I’m definitely still on a high from Chester Marathon. I thought it would have worn off by now, but I’m still prancing around like I’ve just arrived back from Rio with a suitcase full of Olympic gold medals. I guess it just goes to show that whatever level of runner you are, the feeling you get from achieving your goals is one like no other - if only they could bottle it!
This race had been my target for what felt like a very long time – after I completed London last year in 4:11, I felt compelled to have another crack at breaking that elusive sub-4 mark (despite my “I’m never doing another marathon again!” cries towards the end of training). And a failed attempt to get to the Chester start line back in 2011, when I was thwarted by a knee injury, meant this race and I had unfinished business.
So, on Sunday 2nd October I found myself zooming along the M56 heading towards the historic walled city for marathon number 2, my mind and stomach awash with a heady mix of nerves and excitement. As the sun came up in the distance it brought with it a strong sense of positivity. Training this time had gone well; in fact, it had gone really well. I’d had no injuries to report, I’d stuck to my plan well and covered the miles I needed to, I’d got in plenty of solid long runs, and most of all I’d actually enjoyed it. I couldn’t really have done much more to prepare myself.
Following a very efficient number collection, a nervy wait for a portaloo, and a warm up jog to the start line, I soon found myself lined up at the racecourse with 2500 or so other runners, all itching for the race to begin on what was becoming a gloriously sunny day. I had a quick look to check I was close to the 4-hour pacer, then suddenly the starting gun sounded and we were off!
As I expected the first section around the racecourse itself was pretty congested, so I stuck to the inside rail, taking in the applause and cheers from the hundreds of spectators lining the track, and waited for the field to spread out. Before long we were weaving our way through the city, and I couldn’t help but smile to myself as memories from some great weekends spent there flooded back. It didn’t seem to take long before we reached the River Dee, crossing over it to leave the walls behind and heading out into the beautiful surrounding countryside. As I took in the absolutely stunning views I was grinning like a deranged, though in this case aptly named, Cheshire cat, and loving every single second.
There was, however, a small but growing niggle in the back of my mind…I was surely going too fast. A quick Google on the way over had confirmed that 4-hour marathon pace was 9:09 minute miles, and I’d just flown through mile 5 at 8:15 – my fastest one yet. Oops! Despite my brain telling me to slow down, my legs appeared to be in cruise control and just would not listen.
Around the mile 7 mark I caught up to the 3:45 pace group, and made the decision to stick with them. However just one mile later I started to feel a bit hemmed in by the pack, so I managed to get round to the front and then started to drift off ahead. Slowing down was not going well!
From there I decided to stop fretting about my actual pace, and just focus on my perceived effort and comfort levels. I relaxed into the next 10K, only realising we were in Wales when I noticed the word “Araf” on the floor, and enjoying dipping in and out of earshot of various conversations between my fellow runners. Before I knew it I’d sailed through the half way point in 1:48:45, and I still didn’t feel like I was starting to tire. Another conversation I overheard gave me some great advice – “as long as it feels good just keep doing what you’re doing”. So I pressed onwards at the same pace, figuring that by the time I ran out of steam I should have banked enough time in the earlier stages to still bring me in under 4 hours.
The next target in my mind was mile 17. I’d been forewarned that there was a hill around this point, and I was a bit worried that it could be the beginning of my demise. It didn’t seem to take long to get there, and as I eyed it up on my approach I couldn’t help but feel confident that I’d tackled worse in training. Sure enough I was up and over it without too much concern, and to my relief the wheels stayed firmly attached! Next target 20 miles and the village of Alford, where I was expecting my mum to be waiting and very much looking forward to it…
If you know me quite well, you will know that I’m late for everything. I get this off my mother. However today, possibly for the first time ever, I was actually way ahead of schedule! I’d told mum I should hit mile 20 by noon, 3 hours into my 4 hour target, but I cruised through the village just before 11:45. As I anxiously scanned the crowds of onlookers to no avail, a concerning thought entered my head – what if I’m too early? Or more to the point, what if she’s too late?! By now though there was little I could do about it, and I left the village with no sign of her and feeling a bit disheartened.
So with the final 10K looming I assessed the situation: I had 1 hour 15 left to break 4 hours. I thought this had to be easily in the bag, so decided to up my game to a sub 3:45 target. Even if, or when, I hit the wall I still had an hour to cover 6 miles. I also remembered that I had a Roaming Roosters scotch egg in the car for my picnic lunch, which was ridiculously motivational – I do love a scotch egg.
I reached the 23 mile point with no sign of the dreaded wall rearing its ugly head. I was feeling epic. All of a sudden I heard a familiar voice shout my name …. I looked round in the direction it came from, and there was my aforementioned mum cheering me on alongside her fiancée and my niece! Now I was REALLY feeling epic! After parting with some sweaty high fives and swallowing the unexpected lump in my throat, a hasty watch check and some hazy maths told me I was on for a three thirty-something – what could stop me now?!
With less than two miles to go I spotted a business sign referring to Sandy Lane. After contemplating why this sounded familiar for a few seconds it suddenly dawned on me…the hill. Sandy Lane Hill. The Race Angels. Oh crap…. As I rounded a slight left turn there it lay before me, and I watched in mild horror as runner after runner struggled up the kind of incline you don’t really want to encounter in the latter stages of a marathon. Of course there was not a lot I could do except join them; I took a deep breath, set my sights firmly on the summit, and off I went. I’m not entirely sure how many four letter words came out my mouth as I neared the top, but thankfully I made it there relatively unscathed, with my legs still functioning, and after checking my splits afterwards without losing too much speed either.
The flat stretch back into the centre of Chester lead to a welcome drop down to the riverside, where I was well and truly on the home straight and motoring to the finish. It was only back in June that I walked this stretch road in the opposite direction, barefoot and hobbling after a day in high heels at the races, so knew exactly how far I had left! Soon enough I reached the racecourse and the end was in sight. The announcer calling my name gave me a final push over the line, and I crossed it with both elation and bewilderment as I instantly checked my Garmin – 3:35:01!
I collected my medal and goody bag with a dazed smile on my face, still trying to comprehend how I’d just managed to completely obliterate my goal time. Granted I’d put in plenty of hard work to get there, but I think it was one of those days where everything just fell into place. A perfect race day, and one that I’ll never forget!