I’m extremely pleased to announce that I have successfully ticked off another one of the 21 challenges I set myself but 16 months ago. The Greater Manchester Marathon was chosen for its 26.2 miles of endurance, but mainly because I couldn’t pass up taking part in such an iconic event within the city that has given me so much over the last few years.
Given the last couple of months, I’d not really got caught up in the storm of nerves and excitement in the run up to the race. However, it was on Friday night, when we went to pick up my race number from the expo and decided to do a quick drive round recce of the route, that it dawned on me, that I would yet again be running non-stop for more than 4 hours all in the name of charity. The news didn’t help matters either, reporting Sunday to be the wettest day in April since time began, and that a month’s worth of rain would fall in a day. Having lived in Manchester for the last 9 years I’d gotten used to the rain, but boy was I in for a shocking day!
Race morning arrived and I went about my usual routine of trying to eat a big breakfast but feeling full after 3 mouthfuls. Making sure I was properly hydrated. And taking 5 minutes to remind myself of why I was doing this. If these guys can get up at 5am and go on exercise in the pouring rain of the Brecon Beacons to train for their inevitable deployment to Afghanistan, then I could sure as hell get my arse out into the rain of Manchester for a few hours of running. A few hours of running in testing conditions, challenging myself both physically and mentally, in great support of the amazing servicemen & women of our Armed Forces.
After a very wet arrival to the race area, and with all the appropriate areas covered (Vaseline, surgical tape etc.) we headed over to the start line. 8000 runners all lined up ready & waited for the gun to go off. As soon as the gun sounded, there was a Mexican wave of cheering from the front to the back, with runners and spectators alike clapping & shouting. As I approached the start line I was really excited, and looking forward to the race.
Soon after the start we passed Old Trafford and down towards Salford Quays, taking in the Imperial War Museum to the right of us – which at the minute has a photography exhibit outside, on the Falklands Islands conflict. As I ran passed a very iconic photo, it grounded my reasons for taking part in this race, and in fact reminded me why I’d start on this long journey of challenging myself. It gave me strength that I would call upon later in the day, when my body didn’t want to respond, my legs would be sore and when I wanted to stop.
We carried on moving out of the industrial part of Manchester, looping back round to Stretford, where I saw the first glimpse of the [21:21] Supporters Club. My housemate Vicky, my very good friends Sarah & John, and the amazing Rupert, were all out to support the event and cheer very loudly from the sidelines. Before I carry on, I have to give a mega SHOUT OUT to these guys. Whilst I had no choice to be there, being one of the official [21:21] challenges after all, these guys braved the horrific weather to support me, the project and Help for Heroes. I cannot begin to explain how phenomenal it was to have them on side at various points along the route. Their support cannot be explained in words, but needless to say, it was appreciated like they will never know.
As we headed into Sale, the weather continued to remain as miserable as when we’d started. The rain was soaking us further with every step we took, as the wind battered us from all directions. By now we had swapped the somewhat harsh surroundings of Trafford Park for leafy tree lined streets south of the M60. The supporters were out on the streets in droves – huddled under umbrellas, bus stops, and even some sat in their car boots to shelter from the rain. But the rain did not deter them. The spirit of the Manchester people really touched me as I ran along the streets. Seeing that so many people came out to support really helped as we got wetter & ever so colder. A special thank you to Sheila (from work) for coming out to watch the race in Sale – I do hope her arm is alright today though, as I tried to high five her on the way past, but think I may have grabbed her hand inadvertently and dislocated her shoulder. Sorry She!
We carried on as the rain kept pouring. I have to say it wasn’t pleasant, nor was I enjoying it, the weather I mean, but I’ve built up such a block for mental things like this now, so I let it wash right over me and pushed on. I reached Altrincham and with each step I was that little bit closer to the half way point. As I veered left into the town centre, the [21:21] Supporters Club were there again with their cheering, flashing photography and shouts of support. Well when I say support, as I ran passed I heard Rupert shout “you dragged us out in this shit weather, you better bloody finish it!!” – it made the nearby runners laugh at least, as well as spurring me on that little bit further.
As I ran over the timing pad at half way, it was there that the route ventured out into the countryside, heading towards Dunham Massey. The undulations started to become more intense, as the open scenery meant the wind could howl across our route with forceful intent, and the rain could batter us from all angles.
While we were running through the National Trust park of Dunham Massey it made me laugh as we approached part of the track which was covered in water. As other street runners clambered onto the nearby fence and commando shuffled across it, I simply ran through the over sized muddy puddle, thinking to myself “well at least there’s not chunks of ice like during Hell Runner”. Come on guys, it’s a bit of muddy water. Did you forget to grab a can of MTFU before you started?
We finally started to transition from countryside back to residential once more, and it was somewhere around mile 17, 18 or 19 that the pain started to kick in. For once I’m pleased to say I wasn’t suffering from any kind of broken bone injury or ripped ligament, but the unforgiving force of the weather had really started to take its toll. There were more and more runners who were walking, hobbling, even stopped by the side of the road with foil blankets round them. I was finding it increasingly difficult to perform simple hand based tasks like opening energy gels, as my frozen fingers had stopped working.
It had been a tough day for us all. But the end was in sight.
I eventually reached mile 25, and by this point was running with another Help for Heroes affiliated runner, which definitely helped push me on through the last mile and a bit. Knowing the area well, I knew we had a slight incline / hill to conquer before the home straight, and as such had been preparing for this for a couple of miles. I was fine until I reached it and realised that they’d not closed the road, meaning that we had to go under the road via the subway. Yes, just what I needed after running 25 miles, steps down to a subway, and then a quick ascent back up. Really not happy at that point.
On the way back up my legs seized and I got cramp like I’d never had before. As I hobbled up I heard someone shout “come on champ”. Only one person I know calls me that, and knew that the beautiful Kate Doyle was out there somewhere. By this point I wasn’t bothered about time, so went up to hug her in a somewhat emotional state, only to be shouted at, “no time for hugging, let’s get running”. As I ran down the home straight, she rode her bike in a very dangerous fashion, into oncoming traffic shouting and screaming support. My legs weren’t working, but somehow mustered enough force to keep them moving forward step after step.
Then to the left I saw and heard from the [21:21] Supporters Club once again, with Rupert Sarah & John all cheering. Well there was no stopping me now, the pressure was on. Actually, it was very overwhelming running down a street lined with people cheering for you. With my H4H running vest and my name on the race number, “come on Benjamin” “go on Help for Heroes” followed me down the final 385 yards. The pain in my legs had gotten worse by this point and my run sank into a jog and then into some kind of crazed movement to get me across the line.
I was close to tears, but am pleased to report that 4hrs, 32 mins & 49 seconds after starting, I crossed the finish line. In the worse conditions of any challenge we’ve had so far, challenge 16 was well and truly completed.And whilst I am a little disappointed to not beat my time in Dubai (which was 51 seconds faster), I’m secretly pleased that I can still hold my head high and say that my marathon PB was achieved in Dubai!
I hobbled round to pick up my medal and was met by Vicky, who had with her life saving food & energy drinks to revive my body. My spirit however, was still very much buzzing after achieving so much.
As we squelched through the mud to try and escape the finish area, we spotted a Help for Heroes tent, so headed over and were welcomed with cheers and open arms – not to mention more food, and even a special secondary medal in recognition of support for Help for Heroes – both medals will take pride of place in my [21:21] challenge collection.
A day later I still can’t believe I’ve completed my third marathon, in only 5 months – quite an achievement, especially considering I only started running last year, and have had a few physical hiccups along the way! As frequent readers of the [21:21] news will know, I often dedicate certain updates to particularly special people – namely my brother, the sadly missed but never forgotten Martin Gill, or other serving Royal Marines / Armed Forces personnel. However, this challenge deserves a different kind of dedication……………..
I dedicate this challenge to the amazing & supportive efforts of the [21:21] Supporters Club. Vicky & Sarah, who between them have attended more challenges than I care to remember. John, who captures the most challenging moments of the project with such finesse, not to mention continued support with kits, entry fees, transport etc. Kate for her early morning wake up calls to run round the water park in all weathers. And last, but by no means least, a shining star and a complete rock in times of need, Rupert.
Thank you all so much for coming out on such a horrible day, to get wet and cold, to support me and all of the other runners you were cheering for. Without your support I could not have gotten so far, and have been so successful. As I said before, I cannot put into words how grateful I am to have such an amazing team behind me. So, it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this challenge to the unsung heroes of the [21:21] project. GO TEAM!
Oh yes, one last thing. If you’ve read this and thought yourself lucky to have not endured such cold, wet conditions, but want to show your support in a slightly more sane way, you can donate to the project via our sponsorship page – all money collected goes directly to Help for Heroes, and as it stands we’re currently £3,135 from our £10,000 target. However much you can give, by doing your bit, you’ll be helping to support the injured servicemen & women who do such a valiant job every single day, to protect our country and your way of life.
Help for Heroes [21:21] Challenge