Last Chance Saloon


It's mid August. A month before the end of the Boston qualifying window. Richard has a nine minute plus buffer inside his qualifying time. I have nothing. Europe is in a heatwave.

I've entered a race in Canada, about sixty miles inland from Vancouver. It's a downhill profile point to point course starting in the hills and finishing in the small town of Chilliwack.

It feels indulgent and environmentally guilty flying across the Atlantic for the second time in a year. I've put my family through it for two years of trying to qualify. There's been the anaemia, the hypothyroidism, the disallowed short course marathon, the overwork, the other marathons where I didn't make the time. And although I won't accept it, the slowing with the passing years. I'm right at the top of my age grade, three months older and my qualifying time would be 15 minutes slower. None of this matters. It's just down to what I can do today.

I am in the holding area by the start in the dark and in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trees and hills. The other runners are quietly getting ready. Music plays out of the portable sound system. I'm feeling the pressure but as usual I concentrate on going through my pre race routine. It started hours ago with a very small breakfast, a warm up run on the hotel treadmill, shower, loo visits, Ucan superstarch. The transatlantic flight had been long but OK. I was sitting next to a registered blind guy, He was very chatty to begin with. He told me he had drunk ten Jack Daniels in the airport bar at Heathrow. He drank another eight on the plane. Just for good measure he bought a bottle of expensive whisky from the in flight duty free. He never showed the slightest sign of being drunk. I lost myself in a film (Bohemian Rhapsody).

I stayed a night in Vancouver. The hotel had Karaoke night in the bar. The first song was a couple singing Bohemian Rhapsody. The next day I got a bus to Chilliwack. It was like being in a Wim Wenders film. The bus let me off at the truck stop. All the other passengers were carrying on to the tourist destinations further inland. I was an isolated figure at the roadside surrounded by a garage/fast food shop and lots of Mack trucks and trailers. I'd looked up restaurants on the bus and I walked the mile or so to a Thai place dragging my purple wheelie suitcase behind me. Nobody else was walking.

The restaurant was like a roadside diner but the food was great. I spoke to the two local women next to me before they descended into a polite but tense family feud conversation between themselves. I got a taxi to the Hampton Inn a few miles out of town where I am staying, did some bits and pieces and went to bed. I've been staying in UK time going to bed about 4pm and getting up just after midnight. The race is starting at 6am and the shuttle bus left the centre of town at 3.30am this morning. The day after arriving I had been to the Expo having got a lift with a friendly couple from Salt Lake City. The Revel coach at the expo did an excellent job of breaking down the course into sections and explaining how best to run each one - the steep three mile start, the gently downward first half with the average one percent gradient, the undulating part after halfway with the uphills, the final downhill, the flat miles to the finish. Basically bank the time on the early downhills but don't try and maintain it on the harder sections. Run by effort not pace. The Revel organisers also said that although a downhill course could be faster it was no easier. They said a lot of people who hadn't trained for downhill running seized up in the quads after about 16-18 miles and struggled to finish.

The dark and silence lends an eerie air to the proceedings with the road beyond the start heading out between the trees. I speak to a few runners about their goals and we are off. I'm in the 3.30 pacer group again. There are quite a few who I know have the 3.35 qualifying time so they are looking at three and a half hours for a five minute buffer. We are all fit and focussed. I know that I will pay as I have paid before if I stick to this group. My time goal is fifteen minutes slower than most of them. Because of the early downhills we are well ahead of 8min/mile pace anyway.

I am disciplined enough to drop back off the group a bit before halfway. It has been fun running with them but I am content running on my own as well. I enter my little bubble of concentration. It's a small race in its inaugural year, there are just under 400 marathoners and we are well spread out.

Despite my seemingly perfect preparation I need the toilet approaching halfway. The remote location comes to the rescue and I cross the roadside ditch into the undergrowth. I only lose a couple of minutes and I don't let it phase me.
Halfway comes in 1.42.23 but we have done most of the significant downhill sections. There is one more steepish three mile downhill section and plenty of undulations. I run with Jackie Smith for a while who is going through a bad patch. I tell her 'every time we go up one of these hills we get to go down the other side'. This seems to cheer her up and a few miles further on she is off up the road ahead of me.

The aid stations are simple but effective. Support is very sparse and sporadic but it is enthusiastic at the small pockets of spectators we pass. They have the same attitude as in the USA with huge positivity.
All marathons are hard. The gradients are taking their toll and I am slowing but not too badly. This is the crucial part of my race. I keep the Revel coach's words in mind and just try to maintain effort not pace. My concentration is absolute.
I haven't dared dream of actually doing it. My confidence has definitely taken a hit over the previous attempts. It's one step at a time, be in the moment, hold form.

A few runners pass me. I pass a few but we are spread out and everybody knows what they are doing. We catch the slower half marathon runners and I am then joined by a guy with his race shirt wrapped up around his neck. He tells me he is the 3.45 pacer but the whole of his group has fallen off the pace. With his duties ended for the day he's running on to get to the finish quickly.
We come into the outskirts of Chilliwack. The buildings are really spread out unlike any European town. There is just so much space. As usual my whole body wants to stop and the salient parts of my brain are recruited to keep going at the same pace. It's a bit of a compromise as the speed drops but I still don't fall apart. A few miles left and the time is on track. I'm not going to go sub 3.40 but the target is a five minute buffer so 3.45. Maintain focus, welcome in the pain, keep going, don't walk, don't slow down. We are on quiet suburban streets, final right turn and the finish is somewhere ahead. I'm in a little space with no-one immediately ahead or behind me.

There is a small crowd at the turn off the road into the school grounds where the finish is. A short curving run in with barriers either side, a sparse cheering crowd and an announcer saying my name.

I've allowed myself to imagine this moment a few times during the training period. I've thought it might be quite ecstatic and emotional and I might even cry. It's not really like that at all. It's just relief and satisfaction but on the whole I just get on with the post run practicalities, sitting down, dealing with cramping calves, cleaning up a bit, chatting to the pacer who had seen his pace group all fall away and the woman I had briefly run with up the hills. Moira texts me with congratulations and tells me I have to go and collect an award as I'm third in my age group. It's a small accomplishment but I get a little tag to put on my medal. Another runner takes a pic for me in front of the race graphic backdrop.

Chip time is 3.43.38. We don't know if we are in Boston but I have a six plus minute buffer to go with Richard's nine minute plus. We can both enter in the first week of the qualification window as part of the 5-10 minute under group.

Bobby McFerrin starts singing Don't Worry Be Happy and I sing along. It's an intimate finish as it's a small race but with plenty of atmosphere. After a pause to let my stomach come round I drink an alcohol free beer and eat a slice of pizza and a bit of cake. As usual after a couple of gels and sports drink on the course the idea of any sugar is unappealing but it's all there is. Eventually I call a taxi and get back to the hotel in the middle of nowhere. The tiredness hits, I've just got enough energy to have a bath, get to the truck stop for milk and walk down the road to another hotel which has a bar and restaurant. It's low key and quiet with just a few hotel guests, hardly the place for a post marathon celebration but I'm too exhausted to care. I order some food. There are some beers from independent breweries in the area being featured. I like mangoes and I like wheat beer so I unwisely order the mango wheat beer, much against the advice of the local sitting at the bar. He's right, it's a bizarre combination and far too sweet in my post marathon sugar daze. I come back and the bartender insists on changing it for free. This one is fine but I can't manage to drink much of it. I head back to my hotel and collapse into bed.

The next day I'm revived. I have one of the best Indian meals I've had anywhere and get the bus back to Vancouver where I have a massage with a Chinese woman who has run marathons. It is wonderful and she tells me about running in Vancouver, Los Angeles and her home town in China. She says I should do that one. It is time for the flight back to London.