I set off at a reasonable pace, slightly ahead of Gav and wanting to make sure I didn’t push too hard too early on. I’d coached myself into avoiding my usual trappings of flying off too fast and burning out with a decent way still to go (London marathon 2015, for example.) As we turned the first corner at around 4 miles in, I could see where Gav was as he approached on the other side of the road. So far, so good. We were both sticking to our ‘comfortable pace early doors’ respective race plans. I wasn’t overly worried at this stage. That said, I wasn’t exactly comfortable or happy with my legs either. They felt heavier than I would have liked, and I had an inkling that this would be a pretty long and arduous day at the office. Still, I kept my 7:30m/mile pace up for just about the first half of the race. Again, I knew in my gut that this would slow down sooner rather than later. It was gradually becoming harder and harder to maintain pace as my legs felt heavier. I was also dropping off the small pack I’d been running with up to that point, and tellingly, I chose not to try and stay with them.
I remember saying to myself around the 13-14 mile point “Jesus – this is getting tough far earlier than I’d have liked. What’s my plan now? How am I going to tackle things from here if this is already a low point?!” I thought about it in stages: miles 14-17, then another 3 to reach 20 miles, and then breaking the last 6 into 2 X 3 mile chunks. Mentally, I would tackle each 3 mile block in stages. Once one was done, move on to the next one. And so on…
Around mile 17, we turned another corner (there are precious few corners on the Dubai marathon route – in fact it was as close to a treadmill marathon as I’d ever wish to experience. One long, endless, arduous concrete road. That is all. For 26.2 miles, albeit for two corner turns.) From there, I could look across at the runners who were a good few miles behind me as they were approaching the turn, and see where Gav was. I looked across, and he wasn’t there. I kept looking. Where was he? Finally, he appeared. Further back than I expected, but he didn’t look to be struggling. He gave me a smile and waved. Perhaps he was running a clever race and his pacing would pay dividends later down the track. He had plenty of time to catch me up, which I thoroughly expected him to do. By this stage, I was firmly in the damage limitation zone for my own marathon. It was in hanging-on territory once more, only it was happening far earlier in the race than I’d predicted. I’d been here many times before – at least I had that small comfort.
As my legs increased in density with every step, I was grateful that they continued to tick over at a reasonable pace. Arguably, they should know what to do on a flat, straight course. Also, with the mileage already accumulated in them, it offers a kind of fall-back position for such times. They just assume default position which is simply ‘continue to run until I say stop’. Nothing more complicated than that.
But I was struggling. I stopped for a gel and a drink. Any excuse to briefly pull over and have a word with myself. I quickly set off again, remembering my plan to deal with 3-mile chunks at a time, and not to worry about the next one until I was in it. Ok – deal made with myself, I could do that.
It hadn’t really dawned on me that we were now running in the Arabian heat which had crept up on us like a stealthy Dickensian pick-pocket: we hadn’t really noticed it was there, such was the subtlety of its arrival. I was mindful to take in at least a sip of water at every available station. There’s almost as much rubbish spouted about staying hydrated as there is on carb-loading. People take it to the extreme, in both cases. Whilst it’s crucial to avoid dehydration of course, it’s just as dangerous – if not more so – to take on too much water. Little and often is the key, as in life generally. I was OK on that front. I knew I had enough water, and I was also fine for carbs, having managed them well over the duration of the course.
I felt to be losing grip of my pace around the 20 mile stage. It didn’t help that all the markers were in KMs rather than miles. I couldn’t see up ahead where the next one was coming, other than obsessing at my Suunto watch, which had the downside of also displaying my pace: I soon realised that staring at it didn’t make me run any faster. I kept chugging away, ticking off the painfully slow last 6 miles. I thought about Gav. Where was he? Could he see me? Was he keeping me in sight, and preparing to go past me? I expected him to run up behind me, and I hoped desperately that he would. We could surely help each other to finish this thing together far easier than we could alone. For a moment, I considered pulling over and waiting for him. Surely he wouldn’t be too far behind me, and we could be each other’s support to the end. I’ve no idea why, but I soon dismissed it as a bad idea. If I had to stop for too long, my legs just wouldn’t get going again, and I had absolutely no idea how far behind me he was. It was a gamble not worth taking. Plus, I just had to get this finished. I needed to get to the end and for it to be over. Any diversion from this was not an option. So, with my desperate idea out of the window, I straightened my head out once more. Sometimes, when options are taken away from you, it helps to regain clarity. It helped me in this case. My only option was to keep running, and to finish it. Focus on that – nothing else.
Miles 22-23 were difficult for me mentally. I knew then that I was way outside my PB of 3:16. It just wouldn’t happen today. I readjusted my expectations and figured I could be OK with a time around 3:30. As disappointed as I knew I would be, it was still a respectable marathon time and I could at least be able to say that I couldn’t have done any more today. Nothing at all. Trying to remain logical and focus on the positives instead of my internal compass for ‘not doing well enough’ I hung on and crossed the finish line at 3:34. My legs almost immediately gave way. That hasn’t happened so suddenly since my first ever marathon (Gav has subsequent told me this can be one effect of running in heat.) I remember sitting down at the side of the road literally just beyond the finishing line. I felt OK other than my legs. My legs! Jesus, my legs.