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Typically I like to race on the edge. I feel the best way to eke out your best time is to run at the furthest reach of your capabilities. However, it’s also a good way to overstep the mark. It’s hard to know that perfect pace and if you overdo it, you’re in for a world of pain.
I had a very long build up to Berlin in September 2021 and I was probably the fittest I’d ever been. 2:45 should have been within my grasp but a combination of a hot day and fueling issues meant that in the end I was happy to have battled round in 2:49.
It was not a pretty race. I was severely struggling at mile 12 and I remember thinking I would never run another marathon again! Of course, once the dust settled, I was proud I had come through a difficult race in my best time and knew that if I continued to build, a flat marathon in spring in England should give me a good chance of 2:45.
Then injury struck. It was my own fault – running a 50 mile charity run with my brother and then not taking the time my body needed to recover. I ended up out for 5 weeks around Christmas and with a lot shorter build up to Manchester than I had intended.
My coach was positive and I still hoped for a good race but I always felt a bit off the paces I was hitting in the build up to Berlin. Nevertheless, I felt like I was getting stronger every week and had a pretty good half marathon race 5 weeks out, about half a minute off my PB.
In the back of my mind I kept thinking that the potential better conditions may cancel out the difference in my fitness but I also still had the 2:45 time in my head. This stemmed from when the championship qualification time for London (where you get to start with the elites) was 2:45.
Last year they reduced it to 2:40 though so actually 2:45 is a rather arbitrary time. Even so, when my coach suggested going out a bit slower than 2:50 pace, I was a little reluctant to say the least!
I’d never run a negative split in a marathon before so to go out slower and know I would have to run a negative split to run my best time felt like taking a leap of faith even though I know that in the marathon, the more energy you can conserve early on, the better your finish will be.
In the end I decided it was a good chance to experiment. I knew I wasn’t quite in the same shape as I was for Berlin so even shaving a few seconds off would be a massive result having not been running at Christmas.
This was also a special race because it was the first time my brothers, Phil and Jonny, and I had all run the same marathon together. We’d all ran together in pairs before but never all three together. Phil and I flew over to stay with Jonny on Thursday and it was great to have time to catch up properly and also relax a bit too.
Word of warning: beware of playing cricket the day before! I managed to get hit in the glasses and if they’d broken I would have had no spares and I don’t wear contacts! Thankfully that didn’t happen but it is a hazard for glasses wearers.
On the day, conditions were absolutely perfect, pretty chilly beforehand but no rain or wind and cool throughout with a bit of cloud cover most of the time. It was also great to have Jonny’s wife Jenni drop us near the start line as it made the logistics very easy.
The more stress free you can make the build up then the more relaxed you can be for the run and staying relaxed is a major component of a good marathon.
At the start line I met Gary House, a running coach I’ve been following on Instagram for quite a while. Gary was very kind to give me a few minutes of his time and it was really nice to just switch off from my own internal dialogue for a little while. Sometimes you really can overthink a marathon.
It didn’t feel like we were waiting long for the gun to go off. I remember in London it felt like an age to get going and I ended up having to go to the toilet at mile 1 which is the last thing you want!
I knew straight away that I was too far forward. I was in the front pen but given my moderate pacing plan, people were streaming past me. This is where you need to be disciplined and just sit at a pace you are happy with and ignore everyone else. If you can do this then it’s better to be a bit too far forward than get stuck behind people if you’re too far back.
Thinking about trying to run the first mile as your slowest is a good mental cue and whilst it usually never happens, it can definitely reign you in a little bit. Having agreed with my coach to go out at 6:30 a mile, a 6:24 was a little keen but not too far out and I settled into a 6:30 for mile 2.
Unfortunately, I’d decided to wear the chest strap for my heart rate monitor and for some reason I’d tried to tighten it on the start line. About a minute in, the thing fell off and I felt there was no way to get it back on without stopping. This annoyed me but it’s important not to let these things derail you. I had to carry it 11 miles where I flung it at a perplexed Jenni to look after.
That was not the only silly thing to happen. Just after taking my gel at the 10k mark, I dropped two out of my pocket. I instinctively stopped, turned round and picked them up before carrying on, cursing profusely.
I quickly had to quash the immediate thought I had, that I might miss out on a PB because of those few seconds! It’s ridiculous but that thought could have spiralled out of control. It had broken my rhythm a little so I had to concentrate on getting that back and telling myself that finishing strongly was going to dictate my finish time, not a mishap with some gels.
I always tell people to run their own race and not worry about other people. That said, it can be very useful to tie in with a group running at a similar pace. This allows other people to take some of the work especially when there is a headwind.
Early on, I thought I’d found a group I could work with. We went through 5k just over 20 minutes and they remarked that they were right on pace. However, even though my next 5k was marginally quicker, they had left me behind.
At around 10 miles I found a couple of guys who seemed to be right on my pace again but over the next few miles they got chatting and I could feel the pace drifting slightly. I also found out they were targeting more like 2:55 so just before halfway, I pushed on and left them.
I passed halfway just under 1:25 and that was possibly the first time I started to doubt myself. I knew I would have to run about a minute quicker in the second half and I started to reflect back on those last few miles that I felt had slightly dragged even though they were still in the ballpark.
It wasn’t really in the plan but I picked up miles 14 and 15 and though I passed a couple of people, I really started to feel like I was running on my own for large stretches. It actually started to worry me that I wouldn’t be able to follow the course as there was nobody up ahead and sometimes no crowd either!
This was slightly unexpected to the point that I asked some people at the side if I was leading the race! It seemed funny to me and spurred me on but I probably just sounded a bit crazy to anyone who had seen my coach and eventual winner going through 20 minutes earlier.
After those quicker 2 miles I settled again. Partly because I didn’t really like this new pace and also I remembered the words of my coach who warned me about getting through Altrincham unscathed before starting to push on for home.
In a very flat marathon, even the smallest incline can unsettle you and into Altrincham there is a gentle rise followed by a short steep climb in the middle of the town. This happened at the start of mile 17 and even though I was expecting it, it was steeper than I thought.
Suddenly for the first time that day, my current pace was showing over 7 minutes per mile. I wondered how hard to push up the hill, knowing that it wouldn’t last too long but being torn between exerting myself too much and ‘losing too much time’.
Before I knew it, the hill was over and I made the time back up going back down the other side of it. I was still running on my own so it was nice to come out of Altrincham on the road we’d come in on and see lots more people running the other way. I looked out for my brother Jonny but didn’t see him.
I now felt pretty good and confident to push on and I passed both the 30k and 20 mile markers knowing that if I could keep this new pace going then I would be inside my Berlin time. That is obviously easier said than done because I was now running faster than at any time previously with 20 decently paced miles in the legs.
At this point in the marathon it does help me to focus on the time left. I passed the 20 mile marker at exactly 2:09 on the clock and I knew that if I could run the last 10k in under 40 minutes, that would do it.
40 minutes would typically be one of my shortest runs in the week and I started to focus on how small that amount of time is in the grand scheme of all the running and training I do. My coach had told me to ‘be prepared to go to the hurt locker for the last 10k’ and I kept telling myself it’s a small price to pay to post a time that will remain with you for life.
At mile 22 I saw Jenni, her friends and ‘the zoo’ (a load of inflatable animals designed to make them unmissable in the crowd). In reality I nearly missed them because they were round a sharpish corner and my brain was starting to work a little slowly but it was great to see them and it definitely gave a little boost again.
The last few miles did seem to go on forever. There are some quite long stretches of straight road to contend with. They do make it faster and easier to get into a rhythm with but in the latter stages it also does seem to extend the race.
Cramp has been a nemesis of mine in previous marathons and just coming into the last mile I felt that I was pushing my luck slightly with the pace. I held it steady and only really pushed as hard as I could down the last straight trying to eke out every second possible.
I finished in 2:48:11, comfortably under 2:49 which was my target and I ran a 93 second negative split – the first time I’d ever run faster in the second half than in the first. In fact the second half was my fastest half of any marathon to date.
I am of course delighted. You always wonder what a different approach would have yielded but I now know I have options for future marathons. I don’t always need to go for broke and hang on. I don’t rule that out as a strategy again but it is definitely satisfying to finish a race strongly and I do think it is generally a better approach for a marathon.
My fuelling went much better this time. I didn’t have the heat to contend with this time but I swapped out the bars that didn’t work last time for gels and I had more variety so that I didn’t get sick of them.
I took one gel every 20 minutes and just missed the very last one. 7 gels (around 175g carbs or 700 kcal) was more than I’ve ever taken before. I think I was getting to the limit for my gut but it worked out fine and I will follow the same plan next time.
Mindset was key. In a way, I didn’t feel I put the same pressure on myself as I did in Berlin which was a good thing. The injury meant that I knew I wasn’t quite in my best shape so in a way it was a ‘free hit’ ahead of the autumn. But I’ve definitely learned that being relaxed, problem solving on the go and pacing realistically, all help massively with performing your best.
Afterwards, someone said they bet I hadn’t high fived as many kids as they had as I was faster but I know I definitely high-fived more than the 0 in Berlin. Berlin was a slog and though I tried to feed off the bands a little, I didn’t take as much help from the crowd as I should.
In Manchester, I definitely went out to try and enjoy it more and I certainly did. The last 10k was always going to be tough but the crowd really can help. Having personal support and my brothers running also made a big difference to how I approached the weekend. It wasn’t just a ‘business trip’. I needed to regain the love for the marathon and I think I have as far as you can!
This time, I’m being cautious as to what I do next. I know I still have a little ankle niggle that was actually better during the race than it had been for some time. But it’s still there. And as I approach my 40th year, still getting faster, I do feel the toll on my body every time now.
I’m not rushing into any big races or events anytime soon. Running a good marathon can put you on top of the world but you have to respect your body and what you can put it through. I don’t envisage running anything as long until the autumn now though plans can always change.
My key takeaways from the marathon which can help you in your own marathons are:
Think seriously about your pacing and realise there are multiple ways to pace a marathon. Most people choose the ‘time in the bag’ option but going out more conservatively can not only give you a much better time on paper but also a better experience.
If you want your best time you have to be prepared to dig deep in the last 10k. This was really the very first time I followed the mantra ‘the marathon race starts at 20 miles’ but if you can put yourself in a position to push that last 10k, you will have a very successful race.
Stick to your fuelling schedule. Know how much you can take on and keep going with it unless you’re having bad GI distress.
Try not to put pressure on yourself. A marathon is hard enough without adding extra unnecessary stress. My coach says ‘be confident not expectant’. It’s something I try to live by now though I do find it hard.
Keep positive even when things go wrong. A marathon is a long race and most people will experience something negative at some point during it. Try and see the positive side as negative thoughts will only bring you down.
Best of luck if you have a marathon coming up soon. If you are starting to look forward to autumn marathons then please make sure you are subscribed to the email list for things that will help you in your training and race.
Find out what keeps you going and go outside your comfort zone
When I’m older and look back on my running I think the events that stand out will be the ones a bit different to the others. That’s one reason I wanted to run 50 miles with my brother Jonny from Wheatfields hospice in Leeds to Bolton hospice in… Bolton.
Of course I will likely remember most of my (8 to date) marathons as the marathon always provides a unique set of challenges and are also few and far between, but opportunities to do something out of the ordinary like the 50 miler don’t come around too often.
Jonny ran 100k for charity in 2013 just after my eldest son Aaron was born. I didn’t join him on that occasion and I sometimes regret not going. Our Mum ran 15k that day about 9 months after her terminal cancer diagnosis that would claim her life about 9 months later.
In 2017, we came together to run 24in24 (24 parkruns (5ks) in 24 hours around Northern Ireland) in her memory and in aid of Action Cancer. I still mark that as one of my biggest achievements because I wasn’t as fit back then as I am now.
It showed that sometimes the mind is stronger than the body. Something can be so important that you have to find a way to get through and do it. It also shows that doing something outside your comfort zone can propel you to do more than you thought possible.
Having missed 2013 and had Jonny’s support in 2017, I wanted to make sure I helped him in his quest to run 50 miles from Leeds to Bolton and I knew it would be an achievement I will look back on in the future if we managed it.
Yes I’d run 120km (around 75 miles) in 2017 and 2019 (24in24 #2) but that was broken up into 5ks and I don’t really count that as one run. In some respects it was much harder because we were going for so much longer, but there was also some element of rest that helped too.
So the longest continuous run I’d done before was 39.3 miles in Connemara in 2017. That meant this would be my longest run to date so although we weren’t racing it, there was always a small part of me that was apprehensive about running a new distance.
However, I was also reasonably confident. My marathon training in August was around 65 miles per week and my rule of thumb is that you can probably run your weekly mileage in one go if need be. In other words I felt confident I could go up to about 100k (63 miles) if needed.
That’s not to say you can’t run longer on fewer weekly miles like I did in 2017 but you are much more heavily reliant on the mind getting you through and crossing your fingers as to whether the body will hold up.
Confidence is key to going longer distances. I’ve been very lucky that my body has generally held up well over longer distances and that hasn’t always been down to great training. Having the belief in yourself to do what you’ve set out to do is almost more important than having the physical ability.
I’m not saying you should be reckless but I do feel that it can be easy to stay in your comfort zone and not push the boundaries of what you think is possible.
Eliud Kipchoge says ‘no human is limited’. It’s a great sound bite and it cannot be literally true but I certainly agree with where he is going with the phrase. We think things aren’t possible. Until they are.
And someone has to be the first; first to climb Everest, first to walk on the Moon, first to run a sub 2 marathon. Most of the time, what you’re trying to do has already been done. Other people have run 50 miles so why couldn’t you or I? Usually there’s no reason why not.
I’m not going to run a sub 2 hour marathon but then almost nobody is. For now. But I could certainly improve if I wanted to. If I dedicated more time. We’re generally only limited by time so it depends how much you want to and can put in.
And just occasionally, you could be the first. We were the first to run 24 parkruns in 24 hours in Northern Ireland (as far as we know), probably because nobody else thought of it, or wanted to. It doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have done it before or do it in the future.
The point is that believing it is half the battle. And you need to use every tool you can to make you believe it is possible. That could be drawing on experience, or being inspired by someone who has already done it. It can be as simple as breaking a task down.
We had many sections on the 50 miler. In my mind we weren’t running 50 miles. We were running 14 miles to the edge of Bradford. Then we were running 6 miles over the moors. We then had another 6 miles on the canal followed by another 5 miles on the moors.
That took us into Lancashire where we had 11 miles to the last official stop then 6 miles until we picked up support from staff at Bolton Hospice to run the last 3 miles. When you break it down like that it seems much more doable than thinking of running 50 miles.
We started just after 8am and the first section was all on road and although admittedly it was mostly uphill as we approached the moors, it was a fairly gentle opening section.
We were naturally full of chat at this point. How were we going to approach it physically and mentally? Was it sane to try this? We also reflected on being back at Wheatfields Hospice and shared some memories.
We got surprisingly hungry which shouldn’t have really been surprising. We’d eaten at about 6:30am and we didn’t get to the first meet point till nearly 10:30am. We weren’t carrying much in the way of supplies at that point because we were all on road and it seemed straight forward.
So we were very happy to see my sister-in-law Jenni at the end of the first section to refuel and change into trail gear. We also packed our emergency kit consisting of foil blanket, whistle and more layers into our backpacks.
I was only carrying a camelbak and space was limited. If we’d been off road for much more I’m not sure I would have been comfortable running so light. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Jonny had checked out the route from map and satellite but not in person due to illness.
Refuelled and ready for the next section we were soon out on the moors with no way for Jenni to rescue us if we got into difficulties. At the start I was a bit skeptical of Jonny’s watch keeping us on the right route and getting up onto the moors seemed a bit twisty and convoluted.
But it worked like a dream and for the most part the paths were discernible and in some places half decent.
One thing I got told on my first mountain race was to jump in the first puddle you find. You’re going to get wet so there’s no point wasting energy trying to avoid it. It was pretty boggy in places so I didn’t need to make much effort to get wet.
My trail shoes are also pretty clapped out. I’m fairly good at replacing other shoes in a relatively timely fashion but these have holes in them and not just the big one you put your foot into.
Halfway through the section we passed a house which used to be the Withens pub, the highest pub in West Yorkshire. We used to go there with our parents when we were kids and I remember some wet and windy walks around there followed by a 20p kids cocktail!
From there, we had a slightly demoralising steep descent before climbing again to get over another ‘hump’ before descending sharply again into Hebden Bridge. At least on the climb we had steps to help us and we’d agreed early on that even gentle inclines would be walked.
This was definitely a point to regroup and Jonny told me of the Brownlee brothers’ tip that if you’re not trying to get ahead and push on then you should be trying to refuel. That’s probably more aimed at racing triathlons but I would say equally useful for ultras too.
In Hebden Bridge we were briefly back on road with a really nasty steep descent on cobbles with a handrail to hold us up before hitting the canal towpath. I’ve no doubt that these steep downhills coupled with my inability to tie my laces tight resulted in my first ever black toenails.
I enjoyed the canal part because it’s a real chance to switch off with no road crossings or difficult trail lines to pick out. I found out later that Jonny wasn’t enjoying it much at that point and on reflection you do get quite a few undulations despite the general flatness.
Walking those uphills makes sense because you’re trying to conserve energy but it does break your rhythm up. We were also having difficulty knowing how many layers we should be wearing. It had been cold and wet on top but now the going was a bit faster and the sun was threatening despite never being convincing.
As we approached the marathon and 5 hour mark, I was starting to think this section was really too long not to be broken up. We weren’t due to see Jenni again until mile 30 after another trail section and we were starting to get hungry again.
Miraculously, she appeared in Todmorden near the end of the canal stretch. It was a massive boost just to see a friendly face again but even more so when we realised we were running right past the car and could get some of the food like sandwiches that we couldn’t fit into our bags.
My nutritional approach for ultras is completely different to a marathon. My marathon nutrition is very strict based on gels and bars taken on a time schedule. In a marathon I’m working at a level that means I need fast acting carbohydrates that I can consume with the minimum of fuss.
In the first 24in24 in 2017 I thought I would replicate something like that over a longer period. But I very soon got sick of sports drinks, gels and bars and craved ‘proper’ food.
The big differences are that the intensity of work is much lower and the time is much longer so your body is able to operate a bit more normally than in a high intensity effort where its sole focus is supplying energy to the working muscles.
Having not raced an ultra flat out, it’s hard to know what my approach would be for racing but I do think that once the intensity drops to a certain level and the time goes up, I really need proper food for interest as much as anything else.
I also usually find it easier to eat more normally earlier on and if you start being unable to consume anything, that’s when the problems are likely to hit. So I would save more of the easier to consume calories for later when things start to get tougher.
Reinvigorated from this unexpected stop, we set off on the second trail section which ended up being 5 miles. Not too far on from our stop it seemed like we were really out in the wilderness. We passed the odd house or farm and I could not imagine living somewhere that remote.
With about 2 miles to our next stop, the ‘path’ seemed to run out and we were picking our way through huge tussocks and deep bog. We made a beeline in the direction the path should have been but it was certainly slow going.
Eventually, we got over and down the other side and towards a farm. The problem was, when we got to the bottom, we were supposed to take a right turn through the farm and there was no indication that we were allowed to do so.
Faced with the choice of going back up, across and back down where there was no guaranteed access or taking a left down the road and adding a mile on, we opted for the latter. Partly this was because we had anticipated the route might be slightly short of 50 miles and adding a mile on here seemed much more preferable to running around the hospice car park at the end.
But it also made sense. An extra mile on road would cost us little more than 10 minutes, a small amount of physical exertion and no mental fatigue. The other way could have been shorter but the chances are, we were going to face another problem and potentially have to come back to where we were anyway.
By the time we got to the next scheduled meet point at Britannia where Louise and the boys had joined up with Jenni, it was another 90 minutes on from Todmorden and we were even more glad of the previous stop.
I am very lucky to have such a supportive family and I can imagine that hanging around in car parks and driving between them is not the most exciting day out. Hopefully, seeing Jonny and I made it worthwhile and it was certainly a massive boost to both of us.
Jenni should get special mention. She was up with us at 6am to drive us over to Leeds then met us throughout the day with encouraging words and all our supplies. It’s great to hear ‘you’re looking really fresh’ than something like ‘you’re looking like a drowned rat’ which I’m sure I did.
She also had to put up with a few silly requests. Being a supported ultra runner turns me a little divaish. I think it’s a glimpse into my former life where I was a tour manager for a band and would sometimes have to wait on them hand and foot.
I totally get it though. The job of the band is to perform and they employ people around them so they can concentrate fully on that role. I’ve said before on 24in24 that running is the easy part because of the support around you. That’s all we had to focus on because other things are taken care of. It’s all planned out in advance and your support is there waiting for you.
At Britannia, I asked Jenni to flatten some coke for me. Flat coke has been a staple for me on ultras as it’s got calories, caffeine and easy on the stomach. It also tastes great. I’d meant for her to do it sometime before the next stop so we could have it later.
She did it there and then. But when she opened it, it sprayed all over Jonny who was standing next to her. I really felt bad. There’s no reason I couldn’t have done it myself! But it will be one of those moments that we all remember looking back.
With all the excitement of the stop, I forgot to change out of my trail shoes and into my long run shoes. Usually, I wouldn’t bother changing shoes but given the different terrains it was wise. I figured the trail shoes were worn down anyway so wearing them out more on road wouldn’t be a big problem.
But I probably should have changed them. There isn’t much cushioning in them and my ankles got sore later on in the day. Whether that was because I wore the trail shoes for an extra 11 miles on road, I’ll never really know.
About 5 miles into this stretch, my watch started to die. I was annoyed because I’d left the power pack to charge it in the car. Knowing we had well over an hour left, I wasn’t confident it would survive. I also didn’t know if we’d lose what had been recorded if it died.
Jonny had been using his watch solely for navigation so we didn’t have any other record of the 36 miles we’d just done. I had to stop the activity and start a new one. At the same time, Jonny started recording from the same point on his phone in case my watch went completely.
It didn’t, but it really annoyed me for at least a couple of miles. I wanted a single complete file and didn’t know if we would get it (in the end I was able to splice the two runs together). This is an example of something silly that can happen in an ultra that throws you off mentally.
I found this section strange. The first half of it seemed to be downhill all the way and I felt we could pick the pace up here a little to try and get us back towards our target. We’d lost quite a bit of time on the moors, through the detour and stopping longer than we’d intended.
It didn’t matter too much except that we had people waiting at the end for us. We didn’t want them waiting longer than they needed. However, any time made up seemed to ebb away over the second part of the section with long gradual hills that seemed to go on forever.
As we approached the final meet point just past Ramsbottom, there was a hint of dusk approaching. At this point I did change my shoes and also added the Bolton hospice vest over my t-shirt along with lights and packed my head torch. As we got going for the last 8 miles, I felt I should have added more layers as we’d got quite cold at the stop.
At this point I think we knew we were going to make it, it was just a matter of how long this last section was going to take. I’ll be honest and say it felt like it took forever even though our pace never really slowed significantly.
8 miles run easy in training would take me around an hour but I knew here it was going to take more like an hour and 45 which is still the length of a long run for me. The darkness closed in very quickly but most of the route was well lit and we were always on pavement so head torches were never required.
I felt like we’d exhausted the chat which we probably hadn’t, but I knew that we were probably both thinking the same thing; we just want this to be done now.
It’s funny how you set your mind up to tackle the distance you’re going for. Physically, we could probably have gone on for another 10 miles if we’d needed but mentally we were ready for the end because we knew we were close.
That’s why miles 20-23 can be so tough in a marathon. You’ve come so far but you’re not quite there yet.
It was great that we had staff from Bolton hospice (Helen, Mary, Prem and Varsha) to run with us for the last 5k. They’d probably been waiting an hour for us but we were so grateful. At that point, the chat started again and it felt like a victory lap into Bolton.
We had supporters waiting for us at the end and we were less than an hour later than we’d said we would be. I think that’s pretty good over that period of time on a route we really knew quite little about.
I said earlier about how breaking a big task down into smaller chunks makes it seem easier, but at the point you finish, all your mental and physical energy is spent. It feels like a blur and it once again seems like an enormous challenge you have just overcome.
Physically, I felt I’d got off quite lightly. I was able to walk around and drive with no issues the next day but in the few days after, I did feel the toll it had taken. Apart from the blackened toenails, I did need a few naps over the next few days and I’ve felt lethargic getting back into normal training ever since.
It takes a toll mentally too. The more you gear up for something, the more there is a potential dip that follows. I felt like I hadn’t invested a lot of mental energy in the preparation – Jonny did most of that. But I’d probably used it to refocus my effort after Berlin marathon.
So I probably ended up with a compounded dip on the other side. I have a marathon booked in spring which is my next focus but it’s far enough off to not be too concerned about. I feel like I’ve lost all my speed so racing something short soon is not that appealing.
However, I’ll never regret doing this. Obviously, the most important thing was to raise funds and awareness for the two hospices. But more than that, it will be something that we look back on and talk about for years to come.
And it’s more experience to put away for challenges in the future. The positives far outweigh the negatives and would never have been possible if I’d stuck to what are the ‘safe’ and ‘correct’ things to do.
What will you do to push the boundaries of what you think you are capable of? Our ‘limits’ are different for everybody but they are all self imposed. We can spend our lives not knowing what we’re able to do but if you are wondering then what’s stopping you from trying?
2 days on from the Berlin Marathon 2021 and I can still barely walk. It’s been a long time since a race has taken such a toll and it underlines how much I put my body through on Sunday. I’m mentally drained too. Never has a race build up been so elongated and fraught with difficulties.
I am absolutely delighted that I was able to record nearly a 5 minute PB of 2:49:07 but the time alone does not tell half the story. Yes it will be the first thing (maybe the only thing) people will ask about it but it is not the time that I was most proud of.
I had told a few people I was aiming for 2:45 and that was still the case on the morning of the race. If I’d been told before I would run 2:49 I think I would have been disappointed. My previous best was set 2 and a half years ago and my training had been so much better coming into this race. I don’t think 2:45 was an unrealistic aim.
But I could also see that conditions were not ideal. The sun was out with no cloud cover and forecasts of up to 25 degrees which for a northern lad is tropical. I allowed myself an ‘easy’ first mile to test the water. I could already tell it was going to be a struggle but I tried to notch the pace up a little over the next few miles.
I passed through the 5k marker a bit down on pace and I knew I’d have to pick it up again to get on track for 2:45. The second 5k was nearly in the right ballpark but I was already starting to struggle getting enough water from the cups out on the course which was concerning.
In London and Dublin water came in bottles which is much easier. It doesn’t spill and it’s easy to carry so you don’t have to down it in one go. The cups at Berlin were not full but trying to grab one at pace still meant spilling half of it. Then when you did come to drink, half of it would run down your face rather than into your mouth.
The water issue was making fuelling difficult too. My plan was always to take my fuel just before a water station so that I could wash the gel or bar down after. But eating with a dry mouth was not easy.
I got the first bar down at mile 4 but when it came to my second bar around mile 12 it left me retching and in real difficulty. I had to chuck it knowing that at that moment, lack of water was more of a problem than lack of fuel.
Soon after that I decided that if I didn’t take action now, the race was going to turn into a nightmare. I stopped at the next water station to make sure I got a full cup of water down. It turned out to be a good plan with one problem; downing a cup of water gave me a stitch soon after.
I went through halfway at 1:23:37 and I knew there was no way I’d run the 2 minute negative split required for 2:45. I quickly readjusted to try and run the remainder at 2:50 pace and also to try and manage the stitch which did go after a couple of miles.
I stopped again at the water station around mile 15, this time for a bit longer to try and avoid the stitch. Yes it took another 15/20s out of my time but I knew I needed to try and do everything to get back on track.
The next gel around 16 went down better and I was able to start taking water again on the move so that by the time I was approaching the 30km mark (18.5 miles) I felt like I was starting to pick up again. Despite not knowing the course in depth, I knew it turned back into the centre around 30km which was a real psychological boost too.
In reality, my pace wasn’t picking up but it wasn’t declining much either and I started to realise that I was going past other people frequently. To be struggling at mile 12 in a marathon is frankly alarming and I felt like I must be the only person in difficulty. By mile 19 I knew that I was now faring much better than many people around me.
That’s not to say it suddenly became easy but I’d worked my way through a really rough patch by focusing on each 5km marker and trying to put out each fire as it arose. I finally felt like I was running ‘in the zone’ where I was able to maintain a decent pace without any major issues.
The major issues came (literally) screaming back in the last 5km though this time in the form of cramp. It has been a nemesis of mine in marathons before but I’ve always managed to stave it off. It’s usually in my calves but this time it seemed to be everywhere.
I kept trying to focus on good form knowing that trying to compensate for the cramp in one place may set something off elsewhere. I hadn’t been obsessing over my splits too much as I knew that they had been close enough to the right pace but I was also aware that my watch was measuring long.
This usually happens in every marathon. The course has a blue line round which is the shortest line to take and it must be at least a marathon distance. You can never stick fully to this line with other people and water stations to contend with so you are always going to run a little long.
But more than this, GPS is not 100% accurate especially when you run past tall buildings. It becomes a dot to dot of slightly inaccurate position readings. On a very twisty course this can result in a short reading as it may cut off a corner you’ve had to run round.
In big city marathons where you run lots of long straight streets, there’s far more chance of it measuring long because the GPS tracks you slightly off the straight road and will record curves and zig zags that aren’t really there.
You really have no idea what is going on during the marathon but you can see the inaccuracy afterwards. Usually you can see how far out your watch is by comparing it with the mile markers but I had my watch in miles and the markers were in km so I hadn’t really been paying attention.
The result was that I got lured into thinking I had more in the bag to beat 2:50 than I really had in reality. I was ticking off the miles on my watch at around the right pace but the km markers weren’t coming as soon as they should. I knew I had to keep the effort level high to make it – I couldn’t ease off.
There is a long straight section into 40km at which point it zigzags back towards the finish just beyond the Brandenburg gate. Some people were walking or stopped altogether. Having collapsed before at mile 25 in a marathon, I was determined not to stop no matter how much I wanted to. Plenty of time for that at the finish line.
If the section to 40km seemed to go on forever then the last straight down to the Brandenburg gate and beyond was worse. I’m glad I read that the end wasn’t at the gate because it’s a good bit past it and I was ready for it, not that it made it much easier.
I know some people get emotional at this point but I was having difficulty just concentrating holding my running form together. I had been more in awe before the start of the race but now just needed to focus on getting to the end.
Making sure I smiled for the cameras (I’d no doubt been grimacing most of the way round), I crossed the line and immediately the cramp consumed my legs and feet. I could barely stand let alone walk. Someone kindly held me up whilst an electrolyte drink was brought my way.
Lots of thoughts flooded into my head having tried to block out most of it during the race. I knew I couldn’t have done more. I didn’t hit the main target I’d set but in a way I’d achieved more than just a time in the way I’d battled through.
I thought about the sacrifices Louise and the boys had made back home to allow me to get here at all. I thought about the inspiration of my Mum who introduced me to running and would have been 67 this week. I thought back to the tough training runs and weeks I had been through that had tested my mental resolve especially in the 6 weeks before.
All these things contributed to my ability to deal with the situation but I still wondered why I put myself through it. I think on reflection, it is the sense of achievement at being able to overcome a difficult challenge. It’s about testing myself and coming out the other side of it.
And it’s a truly personal experience. At the end of the day, others will applaud your achievements but there is no real context to place them in. Everyone has a different potential, different circumstances and different problems to overcome.
Time for reflection and evaluation is important too. A lot of sacrifice can go into running a marathon. Was it worth it? Which parts were enjoyable? Which were not? What would I do the same again? What could be changed next time?
I know there are certain things I’m not keen to repeat but it’s still too early to say what my next challenge will be. The dust has to settle a bit more, I need to enjoy some things outside of running for a little while. But I’ve definitely learned and reinforced a few things:
Your ‘why’ has to be strong enough otherwise you will choose not to suffer when it hurts the most.
You have to be able to adapt your target / expectations depending on the conditions that you get.
Having a variety of different targets can help you do this. I had 2:45 as a target but also 2:50, a PB (2:53:50), 2:55, 3:00 and simply just finishing to get my second major.
Being able to problem solve on the move is key to running a good time. A marathon is rarely plain sailing so what strategies do you have when things go wrong?
Breaking down a marathon into smaller chunks and focusing on each one in turn will make it easier to get through the whole thing. By focusing on each 5km rather than the fact I had 14 miles left when it was going wrong, I was able to turn the race round.
Work in the units of the race in your training and on the day. Tracking kms on my watch would have been easier and would have shown me how far off my GPS was.
Realise that most people are having a tough time of it, not just you. A marathon is not easy.
Try and take it all in and enjoy it. The crowds at Berlin were fantastic, especially the bands. I wasn’t in a good place to take it in but I really tried at points and I did have a smile on my face when I passed by the bands or someone shouted out my name.
Share in the success and pain of your fellow runners. Running can be lonely at times and although everyone’s experience of a race is different, you’ll be able to reminisce and reflect on many of the same things.
Be thankful to the people that have made sacrifices or helped you to get you where you are. Thank you @loulou.ladd and the family, @jm_run_coaching for the extra resolve you’ve managed to instill in me and everyone supporting me at @malluskharriers and @therunningrules.
I hope everyone running Belfast and London this weekend has a great race. You’ve put all the training, planning and prep in and now it’s all about executing the race!
Enjoy yourself and stay on top of your health this Christmas
Like many, it will be a very different Christmas for us this year. We won’t see any other family and we’re even opting for afternoon tea instead of a Christmas dinner. There won’t be the annual rush to get out of the door and down to the parkrun start line on time!
I know many will face tougher Christmasses than us and I extend my best wishes to you all especially this year. Keep your body and mind active and stay healthy.
We will be heading out for a run/walk on Christmas morning. It will be the first time in 7 years I haven’t done the parkrun but the coach has a run in the plan and it’s always good to get out early and enjoy the rest of the day in the warm.
It’s tempting to fall off the wagon completely at this time of the year in many aspects. Suddenly it’s colder outside and those runs don’t seem as appealing. Our diet can fall by the wayside because there are more ‘treats’ lying around that can sneak their way in.
New year is just round the corner which seems like the perfect opportunity to pick up the pieces but it can be harder than it needs to be depending on how far we’ve let it slide.
Last year I purposely took 2 weeks off running. I’d just run a marathon at the end of November and I felt I needed a little break. But I didn’t replace it with anything. No walks round the block, no cycling or swimming.
And I’m also the type of person that cannot resist an open bag of doritos, a tub of quality street or a social drink. Visiting family and friends at Christmas always turned into too much food and drink for a few days in a row.
I remember it taking a few weeks of marathon training in January to start feeling like I was getting back into shape again. It was tough to get going again even with the cross country season in swing and Boston marathon to look forward to.
That’s not to say that Christmas time shouldn’t be enjoyed. You should absolutely have the best time you can – we deserve it this year more than any. But there are ways to mitigate how much work it will take in January to get into shape. We don’t have to let it slide till then.
Try and maintain your regular running schedule. If you can’t do that or want a little break then why not go for a walk instead? Take the kids round the lights in the neighbourhood at night. I think people have made more effort with decorations than usual this year and we were out for half an hour last night.
Enjoy the food and drink but think twice about digging in the tub for more and more chocolate. If I wasn’t paying attention I would just keep eating if something is out on the table. Limit the amount of ‘nibbles’ you put out and ideally limit the amount in the house! We always buy more than we need.
Better still try and opt for healthier nibbles such as veggie sticks. Use dips if you like, overall they’re still going to be a lot healthier than bowls of crisps.
Use the time now to think about your goals for 2021. It’s tempting to switch off entirely and wait till the 1st of January to wave the magic wand but if you have time off round Christmas, it‘s a great time to reflect on the year and start planning ahead.
January comes round very quickly and before we know it we’re back at the grind with Christmas a distant memory and we haven’t got a proper handle on what we’re doing next.
A walk or a run can be a perfect time to get out and think about this year and next. Are you happy with where you are and what you are doing? What areas of your life could be improved? What could you start doing to address that area?
Enjoy Christmas and a massive thank you for reading and supporting my articles. Please let me know if there are areas you’d like me to write about more by emailing me or DM on social media. See you all in 2021!