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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.
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!
Have you fully committed to finding out what your potential is?
I’m 38 this month. Over the hill. Past it. Yet before I’m 40 I want to try and beat my 20 year old self by an hour in the marathon. Back then I was over the moon with my first marathon time of 3:41 and indeed for many years I was content that I could hang up my running shoes at any time with a solid marathon time to my name.
The numbers are arbitrary. Everyone is different. My 3:41 might be someone else’s 5:41. But having since run much faster than that I now know that I was scratching the surface of what was possible for me in that first marathon.
So how can a nearly 40 year old run so much faster than a 20 year old?
Steady vs sporadic commitment
I had always viewed the marathon as the culmination of 16 weeks of training. I’d book in a race then ‘commit’ to the training for the 16 weeks prior to the race. This is ‘sporadic commitment’. It assumes that each marathon and training block is a discrete period of time unrelated to anything else in your life.
The stop start nature of this way of thinking about training (“I’m either training for a marathon or I’m not”) made it harder to adhere to plans. I didn’t have a structure around my training the rest of the time so it felt unnatural during marathon training.
My body wasn’t used to it either and adding a lot of extra training stress without properly offsetting that with good nutrition meant I got colds as my immunity was lowered. I’d miss entire weeks of marathon training which, although is sometimes unavoidable, was hardly ideal.
Contrast that with the last 12 months where I haven’t been training for anything in particular but my training has been more structured and consistent than ever. I started viewing training as something that is a natural part of my life, not something that needs to be turned on or off.
This is ‘steady commitment’ and it can build over time if you allow it. At the start, you may not be able to commit to as much training as you think you need to get to where you want to be. But training accumulates over time so even committing to what you can now will help you in the long run.
Physical vs mental ability
We mostly think of ageing as a negative trait but as we get older we improve in many ways. When I ran my first marathon, I had youth on my side. I was also relatively fearless of the marathon. I didn’t know how hard it would be so I just gave it a shot.
But I now have much more experience of training and racing. I now know when and why things will get tough and how I can get through those situations.
You also learn over time. Your body might not be as young as it was but you learn to manage it better. You realise what you really want to focus on and learn the training techniques, recovery strategies and nutritional strategies to get you there
Your first marathon should not be your fastest. Unless it is your only marathon. You may not beat this time every time but with every marathon you build up more experience of things that went well and things that didn’t.
In every training block you should find new things to work on and build on your previous experiences. You should improve mentally over time.
There is one caveat to this: I said I wasn’t fearless when I was young. I was also not respectful of the distance and the challenge of a marathon. My next two attempts both ended pretty disastrously. I thought about quitting.
This is known as the dip and if you find yourself here you have to work your way out and not quit. If you find a way through, those bad experiences will help improve your future performances. I don’t regret those efforts. I wouldn’t have the bank of experience I have now if everything had always gone swimmingly.
You don’t know what’s round the corner
It’s easy to put things off. We don’t have time right now. Races aren’t on so what’s the point?
Yes there are some big life situations that might mean now is not the time to start committing to training but in most cases training can compliment whatever else is going on.
I took 18 months off running around the time of our first son and it was too long. When I started back it really felt like I was starting from scratch. However, I ran my first ultra less than 6 months after the birth of our second son.
Sometimes it’s easy to say ‘I’ll do it when’ but instead we can say ‘I’m going to start progressing towards that’. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily run your best marathon this year or next but you are starting moving towards the best that you can do.
And if you enjoy the process then it becomes addictive. You’ll want to see just how far you can go. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it’s at that point you should change things up or focus on something else.
You may not love running forever so why not do the best you can now while you do?
It’s the time of year we like to set new goals and look forward to the future. We think about all the things we ‘did wrong’ last year and sometimes we might consider what went right too.
What are your goals for this new year? How did you arrive at them? Is there a burning desire to achieve something or did you just feel like you should set something to do?
How ambitious are your goals? Did you set something outside of your comfort zone or are you playing it safe? Are you worried what people will say if you fail?
Why are we afraid to push our boundaries?
Most people are afraid to think big. It has been ingrained in us at an early age that we shouldn’t fail. (Actually I’m pleased to say that this is a message that has started to change in schools. At my son’s primary school they do talk about reframing failure as a learning opportunity).
But for me and for many, the emphasis was always on ‘good results’ and ‘staying out of trouble’ and ‘conforming to the expected norm’. The result is that most people lead average lives putting an average amount of effort into everything and thinking that we’re only capable of average.
That belief coupled with worrying what other people think if we try and do something out of the ordinary leaves us too scared to try something radically new. Yet the reality is that because so many people think like this, it isn’t as hard as you think to do something more extreme.
Your ‘why’ has to be strong
If you don’t have a strong reason for doing something then it will be difficult to follow through with it. People’s reasons for doing things vary greatly and can be very personal. They might also not be immediately obvious. You might have to ask ‘why’ several times before you find the root reason.
For example: I want to run – why – to complete a marathon – why – to raise money for charity – why – because it is a cause I believe in strongly – why – because a member of my family suffered from the disease and I want to help others in that situation.
A strong reason will help you battle through when things get tough.
How big should the goal be?
The size of the goal is going to be very individual too. The goal of running a marathon might feel a very long way off for someone new to running but it wouldn’t be a big challenge for me without adding a strict time element. Conversely, a 100 mile race would be a big challenge for me but not for accomplished ultramarathoners.
Fitness entrepreneur Brian Keane says you should pick a goal that feels a little over what you think you could reasonably achieve. I agree with this. It needs to be something that you would absolutely love to achieve but also not something so wild that you will quickly get discouraged.
You have to be completely honest with yourself when assessing this. The context is key too. It is absolutely possible for many people to drop their marathon time by 30 minutes or more because their training has never been ideal. It would be very hard indeed for me to drop 30 minutes.
It can be tempting to play it too safe. Time goals especially lend themselves to this. It could be far more compelling to go for a sub 4 hour marathon than a sub 3:50 marathon but the latter might be the right goal for you to really get the best out of yourself. The sub 4 will come for free.
Tell people your goal
It is scary to pick a goal that you might fail at. But failure doesn’t need to be the end of the story. You can tweak things and go back and try again or you can change course to something else more suited.
Unless you are very strong willed it is a good idea to make your target public or at least tell people close to you. It gives an extra incentive to keep going when things are difficult. It also stops you backing out if you start doubting yourself.
In the extreme case, people will tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do something. If your reason is strong enough, you will use this as fuel to prove them wrong and do it anyway. That’s precisely what happened to me in 2017.
What does an ‘unrealistic’ goal look like?
In 2017 I decided to run 24 parkruns (5k routes) across Northern Ireland in 24 hours. I was inspired by Eddie Izzard’s 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa (in my opinion a much more impressive feat).
I was told by numerous people that it couldn’t be done. And they had good reason to doubt me. I’d never run more than a marathon, logistically it seemed a nightmare and to be completely honest, I didn’t know if I could do it myself.
Once I said I was doing it publicly I knew I couldn’t change my mind. I was going to do it or crash spectacularly trying. But those doubting voices including my own added fuel to the fire.
My ‘why’ was strong. I was doing it in tribute to my late Mum, a marathoner and inspiration for my own running whilst raising money for charity.
I chose the challenge because it was different to anything other people were doing and anything I’d done before. I didn’t want to ‘play it safe’ and it also made me feel more confident asking for sponsorship!
So many people got on board with it in terms of running, organisation and sponsorship which made it a huge success raising over £10000. I am indebted to all those people but I do think the project appealed more because it was quite extreme (for me at that time).
What does ‘unrealistic’ mean to you?
Reevaluate your own goals for 2021. You don’t have to go as extreme as I did in 2017 (I haven’t myself) and it is all relative but could you push your targets a bit more?
If you plan to run a 5k – could you run a 10k? If you are targeting a 5 minute PB in the marathon, could you make it 10 minutes? If you want to raise £1000, could you raise £2000?
Choose something that makes you feel uncomfortable and start achieving!
Why a ‘bad’ training session can be great in the long run
Anyone who has run for any length of time has had one. A training session that sucked. The paces were all off or you felt sluggish or maybe your brain was telling you you couldn’t do it. You were left wondering why you even bother.
I have them from time to time and it is frustrating. We want to be able to smash everything that is thrown at us – be an A* student all the time. But even though I’ll still be disappointed, I’ve started looking at these types of sessions more pragmatically.
You’re not a robot
One thing I’m realising more and more through studying nutrition is that the body is an amazingly complex thing. And day to day it’s affected by far more than just your current ‘fitness level’.
Sleep, diet, hydration, stress and mindset can all play a significant role in running. Add that to external factors such as terrain and conditions and there is no valid way of determining exactly how you should and will perform on any given day.
Just because you run at a certain pace one week, it doesn’t mean that you can and will the next week. We can’t set all the factors up exactly the same each time so let’s not beat ourselves up about being slightly slower one week.
Tracking devices are not accurate
‘Your running watch is wrong!’. I heard this quote at a talk once and it made me smile. I, like many others, think of our watch readings as the holy grail of tracking. A second per mile here or there, a particular heart rate reading or that extra .01 mile you do for Strava are all vitally important.
However, the truth is that there is an element of inaccuracy in all of them. Some can be better than others but there is no way to know exactly how accurate they are at any particular time. So again, let’s not get disheartened over a few seconds here and there when we don’t know if the distance is accurate.
You’re more fatigued in training
I’ve consoled myself with this on many occasions. If your training plan is set up correctly, you should (usually) be able to muster up a better performance on race day as there will be an amount of tapering that will have you optimally rested.
Of course you should have rest days built into your plan but you may still be doing some high intensity training two days after a long run. You’re unlikely to be doing a race two days after a long run.
You’re also more likely to (and should!) prioritise sleep, hydration and diet more in the days leading up to a race whereas you may not have time or the inclination to make it a big priority during a training cycle (though you should certainly still try to).
You’re training at the right level
If I sailed through every training session smashing all the paces then I’d probably be very satisfied with myself. Until I asked the question – why is this training so easy? Should I be pushing myself harder? What am I really capable of?
I know when I coached myself that sometimes I would let myself off the hook in a session. Nobody else would care about my pace so only I would know. But now with a coach, there is nowhere to hide. And sometimes I will ‘fail’ in my own eyes.
But doing so is a confirmation that the training is pitched at the right level. I have a good amount of success with it but it is challenging. If I failed to hit the paces any of the time then the training set would be too difficult.
Draw on the ‘bad’ experience in races
Some of those sessions stick in your mind for various reasons. But you can use them in a positive way to get through difficult patches in races by focusing on how you overcame them. Pair them up with good sessions and see how you progressed over time.
Sometimes I like to imagine one of those bad sessions in a race and think ‘at least this isn’t as bad as that!’. It could be extreme weather conditions or a niggle that you were carrying or just bad circumstances around a particular run.
There are no ‘bad’ runs
Ultimately, every experience shapes you as a runner and person. There are no ‘bad’ runs. There are challenging circumstances and we find a way to deal with them. Maybe not there and then but over time.
If you shy away from ‘bad’ sessions then you lose some of this experience. That doesn’t mean to say we can’t strive for perfection but that if things do go slightly awry, we learn from those situations to make us better runners.
This week, after months of speculation, London marathon was finally cancelled. For the masses at least. (Hello to Eliud again if you’re reading this, you can probably skip this one…) I’d be amazed if that came as a big surprise to anyone. There just didn’t seem any way they could pull it off.
But even if it wasn’t a shock, it finally ends the last shred of hope for thousands of runners, many of which might have been running there for the first time. It may have been a lifelong dream for some culminating in the one event.
Of course, there are many in the world suffering at the hands of the virus and the cancelling of a race should be considered in that context, but the virus has far reaching effects for many outside the obvious factors.
It places uncertainty on almost all aspects of life and to many, running is a multi-faceted health benefit improving body and mind, not to mention generating huge amounts of money for charities.
London is just one of many races cancelled round the world and the chances are that if you had a race planned in 2020, you will have been affected. It is understandable that, for some, finding the motivation to carry on and build on their training will be difficult.
It might seem harder to focus now than during the first main lockdown in the spring. Back then, the messages coming out were to endure the lockdown for a few months then things would start getting back to normal. Now, there doesn’t seem to be a timeline. We’re past the first lockdown but things are far from back to normal.
However, the benefits of running haven’t changed and for most of us there are higher personal reasons for running than doing a particular race. Motivation will ebb and flow but if we have a solid routine and good reasons for carrying it out, lack of motivation can be overcome.
Can you run your race virtually?
A lot of races are offering a virtual option. Some of these, like the New York marathon, give guaranteed entry into a future race which might well appeal to some. Even if there is no virtual option it doesn’t stop you running the distance yourself.
There are pros and cons to running virtually. The plus side is that there is none of the expense and logistical problems of a big city marathon. You can just lace up and run from your front door if you wish. If there are no time constraints, you can pick the date and time to suit you too.
You can pick any course you like. You can make it flat as a pancake for a good time, you could choose something very scenic or you could challenge yourself with the terrain or elevation. Doing the latter can help ease any time pressures you might have otherwise imposed on yourself.
However, it is much harder to run a good time without closed roads, crowds cheering you on and aid stations. You may have to carry supplies or pre-plan to stash them en route. You need to be conscious of traffic if you are not off-road.
You may be able to get someone to support you or run some/all with you if you are running for a longer time or you could run loops from your house to avail of the facilities. My brother ran 20 5k loops from his house in 2013 to raise money for charity and was joined by many for varying numbers of loops.
If you do choose to run a race virtually, decide on your motivation for doing it and decide on your goal. Don’t shortcut your training just because it isn’t a ‘real’ race. Whatever you do, you want to be able to cover the distance comfortably without getting injured.
Try something new
Maybe like me, you were training for a marathon but don’t want to run one virtually. I love running but to me, the marathon is something a bit extra. With a young family, the weekend long runs are a big sacrifice of time and yet my weekly mileage has increased without doing these.
Instead, I’ve been training towards a 10k with slightly more sessions across the week but in general shorter. The change has been subtle but enjoyable and I feel in the best shape of my life. Tuning up for a longer race would not take too long either.
There are lots of things you could do to vary your training up. You could train for a shorter distance like me or a longer distance which might relieve any time pressure. You could train on new terrain such as on trails or in the mountains or even on the beach.
You could change your routine. This is something I have intentionally done since lockdown. Because I no longer have to commute to work, I get my run done in the morning instead of at lunchtime from work. This has also changed the terrain for me as it is hilly at home but flat near work.
Try tracking a different metric (see Trinity of Tracking). If you’ve never looked at your heart rate, buy a chest strap and start working out what your body is doing. If you’ve never kept a running journal, start giving yourself an RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion) score after each run.
Work on a weakness
We all have weaknesses and with limited racing opportunities it can be a good time to try and plug the gaps we have. There are so many aspects of running that also spill into our daily lives and general health.
You might work on a technical element of running by incorporating more running drills into your weekly schedule. You might improve your strength by adding in some/more strength work. This is something I have been very bad at in the past but have been doing in the last few months.
Maybe hills are your weakness or you shy away from speed work. Maybe you run too fast on easy days or don’t get enough sleep. Maybe your diet could be improved. There are so many things you could focus on.
Don’t try and change everything at once. Pick one or two things to work on and track your progress. Commit to persevering with it for your next training cycle and you will definitely see progression. In fact, it can be more rewarding than focusing on something we’re already good at because the improvements ought to be that much more stark.
Set your dream goals for the future
Whilst it might be difficult to see how to achieve some goals now, set out what you want to do in the next 5 years. It could be some of all of the things above or something very specific. Making long term goals can help you set your short term sights in the right direction.
For most of us I think staying injury free and enjoying our running is high up the list and following some of the ideas above will help towards that. Specific goals might be very personal. They might be a achieving a time goal or qualifying for or competing in a particular race.
Dream big! I still want to complete the six major marathons. So far I’ve only London on my CV and I’ve had Boston and Berlin cancelled this year. It means that I’ll need to stay fit for a few years yet as we don’t know what will happen over the next while and I’ll need to qualify again for some of them.
Most of all though I want running to be an effortless part of my life. It needs to be in balance with other things I do and I keep striving to find the optimum training schedule to do that. I think that is one of the most important keys to enjoying the process of training.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 could be around for some time and our lives are constantly at risk of being disrupted. But time is not standing still. There is still so much that we can do to better ourselves and get fulfilment from our running. Take control of your running and make your plan today! Let me know what you’re focusing on right now.
The Mourne Skyline Mountain Trail Race is set in the mountains of Mourne starting and finishing in Newcastle Co Down. It is 35km long and there is 3370m of ascent. It climbs eight peaks along the Mourne wall including the highest two in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh.
What do you need to do beforehand?
You must sign up for the race on the day registration opens. It is a hugely popular race and on 14th February 2019, it sold out in just four hours. Once you’ve been accepted into the race you’ll need to make sure you have the items on the mandatory checklist such as full body waterproofs, a hat, gloves, compass, whistle and possibly more. Oh and some training is a good idea.
What to expect before the race
The registration on the day was very efficient, so much so I almost didn’t know what was happening as I got moved from person to person! Your mandatory kit will be checked so make sure you have your pack with you.
You’ll get a tracker taped to your backpack to allow people to follow you on the website. You’ll also get an electronic dibber strapped to your wrist which you will need to check in at each of the checkpoints around the course. You can place a drop bag with food in it to pick up halfway round the course. Be sure to number it!
The race in detail
You start off on the promenade at Newcastle before quickly entering the forest park. After a short while of undulating trail you’ll turn right to be confronted with a long set of steps up. This leads up out of the trees where you’ll turn right for a short downhill to the start of the Glen river path.
The path takes you up the valley to the saddle between Slieve Donard on the left and Slieve Commedagh on the right. In most parts the path is excellent and ascends gradually. Gaining elevation after this point is nowhere near as easy. You cross the river around two thirds of the way up where the path starts to get steeper.
The first dibber checkpoint is at the col at the top of the valley. The wind picked up here from behind and it suddenly started to feel cold and more remote. Crossing over the huge Mourne wall here provides some short term shelter.
The next section along the brandy pad provides some of the easiest running of the day. The path skirts round the side of Commedagh and is good in most places. The path gets a little more broken up and steeper towards Hare’s gap. There’s a checkpoint here but no dibber then you start the first summit ascent of Slieve Bearnagh.
The ascent of Bearnagh from this side doesn’t seem too bad. There are a few steps near the bottom which take you to some steeper climbing. Then a track runs off to the left and plateaus for a while before bending back round for the final climb. A dibber on top marks your first peak for the day.
I had a battle in the wind trying to get my jacket back on halfway up the climb as the freezing rain started to fall. After I put it on at this point I never took it off again! It can be bleak and unforgiving up there and it can turn rapidly as I would find out a lot later. I could also feel that my big toe had punctured a hole in my sock. I tried to forget about that.
As soon as we started descending Bernagh I knew I was in for a tough day. My technique or maybe just my courage for descent is very weak. Additionally, I and perhaps my shoes were not ready for the soaking wet steep slope of Bernagh. It seemed like twenty people passed me just on the downhill.
Over the course of the entire race I went over at least three times and tripped countless other times. However, on reflection I think was probably lower than average listening to the general chat afterwards. I was certainly very cautious to try and avoid injury which meant I lost a lot of time on the downhills.
The ascent of Slieve Meelmore from the col seems quite long and relentless but in truth it is probably one of the easier climbs with the help of the steps by the side of the wall. There is not much room for passing but I did manage to retake a few positions on the ascent.
The second summit dibber awaits on top and then the heavens opened. I felt like I couldn’t see a thing on the descent of Meelmore due to the rain on my glasses. Again, I was passed by at least a dozen other runners. After a relatively short slither down the very top, there is a right turn onto a ‘path’ which takes you towards Fofanny Dam.
At the top this is still fairly steep and the path is very poor in places and I found myself making very hard work of it. This was my worst section of the day. Better looking paths turn off to the right and the orange flags that guide you round the course lead off to a small stream crossing. I actually managed to miss a couple of flags and come down slightly to the right and had to work my way back over.
A short path from here takes you to the dam which you run along to get to a checkpoint, dibber, drop bag and cut off point. You must make this point in three hours fifteen minutes so I was satisfied to make this point in just under two and a half hours. Barring any disasters in the second ‘half’ I should make it round in the eight hours allotted time.
I say ‘half’ because realistically I had marked out the next summit of Slieve Loughshannagh as the real halfway point in terms of effort as that’s what previous years’ times seem to indicate. A lot of the easier running is in the first half and most of the big climbs are in the second half.
I quickly located my drop bag; they have them out in a rough order but it definitely helps if you know what yours looks like as I think the number had mostly washed off. I had been looking forward to the banana I knew was awaiting me though I’d left my coke at home and I was going to crave that round the second half.
I picked it up and walked up the short hill to the road. I didn’t want to stop at this point but keep on moving and I picked up a steady pace up the road towards Ott car park. Clearly a lot of other competitors had marked this out as a breather and I passed quite a few walking up the road.
Turning left onto Ott track it feels like you are now heading for home. True, it is still a long way off but completing the course is now probably the easiest way to get back. The track is reasonably good for the most part and found I was able to run most of it. This section was my best of the day and I still had time to take half the banana and a bar on board as I was going.
In general I soon decided to ditch my usual road marathon fuelling plan of every half hour as I didn’t fancy trying to take anything during the descents. Firstly, you should be going faster (which I probably wasn’t) but secondly, you need both hands free for any tumbles you may incur. Consequently, I ended up eating something on most of the ascents.
Despite taking on what I thought was quite a lot, a banana; several coco pops bars; a couple of gels and some fun size milky ways, I was getting hungry at some stages and I didn’t end up with much spare by the end.
As the Ott track steepens and starts to dissipate, it meets the Mourne wall which takes you on a short steep ascent to the top of Loughshannagh. This is the fifth dibber point and what I would regard as the halfway point. Having reached here in just over three hours I was still hopeful that I may get round in six.
I found the descent of Loughshannagh one of the easiest of the day. Not only is it short but there were quite a lot of long, grassy tussocks which didn’t seem overly wet to allow you to get a decent grip going down.
Each peak seems to have a slightly different characteristic to the others. Loughshannagh was grassy but some are bouldery and some are slithery mud. And a couple do have a discernible path to follow.
I don’t remember the climb to the summit of Slieve Meelbeg and the sixth dibber point but at the top there is a right turn along the northside of the Mourne wall which was straight into a gale. This made for another awkward descent back toward the slopes of Meelmore.
Again, the ascent of Meelmore seemed deceptively long despite it clocking in as the shortest section of the day. I think it is the close proximity of these peaks and the steepness of the slopes that make them short but feel long.
Getting back to Meelmore seemed like another target crossed off. I knew what to expect for the next section at least and I also knew that I only had three more ascents to go although they are the biggest three.
However, the bouldery steps that proved helpful in climbing Meelmore on the way out prove tough on the legs on the way down. I was still able to make decent progress down with their aid and reacquaint myself with the tough side of Bearnagh. I knew it was going to be a tough climb and I’d planned to get some caffeine in if things were getting tough which I did.
I reached the summit of Bearnagh two and a half hours after I was last here and almost as soon as I started descending the weather suddenly cleared and I was treated to amazing views off to the right of Cove Mountain and Slieve Lamagan heading in the direction of Slieve Binnian.
If you remember from earlier, this side of Bearnagh is by far the easier to the extent that you can actually get a bit of comfortable running in round the rocky outcrops. I knew that six hours was now no longer attainable and I decided to really try and enjoy the views and the last couple of climbs.
At the bottom of Bearnagh is the checkpoint at Hare’s gap where the Brandy pad which we ran on in the morning diverges off to the right. This time we head on straight up towards Slieve Commedagh though this ascent has a few parts as it passes over the minor tops of Slievenaglogh and Slieve Corragh.
The first part up to Slievenaglogh is quite steep but I took it slowly and kept enjoying the views to the right. Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs where the Dambusters half marathon turns round come into sight below Lamagan and Binnian.
Once Slievenaglogh was conquered, the path turned right towards Corragh. This means you can see back towards Bearnagh and the Meels from where we have come. This is a fine sight and makes you realise the extent of the challenge. The terrain to Corragh and beyond is fairly good and running becomes possible again. It is like a long gradual shoulder to the final push up Commedagh.
There is a big tower at the ‘top’ of Commedagh (the actual top is off to the left but the penultimate dibber point is the tower). Unfortunately, it disappeared into the mist again as I started the short sharp climb to the top.
The descent of Commedagh was not bad on the south side of the wall. Some remnants of paths can be found and it is not quite as steep as some of the other downhills. Soon I was back to the col between Commedagh and Donard and I couldn’t see how far up I had to go for the final climb.
I’ve done the climb up to Donard many times before but this was by far the toughest. Whilst the ground isn’t too bad it just feels relentlessly long and steep given all the climbing already done. You can see other runners descending on the other side of the wall and wish that you were there.
Finally at the top you dib for the last time and head over the wall and back down the other side. Having not passed or been passed by anyone since Hare’s gap runners suddenly appeared from nowhere blasting past me again on the descent. I went over slightly on my ankle reminding me that I was not home yet.
I stayed close to the wall to make use of the steps but I think there was better ground to be had off to the right. Eventually I crossed over to it as I approached the col then turned right down the glen river path. As noted on the way up it is still relatively steep at the top and I was very cautious simply trying to get home in one piece.
After crossing the river, I picked up a bit more speed and confidence to lead back down to the fire road. This is a gravel track that zigzags down to the finish. I can’t tell at this point if I have stones in my shoes or blisters on my feet or both. At the top, Newcastle still seems a fair way to go but covering distance suddenly becomes a bit faster and easier.
The tanoy and music can be heard a little way off then you hit the grass. One last left turn takes you down to the finish area, no sprint finish just a very hard shift put in and a resolve to not get talked into another race like this without a lot better preparation.
I thoroughly recommend this event as long as you know what you are getting yourself into. The registration, marshalling and course marking is all excellent and unless you are seriously good on this terrain you should think of it as a challenge rather than a race.
Invest in some proper fell running shoes and go and practise in the Mournes. Try running in various conditions. You won’t know what it will be like on the day but it is worth preparing for the worst. Finally, plan for it taking a long time! I seriously underestimated my ability on a course like this. It is tough and if you are not used to it, doubling your marathon time is not unrealistic.