It’s that time again. My precious day off after the marathon, where I spend the day eating, drinking, and reminiscing on the sofa, overflowing with pain and pride. When you’re a recreational runner, these moments are so monumental and unforgettable that they inevitably punctuate and, to some extent, define the whole year.
Looking back on my last one of these pieces, reflecting on London 2019, I mentioned that the next aim had to be to have a go at going sub 2:45 and achieving a London Championship place. Sadly for me, that 2:45 cut-off had become 2:40 the time I next looked…presumably a reflection of better times at the top end of the recreational level, with advances in footwear and sports nutrition probably to thank for that. Once I’d gotten over the shock of this news, I realised I was going to have to go all in for an amazing training block.
I had been keeping an eye on Spanish winter races (I was also very much up for a holiday in Valencia / Sevilla / Malaga), but with so much uncertainty about travel restrictions and mass events in general, announcements were practically non-existent, so eventually I ran out of patience and made a spur-of-the-moment decision in early June, and booked Manchester for October. I’d never raced there before but heard it was fast and fairly flat.
I figured this gave me just enough time for a decent block, and I wasted no time in enlisting the help of Chris Bird as coach (Team Birdman). I’d never used a coach before, but had already spoken with Chris in May, and I liked his mentality and approach. I realised that for the first time, I needed some proper strategy and structure to my training.
I am not going to go into detail regarding his methods (because I wouldn’t do it justice and it also does a disservice to people that pay for it), but in a nutshell, there is an emphasis on quality over quantity, monitoring of stress, and specificity of training around goal marathon pace. So with that in mind, my training was based around achieving the frankly terrifying target of sub 2:40. I didn’t have enough time for his ideal full marathon block, but enough time to see serious benefits.
And those benefits came along faster than expected. One of the great things about training for a marathon is that you’re in such good shape that you can pick up PBs at shorter distances almost by accident. In mid-July I took over two minutes off my (admittedly out of date) 10km PB at Battersea, then a month later on the same course, I went 40 seconds faster again, taking the PB down to 33:54.
Fast parkruns were mainly off the menu in this block, but I took over half a minute off my PB at my hilly local (Finsbury Park), finishing in 17:02, before then taking my 5km PB on the track down to 16:34 in September. Sadly I didn’t have time to squeeze in a half marathon in this block – it would have been at the expense of a key workout, and with eyes on the prize, I prioritised the latter.
It’s worth mentioning as well that since I last ran a marathon, I have become formally qualified as a Sports Dietitian, and set up this business. I take pride in helping others towards their goals, but also in practising what I preach in terms of running nutrition. It is never about being perfect, but instead getting into good habits and doing the right thing the majority of the time, to get the best from your training, and of course, race day. I’ve got absolutely no doubt that this was another key factor in my training block.
With the pandemic interrupting 2020, this has been my first proper marathon season with private running clients. It’s been a busy one, and the past three weeks have been dominated by ‘race booster’ sessions. It’s no secret that carb loading is king in race build up (and this forms part of these sessions), but most runners don’t get anywhere near where they need to be. I’m not ashamed to admit that this previously included myself; I assumed that since my diet was already high carb, I just needed to increase my portion of rice or pasta on the days leading up to the race and that would be job done…nope.
10g carbs / kg of bodyweight / day is a good target for 2-3 days pre-marathon, and this is a goal I discuss with clients. However, it’s not until you try it yourself that you really experience how challenging that can be. The method I used for myself was not to plan out each meal (especially as I’d be away from home for some of it), but to keep a rolling carb tally. I used to say carb loading was one of my favourite periods, but not any more. I don’t want to see another crumpet or fruit loaf for a long, long time.
Even during that short trial, I learned as I went along and got better at it. I hit about 9.5g carbs / kg on both days, but it felt harder and more uncomfortable on the Friday than it did on the Saturday. I took 2 tupperware tubs of sweetened overnight oats (100g carbs per tub) with me on the train up to Manchester and these went down very easily – definitely one to remember for next time.
On to race day. It was much sunnier and therefore a bit warmer than the forecast, but I’d still say conditions were in our favour overall. However it didn’t really feel that way when we were made to wait an extra 15-20 minutes in the starting pen (we’d already been there nearly an hour) due to an unspecified delay. Standing there crammed in in the sun did nothing for the nerves, nor for the pre-race fuelling timings (carbs, caffeine and nitrates) or toileting strategy…
And I have to admit that although it was generally a well organised and fantastically supported event, that start pen situation was one of a number of areas where it felt inferior to London. In the build up to the event, the details of the on-course nutrition varied depending on where you looked (and this stuff matters to someone like me), and the tracker website on the day was a total disaster. My friends and family had no idea how I was doing, and my poor wife must have been worried waiting at mile 19, especially with that delayed start.
I started the race with two others from the coaching group. Our plan was to start slow and build pace each mile until hitting a steady 6:04 / mile. On the whole I think this strategy worked (and there is logic to it in terms of fuel use), but it always needs to be balanced against leaving too much to do in the second half / final quarter. Negative splitting is not easy.
I went through halfway in 1:20:40, which was about 20-30 seconds off what I’d planned, and it then dawned on me that I pretty much needed 1:19 dead in the second half. Speeding up wasn’t a sensible option, especially with the next few miles being the hilliest section of the course (not that I’d planned for this – it was definitely not as flat as I’d anticipated), so I kept things ticking over with 6:04 miles.
By this point, I had had a couple of other dramas. My left shoe felt perfect but the right was much looser in the toe-box, and the foot was moving around far too much. Stopping to fix that would have taken ages so I just had to try to ignore it, which I managed, periodically. More importantly, I had to completely change my gel plan after 8 miles. My first Maurten 100 really didn’t go down well (that unusual texture felt even thicker than normal somehow), so I decided it was not worth the risk of continuing, and I moved over to relying on the on-course SiS. The Maurtens in my belt went untouched. They seem to be a firm favourite for so many runners now, and I would say around 70% of my clients use them, but at this stage I have to say I’m not a huge fan. Maybe I’ll go back one day, but in the meantime, I now have plenty of spare sachets for sale!
I ended up going for an SiS every 3.5 miles, and this just about did the job. As I went past my wife at mile 19 I thought I still had a chance of sub 2:40, but then had the quickest of chats with another guy aiming for the same, who said ‘this is exactly where I fell apart last time’…not what I needed to hear! Strangely, I met him again on the train back to London and it turns out he lives round the corner from me.
I went through 30km in 1:54:35 (average pace 6:08), and then with 10km to go I realised I was going to need to speed up at some point soon. The official splits show that I did the last 12.2km at 6:00 pace, but this doesn’t tell the full story. There might have been a very slight uptick in pace at that point, but really I was just spending the next half an hour doing mental maths to work out if it was still on. Quite a big part of me wanted it not to be on, as I was really suffering and the mental demons had well and truly arrived…it would have meant an excuse to drop the pace a touch and maybe even enjoy the last 15 minutes. Sadly it was never that clear cut.
Of course, a marathon is meant to involve a fair bit of suffering (it’s kind of the point and what makes it such a great and humbling distance), but even now on my sixth one, I always forget quite how deep you have to dig. With 2.2 miles to go, I got my maths wrong and suddenly thought I was comfortable with a minute to spare. Then with a mile to go I realised that was wrong and I needed to step on it again. With half a mile to go I was going at my 5k pace (5:25) and the long finishing straight was the most agonising, eyeballs-out sprint that I could muster, with my heart rate allegedly peaking at 190 bpm. My face in the official photos tells quite a story.
My watch showed 2:39:56. Ten minutes later I got the confirmation text saying 2:39:57, and I couldn’t control my emotion. It’s been a seriously hard few weeks and months for a variety of reasons, and it all just hit me in that moment. But then, that’s one of many reasons why I love running; there aren’t many things in life that will bring that emotion out of me.
I finished 54th out of 13,849 finishers, which is a stat I’m still trying to get my head round. And the fact that it all came down to 3 seconds is just ridiculous. I would never have classed 2:40:xx as a failure, but this really feels like a major milestone and achievement for me, and the culmination of so much effort in training and everything that goes alongside it. I think when it comes down to 3 seconds out of 9,600, Dave Brailsford’s marginal gains theory feels pretty valid.
So what next? Well, having been my proudest PB a year ago, my half marathon time of 1:17 is probably the one most in need of a refresh now, so perhaps that’s the plan for spring. And looking beyond that, although the thought of another marathon is just horrible right now, realistically I’ll be making the most of my London Championship place in 2022 and the opportunity to start alongside the elites!