The Marathon Bug

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The Marathon Bug

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I think it was at about the twenty-mile mark when the steward on the motorcycle pulled alongside me. I'm not great at Spanish, but it didn't take a lot to figure out that he was asking if I was okay to carry on. I lifted my head up, tried to force a smile, picked up my pace a little and gave him the thumbs up. It seemed to satisfy him, and he offered some words of encouragement before continuing on.

How had I gotten myself into this mess? I've run twenty miles or more plenty of times this year. Why is it that this time it had turned so horribly, horribly wrong? Why do my marathon efforts seem to always end up in me dragging my legs around the last miles at roughly the same pace as a glacier moves?

Rewind two months and I am feeling confident. Since joining a running club in May I've taken a minute off my 5k PB, four minutes off my 10k PB and over five off my half marathon. It seems like nothing can go wrong, running wise. I'm sat in the office, bemoaning that I've not been on holiday for a few months, and a colleague sends me a link to a night marathon in Bilbao.

It took minutes to register myself and find some flights. What could possibly go wrong? I'd already done two marathons this year; London, which had been awful, and Edinburgh, which was much better though I still didn't do as well as I felt I could. Bilbao would be the chance to right those wrongs.

In a haze of late summer hubris, I decided that I could easily enter a training plan late on due to the mileage I was doing anyway and started to dream of crushing that PB.

And so, the next day, I did an 18 miler up and down the coast to make sure I was getting the distance in. I bought a pair of Nike Vaporfly 4%s, having been in awe of their attempts to break the two-hour mark earlier in the year. I read article after article on pacing and nutrition and all of the usual stuff. I started to think that if I could chip away at my time this year, I could run a Boston qualifying time (3 hours 5 minutes) next.

I turned in a few twenty milers, two of which were comfortably done at eight-minute mile pace, and destroyed my half marathon PB in the Great North Run. A couple of injury scares with my calves couldn't take the shine off what seemed like an inevitable road to success.

So, on Saturday night, I lined up at the front of start area three on the Bilbao Night marathon. I'd tried to be relatively sedentary for the day and attempted to figure out a fuelling strategy. I'd looked at the weather and asked advice from some runners at the club, which included not going off too quick given the conditions.

The thing I love about the marathon is the same thing that I hate about the marathon; it is completely unforgiving. If you set off even ten seconds a mile too quick you'll pay for it. If you fail to respect the distance it will humble you. Yet if you take it too easy? It's hard to make up enough time late on when your legs are tiring.

I dropped my bag off and ran a few hundred metre bursts along the riverfront. Something's not right. I'm not confident enough in the Vaporflys yet, they feel quick but I'm not sure that I'm going to be quick enough to justify them tonight. I go back to the bag drop and switch out for a trusty pair of Mizuno WaveRiders — responsive and comfortable.

Maybe it was the band cranking out AC/DC's Thunderstruck, or the collective adrenaline of eleven thousand runners, but somewhere between the bag drop and the starting line I'd forgotten entirely about caution. I'd forgotten the good advice. I'd forgotten the feeling that maybe I couldn't stretch too far at night and in the heat and humidity. I made the most basic of all rookie errors the moment the gun went off.

The atmosphere at the start is incredible. There are about 500 runners do the full distance, and the rest are divided between the half marathon and the 10k. As you surge together to the start line flames shoot up into the air to your let and fireworks illuminate the way ahead of you. What could possibly go wrong?

The first km is too quick as we peel around the San Mames stadium and onto the Gran Via don Diego Lopez, the main avenue through the centre of town. There are crowds of people along the roadside and the volume is high. I'm a little surprised at some of the aggressive runners who don't bother waiting for a gap before they push through. It's the mix of people who have no time to waste to get their ten-kilometre pace right and marathoners who have time to settle into their race.

We round the Plaza Moyua and head directly for the skyscraper that dominates the skyline before crossing the river. Across the river, we're met by more crowds and the pace starts to settle. My confidence starts to rise, I'm running comfortably within myself and on target to take twenty-three minutes off my PB.

The course starts to get less crowded at the 10k runners peel off and finish and the rest of us continue past Gehry's magnificent Guggenheim museum and into the old town.

We're about twelve miles in when we pass a water station. "Agua, agua" shouts the girl with the cups. I reach to grab one and miss but grab the next one offered and throw it over my head to cool down. Seconds later I feel the sugary taste of Powerade drip into my mouth. That certainly wasn't water.

We crack on at a good pace and before long are running by the finishers arch to start our second lap. At this point, almost everyone else is finishing. I look ahead and see two other runners, and not very many spectators. Things just got real. I fall into step with the guy next to me and we spend the next six kilometres matching each other step for step.

With seventeen miles done it happens. Out of nowhere, I lose the ability to run. Or move effectively in any way. Pace starts to plummet. There's no gradual slow down. I drop over a minute in that first kilometre after it happens and only get slower from there. Positive self talk does nothing, pausing for a moment doesn't help either.

Things become a blur of pain. I'm pushing my legs as hard as I can and yet they're just not responding. I grab a banana offered by a steward and eat that, another error given I never eat solids while running. The next nine miles are a mix of walking, staggering, and jogging, as I desperately eke out my existence between water stations.

The 3:30 pacer catches me and I decide this is time for a second wind. It lasts less than a minute before I'm watching him, and the pack following him, accelerate away. The 3:45 pacer is next and this time I've got no fight left. I step aside while they pass through the water station to let the pack have their best shot at fuelling and getting their time.

The spectators had thinned out massively by this point as it approached midnight, but those who remained were vocal. "Venga, Venga," they cry, "Animo, Vamos!" At one point as I stagger by a man is literally yelling encouragement in my face. I'm not sure whether it's hope or fear that makes me pick up the pace a little again.

By this point I'm texting friends who have the tracking link at home, desperate for the encouragement their replies bring. And that's roughly when I decide that I'm through with running marathons, they only bring pain.

As come across the Puerte del Arenal I feel a hand on my back and a fellow struggler tells me to keep going. There's just over a mile to the finish. As we get to the one kilometre to go mark I decide it's time to kick, but my legs can't give me what I need and I'm walking moments later.

Dejected, the 42k marker comes into view and something snaps. I can do sprint finishes, I know I can, and I'm angry at how this race has turned out, and I'm hurting, but I decide that I'm the next person to cross that finish line. Somewhere I find the kick and set off at sprinting pace, picking off a few runners with ease before rounding the side of the Guggenheim to see one last runner between me and the line. Kick harder. Screw it, let's do it.

I pip him to the line and we shake hands, but the adrenaline of a strong last 200 metres can't cover the agony of the last nine miles. They really look after you post race; free food and drink, and two very good physios helping my legs to feel human again, but it’s not enough to raise my spirits.

But here is the clincher. Nights like that are why I run. Nights when you go out and push for a goal so audaciously big that the only options you leave yourself are triumph or agony. And I know I shouldn’t. But there you go, there are few feelings like crossing the finish line of a race knowing you gave every ounce of effort and beyond.

I can’t tell you that running a marathon will be easy. It won’t. I can’t tell you it will be painless. It won’t. It will take every ounce of your determination, your discipline, and your commitment, but when you finish? It will be worth it because nothing beats the feeling of trying to push yourself to the limits or your own capability.

It’s been a week now, the pain has faded, and so I’ve entered London, put in the ballot for Berlin and am preparing for another round of self-inflicted agony in the never-ending chase for a BQ.

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