Friday, 13 May 2011

Pacing the Belfast Marathon with Peter and Jim

Months had passed, loads of meetings attended, photos posed for and finally the big day was nearly there.  By big day I don’t mean a wedding, Christmas or even a birthday.  Instead we’re talking about May Day - Belfast Marathon Day.

Today it wasn’t about racing and achieving our own personal bests.  Instead it was about helping runners of varying experience and ability to meet their time goal of running 26.2 miles in less than 4.5 hours. 

Training commenced back in January with plenty of miles being put into the ‘bank’ including the obligatory LSR (long slow and steady run).  These runs are critical in the success of any ‘marathon’ runner, no matter what their goal time is.  Sunday morning runs with my fellow Ballymena Runners club mates are an early affair, sometimes starting at 6.30am.  So early, that on occasions we meet people just coming back from a night out on the town – the look of disbelief on their faces is priceless.  Fortunately the other 4.5 hour pacer, Jim Moore is also a member of Ballymena Runners and is one of my regular training partners.  These runs provided the opportunity to practice running several miles at the required pace of just over 10 minute miles (10 minute 18secs per mile to be precise).

Marathon morning was great fun and the traditional send off at 7am was organised from the City of The Seven Towers.  When you are running a marathon, especially your first, the nerves can be overpowering and it always feels strange as a pacer to be so relaxed.  In fact Jim came out of the local shop that morning with a daily newspaper.  Whilst he caught up on the success of United our fellow club mates were anxiously waiting the start of the race. 

Nevertheless having paced the same time group in 2010 we knew that people were relying on us.  A visit to the expo with my family on the Sunday provided more proof of this as we realised that nearly three times the number of runners had signed up to run with the 4.30 pacers compared to the sub 3, sub 3.30, sub 3.45 and sub 4 timings.  Our task to run the distance at an even pace was definitely our primary goal that morning.

My pre race ritual was a fairly standard affair and included the obligatory last minute toilet stop(s), making sure the GPS watch was fully charged and attached the pacing balloons to my race vest.  Disaster struck – the last of the helium had been used and the 4.5 hour pacing balloons would have to suffice with our own hot air – thankfully Jim is in no short supply of that.  Although the amount of people speaking in ‘Mickey Mouse’ high pitch voices near the start line did raise our suspicions.

Whilst making our way to the start line a runner whom we had helped last year said hello and we soon discovered that he was hooked and back to break sub 3.30 this time!!

Standing at the 4.30 hour pen in a sea of runners was fantastic and the sense of excitement was building.  9 am and the move to cross the start line commenced and to a chorus of Championchip timing beeps – we were off!!  The first few miles of the course takes in the east of the city and is relatively flat.  Even though the temperature was low on the start line, it was already rising under the cloudless blue skies.  The sight of thousands of runners making their way past Central Station is fantastic and further evidence of the growing success of this city marathon.  By the first relay changeover point we had already made friends with many runners from clubs such as Plymouth Harriers and also with many locals making their marathon debut. 

Our message to our group at this stage was simple – keep this nice steady pace, take on plenty of fluids and stay in the shade where possible.  Through the city centre and onwards to our first climb on the course.  The Falls Road.  This section of the route was well lined with support and the music outside the Leisure Centre provided great entertainment.  This area of the course which progresses its way to the second relay point at Springfield and beyond is one of my favourites.  The reason why?  The support is fantastic and the ‘craic’ is great – offers of everything ranging from a soda bap to something a bit stronger come from some of the wise cracking bystanders. With the 10 mile marker behind us, Jim and myself do a quick stock take after the relay point.  Many of the 4.5 hour group are still in sight, either in front or just behind us. 

The initial enthusiasm is still on everyone’s faces but there is also that look of concentration going on.  Before approaching the only significant climb on the course up the Antrim Road, we advise our group that we intend to maintain a steady pace on the climb and if anything perhaps slow it down by a few seconds per mile.  More importantly was our advice not to begin the descent down the Whitewell Road at break neck speed as although tempting it may be, from many a Belfast Marathon runners experience it can come back to bite you, normally at around mile 20!!

The support on the Antrim Road is superb and the welcome aid stations are well spaced out up this gruelling climb of approximately 2 miles.  Following on from the descent onto the Shore Road, it was time for relay point number 3 at Gideon’s Green.  Jim and I couldn’t help but be amazed that the stream of marathon runners and relay runners had not ‘thinned’ out.  Sometimes during a marathon it can be a lonely place but not in Belfast this year, the crowds on and off the course were really strong even at this furthest point away from the city centre.  A few of the original group had dropped back slightly and some progressed further ahead onto the Loughshore path.  Thankfully the wind came from slightly behind us and didn’t hinder progress too much.  A few marathon runners who had perhaps struggled in the heat were to be found walking along parts of this path and were encouraged by us to join our group and keep progressing to the finish line.

At Duncrue the 20 mile marker is there and for many marathon novices they are venturing into unknown territory since many training plans only recommend training up to 20 or maybe 22 miles before race day.  It was time to bring out the secret weapons. 

The extra large container of magic jelly beans provided by my lovely wife were brought out at this stage.  All of a sudden the number of people in the group seemed to increase as we passed them around to those runners we could identify were running the full 26.2 miles.  Two fellow club mates Robin Alexander and Stephen Brown had been running with us and a few of our group who felt strong enough to push on from this point attached themselves to Robin and Stephen who brought several across the line including Jo Greenwood on her first marathon attempt at 4 hours 26 minutes.  Great running by both Ballymena Runners, especially since they had raced London Marathon a couple of weeks earlier.  Luckily Jim and I had decided to keep a few of the sweets.  This enabled us to share some with the remarkable Conor from Going The Distance as he was making his way towards the finish with marathon veteran Michael Jenkins from Up and Running.

Along the Lagan towpath we warned runners of the approaching Mount Everest (the wee footbridge beside the Gasworks entrance).  This always provides evidence of how the body has coped with the mammoth effort to that point.  The loop in the Ormeau Park gives some respite from the unbelievable heat and it’s clear that a good number of those starting out with us are well on their way to breaking the sub 4.30 barrier.  Despite the soaring temperatures a couple of people really stand out at this point – Bryan Martin and the ‘Guy in the Green top’.  Words of encouragement come from us at this point such as ‘Dig Deep’, ‘you are looking strong’ (blatant fib!!) along with my favourite ‘you haven’t run 24 miles to stop now’.  The crowds outside the pubs on the Ormeau Rd. climb encourage with shouts of ‘not long to go now’, ‘you’re nearly there’, ‘only another couple of hundred yards to go!!..’.  Jim and I know all of these statements to be slightly inaccurate but play along anyway.  The Ravenhill Road reminded me on Race Day of the Champs Elysees, only instead of being full of French waiters there were lines of runners family and friends cheering, screaming and really motivating them towards the embankment.  For some within the group the emotions are too much to hold in and the tears of joy at the sight of their loved ones began spilling down their cheeks.  The embankment came into sight and the loudspeakers announcing the runner’s names crossing the line could be heard.  The knowledge that they had made it was apparent on everyone’s faces.  We told anyone in our group to ‘empty the tank’ at this point.  Just go for it and sprint for the line.  Jim and I stopped at the gates for around 20 seconds to cheer everyone up the finishing strait.  We then made our way along towards the finish line and crossed it together, although Jim did just dip slightly ahead for the bragging rights.

Our chip time 4.29.31 – job done.

We may never meet any of our pacing group again but to be allowed to share in their own personal battles and journey along 26.2 miles is a great privilege.  One which we both value greatly.  I’ll leave you with my favourite line of the day from a spectator at mile 18. 

‘Keep going, you can still win it!!’.  Absolute classic.

A final word of thanks to the pacer sponsors Asics and to Claire O’Reilly, Stephen Pearson and everyone else including Athletics NI involved in making the 2011 Belfast City Marathon such a memorable event.

Peter Fleming and Jim Moore, Ballymena Runners.

Monday, 9 May 2011

BBC Spaces & Places: Michael McKillop

Insights from a world-class athlete (by Chris Kane)
Recently I had the opportunity to have lunch with gold medal-winning Paralympic athlete Michael McKillop, where I learnt a great deal about what it takes to truly be on top of your game. It struck me that achievements of this nature could provide the ONE Workplace team with some insights as we continue on our journey towards becoming world-class.

The London Olympics is fast approaching and heavily in the spotlight, particularly with the ticket application deadline which passed at the end of April. But there are two games taking place in 2012. The Paralympics takes place between the 29 August and 9 September at the same venues.

Meeting Michael McKillop and learning a bit about the Paralympics was one of those truly eye-opening opportunities. To speak to someone who holds a Paralympic gold medal and has a number of world records to his name was inspirational. I listened, with admiration, as he explained about the amount of training he puts in and the sheer hard work and determination necessary. Yet he has done this for many years while facing his other personal challenge - Michael has a mild form of cerebral palsy.
In learning about the challenges of reaching the highest echelons of world sport, I was curious about how Paralympians get the support they need. In the case of this young man from Belfast, his principal support comes from Paralympics Ireland and the Irish Sports Council. Without assistance, both financial and otherwise, athletes would find it virtually impossible to make any progress.
In the end though it's down to the individual to deliver the goods on the day! Michael shared a very interesting story about how his dad, his coach, helped him to overcome the mental challenges of competing on the world stage. At the age of 18 Michael made it to the final of the 800m in Beijing 2008. He had to run in front of a crowd of 91,000 people in the Bird's Nest arena -the size of which he had never seen before. A daunting task for anyone, made especially difficult as the rules demanded that Paralympians could not take their carers/support team with them during the final pre-race period. Michael explained that this was a big challenge for him, but his Dad helped him conquer his misgivings and when giving Michael some parting shots of advice he put a small piece of paper into his running spikes. "Open this note when you finish the race," it said.

History tells us that Michael went out and blew his competition away, completing a world record beating race in a time just under 2 minutes (1.59.39). As he approached the podium to receive gold he took out the note from his dad. It read: "You've won!"

From that day on Michael has never looked back. He exudes charm, good humour and confidence. He faces up to the challenges of his disability and is a role model to us all, showing what can be achieved if you put your mind to it, have the right support, and most of all believe that great things happen when we work together as a team.