I ran my first marathon here in MK in 2014. I ran as an unaffiliated runner that day, coming in at 4:00:51. I know that that’s a pretty decent time for a first marathon, but I was still faintly disappointed. I’d missed a sub 4 time by just under a minute, which I was sure I could have found somewhere out on the course.
Yet perhaps the greater disappointment was the fact that I didn’t really enjoy it very much.
It had taken months of build-up and training to get me to that race, and as an experience, it just didn’t seem to validate that. I went out too fast, because I was ill disciplined, and got over excited, blowing up at somewhere around mile 13, and as a result, dragging myself through the second half of the marathon. I’ll never forget the place I went to in my mind those last few miles, where my entire personality had evaporated and I was just a moving bag of barely held together limbs, counting to eight in my head, again and again, just to get through it.
It was a thoroughly miserable experience on reflection. My family popped up at certain points to cheer me on; I remember how sad I was, because I was a shuffling, pained mess, and they deserved better than that. The finish was bittersweet. I was glad it was over, and couldn’t envision myself doing so again.
This year, I ran the Milton Keynes Marathon for the second time, same course. Same experience?
Night. And. Day.
Why? Two words, four syllables: Redway Runners.
This year, I ran as a member of Milton Keynes’ (in my eyes) pre-eminent running club, and boy, did that make a difference. The club met up for a group photo beforehand, with much joshing and backslapping, good-lucking. I immediately felt like I was part of something.
I crossed the start line with a smile, taking in all the other green shirts I could see around me. As I ran along, I saw club mates marshalling or green shirts on the sidelines calling out “Come on Chris! Go Redway! You can do it!” This was a marked contrast to the previous year; unless my family were there, I was mostly making my way accompanied by muted golf claps.
The club ran aid stations throughout the course, and at each one cheers, whoops, hollers and hi fives awaited me. My pace would leap up by thirty seconds per mile whenever I was near one, buoyed by the shouts of encouragement. On the ground, chalk messages were scrawled – GO REDWAY RUNNERS! YOU CAN DO IT!
On the course, I saw any number of club mates running too; we waved, smiled and cheered – even the ones I didn’t know, we saluted and supported each other, bound through the cord of communion that was our club colours.
This transformed my marathon experience. It made it the most tremendous fun. I had a huge smile on my face for much of the race. I was egging on the crowds as I ran through cheering points, playing it up, enjoying the occasion. Last year it was all I could do to keep moving forward.
Most importantly whenever my family, who were amazing in dotting themselves around the course, saw me this year they saw me running strong, with head held high. It was great.
The last few miles got a little tough, but the support never wavered. As I made my approach to the stadium, some RRs who had finished their races were gathered, medals round their necks, sat by the path to cheer on those coming in. They had finished – they would have been perfectly entitled to go home, enjoy some well earned R&R – but instead they were out clapping, seeing in other runners. An act of selflessness entirely reflective of the spirit of the club.
I made my way into the stadium, tired but importantly with high spirits. I crossed the line in 3:29:17, a huge PB of over half an hour, and did so with arms outstretched and a big smile on my face, the crowd cheering all the way.
On the day, being a part of Redway Runners made a huge difference; that much is beyond doubt. But I want to be clear; being part of the club had been helping me long before I lined up at the start line.
I was a leaner, faster, fitter, more strategic runner than May 2014, the result of innumerable evening runs, running along with runners more seasoned than I, and gaining valuable insight into the art of pacing and goal setting.
It was the result of seeing my club mates’ runs and stories popping up all over the Facebook page, or on my Strava account, giving me that inspiration to be a part of all the fun
It was the result of my newfound obsession with parkrun, which I’d only heard of from a club mate for the first time in August, and which has led to me driving hard to improve my 5K PB, week after week, with knock on effects for my pace over longer distances. Each week meeting and chatting with a sea of green shirts on the start area, new friends helping pace me in to rapidly improving times, helping me set the bar and push myself – something I would never, ever have done whilst running solo.
It was the result of a more pronounced and intimate knowledge of the MK redways, which was borne from my club runs, but also from an overall massively increased appetite and confidence to get out and go further, another characteristic endowed by being part of the club. By the time I lined up for the race, I’d run the bulk of the course multiple times, and that “homework” paid off, giving me the intel on when to push, hold, rest.
I could go on. But you get the picture. As a shy solo runner last year, I was doing ok, really. I got myself to the start, and I ran 26.2 miles. I got through it.
This year I had the time of my life. I didn’t endure it – I enjoyed it, and all that is wonderful about running can be found in that difference.
In 2015 a better runner arrived at that start line, and sailed over that finish line. A faster runner. A happier runner.
A Redway Runner.