By Mark Smith
I completed my first run longer than 6 miles back in January 2012 when I decided to start training for the Cork marathon, which was to be both my first marathon and first road race. Up until that point I had only been doing a few runs at lunchtime, totalling no more than 20 miles a week. Fast forward to June and I crossed the finish line on St. Patrick’s Street in a time of 2:59:27, which is where it all began. Stupidly I thought I already had the measure of the marathon.
The next few years were a bit chequered, marked by injuries (due to poor training) and marginal improvements to my marathon times (dropped to 2:48:23 in London 2016). I cramped up at the end of most marathons and at least once I swore never again and genuinely believed it. In a moment of madness I tried for an entry to the 2017 Tokyo marathon as a “semi-elite overseas athlete”. With only the 200 fastest runners accepted per year I really never expected to get in and I was shocked/delighted to get the acceptance email.
Around the same time I learned about the Six Star Finisher medal for completing all the World Marathon Majors. With automatic qualification for Tokyo in the bag I tried for qualification to New York and also got accepted. It was pretty much at this point that I decided to try and do them all, although I don’t think I truly realised what lay ahead.
I trained hard to try and justify the “semi-elite” tag and was in great form leading up to Tokyo. This is where I want to share the biggest secret of completing the Six Stars… make it to the start line. Sounds basic but so much can go wrong when training for a marathon, and it can be ended with one sprain, tear or illness. If you make it to the start line the stats are in your favour that you will finish!
Two weeks out from the marathon I got a cold, which developed into a bad chest/sinus infection. The 12 hour flight to Japan was one of my worst experiences and after landing I ended up at a doctor’s surgery in Tokyo self-prescribing medication. Dosed up on pain killers and antibiotics I made it to the start not convinced that I would actually make it round. The second half was painful and I ran most of it with my head down but I made it across the finish line in 2:54:53. A long way off my goal, but a success. It is one of my biggest running regrets that I didn’t enjoy this marathon.
Two months later I lined up in London feeling a lot better, although maybe not as trained due to the time to recover from Japan. I love the crowds and atmosphere in London, finishing in 2:43:56, which felt a bit like redemption after all the training I had put in for Tokyo and coming up short.
Not long after this I joined Eagle. I was struggling a bit and was trying to find motivation and something new to keep moving towards New York. The training really stepped up at this point with more structure and purpose to the sessions, good company to drive through the long runs and a big increase in weekly mileage. In all honesty, this would not have happened without joining the club.
Over the next few months I got qualification entries for Boston, Berlin and Chicago. It had only been my plan to do 2 of these in 2018, but I had heard a rumour about an increase to the number of World Marathon Majors and didn’t want to risk it. I really couldn’t contemplate doing more.
New York was an interesting experience. I think I put too much pressure on myself and didn’t run a smart race, going out way too hard. I was delighted with the final time, 2:38:54, but was certain that I could have done better. However, times were going in the right direction and the change in training was definitely having an impact.
Into 2018 and two weeks out from Boston I felt the best I ever had before any marathon, but had started reading a few reports about what the weather was supposed to be like. It probably wouldn’t be that bad though as forecasts are almost always wrong??? Well it was wrong, it was much worse. There was snow/sleet on the ground in the starting area and freezing winds whipping through the tents. I was lucky enough to meet Colin, who helped bring some light-hearted perspective to it all.
I have never run in anything like Boston. Described by officials as the worst in the race’s 122 year history, there was constant driving rain, sustained headwinds of 25 mph, with stronger gusts and a wind chill below freezing. It is hard to describe just how bad it was and huge respect to the supporters who lined the route. This one was 2:43:39 but to be honest it was not about the time, more about survival. Over 95% of those who started completed the marathon, which again shows if you make it to the start you can make it to the end. Other than the weather I don’t remember much about this one, but would still take the conditions in Boston over the heat in London this year.
Next up was Berlin in September with a great group of Eagle and Cork runners. I stupidly tore my hamstring back in May but I think the enforced rest actually helped, building up the training more gradually. It also helped that a lot of the guys I was training with had really upped their game, which pushed me on. Everything felt right this time; conditions were good, flat course, training and taper both good. I decided to go for it and took a crack at 2:30, which was way beyond my goal. At halfway it did not feel on and I hung on for 2:32:49. I could not have been happier with the PB and it was great to celebrate with the rest of the Eagle crew (incriminating pics available from Derek C).
So on to big finale in Chicago, which was exactly 3 weeks after Berlin. I had no idea how it would feel doing another marathon so close together and just tried to keep the training ticking over, essentially treating Berlin as the final long run. I had a lot of marathon training behind me though to draw on.
I travelled out on Friday, getting to the hotel at around midnight. We stayed just north of Grant Park and it was great being able to walk to the start of the marathon as it takes a lot of the stress out of the morning. The Expo was a little bit of a journey but easy enough to get to and well organised. I registered with the Six Stars team and gave my predicted finish time. Didn’t stay too long, enough to see the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% literally flying off the shelf at $250 each. I thought about this for a few minutes but a new pair of shoes for a marathon is never a good idea.
The rest of Saturday passed nicely with a good night’s sleep. Chicago kicks off at 7:30am (earlier than any of the others by far), so an early breakfast and then a walk in the dark and through the rain to the bag area. I love rain! I dropped off my stuff and made my way to join the other runners at the start. It wasn’t too crowded here and you get to see the elites (including Mo) on the other side. Loads of people wearing new Nikes! I was around five rows from the front when the gun sounded.
The first few miles are in the city centre going over some of the bridges before heading north. Unlike New York these bridges are flat, similar to a lot of the course. My wife saw me at mile 1 and apparently I wasn’t far behind Mo (only a minute or so)! At mile 8 (around colourful Boystown) you turn south and head back towards the city. The rain was pretty constant from this point on, but the support was also excellent. At halfway you make it back into the city and I realised I was just under 2:30 pace, but had got totally carried away at the start and knew there was no way I would finish in that time. I think I was starting to feel the after-effects of Berlin.
For the next 8 miles you head out towards the west of the city and a few suburbs. The support is a bit quieter and the runners thin out, so it is mentally tougher and I focussed a bit on the rain and lost some time. At mile 21 though I saw my wife again, grabbed a drink and decided to knuckle down and drive through to the end. At around 23.5 miles you turn for home and I realised at this point that I only had 3 miles to go to complete my goal, which was a strange feeling. I passed a good few runners and finished with a sprint completing the final major in a time of 2:34:21.
I made it to the Six Stars tent, where I was the first one home. I think I got more high fives there than in all my other marathons combined. I tried to convince them to give me a gold medal for being first, which they said they would think about for next year (although I am not sure they were being serious!). After working towards this for so long it was a great feeling to finally get a hold of the medal, which was followed almost instantly by a beer… I think there were about 100 Six Star medals given out in Chicago, so you are part of a select few (~4100 overall since it started). It was nice talking to people as I walked to the meeting area, hearing about how many majors they had run and being asked about certain marathons.
It was great to meet up with my wife at the end as she has seen me at almost every marathon and has put up with me during the training and the injuries. To be honest she deserves the medal more than me. This is the second secret, a very supportive family. It is a massive time commitment to do this and you mess a lot with family life. I wasn’t the only one waking up early every Sunday. We spent a couple of days enjoying Chicago and forgetting about running before flying back and relinquishing my medals to the kids.
Completing the Six Stars has been the most amazing experience. I have been lucky with injuries that means I have made it to the start lines and I have had superb support that has let me fit the training, travel and racing around life. I underestimated what was involved and it would be hard to commit to something like this again but I am glad I saw it through. Each marathon was different and had very different challenges. Despite the actual marathon, Tokyo was amazing, Berlin was my PB and where Kipchoge broke the World Record, New York has bridges, Boston has a massive history, and Chicago was where it finished, but London stands out for me. The sheer support around the course is amazing. Not sure what the next goal will be, although I believe I have to do Dublin before I retire.
2017: Tokyo (2:54:53), London (2:43:56), New York (2:38:54)
2018: Boston (2:43:39), Berlin (2:32:49), Chicago (2:34:21)
P.s. I saw Mo hung on for a European record in Chicago, it must have been knowing how close I was to him at mile 1 that pushed him on!