One more race to close out the season. It’s been a long year, starting way back in December where training for the Outlaw & Ironman Wales started in earnest. I haven’t really stopped since then, bouncing from one race to the next. I wouldn’t have it any other way; I absolutely love testing myself and I’ve shared some great experiences with mates along the way.
Katie and I weighed up our choices; a 3 day, 86 mile ultra-marathon along the Ridgeway, where the weather could be absolutely diabolical in mid-November, or the Valencia Marathon. The title of this blog is a bit of a giveaway as to the option we plumped for, with the decision being an easy one once we learnt that Valencia was the birthplace of paella.
It’s safe to say the build-up wasn’t a conventional one. After giving myself a good two weeks off proper training post Wales, I had 8 weeks to cobble together some sort of training plan. Sure, my aerobic fitness and endurance should be pretty decent, but I knew I’d need to get some run sharpness back to enable me to run a faster marathon.
What followed was a random assortment of racing, long runs and distinct lack of any real structure. I then started to get frustrated that I wasn’t running 5kms as fast as I was back in March/April, before Katie rather sensibly reminded me that I hadn’t been training to be a faster runner, instead focusing on triathlon. I couldn’t just suddenly hope to be knocking out personal bests all over the shop – you can’t have it all. A wise head on young shoulders.
That’s not to say I didn’t put the effort in over those 8 weeks, hitting the training pretty hard. Excluding the final week before the race, I averaged 60 miles a week, as well as running the Amsterdam marathon and another full 26.2 miles as part of a long steady Sunday run. I ventured onto the track once, as well as attending two tempo club sessions. A final hit out at the Thames Meander half marathon, where I couldn’t even get up to marathon pace during the race, left the confidence levels low.
Not wanting to sacrifice precious annual leave, we were up at the crack of dawn (4:30am) on the Saturday morning to board our Easyjet chariot to the Costa del Azahar (definitely had to look that one up). We just about negotiated security, after Katie decided she’d place a small bottle of perfume in my hand luggage without my knowledge. Of course, I confirmed there was definitely no liquids in my bag (getting slightly annoyed about the whole process), before looking bewildered as they pulled out the container in question. It’s unclear whether this was a direct attempt to try and sabotage my race, but just a warning to you all – never trust anyone.
We landed to clear skies and bright sunshine, which was glorious. The journey flew by, as we made acquaintances with Dave Mantel, and his wife Rachel. Dave had managed to successfully organise the whole trip, before finding out the day before that he’d forgotten one small detail; to actually enter them both in the race. Classic. Luckily, the organisers took pity and allowed them to sign up the day before – from zero to hero in the space of 24 hours.
We made tracks straight from the airport to the expo, held at the quite spectacular museum of arts and sciences, which is located slightly south of the main city. This was also the site of the start/finish of the race, so we got very familiar with the area over the weekend.
Unfortunately, Katie had picked up an injury after her storming run in Amsterdam, so wouldn’t be running the marathon. She tried to make the swap to the 10km, but they were having none of it. The only blemish on what was otherwise a fantastically organised event. The registration process was smooth enough, and the ‘goody-bag’ we received pre-race was just ridiculous, containing a whole supermarket’s worth of items we then had a to lug around for the rest of the afternoon.
Entry also included a ticket to the paella ‘party’. Everyone knows that Joe Spraggins and free food go together like peas in a pod, so we were there bang on time, ready to riot if there was no sign of a tasty meal. I successfully managed to turn down the free beer, promising myself to make up for it tomorrow, regardless of the outcome.
The rest of the day was spent snoozing before morphing into the classic Brits abroad by finding the largest, most touristy square and sitting down to eat dinner in it; pizza, naturally. Our status as dweebs was further bolstered with the purchase of some rather fetching hoodies. I’d told Katie to pack for a summer holiday, so she was unpleasantly surprised to find out that is was pretty chilly in the evenings once the sun had gone down. Fear not, with tacky tourist shops aplenty, we weren’t cold for long.
I got a crap night’s sleep, but I’m used to this by now, and I don’t let it bother me; instead just making sure I’m well rested in the days leading up to the weekend. I was up 3 hours before to whip up the trusty bowl of porridge that has always served me well on race morning. I hung out at the apartment for an hour, before leaving Katie to snooze and headed down to the start.
We were staying a couple of miles away from the start, but I like to stretch the legs pre-race, so I chucked my headphones in and meandered down through the central park, pumping out some motivational music. My zone was shattered when a chap behind me, fancying a short bike ride after a night on the town, crashed into a metal sign at low speed, which sent him sprawling onto the grass. After dusting himself down, he gave me a quizzical look before continuing on like nothing had happened. Carnage.
Once at the start I began the process of queuing for the toilet, going, and then getting in the queue again. Once I was good to go, I headed to drop off my bag and got into my starting zone with 15 minutes to go. Everything was extremely efficient, and ran like clockwork – nice work Valencia. They’ve obviously been taking advice from the Germans.
In the pen, I immediately bumped into Dan A (of Xempo fame), along with another mate (Pete), and the 3 of us shared a nervous pre-race conflab around hopes and expectations. I was also hoping to find Danny O’Reilly, who was aiming for a similar time to me, but he managed to find himself in the 10km starting zones (which follows a complete different course to the marathon) with 5 minutes to go until the start. Classic.
An eerie silence descended in the seconds before the start, with my concentration broken by splashes of water landing on my legs. If I didn’t know any better, I could’ve sworn I was being pissed on.. BANG. No time to worry about that anymore; we were off haring over the bridge, all the bundled up energy released out onto the roads. I always get a feeling of elation once on the move – the time for fretting is over, and now it’s time to see what I’m made of once again.
The opening stages passed in a blur as I tried to settle into a rhythm. I’ve started to get the reputation for being a bit of a ‘sandbagger’ in certain circles, by talking down my chances before a race. However, I guarantee you, if you’d offered me a 2:44:59 finishing time in the week preceding the race, I would’ve shaken your hand there and then – I’d be over the moon with that.
With that in mind, the reason I set off at a pace of 6 minutes per mile instead of the required 6:17 for a 2 hour 45 finish time is a mystery to me and you both. I definitely got over excited running with some faster people, and the speed I settled into felt natural and one I could hold for a fairly long time. My heart rate was slightly higher than I would’ve liked, but I was feeling reckless, so I decided to just go with it.
5km – 18:53
The Valencia route features a lot of long, straight roads, which really allows you to settle into a rhythm. Speaking to people afterwards, I think the course is even faster than the Berlin marathon, and with near perfect conditions, is great for those looking to run a personal best.
As gutted as I was that Katie had to pull out pre-race, this meant I’d gained a valuable supporter; and she threw herself into that role with as much enthusiasm as she does her running. It was amazing, as I must’ve seen her a good 7 times out on the course, each time gaining strength from seeing her smiling and waving away at the roadside. She managed to cover over 13 miles on foot during this time – the advantage of having a speedy partner with some great map reading skills!
10 km – 37:58 (5km -> 10km 19:05)
I went through 10 kilometres 5 seconds slower than during London back in April, but I felt like I was currently working much harder than back on that day. I kept telling myself that I was going to regret this pace and that I needed to back off, and for the next few miles the pace did drop slightly as I fought to keep my heart rate in check. People were drifting past me after my slightly quicker start, but I let them go, resolving to run my own race.
The spectators and music out on course were excellent. The crowd loved it when I joined in for the YMCA theme as I ran past, which seem to annoy rather than amuse the other serious European runners I found myself amongst. Us Brits know how to have a good time, right? Another spot was blasting out Star Wars music, which for some reason really got me worked up – that bit was awesome.
15km – 57:41 (10km – 15km 19:16)
Katie kept popping up everywhere, now with the I heart Valencia hoodie discarded after working up a bit of a sweat (it had absolutely nothing to do with looking like a dweeb). I told her that I was taking a risk, and not to be surprised if it all came crashing down in the closing stages.
I was surprised to learn that Pete was just seconds behind me (the shouts of ‘Go on Pete’ being the giveaway), as I knew he was shooting for a time of around 2:47, and we chatted briefly, with him letting me know he was silently stalking me. He dropped off around halfway but still ran a fantastic 2:45 for another big PB.
20km – 1:16:44 (15km -> 20km 19:03)
I was now 15 seconds ahead of my London time (although at that point I didn’t know this), with my sights firmly fixed on half-way, which would be my first proper indicator of how I was getting on. I went through in 1:20:26, quite ridiculous when I couldn’t even run under 1:21 in a half-marathon race 2 weeks ago.
Half-way – 1:20:26
I was in uncharted waters now; this definitely wasn’t part of my pre-race plan and I truly believed at this point that the goal from here was to slow down slightly and cling on for a small PB. I was convinced I wouldn’t run the 2nd half of the race at a faster pace and therefore sub 2:40 was definitely off the cards (as if it was ever on in the first place..)
I was definitely suffering more at this point than at the corresponding stage in London, but I was concentrating on splitting the race into 5km chunks, knowing each time I hit a timing mat, that message would be sent home to friends and family that were tracking my progress, and this helped me focus on keeping the pace.
At this point we passed the start/finish area which is always mentally challenging with over an hour still to run. The temperature was starting to rise – nothing to write home about, but I was making sure to douse myself with water at each aid station, which were brilliantly stocked and well run, meaning I didn’t have to break stride once in the entire race.
25km – 1:35:24 (20km -> 25km 19:07)
At this point of the race, events always start blurring together as the heart rate and effort levels rise. The crowds were brilliant as we headed back into the centre of town, and I knew Katie would never be too far away from popping up, grinning like a cheshire cat. I was trying to ignore the watch, knowing there was a good 10 miles still to go.
30km – 1:54:20 (25km -> 30km 18:56)
Things were still just about holding together, but I was very wary that I was walking a tightrope – pushing too hard too soon could lead to a disastrous final few miles which could see all hopes of a good time go out of the window. The smile that I’d been sporting for much of the day had morphed into more of a smiley grimace, as I continued to now pass some of the runners I’d let go earlier.
It was now of case of counting down single kilometres instead of blocks of 5, bargaining with myself to hold the pace for just one more, and then reassess once that one was over. Each one seemed to last slightly longer (although in reality I was actually speeding up), but the belief started to seep through to my legs and lungs – I’ve got a real chance here!
35km – 2:13:15 (30km -> 35km 18:55)
All that hard work and I’d only sped up by a single second! At least I wasn’t slowing down, and I had my sights fixed on 37km – the classic ‘parkrun to go’ marker. The legs were screaming at me by this point, but I just fixed my gaze ahead into the distant and told them to do one.
One last appearance by Katie, and the only time I found myself getting slightly emotional, as she screamed ‘You’re on for a massive PB, keep going!’. This was the first point I believed it was truly on; a 2:41 or even if I was really lucky a high 2:40 something. I was hating it but loving it at the same time – this is what I do it for, those last 25 minutes of intense suffering, where you really learn what you’re made of.
40km – 2:31:50 (35km -> 40km 18:35)
At some point between 35 and 40 I’d apparently decided to drop the hammer and run my fastest 5km of the race. I had the bit between my teeth and was enjoying playing my favourite game of ‘hunt down the Europeans’. The rules are simple – catch one, pass him, and then go after the next one.
I was trying to summon together all of my mathematical prowess (12 years of school, 4 years of university) to calculate what time I could hope to finish with. The noise from the crowds was building and my mind was fuzzy, so I resolved to wait until the 41km marker – signalling 1.2km to go, or exactly three quarters of a mile.
I hit this point and quickly (?) worked out I had 4 minutes and 23 seconds to break 2:40. Oh dear! That wasn’t part of the pre-race script. I immediately knew I was going to have to push maybe harder than I ever had before in the closing stages of an endurance event. I’d have to run my fastest mile of the race; not particularly straightforward at the end of a marathon.
Those last 4 minutes were probably the best and worst of my running life to date. I immediately launched myself into what felt like a full on sprint. I found myself desperately wanting to slow down, before recalling each and every one of those early morning starts, the hours spent pounding the Thames path and all the beers that I’d begrudgingly turned down. For me, in that moment, I felt like it had all come down to this.
The overwhelming thought that I kept coming back to was; ‘You’re an absolute mug if you throw this away now Spraggins. You can endure another few minutes of pain – suck it up.’
I’d seen the finish line in the lead up to the race; it’s without doubt one of the most picturesque in the running world, and I had been thoroughly looking forward to enjoying those closing stages, taking it all in and generally just messing around. This idea had obviously gone straight out of the window as I staggered around the final bend, facing the long 250m straight ahead with the clock looming large at the end of it.
It seemed to take an eternity to cover the ground as the clock kept ticking down ahead of me; 2:39:20….2:39:30…2:39.40… My arms swung wildly as I threw everything into the last few strides.
It hit me without about 7 seconds to go that I was actually going to bloody do it. What on earth is going on; this surely can’t be happening? I stopped my watch and had to check it about 5 times to make sure I’d got it right; 2:39:48. Sub 2:40! Are you kidding me! I had my head in my hands, in a state of disbelief. Sitting here 3 days later it still hasn’t quite sunken in yet.
I ended up in exactly 200th position of the 16,163 finishers, covering the last 2.2km in 18:15 5km pace, and the last mile in 5:50; my fastest of the race. Over the 26.2 miles I averaged 6 minutes and 6 seconds per mile.
I walked around, grinning from ear to ear like an absolute moron. There were high 5’s and handshakes all over the place; I was offering them out to anyone that would take them. I quickly went to grab my bag and find Katie; I couldn’t wait to see her. I spotted her and got a massive hug; she was as excited as I was, which meant so much to me.
The celebrations continued long into the afternoon and evening, with some excellent performances from some of the other Brits we knew out there (both in the running and the drinking stakes). I’d promised Katie that I wouldn’t get as excited as after Amsterdam, which ended in me feeling slightly worse for wear for the rest of our stay in the Dutch capital. Her subsequent fall out with the McDonalds employee over the lack of chips with our late-evening snack probably confirmed that I was actually the better behaved of the two that evening..
Monday was spent wandering around Valencia, with a permanent grin splashed across my mug. We had a little paddle in the sea, and enjoyed a bit of winter sunshine. A closing note on the city and race; if you get a chance, definitely do it. It’s an awesome place, the weather is great, the course is super fast and it’s excellently organised.
So, an extremely long season comes to a close. If you’d have told me this time last year, with my marathon PB sitting at 2:49, that I’d run a 2:39 marathon and also come within 120 seconds of qualifying for Kona, I’d have told you to stop being so ridiculous.
Sundays run has really made me sit back and think about what I could possibly achieve if I focused solely on running. I’m enjoying my triathlon too much at the moment, and I’ve got certain things I want to achieve before I put that to bed. A time will definitely come in the future where I shove all my eggs into the running basket and see what happens. Until then, I better get back in the pool..