London Marathon 2016

Race to the finish line Probably my favourite photograph from yesterday is the one with Big Ben in the background. The agony, the exhaustion… why won’t Matthew just let me pass him…

But before then was the rest of the race! I had left the house at 6am to catch a train to the start. I was a little apprehensive, this was the first time I’d run London and hadn’t done the whole morning journey to the start before. In the end it was very straightforward and we were in the Championship start area with more than an hour to spare. We mustered near the start line at 9:45am ready to go. We were walked to the line as the elites were announced. The remaining minutes of calm passed quickly as we wished each other well and we were off.

It took 16 seconds to cross the start line, we were, perhaps, buried a little too deep in the championship field. Instantly being forced to wiggle and gently push our way out onto the course. The first mile was 6:18, understandable given the crowding but I wanted to push on immediately. The second mile was 6:15, getting there. Then suddenly (and I had been warned) there was an enormous downhill section that seemed to go on and on resulting in a 5:46 mile and probably doing some damage to the legs in the process. This was followed up with trying to calm myself and slow to an appropriate pace.

I crossed 10k in 37:59 and had left Matt behind in the process. I thought that was it, with Matt having ran the Paris marathon just three weeks earlier I thought he was already packing in any attempt to run near 2:40. I pushed on hopping from group to group at an even pace. The second 10k was a blur and over in 38:25, running over Tower Bridge somewhat on my own, enjoying the spectacle and the crowd support. Halfway came soon after at 1:20:38. I had already accepted that the target of 2:40 was unlikely and that if I could hold even pace that would be a great result.

Not long after halfway my legs were hurting – quite early on and a little worrying. Just as I began to let the worries get to me, Matt pops up all cheerful, “fancy meeting you here”, and ditches me as he cruised on. My leg pain took a back seat now – I couldn’t let Matt get o465436_227487537_XLargeut of sight. I held my pace even through this bad patch to find light at the end of the tunnel. The leg pain began to ease and running felt more fluid, allowing me to gradually pull Matt back. The 3rd 10k was done in 38:18, faster than the second thanks to the gradual grind to close the gap to Matt as we ran around the Isle of Dogs.

We sort of ran together for the next 4 miles with little pushes, mostly from Matt, as I tried to tuck in behind away from the wind. There were big crowds now and Matt starts showboating, throwing his arms in the air encouraging the crowd to cheer. I get involved, it’s great fun and helped take my mind off the discomfort of keeping the pace up. The crowds cheering increased and it was hard not to get carried away with the pace.

It wasn’t long until Matt pushed on and left me. The gap only grew to about 10 seconds but it looked enormous. I kept on throwing my legs out, thinking of all the miles that went into training, all the hours spent each week running and tried to speed up. Still floating some seconds behind Matt I crossed the 40k timing mat, the 4th 10k clocking in at 38:52, slowest yet but the hardest of all. With so little distance left I surged and by Westminster Bridge the gap was down to a few metres, and then to nothing as the photo near Big Ben was taken.

With just Birdcage Walk to go the race was on. We must’ve exchanged lead 3 or 4 times down the last 800m before we turned the corner onto The Mall. Matt was ahead at the corner and that was that. I saw on the clock that we were both going to be 2:42:xx and cruised across the finish line in 2:42:08, 2 seconds behind.

I felt pretty sick as I stopped, legs suddenly ceasing to function well as they always do at the end of 26 miles of racing. We quickly bumped into Axel and Charlie and managed to get a collective photo taken before we wandered off to layer up and head to the pub to meet the rest of hugely successful C&C team.

So a 2 minute PB and a thoroughly well executed race (I feel!) in an incredible atmosphere – I’ll be back to run next year!

The road to London 2016

My first marathon Rome 2007 (left) and Frankfurt 2015 (right)

My first marathon Rome 2007 (left) and Frankfurt 2015 (right)

The London Marathon is tomorrow, and not only does it mark my first London marathon, it marks the culmination of 2 years of planning and effort. Whatever happens tomorrow I’ve come a long way (literally – 6301 miles to be exact) since May 2014 to get here… and then some. This is going to be a rather long story – so only read on if you’re genuinely interested in a 2 year story from mid-pack club-runner to London marathon championship qualifier.

It all started as an exercise (groan) in making a physical and intellectual assault on getting a ‘good-for-age’ marathon time to qualify for the London Marathon 2016. For my age that meant a marathon in under 3 hours and 5 minutes.

At the time I had been running on and off since I started in 2005 with the Glasgow University Hares & Hounds. During my postgraduate years there I became a reasonable middle-pack club runner with a (just) sub 40 minute 10k and a 1 hour 27 minute half marathon. I attempted the marathon a few times with GUHH, opening with a very much pear-shaped 4:19 in Rome 2007. I wrote about the experience here. My second attempt was much more successful in Paris 2008 running 3:13. And that was that. I graduated and started a new job and running took a back seat for some years.

I didn’t attempt the distance again until 2013 after starting to work at the National Physical Laboratory. I attempted to ingratiate myself with my new colleagues by encouraging them to run at lunch time (kilometre intervals around Heron Pond in Bushy Park). Soon we laid out a plan to run a marathon together.  For personal reasons I chose Rome, I had a score to settle with that twisted cobbled course. I used (and imparted on the others) the same old strategy I had learned from previous running clubs and friends – 3 runs a week including one ‘session’ (fast running of some sort), one social/tempo run and a long run at the weekend. I attempted 3:10 and finished in 3:18. Well maybe I just had to keep at it, doing the same thing but harder… and so that was my approach when I moved to Cambridge and joined Cambridge & Coleridge Athletics Club.

I began again track sessions and tempo runs and long runs, making them faster. My times at shorter distances improved to the same level as my University days – I felt I was making progress! And so in October 2013 I threw myself at the Amsterdam marathon to finish in a rather painful 3:24, having to stop to walk several times near the end. I’d had enough, marathons ‘weren’t my thing’. I stopped running for 6 months and threw myself into work at the University of Cambridge where I crossed paths regularly with Christof and we often talked running over many cups of tea.

The catalyst to get back into running again came by reading an article by Mark Allen – the six time Ironman world champion – about using heart rate to train. The point that hit me hard was that this elite athlete was going out and training at slower than 8 minutes per mile. Which was the speed I would normally try to run at. I started thinking, if this elite athlete trains slower then why on earth am I trying to train faster! It was also no coincidence I was thinking of giving it another go  just after April – inspired by seeing Shona run (again) such an incredible time in the London marathon. Could I give it another go and get that good-for-age time?

After much discussion with Christof (who was at the time attempting to go faster than 3 hours), we decided to give easy running a go. I went out and got myself a heart rate monitor and made a note to leave my ego at the door when I went out running. So 22nd May 2014 I went out for my first run around 40 beats less than my maximum. You can have a look at it here. I had to run at 9.5 minutes per mile to keep my heart rate down. I was shocked. I would normally try to run at least 1.5 minutes quicker. I nearly stopped it there but the scientist in me wanted to see if I could improve by running in this way. I continued, so very slowly. It was tough mentally to force myself to shuffle along the river and back. But I kept it up, gradually adding more miles each week whilst attempting to keep my heart rate down.

The weeks rolled by and one second at a time I was getting faster but my heart rate was staying the same. I saw a glimmer of hope that the experiment was turning out to have a very positive result. So I kept going 17 miles a week, 20, 24, 40, 45, 50, 60, and then 70 before I attempted a marathon. By this point I was running at still the same heart rate but just under 8 minutes per mile. I started the Amsterdam marathon nervous that I had trained myself to be a slow runner but I was beginning to trust in the heart rate data and so I set off at a pace to finish in 3 hours 10 minutes. It was a hot day but a very flat course and I finished in 3:13 equalling my best attempt 5 years earlier. Training almost entirely at 8:30 per mile I had finished a marathon in an average pace of 7:18 per mile on a hot day. I didn’t smash my personal best but I was very encouraged and galvanised to attempt another marathon soon.

Just 6 weeks later I finished in 3:02 in Pisa to bag myself that good-for-age time for London 2016 and a huge personal best improvement in the process. So now what?! I’d achieved my goal and left myself with over a year to twiddle my thumbs… or get faster still? I’d cleaved 10 minutes off my PB and managed to get into the London marathon, would this approach take me further?

Christof and I began to talk about how far this would take us. We mentioned the championship qualifying time for London and laughed… but there was a hesitation to our laughter. Maybe. It was ridiculous surely. Maybe. Who are we kidding? Maybe. If we were to do what we would have thought impossible… run as much as 100 miles a week, run every day, even multiple times a day, would it work? So even before I had run faster than 3 hours we were eyeing a sub 2:45 marathon in the autumn.

By continually adding more miles each week and entering and running marathons as soon as my legs would allow I managed to cram in 3 marathons before the Autumn attempt in Frankfurt. Building up to 80 miles a week put me under 3 hours in Paris. Bouncing back from Paris up to 100 miles a week saw a dip to 2:53 in Liverpool. Throwing myself back into the fray and up to 107 miles a week gave me a 2:49 in Reykjavik. It, yet again, was working! It was a hell of a lot of work, but it was working. I was close now. What was a borderline laughable idea in March was really looking like it  would become a reality.

As Frankfurt marathon approached there was a lot of racing on the calendar, so the mileage suffered a bit, managing a few 100 mile weeks but with rather fast weekend races thrown in. Christof’s approach had been a little different, even more mileage but at a slower pace. The day was cool and the course was flat. We almost made it. I put my foot over the line in 2:45:01. One second outside the target to my frustration. But it didn’t matter, it had worked, but it was so close that simple luck decided which side of the target I landed. Christof similarly finished so close, just 9 seconds back. The ridiculous idea of championship time had turned into a reality in all ways but the formality of having crossed the line in time!

So in keeping with my pattern I rebounded within a week to run several 110 mile weeks… possibly a little too fast given my excitement and frustration caused by that one second extra in Frankfurt. I was back in form in time for the Malaga marathon in December. This time I put it beyond luck, crossing in 2:44:16. Thanks to some very even pacing enabled by the duo of Matt and I running for a similar time.

Since December I have not raced a marathon. Qualifying and putting in a good performance at London 2016 was the original plan and so I have now spent a solid 9 weeks running more than 110 miles a week, topping out at 135 miles. This time slower and with no racing. The goal is under 2 hours and 40 minutes…. but it doesn’t matter so much this time, I’ve done about all I can and I’m going to go out and give it all I have.

Looking forward to some rest after this race and some fun races throughout the summer with less self-applied pressure on timings.

Thanks to all those in the last two years that have put up with my incessant running chat,  that have kept me company on the many many miles and to those that inspired me to put in the hard work.

Almost time for London 2016

It’s almost time for the London Marathon! And it wouldn’t be marathon week without a geeky post delving into the data generated through training… So the totals are in for the 8 week block leading up to one week before the London marathon.

In summary the key numbers are: 1453 km in 121 hours giving an average of 181.7 km per week just sneaking in under 5 min/km with the biggest 7 day block being 221.6 km at 4:58 min/km.

This time, unusually, I haven’t done any big races. Just a 6.4 km leg in a road relay so my running has been fairly monotonic, around 5 min/km and in chunks of 10k at a time, 3 times a day.

Using Tanda’s equation gives me a prediction of 2:45:26. Given that I have outperformed this particular predictor by 6 mins 32 seconds on average (over 7 marathons) I have confidence in a near 2:40 time being on the cards.

My heart rate has shown consistent improvement over the last 8 weeks and a 5k test at 170 beats per minute (which over 7 even-paced marathons I now know I can hold for up to 3 hours) resulted in a pace of 3:47 in full race gear… just enough to poke in under 2:40. Alongside this race simulation I have fitted two weeks of heart rate data against speed and the result suggests 2:39:25.

Age-grading… I don’t really have any races, however my performance on an undulating 6.4k road race scales to a marathon time of 2:41:59

So… clearly in PB shape (currently 2:44:14). But sub 2:40 is going to be very close. With Charlie, Axel and Matt on a 2:40 (or faster) schedule it’s going to be awfully tempting to go for it…

My last bit of geeking is the attached image – this visualises my entire 8 week training block. It’s a histogram of every kilometre I ran, showing how many were run at each pace (binned into 5 sec intervals). The colour shows how far in the past each km was ran – blue is older, red is newer.

So this training block has been in the same theme as previous blocks but with a twist – no racing! We’ll get a hint on Sunday as to whether or not this was an essential part of my past training strategy.