Some finish lines are magical because of their location. Running down the Mall in London after waving at the Queen, crossing the chip mat to be handed your medal by the volunteers is guaranteed to bring tears to the eye of even the most stoical and miserable runner. Push yourself to run further than you dreamed possible, and whether a 10k or a 100 miler that gantry you pass under is a moment you won’t forget, the mixture of heartache, exhaustion, relief and pride is palpable.
My significant finish was at a lake in Milton Keynes. The line was marked by a flag on the path, the course was marked with flour and there was a noticeable absence of chip mats, finish arches, enormous timing clocks, goody bags or other paraphernalia. The timing was done on a clipboard by a bloke called David, sat on a chair in the sun. The medal was presented by the race director, another bloke called David, and live TV coverage via your red button was certainly not an option.
The finish was special because of the lack of unnecessary junk, pomp and ceremony, not despite it. I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be for the culmination of six years of dogged persistence in the absence of any skill or ability. Back in 2011, as a fat dad in my early 30s I was shocked to find myself agreeing to an invitation from my school mate David (seems a very popular name) to go for a jog. It was awful. I was awful. I could barely run a bath, what business did I have trying to run around the local lake? Despite this I kept at it and progressed from just about completing a 5k parkrun with a mere dozen walk/coughing up a lung breaks to the heady heights of a 10k. Success went to my head and I completed my first marathon, at Luton, later that year scraping under the 5hr cut off time by a few minutes and the skin of my teeth.
They say everyone should run a marathon. I had but struggled the whole way. One of the many, many people that passed me was an elderly gent wearing a club top for the 100 Marathon Club. An actual club for people who have run an actual 100 marathons. Inconceivable. He cruised past looking relaxed and capable. I was at least half his age and wheezing through the distance with the coordination and grace of a tangled marionette puppet. Somewhere in this oxygen starved state a seed was sown and though I daren’t verbalise it for some time for fear of mockery, I wanted that top.
What followed was many years of early mornings, sweaty runs, chaffing nipples, aching legs and a discovery of just how many different gross bodily functions and fluids can pop up (or out) to add to the race day experience. I’ve raced in France, Spain and Estonia, as well as countless small English towns that I’d struggle to recall. Along the way I’ve overcome a deep fear of organised activities and joined a running club (or two, call it three), and changed physically and mentally for the better. I’ve made some amazing and supportive friends and struggle to remember a time when running wasn’t something I did.
It’s now a chilly and damp Saturday morning in September. I’m pulling on the tried and tested marathon kit like a professional. By diligent application of stubbornness I’ve made every mistake possible before and during a big race. Extensive trial and error means I’m broadly an expert, or an idiot for not listening to the advice of others in the first place. Stopping at McDonalds for a pre-race breakfast (unconventional but proven and most importantly, available pretty much anywhere in the Western world) and I’m off to Caldecotte lake for another event organised by Engima Running. This time it’s different. This time it’s my 100th and I’ll be pulling on the hallowed 100 Marathon Club top that has motivated me for countless 5am training runs where snot freezes to your face and poorly designed running shorts do their best to rub away that which you’d rather keep in place.
The turnout from the running club is amazing with around 50 taking part in either the full marathon or the marathon relay teams to share the day with me. After being present for countless other marathon celebration events it’s finally my day. Always the bridesmaid, finally the bride.
David, the Run Director starts the race and we’re off for a final 26.2 miles of a 2620 mile journey.
Each of the seven laps I’m greeted by cheers and applause from the ever increasing crowds gathered at the gazebo erected by another clubmate called Dave (there really is a theme here) and expertly catered by my long suffering and ever supportive wife Cloe (she’s been reluctant to chance her name to David to keep with the theme). I have company for the laps and hold a steady pace. Terry is running leg 1 for one of the relay teams and despite landing back into the country only hours earlier is a cheerful companion and we run together well. After 99 attempts I’m finally thinking suicide pace is not the way to go and maybe this constant pace theory has some benefit.
Club mate Stephen, fresh from a 185 mile run at King Offa's Dyke Race keeps good pace from the start. I’m delighted for the company and dismayed he can run 7:20 pace a mere four days after running for 74hrs with “as much as 2 hours sleep a night”. Fortunately for my ego he eventually starts to tire and drops back after three laps leaving me with never tiring training buddy Jen for motivation, soon joined by Matt and Dennis.
Every time we pass the finish line I’m surprised by yet another friend, work colleague or relative who’s come to witness the awesome sight of a perspiring fat man living out a midlife crisis.
The boating club on the South Lake are holding a regatta. The ‘fun’ of dodging rowers and comically swinging oars is made better by the compere cheering us on and announcing ‘Here comes the lead marathon runners’. It’s the closest I’ll come to being an elite marathoner so I’ll seize on that but I’m sure Eliud Kipchoge never had to negotiate an Olympic class coxless four crossing the race route whilst he was trying to break two hours for the marathon.
Passing halfway and I’m on pace and in the lead. Fully aware this is more due to other local races and the marathon major happening in Berlin than my own ability I’m still happy to hold the spot. If I can hold the pace as well then I’ll manage the trippy whammy of personal best, race win and 100th Marathon.
Company comes and goes as friends join me for sections either as part of their long steady run or part of their faster session, all making sure to stay behind and offer no physical support or aid to avoid allegations of unofficial pacing. This is a race I don’t want to be disqualified from.
From about mile 18 I start to fade. It’s not unexpected. The weather is clearing and temperature climbing. It’s great for spectators, less so for runners. Marathon advice would recommend dropping a gel before this point and a few more on route to the finish. Experience has proven my stomach will object and the regatta competitors will be sharing the lake with a half digested Egg McMuffin if I try. I stick to sports drink and water. Club mate Matt helps me focus and limit the fade.
On the penultimate lap I glance back over my shoulder to see a runner gaining. The pace now makes a PB look remote but I really don’t want to lose first place as well.
Starting the final lap and one of the Davids (I genuinely can’t recall which) rings the bell to the cheers of a sizeable crowd. The next time I attract so many well wishes and acquaintances to one place will probably be my funeral. What a cheerful thought for mile 22.
Focus. Only 3.5 miles stand between me and the hefty medal. And a beer. I really want a cold beer as that will mean I’ve finished and can stop running. I briefly consider stopping for a quick one but one of the many people called David reminds me the second place runner is gaining so I take a water from the table and push on.
I lose the company of Matt as he’s hastily despatched on ‘carry my dog back duty’ after she sees me running and decides to join me for the final lap. Bella is well used to running with me, could handle the pace better than I but can’t understand why on this occasion she’s not allowed. Her grasp of race regulations relating to canine runners and potential voiding of the race insurance is sadly limited.
This final lap is now just me, the clock, and a runner in orange creeping up behind me. He’s keeping me honest and there’s no letting up. The twisting nature of the course means there’s precious few opportunities to gauge a closing runner’s progress. The presence is more felt than seen, like the alien in a bad science fiction film with limited budget for props and special effects.
Counting off the waymarkers as I pass them for the final time (goodbye stinky dog bin, adios trip-trap troll bridge, farewell regatta people and your massive pile of abandoned shoes) and I’m on the home stretch. Catching up with clubmates Connor and Emma on their long training run and I reach the final corner and push for the finish line. It may not be the crowds of London but the assembled masses are far more welcome as a sight and I cross the line in a shade over 3:18 and opt for a little lie down on the grass.
I’ve finished. I’ve won. I’ve narrowly missed a personal best but that really would have been the cherry on the icing on the sweetest cake and I’m not disappointed. They’ll be other PB attempts, I’ll only have one 100th marathon.