55. A redemption in Manchester

great-manchester-run-2004-and-imperial-war-museum-north-salford.jpgToday is gonna be the day
That they’re gonna throw it back to you
By now you should’ve somehow
Realized what you gotta do
Oasis – October 1995

Play: Wonderwall — Oasis

Some day you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supercity in the sky
Oasis – October 1995

How can you make up for a lifetime of neglect ? Certainly neglect is what it had amounted to. Malign intent there hadn’t been, but the effect was the same either way. That was a thought to occupy me, as I joined the motorway at 5 am on Sunday morning, with a very long drive ahead and far too little sleep behind me. But I had to make amends, and this was the only way to do it.

Because for forty years and more, and I’m ashamed to admit it now, I’d just never been to Manchester.

And through those years, after visiting far-flung localities, both exotic and mundane, across five continents, quite how I’d come to leave Britain’s third (or fourth ?) largest city off my personal map of these islands is not that easy to explain. Somehow, though, I’d just never found a reason to visit.

In a poor defence, I can only plead that if my mind-image of the city was a messy amalgam of Lowry-like satanic mills, perpetual rain, Manchester United, Pauline Collins, Morrissey, Coronation Street, Rugby League and Liam Gallagher, then at least I knew that this was Something Which Had to be Addressed.

And that’s how, five hours later, I found myself at the start line of The Great Manchester Run. The biggest event at this distance in the country, and indeed the third largest 10 kilometre race on the planet.

I knew I was wrong, of course, about Manchester. I was aware that the city had spent the last forty years stridently transforming itself from a post-war, post-industrial ruin into a thriving cultural and sporting metropolis. And a rain-sodden, damp and dark city it certainly wasn’t either, from the gleaming new office blocks and Commonwealth Games sports centres sparkling on the arteries adjoining the city’s ring road, to its red-brick Gothic-Victorian heart pulsing in warm shades of vermillion terra cotta. It was a perfect morning, in a vibrant new city.

Today we’d be racing with no less than four world record holders and Olympic medallists, at distances spanning the women’s 5 000 m and ten miles, and men’s 10 000 m, half marathon and marathon. If I was going to try to make it up to Manchester today, then perhaps there could be no better way to start the process than with a premier event on the world running stage.

And what else was I hoping for in my day of Manchester redemption ? Something more than a fleeting glimpse of the place, yes. A day out in the sun, certainly. Some closure to my London race of a month ago, hopefully, and perhaps also the chance after a long marathon road to gain some welcome insights into the mysteries of the 10 km. It’s a distance to which I’ve never really warmed. Always it had seemed just too far, to run that fast, and not far enough, to run that well.

For this to be a serious crack at the race, I knew I’d have to try to dip under 50 minutes for the first time. The calculators and pace predictors told me it was possible, even if the harsh reality of tempo runs on the track screamed otherwise. If I could only grimly hang onto eight 400s in two minutes each, how could I ever think of running 25 in a row upon the road ? It didn’t even bear thinking about. And if a mass participation race today could provide some inspiration, it would inevitably be at the cost of congestion amongst sixteen thousand others.

At least an advantage of the 10 km is its simple maths. This morning there’d be no fiddling with hours and minutes, or multiples and fractions of 13 and 26. I’d just have to run ten kilometres straight, in 5 minutes each. A big and brutal ‘just’.

Good positioning at the start is so important in a race. Too far back, and you’ll be dodging roadblocks all the way. But knowing I’m not exactly the fastest runner out of the traps either, too far forwards at this painful distance will likely see me blow up half way round. It’s an inexact science, but today I’ve been assigned to the first, faster wave of runners, so I set myself halfway back, and hope.

Sure enough, I’m baulked repeatedly inside the first kilometre, but probably just the right amount to keep me sensible. There’s still some breath inside me as we turn uphill, more than can be said for the walkers I’m startled to meet soon after. There’s a decent crowd, but if truth be told there’s not much atmosphere along the route. Not enough runners or gleeful abandon to make a fun run cruise like the Great North Run, nor spectators and drama enough to come close to London. It’s just the second year of this race, and these things take time.

Atmosphere is never lacking at Old Trafford, where The Field of Dreams awaits atop a rise as we pile along the expressway towards Manchester United’s home. A homage for some, no doubt, if for a tactful moment we must exclude the 98 % of Britons who hate their guts, and half the locals who support their bitter rivals Man City. We loop around the stadium a couple of times. A lap of honour in tribute to the FA Cup won on Saturday perhaps, or a tribute to a season’s misdirection before that day ? It’d be hard to tell for a football neutral, and that I’m not.

5 km goes by at 24:50, and I’m right on pace, just after we pass the elite leaders on their homeward dash. Sonia O’Sullivan leads the women, with a couple of Kenyans in hotfoot pursuit. A minute later comes our famed optician-turned-marathon-Olympian Tracey Morris, out of breath as she climbs the hill. But this is huge achievement for someone who ran her first marathon in 3:39 just five years ago, and who didn’t run at all for three years after that. The men follow a few minutes behind, with the favourite struggling a good 100 m off the pace today.

It’s an interesting thought, and a good distance goes mistily by, as I remember to tell my grandchildren of the day I raced Paul Tergat, and he was soundly beaten.

Seven, to eight kilometres is about the hardest time in a race like this, and it’s just the same today. I’m still inside the pace, but with only a handful of seconds to spare. My GPS tracks me at 4:53 pace. I back off a little, and instantly it’s up to 5:12. Not fast enough. Will I be able to raise a final sprint, or more likely fade up the hill to the line ? If I’m ahead of myself already, it’s because it hurts. It can’t go on, that much I know. Just five more 400s at this breathless pace…. but there’s no sense in thoughts like those. Pride is temporary, pain is forever. Is that quite right ? I’ve no idea, and I can’t think anway. I can only gasp, and run.

One kilometre left, inside a window’s width of 5:03. Uphill. There’s a weedy sprint of sorts inside my legs, if no extra gear to find today. I cross the line, and dare not look. Another disappointment ? It must be close. It’s 49:51 – and redemption.

I cruise around in a state of aimless elation for a while. I watch some runners finish, then sit with sunshine and Italian coffee in Great Northern Square. Most of all, I’m happy that I’m not still running now.

The morning’s gone, and there’s some more business to attend to. Earlier on, we ran past Salford Quays, but today they deserve some more of me. I find the car, and soon after the Lowry too, a shinily modern arts complex housing a theatre and the art galleries. A childhood’s familiarity with Lowry’s paintings of matchstick men and the darkly beautiful factory landscapes of Northern England is ingrained within me. But I was not prepared for the scale and emotional impact of the collection – nor the marvellous drawings of Lancashire and the sea.

Across the Millennium Bridge, I make my way to the newly-opened Imperial War Museum North. Critical acclaim has focused as much on this new building, a Daniel Libeskind in stainless steel. His dedication inside describes the twisted shards as a shattered globe, but to me it’s a World War II blockhouse, an aircraft carrier and a Colditz watchtower forged into one. The deep and angular caverns within bear little connection to the outside creation, yet with soaring slabs and lofty arrowslits, they resonate the awe of a cathedral with the menace of a forbiddingly futuristic factory.

Around one corner in the near darkness, I’m amazed to confront an entire aircraft – a US Marines Sea Harrier, dramatically lit in a swooping Gernika-like dive. The rest of the collection is well – thin, but evocative of war. There are telegrams to relatives about lost soldiers at the front, diaries from D-day, a concentration camp uniform and star, as well as images of the devastatingly bombed city of Manchester. These are lessons for today – the universal suffering, the deprivations and humiliations imposed by one side upon another, the destruction of homes and lives. This is a continent, a country and a city that has almost been obliterated by war, and here I stand in a poignant symbol of its rebirth.

It’s almost a relief to emerge from the dark chasm of conflict into the warm sunshine of Salford and the hot Sunday evening road of two hundred miles which awaits me. One day is not enough to make amends to Manchester. But I found her forgiveness right here, on the day I raced Paul Tergat, and he was beaten.

Related articles:
12. 10 km torment in Stubbington Green
104. Puke, lies and finishing tape: Brighton 10 km
57. Blackpool Marathon: Welcome to the Pleasuredome
89. You’ll never walk alone – Liverpool in Istanbul
15. Sorrowful hills – the Space Shuttle Disaster and war clouds in Iraq
95. Going underground – the 7/7 attacks on London

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