Sun 3rd June
‘The Walled City Marathon’. It was always going to be a big ask to navigate Derrys’ Walls for a marathon without hitting one!
It’s nice to experience a new event and to take part in a race for the first time, so the Derry Marathon at the start of June would fit the bill nicely. Noel, Darren and myself had pencilled it into our running calendar early enough in the year and felt it would give our training a bit of early focus and leave us in good shape to push on from there. It still crept up on us a bit too quickly though! We had been told that it was one of the tougher marathons to run and that the course contained a fair bit of climbing at different stages but this didn’t put us off. We had even been told that if we were looking to run a marathon at this time of year we should maybe sign up for a different one that wouldn’t be as tough and would see us run a quicker time. Something still drew us to run Derry though. You like to find out for yourself what an event is like and when it comes up as a topic of conversation I enjoy being able to identify with any descriptions while having my own take on it as well. With Derry being only an hour away from us it also made things convenient on the day.
The weekend after WAAR I did a 22 mile run with Noel which would be the last real preparation for Derry. The following Sunday we did a nice 9 mile training run in Ards which was actually hard enough work as it was another really warm day in the middle of the brilliant spell of weather we have been blessed with recently. We wondered what Derry was going to be like the following week but we didn’t dare wish away the good weather at the same time. In the week leading up to the race we did practically no running to keep the body fresh and we got into the sea a couple of times to help the legs.
On the Friday beforehand I attended my neighbours wedding. As we travelled from the wedding ceremony to the reception in Inishowen I stopped by the Foyleside in Derry to pick up our 3 marathon packs, so it was handy to get that done along the way. All my family were also at the wedding and we had a lovely day. I had decided to stick to the soft drinks and water with the race being so close and I was certainly glad I did come Sunday!
On the morning of the race we were going to leave just before 6:00 so I had set my alarm for 10 to 5 to get up and have breakfast and be ready. I woke up at 5:01 wondering why my alarm hadn’t gone off before I realised I had set it for 5:50 instead of 4:50! It would have thrown me off rightly if I hadn’t woke as I did. It was a pretty foggy morning at home but we thought that if Derry was clear the day could still really warm up. Parking was provided in the Foyleside car park and there was shuttle buses laid on to take runners from here to the start line at the Everglades hotel.
The gun was scheduled to go off at 8:30 which left us with about an hour to spare by the time we got dropped off by the bus and made the short walk to the Everglades. We just picked a spot by a wall to relax and chat for a while and watch the other runners limber up. It’s always an interesting time before a big race to see the different ways that people prepare and the different gear worn by each individual. Everyone has their own story and that’s the beauty of it when they’re all thrown into the one pot. Almost everyone on the startline has certain question marks within themselves about how they will get the next 26.2 miles in, no matter how strong a runner they may be.
The race started on the road behind the hotel and we took off in the direction of the city. After about half a mile we came onto the Victoria road or the A5 and did a hairpin left and continued away from the city towards Strabane. The start of the route would see us travel up one side of this road as far Newbuildings, run a small loop and come back down in the opposite direction past the front of the Everglades and on as far as the Craigavon bridge. It was a nice flat bit of running and perfect for getting settled into the race. Darren had a pretty broken last few weeks of running and had said he was going to make sure he would start steady and would aim to get home in anything under 4 hours. Noel and myself didn’t have a time in mind as such but just said wed try and stay comfortable especially with the hills and the potential heat. Darren did sit back a little from the gun and me and Noel ran together as we got onto the Victoria road and settled into a steady pace.
It was about a 2 mile stretch to the turn in Newbuildings and about half way up this road we were met by the sight of Kenyan duo Dan Tanui and Eric Keoch already coming charging back in the opposite direction. It was a real wow moment to see them skip by and they had already opened up a gap and were on a different planet let alone a different race to the rest of the field. Even the next 20 or so runners behind them who were fairly tanking along could barely keep them in sight even at this early stage. We made the turn and were then also meeting people coming the other way so a few miles slipped by before you knew it and it was a nice stretch of running.
We had covered more than 5 miles by the time we reached the Craigavon bridge as we crossed over the bottom deck of it and turned left as if heading for Letterkenny. We had a nice flow to our running and we mentioned a couple of times that we should probably settle it a tiny bit but it can actually be difficult to slow up when you have a bit of a rhythm going. The temperature was rising with every mile and I could feel the odd drip of sweat falling from my brow but it was very enjoyable so far. Darren would tell us afterwards that he remained just a small gap behind us right the way out this road. Shortly after the bridge we saw Darrens brother Shaun at the side of the road and he handed us a couple of bottles of Lucozade sport which was good to get into us at this early stage. There were plenty of water stops along the way also and we would take a wee sip at every one in an effort to stay hydrated. You now knew the heat was going to be an issue later in the race as the sun beamed down.
We passed 10k in 47 minutes which would give you about a 3:18 marathon if you were to maintain it all the way to the finish. We knew this wouldn’t be the case though. The course started to rise a fair bit at this stage and the section from 7 to 8 miles was a real long drag uphill. We still travelled pretty well up here considering and passed a couple of runners. Sarah and the boys and my Mum were going to come and give us a bit of support but I wasn’t sure what part of the course they would get to. After we passed the 8 mile marker I spotted them up ahead which was a handy spot for them on the way into Derry. It always gives you a lift to see family and friends along the way and it was good to hear them shout us on.
We then turned left taking us off the Letterkenny road and as we turned you could see the road ahead rise up in front of you. So another bit of climbing was needed as we carried on. The road was closed on one side for us to run on and open on the other side to traffic in one direction. There was cones placed along the white line at intervals as a division. I was running on the outside here near the middle of the road and just as I came alongside one of the cones a passing van clipped it with its front wheel sending it right at me at pace. Without even realising, I had reacted and hurdled over it saving myself from being bowled over. It took a fair lunge to avoid it and I said to Noel that if it was later in the race I wouldn’t have had it in the legs to jump clear!
At 10 miles we again turned left and after a short distance turned in through a nice park. It brought us through a wooded area and right along the edge of the Foyle and back in the direction of the city. This was a brilliant section of running and was unexpected at this stage and it went right along the water all the way back to the Craigavon bridge which was about a 4 mile stretch. We were averaging about 7:30 per mile along here and were coasting along. As we approached 12 miles I looked at my watch and said to Noel we would probably be under 1 hour 40 by the time we hit 13. We passed it in 1 hour 39 and 58 seconds! Again judging the pace can be difficult. We were never pushing it but we were travelling well and still at the stage where it was pure enjoyable running.
When we hit the 14 mile marker Noel eased his stride slightly and I was left running on my own for a bit. I wondered if I should settle too but without really answering myself I just kept running as I was. There was a nice green area here along the river and there was a lot of people gathered on it with great support. I passed Darren’s brother here again and went through the station where they were handing out energy gels so I took one and put another in my pocket. I then reached the Craigavon bridge again and crossed over the top deck this time before turning left.
Now it was getting really warm. I kept taking on water at every stop and there was also plenty supporters offering things like sweets and slices of orange which I should have grabbed more of looking back. I was still moving well and turned right up onto the Limavaddy road after 16 miles. Sarah and Mum and the boys were here on the left hand side of the road and once again the support was welcome. I eased past giving them a wave and the boys seemed to be having a great time.
There was a fair bit of climbing again from this point on as the course took in a 4 mile loop out the Limavaddy road as far as Waterfoot Park before coming back in along the river to cross the Peace Bridge at 20 miles. It was in this part of the race that the running became a bit more like hard work and the effort began to tell on the body. I was still moving at a nice enough pace but it began to hurt and I knew there would be some tough moments ahead. We ran on the bank of the Foyle and came under the Peace bridge before climbing in a corkscrew up onto it and across the river once more. Coming off the bridge there was a huge crowd there to cheer us on and there was some noise. I kept my momentum up running through the crowd as any notions of slowing down were staved off with adrenaline.
I had got to 20 miles relatively unscathed but was now starting to suffer a bit especially in the heat. It was now 1 mile at a time as I said to myself out loud a few times “run the mile you’re in”. I just thought about the number on the next mile marker and tried to empty as much running as I could into reaching each one. Mile 21 came not too bad as my pace slowed a bit but I moved on towards 22. There was a point in between that runners were coming back in the opposite direction and you felt we were about to swing round and come back but instead of turning left we turned right for another 2 mile loop. This was a real tough section.
The mind was now becoming as tired as the body as we ran right out to and almost under the Foyle bridge before turning around and back towards the city. As I put the bridge behind me I was really starting to labour as I dug in as much as I could but was really struggling. I actually considered stopping to walk a few time before I would fight through it and keep going. I hadn’t looked at my time in a while and did now not care what it was. I just glanced at the top part of my watch a few times which showed distance travelled as I willed it to move on further than it was. I took on more Lucozade Sport and another energy gel as the engine light was definitely on.
I battled past the 23 mile mark as I felt the scorch of the sun with every step. I was now in the part of the race that certainly turns a long run into a marathon. I wondered how I was going to keep going to the finish which felt such a long way off. Without really deciding to I suddenly stopped and started to walk. I don’t think I had any choice. I seemed to have no energy left at all. It was a strange feeling and I felt a bit defeated for a moment but I did keep moving forward. It gave me some relief though as I got my breath back and gathered my thoughts. It was at a quieter part of the course and while the support in other areas really helped, the quietness here as I struggled was almost welcome. I started to jog again to see how I would get on but after a few hundred yards I started to walk again. We were now coming along the Strand Road and a few familiar streets. A few people urged me to keep it going that I was nearly there but I said I just needed a minute to come round.
If I had wondered in previous marathons whether I had hit ‘the wall’ or not, then I could be in no doubt here. Probably a combination of the heat, the tough course and maybe not quite having the level of fitness high enough yet played a part. I definitely think the heat was a factor. I could see the 24 mile mark on the road up ahead so I took another gel from my pocket and slowly took it on as I decided to walk as far as the marker and try again. We had been told just before the race that there was a really steep hill at 25 miles so I told myself I would try to run from 24 to the bottom of the hill and walk up it.
When I started running again I was able to keep it going slowly and work my way through the streets. I urged myself to keep working as I started thinking about finishing for the first time. I was soon on the approach to the final hill of the race. It went from Free Derry Corner up Fahan Street and through the arch for a final snap. I had said I would walk up it but when I reached the bottom I just kept going. I had found a surge from somewhere. I imagined I was on one of the many hills in Ards Forrest where we train. There was a huge crowd here and they lined both sides of the hill and it reminded you of one of the climbs in the tour de France where the supporters urge the riders to the top. It was a great buzz and I just zoned out and let the support carry me up. You would think it was a crazy part of the race to have such a hill but looking back it was one of the highlights of the day.
When I reached the top of the hill I just kept my momentum going and moved down the street on the other side. I was now into the final mile but the mind didn’t relax yet. It was still hard work keeping going and the legs were now hurting from the hill as well as everything else. We came out beside the Craigavon Bridge again and turned left and back towards the Foyleside. It was such a long run in and I thought I was never going to get there. I asked a few supporters “where is this finish?” as they assured me I was nearly there. Finally, finally I could see the finish line at Guildhall Square and I completely emptied my mind and focussed on a point beyond the line and surged through the last few hundred metres.
It was such a relief to get to this point and I was delighted to have it done. I collected the post race snacks and water and the huge Walled City Marathon medal was placed around my neck which was like a ton weight. I had finished in 3 hours 25 minutes which I was well happy with especially as I struggled so much towards the end. With 1,066 official finishers i came in at 123rd overall. I eyed some steps beside the Guildhall and that’s where I went to sit and bring myself around. A Frenchman sat beside me on the steps and told me it was his 4th time doing this marathon & said it was almost as warm as 2 years ago. How glad I was that I wasn’t there that day! I then hobbled back towards the finish and saw Sarah, Mum and the boys and Noels family outside the barrier. It was nice catching up with them after all the hard work.
There was a great atmosphere around the finishing area and it felt like a marathon abroad with the weather. Noels daughter Eva had joined him on his run up the finishing straight so this was a nice moment. He had actually recorded his best marathon time yet which was great going on this course on such a day. Darren got finished too and joined us after comfortably coming in under 4 hours and was also happy with his days work. Sarah and Mum then headed on with the boys while we stopped at a bar beside the finish with Noels family and sat outside it with a beer. It was so refreshing and felt like a nice reward after the challenge that went before.
Derry is certainly a challenging marathon but there is something in that challenge that makes it all the more rewarding and all being well I would definitely run it again.