Running Into Cancer – My Running Life – Part 4 – World Marathon Majors – New York to Tokyo

It was Andy Dooley and my utter envy of his framed 5 star World Marathon Majors certificate and medals that started me out on the quest to run the 5 WMM but, before I ran Boston 2013, Tokyo had been added to the WMM to make it 6 races and not 5. This had three immediate impacts. It meant that I’d be gunning for the 6 star certificate by taking on Tokyo, that Andy would have to run it as well and that we’d both be thousands of pounds poorer in monetary terms but much richer in life experiences as a result.

But first I had the prospect of the New York marathon in November 2013 a race that would hugely enrich my life all because of a picnic in central park. Searching out groups of people to share the NYC marathon experience with I came across a Facebook group called New York Marathon 2013 that had been set up by an Australian lady, Briony Bullard. We became virtual friends all around the world and shared our training adventures for the months leading up to the race and decided that we should meet up for a picnic in Central Park on the Saturday before race day. Not sure of the numbers but certainly over 50 of us turned up on a gorgeous November afternoon (thank goodness it was cooler on race day) and International friendships were forged all over the world. We all remain in contact and have met up many times since. Too many to mention but a special thanks to my Australian friends Stephen Orr, Giovani Cirillo and Jane Baker who we met up with during our holiday trip to Australia in February 2020, had dinner/breakfast together, ran parkrun together and particular thanks to Gio for his amazing hospitality during that trip. Mention of this group wouldn’t be complete without talking about my amazing Belgian friend Pascale Billiau. She is one of the sweetest kindest ladies you could ever meet, and we have met several times since 2013. She, like many in the group, have been massively supportive of me since my cancer diagnosis in May 2017 and helped me through some dark times.

Picnic in Central Park

Back to the running now. NYC is a tough race to get into. The qualifying times are tough, currently sub 3:23 for a 56 year old male although I recall that they were even tougher back then and I couldn’t quite bag the QT. Then got a rejection in the ballot which left only one route open, buying a place with an International Tour Partner which made it very pricey. It’s expensive enough to get a standard entry, currently $358 dollars for non US residents!

Training went pretty well, I was in good shape and very fit. This trip only my Wife and I went and it was a quick in, get the job done and out again.

In my opinion NYC is one of the toughest marathons I’ve ever run. It takes in all the Boroughs of Manhattan with numerous massive bridges en route and they took their toll.

Early start to be bussed out to the race start on Staten Island. Lots of nervous hanging around in the starting area before your start wave is called forward and then you’re off.

The race starts with a massive climb over the Verrazano Straits Bridge which has two tiers with runners on both. One tip for any reader who intends to do NYC in the future. If you are on the lower tier don’t run on the outside edges as it could lead to an unpleasant shower from above as people decide to take a pee over the edge of the top tier!

Verrazano Straits Bridge. Best on the top tier!

The race itself went largely without incident. At mile 23/24 you run alongside Central Park and it’s a long steady, tiring climb before entering the park where the route could be politely described as undulating, Race Director speak for incredibly hilly. Always thought the RD’s massively underplayed the hilliness of their courses. Even the finish line was on the brow of a hill!

Finish in Central Park on the brow of a hill.
The finish area.

Given how tough this race was I was happy with a finish time of 3:27:06. As it was a chilly day it was also very nice to be given the rather fetching orange poncho. Walking back to our apartment it looked like a sea of orange zombies.

Orange Poncho’d Zombie!
The usual celebratory beer!

Next up in February 2014 was Tokyo. This would be the first of 3 marathons in 2014.

Another race entry via an International Tour Partner made it another expensive trip. The QT’s for Tokyo are at the elite level!

Tokyo was incredibly unique and everything that we expected of Japan. We had quite a large crew from my running club taking part and supporting. 5 members of the club ran the marathon and, to this date, we don’t know of any club that has 5 WMM six star medal holders.

We were actually very lucky to run the marathon as the previous few weeks had seen massive, unprecedented snowfall in Tokyo but, thankfully, this had largely gone in Tokyo. It did however mean that our trip to Mount Fuji was cancelled as it simply wasn’t accessible due to the snow.

Typical Japanese scene enhanced by the snow.

Andy and his Partner Liz and my Wife and I turned the trip into a holiday spending a few days in Tokyo after the race and then a few days in Dubai on the way back. Charlie, Paula and Claire travelled just for the race and headed home on the Monday after race day.

Charlie and Paula on the left. We think the first married couple to complete the WMM. Claire in the middle. Andy at the back.

A highlight was the International Friendship run on the Saturday which lots of us took part in and had great fun. We even managed to get Liz to do it and she hates running!

Everything went to plan on race day. The course passes many landmarks along the way but I’m totally rubbish at spotting any of them. Completely in the zone and focussed.

The route has a number of out and back sections that feel a real drag when you are on the way out and an even bigger drag on the way back when you know how far you’ve got to run to get back to where you started.

I crossed the line in 3:24:33 my 2nd fastest ever marathon and the fastest of the WMM.

Proud finisher on The Day We Unite.

The best story about the trip was on the Monday when Andy, Liz, Tracey and I did the tourist trail including a visit to the Sensoji Temple which Andy told me we had run past the previous day. Blinkered as usual I had barely noticed it! It’s hard to miss, it’s huge! We decided to try a bar and grab some food and it turned out that we chose one of Japan’s very famous bars, Kamiya Bar, famed worldwide for its Denki Bran liquor although we didn’t know about that we entered this famous emporium. The menu was all in Japanese but, thankfully for tourists, they had the most realistic plastic models of the food offering so it was reasonably easy to point out what you wanted, absolutely gorgeous tempura.

Not sure how you miss seeing something this big as you run straight towards it!
Plastic models of food!

Andy and I were wearing our medals as you the day after a marathon and we sat next to a group of elderly Japanese gentlemen who were fascinated by the medals and we engaged in a dialogue with them despite them knowing no English and us no Japanese. Then one of them disappeared and the next thing we know three drinks appear in front of each of us that these lovely gents had bought us. A beer, a glass of water and a glass of the aforementioned Denki Bran. Typically British we started on the beer thinking of the Denki Bran as a chaser. This brought much derision from our Japanese friends and we got the message by sign language that you sip the Denki Bran then sup some beer. It actually made the beer taste really good. This put t-total Tracey in a difficult position so we had to surreptitiously make sure her drinks vanished. It was a real hardship!

Our friends had been taking photographs of us. One by one they left, wishing us well with much handshaking and bowing. About half an hour later one of them came back. He’d only been to a photographic shop, had the photo’s developed and brought prints back for us. We were really touched by this gesture which was so very sweet.

Only London was left now and April 2014 would see me complete the WMM and qualify for my 6 star certificate.

No problems getting into this one as I took our club place. QT’s were incredibly tough to get and I was just a few minutes too slow for the 3:20 required for a 57 year old.

London really is an amazing race as far as crowd support is concerned, something that I would really appreciate more when I ran it again in 2018 when my cancer treatment had really taken its toll. However, I found parts of the course massively uninspiring, particularly the interminable out and back section of the Highway and around Canary Wharf. Some parts of the route are of course completely iconic. Running past Cutty Sark, over Tower Bridge and the final few miles, especially the final mile and spine tingling finish on The Mall.

Club had switched to Orange kit making it easier to see us. Running over the iconic Tower Bridge.
Pain etched on my face.

I made the mistake of going out way too quickly, easy to do as the first 10k has a good elevation drop and I knew I was going to pay for it. At the half way stage, on the Highway, I started seeing people collapsing, it was a warm day, and I got really concerned about having gone off too quickly so the 2nd half became all about just getting to the finish line.

Running past Buckingham Palace would have been incredibly inspiring if I’d actually noticed it! I was so focussed on getting onto The Mall and that long straight run in onto the finish line. By that stage you are conscious of the media coverage and you have to do the standard arms raised as you run in, just in case the TV cameras are on you.

Posing for the cameras.

I crossed the line with a decent time of 3:32:33 which, given that I’d run the 2nd half poorly, I was happy with. It gave me an average time for the WMM of 3:27, not too bad given that I was 54 at the start of the journey and 57 at the end.

Finished, thank God.

Then one of the celebrations of all time followed. My Wife had had the WMM listed on the back of one of my club shirts and presented it to me which brought me to tears, the champagne flowed and it was great to celebrate with Andy given that it was his “fault” that I’d had the most memorable 3 years and shared it with great friends.

Tracey’s gift post race.

One big disappointment back then with London marathon was the bloody awful, one size fits all, baggy cotton t-shirts. Tracey could have worn it as a night dress! Seemed to fit Andy okay though!

With Andy letting the fizz flow!

Andy and Claire had had some catastrophes on their own WMM journey’s that I should share. Andy was due to run Boston in 2010 and fulfil one of his own greatest ambitions. He’d worked so hard to get that elusive Boston QT only to be foiled by the Icelandic volcano that stopped all air travel to USA.

Claire on the other hand had her WMM journey interrupted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that forced the NYC marathon to be cancelled shortly after she’d arrived in the City.

Everyone was gutted for both of them but delighted when they got there in the end.

2016 saw the launch of the WMM 6 star medal and the ability to claim the medal if you’d completed the 6 marathons since they’d become part of the WMM. We now, very proudly, have 5 WMM 6 star medallists at Styal RC and it’s a huge medal!

The huge WMM 6 star medal

To close, what is the WMM all about? For the elite world runners it’s about prize money as the athletes who perform best over a two year period get to take the prize pool which is considerable. For other elite athletes they may be about chasing an Olympic QT. For the mere mortal decent standard club runners it’s about chasing a dream and it’s one that I’m very proud to have chased. It meant even more to me when I discovered in May 2017 that I’d probably had cancer growing inside me for the whole of my 10 year marathon journey. Just incredible to contemplate.

Next up will be a blog about my post WMM marathons including the one that I’m proudest of, London 2018.