I struggle to accept the fact that this week marks two years since my last marathon, but that’s what my phone has been telling me, so accept it I must. And while I don’t have any 2021 races inked into my diary just yet, I am starting to consider options for a winter marathon PB push…and in the process, I’ve found myself having a good old reminisce of the five previous times I’ve covered the 26.2.
I have full respect for ultrarunners, sprinters and middle-distance runners, but for me, the marathon is the holy grail. The ultimate test. The perfect combination of pace, endurance, and mental strength.
This is why I like to space my marathons out, and have only chalked up five in eight years. Every time I take on the distance, I want to commit fully to the process and know that I’ve given it the respect it deserves. I know how much the marathon training block takes out of me, so once every year to 18 months has always seemed about right to do it justice and keep it feeling special…and keep it from taking over my life.
The drawback of this approach is that it places enormous (some might say unnecessary) pressure on that one day, but all I can say is that it has given me five of the best, proudest, and most memorable days of my life! So, I thought I’d take a quick trip down marathon memory lane, for anyone who likes reading about this sort of thing, and for me to look back on when I’m much older and slower, but hopefully still running.
- Berlin, September 2013
Time: 3:10:44 (PB!)
Conditions: Perfect (sunny and cold)
Other: The world record was also broken on the course that day
I’d completed a couple of halves since starting running in 2010, but remember thinking when I’d finished them that the prospect of doing the same distance again would be laughable. However, as I’m sure is the case for everyone on their first time, a rush of blood / confidence / idiocy (delete as appropriate) got the better of me, and I remember booking Berlin during a lunch break during my final hospital placement as a student dietitian. What’s more, I managed to rope in my friend Andy for his first, and as yet only marathon, too (although fast forward eight years and he’s slowly warming up to the idea of his second).
This might have been the final year that you could just buy a place (no ballot, or at least not that I can remember), despite it being one of the marathon majors. I think it was this, plus the ingenious idea of combining with a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich (after, obviously) that made us opt for Berlin.
Berlin 2013 remains to this day my only ever non-spring marathon, and training through the summer was tough, as it was a particularly hot one. I was in Bedford for my first post-registration Dietitian role, and was undoubtedly pretty anti-social in my hospital accommodation. With precisely zero Bedford mates, I spent that summer running solo and flat-out through local trails in the blazing early evening heat. In hindsight, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, had no concept of varying my pace, and the overall mileage was probably quite low as a result, but at the time I thought I was smashing it.
Going into my first one, I knew (i.e. everyone had told me) that the marathon can chew you up and spit you out, so as we flew out I tried to keep an open mind, but was hoping for anywhere from 3:15 to 3:30.
I remember so clearly walking to the start line from our flat, posing for a photo under the Brandenburg Gate, then getting the most incredible waves of adrenaline and excitement as they put on the cheesy motivational tunes before the start gun. For better or worse, Wake me up by Avicii (RIP) will now always have a special place in my heart.
I actually remember almost nothing of the race itself, but the records show me that I went through halfway in 1:34:31, and finished, with pretty even splits, in 3:10:44. I do remember feeling blown away by that, and got my medal engraved with the time, as I didn’t think I’d ever be beating that time.
I also remember the aftermath. Andy’s parents had travelled to watch us (well, him), and had made the incredible gesture of organising a post-race spa and massage for us both. This, followed by beers in the sun in Alexanderplatz, made it a perfect day. The next three nights spent camping in the freezing cold and embarrassing ourselves at Oktoberfest were considerably less glamorous.
- Rotterdam, April 2015
Time: 2:59:23 (PB)
With: John and Nick
Conditions: Euphoric (Cool at the start, hot at the end)
A year and a half later, I’d managed to drag two other friends (John – his first marathon, and Nick – his second or third) to join me in Rotterdam. I think we chose this race one because a) it was supposed to be fast and flat, b) no ballot, and c) we fancied another European jolly.
I remember much less of the training block for this race, but I do know I still had no real idea what I was doing and ran every training run at full pace. I also remember plenty of the immediate build up. We’d arrived in our AirBNB a couple of days before the race, and found ourselves killing plenty of time playing Pandemic: the board game. Looking back, it feels very odd that one of my friends would bring a board game on holiday, and the game itself was disappointingly poor preparation for 2020. It didn’t even mention banana bread.
I was in charge of organising the team nutrition, and I’d like to think we got the carb load and overall strategy spot on, notwithstanding a period of rising panic when I couldn’t find any sugar tablets (I hadn’t discovered the magic of gels just yet).
However, later that evening, John announced that the drink he had been knocking back literally litres of to ‘help him relax’ was green tea. He hadn’t realised that it contains a fairly hefty dose of caffeine, and reports having slept maybe 1-2 hours that night. Luckily he smashed the race anyway and we can look back and laugh (and I definitely do), but it was an early insight for me to leave no stone unturned with my sports nutrition clients!
Onto the race, and I think I went into it knowing that if things went my way, I had a decent shot at sub-3. I hadn’t slept brilliantly either (painting a picture of a really nervy household here aren’t I), but other than that, I’d had a pretty good build up and was feeling good.
Again, annoyingly, I can’t remember much of the race itself, but the records show I went through halfway in 1:28:32. I do remember doing a lot of mental maths in the second half (only very recently have I progressed beyond my basic Casio watch), and then approaching the finishing straight knowing I’d done it, putting my arms aloft, and quite possibly roaring. I finished in 2:59:23, and I have to say I’m very proud of my pacing that day. It goes without saying that I had to buy the official finish line photo.
By the time the race ended, we were bathed in hot sun, and I just remember feeling utterly euphoric. We spent the vast majority of the next 72 hours celebrating wildly, in beer gardens, our balcony, and wherever else would accept three giddy, sunburnt, and probably quite annoying medal-weaning Brits.
Having broken the 3 hour barrier, I not only had the marathon bug in a big way, but also a Good For Age qualifying time for London. Take at look at part 2 of 2 in a week or so, where I cover my trilogy of London races and think ahead to this winter.