Monday, 23 April 2007

The thousandth man

One Sunday London lay burning in the unseasonable morning sun. At eight am, in the blue start area, I lay on the grass and admired the pure cerulean. The cloud cover that had dogged the week's temperatures was far away. It was going to be a scorcher. In fact, this, the 27th running, was the warmest London Marathon ever.

The preparation had been immaculate. A string of PBs, weekly mileage from 50 to 75, followed by a good rest. Everything was pointing towards a successful run. I was strong, and I knew it. Sean and I were well fed and well rested, courtesy of Kath and Ned and John and Jane, Sean's old friends from Cambridge days. We'd stayed in Blackheath itself, only a short drive and walk from the start areas. Oh, it was all perfect. And, like John Milton, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." Bring it on, we were thinking, fools that we were.

There were even enough toilets this time. Though the queues for the urinals were so long that men began peeing on the outside canopy of the urinals.

A former student of mine approached and spoke to me. I didn't recognise him at first. He was aiming for sub 3:00. Everyone was aiming for sub 3:00. He ran 3:08 it transpired.

I applied sun cream. I have mixed feelings about this. The problem is that it can impede your perspiration. On the other hand, it can help prevent dehydration, not to speak of melanoma. So I applied it to my ears and nose and shoulders and suprasternal notch. Which is why I now have a burnt forehead. I was more liberal in the application of vaseline to the usual places.

It was hot. Thousands of extra bottles of water were used. I saw one half conscious man attended by paramedics at about 25 miles. Someone died. Shakespeare writes: "These high wild hills and rough uneven ways / Draws out our miles and makes them wearisome" (R2, 2.3.4-5) perhaps suggesting that he'd run in the north. But hills are not as fierce as the blaze of the noonday sun.

Ok, I'm going to cut to the miserable stuff and cut it short, because I've already complained enough over the past 24 hours. The start was slow. There were too many people. Too many slow people. At the end of the first mile I succeeded in passing two sexagenarians carrying a big Saltire and wearing t-shirts that said they were "Proud to be a Scottish Sikh". Now, impressive as they were, the front pen is meant for sub-3:00 runners anyway, and these guys weren't in that league without the ten-foot flagpole. So what were they doing there? And what were the other thousand or so people I passed in the first half hour doing starting in front of me? So it started slow. Over 8 minutes for the first mile. Then it continued slow. I couldn't find a rhythm as I was continuously dodging people in order to make progress (and at the end, my watch told me that I'd run 26.7 miles). And it warmed up. And then I couldn't find a rhythm because my heart rate was lifted by the heat, and my 6'40" pace was not in its proper, fitting, moderate effort zone. After hitting this pace in all those hilly 20 milers in blustery, adverse conditions somehow it wasn't going to come today. Halfway came at 1:29:30, and I still hoped for a big negative split. But it was still crowded and still heating up. And then I was running 6'45"-6'50", more like it, but with a little too much effort.

I wasn't alone in finding this. I passed quite comfortably at this stage a number of people I've seen in local races whom I know are around my level. Good, well-trained runners struggling. Joyfully I passed "the beautiful couple", who always steam past me at the midway point of local 20-milers, running a huge negative split. It was my turn. But there the joy ended. All around me runners were falling like late April cherry blossom, peeling off to the barriers and walking, holding their sides, puffing their cheeks, stretching their calves, looking like the haunted or hunted. And I was passing them in their dozens, but I was slowing too. At some point I revised down my target. Perhaps a PB was still on, even if my initial target wasn't. Then I revised it down again. Sub 3:00 would do fine. Please. Until close to the end it was still possible. I did the math at 20 to check, and knew that 6:50s plus a little sprint would get me there. I increased my effort, but drifted down.

Some point after 22 I hit the wall. I've never hit the wall before. It wasn't sudden. I gradually became aware that I was running with real effort, yet my watch was telling me that I was running at 7'20" pace, and it felt like there was a big piece of elastic attached to the back of my shorts. This was no fun at all. This was hard, and I wasn't enjoying myself. Why couldn't I run like I normally can? Where were all those 5'40" mile intervals? The answer: behind me, on the streets of Cambridge.

I lumbered through the last few miles. At 24 I was almost sick and had to ease off a bit. At 25 I realised that I was struggling to keep the sphincters sealed at both ends. The finish wasn't at all interesting. I got a medal and a t-shirt that reads "You see impossible, I saw the finish line". But not really; at least I didn't see it clearly because I was on the wrong side of it. The official time was 3:03:26. I came 1000th among men (the women's is a separate race in London, and it really was today, as their race started 45 minutes earlier -- though many women run in the mass race as well). Sean, aiming for 2:50, and running so strongly of late, ran a 2:59:59, placing him on the right side of the line that really matters, with only a second gracing him.

There's a life lesson here: when it's hot revise down your target before you start. Not when the statistics are beginning to tell against you. Not when the chemical shifts in your blood are offering you advice. MEMO to self: learn this lesson. There will be other races.

So, it turns out that heat is worse than hills and rain and wind and sleet. My interest in running the Mumbai marathon or the Marathon des Sables has evaporated. Perhaps I'll go for the Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska, or maybe something in Greenland or Norway. Or perhaps I should give up everything else in my life and go to train in South Africa, with its combination of heat, hills and altitude.

I beat myself up quite a bit about this. And felt crushed. How could all of that careful preparation be thwarted by an adverse meteorological coincidence? And then today I sat down to read Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder (an epic on the book of Genesis written in the 1660s and early 1670s). Calvinist moralisers are seldom good sources of comfort in times of darkness. However, this is what I read:
O the unperfect state of human bliss!
The happiest mortals still some comforts miss,
And such man's wayward nature is that, one
Felicity denied, all else seem none.
I guess she has a point. Or maybe that 3:03 wasn't the call of a predestinarian God or a malign global warming deity and I'll try again.

After a visit to Blackheath, and a barbecue -- the sun had, with mordant irony, already hidden its glory behind a veil of cloud cover -- and here thanks to John and Jane and Ned and Kath and Suzie and Edie for company and hospitality -- Sean drove me home. We sat in the garden under the blossoming cherry tree and drank a bottle of '96 Chateauneuf de Pape and had a chocolate tasting. And felt a little better. Sense of humour to be restored soon.


Wednesday, 18 April 2007

The Red and the Burning

Dear all,

The London marathon takes place on Sunday 22 April 2007, at 9:45 (mass start). I will be at the blue start, and wearing number 1283.

I'm not going to tell you my target time for fear of eternal humiliation. However, it might involve running at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds per mile, or 4 mins and 9 seconds per kilometre. All the training has been promising. Only one small, though distressing injury, and I've managed to get the miles in. A good week's sleep and everything should be fine. Now we just have to wait for the unexpected train wreck ... which is probably taking shape in the profoundly sore throat I've had since Monday. Could it be hayfever, or is there an aerobic-capacity infection brooding there?

There are no online runner alerts on the London Marathon website, as far as I can see. You will have to wait for the email, or check for provisional listings after the race is completed (i.e. Sunday evening):
News will also be available on BBC Radio Five Live, and
Or if you get lucky you'll see me at the finish on TV on BBC One. Start looking at 12:35, but don't expect me until 12:40 plus however long it takes me to crawl over the neophytes who push their way to the front in order to walk the first mile.

It's been some time since I last wrote. I have not been stationary since the 2:58.46 outcome in November. There have been some good moments. For example, the one when I woke with a hangover on Boxing Day after a splendid Christmas dinner that concluded with port. Being more or less incapable of anything else I read the running club newsletter and saw that there was a race at Lamasland at 11:00. It was 10:45. Lamasland is just over a mile away. I got my kit on and ran to the start line. The gun went off as I arrived at the back of the crowd. So I started and after half a mile or so managed to ask someone how long the race was ... 4 miles. I wasn't too unhappy with 24:32, given the port. It was certainly an improvement on the Bedford Half Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, where I fully expected a PB and spent the last ten miles wondering if I was going to collapse from dehydration or hypothermia first. It was my only bad race so far -- and I learned just how damaging a bad race can be -- and it taught me that in fact you can't just ignore serious diarrhea in the morning, no matter how fit you are.

Since then there's also been the Buntingford year end 10, the Folksworth 15, the Stamford St Valentines 30k, the Bury 20, the Cambridge Boundary Run, the Stafford 20, the Ashby 20, the Sandy 10, and the Oakley 20, all of them but one involving new personal bests (and it did shine, snow, hail, sleet and blow very fiercely during that one). That's a lot of 20 mile races.

The Cambridge Boundary Run is worth a mention. You run around the boundary of the City, as close as you can without running in silly places. There were only a handful of burning tyres on the route. There are very few signs to direct you: you carry a map. At the start of the week it was billed as a 22 mile run. Every day it crept up, until it reached 25.6 on the Saturday. That's 0.6 miles short of a marathon. A friend of mine took a wrong turn, and ran a marathon. It had been raining heavily all week, and most of the course was off-road. Some of the paths hadn't been cut free of brambles. I was bleeding at the end, though you couldn't really see for the mud. It was a tough course. I jogged it at 7.6 mph, and came 10th, albeit only because I saw a mile from the end that there were three Cambridge University Hare and Hounds shirts 400 metres in front of me. There's nothing like a little institutional animosity to pick up your heels. There was a room full of trainee masseuses at the end. One took my calves in hand, leaned over to her colleagues and said "these people: their muscles is different from ours, isn't they?"

The Oakley 20 miler was the last, one I'd intended to run slowly, and succeeded for the first mile by falling in behind some 50 year olds who didn't look like they were going anywhere fast. Then they ran miles 2-12 at 6'35"-6'40". Then one of them stopped (the end of the first lap) and went home, and the other started jogging. I had no choice but to carry on at more or less the same pace, and inadvertently hit a new PB. I spoke to a guy who finished just ahead of me. "Well chased" I said, as he'd fallen well behind on one hill then later flew past me. He explained: he had to go up the hills slowly because his hip didn't rotate properly. In fact he was technically disabled. Now that's not the first time that I've had a conversation like that, and I'm wondering if it tells you something about the competitors or the consequences of the sport.

I'm a little nervous, and desperate to stand behind that ribbon. All we -- me and forty thousand others -- can do is rest and hope that the sweltering weather forecast is wrong. Say a silent pagan prayer on Sunday morning.