After a torrid few days of self doubt, a possible psychosomatic illness and some dreadful nights sleep I ran the Brighton Marathon in 3hours and 35 minutes. And I’m delighted.
The Run Up
We travelled down to Eastbourne on Friday evening to make sure that we were well rested for Sunday, It was a hell of a journey
through heavy Friday afternoon traffic along the M1 followed by road work ridden delays on the M25 before sitting in the 5 mile queue to the Dartford crossing. It was gone 8pm by the time that we arrived and a 5 hour journey had not been part of the plan!
We chose to stay on a caravan in Pevensey Bay near Eastbourne along with our friends because it was much more economical than us all renting a house or hotel in Brighton. It worked out well as we met up on Saturday morning just after I’d taken the girls to the beach and after sorting ourselves out we used the pool and sauna to set us up for the weekend.
Heading in to Brighton to collect my number and race pack was an opportunity to check out the location of the park and ride for the race as well as an excuse to meet up with some more mutual friends and enjoy a long, lazy lunch in the exquisite Regency restaurant. It’s a place recommended to us years ago and now Mrs G and I make a bee-line to it whenever we’re in the city. Handily, it was only a few hundred yards along the seafront from the marathon expo. Unhandily, I’d assumed that the expo was at the start area of Preston Park which was a mile and a half out town. Mr Tim, my friend who made the Brighton Marathon 10k his first ever road race, accompanied me on the long walk in and out of town before bypassing the expo in preference of meeting up with the group at the restaurant.
Sticking to the carb-loading plan, I missed out on some of the seafood delights that the others enjoyed (mussels, Lobster Thermidore, fish fingers!?) in favour of the seafood spaghetti. Of course it was delicious and did the job I needed it today in advance of race day.
After lunch I finally made it to the expo to collect my race pack. It was a little underwhelming (having only the London Marathon expo to compare it to) so the allure of the seafront and friends soon drew me out without spending too much time looking around. Brighton is a fantastic city and the next hour or so of mooching around the Lanes, in and out of shops, just reminded me why Mrs G and I love it so much. But a reality check sent us back to the caravan to prepare for the big day.
Emotions were starting to run high. Of course, I was raising money in memory of my friend Paul. His family had joined us on the trip and Sarah popped over in the evening. We were all in pieces for a little while before spending a lovely hour together, It was exactly what I needed and refocussed me on my motivation for the challenge coming up.
Packing up the bags on a Saturday night was a bit of a pain in the arse but the plan was to leave early in the morning to hit the park and ride on schedule and have plenty of time to relax at the start. So after a bit more pasta, a share of a whole chicken (courtesy of Mr Tim), some Lemsip, Manuka honey and a gargle with aspirin, it was time for bed.
I’d been feeling ill for a few days after developing a sore throat on Thursday, I know I’ll sound soft when I write this, but I felt really fluey over Thursday night and throughout Friday. Subsequently I got really pissed off!! Feeling the same on Friday night and throughout Saturday morning had forced me in to action so it felt like the last throw of the dice to dose up before bed.
The frantic packing continued after the best nights sleep I’d had for a few days. My sore throat felt better and I finally felt energised and up for it! We had a quick breakfast, chucked the kids and Mr Tim in the car and made the journey back to Brighton. The queue of cars for the park and ride was horrendous and it took us nearly half an hour to get in to the Moulescoombe campus of the university that was being used for the runners. Perhaps a little more organisation here would have gone down well as we were left very tight for time after the queueing and directed to an alternative car park anyway (for which there was no queue!)
Mr Tim and I jumped on the bus to the start while Mrs G and the girls headed in to town. Another 15 minutes later we arrived at Preston Park. Tim was running the 10k race so when he saw the queue for the toilet he legged it and I didn’t see him again until I finished my race.
I was still in functional mode. Knowing the drill at these events keeps me calm so I patiently queued up for the toilet. It was a ridiculous length of queue – probably 20 minutes – so time was tight after I’d “been”. Making contact with my brother-in-law and sister on the way to drop off my bag made my chest pound. I could feel the emotion rising but still had to function to get my kit on and drop in my bag. People were already accumulated at the start area whilst I was still applying vaseline and deciding on whether or not to wear a t-shirt under my running vest!
Eventually I handed my bag in and turned to meet my family. And immediately I was in tears!
Matt, my brother-in-law has trained pretty much from scratch to do this marathon. He’s lost over 2 stones and must have learnt a lot about himself and his limits during his journey. I have been immensely proud of his commitment and was desperate to see him at the start to give him a hug and wish him luck. Plus the added emotion from my motivation for running and the ever present inspiration of my Dad’s marathon endeavours, I was failing to fight back the tears and barely holding back from sobbing as I made my way to meet them.
I managed kisses and cuddles with my niece and nephews and certainly couldn’t speak after hugging and kissing my sister but just managed to say the word “proud” when I hugged Matt!! After pulling it together for a couple of photos, we set off to our start points. By now all of my pre-race actions had been completed which meant I completely relaxed. Normally that’s a good thing, but on Sunday that meant my emotions totally spilled out. I literally sobbed my way to my start enclosure and could barely
see my laces when I realised I’d not tied them up! All the training, all the sponsorship, all the support and kindness from everyone since November, all the early mornings, all the hours away from the kids, all the frozen peas on my shins, all the built up intensity of wanting to do this thing the right way for my mate and my Dad. They all spilled out of my eyes as I stood there alone surrounded by 10,000 other runners.
Everyone cheered as the gun fired to start the race. Actually it could have been a gun, or a horn, or cannons – I don’t know as I was tying my laces at the back of my enclosure! It took about 4 minutes to get across the line after a couple of stops and starts of running. I missed the high-five with Paula Ratcliffe because I was starting my Runkeeper and forgetting to start my stopwatch but then after just a few yards we came to a grinding halt as we approached a hairpin turn just a hundred yards or so in to the race. Soon after that we stopped again as the route narrowed on account of several parked cars on the side of the street. This all frustrated me a little as it’s not like they didn’t expect 10,000 people to be running along there was it? The result was a near 10 minute mile.
But weirdly (and I’m blaming the adrenaline) I was sweating heavily in my t-shirt and vest so was a little concerned at judging the weather badly. I decided to reserve judgement on my choice of clothing until I hit the seafront where most of the miles were to be run. Then I got focussed on my running.
During loads of my Sunday runs with Jim and Leanne we have started off with a really steady first mile or two so I felt confident that I knew what to do. I didn’t panic about being 2 minutes behind my aspirational pace after a mile – I just weaved my way through the people in front of me and settled in to a tempo I was comfortable with. The first few miles of any big race are slightly zig-zaggy and it’s a little annoying but a great way of making sure that you don’t set off too fast.
I was beginning to find a bit of space when I saw my Mum for the first time at about 3 miles. It was a nice surprise to see her there and a good early boost as the route weaved around the city centre. The course looped back on itself a few times which meant we got the welcome distraction of people running in the opposite direction to ourselves – people watching at speed. I loved it and took the opportunity to keep and eye out for Matt and his mate Chrissy who had started a little behind me.
I always say that you shouldn’t try anything new on race day. So why would a race choose “race day” to be the day when they
introduce water in bags to runners who haven’t used them before? The water came in an oblong bag with a little tag at the top and a guy at the water station shouting squeeze it and suck it (??!!). After a couple of squirts hit the back of my throat and made me choke I had a rethink and squeezed a little harder. That resulted in the bag exploding and spraying all over me, my face, my clothes and the runners around me!! As the race went on i just about worked out how to drink without choking but it was a challenge throughout the day.
When we looped back towards the seafront I saw Matt and Chrissy for the first time. They were about a hundred yards away on the other side of the road and it took a couple of hearty yells before Matt looked around and we greeted each other with a few fist pumps. I loved seeing him. He seemed to be going well and I got a massive boost.
By now I was 5 miles in and shortly arrived at the seafront. As we hit the road and headed out towards the marina I told myself that now was the time to concentrate on my running, keep a steady pace and bring the average pace back in to 8 minute miles. The road widened a little, I took a few sips from the Gatorade station after 10k and felt fantastic as I continued to pass people on the way out of town. At about 7 miles we saw the lead cars coming back in to town. The elite men had covered about 11 miles by that point and they all glided past as if they were taking part in a different sport. It was the last time I saw any of the elite runners other than in photographs!
After passing the marina and turning off the seafront the road narrowed and once again I found myself slowing and weaving through other runners until we had looped back on to the main road and headed back towards Brighton. The lumps and bumps in the coast road didn’t make any difference to me and I felt great as I kept a steady pace going. Watching the runners still heading out of town was good fun. I shouted encouragement to as many of the other Mind runners as I could without getting out of puff and I got super excited to see Matt and Chrissy again. Greeting him with an over-loud shout and another Andy Murray style fist pump, I felt like a kid seeing their best friend. It gave me so much energy that I bounced back in to town.
The pier is an iconic landmark in Brighton and forms an important milestone for the marathon as it signifies that you’re close to
halfway around the course. It’s also a great place for spectators and supporters to cheer people along. The support on the side of the roads had been really good so far but coming back in to the city the supporters went to another level. I loved the fact that people were calling my name because I’d got it ironed on to my vest, but it was a real surprise to hear screams and cheers for Uncle Simon just after the pier! I looked across the road and on the promenade side of the barriers were Mum, Joe, my sister and the kids excitedly cheering me on. Wow – another big boost and really unexpected so it felt like a bonus. I waved and gave the thumbs up to show I was feeling good and bounced on up the road.
At 14 miles I’d expected to see Mrs G, Sarah and everyone so when they appeared just before the 14 mile marker I was a little surprised and under prepared. The only thing I thought to do was to give a high five and I gave Mark’s hand such a slap that my own hand stung for a mile! That’s the sort of support that I love. It reminds me that they’ve supported me for months just to get to the start line and so I feel a responsibility to repay them by doing a good run that they can be proud of. So I put my game face on, moved in to the middle of the road to avoid distractions from other cheering supporters, got my head down and kept going at my steady pace.
I’d gradually bought my average pace down to about 8:12 after the first slow miles so I knew my tempo was still good. There was no sign of the shin splint pain I’d had for so long during my training and I could only feel a little tightness in one calf and one quad. So I told myself that I was feeling better than I had at this distance on any training run as we once again peeled off the seafront for our little detour around Hove.
I was starting to get hungry so was glad to see the High-5 gels being handed out after 15 miles. I grabbed two and had one immediately, making a plan to have another in 3 miles time and, if possible, another after a further 3 miles. We looped up and around before turning back the way we’d came. I think it was at about 18 miles that we turned back towards the seafront and I heard the cries and cheers from my family once again. They were on the opposite side of the road so in the glimpses we got of each other I tried to show how well I felt – excitedly giving the thumbs up and waving at them. I knew the toughest miles were still to come but I was delighted to have covered 18 miles with an average of 8:06 per mile. My plan (which I was making up on the road) involved maintaining the pace and then kicking on with all I’d got after 22 miles, depending on how I felt.
After another couple of miles I was conscious that my average pace had stopped coming down and as I turned off towards the power station I knew I was at the business end of the race. Coming up to 21 miles the smell of fish was over whelming, the road became desolate, the wind was in our faces and the support dried up. It started to get tougher but I consoled myself with knowing that after one more turn we’d be heading back on the home straight. I just hadn’t grasped the concept of how far that home straight would be!
It was at about 22 miles that I got the warning signs that I was starting to struggle. I knew my pace was slowing but that was to be expected. My quads now both ached and one calf was very tight. But the real signals came from the inability to ingest anything! I’d taken my last gel between 21 & 22 and water had been in plentiful supply but each sip of water was beginning to make me feel sick. Coming up to 23 miles and looking forward to getting back on to the seafront promenade I could feel vomit rising and had the unpleasant sensation of swallowing down a bit of sick rather than letting it all come up.
I realised that this stage of the race was about mind over matter so recalled a text I’d got from my other brother-in-law the day before. He told me that Paul would be with me all the way round. He was right but I’d chosen not to play that card to myself until I needed to. At 23 miles I needed every piece of help I could get so I drew on all the reserves that my friends and family had built up for me over the last 6 months.
I thought of my memories of my friend and times we’d competed sportingly against each other on the golf course. I drew strength from the sound of his laugh. I knew that my run would result in a time that I’d be proud of as long as I kept going. And I wanted to do a time to be proud of because it’s only then that I allow myself to accept the pride from other people. I wanted to do a time that I knew my Dad would have been proud of. I recalled messages from friends on my Just Giving pages and I recalled donations from
people I didn’t know. I kept going because I wanted to see my kids and knew they were waiting somewhere towards the finish. I wanted to keep going to show Mrs G that the hard work and sacrifice was worthwhile.
The old burnt remains of West Pier seemed miles away and didn’t appear to be getting any closer. The beach huts on my left hand side seemed to be never ending. These last miles were the hardest of the race. I stopped drinking because I knew that the wheels would seriously come off the wagon if I was properly sick. Telling myself that even if I slowed to 9 minute miles I’d still break 3:45 I kept plodding on.
I was driven to keep going because i wanted to get to my family to get that bit of support I needed. They delivered it – as they do every time – and I got the boost I needed. Stopping for kisses and cuddles was not an option because I knew that the moment I stopped there was no chance of running again so I waved and soaked up their love to help me keep going.
The physical and mental exhaustion was becoming overwhelming and I began to struggle to calculate my pace and likely finish time. I realigned my targets to finishing under 4 hours and as close to 3:45 as possible, reassuring myself that it was still a good time and I’d done as well as I could. A final boost came as I passed my sister and everyone again with a mile to go. But then I knew I was on my own.
The support from the crowds was phenomenal but I felt overwhelmed and would have given anything for 10 seconds of quiet to get my malfunctioning head together. The road continued in front of me but the piers slowly crept up and eventually I passed them to see a “400m to go” sign. The noise was deafening and I responded by plodding on at the same steady pace. When I could finally focus on the next sign I was encouraged that it said “200m to go”. As I looked at the clock I was amazed to see that it had just clicked over 3hrs 39 minutes (it had been too loud to hear my Runkeeper announcements for a couple of miles) so I gave it everything to reach the finish line inside 3:40.
I did it. When I remembered to turn Runkeeper off it said 3.36 and a few seconds but my chip time was 3:35. I am so proud!
Finish Line and Onwards
Staggering through the finish funnel. Being propped up whilst bowing my head to collect a medal. Walking past the water and bananas. Shielding my eyes from all the foil blankets because they made me feel like I was going to pass out. Collecting a t-shirt and a bag. Having my picture taken giving a thumbs up and a smile. These things are all a vivid blur.
Being called over by a girl wielding my kit bag and wondering how I missed the big lorry I was looking for. Getting changed underneath the arches of the road I had run along a few hours before. My feet cramping as I took off my trainers and my back cramping when I put on a t-shirt. I know I did this things but in a haze of exhaustion.
Being completely changed and nibbling a banana, sipping a little water, I began to get back to a normal state of consciousness. I followed my fellow finishers out of the funnel and started my way back towards the course to see my wife, my children and Sarah. I was desperate to get back there to see Matt pass through but had lost any awareness of time. How long had I been finished? How long had Matt been running? How long before I got up the road to see Clare?
And then the tears came.
I couldn’t control it. I don’t cry much. I mean, I’m not a cryer. But I couldn’t stop as I hobbled through the crowds to see the people I love. I saw the Mind tent and peeking in noticed there were some crisps on the table so went in to ask if it was OK to grab a pack. As I was generously thanked for my efforts and offered hot & cold drinks, cakes, snacks, sandwiches and a massage I tried to thank the lady and the Mind team for their generosity but just broke down in tears saying I just want to see my wife!
Sobbing in to my packet of McCoys I nibbled a few crisps, sipped a bit of water and limped on towards the pier and the final mile of the course.
I think it must be something to do with the security of the environment at the start and finish that allows me to just let go of things. By the time I entered the jostling of the spectators and battled against the tide of people trying to get to the family meeting area I was once again focussed on the next thing I needed to do … find my family. I saw my sister and Mum making their way towards the finishing straight to support Matt in his final few steps and then continued to find Clare and the kids.
By the time we met up, my little supporting team had split a bit so it was Clare and the kids that gave me a hug amongst a million passing pedestrians so we decided to stay put to give Matt some extra support rather than joining up with my sister. I know I loved having the two groups of family around the course and hoped he would get a double boost for getting two big cheers!
My sister had said that Matt was at 23.7 miles according to his Runkeeper app so we expected him to pass by shortly. But after 45 minutes or so he hadn’t come past so I began to get worried. I told the others to stay put whilst I walked up the road to make sure that he’d not got in any trouble in the final mile. After 50 yards of staggering up the road I could see him coming down – still accompanied by Chrissy. Adrenaline took over again, and rushing to the side I gave him a massive cheer and shouted some words at him. He was clearly in a lot of pain but was still going and we knew he was going to finish his first marathon – a massive, life changing achievement that only a small fraction of the population will ever do.
Seeing him a few minutes after he finished I knew he was as overwhelmed as I had been. Watching him being reunited with his kids was a touching moment. They’re proud of their Dad already, but one day they’ll be inspired by him. Maybe that inspiration will result in them buying a pair of running shoes, getting fit and raising a massive amount of money for charity – making their own kids proud along the way.
Hugging him, knowing that we shared in a special achievement was an unforgettable moment for me and one that will always stay with me.
Matt raised over £1400 for The Maypole Project and I am stunned that I raised a humbling £1771 for Mind. That sort of money is overwhelming and I hope both charities help people to enjoy longer, healthier and happier lives.