The Sweat Trilogy Part 3: Half-Marathon

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(image by Colin Partridge)

I’d caught Minnie Mouse but I couldn’t find Batman.

Minnie I’d passed a while ago now, but I hadn’t seen the Dark Knight since the start. Surely the heat inside that costume would slow him down?

I’m one of 9,000 runners on the streets of Glasgow for the Great Scottish Run, a 13.1 mile half-marathon. At the back are men dressed as women. At the front is Haile Gebrselassie. I’m somewhere in the middle.

I’d been an intermittent runner for years, having taken it up at times as a hangover cure, a weight-loss tactic, and to supplement my fitness for basketball. But I was always bad at it, a heel-stomper who tired easily. Then in 2010 I read Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run and found inspiration. After adopting some of the book’s technique tips I completed my longest run ever, a grand total of 1.4 miles. That was all I needed—I’ve been a runner ever since.

Mile 0

Rows of runners snaked through every entry point to George Square. They were on pilgrimage, their religious attire high nylon shorts and singlets of the finest sweat-wicking materials. A DJ bellowed unintelligibly through speakers. Above the race’s start point photographers’ long lenses peered down at Haile and the elite runners at the start line, spectators lined the barriers running up St Vincent Street. I arrived, unsure of what to do, before jogging two half-hearted laps of a hill and heading towards the starting area.

I pushed into a crowd, woman chatting, men listening to iPods and staring ahead, all shuffling and bouncing to keep from stiffening up. Suddenly, after twenty minutes of waiting, the crowd pushed forward, a slow walk at first, then gaining speed. Just like that I was at the start line, then I was running.

I quickly got caught up in the race’s energy. I’d planned to take the first uphill slowly then rush down the other side, but the excitement got the better of me. I attacked, passing runner after another (a rare occurrence for a slowpoke like). Macklemore’s Can’t Hold Us played and I sang along, not caring about looking stupid.

Training

For six months I’d trained six or seven days a week. Which is a shock to the system of someone who appreciates the joys of a couch and a PlayStation. I ran before work, after work, sprints and distance. Every Friday after work I’d stick on my shorts and get my usual train home, but get off a few stops early and run the rest of the way. As the half-marathon neared, that train journey became shorter, the runs longer, until I didn’t even get the train and ran home from the office, my wallet, keys and phone in my fancy running backpack, my clothes left to be collected on Monday.

Mile 1

A steel band played under the Kingston Bridge as I rose above them, running up the entrance ramp onto the bridge. As I came off at the other end, I realised I was already tired, having covered only two miles. I noticed my mother-in-law cheering from the side and I angled towards her. I jokingly said, “I’m nearly done right” and immediately regretted saying it, knowing the response I’d receive.

“Only another ten miles to go”, she replied. I knew the distance of course, but hearing it from someone else slammed the point home. Sometimes when you’re running you have to lie to yourself. ‘Just make it to that post box…just get to the next corner’. But now I saw the big picture, the whole course in my head, and it was long. That’s what I get for trying to be funny.

The Numbers Game

My stepdad is a competitive man, a gym rat who’d ran this half-marathon four times. When I told him I was going to compete, I knew one of the first things he’d do was mention his best time—1 hour 50—and how unlikely I’d be to beat it. Sure enough, within seconds his personal best was mentioned. And how I would be slower tha he was.

Yet I was quietly confident, despite having no reason to be. I’d run the 13.1 mile distance twice before (though neither as a race). The first time I did little training, bonked at eight miles, blew out my knee at ten, and walked to a finish of three-and-a-half hours. In 2012 I ran the distance again, properly trained this time, and took almost an hour off, completing it in 2 hours 35 minutes. Yet I still thought, with good, focused training, I could easily beat my stepdad’stime.

But as the race neared I started to worry. My training times were dropping—from 2:17 to 2:06—but my chances of beating 1:50 looked slim. I’d broken down my goal time: to run under 1:50 I’d have to average 8 mins 20 seconds per mile. But none of my average mile times, even over much shorter distance, were close to that. I couldn’t run one mile at the speed I’d need to maintain for thirteen. I looked for an answer. Being part of a race would make me faster, but how much faster? I had to stop for traffic on those runs, which wouldn’t happen during the race. How many minutes could I subtract for that? Not that many, I reckoned. I felt doomed to hearing my stepdad’s boasts for years.

Mile 3

I reached the first water station, got a bottle, and realised why I was so tired: dehydration. I’d been so wary of needing to pee during the race that hadn’t drunk enough water. There was no way I was going to do a runner’s pee (you don’t stop, put it that way), so a portaloo visit would’ve added a good few minutes to my time. I downed half the bottle and quickly felt better. Now to catch Haile!

I turned a corner. The long, dull straight of Paisley Road West stretched ahead of me. Spectators stood outside the pubs and newsagents along the roadside, a girl cheered us on by banging a pot with a spoon.

Form

My running form was something that just felt wrong but I never did much about. As the race approached I looked for help. I bought the book Power, Speed, Endurance, by Brian MacKenzie. The books teaches the POSE running technique (I can’t deal with those caps, so it’s Pose from here on out). I did the drills—falling against pillars in my office to harness momentum (the joys of being the first one in the building in the morning), jumping off my couch at home to learn quick foot-pulls. I cut back on my mileage to learn the technique; on every run I focused on this new form. As I expected, my speed dropped while learning this new technique, but even when I got used to Pose I remained slow. And I was more injury-prone than ever—strained calves, stiff ankles, weird foot pain. After four months spent learning Pose, with two months until the race, I was slower than I’d been in years and more injury-prone than ever. I quit Pose, and spent the remaining time before the half-marathon trying to unlearn what I’d just taught myself.

118 118 Runners

(image by Ben Cooper)

Mile 5

In Bellahouston Park I laughed as I watched frantic schoolchildren try to keep up with the high demand for the water bottles they were distributing. I saw my first race victim—a girl leaned against a tree, her face as grey as its trunk. “I just want to finish”, she said to those around her. The chances of that were slim, I decided, but I admired her bravery.

I’d been systematic in my quest to beat my stepdad and had written goal times for every mile on my hand. While I expected sweat to render the ink illegible by race’s end, I thought it would last most of the route, and I could use my stopwatch and brain to figure out the rest. But less than halfway through, the ink looked more like a series of blurry lines than numbers. Still, calculating my time should’ve been easy. I knew the average mile time I was aiming for, I just had to multiply that by how many miles I’d done and compare that number to the one on the stopwatch I was wearing. But already fatigued, and stupid at the best of times, I couldn’t do the sums.

I’d been a spectator at the previous year’s race and noticed a little boy’s face light up when he was high-fived by a runner. I vowed then that if I ever ran this race and saw a kid wanting fived, they’d damn sure get one (and it would be the best. They would talk about it for years). I angled towards the girl, threw my hand out, and missed her. I looked back and saw she wasn’t trying to five, but instead offering jelly beans to the runners. I was glad to have bad aim, imagine this wee girl doing the decent thing and offering sugary snacks to runners, when some scumbag rushes past and knocks them out of her hands, running off as she wept inconsolably.

The route finally turned off Paisley Road and I was thankful to escape its straight-line boredom. But not for long. I wasn’t just escaping the street but the audience. The cheers and claps disappeared, the only sounds now runners’ shallow breaths and the slap of trainers on concrete. Now there was little to distract from the tiredness, the atmosphere was gone. Surrounded by dozens of runners, I felt lonely. The sky darkened to match my mood.

But my spirits were soon lifted as I crossed the Squinty Bridge. A group of women cheered from aboard an open-topped Macmillan cancer charity bus. Their enthusiasm and my need to motivation lowered the shield of cynicism I normally wear. In photos from the race I can be seen applauding them, all earnest and goofy.

The route narrowed as it turned down Stobcross Road. A woman wore a huge fabric heart on her back, its width preventing us from overtaking. As I finally broke free I saw the race’s second victim, a man collapsed on the roadside, though whether he was a runner covered with a steward’s jacket, or a steward himself who’d passed out after standing around for hours, I couldn’t tell.

Diet

It was time to bite the bullet (if you pardon the pun). During my basketball-playing years I so often tried to find things that would speed me up, ignoring what was slowing me down. There was a thick roll of fat around my stomach which had been there for years, and wishing it would go away did not appear to work.

I’d read about  Tim Ferriss’ Slow-Carb Diet years before and had adapted my lunches because of it, but that was as far as I went. This time I went deeper. I modified the diet. My rules were:

1) Follow the diet six days a week. Once a week I could eat whatever I wanted (AKA Fatterday)

2) No processed carbs (bread, rice, pasta, potatoes) for lunch or dinner (I couldn’t give up my morning cereal)

3) Cut back on milk

4) Don’t be a dick about it. This was my rule. If someone paid money or spent time so they could offer me a cake or a biscuit, I was going to eat it

The weight started rolling off. Within five months I lost two stone. Some put the loss down to all the miles I was running, but after the race I cut back on exercise and the fat stayed away.

Mile 10

I arrived at the Riverside Museum, where this odd trilogy began. My first obstacle course race had started and ended here two months before. A mere two months? It seemed like much more time had passed since I raced away from the museum’s front. I thought about how I might never do events like this ever again. I didn’t mind.

I reached into my wrist-wallet for stimulation. The two caffeine tablets I’d brought had long been munched, but my jelly beans remained. I pulled out a few, then greedily reached for more, and watched the beans slip from my sweaty grasp and spill across the slabs.

Ahead I saw a pacer—a woman wearing a bright yellow t-shirt with a yellow balloon swinging from her wrist. These people worked at the race, running towards a specific finish time (which was written on their shirts), a human pace-setter for those (like me) with time goals in mind. I couldn’t make out the time written on her shirt so I sped towards her to read it. I felt like I’d done well so far. Surely I was on pace for 1:50, maybe less. At worst, I thought, she’d read 1:55, and I have some catching up to do. I caught up.

Two hours?

All this soreness, tiredness, these burning lungs, all this for a two-hour finishing time? I felt faster than I’d ever been, yet I was still ten minutes off my goal. Even with a second burst of energy, there was no way I could make up ten minutes and beat my stepdad’s time. I wanted to quit there and then, but I decided to keep going, if only because I’d still have to make my way to Glasgow Green, better to run there than walk.

I slowed down but was still in earshot of the pacer when I heard her say, “I’m on pace for about 1 hour 48 just now”.

Say what now?

I veered closer and listened in. Whether this was her idea or a general pacer principle, she thought it nice to have runners think they were keeping to one time, then they’d have a nice surprise at the finish line when they realised they’d been faster than they thought. Sounds good, but that deception nearly caused me to quit. If I hadn’t been nosy and listened in, I’d never have known the truth.

So, 1:48 then. I was on pace to beat the goal. But I was cutting it fine, I still had three or four miles to go. I sped away from the pacer, thinking the best strategy was trying to avoid seeing her again.

Andrew Preston

(image by Martin Young)

Mile 12?

I neared into the city centre, head down, when I heard the voice of comedian Des Clarke through the speakers ahead. I looked up to see him staring towards the group I was running among.

“Only a mile to go”.

Get in! I sped up, thrilled to be nearly finished. I used my renewed energy to pass a few racers and powered ahead, caring less about the numbness in my hamstrings.

And then I saw the 12-mile marker. I still had slightly over a mile to go. What?

The difference between Clarke’s idea of where the last mile began and where it actually did was but a few hundred feet. But when you’re exhausted, every step is arduous, and that difference felt huge. I wished I could reclaim the energy I’d just used to overtake. I felt cheated. To make matters worse, a Black Eyed Peas song started to play.

Then I realised I was being a little bitch. I was still nearly finished, wasn’t I?

In the months before the race I’d daydreamed about the final section. I visualised a romantic end, how as it neared I’d think of friends and family who couldn’t compete and that would spur me on to the finish. I’d think of those I knew with Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis. Then I’d go down the scale to those I knew with much less serious health problems. I’d think about my stepdad who had ran this race four times, then tore his achilles’ tendon, followed his doctor’s advice, and never raced again; who was impressed that I was racing but found it bittersweet that I hadn’t decided to do so ten years earlier so we could’ve ran it together. I’d think of my friends with ligament tears and knee injuries who had little interest in running a half-marathon, but wouldn’t be able to regardless. I’d think of them all and spring to the finish.

So when the time came, I thought of them. And it didn’t make any difference. My head was cloudy, my lungs were burning, my hamstrings had turned to concrete. My thoughts of these people felt abstract, miles removed from what I was doing. I couldn’t summon up any more motivation than what I was already sweating out. I couldn’t speed up, the best I could do was keep going.

The roadsides had thickened with spectators again, proof the end was nigh. The route narrowed and I got caught on the outside trying to overtake and almost ran down a little boy. The path narrowed again, pushing runners into tight packs. I was now on Glasgow Green where the race would end but, sardined into a crowd, I couldn’t see the finish line. I spotted it with just feet to go and futilely sprinted over. I was done. And done in.

I tapped the stop button on my stopwatch and walked forward to collect my swag bag (foil cloak thing, bottle of water, bar of chocolate). As I looked for my family I wondered, do I dare look at my time? I stole a glance. Had I beaten 1:50?

I had. I’d ran the race in 1 hour 46 minutes, a time unimpressive to many in that race, but an achievement to me. I met my stepdad and told him I wasn’t sure of my time, I’d have to wait for the results. He found out later that day when I wasn’t there. Funnily enough, he’s never brought the subject up.

Minutes later the cynic within me awoke. Achievement? All I’d done, at 34 years-old, was beat by mere minutes a time set by a 50 year-old man. That’s not the stuff of legend. Regardless, I’d aimed to beat a time and I’d done so, that was what mattered.

I drank my water, ate my chocolate, and posed for a few photos. My calves started to seize up, it was still raining, so I said my farewells and shuffled towards the train station. On the way I thought about my race trilogy and how it was over. I’d lost two-and-a-half stone and was healthier than I’d been for 15 years. All those previous attempts to get fitter, I now realised, failed because I didn’t have a concrete objective. Goals of ‘Get better at basketball’ or ‘look good with your shirt off’ were doomed attempts, as I’m too cynical a person to believe either would succeed. But ‘beat this time in a race’ was more tangible. What I learned from the trilogy was that I can be focused and disciplined, I just need to clear goal and a deadline. There’s nothing there that isn’t common sense, but I wish it was a sense I’d had years ago.

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