I arrive in the elite tent. It is intimidating, pro athletes from all over the world are milling around looking serious. I spot Kojo and Kevin and am happy to see them. We have been racing each other in the UK for decades and their familiar faces make it all seem more friendly. Just another Sunday morning road race, in Berlin, the fastest marathon in the world, with the best field ever assembled.
I am also happy to see Vincent Kipruto. We used to train together at the legendary St Patricks camp in Kenya. I say train together; I was in group C, he was group D. He was affectionately known as kuku miguu (chicken legs) and he wore the most ridiculous XXL purple shell suit. He never beat me on a run. Fast forward 9 years and he is a world silver medalist with a marathon time of 2.05. We have a good little catchup, my swahili is excellent, I’m sure he would agree.
As we are leaving the tent I see Kevin rubbing cream on himself. I have forgotten to put any vaseline on and I know the chafing is going to be bad on a wet day like this. I grab his cream and apply to all the necessary areas. We get out onto the road infront of a big stand full of spectators, all of a sudden my private parts are on fire! I laugh at my own stupidity as I realise it was Deep Heat I snatched off Kevin. And it doesn’t help with chafing at all.
On the elite startline they are playing Shakira – Try Everything . I am standing near the back dancing along with the Kenyan pacemakers, until an official spots them and drags them to the front like naughty school boys.
It dawns on me that I am going to have a good race. When I am relaxed and chatty, I am confident and ready. The target is to run every mile in 5.20, which will give me a time of 2hrs20. I have visualised myself doing this a hundred times leading up to this race.
We get underway and I quickly settle into a strong group. Judging by their pace, I figure these guys are all looking to break that 2.20 barrier. Things aren’t as simple as they should be, there are deep puddles everywhere, early on we get some big downpours. All my kit is soaked and heavy straight away. It takes a lot of concentration not to slip on some of the corners and bends.
All I am thinking about is executing every mile with as little energy wasted as possible. Don’t surge, don’t trip, stay on the racing line. The crowds are fantastic and the cheering is full on, but I block it out, flow state.
There are about 10 of us in this group and they all look lean and mean. Every time we get to a water station they all scramble to get their own special drink. They have stuck silly things on the bottles to make them more recognisable, they push each other violently to get near the tables, and they throw their arms up in despair if they miss one. What a massive waste of energy. How much better can their drinks be than the standard ones on offer for the masses?
I am feeling great, it is feeling easy. I’m tracking number 116, he looks like he knows what he is doing. We go through halfway in 69.33, fantastic. I could run the second half a minute slower and still break 2.20. That is a dangerous thought. Just get to the next mile in 5.20. I think about all my friends and family tracking me right now, it makes me nervous, I shut it down. Just stick with 116.
Mile 15 and we are suddenly overtaken by a cavalcade of vehicles and pacemakers. I don’t understand what is going on until the first woman comes past me. Then the next two. It is an unwelcome distraction for a lot of reasons. The vehicles are often in the way of the racing line, the camera men and security are yapping away on walky talkies, the pacemakers are elbowing everyone out of the way, I get shoved halfway across the road at one point (stay cool honey bunny), the crowd are cheering much louder. Also, to put it simply, I have never seen a woman run past me in a road race, it freaks me out abit.
It gets harder to see where I’m going and keep out of the puddles. At around mile 15-16 I suddenly need a crap really badly. There is still a good 10 miles left to run, I will never make it. I don’t know if there are any toilets on the course, and besides, it would cost me minutes, and lose me my place in this group. I hold it until I can’t anymore and then I just go.
I am not ashamed or embarrassed. Of course I’d rather not have to do it, but I have sacrificed too much, my family have sacrificed too much, for me to let a single second slip away. Who knows the next time I will be injury and illness free with an opportunity like this. After a mile or so I have forgotten all about it and am fully back in the zone.
The next milestone for me is 20 miles. It was at this point in the London Marathon (read blog post here) that I got a terrible stitch. This time my watch buzzes on mile 20 and I am still feeling good and still on for sub 2.20. There is no sign of a stitch, but I don’t get excited, a lot can happen in the last 6 miles.
And it does. Firstly, my brand spanking new GPS watch runs out of batteries. I have had it tracking me since 7am this morning so as to keep the signal locked on. I know some GB athletes who failed to get a signal on their GPS here before. Now that my watch is flat it is just an expensive dead weight and I want to rip it off and stamp on it. Most of the lead women and their pacemakers have dropped behind. The group is starting to disperse, but me and 116 are still going strong.
Then, at around mile 22, my calves turn into rocks. Within the space of 200m they just completely seize up. I knew there was a risk of this happening. I have gambled on my super lightweight racing flats. They make me feel fast and springy but have hardly any cushioning or support. If I am skinny enough, I can wear them with no ill effects, but my weight crept up last week while I was ill, and now i am paying for it. The sub 2.20 group start to get away. 116 leaves me without so much as a backward glance, after all we’ve been through together! The slightest toe off and my calves scream like they are going to snap. The first lady is just ahead of me and the timing car is showing her predicted finishing time. It is slipping drastically…
I am fixated by it. I am checking it every 20 seconds. I am in one of those nightmares where you are trying to run but not getting anywhere. I catch up with Michael Kallenburg, a fellow Welsh international. He runs for the RAF and has a roundel on his back. I try to focus on this instead of the timing clock. Only 5km to go but I am exhausted, I have to pump my arms like a mad man to keep my legs going. Every minute is an eternity. I am losing focus, getting lightheaded. Michael is moving away from me in the final mile. I am fading, fading, I can’t keep my arms going like this…suddenly…I think about my little boy, and I want so badly to make him proud, I find a tiny little bit more. I see the finish line, the leading lady is within reach, I start sprinting. Let my calves snap and go straight to hell, see if I care. I throw everything in and beat her by 3 seconds, finishing 52nd in 2.20.20. A personal best by over 2 minutes.
I hobble into the elite tent and my bag is given to me. There are loads of massage tables and a guy telling me to sit on a bench and he will see me next. I sit there for about 5 seconds before I have to run out. It is too hot and claustrophobic, my calves are screaming at me and I feel like throwing up.
I am limping away when I see Steve Vernon, coach to Johnny Mellor, who just ran 2.12. He congratulates me and then points out I seem to have made a mess of myself. I look down and see the crap down one leg. “The things we do for love” I say.
This is my 3rd major marathon, and I know from experience that getting home can feel as hard as the marathon itself. When all you want to do is collapse into a ball, negotiating crowds and public transport is agonising. When I am away from the tent and the finish line I suddenly have the enormous park all to myself. Everywhere has been fenced off for runners but I am the only one here. After 2 hours being bombarded with constant noise, it is suddenly deathly quiet. I sit down on a bench and change out of my dirty kit. It takes forever. The chafing is red raw, my focus is all blurry and I can hardly move. I have to do the steps to the underground platform backwards. I am wearing my medal and lots of people are giving me high fives and asking me what position I finished. Maybe that means I look like an elite athlete.
When I get back to the apartment I go to the toilet and discover blood in my urine. I get in the shower and, without thinking, open the Original Mint Source shower gel and start washing myself. My chafing is on fire, I have to bite down on my fingers so as not to scream. Bloody hell Russell, the second time TODAY!
I crawl into bed naked and sleep for about an hour. When I wake up I am feeling better and go down to cafe to eat something. I can’t do it. I have a cappuccino and go back to bed. I have plans to see Kent AC clubmates in a bar but have no idea how I will ever get back out of bed. I play on twitter and watch boxsets. Night descends but sleep doesn’t. My legs are restless and sore and trying to cramp up. My mind is racing.
The next day I am in pretty bad shape. My calves are completely locked, I’m aching to my bones, and I am getting nose bleeds. I think it is really important to take the time to celebrate a good performance, and I had promised myself a German Stein after the marathon. On the way home on Monday, just outside the airport I see a pretty Bavarian bar. People are sitting outside drinking beautiful looking, ice-cold Steins. I have been on a tight budget and have run out of euros. So I look down and walk past.
In the airport I am trying to get some sleep on a row of 3 metal seats, it is not going well. I am squirming around. I open my eyes after about an hour and I find myself face down looking through the perforations in the seat. I see a 10 euro note lying on the floor. I don’t even think about it. I grab the note, walk straight over the road to the bar, point to a Stein glass and ask how much. €9.80. I slap my note on the bar and it feels like the Almighty has just bought me a round. As the beer gently dulls my pains, I sit back and feel pretty proud. I could be torturing myself with how close I was to that sub 2.20, then there were plenty of good runners who didn’t manage to finish at all. I left everything I had out there, and that is good enough for me.
I wish the story ended here. But just before my plane makes descent into Liverpool airport, the pilot informs us that, due to fog, we are being redirected to Leeds. Upon landing at Leeds we have to wait 2 hours for a bus to take us back to Liverpool, then the bus ride is another 2 hours. I was supposed to arrive in Liverpool before 11pm, it is 4am by the time I get there. Then I have to drive through the thick fog back to Snowdonia, having not slept the last 2 nights. The most direct road is closed. I get home around 6am. I simply cannot miss another day off work. I lie in bed for about 30min, Nina makes me porridge and coffee, then gives me a lift to work.
We sing Little Mix songs in the car. Jim is singing along in the back and El is dancing and laughing. The sun is breaking through the fog to unveil a blue sky and the beautiful green mountains. It fills me with everything I need to get through the day.
Massive thanks to everyone for all the support and well wishes, and to my sponsors TOTALOXYGEN