Race report: Manchester Marathon 2021/Liverpool Rock n Roll Marathon 2021
I have not written a race report in a while on the basis that until a few months ago I had not run a race in a while.
I had been training for the 2020 Manchester marathon, and then Covid happened. Covid was rough, but (as is becoming somewhat standard in my life) running helped me get through it (assuming that we are in fact through it :|).
As a result I have been training for the Manchester marathon for basically 18 months. 18 weeks is hard enough, but training for 17 weeks to have the race cancelled a week before, surviving a global pandemic, and then doing all the training again was quite the ask.
In between those two training cycles was:
- a period of running lethargy - I became a cyclist through the first lockdown. Alex and I went on many an adventure.
- a new job - if you want things to change, you have to change things up. I want to make sure that anything I do I do properly, so I opted for the full on life reorganisation (and thus far it is working).
I (obviously) used Training Plan to track my training. After all, that is why I built it. If you are already fed up of reading you can see exactly what I did (training wise) here: Manchester Marathon training plan. That page links to every run/swim/ride/yoga session that I did over the course of a modified training plan that I have developed based on previous training experience. Each activity links to the respective activity on Strava too.
The stand out parts of the plan for me were:
- I opted to run more with my running club - Chorlton Runners. My plans have regular marathon pace runs which build up to 10 miles at marathon pace. These have historically been very hard to do solo so the intention was to run these as part of the club's Tuesday night club run. Running with other people is great. It provides a psychological boost, and this year I found these runs less mentally taxing. That said, it does then lessen the psychological boost that you get running with others on race day.
- As I often do, my approach to training plans is to wherever possible run somewhat faster than the prescribed/required pace. Now, admittedly this is terrible general training advice, but you have to acknowledge your own running/physical/psychological quirks and this is one of mine. Getting the balance right is tough. I did not know what pace exactly I was targeting, so there was flexibility to run things faster if I felt up to it. That said flexibility does not (and should not) equal pressure.
- Some members of the running club targeting sub-3 marathons set up a WhatsApp group. It was super interesting to get insight and opinions from other people targeting the same goals and to see how different people trained. Unfortunately a lot of the members of the group ended up with injuries, and my takeaway was that the main cause of that was too much too soon or unfortunate accidents.
- During the plan I opted to race. I did:
- Sale Sizzler (5k) - 17:37. 58th place. PB.
- Southport 10k - 36:21. 9th place. PB.
- Chester Half Marathon - 1:19:51. 38th place. PB.
Generally I hate racing. For the most part, whatever race distance I am doing I will say that I hate but standing back from it I am of the view that 10ks are the worst. They are a 5k and then another 5k. They always hurt.
My race was suboptimal, and the week prior to the race also was not ideal. I feel as though I possibly peaked a few weeks too early. Getting around the Chester half marathon absolutely took it out of me (mini race report - went out to fast, nearly quit, second half.. held on).
A few weeks before I had run a PB marathon (2:50:07) as a training run. This was not really intentional and again I would not necessarily recommend this. I went out for a 20 mile long run, and my running partner was late. I did a few loops of the local area before he joined. He then led us a little further out of Manchester than I had anticipated and by the time I had got back to the start I was up to 24 miles. The rest is history.
There was a weird psychological switch that flipped whereby I felt as though having run a PB the race was no longer actually as important. Alex (being the absolute babe that she is) even bought me a medal (and its probably a better medal than any actual race medals I've received).
In the week leading up to the race I had been having all sorts of interesting stomach issues, and the day before the race I managed to consume loads of high fibre food instead of low fibre food.. because.. well.. I am an idiot. My brain just wasn't working and I thought that eating a giant vegetable salad was the appropriate pre race fuelling strategy shrug.
I took 5 High-5 slow release energy gels with me and had no specific plan of if/when/how many I would consume them. The general idea was 'every 6 miles or so as required'. I had gone for the slow release gels on the basis that I'd been having stomach issues in the run up and whilst I had tried them out I had not tried them out enough and certainly not whilst running at pace over long distances.
The race started late (suboptimal) and then I went out at <6:15 min/mile pace. I was aiming for 2:45 which I knew would be pushy. I was going for a go big or go home approach noting that in reality its very difficult to make up time in the second half of a marathon. You have to go for broke.
My mistake was not slowing down at the first signs that 2:45 was unfeasible. The first 5 miles were tough, but the route going through the heavily supported city center made it very easy to keep pushing too early. At 2 miles I saw my parents (who had ventured down to supported my brother and I for the first time) and at 7 miles Alex popped up which was super welcome and momentarily pulled me out of my slump.
At mile 9 things went wrong. The lower right hand side of my stomach started hurting an unreasonable amount and it suddenly became very difficult to breath. I'd just taken a gel and I am unsure if this was a trigger or if the trigger was simply running faster than my body could handle.
I made it through to mile 13 alongside 2 club runners. There was an amazing amount of support on the streets and given that I was wearing my Chorlton Runners vest (a well known local club) that also had my name on it I was getting a lot of support. One guy shouted "Holy fuck you are incredibly popular", I gasped "local running club, name on shirt" and then the second guy stated "Oh..., you're Tom" which made me laugh/choke before dropping off the pace.
I slowed down and made it to mile 15 but at this point my inability to breath without being in excruciating pain was killing my race. I had to walk - I didn't have a choice. Theres that awful moment where you contemplate your situation and try and discern what you can actually do. I was only just over halfway, was not prepared to walk 11 miles (even though I'm adamant that I would never not finish a race) and was considering how depressing it would be to be around everyone else celebrating their incredible successes. I also didn't have my phone and had no way of telling anyone. I kept going.
On the off chance it was a stomach related issue I found a portaloo and reflected on my life. It wasn't a stomach issue. On reflection I thing it was just a major stitch and/or pulled muscles. I opted to have another gel whilst static (nothing to lose right..) and continued on my way. Some kind supporters were trying to motivate me to run again but sadly 'not far to go' etc doesn't really apply at mile 15 :(
I ran/walked to mile 17 where Alex had made her way. I had been looking out for her on the off chance that she had pain killers (again, terrible idea). She did not. But.. she's a superstar and an insane runner herself. She managed to find painkillers, get a tram, and find me on the course within 2 miles (Love you !). I think this saved my race.
Placebo or not, having painkillers gave me some relief and some additional motivation. The insane support on the route also meant that it was incredibly tough to give up - people would see ! Miles 20 -26.2 were much better than miles 15 - 20, and whilst I never got back to those 6:15 min/miles, I was getting fairly close to sub-3 pacing and I had time in the bank from the first half.
Mile 24 was great/awful - it goes through Chorlton (the suburb of Manchester in which my club is based). There was a lot of support. It motivated me, sped me up, and then left me battered realising that I still had 2 miles to go XD.
I walked a little at the final water stop just to focus on getting it down me in the hope that I could then run through to the end. HOKA were sponsoring the race and they had put up an inflatable arch around half a mile from the finish. It looked a lot like a finish line and was insanely demoralising. That said, I knew it wasn't the finish (some people didn't) and managed to keep going and sprint through to the finish.
I crossed the finish line and died. Classic. A medical person asked me if I was OK. I said no. Classic. I ran a 2:53:06. It's 6 seconds over the New York Marathon qualifying time. Classic. If I hadn't walked at that last water stop and/or had had the presence of mind to be looking at my watch I could have run 7 seconds quicker. That said, (as I understand) my half marathon time will qualify me for NYC. Whilst way off my original target I was incredibly proud of. This was another one of those races where I know I couldn't have done any more. I did my best on the day in the circumstances, and I still ran a super respectable time.
My original goal when I started training was to just run another sub-3. My training went so well that I adjusted my goals and then failed to meet them. It is super intriguing to me the psychological effect of lowering a target and then missing it.
So originally in some sort of weird birthday swap I had purchased my brother Charles entry for Manchester and he had purchased me entry for the Liverpool Rock n Roll marathon. Liverpool was meant to be in May 2020 but it was rearranged for the 24th October - an unreasonable 2 weeks after Manchester.
I had always intended to run it but I was clear that Manchester was my A-race and that I'd see how I felt afterwards before deciding on an approach for Liverpool. I had originally felt that if everything went well I'd try and get another sub-3 so that I could say I'd done two sub-3s in two weeks. My plans changed, and I got even more optimistic than that. I decided that because I knew I had 2:50 in me I'd reduce my Manchester goal from 2:45 to 2:50, and get it in Liverpool. Further mistakes were made..
So.. when we arrived at Albert Dock at 9:15am the half marathon had not set off. This should have been an indicator of what was to come..
The marathon was also delayed and didn't set off until 10:15am. If the delay was because they were getting marshals into position and making sure that the course was well marked then I would not have had an issue with the delay. Unfortunately however, they were not.
The two compères at the start line were funny and kept everyone engaged whilst waiting for the start. The medical teams at the end of the race were also super friendly, on it, and really did a fantastic job. Other than that the organisation of the race was pretty abysmal. I will never do another Rock n Roll race as a a result.
Rock n Roll are leaving the UK. This was the last instance of the Liverpool race and assuming the previous races were organised in a similar manner it is clear to see why.
At the front of the race the field was somewhat spread out. The course is absolutely ridiculous - non sensical twists and turns everywhere. I couldn't begin to speculate on whether the marshals on course were volunteers or paid staff but a majority of them seemingly really did not want to be there - they were just standing there playing on their phones or having a chat. Basically anything but directing the runners. On numerous occasions I had to shout "which way?" and that was not something that I wanted to be doing having (as always) gone out too fast.
At Mile 7 we were zig zagging around hills in a park next to Anfield. My chest suddenly started hurting again in a similar manner to how it had hurt at Manchester. A little piece of my soul died at that point.
I slowed down and basically managed it much better this time such that it didn't get worse. I also had other things to think about like navigating the course XD.
I had seen Alex in the early miles (she had travelled up through the night to support, and had an interesting story to tell - she certainly wins the most committed supporter award) and my parents had also come up to support with Charles' girlfriend Cheryl. They were supporting in and around the park (the one benefit of all the zig zagging) and that was certainly welcomed. By the time I'd done the main uphill/football stadium loop I was pretty broken. When I saw Alex again on the way back towards the city I was probably not smiling as much.
My hat also blew off in the wind which was suboptimal (although a good indicator of the not ideal race conditions) as I passed by a water station a kid tried to chase me to give it back thinking that that was what I was shouting about. In reality I was asking for directions.
At mile 10 the inevitable happened. There were no marshals and there were just random cones scattered around. The runner in front of me was a few hundred metres in the distance. He turned left, so when I got to the turn I did too. We ran down the hill to a point where 2 other runners were on a main road looking confused. At that point I knew immediately and turned around hoping/guessing that the right way was going right at that previous turning. It turned out that it was. It added half a mile to my race, cost about 10 places, and cost me a PB.
In any other circumstance I would have been livid and probably given up but because the race up until this point had been farcically bad the inevitable wrong turn was just laughable.
Once back on course we zig zagged under some underpasses (really..?) and headed towards the city. There may as well not have been a marathon on and on numerous occasions I wasn't even sure if I was still on course. We headed through China town and my mental willpower was flagging at this point. The wind had blown lots of the cones over and the marshal at this point (at least they had one?) had opted not to bother trying to pick them up. We were running on one side of a closed road, no-one was really sure what was going on. There was live traffic, lots of honking and this was on an uphill section too. It was truly great.
The came the parks. Oh dear lord. The parks.
The course creators obviously wanted runners to include every possible path in the parks in the route. Again, terribly marked, no marshals etc etc. It was a case of try and keep in eye contact of the person in front and hope.
The parks wern't closed to the public and we were running through at 11am. It was insanely busy and we were at the front of the race. Park users just looked on bemused as I came charging towards them. The runners were not the only people who had no clue what the hell was going on. At one point - I kid you not - I had to ask a member of the public for directions in a major city marathon.
At mile 21 my girlfriend Alex was directing/running with runners to keep them on course at a point where you go around a fountain/roundabout thing and then sharp turn back on yourself down an unmarked path. I found out afterwards that members of the public had approached Alex to question the situation thinking that she was a marshal.
At Mile 23 I was all but done. I'd gone out too fast, I'd gone half a mile extra, I'd spent the past 150 minutes shouting at marshals and trying to navigate whilst cognitively hindered. I'd basically come to the conclusion that some walking would be involved in getting to the end and when you mind breaks in a marathon its almost impossible to get your head back.
The final miles are straight along the front. At the start of the race someone had pointed out that the wind would be in our favour on the final stretch. I had latched onto that positivity not appreciating that that meant the wind would be in my face for the rest of the race XD. Anyhow, the rest of the race was over.. now I needed to finish.
I managed to run to mile 24. Miles 25 and 26 felt like they included a lot of walking but in practice looking at Strava afterwards I didn't slow down that much. My idea was to walk as appropriate so that I could at least run the final straight. Every time someone overtook me I'd try to start running again and give up shortly after. I was thoroughly broken. Its fairly stressful when you are so close but feel like you can't run. Similarly after the race it was so easy to just think to myself 'surely you could have just run' and beat yourself up about it. Anyhow, it's done. I did manage to sprint finish across the line at which point the previously mentioned medical team were on the ball and sorted me out.
I finished in 2:54:14. Slower than Manchester but the course was about a thousand times harder. The extra half mile was 3/4 minutes and genuinely did cost me the PB. I'm not bitter.