Having found out in December that I was doing the London Marathon on the 23rd April, I upped my training mileage from about 15 a week to around 40 a week. I improved my diet by eating more carbs and protein and cutting out some rubbish and set myself a stretch target of a good-for-age time of sub-3.15, meaning just over 7.00 mile pace for pretty much the whole 26 miles with a little bit to spare for the hurty miles at the end. Coming to the end of March, with the marathon, my third, 4 weeks away, now is probably a good time to assess whether this target time is still possible or not.
First of all, I am really enjoying the training. Getting out and running more is high up on my personal priority list. Not only am I enjoying the harder runs, I am also enjoying the recovery runs, especially as we head into some milder Spring weather and lighter evenings. My running performances across the board have improved; I ran my fastest 5k for four years last week and that is a direct impact of harder training. Although I am feeling physically more tired in general, doubling the amount of training has actually been easier than I expected, especially as much of the increase is covered in one run – the long one! But the long run is where I seem to struggle the most – quite fundamental for a marathon! Why can’t a marathon be 20 miles? Why did Marathon have to be 26.2 miles from Athens? Everything over 20 miles is just agony.
A good runner will run several dozen 5ks or 10ks in training or races every year and you get used to how your body feels, the pace you need to go at, the effort going into it and the time you therefore expect at the end. Many of those runs are very similar. Long runs are different. Each one feels unique. Of course, they are a much greater challenge physiologically and mentally, but they also are much less frequent events and with a much greater number of variables that impact the result, so I still don’t know exactly what to expect from each long run. The more of them I do, the more I learn and the better I will get, in theory at least, at doing them. My first ‘long’ run for this programme was 11 miles and then 13 miles, both in December. That was the furthest I had run since the Great North Run half marathon in September. I’ve since completed a 15 miler, a 16 miler, a 19 miler, a 22 miler, a 24 miler, a 20 miler and, last weekend, the full distance – 26 miles. My body is gradually getting used to the distance. I feel much fresher through the teens than I did before, so there is definitely progress, until 20 miles.
For me, a long run normally starts about a week before, when you plan when you are going to do it. Doing it on a Sunday morning means that it is unwise to have a big night out (or in) on the Saturday! The run itself is likely to consume at least 3-4 hours, and the tiredness that you will feel afterwards means that you shouldn’t plan doing anything too much after the run either, so it’s a big time commitment. You carb load on the Friday and Saturday and make sure you have all the necessary on-the-run food and drink in advance. Depending on your fitness, you might want to avoid hard efforts for a few days beforehand. You read the weather forecasts, hoping it will be fair for the time you have set aside, although you know you’ll be going anyway. You set the alarm for Sunday morning to give yourself time to get up, have an appropriate breakfast, warm up and get all your kit and tech on before heading out. You might have arranged to run with friends or club colleagues which is another layer of planning. And you haven’t even taken a step yet. Then there’s the route, how far, a feed plan by mile or by time, how fast. It all seems like hard work. One of the reasons running is so popular is because you can just put a pair of shoes on and go. It’s not like that for long runs though.
After 20 miles, the muscles that lift my legs just don’t seem to be capable of propelling me much faster than a hobble. It’s not that I’m hitting the wall, at least I don’t think so. I am taking on enough energy through the run in the shape of gels, drinks, energy bars etc. Is it lack of conditioning or tiredness due to the amount of training I’m doing? Have I reached my physiological limit? I suppose the purpose of training is to make something achievable that would otherwise be impossible, to improve your performance and to learn. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I am finding it difficult and struggling to achieve the level I want before the end of my training. It is also likely that doing so many long runs across a few weeks will make it harder. My body is tired. It just shows how much of a challenge a marathon is. No doubt this is the same feeling some people have for their first 5k. Everyone’s mountain is different. I have one more long run scheduled this coming weekend: 20 miles with the first 15 at race pace, 7.00 minute miles. It is incredibly difficult to replicate race effort in training – a subject that many sports psychologists, coaches and athletes have written about. Race effort is debilitating as well. It takes your body longer to recover from race effort than training effort, so even 15 miles at race pace will be a challenge. Most of my long run miles are between 7.40 and 8.00 pace.
And so, on race day, do I aim for a good-for-age time of 3.15 or a beat-my-PB time of 3.29? Given my difficulties with long runs, if I start at 7.00 mile pace, is there a danger I’ll blow up and completely embarrass myself? I know I can run a half marathon at 6.30 pace and my body is holding up from the training. No injuries. Soreness, yes, but nothing that hurts too much or is hanging off! Foam-rollering, stretching and the odd sports massage all help. Of course, the day of the marathon will be different to training. I’ll have tapered for almost 3 weeks prior, I’ll not be dragging two water bottles round strapped to my waist, the support will be deafening, especially in the last 6 miles, and the adrenalin will be pumping. I might revert to one of the mottos that has meant a lot to me in my life: Just Do It!