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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.

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Next time…

So… the marathon was a disaster. I was unfortunate enough to pick up a mild knee injury two weeks before the big day. It looked bleak until I went for a few sports massages to loosen things up.

On the day my knee was feeling fine(ish) but I was very worried. Standing next to the colosseum, a few dozen rows back from the elite runners, I was thinking, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready”.

The crowd began a countdown from ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Graham and I wished eachother good luck. Four. Three. Oh shit. Go! The crowd moves hurriedly in a solid block. The three hour pace balloons shoot off into the distance as Graham and I keep pace with the 3:15 balloon.

10K goes by in 43:52 with no complaints from my knee. I’m thinking, “Holy crap, I have to keep going for another two and a half hours!”. We head past the Vatican and out towards the northern parts of the City. Graham has left me and went on ahead, I ‘decide’ to keep my pace constant – there’s a long way to go. Towards half way I see a Yellow ‘G’ getting closer and closer to me. It’s Graham! Paying for his earlier speed.

We both cross the half marathon in 1:34:51. I’m feeling okay at this point. A few miles down the road and I’m feeling shit. Lost in the running depression of, “why am I doing this to myself? I could just stop. I feel horrible. I could make it all go away so easily”.

At 25K, while I’m feeling pretty low, my left hip yelps out in pain. I stop and pull over to the side of the road. Graham stops and heads towards me, “keep going Graham, just leave me” I shout out, as if I’m in a war movie. He heads off as I stretch my leg. After a few seconds I get going again, pain-free. Weird, I think. It only took another kilometre to almost put me out the race.

At 26K my knee injury reared its ugly face. I’m passing by a first aid/water station so I stop and ask for an ice pack. Sitting on the pavement watching thousands of runners go past I feel as miserable as I’ve ever felt before (2nd place to break-up of a long relationship I’d say). After 50 minutes (that’s right FIFTY), I thought the Quitters bus would never come and get me so I began to slowly jog down to the next water station 4K away. When I get there my legs have loosened up a bit so I keep going. It’s only a teensy tiny 12.2K left to go! So I kept on going. Even at a jog I was streaming past everyone (later it turned out I’d past nearly 2000 runners on my way to the end).

At 40K the end was near and I stopped to take on some water. It was hard to get my legs going again and my knee was feeling a bit worse for wear. I revved up with a fast walk and started to run slowly. The Colosseum, at last! I crossed the line and thought, “for fuck’s sake, what was the point in that”. Three and a half months of training to achieve a pear shaped marathon. Brilliant. My final time was 4:19:31. I don’t feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’ve raced 26K, taken a large siesta, then jogged 16K. Two entirely separate runs linked by the fact that I wore the same sweaty gear and did them on the same day.

In the muster/exit area after I’d received my medal and thermal tinfoil blanket I found a flatbed truck to sit on the back of. By ‘sit’ I mean ‘collapse backwards onto’. My legs had ceased to function. After fifteen minutes I shuffled slowly back to my hotel to meet the more successful of my marathon companions. Oh well, next time…