Valencia Marathon 2023: 2:30:10 (PB)

As I write this, we’ve just taken off from Valencia, on our way back to London Heathrow. Even if it weren’t for the pink bracelets on every arm and ‘easy run’ shoes on every foot, it’s unmistakably a plane full of tired, creaky, happy marathon runners. It’s time for my reflections on Valencia Marathon 2023.

Planning and prep

In some respects, planning for Valencia started several years ago, when I first became aware of it as such a rapid course. I very nearly took the plunge in one of the covid years but remember thinking that the cancellation policy looked particularly harsh given the state of the world at the time, so backed out and waited for normality to return. With London finally moving back from October to April this year, space was freed up, and 2023 felt a good bet. I booked as soon as I found out they were on sale, which, 11 months in advance, was still only quick enough for their second or third price ‘tranche’. It’s a hell of a long build up in terms of event participation.

This was my first overseas marathon for 8 years (the last being Rotterdam in 2015, when I broke 3 for the first time), and in all honesty, I found planning for it quite stressful. 2023 has been a year of strikes and travel uncertainty. As a man that hones in on detail in race week, this, plus hand luggage restrictions (how to get gels AND beetroot juice across?!), and choosing between accommodation certainty and affordability (I chose the latter), all added a layer of pre-race organisation I didn’t really relish.

Added to that was the nagging guilt of flying to a race, which, as I have posted on IG about, is something I don’t feel very comfortable with, and equally, of leaving my family behind.

Also, with international races so rare for me, it added an extra dimension of pressure (completely self-imposed, I should add), of a) getting to the start line in good health, which is challenging when all around you are coughing and sneezing their way through November, not least my little boy, and b) to smash the race and really make it count.

All this said, I got relatively lucky and can’t have many complaints about the logistics. I did get a dreaded email about flight times changing, but was then able to renegotiate more favourable times. I struck very lucky with my bargain Airbnb (happy to share details), and I somehow managed to avoid getting sick. I was here!

The event itself

The rumours are true: Valencia Marathon is an absolutely brilliant event, and I would recommend it without hesitation, whether you are chasing a PB or otherwise. Communication in the build up was slick, organisation on the day was great, and the whole city seems to be invested and proud of their race. 

One minor annoyance was the expo. Apparently this used to be in the city centre, but this year was moved to the Feria, some way out (pictured). I understand this might need to be the case as the event grows (and by comparison, the Excel expo is a nightmare to get to even for those who live in London), but getting there and back was difficult. No public transport route from the airport, for example.

The course is essentially flat, with only very minor undulations, before a slight but sustained downhill over the last 6km, which starts with a memorable, intense patch where the passionate spectators are so close on both sides that the course is only about a metre wide (very Tour de France). It all then finishes on the iconic blue carpet under bright skies, surrounded by glistening water. That dazzling blueness all around will stay with me forever…the most special finish to a race I’ve ever witnessed (even if I was absolutely eyeballs-out sprinting at the time).

Conditions play a huge part, of course, and having monitored Valencia closely for a few years, it seems it’s pretty much always perfect on race day. 2023 was no exception: sunny, cool (actually very cold initially), and barely a breath of wind. Marathon dreamland.

My training block

After London in April (2:34:30), I had my usual post-marathon month of running downtime before 2 months of dedicated speedwork, AKA a mini 5km block. This was a great plan, firstly because I got the sub 16 monkey off my back (15.55 in August), but also because I was then able to bring that improved top end into longer races. In September I went sub 33 in the 10k (32:47, Vitality 10k) and sub 72 in the half (71:40, Big Half), for the first time. 

The marathon block was 16 weeks, and generally went pretty smoothly. The exception was a freak broken toe incident at home in October, which thankfully healed in about a third of the 6 week prognosis I was given in A&E. Cross training saw me through that period, and I lost no fitness at all. I have newfound respect for the elliptical machine and aqua jogging!

As a new dad with ICU work and a business to run, free time is close to non-existent, so all but one of my runs each week are run commutes or buggy runs. Sunday early morning is my negotiated me time for a longer run, and it all just about works. 50 miles per week was the target for the first 10-12 weeks, then I was able to increase to 60-70 (a new high for me, in fact) in the final month pre taper.

Race and prep tactics:

Rather than list everything (because it gets refined each year…see previous blogs), I’ll mention a few things I did differently (and better) than previously.

1. Day to day nutrition. Even as my job, there is always room for improvement in nutrition. When sleep quality is inevitably and consistently poor, for reasons that are obvious, I needed to look at what else I could prioritise in terms of recovery, and I became incredibly consistent with pre and post run nutrition, matching this to the needs of the session. My wife and I have also made a conscious effort to improve the quality of our diet, from what was already a good baseline, especially with breastfed Ray in mind. Ultra-processed foods are at an all time low, and, anecdotally, I think it has been a big help.

2. Carb load. I hit 11g/kg on both the Friday and Saturday, which was a new high, on the back of a carb depletion at the start of race week, which takes skill to get right. 11g/kg takes practice, planning, and to learn what foods and drinks work for you, but it really makes all the difference on race day. This was one of the areas that was tougher to plan for an international race, and involved more carbs from drink mixes than usual, and plenty of snacks brought from home to reduce risk. 

3. Mid race carbs

I took 244g from gels over my 2.5h race, plus a few sips of the on course sports drink (it was in paper cups, so of course at least half of it ended up on my face), so I would have pretty much hit exactly 100g/hr for the first time. Again, this takes practice and it makes all the difference in what intensity you can sustain in the back end of the marathon. 

3. Running to HR

There’s way too much data in running and I certainly don’t get on board with it all, either as a coach or runner, as a lot of it is data for data’s sake, and prone to misunderstanding (prime example: continuous glucose monitoring in non-diabetics). Heart rate is an exception, and one of the simplest but most useful running metrics out there. My own coach, Chris, has long been an advocate of using it, and I certainly work it into my plans, where appropriate, with my own coaching clients as well. 

That said, the idea of running a marathon entirely to heart rate would have terrified me, right up until I did the Battersea marathon in October as a training run with no mid run fuel. This was done on heart rate to keep me well below threshold, and I ended up not only winning the race, but PBing by a few seconds. I was staggered, and also convinced to give this a go in Valencia, working with Chris to plan the race based on percentages of my maximum HR that I could tolerate for certain periods of time.

Battersea also showed me the importance of starting a race relaxed, especially in terms of HR management. My watch suggested I was managing this well on race morning, and it was great to meet and chat to a lovely Irish runner called Trevor (2:35 PB for him) for the final hour pre race to help ease the tension. 

Anyway the HR plan worked an absolute treat, and gave me the confidence that I could really attack the final 10k knowing I wouldn’t blow up. I went through halfway in 1:16:20, then 1:13:50 in the second half (which would have been a HM PB before this summer), with a 16:30 final 5k as I threw everything I had at it. 

I would be lying to say I was completely unaware of time and pace, and in the final 10k was trying to work out if there was an outside chance of sub 2:30. My brain couldn’t quite work it out, and from one km marker to the next, I kept changing my mind. As I approached the final straight I was sprinting, but knew I’d be slightly outside. 2:30:10. Arms outstretched, overly dramatic roar for the crowd…no part of me was anything other than elated. Another 4 minute PB and I’d done myself, my family, and my coach proud.

Could I have found another 11 seconds somewhere out there? Of course. I suspect if I raced the same course tomorrow (marathon legs notwithstanding), I’d be savvy enough to find that time. But sub 2:30 was never the aim. I am now within touching distance of a crazy milestone, but it can wait.

What next?

In the short-term: running downtime, navigating a sociable December, and repaying some favours to my wife. 

Then it’ll be a London marathon block from January, and I think the aim for that doesn’t need spelling out. It’ll be my last marathon before I turn 40 in July, and I’m not going to lie, I’m quite looking forward to being able to favourably compare myself to the V40 crew!

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