once I approached the uncharted waters of 40 miles and beyond. So I decided to aim for under three hours. Then to get finished by 11am. Then under 2:45. All unthinkable before the start, but eminently achievable in the cold light of day, to my great surprise.
In the end, I came home in 2:34:30 and an average speed of 20.26mph according to the official results. I actually clocked it at slightly slower, possibly because it wasn’t quite 52 miles (50.2 by my reckoning) but it was still a result beyond my wildest dreams going into the event. I was placed 836th, just inside the top 30% of the field, which pleased me but definitely shows I’m a better runner than a cyclist as I am usually roughly in the top 1-5% depending on how arsed I have been about training. Still, an amazing result that I couldn’t possibly have imagined beforehand, and a brilliant day out on the streets of Manchester, riding alongside real people in a real race for the first time in my entire life. A really well organised event, fantastic value at £20 considering all the free energy drinks, gels, bananas and so on, not to mention the cost of closing and policing all the roads for a full day in the middle of (supposedly) summer, and I can honestly say I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. All 154 of them. All that was left was a short ride back to my flat and a well deserved beer.
There was a nice little extra in the run up to the event too as I posted my pre-race blog and was informed by WordPress that it was my 50th post. Again, probably not a massive deal in the grand scheme of things, but an interesting piece of symmetry ahead of the ride on Sunday anyway. That’s two half centuries nicely in the bank now, neither of which I would probably have thought I would be capable of achieving back in April 2011 when I first set this little place up. I suppose I need a new target now, something else to aim for. Something else to bore you all with. More cycling. More running. Who knows? For now though, I’ll just focus on what I achieved on Sunday: my first ever double marathon on wheels, and it was bloody great. Entries are already open for 2014. Who fancies it?