‘Two minutes to go’, came the announcement from the race starter. I stood in the crowd, looking ahead, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. An air of trepidation descended, captured perfectly by the murky clouds which hung above. The eerie ambience was sporadically punctured by the beeping of GPS watches as the satellites locked in.
I was relaxed but my heart rate began to increase. I tried to focus on my race strategy. The horn sounded. Ten seconds later, with my head down, I crossed the start line on London Road. I was in the shape of my life. The next three hours were going to be the most important of my running life so far…
The marathon distance is what stokes the fires within. Equally it has the ability to reduce the mind to a quivering mess and question your physical ability, and mental resilience ‘when it really matters’.
The best analogy of a marathon I can come up with is that it’s like jumping into the shallow end of an Olympic sized swimming pool and swimming towards the deep end, not knowing for sure whether you can reach the other side. If you stop to walk, you drown or in other words; fail. Of course this is completely ridiculous but it’s how I view marathons. You are never sure if you can run the whole distance like you can other race distances.
The quest for the sub 3 marathon probably started two years ago after clocking 3 hours, 5 minutes and 33 seconds at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2014. It then quickly stalled.
Since 2014, I’d run personal best times at all other distances but I’d been struggling to pull together a consistent period of training. Embarking on another marathon programme over the summer in 2014, I felt confident as I began to run close to sub 3 hour pace during my long runs.
However, after one particular stupidly long week, where I attempted to run two 20+ milers in the space of 6 days, I was taken down with every runner’s nightmare; plantar fasciitis. I could barely walk on it and for many months my feet resembled bubble wrap.
Unable to train properly I spent a lot of time on the static bike in the gym doing some equally stupid long cycles. I still managed to run 1,800 miles and cycle over 400 miles that year, which arguably equals 2013.
In the spring of 2015 I ran the Paris Marathon hoping to put down a marker for a proper sub 3 attempt next time round. I ran in a relatively slow 3 hours 19 minutes, walking some of the final miles of the race as I wilted in the Parisian sun.
I loved the experience of running through the grand streets and architecture of Paris and the course took in so many landmarks but behind the smiles there was a disappointment with the performance. Only three weeks before I’d comfortably run the East Hull 20 whilst jetlagged in just under 2:19; a faster pace than my marathon PB.
It was a blip, but a couple of weeks later I knocked two minutes off my half marathon best at the North Lincs Half to take it down to 1:25. Plantar fasciitis struck my other foot, so this time I bought a bike and did some long rides around East Yorkshire. This was fun but it was only maintaining my fitness and deep down I was frustrated at losing yet more time. Occasionally I wondered whether a genuine attempt at sub 3 hour marathon would elude me.
For the most part my determination rarely wavered, but as the niggles began to clear up I had a big decision to make. I saw the long game and knew if I stuck with it I’d be rewarded… eventually.
My training had been HR based, low intensity, high volume which had worked very well to a point but it was now becoming stale. I saw a pattern emerging with injuries and I wasn’t making the improvements I wanted with the time I invested. My mind and body needed something slightly different to re-energise and re-focus.
I’m a big advocate of heart rate training and it has been the foundations of all my training for the last 3 or 4 years. I’ve had a couple of VO2 max tests carried out at the University of Hull but I only applied the principles loosely.
Stories of lactate threshold training were doing the rounds on social media. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. I’m often very sceptical given the number of pseudo scientists and literature out there who try to create their own unique ‘angle’ in the health and fitness world. After a bit of research and speaking briefly to other runners I came across Dave Tune, a former British distance athlete, who is based at Blizard Physiotherapy near Doncaster.
Dave offered something slightly different. It was much more in-depth and focussed to running and to an individual’s physiology. This was backed up by excellent results and genuine testimony from people I knew. I decided to explore this further and in August booked a lactate threshold test with Dave.
My approach to training was good but one critical element changed; I would now be running at high intensity rather than low intensity. Another key component is that the testing properly determined my heart rate zones. Previously, I estimated them myself and I wasn’t far away but the bottom line was I wasn’t pushing myself enough in training.
I was shocked with the initial results of the test. My lactate threshold HR was 164bpm or 6:26 min/miles in pace. This suggested I was capable of a 2:45 marathon.
The appointment doesn’t just focus on the science and stats though. Dave covers every dimension which contributes to performance such as diet, sleep, mentality, circumstances and goals, as he seeks to explore and exploit how every marginal gain can be achieved.
I was excited at this prospect if not a little daunted about how my body would react to the intensity of training. I’m not going to lie, when I first started training this way it was hard… really hard! More importantly though I came away with a new belief.
After a couple of weeks my fitness levels improved dramatically and I ran quicker than my 5k and 10k bests. I was excited about the future…
2016 – A Year of Promise or a False Dawn?
Fast forward to 25th January 2016 and I lumbered tentatively around the block for a 20 minute jog. After yet another short layoff I was testing out my hip. It felt good to be back out but it still seemed a long way back to when I ran just short of a London Marathon ‘Good for Age’ qualification time.
Over the winter, my running had become inconsistent. Unsurprisingly, having picked up another niggle I couldn’t train with any intensity. I’d originally targeted the Manchester Marathon in April but I wouldn’t be ready.
My best bet would be the Edinburgh Marathon later in May. I knew the course, it was flat and I had a good set up in terms of accommodation (which is not to be underestimated). With the injury beginning to clear up and with the backing of Dave and physio Oli Brodie, I set out on my first genuine sub 3 attempt.
Training wasn’t going to be easy. After my lactate threshold retest which showed a minor improvement in threshold pace to 6:11 min/miles, Dave sent me away with the training programme. I have to admit I felt unsettled again. Generally a week would include three recovery runs, two threshold runs and one long run at recovery or threshold with increasing durations as the weeks built up. I’d pretty much be running over 50 miles every week, peaking at around 80 miles.
The volume of mileage wasn’t what was uncomfortable; I’d done that before. It was the intensity which daunted me. I learned previously that as I would get fitter my pace at ‘recovery heart rate’ would get faster but not necessarily easier. It was the same for the threshold runs. If anyone has ever run close to their threshold they will know how tough these sessions can be, especially for an extended period. When I first experienced this I felt like I was at race pace every other day.
In contrast to my marathon training where I consistently ran sub 8 minute miles I would be now running mid to low 6 minute miles. Nevertheless, I was as determined as hell that I was going to give it my best shot! I was confident that if I stayed injury free and made it to the start line I’d be rewarded.
I remember vividly that first training session on 6th February; a 45 minute threshold run… I was blowing out my back side!
My first race was only a few weeks away so it was a bit early to see the benefits of training. I ran the Snake Lane 10 in 64:45. It was a 10 mile race best, although I’d previously run quicker over the winter in training. It was easily to be the hardest race of the lot.
I struggled initially with various niggles as I built up the mileage and there were a couple of worrying moments with my thigh, achilles and calves. However, the biggest challenge over the next few months was dragging myself out for the threshold sessions, especially when the pressures of work took over. I found some of the sessions at their toughest at these times. The hard work was paying off though. My heart rate decreased and my pace quickened.
The NYC Half Marathon
During week 6 I headed to the USA to run the New York City Half Marathon. This would be the first time I could test how well the training was going. For my 30th birthday last year I’d arranged to celebrate in style and the race happened to coincide with the trip. I was lucky enough to secure a place through the ballot but had to defer my entry to 2016 as my flight didn’t arrive in time to collect my bib. The chance to run through Central Park and the streets of New York was too good an opportunity to miss.
I really looked forward to this race and it was a fantastic experience. I wasn’t necessarily planning on running fast but I was confident I could run well and comfortably run around my personal best of 1:25.
A 7:30am race start meant I was wandering around Central Park in the pitch black in minus temperatures. The bag store was outside the park and airport security entry into the park meant I couldn’t take any clothes with me. I was the only fool wearing just a vest and shorts with absolutely everyone opting to wear disposable clothes or full on artic running gear. To say I felt exposed is an understatement. The only respite from the wind chill would be to sit in a portaloo. It was by far the best 15 minutes I’d ever experienced in a portaloo in my life!
When we got going I was shocked at how comfortable the pace was. Only a couple days before I’d been slugging around Hyde Park running sub 7 minute miles. I was now running some miles effortlessly in less than 6 minutes.
Despite a wee stop at the first mile marker I crossed the line in 1:21:43, knocking over 3 minutes off my personal best. I absolutely loved the whole experience, especially running through Times Square, flanked by lots of supporters, and past the Freedom Tower. I was over the moon with that performance. Just over 24 hours earlier I was sipping cocktails in a Skytop bar overlooking Manhattan, which was great, but it suddenly dawned on me that it was 5am GMT, I was shattered and I’d probably be hungover!
The only slight niggle afterwards was that the wee stop had cost me a qualification time for the New York Marathon (sub 1:21). Like London, the New York Marathon is notoriously difficult to get into via the ballot. Despite this, I was really confident I’d run a qualification time later in the year.
Fresh from the buzz of New York I ran a couple of parkruns, winning one and running a PB of 18:09 in the other. On fresher legs a sub 18 minute 5k would be straightforward.
I wouldn’t race again until May and training largely went well. One sunny Sunday afternoon, legs laced with Scotland’s finest export from a whisky festival the night before, I somehow managed to run almost 20 miles around Sunderland.
However, not every long run went to plan and I had a couple of long runs which were curtailed early. This knocked my confidence slightly but I relied on the fact that I was still training faster and better than ever.
I’d have another lactate threshold test in late April and the results were a big shock. My lactate threshold pace and marathon potential had lowered to 5:11 min/miles; suggesting I’d reacted incredibly well to the training. That was slightly faster than my mile PB so to suggest I have the potential to run a marathon at that pace was beyond ludicrous!
I knew from my own basic analysis there had been big improvements as my pace increased and my heart rate dropped. To put the improvement into context you can compare the stats from two threshold runs which are two months apart:
Whilst these test results gave me a welcome boost, I have to admit towards the end of the training cycle I was looking forward to it being over, especially when I’d had a couple of bad long runs. Towards the end I began to miss certain aspects of my life.
When Jim Cameron, my former football manager sent me a message to say Hunter’s Bar FC was to cease to exist and that he wanted me to play the final game, I was completely torn. The match fell on the weekend of my last long run. I spent a few days seriously contemplating it but the risk of injury or the inevitable DOMS that would follow was too high. I went to watch the game, longing to be out there and I began to realise how much I’d given up for running; not just in a sporting sense but with my friends. It was quite a sad realisation as I’d been so focussed on one goal.
I coped a lot better with the taper than I had previously. Any person who has trained for a marathon will tell you that this period is mentally challenging as you cut back on the miles and start to panic you’re losing your fitness. It feels completely counter intuitive but this time I didn’t seem to struggle, probably because the sessions were still challenging and I felt grateful for the recovery.
I punctuated the monotony of training by returning to the North Lincolnshire Half Marathon. On a pancake flat course in near perfect running conditions, I secured a New York Marathon qualification time of 1 hour 19 minutes and 30 seconds; feeling reasonably good throughout. With Edinburgh being only two weeks away this was a great confidence boost and banished some of the negative thoughts I’d had a week before from a poor long run, and from missing Hunters Bar FCs last ever match. I was beginning to refocus…
The Edinburgh Marathon 2016
Armed with a specific race strategy and a calmness I’d not experienced before, I left the apartment close to the start line for an extended warm up. This was now my 6th marathon and it was the first time I didn’t feel like I was going to chunder before the start.
I was able to stomach some snacks before the start.
With over 1,000 miles and 120 hours of training in my legs, I stood silently on the start line ready to go.
The plan was to run the first two miles relatively slow to keep the heart rate lower than 140-145bpm for the first 8 miles. This strategy almost went out the window as my heart rate shot up like a rocket. I didn’t feel particularly tired or fast but I struggled to keep it under control. Usually at this pace my HR would be around 135-138bpm. Despite my confidence and perceived calmness I was obviously still feeling nervous.
After some undulating through Edinburgh and out to Leith my heart rate began to stabilise but it was still elevated. I was starting to get into a rhythm though. Whilst I had a couple of time targets at various check points I didn’t think about them too much, choosing instead to focus exclusively on my HR and how I felt. This was especially important as I’d already exceeded my HR strategy and probably caused some minor damage for when I entered the final miles of the race.
The first 8 or 9 miles were largely uneventful as I focussed on getting into a good rhythm. This was in stark contrast to two years ago when I really struggled from the start. I was, however, starting to get mildly irritated by the placement of mile markers along the route. It varied quite a lot from mile to mile. One mile it was well out of sync with my watch, the next it was closer and then back out again. I just ignored it after a while.
Treating it like a training run, I mainly ran alone, although I could see a pack ahead of me working together. Eventually the pack began to break off and I was slowly reeling in each runner; lulling me into feeling strong. I remembered miles 8 – 18 would be tougher as it was quieter and more isolated as we ran into a head wind along the coast. At the half way point I crossed the line in 1:26:43; a little slower than I’d hoped but nothing to worry about.
As I approached the loop where the course runs both ways I was delighted to only see 6 or 7 runners heading in the opposite direction. One of those was Japhet Koech; the subject of the top selling book ‘Running with the Kenyans’ by Adharanand Finn. Incredibly, I was convinced the author was on the other side of the road cheering him on when all three of us converged at the same point. That was surreal!
The temperature began to slowly increase as we entered the grounds of Gosford House. I knew I was coming up to the toughest part of the race as we headed back to the finish in Musselburgh. By miles 20-21 my heart rate was beginning to creep towards 150bpm; close to my threshold zone. I could feel the fatigue creeping up on me. My sweat, saturated with salt, began to sting my eyes. I started to enter the pain cave and there was no turning back, no stopping.
I clung to thoughts of feeling much much worse two years ago on this very same stretch of road. By this point I wasn’t too interested in my pace and knew that if I just kept going, the pace would take care of itself. For the first time during the race I swallowed a gel. Based on some advice from Dave, I started to envisage how it would feel to cross the finish line and it spurred me on. To take me away from the deep, dark hole of pain I was enjoying I reminded myself that I needed to celebrate as I crossed the line, something I always forget to do. I then began to think of different ways to celebrate.
With 3 miles to go I thought ‘parkrun’. Easy enough! All these were mental techniques designed to temporarily endure the weird pain you feel when you’re running on fumes. It’s not like the pain you feel when you’re running fast or shorter distances. Your body starts to shut down to conserve energy and all the time you are telling it to do the opposite. Your body has burnt all the carbohydrates it had stored and you’re now burning fat!
The crowds flanked the final mile. I told myself there was no need to finish fast. I had well over ten minutes to run one more mile. The adrenaline kicked in though and like usual the opportunity to pass one more runner was too good to miss… I started picking off runners ahead of me one at a time. Whilst I did this I unsuccessfully looked for my lone supporter, Gemma, before turning onto the home straight.
The adrenaline flowed through my veins like a powerful drug as I savoured the final few strides to cross the finish line. I remembered to celebrate those last few metres. The clock above ticked 2 hours 54 minutes and change!
Words can’t really describe the elation I felt as I crossed the line knowing I’d achieved my biggest running ambition! My chip time was 2:54:30, lopping 11 minutes from my previous best, finishing in 74th position out of 6,585.
Seven years ago I ran the London Marathon in 4:26 and I was utterly humbled. After that experience I had zero confidence I could ever run a marathon in under four hours. I just didn’t believe it was possible. I was now celebrating running a marathon time which started with ‘2 hours something’.
Whilst I might have smashed that sub 4 hour myth when I took up running properly in 2013, finishing inside 3:14 at Loch Ness, I’d endured so many ups and downs since. Sub 3 should not have been so far away after 2014 but with all the niggling injuries it made me appreciate the achievement even more and more importantly the opportunity to run so quick.
I remembered the hours devoted to stretching, the early nights at the weekend, missing out on social and other sporting events, not seeing my friends, missing Hunter’s Bar’s final ever match. I realised how much I’d given up to be in this position.
One other memory flashed through my mind as I remembered lying in bed strapped up with a night boot in an effort to speed up my recovery from plantar fasciitis. This was a repetitive process which was still going on even as late as January this year. How quickly things can change!
I had also achieved the milestone of running a qualification time for the Boston Marathon and a ‘Good for Age’ time for the London Marathon. This ambition went hand in hand with the sub 3 marathon. This was where I could finally say to myself not only had I conquered the marathon but I was actually good at it! I’m never going to be an elite runner but that means as much as an arbitrary time.
As I reflected on this for the next ten minutes I was as high as a kite. I collected my medal and waited for Gemma hoping she’d seen me finish. It turned out she was right on the finish line after making friends with someone in the Macmillan VIP space and I’d completely missed her.
I was delighted with the result but I also extremely excited as it had been a conservative performance and I wasn’t hanging out my backside like two years before. My average HR was 145bpm whereas previous marathon efforts were around 151/152bpm. That doesn’t sound like much difference but the former is at the bottom of my recovery zone, whilst the latter is touching my threshold zone. It was probably the most comfortable marathon I’d ever run!
I felt so good afterwards I remember doing some squats whilst having a pint. Later, after a couple of drinks I thought it would be a good idea to sprint up these steps in the city centre. I would pay for that over the next few days!
Marathon experiences are invaluable and I learned a lot from both training and the race and I’m excited about what’s possible. With some minor tweaks the result could have been even better on the day. I’m sure the race debrief with Dave Tune will conclude the same. I knew going into the race that there was a high margin of error and so long as I executed the race plan it was in the bag. This is all testament to the hard work and preparation in training which set up me up beautifully for a great race. Huge credit has to go to Dave whose approach has transformed my running, and physio Oli Brodie for keeping me on my feet. Oli particularly knows the problems I’ve had with injuries and has spent a lot of time putting me back together.
I then spent the next hour or so basking in the sun, waiting for an old friend to cross the finish line in only his second marathon. In the now baking heat, Tom Sharpe finished in 4:21:49. It was a real pleasure to see Tom finish and knock a huge chunk off his personal best. I’ve tried to help Tom with some bits of advice and I hope it’s helped. It was also great to catch up with his brother Matt who I know well from our childhood football days, Matt’s girlfriend, Hannah, who I know well from college, and their Mum and Dad.
Like some sort of football reunion I caught up with former Hunters Bar team mate, John Batteson, who crushed his first marathon in 3:43. It was the marathon debut I could only dream of back in 2009. I best watch my back if he decides to take it up seriously! It was great to catch up and share a few beers.
The Path Ahead???
I’d love to say I’ve had a bit of time to reflect and relax but since I got back my day job of building schools has been crazy to say the least.
As I write this I’ve just completed my GFA entry for the London Marathon in 2017. For the rest of the year it looks like I’m going to focus on shorter distances, race a little more often, and enjoy a few more things outside of running; catching up with friends and family being a big one of them!
Hopefully with the London entry guaranteed I need to decide whether to double up with Boston in spring and also consider New York in November 2017.
I never thought I’d have so many options! One thing is certain, I’m scratching the surface of what I can achieve and that is exciting!
Moving on from the 2013 Mile Challenge…
At the end of 2013 I felt slightly unnerved. Having just finished running over 2,013 miles. I began to reflect and a strange sense of loss hit me. I wanted to have a bit of down time but within a week I didn’t know what to do with myself. Something was missing Not lacing my trainers up to head out the door had become uncomfortable. I had to fill this void so I headed out for a quick hour jog.
Ow Ow Ow!
Three miles from home I felt a painful twang in my leg. I’d torn my calf. I hadn’t been going particularly fast. It was the type of run I’d done hundreds of times. Weirdly though, the cloud which had hung over me had lifted. I was back out on the roads where I wanted to be. I hobbled home in the rain feeling slightly sorry for myself but with an undercurrent of renewed optimism.
Part of the reason there was this cloud was because I was struggling to decide what my next challenge would be. I had lots of ideas but I was indecisive. Invariably I had to determine what was important to me. Did I want to go in a completely different direction and explore something else or did I want to build on the previous year?
Amsterdam to Frankfurt anyone?
I thought about an endurance challenge which involved cycling between Amsterdam and Frankfurt whilst completing both city marathons in consecutive weekends in October. The mix of endurance and the chance to explore has a massive appeal. It remains on the radar but the chance to bring down my marathon times, whilst not very creative, is something that has a bigger draw as I approach my thirties. I won’t be at my peak forever so I want to make the most of what little youth I have left! A sub 3 hour marathon is the long term goal… then I’ll probably retire!
Tearing my calf gave me the time I needed to work this out without feeling guilty that I wasn’t training and Edinburgh would be my first crack at getting closer!
900 Miles Later…
After two weeks rest I was back on the roads slowly building up the mileage. Four months and over 900 miles later I was heading to Edinburgh hoping to run a decent personal best. A sub 3 hour marathon would perhaps be beyond me but it would be amazing to dip under 3:05… a ‘Good for Age’ and Boston Qualification time for a male under 35.
Any runner will tell you that a Good For Age time is an important milestone. It allows you to dodge the dreaded London ballot process. I can imagine you probably feel like you’ve earned your place based on performance and let’s be honest we all want to be considered ‘good’ at what we do. This is official recognition of that.
Do you want to be a #Rebelrunner?
I’d been involved in some eventful races leading up to Edinburgh. At the Catterick 10k, I thought I’d get in a last minute toilet break only to find that when I got outside everyone had gone and the organisers had turned off the chip mat. I stood on the start line, cutting a lonely figure trying to hide my embarrassment as everyone laughed and the organisers tried to switch it back on. To top it all off when I finally set off I went the wrong way because everyone was so far down the road I couldn’t see them. I doubted the motives of a spectator who alerted me to my faux pas!
I was then front and centre at the Sheffield Half Marathon, making a fleeting appearance on the BBC when the organisers announced the race had been cancelled because the water hadn’t been delivered. A loud boo echoed before a couple of elite runners set off encouraging everyone to follow. I thought SOD IT and followed before we were chased by the rozzers who tried to set up a road block ahead of us. It was possibly the most rebellious thing I’d ever done but the police gave up in the end. The 5,000 strong field would become known as the ‘Rebel Runners’! The best thing about the race was the support along the course. I’ve never felt so supported by the crowd than in Sheffield. They made sure we didn’t go without water either!
Between the comedy, I’d experienced some surprising and rewarding moments as well. Pacing a couple of friends to big PBs at Parkrun was ace. In the build up to Edinburgh I wasn’t aiming for any PBs in races, choosing to focus on the marathon so it was a surprise when I won my first Parkrun, setting a new PB in the process. The week before Edinburgh I improved my Parkrun PB again to 18:23. Long runs and races had been strong and I felt confident, backed by a strong training cycle averaging 50 miles a week. A couple of successful Yassos confirmed I’d hit all my targets in training to run under 3 hours.
My Race Form:
‘Stop Being a Floppy C**k!’
Nerves were always going to play a part in my preparation and I thought I’d managed to keep them largely in check until race weekend (I’m sure the other half would disagree!). Negative thoughts crept in but I repeatedly told myself to stop being a floppy c**k!
I had only two basic objectives on Saturday…
1. Drive to Edinburgh.
2. Eat 10g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight.
I’d been fortunate to find an apartment close to the start line which made both these tasks a little easier. I definitely prefer the relaxing set up compared to a hotel.
Having successfully stuffed myself until I felt uncomfortable, adopting the fetal position would become the only way I’d get some sleep. The nerves hit in the morning and as I left the apartment I had the uncontrollable urge to vomit. I couldn’t help it! Three times I chundered but it felt like I’d physically exorcised a week’s worth of nerves in 2 minutes. I felt instantly better. This would be great if I wasn’t now dehydrated.
Can I have your autograph Daz? Meeting my first Shabba Runner!
The start line was only 400 metres down the street and had a quick 5 minute jog and stretch before bumping into my first ever Shabba Runner, Super Daz Redmond. Now this guy is rapid and I would love to get to his level!
We were both starting in the red pen just behind the elite pen and we were anxious to get going. The field wasn’t massive but we managed to get a bit of banter going on with those around us. It was all nervous bravado; trying to stave off thoughts of becoming a weeping, drooling mess on the floor. We both joked that we would probably retire when we broke 3 hours! I’m sure there’s a small hint of truth to that. Daz was aiming for that today so we wished each other good luck and I told him I hoped I wouldn’t see him again until the end.
Time to get down to business!
Finally we were off through the streets of Edinburgh. I managed to catch Gemma and Pauline who were waiting for me at the end of the street before we cut off and were running at the bottom end of the Royal Mile and along the foot of the beautiful Arthur’s Seat.
It was tricky to get into a steady rhythm as the tight field navigated the winding course. Four miles in and we hit the coast and along the promenade to Musselburgh. The aim was to stick to low 7 minute miles and assess my progress at every mile but I’d already noticed my watch telling me I’d hit the mile markers well before I’d actually got there. I hoped that the markers were wrong but I was running sub 7 minute miles so it wasn’t too much of a concern.
This stretch along the coast to Musselburgh felt long. Even though we were rewarded with a nice view of the Forth Estuary, I was still struggling to get into a rhythm which meant I felt unusually tired and my heart rate was higher than usual. Experience from previous marathons told me this was normal though. The weather forecast had predicted rain but it was dry and mild with the sun beginning to peak through the clouds. The only respite came from the head wind.
I was doing my best to follow my race strategy of taking gels every 30 minutes and drinking water whenever I could but I flirted with the idea of taking a break. On the opposite side of the road the half marathon runners were coming to the end of their race. I really wanted to join them. I was having a major wobble. After 9 miles this really wasn’t a good sign! The superb support in Musselburgh and the fear of failure was the only thing keeping me going. Despite this I was still on track as I crossed the halfway point in 1:32:04.
Between Musselburgh and the turnaround point at mile 17 there were pockets of support but generally it was quiet with little talk between the runners who were either knackered like me or deep in the zone.
I was still struggling with the slight head wind and my pace had dropped slightly, although I wasn’t deteriorating or feeling any worse. Without a pace band and with my watch out of sync with the mile markers I wasn’t sure whether I was still on for 3:05. The mental capacity to work out basic sums had also deserted me as I felt slightly frazzled mentally and physically.
It was along this stretch where the race leaders passed in the opposite direction; their stride so comfortably natural, with the grace and speed of a gazelle. It’s a thing of beauty to see up close and I clung to the little boost it gave me for as long as I could.
However, this was soon interrupted by a horrific, indistinguishable sound coming from the bushes around the bend. I wondered if I was about to enter a scene from an Eli Roth film. As I negotiated the bend a runner was by the side of the road being violently sick. Despite the ferocious velocity of retching he didn’t seem visibly too bad.
We were treated to a return fly-by as we turned the cone a couple of hundred metres up the road before diving off into the grounds of the Earl of Wemyss’ stately home.
The trip through here provided a bit of shade from the trees and a welcome break from the sun (and the over-exaggerated wretching) but the surface was horrible under foot as I stabbed my feet on the loose rock. Added to this challenge were various ponds which had formed overnight. Fortunately this stretch was short and it was only 7 miles to the finish; a routine recovery run I do three times a week.
Heading back to Musselburgh
As we left the stately home grounds and back on the road to Musselburgh I couldn’t help but feel glad that I wasn’t one of the many runners on the opposite side still heading away from the finish. Whilst my side of the road was pretty clear, the density of the running field opposite seemed to increase significantly. Completely lost in my own thoughts I heard one of the runners shout, ‘Come on Paul!’ I wondered if it had been Stu (@fromboris). By the time it had registered he was long gone in the crowd but it turned out afterwards it had been him.
I became more aware of the crowds again in Cockenzie. The support was fantastic but it was impossible to acknowledge as I channeled all my energies into putting one foot in front of the other as fast as I could. At around 22 miles I was shocked to see Daz walking. He’d pulled his hamstring. I asked how he was doing but he was obviously disappointed. I’ve been there myself so I genuinely felt for him.
I was really tempted to stop to walk with him but this wasn’t an entirely selfless idea. It would’ve been easy for me to give up and justify it to myself under guise of helping someone else. I must admit I did consider it for a few seconds but that wouldn’t have been fair to put that on Daz. I think he would have kicked my arse if i’d have stopped anyway.
Just a Parkrun to go…
I reached the 23 mile marker and I told myself it was just a parkrun to go but I was physically running on fumes.
“Just keep going and the time will pass… The faster you run, the sooner it’ll be over”, was what I kept repeating in my head.
It was the exact feeling I felt at Loch Ness last September so knew I could push through. Maths is usually my strong point but all my mental strength was being used just to keep my legs going and I eased off the pace just slightly.
This last stretch seemed to last forever. I almost lost my composure momentarily when a lone spectator on a quieter part of the route shouted, “What sort of name is Leggy?”
This is probably a genuine question if you don’t know my surname but not to me after running 24 miles!
“Oh yes mate, I’ll stop and explain to you that it’s my nickname because of my surname… I’ve only run 24 miles but why not?“
Running on pure adrenaline my inner thoughts were all over the place by this point and I was angry! I turned my anger into fuel.
Being Pointlessly Competitive.
Heading into Musselburgh and alongside the racecourse, I could smell the finish as the crowds were increasing in density and the noise intensified. I looked out for my supporters but spotted a fellow City of Hull runner ahead first before I saw Pauline through the crowds on the final bend. The adrenaline got the better of me. I sniffed blood. I wanted that City of Hull scalp and found the reserves as we both turned the bend into the final hundred metres to sprint to the finish line. What a horrible surface for the final sprint!
Conscious of what happened straight after Loch Ness when I wretched in front of a load of children I tried to blag my way into the medical tent. I attempted to chat up the paramedic with some incoherent mumblings to persuade her to let me in. Eventually she understood but by then I’d gathered myself, confirmed I was okay and toddled off to get my medal and have my private moment.
I’m sure many marathon finishers will agree, the first few minutes after finishing before you meet up with your support is such a strange and unique feeling, especially when it’s been such a battle from start to finish. It’s a private moment of pride and vindication. I’ve not felt many better moments. I remembered feeling like I’d justified all the training I’d put in. Almost the whole race had been a slog but every mile of training in preparation had helped me successfully battle that nagging doubt for three hours.
33 Seconds from Glory!
My official time was 3:05:33. Straight afterwards I didn’t care that I’d been 33 seconds shy of a GFA time especially as the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was run the London Marathon. 3:05 was an arbitrary time. Instead I was proud to have knocked over eight minutes off my personal best.
Deep down though I knew it would matter to me later, but the time for recrimination was not now. I met up with Gemma and Pauline and their smiles brought me comfort as I slumped on the grass verge clutching a can of Coke like it was a lucky golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I then spotted Daz who’d made it home not long after with a new PB of 3:10. I know he was disappointed but it was a heroic effort with a torn hamstring. I think we were both too shattered for the ‘Top Gun’ hi-five’ we’d joked about on Twitter.
No sooner had we finished before an eeriness descended followed by a deluge of rain which engulfed the crowds as we dashed for the buses. Later I’d read a lot about the organisational issues but this was the first time I noticed it. The shuttle buses back to Edinburgh were located two miles away. Luckily we jumped on a public bus and I swapped a few stories with an Irish fella about training and various races, trying to distract myself from worrying about the moment I’d need to get off the bus and hoping I wouldn’t be stuck to the seat permanently.
The Edinburgh Marathon Festival: Is it really Edinburgh?
The course was nice enough but I couldn’t help but feel that it didn’t showcase the best of Edinburgh. It was true we started in Edinburgh and took in some of the sights but after walking round a day later it was obvious that the route skirted around the city centre. It is a nice enough route along the coast but if you’re looking for an ‘Edinburgh’ experience you might feel a little cheated. The East Lothian Marathon would probably be more appropriate but for marketing purposes it’s unlikely to draw in as many visitors.
A lot of marathons claim to be fast and Edinburgh is no exception. This claim is genuine though as the profile of the course is flat. Unfortunately, the race made the news for all the wrong reasons. The biggest media interest centred on the uproar caused by the organiser’s bizarre decision not to release the results to the public. Each runner could only access their result. Rumour spread that the organisers didn’t want to disclose the total number of finishers as they’d over-exaggerated this to the event sponsors. Fair play to the organisers who admitted they’d made a mistake and subsequently made the results public, although I suspect their IAAF Bronze Label status was at risk by this point.
Whilst the results issue was an inconvenience, it was unforgivable that many finishers didn’t get a medal or a goody bag as they had all gone by the time they’d finished. Understandably people were left pretty upset. Entering a marathon isn’t cheap and if you pay for a product you expect it as sold. For many the medal is a big incentive and the reward. Larger corporate organisations will do well to remember that and shouldn’t take the risk to maximise profit by cutting corners.
A lot of people complained how their baggage had been left out and were caught out in the deluge. Others complained about the management of the event area and how far away the buses were. What couldn’t be criticised was the volunteers who were doing their best. “Lions led by donkeys” was the funniest thing I heard and probably summed up my limited dealings with event organisers. Personally, I didn’t really experience many problems but that was because I had my own support and got lucky with the buses.
Hopefully the organisers will review the feedback objectively and look to address the issues for next year.
Self Reflection at its best and worst…
Despite feeling proud initially it didn’t take long for that rueful feeling to take over. My watch had told me I’d added 0.18 miles which isn’t unusual but my Garmin usually underestimates distances and the extra distance had added over a minute to my time. I’d completed 26.2 miles in 3:04:26. That’s not to say I expected to run exactly 26.2 miles but I had a 36 second cushion. I figured I’d done too much weaving at the start but that’s part and parcel of a race.
It became harder to stomach when I saw my split times for the final 3 miles. I’d needed to run an average of 6:57 for each mile. In my frazzled mental state at the time I hadn’t worked this out. I managed this for mile 24 but eased off too much in the final two miles. I was struggling but my heart rate had dropped when I eased off… That was the difference. This was slightly harder to take. I had no excuses for that… It’s the fundamental lesson you’re taught as a kid at sports day and I couldn’t help but feel I’d learned the hard way!
I was in danger of falling into the trap of disappointment. I analysed it over and over in my head. I was so close to qualifying for London and Boston but I’d made a big step in the right direction. Looking at the big picture put it into perspective as I thought back to January when I was crocked and worried about even making a marathon.
Immediately after the race I had no desire to put myself through that again but the pain wears away. Now it’s fire in the belly for my next marathon! I just need to decide which one that is!
The quest for the sub 3 hour marathon continues…
I’ve put off writing this for too long!
It was a year of many highs and very few lows, but it came to an end and unsurprisingly I felt a little bit lost. On a nippy Saturday morning I joined almost 100 fellow runners at Peterpan Parkrun to finish my 2,013 mile challenge.
I’d plodded the final 85 miles in December to reach the Red Square and my final destination, the Soviet capital of Moscow. By the time I finally succumbed to injury and was forced to stop running on the 30th December, I’d covered a total of 2,039 miles in almost 273 hours. I’d burned 196,164 calories at an average pace of 8:01 minutes per mile and a mean average distance of 7.8 miles per run. In the second half of the year i’d climbed 28,407 feet, almost the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest!
New Years Eve 2012!
Rewind to New Years Eve 2012 and I completed the first run of a marathon programme; a steady 30 minute jog. The next day I started the count on 2013 miles with a 5.22 mile run. I’d set myself the challenge to run 2,013 miles in 2013, an average of 5.5 miles a day, every day for a year. I’d record this as if I was running from Hull to Moscow but I had no idea how I would get on.
The previous year I’d run less than 400 miles. This was going to be a big step up but I was determined to commit to the challenge. A well known Chinese proverb became a source of encouragement in the early days…
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
What did I want to achieve by running 2013 miles? Ultimately I wanted to set myself some decent personal bests across all distances. I also wanted to learn and improve by applying what I learned. The last thing the miles should be was routine. That wouldn’t be much fun! Banking the miles would lay the foundations for achieving those goals, but most importantly exorcising the demons of a disappointing London marathon attempt in 2009, which still felt like unfinished business.
My Name is Paul… and I’m a Lazy Procrastinator!
Up until this point I’d fallen into the category of the lazy procrastinator. Not only that, I was the worst kind of procrastinator. What follows is quite a frank and honest admission.
As a kid I enjoyed running. I wasn’t special, just ok, but I aspired to be good. I joined a running club when I was 9 but football was always my first love. I also ran school cross country, often placing in the top 10-15 in the district but in my short experience I had one bad race which affected my feelings towards competitive running. I had got used to doing well, and when I felt I’d failed for the first time, fear won through and I avoided being in that situation again. There was a fragility in my confidence. I didn’t learn how to come back stronger from failure, choosing instead to take myself out of the equation.
This conflict continued into senior school. I was the fastest in my year but I would find excuses for not representing the school at county meets. I didn’t enjoy the pressure I put on myself to be the best. If I wasn’t the best I wasn’t interested. I felt too competitive and I didn’t like how that made me feel because of how I came across to others. If I’d have known then that it was a good quality to have I’d have embraced it more and maybe might have turned out slightly different. Besides, at that age it was every boys dream to be a footballer and I was no different. Football dominated my life. I spent a couple of years on the books of Scunthorpe United before the inevitable chop happened. Looking back it sounds bloody stupid and a bit too serious!
As I hit my 20s my passion for football mellowed and I began to flirt again with running. There’s something raw and primal about it. Combine that with an element of speed and you can see why I’m drawn to running.
I’m a big believer in working hard which actually worked against me because I didn’t know where to start and I put it off year after year. I felt too much time had passed. I had an ‘all or nothing’ mentally which often meant I didn’t commit to any proper running without knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve and how to get there. I was the worst kind of procrastinator. I thought about it a lot but did nothing of any significance. It was no excuse!
At the time the London Marathon was the only race I dreamed of running. Fast forward to autumn 2008 and I’m 23. After 3 failed ballot attempts I got the much coveted ‘Success’ magazine, not a smurf in sight. I was delighted and nervous in equal measure. Now I’d have to put those pent up thoughts into action.
Quite simply I underestimated what was required to run 26.2 miles. I was still playing Saturday football and I suffered with a couple of nasty ankle sprains which I didn’t deal with. Being honest I didn’t commit enough time or put in enough miles. I aimed for sub 4 hours but at 19 miles my pace began to suffer and at 21 miles I bonked knowing my target was slipping beyond my grasp. I finished in 4:26:28 and felt like a fraud but it was a big learning experience. I learned how not to prepare and how that I would never be satisfied if I didn’t run the whole distance. If you want to read a self-deprecating post on how not to prepare for and run a marathon click here.
I never wanted to be as underprepared again and whilst I continued to play football I couldn’t properly commit to a running programme. I repeated the same mistake from my childhood of avoidance.
I only entered a handful of events afterwards. In 2010 I completed the Hull 10k in 48:47. It was two years before I entered another race, as part of a relay team for the ill-fated Hull Marathon. Later in 2012 I completed 40 miles as part of the Hell on the Humber, 12 hour night race. In between that I’d done the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Challenge in just over 8 hours but there were two failed attempts at the UK 3 Peaks Challenge. Not the greatest athletic CV! It was pathetic! I’d not even come close to performing to my potential in any of these events. One of my big weaknesses was running consistently. I’d do 1 or 2 months of consistent running but then I’d just completely stop for a few months and lose all the gains and I’d be back to square one. This became routine.
I was still playing football in Sheffield but it involved a lot of travelling and was costing quite a bit of money and as my enjoyment waned with every match so did my level of performance. I’d become disillusioned with football. Characters had changed in the dressing room and the banter just wasn’t there anymore so I needed to freshen things up. I’d reached a crossroads. I could continue to ‘go through the motions’ or I could make a change.
This is where the idea for 2,013 miles in 2013 came from. It would force me to commit and run consistently. I committed to completing 10% of the distance in races. I then set myself targets for various distances with an emphasis on the marathon.
I used the ready-made marathon plans from the Adidas Micoach website, which have been devised by American coach and exercise physiologist Greg McMillan. He also devised a pretty accurate race calculator. I used my only reasonable official race PB from the Hull 10k to set a baseline and plot my initial targets. I could consistently run under 50 minutes for 10k and I considered 8 minute miles as a good pace for my current level.
I also created a geeky spreadsheet to help me track my progress and predict my mileage. It was later to become a work of art with the amount of hours I put into it.
Then i got to work on what my race targets could be…
The greater the distance the more ambitious these targets were and given my crappy running history I kept these targets very close to my chest in the early days but I looked ahead with a quiet optimism.
I set about planning a running schedule up to May/June following a marathon programme, picking races I really wanted to do which fit within the programme and use them to build up my race experience. I’d suffered badly with nerves in London. I was fine when the race started but during the morning the nerves were so bad it was the most debilitating thing I’d ever experienced. The pressure I put on myself got the better of me. I wanted to overcome that so that it became routine and I could prepare as best I could.
I felt that by focusing on a marathon programme I could build up my endurance, and naturally I’d bank the miles and the times would come down over the shorter distances. The intention was to complete a marathon training cycle and assess where I was before planning the next marathon cycle which would take me to October. Breaking the year up this way made it easier to focus on ticking off each milestone whilst having one eye on the bigger picture.
I would try to run six times a week with a rest day on Friday. A typical training week would consist of ‘recovery’ runs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. I’d run fartlek, tempo or interval sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. Sunday was long run day. Every run had a ‘blue zone’ warm up and warm down.
The Micoach programmes are great for zone based training and steady progression whilst keeping the sessions interesting. I was using the Micoach pod to record my distances before switching to a Garmin GPS in the latter half of the year.
Initially I wanted to set myself some ‘no pressure’ personal bests which gave a more accurate picture of my starting position and which improved on the baseline from the McMillan Calculator. First up was a nice local, low key race; the Ferriby 10 closely followed by my first half marathon in March at Silverstone which I finished in 1:40:38. With a period of the most consistent running ever under my belt, the benefits were clear in the way I felt and in the stats.
On New Years Eve in 2012 I’d run 3.55 miles and my average heart rate was 161 beats per minute. Running the exact same route a month later saw my average heart rate drop to an average of 132 beats per minute. That was an incredible drop which had steadily decreased with every run.
From January through to March, I was down on the daily mile average for 2013 miles as I slowly built up the weekly miles but I knew my training load would eventually claw back this deficit.
Picking up the Pace in April
It was in April I saw some big improvements. I jumped into a few Parkruns and with 3 months of consistent running behind me I broke the sub 20 minute 5k barrier three times. Historically my unofficial best had been on a treadmill when I managed 3k in 11:52 and my previous 5k best was just under 22 minutes.
At the end of the month I banked a double PB in a 5k (19:14 at Parkrun) and a half marathon (1:32:52 at North Lincs). Also, for the first time I got ahead of the average daily mileage for 2013 miles. I was making fantastic progress both on the overall miles covered and in terms of race performance.
Earlier in the year I’d come across the Run Britain Rankings which gives you a handicap which determines your national ranking based on your official race results. I’m never going to trouble the likes of Mo or even the top club runner but in April I was lucky enough to finish second on the national leader board for improvement. I was rewarded with a pair of Sennheiser headphones!
Next up in May was the Sheffield Half Marathon, a city I miss living in greatly. I used the race as an opportunity to test out my marathon pace, finishing in 1:37.19. The following week at the Hull 10k, I targeted a significant improvement on my personal best of 48:47; an event I ran with friends from work. I finished in 37:58 which included a 5 minute walk at the start with Sam and Sherelle! However, at the last minute the course had been unexpectedly shortened because of a problem with a bridge on the route. My old PB remained, but for the first time I genuinely believed that sub 40 minutes was possible.
I was coming to the end of my marathon programme but I hadn’t actually entered one. I’d been too tentative at the start of the year. By the time I felt comfortable, the marathons which still had open entry didn’t really fit. Instead I decided one night after work to run my own personal 26.2 miles around Hull. I finished in 3:31. It was tough, mainly as it was unaided and I couldn’t carry much fluid with me but I’d practiced taking energy gels. It was a great confidence boost for attacking the second half of the year.
Marathon Cycle 2: June to October
It was now June. Everything had gone to plan and I felt positive. It was time to plan the second phase of the challenge and I embarked on a second marathon training programme geared towards running finishing in 3:15. Again I used the training plans devised by Greg McMillan through Adidas Micoach.
I’d already entered the Amsterdam Marathon, but decided to go for the Loch Ness Marathon too. It was three weeks before Amsterdam giving me a double chance of getting a decent personal best.
After a few days off and no sooner had I planned the second stage of the year, I came down with a bout of man flu. I was still hoping to dip under 40 minutes at the flat profiled Owston Ferry 10k, but I’d only run twice in two weeks since the 26.2 miles. I bumped into an old school friend, Gary Crompton. He was in the year above me and was a bit of legend at our school for his speed. He destroyed everyone and broke all our records. It was good to catch up with him for the first time in about 10 years.
The race started and I set off too quick and suffered. At 5k I was overtaken by the fastest 70 year old in the UK! I managed to get back ahead later and finished in 40:48 only a few seconds ahead of my more experienced friend. I’d knocked eight minutes off my PB but I was disappointed. With the focus on marathons I wondered whether I’d get a better chance to run under 40 minutes this year.
I followed up the 10k two weeks later with the Humber Bridge Half Marathon, adopting a ‘suck it and see’ approach. Whilst the profile had a few hills I was hoping to get close to my personal best from North Lincs. This time I bumped into Dave Millns minutes before the start, a former teammate from football. It’s never easy talking to someone you haven’t seen for a few years just before you’re about to start a race, especially when you’re trying to focus and I pretty much mumbled my way through before we were off.
After 4 uphill miles I was on target but then I realised I was missing my Adidas Micoach recording pod. I faced a real dilemma. Carry on or stop and try to find it. I did the latter. After five minutes of asking people in the street and frisking a police officer (don’t ask!) I gave up. I’d had the Micoach since 2011 and I’d grown fond of it as it recorded my miles. Luckily, not a week earlier, I’d invested in a Garmin GPS watch so I still had a record of all my miles.
I eventually finished the race in 1:40:11. The rest of the race was a bit of a blur but I tried to laugh off the series of unfortunate events. It was a second successive race disappointment though and I wanted to put that to bed. Training was going well but I began to think I was having a bit of a hangover from running a marathon distance. I needed to refocus.
A week later I did Parkrun, on the tougher Peterpan Park course, clocking 19:17 and finishing 4th. It was only 3 seconds away from my PB of 19:14 from East Park. This gave me confidence going into the Eccup 10 the following day. I was aiming to run 7 minute miles along the hilly route. In the scorching heat I recorded 69:16. It remains one of my favourite races of the year because I had to really dig deep to get the time I wanted. I almost gave up with two miles to go but found something extra within. Something I hadn’t had before. I’d also put two disappointing races behind me. This would be invaluable experience.
Five days later I was racing again at the Walkington 10k, another undulating course with a couple of biggish hills, so I wasn’t chasing a PB. This time I learned not to set off too quick and finished with a negative split and recorded a new PB of 40:29. I’d finished in 26th position out of 554, my best position outside of Parkrun.
January to July had been a feeler for attacking races in autumn. Heading into August was now the start of the business end of the year. I was about a week ahead of the 2013 miles average and I was really looking forward to what I considered the big races.
When I ran a race it meant going off programme but I was managing this by swapping or moving the long runs to different days. With every week that passed I was ticking off the all important long run which was rewarded with an ice bath… a different kind of torture. The next event on the horizon though was an event I said I would never do again… Hell on the Humber!
This event was the race that I considered the biggest risk to my marathon training. Last year my mate and multiple iron man finisher, Sam Whitaker, roped me into it. He’d told me that it was the most mentally and physically challenging event he had done.
Starting at 7pm the premise is to complete as many 4 mile laps of the Humber Bridge as you can in 12 hours. Last year I completed 40 miles but had an unfortunate experience with Soreen’s finest which rendered me unable to eat anything for the majority of the event. Afterwards I swore blind that I would never do that again and I really meant it! However, I saw an opportunity to bank some big miles for the challenge and a good opportunity to test my character. I thought I’d give it another shot, learning from the mistakes I made the year before. It couldn’t be any worse than last time right?
This time around I managed to complete 52 miles. More importantly, it didn’t seem to have a negative effect on my training even though I’d just completed my biggest mileage week of 99 miles. I celebrated with an ice bath!
Not long after Hell on the Humber I was back out to finish my last couple of long runs (22 miles and 23.5 miles) before tapering for Loch Ness. A week after my last long run was the small matter of the Great North Run, a bit of a marquee event on the race calendar.
I hadn’t improved on my half marathon time since North Lincs in April so I was gunning for a new personal best; hopefully less than 1 hour 30 minutes. In the build up to the race a PB became increasingly important. I studied the profile of the course intensely to fine tune my race strategy.
Having that focus worked! With an attacking effort I crossed the line in 1:27. Not even the farce of the baggage drop and 5 hours stuck in a field, cold and wet could dampen my spirits afterwards.
A bit like the treble triumph of Manchester United in 1999 when they won the FA Cup before going on to seal the Champions League, this was the prelude to a bigger event in two weeks… the Loch Ness Marathon.
Unofficially in June I’d run a marathon in 3:31, but technically my PB remained at 4:26. My top target was to dip under 3:15. My long run pace suggested I was capable but I knew it would be a big ask. I would still be happy with something under 3:30. Anything better and I’d be over the moon!
I got to the start line feeling as confident as I could be. I’d done the training and I’d had lots of success at shorter distances. There was the inevitable nerves and feeling of self-doubt which infiltrate most runners’ thoughts on the morning of the race. I was nearly sick as I left the hotel. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, nerves are always there but soon dissipate when you get under way.
The route started in the hills south of Loch Ness and headed north east along the beautiful loch to Inverness. Whilst the first half was predominantly downhill, there were significant undulations which made it incredibly tough. I struggled from the first 6 or 7 miles to get into a rhythm and suffered physically. I’d heard the tales of the big hill at mile 19. After 8 miles I felt it all unravelling and I was convinced I had no chance of running up it. Somehow, when I got there I manned up and dragged myself up the hill before entering the final few miles through Inverness, fueled by pure adrenaline.
I crossed the line in 3:13:55 before suffering what I consider my favourite moment of 2013. It wasn’t the joy of crossing the line. It was the thirty seconds after when I fell to my hands and knees. I began to chunder and dry wretch. Eyes about to pop out from the force. I knew in that moment I’d given the marathon absolutely everything I had. It didn’t look dignified but this was why I’d set myself the 2013 mile challenge! All the miles and all the races in the build-up had been integral to that. I’d convinced myself otherwise until this point but I knew deep down this was the big one. I’d graduated from Marathon Finisher to Marathon Runner!
It felt like a dream to run 1:27 for a half marathon and follow that up with 3:13:55 for a marathon two weeks later. I’d have made a deal with the Devil for that at the start of the year. If I’m honest I wasn’t sure I had it in me!
My approach to the Amsterdam Marathon in October had completely changed. Running fast had become inconsequential. There would no way I could improve on that time in the space of 3 weeks. I was determined to enjoy the experience a bit more without the added personal pressure, although judging by the pre-morning nerves I still had that hunger to do well.
My aim would be to take it a bit easier and learn from the experience but it still turned out to be a tough assignment. I crossed the finish line in 3:22:02 with a negative split. Although it was hard I actually enjoyed the experience. I’d also hit my 10% race distance target as part of the 2013 miles. Amsterdam had a nice atmosphere and to finish in the Olympic Stadium is a great touch. Forget your homogenous modern day football stadia, the Olympic Stadium had character! There’s definitely something about finishing a marathon in a foreign country that makes you feel more athletic! I was representing Great Britain after all!
I wasn’t resting on my laurels. My attentions soon turned to the last remaining target within the challenge; a sub 40 minute 10k. The Leeds Abbey Dash would be my best chance in November. After Amsterdam I was 142 miles ahead of the 2013 mile average so I had a bit in the bank to lower my mileage and concentrate on speed. Fartlek became the routine workout for the next three weeks.
A week before the race I did Parkrun to gauge where I was. I was on track as I smashed my previous 5k best by 26 seconds with a time of 18:48.
The farlek sessions paid off as I finished the Leeds Abbey Dash in 39:08, cutting well over minute off my previous best. Finally I’d become a sub 40 minute 10k runner! I was now content to complete the remaining 161 miles safe in the knowledge that I’d ticked off all my race targets.
Let’s Play a Game Called ‘Chase the Injury’
Just over a week had passed since Leeds before I picked up some serious knee pain which stopped me instantly towards the end of a 14 mile run. I tried to carry on but it was impossible. I’d been lucky with injury up until this point, although I recognise I had niggles which I didn’t really deal with. What unaffectionately became known as ‘chase the injury’ had finally caught up with me.
Injuries hadn’t featured and didn’t warrant a mention in my previous posts as they weren’t seriously affecting my running. I didn’t want to give them a basis for being an excuse but I did have niggles through the year.
Picture a cartoon character plugging one tiny drip in a wall but then another hole sprouts from the wall somewhere else. He then plugs that hole with his finger and two more holes sprout somewhere else. He then plugs those holes and eventually the wall collapses!
It started in February when I couldn’t walk properly on my left foot for about 4 or 5 weeks but there was no pain whilst running which I found very odd! A bit of internet digging suggested it was plantar fasciitis, but it wasn’t affecting my running so I ran through it. Then from March onwards I suffered from a small dull pain in my lower back and tight hamstrings. This wasn’t uncommon. I’ve always had tight hamstrings and did a bit of stretching in that area but nowhere near enough. Again, it didn’t feel like it was affecting my running, although I did notice significant wear on the outside of the sole of my trainers meaning I was supinating more than usual.
Checking out pictures taken of races, my foot strike, particularly on my left foot looked contorted and horrible. I always knew I was a supinator but not dealing with my hamstrings was making it worse. I knew it was important to get the right trainers and the Mizuno Wave Precisions have been absolutely immense. My best piece of advice when it comes to kit is that the first thing any runner should do is get the right trainers, buy multiple pairs and wear them on rotation.
However, it still wasn’t enough. My lack of stretching had caused niggles and it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to something a bit more serious. I shouldn’t really be surprised as I went from a standing start to running 30-40 miles a week overnight. All these niggles were linked to each other by not dealing with the original problem.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m no poster boy for taking care of myself. Firstly, I eat way too much junk food, particularly chocolate, and I don’t mean just a few bars here and there. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to tuck into a chocolate gateaux and finish it in one sitting.
I’m also a lazy stretcher… I’m just not that patient with it. What’s worse is that I’ve done a lot of reading around both of these areas but I haven’t properly applied myself to prevent injuries so you could say it was a long time coming.
I have taken some steps to rectify the stretching side and core strengthening by doing a few yoga classes. This only confirmed that I’m the least flexible person going, made all the more embarrassing by sharing this flaw with 12-15 other women in the class! Never have I felt so athletically inferior! I felt like I was there for the entertainment! Since Amsterdam I haven’t been back but I know it’s necessary if I want to remain injury free in the future.
Eating better, stretching and muscle conditioning including core work are the big areas for improvement which should see some performance gain next year.
One Last Push
Going into December and back to business. I still had 85 miles to go with a knee I could barely run on. It looked like an IT Band injury. A short term solution would be to use a knee support which seemed to manage the problem, although I was conscious that the point of feeling the pain in my knee came sooner with every run.
This was not how I wanted to wind down the challenge but I guess if everything went completely to plan then it wouldn’t really be a worthy challenge. I wanted to finish with an event so it meant managing the problem. The finale was pushed back a week from when I originally anticipated finishing.
On Saturday 14th December I completed the final 3 miles of the challenge at Peter Pan Parkrun. I was grateful to a few of my friends who came to see me tick off those last remaining miles. Some even joined me in the run.
I wasn’t intending to race properly as I wasn’t fit but somehow found myself leading the race for the first half a mile. I ran the first two miles fairly quick and found myself in 3rd place. I was way down on a personal best and the course was muddy so grabbed Gemma, my biggest supporter, to run the final mile with me. I then joined @jodyhorth, who had come to share the last few miles with me, for the final half mile and paced him in to the finish. A fast finish was a great way to end the challenge.
Unlike some of the races throughout the year I didn’t feel an amazing sense of achievement in the immediate aftermath. It was a pretty low key affair. Other parkrunners were just going about their business and I felt I’d gate crashed the run a little. A photographer for the local paper turned up later and I felt a little bit sheepish.
I guess I was always going to feel that way. Parkrun is a great event but you don’t get the same sense of achievement from a 5k when compared to a longer event requiring greater endurance. I didn’t feel that great feeling you get from feeling physically fatigued knowing you’ve put your body through a tough challenge. I’d had my eye on the Newcastle Racecourse 50k the week before but the knee problems put paid to that idea. I think to some extent once I achieved all my race targets it felt like the challenge had wound down rather than peaked at the end.
Still, I could now complete the final piece of the jigsaw in my spreadsheet…
Post 2013 miles…
In the days that followed I felt quite lost. I didn’t know how to switch off from running so ventured back out before Christmas and instantly my mood lifted. Those of you that are runners will understand this. Running becomes a drug and your mood darkens when you go cold turkey. I’m not easy to be around when this happens as I seem miserable and Gemma has put up with it a lot. The same again happened after Christmas although on my first run I tore my calf which signaled the end of the miles in 2013 and left me feeling slightly anxious.
It’s easy to sound negative and forget the progress I’ve made over the year. It just shows how my expectations have fundamentally changed and evolved. I thought if I achieved my race targets I’d be completely satisfied even if by some horrible accident I was never able to run again. Whilst I’m proud, it hasn’t satisfied my appetite. I came across an interesting article titled ‘Ever feel you are not enough?’ by @challengesophie and I could instantly relate. It mirrored my feelings after i’d finished the challenge. I’m competitive and that’s ok! I want more! I want to be faster! I just hope that’s a hunger and desire to improve rather than a self-perpetuating unquenchable thirst.
I shouldn’t be too downhearted as I’ve made some big sacrifices to get where I am, particularly with my social life. I can’t forget where I was at the start of 2013 to where I am now. At best I could run a half marathon in 1:50 and a 10k in just under 50 minutes. I was a relative running novice at the start of the year but I think I’ve progressed to being a half-decent runner and I’ve still got so much more to learn.
If you’ve read my progress throughout the year you’d be forgiven for thinking my sole focus has been on performance improvement and I’ve used my race performances as a measure of success. To a large extent that’s true but the desire runs deeper. It was also about pushing the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of and sharing that openly. It was about improving my discipline and applying it to other aspects of my life. It was about committing to something I believed in wholeheartedly. It was about facing my fears and challenging my weaknesses. Ultimately, it has been about challenging that lazy procrastinator and proving ‘I am’ rather than thinking ‘what if?‘. As a result I’ll admit I’ve become a fully fledged PB chaser! I may have finished the year with a slightly broken body but I have a stronger mind, will and determination to succeed!
If you are about the level I was in 2012, I hope my experience serves as a good example of what you’re capable of. If I can do it then anyone can. It might seem a long way off at the start, but improvement is always around the corner. I’m reminded again of that Chinese proverb.
Seeing other people make similar levels of improvement on different scales is heartening. It reinforces hope. If I can be part of that and help people then fantastic. For example I’d love to pace someone to a PB. It’s definitely on the ‘to do’ list next year. I’ve taken and learned so much from others that want to help others. Some people have also told me that they’re going to have a go at 2014 miles in 2014 after hearing my story. Hearing that is more rewarding than the actual running in some respects. It means it hasn’t been totally selfish! 😉
My current fundraising total stands at £631.77. Whilst it doesn’t sound a lot and is the one blot on my record for 2013 (I was aiming for £2013), it’s still the most I’ve ever raised for charity and its £631.77 more than I would have raised had I not done the challenge. For that I’m very grateful to every single person who has helped me raise that total for the Smile Foundation. You’ve backed me where others haven’t. The site is still live so if you fancy bumping up that total so I don’t look like a total loser then head to. www.justgiving.com/2013miles . In fact, if by some miracle I get to £1000 I’ll run my next race in a onesie… and I hate onesies!
The Great North Run was my first big achievement of the year. It would be fair to say I love a good PB. It’s not the only reason I enjoy running but it certainly fuels my passion and to smash through the 1:30 barrier is something I always dreamed of doing.
The Loch Ness Marathon was undoubtedly my best achievement of the year. In the Scottish Highlands I graduated from Marathon Finisher to Marathon Runner. Four years ago I missed out on my sub 4 hour target. This time I banished the bad experience of London and ran with my heart to finish inside 3:14! That gives me hope that one day I might actually be good for my age!
To complete the hat trick, running my first foreign marathon in Amsterdam is also right up there. Combining those three races over a five week period was certainly a special time that’ll never forget. After London in 2009, I’d questioned whether I had the heart to run a whole marathon and it had discouraged any future attempts even though there was a fire burning within. Football was an obstacle at the time. I’m not big on regret but I do regret that I didn’t do a challenge like this sooner. I’m only now beginning to realise my potential so it’s hard not feel a tinge of regret for the time wasted. This challenge was a great way to overcome that barrier and it has offered me some form of redemption for the years lost.
It’s not just the big ticket events which stand out for me. Running has also given me a freedom to explore. Running through the Tiergarten and along an unusually traffic free Strasse des 17. Juni up to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin ranks as one of my favourite moments of 2013. Berlin had a big impact on me and it has certainly pushed the Berlin Marathon to the top of my bucket list!
A small random act of solidarity which embodies the everything l like about the running community will also stick with me. A soldier from the local barracks was out jogging and just before we crossed paths and without warning he offered the ‘low five’. We were both going at a decent pace. He was a complete stranger and it was the most random thing ever but it was cemented by a thunderous slap. We were running! Most runners are complete strangers from such diverse backgrounds yet we’re united by our love of running.
For various reasons I’ve struggled to get my friends involved in running with me so when they have joined me I’ve really enjoyed the banter. Sam has always been a willing partner. But for injury there’s no doubt he would have joined me for more races. I’ll keep plugging away at him! I would have definitely liked to have got more people running though!
I’ll always remember when John Mac and I jogged in the stifling humidity surrounding Kensington and around Hyde Park before an awards dinner. It was only for half an hour but it was a welcome change of scenery and it was certainly interesting dodging the pedestrians in Kensington during rush hour. John has kept me entertained through the year by reminding me of his peak when he was 26.
Twitter… My Introduction to a Wider Running World
Twitter has been unexpected outlet where I feel I’ve been connected to the running world. Running can feel very solitary at times especially if you’re not part of a running club. 99% of training I have done alone, left to my own thoughts. It’s easy to let the mind wander or let your standards slip. I’ve swapped tweets with so many positive people with incredibly diverse backgrounds from all over the world, including elite runners, world record holders, published authors, club runners and beginners. What stands out is that they have three things in common… their positivity, selfless support of others and the joy of running! Regardless of their ability and experience I’ve definitely drawn strength from these amazing people.
To swap stories and tips and to see the great progress people have made has kept me honest throughout the year. I for one have been massively grateful for the genuine support shown towards my challenge. I only hope that my challenge can serve as a good example to others of what’s possible. I hope next year i’ll get to catch up with some people in person on race day.
There are too many people to mention but if you’re reading this and we’ve shared a few tweets then this is a personal message for you… You are immense! Weather you are a back of the pack runner, just starting out or a seasoned club runner, keep doing what you’re doing because you never know who is watching or who you are inspiring! You’ve definitely kept me going!
In isolation it’s easy to think that you are doing something unique or are doing the most a person can do to improve but Twitter has shown that there’s always someone working harder and doing more creative challenges and I find that a great source of motivation and encouragement. Likewise there’s been a lot of interest in my challenge. Twitter peeps are constantly bouncing off each other and supportive, particularly the @ShabbaRunners and friends. It has opened my mind to whole new level of thinking in terms of what‘s achievable. If you think it’s not possible. I guarantee there’s someone out there doing it!
Conversely, it has also put in to context the difficulty of the challenge that I, along with others, have faced this year. 2013 miles in 2013 seemed like a popular challenge but not all that started have finished for a number of reasons such as injury, family commitments, other pressures etc. Over time it’s felt fairly straightforward for me and it’s easy to forget that there were a lot of obstacles which could have derailed the challenge at any point in the year.
I wasn’t alone though. @dennis_hussey finished his 2013 mile challenge on the exact same day as me at Cannon Hill Parkrun. I’ve enjoyed catching up with Dennis and watching his progress through the year. We don’t know each other but we’ll always have something in common. @lornahannahmac was another who passed 2013 miles in 2013 on the same day, rounding off with a 20.13km run.
I have also drawn strength from reading the experiences of other blog writers in the UK and USA. Swapping stories has been both educational and entertaining.
On reflection I’ve had to make some sacrifices but in turn I’ve learned a lot, mainly about myself, my friends and the people around me. In the past I could drop everything at a whim and meet up with friends in other cities for big weekend sessions. This year I haven’t and it’s been interesting to see the reaction. I’m lucky that I’ve had a small number of supportive people around me who have been very understanding of my single-mindedness, none more so than my other half Gemma.
She by far has been my biggest supporter and has had to put up with the most. She was at almost every single one of my races supporting me, often waiting for hours on end. She even camped out for the 12 hour night race. What was amazing is that we managed to spot each other at every race, even at the busy marathons! She’s put up with me going out running every night and at weekends. Hardest of all she’s put up with me sitting on the laptop planning the year around running, writing blogs and my general quietness when things have been constantly ticking over in my head. Somehow saying thank you just doesn’t do it justice.
Running is quite a selfish sport and can be hard on those close to you. You become obsessed with every detail. I’ll admit a lot of the time I’ve fallen into that trap. I think the picture below sums up perfectly the scenario you can often find yourself in.
Looking Ahead to 2014
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the challenge which had so many more highs than it had lows. Even the few disappointments I had were positive learning experiences. If anything, I felt sad about closing the door on a chapter which had exceeded my expectations. I’ve fallen in love with running. It’s like a drug. We might not always get on but I’m passionate about it.
2013 has been a pretty epic year. The big question which played on my mind was could I match or even surpass what I’d done? I’ve had a lot of time to think about 2014 and it’s been difficult as I’ve had to reassess my goals but I’ll cover that in Part 2.
What’s certain is I want to build on the progress I’ve made in 2013. I want to go further afield and use running to explore bits of the world. The New York City Marathon is still a dream. Running the Berlin Marathon has also become a priority for the future. It excites me that I’ve had my eyes opened to so many opportunities and from hereon in my path could go in any direction!
I do miss playing football and the team dynamic. Maybe one day I’ll return. Being much fitter than I was would only benefit my game and I’m sure I’ll make the odd appearance here and there for my old club.
For now I want to say a massive thank you for staying with me through the year. I know I drone a lot but I’ve tried to be honest throughout and share my experience in my own words. I could write so much more. I’m often over-analytical and I’ve tried to spare everyone from the level of ridiculous over-analysis that I’m often prone to so I hope you have enjoyed it and haven’t found it too monotonous.
The blog started out as a means to record and share my experiences and to a large extent I think it ‘s remained true to that. Is my story encouraging or is it full of nonsense? I don’t know. I thought I’d only get 2 or 3 readers but it’s nice to see the blog has had almost 1,200 hits and has been viewed in 16 countries including the USA, France, Germany and Russia extending as far as India, Brunei, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Next year I’m hoping to focus more on practical topics of running which might be useful for runners and non runners a like, whilst injecting a bit more humour. Whether that’s hints and tips I pick up on training, nutrition or race strategy, to an objective review of a race (rather than focus on my own performance within races) I’m hoping you’ll find it useful.
I’m always grateful for the feedback. I’m also open to suggestions of what you’d like to read about in the future so let me know.
On that note it’s time for me to close that chapter and move onto the next challenge! Thanks for sticking with me! I’m looking forward to 2014, I hope you are too!
Total Mileage: 1,929 miles
5.5 Mile Average: 1,842 miles
Monthly Mileage: 139 miles
84 miles to go…
I’m almost in the surburbs of Moscow. Hopefully it won’t be long before I knock off the remaining few miles!
From Marathon to 10K
After finishing my second marathon in 3 weeks my attentions quickly turned to the last remaining race target to check off my list… a sub 40 minute 10k.
The first thing I had to do was find a 10k event. I found three! The first one was the Leeds Abbey Dash, a flat and fast course by all accounts but it was only 3 weeks after Amsterdam. The second was The Percy Pud 10k in Sheffield. A quick internet search showed that the route was undulating. Lastly, I came across the Leeds Christmas 10k on the 8th December. It looked quite similar to the Leeds Abbey Dash but the promise of a hill at the end put me off slightly seeing as though I was gunning for a PB.
I decided the Leeds Abbey Dash was my best bet. I had enough slack in the year to lower the daily mileage for the 3 week period leading up to the race. I mainly did short tempo and fartlek sessions interwoven with short recovery runs and fortunately didn’t feel any ‘hangover’ from Amsterdam.
The weekend before the 10k, I ran my first Parkrun in a while, with the aim of finishing in under 19 minutes. It had only been 2 weeks since the Amsterdam Marathon and I’d put on some erm… ‘post marathon weight’, but I was confident.
I’d set my 5k personal best of 19:14 back in April and so much had happened since then. In the end I dragged myself round to finish 5th out of 331 but more importantly I crossed the line in 18:48, knocking 26 seconds off my previous best. It was a tough effort but this would be a great confidence builder for the following week.
Race day came. This was it! Hopefully, this would be my final attempt at a personal best time for the year. Before I knew it I’d crossed the finish line in 39:08, knocking 1 minute 21 seconds off my previous best. It was a great feeling! Later I reflected that dipping under 39 minutes was not beyond my reach.
That was the complete set! The SLAM! I’d achieved PBs in 5k, 10k , half marathon and marathon… all within a 9 week period! Not bad… not bad at all; even for someone as self-deprecating as me.
What I learned was how accurate the McMillan Calculator is as a race time predictor. If I entered my Great North Run time of 1:27 it projected I could run 5k in 18:47 and 10k in 39:01. Pretty accurate! I’m not sure about the prediction for a marathon though! I can dream… until next year! 😉
I’d hit all my race targets. I’d made a list of ‘dream’ times in my head for every distance from 5k to marathon. At the start of the year I wasn’t convinced I had it in me. I thought the self doubt was me being realistic and managing my expectations.
It turns out I was completely wrong. Now I have achieved them, if anything, my expectations have fundamentally changed. I’m not entirely satisfied with my current best. I know there’s more in me. Is that my character or have I changed? I’m not sure. Am I never completely satisfied? Probably!
You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve become a bit of a PB chaser lately. It’s true, I probably have. I haven’t been going for personal bests in every event though. I’ve deliberately targeted when to peak. I spent a lot of time in the earlier part of the year gaining experience and learning how to race. Then it started in September with the confidence of having almost two marathon training cycles in my legs.
I’ve said this before but I want the challenge to mean more than just plodding along aimlessly for 2013 miles. The challenge and personal bests have reinforced each other to keep me going throughout the year.
160 miles to go…
Whilst I’ve hit all my personal race targets the challenge is far from over. I still had the small question of 160 miles left to run before I reach the icy climes of Moscow.
At this point there were 45 days left. An average of 3.5 miles a day! It sounds straightforward enough but I was wary of losing focus without a race to aim for! Nevertheless, it should be all down hill from here with the focus of completing the miles to keep me motivated. I was in a great position!
Oh how wrong I was!
It was time to ramp up the mileage again in an attempt to finish well before Christmas. I really noticed the shift from the milder autumn to the cooler, darker, wintry nights. It seems to have happened so quick making it slightly harder to even get out the door!
Not long after plodding around I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before; a niggle in my knee. I’ve been very fortunate with injury but that’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing. Privately and unaffectionately known as ‘chase the injury’, it’s something I’ve had to manage all year.
Picture an Acme cartoon character plugging a hole in a water pipe… then another hole sprouts. The character then plugs that but two more holes sprout before the character has no more limbs to plug the holes and the pipe bursts. That sums it up!
I won’t go into detail but I’ve had a series of niggles throughout the year that have likely arisen as a result of overtraining and not properly dealing with the initial niggle with rest. My body has then overcompensated and caused a niggle somewhere else.
After finishing the Leeds Abbey Dash the rest of the month has consisted of running between 10-13 miles every other day followed by a 7 mile recovery run. On the 28th I was attempting to run 15 miles but was cut short at 12 miles by a sharp stabbing pain in my knee.
I walked for a couple of minutes but felt no pain so tried to continue. Within 3 steps my knee shouted at me “Are you having a laugh?” before I had to stop. I wasn’t panicking but I was slightly worried that this was something more than a niggle. Unfortunately this has put paid to any grand finish I might have had planned.
My next run was the last run of November; an 8 mile steady run, and I’m now being propped up by a knee support. I still have 84 miles to go. Suddenly this has become a much more difficult end to the challenge.
But it wouldn’t be fun if it was so easy would it?! 😉
Sunday 17th November
The Leeds Abbey Dash. This race was all about time! This was my chance to crack the 40 minute barrier for a 10k; my final target for a race this year. It was also a target which I never thought was possible given my personal best at the start of the year was 48:47. The profile of the route is pretty flat starting in Leeds city centre before heading out on Kirkstall Road towards Kirkstall Abbey and heading back again finishing outside Leeds Town Hall.
I’ve not raced in many 10ks this year. On a flat course at Owston Ferry I lumbered to 40:48; under the weather from the back end of some man flu. The opportunity was taken away at the Hull 10k by an unexpected shortening of the course. The closest I came was in July during the Walkington 10k with a time of 40:29 on a hilly course . I’d run an 18:48 5k the week before so I was pretty confident of dipping under 40 minutes.
Sounds fairly straight forward. What I hadn’t factored was how popular the race is. I’d only expected to see a couple of thousand runners so I was impressed by the abundance of portaloos at the start when I arrived early. The queues soon began to increase in length. Almost 10,000 people had entered what appears to be a very popular 10k, organised by the Abbey Runners Club, who also organise the Eccup 10; another race on my calendar earlier this year. The start was organised by filtering into pens categorised by expected finishing time. There was the elite sub 35 minute runners pen followed by the sub 45 pen, then sub 55, sub 60 and 60+ pens.
Unfortunately this wasn’t enforced particularly well which meant there were quite a few slower runners in the sub 45 pen. I was at the back of this group after the last minute toilet dash. The walk to the start line was pretty tight as well. I thought at this point I’d have to do a lot of overtaking if I was going to crack 40 minutes.
We were slowly ushered to the start line. Sometimes a mass crowd of runners can be a little over zealous and cause a pile up after crossing the start line but luckily we got a running start as we were able to jog a couple of hundred metres before crossing the start line.
The crowds were still pretty dense though and I had to tactically pick spaces to run into and overtake. Usually it’s best to stick to the outside of the route to avoid the crowds. This part of the race usually requires patience otherwise you can get worked up; something I’ve suffered in the past.
The First Half!
The route started flat as promised but it was pretty quiet. A handful of people were clapping for the thousands that were plodding along Kirkstall Road for the first 2km. I had started off at a decent pace and was past the 2km marker in 7:45 before turning left into the retail park, where I encountered my first moment of red mist. I got stuck behind a group of 3 runners running abreast who were leaving gaps to take up half the width of the route but not enough of a gap to get through. A runner to my left meant I was trapped. I tried to be patient but I was losing too much time and had a mild outburst of ‘FFS!’ before finally dropping back and going around them. I hope they didn’t hear me because it wasn’t aimed at them. I was annoyed at myself for getting in that position. In fairness, it would only lose me a few seconds but that might have counted at the end.
The narrow route with so many runners meant I had to resort to a lot of weaving into the spaces. There were a couple of minor undulations, mainly ascending, but I was still on track. The up and back course allowed sight of the elite runners who were cruising speed. Plenty of incentive for me! I passed the 5km just before the 180 degree turnaround in 19:48. The gradual uphill undulation would now be equally downhill.
5k down and on track!
I just needed to maintain a rhythm. By now the route opened up a little and I began to overtake lots of tiring legs. I’d taken the first 5km fairly steadily to ensure a strong finish and it helped. I slowly took more time off each kilometre marker.
Only 2km to go and I had nearly 40 seconds in hand. I kept steady but very slowly picked up the pace. Right time to really go for it! As soon as I decided that I was greeted with the most noticeable incline on the whole route as we ascended a flyover. Where did this come from? It didn’t matter, I had less than 1,000 metres to go. Just a few minutes left. Before I knew it I was descending again and I caught sight of the finish line.
Time for a solid sprint finish. I could see the timer just passing 40 minutes as I sprinted for the finish line outside Town Hall. I was well on track! Time to enjoy this! I sprinted across the line knowing I’d smashed 40 minutes!
I checked my watch to see a time of 39:07. Fantastic! I was chuffed with that time, especially with all the moving about I had to do along the route.
I quickly grabbed bottle of Lucozade and was given a t shirt before I caught up with my ‘Groupies’ Gemma and her mum before being treated to a celebratory hot chocolate at Harvey Nicks! The true test of physical endurance would come later as I was dragged around Leeds’ finest shopping outlets! Later I got a text to confirm my official time of 39:08. I finished 724th out of 9,500 runners.
The organisation was what you would expect from an event run by a running club. There were no noticeable issues which means it was well organised. I was particularly impressed with the number of portaloos at the start! There was sprinklings of support along the route but seemed to be concentrated at the crucial points of the 5km turnaround at the Kirkstall Abbey and more importantly at the end when you really need that boost for the sprint finish! There was no medal but that’s reflected in the entry price of £22. If you’re looking for a 10k PB course then you can’t go wrong with this race!
It was only later I felt a little bit rueful that I didn’t dip under 39 minutes. That’s pretty much my standard reaction when I’ve had time to reflect and I’m close to a rounded minute. According to my watch, I’d added about 150 metres on to the total distance with all the weaving I did so it was possible! It doesn’t matter though. The official time is what counts. I was still very happy to tick off the final race target of the year, especially as i’d run a marathon less than a month before.
Total Mileage: 1,790 miles
5.5 Mile Average: 1,677 miles
Monthly Mileage: 134 miles
The finish line gets ever closer. I’ve crossed the border into Russia. Only 223 miles left to go! I can almost see the Kremlin!
(Disclaimer: I am not actually in Russia, nor am I a spy!) I make this point in light of visitors to my blog from the Russian Federation!
Rest, taper, marathon, rest!
That pretty much sums up October. This has been by far the shortest mileage covered in a month. I’ve had a lot of rest days after the Loch Ness Marathon and I took it fairly easy in the build up to Amsterdam.
I suffered a case of post marathon blues for the first week or so. Running a marathon had been the focus for the year so it was inevitable I was going to feel slightly drained mentally. I enjoyed the fact I felt I could relax for Amsterdam but that came with its own set of challenges. It would be easy to struggle mentally and put in the same level of effort I had all year. The marathon was my big race for the year and I’d achieved everything I wanted, apart from the 2013 miles obviously.
I read a blog from across the pond where the author Dan had run 2 marathons in 2 days, both under 4 hours. He’s currently attempting to run a marathon in every state! What an effort! It put my challenge into perspective.
It turned out I was in better condition than I thought and completed the Amsterdam Marathon in 3 hours and 22 minutes… only 8 minutes off my Loch Ness time. I was pretty chuffed by the end as it confirmed that Loch Ness wasn’t a fluke. I’d put on a few pounds and wasn’t in 100% shape when I lined up on the start line but I’d run the whole distance. I hadn’t gone for a personal best and I’d kept it steady but it was still tough.
I’d convinced myself before the race I wouldn’t run the whole distance because mentally I wouldn’t have the same motivation. Fortunately my competitive determination kicked in and wouldn’t allow my legs to stop until I crossed the finish line.
My limited marathon experience had been almost hellish prior to Amsterdam. It had been my nemesis distance. The distance I got worked up the most about beforehand; the distance I wanted to conquer the most. Amsterdam was dare I say it, an enjoyable experience with a satisfying result. I learned a lot and it has given me confidence that I can push on and achieve a ‘good for age’ time. For my age group and gender that’s 3 hours and 5 minutes. It would mean automatic qualification for all the major marathons and would eliminate the possibility of being ‘smurfed’.
Reflecting on a big few months
Completing the Amsterdam Marathon signalled the end of what had been an incredibly intense few months. In August I’d survived the Hell on the Humber, a 12 hour night race by completing a double marathon. Only 4 weeks later I smashed the 1:30 barrier for a half marathon, crossing the line at the Great North Run with a time of 1:27. I finished the Loch Ness Marathon in 3:13:55 two weeks later to improve my personal best by over an hour and 12 minutes. Then in Amsterdam I completed my second marathon in 3 weeks.
I remember how over the summer I was contemplating what I was about attempt and being slightly concerned that something might go wrong given I was heading into a bit of the unknown. I hadn’t put my body under this stress before. I’d prepared myself for it but injury is one of those demons that can strike at any opportune moment.
I wasn’t just aiming to complete these events, I’d set myself ambitious targets in terms of time and I’d hit every one of them. I can’t not be happy about that!
Breaking the sub 40 minute 10k barrier?
Despite my success, I have a nagging voice in my head telling me I can’t rest on my laurels. My focus has completely shifted to shorter distances and getting some speed back into my legs. Speed is key! I’m looking forward to the shorter, faster sessions of fartlek and interval sessions in training.
I only have one more time target to achieve… a sub 40 minute 10k. Not achieving my 10k target yet has actually worked out as I can focus on that. If I had 250 miles or so to do without a focus I’d imagine ticking off these final miles would be more challenging.
To help me on my way I’m going to have a few more cracks at Parkrun to see if I can improve on my personal best of 19:14. I’m a big fan of the McMillan Race Calculator especially when I enter my Great North Run time and it tells me that my projected possible times are 18:47 for 5K and 39:01 for 10K! BRING ON THE SPEED!
The blot on my record
As I seem to be checking off my targets my attentions are turning to the one major blot on my record… fundraising. My fundraising target mirrored the mileage of £2013. Whilst I’ll admit the challenge has been predominantly about personal achievement, I can’t help but feel an opportunity has been missed. To date I’ve raised £459.51 and I really appreciate those people who have supported me throughout the year. It’s given me that extra kick up the arse when I’ve needed it.
If you’ve read my posts in the early days you’ll know that the organisation I work for is attempting to raise money for the Smile Foundation. Every year we manage to raise an incredible amount of money for a charity that is selected locally.
Last week was my organisation’s charity ball, the flagship fundraising event in the year. Surprisingly, I was given an award for being the ‘Fundraiser of the Year’ for my 2013 mile challenge. It was nice for the challenge to be recognised but I couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed. In fact I felt awkwardly embarrassed. I hadn’t raised any money from running Amsterdam and the CEO Sam had spent a day in jail and raised more money than I had all year.
Compared to others I’ve raised bugger all! It turns out I’ve almost spent as much on race entry fees than I’ve collected in sponsorship.
Away from the challenge I’ve been in a situation many times this year where I’ve wanted to show my support for someone else’s challenge by donating to their cause but haven’t been able to. That perhaps sounds selfish. Perhaps I could have entered fewer races, not gone further afield. Truth is I’ve actually considered this throughout the year. Part of the challenge was to complete 10% of the distance in race conditions. I’ve deliberately chosen as many local races as possible to keep costs down but I have still questioned myself.
I’ve always said I’d be honest in this blog; with the good and the bad. I’ve never pushed the fundraising side of things. In fact I feel very awkward about it. I’ve sent the occasional email around to people I know, and circulated the odd Tweet and Facebook status but I’ve not been persistent. I know how annoying it can be particularly in the times we live in now. Perhaps I should have been. Maybe I’m being critical. I don’t know.
This may sound like a bit of a moan but it isn’t meant to. The primary aim wasn’t to raise money but I hoped that this would be a good opportunity to do so. Maybe I don’t come across well. The nature of the challenge means that people have said they will sponsor me but haven’t got round to it yet. Those that have donated have been incredibly generous.
I still remain hopeful that I can at least raise as much for charity as I’ve spent on the challenge.
My focus is still ticking off the miles and I need to find an event to ‘book end’ the finish. I’m looking to finish in early to mid December and preferably before Christmas! Finding an event worthy of completing the 2013 miles challenge is proving quite tricky at the moment, especially as the running season winds down and the focus shifts to winter training.
I’m still mulling over next years challenges but I suspect I won’t firm up those plans until after the 2013th mile! The Berlin Marathon was provisionally on the calendar until yesterday when I got ‘smurfed’ for the second time this year. I still have a chance if those selected don’t sign up but I’m not holding my breath.
What is for sure is I want to build on this year. Running 2013 miles in a structured way has helped me achieve some goals I never would have thought possible at the start of the year. I hope I’ve inspired a few people along the way. I don’t want to lose that. I’ve learned so much and I’ve got loads to improve on. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m determined to push on to see what I’m really capable of!
Sunday 20th October
“Am I brave or am I stupid?”
A question I’d asked myself after entering the Loch Ness Marathon back in July. I had already put my money where my mouth was earlier in the year when I entered the Amsterdam Marathon, but there were only three weeks between the two events.
The Amsterdam Marathon had always been on my bucket list as one of THE European marathons I wanted to do. I’ve been almost a dozen times, taking advantage of the 2 for 1 Dutch Dash Ferry from Hull! It was also the setting for my 21st birthday when 8 of us attempted to drink the city dry!
I’d tried a few times over the years to get some mates together to take on Amsterdam without success but committed to do it alone this year. My partner in crime for Hell on the Humber, Sam Whitaker, also entered but unfortunately didn’t make the start line. He’d been a bit preoccupied with a powerboat he’d bought!
Tapering and preparation
No sooner had I finished Loch Ness than I was back out on the roads getting ready for Dam. After having a couple of days rest I thought the best approach would be to repeat the tapering period I’d done leading up to Loch Ness.
The Amsterdam Marathon was supposed to be my big event this year but after Loch Ness I was about as interested in a time as an X Factor Facebook Status! Amsterdam had almost become inconsequential. I was going to enjoy it and relax in the knowledge I’d already achieved my target time.
I was lucky I was in this position as it meant a few days before I could have a few beers to celebrate my mate John, and one half of Team Myplace, leaving for pastures new.
After pretty much writing Friday off with a hangover, I was up early on Saturday morning to catch the short flight to Amsterdam. At 9am I found myself eyeing up the beer in the airport lounge. Surely it would count as carb loading??? I avoided temptation. I’d seriously recommend KLM though… 1 hour flight and I got a biscuit and drink for free!
Arriving about lunch time we headed to the Expo at the Sporthallen Zuid to register, which was close to the Olympic Stadium. Unlike other expos I’d been to this year, there were a lot of stalls out promoting other European half marathon and marathon events and there was also the exclusive launch of the new Mizuno Wave Rider trainers!
After a quick walk round the expo and the stadium we headed to the hotel to check in. I had a mission. I was carb loading and I’d brought half a kilo of pre-prepared pasta with me. I managed to chomp down on 75% of it and follow it up with a Club Sandwich in the Doubletree Hilton’s Skylounge. How? I will never know!
I was up early again on Sunday morning. After the late night celebrations on Thursday and early start on Saturday I felt pretty tired, especially as I’d lost an hour in the timezones. It was effectively 5am British Summer Time!
It was the first time that the nerves hit me. I paced the room as is the usual ritual nowadays, attempting to eat some Jaffa Cakes. This part is by far always the worst part of the race for me. I thought it would be easier this time with no expectations. I didn’t hang around long before catching the metro to the start.
By the time I’d arrived at the start I felt much more relaxed. I made my way into the stadium to find my starting pen. I was in the 3:30-4:00 estimated finish block. I didn’t have a specific finish time in mind but I was looking for something under 4 hours. I convinced myself I’d end up walking at some point. The main thing was to enjoy myself and use the race as a learning experience.
An IAAF Gold Label Race…
There was a buzz around the stadium as the countdown began. What a great setting for a race! It was a complete contrast to Loch Ness but no less impressive! It had a very international feel as competitors from all over the world donned their colours and you could hear them conversing in different languages. People had come from far and wide! I was surprised by how many Brazilians there were!
This was the first year that the Amsterdam Marathon was celebrating it’s IAAF ‘Gold Label’ status which means lots of things… Live TV, big prize money for the elites, multiple nationalities, organisation etc.
Ultimately it meant the race was well organised! As you’d expect from a Dutch marathon, the course was as flat as a Southerner’s Yorkshire Pudding, so it offers a great chance of a personal best. Registration was straightforward but I was surprised to get the race t shirt before the race. To be fair I preferred it and I thought it was a pretty cracking t shirt. I think my fellow runners agreed as many proudly wore it for the race. The baggage was so much better organised than I’d seen at the Great North Run and the Loch Ness Marathon and it took me seconds to deposit and collect my bag.
Another 26.2 miles to tackle!
Runners were directed through the main entrance of the Olympic Stadium, on to the running track and into the colour coded pens. It was the venue of the 1928 Olympic Games and you could sense the history as you entered the stadium. This wasn’t a new feeling. I’d visited a year before to reccy a potential entry into the marathon. There were also a few sights within the crowds. It was great that the organisers put toilet blocks on the outside of the track but a couple of women couldn’t wait any longer in the queue so they decided to squat round the back. What they didn’t realise was that there was a restaurant at the base of the stand with one way windows! The poor souls having their breakfasts had a front row seat of two women’s backsides!
I must have been knocking about for at least half an hour before a loud clapping erupted as the elite athletes set off! We began to run 100m before the start line. There was almost ten minutes on the clock before we crossed the line. I expected a mass crawl at the start, like at the Sheffield Half Marathon, but runners managed to filter through effectively as we left the stadium and on to the streets of Amsterdam.
There were plenty of people lining the streets and the crowd of runners was pretty dense but I remained patient as we headed into Vondelpark. It was difficult not to pick up the pace as we were being cheered but I tried to soak it up without getting too pumped.
After leaving Vondelpark we were directed through the Rijksmuseum, a new addition to the route after its recent refurbishment. I think this was supposed to be the iconic part of the race, like crossing the Tyne Bridge is at the Great North Run, but it passed by pretty quickly.
The next few miles passed through the city’s streets. Part of the route afforded an opportunity to see the elites heading in the opposite direction. Wow they move at some speed and they had strides like kangaroos! Only a pipe dream for us mere mortals!
Several DJs lined the route blaring out popular dance music which was great if you were like me and not relying on an mp3 player to get you through. This is something I’ve come to appreciate about races. I think when you use an mp3 player you can block the world out a bit too much and not take in the atmosphere. You might as well be on a training run! Similarly you can become over-reliant on listening to music and it can lose its effect. We all have our preferences though.
I quickly settled into a rhythm and attempted to keep my mile splits under 8 minutes. The course itself was lined with kilometre markers but I tended not to focus on them. In fact it helped me focus on enjoying the race instead of looking at my watch. I passed the 5km mark in 24:26.
The first water station approached. I’d forgotten that they don’t give out bottles and that we had to rely on cups of water. What was worse was that the energy drinks were also in cups and were always before the water! I heard calls of ‘Arr Arr’. In my confused state I assumed that this was Dutch for ‘water’. I was caught out as the first drink I sipped was some lemon tasting energy drink called AA! That makes more sense! I learned my lesson at the first station. After one loop of the streets I passed the 10km mark in a steady 48:14.
About 8 miles in the route became more rural as we ran parallel alongside the River Amstel and headed south out of the city. It was here I noticed how quiet it was amongst the big mix of nationalities. No-one was really talking to each other, probably as they weren’t sure what language everyone was familiar with. You could also see the return part of the course on the other side of the river as the elites motored north back to the city. I didn’t know if this was comforting or not. It made it feel like the turnaround wasn’t that far away. The eerie quietness was broken up as we passed several bands playing on the river boats, which was surreal. For some reason I seemed to be more interested in the rowers in training along the river!
The route was quite narrow and negotiating the water stations began to get tricky. For the first time this year I decided to walk whilst I drank the water from the cups. I’d lose 5 or 6 seconds but at least I’d get water.
I’d picked up my pace slightly despite losing a few seconds at the water station, completing 15km in 1:11:57. I felt comfortable and just enjoyed the scenery as it became more and more rural.
The bridge turnaround came just shy of 20km as we began heading back to the city. I was amazed at the rural architecture. The houses felt very Hansel and Gretel. There was also quite a bit of local support!
Passing the 20km mark in 1:36:07, the halfway point followed soon after in 1:41:24. I felt good and I’d enjoyed the route so far after mentally carving it up into two sections of urban streets and rural riverside. Heading back into the city seemed to take longer than I hoped and it slowly began to get tougher. The weather had been very kind to us but when the sun began to peek through the clouds it was very warm!
The course diverged from the River Amstel as we headed into the business district to be greeted by the Mizuno Cheerleaders! Runners were much more dispersed as the course widened. This part of the course felt very much like Canary Wharf in terms of surroundings and stage of the race. It was at this point I began to feel tired. Mentally I told myself I had about an hour left of running, which is a normal recovery run for me. This seemed to work. Taking gels every 30 minutes seemed to be keeping ‘the wall’ at bay too!
I was on track for a sub 3:30 finish. I could coast to the end hopefully. I passed 30km in 2:24:07 and the 35km in 2:48:20. I was still stopping at every water station for a couple of seconds to drink cups of water which was costing me time but I was still on track.
I had only 7km to go! Easy peasy surely! I picked up the pace a little as we passed through the city centre. I began to recognise where I was as I passed the Heineken Experience! People were really struggling now and I was passing lots of runners but the crowds were excellent and keeping us going.
I re-entered the Vondelpark for the final time, retracing my steps in the early kilometres. I had about 2 miles to go. The crowds egged us on through the park. Plenty of people were walking at this point but the adrenaline had kicked in with me. I was sadistically enjoying the pain!
Gemma and I kept up our 100% record of spotting each other, which gave me a big boost to the end. I don’t know how we’ve managed that in every race so far!
As I approached the stadium with less than 1km to go I was shocked to see at least 3 ambulances on the route. A runner had fallen by the side and was being seen to, wrapped up a in a sheet! He was only 5 minutes away from finishing! I then saw what looked like a medic coming out the back of an ambulance in tears! This shocked me quite a lot as something serious must have happened and your physical state at this point can exacerbate any emotions. I needed to blank it out my mind though and focus on the final few metres.
200 metres to go!
Entering the stadium felt very ‘Olympic’. It was like all those times I’d watched an Olympic Marathon on TV as a kid when the runners entered the stadium for the final stretch. I felt that sense of the history again as I entered the stadium.
I had about 200 metres to go and I realised I had under 40 seconds to dip under 3:22. A typically Dutch trance tune was blaring out over the PA. My competitive edge took over and I sprinted (and I use this in the loosest possible sense) over the line and was greeted with a medal and a sheet to keep warm. My watch told me I’d done exactly 3:22! It turned out my Garmin lost 2 seconds somewhere so my official time was 3:22:02. Check out the race video at the bottom of this post. I can confirm it was almost the slowest sprint in history!
Thankfully there was no repeat of the chundering incident in Loch Ness. I walked for a few minutes to gather myself and take in the accomplishment before stretching off and getting some fluid.
I’d run consistently but finished strongly with a negative split. My first 5km was my slowest and my last 5km was my fastest, which was hugely satisfying as I was convinced I’d be walking at some point in the last 8 miles.
5km – 24:46
10km – 48:14 (23:48)
15km – 1:11:57 (23:43)
20km – 1:36:07 (24:10)
Half – 1:41:24
25km – 2:00:08 (24:01)
30km – 2:24:07 (23:59)
35km – 2:48:20 (24:13)
40km – 3:11:53 (23:33)
I take a lot of pride from finishing strongly in races and a good indication of that is not being overtaken. In the last 10km of the race I don’t recall that happening which was satisfying. I also felt fairly comfortable throughout. It was nowhere near as painful as Loch Ness!
I’d done it! I’d run 2 marathons in 3 weeks; one in under 3:14 and the other in 3:22. Both were over an hour faster than my previous best in London. If someone had offered that to me at the start of the year I would have snatched their hand off! I was only 8 minutes off my Loch Ness time despite carrying a few extra pounds and not being 100% so it felt like Loch Ness wasn’t a fluke.
To summarise my experience in each of the marathons I’ve completed in one line I’d say:
London 2009 – Hellish and slow
Loch Ness – Hilly! Hellish but fast!
Amsterdam – Flat and comfortably difficult.
It wasn’t long before I was showered and ready for some drinks courtesy of the House of Bols, but not before I devoured a grim looking McDonalds… the ‘Meal of Champions!’. My only regret was not getting to share a beer and swap stories with Stuart @fromboris despite staying in the same hotel. We’d been talking throughout the year about Dam with Sam via Twitter and it was a shame we didn’t get to catch up in person.
Check out footage of my race! I appear about 5 minutes in…. also features the slowest sprint finish in history!
Putting it into perspective…
It wasn’t until I got home that I found out that someone hadn’t been as lucky as the rest of us. 45 year old Alain Rettig from France had collapsed and died less than 1km from the end. It turned out that he was about 10-15 minutes ahead of me at the time, which explained the tears around the ambulance.
Just like we enjoy the feeling of running alongside the elites, it’s equally distressing to hear of a fellow runner not making it back to their family. It was a sobering feeling. I don’t think runners ever really contemplate their mortality. I know our supporters do. It’s tough for them and it’s difficult to imagine what his family is going through. Offering my condolences to his family just doesn’t seem to cut it or do it justice.
It served as a reminder that marathon running isn’t easy. It’s a big undertaking and it’s often harder for our supporters than it is for us. Alain was a seasoned marathon runner. It could have happened to any one of us. I don’t want to sound preachy or self indulgent but I’m perhaps guilty of looking too far in the future and not appreciating what I’m lucky to be able to do. Even now I’m looking to my targets for next year but when you hear of a fallen runner it certainly brings it home about how lucky you are!
That said it can’t and shouldn’t stop you from trying to achieve your goals. I’ve spent too much time over the years wondering ‘what if?’ I would be delighted if I could improve further and achieve a ‘Good for Age’ time of 3:05. If I could get that then I wouldn’t have to worry about the London Marathon ballot anymore! I don’t want to waste the work I’ve done so far; I want to build on it!