The marathon blog
Wow. I ran a marathon in under 3 hours. In frankly horrendous wind for the last eight miles. There are two parts to this blog – my run down of the marathon, and some thanks to all the people who keep me going and help me improve.
So – the race. The last six months have been all about wind. Virtually every run I’ve done has been windy and I can think of a good few where a sane person would just have said, you shouldn’t even try to run in this wind, and certainly not try to run fast into it. But a plan is a plan, so out I went every time. And a strong wind remained my biggest fear for the day itself because it’s going to matter and, on a course which doubles back on itself, there is no good solution if it’s windy. Of course, we are all convinced that the headwind is stronger than the tailwind, but they are certainly not equal in terms of impact on performance.
And it was windy. Very.
My target was sub-2:45 hours. By mile 18 I knew that wasn’t going to happen. That would have been about half a mile after the turn, heading into the headwind, having already seen the runners at the very front struggling as they headed back. I was bang on pace up until then but I also knew that it was too fast for the whole thing, even without the wind. I think there’s a feeling you get in your legs that tells you you’re on the wrong side of your limit, and I knew I was getting it. Confirmation came at about mile 20 when I felt the first tiny cramp in my left leg. I’ve been there before – it happened in my first marathon, where I now know I just went off too fast. This time, I think the target was just out of reach, and with the wind factor, I simply had to readjust my expectations and do the best I could on the day. Being a pragmatist, I knew what I had to do. Slow down. To a pace that was the fastest I could go without the legs cramping up properly because when that happens, it’s all over. So I ran the rest of the way constantly testing what my limit had become, and working out that if I could keep going at that pace into the wind, I was still on track for sub-3 hours. The great thing was that I still felt that I had energy left, my breathing was great, my legs just couldn’t keep up that pace. Maybe I should have slowed down more when I hit the wind, maybe I should have…. I don’t know. It just happens. One of the Kenyans seemed to have injured himself during the race. It can happen to anyone. So I just kept trotting along – no way was I going to stop, I was going to run this all the way – counting down the miles and happy that I had done what I really wanted – my best on the day, and smiling all the way. Because when it comes down to it, I just love running. And the feeling of being up there with the “proper” runners was amazing. The spectators were wonderful as ever, some blasting out music, some just cheering, and I got my usual flip-flop comments. Sorry to anyone I didn’t see – I even missed my entire extended family on the way out, but got a blast of encouragement on the way back that made up for it. Best comment of the day was LoLo afterwards – “Dad, you looked liked the Kenyans, it was like you were just out for a jog.” That’s down to Jae (more on that below).
Trotting along at mile 16…
So it turns out I need a bit more training (and maybe just a bit of luck with the weather) to get sub-2:45, but I will. The wind yesterday was a real factor and you can see it in the winning time of 2:19, which is a lot lower than the normal fastest time, if still nuts. But I can’t do anything about that. I know what I need to do and, having as ever said to myself in the last five miles, this is really stupid, you should stick to half marathons, I’ll be back out there next year for another jog through East Lothian. My most encouraging stats of the day – 1:22 at the half marathon point and coming in the top 100 overall.
And now for some thanks.
When you think of elite athletes, we all know that there is a huge team behind them, most of whom we never hear anything about, but without whom the performances we see on the day would not be possible.
It’s no different for some of us normal people doing a sport in our spare time, and I wanted to tell the story of how I got to this point from virtual physical inactivity three years ago.
It all started with a work course, where the first thing we looked at was how to deal with the demands of work – and were asked the question of how we could expect to work in the way we wanted to if we weren’t even physically fit. I went for my first run the day after we got back from the course. I still remember it. 2 miles of nothing but pain, lungs bursting, head pounding, legs aching. The second day was a little better. But not much. By the time I got to running three miles, I thought I was quite the athlete.
Round two of the same course involved me making the mistake of saying I was maybe sort of thinking I might want to run a marathon at some point. And then Carrie Johnson (who was running the 5k this Saturday – a lovely surprise to see her there, and as a spectator for the marathon) asked me why I didn’t just commit to doing it. So I signed up.
It didn’t go so well, mainly because I went off too fast – typical rookie mistake. But I realised I could do it better and faster. And by that time, I had done what all runners do sooner or later – read “Born to Run.” And then “Running with the Kenyans.” And although I couldn’t decide if I wanted to run like the Tarahumara (think obscure tribe in Mexico who run a lot, and in sandals they make themselves from old tyres) or a Kenyan, it didn’t seem to matter too much. Either way, I had concluded that I needed to change the way I ran and essentially start from scratch.
And then things came together in a lovely sequence of events.
Colin McPhail (of Footworks in Edinburgh – great running shop) organised the Scottish Barefoot Conference, including a fun run (you can wear shoes, I wore FiveFingers, those “funny toe shoes”) and some speakers. One was Barefoot Ted, one of the stars of “Born to Run”, who promptly sold me my first pair of his running sandals, which I’ve used ever since and which still bring a smile to my face every time I run in them. As well as a range of reactions from the people who see me in them. Sorry to the person who wanted to stop and talk about them just after the race yesterday – I was struggling to stay on my feet, never mind discuss my footwear, so my answers were rather monosyllabic. But no, they don’t hurt, no they don’t rub on the soles of your feet, and why would anyone run in them if they did? Had it been raining as the forecast had predicted, they would have been the best thing to have on your feet. But I’m glad it was dry.
The only one smiling at mile 19 is the guy in the sandals… just saying (even if they did finish well before me in the end!)
But wearing a pair of sandals doesn’t make you run like a Kenyan. Jae Gruenke does – the other speaker at the conference. She has without a shadow of a doubt had the biggest impact on my running, building my running form up from scratch and getting rid of my bad running habits I didn’t even know I had. She described it like peeling an onion – every time one thing was sorted, I came up with a new bad habit that hadn’t previously been visible. If you want to find out what it’s like to run much more easily, efficiently and happily, speak with Jae and sign up for her weekly e-mails on running.
Jae also helped me with the last part of the jigsaw – a coach. I discovered that generic training programmes didn’t work for me. I needed something that would get me to hit a target that seemed unattainable. Like knocking half an hour off my marathon time, and then going even faster the next time. Jae suggested an online coach in the US, Greg McMillan. And I signed up for a training plan, used it, and did marathon number two 30 minutes faster than the first time, and easily so, with a programme that explained what each of the runs was for, what to look out for, what to focus on, and just gave me tremendous confidence on the day. So much so that I signed up for a second plan for this marathon, this time for almost six months of build up and preparation. You have to have faith in your coach, even if he’s someone you’ve never met or even spoken with, and that allowed me to keep going on the bad run days, knowing that the next run would be better. And seeing improvements on a weekly basis, with new personal bests over some distance being set pretty much every week in the last six weeks. I’m going to use the exact same plan next time because I think I’ve now hit the right level of base fitness to be able to hit the next target.
And through Greg’s website, I discovered another ingredient which I hadn’t previously known I need to sort. Nutrition. I was Mr Gel Boy. Committed, three an hour in the race. Talk about sugar intake… Greg recommended looking at a different product that contained no sugar, gives a sustained release of carbs, and allows your body to adapt to burning fat as a primary fuel source. Yup folks, you can power your runs on all that fat you always wanted to lose. I am not going to comment on all the claims Generation UCAN make, all I will say is that I haven’t taken a gel in months, and ran a hilly 24 miler recently on nothing but UCAN before I set off and water during the run, and did it faster (and a lot easier) than my marathon race last year. So I’m a convert. And it was great yesterday, I ran the whole thing with no gels, just a couple of home-made UCAN goos along the way.
Donald, Sarah and Andy have been great running companions on our Friday team runs, making the run so much more enjoyable and showing me some new routes through Edinburgh that I didn’t know existed. Turns out there’s a lovely path from the West End of Edinburgh through to Granton!
The final thanks goes to the people without whom none of this would have been possible or worthwhile. Camille has put up with my need for ever increasing amounts of food over the last months, my virtual half-day absences on long run days, me getting home late from work when I’ve gone out for a run at lunchtime, and coming home stinking after a run. As well as the constant cycle of running clothes I hog the washing machine with, the sandals I leave in random places when I’m “too tired” to put them where they belong. And the girls always greet me with a “how was your run?” when I get back.
LoLo yesterday was my star support, along with her cousins who donated their coats in the cause of warming me up when I lay shivering on the ground (it wasn’t a pretty sight), even though that left them in only a t-shirt. My other support crew yesterday drove me to the race, took photos, got me some milk when I couldn’t face eating or drinking anything else, covered me in layers to warm me up, used umbrellas to keep the wind off me, and gave me big hugs when I came off the finish line, as well as literally lifting me back up off the ground when my legs couldn’t take my weight. Thanks Mum, Dad, Ros, Mat, Alexander and Stephanie… I’m afraid I’m doing it all again next year.
Walking was an issue at this point – how far did I still have to go to get my bag of warm clothes? – those lorries in the distance!