By Jason Richards
The build up to this years 26 miles 385 yards of the London marathon course seemed perfect until the starter’s gun sounded. In 2016 I pushed my second ever fastest London Marathon and this year I was set to go quicker still. However, I made a fundamental change that put pay to all the months of hard work and meticulous preparation.
I have no idea of the actual percentages but completing any marathon is a balance of fitness and endurance, mind over matter and technical perfection. This year my endurance was better than in any recent year having covered more miles in training and many more longer pushes in the lead up to the race. My mind was in a great place and my confidence was had been reinforced with some strong training runs in early spring. However, where it fell down this year was in my technical preparation.
The simple rule is never change anything in a race. This is a rule I have lived by since learning the hard way early on in my racing career. Wheelchair racing is a highly technical sport. Get it right and you fly with a seamless efficiency. Get it wrong and it’s like wading through treacle. The key is to ensure that nothing is left to chance and that everything from your position in the chair, the coating on your push rims and even the drink you take en route are tried and tested. Well at least I got 2 out of 3 right this year.
In the lead up to the marathon I was forced to try a new rubber on my pushing gloves. This contacts with the rubber on the push rims and gives you the grip you need to propel the chair forwards. Too little grip and you slip and lose efficiency. Too much grip and you can’t get your hands off the push rims at the end of the stroke and again you lose momentum and efficiency. Having ordered my usual rubber for my gloves I found that the company have changed the compound to a more sticky rubber at the general request of the athletes. I only discovered the properties of adhesion when out training a few weeks before the marathon in April. My hands were practically glued to my push rims and making it really hard to come off cleanly at the back end of my stroke. As a result each push was shortened as I tried to pull my hands free and ready myself for the next stroke. Speed in a racing chair is a result of the power you put into each push. Power is the ability to deliver force over a given time. The stickiness of the rubber meant the cadence of my pushing was reduced and the level of force I could apply was less than normal.
In order to fix the problem I applied a layer of synthetic suede over the rubber. We use this material to help us grip in the wet as whilst rubber to rubber is brilliant in the dry it is a different story in the wet. I used the grey compound on the fingers and black compound on the thumbs and this seemed to work nicely, reducing my grip but still leaving enough to climb the hills and accelerate from the start line. In my training on the Sunday one week before the marathon the black compound synthetic suede wore through on my left thumb after just 10 miles. So that night I replaced the worn black suede for the harder wearing grey alternative. My intention was to test it during the week but one thing lead to another and I found myself on the start line in London with untested gloves.
As the gun sounded to start the 2017 elite wheelchair race the pack lurched from the start line and jostled for position. Shoulders touched, chairs skipped and eyes bulged as the elite tried to get the best start possible and find their place in the pack. However, as I tried to accelerate my chair did not respond as it usually does and I found myself unable to stick with the racers I am usually with. So within the 1st kilometre I found myself in no man’s land. If you’re in a pack you work together, sharing turns into the wind at the front and catching your breath when someone else takes the lead. However, if you’re on your own you make all the headway under your own steam. It’s not the first time I’ve had a lonely marathon and my fitness felt good so I got my head down and made the most of it. On the flat I was pushing quickly with long fluid strokes and my speed seemed good but whenever there was an uphill my progress almost halted. I could hear my gloves squeaking with every push and the level of grip just wasn’t there. Around mile 16 I was caught by Mathew Clarke and Sam Kolek and they seemingly sped past me. I bit the bullet and clawed them back in and we remained together until the end of the race. On the flat I could pull away quite happily from them but into the wind or uphill they would leave me behind and I would have to work so hard to close the gap. As we came towards the final mile I detected that Mathew was struggling but Sam was strong and leading the 3 of us into the final straight down birdcage walk. With 1000m to go I was pulling away from them and a gap appeared. This was much earlier than I wanted as a kilometre is a long way to try and stay ahead. At 800m to go I looked back and the gap was still there. Looking back is usually a sign that you’re tiring and can feel the competition breathing down your neck and that was very much the case. With 400m to go I was burning but had to keep going. As the 200m sign approached I knew I could fend them off and the roar of the crowds drove me forwards towards the line. As the finish approached I saw my time ticking on the clock and the seconds were approaching 1 hour 58 minutes. I crossed the line and glanced at my own clock to see 1 hour 57 minutes.
I felt good as I crossed the line and Mathew and Sam joined me as we collected our finisher’s medal and goodie bag. When I say good, I don’t mean the elation of completing the course but in terms of not feeling totally spent and exhausted. I’m not saying I could have gone faster or pushed further but compared to previous years I felt fresher and more comfortable with the distance. My time wasn’t bad at under 2 minutes slower than in 2016 but I had felt that I was in the shape to go under 1 hour 55 minutes and my training partner Tiaan Bosch (in the photo next to me) who I crossed the line with last year was targeting 1 hour 50 minutes this year. The long drive home in the comfort of the Galaxy gave me time to reflect on my preparation. As the miles eased passed in comfort I was able to relax and slowly start to recover from the exertion and concentration of the race.
It wasn’t until Wednesday night that I realised how much time I may have lost due to the lack of grip through the streets of London. I was out training with Tiaan who was laughing at the noise my gloves made each time they left the push rims. He then proceeded to leave me for dead up and over a small bridge were I normally more than hold my own. As we cruised along I yanked the suede off my gloves with my teeth and suddenly my chair lurched forward as all of the power I delivered into the rims propelled me forward at speed. I could only get the suede off the fingers as the patches on my thumbs were welded on by the glue. This seemed to unlock some magic formula. For the rest of the session I grinned as I was able to push to effectively and with such great top end speed. Whilst there was a grin on my face at that moment there was a frustration in my head and heart knowing that a lack of preparation had hampered a great opportunity to go quicker than I have ever pushed the London Marathon. Sometimes we all need a kick and something to fuel our passion for success. This was mine and has given me the excuse I need to be back in London next year to see what is really possible.