Monday, October 04, 2010

Run Like Hell

I’ve now been running competitively for six years. 2010 has been a good one. This year, I’ve completed my third marathon, run in five other events, and achieved my best times in many of them.
However, I’m not going to crow about success, or how following training plans, and taking personal training sessions has got me fitter and faster. (“Yada yada yada”, as the Eighth Doctor would say). I want to record how I felt yesterday, so I can look back on it next year and learn from my mistakes.
My favourite length of training run is about sixteen miles. I can comfortably run it in well under three hours, and it’s just short of the twenty milers that precede marathons, and themselves take some recovery from. So, when the inaugural Scottish Kilomathon was announced, I thought “that’s the race for me, daddio”. A Kilomathon, by the way is a race of 26.2 kilometres - just as a marathon is 26.2 miles. I mention this because I’ve had estimates from my exasperated intimates varying from “a kilometre” to “a thousand miles”. It’s actually somewhere in between.
So, just five weeks after a vigorous Glasgow Half Marathon, I found myself on the bus out of town towards Edinburgh airport at 0630 on a Sunday morning. Not because I was flying anywhere (see later) but because the race started and finished at the Royal Highland Showground and Exhibition Centre. This is a strange place, which hosts garden shows and the Royal Highland Show (cattle and jam, whisky and crafts, shearing and mountain rescue demonstrations) every summer. Its sole justification for existence, so far as I can determine, is that Genesis played there in 1982.
Getting off the bus, a single-digit band of runners including myself walked along the barely signposted perimeter road to the showground. It was unlike any running event I had arrived at before, because it was still dark, there was hardly anyone there, least of all dressed as a steward, and there wasn’t a personality shouting well-meaning nonsense over a barrage of predictably up-beat pop records. It felt more like arriving at a UFO landing site than anything else. (And we all know that’s like, right?).
Eventually, there were some announcements, and having used a portakabin’s facilities for the necessary morning ablutions, I emerged into a hesitant dawn. There still seemed to be distressingly few people there. I executed my rehearsed change, swapping my rucsac for a Camelpak hydration system, and stowing my belongings in the tiny baggage tent. Following two occasions in training this year when my headphone lead had gone crackly and intermittent in one ear, I’d brought an unopened new pair with me, but as the ones I was using were fine (and I checked them to be sure) I left the new ones in my bag. We’ll be revisiting this decision later.
At 0745 we were summoned to our starting pens, and I learned that there were 2500 runners taking part, although possibly not all in the same race. Earlier this year I had run 13.1 miles in 01:39, so when entering this race had done my sums and put 02:00 for my expected time to cover 16 or so. We’ll also be revisiting this decision later. To my surprise on the day, I saw my forecast had put me in the elite field - the front pen, right behind the start line and the car with the big digital clock and the police escort. How exciting! I didn’t feel like an elite runner. I’d been harbouring a bit of a fever, and hadn’t completely recovered from the Half Marathon. It was very odd. It seemed a million miles from the big civic runs I normally do starting in the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh. I could have just walked back a few pens to be with the runners who thought they’d manage it in a 02:15 or even 02:30, but for some reason, mesmerized by the empty road ahead perhaps, stayed where I was. This is yet another of the many decisions we’ll be revisiting later.
We were off. I hit “Start” on my iPhone’s running application, stowed it in my armband, and a playlist of live material by Rush (subtle suggestion, there) spewed forth. It was amazing. I’d never crossed the line so soon after the gun. Off we raced, like greyhounds. Or in my case, an older greyhound, with a particularly inept training and management team. The others were ripping ahead of me, and those behind overtaking. I’d done some warming-up but not enough, it seemed. Before I knew it, we’d covered the first kilometre, and my phone app told me I’d done it in 04:36. I was going way too fast. There was no way I could keep this up, and I tried to slow down. But it was harder than it sounds. I was being overtaken relentlessly, and the instinct to race was hard to fight. I was really paying the price for not moving back a few pens, and feeling pretty rough, too. My fever was still apparent, and I hadn’t been doing as much of my training at this time the morning as I used to. And there were 25 kilometres of this to go.
The course was meandering up and down hill far more than I’d been expecting, and the terrain underfoot took in both kind tarmac and treacherous loose chippings. My joints were already aching. Now, there’s always a tiny little bit of wee in me when I start running, no matter how late I leave my last micturation. Sometimes it just goes away, but today it needed to come out, so I pulled over and let it, discretely sheltered by a bridge below the waist. I also took one of the many 400mg Ibuprofen tablets I would need over the next two hours. As I set off again, refreshed and refocussed, a steward asked me if I was alright. Did I look that troubled? I’m only 44. I run marathons. Honestly.
I normally wear black, and it was at this point that I began to suspect that my outfit for the day, red hydration pack, red running top, and red lycra stretch shorts had been a mistake. I looked like a tomato. A cooking tomato, if I’m honest. And looking down at the unmistakable stain at my groin, a cooking tomato that had been at the bottom of the fridge for too long. There had still been a bit of wee in me, even after the pit-stop. But now it was on me. Well I don’t do this to look cool, now do I?
I pounded along. The other runners flew like gazelles past me, but I just pounded. It felt as though the pavement should be cracking underneath me, as though I were the Incredible Hulk experimenting with a new colour for Autumn. I had toyed with the idea of replacing my running shoes a couple of weeks earlier, my present brace of pairs having seen me though the year’s previous five races and accompanying training, but for some reason thought they would be good for one more race. They weren’t. I have to take the removable insole out of them anyway to fit my prescription orthotics, which sacrifices some shock absorption, but this pair were bereft of any remaining bounce. It was like running in plimsolls.
The Forth Road Bridge finally hove into view, and I seemed to have found a comfortable speed. It was going to be OK. I’d get through it. After all, I had Rush, the most dependable  of hard rock motivators to keep me going. The titles said it all - Presto, Fly By Night, In The Mood, Working Man. It would power me on.
Just as I hit the bridge, my left earphone started crackling and became intermittent, and no amount of jiggling would bring it back. At this point I emitted a very coarse yet cathartic term I  acquired from a Shane Meadows production recently, and which rhymes with “Front Books”. Only seventeen more kilometres to go, and with not mono, but half-stereo, which is far worse. Only listening to The Beatles like this (“You two on the left, you two on the right!” “OK, George!”) could have offered lower fidelity.
The bridge was the centerpiece of the course, and affords a magnificent view of the Firth of Forth, the coastlines of West Lothian and Fife, and of course Brunel’s magnificent iron rail bridge running alongside. It’s also made of very hard metal and concrete and has no springiness to it whatsoever. My shins were suffering, and I wan’t halfway round yet. I was still being overtaken, pitilessly. Not just by elite athletes, but by couples chatting, a man taking a picture of the bridge on his phone as he ran, another man making a hands-free call, and a tall Caribbean man who seemed to be floating along in slow motion with no discernible effort whatsoever.
Round and back we went, passing the half-way point. Suckling my hydration pack, snaffling energy gels, and necking Ibuprofen like a hungover junior doctor, halfway back across the bridge, I finally, after 13 kilometres overtook another runner. 
We wound through the main street of South Queensferry, familiar territory for me, as I used to work at the electronics factory. The cobbles and flagstones were vicious on my inflamed knees and ankles. Once through it was time for the only hill I’d been anticipating, Hawes Brae (pronounced “Whores Bray”, and I’d have been joining in with them). It wasn’t anything like as tough an incline as I’d been expecting, but I wasn’t alone in walking for about a minute. I was now actively seeking out other lame ducks to run with so I wouldn’t stick out so much. It worked at school.
On and through Dalmeny and then Kirkliston, where the runners were tactfully funneled by stewards and police away from paramedics attending a competitor who’d fallen. You see this a lot, especially in summer races where the heat gets to people. But, as I passed, I unmistakably saw the paramedics administering CPR to the man. They only do that when your heart’s stopped, I thought. It was chilling. But we were all in the middle of a race and we all carried on with what we were there to do.
I’ve run three marathons, and this, at only sixty percent of the distance, was starting to feel like one. Not in terms of exhaustion, but that my joints weren’t working and I was in continual pain. Every time a foot landed a millimetre off true I let out an involuntary moan. The stewards and spectators were fantastically encouraging and I smiled back whenever I could.
I’d never been about to do this in 02:00 and as the pain grew, I wan’t going to get 02:15 either, but 02:30 had to be within my grasp. I was doing the sums and listening to my running app, but the 25 km marker didn’t seem to want to appear before me. It was going to take a bit of a spurt. But then, the one pleasant surprise of the day appeared in the form of the 26 km marker. I’d missed 25 km completely. Insanely, I still gave the last 200 metres a kick, threw back my head laughing, both at the absurdity of what I do to relax, and the impending joy of not doing it for a while, and went for it.
I crossed the line like an attention seeking oaf, imitating the aircraft landing next door, with my arms outstretched, veering in in an S-pattern, two hours and twenty-five minutes after I’d set off.
It was horrible ordeal. I really didn’t enjoy any of it. I was in pain all the way through, was serially humiliated, and saw a man who’d just died. But I’m still glad I did it, because I’ve learned the following.
  • If you’re going to run in the morning, train in the morning
  • Base your expectations on how you feel today, not your best ever performance
  • The Edinburgh Half and Full Marathons are very flat compared to out of town races and your times won’t necessarily scale to them
  • If you have been over-optimistic in your forecast, you are not required to set off with those who have not. Run alongside people you can meaningfully compete with.
  • If you’re not sure whether you need new shoes, then you definitely do need new shoes
  • If you take new replacement headphones to a race but run with your old ones, you are blaspheming against the god of irony and he will smite you down

Oh, yes.

  • Don’t dress as an incontinent tomato.


2 comments:

Tony said...

Amazed how cogent your blog is given the ordeal you have put yourself through. Seems more killer-thon than kilothon to me

Rob said...

Brilliant account Dave. Bizarrely it actually makes me look forward to running again! Not sure why!