Two sub threes and three PBs – a good return for NAC at the VLM

A special report by Bogusboy

The Virgin London Marathon is one of the undoubted highlights in the annual running calendar. As one of the six majors (the others are Berlin, Tokyo, New York, Chicago and Boston), huge crowds flock to the capital for the annual 26.2 loop of one of the world’s most iconic cities. Logistically, it is work of genius that takes a full year to plan and it is increasingly difficult to get an entry with the revised qualifying times. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in a carnival like atmosphere that inspires the runners to keep going, particularly in the later stages when the legs are tired and the glycogen stores become increasingly depleted. The enormity of the challenge is best summed up by the words of the Prophet who remarked that ‘it is a 20 mile warm up for a 6 mile race.’ This year he added to his repertoire of sage like comments with the well-crafted observation that ‘if you run like the devil for 20 miles, you will meet him in the last 6.’

Newcastle AC was once again well represented, though the 18 week arduous training had proved to be too much for a few of the team. Preparation for the event is a commitment that begins on 1 January. As the mileage increases each week, the impact on the body becomes more demanding and injury is an occupational hazard of the process. There were some with ‘Good for Age’ entries that were unable to take the line, despite their best efforts. Some start off with high hopes that they will make it through to the third week of April, and alas a few fall by the wayside as the weekly totals hit 50 miles and above. Training for such an event is an arduous labour of love demanding perseverance, determination and resilience; this was never more true than in 2019 when there were some awful conditions for the obligatory long Sunday run. With a number preparing for Belfast next Sunday, there was great camaraderie among the different groups with experiences shared at the weekly post run coffee in Niki’s Kitchen Cafe.

The Wombles of Wimbledon run every week – free timed 5k at 9am
Part of the plan for the weekend among some of those attending is a visit to one of the many parkruns available in the Greater London area. In the past Fulham Palace and the iconic Bushy Park have been the destination of choice. This year Castlewellan stalwarts Cunningham, Mathers and the McCanns headed for Wimbledon Common to complete the 651st event at this location. There were 545 taking part as numbers were up due to the large numbers of runners and supporters in the capital for the marathon. The event is dead flat (evidenced by the first finisher completing the course in just over 16 minutes) and run on trails not dissimilar to Castlewellan. As always, the event was excellent and, for Cunningham and Mathers, a perfect looser on the eve of the big day. This was followed by an artisan breakfast of rustic bread, carefully selected eggs from hens of reputable character and ethically sourced Darjeeling (aka tea, toast and eggs) in fashionable Wimbledon, where there were more Porches than Fiestas. Kieran ‘Miley’ Morgan declined to participate this year as he was afraid of a repeat of last year at Bushy Park when he was asked to be the 20 minute pacer. This was not the only catastrophe that the ‘Cabra Cobra’ encountered this weekend. His phone charger did not work, his Garmin refused to charge (the kind lady at the expo offered to send a new one in the post which would arrive in a few days – ‘that’s very kind of you, but regrettably the marathon is tomorrow’ was the tactful reply!) and to complete the trio of misfortune we discovered that the car punctured on the way to the airport.

With parkrun completed it was time to return to the hotel for some rest and carb loading. This was much to the chagrin of Cunningham who was bursting to get to Westfield Shopping Centre to lighten her purse before returning home. With Brown and Carson et. al. safe and snug at home there was no money lost in the afternoon in the mandatory silly 10 team accumulator bet, though we missed the excitement and drama of waiting to 4:45 to see if Leyton Orient got the much fancied home win – they did not as the game ended 0-0, but the Os were still promoted to the Football League as Vanarama National League champions!

The price of Tay
The others made for the sights and spent the afternoon in the midst of the gathering throngs around the finish area and Covent Garden. Big Ron’s wallet was opened for the first time since 1973 to the delight of the escaping moths and Harrod’s tea-room was avoided on the advice of McAlinden who has still to recover from two years ago when he paid £5 for a cup of tea (a fiver for a tea bag, I could get 400 for a fiver).

Final ablutions
The last supper was held at The Meat Company at the Westfield Centre as Cunningham looked ruefully at the cornucopia of designer outlets whilst munching on some salmon and sipping iced water while her supporters enjoyed a range of fermented beverages. Then, it was back to base for the final carb feast and attempting to sleep in a strange bed and overcome the inevitable inability to sleep on the night before the marathon. Final words of wisdom were proffered by those who have been there, done it and still wear the t-shirt.

Not too warm, but windy
Race day arrived and brought with it lower temperatures and gentle winds. As the morning unfolded, temperatures eased into the teens and reached a more than palatable 14 degrees by 11am, in stark contrast to the searing heat of 2018. The NAC athletes were all in fine fettle as they made their way to the respective start zones in Greenwich, Maze Hill and Blackheath. The supporters went to Tower Bridge and made the now mandatory trek down Tooley Street towards their first spectator point at Bermondsey (bacon sandwiches were procured along the way). There they watched the elite athletes in the wheelchair race before the elite women and elite men including Sir Mo Farah went past at full tilt. One by one the NAC athletes passed through on the approach to the half way point. All were looking strong and pacing themselves well, but of course there was still along way to go. Then it was a quick dash to Canary Wharf to see most of them again just before the 19 mile marker. The sojourn was completed by returning to Westminster to meet the weary and emotional finishers at Horseguard’s Parade.

They broke 3 hours
Banbridge’s finest, JP Gartland, was first home in red and yellow. He was steady throughout the run and was hoping for an improvement on his 2:40 PB. Alas, it was not to be and he would finish in a still highly respectable 2:45. Close on his heels and equally metronomic throughout was Jonny Crutchley. The Down High teacher had trained extremely hard and very consistently since the turn of the year (‘you’ve got yourself in quare shape’ – Coach Rodgers). He was rewarded with a very impressive 2:55, an improvement of 22 minutes on his PB and significantly under the 3 hour mark, widely considered the holy grail among marathon runners. He joins an exclusive group within the club to have achieved this in recent times. With 7 days to rest, he should be in perfect condition to improve this further in Belfast at the weekend, or more realistically he could pick up the ‘silly boy’ award for trying to attempt such an act of madness; only time will tell.

So close
Francis Tumelty is the quintessential model of consistency and has dipped just under the three hour mark in his last number of outings. This time he was a little unlucky to cross the line just 24 seconds over the three hours. Nonetheless, it was a great run, averaging under 7 minutes per mile. Wonderwall sent an empathetic message of support straight away containing two simple words – ‘been there’. Next home was Miley Morgan in 3:07. This represents another steady and well paced performance which, if my sources are correct, will entitle him to a pair of free uber-comfy sketchers to rest his sore feet in the days ahead!

Two ladies, two PBs
Both NAC ladies were optimistic of PBs in the weeks leading up to the event and both delivered. Lorna Cunningham took three minutes off her Dublin time, crossing the line in 3:34, while Mathers improved her London best time of 4:09 by 30 minutes, crossing the line in 3:39 for a new PB, seven minutes quicker than the mark she set in Dublin. Both ladies had planned their training meticulously and, along with Franky McGivern, had completed the long Sunday runs with a great sense of dedication and purpose. No stone was left unturned in terms of their steadfast application to every aspect of the training regimen and they can be very proud of their achievements. They were particularly grateful to another of the training team, Charlie McAlinden, as the Radio 4 star had taught them everything they needed to know about avoiding other athletes weaving in and out around them to get a better road position. Cha’s outstanding road discipline had left them remarkably well prepared.

It’s all about the support
Despite the much talked about ‘loneliness of the long distance runner’, it is the support received throughout the process that makes completing the event possible. From long suffering family members who pick up the pieces at home in the 70+ mile weeks, to club colleagues ‘jumping in and out’ during runs to pace, carry water and encourage, to those who travel to the event and support. This is clearly evident in NAC in the actions of those, too many to name individually at the risk of omitting or offending someone, who made it possible for our magnificent 6 to achieve what they did.

2020 is already upon us
As the obligatory post-race rehydration was taking place, several phones pinged simultaneously. This was a notification from the VLM organisers that the ballot for next year’s event on 19 April was now open. There was much shaking of heads and signs of ‘never again’, but only time will tell if some renege on this. In time, when the chaffing has subsided and walking down the stairs can be done forwards, many will sign up once again for what is one of the greatest challenges known to the human race.

Belfast here we come
Next weekend sees a new and refreshed Belfast City Marathon with a new and more accessible course on a new day – Sunday. Once again NAC will be out in full force, both on the road and on the pavement, as another group of athletes bid for personal glory against one of the toughest opponents known, 26.2 miles of unforgiving tarmac.