Breaking Three. The Marathon that took three hours and five years.
I’m sitting on a plane from London to Rio. I’m inhaling a large ‘share’ packet of Munchies and swigging from a mini plastic bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I haven’t had any alcohol or chocolate for two whole weeks before that. Why? I wanted to do something I had been trying to do for five years. Break three hours for the marathon.
Why is breaking three such a big deal to me? The initial instinct is to say that it signifies that you are a ‘real’ runner. It’s similar to being a creative director, it’s a form of showing off. Why I might want to show off is altogether a different issue, maybe because I was bullied as a kid, I’m insecure about my looks, being skinny, probably a bit of all of those things. So, you do it for the likes then? Not really. When you post a great race on Strava and Insta you get a day or two of likes and then it’s over.
A frequent refrain you hear from climbers wanting to climb Everest is, ‘because it’s there’. I never really subscribed to that. There is a lot of stuff that’s ‘there’.
I definitely do run as some form of escape or ‘me time’. I find it very meditative. Often if I’m stuck on a creative project I’ll have a breakthrough during a run. That’s very real. And say you are going to run to escape the wife and kids you may as well make it a long run.
But I think what really makes breaking three hours intriguing is that it is a huge roll of the dice. There are so many things that can happen in a marathon and the build up to a successful marathon that can derail you. The odds of everything clicking are not great. And the margin for error is fractional.
That‘s what makes it interesting for me. Are you willing to roll the dice? Do you think you have some sort of mastery over elements that can’t be controlled? Again, this is slightly similar to creative endeavours. You have a great idea for a TV ad but the scope for fuck-ups between idea and outcome is limitless.
You have to be some kind of nutter to believe that ‘this time it’s different’, ‘this time it will work’. But here we go again: Manchester Marathon in April.
I’ve run five marathons before Manchester. Something has always gone wrong. My first was 2011 in New York, where I lived for 11 years and rediscovered my love of running. I had run cross country at school to a pretty decent level before I discovered booze and acid house. But thirty years later, I’d never run a single road race before New York. The logistics of New York are horrible. You have to get to Staten Island about three hours before the start. As it was my first marathon I wanted to run with my phone and let people track me with the app. I stupidly left the app running all night. When I woke up my battery was dead. I charged it for about thirty minutes, meaning I missed the Staten Island Ferry and my rendezvous with the people I planned to run with. So I ran alone for four hours and eleven minutes.
Over time I got to know the guys at Tracksmith fairly well through a couple of work projects. Fully lured into the dream of running Boston, I ran the Baystate Marathon near Boston to get a qualifying time. This was a well organised race that I was well prepared for. Everything was going very well until Mile 24. I was ahead of schedule and feeling great. I knew there was a drinks stall at 24 and planned to get some Gatorade, knowing that the last two miles are always hard. I grabbed a cup of water by mistake. It was like the scene in Star Wars when they power down the Death Star. Thirty seconds before I was full of beans but suddenly my energy instantly melted. This is proof that much of this is about your mental state rather than your physical state. I was fine but got derailed. The last two miles were horrible. But I did get a BQ time, — cos I’m old — 3:17.
By this time I was serious about Sub 3. I joined Prospect Park Track Club and got a coach. I ran two more NY marathons before moving back to London. One I ended up joining at Mile 8 because my wife had to go to hospital the night before so I couldn’t leave for the start. Full write up here. And the last one I had tried to go with the Sub 3 pacer group but even tough I had a higher bib number I was not allowed to get into that corral. A friend said he’d pace me but we went out way too fast. We were hitting 6.30 miles until about mile 17. By the time I got to Harlem I was walking. I came in at 3.11.
So there has always been that nagging feeling of, ‘Well, if I just get the conditions right and stick to an even 6.52 pace, I think I can do it’.
All the while I had been running decent half marathons. First hitting 1.30, then 1.25 and then a 1.23 at Hampton Court, my first race when I moved back to London. And just before the first Lockdown. I had entered some races hoping to transfer that form into a Sub 3. But then everything got cancelled. My friend Mike and I had the idea of trying to emulate Kipchoge by organising a Sub 3 attempt in Battersea Park during lockdown.
The idea for Battersea was simple. Four of us going the full distance and a few friends pacing and giving encouragement. We would check the weather and adjust accordingly. But of course when you all have family and kids the reality is you can’t just take off for five hours — everything has to be planned. So we set a date and of course it pissed it down. I don’t mind running in the rain but this was one of those wet and windy days that just saps the energy. Mike and Jimmy got in under three hours. Of course it was not an official race but we’re old enough to not care about that. We know what we did. I dropped out around Mile 22, my energy levels were actually fine but my right hip seized up. A new one for me.
Even when you think you are in control. You’re not.
Over the next 18 months I signed up for six different marathons. They were either cancelled, I couldn’t make it, or I just wasn’t in good enough shape. Mike, Pete and I ran a charity marathon during lockdown where we raised 10k for London Bus drivers. Planned for two or three weeks in advance it ended up being the hottest day of the year. 38 degrees in London. See, it’s always something. When the lockdown ended I targeted spring 2022 for another attempt. I would be 50 in March 2022.
Breaking 3.00 at 50. For some reason we’re suckers for round numbers when we know they’re meaningless.
I signed up for Brighton, Collingwood and… Copenhagen. But then Pete said he was trying again for a Sub 3 at Manchester. He’d run it before. It was well organised, flat and they had Sub 3 pace groups. We could have another go together. Turning fifty and with the whole pandemic, I really felt like it was now or never, so I diverted all my energy to Manchester.
I had a good winter training session. I joined Herne Hill Harriers. They run track sessions Tuesdays and Thursdays at the track in Tooting. I went most Tuesdays, through the cold. A regular group of people to train with and talk about running is crucial. I have no idea what any of the people in my group do for work, what kind of music they listen to, where they live or anything like that. The small amount of small talk in-between gruelling laps is limited to shoes, upcoming races and niggles. But mostly shoes.
I combined the speed session with one long run every Friday morning (The joys of working for yourself.) I ran the same route each Friday only adding on extra laps of Battersea Park to hit my quota of 50 miles a week. Steve, the coach at Herne Hill, made a plan for me that hit 65 a week, but I didn’t have time for that and also felt that was asking for trouble injury wise. At this age success simply equals not getting injured. Steve also said no point running more than about 21 or 22 miles as everybody hurts in the last few miles of a race. You just have to tough it out.
With a week to go before Manchester I felt pretty good. All the things that were in my control were there or there abouts. Then my wife’s best friend in Brazil, who had been battling cancer, took a very serious turn for the worse. She wanted to visit her as she only had a few days to live. Of course that’s more important than any race. But as any marathoner knows, your inner voice says, ‘there goes four months, actually what felt like five years of prep, down the drain’. I’d bagged a flat in Manchester for Pete and myself, booked train tickets and would be leaving Pete to run solo.
Sadly my wife’s friend passed away before she could even book a ticket to Brazil. She was broken, and still is, but I was able to go. While I was running I had a text from one of my best friends saying that his Mother had died the night before. We’re entering that time of life where we have to confront these things with more regularity. I went to her funeral a few weeks back. There was some sadness but mostly smiles and memories of a wonderful life.
The race itself went brilliantly. I was concerned about the weather. It had been snowing that week — in April (of course!) — and the forecast was cold, just above freezing. I feel the cold. But I got the layering right. Tracksmith gear delivers every time. And after a chilly start the sun came out. The start was calm. It was busy, but nothing like New York. Pete and I had a mini panic when we couldn’t find the 3 hour pace group but we eventually saw one quite near the start. We pushed our way in. By that time I had dumped a charity hoodie by some trees. But as we were waiting I realised I had left my gloves in the pockets of the hoodie. I made a split decision to run back and get them. Luckily this was not New York and I could jump over a few barriers and get back a minute before the start. My hands were still cold, even with the fleece gloves, so if I hadn’t, that would have been one of many possible de-railers.
The 3 hour group was huge. Probably about 100 people. Which is good. But also too much. So we stayed ahead. We executed our plan of hitting 6.45–6.50 miles, giving us a buffer. We didn’t talk much. I passed a few others from Herne Hill and got the odd, ‘Up The Hill’, from the crowd. If ever you are watching a race and wondering whether saying, ‘looking good’, or, ‘keep going’, really helps. It does. It really fucking helps. My personal favourite was a cross country race where a teenage kid shouted, ‘concentrate on your form’.
I got to Mile 24 slightly ahead of schedule but starting to feel tired. Pete eased away from me until I couldn’t see him anymore. I could hear the synchronised pounding of the 3 hour pace group behind me. They passed me but I heard the lead guy say, ‘we’re 2.58, easily ahead’. Even though I knew every mile had been under 6.52, so I must have time to spare, your mind goes into a thousand, ‘what if’s’, at that point. What if my maths are wrong? What if my watch is wrong? What if that guy is wrong? I once passed a 3 Hour pacer guy in New York at around 3.10 — he had fallen apart. So who can you trust?
But I didn’t have energy to go with them so I made a rough calculation that I could slow a tiny bit. I could feel my heart rate soaring. One look at Strava afterwards shows it was at 192 for the last five miles. Not good. Not good at all. I ran Mile 25 at 7.20 really begging for the finish line. When you don’t know a course there is nothing worse than looking for the finish line. Every little spec on the horizon becomes a possibility. Naturally, I thought the Mile 26 marker was the finish but soon saw the real line. I put in a last burst of energy for the cursed .2 of a mile and crossed the line at 2:59.14.
Five Years of thinking about this. Four hard months of hard training. Three hours of running and we’re talking about the difference of 46 seconds. That’s what’s so crazy. A three hour race is determined by two or three seconds each mile. Literally anything can happen. An injury. You need a poop. Someone trips you. It starts snowing. You puke. You run out of gels. Your nips bleed. The list is endless.
But we throw the dice. This time they fell in my favour, however the days of chasing Marathon times are over. I have no interest in trying to get 2.55 or similar. The smart gamblers know when to quit.
— UPDATE —
I started writing this on the plane to Rio. We had a great holiday, despite the tragic news. I did a few runs around the Lagoon and Ipanema beach. We had a wonderful few days surfing. If ever there is another sport that requires things to go right it’s surfing. We had one magical morning where everything clicked and another one where I barely stood up.
I’m now back in England and haven’t run in two weeks due to insane toothache. I had to have a tooth removed after it snapped. The root become infected and I am bouncing up the walls in pain. Hopefully it will calm down and I’ll be able to run again. My original plan was to run Copenhagen this weekend. Right now I can barely get up from the sofa. So imagine if that had happened a few weeks before…
I’m still sticking to the no more chasing marathon times pledge. I like the idea of something different. Maybe a team of 50+ runners taking on The Speed Project; the unsanctioned race from Santa Monica to Vegas. That seems cool. Might get some likes for that. Or something closer to home, now that the Tooting track has been relaid. A sub 5 min mile?
Yeah, a sub 5 min mile, aged 50, that means you are a real runner.