It’s taken me a few days to decide how best to approach this one. It’s been difficult to try to put my thoughts into words and adequately describe the range of emotions I felt on Sunday morning, starting and finishing on the very spot where I stumbled over the line after running 26.2 miles back in 2011. It was a strange day, a run like no other I had ever done before, veering at times from total panic and despair to stunning elation, and everything in between.
So much was going through my head on the morning of the race. The pessimist I am, I was convinced that I had already failed in my attempt to get under an hour and a half. Nothing had gone spectacularly wrong, but for some reason driving over I was probably the most nervous I have ever been approaching the start of a race. How was the weather going to be? Had I eaten correctly? Had I slept enough? The answer to the last one was an emphatic no, as I had gone to bed far too late and then spent six hours drifting in and out of a weird, restless sleep, full of nerves and thoughts of failure following my last attempt at the target at Silverstone a year ago. But with the knowledge of how much work I had put into this one in the back of my head, with weeks of training in my legs and over 300 miles covered, I was terrified that all that good work could be undone by something as seemingly trivial as eating too much pasta the night before or simply the wind off the Irish Sea trashing the last four miles of my race.
My nerves were definitely not helped by a sudden realisation strolling up to the line that we were in serious danger of missing the 9am start. Usually I would aim to arrive a bit before and attempt to stand as close to the front as I can so that I avoid the crush that can occur at the bigger events while everyone sorts themselves out. Here though, strolling past the Liverpool Arena with less than five minutes until KO and over half a mile still to go to the start line, it suddenly hit home what was happening. Breaking into a jog, I arrived at Pier Head to hear the countdown to the start. The jog became a sprint, and with a quick “good luck” to my fellow athlete, I shot across the road literally seconds before the first runners hammered round and past me, onto the opening yards of the run. And then panic really set in. It was impossible to join the start pens at any point other than the very rear, which meant starting dead last, behind potentially as many as 8,400 people according to the press blurb. I watched the start time roll on; one minute, two minutes, three minutes. And still we weren’t moving. I knew that my time would be from crossing the startline rather than from the time the gun went off, but I also knew that the opening miles were likely to be extremely congested. I began compiling the race report blog in my head, “The Best Laid Plans”, documenting how weeks of suffering in training all went out the window in the space of a few minutes due to my complete inability to tell the time, and another attempt at the sub 1:30 was to end in failure before I had even ran a yard.
Finally, I got over the startline and the race was on, a full seven minutes after starting gun had been fired. Seven long minutes that dragged on beyond all compare, full of thoughts of failure, of anger, of sadness and remorse. But now at least I was on my way and the adrenaline of the event took over. Whatever mistakes I had already made went to the back of my mind; I had a half marathon to run. As feared though, the opening sections were pretty hellish. Instead of a nice steady opening pace, checking how I was feeling and making sure I was not going too fast, I was coming up against hundreds and hundreds of people running at totally different paces, doing their races and sticking to their own plan for the day. I felt like such a horrible rude bastard, striding up behind people minding their own business, cutting through the middle of them and weaving across to where there was the most room for the next overtake. If you are reading this and I spoiled your race at the beginning – I’m so, so sorry. I tried not to barge through at all and instead take my time waiting for gaps to appear. This was at the expense of my own race early on, as energy was wasted slowing down, speeding up and riding on and off the foot-high kerbs along the centre of Princes Road, but I couldn’t let my own stupidity in arriving at the start late ruin other people’s race. I’d made my bed and I wasn’t going to force other people to lie in it.
Thankfully after three or so miles we were heading into Sefton Park, with wider pathways and thinner crowds. I had been keeping an eye on my pace throughout, knowing that anything under 6:52 a mile was good. Miraculously, despite the problems at the start (and the hill on Parliament Street) I had more or less achieved this which gave me a bit of confidence. I just hoped I’d not knackered myself up too badly doing it. Mile four slipped past in 6:37. Mile five, 6:40. Hang on, was I was running too fast? I felt great; barely out of breath, no sign of injury or dehydration. I had to consciously hold myself back at times, yet I was still running 10-15 seconds faster than my target pace. Mile six: 6:45. I began to think of the final section of the run, downhill and then flat with the wind behind me. If I could keep this up I would be in a great position to hit my target.
With over half the race done, we began to drop down through Otterspool Park and towards the promenade which would be the long sweep back to the finish. Apart from one 7 minute mile as we went through a congested underpass, every mile was now significantly under my target time. Mile ten: 6:39. This was getting ridiculous. Entering the 11th mile it was suddenly brave new territory. I had never gone this fast for this long before. I’d had a good couple of training ten milers, but nothing like this. I kept thinking, the crash is coming, the crash is coming. Mile eleven: 6:42. Still ten seconds per mile faster than I needed to go. Still I felt comfortable. Only two miles left. This was now the furthest I had run in the new lighter shoes – was an injury looming around the corner to ruin everything? The wind was behind me, the terrain flat. Mile twelve: 6:41. Holy shit I’m going to do this.
The last mile was a bit of a blur, to be honest. I’d already clocked in my head I only had to do something like an eight minute mile to hit my target, and suddenly the pressure was off. I came past the Liverpool Arena for the second time on the day, this time faster, less panicked. I was starting to feel dizzy, elated. The hard work was done. The big crowds were there, cheering, applauding. I flashed past where my supporting crew were stood. I never saw them, but I heard them shout. I knew where the startline was now, how far I had to go. I sprinted past the 13 mile marker and onto the home straight then I honestly cannot remember the last few yards. I was aware of the crowds, of the clapping, but emotion took over completely. Surely I had done it. Surely the split times had been right. Surely my Garmin hadn’t been lying to me. I collected my medal, stumbling along in a daze. Then I looked down at my watch, barely daring to change it onto the “total race time” screen.
I almost collapsed with joy. I had not only hit my sub 1:30 target, I had done that and also obliterated my personal best by nearly 90 seconds, and last year’s Silverstone attempt by over two and half minutes. I felt like hugging someone. I shook the guy’s hand who had finished alongside me but I didn’t hug him, that might possibly have been a bit weird.
Going into the race I’d had a feeling in the back of my mind an idea that I should be able to shave off the 36 seconds I needed after Silverstone get under 1:30 again. A longer, harder training plan. A month off drinking. New, lighter shoes. Cooler weather. The trial 13.1 mile run the week before in heavier shoes and with the second half into a horrific headwind had delivered a 1:29:18, so I kinda suspected it was possible, but I tried not to think about it too much in case I jinxed it. So much can go wrong on the day, and in fact after half a mile on Sunday I was convinced it already had. Not so.
The weirdest thing is, I actually think there might possibly be more to come. When I think how much energy I must have wasted over the first couple of miles, when I think about how slowly I negotiated the underpass, or the strange muddy, grassy bank before heading onto the promenade, and when I think about the congestion I got caught in down some of the narrower parts of the course just after half distance. I feel like I can shave this time down still further. Or blow up at the end because I ran faster elsewhere – either/or, I guess.
Whether I want to put that kind of pressure on myself again or not though, I don’t know. The perfectionist in me would have liked to have gone one tiny second faster to get into the 1:27s, but that’s not important now. What’s important is I have finally achieved something I set out to do. A target I’ve had in mind for longer than this blog has even existed. And I’ve done it starting from the back of the field, surging past all and sundry like Sebastian Vettel at Brazil last year. I was 478th over the line out of 6,714 finishers, meaning I probably overtook over 6,000 people over the 88 minutes I was running. 68 people a minute, or roughly one a second. Even better, my race time elevated me up to 213th place, which makes me feel enormously proud of myself and makes all that training worthwhile.
Days like Sunday remind me why I put myself through all this absolute nonsense, really. The pain and suffering on the bad days is far, far outweighed by the amazing feeling when you finally achieve something you set out to do. Hitting a target. Running a new PB. Completing a marathon. Storming over the line to hundreds of people shouting and cheering. I have achieved all of these things on the streets of Liverpool, a place that is fast becoming increasingly fond in my heart every time I go back there. And, I can now once again look Sefton Park and Upper Parliament Street in the eye without shuddering in fear after the dreadful hell of miles 16-23 in the marathon. It’s nice to end a blog on a high for once – I did what I set out to do. The failures of 2012 are fast becoming a trick of the mind. And so now, it’s onwards, upwards and onto Port Sunlight in May for a sub-40 10k attempt.