Marathon training – lessons learnt the hard way

When I signed up for Brighton, I spent hours putting together the perfect training plan. I included hill training, tempo runs, and a steady increase in mileage, with a cut-back week every month. I told myself I would run before work, that I would go to strength classes at the gym and swim twice a week and squeeze in some yoga and stretching sessions for good measure.

As with most things, it didn’t turn out quite the way I had planned. I completely underestimated how easy it was for life to get in the way, and ended up burying my head in the sand and swapping many a mid-week run for a hot chocolate, comfy sofa and a couple hours of 4oD (time well spent, not).

Looking back at the year leading up to Brighton, there are a lot of things I would go back and change if I could. As I can’t, I decided to write them down instead and hopefully learn from my mistakes next time round. Please tell me I’m not the only one that got these things wrong!

1) Entering a marathon 10-12 months in advance doesn’t mean that I can be an absolute slacker and just ‘cross train’ (i.e. ride my bike to work a few times a week) with no running until Christmas, when I then panic and try to jump straight in to training 4-5 times a week. Sure, the 4 months ‘official’ training will get you to the finish line – but it won’t be pretty!

2) Whilst cycling 14 miles a day is great for quads, calves and cardio, it’s not an excuse to skip my weekday runs – and the long Sunday runs will be TOUGH (and get TOUGHER) if I don’t do any other running in between. This means more than one or two 5k lunchtime jogs!

3) I thought I was an evening runner, and last year I was; but the storms we saw this year had me throwing that idea out the window. Despite my best intentions, by the time I got home after cycling through the wind and the rain and the dark, soaking wet and freezing cold, the last thing I felt like doing was changing into my running gear and heading back out. Figures.

4) Unfortunately, I’m not much of a morning runner, either (or an early morning person in general!) But desperate times call for desperate measures, and by leaving my garage key (no access to my bike) and debit card (no money for the train) along with a change of clothes at work the evening before, I managed to force myself to start run commuting the 7 miles to the office once a week (though I didn’t manage it every week!) And it turned out to be way better than cycling, driving or getting the train.

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The sunrise can be pretty special!

5) Stretching and foam rolling genuinely make a difference to recovery times and performance! I can’t stress this enough. I noticed a substantial difference between the long runs when I had stretched and foam rolled well the week prior, and the ones when I hadn’t. When I forgot to stretch (i.e. couldn’t be bothered), my legs would ache for days longer, and would feel heavy for a good mile or two during my next run. The real test was directly after the marathon – I had an eye-wateringly painful but brilliantly thorough quad and ITB massage on the Wednesday (I felt bruised for a day or so afterwards, but it was SO worth it), and could instantly walk down stairs again. I even managed a comfortable 10k on the Saturday! But I was told quite sternly that the massage wouldn’t have been half as painful if I’d been stretching and foam rolling regularly. D’oh.

6) I really need to refuel properly after my long runs! There were a couple of times where I did a long run on the Sunday, and then missed breakfast on the Monday morning (see point 4), and I felt AWFUL as a result – almost hung over! I was tired, light headed and sluggish, and often wouldn’t be back to my usual self until late on the Tuesday – assuming I ate well and rested enough. Tough times! In future: snack regularly, and eat proper meals!

7) I think the most important thing that I got wrong was my expectations for the marathon itself. After cutting down my times in 5k and 10k races, and clocking regular sub-10-minute miles (not constantly, but much more than last year), I had high hopes for my marathon time and pace. I assumed I would be able to average 11-minute miles for the whole distance, with time to spare for a few walking breaks, and saunter over the finish line in under 5 hours. But the longer my training runs got, the more I realised that my body simply wasn’t used to such high miles – and as a result, I slowed down towards the end of them, bringing down my average pace. On the day itself, I barely looked at my Garmin once, and decided to just focus on enjoying the experience. After all, I had worked for 2 years to get to the starting line. I had raised money for charity, put in countless solo training miles in all different conditions, studied the course map and practised fuelling and hydration and technique. At the end of the day, I would only ever have one first marathon; I didn’t even know at that point whether I could FINISH, let alone in what time. It was a brand new challenge, and getting to the finish line was all that really mattered. And ultimately, I did it.

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I didn’t do it in under 5 hours, and I certainly didn’t average 11 minute miles – but I loved every. single. moment.

What mistakes did you make when training for your first marathon? Anything you would go back and change?

 

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Running post-marathon

I didn’t expect the marathon to transform me into Wonderwoman, but I did think that it would make a difference to my running in some way. Through all of those tough solo miles in training, I would tell myself, ‘this is the hardest it’ll be’ – that once I’d done the distance a few times, my body would adjust and I’d be busting out 15-milers with ease.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not really turned out that way. Being a marathon runner doesn’t make me a good runner, because I wasn’t a particularly good runner beforehand. I was just a very stubborn, determined runner. The only difference now is that instead of being determined to reach that elusive 26.2m goal, I want to speed up – which is going to be DIFFICULT. I’m not a fan of hills or intervals (that’s putting it lightly – I avoid both like the plague), but I guess the only way to speed up is to, well, speed up.

Last Saturday, a friend and I headed to our local parkrun. I ran 1.5 miles there, did the parkrun, then ran 1.5 miles back, making it up to a nice 10k. Since then, my big toenail has been throbbing and getting darker and darker. Ironic really, given that it was fine after the marathon. Beaten by a 10k … Pft. Whilst my legs didn’t hurt too badly afterwards, I found the run itself really tough. I had to take a brief walking break after half a mile! Shameful! And the parkrun itself HURT. To be fair, it was hilly – but oh my days, I wasn’t feeling it. And all I could think was ‘how on Earth is this so hard, after all of the uber-long runs I ticked off in training!?’ Luckily, I managed the 5k without any breaks, but it certainly wasn’t my fastest.

This morning I decided to bite the bullet and give it another go. I set off at 6h55, picked up my friend 1.5 miles down the road, and we ran to work. By the time I got to the Sainsburys by my office, my Garmin registered 6.59 miles (food is definitely more important than a round number) and I saved the run and went in to grab some bits for lunch. This time, I managed to get a 10:05 first mile, and only walked the road crossings. I also got to admire the view from the top of the big hill, in the beautiful sunshine, which made the climb worth it:

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I made the rookie mistake of not eating anything beforehand. Normally, I’d be fine without breakfast before a run of this length – I never eat before parkrun – but given how much I struggled on Saturday, I think a banana or some toast would probably have given me a bit of a boost. As it was, I seriously lacked energy, and my legs felt tired for almost the entire thing. I think it was only after 5 miles or so that I really settled into it!

Whilst I’m not running my best, I’m really loving being able to run for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than having a set distance to reach on a certain day, in a certain time. The pressure’s off – I finished the marathon (albeit with lots of walking breaks from 17 miles!), and now I can run where I want, when I want, and for as long as I want. I just need to make sure that I keep getting out there; it’s a bit more difficult when there’s no training plan to push me out the door!

To keep the motivation up, I’ve signed up for a few half marathons: the Thames Meander in August, Royal Parks in October (the first ever ballot that I actually got lucky in!), Brighton in February, and Surrey in March (I highly recommend this one – this year was AWESOME!!!).

Now I just need to figure out which marathon to run next spring! So far, my name’s (provisionally) down for Paris, and I’m going to be entering the London ballot on the 22nd (though never much luck there). Whichever marathon I end up doing, here’s hoping that I walk a little less next time round!

 

Race Review: Brighton Marathon 2014!

It’s weird. I’ve been working up to this for 2 years, and now that it’s here, I don’t know what to say.

I’m a marathon runner.

I don’t think I really knew exactly how I felt at any point along those 26.2 miles. I spent the whole time swinging back and forth from giddy excitement to happy tears to sad tears to doubts and worries to smiles and laughter to grimaces and mental grumbles to feeling on top of the world again. Honestly, I couldn’t keep up. It was unlike anything I’ve ever gone through, ever. And it was magic.

The expo was brilliant. I was still suffering from a cold I came down with at the beginning of the week, which didn’t help with the nerves, but the atmosphere was so exciting that I really got into it. I definitely had butterflies when I picked up my race number – I wasn’t sure whether to feel terrified or excited:

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I impulsively bought a Brighton Marathon t-shirt at the Saucony stand, which turned out to be an AWESOME move, as Paula Radcliffe turned up shortly afterwards and I managed to get it signed! Wooo! SUCH A FAN GIRL MOMENT!

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I squeezed past all of the adults to sit with the little kids at the front of the crowd (yes, I definitely sat on the floor with the little kids) to watch/listen to her interview first. Brilliant.

I think I was still in denial at that point. I listened to her talk about race prep and fuelling but I think in some ways, I still felt like a spectator rather than a runner. It wasn’t until I put on my gear the morning of the race that it really hit me – and then I got scared!

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But by the time we crossed the start line, the nerves were gone. I stuck with Mum and Dad for the first 10k, before they disappeared off into the distance (good on them!) and all I could do was repeat ‘I can’t believe I’m actually running a marathon! I’m actually here! It’s actually happening!’ and smile and giggle at all of the people that called our names.

For the first 10k I was so distracted by the crowds and the costumes and everything else that I almost forgot I was running. Once on my own, it got tougher, but at that point I was glad I had done all of my training alone – and extremely glad that I’d put my name onto my race top! I had completely underestimated how much the crowd support would help. For the first half my head was still quite stuffy from my cold, and I could tell that my heart rate was a little high, and I took my first walking break on the looong road out of Brighton, shortly after my brother zoomed past me in the opposite direction (he started in the corral ahead of us).

At that point, having only done 8 miles or so, I was really worried. I had been downing Lemsip for days, and resting as much as I could, but as I’d never run with a cold or anything before I wasn’t sure what to expect – and it crossed my mind that a marathon might have been a bit ambitious!

Heading to the half way point, the downhill got me running again and the crowds put a smile back on my face. I think it was better that I had lost sight of my parents – it was pretty demoralising seeing them up ahead and not having the energy to catch up to them! Just before the 13 mile point I heard whooping and cheering, and spotted our cheer (and support!) crew – my Uncle, Aunt and lovely boyfriend, all with big grins on their faces. It gave me a big boost of energy, and I picked up the pace a little.

From then to mile 17/18, I managed to keep plodding along, but at a much slower pace. I made sure to take a gel every 5 miles, as planned, and alternated water with Gatorade in between. I might have squirted myself in the face with the water pouch at one point .. But the volunteers at the aid stations and all of the crowds along the route were SO supportive! Whilst in my head I was grumbling at them at times for pushing me to keep going when I wanted to walk (you can’t stop and walk when people are cheering you on, really!) I loved each and every one of them for caring enough to encourage me.

I remember two little boys with their arms full of gels, waving them at us and yelling ‘energy! energy!’ .. They were so cute that I had to run over and take a gel, and give them both a high five when they held their hands out. It was along this road that I finally left the Storm Trooper behind – we’d been overtaking each other on and off since the start, but as awesome as he was, being beaten by a guy in full Storm Trooper gear would have been a bit demoralising. I did hang around to cheer him along when he hit the finishing straight though!

When we hit the out and back to the power station – the infamous ‘Road to Hell’ – I have to admit that I walked for the best part of a mile and a half. It had warmed up by that point, and my right hamstring was feeling really tight (one of the few areas that had NEVER bothered me in training). I looked down at my pace band, and accepted that my sub-5 finish was out the window. I think my brother had pretty much crossed the line by that point, which made me grumpy (for myself) and excited (for him) in equal measure! Someone at the charity cheer point complimented my running tights, which made me laugh 😀

Weirdly enough, whilst miles 21-23 were the absolute worst of the whole day, and made me consider walking the rest of the way to the finish line (the fact that I even considered walking the last five miles shows what kind of mental state I was in), from miles 23-25 I really perked up and began to pass people. This was actually my favourite stretch – the sun had come out, there were loads of people watching, it was flat (with a bit of a downhill further on), and I could practically see the finish. It felt like I was back to my normal pace, but I think I was probably still shuffling along. Compared to all of the people walking, it seemed pretty fast!

Mile 25 was BRILLIANT. Not only did I spot our cheer squad up ahead (absolute legends), but I also saw my parents! I managed to catch up with them just after the 25 mile point, and we stuck together to cross the finish line hand in hand. That moment really made it for me – we had been training together (albeit long distance), raising money and running for the same cause. It was also their last marathon, so the only one we would run together, which made the finish all the more special:

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I think I was trying to smile there whilst trying not to cry! But the minute I crossed the finish line, the tears came. Because after two years, one deferral, and lots and lots of solo miles, I had actually run a marathon. It was the best. moment. EVER.