Brighton Marathon – a race of two halves

It’s 6am on Sunday 12th April and my alarm has just gone off.  Must be time for the Brighton Marathon!

I had slept fairly well.  The nerves I had been feeling in the preceding weeks had seemed to fade and if anything I was fairly confident of a good run.  Despite the usual feelings of having not done enough training, I was confident I could make the full distance and was hopeful of a time around 4hrs 30 minutes.  This would be an average speed of around 6min/km, definitely a speed I felt I could maintain.

Cat and I had slept at my parents house the night before as they live locally to Brighton making the journey to the Marathon more simple.  We had our baby Mia with us, but sadly our older daughter Niamh had to stay with Cats Mum back home as she had a horrid cough and was not well enough to come down to the Marathon to support her Dad.

Speaking of Dad’s, mine was good enough to offer me a lift to the Marathon in the morning, so after getting up, having a shower and making my final preparations he appeared in the kitchen to drive me down.  Those of you who know my Dad will be aware that he is a bit of a character, but even I was a little surprised to see him wearing a Superman onesie.  He informed me the Superman onesie was his “dropping people off early in the morning outfit”.  I decided not to enquire any further, we chucked my stuff in the car and he drove me down.

As we got closer to Preston Park (Marathon start) the road was closed, so Dad dropped me off and I walked the rest of the way.  This gave me a chance to walk past the elite runners start, where the professionals and the very quick amateurs would be starting the race.  The “fun” runners would be starting further down the road and completing a lap of Preston park (the actual park not the whole place) before joining the same course as the elites.

Walking past the elite start and on down towards the park I saw a number of athletes coming the other way.  These were clearly the elite amateurs and they all looked very fit, all had less than 3% body fat and all looked very serious indeed.  Some had already started to warm up at 7.45am and the race didn’t start until 9.15am.  Knowing that these people are a different breed from me I wandered on and into Preston Park.

You can just make me out.  Back row on the left hand side.

As soon as I arrived I made my way over towards the clock tower where the Chestnut Tree House girls had staked us out an area to assemble.  We had a photo taken with those of us who were there at 8.15am, leaving 1 hour until race start.  I still felt OK.  No real sign of nerves.  The only thing on my mind was that in the sun already felt quite warm.  Looked like the day was shaping up to be a hot one.

Exchanging a bit of banter with some of the lads I then went to drop off my bag (which would be taken to the finish by the marathon organisers).  I had decided to run in my Chestnut Tree House vest with a t-shirt underneath as this is what I had worn on almost all of my training runs and it was what I was used to.  Applying plenty of sunscreen to my exposed legs and arms I handed in my bag and then waited around until it was time to assemble within our starting pens.

I was colour coded in the blue start, which was the second starting group.  Whilst waiting for the start Bushy and Marie turned up to see me off.  Regular blog readers will remember Bushy as my friend who failed to turn up to the first triathlon of 2014 because he wanted to spend time with Marie, who was definitely NOT his girlfriend at the time.  Well anyway she definitely is his girlfriend now.  Bet you are glad I cleared that one up.

Bushy was supposed to be running with me, but due to an administrative error with his application (essentially he cocked it up) his place did not get confirmed.  After a brief chat about race strategy, how I was feeling etc it was time to go.  Saying goodbye to Bushy and Marie I walked towards the starting line with the rest of my wave.  

The crowd were already cheering and I must admit my thoughts were firmly with why I was doing this marathon in the first place.  Thinking about all of the children and their families being cared for by Chestnut Tree House and what they must be going through brought a tear to my eye as the starter sounded a horn and the race was started.  

The first part of the race relatively slow as people jostled for position and got stuck in a few bottle necks, but soon we were out of Preston Park and on our way into Brighton.  I took 7 minutes for my first kilometer, but after than settled into a very steady 6min/km pace and felt great.  I am probably going to say this 1000 times, but the crowd were phenomenal.  

Early in the race and feeling good

Having “Snooky” written on the front and back of my race vest was great as countless people were shouting “come on Snooky” or something similar as I went past.  I did my absolute best to give each and every one of them a smile and a thumbs up.  

The marathon route wound its way down towards Brighton, then cut back North towards the University before coming back on itself and heading towards the sea.  This allowed you to see runners who were ahead of you on the switchbacks, or behind you (depending on which direction you were going).  The ability to see the others was great as I could keep a look out for my fellow Chestnut Tree House runners.  There was around 130 of us in total and just like the supporters, I tried to give each one of them a thumbs up if I caught their eye.  The kilometers were flying past and every time I checked my watch I was on almost perfect 6min/km pace and in all honesty I felt great.  No little niggling injuries, my breathing was smooth and not at all laboured and I was loving the marathon.  

Soon enough we were through the 10km mark and I was exactly on my planned pace, cruising through 10K in an hour.  It was around this point in the race that I noticed it was starting to get very warm.  I hadn’t checked the weather forecast in the morning, but did know that it was due to be mostly sunny.  I have no idea how hot it was, but it was the hottest weather I had run in all year by far. There was only one thing for it, time to take off the t-shirt underneath and just run in the vest.  Stopping for a wee, I took off my under t-shirt, tied it around my waist bag that I was carrying and then on I went.

Now I had been running for an hour it was time to think about taking some food on board.  I had already been drinking either water or Gatorade (whichever was on offer) at every drink station as dehydration is a killer in endurance events and I wanted to make sure I took enough fluids on board.  To keep me going food wise, I had decided to move away from gels in favour of some homemade rice cakes.  The recipe came from a simply brilliant book that I cannot recommend enough, Feedzone Portables.  The idea is that as your body is used to eating normal food.  Why introduce things you don’t normally eat (gels, energy bars etc) into your system when it is at maximum stress.  This can cause stomach issues (and believe me I have had these in the past using energy gels).  Instead you cook yourself some simple food that tastes good and provides you with the carbs you need to keep your muscles topped up and avoid the dreaded “wall”, where you run out of muscle glycogen and your performance drops.

So I was an hour into the race and it was time for one of these rice cakes.  I had not tried them at all in training so how my stomach would react was a bit of an unknown quantity, so I just munched half of one down and kept on running.  At this point the race makes its way past Brighton Marina and then takes a left into Ovingdean, before turning around and it is the long slog all the way through Brighton and on to Shoreham power station.  I knew this was a key part of the race for me.  If I could get through half marathon distance (21km or 13.1 miles in old money) feeling good then I hoped to be well set up for the second half.  I was keeping to pace well, still cruising along at 6min/km.  As my good friend Curry would say “the legs felt good” and I was loving the race.

Taken at mile 13 I think

Making sure to keep smiling at the crowd when they shouted out my name soon we were back at Brighton Pier and approaching half way.  Across the half way marker I checked my watch and was delighted to see that I was through half marathon distance in 2:10, which was still bang on pace and meant if I could keep going I should finish in around 4:30, which was my target time before the race.

Sticking in the back of my mind was the fact that during training on my long runs, I would tend to run into trouble at around 23-25km.  This would either be hitting “the wall”, or some sort of injury niggle that would slow me down.  No sooner had this thought entered my mind I started to feel a little twinge in my left quad.  It wasn’t anything major at this point, but was enough to slow me down a bit and get me to quickly think about what I was going to do about it.  

After a quick brain storm I was fresh out of ideas.  I had drunk as much liquid as I could get my hands on, eaten my little rice cakes at the correct intervals and wasn’t running too quickly.  I could slow down more to try and protect my leg but there was no guarantee this would work.  Sometimes when you get these little niggles you can just run them off and sometimes they develop into something worse.  Sadly for me in this instance it was the latter.

Within a few hundred yards of starting to feel this twinge in my quad it cramped.  And when I say cramped I mean cramped.  The muscle totally locked and I was immediately slowed down to a limp.  A very slow limp.  The crowd were cheering me on but I knew I was in big trouble.  I have always suffered with cramp.  Regular blog readers will remember me commenting on swim cramp before and I had exactly the same quad issues at the Swanage Triathlon last year.  Throughout my football playing days as a teenager I would get quad or calf cramp in almost every single game.  It was something I was used to; however this time it was a bit different.

I had crippling leg cramp at around mile 15, meaning I had 11 more miles to go.  Trying to run 11 metres with severe cramp is hard enough, but 11 miles is an entirely different thing.  In my head I was absolutely gutted.  I knew this was the end of me getting round in my target time.  There was even a bit of doubt whether I would finish.  Quickly banishing these thoughts from my mind I had to re-strategise.  What was I going to do to make sure I got to the end of the marathon?

The answer was simple.  I needed to walk until the cramp subsided, then run as best I could for as long as I could until it came back.  Walk again to get rid of it, then run.  This would be how I would proceed for the remainder of the race.  

Sometimes I would walk for 5 minutes, the cramp would go then I could run for 20 minutes.  Sometimes I could only run for 20 seconds and the cramp would come back.  Every time I was slowed to a walk my heart sank.  Because I was forced to favour my right hand side due to the issues with my left quad, soon my right quad started to ache a lot.  Not so long after that both hip flexors started to complain, my back started to hurt and then I was just hurting.  I knew these other muscle aches were due to improper running and walking form caused by the cramp, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.  My head kept dropping towards the pavement as I shuffled along.  I was trying to smile and keep giving the thumbs up to the crowd as they called my name but I was hurting.  

Walk with a limp like an old school pimp

It seemed to take an age to make it to the power station, but as I rounded this point I knew it was only 6 miles to the finish.  The sign said 6 miles, but it might as well have said 60.  I was in a whole world of trouble.  My quads were screaming and even when I was running I was struggling to go any quicker than 7min/km.  The walking phases were not even walking as I had a pronounced limp and felt more like Herr Flick of the Gestapo rather than a marathon runner.

Despite all this discomfort, there were some great highlights of this part of the race.  I couldn’t help thinking back to the days when my wife and I first met and started dating.  I suffered with sciatica in those days and was awaiting an operation to fix it.  The sciatica caused me to limp around everywhere and my beautiful wife (who was then my girlfriend) used to find this amusing.  She would regularly sing the lyrics to LMFAO – I’m in Miami to me, which include the lines “When I step on the scene, y’all know me, cause I walk with a limp like an old school pimp”  This song was going through my head as I limped along and was amusing me a lot.

Also, my friend Andy cycled down from Chichester to cheer me on and his enthusiasm when he spotted me at mile 19 was remarkable.  I remember complaining to him that I was not in good condition, but he just kept bouncing up and down and telling me that I could do it.  He is very energetic for an old fella 😉

Bumbling my way along past mile 23 I saw Andy again and he was still hugely enthusiastic despite the fact he must have been waiting almost an hour for me to make it round those 4 miles.  If you are reading this mate, thank you for the support it was desperately needed.

Eventually making it out of the power station complex and onto the seafront it was just 3 miles to go.  3 miles and I would be done.  3 miles and for the rest of time I would always be able to say I completed the Brighton Marathon.  I was determined to run.  Determined not to walk past the huge crowds.  Determined that I was stronger than my legs were telling me, that I had the inner reserves to do this thing.  

Waiting till the 2 mile marker I decided enough to this walking and increased to a very slow jog.  The crowd were going mental and they must have spurred me on as I managed to keep running and keep running.  I was greeted by my friend Nige with about 1.5 miles to go.  Nige had also seen me at around the mile 13 mark, but this time he thrust a bottle of water into my hand, gave me a huge clap on the back and a massive cheer and that was it, I knew I was running to the end of the race.

Respect to the Chestnut
cheering team
Technique all over the
place, but only a mile to go

At this point there was a huge group of Chestnut Tree House supporters and a tear formed in the corner of my eye as I applauded their phenomenal support.  They had been out in the heat for 5 hours cheering me and my fellow runners on and would probably be out there for a couple more yet.  An amazing bunch of people and I was honoured to run for them.

Just past the Chestnut cheering team were my wife, family and friends.  They made a huge amount of noise as I went past and I must have been grinning like a Cheshire Cat to see them in the crowd.  I was almost done.

Pushing on past the pier and onto Madeira drive I could see the finish line and the fact that the first number on the timing board was a 5.  I was going to take more than 5 hours to finish the marathon and was very disappointed with my performance.  Crossing the line after 5hrs and 3 minutes of running I was expecting to feel elation, but actually all I felt was disappointment.  My body had let me down and I knew it was my fault.

Upon reflection I just didn’t do enough training.  I had not put enough work in on the long runs and that has cost me.  I am now absolutely convinced that if I had done more long run work I would not have experienced the muscle cramp that I did.

Meeting up with my support team of wife and daughter, Mum, Dad, Sister (with baby and boyfriend) and my friends Bushy and Marie and Steve and Louise (along with their 11 week old son Owen) afterwards they were all very proud of my accomplishment, but all I felt was that I had let them all down.  Even when I wandered into the Chestnut Tree House tent in the Marathon village and talked to the other runners I still felt sad about my poor performance.  I was delighted the others had finished, but just couldn’t feel happy about my result.  A strange state of emotion. Perhaps I was just physically and emotionally spent and had nothing left.  I’m not sure.

Having now had time to reflect I feel a lot more proud of myself.  Apparently only 1% of people ever complete a marathon and I am one of those.  This is something to feel good about, regardless of the time it took.

I have learnt a huge amount from my marathon experience, but this is a post for another time as this one has gone on long enough.  

To sign off, huge thanks to my friends and family who came down to support me on the day.  Knowing you were there to cheer me on was a great booster.  Massive thanks and respect to those Chestnut Tree House supporters out on the course who were cheering me on and also thanks those members of the public who had no idea who I was but felt the need to cheer me on anyway.  You are all wonderful people and made the day for me.

Check back on IronSnook soon for the lessons learnt from the marathon and what comes next.



PS – For those of you who are wondering if I would run a marathon again, the answer is a resounding YES.  I have a score to settle with the Brighton Marathon course and myself.  In fact I have already signed up to run for Chestnut again next year.  Just to add to the challenge I am going to run barefooted.  More on this later in the year.


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