Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Happiness of the Long Distance Runner


The months before...
The training began in the depths of winter at the start of January and the plan was to follow one of Hal Higdon's ( advanced Marathon training schedules. I decided early on that I would forgo one of the midweek runs and concentrate on 2 sessions at Dromore AC and 2 weekend runs, with my long run taking place on a Sunday. Thankfully, this year, January and February were fairly mild so I didn't have to contend with sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow like I did last year. As we headed into March the training was going to plan, the sessions at Dromore AC were a good mix of tempo's and quicker runs, the Sunday runs were creeping ever closer to 20 miles and I had the Larne Half Marathon to look forward to. There was a period of bizarre weather towards the end of March where temperatures rose to 20 degrees C and on the day of the Larne Half it was glorious sunshine from start to finish. I got a PB at Larne of 1-46-23 which filled me with confidence going forward. Early April and as a precaution I took a week's rest as I was beginning to get a small niggle in my left shin; this may have been a little over cautious but I just didn't want a repeat of last year where I got cellulitis in my lower left leg. The 20 milers were coming every other Sunday and all 3 were completed in just under 3 hours which put me on target for 9 minute miles and a 4 hour marathon. Then as if the last 16 weeks hadn't happened, I was on the taper, the mileage was reduced and all the doubts and worries of running a marathon plagued my mind. What did I have to worry about, the training had gone well, I was confident but still...last year's marathon and my dodgy right knee were at the forefront of my mind. I was getting great support from fellow club members and I knew deep down that I had the ability to complete the marathon in around 4 hours.

The weekend before...
All I had to do now was collect my race pack, get my kit sorted, plan a playlist for my iPod and eat plenty of carbs. I wrote out a comprehensive check-list of what I needed and top of this list was the strap that was going to keep my right knee together. For motivation, I sat down and watched "Chariots of Fire" and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" - both films, despite numerous viewings, I never tire of. I printed off a 4 hour pace-band from the Runners' World web-site, which gave me a breakdown of my mile splits and using this as a guide, I created a playlist that placed certain songs at (hopefully) points I would find myself during the race. On the Sunday I was a nervous wreck, checking and double checking my kit-bag but finally I was happy that I had everything and all I could do now was relax and get an early night.
Don't forget the vaseline....

The weather forecast for the day was for heavy rain and a temperature of around 7 degrees C, so I dressed accordingly in running tights, long sleeved top, gloves and cap - this meant the chicken hat that I had worn during my last 2 marathons didn't make an appearance this year. I arrived at City Hall with 45 mins to spare, plenty of time to drop off my kit-bag and do some gentle warming up. I decided this year to start right at the back, thus avoiding all the crowding in the main pen and this would mean I would set off at a more sedate pace. The start of the Belfast marathon, can be a bit of a lottery as not only are you starting with other marathon runners, but there are also relay runners and a stray walker or two. Before the gun set us off on our way, I reminded myself of my goals which, in order were: 1 - to finish in one piece 2 - the beat my previous best time of 4-35 3 - to finish in 4 hours.
9am and we were off, well it took me nearly 5 minutes to cross the start but I was soon running at a steady pace, weaving in and out of some of the slower runners and heading out towards East Belfast. I hit the first mile around the 9 and a half minute mark and kept at this pace for the next couple of miles. Things were going well as we headed past City Airport and on towards the first relay changeover at 6 miles. I needed to be here around the 55 minute mark and this I did with a few seconds to spare. The next few miles took us through the city centre and out into West Belfast, where the crowds were out in force despite the cold and rain. My next target was to reach relay point 2 in 1 hour and 20 minutes and although I was a couple of minutes outside this time, I was still very happy with my pace. My playlist was working its magic and keeping me motivated and then ironically as Duran Duran's "Hold Back the Rain" came on, the heavens opened!! This rain didn't relent and stayed with us for the next 2-3 hours. Just before reaching the Antrim Road, I caught a glimpse of Judith a fellow Dromore AC runner who was part of a relay team and as I passed her, I gave her a few words of encouragement. Little did I know at this point, she continued running to the end despite having completed her leg of the relay...that was around 20 miles without any real training. WELL DONE JUDITH. The steady climb up to the zoo and this is the halfway point, I was looking at a time of 2 hours for 13.1 miles and I crossed halfway in 2 hours and 9 seconds. I was chuffed to bits on how well my pacing was going but the next few miles were going to be tricky as there was the downhill stretch where my knee gave way last year to overcome. I reached the Shore Road without incident and I had by now caught up with two of the 4 hour pacers. Now, all I had to do was keep in touch with them and a 4 hour marathon was achievable. My pace though took me beyond them and as I got to relay point 3, I caught up with a third 4 hour pacer. I knew my mile splits were accurate and I was hitting 9 minute miles, so why were the 4 hour pacers not all running together? I needed to concentrate on my own pace and not worry about the pacers and I certainly needed all my concentration as the couple of miles along the coast were dreadful. Gales were blowing the rain across us from left to right and it was difficult to keep any momentum going, there was even hail at one point. Up to mile 19 and a few bushes and trees gave us a bit of shelter before we ran through the dullest part of the course, the dreaded industrial estate. Once through here, there was a final relay point and around 5 miles to go. At this point, I was still close to one of the 4 hour pacers who I overheard say to one of the runners, that they were 5 minutes ahead of schedule! 21.9 miles is the final relay point and I collided with a number of runners just wandering about aimlessly waiting for their handover, thankfully no lasting damage but this is one area that needs looking at. Not long to go now, the tow path, Ormeau Road and then the final stretch down the Ravenhill Road. I was trying to stay focused but by this point the tops of my legs were beginning to ache, the knees were a little sore and I was soaked through. My confidence was still high though as I was still hitting 9 minute miles. The jelly beans were a welcome distraction too and gave me that last bit of energy that I needed to get me home. With around 2 miles to go Rossini's "William Tell" overture started playing and the rousing finale caused me to dig a little deeper and push on and as I hit the 25 mile marker, I knew that unless a major disaster was to befall me, I was going to finish in under 4 hours. I turned the corner into the O-Zone and saw a few hundred metres away the blue arch of the finish line, the official clock was on 3-59-50 and I crossed the line as the time hit 4 hours exactly. Now that's what I call precise pacing!! I was over the moon but my elation was soon crushed as the finishing area was a complete shambles. There was nobody handing out medals, you had to fight through crowds to get to a solitary table where you were expected just to help yourself. Oh, you did get a bottle of water and 2 bags of crisps - nothing of nutritional value though. As for collecting your kit from the leisure centre, well you queued in the rain for half an hour and then once you'd got your kit, finding the changing rooms became another task you didn't really need after a 4 hour marathon. Sorry, enough of the moaning but as for my official chip-time...this came in at 3-56-23 which was a PB by 40 minutes and an improvement on last year by 85 minutes. I was really, really pleased and happy that everything had gone to plan during the race. Yes, I was little sore and some elements of the organisation left a bit to be desired but there's every possibility that I'll be back in 2013. As I have no official race photo to share, here I am a few days later, proudly wearing my medal.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Country

14th April 2012 and something I thought I'd never witness again,is happening right before my eyes. One of my all-time favourite bands BIG COUNTRY are charging about the Mandela Hall stage in the heart of Belfast. OK, it's not quite the Big Country of old as Stuart Adamson (RIP) is no longer with us, Mike Peters has taken over as lead vocalist and Bruce Watson's son Jamie is on guitar. This gig is part of the band's 30th Anniversary tour and an opportunity to see "The Crossing" performed in it's entirety. My relationship with the band goes back to 1983 when I got blown away hearing "Fields of Fire" and from that moment on I became a devoted fan. My first BC purchase was the 12" version of "Fields of Fire" (bought on the same day as "Change" 12" by Tears for Fears - strange what you remember!) and over the next few years, my record collection expanded with rare Japanese 7" singles, LP's, cassettes, limited edition 12" versions and 7" double-packs. I never got to see them "live" until December 1984 when they were promoting the "Steeltown" album - this was also my first ever gig. Myself and fellow BC obsessive Dale Martin, made the journey down to Wembley Arena where we saw pre-fame The Cult rock the arena for half an hour before the main event. Although, I don't remember too much about the BC performance, I just recall being overwhelmed with the atmosphere, the music and the singing along. If I had to pick out a track that reminds of this December night, it would have to be "Steeltown". Another BC highlight would have to be getting free tickets to a Whistle Test gig at the Hexagon in Reading. This took place on 14th April 1986 (26 years to the day from the Mandela Hall gig!) and what a night this turned out to be. The band were just beginning to promote "The Seer" so the set-list featured the likes of "Remembrance Day" and "I Walk the Hill" and they fitted right alongside classics like "Chance". It was a brilliant concert and afterwards, I was lucky enough to catch the band getting on the tour bus and managed to get their autographs. A few months later the concert was broadcast on BBC2 and I still have a copy on video. "Peace in our Time" was the last BC album that I bought and felt any attachment to and post 1990, BC drifted in and out of my life. The band were no longer selling bucket loads of albums and they could no longer sell out the likes of Wembley Arena, it was inevitable that the band would finally split. I did get one final opportunity to see them "live" and strangely enough on the same bill was The Alarm (another favourite band of mine) fronted by Mike Peters. I went to the gig with a heavy heart, as I thought this might be the last time I see 2 of the bands that had meant so much to me over the last 15 years. The fact the concert was taking place in a sports hall in the local leisure centre (Stantonbury Campus) showed how far both bands had fallen. Although, I enjoyed the concert, I couldn't help feeling that this was the end and the ignominy of playing a sports hall must have been a low-point in BC's career. December 2001 and the news filtered through that Stuart had committed suicide. This came as a total shock and this was the first time a real hero of mine had died. Of course, I did all the usual things, dusted down BC records, watched BC videos, listened to concerts I had recorded off the radio and just remembered all the great songs that Stuart had written with not just BC but also The Skids. Over time, the 3 original BC members got back together and in the last few years having recruited Mike Peters and Jamie Watson have been recording and touring. So, that leads us up to Saturday 14th April 2012 and a hot and sweaty night at Mandela Hall. The BC fan-base doesn't seem to have changed much over the last 30 years, an 80-20 split in favour of men...oh and most of the male fans seem to have a lost an awful lot of hair and gained a few inches around the middle!! The warm-up music before BC took the stage was predictably a mixture of late 70's punk/new wave and as XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" was being played, the lights went down and the band strode onto the stage. OK at first it was a bit odd seeing Mike Peters up there rather than Stuart but as they started with 2 of my all-time faves - "Angle Park" and "East of Eden" - I soon embraced the new-look BC. One of their most recent songs "Another Country" was next up and was soon followed by the rarely played track "Balcony", if only they had played "Flag of Nations (Swimming)" that would have been the first 2 'B' sides performed within half an hour! "Restless Natives" and the awesome track "The Crossing" followed before the opening bars of "In a Big Country" leapt out of the speakers, the crowd screamed and oldish men jumped about. This was the beginning of "The Crossing" and over the next 45 minutes we were treated to Mike entering the crowd and singing along with the crowd to "Chance", an atmospheric "The Storm", a barn-storming "Harvest Home", lots of singing along to "Lost Patrol" and a rousing finale of "Porroh Man". Then they were gone, well for a few minutes at least, we clapped and cheered and not surprisingly BC returned and performed 4 encores. Jamie introduced "Tracks of my Tears" as one of Stuart's all-time fave songs, "Look Away" and "Wonderland" kept the crowd rocking and as a finale, there was a cover of "Rockin' in the Free World". It was a great evening and the references to Stuart were kept to a minimum but were well received. OK it was never going to be my best ever BC gig but it certainly exceeded my expectations. I did miss Bruce and Stuart charging around the stage during the climax of "Harvest Home" and Mike will never have the same presence as Stuart but these are only small gripes. Maybe they'll be back in 2014 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of "Steeltown"? If they do return, I'll be snapping up a ticket. STAY ALIVE