Already the 2018 European Championships seem like a long time ago. All the stress. The nerves during the build up. Normally, I only get nervous when I am in shape to run a personal best. When I am ready to perform. It is the nerves of expectation rather than the nerves of failure. This time however, was different. I knew that a personal best, despite how much I hoped, would not be happening in Berlin, two weeks ago. In fact, anything other than a new personal worst over the marathon distance would have been a fantastic run. And yet, the nerves were still there.
Outside of the European Cross Country, I have never been beaten by another countryman whilst wearing the Irish vest. Coming in to Berlin, I knew that it was going to take a massive performance in order to keep that statistic alive. After my ankle injury in April, any hope of performing to the standard that I wanted at the European Championships was gone. As May turned into June, I was able to slowly return to jogging. Sitting down with Andy Hobdell, my coach, there was the question of whether I should even still compete at the Championships. With a team championships included in the marathon, the answer was simple. We believed that if training progressed as we wanted, then I could, at least, help the team push for a medal.
Given my long list of previous injuries, we were cautious not to push things too hard too early. It was much too great a risk to try and reach the level of fitness that we had originally hoped for at the Europeans. Instead, this time, we wanted to do things properly. We would take our time and go back to the basics. All my training was geared towards a 10k ‘building phase’. My weekly mileage, while slowly increasing, was hovering around the 80mile mark. There was a reluctance to increase it much more, given the recent injury. We would always err on the side of caution, taking extra rest days when necessary. Sessions were being completed, but the times were well down on what I would have been running previously.
Four weeks prior to the European Championships, it was time to test the body. Looking down the startlist of the London 10k in mid-July, it was a who’s who of the current crop of British distance runners. From thinking that the race might be a lowkey runout, it was turning into a much more serious race. I was well off the pace from the first few steps. Crossing the finish line in a distant 31.40, I had my answer of where my fitness lay. The following week, I ran my one and only pre-Championships long run. Twenty miles of running. The plan was the first ten miles at six minute pace before picking up the second ten down to 5.30 pace. With my training partner, John, supporting on the bike, the first ten passed without event. If only, the next ten had gone as smoothly. I finished the twenty miles, spent and exhausted. Lying on the ground at the end, the pain was compounded by the fact that I had only managed an average of 5.40 miling for the second half. I have no doubt it would even have been slower had I not run past Mo Farah a number of times. It is amazing what running past a multiple Olympic champion can do for your energy levels, even if they are still only doing their warming up.
That was it. The only long run in the pre-marathon block, and I was on my limit at 5.40 miling. It is easy to see where the nerves of possible disappointment arose from. However, with three weeks to go until marathon day, I knew that my fitness would continue to improve. The morning of the race, I was hoping for the scorching hot weather that the earlier championship days had experienced. The hotter the better. I know that I can always grind out the miles if it is a slow race but my fitness, quite simply, was not ready to run fast. As the race went off, I stuck to my plan. The 5.15-5.20 pace group that I found myself in was clicking along nicely. Every few miles I would reassess, and to my surprise, it was feeling comfortable. I was constantly working out the maths in my head. What pace we were on for. When should I make a move. My patience held out for fourteen miles. Then I made my mistake. I thought the gaps were getting too big. People were not starting to come back like I thought they would have and I panicked. I kicked away from my group. Immediately I made a massive gap. The next five or six miles, I was making up ground running at sub 5.05 pace. I knew relatively soon after I had kicked, that I had gone too early. But in a marathon, once you go, there is no turning back and slowing down.
My watch beeped for 20miles in just under 1.45. I remember giving myself a small smile. Regardless of what happened in the last six miles, this would be my best run since my injury in April. The inevitable occurred soon after the twenty mile mark. From averaging 5.15 minute pace it dropped away to six minute miles, but thankfully no slower. The last thirty minutes of running was horrible, a true grind to the finish. But the finish line came. In a race, where I had pushed too early and was not at my peak fitness, I am walking away with a number of positives. While some may simply look at the time of 2.23 and say that that is not very good, in my mind, that marathon in Berlin, is perhaps one of my finer performances. If only I had had the patience to wait a bit longer in that group.
The next day, I was up and out again. A slow five miles, passed by a very bouncy looking Paula Radcliffe, gave me time to reflect and clear the head. Now, two weeks on, training has progressed to the next level. The stimulus that we were hoping to gain from running the marathon is beginning to kick in. My confidence has grown with the knowledge that I can again run twenty 5.15 miles back to back. With three big races planned in the next two months, the body is in one piece, but perhaps much more importantly, so is the mind.