Racing the Reaper Man Introduction: What could possibly go wrong?

I started running on May 16th 1982. The Running Boom had started, fuelled by the arrival of big city marathons, with lesser races appearing to mop up those unsuccessful with entry lotteries. Some years over 100 marathons could be found in the UK alone and, it became obvious to me, lots of people had found their reset button. Of course, there had always been a running community, but they were almost hidden in plain sight. Now those eccentric few were joined by the new wave of uninitiated, naïve dashers, joggers and doddlers. Running footwear improved and new brands hit the market on an almost weekly basis. I read everything I could and subscribed to several running magazines. This new obsession displaced old habits and I moved into the next stage of the reset – making it a life change.

My flat, cheap training shoes gave me blisters, so, with a windfall by selling a vacuum cleaner, I spent the £19 on a pair of blue and yellow Nike Internationalists. The difference was amazing and I ran with nothing in mind, but to run. I never craved a cigarette and couldn’t afford to drink, so I ran and ran and ran. Then I found I had a local running club, gingerly turned up one night, wondering if I was really good enough to be there, was welcomed with open arms and became a member of Burnham-on-Sea Harriers. They had been formed the year before by an old school chum, Graham, and his friend Brian. When I arrived there was a knot of runners of different abilities. I embraced the culture, wore the yellow club vest with pride and turned up on as many Wednesday evening training nights as I could.

I met great people and some very experienced runners. After a few weeks I entered a marathon at Honiton in October 1982. From my first steps to that race would be 5 months. Could I do it? More to the point I wanted to run a 3:30:00 based on various tables I’d misread in magazines, so naïvely aimed at that. I took up the view that Edmund Hillary extolled, ‘Life’s a bit like mountaineering – never look down.’ A friendly chap from Wells, Bernie, scribbled out a training plan for me, which I adhered to religiously, introducing me to such things as intervals and tempo runs. I lost weight, found structure and factored in my first ever races. A sub-37 minute 6 miler followed by a 1:25:45 half marathon debut showed I was in a good place, and I had learned how to conserve energy. Instead of tearing off and gradually slowing down, I quickly developed a metronomic pace judgement.

honiton-marathon-1982
Honiton Marathon 1982

None of this came easy. I’m no ectomorphic racing snake, but at the compact end of the mesomorphic range. In those early days every training book and magazine had ideal weight charts and I was constantly at the low end of ‘overweight’ even in my best years. So, I ignored the charts and just ran. On October 17th 1982 I lined up at the start of the Honiton Marathon. It was a windy day, post rain and warm. As several hundred people set off, my nerves left me and I stuck to my plan: just under 8 minutes a mile for as long as possible; then, with slowing, I may squeak under that 3:30:00. My memories of the race are sketchy, but I fell in with a chap called Gordon, and we ran in isolation for a long way. I was too quick, but relaxed, so ran in comfort rather than to the watch. At 20 miles I finally experienced that drain of energy heralding ‘The Wall’, but I pushed on, slowing just enough to get to the end. During the final miles I was isolated and anxious. Was some unknown physical issue lurking to strike me down?  The final descent into Honiton was bliss and I pushed it hard in the last mile to record 3:22:54! Around 7:45 pace. Wonderful. I couldn’t walk properly for a week.

Over the next few years I tweaked my training: more miles; two speed sessions a week; hills and dunes; and read endless books. In the end I used Ron Hill’s training methods as he described in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road. He hurt himself in training so that he could never experience anything harder in a race. In his prime, no one could inflict pain on him or, at the very least, could only beat him by supreme effort. Ron would give everything. So, that was my model. An example: I would run the 6 miles to work, do a night shift, run 4 miles to a measured course on a trail near the sea. There I would hammer out 6 x 800m in 2:40 average. Run 2 more miles home. Or I may get in from a night shift and get out on a 16 miler. If I could run well as fatigued as that, any race would be easier. I wanted to break 3 hours and managed 2:58:20 in 1984. Using a similar training regime, in 1985 I ran 2:54:12. So, against all the formulas I could find, and all the doubt inside, and having been selected for the 1986 London Marathon, I set sub-2:50 as my goal. I was brutal, and on a couple of weeks topped 100 miles. I ran a 1:18:13 half marathon which blew my mind, then, on the day, had the single, most perfect race ever, finishing in 2:49:15.

1986-london-marathon
London Marathon 1986 (2.49.15 corrected time)

By now I was as fit as ever I would be and I was wondering how fast I could get. But things were not right. As Edmund Hillary also said, ‘Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.’ The gradual crumbling of my married life had started and I had not noticed. With my self-built view of how life should be, my naïvety began to warp my vision of domestic bliss. What could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything.