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Chester Marathon 2012: Rules are there to be broken

by Editor
Tuesday 9th October 2012

Race report: Stephen Diesner breaks a few rules at the MBNA Chester Marathon - October 7, 2012

When it comes to rule books, at a young age I had been a stickler: do this, do that, eat up all your greens, avoid loose women, etc. Having reached the respectable age of fifty I've now realised that following rules and plans does not always work. So rule books go in the bin. No more broccolli, and hello girls!

Rule: The day before a race take it easy. Rest. Don't do anything tiring or stressful.

Saturday morning, pre-race day. I decide to install a fluorescent light in the garage, then build some mounts for a ladder and attach them to the ceiling in the garage. I estimate about three hours work. I start at 09.00. I finish at 17:30. As I go back into the house my right calf cramps up, an old injury. Karen, my wife, just tuts at me. I ease my weary body into a hot bath to relax the muscle tension then spend half an hour with a foam roller massaging out knots Boy Scouts would have been proud of.

Rule: For breakfast on race day stick with what you know.

On race days I always have toast and a banana. I get up at 6am (marathon start is 9:30am). I'm already dressed in my running gear, so as I stand in the kitchen in my dressing gown (to keep warm) I think: “Blow it, I'll have bacon, eggs and fried tomato. I have over three hours to digest it. No problem.” So a fry up it is. Delicious. Can't understand why elite athletes don't do this.

Malc Hughes is also running the Chester Marathon. I'm to meet him at this house and he'll drive us both down. I check my kit bag. Shot blocks (gels with caffeine), Aldi's best isotonic drink (cheap), old trainers. I smell my faithful trainers used over the long weeks of training. They smell like the dog has widdled in them. I have a brand new pair in the wardrobe.

Rule: Don't run in new trainers, stick with what you trained with.

Bah, I'm into my second half century, I'll do what I want now. So I ditch the old trainers and put the new ones in. Can't see there being a problem.

I'm now running late so I dash out to the car, get in and start the engine. Just in time I realise I'm still wearing my dressing gown. Bum. Stop the car, out of the car, into the house, swap dressing gown for a fleece, back to the car. I go to start it. Where are my keys? I’d left them in my dressing gown. Maybe being fifty brings on forgetfulness. Thankfully there is a spare key hidden outside and I let myself back in the house and retrieve my keys.

I turn up at Malc's late and we get into his car and set off. It is now 7am. “What did you have for breakfast?” asks Malc. I tell him. “Are you sure you've got enough time to digest it?” he asks. “Sure,” I reply, “ the race doesn’t start until 9:30am.” “You are wrong,” replies Malc, “it starts at 9am.”

As we drive up the M6 Malc comments that it is a good day for racing. I look out of the car window. It is foggy and visibility is down to eighty metres. Malc is either an optimist or has X-ray vision.

We arrive at Chester Race Course, the start and end point of our run, with just an hour to go. The weather is as Mr X-ray predicted, sunny and a blue sky. I change into my bright, white, super-spiffy clean trainers. They look pristine. We then walk three hundred metres to the toilets across muddy grass with hidden puddles. I look down at my trainers. They are caked with mud and sodden. Malc lets me weep on his shoulder.

The queues for the portaloos are massive. I ask a guy at the front of a queue how long it had taken him to get from the back to where he was now. He points to his bib number. It reads "899, Chester Marathon 2011".

Eventually Malc and I get to the start line. The start is on the racecourse itself. I joke with Malc about how we'll have to do a lap of the track. There is no way they'd have us running cross-country in these boggy conditions...

Wrong. The hooter sounds and we are off, galloping round the track. The going is good-to-soft. Thankfully there are no fences. We do about four furlongs on the grass, Malc leading by a head as we emerge from the course onto tarmac.

I'm quite sure that tourists love Chester. Its quaint shops, narrow roads, the enclosing wall, snaking roads which ramble up the hills. Runners are not tourists. We don't want to see Chester’s Rows, the Eastgate Clock, the Newgate or the Chester Cross. We want level, straight, uncobbled roads to run. How many marathon runners have gone back home to their wives with tales of all the historical buildings and cathedrals they've run past?

I catch up with Malc at two miles. I check my watch. We're running at 7min/mile pace. We both agree it is madness, we should slow down. Now, the psychology of runners is an interesting thing. My internal dashboard is showing that the engine is over-revving and that the oil pressure is fluctuating, that perhaps a lower gear and easing back on the throttle may be in order. However, this is now a game of chicken, not common sense. Mile three and we are still at 7min/mile pace. I check my heart rate (HR) monitor. I'm surprised it is only showing 150bpm. For me that is a good reading, meaning that I could possibly sustain this pace.

Rule: Stick to your race strategy. Do not change it on the fly.

I change my race strategy on the fly. I had planned to start quick then ease back to 7:45 or 8:00 min/mile pace. I think, “Why don't I run based on my HR? I've never done an event this way before. Wonder what will happen?” I decide to give it a go.

I pull ahead of Malc who engages "stealth" mode and starts to shadow me from a few metres behind. As far as I am concerned he has dropped off the pace and is falling behind. Good job I never look back.

I keep checking my HR to make sure it is at 150 or just below. I know I've slowed down since the initial madness of the first few miles, but I feel okay.

I go past the mile six marker. Sometimes when you are running you get a strange taste in your mouth. Sometimes it is metallic, sometimes a bitterness. I recognise the taste I am getting. Fried bacon, eggs and tomato. My stomach feels very heavy, as if there was a tenpin bowling ball in there and Mr Vomit was about to deliver a strike.

Rule: Study the course map; be aware of the route, inclines, etc.

The road sign says “Croeso i Wrecsam”. Have I gone off-piste? One thing I am aware of is that we are gradually descending. This does not bode well for the return journey to Chester.

Thirteen point one miles. The half way point. Hurrah! My HR is 149 though I'm sweating like a junkie going through cold-turkey. The thought of eating turkey brings a warning rumble from my stomach. Breakfast is still fighting gallantly with digestive juices. I glance at the time: 1hr 35min. The Japanese have a term for this: Kamikaze. That is the best half marathon time I've done in over eight years. Great time, but not one you want to set during a marathon.

My left foot is hurting, particularly one of my toes. I look down at my trainer. Is it my imagination or is that blood I can see through the fabric? Bum. A blister has formed and burst. I'll never be able to sell these trainers secondhand on E-Bay.

I run past the yellow marker for fourteen miles. HR 152 and I'm running at 7:40min pace. They say exercise adds years to your life expectancy. I'm currently subtracting years from mine. Somewhere there is an hour glass with my name on it and the flow of sand from the top to the bottom has sped up dramatically.

At the next water stop they are offering free gels. I take one. There is always a reason they are free. Typical reasons include:

a) they are close to being out of date, or
b) due to a manufacturing flaw they are hard to open, or
c) the flavour is so horrible that they don't sell, or
d) they give you acid indigestion

These were special gels. They met all four of the above criteria. Now I'm running with an egg-bacon-tomato-lime-with-potash taste in my mouth.

Hurrah! Mile sixteen. Just ten to go. I mention this to a fellow runner. He corrects me: “Actually, it is ten point two miles, old chap.” “Thanks,” I reply, but I don't mean it. Some people you develop an instant dislike for.

At this point I check my watch. I've been running for 1hr 57min. Now, a peculiarity that non-runners may be unaware of is that when a runner is pushing themselves the part of their frontal lobe responsible for doing mental calculations goes on holiday, the simplest of sums which a seven year can do suddenly becomes of Einsteinian difficulty. Ten miles to go. My personal best (PB) is 3hr 21min. Can I beat it? I start using my portable abacus namely my fingers. How many minutes is that? I could do with more than eight fingers and two thumbs. How fast do I need to go? I start counting on knuckles too, and am at the point where I’m dividing eight fingers by a finger and a knuckle that I give up.

My bum is hurting. Nothing that requires a haemorroid preparation or Sudocrem. The muscles seem to be cramping. I’ve never had this before. I mention it to another fellow runner. He replies, “It must be an age thing.” Thanks. These runners must be the "bad company" that my mum used to warn me about.

Lap Time Dist Pace
1 7:07.6 1.00 7:08
2 6:58.8 1.00 6:59
3 7:00.2 1.00 7:00
4 6:59.8 1.00 7:00
5 7:04.3 1.00 7:04
6 6:58.9 1.00 6:59
7 7:16.9 1.00 7:17
8 7:20.5 1.00 7:20
9 7:15.1 1.00 7:15
10 7:24.3 1.00 7:24
11 7:25.6 1.00 7:26
12 7:21.1 1.00 7:21
13 7:33.4 1.00 7:33
14 7:40.4 1.00 7:40
15 7:14.9 1.00 7:15
16 7:36.0 1.00 7:36
17 7:58.8 1.00 7:59
18 7:46.5 1.00 7:46
19 7:34.5 1.00 7:34
20 7:22.6 1.00 7:23
21 7:54.3 1.00 7:54
22 7:44.1 1.00 7:44
23 7:57.1 1.00 7:57
24 7:43.5 1.00 7:43
25 7:51.4 1.00 7:51
26 7:35.9 1.00 7:36
27 1:46.6 0.24 7:21

At mile eighteen we drop down to cross the River Dee then climb up and through the village of Farndon. Big crowds, all there to see me at my worst. The hill feels like 1:4 but is probably 1:40. I must be grimacing badly because when a little girl looks at me she bursts into tears.

I check my watch: 8:00min/mile pace. I'm slowing down. A PB is looking less likely. I need to speed up. I start praying to the Marathon gods. And lo! my prayers are answered. I rattle off a 7:34 followed by a 7:24.

The sign for twenty miles comes up. I'm still feeling okay. I check my internal dashboard: all green lights. HR is at 149.

Twenty-one miles. The wheels are not exactly coming off but I've lost a couple of hub caps. From feeling so great one mile earlier I have gone from being in heaven to being in hell. Learned scholars of John Milton should be put through a marathon to help them empathise with how Lucifer felt when God threw him out of heaven. How could I fall so far in just one mile?

I check the dashboard again. Three bulbs have blown and the empty tank light is on. A more worrying sign is that I'm struggling to drink water; if I swallow a mouthful I bring it back up immediately. I recognise the signs. Many years ago I did the High Peak Challenge over Buxton way (40 miles) and got myself into a very sorry state which resulted in me nearly passing out driving home, then throwing up in my wife's car when she came to rescue me. I think the words "divorce" and "close thing" were mentioned at the time.

The mile signs can't come quick enough (and they don't because I'm slowing down). I see the next yellow sign up ahead and my spirits are raised temporarily until I can make out what it says: “SLOW - Runners”. I don't know is that is a warning or a statement of fact.

You hear athletes talk about "living in the moment". Well, I'm living the moment now; in fact I'm living every step, every stride, every bump in the road surface, every slight incline, every ache, every twinge of cramp.

My mathematical IQ is now so low as to be negative. I can't work out if I'm on for a PB or not. I decide to just keep things simple, try and stick to a HR of 150. But even this I struggle to do. The heart and lungs feel okay but the legs are a different matter. My HR drops to 146 and I can't get it back up. My legs seem to be burning, turning fat/muscle into pain at a very efficient rate.

Mile twenty-four and I reach "the hill" which I'd been warned about. For ordinary mortals (i.e. non-marathon runners) you'd stroll up this hill without even noticing. “What hill?” you'd ask in innocence. Marathon organisers who put hills in at mile twenty-four should be forcibly entered into their own marathons. As I run up the hill my legs are on fire. I glance down expecting to see my trainers ablaze and socks smoking.

I reach to top and we are back in Chester, and thankfully it is level. I hate hills. I make a mental note that if there is such a thing as reincarnation I want to come back with a Dutch nationality.

I pass the mile twenty-five sign and the road falls sharply down to the pathway along the River Dee. My feet ache with multiple blisters. My knees are shot and my calves tight. What I don't need are cobbles. Cobbles are quaint, old fashioned, go well with horse drawn carriages or kids wearing clogs. I'm now faced with cobbles. Route planners are so sadistic. I've always wanted to know what a displaced patella looked like. I now have matching ones on each knee.

For me this is the longest mile. That twenty-six sign takes forever. The General Theory of Relativity needs updating with an addendum stating how time slows down for runners at the end of a marathon.

People sprint past me. I'm so far gone in my world of pain that I don't even consider tripping them up (I'm really not a nice guy if truth be told).

I pass the final mile sign and run down back onto the grass of Chester Race Course where all this started several hours (or lifetimes) ago. The finish banner is away to my right. I'm appalled by how far away it is. The going is now soft-to-squidgy and I feel as if I'm running over Velcro the ground is so reluctant to let go of my feet.

I'm now grimacing like a gargoyle. They'd never put my picture on the front of Runner's World. It would put them out of business.

I press the stop button on my watch as I stagger over the finish line. I look down to see 3:15:33. That is a massive six minute improvement on my PB set ten years ago. Who says you don't get better with age? I slump against one of the track barriers feeling light headed and sick, not sure it was worth it. I take a drink of water and struggle to keep it down. I'm not in a good place and have to sit. This is scary, I feel like I did at the end of my High Peak Challenge. But I watch my HR and it gradually comes down to below 80 and the dizziness goes and sips of water seem to work.

Malc turns up in a time of 3:37. He stuck with me until the half marathon point (a half marathon PB for him). His argument was that if I was going so well then as he'd done the same training he should be able to stick with me. Good logic, but as I always say, you can put the training in but you just don't know what will happen on race day.

Someone takes our photograph and that, is that. Chester Marathon 2012.

Thanks to all who supported me and contributed on my sponsorship page (http://www.justgiving.com/StephenDiesner/ - contributions for Leonard Cheshire Disability are still welcome).

Whether you’ve got a place, need a charity place, or know someone else who could do with a marathon challenge – Leonard Cheshire Disability are looking for enthusiastic runners to join their Virgin London Marathon and Brighton Marathon teams for 2013! For more information visit www.lcdisability.org/ilovetorun or text RUN to 80878 (standard text rates apply).


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