A flat course close to home felt like the ideal place to go for a marathon PB. A recurring calf strain and a few long runs missed was less than ideal preparation, but after a marginal half marathon PB at Ealing a few weeks ago, I was feeling hopeful.
The Garmin Kingston Run Challenge comprises three races: 8.2 miles, 16.2 miles and a marathon. The course begins near the old market place, crosses Kingston bridge, follows the Thames Path past Hampton Court Palace, back across the river, along to the Scilly Isles near Esher and then along the Portsmouth Road into Kingston. For those of us doing the marathon it also included a small loop through Thames Ditton on the first of three laps. I'm not a huge fan of lap races, even those as short as parkrun, but that's sometimes the price you have to pay for a flat course.
The start and finish areas were almost deserted when I arrived around 7.15am and I realised this wouldn't be a very busy race. Some people love a crowd and while I'm not averse to a bit of encouragement, I'm more than happy to just get on with it. It also meant that there was no queuing for toilets or at bag drop. It was so mild (12 degrees C) that I didn't even bother with my bin bag poncho and although it was cloudy, put my sunglasses on top of my cap just in case the sun did decide to come out. I ran up the road for about five minutes and then back into town, which would be the route to end each lap. It seemed so easy. Oh, how that would change.
There had apparently been 300 entrants to the marathon but it felt like a lot less as we stood in the road waiting for the 8am start. Pacers had been provided, all the way from 6-minute mile pace to 12-minutes. My 'C' goal was to finish uninjured. Not very challenging admittedly but given how my year has gone, sensible. Goal 'B' was to get a PB; better than Edinburgh 2014 where I ran 3.38:30. The ultimate 'A' goal was to break 3.30. If I could stick with the 8-minute mile pacers I'd do it. I positioned myself just behind them and before I knew it we were off.
Lap 1 (miles 1-10)
I wore my Centurion South Downs Way 50 t-shirt for several reasons. Firstly, it's comfortable. Secondly, I got my last marathon PB wearing it (I'm not superstitious, honest.) Thirdly, although I'm not going to win, I'm still competitive, even though it makes no sense to be. So what if I beat Joe Bloggs from Surbiton? Still, if I go past him in the last mile and he sees I've run a 50-mile race that might just make him think he's got no chance of catching me. What I didn't really count on was someone using it to start a conversation as someone did in the first mile. He asked what it was like, told me it was on his bucket list and we had a chat for a few minutes. I'm happy to talk up to a point but I simply wasn't fit enough to chat and run 8-minute miles for any length of time so I stopped talking as soon as it was polite to do so.
The first few miles were slightly ahead of my target pace but I figured the pacers were factoring in some slowdown in the latter miles. I was happy to take this approach too but also wanted to feel comfortable for as long as possible. I wasn't best pleased then to feel my hamstrings tightening up around mile 8 but short of stopping to lie down and put my legs up a tree, there wasn't much to be done but grit my teeth and press on.
Lap 2 (miles 10-18)
Going past the finish for the first time was bearable but I already wasn't looking forward to how I'd be feeling on the next pass. By mile 13 my legs were already beginning to feel heavy and although I passed halfway in around 1.44, I knew then that there was not much chance I could maintain that pace and finish under 3.30. The pacers were starting to get away and a few people passed me. They may not have been running my race - the 8 and 16 mile races began 30 minutes later than the marathon - but it's never much fun being overtaken. Instead, I focused on each mile, trying to keep my average pace for the race as close to 8-minute miles as possible. Gradually though I was slowing. And I still had another 8-mile lap to go.
Lap 3 (miles 18-26.2)
As I crossed Kingston bridge for the third and final time, I saw my old school and football club friend Kayvahn who was walking towards me.
"Hey Justin! How're you doing?"
It may not have looked like it but I really was struggling. I wasn't the only one though. On the path between Kingston and Hampton Court bridges I passed half a dozen people simply by not stopping to walk. I also saw globetrotting marathoner Keith and it was great to see another familiar face, albeit fleetingly.
The pacers were well and truly out of sight now and any hopes of my 'A' goal was gone. I reached 20 miles in around 2.40 and although my stiffening legs were no longer cooperating, I had enough hope that I could still scrape a PB that I kept pushing despite the increasing discomfort. If I could get to mile 23 it was just a parkrun to go. It would be a slow parkrun, but reaching there with 3.07 on my watch still gave me a good chance.
Of course, that last 3-mile stretch along the Portsmouth Road was straight into the wind. There were cars in the way (it's not a closed road race). The kerbs were suddenly three times the height they were on the first lap. I steadied myself for the 25-mile marker and for one final push.
3.25 on the clock. Just over mile to go.
I've been down that road hundreds of times in a car and I swear it's only about 500 yards. But no. On it went, twisting and turning with the river. People out for a leisurely Sunday stroll. How were they moving so easily?! I reminded myself of my own coaching advice: relax, head up, swing the arms.
I daren't look at my watch for fear of missing my footing. Just yards before reaching the short closed road section leading up to the finish, I see a huddle of people, someone lying down, and an ambulance arriving. I consider stopping to help but it's clearly all in hand so now I'm just thinking about how to navigate my way around the traffic without ending up in the ambulance as well. I dodge past and begin an agonising attempt at a sprint finish. A huge cheer goes up but it's not for me.
Then I see Cate and she's waving and filming me with her phone and I wave back and try to keep my form half decent for the camera but it's long gone and I get over the line and just about manage to not collapse in a heap on the ground.
It's a four-minute PB and despite spending the second half of the race feeling disappointed for not going sub-3.30, I'm now relieved and happy. And knackered. Completely and utterly exhausted. I may not have completed the training plan as I'd have liked but I'm happy I gave it everything on the day.
Between miles 20 and 23 especially, I questioned whether I'd ever run a marathon again. Ultras, yes, because they're a lot less painful for such a sustained period. But now I've recovered a bit and reminded myself why it was such a struggle (lack of proper training), I'm thinking about the next one. Before that though I'll be working on my running form. I can train as much as I want, but all the while my technique is inefficient (and I know it is), I'll struggle to fulfil my potential.
I'm also struck by how very different an experience this was to my Edinburgh race. In that, I just got stronger as the race went on and felt fine at the finish. There's no way of knowing whether I should have been more aggressive in that race and potentially gone quicker, or whether starting slower at Kingston would have helped me feel fresher at the end. Maybe I did the right thing both times and that's what 4 minutes difference feels like for me when running a marathon. There are no answers but it's part of what makes running so endlessly fascinating to me. Trying new things, pushing myself, learning how to improve.
Thanks to Human Race for organising and to the volunteers who handed out water, pointed the way, stopped traffic and looked after my bag. Thanks also to the people who cheered and clapped as we went round - in particular a couple of women near the end who must have been clapping solidly for three hours. You won't read this I'm sure but your enthusiasm was invaluable, believe me. Thanks to all my family and friends, the ones I've met and the ones I only know through social media - your encouragement and praise means a lot. And finally to Cate, who managed to get there in time despite the best efforts of public transport, and afterwards fed me Nando's and banoffee pie. I've just had another slice. The last slice actually. Sorry.