SRC at the Malta Marathon

Report by Neal Matthews

“Why don’t you come to Malta with us Neal ?” said Claire and I readily agreed despite not hearing the second half of the sentence as her words after several large glasses of white were now becoming more and more slurred. It was post Percy Pud in the Dev Cat and with a decent pint of something gold at about 3.8% ABV in my hand I was easily persuaded. It was only when I got home that I realised that I’d actually agreed to run a Full Marathon 17 years after my last effort at the distance. Three years after joining SRC I was beginning to think that having another go at a full was long overdue but this was slightly ahead of schedule with 12 weeks to prepare.

After overcoming a slight medical concern and checking with Claire that she actually remembered asking me it was time to prepare a training plan that took into account a very busy December period including the last XC, Ward Green 6, Christmas Day park run and Braithwell Boxing Day run. I started topping up my mileage during the month before I finally got around to my first long run on New Year’s Eve and a good solid 16 miler was an encouraging start. I entered the race that afternoon and I was actually more encouraged by the fact that the next day I survived double Park Run followed by the club run on Tuesday where I persuaded Jim that in the interests of a Happy New Year we should only do a 10k route as everyone in the group could do with an easier run. That everyone was actually me but at least I now knew that I could run on tired legs.

My training plan was pretty simple as I stuck to my current schedule of club runs, yoga, cross training and a long Sunday run the difference being that the long Sunday runs were now getting longer and longer. My longest run of 21 miles came 6 weeks before race day on a snowy TPT in possibly the worst training conditions I’d encountered this was another confidence boost. As I checked my watch and congratulated myself on my 10:40 pace at the car there was a noise of pounding feet on the path just above me as the Cassy / Mahoney Marathon training group came pounding past at machine like pace. I just had time to applaud them wildly as if at a race before they disappeared into the distance. Ben and Rob became familiar faces on Sunday mornings on the TPT along with Simon from Rotherham Harriers and on one occasion Zaheer. It was interesting to see how the local dialect changed as I went further south “Alright duck” became “How do” as I returned North. As I straddled the Derbys / Yorks border in Rother Valley it occurred to me that I was right on the line of where a cob becomes a bread cake !

My notional target (apart from just getting around the course) was 4:30 and I was starting my runs at 11’s before trying to increase the pace to 10’s after my halfway gel and hob nob bar. This seemed to be working well as I still felt I had something left at the end of my long runs. I even purchased a soft flask for my training as I finally overcame the hurdle of carrying water with me on a run by stuffing it in the back pocket of my tracksters. I’d tried numerous belts and gadgets over the years but never really felt comfortable with anything around my waist.

Elsewhere Claire and Matt were making steady progress despite Claire’s best efforts to convince herself that she was injured including at one stage two stress fractures but they got their 20 miler in and finally began to believe. Lucia who had inspired the trip and indeed selected the race which was taking place on her 40th Birthday was struggling with her hips but was super determined that she would make the starting line. We shared the logistics between us as Claire sorted out the flights and ended up paying more for additional baggage than her actual flight whilst I looked after the airport parking at East Midlands.

The 4am alarm on Friday morning was not really required but having cleared my boot the previous evening I had to retrieve my ice scraper before picking up Claire and Matt from just down the road. We were soon southbound on the M1 and the only excitement on the journey down was my complete buffoonery amongst the M1 roadworks which saw me back on the M1 at one stage. I then managed to go to the wrong car park at the airport before thankfully being redirected infinitely closer to the terminal.
Thankfully that was the only excitement on the journey out as we took off on time, the plane was full of running types as we spotted Beeston, Ackworth and even Torbay hoodies on the flight. During the trip we would spot numerous club hoodies and dodgy race t shirts, Portsmouth joggers were definitely out in force and had customised hoodies and even customised race t shirts. I sat next to a lady who loved everything about Malta and spent a fair bit of the flight telling me about everything I should visit. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that pre marathon preparation didn’t really cater for two days of gallivanting up and down the hills of Valetta.

We landed in the pouring rain which reminded us of some of the weather we’d been training in and some of Claire and Matt’s luggage actually got wet on the transfer from the flight to the terminal. We bumped into Lucia and Kim in the terminal building and soon caught up with them at the hotel after catching the shuttle bus. The five star Palace Hotel impressed from the very moment we struggled to find the entrance due to the bizarre mannequin type display in the revolving door. Upon checking in I found myself located in the Flavours Suite which had a Coca Cola style theme, it was easily the best hotel room I’d ever stayed in. I didn’t realise that being that being on the SRC committee carried such weight abroad, I don’t remember saying “Do you know who I am” or mentioning Dave or Mike’s name when checking in.

After nipping out for an excellent lunch at the nearby Mint as located by Kim’s phone we returned to the hotel and I ventured out to look at the hotel pool. I managed a few  widths in between a family and left my goggles poolside. I’m not entirely why I expected a Hillsborough Leisure Centre style lane swim maybe it was the luxury of my hotel room that led me to believe that there might be a 20 metre indoor pool somewhere.

Our plan to register for the race on the Friday evening was initially thwarted by the lousy weather as the driving rain saw us seeking refuge in the hotel restaurant. Matt did briefly venture outside to see if it was still raining but the instant he set foot outside it started hammering it down so we decided to dine first. We looked slightly out of place in our hoodies and assorted running kit as the restaurant contained private dining areas (a bit like having tents inside in my opinion) and then as we ate on the table behind me somebody proposed (as you do). I initially struggled with the menu but removing the ginger sauce from a chicken dish did the trick. We left the restaurant as quick as had entered it as we were running short of time and our departure from the hotel was delayed yet again as our taxi driver somehow managed to break the fancy revolving door as the manager was called to find a key to let him out to fetch his car.

We made registration with about five minutes to spare and we were all done in a few minutes. We decided not to pose for any pictures in front of the race sign as we thought it might be bad luck as that final few days before a marathon paranoia had taken a firm grip and we were all being super careful with what we ate. I’d lost count of the number of people I’d spoken to in the last few weeks who were complaining about either having or having had a cold and whilst trying to escape politely from them inside I was screaming “F*** off and get away from me”.

There was minimal booty in the baggage bag and I was unimpressed with the race t-shirts which were Vodafone red and looked slightly like football shirts. This meant for me Forest colours where as for Matt he was much happier with something that looked like a Bristol City shirt. As we wandered along the front back to the hotel we
passed a sports bar whose speciality was rabbit, chips and salad. All of sudden now we had our numbers everything felt very very real.

The evening ended which with the group being given a guided tour of my ridiculously over the top room / suite which was quickly booked for the after race party on Sunday afternoon. For the record it contained a bar area, two separate seating areas, a number of coca cola pillows and other various memorabilia, three phones including one in the toilet (how cool is that), two sinks in the bathroom, a juke box style music device and two TV’s including one in the front of the bed which I hadn’t actually spotted previously until it was pointed out to me as we briefly played at moving it up and down. A pity there was bugger all on TV as despite all this my in room entertainment consisted of Tune In on my phone which was a contrast to the vintage decorative old style transistor which was also in the room.

Saturday had been designated chill out day so I started proceedings with a few widths this time with my goggles on as the pool for some reason cleared the very moment I got in it. I then leapt into the sauna before a very leisurely breakfast. Lucia’s friend Claudia had now arrived and we were duly introduced. All of the party apart from Claire and Matt then jumped into a taxi to visit Mdina also known as the silent city and the previous capital. Kim via Wikipedia was our tour guide as we spent a very enjoyable few hours wandering around inside the city walls. Lucia managed to tame her fetish for having her picture taken on dangerous walls but did manage to get her picture taken at the top of a set of steps that were going nowhere.

After coffee and cheesecake we then made our way out to wait for our taxi driver. It was there that we spotted the Vodafone banners and realised that this was actually the start of the race. As we drove back to the hotel we spotted several more Vodafone banners along the course route. We were pleased to notice the downhill’s and didn’t notice any uphill’s. In our absence Claire and Matt had made full use of the hotel facilities and had also gone for a short run which rather worryingly Claire described as “tiring”. We then all made use of the facilities before an early meet up for an early meal.

We had a bit of an upset before we left the hotel as Lucia’s surprise birthday cake was no longer a surprise thanks to one of the hotel staff mentioning it to Kim in front of Lucia. Understandably Kim was pretty upset as she’d put a lot of thought into it. I’m sure that Floyd the member of staff in question was slightly uneasy around Kim from that point on. We speculated that he may get a piece of cake himself in some shape or form the following day.

We ate in a large totally empty restaurant which for some reason seemed to be concerned about whether they could fit us in. We were placed on a table within a few yards of a large screen showing Watford v Everton which was thankfully soon turned off and encouraged to choose several dishes from the menu and share. I burnt my hand trying to serve up my thermonuclear pasta dish and we all left not sure we’d actually eaten enough. This meant we had dessert back at the hotel and Matt also ordered a pizza which he very kindly shared. Then it was an early night before our early start.

Race Day

This was it then race day. I slept reasonably well and there was no need for an alarm on the Sunday morning. The hotel had very kindly arranged a 5am start for breakfast for the marathon runners. I’d bought a few Weetabix with me which I doused in skimmed milk before having a single slice of cheese on toast. This was what I’d been doing in training before my long runs so I instantly felt more at ease. We met at 5.40am in the foyer before wandering nervously down to the finish where we clambered onto one of the supplied buses. We were soon at the start with about an hour to spare where it was still dark and a bit chilly. We passed the time comparing gel strategies and wondered why Claire had seemingly emptied the contents of her suitcase into her baggage bag. Be prepared I suppose. After a few trips to the toilet and for me a few warm ups inside the Mdina city walls it was time to get started on our 26 mile journey back to Sliema.

We wished each other luck and said goodbye to Kim who was doing the half marathon with Claudia which was starting at 9.30am. We set off together with approx 900 runners entered in the full, after 3 miles at sub 10’s I gradually began to drift back and saw the others disappearing into the distance just after we first ran past the National Football Stadium in Ta Qali. As I’d trained at a slower pace than the rest of the group this made perfect sense. The first 15 miles of the event saw us looping around this area, it was initially quite interesting to see Mdini back up on the hill where we had ran from but we were still being taunted by it a few hours lat er before we finally headed east back towards Slimea. This aspect slightly reminded me of London Marathon where you seem to have Canary Wharf in your sights for miles on end. This was the only thing that would remind of me of London all day, I think it’s fair to say that the halfway point wasn’t exactly like Tower Bridge as I stopped to take a drink and have my first gel next to a scout hut where the local children were enthusiastically manning the drinks stations. The first physiological hurdle had been overcome but I was conscious of not trying to count down the miles yet. I began to hum “Chariots of Fire” when I started again. I presume that they still do that at Tower Bridge.

Running a marathon can be an emotional place as you spend such a long time on your feet and as my mind began to wander I inevitably started to think about my late parents and what they would have thought of proceedings. My Dad would no doubt have called me a “Daft bugger” and my Mum would have been worried. I then thought about my friend who’d first encouraged me to do the London Marathon back in the day, he’d been very ill recently. This one’s for you I thought and then as I was only just over half way I managed to start concentrating on my technique as Laura’s voice came into my head. I was mindful though that I was half way through a
Marathon and not just trying to stay in front of some bloke at a South Yorks XC in some muddy field for the last 200 metres. The field had thinned out now and I was trying to keep someone in sight at all times. The bloke in front of me looked suspiciously like James Thompson and even ran like him all be it at approximately half his pace as I eased past him at my 10:30 pace.

Heading east we passed through the south section of Birkirkara which we thought at the time was just a village but actually this is the islands biggest city. This is where all of a sudden the field thickened up a bit and it took me a few minutes to suss out that we had now joined up with the Half Marathon route as well as the Walkathon route. I couldn’t make my mind up at the time whether this was a good thing or not. Passing other people made you feel good but that was when you could get past them as there were groups spread out blocking the way. This was seriously irritating as I mouthed “FFS” on a few occasions. It reminded me slightly of running around Rother Valley during my training on Sunday mornings dodging around families. When this was discussed amongst the group later the general consensus was that it was a massive pain in the neck.

The music began to go up a notch now as we headed home, the earlier music on the course had been a bit early Sunday morning Salvation Army style now all of a sudden it had a rockier edge. My favourite was a young women doing Alanis Morissette and a bunch of bearded children (possibly all less than thirty) doing a rendition of the Animals “House of the Rising Sun” I suspect that their father’s hadn’t been born when the original was released. Further on a band based in a garage appeared to be doing Queen tracks but were struggling after the first few bars of “Another One Bites The Dust”. All this excitement helped the mileage drift away and all of a sudden I had hit the 20 mile mark. The temperature by now had crept up towards about 17 from the initial 12 but it didn’t feel too warm as apart from the section through Birkirkara we seemed to be running in a bit of a breeze.

I took my final gel and ate my very sweaty chocolate hob nob bar before digging in for the final 10k. Just a Percy Pud left I thought to myself but this time no Christmas pudding that I can’t stand anyway ! Despite the overall downhill elevation of the course there were still a few hills to be negotiated although I found the steeper downhills trickier. My pace had slipped a fraction mainly through stopping at the drinks stations, the single fruit station had to be carefully negotiated as stray orange peel littered the road but the hit of vitamin C was worth the danger. A mere Park Run left now and I could now count down in either a full lap of Rother Valley or 3 laps of Clifton Park.

A seriously evil downhill signalled a left turn onto the sea front and as we made our way past the boats you could almost smell the finish line. The crowd now came into their own and as they picked out the colour of my marathon number I came in for special encouragement “Go Sheffield go”. I picked up my pace during the final two
miles and despite having 26 miles in my legs finished really strongly as all of a sudden the distance to go equated to one of Dave’s long reps. I crossed the line and triumphantly ensured that my foot came down on the chip detector strip just on the finish. The chip was actually in my number but I always like to do that. No emotion as I’d promised myself just a quick double fist pump and a real sense of pride that what had started as a conversation at the Dev Cat turned into something I never thought I could do again.

I negotiated my way through the finish funnel grabbing everything that was on offer clutching my medal tightly. This proved to be a challenge as people were stopping to mess around with their phones, people had clearly said to their families “See you at the finish” so the way out was blocked with non runners some of whom were coming into the finish area and of course discarded space blankets. By all accounts this got Claire into a massive hysterical state when she crossed the line about 20 minutes earlier. I made my way to the baggage area where I bumped into Lucia, Kim and Claudia, there had been some excitement over the baggage as Matt had initially
taken Lucia’s by mistake as he’d ran down there minus Claire whose head was already on its way back to the hotel. He then had to run back to retrieve the correct
one so in the course of all this he’d probably ran an extra mile. I got changed in the underground car park where the baggage was and did a few stretches before heading back to the hotel thankfully I bumped into Claudia who ensured I took the correct turning.

Back at the hotel I sent text’s to my nearest and dearest to let them know I’d survived and ran the bath. After a long soak I didn’t really feel like eating and I was still on a bit of a high. The whatsapp group kept us all up to date as we all recovered in our different ways. The most alarming message came from Claire who after telling me in no uncertain manner that I should eat something then convinced herself that she couldn’t get out of the bath ! I wandered down to the pool area which was quite busy and had 10 minutes in the sauna passing Matt in the process who was sleeping by the pool. In my absence Lucia’s cake and champagne had been delivered to my room. I then nipped out bought a tube of Pringle’s and as per Claire’s instructions ordered room service. When my pizza arrived I still didn’t feel like eating it but after the first mouthful the whole thing almost instantly disappeared like something out of a cartoon.

We toasted the Birthday girl in my room got stuck into the cake and compared war stories, everyone had finished in their expected times and Claudia had notched a sub 2 hours PB in the half. The custom made cake was quite spectacular complete with a runner in SRC colours.

The party broke up and then we went out for a much later meal in a local restaurant. The original plan of eating in Valetta was sensibly shelved due to the distance involved. As it was Sunday we were limited on choice but managed to get in a place that didn’t have room for us the previous evening. Unlike the previous evening we would not be topping up with extras back in the hotel as we were all defeated by the portions in the Il Kais. When my pasta starter appeared I realised that I’d got no
chance with my main which contained force meat. The meat that had been forced in was actually mince. Matt took a doggie bag just in case he woke in the middle of the
night starving hungry. A marathon meal to end a Marathon day.

So then home time already. Our orignal plan was to stay Monday night and go home Tuesday but when it came to booking the flights Skyscanner wouldn’t play nicely and
we ended up with a 6.10pm return flight. I woke up quite early and had the pool to myself before I went back and started packing before breakfast. Elsewhere Matt had
gone for a jog ! It occurred to me that as up to this point as I’d been focussed on the Marathon I was now finally on holiday. Following a very leisurely breakfast it was back to the room to do some final housekeeping as Lucia and Kim came to collect the cake and I retrieved the champagne corks from where Lucia had fired them the
previous day. Our departure was slightly delayed by a sudden swift shower which had soaked my swimming shorts which I’d left out on the balcony to dry. I packed
them soaking wet and I said my goodbyes to the Flavours Suite. I checked out, left my bag at reception and we hopped on the ferry to Valetta minus Claire and Matt
who would follow us across later.

When we embarked from the ferry we headed up the hill and went past the parliament building through the City Gate to Upper Baraka Gardens. We unfortunately had just missed the firing of the 12 noon gun which funnily enough took place at noon. The gardens offered a fantastic view of the Grand Harbour and you could look down to a row of 12 guns known as the Saluting Battery. The gardens also contained numerous memorials to the military as well as Churchill and rather bizarrely Einstein who never visited Malta. Everywhere you looked you could see references to the fact that the island had been constantly defending itself in the past as lookout posts and elevated buildings seemed to be everywhere, I’d even got a sense of that when flying in and looking at the landscape. A place of massive strategic importance during World War II the island was bombed constantly for two years. So when it was all over it was no wonder that they became neutral.

We took the lift down to have a quick look at the Waterfront before returning to finish our quick tour of Valetta with a visit to the St John’s Co Cathedral. There was some serious history here including a famous Michelangelo painting however it all just seemed to be a bit too much to me and at times even jumbled but bear in mind here
I’m obviously a complete Philistine. The audio gadget we’d been given talked about each of the exhibits in length and I had to cut it short on a few occasions as I just
read the captions next to the exhibits. I think just prefer more immediate history I can relate to like World War II.

Anyway it was now time to head back to the ferry where we bumped into Claire and Matt. We were soon in the hotel foyer exchanging hugs and saying our goodbyes to
Lucia, Kim and Claudia. Our transfer back to the airport was a few minutes late but we had plenty of time to spare. Sat waiting by the gate our thoughts started to turn to what might great us back at home as the Beast From The East was on it’s way. I contacted my brother just in case we need to sleep at his place that night. You could
tell the runners in the queue at the gate from miles off as well as the hoodies, trainers and other kit everyone nobody seemed to be moving that freely. The same
faces were in the queue who’d accompanied us on the way out.

There was a frustrating delay on the tarmac but we were soon in the air. The couple next to me didn’t seem to be in the mood to talk about anything so I concentrated on
finishing my book (great Christmas present Clive thank you). Don’t Stop My Now by Vassos Alexander charts his progress during a marathon on the last section of a
triathlon and is mixed in with his transformation from an overweight late thirty something to a runner and various interviews with notable running people. I started it
on the way out but as he talks about being completely knackered and everything hurting during his marathon it was a much better read on the way home. We had a
very bumpy landing as for a split nano second we all thought “My God we’re all going to die” before very swiftly realising that everything was under total control.
Back home almost in God’s county (why they haven’t moved the county line so that the airport is actually in Nottinghamshire I’m not sure) it was very cold but most
importantly clear. Claire bought some food in Smiths to save her Mum a job when they got back, thankfully I didn’t need my ice scraper again and we were soon M1
North bound. We agreed that the weekend had gone in a flash, time flies when you’re having fun I suppose. I dropped Claire and Matt off just before 11 and on the
very final leg of my journey I reflected on just what running can do for you. I’d had a fantastic weekend away with friends and achieved a distance which I previously
thought was beyond me. You get back what you put in and with training and hard work believe that anything is possible. Something I hope I can pass onto the next set of SRC learners !

SRC at the Malta Marathon