By Tony Berry
Ten years ago on a day of high temperatures and tropical humidity I made a vow: I would never run another marathon. I could see the finishing line across the riverside plaza in Brisbane yet it might as well have been on the far side of the moon. I stumbled, shuffled, limped and occasionally jogged my way to complete that agonising final lap and clock a time of 3:16 – enough for a bronze medal in the World Masters 65+ category but also enough to make me decide my marathon days were over. I had already decided to retire once I started taking more than three hours for the 42km journey. This was the moment and I made the vow to all those well-meaning folk concerned for my welfare and sanity who were saying “enough’s enough”.
So what was I doing standing within a Rooney kick of the Man United stadium on a damp and windy Sunday waiting for the start of the Greater Manchester Marathon?
I have no idea what possessed me to sign up for “one more time”. Something deep in the psyche had been nagging at me that perhaps I did still have one good run left. It would not, of course, be in that long ago sub-three category but perhaps a sub-four was possible. Hindsight now says that was possibly the case three years back when I was doing 1:33 half-marathons; but, as I eventually discovered, I had left my run too late.
Whatever. Here I was, more relaxed that I can recall ever being, corralled in the red zone (“Oh, you’re one of the fast ones,” said the Asics lady when I checked in) and waiting for running legend Ron Hill send us on our way.
The Manchester event is billed as the world’s flattest and fastest big city marathon – and also one of the friendliest. And so it proved: the only undulations are up and over a few railway bridges and the local community support is immense. Thanks to race bibs bearing each runner’s name you are cheered and encouraged every step you take. It’s like having your own massive fan club. Shouts of “Go Tony, go” and “You’re looking great, Tony” were roared from the side-lines. It was hard to believe these were complete strangers, such was the warmth and sense of genuine support behind each shout. Bands played, choirs sang, saucepans were banged and hand bells rung to lift runners’ spirits. There was hardly a sector of the course where these friendly and supportive crowds did not gather.
And there was great spirit among the runners. Several times my TRC singlet brought friendly comments, especially several saying “You’ve come a long way” which suggests northerners regard Cornwall as the end of the earth. But I was not alone: there were brief encounters along the way with runners from Newquay, St Austell, Carn Runners and Hayle Runners. Yet I never did catch up with fellow TRCer Rachel Jarman who finished in 4:33:47.
Right from the start I lolloped along at what I felt was a nice gentle pace, feeling no pressure, not racing anyone, totally relaxed and going with the flow. We hit the first mile market in eight minutes. So much for the planned nine minute pace that our inspirational and dedicated club coach Kevin recommended as do-able. And so it continued: I felt good with no sense of working hard or pushing to keep up; totally relaxed. The 5km passed in a time equal to what I’d been doing on the track; the 10km bettered my Marazion race time and I zoomed past the 10 mile faster than for Storm Force.
The course has few of those long soul-destroying sectors that stretch into the far distance. Instead it keeps the interest alive by wending its way through tree-lined suburban streets and the towns and villages on Manchester’s perimeter, several of them crying out to be explored in more leisurely fashion.
And so the halfway mark was reached in 1:48 – better that last year’s Indian Queen’s half – and still I felt totally at ease and comfortable. Just breezing along. The miles came and went and at the 18-mile mark my body stepped into territory not trod since that last marathon ten years ago. I visualised running the Bissoe Trail where I had done a couple of training runs of similar distances and all felt good. The Garmin said my pace was 8:15 and hopes were high of a time well under four hours. Of the official the pace-setters, only the one flying the flag for a 3:15 finish was ahead of me.
The 20 mile mark was a few paces ahead. The Garmin said 2:54. A quick mental calculation showed even if I slowed to a nine-minute pace for the remaining six miles I would still do 3:48. And if I really eased back to an unthinkable 10-minute pace the four-hour target would still be beaten.
And then the wheels fell off. Big time. The legs were not merely complaining but refusing to move in anything better than slow motion. Nothing else hurt; the mind remained strong; there was no weakening of willpower. We were out in open country; a chill head wind was blowing. The 3:30 pace group breezed past. OK, let them go – they were beyond my ambitions anyway. I was hobbling forward, the thighs hugely stiff and aching and refusing to do what thighs should do. There were shouts from the footpath: “Don’t stop now, Tony”, “Come on, Tony” and “Tony, you can do it”. My unknown fan club seemed to have gathered in numbers; they followed my every (very faltering) footstep. If only I could respond and reward them for their encouragement. Running had degenerated into a mix of walking, jogging and the occasional complete stop.
The run to the finish was a marathon in itself. The 3:45 pace group zoomed past and their flag was soon a distant sight way ahead. Soon after came the 4-hour group and I knew my hopes were dashed.
Thus what began so well and continued so speedily and comfortably for 20 miles, ended in a painful drag back to the Man United stadium. However, I did muster a sprint of sorts down the slope to the finishing line with its clock showing a woeful time of 4:22:13 – enough for 2nd place in the M70 category (there was no M75), the winner taking 4:03:53.
To sum up: a terrific race that lives up to all its promises with its fast flat route and the incredibly warm and welcoming community spirit. I’ve experienced none better. Nor will I. This time I really mean it when I say NO MORE MARATHONS!
Two footnotes: thanks to coach Kevin and his continual and suggesting and showing an interest. Any TRCer thinking of racing or simply improving their performance should make use of this incredible club asset
And Hana: the loos at Manchester are not only numerous (including a long row of them right at the start line) but also sited at frequent intervals along the route.