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I’d just passed the half marathon point in a personal best time of 1:26, my head was up, I was still smiling and to an outsider it might’ve looked like I was doing just fine. But there was the twinge in my hamstring to nurse – it’d been there at the start of the race and it was getting worse – and now it was being joined by a slight groin strain that felt like it could put an end to my race with a single mistimed, over-reached step. I’d kept up well with a group of lads who were aiming for a sub 3 hour time until just 5 minutes before but now they were leaving me as if I were running in glue and I knew it was going to be a tough job keeping my injuries in check and my mind positive for the next 13 miles.
Then the RAF lads ran past…
I saw the circular emblems on their dark green shirts, RAF Cosford I think it said underneath, as we turned into Ta’Qali National Park. Thoughts motored way faster than my legs now felt able to; Ta’Qali used to be an RAF base, my dad was an RAF man who’d visited Malta, his ashes rested in an urn decorated with the image of a Spitfire, he was the catalyst for me being here, I was doing this for more than me, I had to push, this was important.
Dad has passed on late in 2017 and after the funeral, as my sisters, brother and I had sat around at our family home, I’d flicked through Dad’s single photo album and found many reminders of his time in the forces. There’d been his own pictures of Germany and Egypt (on maneuver, of Dad on his service motorbike and in a cockpit) where he was mainly stationed, as well as a set of 6 postcards showing general views of Malta. I’d forgotten he’d even visited the island – I wasn’t the most attentive of sons so I must have missed his stories about his time there – but Mum had helped me out, reminding me that he’d stopped off on the way back from the Suez crisis and that he’d enjoyed his time there.
A couple of months later Malta had come to my attention again, this time in the shape of it’s marathon. My 50th birthday was on Feb 22nd and since the Malta Marathon was on the 25th and had the reputation of being a fast race I thought it would be a decent present to myself, as well as a way of honouring Dad’s memory, if I were to run it. We don’t tend to dwell in a depressive way on things in my family, we think that if you’re going to remember somebody it’s best done with joy and smiles rather than sadness and frowns. Dad wouldn’t want any of us to sit around moping about his passing, for sure, but he’d be pretty happy knowing that we taken inspiration from his life to create some adventures of our own. So that is what I’d set about doing.
And I remembered all that as I ran through Ta’Qali. The black and white photos of Dad in his RAF days…
…the old Maltese postcards…
…Dad’s face as I last saw it, his smile, his words…
…and whilst it didn’t take away the pain and the injuries it did put them in perspective and reinforce that I wasn’t just running this race for me. There was Dad’s memory to do honour to, Mum would have her eye on my result, as would my extended family and girlfriend, and on top of all that I was raising funds for the MSPCA (the Maltese version of the RSPCA animal charity), too.
The animals were depending on me to put on a good show; the better I ran, the more money it’d be possible for me to get for them. Reminding myself of all that pulled my scattered thoughts into a tighter circle, a circle I could begin to control. Calm was needed; only a clear head could get a good result from this position.
The RAF lads were pulling further away from me but the distinctive circular badge on their shirts offered me a last gift, a prompting to remember the story of the ‘Falcon of Malta’, better known as George Beurling, a Canadian pilot who’d joined the RAF and had become, during 1942, known as an ace, deadly fighter pilot. My friend Trevor, back in Canada, makes a point of sending me timely information and he’d Facebooked me George’s story a couple of days before. The article explained that Beurling had developed the habit of only engaging enemy aircraft at 250 yards or less – a range at which many other pilots would be breaking away for fear of crashing – and he apparently owed his spectacular success to remarkably good eyesight and the ability to toss his Spitfire into violent combat manoeuvres. If jumped from behind, he would pull back on the stick of his Spitfire so hard that the aircraft would enter a violent stall, flick over and spin; this was a hard, sudden and very dangerous act for the enemy fighter on his tail to follow. Beurling would also ram both ailerons and rudder into a sudden and violent turn, causing his Spitfire to flip over and drop like a stone. It’s said that only a very experienced (or crazy) pilot would pull such stunts more than once or twice; Beurling made them a matter of habit.
Beurling had taken chances and, coupled with his experience, they’d worked out for him. My impending injuries were not to be compared to any wartime situation yet I could learn lessons from Beurlings’ story. I was 50 and had run nearly 100 marathons, I could push my body to higher limits that I’d done before, I could use my experience to ride the fine line between finishing well and limping. If I failed, oh well, this wasn’t a war, the stakes weren’t that high, and if I succeeded, then all well and good, maybe I could make my family proud and even – dare I think it – break the 3 hour barrier for the first time ever?
The conditions were perfect, they had been all morning. We’d started off just outside Mdina – a beautiful, walled hilltop town known as the ‘Silent City’ – at a cool 7:30am. It had been a perfect start to race day; the buses had dropped us there an hour earlier offering up plenty of time to walk (or warm up with a gentle run) the narrow, dimly lit alleys and admire the cathedral before being guided to the start line by a brass band, the music increasing in power as the minutes ticked down.
I’d been nervous during the previous days, as I always am before a big race, hadn’t felt in great form, thought maybe I’d been enjoying the local food and wine a little too much (very possible), and had imagined that the hamstring niggle I’d started to feel had just been a psychological trick played by a primitive brain that always seems to object when the prospect of a marathon appears.
‘You’re going to die doing this,’ it says.
‘I’m not,’ I answer, ‘this isn’t 500 BC you know, and there’s food available at the end of it, ok? And hey, even if I do die whilst running, it’s my choice to do so, right?’’
Despite the logic, you know how it is, the brain is always in survival mode, always trying to live forever, always looking to convince us not to go beyond what it deems safe.
So I’d ignored the hamstring niggle because even disregarding the primitive brain syndrome, in reality what could be done? I’d journeyed to Malta to run the marathon, I was hardly going to call it off just because of a little pain, and I’m terrible at resigning myself to a slow race.
With 5 minutes to go I’d felt myself growing in confidence. There was a little cloud cover, no rain and it was about 14C. Perfect. 4 minutes to go, I’d downed a can of energy drink. 3 minutes to go, my eyes popped as the caffeine took hold, I’d looked around, there were English club vests dotted among the more than 950 runners, everybody was getting excited, taking selfies, exchanging good wishes. I was proud to be among them. With all the talk – and damning evidence – of doping at the highest level of sports nowadays, races like these presented a purer form of sport, one where decent people ran fairly, without drugs and the horrible, selfish attitude that cheating highlights. Yes, this was real sport. I was hyped, I was ready. 2 minutes to go, goodness, I was so happy to be there, this was what life was all about. Everybody was naturally high, in good moods, emanating positive energy, smiling. There wasn’t a frown or a sign of bad feeling in sight. This may not have been humanity at its finest, but it was pretty damn close.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, bang! Go!
We’d poured through the empty streets of Rabat and then downhill towards Ta’Qali. The marathon had an overall drop of 200 metres from start to finish and if felt like half of that was within the first hour or so. My race plan had been to stick to a 6:52 pace and then try to up it towards the end but the downhills were so enticing I’d made the most of them, using the ‘falling forward’ motion to cover ground with little perceived effort. Or so I’d thought. My watch told me I was keeping a 6:22 pace, way too fast bearing in mind my previous 3:09 marathon best. I’d rolled with it, maybe it was my day after all, and after half an hour I’d eaten a date that I’d laced with Nescafe and Tailwind. Gels tie my stomach in knots so I’d decided to take a more natural, although perhaps not too conventional, route when it came to nutrition. Dates at 90 calories a pop plus Tailwind for power, Nescafe for caffeine, if I took 1 of this little energy packs just before every water station – which were every 5km – then on paper it should get me through. We would see.
As well as water stations there were Powerade stations, sponge stations and numerous live bands playing along the route. Add to this plenty of volunteers, marshalls and decent signage and you had a very well organised marathon that was easy to run. Easy, I mean, as in you didn’t have to think about anything but the running, which was proving to be rather tough for me as we exited Ta’Qali and made for the 25km mark and the main road where we’d meet up with the half marathon runners on the road to the finish line at Sliema.
The road surface was good, I just had to focus on keep my steps regular, not make any jerky movements that might increase my injuries and keep my thoughts tight and positive. Easier said than done but I was determined to give it a go. I think the initial downhill section had encouraged me to run recklessly fast and that had been where I’d picked up the groin strain; I had to avoid falling into the trap again when the next bit of downhill appeared. Pockets of crowd support helped me along, the loud live bands also. The route had been pretty, rural, mostly flat yet sometimes hilly (especially at the 16km mark where there had been a long grind uphill for a km or more) after that first large bit of downhill but now a few hills had kicked in as we moved into more residential/commercial areas and the sun had emerged, both adding extra challenges that I struggled to physically and mentally cope with.
So many times I wanted to walk, just a little bit, and I nearly did once but just as I started to slow an English lad eased up beside me with words of encouragement.
‘You going for a 3 hour?’ He asked. I nodded in response. ‘You’ve got loads of time, I did this race last year, I was at this stage at the same time, went on and finished in 2:55, just keep pushing, you’ll do it.’
The km signs were showing that we were near to the Sliema finish now. We turned left onto a back road that led below the massive defensive walls of Valletta and 2 or 3 half marathoners thundered past me as the road dipped steeply downhill. I knew the incline was going to tear into my quads and possibly be the end of my race but I thought of George Beurling, fell forward and gave it all I had anyway. My knees were screaming, the route veered left again and we were on the flat seafront, snaking around the final 4kms to Sliema. Later, on this very spot my friends doing the half marathon told me, they’d passed 2 or 3 marathon runners laid out flat, being attended to by medics. It was probably the heat, and the fact that the downhills, at this stage, weren’t as easy to run as they might have been earlier on. Or perhaps it was simply the thought of 4kms more on the flat, sun scorched roads that had put the runners on their backs. It was certainly a challenge I was barely able to face up to myself.
The tall waterfront apartments blocked out the sun for a few short, blessed minutes, then the shadows left me and it was bright, strength sapping sun all the way. The crowds were denser now, all English voices shouting
‘Come on, not far to go, run faster!’ But I had no more strength in me. My watch showed I was slowing, in the last few km I’d gone from a 6:38 pace to 6:56. It was pathetic, I was going to miss the 3 hour mark. I thought of how I was letting everybody down. Did I really have nothing in me? How was I going to feel after the race? Would I be spritely and able to move easily? Probably, in which case, I said, Dave, get your leg moving right now. I tried but they didn’t respond. I checked my watch, I was slowing even more. I was so sad, I didn’t even know if I could finish…
Then another part of me said no, fight it, this is not finished yet, you have to give it all you have. There’s no way you’re leaving anything in your legs, you have to collapse at the finish line, it doesn’t matter what time you get but what’s certain is you have to be utterly exhausted by the time you’re done, anything else is a gutless failure.
The red fluttering flags of the finish straight were in sight, I could see Marks and Sparks, Matalan and Burger King on the left, signs of home, my watch read 2 hours 56 minutes, ok, the 3 hour finish was gone, there was no way I could make up the ground, but it’s ok, keep pushing Dave, I thought, your friends and family are worth more than you giving in like this. The crowds were dense now, shouting encouragement, I smiled at a few kids who were trying to high-five runners, I waved indiscriminately, the finish line was near, my vision seemed blurry yet I could see the large clock, 3 hours and 2 minutes it said, I pushed hard and crossed a minute later.
A Japanese runner was blocking the finish shute, he was leaning on a railing being sick, the heat had affected many of us, I was eager for shade but there was no way past him so I collapsed onto the railing myself. A minute or so later he raised his head, put his arm around me and we walked to collect our medals together.
‘Is anybody lying there?’ I said to a medic, pointing at the shady space of concrete behind him.
‘It’s all yours,’ he smiled. I slumped onto my back and stayed flat out for 20 minutes, trying to lower my core temperature. I’d beat my personal best marathon time by 6 minutes. Perhaps if I’d run more tactically and not got drawn in by the hills I’d have done even better. I wasn’t happy for a while, a lay there kicking myself emotionally, but once I’d cooled down I told myself to man up and get real because really, who can stay miffed for long when you’ve just beaten both your half and full marathon PB?!
Beyond the finish line the road was full of runners stretching out, celebrating with family and taking selfies. I joined them. How many medal selfies can you take after a marathon? If the views and backdrops are this good, oh, too many to count…
Later I’d learnt that I’d got 3rd place in my age group, the over 50’s. It was great news yet I knew I was walking around my hotel room and enjoying the hotel pool a little too easily.
I could’ve run faster. Marathon running isn’t just about fitness, it’s about knowing how to give your best, and that was a skill I had yet to master. It was ok though. I’d done all I could on the day, I think I’d done my Dad and loved ones proud, and next time I would learn how to give more of myself. I would run this race again and next time I would do better, I knew it already.
If you’d like to see a little more about my trip to Malta, here’s a short video I made before and during the race.
If you’d like to support the MSPCA, please see their website; https://www.maltaspca.org/
The animals thank you for your support!