Paul lines up for the London Marathon with a sub-3:00 finish in mind
Iwoke up on London Marathon day 2017, got on the Tube and, as is my wont, took a moment to be grateful. I thanked my club mates who’d inspired me through a winter’s training. I thanked my Running Commentary podcast mate, Rob, for sharing miles with me. I thanked my wife for putting up with me and, finally, I thanked my lucky stars that I had been able to get on with my training without injury. I’d done the long runs, the intervals, the half marathons, the tempos, the taper. If every runner is an experiment of one I’d refined my knowledge over six previous marathons. I had a plan – I was going for sub-three. A self-created drama had stuck in my craw for a few years. Today was the day to slay the dragon.
There’s an absurdity to the first mile of a marathon. It’s great because finally you’re moving, but it feels a bit unreal. I hit the one-mile mark in 6:56 – too slow. I sped up. Perhaps I overcompensated, because I went through 5K in 20:17 but then I slowed through 10K in 41:28. I felt fine. I tried to chill – conserve energy, relax shoulders. It hasn’t started yet. The idea was to float through halfway in about 88 minutes, so I took gels every 40 minutes and sipped a little water often. Halfway – 88:17, bang on.
I was in the second half now, but I was tired. The idea was to maintain pace to 20 while conserving mental energy for the big push. Methods vary. I channel Alberto Cova, an Italian runner I watched in the 1980s. He won many a 10,000m medal with his short, fast, light strides. When it gets tough I think Cova. Quick steps: 14, 15 miles. Cova: 16, 17 miles. Cova.
This worked for a while; then I caught my reflection in a window and the edifice shattered. That Cova’s put on a bit of weight! And his legs hurt!
At around the 18-mile mark I had an overwhelming realisation that this was going to be the toughest physical thing I’d ever done in my life. Also quite depressing because it was accompanied by the feeling that I was absolutely determined to do it. I was diving into an ocean of pain that I had freely chosen. And let’s be honest, sometimes it gets ugly in your head. The last five or six miles have an unrelenting brutality to them. You’re locked in a private battle that maybe you don’t even fully understand. One is advised at such times to get a mantra to repeat, simple and resonant or a family member to think about. So I did; I thought of my youngest son. I also came up with a mantra that is, frankly, unprintable.
And I had a tactic: treat 20-25 miles as a race within a race. So as I crossed 20 miles I restarted my watch, took a breath and dived in.
It worked. It was the first 26.2 where I’ve raced every step. Every mile was sinew shredding but I held on – just. 21, 22, 23 miles.
At around 24 miles the sub-three pacer went past. That was a tough moment but I held him on a thread in front of me and, around the 25-mile mark, exhaustion blended into a kind of exhilarated demented panic: 2:51 and something. This was on if I wanted it – and I did, I really did. So I put my foot down and, lifted by the crowd’s glorious roar, mined a pocket of energy, reeled in the pacer, rounded the last corner, saw 2:59 on the clock and, to use a Yorkshire phrase, legged it.
It was only with 50 metres to go that I knew I’d got it: 2:59:21. I clenched my fist and swore and realised that I was surrounded by a funnel of middle-aged blokes doing exactly the same thing.
The next 10 minutes were awash in waves of relief, salutations and joy. The real end came for me when I found my wife and youngest son walking towards me. That was when, to use another Yorkshire term, I had a bit of a beef (a cry).
A deep, calm, exhausted, blissful YES! It was done. Check out Paul and fellow comedian Rob Deering’s running podcast, Running Commentary – available on itunes and Acast. @ Runcompod