The Man with the Golden Arm

The post title?

There is a dark, dark book out there somewhere called ‘The man with the golden arm’ by a guy called Nelson Algren

If you’re into mid-20th century literature you’ll have read it already; if you’re not then the brief summary  (it was about 18 years ago that I read it so my recollection may not be the best) is that it is the story of a man with a monkey on his back. His monkey is heroin – hence the book’s title – who finds himself in a dark and dystopian world that he struggles to escape.

That bit doesn’t really apply to me but before last Monday’s marathon I definitely had a monkey on my back.

In April 2009 I had the rug pulled out from under me at the Rotterdam Marathon as a 3:15 marathon turned into a 3:44 shuffle to the medical tent and a fortnight on anti-viral drugs. I realised (very slowly, mind you) that you don’t determine your finishing time in a marathon. the marathon determines your finishing time. I know it sounds very American but since Rotterdam (and I think most runners have had their own version of ‘Rotterdam’) I have had a nagging doubt about my own abilities over the marathon distance. This doubt has manifested itself through a fear to fully commit to the task while racing.

So, my finish last Monday in 3hrs 18 mins and 18 sec was me realising that if I trained properly, paced well and dug deep into the well of self belief I could achieve what I set out to do.

Hopefully Monday was the monkey of self doubt finally getting off my back.

The final week before last Monday was the usual build up week to a marathon – shit for me and even shittier for anyone unlucky enough to be near me.

I have realised that a short taper suits me so on the Sunday week before the marathon I completed my last long run (14 miles). the week before the marathon I kept things light with a Tues/Wed/Thurs of 3 miles /6 miles  /3 miles. The Wednesday 6 miler was a bit too fast with average miles of 7:30 min but I had been sitting in a meeting for 9 hours so I needed it a a head space more than anything.

I headed up to Dublin on Saturday on my own and collected my race pack (the quickest in ‘n out job I could manage). I was suffering from very little pre-race nerves but the marathon expo is located somewhere between miles 23 and 24 so as you walk out all full confidence you can sense the physical and mental desperation that will unfold within the next few days.

I headed out to my sister’s house for a feed and a bed.  My sister and her family were heading out to the Virginia Pumpkin Festival so the next day (Sunday) my support team travelled up to stay with me. This meant my quiet Sunday dozing in front of the TV was changed into a regular Sunday of being circus master to the performing monkeys (Pia, Hannah & Tom).

Normally, before a marathon I can’t sleep and spend all night staring at the ceiling wondering if I’ve done enough. Not this time. This time I hit the sack at around 22:00 and didn’t wake again until 06:00.

After a bowl of porridge and a few espressos I taped my nipples and pulled on my running gear – and got back into bed for another 30 min nap.

I finally set off for central Dublin at around 07:45.  My sister lives a good 35 minutes from the marathon (with no traffic) so I was cutting it fine. The morning was ideal for running. Frost on the cars and a clear sky.

I parked on the canal about 750m from the start. I decided against bringing a bag for the start as I realised last year that this was a big drag on time. I left my bag in the car and stashed the key under the front bumper – The car has 142k miles on it so it would have been a blessing if it had been stolen.

When I got to the start everything looked very well organised. There was plenty of space in the starting pen so there was no panicked crush.

I spotted a very good looking 3:30 pacer with very fetching fingerless pink gloves on so I went up to say hello. He promised to kick me if he caught up with me at any stage.

I huddled in the middle of the pen almost exactly halfway between the 3:15 and 3:30 pacers and decided that this was where I wanted to be at the end of the marathon. Under my 3:25 from Cork and if things went really well then under my PB from 2 years ago in Dublin (3:20).

The race:

this report will be using the Garmin splits which were consistently about 0.2 miles behind the official mile markers. As such, even though they were not hitting the official markers they  were measuring real miles. Some of the key splits mentioned here were based on the official timing as I had the wherewithal to check my watch.

Miles 1 – 4

The gun goes off. the first mile of shuffle, s’cuse me, s’cuse me, sprint, shuffle  passes in 7:44. I knew it would be slow, but I thought it would be faster.

Mile 2 passes through the centre of central Dublin. Quiet on a bank holiday Monday morning. This is the ‘checking things out’ mile. Making sure the pace is OK and adrenaline isn’t making you run faster than you should. this mile passed in 7:22. The heart rate was lower than the first mile at 156. This was a good sign as ‘bad’ marathons were always characterised by a mediocre pace with a crazy high heart rate – 8:15 miles at 175 heart rate – always a sign of too much adrenaline.

Miles 3 and 4 are a bit of a climb through the north side of Dublin and a drop down to the gates of the Phoenix Park. The road was still very crowded. The only on-lookers were bemused pyjama-ed  locals wondering what the 13,000 nutters were doing as they were nursing a hangover and a B&H.

These miles passed in 7:34/162 & 7:18/162.

Even though it was early days I was feeling fine so I decided to run by feel rather than heart rate or pace. I decided that as it was so cold I would be able to hold a reasonable pace even if I had to slow down.

Miles 5 – 8

these 4 miles are entirely within the Phoenix park. Mile 5 is run around the back of the Dublin zoo. You can hear the Gibbons howling with laughter as we tramp past on out pointless quest for achievement. God blessed them with a smaller brain that sticks to sniffing their fingers and sex a their main goals in life. At this point in the marathon, with only 21 miles to go I was starting to wish I had a Gibbon brain……………..wait, …………..I won’t go there.

Mile 5 was a 7:25/164. – Also, first gel.

Mile 6 was the long up hill slog on Chesterfield Avenue with nothing to look at but the back of the guy in front of you. For an up-hill mile it went OK at 7:26/165. at this stage I was stunned to see the guy in front of me take his phone out of his pocket and dial a number and start chatting through the ear piece he was wearing. Months of training, detailed nutrition and he makes a phone call during the marathon. WTF?

Mile 7 is one of the nicest miles on the course. In the middle of a huge marathon in a capital city you are running through a woodland park with not a building or car in sight. this passed in 7:19/164.

Mile 8 was down hill so this would test the legs. A slow mile meant that I needed to measure my pace, a good mile meant ‘so far, so good’. And a bit of time to bank for the inevitable slower miles towards the end of the race.

Mile 8 was a 7:06/160.

As I came out of the Phoenix Park I checked my watch at the official 8 mile mark. It showed 1:00:03. More or less 7:30 splits.

2 years ago I had hit the same point at exactly 1:00:00 so I felt my pace was at least as good as that day (a 3:20:19 finish) and I had faded badly that day. Hopefully I could postpone the fade today.

Miles 9 – 12

These miles are a general climb. The course climbs to a plateau at mile 13 (by my reckoning anyway) so they are not the greatest in terms of performance.

I had 2 concerns at this stage. One was the heat, or more importantly my management of the heat. I had adopted a strategy of running with 2 small water bottles by this stage – one for hydration and one for cooling.  the other was the proximity of the 3:15 pacer. This was screwing with my head. The pacer was only about 20 – 30 seconds ahead of me and I was worried that either he was going too slow or I was going too fast.

Mile 9 was through Chapeizod village and passed in 7:12/162 (nobody was more surprised by this  pace than than me)

Miles 10, 11 & 12 were spent worrying about my pace (too fast) and soaking up the weirdest of observations – the girl arguing with the Garda about not being able to drive out of her apartment complex because of the 2 hours of runners that still had to pass her front door, the drunk guy running beside us with the pint of milk, the countless number of people who had to stop for a wee.

These miles were 7:27/165, 7:22/163 & 7:31/165. I think there was a gel at mile 12 as well.

My support crew were stationed at the half way point. An easy point to get from outside the marathon course and as it is next to a large car park it makes it easy for the bored cheer leaders to run around.

After a high 5 here, dumping my hat and picking up 2 extra gels I pushed on for the boring miles until mile 16- my next pace check point.

The halfway point passed in 1:38:52 by the clock (I think). This would lead to a 3:17 finish if there was no fade – hardly likely.

Now came the race.

Miles 13  – 16.

These are the anonymous suburban miles.

Boring, soul searching, energy sapping, middle class miles.

Where your marathon is made or lost.

These miles were 7:30/166, 7:39/166, 7:26/166 & 7:41/168.  I felt the last of those 4 mile. No least because I spent it running beside a guy called Seamus who had his name on the front of his shirt. They all knew Seamus.

Mile 16 passed by at 1:59:13 which was a negative split on the first 8 miles. My plan now was to check the pace again at mile 20, 23 and 24. If I was under 2:32:00 at mile 20 I knew I could try for a sub-3:20.

Now came the miles I normally refer to as the ‘single digits’ miles. These are the miles where you stop counting up and start counting down – 10 to go, 9 to go, 8 to go, 7 to go, 6 is a piece of piss…………how could 1 mile be so hard?

Miles 17 – 20

Now the meat of the marathon – where the sugar is saying goodbye and the will power takes over.

These miles saw the 3:15 pacers say goodbye to me – as much because of the winding course as because I was a minute or two off their pace.

Miles 17 & 18 are OK. All through the upper middle class suburbs of Dublin and setting you up for the first ‘tough hill’ – the Milltown hill at mile 18. This is where you don’t want to end up walking – and many do.

To my surprise these miles passed in 7:26/167 & 7:24/168.

This hill is a big mental block for many people and I know I feared it in previous years but regular weekly ‘hill therapy’ has meant that I didn’t notice either this  hill or the mile 20 hill  this year – don’t get me wrong now, they were tough, but not impossible.

Mile 19 sees the marathon move away from the city centre again and out to mile 20 and Foster’s Avenue. The hills around here could never be described as tough – unless you’d  had 20 miles run out of your legs. The pace for mile 19 was pretty consistent at 7:33/168.

By the time mile 20 was over I knew that a decent time was achievable but it was going to be hard. The only good thing about this mile is that it has the last hill on it and there are plenty of people walking at this stage so you have something to aim at. I passed through mile 20 with 2:28:xx on the watch but the pace had dropped to 7:41/171. The pace/heart rate was a little worrying.

Miles 21 – 26.2

Mentally at this stage the race is over. If you’re still running here you can get yourself home with a mental mantra of some sort. I think I was singing ‘The Good Ship Venus’ at this stage.

Mile 21 and 22 went by in 7:48/172 and 7:25/169. I don’t know how the pace improved so much for mile 22 but I felt surprisingly strong at this point. I felt now that no matter how the next 4 miles unfolded I would make it home under 3:20:00.

Mile 23 saw the start of the death march. This is the point in the marathon where the number of walkers and limping wounded far outweigh the ‘runners’ (for runners read shufflers).  I was still running, and passing plenty of people so in relative terms I wasn’t feeling too bad. Relative terms.  Mile 23 went by in 7:40/170 and the Garmin was showing just over 2:52:00.

This was an important goal as in Cork earlier this year I had passed through 23 miles in 3:00 dead and came home in 3:25. I knew now that even if I put in a few 7:55’s I should still make it home under 3:20. now there was nothing left to do but put the head down and drive shuffle on.

By mile 24 the road was pretty empty. I was still passing plenty of people so I had no serious thoughts of stopping (I had lots of thoughts of stopping but none that were serious) and on I went. At this point I was able to tell myself that within less than half an hour, no matter what, I’d be over the line.  I hit mile 24 in 3:00:03. I was feeling pretty  empty at this stage but I’d taken a gel at mile 23, mainly because I had them and it would look stupid to bonk and have 4 gels in my shorts.  I hit mile 24 in 7:47/173.

Mile 25 is where the crowd builds to watch your contorted face struggle with the task you’ve set yourself. For all the loneliness of running, here you are with thousands cheering and you and you not able to say thanks or shag off or whatever is bubbling to the surface in your head.

Mile 25 was 7:49/175

At the 25 mile mark I met a friend, Ger, who was having a great day – eventually negative splitting on his first marathon. He suggested we run in the last mile and a bit together. I agreed and off we went. After about 200m I realised that we were having a farlek session that could see me complete my marathon at the 25.5 mile mark. II didn’t had a 1.2 mile tempo session in my legs at that stage. In a departure from character I let wisdom prevail and told Ger to head on on his own. I knew now that I would finish under 3:20 so to let something jeopardise that was not a good idea.

Now, the final blur of screaming and the single file of runners as the crowd gathered in. I heard my kids shouting my name but too late to high 5 them. Finola told me later that after I had passed the woman next to her in the crowd said ‘He’s doing very well, isn’t he’. To which she replied ‘Yes, but he doesn’t look too hectic’.

At this stage in the marathon all the marshals and Gardai who had been standing bored earlier on in the course are now shouting words of encouragement and pushing anyone who dares to stop.

Mile 26 went by at 7:52/177.

the Garmin was always 0.2 miles short so I had another 0.38 miles of the course to run. The pace for this was 7:23/181. Just shows that you always have something left in the tank.

I finished with the usual flourish of aeroplaning and ears to the crowd listening for the cheer.

the end came in 3:18:19 by my watch but the official chip time was 3:18:18. A PB by 2:01min.


Finally a good day at the office.

And the monkey off my back.

My team




5 responses to “The Man with the Golden Arm

  1. What’s this about my gloves? No, don’t answer that, but I was glad to have them. After holding that sign for 26 miles my right hand would have been one big blister otherwise.

    Good to talk to you beforehand and even better not to catch up during the race so I did not have to kick your backside.

    Well done on the PB. Sub-3:15 in Cork next year.

  2. That was an entertaining report – congrats on a big PB.
    Your are looking in decent shape in the post – race photo so you obviously had big fitness work done,those regular hilly runs paid off.

  3. Great report Richard – brought back memories and I almost regretted not being there – almost. Looks like the suffering was well within your tolerance.

    • My suffering was within my physical abilities but I’ve realised that I have to push my mental ability to suffer. I think the only way to do this is through caution and positive feedback. A bit like walking on thin ice.

  4. Great race!
    I’ve seen many a runner crack under the pressure of running a marathon.
    Yes a very strong positive outlook is needed to cope with everything the day can throw at you.
    Nicely executed Race :]

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