It all started 1246 days ago in a small town 2338 km away from this one. Very appropriately it was at Marathon in Greece. The conditions were almost identical, the sun was in a clear blue sky, very little breeze and ahead of me waited 42.195 km of ‘running’. The 2 courses were very different; the middle 20km of the first through arid, nondescript unoccupied regions, had a continuous positive gradient whereas Zurich was almost dead flat and much run beside Lake Zurich which helped to temper the heat. I studied the Athens course carefully and even saw a video of it at the expo, so knew what to expect but I had no idea about Zurich, I didn’t know it looped back through the start after 10k. I carried, and consumed, 5 or 6 gels and water bottles with electrolytes in Athens but just a few jelly babies and S-Caps in Zurich. (There were water stations situated 3.5k apart.)
One person ran both races ‘with me’, my son in law Jon. In a perverse coincidence, because of an injury I had hardly run for 9 weeks before Athens and Jon had hardly run for a similar time because of injury before Zurich. In between Athens and Zurich I had run 24 other marathons but Jon had run 113. In Athens coaches took the runners from the centre of the city, along the route we would be running a couple of hours later, to Marathon; in Zurich a shuttle bus took us a couple of km from where the expo had been held to the start line.
But this time I had plenty of other support. Daughter Cat, ultra superstar dropping down to marathon distance, son Ed running his first marathon on (almost) zero training, friend Dan and his daughter Beth also running their first marathons but they had trained. When Dan and I were celebrating my Athens run, with my project known, he said he would come to Zurich to run number 26; at that stage neither of us were either confident I would complete the project or if so when it would be; it certainly came around much quicker than we had suspected. Also Victoria who I met and ran with in Utrecht 12 months earlier, and again in Warsaw 6 months ago was there to run it. Support from my wife Marion and Ed’s GF Holly made up the party.
There is always a huge amount of nervous excitement before the start of any marathon, and that was exacerbated here because none of us could find the meeting point we had agreed on and it was eventually on our ways to the pens or actually in them that we managed to connect and wish each other “Good Luck”; the first timers didn’t know what to expect, Jon didn’t know if the injury would flare up and make him struggle to finish, Cat had a time she was secretly targeting and Victoria knows the last 5k hits everyone . I was probably the most relaxed of the lot, unless something totally unpredictably catastrophic occurred during the run I would finish and inside the time of the first in Athens, another side target I had set after that race. Actually Ed and I saw what could have been such an occurrence. A guy only a metre or so ahead, just to my right lost concentration for a second and ran directly into a bollard and the exact height to cause most discomfort. He did seem to carry on OK, but I do wonder if ‘bollard man’ as I will always remember him was fully intact and functioning in the days and weeks that followed.
Cat started at the front, Victoria, Ed and I with the 4 hour pacers, Dan and Beth just behind us and Jon went to the back. After a few k I said to Ed that the pacers were going too fast and that was confirmed when we went through the half way mark in 1:57 but we were with them. But at the end I was grateful for lack of precision.
Ed and I saw Cat when we were looping back to the start at about 8.5k and she was 2k ahead of us, comfortably in front of the 3:15 pacers. Marion and Holly were cheering us on the out and back section by the lake at 20k then again at 30k where I downed the coffee that was waiting. We saw Cat looking so strong when we had done 22k, she was 6k ahead of us and nearer the 3 hour pacer than the 3:15. I moved away from Ed at about 24k when he was a bit slower at the water station, although this had happened before he had always made an effort to catch up with me, but not this time. I didn’t see him again until we had both finished. I was around 27k when I saw Jon moving towards the 25k turn around, running much better than he had expected. Dan and Beth were about 3k behind him at that stage.
I had stayed with the 4 hour pacer until well after 30k, but even then they were not moving away from me too quickly. I usually look at my watch with about 5k today, when I can image a slow parkrun finish; it was clear to me that sub 4 was possible, and as I turned the corner into the finishing straight (Strava shows it at 46.6k) with 200m to go, one of the 4h pacers was waiting there encouragingly telling runners they were still inside that time.
Cat was cheering just before the finishing line, as pleased as I was that even without the chip timing I was clearly under 4 hours for the first time since Kharkiv. As I made my way round to join Cat we both missed Ed finishing in a stunning 4:02:42 “without training”. Jon came in just under 4:30 one of his slowest ever but with the acute tendonitis inactivity he was very happy and relieved.Dan and Beth were just over 4:50, both as delighted with their first marathon time as I was with mine in Athens, and actually not very different. Victoria finished a minute in front of Ed, not quite getting her first sub 4 but she was so thrilled with the (I think) PB. And as for Cat, she had been targeting a sub 3:10 and as she approached the finishing line her bottom lip quivered (it actually did, it has been caught on the photo) as the clock confirmed a 12 minute PB, well inside the target. Besides the 3:06:13 getting her a championship place in London next year, it was a second faster than Jon’s PB…
It took us much too long to get our first post race beer, some of the bars near the finish would make a fortune if their service was better, or even existed at all. But we made up for that in the evening. The most amusing part of the weekend came next day, watching Ed trying to move down the stairs to the train platform for our trip to the airport, and the look when I mischievously said we had to go up and over to a different one.
I know quite a few of you have followed me throughout this challenge; you may have even read the blog posts on every race. For your perseverance I genuinely thank you. In answer to what I have been asked many times, no, I do not have any idea what my next challenge will be, I cannot do the same in reverse because only China has the X marathon and also with all of the easy nearby countries covered it would take much too long to complete. All of the UK counties, US states, European countries etc have been done so…if you have any possible suggestions do let me know.
My charity page will be open until the end of May. Just think about it…nothing is more fundamental than mastering speech, language and communication to an individual’s development. Problems in any these areas will seriously affect everything that we try to do, and anything I might have achieved in my 26 marathon alphabetic challenge is nothing compared to the success Afasic has with youngsters who struggle in these areas. Anything that you can afford to donate via my fundraising page will help them to continue their invaluable work. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/KeithSimpson26
Next up The Devil’s Challenge on April 29/30 May 1 and Skopje Marathon the next weekend