A good friend once told me that you never know what you are capable of until you push yourself right outside your comfort zone, and that’s how The Marathon Ride has been for me so far: a series of challenges of endurance, heat, language, riding, crashing and culture clashing — with a bit of running thrown in for good measure.
And yet this European stage was markedly different from all the others. The ‘others’ had always been about the journey rather than the destination: 18,000 kilometres, 18 countries and 11 weeks to get to Kuala Lumpur for #1 in Asia; riding deep into the Australian outback for #2; heading into the South African townships for Mandela’s gruelling #3. Without a doubt, the journey to Berlin for #4 was the easiest so far, more like a European vacation. I just jumped on my motorcycle, rode down to the Harwich ferry, slept while sailing across the North Sea and woke up the next morning in The Netherlands. From there, I just pointed the bike east, opened her up and 700 kilometres later I was on the streets of the German capital.
I knew the BMW Berlin Marathon would be a unique experience for me because unlike the others, it was all about the time goal, the unchartered territory of a ‘sub-4’ at a World Marathon Major. Having received such generous support from BMW for my project, I felt some pressure to perform.
On race morning I drew back the curtains in my hotel room and was delighted to see the rain pouring down. This was exactly what I needed — loads of oxygen in the air and cool, damp conditions to give me a fighting chance. All the hype in the build-up to the 44th edition of this legendary race was that the marathon world record was under serious threat, with the three main contenders — Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele and Wilson Kipsang — set to push each other to go where no marathon man had ever gone before.
Further back down the field of 44,000 runners from 137 countries, the rest of us mere mortals were dealing with our own demons. That’s what I love about marathon running: at my level the race is only against myself, finding my mental strength, channeling my physical preparation and discovering how deep I’m prepared to dig in the quest for precious memories or PBs to treasure.
On reflection a day later, I remember very little about the hours during the race. Usually I’m fooling around, having a joke and a chat with the other runners, and playing up to the crowds of supporters. This time, I had my head down and was focussing on energy conservation, statistics, efficient striding, accurate pacing and the hope of a strong second half of the race. My goal was to be at 32km (20 miles) by the three-hour mark, which would give me an hour to deal with the inevitable fade on the final 10.2 kilometres.
I ended up missing the 32km target by four seconds, largely due to a lengthy ‘pit stop’ in the early stages because I’d drunk too much to alleviate my fear of dehydration (I was pressed up against a hedge, peeing like a horse while the four-hour pacers steamed past me and disappeared into the distance). I then realised how hard I’d need to push in the closing stages, but with an empty bladder, two strong painkillers and an energy gel swallowed, my destiny was in my own hands, my lungs and my aching feet!
Crossing the finish line in 3:57.20 and knowing that I’d achieved my long-held goal was one of the best feelings ever. In 2003 I had back surgery and in the weeks following, I swore that if I made a full recovery, I’d never take my physical health for granted again.
In the years since that operation, there are many things that I can’t do with my ‘glass back’, such as playing golf, digging the garden or picking up a fully-laden motorcycle that I’ve dropped on its side, but strangely enough I can run long distances without too much discomfort. I never do regular training because I really feel the wear and tear if I run too often, but I always knew that Berlin was my best chance of trying to hit my target.
So now I’ve ticked that box I can go back to enjoying myself again. Our club motto is ‘run for fun’ and that’s what I like best — time spent in good company, helping and supporting, eating cake and drinking beer. Next up is Vegas, where I’ll be doing plenty of that. Anything could happen, and probably will…