My “Only” Marathon by James P Smith

A long-distance running race, strictly one of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km).
Robert Hooke FRS 1635-1703 found fame for deducing the wave theory of light, and for his work in gravitational theory and horology; but people barely talk about his beautiful English Baroque design for St. Mary Magdalene church in Willen, possibly his least known achievement. I don’t know if when designing the church he thought “this will be a useful marker for about 11.5 miles in the MK Marathon, just after you’ve gone past the LFR marshals”, it’s difficult to say, after all he’s been dead for 300 years, but, you know, maybe, it could’ve been, he sounds like the forward planning sort to me... Also did you know that Willen was known as “Wilies” in the 13th century – I know! “Wilies” – a bit like “willies” – no? Just me? Tough crowd!
Anyway, I digress – back to my first and “only” (more about that later) marathon…
I’m a relatively new runner (road runner at least) and I have found more joy and friendship as a runner (and LFRer) than I could ever have imagined; I think through running we improve our health both physical and mental, and transcend ourselves (not least because at a deeper level we are through evolution some of the most natural long distance running animals in the world – we are literally “born to run”). But I realise that a marathon is a completely arbitrary distance, and it’s absolutely not for everyone, however I really wanted to run one, if only to race myself. Plus, I was thrilled to bits to have been picked to be an MK Marathon Ambassador – AND they’d sent me a really nice hoody!
Also I’d been sent a delightful and unexpected event crew parking permit, which meant we were only 10 minutes' walk away from the start and finish at Stadium MK, and had access to the VIP room (I know, get me! Free tea, coffee and biscuits, plus I’d managed to smuggle Katharine inside – you get a golden wristband you know) along with all the other ambassadors and the pacers – like Steve Edwards who was planning to run his 777th sub 3:30 marathon, and who was going (if my plan worked) to get me round in sub 3:30. Maybe...
So, I’d taken everyone’s advice and bought ridiculous new trainers especially for the marathon (good plan?) for the very reasonable price of... No, I can’t say it out loud – but they were in the colourway I wanted – bright crimson if you’re asking. But that’s right – I’m blaming you lot, well you lot and Kipchoge, and maybe Paul Little too! Anyway, I’m sure it’s fine to run a marathon in new trainers that you’ve only run 7 miles in – who needs toenails anyway? (As a footnote, would anyone like to buy a job lot of Birkenstocks in size 7 that will NOT be needed ever again...).
I managed to miss the LFR group pic as I was having my photo taken with the other ambassadors – oh the glamour! But got to the start in plenty of time and hustled my way near to the front, not that I was overly worried about my position as I was in the first start wave anyway, and there would be PLENTY of time to make up for a slow mile or two at the start – plus I’d bumped into Colin Aitken, and it’s always quite calming to see a familiar friendly face. Incidentally, mad props to the long-haired Vegan Runner next to me in the pen who’d got the most elaborate intertwined plaited hair I’d ever seen – he was totally rocking a Game of Thrones vibe!
0:00 – 1:00 - MILES 1 - 8
The gun went off and I settled into an easy pace, the roads were wide and there was plenty of space; thankfully it wasn’t stop start like the Royal Parks Half, so you could get into a rhythm straight away.
I’d read that at the start of a marathon if your pace feels easy, then you’re going too fast – but I couldn’t hang about too much as I’d got a secret time in mind: - 3:29:59 – to be fair though it wasn’t all that secret - I had told LOADS of people.
Although the pace felt comfortable, there was a major problem - I was running alongside Keith Luxon - the 3:15 pacer – aaargh! This was NOT the plan – this was going to be unsustainable – do I drop back now and try and ease off a bit? Wait a mile or two and see what happens? I decided to stay with him for the very worst of reasons – easy maths – 3:15 marathon pace is roughly 7.30 min/miling – which makes it really easy to work out your splits (I tend to break down long runs into 15 minute chunks – which would be exactly 2 miles at this pace) – so I thought I might stay with him for an hour – get 8 miles under my belt, and then re-assess (even I thought this was really stupid at the time but I was a bit over-excited! After all I first ran 8 miles in an hour about a year ago and nearly vomited at the end).
So, we ran into the city centre (I know it’s not a “real” city but c’mon really!) where the course keeps looping back– which is a joy because I saw Tom off the front – with his personal lead relay runner bicycle – cool huh! Then loads of LFRs - Gavin, Caroline Clabburn, Katharine, Jen, Julie, Claire, Michelle, Paul McG - loads of us - came flying past in the opposite direction as I ran back out. There was dance music, loads of supporters – it’s always good to see Jim Buttleman, and Pete Mackrell cheered me on (he had probably already finished!) - there were two guys with a terrifying bucket of mystery goo and a huge sign for “LUBE” - eeewww! Then you’re suddenly out of the built-up areas and into Woughton on the Green. It still felt very easy and before I knew it, we’d split from the half marathon runners and the hour was pretty much up, but… I still felt good. Too good maybe; do I slow down now? Maybe another half an hour – I’m sure that’d be fine… Yeah, fine… Probably… Just half an hour... After all, that’s still only 90 minutes...
1:00 – 1:30 - MILES 9 - 12
The next half hour was probably my favourite as it took in mile 10 – with the picturesque Willen Lake (and eventually Robert Hooke’s lovely church – see – a narrative) and I’d been looking forward to seeing the LFR marshalling crew (thank you Caroline McEvoy Mann and the team), plus I’d seen Debbie and Jon, and David and James Parker in the crowds (I’d shouted hello to so many people that it got a bit embarrassing and a runner from Redway had made a sarky comment). I’d started to feel a bit stronger by this point and had stupidly pulled slightly in front of Keith the 3:15 pacer as I’d got carried away discussing cycling with another runner as we shared his “mystery” orange drink – not normally recommended, but nobody ever regretted testing a new nutritional strategy in a marathon did they – to go with their new and untested shoes? (Also to make the sarky Redway guy suffer a bit if he wanted to keep up - he didn’t – ha!). But another half hour at this pace would be okay? Yeah? Probably… Probably...
1:30 – 2:00 - MILES 13 - 16
The next half hour flew by in a whirl and I hit 16 miles and Linford Manor more than 2 minutes ahead of my stupidly unsustainable 15-minute split goal. I felt fine so another half hour at this pace would be okay for sure, and not too risky… And I’d done the Oakley 20 at (slightly) sub 7:30 pace – so yeah… Another half hour definitely! Yeah… Just one more half hour... I mean; I’d run 20 miles at this pace twice before – how hard could another 6 be? Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that sunshine...
2:00 - 2:30 – MILES 17 - 20
And this is the half hour with a jazz band, concrete cows – amazing – I'd never seen them before; and Roman ruins, an abbey, and a windmill – suck that up MK haterz! (Eds. Please check, do the young people still say “haterz”? Okay. What about “hepcats”?) Still the wheels hadn’t come off. I hit 20 miles at 2:27 – 2 minutes faster than my Oakley finishing time, and 13 minutes ahead of my original schedule – complete insanity – I’d never run further than this before - this was going to go wrong… And badly! And probably quite soon... But you know, I get carried away quite easily – I'd been high-fiving children, thanking marshals, making stupid jokes – all these things probably not recommended, but I didn’t know when it would all go wrong so I wanted to enjoy the experience for as long as possible. After all, if this was going to be my only marathon I wanted some good memories before the horrible painful bit.
2:30 – 3:00 - MILES 21-24ish
20 miles had been my longest training run, and the point when people talk about hitting the “wall”, and so I was expecting to slow hugely and spectacularly at any moment – especially as I had now been running at an unsustainable pace. So, my 15-minute race breakdown plan now seemed hugely over-ambitious, so I started working mile at a time instead. And the wall definitely seemed to be a thing, because as soon as we had passed 20 miles we suddenly started overtaking people who had started to slow down or even walk – this must have been awful for them, some looked properly broken - but selfishly, I realised that everyone I passed put me another place higher in the race.
Those of you who’ve run the course before will know that it gets very slightly uphill at this point, and it doesn’t matter how well trained you are, you’re bound to be a bit tired by now, so I started to slow – not hugely – and certainly not as hugely as I was expecting, but just enough to lose contact with the 3:15 pace group (by now the 3:15 pace group was only a few of us – compared to the maybe 20 or 30 of us at mile 10); but it was a pretty gradual thing, perhaps only 10 or 20 seconds a mile. Also, I suddenly realised that I could now run 10-minute miles for the remainder and STILL come in under 3:30; and so I did what any self-respecting man would do at this point and burst into tears – totally normal – yes it is – it is - TOTALLY NORMAL! I’m not shouting – YOU’RE shouting! Then around mile 23 I saw Marianne Aitken who I’d chatted to at the start (she’d run an astonishing 15 miles around the course cheering on Colin). She shouted that the 3:15 pacer was just ahead, and that I could still catch him. This sounds like the most overused running cliché ever, but I thought to myself “it’s just a Parkrun left” so let’s have a go at this. Also, a particularly stupid cliché for me - I’m not suited to shorter distances, so I really struggle with Parkruns, so let us not speak of this again. As I turned the corner I could see Keith with his blue balloon, now running totally alone and, much, MUCH nearer than I’d expected and so I pushed as much as I could manage and started to reel him in (not thinking that it would actually happen), but metre by metre I started to catch him; and by mile 24.5 I got back on his shoulder and shouted “Keith! I’m back on your FunBus” - can you imagine how annoying I’d been to the poor man for the first 20 miles?
3:00 – THE FINISH - MILES 25 – 26.2
Now having your own private pacer is really quite an honour, but I didn’t get to enjoy it for long - as Keith told me to “get in front of me – and you’ll go sub 3:15” (although this may have been a clever ruse to get rid of me). Sub 3:15 this had never been a part of my wildest dreams and so another (smaller) cry was in order. To be fair I am quite a cryer – I only have to hear the music from UP and I’m gone *starts to sniffle thinking about it, poor Ellie*...
But it was now quite hard to judge my pace, as at 25.5 miles you join the half marathon runners for the last half mile, so I was running with people who were now mostly going quite a bit slower than me, so it suddenly felt silly fast.
At this point I should step out and explain a theory of mine. I’ve run trails on and off for years, mostly quite leisurely, but I’m a relatively new (18 months) road runner. However, I am, unquestionably, a lazy, lazy runner – I don’t like it when it hurts; but I weigh less than a duck, I’ve got disproportionately long skinny legs and I was wearing cheating shoes in MK; for context my average heart-rate over the MK marathon was 136 bpm (the average in a marathon is normally 160). When it’s good, the running feels like breathing. Which in practice means that although I’ve got some chops, I probably don’t perform to my potential – which I am completely fine with. But I know people who work so very hard, and frankly much harder than me, to reach their goals or even to just be more active, that I will be forever in their awe. Until MK I hadn’t run for more than 2 ½ hours in one go – and that had seemed QUITE long enough! A perfect example is my friend Emma – she's also quite a new runner, and MK was her second marathon – which she nailed in 5:58 – absolutely amazing, and perfectly paced – but that is the best part of 3 hours longer than I could possibly imagine running for. The idea that steadier or slower runners work the hardest is the hill I AM willing to die on.
So, to jump back in, the half marathon runners were grinding out their last half mile and working hard (sometimes quite vocally – blimey! That’s quite the creative swearword combination! Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?), so hard that I fed off their energy. Also, I was suddenly taken with a picture in my mind of my hero Yuki Kawauchi finishing Boston, so much so that I “may” have made a half-marathoner jump shouting “BE MORE YUKI” to myself – yeah - sorry about that...
I checked my watch, and it said: “Current Pace – 6.30” - whaaat? 6.30? That’s my 5k pace - this is ridiculous – what is happening? Deep breaths Smith – don't cry again. I looked over my shoulder and Keith was in the distance, but this time behind me!
In the finishing stretch you race down the hill past KFC (oh the glamour again!) and through the tunnel onto the pitch at Stadium MK, this was all a bit heady as Stadium MK is really quite impressive from pitch level, and as I turned the comer onto the finishing straight I saw Katharine! And then Doyley, Emily and Garner (in her smart new bobble hat); and then the finishing arch with its clock saying 3:13:xx – what? No! This was absolutely NOT part of the plan. I could feel my form coming apart (I suspect more from emotion than exhaustion); eyewitness accounts from this time point out that I looked more like Bambi than Kipchoge.
I high-fived Katharine, ran over the timing mat, screamed, and (I am justifiably quite proud of this bit) stopped my Garmin, WHICH SAID 3:13:37! And then promptly collapsed...
After pulling myself together, and giving poor Stephanie and Annis a horrible sweaty hug, I fetched my lucky flip flops and found Katharine (she’d been looking for me and had asked someone in the VIP room if they’d seen me – they said “is he really overexcited?” Yup, that'd be me.) - I’d bumped into Keith in the VIP room too and not thinking he’d suffered enough already gave HIM a sweaty hug too – poor Keith... Incidentally Katharine had just smashed her half marathon PB by miles!
The marathon timing mats give you an average pace for four rough quarters of the race, and looking back my average paces were 7.22, 7.23, 7.23 and 7.24 min/miling; and my last mile was the fastest at 6.48. I realise how very unusual this is for a first marathon, and I know I will NEVER repeat it.
That whole only one marathon thing... Well, you see, I’ve booked Abingdon now; so, let’s call it TWO! But just two, then that’ll be it. Yeah, definitely just two...