A bitter pill to swallow. Sub 3 escapes me again

It’s hard to admit that you’re not as strong or able as you thought you were. That you haven’t managed to achieve your ultimate goal, having invested so much time, effort and heart, is really and truly gutting. On Sunday I didn’t manage to run a sub 3 hour marathon at Brighton and it’s a really bitter pill to have to swallow again, at the third real attempt at running that fast.

For the record, I ran 3.06 which, whilst it sounds close to three hours, is quite some distance away. It’s much slower than I ran last year (3.03) and also slower than the year before (3.04). I have had some really lovely people contact me to say it doesn’t matter and that I should be proud that I ran a marathon that fast, and that I can do it at all. My good mate Rich Wilkins helpfully pointed me towards a part of a blog I wrote just last week after I tweeted about my failure:

Those people are all right, of course. I should be proud – I am proud – and I tried my hardest – I really and truly did. But if I am absolutely honest, I have nothing to prove. I’ve completed over 80 marathons now. I’ve run a 1.21 half marathon and a 37.49 10k. If I look at the marathon predictors online (I know, I know), I should be running anywhere between 2.49 and 2.57. So what the hell went wrong? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my race:

I got to the start line early having met a really lovely girl on the train over who was also running for my charity – Mind. Well not my charity, but you know what I mean. I sat, took the elite start in and listened to some music to relax. Phil Jelly came over, we had a chat and then went to line up. Before we knew it, we were off.

The distance ticked by and we were knocking out very comfy 4.07-4.10 kilometers (about 6.40-6.45 miles for the old people). Great crowds, great cheers and a good camaraderie amongst the runners reminded me of why I loved running Brighton. A check of the heart rate at mile 6 showed everything was fine. It only skipped slightly as I passed the first Mind cheer point where I got a brilliant buzz! We were hitting the hills, small packs of runners were hitting a nice rhythm and the sun was gently but surely warming up. The world was good right now.

Ten miles – check! Nice and easy, heading back west towards the finish line and another cursory glance at my heart rate monitor showed things were still looking good – lower than last year, it felt easier than last year. This was my year!

I’m pretty sure I run the Brighton Marathon each year (I’ve done all 6) for the point at 12.5 miles where you are striding down a steady slope towards the Sealife Centre where the biggest crowd is. They’re as loud as you can imagine, really enthusiastic and as a runner, you should be conscious enough to take it all in and enjoy it at this point. The feeling as you speed up down the hill and people are cheering makes you feel on top of the world! My wife is outside the Thistle Hotel – she always is. She hands me my water bottle to which I have taped two gels. She screams at me that she’s opened a gel (I didn’t want her to) and as I try to un-tape them, gel goes all over my hands. For some reason, I decided I needed to wipe my eye. With sugary caffeine gel. Pleb! Sticky eyebrows and for a short period of time I was trying to wipe energy gel away from my eye with even more gel. The most important thing taped to the bottle is a note Inote to self - brighton marathon’ve written to myself:

“Run your heart out. There is no pressure but from yourself. There are people watching! SMILE.
Work your hardest!

I fold the letter and put it in my race belt – I feel good but I might need this later if times get tough. For now, I do smile.

I pass through half way dead on 1.28. I feel great, still. My pace has not slowed, my muscles don’t ache and in my head I’m so happy with myself because I’m being sensible. I’m not pushing it even though I feel like I can run faster if I want to. Steady does it. Sub 3 this year and next year we’ll throw caution to the wind!

17 miles – we’re getting towards the business end and I have dropped Phil who appears to have had issues with his calf. This guy is a fast runner. A really fast runner! But he’s had some shitty luck of late and I don’t think today will be his day. We haven’t spoken for about 5 miles but the mutual appreciation is there and we have worked together right up to this point. My pace has slowed to 4.15 per km (exactly 3 hour pace) but I’m doing this on purpose. I still feel great and have seen some friends out on the course. Including the aforementioned Rich who has stepped in to help a visually impaired runner. He spots me and shouts because he knows how important this is to me. If I carry on this pace, I will run a 2.57 and all will be well. If worst comes to worst, I can run at this pace for another few miles and then slow down – giving myself plenty of time to finish under 3.

Mile 19 – right on plan and my mate Bez meets me at the leisure centre to run with me for a while. He’s going to wind block me and I tell him to run me at 4.20s util we get to the power station. You won’t meet a nicer bloke than Bez and he tells me just to bark orders at him. I can’t bark orders at him right away though. As he steps in front of me, I notice he’s wearing a girl’s running ruck sack. He’s a tall, rangey fella. He’s wearing a girl’s bag! Spirits are high, though.

With 10k to go, I have two and a half minutes in the bank and start to do my sums. I’m tiring but feel OK. My mind is awash with numbers and calculations. I don’t mind this because when I find things tough I like to concentrate on something and I often wile away the minutes on long runs doing and re-doing meaningless run calculations in my head. 2.30 is 150 seconds. Over 10k that’s 15s per km. That means I can run 4.30s and still get to the finish. The next km is 4.25. That’s another 5s I have to play with.

21 miles – 5.2 to go. Twinge in my left calf. TWINGE. I’m sensible, I slow right down and keep my form. Steady as she goes, I can nip this in the bud by going steady and riding it out. It works. 4 miles to go. I’m not far from Hove Lagoon – that’s the 5km to go marker. Twinge. TWIIIIIIIIIINGE. “Bez, I’m cramping”. I’m getting a little nervous. I can still run but it’s becoming more intense – like each twinge recruits just a couple more muscle fibres. Imagine someone has set fire to a rope that you’re dangling from. You know there’s only so much time but you hope in the romance of the burning rope that you’ll get off just in time!

I hit Hove lagoon and with 5km to go I have 90 seconds in the bag. This is touch and go but if I’m sensible, I can do it. I look to the note to help me. There’s nothing on there that says anything about physical issues – muscles that don’t want to play anymore. That note is for mental turmoil; to get me through the self-doubt. Short of taping it to my leg in the hope that some sort of witch craft will make it stop my leg cramping, it’s fucking useless. My mind is powerful – my brain has ruled the roost in this race. Terry Cooper is hanging over the Alzheimer’s cheer point going batshit crazy at me. He knows how much I’ve invested in this. He’s humoured me every time I’ve wanted to talk training and he knows how much I want it. I can’t really hear him though. It sounds silly, but my hearing is blocking stuff out and I realise that I can think OK but my vision is a bit blurred and my ears are ringing.

“Bez, I need to stretch”. We stop, I stretch. As bez digs his thumbs into my calf, I lean a little too far to the left and my right hip flexor going boiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing. There’s suddenly an anchor attached to my right leg and I lose a bit of the feeling in it. Bez rightly tells me to keep moving and we set off at a plod. It’s mile 23.5 and it’s still possible I can do this. Just be sensible!

My heart is sinking. Now it’s both my calves and I’m resigned to stretching again. I look at Bez who looks absolutely helpless because he’s so desperate to help me and all I can do is think about how foolish I must look because I’m having to keep stopping. Some people are cheering really loud but my ears are taking it as an insult and I can rationalise their passion but right now I want to tell them to fuck off. My heart sinks as a group of 7 or 8 blokes pass me by. Two of them are in bright orange tee shirts with ‘3 hour pacer’ written on them. My heart is sunk.

“Bez, let them go”, I say. I know the game is up and that I have to complete another run in over 3 hours. I’ve given everything I’ve got and I’ve come up short. As Bez departs after doing his stint, he offers a few words of wisdom, my lips tell him “Right, I can still get a PB”. As he stopped and I moved away, my body tells him I’m on a long road to the finish line. My tummy hurts a lot at this point and I want to be sick. I’ve a feeling it’s because I’ve failed and can’t do it.

Mile 24 to 25 are slow and painful. I fall over a couple of times and people encourage me to get up as much as they can. Other runners encourage me and one lady offers me some orange juice which I gladly take. Her daughter shouts at me and tells me to keep going, that I am nearly there and that I can “really do it fast”. I remember telling her she is the sweetest little girl in the world and then off I go. That little girl really did set me off and then I look down at my watch. It ticks over the 3 hour mark. I lose my marbles a bit and cry – I say sorry over and over as I run along and people continue to scream at me, encouraging me like hell. I want to cover my name because I don’t want them to shout it. I want to cover the charity logo because I am embarrassed for it. On my race number I’ve written “For Harvey. For my Dad”. I want to cover that, too, because I haven’t done it. I run past my colleague Siobhan and the only thought I muster is ‘she’s going to think I’m a dick for crying’. I had become really self-conscious and felt vulnerable – not something I am used to!

As I wobble down the street someone grabs me by the arm and starts running with me. It’s my wife, Amy. She’s not one for limelight and must have been seriously compelled to jump the fence and grab my hand. It takes me a short while to realise who it is and what she is doing. She lets me go (she said she was knackered) and off I plodded to an uneventful finish.

I’ve enjoyed finishing every single marathon I’ve run. Apart from this one. I didn’t care for this one at all. I don’t like medals anyway, and I didn’t feel any sense of achievement at the end. I didn’t want to sound blasé about it; it’s just a fact that completion wasn’t a goal – I’d set myself a very specific target which I didn’t achieve. It’s like being given a pair of socks for Christmas but having them wrapped in the box of an iPhone.

My consolation is that I couldn’t have tried any harder. I gave it absolutely everything and my mind was in fine fettle. My brain was telling me I could run forever – nothing was going to stop me, mentally.  I have to assess what went wrong and my nature is to pick apart the day and my entire run up to see if there is anything that can change. Was it my shoes? My nutrition plan? I was hydrated enough but was my pacing incorrect? Maybe I have some biomechanical issues and my calves are either overloaded or not strong enough. Or is it simply that my training needs to change?

I’m proud of myself and I know some of these thoughts are irrational but it’s how I feel. I know I can do it and I haven’t failed because I haven’t given up yet. I’ll be back and I’ll beat that time because I have promised the memories of my dad and baby Harvey that it would be theirs. I could go for an autumn marathon, perhaps. But I’m a romantic and Brighton is MY marathon. I adore my city, I adore the people of it and I adore how much the spectators get involved. It blows me away and whilst Berlin might be flatter, London might be flatter and Manchester might be cheaper, Brighton is mine. All mine!

See you next year, Brighton. You’re MINE!

About kevin betts

Personal trainer, marathon runner and most interested in motivation and goal setting. I run for peace of mind, but also to create a bit of turmoil to get through.

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