Sun 05th May
Even though the soreness that you get in your legs in the days after running a marathon can make life a bit uncomfortable, it also helps you to remember what you have just accomplished. I don’t think it would be quite the same to complete the 26.2 mile distance and feel perfect afterwards! It gives you the feeling of having been through something. A few days on from Belfast 2019 I certainly know I have just ran a marathon. I’m starting to come round again though and the bit of pain that goes with the experience will soon be a distant memory.
Noel and myself got away in good time on Saturday afternoon so we didn’t have to rush and could start getting our heads right for the morning. We stopped for a bit of lunch on the way before heading on up the road. Michael and his family were travelling up on Saturday morning to attend a show in the Odyssey Arena so he was going to meet up with us in the evening.
We arrived up and got checked in to our hotel and just relaxed for a while and waited for Michael. When he landed he admitted to being quite nervous for the morning and what would be his first ever marathon but his nerves soon eased as we talked through lots of scenarios and all looked forward to getting going. I really enjoy the evening before a big race like this and all the build up that goes with it. I don’t think you ever feel that you have done enough training and there will always be a few doubts about how ready you will be come the morning. All in all though I was feeling pretty ok.
We headed out to have dinner and there was a really good buzz about the city centre with the bars and restaurants a hive of activity. Noel is good for picking out where to eat so we let him guide the way. A nice lasagne hit the spot for me! We then made our way back to the hotel bar where we watched the Liverpool and Newcastle match on tv. As a Liverpool fan it wasn’t exactly great for the nerves but they got the result in the end.
Just like that it was race morning. We got up and had breakfast at 6:30 and came back to the room for final preparations. I had a quick call with Sarah and the boys to wish me luck and Sarah also sent me a picture of a good luck sign they had made which was lovely and meant a lot. We had arranged a late checkout with the hotel which meant we could leave all our stuff in the room and come back afterwards for a shower as well which made things much easier. There was shuttle buses laid on to transport runners from City Hall to the race start in the grounds of Stormont. This worked out well especially as it meant just a short walk from our hotel to get a bus. There was a good crowd gathered here but we didn’t have long to wait. We got a bus and were dropped off at Stormont at about 8:15 which was perfect.
It’s a fine setting for the start of a marathon with the gardens and grounds in pristine condition. There was plenty room for everyone to move around. There was almost 5000 runners doing the full marathon and an unbelievable 2500 relay teams who would be covering the full distance in teams of 5. My sister-in-law Lisa and her husband Dale were taking part in one such team along with 3 others. It was great to have them both running as well. Lisa was doing the second leg and Dale the fourth so I would keep an eye out for them during the race.
We had wore old tops to the start to keep warm and it was soon time to throw these to the side, wish each other luck and wait for the signal to go. It took us about 15 seconds from the gun to get through the startline and we were away.
The early miles were lovely and flat and I eased into a nice rhythm right away. There were great crowds out offering support right from the gates of Stormont and this was great to see. I had thought I would keep my pace at around 7:15 minute miles in the early part of the race but its always hard to judge. Keeping an eye on my watch my first 3 miles were 7:04, 7:00 & 7:00 again. I thought this was probably a touch fast but I was running really relaxed and decided to just try and stay comfortable and see how I went.
It was a nice dry day and not overly warm so it was perfect running conditions. Over the next couple of miles I eased my pace a tiny bit and stayed very comfortable and took in as much of the surroundings as I could. The support all day was fantastic and the spectators created a very good atmosphere in a lot of places. After reaching the 10k mark we made our way towards Ormeau Park for the first time. As we came in through the gates of the park the marathon runners were directed left and the relay runners were directed right for their first changeover.
The park offered a nice bit of running as I came to the point of the race where I usually sort of get my second wind. At this stage I am breathing really easily and running at a pace within myself while preparing my mind for the battle that lays ahead. As we passed the 8 mile marker I saw Michaels wife Melissa and their 2 girls Cara & Abbie. They gave me a good shout on which always keeps you going. We made our way through the park and took a right turn towards city centre.
Through the busy streets we ran where I was still moving nicely. There was great crowds out all along here and some great signs held up by the spectators to give you a laugh. I was conserving as much energy as I could and was keeping things smooth. We ran past City Hall and then the 9 mile mark where we passed right by our hotel. I turned my head to the left and had a good long look at the front door of it and pictured arriving back there later and having this done.
We then moved out of the city centre to a few more open roads. I was keeping my pace fairly even at around 7:10 or so per mile. I was starting to hit the miles on my gps watch a good bit earlier than where I would pass the actual mile markers on the road. My watch will usually be a little bit over as the course is measured on the racing line and you end up running a bit wider here and there with the crowds. By this point though I was reaching say 11 miles on my watch but not passing the mile mark until about 11.5 or so which I thought seemed a bit much and also not great for the mental games we have to sometimes play to get through.
We made our way past half way and on towards the Falls Road. I covered the first half in just under 1 hour 37 I think which I thought was about where I should have been. I pictured being back at the start and having to run to this point again but it now seemed quite a long way and I didn’t overly like the thought of it. The crowds were brilliant again along here with lots of children lining the sides of the road offering high fives. I tried to hit as many as I could but was again conscious of conserving energy!
We moved along a section of the course which contained many names you would be familiar with from the news over the years. Falls Road, Springfield Road, Shankill Road, The Ardoyne. It was great on a day like this though to see Belfast showcased in such a positive manner. We reached 16 miles and at this point I always tell myself that the next mile marker will be single figures to go. I was still running comfortable enough but a bit of fatigue was slowly starting to hit the legs as I wondered how far I would get before the real hard work started.
The next mile brought a really long and tough climb up to the top of Alliance Avenue. This would certainly be a game changer in the race and a real test at this stage. We are well used to hills from running in Ards and I am usually strong enough on them. I like to almost attack them to get them out of the way but I made sure to keep my stride relaxed running up here. I was still making good progress and passed a few runners on the way up. We then made our way in through a housing estate and a pretty long downhill. This was nearly as hard on the legs as I held my stride back and my quads screamed.
We came along another park area and then turned down a very short sharp hill to an area known as the Waterworks. We ran right along the water which was heavily populated with swans who were gracefully cruising along wondering what all the plodding was about. It was very picturesque as we made our way out the far side and turned left passing my the 19 mile marker. I always think 19 miles is a bit of a no-mans land as it still feels so far away from the finish.
It was now time to start marathon running! I concentrated on keeping my momentum going as we moved back in towards town with lots of little turns here and there at various junctions. It was much harder work now as I began to dig in and try to keep my pace up. A runner in the red and white vest of Trim AC came past me moving well so I said I would try and stick to his coat tails for a while to get me through. We passed 20, 21 & 22 miles which I was surprised to see afterwards contained a few sub 7 minute miles. This effort would take its its toll though. We came onto another nice section along the towpath of a river and I battled away with it being a nice distraction. We went over a ramp which was quite rhythm sapping before turning left across a bridge and back out onto the road. There was now just 5k to go but I was firmly entering the tunnel of pain. It still felt such a long way. I had last really checked my watch around 20 miles and figured I might end up just over the 3 hour 15 mark by the finish. This didn’t worry me too much as I just said to myself to get yourself home in the shortest time you possibly can. I could have just really sat back and made the finish much more comfortable but I blanked out such thoughts and got the spade out. Dig, dig, dig!
There was quite a long stretch which was ever so slightly uphill towards the 24 mile mark. There were lots of people along the road here but I could barely acknowledge them while I appreciated the support all the same. 2 miles to go felt forever. I still managed to keep the workrate high as could now see Ormeau park up ahead again. I felt like I was really slowing down but I was still passing the odd runner and not many were passing me. I fixed my gaze on the road ahead and just worked towards it. Into the park and on towards 25 miles. There was no relief at having only 1 mile to go though. Just absolute concentration to keep working. Mile 25 to 26 really did seem like a full 5k. We had come right through the park and as we came out the gate at the end and turned left the thing I wanted to do more than anything in the world in that moment was to just stop running. However, it was also the very thing that I fought tooth and nail to prevent happening.
On and on I went before looking ahead. I shouted loudly to mostly myself – “Where is this 26 mile marker?!” I finally saw it up ahead and got it behind me. I could now see a large timing clock above the crowds before realising this still wasn’t the finish. We then had to turn left back into the park before I could finally see the stretch of road I had been looking for. I could see the clock above tick past 3 hours and 14 minutes and thought that if I give it everything I might still make 3:13 when you count the few seconds before getting past the startline. I completely emptied myself with whatever sprint finish that I could muster before coming through the line, stopping my watch and letting out a huge aaaaaaaaaaggghhh roar in both relief and exhaustion!
My watch said 3:13:52 and I was delighted with this. I felt I had given it everything and could not ask for more. I made my way through the finish area collecting my medal and race t-shirt before spotting a nice bit of footpath outside the barrier where I could stretch out and watch for the 2 boys coming in. There was a good bit of talk among other runners about their watches being a good bit over the distance and they were asking what the story was. Even though mine was also over I didn’t think too much about it. I got some water into me and came around. Noel came through looking pretty strong in 3 hours 33 which is his second best time. He was happy with this especially considering his early training was limited. A few minutes later Michael came through looking a bit shell shocked from the experience but relieved all the same in a brilliant time of 3 hours 37 for his first marathon. I shouted to him through the barrier and as we shook hands he just said “incredible”!
We caught up with Melissa and the 2 girls and got a few photos and exchanged stories. The word now was that the course was definitely a bit too long and that our times might even be altered. I looked out for Lisa and Dale but didn’t see them. Speaking to Lisa afterwards she said she saw me in the last mile and was practically in my face shouting at me but I didn’t hear her I was that much in the zone!
We got a shuttle bus back to the city centre and got back to our hotel where we could bask in the afterglow of the race and the sense of relief at having it done. A marathon is a real roller coaster of a journey but its a brilliant experience overall. All being well that’s the first of 3 in 2019! That evening the race organisers made a statement that due to an error the course was about 0.4 miles too long and that all times would be adjusted accordingly. I feel they still downplayed the distance slightly but I had now got faster as my new official chip time is 3:11:45! I would have snapped your hand off for that at the start.
A few easier weeks of running now up ahead before we regroup and see whats next in store. It was a very enjoyable event overall. Even though the Belfast 2019 organisers have a few wee things to improve on for next year, if they can get the same response from the people of the city it has the makings of an even better marathon.