My trek up to Chester started on Saturday, leaving behind the family of wife and 4 year and almost 2year old kids. At least the marathon guaranteed a good night's sleep but perhaps running a marathon is not the only way to achieve this!
This year had been all about this marathon with my only other race events two 10k runs and a half marathon, virtually no cycling or swimming. The year before had been a similar affair with three marathons Brighton (3hrs 24 and too hot), Beachy Head (4:09: too off-road and hilly) and Portsmouth (3:34 - too cold and unfit). I was really concerned that getting close to my pb of 3.10 (set at Rome in 2006) was a lost cause. But I figured I 'd give it another go. So all the eggs had been placed in the basket a long time ago and I was hoping to crack sub-3 hour into the equation.
Early start as usual - with the upside of having kids is that waking at 6am without interrupted sleep meant that I was feeling the most refreshed I'd been in a long time. Small bowl of porridge and a banana 3 hours before race start then it was off to Chester Racecourse for the start. The organisers had a lot right - warm tents to hang around in - check. Excellent baggage drop - check. Lots of portaloos - no check (luckily that side of things was already sorted).
Race start was on the Chester Racecourse itself and literally entailed ducking under the white metal rail onto the horse racing course. It felt a bit strange to be at the front - after the marathon fails last year was I really even wise to step into the sub-3 area with others? But I figured that there is no use predetermining the outcome by being conservative and choosing a slower time. And knew I should be there or thereabouts after a 1:25 half marathon the month before. So with the elite thoroughbreds at the front, and the club runners around me I was banking on not being the pantomime horse in my bit.
The town crier got us started with an oh-yay and a horn and we did a half lap of the racecourse on the grass (fortunately they don't start a marathon in Aintree!). The course then weaved around Chester city centre past the famous clock tower, the cathedral and the tiered olde worlde shops called the Rows. Soon we were out of the Chester part of the marathon. In reality the majority of the course was on rural roads held across the border in Wales.
I settled into a group regularly doing sub-6.30 to 6.40 times and figured that this would be the one to hang onto. The first half of the course was fairly flat with some gentle undulations but nothing noticeable when feeling fresh. I was happy with the pace, but dropped off this group eventually towards the halfway point as the main people doing the work in the bunch suddenly dropped their pace. I was through the half marathon point exactly at 1.28. Slightly ahead of pace and only 2 ½ minutes off my half pb.
The next section of the race was when the going started to get tough however and the course became more undulating. I was holding the pace at the right speed (6.50 for sub-3), but it was really tough going as the field was much sparser by now. Some nice if sporadic support along the very rural route and Wallace and Gromit music in a village was great. There was a couple of hills along this point that were absolute killers (not in terms of normal running) but when trying to stay on pace (not possible) and to get back onto my average pace after they finished they were real mental challenges. Eventually I passed the 20 mile point seemingly at 2.15 (new pb for this distance). I now had 45 minutes for 6.2 miles to get sub 3. But unfortunately the course and my body had other ideas. A succession of uphill drags meant that I was losing on average 30 seconds per mile and my body was giving the early warnings of cramp. The mind games were now in full swing - every time I started thinking negative I tried to keep it within the moment - just keep pushing on and ignore everything else.
Normally I get a bit of adrenaline at the end of a marathon and my pace picks up again, but the threat of cramp became real as my hamstring went for a full blown lock out that stopped me in my tracks. I didn't hang around to stretch it out however and carried on a downhill section breaking occasionally into the monty python ministry of silly runs onto the final riverside section, which led into the Racecourse. Unfortunately, the bridge I thought signalled the entry to the stadium was another ½ mile away but I continued on at some sort of pace. Finally the course came into sight and it was back onto the grass race course for a final push to get under the 3.03 mark. Final official chip time was 3.02.50, nearly 8 minutes of my time from six years ago. And some proof that I haven't peaked yet! On the plus side, it will also allow me to qualify for the Boston Marathon either for 2013 or 2014, which is another tick on my bucket list!!! Unfortunately, not quite sub 3 and 2 minutes 50 secs is also just too near to the sub-3 that I now have to try for it again.grrrrr! Overall, I was very pleased with the time but with a sense of unfinished business.
For those interested in my training schedule:
Started training consciously 8 months ahead of the race. Longest weeks were no more than a maximum of 50 miles in total, which I built up to gradually over the 8 months. My longest run was a misjudged 23 miler but other than that my longest runs were 20 miles. Each week I did a maximum of 4 runs but many weeks only 3 runs per week. This often included a long run (12 miles building to 20 miles as the weeks progressed), regular hilly tempo run off-road - 8 miles, faster short run (6 miles with some extended intervals), occasionally a 10 mile run or a treadmill session but each week was judged according to niggles, workload, family commitments etc. Part of my training was entering races, which were essential as gauges of being on track plus a nice intermediate goal along the way.
It is also worth mentioning my footwear, as I used my Inov-8 F-lites, which are 195 gramme shoes. These are among the most minimalist shoes out there and, compared to 'marathon' shoes I have used in the past, I can honestly say that I feel no worse on the day after than in any other shoes. Also, no blisters at all or black toes. I have been running in fairly minimalist shoes over shorter distances for years, so I think that I am now fully conditioned for them, but it shows that they can really work at any distance. It's about all about fitness, conditioning and technique and not support shoes.