Let’s be straight, everybody does it. When you pass a race photographer during a running race you immediately alter your stride. You open your hands out into that Usain Bolt sprint pose, thrust your shoulders back, target the perfectly timed pony tail flick and execute that sought after toe strike. So how is it that within an album of 108 photos on the race photography site, there isn’t one, not one that is worthy of making public? Part of the reason this blog has taken so long to publish is because out of the 108 race photos I couldn't decide which one was the least bad to purchase. Even though I'm not breathing and demonstrating a heel strike 5 miles in, I went with the one above.
Hey, maybe this is marathon running. It’s not pretty, it’s certainly not glamourous but my god is it good fun!
This isn’t a blog about my own race review, it’s not a breakdown on my km splits, how my legs felt and blah blah. This is a blog for every runner, for those who have done 2million marathons and for those who are yet to press the ‘confirm entry’ on their first running race. Any runner who searches every corner for any advice they can get to improve that notorious marathon PB, although I am in that frantic search with you, here is what I have learned from my first experience of 26.2.
Before I offer 6 tips, let me give you an insight into the 5 months leading into the race, and how I strongly believe that a good performance certainly doesn’t solely rely on perfect training and preparation. I believe that a good performance is largely down to your mental approach, not your physical ability.
PREPERATION – EMBRACE YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES & GO WITH THE FLOW
In May 2018 I found out I had made the Royal Navy Marathon Team after a performance at a local half, and that I had 5 months to train. The main hurdle was that 2 of these 5 months were going to be spent in RNR Officer Training at BRNC (Brittania Royal Naval College) in Dartmouth. The week before I left for BRNC, Tom and I were in Chamonix Mont Blanc. I ran 100km at altitude and prayed the effects would last 8 weeks, I ran my local Park Run the morning I left and kissed goodbye to running a sub 20 ever again in 2018. For 6 of the 8 weeks at BRNC I couldn’t run. The days were filled with basic military training, sleep deprivation, lectures and sea time in the fleet. The final fortnight I was beyond exhausted, but marathon panic was setting in thick and fast. I got up early and ran for 30” as fast as I could on the treadmill in the hope of keeping some turnover and speed.
I passed out from BRNC on the 6th of September and had 6 weeks of training. Great, nothing else to worry about, just sleep and running, sleep and running, sleep, running and…I was getting married on the 29th. Doh!
7 days after the wedding and I entered a local Half Marathon. I was fuelled on nothing but prosecco and wedding cake (no one said preparation had to solely be running). I aimed to run 1.25 and survive to see another Monday - thought had a big surprise and ran a PB in 1.20.12 The half really threw my legs and highlighted the lack of conditioning I had, or rather confirmed what I already knew. For 2 weeks I didn’t have one good run and my legs didn’t come back to me. I had planned 2 x 100km weeks, the reality was that I did a 60 and a 40. I wanted to hit a long run of 2hr15 on the trails, my longest was 1hr40/18km. I hadn’t even hit half distance in training. This was going to be a disaster.
Photos: Left: Life in the field - great way to shed a few lb's when training isn't an option. Right: Receiving my Officer tabs the day before pass off in September.
TRUST THE PROCESS
If you read the above you’ll know that my training wasn’t the sort that I would ever hand out to a client, in fact, if I saw that one of my clients had adopted that training approach I’d be slightly disappointed. I got away with this race, but in future (and in the past generally speaking) I have always followed a programme I trust and believe in. Many of my clients approach me not because they don’t know what they are doing, but because they want confidence in their training and lift the worry of whether what they are doing is right or wrong. As an athlete it is easy to view the session that day as the be all or end all if it goes well or not. This allows them to focus on the running, and leaves me to keep an overview of the ‘bigger picture’ and training content.
The US Marine I was running with was targeting a 2.53 which I knew if I was smart was probably possible… A good guideline someone far more seasoned than me gave me before I raced was to take your half marathon time, add on 6 minutes and double it (which made my estimate a 2.52). At halfway we were still on for 2hr48 pace. I took a risk and went with her. If I hung back and ran by myself I was bound to slow down and lose rhythm. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in 2.48 shape (shape, whatever that is I still resembled a 3 tier wedding cake) but it was a risk I took to adopt the strategy of staying with her for as long as possible, and then just survive. Lucky for me I stayed with her with 5 miles (8km) to go. She went on to run an impressive 2.48, and my average dropped from 3.58min/km to 4.02min/km when she left.
If you have a workable strategy, it probably reduces the chance of you having to adopt ‘risk’. Well I had no nutrition strategy. None. Nada. I bought 4 gels from Sports Direct that I’ve never trialled before and stuffed them down my sports bra knowing that at some point they would probably come in handy. I asked around the team tent an hour before the race for ideas on how and when to deploy gels, and decided to follow someone else’s less blassee approach. I decided to take on a gel every 40 minutes. I can’t advise any differently at this time because this appeared to work for me. I took on Gatorade at every station (every 3miles) and also took a cup of water which I would poor over my quads. I knew my quads would cramp towards the end, and the cold water just kept them supple for longer.
ANALYSE, TRIAL & LEARN
So many people approach everyrace as their A race. Let me tell you now and save you from the trial and error and heartache, it’s not possible. Especially not up at these distances. Make some races training races, target different elements and make different goals. Execute different tapers, try different nutrition, different kit and different training. I encourage my Running clients to use Park Runs as the ideal time to trial different strategies. Low key but still offering that competitive environment if you want it. Did they run better having had a day off the day before or 3 days before? Did they run better off the back of a tempo session the day before? What did they eat for breakfast, when and did it cause any problems or is it something to run with (excuse the pun)?
Have you ever not run a race that you’ve entered because you ‘don’t feel ready?’. You could have surprised yourself, or at the very least used it as a race experience and learnt from it. Something might have gone very very right in the race (or very very wrong) but you would have learnt from it thus increasing/reducing the chances that it would/wouldn’t happen again when it really matters.
There are so many simple elements that can make the largest differences. These differences don’t require hours of running, they don’t require £££ spent on the physio and massage, they are just simple changes made through simple analysis.
I have had many bad races in my 10 + years of competing. I’ve not made it to finish lines (I've not made it to start lines) and I’ve made it to finish lines in the back of an ambulance. The good comes with the bad, and the bad is often really very ugly. This is competitive sport, at whatever level, this is sport. The body works in mysterious ways and ones that even those at the top of their disciplines cannot always predict. If they could, why wouldn’t they all be executing PB’s and records at the Olympics?
Photos: The Blue Mile, the most inspirational, moving and overwhelming mile I've ever run in my life. Bottom L: Receiving 3rd place Armed Forces female. Bottom R: Team Royal Navy Royal Marines before the race.
RUN WITH YOUR EMOTIONS
One of the most astonishing things about the marathon for me was the spectrum of emotions I went through in those couple of hours…
Miles 0-5: Panic. Were my legs feeling good or bad? Bad, definitely bad. Wait, don’t panic someone important said to never trust the first mile of a run. Chill.
Miles 6-11:I took confidence knowing I have covered 13 miles so I had no excuse not to make it this far. Feeling surprised that my Garmin says the average pace is 3.55min/km, must be broken and isn’t pairing with the USA satellites. Great.
Mile 12:The Blue Mile.This mile in the race is to remember the fallen. Every few feet there was a photo of a fallen American soldier with their name and age. The pain left the legs and a whole new wave of emotion came over probably every runner on the course.
Miles 13-20:End of comfort zone. The longest I’ve ever raced is 20miles (March 2018) so this is it. As Samwise Gamgee says in the Fellowship of the Rings “if I take one more step this will be the farthest I’ve ever been away from home”. Totally with you on that one little hobbit.
Miles 21-22:Elation.Yep just 1 mile but it happened. So bloody chuffed with myself that I passed 20 miles.
Miles 22.5:The beginning of the end. My running buddy up until that point was starting to put a few paces into me round the corners and on the inclines. Words from a coach during my time training in Loughborough rang in my ears, ‘as soon as you lose their feet you’ve lost them. Sit in, sit tight’. I could see the bungee effect starting to happen and I knew that once I lost her, it would be a whole lot harder.
Mile 23:Tod time.Bungee deployed. It was hurting now, and mentally I was slipping. I wasn’t really aware of the race line, and I was just running. I knew I had lost my chance of running sub 2.50, but only just. My heart and mind was set on not letting my average slip. A few men past me and I tried to stay in their slipstream or a few strides before the gap opened.
Mile 26.2: Cramp.As soon as I crossed the line I made the error of trying to stand. As soon as I brought my body upright, my quads cramped up and my legs gave way.
N.B. Don’t try and stand up, just keep running it hurts less.
Enjoy…it’s so cheesey isn’t it, I did try and think of a better word but I couldn’t, sorry. (Enjoy Synonyms: embrace, love, relish, adore, appreciate...) I really did enjoy my marathon. I was buzzing off of it for days after, and even more so when I could walk again. It was my first marathon expo and I thought it was ace. I went to my first pasta party which was better than any actual party I’ve been too (it was a civilised affair it’s not like a foam party with pasta…) The finishers medal is the proudest one I’ve ever got and I wore it all day. The day as a whole was one of the most memorable of my year and I’m on a mission towards London to run it faster and for it to hurt less.