Katie has already joked that writing this has probably taken longer than actually running the marathon – I don’t think she’s wrong. Settle in, grab a cup of tea or a beer, and find out if I finally managed to run in marathon in under 3 hours..
The sub 3 hour marathon. Many runners have this as lifetime ambition, and I’d spent the last few months daydreaming of crossing that finish line and glancing down to see a 2 in the hours column as I stopped my watch. But this is the marathon, and I know from first-hand experience as well hearing stories from many runners that everything needs to fall into place to have that perfect day – if perfect is even possible.
I won’t go into much more detail about my training for Barcelona (you can read more about that in my pre-race report here), but it’s safe to say that everything went extremely well. One little niggle, which soon went away, left me travelling to Barcelona in the shape of my life, having run pretty much every day for the last 4 months.
We were flying out really early on the Saturday morning, so decided to stay at a hotel next to the airport the night before to try and get some decent sleep. Earlier in the day, work colleagues had watched me prepare around 17 sandwiches as part of my ‘carb loading’ attempts leading up to the race. I’m pretty sure Tesco didn’t have any bagels left by the time I’d finished.
I really wanted to get a run in on the Saturday morning, just to shake my legs out before all the travelling. I set out in the darkness, but quickly realised airport terminals aren’t the ideal place for recreational running. I ended up settling for roughly 20 laps of one of the airports long stay car parks, receiving more incredulous looks from the public over 3 miles than I ever had on any run previously. Job done.
Last year I’d manage to persuade 11 others to jump on the Barcelona bandwagon, so Katie and I waited patiently at the gate whilst the last call for passengers was made. Charlie, Nick, Perkins and Tom decided to incorporate their pre-race warm up as part of a sprint through Gatwick’s North terminal, making the flight by a matter of minutes. Who likes being anywhere early anyway?
After a short delay (something about the French air-traffic controllers spilling wine over their keyboards), we arrived in sunny Spain and hopped into a cab straight to the expo, which is held right next to the start/finish line in the heart of the city. Collecting numbers and official t-shirts (good quality – shame about the completely lame ‘Want it more’ slogan slapped onto the front) took all of 5 minutes and we had a quick wander around the various stalls selling all the running gear you could ever wish for.
The one really disappointing aspect was the lack of freebies being handed out. Apart from a slice of cliff bar, the only thing they seemed to be desperate to get rid of were hundreds of loaves of bread. We came away with a few for our apartment, but some of the Spaniards seemed to be going a bit over the top – they must either have huge families or big freezers back at home.
After this it was time to get our feet up for the rest of the day back at the swanky apartment Nick had booked for us via AirBnB. We watched England hold on (just) in the rugby, whilst various other arrivals filtered in during the day from later flights. Once the 12 of us were together, we sat down for a nice simple carby dinner, before getting an early night – probably the earliest a group of 20-somethings on holiday have ever gone to bed on a Saturday night in Barcelona.
Sleeping is never my forte the night before a marathon, and that night was no exception. After HMS Charlie Dutton has switched the foghorn off for the evening (I’ll have to tell Mum she’s got a contender for worlds loudest voice), I tossed and turned for hours, drifting in and out of sleep. With the alarm set for 5, I gave up for good at 4 and browsed the internet for a while before wolfing down a bit of porridge and just relaxing and reading a book. After that, time seemed to pass really quickly, and soon enough it was time to jump on the metro to the start.
After a brief detour which nearly led to us being on the 07.36 overground train to Madrid (which would have probably left the marathon plans in tatters), we eventually found the correct platform and were on our way. Katie decided to forget her gels and had a brief panic attack, but luckily we arranged for Katie (a different one, confusingly, who was out supporting us) to hand these to her early on. Panic over, for now.
The start/finish area was set out really well, with the bag drop taking all of 2 minutes. Being Mr. Organised, I’d bought bin bags for everyone beforehand so people wouldn’t get cold waiting for the start. After dishing these out, it was time to exchange good lucks before we all spread out to our various starting pens.
For those that aren’t aware, the big marathons are usually split into different start areas based on your predicted finishing time, so the faster runners aren’t stuck behind those slightly slower than them at the start – everyone’s time is measured using the electronic chip they are wearing so no one suffers as a result of this.
I was in the very front pen, for those who had predicted a finishing time of under 3 hours. Everyone here seemed to be extremely serious, as they all ran around in a small circle like sheep, attempting a warm up. I found this highly amusing as I tried to conserve as much energy as possible by sitting on the wall and focussing on what was sure to be a tough next few hours. Time absolutely flew by, and suddenly the euro-pop music was being blasted out as the MC announced there was just 5 minutes to go.
I was lined up about 20 rows from the front, and if I stood on my tip-toes I could see the open road ahead down to the first roundabout. I’d expected to feel nervous, but felt a strange sense of calm come over me. I’d trained so hard and knew I could do what I’d set out to achieve many months ago, as long as I didn’t do anything stupid early on like set off like a runaway freight train. The overriding emotion was that of excitement as the announcer counted down from 10 in Spanish.
Tres, dos, uno. Go.
0km –> 5km (20:40)
I was over the line within 30 seconds of the starting gun and charging towards the first corner. A quick look at the watch told me I was running at under 6 minutes a mile pace – way too quick! I slowed it right down but I couldn’t believe how hard people were going out, either there were a lot of really quick guys or I’d be seeing many of them later on (this turned out to be the latter).
I went through the first mile in 6:38 – bang on target pace to the exact second. The crowds through the first few miles were 2 or 3 deep and the support was fantastic. It was hard not to get caught up in the moment as I’d been waiting for this day for so long, but I stayed focussed and just tried to tap out a consistent pace. The field was still sorting itself out early on, and I had to do a bit of weaving, but on the whole tried to avoid this, as it’s just wasted energy.
5km -> 10km (20:35)
The first water station came after 5km, and I got into a routine which I followed for the rest of the race – grab a bottle of water, take a few sips, before pouring a bit down my back and over my head. We’d actually been really lucky with the weather, as even though the sun was out, it was quite a cool day (around 11-12 degrees); perfect for marathon running. However, I usually overheat quite quickly so was keen to keep my core temperature as low as possible.
I spotted Paul Brown’s mum and dad, as well as his better half Katie and they gave me a shout, which was nice. This would be the last familiar face I saw for the rest of the day, as the support crew we had with us had plenty of people to offer encouragement to out on the course – no easy task.
This part took us around the outside of the Nou Camp, home of the famous Barcelona FC. It also included some small inclines – a constant feature of the route. I think many people think Barcelona is a flat course, but there are some gradual rises. However, these are nothing to get worried about, it’s just a case of losing a few seconds on the way up and making it up again when heading downhill – which always seemed to immediately happen after a climb (funny that).
10km -> 15km (20:58)
Things had settled down by now, and I was just trying to get to the halfway point as comfortably as possible. I went through 10km in just over 41 minutes – 2 years ago this would have been a personal best time. There were a lot of long, straight and wide roads throughout the route. I really enjoyed these, as it allowed you to switch off and just find a comfortable rhythm.
We passed about 200m away from the finish line before heading away from it. The crowds had built up here, and it was just like a wall of noise. I just remember grinning for ear to ear, just happy that the day was finally here and I hadn’t managed to fall over or need an emergency toilet stop yet.
15km -> 20km (20:39)
After passing the front door of the apartment we were staying in (not even tempted to stop), we headed around the iconic Sagrada Familia – basically a massive church that they haven’t finished yet. The tourists were out in force here, and it was a mixture of people cheering on the runners and those trying to cross the road to look around the ‘church’ (construction site).
We hit a long out and back and I saw the leading female coming back on the other side of the road with the lead car with a clock on top cruising along just ahead of her. This was another one of the mentioned gradual inclines, so I tucked in behind a tall Chinese chap and got a free ride. The top signalled less than a mile to the half marathon point, and we turned around and headed back the other way.
20km -> 25km (20:12)
I hit the half way point in just over 1.27 – exactly as planned. At this stage I had to force myself to calm down, as I was feeling really good and started immediately thinking ahead to the finish. I’d been at this point before and started accelerating before getting to 20 miles, leading to some sort of unpleasant explosion. This time it was all about getting to 20 miles as easily as possible, and then seeing what I’d got in the last 6.
The field was getting a lot more spread out now, and I found myself running completely alone at stages. I was steadily passing runner after runner, not at an alarming rate, but just one by one every 30 seconds or so. Things were still feeling good, but I was readying myself for a rough patch to come at any point.
25km -> 30km (20:09)
We headed up another long out and back section, which was about 5km in length. I’d read something somewhere about pretending to be on a bus until 20 miles, doing as little work and expending as little energy as possible, before jumping off for the last 6 when the real hard work begins. So this is exactly what I kept telling myself, as strange as it sounds. Just stay on the bus.
More water stations and more dousing myself to stay cool. They were also handing out gels and sports drinks at the drinks stations, but I’d been training with just water and decided to stick to it. I didn’t have a single gel on the way round and really don’t feel like I needed it. At no point did I feel low on energy.
30km -> 35km (19:52)
The last 6 miles are the business end of the marathon – some people say the race doesn’t really start until mile 20. I’d always slowed down in all my previous attempts, significantly in some cases to a point of walking (the heat in Budapest springs to mind). I was determined that today wasn’t going to be like the others.
As soon as I went through 20 miles, I steadily started increasing the pace, and I saw the minutes per mile pace on my GPS slowly creep downwards. The restraint I’d been showing up until this point was forgotten, and I just told myself to run the last few miles as quickly as I physically could. I was sure at some point the pain and resultant crash was going to come, but I was feeling strong and running well.
I started passing runners left, right and centre. Some people were really struggling at this point, and I was making up place after place which was further fuelling my confidence. We were running along the Mediterranean by this point, the sun was out, and we were slowly making our way back towards the city centre.
In those 5km’s I overtook nearly 100 people, moving up from 522nd to 424th.
35km -> 40km (19:48)
By this point I could smell the finish line and knew that, barring disaster, I was going to comfortably run under 3 hours. However, I pushed this to the back of my mind and concentrated on getting myself to that finishing line as quickly as I physically could. The last 4 or so miles were what I’d been training so hard for, and I was determined not to let all the hard work I’d put in go to waste.
The crowds around the centre of town were incredible, and I continued to make my way through the field of runners, concentrating on picking off one person at a time. It was really starting to hurt now, but I kept my foot to the floor, telling myself that I had roughly 20 minutes or so left of running.
Miles 24 and 25 were my joint quickest of the entire race (6:16 per mile) as I tried to use up every last ounce of effort. I started to think of all my friends and family from home who’d told me they’d be following on the internet tracker to keep my mind off the suffering.
I overtook another 85 people in this section, moving up to 339th, and also ran my fastest 5km split of the entire day – not something I ever thought I’d write about the closing stages of a marathon.
40km -> Finish
Rather cruelly, the last couple of kilometres are up a gradual incline, so if you’re not feeling great, this can be really tough. By this point I was on the limit, still managing to overtake people – but my face had a permanent grimace on it. I would say it wasn’t a pretty look but it’s never nice having to look at my ugly mug in any situation.
In the distance I could see the final roundabout where you turn into the finishing straight. Up until this point I hadn’t allowed myself to believe I was going to do it, but finally now I started to realise that it was actually going to happen. The last 6 miles of a marathon weren’t meant to go this well!
I knew I’d been speeding up but nearly fell over with shock when I saw 2.51 something high above on the clock as I approached the line. I was going to be comfortably under 2.52, so allowed myself a few seconds to soak in the atmosphere, thinking that a day like this may never come again in my running life. I had the biggest grin in the whole of Barcelona as I crossed the line in 2.51.43.
Link to strava activity
Link to my results time broken down
After staggering forward a few paces, I sunk to my knees, not quite believing what I’d achieved. I’m not ashamed to say at that point I completely broke down (not for the last time on the day), as all the emotions I’d been holding in during the run came pouring (quite literally) out. I was blubbing like a 4 year old child, but at the same time still had that same massive smile on my face.
I’d finished in 310th position overall, and 13th Brit. During the last 13 miles, I overtook 258 people, and as far as I can recall, I wasn’t passed by a single person. My second half was run in 1 hour and 24 minutes, just 1 minute slower than my half marathon personal best. My last 10km were covered in 39:40 – I just couldn’t believe these numbers related to me and not some other, actually decent, runner.
After grabbing some water and a handful of nuts (one of my only gripes – minimal free stuff/food at the finish), a finishers medal was hung around my neck. I went to collect my bag and immediately loaded up the internet tracker on my phone to see how everyone else was getting on. I saw that Katie had gone through half way in under 4 hour pace. It was going to be a nervy hour or so waiting to see whether she finished under 4 hours.
I had a few emotional calls with friends and family back at home, and was absolutely overwhelmed with the messages I had received before, during and after the race. I didn’t even realise I had that many friends!
I’d made my way back down the route, positioning myself about a kilometre before the finish. From here I clapped and cheered until I started losing my voice, saving some special shouts for everyone I’d travelled out with.
The tracker was giving me splits every time Katie went through each 5km point, and I was expecting her to come past at any moment. I was far more nervous than at any point I’d been during my own race, and when I saw her coming I tried to run alongside her offering support, but my legs were in tatters. She looked like she was hurting, badly, and I knew it was going to be so close.
The next 4 minutes were by far the longest of my life as I waited for the tracker to update, not knowing if she’d managed to sneak inside 4 hours. Then the time flashed up – 3 hours and 58 minutes. I punched the air and shouted out in delight, terrifying the poor old lady standing next to me. I had a few more tears in my eyes, as I was now not just the happiest man in Barcelona, but the proudest. After all the injury problems and tough times she’d been through, it was a quite amazing run, and to me, much more impressive than my own time.
It was fantastic to also be able to watch everyone else come past in various states of exhaustion (special mention goes to Nick Gibbs who looked in more pain than anyone), and then celebrate with everyone immediately afterwards, sinking a few well-earned beers. Hero of the day has to go to Charlie Phelvin who was on his feet for nearly 5 and a half hours. Rumours were that he had done less than 26 miles in the whole of his training plan, so I thought it was an unbelievable effort by him just to finish – nice one mate.
The rest of the weekend was spent catching up with all the eating and drinking I’d missed out on during training, hoovering up as many plates of tapas as the waiters of Spain could throw at me. Unbelievably, my legs actually felt ok the next day, better than they have done before any other marathon. I’m already back into a bit of gentle running with hardly any discomfort, although I’ll be sticking to low intensity stuff.
The race itself was fantastic, and apart from a few minor, minor points, I really can’t fault it. A great course, with great support and excellent organisation. I’ve no doubt I’ll be back in Barcelona for the marathon at some point in the future.
I can’t thank my friends and family enough for all the support they’ve given me throughout my training. I’ve also received a load of invaluable advice and friendship from the community on the runner’s world forums, which has really helped with getting out and training on the bleak, cold winter mornings.
I’m not really sure where I go from here, but my overriding thoughts are that I’ve got more to give when it comes to the marathon. Going under 2 hours 50 is so close now, and 2 hours 45 definitely not out of reach – this would give me a coveted ‘Championship’ start in the London Marathon, something I had never even dreamed might be possible.
For now I’ll just settle for a 15 minute personal best and an automatic entry into the London Marathon for the next two years, which I’ll definitely be taking. How can you turn down an entry to what must be one of the greatest races in the world?
It’s Friday now and I still can’t quite comprehend what I’ve achieved. If you’ve had told this chubby, lazy, annoying teenager that one day he’d run a marathon in under 3 hours, he (as well as his family), would have probably fallen about in fits of hysterics. It’s funny what you can do with 2 legs and a massive dollop of motivation and commitment. I never used to believe that anyone could achieve something as long as they put their mind to it and wanted it badly enough – now I’m not so sure.