I still don’t consider myself a runner which sounds pretty stupid as I stood on the start line of the Southampton Marathon a week after running 40 miles in Madeira.
What’s even more stupid is that I’d been to watch Saints get hammered (excuse the pun) 0-3 in London the day before and had more than a couple of craft ales and ciders followed by another when meeting school friends that night. Still, its all carbohydrates yeah?
Perhaps most stupid of all in this triple decker stupid sandwich was a late decision to pace my friend Paul to a half marathon PB of around 1:45 as the half and marathon go off at the same time and I would be happy with the company.
A race of two halves
Southampton has probably the best organised bag drop of all the road marathons I’ve done and so after a hurried public lubing (like a random yellow card on MOTD this will make sense later), my bag was handed over and I was stood on the steps of the Guildhall in the cool morning sunshine.
I decided to keep the trail running vibe going by sticking with the Hokas, Salomon race vest and beard which was handy as it was actually quite cold in the shade and we still had a while to go. This time soon evaporated as most races do – in the queue for the toilets. I don’t know if it’s a universal truth but I have never been to a long distance race where there hasn’t been massive queues for the loos with minutes until the start.
Paul’s tactics were the same in every race we’d done together – go out slightly faster than needed in case his legs hurt later. I’d tried to explain that this probably wasn’t the best bet but we’d done alright in the past so why not continue. The crowd were colourful and keen as we counted down until the starting gun went off and Paul shot off like he’d seen a free Pot Noodle (sorry dude).
I couldn’t understand it. We’d agreed to get ahead a bit but this looked like he was trying to win the race from mid-pack – 1:45 is 8 minute miles and this felt much quicker.
Still trying to get my thoughts and legs together, I went to get round a group who were blocking most of the path through Houndwell Park. As I edged past them, I recognised the determined expression and gait of Francis “Franny” Benali, Southampton legend and a man who had been forced to stop his latest fundraising effort of 7 Ironman triathlons in 7 days by the medical team. And yet here he was on the 7th day running a marathon having already swum 2.4 miles before he would get on his bike for 112 miles! I was so happy to get a picture with him that I didn’t even notice Matt Le Tissier in the background!! Overall Franny has raised over £1m for Cancer Research UK and counting.
Back to my run and I settled into a still quicker than intended pace as we headed around the old town and towards the formidable Itchen Bridge. After Madeira, it was laughable to even call it a hill but it still hurt as I headed up the slow, gradual incline but my training had obviously worked as I caught Paul and his friend Steve just as we got over the highest point.
On all my previous Southampton races, this was the turnaround point but this time the route snaked through the new apartments which have replaced the decaying shipyards in Woolston and off towards Netley along the shore of the Solent, a path I’d never run before with views out towards the Isle of Wight.
Curving back towards the bridge, you can see the runners behind you and I was happy to see we were probably in the front half. I saw Ash, trusty rightback from my old Sunday league team the mighty Sporting Compass, looking very casual and comfortable as he did his half and then Starkey, our centreback, cheering as we headed back over the bridge.
Making the most of the smooth descent from the bridge, we realised that we were a couple of minutes up on our projected half time but might as well continue while we felt good. The crowds were still great and after a couple of turns we were running on bright red carpet next to the hallowed turf of St Mary’s stadium. It was surprisingly soft and gave no bounce for runners but it was amazing as always to be there.
Back onto Northam Road past my first family home in Southampton and then over the bridge to my last family home. In 20 years we managed to move all of half a mile via a couple of years in New Zealand! There were protesters at the end of my old road against a potential McDonalds (find out more and raise your objections here).
It was still warm but with a slight breeze as we wound round the streets of Bitterne Park, cheered along by families still in PJs and dressing gowns. The ever-excellent Southampton Ukelele Jam were doing their best, somewhat unsuccessfully, to drown out my my family as we crossed through the Triangle and down towards Riverside Park.
They think it’s all over…
Paul’s wife and three kids were due to meet him at the far end of the park and I help back a bit, partially to give him space and more likely to get some totally emotional content for the blog. There were families and supporters everywhere but we couldn’t see Steph. As we turned back and away from the main crowds, we still hadn’t seen them.
I didn’t really want to say anything but with just over three miles to go, we were nearly there. After surprising my mum (who was chatting away to someone), we turned right across Cobden Bridge for the potentially the hardest part of the course.
For anyone who knows Southampton, you’re essentially going from the lowest point to the highest in a very slow uphill, reaching the Common after an interminable climb. I knew it wasn’t going to be fun but I wanted to keep the pace up and get through the next couple of miles. Paul was dropping back slightly as we crossed through Portswood and up Highfield Lane, this time surprising Louise who clearly had better friends to be cheering on! Still going up, I slowed slightly to try and “reel in” Paul, waiting as he caught up at the entrance to the Common.
We were still nearly 5 minutes ahead of our pace and barring catastrophe, a massive PB for him. From the Common it is literally all down hill, almost in a straight line to the finish. As we got closer, he got stronger and began to move away from me.
It had suddenly occurred to me that I had to do this all again.
The closer to town we got, the bigger the crowds were. As we entered the final few metres before the finish line, the fans were banging the hoardings to make an amazing atmosphere. Which is precisely when a steward pointed me to the left, away from the line and back into the park.
The silence was deafening. I could hear birds chirping it was that quiet away from the main road. Here people were just going about their normal Sunday routines, oblivious to the fact that I had just run 13 miles or the fact that I had another 13 to go. It was going to be a long slog. I put in my headphones and put my head down.
The difficult second loop. No half marathoners to keep me company, crowds smaller and quieter as they went off to meet their friends who had already finished.
I figured that we’d done the half in about 1:40 which actually isn’t far from my PB and I was in unfamiliar territory. I don’t run fast, I run far.
This time Itchen Bridge was definitely a few metres taller, the breeze along the Solent was defnitely into my face and I was also beginning to get a bit of rubbing “down under”.
It never fails to surprise me how something I’ve worn comfortably for numerous ultras can suddenly feel like dull sandpaper at another race. My gait was normal except every fifty or so steps I would do an awkward John Wayne shuffle to attempt a handsfree wardrobe rearrangement. No use, I would have to go with the emergency tub from the paramedics.
“Va-se-line” I mouthed to the first one I saw, returning only a blank look. “VASELINE!” I said as he walked towards me and I slowed down. “Are you OK?” he replied clearly not understanding the pretty blatant scene unfolding. Turned out that he didn’t have any as he was a bike paramedic but the next station definitely would and was half a mile away.
So I resume my semi-awkward style and asked the luminous green tent. “Nope sorry, the next one might have some,” they offered. From memory the next aid station wasn’t for a while so this was unlikely to be fun couple of miles, especially with ANOTHER trip across the Itchen Bridge.
Even though I was slowing down, I was still ahead of a lot of people and weirdly it gave me strength to see them battling through it, with further to go than me. Like I’d gone through that bit already and was stronger for it.
The field had thinned out to an extent that I was almost on my own going back through the stadium, giving me a chance to look around including up at our regular seats in the Northam End and think about the pain and ecstasy of being a Southampton fan.
After a moments philosophical wandering, the rising heat from my inner thighs and lack of energy in my body were once again conspiring to take me down. Another aid station failed on the lubrication front but I did manage to suck a salted watermelon GU which almost instantly gave me some energy.
Back at Bitterne Triangle again, the Ukulele Jam was still going strong and my family were still waiting for me. My mum gave me a high five and a hug – “please can you get me some vaseline,” I implored to a confused look of response.
“Erm ok,” she said before adding “remember to high five these kids” pointing to two children in front of her. If it wasn’t for their presence I might have shot back with something stronger than an angry glance. Still, as I saw her holding a tub of Co-op own brand petroleum jelly after the park loop, I was nothing but thanks, even despite the lack of privacy on the street.
This was an attritional run now, my legs on autopilot at whatever chugging speed they could muster as I headed towards the Common for the second and final time. By this time the crowds were sporadic so I was overwhelmed as my friend Liz bounded up to me, proclaiming this was the third time she’d seen me. I had no recollection of those but unexpectedly seeing someone you’ve known for over 20 years is like a shot of caffeine so even though my legs were sore, the last few miles were happy.
Through the Common, scene of so many childhood memories and my 30th birthday, down on to the Avenue and blurry, happy recollections of drunken stumbles, onto London Road and finally, with headphones off and nearly on my own, through the triumphant, near deafening noise of the finish funnel.
3:38 – a new PB and a massive positive split (second half slower than the first) but once again a huge grin on my face as I crossed the line.
My legs were probably more sore than after any race I’ve ever completed, including ultras, and for some reason Paul and Duncan had chosen a downstairs bar for the celebratory pint. If I had the energy I would’ve thrown my free banana at them.
Maybe I don’t consider myself a runner because football will always be my number one. Even as it seeks to destroy itself and turn its back on the fans who turn up week in and week out at nightmarish locations like Tranmere, Derby and Middlesbrough, I would give up running tomorrow to play for Saints (some of our players also appear to have made this decision).
I still pray there are scouts out there looking for a 35 year old box to box midfielder with a good engine but poor touch and even worse heading ability. Until that miracle happens, I guess I’ll just keep running.