Marathons never get easier. Goals just get loftier!
For the 2016 race, please click the following:
First things first, I promise this year’s write-up of my Yorkshire Marathon experience won’t be nearly as long as last year’s edition! Congratulations to all who ran and I hope this race account inspires those of you yet to run your autumn marathon.
3:03:05 from the 2016 Yorkshire Marathon was incredibly satisfying to achieve, especially as my two previous attempts at the 26.2 distance left me feeling cheated. The London Marathon is the marathon for many, but not for me, so Yorkshire Marathon 2017 it was. Of course, being so close to a sub-3 hour marathon meant the next attempt had a very firm finish time in sight. I’ve repeatedly said of late that running more marathons doesn’t mean they get easier – the goals just get loftier!
So, what would it take to run under 3 hours? That’s 26.2 miles at 6:50 to 6:52 pace, give or take a little bit of error either side. I decided last year’s modified P&D Advanced Marathoning 22 week plan would serve me well again, with a few more modifications here and there; a very modest uplift in mileage and more opportunities to run at marathon pace, for example.
Training went incredibly well up until mid-August when Lis and I went away to Crete on holiday. I’d racked up some strong training runs and even broke 60 miles in one week for the first time. Returning from our break, I soon picked up a nasal infection that robbed me of two or so critical weeks in the plan. Once healthy again, it soon became apparent that I’d gone off the boil for too long (three weeks including the holiday and illness); my training paces slowed slightly and I lost some resilience, forcing me to begin dropping easy runs in favour of rest days.
All was not lost, however. I hit my long run goal of breaking 100 miles spread across five runs (103 miles in total) and marathon paced training runs at the Wolverhampton and Robin Hood Half Marathon indicated I was in good aerobic shape, but that I absolutely had to stick to the script of just sitting steady at 6:50 to 6:52 per mile in the main event because my body was unlikely to react well to anything faster.
Maranoia – it’s real!
Leading up to race day, I did what I could to stay healthy and illness-free. Judicious and frequent hand washing, backed up with liberal use of antibacterial gel, became the norm. So, imagine my horror when symptoms began manifesting less than 24 hours before the race!
Once more, Lis and I checked into York for a two-night stay in a bid to ensure I at least had a chance to acclimatise to the unfamiliar bed and surroundings. And yes, leaving nothing to chance, I did take my own pillow from home again.
Unfortunately, I slept dreadfully on Friday night and woke feeling groggy and dazed on Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon, I began to feel weak and flat and was ready to head back to the hotel for a nap. Post-nap, I felt no better and struggled to get food down over dinner with a constant feeling of wanting to throw up. I suffered from cold flashes, where everybody in the restaurant appeared to be fanning themselves to cool down, whereas I was struggling to stay warm!
In a complete reversal of roles, Dave Burton, who I’ve been coaching to run his own marathon, became my mentor. He suggested it was all in my head and was merely the fight versus flight mechanism kicking in. I was in unknown territory, recalling only ever feeling as such the day before Lis and I got married. Races don’t make me break out in a cold sweat, or so I thought! Reading through the Wikipedia article on the subject matter, I had almost all of the textbook symptoms; this did nothing to reassure me of the horror that unfolded and, ashamedly, for somebody that’s normally incredibly positive and upbeat about running and racing, I began re-evaluating my options and jacking the race in suddenly became a very real and inviting prospect. If the symptoms were not psychosomatic and I really was coming down with something (bad luck happens to everyone – just look at Therasa May), attempting to run 26.2 miles whilst ill would be a very bad idea and I could do without another DNF to my name.
Another early night it was in a bid to shake off whatever it was I was going through…
Unhelpfully and unsurprisingly, I had yet another poor night’s sleep due to what played on my mind. Adding to the anxiety was the comparison to the 36 hours before the 2016 Yorkshire Marathon, where everything went according to plan.
But! Many of the symptoms appeared to subside and only the queasy feeling in my stomach remained a concern. I managed to force some breakfast down whilst still contemplating my options. I agreed with Lis that we would rendezvous back at the hotel, whatever happened…
Suited and booted, I made my way over to the race village at the university. I began running through different mantras in my head, but the only ones that seemed appropriate to quell the feeling of nausea were “Keep cool” and “Stay calm”.
Firmly on university grounds, I spotted a runner wearing a sombrero hat, looking lost. I approached him to see if he was looking for the baggage tents, and indeed he was. I immediately began making small talk with David, querying whether he planned to wear the comically large hat for the entire race. He assured me the hat would be discarded shortly after starting the race and that it was more of a prop, where he and another friend would be guide runners for their blind comrade (the Three Amigos, get it?) Chatting with David did me a world of good, calming my nerves. Reaching the baggage tents, we wished each other luck before going our separate ways.
Yep. I’m that guy from the race guide…
I was on the lookout for one Dave Johnson, whom I only ever tend to see in Yorkshire despite both of us living within a mile of each other. But, no joy on this occasion – he was nowhere to be seen. I did spot a Bournville Harrier and we both joked we were an incredibly long way from home, with neither of us feeling particularly well. Whilst getting my stuff prepared for storage, one chap asked if I was the guy featured in the race guide. Sheepishly, I acknowledged it was me and quickly interjected that I wasn’t feeling in race-form that morning. Incredibly, he too was also from the West Midlands, namely Walsall. Unsure of his ability, Ross did say he was capable of sub-3 pace at up to 11 miles in training and would attempt to keep me in sight for as long as possible. I wished him well and said I would keep an eye out for him on the course.
Bag checked in, one final toilet visit beckoned and I was pleased to see the organisers had once again provided urinals. It’s the little things that make or break races and the Yorkshire Marathon organisers are absolute pros at this – many other larger races could learn a thing or two from them!
In the start pen, I felt like I had a bull’s eye on my back and couldn’t shake the feeling that everybody was staring at me. I felt like a fraud from the interview I gave for the race pack guide. A few people did come over to say “hello” and to thank me for my write-up of the 2016 race, citing it as a useful reference. One such guy, Ian, stuck with me and we continued to chat. He, too, wore the Nike Vaporfly 4% in the same colour as me and also sported a Garmin 935. Behind me, I could see the sub-3 hour pacer a good 20 rows or so back and I wondered just how soon it would be before I was swallowed up by them and left for dust?
I continued to straddle the line between a daze and reality, paying no attention to the countdown. It was only when the hooter fired that I realised it was go-time!
Miles 1 to 3
I was incredibly conscious I had not warmed up, opting to conserve as much energy as possible, and so had to use the first mile to ease myself in. Thankfully, the generous descent from the university to the main road helped to keep the effort relaxed and comfortable whilst cold starting.
“Keep cool,” I repeated to myself as people charged off. Before I knew it, mile 1 came and went in 6:57. Faster than the year prior by a few seconds, so perhaps all was not lost…
Approaching mile 2, the thunderous footsteps of the sub-3 hour pace group roared past. The group was huge, though they somehow managed to navigate around me without so much as a bump or nudge. I latched on to the coat tails of the pack, joined also by Ian, who I spoke with in the start pen. Mile 2 was clearly boosted by the sub-3 group to come in with 6:49! “Keep cool,” I continued to whisper to myself!
Passing York Minster, I completely missed it due to trying to concentrate on those around me during this narrow section. Noticeably, compared to a year ago, there were definitely more runners about, and not just because of my closer proximity to the sub-3 hour goal time. Once the road widened up, I was able to more freely run my own race line and positioned myself to catch Lis shortly after the 3 mile marker. Mile 3 continued to be swift for 6:48.
Miles 4 to 9
Mile 3 of the Yorkshire Marathon – photo by Lis Yu
Spotting Lis, I soaked up her support until I was due to see her once again at mile 24.
Ian and I came back together and we both remarked how the sub-3 hour pacer was without a doubt going too fast, even factoring the slightly more undulating second half. We agreed that anybody that was on the cusp of running a sub-3 hour marathon would be pushed too hard at such a pace. Mile 4 returned to target pace of 6:51.
Bizarrely, I found miles 5 and 6 slipping from the pace for some unknown reason. Wind was low and both Ian and I commented how spectacular the morning was for racing. Even a high-five from the famous high-fiving vicar was not enough to lift the pace, resulting in 6:55 and 6:57 for miles 5 and 6 respectively.
Looking behind me, a decent sized pack of perhaps 7 or so of us had formed. I took on the role of tour guide, explaining how the course would pan out, where drink stations would appear, and so on. Ian and I remained chatty, helping the miles to fly by. He turned out to be an ultra runner with some impressive multi-day 100 mile events to his name. I commented that 26.2 miles would be a breeze for him, but he was absolutely right to correct me that any distance at race pace would feel difficult. As we conversed more, it quickly became apparent that he had a very similar outlook and mindset to myself when it came to running – it was almost like my personality had been transplanted into another body and I joked we were like brothers in arms! Another member of the group revealed that his only other marathon was dressed as a banana… I don’t want to come across as overly sentimental, but the group I found myself in was exactly what I needed that morning. The positive energy of the pack was practically tangible!
Miles 7, 8 and 9 came in at 6:53, 6:53 and 6:59 respectively. I regularly reassured the group that we were doing just fine, pace-wise, and that we had to remain calm and patient up to halfway.
Miles 10 to 13.1
Entering the heavily tree-lined section of the course, I reasoned that the pace was likely to rise and fall due to fluctuating levels of GPS signal. Also not helping with pace stability was the undulating terrain underfoot; I advised everyone that there was a high-speed downhill section on the approach and to just let the pace flow at that point, rather than applying the brakes.
By now, we had completely lost sight of the sub-3 hour pace group, with the field ahead and behind growing incredibly sparse. The group remained encouraging and positive, firmly in the knowledge that it was likely to be a lonely race if anybody fell from the pack.
Me and the less aggressive sub-3 group
Miles 10, 11 and 12 came in at 6:52, 6:58 and 6:50 to still be on the cusp of sub-3 hour pace.
As we neared the halfway point, I reiterated the importance of staying calm and patient. We only needed to skim under 90 minutes to leave ourselves in the best possible shape for the second half. Passing the halfway clock, we registered 6:49 for the mile and 89:56 for a perfectly executed opening half. Nonchalantly, Ross revealed that he’d never gone under 90 minutes for a half marathon before!
Miles 14 to 17
Approaching the first of two switchbacks on the course, the crowd support swelled and was most welcome after a couple of quiet miles. I mentioned to Ian that this was now officially the longest run I had undertaken at such a pace to date; he shared my sentiments and we acknowledged the effort beginning to ratchet upwards.
Unfortunately, the pack we’d spent much of the first half of the race with imploded due to the change of pace from the switchback and the mild headwind we ran into. Only Ian and I remained and he suggested we take turns at blocking the wind for each other. This guy really was reading my mind the entire way!
Some of the fastest runners of the day appeared on the other side. As with last year, there were no African runners, so the winning time would be slower (2:24:13) than at many larger races.
Ian and I found ourselves connecting with another runner going at roughly the same pace. The wind increasingly picked up at this point, so the three of us opted to form a chain gang to take the edge off the gusts that blew. Mark revealed that he was running purely to heart rate, as instructed by his coach. I commended him on the sterling work, recognising that the effort skyrockets somewhere beyond 18 miles. Mark spotted the Autobot tattoo on my leg, to which I apologised for not being able to transform into a car. “If you could transform, it would only need to be a 2-seater. You’d be the car. One seat for me and one seat for [Ian]!” He shared that he was looking forward to seeing his wife and son somewhere out on the course; I concurred that I was greatly looking forward to some much needed support from Lis at mile 24.
The first of two gel stations appeared and I lucked out when they offered me a caffeinated Isogel – exactly what I was carrying on my person!
Physically and mentally, I was fully aware of needing to graft all the way to the end. For a stark contrast to only several hours earlier that morning, I felt alive for the first time all weekend and was committed to staying on target for as long as my body and mind would allow. I was reminded to stay cautious; on the other side of the road was one of the lead women, convulsing on the floor in the arms of a medic as they comforted her…
Miles 14, 15, 16 and 17 came in at 6:48, 6:53, 6:50 and 6:50 for a modest uptick in pace.
Miles 18 to 20
Approaching the second and final switchback of the route, Ian and I clocked the sub-3 hour group on the other side of the course; they were a good 1.5 to 2 minutes ahead of us and, incredibly, still appeared to be as large in numbers as before.
Rounding the turning point, I noticed Ian beginning to slip from the pace by a couple of steps. I slowed on the shallow descents to allow him to regroup with me, but it was never long again before he slipped backwards by a few strides. I pointed at the floor below my feet and urged him on to get back to me. At the same time, I had my other eye on Mark who was powering on in front. Ian urged me on as he drifted backwards…
Somehow, Mark found a boost from seemingly nowhere as he ploughed on ahead. I fixated on keeping the 5m or so between us static, at least until the left turn at mile 20. On the other side of the course approaching the second switchback were various members of my pack from the first half; I cheered them all on in deep appreciation of the company they gave me earlier that morning.
With Mark’s aid, we reeled in an increasing number of runners that had splintered off from the main sub-3 hour group ahead. The effort to hold pace became really quite noticeable and I began questioning how long I could possibly hang on for. Rubbing salt in was the direction of the wind, which had reverted back into a headwind, forcing me to increase my own pace to keep up with Mark and use him for drafting assistance.
Miles 18, 19 and 20 came in at 6:44, 6:48 and 6:58 to still average out as being on target.
Miles 21 to 22
Turning the corner beyond mile 20, Mark somehow slipped from the pace and began going backwards from me. Up ahead, it was very quiet with few other runners to latch on to and work with. A lone Harrogate runner was my closest target, so I worked up to him and sat steady. I began counting to 100; so tired was I from a lack of sleep that I even messed that up and skipped out whole sections of numbers!
Teeth gritted. Time to dig in!
I’d reached the second and final energy gel station of the course and, quite conveniently, they’d marked out which flavours they were providing on either side of the road. I opted for a banana gel with the knowledge that the flavour change would help perk me up after slurping down nothing but orange and berry flavoured gels all morning. With the sun also making a guest appearance, I grabbed two bottles of water – one for drinking and the other to throw over myself; the shock of the cold water did wonders to wake me up and took my mind off my ever tightening body and limbs.
In the distance on the left, I could see a flag flying in the air. Getting closer, I realised it was the sub-3 hour pacer’s flag and he was walking! I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. As I neared, I asked if he was OK; he looked defeated and simply replied with, “Yeah. I’m fine.” He looked quite different to the published photo of the 3-hour pacer from several weeks ago and I immediately wondered whether it was the same guy at all, or whether the organisers had to find a backup pacer for whatever reason?
Runners from the 10 mile race began to come into view. Looking for any brief bit of distraction, I began encouraging them, many of which were walking by this point.
Miles 21 and 22 came in at 6:51 and 6:55, respectively, so still on target, but only just.
Miles 23 to 25
Reaching mile 23, I could see my pace was drifting in the wrong direction and for the first time during the race, my Garmin displayed a pace starting with a 7… The average pace ticked over from 6:52 to 6:53 and I knew it was now make or break; did I have the courage, strength and desire to invite the pain and fatigue in and get back on to 6:52 pace? I tried treating the section as a fartlek run with mini injections of pace for a few seconds to try and reverse the damage. The problem, at such a late stage in the race, was that everybody around me had slowed and that messed with my brain’s perception of speed. What felt like a casual jog earlier when everybody else was running at the same pace as me now felt more like a sprint!
Mile 24? More like mile 24.9! Photo by Lis Yu
As I neared mile 24, I began to look forward to the sight of Lis out supporting. I needed a friendly and familiar face after having lost all of the comrades I’d started the race with at numerous points earlier. The mile 24 marker came and went, but no sign of Lis. Puzzled, I wondered what had happened. We’d spoken about a nearby pub beforehand, which would have made for a good base of operation with toilet facilities and what not. Perhaps she was in the toilet and I’d missed her? A big part of me died when I realised that may have happened, especially after waiting for so long to see her again. Well, readers – fear not! It turned out to be some confusion; Lis was unsure if she was actually at the right pub or not, so relocated further up back on to the route (24.9 miles…) to be certain!
In my own personal hell of my own making – photo by Lis Yu
Any semblance of a poker face to mask the torture I was going through was long gone. My IT bands and hips were tight, restricting the stride range I had access to. My shoulders and neck were also knotted, and my arms were doing the tyrannosaurus-rex claw thing once more… Not a strong look at all! Running in a straight line became increasingly difficult and I drifted from left to right on occasion; so long as I continued to move forward at the same time, my form mattered not!
On the approach to mile 25, the crowd support began to swell once again. More and more runners also began drifting back into contact with me, giving me interim targets to work towards and jump from one to the other. As I’d remarked on earlier, there were definitely more runners out in the field, especially so close to the 3 hour time, whereas a year ago, I was largely running alone and in between groups going for a London Marathon Good For Age time of 3:05 or sub-3 hours. Unexpectedly, the Harrogate runner found second wind and pulled up alongside me to then move ahead! This was exactly what I needed and I followed him in pursuit.
Miles 23, 24 and 25 came in at 7:07, 7:01 and 7:09. The sub-3 game was up and I knew I couldn’t bust out a 6:20 mile at the end of a marathon. My goal immediately switched to finishing as close to 3:00 as possible. At least I could then say I’m a 3 hour marathoner…
The final mile and a bit
I’ve frequently said before that unless you’ve absolutely rinsed yourself out on the course, the final mile kind of looks after itself.
In the distance, I could see the petrol station that signalled the left turn back towards the university. And that hill. I knew it was going to sting this year, much more so than 2016, due to the more aggressive overall race pace on this occasion. Over 50 feet of elevation spread across 400m at the end of a marathon… To my left was a bloke who just suddenly stopped running and began to walk. Out of nowhere, his two teenaged sons came to his rescue and began spurring him on. “Don’t stop now, Dad! You’re so close! Come on, we’ll run with you up the hill!” Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it?
Once at the brow of the hill, I knew I had a descent all the way to the finish, so I picked up my stride. I could hear the compere announcing names of finishers coming through, but there was no mention of time or the sought after 3 hour cut-off point on the clock. I knew I was outside of target, anyway, and simply sprinted for the line in a bid to finish as strongly as possible. I received a mention over the PA system, prompting me to raise my arms in victory, firm in the knowledge that I still had a generous PB to my name.
Here’s the Strava data for this race.
I immediately dropped down to lie on my side, inspired by another chap lying on his back. A marshal rushed over to check I was OK, to which I told him I just needed a breather. Once recovered, I checked my Garmin out and I had finished in 3:00:34. Not the sub-3 hour goal I originally set out for, but it was still a 2 minute and 31 second PB over last year. And yes, I can now legitimately call myself a 3 hour marathoner!
I waited in the funnel to cheer in the various faces that I’d come into contact with over the duration of the race. First back in was Mark, who had dragged me on through the 18 to 20 mile section. Next up was Ross, followed shortly by Eric, both from the pack I belonged to for much of the first half. Finally, there was Ian, my brother from another mother for the day (for his account of the race, check out his blog here). Whilst we’d all PBd (and half marathon PBs for some!) by decent margins, I did have to break it to them that I’d missed sub-3 by just 35 seconds…
Ross, me and Ian – marathon PBs for all!
A stroll back to the baggage tent with an alcohol-free beer to celebrate the achievement is not a bad way to end a race at all!
Thoughts and conclusions
So, the sub-3 hour marathon remains elusive. But really, I’m not disappointed at all because I did everything within my power to finish in the time that I did. Sure, if training had gone more to plan, or if I hadn’t lost two to three weeks from illness or my holiday, I may have made it, and maybe I wouldn’t have. Equally, if I had a perfect night’s rest before the race with no feelings of nausea or anxiety, I may have been fresher to squeeze out another 1%. With all that had happened in the 24 hours prior, I’m absolutely delighted with my finish time!
Stats-wise, things look interesting (2017 versus 2016):
- Total campaign mileage: 894.94 miles vs 843.52 miles
- Average weekly mileage: 42.12 miles vs 42.14 miles
- Positive split difference: 38 seconds vs 35 seconds
Total campaign mileage-wise, the ambition was to modestly increase overall volume. I also hoped to increase my average weekly volume; my largest weeks had grown even more compared to a year ago, but conversely, my lightest weeks also became lighter, where I found I was in need of rest instead of recovery. This resulted in the incredibly similar average weekly mileage results above. Finally, I originally assumed I had a larger positive split in 2016, but that’s not so. I’m coming around to thinking that I’m unlikely to run a negative split and that another sub-3 hour attempt will require banking perhaps 30 to 45 seconds in the first half, anticipating such a slowdown in the second half due to fatigue.
Will there be another roll of the dice for the sub-3 hour goal? Not for 2018. My mind is frazzled from the past few weeks of marathon training and I need to recalibrate and get back to baseline. I want to regain some of my speed and revisit shorter distances like 5k, 10k and half marathons, running them in anger once again. Taking the rather crude marathon prediction calculation of doubling your half marathon best, and adding 10 minutes, only gives me an 11 second margin of error; getting my half marathon PB below 84 or even 83 minutes will be time well spent for any future outing at the 26.2 mile distance.
Very few successful marathon outings happen because of one sole runner alone. There’s often an invisible team behind the performance, all playing their part to get the most out of an individual. You all know who you are, even if you don’t think you’ve helped all that much, to which I’m incredibly grateful.
With that, we’re at the end of another marathon campaign. Many of you will be embarking on autumn marathons of your own very soon, which I wish you the best of luck with.