Belfast Marathon, 30th April 2023

On 1st May 2022, I completed my first ever half marathon, in glamourous Gateshead. It was something of a slog, and I did not particularly enjoy it. A further three, more successful half marathons, and almost exactly a year later, I was lining up in Belfast to compete in my first marathon.

I flew over with a group of friends, 3 of us running the full distance, 5 competing in the relay team event. After a niggle over December/January had disrupted the start of my training, things had been going well, and I was feeling fairly confident. However, a week and a half from race day, a mysterious achilles/calf pain appeared. It was incredibly uncomfortable to run on, very sore after, so I rested completely for a week, afraid my plans had been scuppered.

I chose to use parkrun the day before as a tentative test run, meeting up with Chris Jones at Ormeau Park, where the marathon would finish the following day. Everything seemed ok, and I even ran the last km around race pace, with no obvious discomfort. Fears were somewhat allayed.

Sunday morning arrived, and 4 of us were dropped off near the Stormont Estate, the persistently heavy drizzle kindly stopping just in time for the start of the race. I positioned myself near the 3hr 30 pacers, that being my goal time, and we were off.

The first half marathon went well. I even found myself pulling away from the pacers after about 6km, though kept an eye on my watch to ensure I wasn’t getting carried away. Things felt easy, comfortable. It was overcast with little wind, great running conditions. It was curious passing the relay changeover points, as the waiting runners were spread out along the road for several hundred metres, craning their necks to try and spot their incoming team mate. The roadside support was as good as anything I’d seen during the Great North Run, the atmosphere was superb.

I crossed the halfway point in around 1hr 44, the same time I had completed that first Gateshead half in. Things were on track. At this point, the lower calf pain started to creep in, but it was manageable. Then around 25km, 2 hours in, an ugly nemesis struck again, somewhere around the storied Falls Road. Earlier flutters of a stitch had been successfully suppressed, but an all-too familiar stabbing pain worsened, to the point where slowing the pace wasn’t enough, and I had to walk, furiously stretching and massaging my abdomen. With a couple of quickly aborted attempts at resuming, I continued like this for close to 10 minutes, the pain failing to subside, cursing my luck.

The 3:30 pacers had passed me only 3 or 4 minutes into this frustrating spell, so my goal was out the window. I eventually managed to resume running, at a reduced pace to keep the lingering stitch at bay, determined to quash my disappointment and finish the thing.

It was something of a slow collapse, like a deflating bouncy castle. Whether the loss of momentum was partly to blame or not I’ll never know, but my legs gradually grew heavier, the aches and pains more excruciating, and the last 7km or so especially just became an exercise in keeping one foot in front of the other, knowing that if I stopped, I’d likely not get going again. One silver lining was that my slowed pace meant I wasn’t overly bothered by the emergent sun now beating down.

About a kilometre from the finish, the 3:45 pacers passed me. I couldn’t have attempted to keep up with them if I’d wanted to, as I was moving at about 6:00 /km pace by this point. I managed to find a reserve from somewhere to speed up from my shambling jog in the final straight, crossing the finish line exhausted and relieved, 15 minutes off my target.

The fun wasn’t over though. We’d arranged for the first relay runner to collect our bags from the first changeover point, however I’d cleverly left my phone in said bag, and had no way to contact them. I’d seen them cheering me on about 3km from the end on the Ormeau Road, so after 20 minutes of wearingly staggering around near the finish, futilely scanning the masses, I made my way across the park to try and locate them.

Unfortunately, after walking most of the way up the road I realised they had definitely moved. I then retraced my steps, still clad in only my Claremont vest and shorts and starting to shiver. Walking back through the park, a brief but heavy downpour started, and I began to seriously wonder how far I might be from hypothermia, fantasising about kind strangers offering me their jackets.

Making it back to the finish area, I finally spotted two of my relay friends by the information/first aid cabin, looking somewhat anguished. I was draped in two large jackets and made to sit down and swig a large energy drink, a good hour and a half after finishing the race.

Later on, limbs throbbing, but full of pizza and garlic mushrooms, I was able to look back on the race and result, and reflect that I could be proud of the achievement. I’m genuinely not sure it’s something I want to do again, as even if things had gone according to plan, I don’t know that the reward and experience is worth the amount of all-consuming training required. I’m glad I’ve managed to complete a marathon, but I think the half-distance is more my speed, feel I’m not really built for endurance!

Overall a great weekend, and congratulations to all my friends, marathon and relay-runners alike!

Laurie Johnson -