So where to begin? Yesterday, I sat down with my coach to reflect on the past year, the build up to Berlin and the plan for the year ahead. It is hard to accurately describe my emotions. Last Sunday, the Berlin marathon, was a wonderful day surrounded by many friends whom I love. Ever since I had made the decision to race at Berlin, I was excited at the prospect of running an extremely fast time. Throughout the build up in June and July everything was going to plan. I was hitting times in sessions that I had previously only dreamed about. August began with a win at the Irish national half marathon, while suffering from the flu, proving to myself that when fit, I was in great shape. Having picked up an infected blister in the half, I soon found myself in A + E, this time as a patient. My heartrate would not settle below 90 for a number of days and running was far from my mind. Ten days of training had been missed, but given the recent race I was due an easy week and knew I was ahead of the game.
Four days later, on an easy run, a wasp flew in and stung the back of my throat. It was a sign of the bad luck to come and another three days were missed. I was still not too concerned, knowing the level of fitness that I had developed. Ten days of solid training later, I was on another easy five mile recovery run at seven minute pace. Finishing the run, I sat down to take my shoes off. As I stood up, I felt some mild pain in my left thigh. As I stretched and popped some ibuprofen, in my mind the pain had eased. The rest of the afternoon I kept my feet elevated to be on the safe side. The plan for the following day was a key progressive twenty four mile run. The pain in my leg had disappeared but we deferred the run by a day, again trying to take the sensible approach. I managed eight minutes of running before the pain returned. This time it was crippling, there was no running through this sort of pain. I stopped in the middle of Bushy Park and sat in the grass amongst the deer. The pain felt similar to the labral tear I had had in my opposite hip the year before. As I gingerly walked back to the house, muttering swear words under my breath, the dream of Berlin was rapidly evaporating.
That evening Noel, my brother and sport’s medicine consultant, had just returned with the UK squad from the World Championships in Beijing. I managed to catch him before the jet lag set in. The news was not good. ‘There is a reasonable chance that it is a femoral stress fracture. If it is, Berlin will be highly unlikely. You need to get a scan.’ I phoned my coach from Noel’s house. What can you say in situations like that. Achieving what I wanted in Berlin was as much Andy’s dream as it was mine. That whole night I did not sleep very well. The following morning I found myself making the long journey to St John’s Wood hospital in North London, a place where I had told myself I would never go again. It is where I had my knee surgery, where I have had several injections, ultrasound scans and MRIs. I have never received good news when I go to St John’s Wood. And so it turned out to be again. The MRI revealed that there was no stress fracture, but it did highlight a 11cm tear in my left quadriceps surrounded by blood and inflammation. This was the 1st of September, twenty six days before race day.
Noel was on hand to offer advice. Typically, he informed me, we would recommend three weeks of rehab with no running, in order to let the tear heal. You then build the mileage up cautiously depending on progress and pain levels. From all the dreams of smashing Berlin, running sub 2.10, being selected for Rio….I was gutted. We decided to take ten days completely off from training and reassess at that stage. Tom Greenway, an excellent chiropractor from the local Waldegrove clinic, was kind enough to work with me closely and formulate a rehab programme. Ten days of lying on the sofa with my leg in the air passed and it was time to test the leg again. The session was 10 x 1minute at 8minute pace, with 1 minute slow walk recovery. No warm up or warm down, as my leg would not cope with the mileage. Little did Andy and I know when drawing up the marathon plan that a session like that would be more important than any other run we would be doing. Running felt like a strange sensation, as it sometimes does returning from injury, but more importantly there was minimal pain. There was a small possibility that I might be able to make the start line. I dared not get my hopes up.
There were two weeks to go until raceday and I was stuck running a maximum of three miles a day. I got to Berlin, faced with the fact that I had not been on a run longer than ten miles for over a month. I knew that I was at least three kilograms heavier than where I expected to be. My resting heartrate had jumped up from an average of 35 bpm for most of June, July and August to an average of 47bpm in the weeks leading up to the marathon. Add in to that the fact that, I had been unable to do the majority of my gym work due to the tear and a very negative picture starts to form in the mind. When I first got the diagnosis of the tear, I had resigned myself that Berlin was not to be my time. Getting to the startline was a victory in itself.
The past four weeks have been more mentally draining than physically, that is a fact. Andy and I have tried to determine how the injury occurred. Was there something in training that caused it to occur, or maybe was it the strength and conditioning work? Was I not eating the right food and missing something vital from my diet? Many questions rushed through my head, but the consensus seems to be that the injury was due to nothing more than simply bad luck. And that quite possibly is the most frustrating thing of all.
The race itself went better than I could have ever expected. The plan had been to sit with Kevin Seaward, my training partner, to halfway in 67.30. A far cry from the 64minute first half I had been contemplating a few weeks earlier. At the 5km marker I realised that even 67.30 was too fast for me to sustain. I eased back and settled into a more comfortable cruising pace, hitting halfway in 68.11. It was now or never. I had no idea how the quad would hold up or what my fitness would be like. It was time to put all doubts out of my head and focus on the race. If the pain came on or I blew up, so be it. The next ten miles were a lonely affair. I could see a large group in front of me but too far away to be of any help. Slowly however, one or two started drifting back. I spotted a group of three Irish runners and caught them quickly. Counting how many I had passed, I knew that Mick, Sergiu and Kevin were still up ahead. I knew what shape Kevin was in and expected him to comfortably be the first Irishman home. I spotted Mick’s green vest in the group ahead. I had got so far, I was keen not to give up now. I was knocking in 5.05 miles consistently. Noone had passed me since I let everyone go at the 5km point. With 4km to go, I passed Mick and immediately the thoughts of ‘ I’m on the team’ came to my mind. With 3km to go however, my legs started to give way. My lungs were clear and my breathing was fine. It was just my legs. My last gel was at 30km, having missed the 35km and 40km drink stations. Whether that had an effect, I will never know. With 1km to go, Mick drew level again. I tucked in, almost tempted to grab on to his vest so that he could pull me to the finish line. As we went through Brandenburg gate, I tried to rally one last kick. I managed about 100m before everything went pear shaped. Every muscle in my legs seemed to cramp up and I slowed to barely a walk. I can now sympathise with those people you sometimes see on video crawling on hands and knees to the finish line. I crossed the line in 2.15.38, 3 seconds behind Mick, 24 behind Sergiu and 46 behind Kevin.
It was hard to know what I should have felt. Given the lead in to my race, I was delighted to at least finish and posting an Olympic qualifying time was a welcome bonus. Even if I had finished thirty seconds quicker, or just behind Kevin, I would still likely need to do another marathon given how close everyone was. However, Berlin 2015 will always be a ‘what if’ moment for me. If only I had not got injured, what might I have run? I have asked myself that question many times over the past month. Only my coach, training partners and my team know how agonisingly close I came to producing something special in Berlin. Once again, however, it is a case of what might have been. The plan for the next year has been drawn up. It is time to let the leg heal properly, recover and then concentrate. I don’t like losing, and despite posting the Olympic qualifying time on Sunday, it still felt like a loss. If I can run 2.15.38 off a month of sitting on my sofa, there is no doubt in my mind that I can go much faster. Only time will tell.
I would just like to finish by again saying thank you to everyone who supported me in the build up to the marathon and on race day itself. I was overwhelmed by the number of messages and phonecalls that people have sent and made. I truly appreciate every single one, so thank you.