Before, during and after any race, I try not to think about my blog. I don’t want it to interfere with my performance. I don’t want to make decisions based on how they will sound to my biggest fans (or harshest trolls). After a seismic race like this is over, it takes me a while to absorb what has happened. And to think how best to sum it up, recount it.
Sometimes, with an eventful race like Chester Marathon (read blog post here), the thing just writes itself. I wrote that blog in about an hour, to humongous praise and plaudits. With this race, it is more difficult. As amazing and epic as it was in my head, it was pretty straightforward. I went to the front, ran really well the whole way, and won. No hiccups, no drama. Not much else to say really.
So, for the first half of the week I am thinking, thinking…how do I make a story out of this? And all the time, there is this passage from a book going around in my head. And it’s only when I finally realise HOW this passage, and the race experience, are actually connected, that I see I have my hook.
I go home Wednesday night and open the book where I believe the passage to be. But it’s not there. I read the entire book, I get Nina to do it too. It is definitely not there. I read another similar book. Nope. I end up spending the next 4 days trying to find this one passage. I read around 20 books, download about 20 more, buy 3, ask friends and family, post on 3 forums, go to the library and ask to see a list of all the books I’ve taken out, then wonder around library for ages just searching the shelves. I cannot find it anywhere. I stay up into the early hours of the nights reading through books, and listening to podcasts. I begin to wonder if I am crazy, whether this passage really exists. Nina is worried I am losing my mind and obsessing way too much over this. And I definitely am.
Sunday night, I have given up (again). I am watching American Football on the laptop whilst aimlessly running keyword searches.
I find it.
And here it is:
it was a man of about twenty: I was doing my best to excise the beginnings of gangrene from his toe. The pain must have been excruciating. While offering no resistance to my clearing the wound with a hunting knife, he wept without any sign of restraint on his wife’s lap. She was completely relaxed, not putting herself in her husband’s place at all but serenely accessible, as he buried his face in her body when the pain was greatest or rolled his head from side to side on her lap as he sobbed. The eventual presence of about half the village at the scene did not appear to affect any effort towards either self-control or dramatization.
– Jean Liedloff
The Author made this observation whilst living in the jungles of Venezuala, among the Ye’kuana tribe.
I last read this 15 years ago, yet this passage has been ringing in my ears all week, as clear as a bell. I could write a whole book on this one, simple but layered paragraph.
But in the wake of my race, I contemplate how this Ye’kuana warrior feels no need to prove his manliness. He is simply a man. He hunts lethal animals for a living, he will defend his tribe to the death if he has to. And here, he depends on his wife when he is suffering. His gender role is so clearly defined that neither he, nor his wife, nor half the village, would ever think to question it.
I have struggled my whole adult life with what it means to be a man. I get so confused about my role. I want to be strong and protective over my wife and family, but I would never consider myself a chauvinist. I cannot hunt and fight the way men did for a hundred thousand years, yet I still get testosterone fueled urges to do similar stuff. I have stupid notions about how crying, or expressing emotion, is ‘unmanly’ and frowned upon. Yet I want to be caring and empathetic and emotionally engaged with my family and friends.
When I finished the Snowdonia Marathon, after the euphoria faded, the pain rose. My legs were cramping up unbearably. I staggered into the first aid tent, there were no beds, so I lay on the tarmac. Nina wrapped me in a blanket while communicating with the first aid officer. I was openly howling and writhing around like an idiot, infront of the girl of my dreams.
My Godkids, my best friend, my kids and my parents (effectively half the village) were peering through the tent to see if I was ok. Although I must have looked ridiculous, I felt no shame. For this short window, I didn’t feel a need to prove my manliness. I had just done that. I was proud that I was vulnerable enough to depend entirely on my wife. I was proud to let my closest friends and family see me that way. I wanted badly to win Snowdonia Marathon, enough to accept this level of suffering afterwards. I want my Godkids and kids to see that, sometimes, this is what you have to be willing to give. And I want them to also see how, completely and entirely, I depend on my wife.
October 2017 – We have just moved into our new house, we have no furniture and no heating. I am sitting on a pillow on the floor wrapped in a blanket, next to an electric heater. I am on drugs. I lacerated my knee a week ago, I am struggling to sleep at night with the pain. I’m drowsy and uncomfortable all the time. Nina brings me a hot chocolate, I tip it all down my front, blistering the skin on my belly. I can’t even get up to jump around in pain, I need to be helped up the stairs to the toilet, where I douse water on the burns. I look in the mirror, and I’m ashamed of myself. My cheeks are all puffy, I’ve put on weight from the comfort eating. My eyes look grey and tired. I can’t carry my kids, I can’t work, and I have just watched someone else win the Snowdonia Marathon. The title I wanted to defend after winning in 2016. It is a low point in my life.
October 2018. I want to win the Snowdonia Marathon so much, that I am scared to even think about it. Let alone admit to myself or anyone else how much I want it. Berlin Marathon was a disaster (read post here), so I am through with meticulously preparing for races. I just do every race I feel like doing. I go on a racing rampage – 5 races in 5 weeks, including 2 marathons and 2 half marathons.
Then, after that lot, I have 2 weeks to prepare for Snowdonia Marathon. But man, I am tired. Like a bone-deep kindof tired. And not only that, I am limping on a sore heel.
I want to go and do a recce of the final hill, but I’m too tired. So I skip it. Every single run of those two weeks, I am feeling tired, flat, like all the air has been let out of my tyres. Nina is starting to question the sense of it. But I remember the low of last year. Here I am this time round, not injured and not ill. Who knows what the situation will be next year.
I am worried about the other competitors in the race. Gary Preistley has run a fast half marathon, and has beaten me in mountain races, so could be very dangerous over this course. A Kenyan guy is on the start list with a 2.15 marathon best. What if he sets off at 2.15 pace? What do I do then? I can’t worry about any of this stuff. I need to get my legs under me and ready to go, and take it from there. So I let every run go badly, without panicking, without judging. I rest.
Race morning is cold. I don’t want to get out from under my covers. Nina jokes that the race will warm me up and I will be the only warm person in Snowdonia. I don’t find it funny. I am nervous. Lots of my family and friends will be out on the course watching, and lots more will be watching the highlights on TV. Am I going to make a fool of myself? I imagine people are queuing up to see me fall apart, and say ‘I told you so. You’ve done too many races’.
I get to the race start area early to do interview for S4C channel. I take my pink hat off, the producer tells me to put it back on. All goes smoove, get it done nice and quick. There is 90min before race start. I know the perfect cafe to go and relax. I decide to jog over there. Bang! My legs are there. Everything is firing, body feels alive and springy. I go and get settled into sofa in cafe with a cappuccino, and pretend to be looking at my phone while I fall asleep.
I arrive at the start line at the last possible moment. It is bitterly cold but beautiful sunshine. I shake hands with a few guys, suddenly I am all confident and raring to go. The Kenyan guy hasn’t shown up. We set off. The 1st mile is the only flat mile in the whole race. So I run it with intent. 5.15. I am wearing compression socks to keep my calves warm, they slip down to my ankles, so it looks like I’m wearing school socks. I am annoyed that I will have to run the next 25 miles with them like this.
I pump pump pump up the first hill. I am glad I chose to wear baseball cap as the low sun is blinding. I know if I get to the top infront, from here I will be hard to beat. I reach the top of Pen-Y-Pass and the atmosphere is incredible. I am better at descending, and I really love the trail path that takes us down and off the road for the next few miles.
A guy runs next to me with a film camera and I get a moment an ‘out of body’ experience. Here I am, mile 8. Running in beautiful sunshine, with the autumn mountains as a perfect backdrop. I’m flying, both knees working, and leading out the Snowdonia Marathon. What would I sell it for?
I storm into Beddgelert, reaching halfway in around 72-73 minutes. Over a minute faster than I ran 2 years ago. I toss my hat to Paul, grab some gels off Nina, and set off up the next 2 mile climb.
The course turns North at this point, and straight into an icy headwind. It is me versus this wind for the next 9 lonely miles. I am not wearing a watch. I know that if I can keep my pace up I have an excellent chance of breaking the course record. Some spectators are telling me I have a huge lead, but I can’t even think about that. I can’t start settling now, still so far to go. My legs are getting cold and stiff, it is harder and harder to keep my rhythm. I have to start fighting. I try and grab a drink, the cup empties all over me and the wind whips against my wet skin, it stings. My fingers and toes are going numb. At the end of this stretch is where the real battle begins. At mile 22 we turn out of the wind into a 2 mile climb. It is absolutely brutal and sadistic. It was at this point 2 years ago that I crumbled, my form deteriorated and I clawed my way up. The guy behind me, Dan Jones, made back 90 seconds on me.
I am determined to nail it this time. I know that when your technique folds, you are just fighting against yourself, you lose efficiency, and are working harder for diminished output. I reach mile 22 with frozen stiff legs. But my head is still in business, I have not hit the wall. I have steeled myself all race for this, I just need to run the 2 hardest miles of my life, and I will win this race.
Mile 1 – focus is on short, sharp, snappy strides. Keep the cadence high, pop up the hill. You can put yourself in a hole of pain when running up a hill, but I keep my technique as clean and effective as I can. Head tall, shoulders down.
Mile 2 – things are starting to close in on me. It feels like I have been hurting all my life. I am a pilot in a cockpit with sirens, flashing lights and dials spinning round. My hamstrings are cramping, my butt is cramping, I can feel a stitch coming, my vision is getting blurry. My fingers and toes are completely numb. I just keep telling myself ‘earn it, earn it.’
I finally get to mile 24, and briefly follow the lead motorbike in the wrong direction, correct myself, and am on the downhill. When the lead car comes into sight, with the clock displaying my time, I am already outside the record. I can’t believe it, I have worked so hard. I must have lost so much against the wind. When I reach Llanberis and the cheering crowds I see my mum and Jim, and Nina and El, and the elation and relief flood in. I do high fives all the way down the finishing straight. I am proud and happy and excited. I have won.
The next week has been a Hollywood movie. There is no other way to put it. I have had so many strangers come up and congratulate me, I’m not going to lie, it is brilliant. All that pain is a distant memory, so much so that I now wonder to myself if it really was THAT bad. Although my body is feeling pretty burnt and in need of a good rest, it was totally totally worth it.
Thanks loads everyone for all the kind words and support! Thanks to Marathon Eryri for brilliant organisation as always. Thanks to the team at ON for fantastic kit that always does the job (I wore the Cloud Flash by the way). Thanks loads to Pete Bland and Asics for the vouchers. But most of all, thanks to my wife, for sitting up late into the night and writing this for me.
Watch the highlights on BBC iPlayer here
All the good photos are courtesy of SportPicturesCymru