Friday, May 16, 2014

Milton Keynes marathon 2014 - my race review

My third marathon - the Milton Keynes marathon 2014 was probably my most interesting yet, it was full of the most diverse light and shade of any race of any distance that I have taken part in. Before going any further into the details I have to say that the organisation and the race team were absolutely, completely and utterly brilliant. They were fun, helpful, and just plain thoughtful... as I hope will become a little clearer through my ramblings.

So after weeks of wondering if my troublesome heel would be okay to run I toed the start line a few metres behind the 4:15 pacer with a pretty loose plan in mind, and no idea how the day would pan out. Over the preceeding weeks I had run a total of three times (two 5k runs and a 10k fitness test), I spent most of my time sat of a turbo trainer peddling for what seemed like days (utter hyperbole on my part, the longest I rode was approaching 3 hours). I essentially switched all the run training times from my training plan into bike sessions and pushed as high a gear as I felt I could for each session.

The race...
The pack started to move forward and my only semblance real plan was to follow the pacer and see how I got on. Plan B was to trickle back to the next pace group if I couldn't live with the first pacers rhythm. I imagine many people assume similar strategies. As we moved through the wide start area I saw my wife and son waving and gave them a handsome wave back, then looked around for the pacer. In the first 1km or so I already had the sense that pursuing a 'prey' was going to consume a lot of mental energy, I sat back from his pace at the start with the goal of feeling my way into it and slowly pulling up to his pace group over the first half of the race.

At 5k it was becoming abundantly clear that I was over cooking it, my Garmin was telling me pace numbers that didn't seem to fit with a 4:15 pace and so I was wondering what was going on - if anything the gap to the pacer was even bigger at this point. I decided to give it until 10k to settle down, thinking perhaps my watch was telling fibs. 10k came and I was no closer to the pacer despite having upped my pace to its race peak (!), at this stage rationalising that something was amiss I tried to settle back into a slower pace (forgetting the pacer). I tried to find a new pace that I could hold for the rest of the race.

Thus, the second 10k was slower, and brought me back to an overall pace that I felt was closer to my original plan. By this time though I knew I was COOKED, there was a dwindling sense of energy reserves and my running gait was beginning to falter as my heel began to remind me how little I had run in the last 2 months. I went through halfway in something like 2:11 and the real race started...

When the wheels fell off
At the 10mile mark the half marathoners split off and went their way to back to the stadium whilst the 26.2'ers turned off into the suburbs. The change both in course (wide road to single track cycle ways) and the density of runners at a point where my physical issues where becoming obvious led to the beginning of something of a mini-crisis. By 13.5miles (roughly 22k) I was into damage limitation, my only goal completing in one piece - a run / walk strategy seemed the only sensible thing.

My first walk was slow and laboured as I berated myself for a mix of bad planning, bad luck, and injury, when I picked up for a run (jog) section it was clear my legs weren't going to tolerate it. So back in the walk I found that I could speed walk with minimal aches and moreover minimal pains. At this point I really started to really notice the marshals and was buoyed by their encouragement. I also started to take in the race around me and others that were either struggling or on run /walk strategies for slower paces.

Quickly in the third 10k it was clear that walking fast was the best strategy for getting me back in one piece, and as the next pace group came and went (despite me trying for a couple of hundred metres to go with them) I was resigned to it. Calculations of possible finish times led me to text my wife using our run phone letting her know my likely fate. My walk pace was in fact such that run / walkers were sometimes finding it hard to distance me with me over taking them during their slower walk phases. Lots of times I re-passed people once, others became regulars over the next 15k. Smiles began to cross my face as I resigned, enjoyed the see-saws with the run / walkers, and increasing got into playful banter with marshals, volunteers, spectators and passers by.

Good out of the bad
The last 10k I found I actually enjoyed, I was steaming along at pretty much a swift marching pace (arm swinging, the whole power walk bit). I texted back and forth with my wife about my finish time and to let my family know what was happening. At one point I thought it would be my wife and son at the finish and not the rest of the crew. The heat and sun took its toll, and it was increasingly clear that the marching pace I'd set was too quick to allow me to run very far, and I wasn't about to walk slowly! The last 600-800m I picked up to a very laboured jog much to the joy of the spectators near the stadium, I got so much support towards the finish. As I entered the stadium I heard my two kids yelling and saw my wife looking frankly a little relieved (and concerned). The last 200m are around the pitch inside the MK Dons football stadium and the small crowd still there around the 5:25 mark were lovely.

I crossed the line so relieved to have completed that I could only manage a half Mo-bot gesture for the finish line camera person. As soon as I crossed I went back towards the line to congratulate two women who I had spent most of the last 15k passing and being passed by. When I finally headed for my medal I was greeted by my son and daughter sprinting towards me yelling excitedly, my son with my finishers medal in his hand :-D They had been allowed to cross the control barrier, take my medal and come to present me with my trophy. I was already full of 'love' for the organisation for the last 20k without them topping it all with a simple yet powerful act of kindness.

Post-race diagnosis
My time was my slowest (of course), at 5:25:17 but in many ways it carried more positives than the headline figure might suggest. I had persevered, I had finished, I wasn't complete broken (my heel had not worsen dramatically), I had enjoyed the warmth of the marathon family, I found a sense of fun in the 'failure', I had the most wonderful wife, kids and family supporting my madness... there was nothing bad in any of that.

I saw the physio the day after and I think he was impressed that I hadn't destroyed my legs any more than any other marathon finisher after the issues I had had pre-race. A rub down set me up for recovery, as did a 40minute swim float in the pool. Today I am considering my plans for the autumn season and what my new targets will be... the running bug hasn't gone anywhere in the face of a such poor race :-)

Race review
The organisation was close to flawless, there was plenty of provision for the warm weather. The race team were all superbly helpful, and always encouraging. The course is not the pancake flat stuff of a huge city marathon but was extremely well marked and no one can really complain about the rolling under- and over- passes in the second half (especially if you pace your effort properly). Having a stadium start and finish is just awesome in the facilities / shelter it provides runners (pre- and post- race) and the spectators during the race. The MK dons really do have quite the impressive facility. Would I do it again? Of course, though I may leave it a year in order to try a different spring race next year, I don't run many marathons after-all ;-)

Post race links:-
BBC Three Counties Radio - Milton Keynes Marathon 2014 shorts (there are six)

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