Valencia – the home of paella and tapas. The Spanish city holds only the fondest memories for me, as last years visit resulted in a shiny new marathon PB (probably never to be repeated). It also offers some much needed December sunshine, which is always a nice accompaniment to a cerveza or seven post-race.
However, this year, we wouldn’t be returning alone. A small army from Clapham Chasers had been assembled, some drawn by the fast-flat course, others by the lure of the numerous bars and restaurants on offer once the sun goes down. In the end I think there was over 50 of us in town over the weekend; friendly faces wherever you looked.
Katie and I were faced with limited annual leave left, due to an earlier (unreported on this blog and social media) trip to America for a couple of low-key races. With this in mind, we’d booked a stupidly early flight out on Saturday morning. Cue the 4:30am alarm and taxi to the airport.
On the flight out we got to catch up with Dave and Rachel Mantle, who found fame on this blog last year when Dave successfully managed to book everything for their romantic weekend away apart from the race entries themselves. No such issues this weekend, he’d learned his lesson.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Stuart Macdougall, the poor lad. We spent the journey trying to persuade him to salvage a solid 4 months of training and get an entry somehow. Eventually, he managed to sort himself a place, and it was a good job he did, storming to a very impressive new PB of 2:35. What a plum.
Taxi straight from the airport to the expo, where we got ourselves registered and picked up our runners ‘bags’, the contents of which would be enough to feed a small Spanish family for a week (or me for 2 hours), before heading back to our luxury hotel. I treated Katie to a supermarket sandwich and bottle of diet coke, and we sat in the sun and watched the world go by.
After meandering through the afternoon, catching up with a few Chasers and just generally kicking back and relaxing, we grabbed some dinner with Mr and Mrs Xempo and another pal, John. Whilst most Valencians were finishing off their lunch, we grabbed a pizza and shared a bit of nervous running chat, before retiring back for an early night.
Having swerved the potential landmine that was the hotel having no kettle, Katie had couriered in a travel kettle to ensure porridge was very much on the menu bright and early. We sat quietly, contemplating the day ahead, wondering as usual, just why we put ourselves through this on a regular basis.
There was a great buzz as we walked down to the start, meeting up with others en route, everyone discussing targets and race plans. I felt like a bit of a fraud, not having trained specifically for the event, but I was really excited to see how everyone else got on, just hoping they had good days.
It’d probably be a good time to mention my training right now. Or lack of it. Ever since Kona, all motivation has been lost. I’ve been happy enough to do plenty of exercise, but nothing hard or too taxing – just ‘fun’ stuff. If you can count a 34 mile, hilly ultra marathon as fun. But hey – it was my birthday after all.
Anyway, plenty of unstructured training and enjoying lots of nice food has left me slighter rounder than normal, as a certain A Woolgar was all too happy to point out post-race, the cheeky sod. It led to me returning to Spain with contrasting emotions after last years ‘run of a lifetime’. I was really happy to be their surrounded by so many great friends, but at the same time, I found myself wondering if I’d ever get back in that shape. This sounds absolutely foolish, I know, but it’s funny what runs through your head.
To top things off, I hadn’t been feeling too perky in the past 24 hours, and 6 loo stops in the hour before the race still left me in the starting pens needing to go again. I decided that hoping for the best was the best approach to go with, as there was no way I was making it back to the toilet before the start.
I hooked up with my good pal, Graham Sutherland, just before we crossed the start line. He’d been training like an absolute demon, and was hoping this might be the day that he broke the 3 hour barrier. He charged past me after about a mile at parkrun last weekend (despite having already taken a tumble), so I had my reservations about staying with him. But if I could try and help, I would.
The problems started before the start, which is never good.
Graham – ‘I really need a pee mate’.
‘Just go now then you mug. Before you cross the line. Then you won’t have to lose time during the race itself.’
‘I can’t, there’s too many people around.’
Bloody hell G, now’s not the time to be modest. So instead of having 3 hours to run this thing, we’re already down to 2:59:30 after he’s found a luxury loo en route. Not ideal, but we’ll roll with it.
The first mile or two were super congested, and we were actually a couple of seconds behind target pace, but with people everywhere, there wasn’t room to speed up, so we just had to roll with it. Being tripped up was the main concern, and I had my elbows out trying to keep a bit of personal space.
After it started to settle down, Graham peeled off to find a bit of privacy. We’d devised a plan, where I’d continue running at 3 hour pace, and he’d slowly catch-up to me over a number of miles, instead of burning matches and surging back up to me straight away. It still didn’t stop me glancing back every 5 minutes to see if I could catch sight of him.
We were on the first out and back by this point, and I saw fellow Chasers Matt Dickinson and Ed Rees positively flying on the other side of the road. Matt went on to run a quite astonishing 2:29, with Ed also smashing his PB (2:32). It’s so inspirational having these guys at the club, and it couldn’t have happened to two nicer gents – well played chaps.
Graham caught me just before we reached 10km, and we started to tick off the miles together. By this point another Chaser, Moussa, had also joined the gang. We hit Star Wars music roundabout (now my favourite part of any marathon, anywhere), where the first alarm bells started ringing in my head. He was already telling me that his legs were feeling pretty flat and that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold the pace.
Whilst externally I keep the chat positive and upbeat, I was thinking that if he’s already struggling before 10 miles, the likelihood of us keeping this pace for another 2 hours was unlikely. But, we were committed, and going for it. A glorious failure is much better than being left wondering what might have been.
The crowds on the route were incredible, with ‘Venga’ or ‘Vamos’ being the shout of choice. Throw into the mix plenty of live music, fancy dress and hundreds of volunteers, and you’ve got an awesome atmosphere. I think this is my favourite marathon, for so many reasons. I can’t see any reason why we won’t just go back year after year.
We made it to half-way in 1:28:45, giving us a little bit of buffer for the second half. Little is very much the appropriate word, because a couple of slower miles and the dream is over. I was getting more and more worried about Graham, acting like a mother hen when she loses sight of her chicks and constantly looking around. I was trying to judge how he looked; the brutally honest answer was ‘sh*t’, but I knew he was a fighter and he’d battle until the bitter end.
I just kept the chat positive, only getting annoyed at him when he kept constantly trying to say ‘thanks’ to everything I said. Save your breath mate, you’re going to need it. The issue was, I was also struggling by this point, but I thought that if I slowed down or pulled up, he’d be tempted to do the same. So onwards we marched, and I tried to keep my mind in a happy place, ignoring the fact that my legs were starting to feel like lead.
We were getting some positive mental distractions, with plenty of other Chasers out on the course, having already finished the 10km event, or just come out to Valencia for the drinking session. It’s always great to see a friendly face, and I think Graham got a real mental boost from this.
Our Chaser group was growing, as we’d picked up Simon Le Good and Alex Ferrario – we had a fully fledged boy band on the go now. Think of an older, faster, uglier One Direction. The only direction we were heading in by this point, was towards the finish, and Graham was clinging in there.
We’d made it into the last 10km, but anyone that’s done a marathon before will know, things can unravel quite quickly at this stage. We were still on pace, but for the first time the pace had slowed slightly, and I gently asked Graham if we could give ‘just a little bit more’. This went down surprisingly well, but I’m sure if he’d had any extra energy it probably would have resulted in a slap in the face.
We were back in the city centre now, and the crowds were building again. It was harder to talk, due to both the noise and the fact that we were absolutely knackered. 6km to go, and Graham tells me he can’t do it. Balls to that mate, we’ve not come this far to throw it away now. I tell him to hang in there and think of something else – possibly a certain branded energy drink and tobacco.
We get to 5km – the mythical ‘parkrun to go barrier’. I tell him to pretend he’s running the last 5km with his good mate Phil Logoreci, and to think of everyone back in the UK that will be glued to the tracker right now, screaming him on. I think we’ve got it in the bag but definitely don’t tell him this, as one spell of walking and it’s all over. The kilometres seem to be taking an age by this point – it’s like time is moving in slow motion.
We hit 40km and I know he’s not going to let slip from here. I’ve never seen such a display of grit and determination – he’s been on the limit for the entire second half but resolutely hung in there. I’ve now got a huge grin on my face – I think Graham tries to return a smile but it looks more like a gurn.
The last 2km were so much fun, as memories of last years run come flooding back, with many more being created as we moved through the crowds. He’s been so strong during the second half, overtaking countless other runners as they continued to slow. Into the last kilometre, and I tell him to take it all in and make the most of the moment ‘You’re going sub 3 mate!’. It’s hard to tell if he’s happy or not – there’s just a permanent grimace on his face.
Planning ahead for all possible scenarios, I had my phone with me, having the grand idea to film the last couple of hundred meters to look back on when we’re old and grey (so in Graham’s case, tomorrow). However, this was nearly a non-starter, as after shepherding him around for 26 miles, the joker tried to sprint away from me in the finishing straight.
I’d like to say that messing around with my phone was the reason I was falling back, but in reality my legs were absolutely trashed and I politely asked if we could finish together, since he’d decided to get to the finish with bags of time to spare, negating the need for a fast finish.
That video can be seen here.
I crossed the line in 2:58:10, comfortably inside 3 hours. There were some sweaty hugs, high fives, and celebrations amongst the Chasers, everyone glad that the running had stopped and the drinking of beer could begin.
It was an honour to share the road with Graham, and I witnessed first hand a display of amazing determination and hard work; I’ve rarely seen someone suffer that badly and hold it together. We ran the 2nd half marathon in 1:29:35, less than a minute slower than the first. What an absolute legend.
Whenever Katie’s taking part, there’s minimal time to mess around, as she won’t be far behind. I was straight onto the tracking app to see how she was getting on. She’ll be happy for me to say, since Chicago, her training has been pretty minimal, as we both enjoyed some well earned down-time. Therefore, the fact that she finished in 3:09, another PB, shows just how much potential she’s got when she trains and then gets favourable conditions on race day. I’m very excited. And proud.
We headed back out onto the course to support the other Chasers still slogging away in the sun. There were so many amazing performances, but one that stands out for me was Jen Woolgar. After a string of bad luck and difficult races, she got the reward for all her hard work with a brilliant 3:35. Awesome.
We proceeded to drink many beers in the street, before heading back to freshen up, ready for some more in the evening. I probably had a few too many, and the tequila shot Graham bought me just about tipped me over the edge, and shortly afterwards Katie was helping me home via a quick stop off in Burger King. I probably owed her that after her shenanigans last year.
So all in all, another successful weekend away. I cannot recommend the Valencia marathon enough. In my opinion, it’s the fastest course in the world, fantastically organised, has great support, and is really cheap and easy to get to. I think I’ll go back every year if I have the option – conditions are perfect and it’s a really cool city.
That pretty much closes the book on 2018, with only a couple of other ‘fun’ races planned in December. Time to reassess and draw up a battle plan for next year. The only thing that’s certain; I don’t think it’s going to involve much sitting on the sofa.