York’s world-beating marathon man reveals his secrets
He’s lost toenails and won the title “fastest marathon by a man dressed as a baby”, all in the name of his sport. But why is he addicted to this gruelling 26-mile race? As York prepares for its first annual marathon, Michael Brigham explains all
The other night I was chatting to Mrs B about which city we could possibly use for this year’s city break with a marathon thrown in. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years – it’s a great way to keep both my addiction for marathons and my marriage going!
So far this obsession has taken us to Barcleona, Milan and Ljubjana. I’d never heard of the last one on that list when I booked to run there.
As I’m running the London marathon again this year I was looking at arranging an autumn break, and was about to book flights to Amsterdam when Mrs B – the voice of sense – suggested we ought to try and find someone to have the kids first. A good point.
Then yesterday I open my emails and there’s one talking of the New York Marathon. Not the expensive one over the pond, but a new marathon right here in York. I immediately dropped the idea of Amsterdam – the Banana Bar and other such delights would have to wait another year before I hobble through their doors with my very understanding wife.
The thought of not running in the first marathon in York was something that didn’t compute. I will be there for sure.
Immediately I opened the online registration to enter the race. I’m asked for my predicted finish time – always a tricky one to answer. On a perfect day I can go sub three-hours – the holy grail for a lot of runners. I’ve done it once.
But the thing about a marathon is you don’t really know what it will do to you. The second half is a lottery – and that’s the addiction right there. Each marathon is unique. I have now run 11 and all of them have their own story.
The second question the online form asked was also a tricky one. Am I a fun runner, a charity runner or a serious runner?
I think I’m all three. I’m not a particularly serious person, but I know that if you don’t take the training seriously then you’re going to be in trouble. I also believe if you can’t have a bit of fun when you’re running you will also have problems. And I have run for charity a few times – not always, as I want it to be for a good reason, and friends would soon get fed up with me asking for money all the time.
These three runner types – fun, charity and serious – all featured in my first marathon, in London. I was lucky enough to get a ballot place and took the 16-week training plan very seriously. An ankle injury two weeks before the race was quite a blow. With three days to go the ankle wasn’t great and I thought of deferring for a year. My wife then suggested I ran in fancy dress – if I couldn’t run properly I could still have a good time.
It was a great idea and we immediately went to the fancy dress shop. I’m not sure why I picked Darth Vader out, maybe I needed some force to see me through, albeit from the Dark Side. It was the right choice. I had a fantastic time and the crowd were awesome.
I lost count of the number of times I heard “Use the Force Darth” and my favourite shout from the crowd was “It seemed like a good idea at the time!” As things turned out though, it really was. I chose to run for the Candlelighters Trust, a Yorkshire charity looking after children suffering with cancer and their families.
After that first marathon experience I knew I would have to do another. My time of 3:56 wasn’t too bad but I was certain it was nowhere near my best.
The next one, in Edinburgh a year after the first, definitely fell into the serious category. I now had my eyes on sub-three hours – I was really determined. Race day was hot. I wasn’t overly concerned, I felt good.
I started well. Then at 10k I realised I’d set off too quickly: I went through at 40 minutes. I started to feel sick, I drank more fluids despite having had loads. I threw up at about eight miles. In terms of my goal the race was effectively over for me.
At mile 13 my toenail was forced off by a blister and the rest of the race was just a battle to the end. I didn’t understand why people had tears in their eyes after finishing London. Now I totally got it.
Like most runners, I analysed what had happened and why over the next few days. I’d made a few errors on the day, I drank too much which can be dangerous and I’d put Vaseline on my toes before the race, I’d never done that before. It was a learning curve.
I tried again at Nottingham. I did OK but once the target goes so does the motivation – from 18 miles it was a struggle. None of this put me off. I knew I could do the sub-three thing. The bug had really kicked in now. I entered Barcelona, Milan and Edinburgh again. There were four or five weeks between each race. I had to do it in one of them surely?
I’ve run Barcelona twice now. The first time in the spring of 2011 was with my mate Richard. We call him The Savage – if you met him you would know why. I’m not sure who was the bad influence but two nights before the race we ended up drunk. Not a bit squiffy, drunk.
The next day we tried to do the right thing to prepare for the marathon but we were also trying to sort a hangover. I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t ideal preparation. The morning of the race I felt awful. We set off in a fantastic atmosphere, a gun shot and Freddie Mercury giving us a Barcelona blast through the PA – it was pretty special.
But after the initial adrenalin calmed down I felt terrible again. At 5k I was really down. Who was I trying to kid about this sub-three thing? There was no way it was going to happen. At 10k I had found a rhythm and the negative thoughts were disappearing… perhaps it will be OK after all.
My hopes were dashed again when a blister on the ball of my foot was becoming an issue. I’d been ignoring it but knew that I couldn’t do that for another 17 miles. I stopped and The Savage pressed on, so did the three-hour pace setters. I thought that was it.
I pulled my shoe off, thought about taking my sock off to take a look – what good would that do? I pulled the sock tighter, put my shoe back on and got going again. I’d probably only stopped for about 40 seconds. It took me three miles to catch the markers and a further mile to see The Savage.
It gave us both a lift but my foot was sore. I decided I would just run until I couldn’t anymore. As it turned out that was at 26.2 miles. I’m not sure how I did it but I made it in 2:58:29. Once I’d stopped, the pain was unbearable, I’ve never had a blister like it, but I think it helped me. I zoned out, saw none of the sights and in all the official pictures I look completely focused. Job done. Awesome.
Since that moment I am now a fun runner, no pressure. I love the challenge of going for a time – but I also really enjoyed the fancy dress experience.
My mind was made up when my daughter successfully pitched for York Special Care Baby Unit was to be her school’s chosen charity for that year. Both my kids had spent their early days in the care of York SCUBU and I owed them.
I had previously been aware of some world records achieved at the London Marathon. When I saw that the previous fastest time for a marathon dressed as a baby was 3:13, I couldn’t resist the challenge.
And… I did it. Just. I had 90 seconds to spare in the end, I was running on empty for the last few miles but the challenge kept my feet moving.
I loved it and to have my name in the book of Guinness World Records is great. I know it’s a bit of fun and someone faster could have worn that stuff and be there in my place. But they didn’t, so for now I’m a world record holder and a fun runner.
I’m still learning from mistakes and probably will get something from each run I do. I’ve certainly found out some stuff the hard way. All the things you read are true: don’t do anything different on the day, don’t drink too much, don’t drink too little, have a fuelling plan, don’t set off too quickly, training is essential.
Follow that and you won’t go far wrong but remember – there’s no such thing as an easy marathon. Good luck and see you at the start line and, of course, the finish.
And here’s what Michael’s feet looked like after the baby run…