Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Race Report - Virgin London Marathon 2013

Some people criticise distance running for being a solitary sport. I learnt this weekend that they are wrong.

My Virgin London Marathon started with a bit of a wobble and ended in minor catastrophe. I’ll spare you any attempts at witty hyperbole about my race-week prep,  travel to London, race registration and the rest of my lengthy and exhaustive weekend, but I’ll paint you this picture:

Saturday night before the race, the Crew Chief and I are tucked away in a corner of a Pizza Express in Greenwich. I cannot eat and can barely speak as I am such a bag of nerves about finally running the VLM the following morning - a race I have been trying to enter since 2008. A plate of pasta and pesto and lightly grilled chicken is gently cooling in front of me.

I am ostensibly worried about my knees. They’ve been a little painful recently, but I had taken solace in the fact that the pain didn’t actually stop me running – in fact I had done my last 20 mile training run with a dull ache throughout. I’d seen a sports injury professional who specialises in knees just a few days before and he had given me some light treatment and a green light to run. But there are other worries. The enormity of the pacing challenge has hit home as I’m now in possession of the rucksack/harness that will hold the pacing flag. It’s not the pace I’m afraid of – I have run many thousands of miles and dozens of races including multiple marathons much faster. It’s the pressure of maintaining that pace consistently, of being accountable and reliable and watched and scrutinised. Barriers around the Cutty Sark and the naval college are being built up around us and my stomach fills with dread at the prospect of the task.

My psyche lurches in the opposite direction on the walk back to our comedy-basic hotel. I regain utmost confidence in my abilities and am certain that the race tomorrow will be easy. Just another marathon. Just another long run really. No biggie.

I drifted through race morning in a daze. People recognised the pacing kit and started asking me questions immediately: Where is pen 6? Where are the toilets? Where should I put my bag? Will you be running that pace exactly? WHERE is pen 6? It’s my first VLM and I don’t know the answers to these questions. The crowds are huge and buoyant and excited and I felt my enthusiasm swelling with them as we get into our pens. A portly runner in front of me was wearing a yellow T-shirt that read ‘Dave – Believe’. I took it as a sign. A very literal sign. This was going to be excellent. A 30 second silence before the off in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings reminded me to count my blessings.

Mercifully I was not alone – Sam Murphy, the author of Runner’s World’s column Murphy’s Lore was also pacing this group. Between us we got the first few miles under control, all within seconds of our 10:18/mile target. There was little hope of us staying side-by-side as the field was densely packed and we seemed to be doing a lot of overtaking. I saw the Crew Chief as planned at mile 5 and progress was generally looking good. Our only confusion came when the race’s three starts (red, blue and green) merged, because there were pacers in each starting zone and we were running to very different chip times. Sam and I overtook a 4:45 pacer to much muttering, but there was no way for us to explain to the runners around us that we were both right. But I understood their confusion and sympathised – in the sense that all I could do was to keep banging out 10:18s as best I could.

Elsewhere on the course I was privileged and grateful to see old friends cheering me on. Ben, Jess, Sarah, Ed, Tom, Erin, Heather, Adam, Louise, John, Bernie (also Rach, Matt, Ross and Thea probably, though I don’t remember seeing you) – each a friendly face picked out of the monumental crowd that made the whole thing seem worthwhile. The Crew Chief saw me more than I caught sight of her, and became rather more acquainted with the tube than any non-Londoner would really want to on a Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever run a race with so many friends out supporting, and it changed my mindset and attitude for the better. They reminded me that people believe in my ability to do these things.

But I was struggling. Nothing seemed to click. I remember seeing a sign at mile 9 saying ‘17 miles to go’ and silently despairing at the prospect. The only thing keeping me focussed was the relentless pursuit of 10:18 minute miles, something that Sam and I were still achieving. We rolled over halfway perhaps 10 seconds early.

It wasn’t until around mile 15 that I had to concede that I was suffering, and, more dangerously, slowing down. Lurching to a fence I stretched my thighs and wrenched a gel out of my rucksack. I yanked the knee supports off my knees, as I felt they were limiting circulation to my thighs, and set off again, feeling renewed and refreshed.

I caught up to within 20 metres of Sam but found myself in a congested part of the race, content to hold my place just behind her. The field hadn’t thinned out and in places spectators were spilling onto the road, narrowing the course. I felt a little closed-in and conspicuous with a giant flag on my back. The pacing gear was generally good and relatively lightweight, but the flag was a sail in the wind and a nuisance in tight spaces. As the day heated up I sweated like a turkey at Christmas and the straps started to rub painfully on my neck. I thought of other things. Oddly, I struggled to enjoy or appreciate the crowds and the sights. This is what I had come to London for: a big city marathon with all the trimmings, but for some reason I couldn’t appreciate it. Tower Bridge didn’t even do it for me. All I wanted was for it to be over, preferably in exactly 4:30.

As the pain set in and 17 then 18 miles rolled around I lost some self-awareness, instead focussing on the rhythm of my pace and the number of miles left to go – now in single figures. I recited mantras and zoned out the noise of the crowd. Tough though it was, I reckoned I could stay in this blinkered existence for the next 8 miles. I felt like things were going well.

Things were not going well. The Crew Chief was waiting in the crowd around mile 18-19, though I wasn’t looking at the crowds and didn’t see her.  She burst into tears when she saw me, mournfully hauling myself through Canary Wharf with grim determination and apparently a pronounced limp.

The next thing I know I am leaning on a metal fence, arms locked straight and thighs stretching, with my eyes closed and head down. A number of people – I couldn’t say how many – are asking me a lot of questions. I tell them that I’m fine and will be continuing shortly. My legs and the people disagree.

Next I am in a wheelchair, eyes still closed, a mixture of relief and shame pounding my head along with three letters: DNF. Did Not Finish. So many people were expecting something of me in this race. Runners’ World. My contact there, Kerry McCarthy, who has been ridiculously generous to me professionally. Sam, the other pacer. My brother. The Crew Chief. Christ, she would be unimpressed by this. All those people out supporting. All my friends out supporting. Hundreds – if not thousands - of people wanting to run 4:30 who were looking to me for some sort of expertise. The 450,000 readers of this blog. My 2.2 million Twitter followers. My parents. My colleagues. Myself.

I lay on a stretcher inside under an awning erected on one side of a St John’s Ambulance. The paramedic took my temperature, looked at the thermometer and shook his head. He got a different thermometer and took it again. I was 41.1 degrees Celsius. Stripped to the waist, they covered me in soaking wet blankets in an effort to cool me down. My legs cramped up and I could barely move anything from the neck down without huge pain – I suddenly realised how painful my back was, presumably from the rucksack. Painkillers and electrolyte replacements and more cold wet things. Attempts at banter from my part were probably delirious ramblings.

After 40 minutes my temperature had gone down to 40.2. Over the next hour it quickly dropped down to a normal, safe, human temperature. The ambulance crew looked less worried and administered two cups of coffee and three Jaffa cakes, which I devoured greedily. My sister-in-law Erin was the first one able to answer her phone so she made it over to see me first, and went more or less straight back out to buy me some dry clothes. The Crew Chief arrived not long after, tearful, relieved and livid and relentlessly practical as always.

Unbelievably, my mobile rang. A doctor was on the line, telling me not to worry. Strange, I thought, I’ve got a doctor right here saying something similar. Turns out he was calling from the medical station at mile 22, where my brother Nick, sorry, my identical twin Nick, had suffered exactly the same outcome and was exactly the same temperature. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Erin dashed off to attend to her second Haines twin emergency of the hour, and left Linds to mop up the pieces of my VLM attempt. They would later emerge and get on the sweeper bus at the back of the race, left to endure the longest and slowest bus ride in London. Nick advises against this if you ever find yourself in such a situation. He also later reminded me that in the latter stages of a marathon, 'DNF' really means 'Did Nothing Fatal'.

A complicated and expensive logistical exercise to get back to the airport in one piece and with all the right bags was totally, utterly saved by Louise’s selfless help in moving all our junk around London. Unable to offer suggestions or make any objections, I did as I was told as Lou and the Crew Chief installed me in a hotel near London City airport for an hour’s sleep before our flight, while between them they picked up suitcases from Waterloo East and returned the blasted rucksack to a hotel in St James.

After speaking to my parents in Qatar and my sister in Southampton, I put a note on Facebook explaining what had happened, unable to face the prospect of fielding dozens of individual queries. My phone palpitated with messages of condolence and love and support over the next few hours. It might have been the exhaustion but I burst into tears reading them, in the middle of a hotel lobby. No-one was disappointed. No-one cracked a joke. Everyone wanted me to feel better, not to worry, to look forward to next time, that they knew I would bounce back shortly. One person said I was an inspiration. My dad said he was proud of me. The Crew Chief said she loved me.

Running is not a solitary sport. I promise never to forget that.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - 412.14, races: 2 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 18, metres swum: 500

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

We are runners

There are so many layers to the Boston Marathon terror attack, and so much has been written already that I will try to keep this brief and make my point distinct.

For those who maybe don’t know the context; the Boston Marathon is hallowed turf for mass-participation marathoners. It is the only major race in the world where the general public are welcome to enter, but only if they meet demanding qualifying times, creating a uniquely meritocratic environment in public sport. For runners like me, this makes qualifying for Boston seem a distant and ultimate goal, something to aspire to as we slowly whittle our PBs down towards a fast enough time. Some people train to qualify and don’t even need to run the race – just being the proud holder of a marathon PB that equates to a ‘Boston Qualifier’ (BQ) is enough. The finish line is an even more distant part of that challenge, I think of it as an almost mythical, ethereal entity - crossing it would certify my ultimate achievement in ‘recreational’ distance running.

I watched the news unfold open-mouthed. The finishing line of the Boston Marathon - a symbol of achievement beyond achievement, of years of hard work and sacrifice – left battered and blood-stained. The spell was broken. Boston’s finish line was revealed for what it was: an arbitrary line drawn on an ordinary street, that could be anywhere in the world. Just another in the long list of places where the scum of the earth had set out to force chaos, tragedy and hatred on innocent people.

For a few devastating moments, I doubted whether the magic and wonder of the marathon could ever be the same again. Perhaps this was a watershed occasion, where our passion was shown to be a frivolous, pointless and arbitrary act. Unimportant. Self-important. Self-absorbed.  Dangerous, expensive and vulnerable.

Then more stories emerged. Not of runners complaining that they missed their moment in the spotlight. Not of crowds panicking and fighting to get away from the scene. Not of chaos and violence.

Stories of courage and hope and selflessness. Of fearless runners and volunteers and emergency services. Endless offers of accommodation, queues to donate blood, messages of condolence and solidarity and love and support. Survival, persistence, and mutual respect. The spirit of the marathon, laid bare.

As one tweeter put it: "If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target."

I will be running the Virgin London Marathon on Sunday, along with tens of thousands of others. We are runners, and we are not afraid.

Happy running


Monday, 15 April 2013

Race Report - Rock n Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon 2013

The problem with racing – and writing about racing – is that sometimes the thing which colours your experience and memory of the event is something entirely out of the organisers’ control. This year’s Rock n Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon was one of those events, and the thing was weather.

When I ran the Mokrun back in 2011 more or less the entire field of a few hundred hardy souls huddled for shelter in a flimsy marquee mere minutes before the off, sheltering from the howling wind and torrential rain that were relentlessly buffeting the small town.  Miraculously, at the last possible minute the rain stopped and the wind dropped just enough to lift our spirits and set an optimistic tone. It was a wonderful moment.

I thought the same was about to happen in Edinburgh yesterday when a rainbow formed above Holyrood Park, a beacon of hope inside a thrashing storm of bullet rain and monstrous wind. For the last hour the circle of vendors’ marquees that formed the event village had become a parade of shelters for runners desperately hoping for some respite from the grim weather, but as the announcer gamely insisted that the weather was cheering up a bit and that the race would start in mere minutes, we put on our brave faces and headed for our pens.

When I registered for this race, I hadn’t really considered that it was a week out from the VLM and that therefore it would be ridiculous to chase a fast time. I had madly stuck myself in pen two, aiming for sub 1:40. This would have put me just behind the elites, and a couple of pens ahead of Neil ‘4:33’ Gray who was racing his first half marathon. Realising the absurdity of this plan and its potential impact on my pacing duties at VLM, I decided it would be better for my mental and physical well-being to stick with the pacer running the equivalent of my VLM target – i.e. a 2:15 HM. My self-imposed relegation involved an awfully long walk down Queen’s Drive from pen two to pen nine.

The rain continued.

Staggered pen starts – mildly delayed by the weather, apparently – sensibly got the race off to a well-moderated tempo. My pacer carried an enormous blue helium balloon, which flailed around wildly in the huge wind and repeatedly bopped runners within a 4ft radius until he shortened its string to just a couple of inches. The rain hammered loudly on its surface and the wind swung it back and forward. We exchanged conciliatory words at the absurdity of it all.

My knees started bothering me almost immediately, and the pain in one or both would be a constant feature of the race. But the gentle pace and cheery company at this end of the field made for an otherwise good experience physically – in fact I was feeling incredibly fit and well, restrained only by the foul mess I’ve somehow made of my knees. My silent mantras became increasingly profane.

The route of this event should be a major draw for everyone – it is probably the best running race ever designed in Edinburgh. The first few miles loosely copy the Edinburgh marathon: through Holyrood, around Meadowbank and then out towards Portobello prom. But whereas the Edinburgh marathon then winds its way through tediously distant parts of East Lothian, the RnR half does justice to its location and folds back into the city, via Duddingston and then into the city centre – Cowgate, Grassmarket, Meadows, George IV bridge, the Mound, Market Street and the Royal Mile. Regrettably this does create an unfortunate moment where, after 8 miles, you can see the finish line but are cruelly directed uphill and away from it, but otherwise is the kind of ambitious and impressive course that the city deserves.

The rain continued.

The RnR brand is about mixing music and running, but in Edinburgh this year it was about mixing music and running and weather. The bands playing to us throughout the route – perhaps five live acts and two or three DJs – did their best to rock out despite the conditions, but those unlucky enough to be playing on stages facing the horizontal rain seemed understandably lacking in vigour. Nonetheless, the turnout of runners included some impressive facial hair, a plethora of Elvis and Freddie Mercury tributes, and a full wardrobe of tatty band T-shirts. Some of them were even pretty decent runners, too…

I hauled myself around the course, stubbornly keeping level or slightly ahead of my friend with the blue balloon, who did a fantastic job of maintaining his pace even up significant gradients and down promising descents. He also offered cheery advice to the nervous newbies around us, and I think I learnt a thing or two from him that I’ll be applying at the VLM. For a few brief moments I even forgot how much my knees hurt.

Great medals (2012 top, 2013 bottom)
I lumbered across the finish with 2:11 on my watch, slightly ahead of my 2:15 goal – the result of doggedly following the pacer who sped up a fair bit in the last two miles. As I slowed to a walk my right knee immediately locked and I wrenched off the tubigrip that was holding it, which luckily did the trick and let me walk normally again. A huge medal, water, banana, haribo and crisps were gratefully received, but I heard over the tannoy that there were some issues with bag check.

The rain continued, and the wind picked up.

I wandered into the event village, gawping at the enormous queues stretched in every direction. Neil, in the middle of one of them, called me over, a note of confused desperation in his voice. He had finished 30 minutes before me and was not even halfway to the front of the line to retrieve our bags. A similarly massive queue stretched to the tent containing goody-bags and T-shirts. Many runners huddled in foil wraps but I couldn’t find anyone distributing them, so I shivered in my wet gear and bare legs. The queue inched forwards.

After eighteen months of queueing (or thereabouts) we reached the front and some Scouts cheerfully took our numbers and gamely maintained their beaming Scoutly expressions as they fetched our bags. We threw on some clothes to protect us from the force 9 hurricane that was tearing through the village, and decided not to bother with the 40-mile tailback queue for T-shirts. In the classic post-race hobble, we gingerly walked back to the car, stopping only to chat to fellow runners who were incredulous or angry about the bag/T-shirt situations. Eventually we folded ourselves into Neil’s car and set the heaters for ‘surface of the sun’.

Unbelievably, the rain stopped.

Overall, this is a great event that was badly damaged by the weather and the organisers’ reaction to it. The finish area management was not up to scratch, perhaps because contingencies had to be enacted to deal with the high winds or due to a lack of staff. Either way, it was a sad end to a positive experience. No bands were playing on the main stage in the event village as Neil and I scurried back into the city, perhaps because the rain was lashing a lot of electrical equipment, and one side of the stage was flapping wildly in the wind.

I mean there’s Rock n Roll, and there’s downright unpleasant.

Happy running,


P.S. Oh go on then, as if I wouldn’t mention it. Neil ran a cracking debut half-marathon in 1:44:44, which is much more representative of his general athletic ability than that marathon debut of his which I definitely won’t mention again.

P.P.S. It was 4:33.

2013 to date: miles run - 389.04, races: 2, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 18, metres swum: 500