2019 is all about marathon running for me. I was ambushed by circumstances (as explained here) and now find myself signed up to run three marathons in the space of 6 months: The first was the Prague Marathon in May (lovely event, great city, PB – hurray!-), then Snowdonia and Athens in October and November respectively. If all goes to plan, Athens 2019 will be my 10th marathon and the third on that course!
Despite it being my 9th year running, this renewed and sustained marathon training period (I didn’t race anything longer than a half between the London Marathon in April 2017 and Ashby 20 in March 2019) is teaching me a whole heap of stuff about running, about myself and about myself as a runner.
The most blindingly obvious, yet the one I believed no longer applied to me the moment I completed my fist marathon and qualified as a “marathon runner” is that…
1. Marathons are hard!
My first marathon was Athens, which the IAAF considers one of the toughest courses in the world due to the long mid-race climb (it’s uphill from 10k to past 31k) and prevailing temperature / humidity. My second was the Lakeland Trail marathon, which, as the name suggests, is ran on trails on the hills around Conniston Water in the Lake District. I completed the first in 3h 52′ and finished the second despite twisting my ankle on the 3rd km.
The only problem was that these results, while quite respectable for a novice, led me to a fundamental misunderstanding: I believed that I had the marathon sorted!
It took me a number of years and marathons for it to gradually dawn on me that for most mortals running a marathon is a bloody hard undertaking! Not only the race itself, but all the training, the 3h + long runs week in, week out with gels that leave your fingers sticky and stomach nauseous (more on these on a future post), and the constant aches and pains which you are afraid may turn into something more sinister.
And then on the day, the deeper you get into the race the more you realise that all that training only gave you the right to stand on the starting line: now have to push harder, go further (perhaps 15% – 25% longer than your longest long run) and faster than you ever did in your training cycle!
I tended to put late-marathon discomfort down to insufficient training (impostor syndrome, remember?) or poor early race pacing and finish the race annoyed with myself, even when I had set a PB (idiot!). Still, there was some truth in that criticism, and I took it on board with every training plan and race.
Finally with Prague, I felt I had it nailed: I had put together a challenging training plan, which built on an already strong base fitness I had developed, to allow me to reach the maximum distance of my long runs early on. From there I had planned to get accustomed to distances of 20 mi – 22 mi (32km – 35.5km) by incorporating fast miles and progressions. I had ran the plan past my physio, who was very generous with his time and feedback, and helped me fine-tune it.
I followed it consistently, completing 16% more mileage than my best plan to that point (London 2017, where I came within 30” of my PB), but critically 70% more mileage done on LRs of over 29km (18 miles) compared to London 2017.
In the mean time, I had improved the way I paced myself in long races significantly, and set a very important PB in Ashby 20 a few weeks before the race: important more for the way I had ran that race, than the margin of improvement (which was significant, nonetheless). I recovered, got some more LRs in, progressively increasing the mileage to 22 miles, and took it very easy in the taper.
So on the starting line on that chilly Prague morning, I felt ready. I had avoided all my past training mistakes, put in a solid 4 months’ worth of training, improved my racing and picked a fast course. I was – finally – going to nail this!
35km of careful pacing later, when despite all I had done the going got really hard, the truth finally struck me: “there is no such thing as an easy marathon!” I mumbled to myself, and it was the most liberating revelation!
And it’s true: Each course has its own quirks and some marathons are certainly harder than others, but I would never classify any marathon as “easy”! Not to train for and certainly not to race!
(Having said that, can any race of any distance be classified as “easy”? If you are really racing them you should feel you cannot give anything more: Parkruns feel hard when I’m going for it, as do 10ks, as do cross countries, as do… you get the idea. But I still maintain that the distance involved, and the fact that it exceeds the longest distance likely to be completed in training, make the marathon particularly hard!)
…So ENJOY THEM!
Thinking about it now (sitting at my desk and not running 20+ miles at the moment), I find the thought quite liberating: No matter how well I train, no matter how well I rest and nourish myself in the days before or pace myself over the first half, the marathon will be bloody tough! There is no changing that. Preparation and pacing will determine how well or badly I may perform, but it will never make it easy (which means: it’s absurd to be disappointed for finding the going tough)!
And there is so much to enjoy about a marathon…
First of all, the feeling that you are doing something special, something inherently hard! Revel in the toughness, because that’s what makes them special!
Then there is the atmosphere and sensations on the day: yes, even the butterflies as you make your way from portaloo to starting pen (they just mean you care!) and the aching legs after collecting the medal (they mean you earned it). So it’s ok to break your pace a bit in the last few yards (unless there is a PB at stake!), look around and take it all in… And don’t be in a hurry to go home either: In Prague I packed a change of clothes, towel and shower-gel in my dropped luggage, and took full advantage of the facilities in the finish area. I had a massage (it really made a difference) and then headed to the shower cubicles, got my medal engraved with my time and only then headed out to meet Demi and Philip. Having washed and changed meant we could meet in the city centre, have some lunch, take in the marathon atmosphere and make a full day of it! If this isn’t something you do, try it on your next city marathon, you won’t regret it!
Finally there are all the long run distances that you have made friends with over the course of your training. Don’t desert them! I am not necessarily suggesting you keep running 20 and 22 milers every week, but if you have become accustomed to such distances, you can certainly include a 13 – 16 mile run in your weekly routine, even if you only ever intend to race a 5k. Believe me, it will make a difference, not only to your fitness, but your outlook on running. And a happier runner is a happier person!
Another thing I learned is all about effort and pace, but more on that on the next post. In the mean time come back soon, or use the “subscribe” button at the bottom of the page for it to come straight to you!