After 4 months of solid but varied training it was time to find out just what I could do over 26.2 miles of packed London streets and if I could run below the 3 hour target I’d set.
To spare you the fullest details of the brain dump of training, lessons, build up races and a million other things that are about to follow – I not only beat my 3 hour goal, I obliterated it with an official time of 2:54:51.
If you have the time and interest to stick around, here’s how the build up to one of the most nerve wracking races I’ve done went…
The marathon plan
For the last couple of years, I’ve focused on and really enjoyed the discipline of trail ultra marathons and have run a variety of races from shorter 35 mile ones through to things like the Hardmoors 60 and Hardcastle 24 hour race and since I’ve begun improving as a runner I’ve also wanted to periodically run fast, flat road races to establish PB’s that you can’t on trail races so with that I entered and missed on the 2015 ballot for London.
However, as a member of Meltham AC our little club got a couple of places and I threw my name in there and was lucky enough to get a spot so in December shortly after the White Rose Ultra had finished I decided London would be the A race for the first part of the year and I’d train on the roads, work on my pace and really make an effort to go Sub-3.
Training by the book
I felt the best way to train despite living somewhere hilly would be to compromise on how much I love trail running and spend time running on the roads and my aim was to follow the Pfitzinger 18/70 plan (pdf of plan) as closely as possible as a guide as it sat roughly with where my fitness and mileage at the end of December 2014 were which was good and I felt it wouldn’t be a massive stretch jumping over 18 weeks to a 70-ish mile peak week from the 45-50 I was on.
The biggest change would be swapping trail for road and my aim was to run the long runs at a good pace level because typically on trails it’s hard to run an even pace.
Throwing away that book
I only lasted about 6 weeks before the utter lack of joy pounding the pavements started getting to me and my legs began to feel pretty sore and like they were being constantly tenderised so I took the decision to abandon the roads for much of my training and enjoy (and make the most of) the stunning moorland I live on because frankly if the training isn’t fun it’s a lot harder to do it!
Key workouts & build up races
I’d hoped from January that I would also have the discipline to do one tempo session and a solid long run each week and then also – importantly – to run my other mileage easier than I used to.
I’m sure like many, I run my easy days too fast so I made a conscious effort to slow those runs by 30 seconds a mile and I think it helped but I also did a few key training sessions over the months to either boost confidence or provide a reality check.
Feb: Dewsbury 10k – 10k is a great base tester and I wanted to do one early in the training build up because I could use it as a realistic time predictor for the marathon and in the end ran a big PB of 36:34 which with 3 months to the marathon was a great indicator that Sub-3 wasn’t a crazy goal.
March: Grizzly Race – 20 miles & 4000ft of climbing over trail and clifftops in Devon. A great tester of outright strength and fitness and typically they say your Grizzly time is at least your marathon time and often slower due to the challenging course – Finished in the top 50 out of more than 1500 people in 2:51 – turned out to be pretty accurate!
April: parkrun – I’ve always used parkrun the week or two before a big race to provide a reality check of where I’m at so running a new PB at Huddersfield of 17:13 followed by finishing 1st at the challenging Blackhill parkrun a week told me I was as ready as I was going to be.
I never really ended up cranking out the consistent 60-70 mile weeks I wanted to but I tried to make the key workouts count and active sought out and ran hills when I was running. I only had a few weeks over 55 miles and managed a couple of runs of around 20 miles but the parkrun times told me I was fit and strong.
So that’s the block of training and the weekend came around too slowly for someone who dwells on everything and puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves but we were here.
Ally and I travelled down and she was going to cheer and enjoy the atmosphere having been unlucky to miss out on club and main ballot places this time. We left it way too late to book hotels and trains and got lucky with a cheap train ticket, hotel choices were a bit limited and we stayed in a hotel in Peckham for the Saturday night but it was handy for the train to Blackheath for the start.
Definitely a tip for anyone who’s not done the big city marathon thing – BOOK EARLY!
The plan initially was to find the 3 hour pacer, stand in front of them at the start and then hope I never saw them again. 2:59:59 would have been absolutely incredible to achieve for me and not having run a road marathon for 2 years since Manchester (3:36) I didn’t know how I’d fare running 6:52/mile pace for 26.2 as even in training I’ve not done any long runs so standard get to 20 and hang on it was …
I honestly can say I’ve never experienced anything like London. The sheer scale was something else – last Saturday I was stood in a farmers field at the start of a fell race with 86 other people. This weekend – 37,000 in the nations capital.
I think I was reasonably lucky to be in the first wave of massed runners eventually crossing the line about 30s after the elites so wasn’t too caught up in the throng but even so the first 3 or 4 miles was a case of dodging and weaving to keep any sort of pace as a lot of people clearly claimed a sub-3 places but were huffing and puffing after a mile so keeping out of trouble as bin bags and clothes were discarded after the cold wait for the start was important but I kept a reasonable pace.
I’d printed out a set of splits from 6:30 (just over 2:50) to 6:52 (2:59) and decided I’d set my watch to show average pace as well as current pace and basically look to keep it below 6:52 but I was going to try and get to halfway around 6:45 pace and if necessary slow down.
I don’t gorge on pasta the night before but I do usually opt for a simple pizza which has served me well and I know doesn’t upset my stomach and then the morning of the race I opt for no coffee or tea and just water to drink and a small bowl of porridge.
I also now make sure I have 2 immodium an hour or two before which helps settle any nervous stomach issues but also means I avoid the horror of portaloo visits before the off.
GO, GO, GO!!! ADRENALINE POWER!!!!!!
There’s a couple of things training just can’t replicate:
- Nervous anxiety when trying to get a PB
- A massive crowd of people willing you around a course
I have never experienced this level of support and by god it makes a difference! In my case having decided to run by feel rather than be a total slave to the watch (I did still check it once or twice a mile) I was buzzing right from the off and feeling 10 foot tall and had a real spring in my stride.
I also went out quite a lot under my goal pace …
0-5k (20:36 – Pace 6:37/mile)
There are so many people in this race, they start in 3 different places and while lucky to be reasonably near the front the sheer mass of people meant the first few miles were spent dodging around people to avoid dropping unnecessary time. Still, I managed avoid trouble and settle down quickly.
5-10k – (Elapsed 41:23 – Pace 6:41/mile)
10k came and went in a flash, I’m not the most emotional person out there but honestly I was running with a lump in my throat well into the first 10k. The support was incredible. Barely looked at my watch, I knew the 3 hour pacer was behind by a decent margin already so I was looking around and enjoying the signs and cheering crowds still. Felt amazing.
Nutrition wise, I’d picked up water at each station and had a sip or two and at about 11k had my first Torq gel with the plan being to use the 3 I was carrying at about 7, 14 and 21 miles and hydrate with just water as I do in all my runs.
10-15k – (Elapsed 1:01:54 – Pace 6:36/mile)
I always felt I could get to at least halfway comfortably and the miles really started ticking by at this point in a blur of cheering crowds and runners and I’d very much settled into the race now and decided to just run to comfort levels and must admit that I was starting to wonder how it was possible I feeling so good at this pace still.
15-20k – (Elapsed 1:22:16 – Pace 6:33/mile)
As I don’t do much road racing, particularly half marathon and above, I had no real markers of how I’d fare at this sort of pace which is above what I’d likely run in trail races but at the risk of sounding boring this 5k flew past as well and to be honest I’m not sure I could have run much more even splits if I’d been glued to my watch so perhaps there’s a lesson to trust how I feel a little more in future.
I hit the halfway point in 1:26:42 which was actually a PB for the distance for me. I’m going to have to find a local flat half and race that at some point, pretty sure I could run sub 1:20 there which was always an ambition too.
Half – 25k – (Elapsed 1:42:40 – Pace 6:34/mile)
Going through the half feeling strong and with a few minutes wiggle room on 3 hours I finally started to think about pushing on and trying for my stretch goal of sub 2:55 which I knew from my pace chart was 6:40/mile and at this point I was still under that so carried on. One of the benefits of such a massive race is that there are always so many people ahead of you pulling you forward and giving you someone to aim for next which is really helpful.
25-30k – (Elapsed 2:03:14 – Pace 6:37/mile)
Knowing you’re going to fade at some point when you’re running above your ability is always something you need to be aware might happen and I thought this stretch was key and I had another gel at 15 miles and as it turned out I ran some of my fastest miles in this stretch (6:22, 6:31, 6:26, 6:21).
I tried really hard to maintain my form running with my head up and tall throughout the race but kept doing constant mental checks every few minutes to try keep that form which is so helpful. I don’t exactly have the easy gait of Kipsang but it’s amazing what a difference just keeping your head up and running a little taller makes.
30-35k – (Elapsed 2:24:02 – Pace 6:41/mile)
A Strava friend said the other day that he mentally split his Manchester marathon run into two “halves” of the first 20 miles and the last 6.2 and it’s an oft quoted cliche the “race begins at 20 miles” and I went storming through 20 and through Canary Wharf and past the iconic skyscrapers with 6:05, 5:59(!) and 6:21 miles but I had a scare to come around the corner..
I took my last Torq gel at about 19 miles but had picked up one of the Lucozade ones supplied by the race to carry just in case I needed a final kick.
35-40k – (Elapsed 2:45:28 – Pace 6:53/mile)
At about 23 miles, I had a terrible stitch come out of nowhere. I honestly thought this was going to end my race at this pace. My breathing became laboured and short and although my legs still felt pretty good I really felt I was fading fast and had to slow temporarily because when I’ve had this in ultras it’s been because I’ve run too hard (yep!) and slowing off eases it enough to carry on and I was incredibly lucky it went after a few minutes when it could have gone either way.
Once I got my breathing back under control with a combination of slowing slightly and breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, I took the last Lucozade gel with about 2 miles to go to see me through (it was grim, Torq gels are certainly vastly superior!) and it was under the flyover and out onto the final 2 miles along the Thames where the support and noise was incredible before the final turn at Big Ben and the longest 800m ever.
40k – Finish – (Official finish time 2:54:51 – Average Pace 6:40/mile)
Ultimately, the final couple of km passed in a bit of a survival blur as I faded fast but tried my hardest to maintain form and focus counting down the markers from 800m to 600m to 400m and around that famous corner to see the finish in sight! I knew I’d smashed my goal and my stretch goal already as my watch had already ticked over the 26.2 mile distance because it was difficult to follow the official 26.2 mile racing line helpfully painted on the road for the elites so as I crossed the line I stopped my watch at 2:55 flat but the distance read 26.77 miles – half a mile over!
I was thrilled!
That meant that although my official time was 2:54:51, when I put the run on Strava, I actually covered 26.2 miles in 2:51!! Smashed it!!
Support and organisation
Nothing short of incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like it and as someone who was a bit blase about doing London or a similar sized city marathon I can’t say how much I enjoyed the experience and how much I’m sure that support contributed to the adrenaline fuelled PB.
Thank you also especially to Ally who came down to cheer and make sure I didn’t turn into a ball of nerves, it’s her turn one way or another next year at either Paris or London. Her support and steadying guidance helps me more than she knows!
As you’d expect from 35 years of running it, the organisation was superb. I got my kit bag immediately and it was full of nice goodies and a quality medal and tech tee from Adidas. Bit disappointing to see race photos are £20 each though to be honest.
Thank you also to my club Meltham AC for the place in the club ballot draw and for so many kind words and so much encouragement from everyone who had more faith in my ability to run this time than I did. Well done to fellow club runners Mark (3:58) and Stephanie (3:55) on their great runs too along with “Holme school dads” Jon (3:17) and Jim (5) .
I opted for Brooks Pure Flow, New Balance shorts and my club vest and just carried the 3 gels from Torq.
I did take a bit of a gamble on the shoes to be honest. I know they’re great for 5 and 10k races and I’ve trained in them for longer runs but I find because the toe box is very wide I do get blistering happen occasionally on the inner side of my foot so I did plaster up on the area but when I eventually got over the finish line to inspect, the biggest blood blister I’ve seen was there which means that’s the longest run these shoes will ever do now.
Apart from that, I hate race belts and pouches etc so carrying 3 gels when I could have done with 4 or maybe 5 is something I could do with figuring out because more than 3 makes my shorts fall down!
I never for a minute thought I’d be able to cover a marathon in 2:51 but I did it and did it training on the hills and trails rather than the roads whenever possible and I didn’t get the long 20+ mile runs done that I really wanted and I’d hoped to be running more like 70+ mile weeks regularly so there’s a lot of scope to expand training on a weekly basis still.
The next A race for me is going to be the Hardmoors 60 in September but I’ve secured a Good For Age for next year in London so I think that’s something I’d definitely look at doing again.
I laughed when my friend Matthew Pierson suggested with the right training I might be able to run 2:45 but looking at this performance and back over the training I honestly feel I could make that a genuine target for the future.
What a race, what an experience.
Thank you again to Ally, my family and friends for their support and encouragement and thank you to Meltham AC for the chance to do the race.