A week on, and with the pain in my legs now a distant memory, it seems the time is right to review my 4th crack at the London Marathon and 6th tilt at the distance overall. Well not really a review – more a message to myself 7 years ago and hopefully to some of you gearing up to your first marathon.
Setting off for Blackheath last Sunday I’ll admit I knew I was going to run strongly and that there would be no repeat of the infamous walk/crawl/drink beer strategy adopted on my last London in 2013. I had a 3:20 and 3:25 timing band on my wrist and knew with 100% confidence I would achieve this sensible goal in my marathon journey. Quite a jump from my previous runs of 4:02, 3:57 and 4:03. The reason was simple – with a badly bruised ego after several calamitous runs I was finally ready to listen to all the advice anyone who’d ever run a marathon before had ever given me. I’d made most of the mistakes they advised me to avoid and wonder in hindsight if that had to happen for me to finally accept what they were telling me.
When you tell other runners you’re doing your first marathon you will hear the same things all of the the time. Guys telling you about mistakes they’ve made and warning you not to make them too. But if you’re stubborn like me you’ll convince yourself they don’t apply to you, that you are ready to hit a strong performance before you are ready. Well the reality is that if you don’t treat it with the respect it deserves the marathon will bite you on the back side. For me I’ve had to learn from my mistakes before I got to this stage. I’ve sat head in hands at the roadside. I’ve clung on to barriers. I’ve willed people to stop shouting my name and longed for the ground to swallow me up. On the flip side my stubbornness has somehow got me around each of the previous 5 marathons I’ve run.
If you’re lucky you might be the type of person that listens to others or you might learn some of them in training. If not remember so many factors come in to play on race day so be prepared. So much has to go right – kit, weather, nutrition, health, pacing, ablutions etc. As a result your first marathon is unlikely to be your best or even the most pleasant experience but like most tough things in time you’ll only remember the good bits. You’ll dust yourself down and get back on again.
So what makes me so happy with last week’s effort? Was it time? No it was being in a mindset beforehand that I was going to enjoy it, run consistently (perhaps even a bit within myself) and make a good stride forward in my own marathon story.
And that is it. The realisation that I wanted to be happy with my performance and not beat myself up about a time afterwards. It’s the first lesson I was told and the one you’ll get when you tell an experienced runner you are doing the marathon – listen to them. Be happy with your performance and don’t chase a time goal. Running 4:02 in my first really annoyed me when I should have been really pleased I could get around and proud of that fact.
What else should you know?
Lesson two is let the field go. I’ve learned to pace races well in the last few seasons and every race I go to sees most folk hitting the start too fast and fading in the second half. Nothing gives you the feeling of a strong performance better than being able to pick up speed in the home straight (well maintain your pace in the marathon – hanging on in the final miles is as good as speeding up). Consistent splits will see you reel similar runners in who set off too fast. This is a timely boost (albeit based on the suffering of others but I’ve been the other so it’s ok). Negative splitting is difficult in the marathon but consistent pacing is possible for all.
Lesson 3 – listen to your body and adjust your goal accordingly. You’ll know by mile 9 how you are feeling. Do a body MOT from head to toe. If this is starting to sound a bit like the runner’s cliche bingo it’s because the things you always hear are right. So if it’s not your day treat it as a training run and drop the goal pace. Trying to stick with Plan A when it is not going well will result in a really tough day out, probably a world of pain and maybe even some tears (I mean dust in my eye).
Lesson four – don’t let a costumed runner dictate your race strategy. Trying to stay ahead of someone dressed as a banana isn’t sticking to your race plan. It’s messing with your speed and that banana is just going to pass you later in the race. It’s a long way and that banana is probably a sub 3 hour marathoner once peeled. It’s a potential banana skin 🙂
Lesson five – when the pacer for your life goal goes past consider letting them go. When the 3:15 bus went past me last week I was so content it actually felt good letting them disappear over the horizon. It meant I was on pace. They should be getting further ahead of me. Rewind 3 years and I would have been trying to cling on to them for dear life. This resulted in the 3:30, 3:45 and 4:00 paceall passing me before the finish line. That’s a poor outcome in any book.
Lesson six – do not worry about your pace until the crowd thins. If you’re first mile is a minute down from goal pace, bonus. You’ve just had an easy mile and you’re in better shape than expected for the final 25.2. Unless you have the self discipline to catch it up at 2 seconds a mile for the final 25 let it go. If you try and catch it up you’ll bust yourself as you’ll try to do it in those very important first miles. Relax in to the race. Aim to feel strong certainly at half way. Similarly do not weave in and out at the start to get on pace. This will increase your total distance. 26.2 is crazy, who wants to run any more.
And that is about it. I was so determined to enjoy it and run steady that the miles flew by. The route merge where the Red and Blue starts come together and Cutty Sark passed the first 50 minutes with a carnival of music and dance as we passed through different boroughs. I was having a blast and the greatest danger of cramp was in my cheeks as I laughed and smiled my way along the first half of the run. Turning the corner to Tower Bridge I allowed myself to enjoy the iconic sights and crowd at one of the most special parts of the course. Turning right towards the notorious Isle of Dogs I cheered the elite runners coming the other way – 9 miles further up the road – rather than curse them for being so close to the end.
Another strategy I adopted from around mile 9 this time around was to count down the miles rather than count up. Mentally this helped in bringing the finish line closer and closer with each marker. Seeing my support crew twice helped as well as chasing the Road Runner vest several hundred metres ahead of me. The World Record for fastest Bishop, Monk and Nun was either just in front or behind me for most of the race meaning the crowds were noisier than normal and with the weather brightening up over the morning there seemed to be more people on the route than ever before.
And so as I exited Canary Wharf I did another top to bottom body MOT and was in good shape aside from a nasty chafe on my right ankle – a new one on me. Vaseline-d up I was able to keep going with only minor discomfort. A great feeling with approximately seven miles to go. Then as always it gets tough and you need to dig deep. From the elite through the club runners to the run-walkers this is the same and what unites everyone who runs the marathon. If it was easy everyone would do it. Keeping going is the last thing you want but knowing you are well prepared and getting closer to home with every step will see you through.
This time around it was mile 22-24 when I started to hurt but nowhere near how bad it had been before and perhaps that is what got me through. I’d made mistakes by not listening to others and hurt big time in 2013 but maybe that is what it took for me – to learn the hard way. And then you see Big Ben and it still hurts. I used the mile dedication strategy for the final seven miles, thinking of someone during each mile. This hadn’t been planned and I found myself thinking of quite different people when the going got tough. This definitely helped.
And then you get near the finish and people tell you it starts to get easier again. Well this is one piece of advice that is wrong 🙂 It doesn’t get easier and the 1 mile to go, 800m to go, 600m to go and 400m to go will make you want to punch whoever thought it was a good idea to cruelly count down such massive distances at that stage of a marathon. The only one that helps is rounding the corner at Buckingham Palace with 200m to go and seeing that iconic finish line.
Crossing the line in 3:22:31 I had managed a 35 minute course pb and a 22 marathon pb. I know I could have run faster but I was delighted. Anything faster would have been too big a risk, too big a jump and I wouldn’t have had a really great experience. So that is what a good performance is for me now. Incremental improvements towards my goals making sure I continue to learn how to run. The simplest of things but a much more complex sport than I ever imagined when I decided to become a runner back in 2010 with my first London Marathon.
It is such a great event. Full of emotion with great stories, real people, amazing sights and vocal support all around. I am really glad to have been lucky enough to take part in four. My only regret was not listening to other marathoners sooner.
Or perhaps all this is sentimental rubbish and the reason I ran so well was that I dressed backwards. Wearing my vest back to front in particular made The Boy’s year.