More than one way to run a marathon

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Stick to your fuelling schedule. Know how much you can take on and keep going with it unless you’re having bad GI distress.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.