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.

J