The last few weeks of my marathon training went exactly to plan - no injuries, no illness and all my LSR's were at close to my goal pace (8:46). My final 20 miler was completed in 2:55 and it was a run that I finished strongly and meant all my 20's had been under 3 hours. There was a good mixture of sessions at Dromore AC too including intervals, tempo runs and the occasional fartlek. In my own time, I ensured that I did some hill work too. Then, before I knew it, there was a week to go and I was just ticking the legs over with a couple of 20 minute gentle runs.
Once my pack was picked up, I knew all I could do now was rest, eat loads and remain calm and focussed on the task ahead. A big thing for me was creating a suitable playlist for my iPod (56 tracks) and I probably spent nearly as long on this as it was going to take for me to run the marathon itself! The night before was the ritual of ensuring everything was in place for the race, most importnatly; attaching the chip, pinning my race number (and my name) on my vest and sorting my kit out (inc chicken hat).
MARATHON DAY - Monday 6th May 2013
First things first and I had to go through my pre-race ritual of strapping both knees, applying vaseline liberally to avoid the dreaded chafing and taping down 2 very sensitive areas to avoid the bleeding! What a difference 12 months makes; last year the weather was rain, wind and more rain but this year the weather was set fair and as I arrived at the start area outside Belfast City Hall, there was cloud cover and a temperature of around 10 degrees. There were even rumours that the sun may make an appearance at some stage. I caught up with a number of Dromore AC runners including Judith (510) and Janette (2633). This was Judith's first marathon and she was going out to enjoy the experience, whilst Janette was running her second marathon and like me was hopeful of a sub 3:50 time.
Janette tried to convince me to run with the 3:45 pacers but having done all my training alone, I wanted to go out and run my own race without having the extra pressure of keeping up with pacers.
In keeping with other recent marathons, before the start there was a minutes silence for the Boston Marathon victims and this was a fitting start to the race. As ever, I started close to the back and as I went over the start line I saw the clock above the gantry ticking over to 3 minutes, knowing this became invaluable at the end.
The first few miles were fairly uneventful; I had avoided any bumping and barging and was running smoothly at just under 9 min mile pace. There's a bit of a climb up the Holywood Road before you turn back down the Sydenham by-pass and it was along here at around mile 5 that I passed the 4 hours pacers. This was a real confidence booster for me as I didn't pass these guys until around mile 15 last year.
As I approached mile 6, I started to concentrate as this is where the first relay handover is and of all the relay points this is the worst as it always very congested. Today, this is where my marathon nearly went horribly wrong; 3 relay runners came across me from the right; heels and ankles were clipped and although I didn't fall, my impetus was halted for a few moments and in anger I shouted f**k very, very loudly!! I don't think these runners were expecting this from a skinny 40-something man wearing a chicken hat and bright nail varnish!! As they ran off, I heard one of them give a meek apology. I wasn't going to let this affect my concentration, so I calmed myself over the next mile, shook the tension out of my shoulders and focussed on the 20 miles that lay ahead.
Through the city centre and the good weather had brought some big crowds out onto the streets and it was here that I first noticed the shouts of Mr Chicken and the occasional "go on Ian". The next 5 miles or so take you through West and North Belfast and here you get a lot of community support with many families lining the streets with cups of water, mini Mars bars, jelly babies, orange segments and most importantly lots of cheering. Although, I was fully committed to running a good time and concentrating on my pace/nutrition intake/breathing, I made time for those shouting my name out, I smiled, high fived the children, gave lots of thumbs up and waved.
Relay point 2 is just after 9 miles and just before you get out onto the Antrim Road and I caught of glimpse of a number of Dromore AC relay runners, who shouted encouragement to me. This is where I also high fived with gusto one of my work colleagues (Lizanne) who I think was a little taken aback with how much energy I had.
The crowds along the Antrim Road really spurred me on as this is long section up to around mile 14 and can seem to take forever. One highlight here was passing a care home and seeing a number of nurses and residents sitting on the front lawn and as I passed and waved one of the ladies blew me a kiss. This marathon was just getting better and better.
Halfway and I was aiming for around 1:55 and I crossed the chip mat in around 1:53, so was very much on target. The skies had cleared by now and the sun was beginning to shine but as it was only 11am, it was still relatively cool. A mile or so later and you take a right turn down towards Abbey Centre and this is downhill and where my knee went in 2011. I had been trying to master downhill running during my training and my technique was to let my arms down by my side and almost just let myself go. The one thing I wasn't going to do was try and put the brakes on.
Back on the level and I had my one and only flat patch between miles 15 and 17. Here, I got an annoying stitch but thankfully I ran through it and it didn't cause my pace to slow, it was just uncomfortable. Relay point 3 came and went and out on the towpath there was lovely breeze blowing in from the sea, which was very welcome indeed. You need to be mentally strong during this section as there are no crowds and you know that there are still the docks to run through. It gave me the opportunity to take stock and start thinking seriously as to what my finish time might be. I was confident of a PB but would I get a sub 3:50 time? Just hold it together, don't do anything silly and remember the crowds over the last few miles are worth 2 or 3 minutes.
Mile 20 came and went and by my reckoning I was smack bang on my goal pace as I passed through in just under the 3 hours. It was getting a touch warmer by now and my water bottle was almost empty, thankfully an energy station was handing out bottles of Powerade so a swap was made and I headed off with around 5 miles to go gratefully clutching 500ml of garish blue liquid. The final relay point comes up at mile 22 and here I got 2 shouts of encouragement; one from Una a work colleague of my wife's and another from Kerry who was on the last leg of one of the Dromore AC teams.
Back into the city centre and the last 4 miles take you along the Lagan cycle path into South Belfast and thankfully plenty of packed streets with lots of cheering supporters. There was no sign of 'the wall' but I was still munching on jelly beans and downing the Powerade, just to be sure. You are spurred on along the cycle path as across the Lagan you can see Ormeau Park and the finish area, not far to go now. The heat was starting to have an impact by now and any thoughts of a 3:45 were long gone as I could feel my pace was dropping slightly.
The climb up the Ormeau Road was tough and although not a stiff hill by any stretch of the imagination, after 24 miles it felt like it was never going to end. The crowds were brilliant here though and I almost felt like running along with my thumbs permanently up as a way of saying "thank-you". Mr Chicken flapped his imaginary wings and turned the corner down the Ravenhill Road and got a burst of energy, gradually picking up his pace and hitting mile 25 knowing in around 10 minutes he would get his marathon PB. The roar of the crowd pulls you round the final corner towards the Ozone and there were plenty of Dromore AC runners to give me a final cheer (thanks, Russell, Richard, Tina, Ian et al). I was on the home straight with the finish arch in front of me and I glanced up and saw the clock was ticking ever closer to 3:53. This is where I remembered I started at least 3 minutes behind everyone, so if I could cross the line before 3:53, I would achieve a sub 3:50 marathon. I put in one last effort and sprinted as hard as I could, the noise of the crowd was deafening as I heard the beep of the chip mat which signalled the end of my marathon. Oh and I managed to cross the line as my 56th track was playing, talk about pacing! I was ecstatic as I grabbed a well deserved bottle of water and my medal. I was so happy, that I could almost have cried...marathon's get you like that sometimes.
Keep moving I said to myself, do some stretches but don't stand still and just take it all in. The finish area was crowded so I thought I'd have no chance of meeting up with anyone but there they were Kerry, Susan and Pauline from one of Dromore AC's relay teams along with Roy our senior coach. Can you spot me in the pic below???
As I headed off to collect my bag and go for a shower, I was quite surprised as to how easy I was finding it to walk. There were plenty of people who were struggling to put one foot in front of the other and then there was the sight of those men with the 2 red dots of blood in that sensitive area that I had remembered to tape down.
Once showered, I had the task of locating my wife Louise who was somewhere in Ormeau Park, this was damn hard as all phone signals were cutting out and there were 100's of people milling about. I just kept moving and and nearly 2 hours after finishing the marathon, we met up and she remarked how fresh I looked and here's the evidence:
And that was it, my 2013 Belfast Marathon was over and what a marathon it was. My best ever and not just because of the PB; the crowds were amazing, the weather, the overall atmosphere, fellow Dromore AC runnners, the way I ran, all played a big part and I bloody well enjoyed myself. Now to enter Dublin Marathon in October!
Oh and not forgetting the most important thing, my final time came in at......
3:49:52, which was a PB by nearly 7 minutes.
Before I sign off, in case anyone is thinking of running a marathon, here are some of my tips, for what they are worth:
1: Follow a training plan (16 - 18 weeks)
2: During training, REST days are important and DON'T train if you are ill
3: A few weeks before, you will be a bag of nerves - embrace the nerves
4: On the day, ENJOY the experience - run with a smile on your face, high five the children, give plenty of thumbs up
5: Wear your name on your vest...stand-out from from the crowd...wear a chicken hat!