Alwyn Mc Kee: My Running Story!
“Check your email. I’ve just had confirmation of a place in the Great North Run!”
Monday 7th February 2011: I had taken the excited call from my brother as I was headed back up the road from a golfing weekend at the K Club. I checked my email on the BlackBerry, “Oh, No (or words to that effect!), I’m in too!” My fellow golfer nearly swerved off the road as he exclaimed, “No way! You’ll never run a Half-Marathon!”
His disbelief was hardly unwarranted. Not only had he witnessed me downing as many pints of Guinness as we’d played holes of golf over the weekend at the 2006 Ryder Cup venue, he rightly suspected that it was nearly two decades since my last serious attempts at physical activity – ‘climbing’ steep hills on a golf course excepted. To cap it all, there was the ‘small’ issue of my weight; yes, I could disparage the two-dimensional BMI calculation but weighing 21 stones, 5 pounds qualified me as ‘morbidly obese’ even if I am 6ft 4 inches tall.
Two days later I attempted my first run. I now know the stretch I attempted from Moira Station along the canal measures 1.65 miles. Not surprisingly, I was unable to jog it without stopping . . . twice! Several weeks of speed-walking followed, two work colleagues signed-up to join me in sponsored weight-loss for Marie Curie and running gear was purchased. Always one for gadgets, I invested in a Garmin GPS watch – now I could see how my pace was ‘improving’ and know how far I was covering every time I headed out the door.
By early April, I achieved the breakthrough of being able to run continuously for 30 minutes. A virtuous cycle was now developing: the more weight I lost, the easier it became to run, the more weight I lost. In turn, I was finding it easier to choose the healthier food options and avoid the worst of my previous eating habits because I was so thrilled at the progress with my aerobic fitness. As the end of Summer approached, I was tipping the scales at a ‘sprightly’ 18st 2lbs and was looking forward to my first ever race, the Laganside 10k on Sunday 4th September 2011.
I was going to write that I have never been so nervous, before or since, as I stood on that start line on the Ormeau Embankment but that’s not true; I’m nervous on every start line. This, however, was the first race I’d taken part in since Primary School Sports Days! My memory of the race is enhanced by the photo of me that is stuck on my office wall; agony, ecstasy and pride all etched on my grimacing face as I crossed the line in 47:22. An average pace of 07:37 per mile for 6.21 miles when seven months previously I couldn’t run a mile without stopping!
I was hooked! I do have obsessive tendencies – well, ok, make that full-blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when it comes to all things Sport. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I could indulge in analysis and statistics relating to my own ‘athletic’ performance rather than as an armchair fan obsessing about the stats and form of Coleraine FC, Ulster Rugby and our local golfing stars. Age grading percentages, average pace/mile, average heart rate, negative splits – oh my, I am going to have fun with this! Subscription to Runners’ World followed, discovery of online forums; with apparent boundless depths of experience and know-how, training tips, equipment tips (not that I needed any encouragement to invest in gadgets and gear), a Northern Ireland forum and, of course, in the Events section: a forum dedicated to the Great North Run.
Ah, yes, the catalyst for my weight-loss and get-fit adventure: the UK’s biggest mass-participation Half-Marathon. The euphoria of the Laganside 10K quickly faded as I contemplated running twice the distance (and a wee bit) with some inclines involved. Memories of my first GNR? Getting very emotional as I stood alongside my brother amongst 40,000 others in the mass start with ‘Local Hero’ blasting out and the Red Arrows flying overhead only weeks after they had lost one of their pilots in a display crash.
The sound that thousands of trainer-shod feet make as they strike the tarmac in discordant unison. The fact that I was keeping pace for my brother (Irish Schools’ U16 Cross Country runner in the mid ‘80s) when at the time of entry, I had indicated 02:30 – 02:45 finishing time and he was targeting 01:45 – 02:00. Most of all, I will always remember the euphoria of strongly running the last mile along the coast road, up through a tunnel of noise. We crossed the line, brothers-in-arms, in 01:46:49.
I was pretty pleased with myself. Not bad for someone still lugging almost 18st around a Half-Marathon course. However, it wasn’t long till I was analysing the details of my effort: 59.6% age-graded performance (why don’t they have a weight-graded performance? I could be a contender for that!). What time would I need to run to achieve 70%? 01:31:44. Now, there’s my Olympic-sized challenge for 2012!!
Shortly after my first GNR experience, a family friend suggested I go along with her to the running club. Now, hold on a minute, running club? Isn’t that for real runners? The welcome and relaxed atmosphere I found at Dromore AC was so far removed from the intimidating experience I had been anxious about. I started attending as many Tuesday night sessions as work commitments would allow. Tuesday nights are Speed sessions under the watchful eye of club coach, Michael McGreevy, who has an amazing ability to assess everyone’s ability and put them in the right pace group (always just a wee bit faster than I think I am comfortable with – thanks, Michael!). These sessions have proved invaluable in my development this year and, I know, will form the bedrock of any further improvements I have in me as a runner.
A runner? Yes, I do actually think of myself as a runner now. This year, 2012 has seen me compete in three 10Ks and four Half-Marathons and I have just completed my first Marathon. I’ve suffered my first running injury – hurting my hamstring at the end of the Great Ireland 10K in Phoenix Park in April and aggravating it again in a speed session in Dromore mid-Marathon training. Physio sessions, Kinesio taping and learning the importance of daily stretching all ensued.
I now tip the scales at just over 16st, my weight loss having gradually come to a halt despite 18-weeks Marathon training. I may have to accept this is close to my sustainable long-term racing weight (although a couple more lbs off is always the thought as I crest each hill!). In the past two months, a series of significant improvements on my maiden attempts built my confidence ahead of my Marathon debut in Dublin (Laganside 10K: 42:27 compared to 47:22; Great North Run:01:35:35 compared to 01:46:49; Gr8 Dundrum Run: 57:15 compared to 64:05).
Which brings me to Monday 29th October, 2012 and Dublin, the “friendly Marathon”. Just over 20 months after taking up running and I am on the start line with, hopefully, just under 3 hours 30 minutes ahead of me of an experience I never dreamed I could be part of.
My pre-race dilemma was whether to try to follow the 03:15 or 03:30 pacers? My friend, work colleague and training partner was also making his Marathon debut but, having been persuaded by me to start taking running seriously, his natural fitness and career as an Irish League footballer had come to the fore and I was confident he was going to run sub – 03:15.
Eschewing the advice of experienced runners, I elected to start with the 03:15 pacers, stay with them as long as I felt comfortable and hope that I would only slow down in the latter stages rather than spectacularly detonate. A couple of 20 mile runs as part of the training schedule had not left me feeling that confident – I had struggled in the last couple of miles of each of them and they had been 30-40secs per mile slower than I wanted to run in Dublin! I had read the theory about how the Marathon doesn’t begin until after mile 20 but you can’t buy the wisdom of experiencing it for yourself . . .
I loved marathon day, from waking up at 5.30am like an excited kid on Christmas morning, fuelling on porridge, fruit malt loaf, mashed banana and peanut-butter energy bar. The nervous thrill of waiting at the start, but even more nerves than usual due to the unchartered, potentially hostile waters that lay before me. The thrill of heading off through Dublin’s fair city with the cheering crowds lining the route. I recall someone crying out: “great running” and laughed as I clocked we had only run 2 miles at that stage!
The beauty of Phoenix Park and how strong I felt as we snaked our way through it. The confidence that surged through me as I completed the first-half in 01:36:40, just over a minute slower than my Half-Mara pb. Immediately followed by the thought, “You idiot! Remember all the advice about going out too hard – you’re going to pay for this!!” Trying to relax during the ‘no-man’s-land of the marathon from the halfway mark to 20 miles, still keeping up with the 03:15 pacer who never stopped talking and sounding out warnings like, “small hill ahead – keep your cadence!” Starting to tire and lose contact with the pacer as we approached the 20th mile.
The Wall! Oh, no!! I’m going to hit the Wall!!! Fantastic crowd support – my God, I needed that support: “C’mon Dromore, not long to go now!” was the regular shout and I wanted to cry back, “it’s still too far!!!” Burning calves, miles 24, 25 and 26 seemed never-ending – taking me 08:05, 08:11 and 08:01 to struggle through. Then, I could see it!!! That inflatable arch thingy. Come on. One last effort to raise not exactly a sprint but something that almost resembles running on the finish-line photo. Yeesssss!!!! Finish time = 03:17:36. Proud of myself?
Yes, delighted . . . . but also another feeling that I now associate with being a runner; immense satisfaction tinged with slight disappointment. My Olympic Gold target was 03:14:59, a Good-for-Age qualifying time for London. Guess that means another marathon, another race, another target . . . well, you don’t want to open all life’s Christmas presents at once and not have any to look forward to!