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Mick Rice agreed to pace Ray on his most recent marathon in Berlin (September 2007). The following is his report with comments by Ray in italics.

How do you offer advice on running marathon races to a man who has run thirty four of them already? How can you try to guide or pace a man through a marathon who directs his own highly successful international event? The answer to both of these questions is ‘quite carefully’, I suppose. I travelled to Berlin to try to help a small group of marathon runners break the 3:30 barrier for the first time. Thankfully most of these runners met or exceeded their performance targets but this report describes only one of those races, the one Ray O’Connor ran alongside me. I’m told that I have to follow the style of the master himself and keep it brief and so here it is.

Ray and I got to the starting pen a little late but at least we avoided that horrible ‘waiting around for ages in a big crowd bit’ that precedes most big city races. We had prepared our tactics and they were simple, an evenly paced 3:30 marathon which works out at eight minutes per mile or five minutes per kilometre. What could possibly go wrong? Ray was like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof and even though we were only waiting a few minutes for the start of the race he couldn’t get going soon enough. Thankfully, for all of our sakes, the few remaining moments passed and we got on our way. The race had started on the massively wide Strasse des 17 Juni and so it wasn’t too long before we were into a stride of sorts even though we had started well back in the pack from the ‘F’ coral. Within the first mile we swung around the huge triumphal Siegessäule column. The buzz was good, the field was massive and we were on our way for good or ill.

The early miles were unremarkable, which was just the way we wanted it. We met a few people we knew along the way but mostly we just kept an eye on the clock and tried not to deviate too much from our target pace. We strode gently along and just tried to keep it smooth. What struck me straight away was the density of the running pack. Even on hugely wide roads it was next to impossible to pass people in the early miles without expending loads of extra energy. This didn’t overly worry me as I reasoned that as the crowds loosened up we’d find ourselves going faster without expending any extra energy. I was only partially right. Ray warned me that starting as far back as we had done that there was a very strong possibility that the crowds would never loosen out. He was mostly right – the voice of experience.

Berlin was crowded.... I have never run a more crowded marathon. It was nuts. There was very little room to run freely and any gaps that were offered were quickly closed off again by lines of unsuspecting runners stretched right across the road. I have run London 7 times and I long for the open roads on offer there compared to this - and that's bad.

At mile five we passed the Reichstag and from looking at my watch - Ray wasn’t wearing one - I could see that we were about two and a half minutes behind schedule. Given that the early miles of a marathon are usually the slowest I was completely confident that we were effectively on target. Towards the end of the first half we got onto target pace and passed most kilometre splits in slightly less than the requisite five minutes. This meant that all we had to do was repeat this process over and over again until we either finished under 3:30 or the metaphorical wheels came off. Simple! Right?

In around the halfway point Mick casually said we were a couple of minutes off target. If I heard correctly we had run the first half in about 1:47 meaning that in order to break 3:30 we would have to run the remaining 13.1 miles in 1:43? I absolutely panicked. Quietly maybe, but I panicked and actually resigned myself to yet another failed attempt. There was simply no way I could run the second half in 1:43 - end of story! I didn't say anything to Mick and felt bad for him - if we didn't run sub 3:30 then this would be a failure on his part, but I suppose we had a good excuse as the roads were still clogged with slower runners and at the least I might have a shot at another PB.

We passed halfway having clawed back a little bit of the deficit but were still about two minutes down on target time. So far, so good! The pace felt easy for both of us and there were no major pains or aches to report. In my mind I was quite happy that we would naturally reclaim those one hundred and twenty seconds. We just needed to avoid any sudden changes in strategy or pace and above all we needed not to panic. We didn’t panic, but unbeknownst to me, Ray was getting a little edgy. He wasn’t used to being in the position of having to make up time in the later stages of a marathon and that was precisely what we needed to do now. As we kept, and even slightly increased our pace, we were moving smoothly past thousands of runners. This advance came at a cost as we had to weave all over the road coping with sudden decreases and increases in pace as tired runners ground to an unexpected halt directly in front of us time and again.

Having settled down a bit and eased through 16 miles, a point in every marathon that I do a full body check, I decided to show Mick that I was able to run quicker, so I tried to push the pace a bit . His response was immediate and definite - 'You are going too quick', 'Slow down', 'We're bang on target', 'Relax'. He kept reassuring me that all was OK, but I still didn't believe that we could bank enough time to get through the wall that was sure to bring me to a halt at 22.

By the time the race was three quarters way through we had reclaimed all of the lost time. Ray’s concern about being behind schedule, even slightly, had pushed him to press on harder, particularly when small stretches of open road opened up for us. There weren’t that many of those open stretches. Up ‘til that point I had had to offer ray very little in terms of advice or encouragement. Ray had run his own race and might as well have been pacing me through the race for all the difference I had made. Having said that though towards the last few miles the wear and tear involved with constantly weaving around slower runners and an increased running tempo in the second half started to come home to roost. Somewhere along Kurfürstendamm at about mile twenty-one or twenty-two I could see that Ray was starting to struggle and I could hear that his breathing sounded a little more difficult. This was where he needed to stick to his guns. This was where he hadn’t been able to stick to his guns in some previous races. He had run to this stage in the race faster than in any of his previous marathons and was therefore deep into unexplored territory.

We were picking off the K's all the time, sub 5 minutes, one after another, consistent timing, but every time Mick called out a split I spent the next 4 minutes doing the maths. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise as the distraction allowed me to drift into that zone where you see nothing, hear nothing and more importantly feel nothing. By the time we reached 21 I started to realise that maybe I could hold it together and just maybe I could get in under 3:30. But I was still waiting for the big crash and wallop and forced myself to keep focused on the road, trying to block out any distractions. At mile 23 I calculated that we had to do three 9 min miles to finish in 3:29 and even at that stage I doubted if I could keep that going. I usually break down to 10 min miles at this point and it took all my mental strength not to give in to any tiny sign that I was about to crash. The strain started to show at mile 22 through the speed of my breath. I was obviously finding it harder to maintain the pace and had to work a lot more for every second. I was more and more shocked each time Mick would call out a split as it felt slower and tougher than I was hearing... In fact I was speeding up.

His race could have fallen apart there and then. He had plenty of excuses if he wanted to use them. As we passed each kilometre marker I called the split and he said very little. He kept his head down and concentrated on moving along at a good tempo. We were still slicing through the field but the smiles and banter of earlier miles were gone. It was very, very hard work now. Then all of a sudden we could see the Brandenburg gate ahead of us which we knew was near the finish line. Ray took off like a maniac. He literally sprinted and I had extreme difficulty staying with him. He told me afterwards that he had mistakenly believed that the finish line was actually under the gate whilst it was actually a little bit beyond.

Our fastest K was the last one. What a way to finish a marathon - a 4:28 K. I felt really good.

We shot through the finish line with Ray leading the way. Unbelievable! 3:26:57!!! We shook hands – a job well done, a mission accomplished.

Had I been on my own I would have run the first half exactly the same, mile 13 to 20 much quicker and I would have broken down to a walk by 23. Mick's reassurance that we were on target is what got me to the finish line in my fastest time ever. 35 marathons and I'm still learning. Isn't it a great sport.

22:08

5:02

10:33

10:20

10:06

9:56

14:50

4:55

4:51

4:58

4:51

9:39

4:47

4:55

4:57

4:43

4:51

4:46

4:44

4:37

13:40

13:38

9:25

4:53

4:50

4:28

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3:26:57

Jane

16 years 8 months ago

Inspirational story, well done!