Brighton 2019 – post-race ramblings
Right, so here we are. The race report for my 4th attempt at the marathon distance, which indeed was also my 4th attempt on the Brighton course. Those who don’t know the back story to this attempt (or wish to know, should I say), please feel free to read the pre-race-ramble written 3 days prior to race day.
I am going to negate the usual set up talk of what happened on the Saturday and go straight to race day (it’s going to be long enough as it is) All I need to say is at the expo there was a particularly harsh breeze, and this breeze was going to be in the same direction the day of the race, and a fair bit stronger too. Rats! I still had confidence I could hit my target of sub 3 hours, but it was going to take a bit of intelligence on my part and perhaps not be the formality i’d hoped it would be. Anyway, over to Sunday morning …..
As mentioned in last weeks pre-race ramble, I wasn’t at Withdean Park alone this year. Fellow club mates Andy and Gary were due to start there too, and I hoped we could perhaps all start together and keep eachother in check for the first half of the race at least. Unfortunately Gary did not make it to the start in good shape, an overuse injury to his abductor being the culprit, meant he had decided to leave the goal of a sub 3 marathon for another day and he was going to go at it alone at an easier pace to prevent further injury. Andy on the other hand made it to the start feeling ready to go, and I had a race buddy to pass the time with that I so desired. We discussed strategies as we waited for the race start. I had 3 options to play with that I put in front of Andy for discussion. Option 1 – The time in bank approach. This was to be a 1:27 first half (roughly 6:38 pace) giving a generous 3 minutes in the bank allowing an easier second half or/and some leeway if things fell apart at the end. Basically how I had run the last 2 marathons (to almost failure). Option 2 – A target of 6:44 pace (1:28:16 first half and 2:56:32 total) This number wasn’t picked out of thin air. 44 is my lucky number, and 6:44 was the pace of the very first “running target” I set myself of a sub 21 minute 5k. I had decided there was some satisfaction to be had if I could perhaps run an entire marathon at the same pace I had to work so hard for to achieve that 5k time. This strategy was the mid point between 1 and 3, and what I classed the safest overall bet. Not shooting out too hard (i felt 6:44 was an achieveble pace) AND leaving a little leeway to still go under 3hrs if the going got tough! Finally, Option 3 – To follow the sub 3hr pacer. This sounds like an obvious tactic for someone wishing to go under 3hrs. The main draw being the probability of a large crowd in the pack to hide behind if the wind became problematic at any point. The negatives being not knowing how the pacer would perform on the day, and possibly no time in the bank should things go wrong. Andy informed me he wanted to play it sensibly today (which ruled out option 1), but was happy with 6:44 pace as a happy medium. So we both agreed option 2 was the way to go. I was happy with this as secretly I had already set my Garmin Virtual Partner to this pace and this saved me having to change the pace in the settings, ha!
So strategy locked in, bags handed over at drop off, and last minute (quite literally) visit to the portaloo’s and we were off to the race start. Due to my portaloo stop we were quite far to the back of the pack, but this wasn’t deemed an issue as presumably the majority of runners in the fast start were at a similar level anyway, so we didn’t try and nudge our way forwards for this reason. We said goodbye and good luck to Gary and seconds later the buzzer sounded, the race was on!
6:44 was the target pace, so naturally the first mile was …… 6:33. This was ok though. The Withdean Park start is much more runner friendly than the mass start at Preston park. You are treated to a slight downhill first mile instead of a nasty climb around the park (seems a little unfair when you think about it), plus we had to pick the pace up a little to get in front of the Sub 3 pacer group. We didn’t want to be boxed in behind a large group early on. You have to allow for a little early race adrenaline anyway don’t you!
We calmed it down for mile 2, and were dead on pace at 6:44. Mid way through mile 3 was the first water stop. I had planned to fuel up early so took the opportunity to sneak in my first gel whilst the going was easy. We completed mile 3 just under pace at 6:42. We got chatting to a rather cool looking character from Clapham Chasers. He looked very comfortable at his pace so we asked him what he was targeting. 2:55 was his answer, and he skipped along in front looking full of confidence. We were quite tempted at that point to follow him but decided we should be sensible, 2:55 was faster than we wanted and we had agreed not to get involved in these shenanigans before we set off, so we let him go off ahead. (I would like to make a special shout out at this point to “Team Rocket”, they were in town supporting fellow club member Jo Whelan. They knew I was trying for a sub 3 on the day, and I could hear the chants of “JONNI G, SUB 3. JONNI G SUB 3” wherever they were on the course long before I could see them. It really made me smile. Thanks guys!)
During mile 4 you get the first proper taste of what (first half of) the Brighton course is about, a short sharp irritating incline. It became apparent to me at this point, how well I actually knew this course now and how useful this knowledge was going to be as the race continued. I informed Andy of the forthcoming climb, and we knew we were 13 seconds ahead of target at this time, so rather than seek to maintain pace at this point, we could afford to take it easy, keep the heart rate low and preserve ourselves for future struggles. Mile 4 ended up being 6:52 pace. So 8 seconds over target, but still sub 3 pace (just about) so I felt this was a good omen at the time, even though it was still very early days! Mile 5 unsurprisingly was back up to perfect 6:44 pace (I had another gel at the 5.5 mile mark) and we had passed the first test.
The next section of the Brighton course see’s you leave town and make your way along the coastline. Its a steady climb about 2 miles long, not anything horrific, but its enough to cause problems if you push too hard, I learnt this last year and was mindful of this as we went. The wind, although not at full strength yet was in our faces, but there was a small pack just in front of us that Andy and I used for shelter for the most part. I’d never tried this tactic before, but the small amount of shelter you gain from the elements really adds up over time. These 2 miles came in at 6:50 and 6:52 respectively. We were slightly off pace, but still within sub 3, and I knew when we doubled back we would have the wind behind us AND a gentle descent, so we could make the time up then if we deemed necessary (or felt able). Mile 8 levels out again for a small out and back section with a hairpin turn. We ran a comfortable 6:41 mile, I think the legs turned over naturally at that pace without the gradient interfering. Mile 9 was a new section to the course added last year. I saw this change on the course map last year but wasn’t aware it was yet another climb, it hit me hard on the day and I remember feeling like that was the start of the end. Armed with this course knowledge and knowing it was the last “test” the course offered for about 10 miles, I pre warned Andy and we once again gave the climb some respect to preserve the legs, despite this mile 9 was yet another 6:41 mile and at this point I started feeling fairly upbeat. As said last year this series of little climbs got to my legs a little, but this time I really felt fresh as a daisy. A race mantra a friend of mine (David Bartholemew) had once told me popped into my head at this point….. “First third too easy, Second third comfortable, Last third the test”. Well, that first third definitely felt too easy! I allowed myself a smile inside at this point, hoping the second third would feel comfortable!
Mile 10 was an odd one for me. I was expecting a gel station (i had the miles for gel, water and electrolyte drinks written on my split band so I knew what and when I should fuel/hydrate). I had obviously made a mistake somewhere as there was no gel station. I wasn’t too fussed at this point though as there was still plenty time to fuel, and for the most part I had been training without fuel so my body was used to running sans gels, plus the fact I had been carb loading for 2 days prior to race day meant I probably had a lot on board anyway. Mile 10 was 6:48 pace, i’m unsure why we lifted slightly here, I remember Andy asking how my legs felt, so he must have noticed at this point I had slowed, but it certainly wasn’t through fatigue on my part. It didn’t matter anyway, we were still just about on pace, and we were about to have the 3 easiest miles of the course, with bonus added tailwind to boot! 3 effortless miles of slight downhill goodness paired with massive amounts of crowd support saw 6:41, 6:39 and 6:35 paced splits. Oops! Slightly naughty, but the crowd got us really hyped, and the gentle descent really did make it feel easy.
So if we were true to target, we were to go through the first half in 1:28:16, we crossed the timing mat in 1:28:26. The crucial bit being how good I felt at this point. Last year I just made it through under 90 (in a vain attempt at a cheeky sub 3) but I suffered for it. This time I could almost have been at the start again the legs felt that good! The crowds are massive at this point, and I got a boost through being on target for the first half, I sped up massively here, but again I thought back to words of wisdom given to me, this time from a friend in the southern hemisphere (Damien Bruneau). I had discussed pacing options with him just 2 nights prior and he had told me if I went for 6:44 pace, to ensure I did not get carried away between 13 and 18 miles. Remembering I normally collapse at the 18-20 mile mark and not wanting it to happen again, I slowed down before too much energy was wasted to go through mile 14 at 6:39 pace. (And another gel gulped down) Still a bit fast, but the heart rate was still low and the legs felt good, so no harm done. We caught up with our old friend from Clapham Chasers at this point. I asked how he was getting on, he said he was good but I have a gut feeling he had pushed too hard at the start and was now suffering. Thats the last I saw of him anyhow. Mile 15 was roughly the same (6:38) and again, felt so natural I began starting to believe this could actually be happening. In fact, I believed it so much I started to worry a little that it was too good to be true, miles 16 and 17 both ended up being bang on pace at 6:44. I had to be respectful to this challenge, there was no way it could feel this easy could it?
Those who have run Brighton (and actually probably a lot of folk who haven’t) will be familiar with the infamous Power Station section. This is where the race starts to get a bit bleak. It looks miserable, there is a slight incline, the crowds disappear, and it seems to go on forever. The worst bit seeing runners ahead of you travelling in the other direction on their way to the finish. You are willing yourself to that corner, but it never seems to come. Mile 18 was the first mile in a long time that was over target pace. Oh no, i’d been here before, 3 years running. That being said, 6:49 was still below sub 3 pace, and my legs were still feeling bloody brilliant!!! What the hell!? It dawned on me that time and time again I had collapsed at this point, but I felt nothing at this point. The strangest thing happened, and I wasn’t going to admit this here, but I felt myself letting go and I shed a tear or 2 at this point. It was only a momentary thing, but the emotion of making it to this point still feeling good really took me off guard. “STOP IT YOU T**T!” I thought to myself, I was being silly here, I might feel good at this point, but there is still 8 and a bit miles to go, and a lot can happen from here. I took another gel and told myself to get ready for the final third, it had actually happened (“First third too easy, Second third comfortable”) I’d come through 18 miles relatively unscathed. It was all to play for from here! I think I remember saying to Andy here how awesome it had been that we had stuck together this long (i had envisioned him vanishing into the distance at the half way point). I had found it so refreshing running with a companion for such a large portion of this momentus challenge. I was full of gratitude for his company at this point, but this was to be discussed at the end of the race, not right in the business end of the marathon!
I have no explanation for mile 19, other than getting a little over excited that my goal was still within reach at this point, but at 6:36 I was quite possibly playing a dangerous game with myself. Mile 20 was bang on pace (6:44) and I had made it through 20 miles in 2:14:16. This was a 6:43 average, and I still felt good, at 20 miles!? At this point I found a new race buddy. For basically 20 miles of this marathon,Andy and I had heard crowds cheering “Go on Gary!!!!” and similar motivational ” Gary-isms”. We’d joked to ourselves that it was actually “our” Gary, who had feigned injury but was really plotting a negative split race to thrash us at the finish. Well at 20 miles “Go on Gary” revealed himself as he made his way past me for the first time, 20 miles in, the cheeky bugger! Being a naturally chatty racer and still feeling good at this point I started talking to him, and bizarrely he seemed happy to chat back! (i don’t normally find a willing conversation mid race). I discovered his previous PB was 3:18, and he was chasing his first sub 3. I shared my previous PB of 3:08 and the fact I was chasing a sub 3 also. We chatted for the next mile (which was 6:42 incidentally) and discussed the importance of having your name printed on your vest during these races (between cheers of “GO ON GARYYYY” and “YOU CAN DO IT JONNI G” etc) I took one last gel at this point, and I know they say don’t ever experiment on race day, but I took a caffeine gel for the first time in my life thinking what harm could it do at this stage of the race?, and the caffiene boost could be the difference maker at the end of this thing.
We both felt really good at this point. I could tell by the level of conversation. And we both started speeding up. I think we both knew we had enough in the tank for a proper charge at the finish, and I don’t know if his thoughts echoed my own , but I’d decided at this point that a sub 3 was pretty much safe, I was going to push for 2:55. I’d have to make about a minute and a half up over the last 5 miles (I had to allow for the extra distance at the end, I always seem to come over the line at Brighton at about 26.35 miles on the garmin), it felt doable, it really did. But then we came out of the shelter of the power station section and we both reminded about a certain head wind, and oh my word what a game changer that was! How quickly the mood was to change.
The first portion of mile 22 was a surge of pace and excitement on what was to come. But the latter part was the sad realisation that the fun was over. The worst part was knowing that this headwind was going to be present for almost the entire remainder of the race. The last 4.5 miles of this course are straight along the sea front. No turns, no shelter, no respite. This was going to be grim. Unlike earlier, there were no large packs of runners to shelter behind. Despite the fast start to the mile, I only managed a 6:50 mile, and I knew what was going to happen from here on if I didn’t dig in. Gary knew this too, and he was to become a very important character to the end of my race. We adopted another runner at this stage (I didn’t catch his name), a different Clapham runner, he realised the situation we were in and what was at stake and the 3 of us started working togther.
Now I know most people say a marathon starts at 18-20 miles. But for me, personally, on this one anyhow, it started at mile 23. Out of nowhere I had gone from cruising along at 6:40ish to an extremely laboured 7:02! The panic started setting in. Even at this pace Myself, Gary and unknown Clapham were picking off runners by the bucket load as people were succumbing to this brutal headwind with 23 miles already in the legs. It seemed the cruellest of situations after coming so far. Mile 24 was slower still at 7:08 and I could feel the legs starting to tire. How much more could I take? Gary kept saying to me “Come on, we’ve got this”, he is the first person I’ve met that’s more vocal than I am out on course (kudos good sir). We went past another 3 or 4 runners and I turned to Gary and Unknown Clapham, only to find we had lost Clapham already, it was me and Gary against the world. I said to him “Look at all these people we are reeling in, we do not want to be picked off like these runners, this is our day. We have come too far to be beaten at this stage”
The legs were literally on fire at this point. I think we both looked at our garmins approximately every 11 seconds or so to see if we still had the time in the bank, and although it hurt like I have never hurt before, mile 25 was 7:06. I knew we had done enough now, anything but a total collapse and the sub 3 was ours, we both had a little giggle and carried on passing other runners. Mile 26 is slightly downhill as you get back down to sea level again for the finish the wind subsided at this point, and I’ve never been so grateful to see the finish area ahead. It must have been yet more adrenaline as mile 26 I was back in the 6’s (just about) with a 6:58. I was so grateful at this point thinking about how taking it easy at the start of the race and keeping the legs fresh had facilitated this seemingly miraculous finish. I know that just a few seconds a mile faster earlier on in the race and the possibility of failure would have been huge. This shows the importance of a good race strategy (something I only really learned earlier this year), knowing when to fuel/hydrate, and of course how important it is to have faith in your training.
It was then I saw a familiar figure up ahead. Local legend Adam Howlett. I don’t know how or why, but I started sprinting to catch him up (seeing 5:47 pace on the garmin at this point!?), he must have sensed me coming as he turned around and saw me coming, I think he lifted slightly so I could get to him, and he ran with me to the finish (I thought this was a very nice gesture). I saw my wife at the finish area about 100 meters from the end and flapped my arms around at her screaming “I can’t believe this is happening” She was screaming at me to finish. I could see the clock at this point and I swear it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. 2:58, there was no chance of missing sub 3 now (I had discussed with my wife the scary thought of seeing 3:00 something on the screen and not knowing if your chip time was going to get you under or not. If I could see a 2 on the screen so a sub 3 was guaranteed) I flew through the finish with my arms spread wide and possibly the stupidest look the camera men will have seen on a runners face that day, or possibly ever!
I crossed the line with 2:58:27 on the clock and 26.34 miles on the garmin (as predicted) and as I hit pause the realisation set in that I had actually done it! Holy F**K, holy holy F**K!!!!!
I had claimed before the likelihood of blubbing like a baby the day I finally went under 3 hours. (The long standing joke being my lack of emotion in normal circumstances. I didn’t cry at my wedding, I didn’t cry when either of my children were born. I’m not usually the emotional type) However, the hours and effort spent on this challenge have been monumental at times and I was convinced if and when it finally happened the emotion would be overwhelming, but bizarrely, despite the tiny outbreak at mile 18 earlier in the race this didn’t happen. I can only put it down to relief after the uncertainty caused by the headwind. After a handshake with Mr Howlett, a massive embrace with Gary (a complete stranger until an hour ago) and some congratulatory words with other runners who had just hit the milestone themselves I went off to collect my medal and find my wife. After a massive hug she told me my official time showing on the app was 2:58:05 but the bad news was her phone had run out of battery, and mine was in a bag in the car, so I couldn’t get my traditional photo with my medal on the beach. I was in too good a mood to care about such a minor issue though, and thankfully I’d asked the actual event photographer for an official photo in the finishers area so my goofy happy face has been immortalised regardless!
I know it probably seems stupid for such a trivial and seemingly meaningless time to matter so much. But you need to understand this was about more than just the time for me. This was about setting myself a challenge and seeing it through to completion, I’d never done this with anything before. I can honestly say this is the most committed to any cause I’ve ever been. The highs, the lows, the learning curve. Its all culminated to this moment and it really feels amazing. The added bonus now (thanks to last years changes)is sub 3hrs being the new standard for GFA application for VMLM. So with any joy i’ll get to pair this achievement with a chance to run London next year and check that off the bucket list.
I had made a promise to my wife that when if/when I finally went sub 3 that would be the end of my “competitive marathoning” by which I mean chasing a specific time. She always claimed BS but I was adamant I wasn’t interested. However, (apparently she knows me better than I know myself) having managed a 2:58 on the Brighton course in slightly less than ideal conditions. I do find myself curious as to what I could achieve on a faster/flatter course in better conditions and with the pressure off. I’m not saying I am going to chase a faster time, but its strange I don’t feel the closure I think I would have done if that headwind hadn’t put an end to the finish I envisioned. But I’ll worry about that another time. For now I’m going to ride the elation of finally hitting my goal and joining the fairly exclusive club of the Sub 3 marathon runners!
Keep chasing those dreams guys. It really is true, you get out what you put in. If I can do it, anyone can. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and don’t give up!