Learning from Marathons

Rejected. No London Marathon 2007 for me. A magazine says “sorry” and I get a zip-up top with “London Marathon” on the outside and a big “2007” label on the inside that no one but me need ever see. I’ve decided not to run any more races for charity so will only run when I’m granted a place through the ballot. The spirit of generosity towards Macmillan Cancer Support has been enormous over the last 18 months but I think I’ve pushed it enough. I’ll carry on donating personal money to Macmillan as I have done for the last 10 years or so. This winter will be about running for fun rather than for a race although I’ll slot in a couple of half marathons in March or April.

I now have a half dozen marathons under my belt in four cities – London, Paris, Vienna and New York. I’ve learned a few lessons from those and I’m logging them here so that I’ll remember them next time. Maybe they’ll help some others too.

1. Don’t take the training plans published in books and magazines as gospel. Most of the plans will have you running 40 miles+ a week at peak. Art Lieberman’s plan has you doing 36 miles a week for 12 weeks, with a 16 mile run every Sunday, and this for those looking for a 5 hour finish. Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plan sets you off at 24 miles in week 1 and has you at 43 miles 15 weeks later. Now these guys have, of course, trained hundreds of people and run dozens (hundreds in Hal’s case) of marathons themselves. They know stuff that I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve run sub-4 hours on a total of 231 miles training (70% of which was in the last 2 months) and I’ve run sub-4 on 453 miles (those are figures for the 6 months before a marathon). You’ve got to find something that works for you and that fits in with what else you’ve got going on, recognising that some other things are going to have to take a backseat if you want to finish safely and not spend the next few days walking around like a 90 year old. If you can stick to a plan, go for it, but know when to back off and don’t feel bad about it (except for Rule 5).

2. Don’t believe the pace tables in the books. I can run a 10k in about 47 mins. The books tell me that should put me on track for a 3h 20m marathon. Likewise, I can crack a half marathon in 1h 41m, which marks up to 3h 23m. Yet the fastest I’ve done is 3h 45m. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this (1) I don’t follow the training plans (see above) and do enough long runs that would improve my stamina or (2) I’m not a natural long distance runner (no surprise there). But few people who are running marathons are naturals and fewer still have the time to do the long runs necessary. So plan for a slower second half than the books say and set your target time based on that. If you’re running a half in 1h 41, you’re going to come in between 3h 40m and 3h 50m for a full, if you’re like me that is. Plan also to run your first half a good 8-10 minutes slower than you can run a half marathon. So a 1h 41m half becomes a 1h 50m first half followed by a 2 hour second half.

3. Do wear a pace strap, but use it wisely. Pace straps assume you’ll run your race at an even pace. You might in which case, I think you’re rare. I’ve so far not managed to run an even pace, let alone get close to the famed “negative splits” (where you run the second half faster than the first). In NY the second half was 8 mins slower than the first, in London earlier in the year it was 20 mins slower. A smart pace strap will force you to run the first couple of miles more slowly than plan – but the ones I’ve seen don’t think that way. I picked up a Nike strap in NY which had the first mile (on a target of 3h 50m) at 9:39, before moving to 8:14 in mile 2 and then drifting back to 8:45. Times varied, per mile, by plus or minues 5 seconds from that pace until the end. Perhaps this argues for a personalised pace strap (conveniently, unlike the Lucozade ones you see at UK races, the Nike one is a velcro strap that lets you replace the pace chart inside a plastic strip)? If I was starting at the front, mine would have the first three miles pretty fast and then slow me down; it would recognise that the second half will be perhaps 7-12 mins slower than the first and it would also know that I’d speed up in the last 2 miles. You have to know how you run to build a pace strap like this, but I think I’m there now. The strap would also have a big font.

4. Run in the right units. Marathons in the UK and North America run miles, in Europe they run km. I do all my training runs and pace analysis in km which means that in every UK/NA race I have to do the maths in my head for how I’m doing. That’s fine at the “round” numbers, 5, 10, 20 etc but you try figuring out 17 miles in km when you’re just coming to the wall and you’re trying to figure out how you’re doing against your plan.

5. The bulk of the preparation is in your head. When you’re out running and it’s cold or wet or dark or all three, you want to quit. You want to take a shortcut. That slightly nagging pain in your knee or your foot soon becomes a focus and you think you’d better cut it short in case it develops. The moment you do that is the moment you’re selling yourself short. You will get many of those moments during the course of 26 miles on race day and conquering them during training is the best way of handling them so that they won’t matter when it really matters.

6. Don’t run a race in November. If you’re like me and you shift to a healthy diet for the 6 weeks or so before a race – lots of pasta, no drinking – you’ll really suffer in December. All of the people you didn’t see in October and early November will book to see you in late November and early December. The Christmas season then comes and you’ll be booked every night. At the best of times the siren call of Great Bordeaux is hard to refuse and, after weeks without, your shields are down, phasers are set to stun and you’ll know about it every morning for a month. I imagine running a race in January would be even worse.

7. Set yourself a target then leave it behind. Despite my very best efforts, once I’ve started a marathon, the pace is the pace. In NY I tracked the 3h 50m pace guy all the way to the half way mark and then gradually fell behind – he was running a steady pace, I was slowing down in the second half. Eight minutes behind over the second 13 miles may not sound much, but it’s an enormous amount to make up when you’re already tired. Likewise, if I’d been heading to finish NY just outside of 4 hours instead of just inside, I doubt that there would have been much I could have done about it after mile 20. So, push yourself by all means, but don’t burn up. Faster runners than me tell me that they’ve been physically sick at the end of every marathon. That’s never happened to me and maybe it’s because I haven’t pushed myself to the very end of my limits, or maybe it’s because that doesn’t sound like a fun way to finish a race.

8. If you’re running NY or Paris, practice drinking out of cups. London’s drink stations are the best I’ve seen – bottles of water with the tops removed and squeezy lucozade cartons, also with the tops off. NY and Paris (I can’t remember Vienna) are not quite to easy – cups filled with liquid. I defy you to drink anything like enough without slowing to walking pace, and a slow walk at that. Paula Radcliffe has written that you can practice it. Well, in 26 miles I couldn’t figure it out, so take her advice and practice before you go, if only to stop yourself from being covered in sticky juice. NY did have one thing over London, PowerBar Gel at mile 18/19 – and not in just the horrible flavours either (although you wouldn’t want to touch the stuff if you weren’t running 26 miles).

9. It will hurt. Running 26 miles will hurt, hurt and hurt some more. Get used to it. Be consoled during the race by the fact that the pain during the race is unlikely to be as bad as when you try and walk down some stairs the following day. I haven’t yet found the amount of training that stops that pain, although I have reduced it from 5 days of feeling 90 years old to just one.

2 thoughts on “Learning from Marathons

  1. I see dozens of people who reach the end of their career, who feel upset when they realise that their organisation is going to keep on running without them being there to hold it up. Unless she\’s got something else to do, I\’ll bet my fair lady\’s probably feeling that at the moment.For some people it\’s like an insult. I left and it kept going, thus I must contribute nothing. Noone is inexpendable as my father used to say. Of course this is rubbish. While it is actually true that noone is technically inexpendable, it is not the continuation of contribution that matters, but because all things end, it is the lifetime volume contribution that matters. The size of the sack, the contribution to the Shoulders of Giants if one likes.There\’s a whole load of vocations where you have to take consolation from your own personal knowledge that you\’ve done good.I\’d say you\’d served your time charitably by anyone\’s standards, outside the Bill Gates arena, and the lifetime religious missionary type contributors, but the great brainwashed looking after the great unwashed is a unique phenomenon.Take a rest mate.Ian.

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