By Sumanth Nayak
The Marathon of the North was to be my third crack at the 26.2 mile distance. Having just done the Dubai Marathon at the end of January, I didn’t really start training for it till late February. However, various injuries (sprained ankle, sore foot and knee) in the month leading up to the marathon limited me to just three long runs, the longest of which was 21 miles two weeks before the race. Still, I was confident I could do the distance. I ran Dubai at 8 minute mile pace but I felt I could go a lot faster so I decided to run Sunderland at 7:30 per mile which, assuming I could maintain it for the entire distance, would hopefully see me finish in 3 hours 16 minutes or thereabouts.
The day started out bright and sunny, with no wind whatsoever, and the temperature around 8 degrees, perfect conditions for a race. I got a lift from Roberto Marzo to the Stadium of Light. It was a short walk to the start line from the parking lot and after standing about in the sun for close to an hour, meeting up with Claremonters and runners from other clubs, we were off at 9:15 sharp. I started quite close to the front so didn’t lose precious seconds weaving about other runners. The first few miles went by easily at 7:30 per mile pace. I kept checking my Garmin regularly making sure I wasn’t going too fast. Jamie Harding, who told me he was going for sub 3:30 flew past me but I resisted the urge to keep up with him knowing I would suffer after halfway if I didn’t stick to my planned pace.
The course was quite complicated with many twists and turns and not knowing Sunderland at all, the only landmarks I could really remember were the Wearmouth Bridge, the beachfront at Roker, and the few parks we passed through. The rest of the course mainly went through the suburbs so there wasn’t much to see. The fact that the course turned back on itself in many places meant I got to see the frontrunners and the ones behind me quite regularly. Seeing them cheer me on really gave me a boost. The race was well supported with plenty of spectators lining most of the entire route. People were standing outside their houses shouting praises and offering jelly babies, bananas and chocolate. It was great to see Lorna Pearson screaming her lungs out and Bill Milbourne taking photos.
After 11 miles my pace dropped to 7:45/mile so I took a gel and felt the effect a mile or two later. My pace immediately picked up again to 7:30/mile and I felt quite strong. The course was relatively flat up to that point but after 14 miles, there were a series of steady climbs, nothing too steep but still energy sapping nonetheless. The support in Barnes Park at around 16 miles was terrific and I felt really buoyed by that, still going strong. From here the route descended all the way back to the Wearmouth Bridge. I finally caught up with Jamie on the bridge where one of the official photographers must have taken a fantastic photo of us.
18 miles completed as I approached the stadium again and I heard Ian Hudspith’s name mentioned on the loudspeaker. He had just completed the 10k in 31 minutes! There was a troubling moment at that point as the 10k runners were coming into the finish when one of the runners collided into the fence that separated the marathoners and dragged it down onto herself and collapsed. I looked back and saw someone thankfully helping her up. After 19 miles I finally caught up with Jamie and he said that he couldn’t maintain his pace and that I should keep going for a sub 3:20 finish. I didn’t feel like that was possible since my pace was dropping back to 7:45/mile so I took another gel. This time it didn’t help as after 20 miles I kept slowing down and as the course descended along the beach to Seaburn, I was dreading the climb back to the stadium after the turnaround.
The steady ascent started at 23 miles, the point where runners usually hit the wall, and it took all my mental strength to keep going. I really felt like walking but I knew even a slow jog would be better than walking and losing time. Jamie passed me, still going strong, and I tried hard to keep up with him but I just had nothing left in my legs. I checked my watch and saw that I was five minutes behind so there was no way I was going to finish under 3:20. With 3.2 miles to go, I kept telling myself that it was just a parkrun till the finish and I pictured myself running on the Town Moor. I was averaging 9:15/mile at this point. A spectator offered me some jelly babies which I gratefully accepted but it felt like I was chewing rubber.
After 24 miles, as I was dragging my feet along, Robert Brand (a fellow parkrunner) came past me looking really strong and saw me in pain. He decided to stick with me to the finish sacrificing a sub 3:25 run in the process. I kept telling him to keep going, that I would make it, but he wouldn’t have it. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would’ve given up and started walking. With his words of encouragement, I kept going and as we approached the stadium, a spectator shouted out, “Hey Mr. parkrun man!”, at which of us that was directed I have no clue! With 400m to go, Robert peeled off for a sprint finish, and I checked my watch to see that I still had two minutes to match my time from Dubai. I gave it everything I had left for a sprint finish and as I crossed the finish line in 3:27, my hamstrings were on fire. I gave Robert a massive hug and just kept walking, knowing if I stopped to sit down, my legs would seize up.
Relieved at having finished without stopping, I walked into the stadium to collect my goody bag, medal and t-shirt and met up with all the other finishers. I was disappointed at not finishing under 3:25 but considering the lack of training and over-ambitious pace, I guess it’s still a decent time. It is a personal best after all!