Running my first marathon, mile by mile

I ran my first marathon on 6th May last year, I made a few mistakes but finished in 4hrs 19mins in the top 50%, here’s how it went .

Starting Line

I warmed up, posed for photos, gave my wife a goodbye hug and stepped into the sea of over five thousand people at the starting line. Around 2500 runners for the full marathon and around 2900 relay teams. The starting area was divided up into sections according to predicted finishing time 2hrs30, 3hrs, 3hrs30, 4hrs, 4hrs30 etc. Hoping for a four hour finish I joined the middle of the crowd, looking around for any familiar faces. Looked up at the huge digital clock, 8:45, 15 minutes to go.  There was a incomprehensible  voice shouting out instructions over a loudspeaker which everyone was ignoring. It wasn’t until later that I realised that a few moments of silence from the voice had been the time of silence for the Boston Marathon bombing.

Bouncing on my toes I realised I needed to pee, again. Worried about being dehydrated I had drank over half a litre of fluid about  two hours before and was now regretting it. This was my first mistake.

0 – 2 Miles

9:00, horn blaring and we were off. Shuffling slowly as fast as we could towards the bottle neck that was the actual starting line. Thankfully the chip on your running shoe doesn’t register a start time until you are over the line.  Otherwise there would have been an additional 2-3 minutes added. Wanting to track the run on Runkeeper  I had been holding my phone in my hand until I crossed the line. I tapped the start button and the app crashed, landing back to my home screen.

Mild curses and some frantic screen tapping later, phone tucked into my belt and I was properly off. It was an amazing feeling running along in a river of people stretching as far as and beyond the next corner. Thousands more people were pressed against the fences on either side of the road, cheering us on, holding up kids who were high-fiving runners. Feeling energised I surged forward.

I had catching up to do already. For the past few years the marathon has had pacers, runners who run the race to a particular time. For the inexperienced runner, keeping up with one of these guys is the best way of hitting your target. Just before the race started I saw the helium balloons attached to the three four hour pacers go up. About 10 metres in front of me.

By the time I crossed the line they were around the first corner and out of sight. Despite having over 26miles to catch them, I panicked.  So I bolted after them. I had been training to run at around 9:10mins per mile. I was running around 7min/mile to catch up with the pacers. Running this pace for the first couple of miles was my second mistake.

2 – 4 Miles

Caught up with the pacers at around 2 miles and settled down into a more comfortable pace. It was at this point, once we were clear of the city center that a few relay runners slowed down and started walking. I focus now was just on enjoying the next four miles that headed out of the city and looped back in. Oh and looking for a suitable toilet stop. I witnessed a female runner, obviously more hydrated than I was, sprint off behind some cars and squat down out of sight. I hoped for a bit more privacy than that.

It was already around 12 Celsius. Most of my training was in temperatures of around 7-10 degrees, so I was already roasting. Grabbed a cup of water at a water station on the way past, drank most of it and threw the rest over my head. Also made note that doing so put me about 30meters behind the pacers.

4 – 6 Miles

By this stage we were heading back towards the city on a gentle downward slope. The course runs down a single lane of the Sydenham Bypass. Having huge articulated lorries blowing past was both un-nerving and welcome as they pushed a blast of air alongside them.

Coming to the end of a slip road I saw a runner in front of me run full speed into the end of a crash barrier. The road was narrow and the group crowded, he didn’t see it at all. The poor guy smacked into the barrier, hitting the top of his left thigh and nearly sending him to the pavement. It looked really painful but he kept going, telling his buddy he was ok.

He was right in front of me and I hadn’t seen the barrier either, so it was him or me. Quite thankful for his pain.

I ran just behind one of the pacers for quite a bit of this section.  But kept being wacked on the head by his flailing balloon, so I moved alongside instead.

The first relay changeover point was at 6 miles and I knew there would be porta-loos.

6 – 8 Miles

At  the six mile relay change over  I pushed out through the crowd at the sides and found a free porta-loo. Back on the route and I had lost my pacers again. Spent the next couple of miles trying to catch up with them. I made a mental note at this point not too drink too much or I would have to go again, so for the majority of the water stations for the next 10miles I sipped some and threw the rest over my head. This was to be the stupidest thing I would do all day.

The marathon route at this point  goes right through the city centre, very near to the start line. My very loyal support team of Louise (wife), Joanne (sister) and Naomi (sister) cheered me on as I ran past at about 7 miles.

Now began the toughest part of the route. Over the next 7 miles the marathon route climbs 317 ft, that’s roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower. After that, it then descends to nearly sea-level over just 1.5miles, a real knee buster of a drop.

For energy I had worked out a very elaborate plan involving taking various foods at certain point. The basic plan was to eat something every 30mins after 1hour.  I had with me jelly beans and energy gels in my running belt. Both these would turn out to be a mistake. While training I had eaten jelly beans as I found them to be quite motivating, but I hadn’t eaten very many of them at a time. Also while training I had used different energy gels, the ones I had with me were concentrated and had to be taken with water.

I started eating some of the jelly beans just before 7 miles. I took my first energy gel at the 8 mile water station, washing it down with a cup of water. Bit sickening.

8 – 10 Miles

Tragedy struck shortly after 9 miles, on the Shankill Rd. The pacer in front of me was running past a security fence and his helium balloon innocently floated into it. The unwitting balloon hit the spikes at the top, let out a death-pop and slumped to the ground. The devastated pacer untied his deflated friend and deposited the remains in the next bin.

I was particularly energised at around 9 miles, perhaps hearing what sounded like a quiet gunshot on the streets of Belfast gave me a burst of adrenaline. At any rate I suddenly felt like I was having a great time and started speeding up the hill. The day was getting hotter.

A particularly steep section just before 10miles brought me to my senses and I slowed down. I didn’t drink anything at the 12 mile water station, just threw it over my head.

10 – 12 Miles

The route levels out for about a mile, before a much steeper climb starts. During the level bit the sun came out and suddenly it was a completely difference race. I started to feel uncomfortable and sweat was pouring down my face.  I think I trained in warm sunny weather about 2 or 3 times. The rest of the time it was overcast, or raining, or snowing. So being acclimatised to cold weather, the heat was killing me. Hardly drinking anything for the past 10 miles hadn’t helped.

Not quite realising that the problem was water instead of energy, I decided to down another energy gel. I knew there would be a water station soon so I ate the sweet sickly syrup. Grabbing a cup of water at the water I kept running. I carefully folded the edge of the paper cup so I could drink while running.

Tripped on the pavement. Split nearly all the water.

It was at least another mile before I got any more water. By that time the mess of syrup and jellybeans in my stomach was making me feel really sick. Felt like I was on the verge of being sick for at least the next hour, which also meant I didn’t eat anything more until then.

12 – 14 Miles

This was the part of the marathon where it really hit me just how difficult this was going to be. Especially if I wanted to finish in four hours. The hill got steeper , the sun got hotter and I started to feel like I was loosing energy. For the first time I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop running and just walk, or better sit down on the ground. But I was determined not to stop before the top of the hill. Shortening my pace and moving forward on my feet I pushed on up.

It was then I noticed black dots floating in front of me. I had been concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other that I hadn’t really been breathing. My head started to float about and I realised I was in real danger of keeling over. Slowed down until I was practically walking. Just breathing deeply and berating myself for forgetting such a basic thing.

A few deep breaths later my head cleared. Looking up I could see the top of the hill. I had been running solidly for over two hours and was still on track for a 4 hour finish.

Going around the corner at the top of the hill felt amazing, there was a large crowd at the top all cheering us on. I was grinning away as I started down the hill.

14 – 16 Miles

I checked my Runkeeper stats after the marathon and evidently I was feeling great on the way down the hill. At 14.7 miles my pace was 4:18mins/mile, over twice as fast as my target average pace.

By this point I realised that I was probably quite dehydrated. There seemed to be very few official water stations on the way down, maybe I missed them. A few locals had set up mini water stations of their own. Others were giving out fruit. I grabbed a small orange as I blazed past a small child. I think he was offering it to me. If not, I’m sorry but I needed it more.

Still feeling sick ,I didn’t eat the orange, instead clutching it like some kind of sticky talisman. I tossed it in the air at one point and dropped it. Nearly fell over trying to grab it as it broke on the ground and tried to roll to freedom. Carried its sticky remains for another mile before throwing it into a hedge. Felt sad about the orange.

Near the bottom of the hill was a water and nutrition station. They were handing out cups of water and energy gels. I passed one volunteer  grabbed a cup of water, downed it and kept going. The next volunteer was holding three energy gels, I tried to grab one, missed and got all three.

I now had a handful of energy gels but felt too sick to eat any of them so just squeezed them tightly and ran on.

16 – 18 Miles

Now at the bottom of the hill and I realised that I probably shouldn’t have ran like the blazes down it. The ground levelled out and my energy just disappeared. I felt alone and beat.

The next water station was giving out cups of Powerade. I drank one slightly worried it would come back up but it stayed put. If I hadn’t felt sick I should have drank more, but I didn’t realise at the time just how dehydrated I was.

At around mile 17 was the second to last relay point at a place called Gideons Green, a large open park beside the shore. From this point the route would level out and it would be a mostly flat run for the next 3-4 miles. For part of the way the route travelled alongside Belfast lough, which on a sunny day was one of my favourite places to run when I lived in Belfast.

I thought this would have been one of my favourite sections of the marathon.

Before I got to Gideons Green though, there was a small climb of about 40ft over nearly half a mile. It should have been an easy causal run, but the heat, queasy guts and my sprint down the hill had utterly spent my legs.

I ended up nearly walking most of it. The heat felt unbearable and I was very thirsty.

Finally getting down to the flat and Gideons Green and feeling refreshed by the crowds, I forced myself to start running again. I could still do this, I could still get my 4hr time. Still felt horrible though.

18 – 20 Miles

The path along the coast was often very windy, which normally would help cool you down. Today though, it was windless and the sun was blazing down taking it’s toll. As the path was very narrow there were no water stations, which meant I would be running about 4-5 miles between getting something to drink.

Starting to slow down I knew I had to do something to keep running and keep up my motivation. Looking up I noticed a yellow vest with a photo of an elderly man and a message “running for grandad”. I had no idea who the grandad was but I decided I would run for him a bit as well.

When I saw the owner of the yellow vest start to slow down to a walk my optimising improved as I would soon overtake him. Overtaking people feels great, especially when you feel terrible because at the very least there’s someone who is worse off.

As I slowly jogged past I turn around and handed the guy one of the energy gels I was still clutching. Surprised by the motivation I got from my act of Philanthropy, I tried it again on some other runners but no-one wanted them.

About 19 miles I started to realise just how thirsty I was feeling, don’t know why I hadn’t fully noticed before. It didn’t help that the sun seemed especially hot, my eyes were red and painful with sweat. The sleeve of my t-shirt sodden  where I had been wiping my eyes. My forehead was slimy and crusty with salt in places.

My mouth was feeling drier and drier and once again I just felt my motivation fade. and I walked, mad at myself. The next mile wasn’t great. I began to be convinced that I was going to be in serious trouble if I didn’t drink soon. I don’t think I have ever been as thirsty in my life. All I could think of was getting a drink. I kept picturing myself drinking ice water and swirling my hands in it.

I knew at the end of the path the route would go up a short slope to the docks and at the docks there would be a water station.

Bouyed up by this thought I bolted up the slope to the water station.

Except there wasn’t one. Looking ahead I could just see a long line of runners going down the road and into the industrial estate. Not a drink in sight.

I had forgotten that being a busy dock they couldn’t close off all the road, which mean the water stations would be in the industrial estate ahead. This was confirmed my a steward who shouted “water 500 meters ahead”.

Five hundred meters ahead I came around a corner to an empty stretch of road till the next corner. The road was covered in semi empty bottles of Powerade, but there was no-one handing out any fresh ones, or any water.

Too desperate to care I grabbed one of the fullest looking bottles I could find off the ground, wiped off the road dust, pulled open the chewed sports cap and sucked down the contents. Don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a drink more, even if it did come with several millilitres of some distant runners saliva.

Walked around the next corner and there was the fully stocked water station.

I laughed.

Three cups of water went down my throat and one went over my head. In about 20-30 minutes I started to feel normal again and my stomach settled enough for me to take a much needed energy gel.

20 – 22 Miles

The docks are a lonely part of the race, there are no spectators, no-one cheering you on. It was just me walking slowly, legs in agony,  watching other tired runners file past one by one. Literally every step was hurting, didn’t matter if I walked or ran it still hurt. It felt like my leg muscles were being scrapped away from the bone, fibre by fibre. Every time my foot made contact, the tearing sensations went quivering up my legs.

It took the next couple of miles for the water and the energy I had taken to make a proper effect and until then I was pretty miserable. Checking Runkeeper I now realised that the trudge through the docks had cost me a 4hr finishing time. When I realised that I wasn’t going to achieve my goal my motivation just completely left, I was gutted.

I stopped for several minutes, pretending to stretch out my spent legs. Didn’t want to look like the complete failure I currently felt like. If someone had offered me a lift at that point I would have taken it. I vowed never to run a marathon again.

No one offered me a lift, so I put one foot in front of the other and headed slowly on.

By the time I was out of the industrial estate I was started to feel better, the sugar from the energy gel partially re-fueling my exhausted legs and brain.

I could see the city centre buildings getting closer and by the time the crowds had started to build up again I had started back into a slow jog. I had come this far, I was going to finish even if I had to crawl.

Thankfully no crawling was required. Alternating running and walking did the job in the end.

22 – 24 Miles

I sped up going down the slope of Oxford St and started overtaking people again. At the bottom of Oxford street the route goes in behind some buildings before coming out the join the Lagan Towpath along the river. My optimistic overtaking didn’t last too long as shortly after going behind the buildings I developed a nasty cramp and had to stretch my leg again a chain link fence.

I would repeat this pattern all the way to the finish. Grabbing a small amount of motivation and running and overtaking, then realising my legs kept emptying of energy and having to walk for a bit until they filled up a bit again. Was a bit like impatiently trying to flush a toilet after it’s already been flushed.

I found rejoining the Lagan Towpath a huge motivation, as you can look across the river at that point and see the finish on the other side. A few of my runs along here became sprints, which in hindsight was stupid because I’d forgotten that there was an uphill climb in the last two miles.

24 – 26 Miles

The longest two miles in the race. The first mile starts with a fairly short climb of about 60ft over about quarter of a mile, which on a normal day would be easy, but not after 24 miles.

I was still feeling much better than I had in the docks, partially because I knew I could still finish under 4hrs 30 which for a first marathon is pretty good. I was just exhausted and dragging myself along the road, trying to take motivation from anywhere.

Just ahead of me I saw a guy with “Ballymena Runners” on his vest, who wasn’t doing much running. A young women, who I don’t think he knew had seemly decided to help him finish. She was shouting words of encouragement and pulling his arm all the way up the hill.

Being just a few feet behind I pinched his encouragement, telling myself it was for me. I also decided that it was now a race between myself and this guy. For most of the hill I would go past him, before slowing down and walking. Hearing his loud encourager getting closer I would start to run again, this got me up the hill.

From the top of the hill the race turns down the Ravenhill road in a mostly downwards gentle slope. Sounds great, except that it means you can see over one mile into the distance and the mass of runners alreadly there. Not very encouraging.

I got my next boost from spotting a relay runner up ahead dressed as a dinosaur and high-fiving kids. In my exhausted state I had this hilarious mental image of me running across the finish line screaming while running away from a dinosaur. So I forced my legs to speed up , determined to finish the race with dino man.

Catching up with him I realised there was further to go than I thought and watched sadly as he bounded off, tiny claws flailing in the wind. I tried to keep up but I just didn’t have enough left.

I was now nearing the final corner onto the Omeau Embankment, and just a couple of hundred meters ahead of that was the entrance to the park and the finish line.

Spotting a  guy who I recognised from the start I decided to finish well and get past him. I got energy from who knows where and sped up, it was nearly over.

I got past him about 100m before the finish. Coming round the corner into the park I could see the finish and standing at the side was Louise and my other supporters waving frantically. Had a sudden burst of energy and sprinted across the line.

I felt awesome.

In a blur I was handed water, crisps and a medal.

Feeling like my final sprint was going to either make me vomit or pass out I looked for a quick exit through the crowd.

Met up with the others, hobbled to a bench, pulled off my shoes and socks and checked out my glorious blisters.

My legs felt like they were in tatters but I’ve never felt better, was on a total high and couldn’t stop talking. A trip to the loo revealed I was indeed badly dehydrated, brown lemonade anyone?


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