When I first start running back in 2003 I used to bash out 10Ks for fun with the odd half thrown in for good measure. But I haven't raced a 10K or half for a couple of years; I've mainly concentrated on marathon and ultra distances.
Last Sunday I ran my first Greater Manchester Marathon. I'd actually entered this in 2017 but in the end was derailed by the second Kong Mini Mountain Marathon event, as at the time building fell fitness had become a priority.
However during my 10in10 training I've been largely staying off the fells, although ironically most of my recent marathons have been more trail than road based. In fact my only flattish road race of any kind for quite some time was the last Liverbird New Year's Eve Marathon.
So I really didn't know what to expect at Manchester. Yes, I've been amassing the miles this year, running more than I ever have to this point, as a result I'm much fitter than I was three months ago and around half a stone better off. But the last time I ran a good road marathon was back in October 2015. Also, already having 60 miles in my legs in the week leading up to Manchester didn't bode well - whenever I've been gunning for a decent time in the past I'd barely run in the week before!
My game plan was to stick with the 3-hour pacer for as long as possible. Hopefully then the worst case scenario would be to not slow too drastically and hang on for a sub-3:15 Good For Age time.
Things didn't quite stay on track at the start. First of all I was supposed to meet up with fellow 10in10ers Rexy (running his 100th marathon), Sean and Jonathan before we set off - but due to parking literally two miles away in a fever of congestion paranoia, I was at the wrong side of town so missed them with the masses milling about. I did luckily bump into Mark Haynes, another fellow 10in10 runner, and we wished each other all the best.
I spotted a few Trawden AC clubmates too including Jogger Joe, Jean Baistow and, in the same start pen as me, Dave Lord along with Emma Bailey from Barlick (who'd had a traumatic journey having broken down at Haslingden and was running her first marathon). As we chatted I didn't really notice we were towards the back of our pen, so when the gun went off it took around a minute to cross the line and the 3-hour pacer was already fading into the distance.
Cue a silly sprint, weaving through the crowds as I tried to narrow the gap to the pacer - if I wasn't with him at the start there was no way I'd be able to stay with him! Thankfully my adrenaline-fuelled first mile brought me within touching distance so I settled in alongside the knot of people surrounding him. The Team TAC marshals complete with loud cowbells lined the streets around here and it was good to see some more friendly faces.
But now for the hard part. To run a 3-hour marathon you need to average 6:51 min/mile. Not a single one of the hundreds of training runs and races I've done over the past two years had been anywhere close to this pace, never mind a marathon with already tired legs and a bonus two mile "warm up" jog to the start line!
I tagged along with the pacer, religiously topping up with gels and fluid, hoping I could stay there as long as I possible. Around the five mile mark I was feeling surprisingly good so started edging in front of the inevitable throng of folk with the 3-hour man. It was nice to have a bit more breathing space so I pushed on a little.
Six miles in, a group of TAC supporters including Verity were waiting under a flyover and when they spotted me the noise was deafening! Then shortly after fellow Humbug Adam Howard breezed up from behind (Verity's other half and probably the main reason for the noise). The previous morning he'd been hobbling around after Pendle parkrun, so I was quite surprised to see him. We had a chat for half a mile or so then he cruised ahead - as he'd run 2:58 here before I left him to it!
Crowd support along the route was really good, second only to London in my experience. This, plus the appreciable adrenaline rush that comes from running a big event, really does help to keep you going.
The loop and turn at Altrincham arrived and I started seeing the hordes of people coming the other way just in time to high-five Jonathan and Sean who were running ahead of the 3:15 pacer as they'd planned. Soon after I saw Dennis Smith and David Howard both going well several minutes up on the 3:30 pacer. Next along were 10in10ers Rexy (another high five) and Mark (busy checking pace on his watch).
Just before a left turn around 14 miles in it was good to see Autumn and co cheering wildly, exactly the spur I needed to press on. On the long stretch of Brooklands Road, Chris Crabtree was still taking pictures (thanks pal!) and coming the other way were Stu from Howler Events, Jean and Jogger Joe.
I was still feeling unusually good and running well ahead of the pacer so for the first time in the race my thoughts drifted to a potential PB. The conditions were perfect, cool and dry with a lot of cloud cover - I might never get another chance like this, I just had to keep going.
I've run enough marathons to know things can easily go wrong; I've had my fair share of wall experiences and general fatigue kicking in towards the end. But for some strange reason this one felt good and I started passing people with around six miles to go, always a morale boost right when you need it!
Unfortunately, now I was out of sight of the pacer, I was relying on my watch, which was annoyingly creeping ever out of sync with the official mile markers and reading almost two-tenths too far. This discrepancy, if genuine, could mean the difference between securing a PB or even a sub-3 time!
Fuelled with a bit of frustration, I kept pushing as hard as I could. Around 23 miles a chap drew alongside me saying "I've been passing everyone except you, what are you aiming for?" I laughed and said "Sub-3:15 was original goal but things are going quite well, so hopefully 2:57 or 2:58!" He asked how I was feeling and when I said I was good he pulled away from me too.
I rounded the final turn and couldn't believe how long the home straight was! Way off in the distance I could just about see the finishing gantry - it felt like the best part of a mile away! All I could do was keep pushing, no point slowing up now, I could rest long enough after I'd crossed the line. The last 100 metres were lined with lots of supporting spectators urging everyone to the end. When the clock finally came into view, I gave it my all and crossed the line in 2:56:59 - a marathon PB by almost two full minutes!
I an elated and quite emotional state I phoned my wife Joanne straight away to share the news. After a long chat I waited a while and saw Jonathon, Dave, Emma, clubmate Kevin and others come in, but missed other friends amidst the sheer number of people passing through. Grabbing a couple of protein drinks and an alcohol-free Erdinger, I made my way out of Old Trafford, legs still feeling pretty good, which was just as well as I still had a three mile jog to get back to the car!
Breaking things down back at home, I couldn't believe my run stats. Not only did I achieve a negative split overall, but miles 21-26 were five of my seven fastest only substantially bettered by my initial crazy catch-up effort! My average pace was 6:45 min/mile and my slowest mile was 6:51 - I literally haven't run a single mile at that pace for months!
It might sound silly but I'm a firm believer in mind over matter. If you really think you can achieve something, the extra boost you get from a strong mental attitude really does have an appreciable impact - this was clearly the case for me at Manchester.
So stay positive - if you really believe you CAN do it, you WILL do it!
I just need to carry that thought into Blackpool Marathon in a fortnight (to hopefully prove this wasn't a fluke) and most certainly the impending Brathay 10in10...