A very dear friend of mine loves Halstead Marathon. Her name is Mel and she inspired me to start this lunacy. The most important thing to know about Mel is that she ‘doesn’t do hills’, so I thought it a fair assumption that Mel’s favourite marathon would not have many if any hills in it. Bear in mind that in running circles it is well known a course described as lumpy, or undulating is nothing of the sort. It is comprised of peaks that make the Andes look like molehills and soul destroying inclines of misery. So when I arrived at Halstead and heard that the course I thought was going to be a flat road race was lumpy, my heart sank. There I sat in the hall at Halstead leisure center, legs twitching with nervous anticipation while all around me more experienced and capable runners caught up with each other, and chatted the kind of chat that only runners chat. I felt alone and out of my depth.
Sitting almost opposite was a young lady contemplating whether to take her sun visor on the run. Taking this as a minor introduction I produced my newly purchased desert cap and declared my intention to wear it for the days frivolities. Her name was Mandy and she was to play a part in events later that day, but first things first. I turned to my left, and to my surprise, there sitting next to me was a friend who I have run a couple of marathons with, Kate. We had chatted the night before and she had offered to pace me. She was going for a sub 4 time, and while I have increased my pace since Brighton I did not think I could quite manage taking 40 minutes off my time. I wanted a sub 4:30 to build on for a target race in August.
15 minutes later I was in the middle of the start huddle next to Kate waiting for the start, and then we were off. Almost as soon as we crossed the start line we flew down a hill, less than half a mile later we paid the price with the start of the first of many climbs. I have a peculiar relationship with hills, I quite like the sensation of having something to work against so I don’t really slow as I go up if I can help it. Kate wiser in the ways of marathons slowed down to a walk and I left her behind. I already knew that the pace we were doing was way to fast, it was the kind of pace I would approach 10 miles at, and not have enough to do another 16. As the ground levelled off Kate caught up and passed me goading me into a faster pace. Just after 4 miles I had had enough and told her to carry on without me, and off she went slowly into the distance leaving me on my own, with only a Panda for company. I settled down to a pace of about 9:45 minute miles and the next part of this struggle between man and marathon began.
By mile 16 I was feeling the fast start, each hill was becoming a struggle and the shine of marathon running had started to tarnish. I was piggy backing some people, passing them on hills and then having them overtake shortly after. As it became harder I promised myself a short break at the water stops, and that is precisely what I did. I felt defeated, and from then on it was nothing but a hellish struggle, just doing my best to hang on, grinding out the miles. I promised myself I would never again run a marathon, they were shit and I was just stupid for putting myself through it. They say a marathon is all done in the head, but this was the first time I had ever really struggled like this. During every other run, however hard it was I had no doubt I would run more. This time I was not even sure I would be able to finish let alone run another. Then in the distance I spied Mandy, the lady with the hat.
Mandy was walking. I was not the only one finding it tough. I promised myself that when I caught up with her I would have a walk and a talk, just a little moment to distract me from the misery. As I got closer however she broke out into a run, and I followed watching her slowly pull away, and then she walked again, and I got a little closer before she picked up her pace. I had a target, a short term goal and the struggle that was still ahead vanished as I bought my focus to bear on increasing my pace despite the pain and misery. Eventually I reached her, and in a small and plaintive voice I asked if I could tag along for a while. She was good with that!
From then on I had somebody to help distract me, and she did a sterling job, as we walked up hills and ran down them setting targets as we went. The bottom of the hill, that gate coming up, the next water station. We spoke of many things, but the highlights involved, agreeing on our hatred of those who say at the 20 mile mark ‘not much further’. Ritual execution is to good for them, despite the fact that they mean well. We had a particularly fine belching competition, both offering scores in the high 9’s and then there was our collective disgust at being passed by a pair of cheeseburger fuelled Golden Arch promoting bastards. Without Mandy I have no idea what would have happened and I cannot thank her enough, but the best was yet to come. As we were coming up to the last 2 miles she pointed out that it was entirely probable I could get a new PB, and might even break the sub 4:30!
Somewhere just before the start of the last mile was a particularly nasty hill through a field, and this was the last time we walked. We got there shortly after 4:15 and as the ground levelled off we set out running again. Through the field and out onto a housing estate where there was a photographer whom I gave a little jump and wave for. Mandy picked up her pace a bit looked back and said ‘with me’, and my legs obeyed. I could not think or speak. All there was in my world were legs moving and screaming in protest. Round the corner onto the road where the leisure center was, and Mandy was there willing my legs on. Then the end was in sight and as she grabbed my hand the pair of us gave the last that I had, increasing from a stumble to an almost run we crossed the line. The world expanded back into my consciousness again. I could hear the gasping for breath and expletives that had been coming from me, bypassing any spurious control I may once have had. In auto pilot my hand went to my Garmin and pressed the button. 4:28:08 Get in MuthaF**er!!!!
We drank water, my legs twitched and refused to be comfortable and I basked in the glory of my achievement, a PB, and a sub 4:30 one at that. I spoke to friends, found Kate and gave her my news and settled down to wait until another friend of mine crossed the line. This was Mel, I had not seen her at the beginning and I very much wanted to. Without her I don’t think I ever would have run a marathon at all, and Halstead was her favourite. It was important to me that she knew I had run it and was having some of the same experiences that she has had. In the future I would be able to find her and sit as we got ready, talking about old races and past glories, chatting the kind of chat that only runners chat.