Hard on the heels of the Potters ‘Arf in the running calendar comes the Potteries Marathon. With only three weeks between the two, and with a sore foot and very tired legs from running the ‘Arf, my training strategy for the full marathon – reputedly the seventh hilliest in the world and the hilliest outside North America – was a week’s recovery (no running), a week’s rest (no running) and a week’s taper (no running). At least my foot had stopped hurting after a few days and - a good sign – I was itching to run come 3rd July.
I had a sense of how tough the race was going to be from the Potters ‘Arf course, which included some very challenging hills, including the dreaded Heartbreak Hill, and very little flat. But great crowds and a huge sense of achievement from completing the course. Clearly the full marathon is going to be the same but with bells on, although thank goodness Heartbreak Hill isn’t on the full course. I tried to blank out the fact that it was over ten years since my last marathon and I’d done precious little training – my only race target was to finish. Time and style immaterial, just get me to the finish line.
The start is at the Britannia Stadium (I’m pretty sure it was still the Brit in July – it’s now the BET365 of course). Great location and good to see Ken Rushton and other familiar and friendly faces at the start. Loads of Stoke FIT runners as usual, and as you’d expect some big turnouts from other local clubs.
Unlike the Potters ‘Arf, it’s a beautiful day, if anything a bit warm and sunny for a marathon. My strategy is to try and stick to sub-9 minute miling and try for a sub-four finish, but to stop at each water station and make sure I take on plenty of fluids.
The route of the marathon is a lesson in urban geography and industrial heritage, taking in so much of the conurbation of Stoke on Trent: Hem Heath, Dresden, Florence, Adderley Green, Bentilee, Abbey Hulton, Milton, Cobridge, Burslem, Middleport, Porthill, Wolstanton, Newcastle, Westlands, Clayton, Penkhull and Trent Vale. It is also remarkably green, as is the city. It has, of course, its own killer hill (well, lots of them) but the crème de la crème has to be Porthill Bank – at about 15 miles in, steep and sapping – and as is always the case on the most challenging sections, completely rammed with spectators. I think I manage to run up it, although brain fade was setting in at that point.
My foot, which had been gently reminding me of the Potters ‘Arf since about mile three, really doesn’t like this hill or the more level subsequent section through Wolstanton, so by Newcastle and mile 18, just past a lovely friendly marshal manning the A34 underpass, I have to call it a day and grind to a walk. Or a hobble. My foot is really, really painful by now, hard to walk on it let along run, and a lot of miles left to go. I walk as far as Clayton (three miles by my count) but a word of encouragement from Frank Murphy, the founder of Stoke FIT, at a water station at around mile 21 gets me going again. That and a rough calculation that unless I start running again I am going to take about five and a half hours to get to the finish.
Baling out had entered my mind as I hobbled along Newcastle’s Iron Market, to the pitying gaze of passers-by, but I’ve never had a DNF (apart from shin splints at mile 32 of a 100-mile challenge – that did do for me). Maybe I’ve got tougher (or more obstinate, or just plain more stupid) over the past ten years, but I grit out the last three miles, hoping for a sub-5 and preferably a sub-4.45 (my time in my first London Marathon). Penkhull, Trent Vale and the back end of the Michelin are a complete blur of run-walk, passing, being passed by and re-passing a select group of fellow stragglers. Ray from Stoke Fit with his trade mark red flat-cap is on about the same pace at me but mostly because he seems to be stopping to chat to half the spectators. He certainly has the energy to pull away in the last mile or so. Finally, with half a mile to go I realise that if I put in one last effort I might break 4 hrs 30 – and I even manage what feels like a sprint in the final finishing straight (uphill of course), with the clock ticking past 4:29:50 as I push for the line. Job done.
My foot was sore enough the next day for me to break the habit of a life-time and go and see my GP about a running related injury. In the surgery I discovered that both the student doctor who did the initial examination, and the GP when she came to check on the student’s diagnosis (suspected stress fracture) were former runners, both unable to run any more after serious running-related injuries. Not stuff I wanted to hear. The next day the X-ray man gave me better news – no fracture, so ‘just’ soft tissue injury, and by then I was virtually pain-free again. So rest, then run again.
Let’s see how it holds up in the Leek Half Marathon in early August – that can’t be too hilly, surely?