And six months on…

I look very small

A quick update on life six months after running my first marathon – and it’s a bit sad really.

In the build-up to the London Marathon I had been running 5 days and 70km a week. After the race I decided that it would be a good idea to just not run – at all. After months of running, both mentally and physically I’d had enough. On reflection I think that was a mistake.

Initially it felt good to have more time, and for my leg muscles not to be permanently tired. I had time away from home, and cycled. And when the time was right, I went back to Parkrun to meet my friends there. And that’s where my troubles began. Initially I was occasionally suffering cramps in my left calf, and just tried to ignore it. Then, one Parkrun morning as I was running along chatting to someone I had a sharp pain in my calf, and simply couldn’t run. As always at Parkrun people around were concerned and checked I was OK as I limped to the finish. The cycle home was a rather one-legged affair, and I was back to a regime of no running. After a week or so walking was not too painful.

Then a few weeks later as I was starting a long walk with friends, there was yet again a sharp pain. I was perhaps stupid to continue the walk, but I was back to painful walking and no running.

Since then I have decided that while completely giving up running after the marathon had been a bad idea, I’m now in a situation where I have to allow my leg to completely recover before returning to any sort of training regime. I have run for spells on a treadmill (which has the advantage that you can stop when you need to) and the muscles do seem to be recovering. I’m now missing the exercise and the time in nature. At least I’ve got back that appetite for training.

The first 20 miles were good – never again

For some odd reason a marathon is 26.2 miles. It was my first marathon at London on Sunday. The first 20 miles and the last 0.2 miles were good. The 6 miles in between don’t sound like much, but they determined the ultimate result.

I said in my previous blog “my sole objective for the Marathon is to finish as elegantly as possible”. I certainly did that – my finish (the last 0.2 miles) looked pretty sprightly. But it’s only when reality happens that you realise that perhaps the aim should have been more specific. I really wanted to run the whole way. Rather arrogantly I thought my training and a bit of discipline in pacing at the start would make me immune from “the wall”. It didn’t!

The discipline was working well at first. I started near the back of the blue start area, and must have been in the last few hundred runners of 42,000, but I watched my Fitbit, stuck to 7:30 kilometres and spent the first few miles chatting to a nice lady called Marie. At the first drink station she stopped and I jogged on gently. I was going too fast for her!

Before the 20 mile point – I’m smiling

At around the 20 mile mark I was feeling pretty tired (as I expected) but was also finding that maintaining any reasonable running pace was making me feel faint. The last thing I wanted was to keel over and get dragged off the course, and when my running speed was no longer any faster than others around me who were walking, I concluded that it made sense to save energy and join then. My pace up to that time would have brought me to the finish in around 5:30 – that had been my plan, and it had gone well to that point.

But now I was walking – I have never walked (in an event) before, so I had no idea of what my pace might be. Six miles of a marathon doesn’t sound a lot, but walking it could easily add 30 minutes or maybe even an hour to my time. And while I hadn’t admitted to a target time before the run, I had certainly said that I would finish in 5 hours something – not six hours! I was walking briskly, with a bit of a run now and then, especially on downhill sections. It was no time for slacking, and I was desperately doing mental arithmetic to realign my expectations. It looked as though I was now doing 10-minute kilometres, but still looked OK for less than 6 hours. I re-calibrated at every opportunity, and it continued to look good. There was a degree of uncertainty, because by this stage my Fitbit thought I had done 2 kilometres more than the course markers, so I continued with desperate calculations.

Gradually landmarks near the finish came into view. At last a sub 6-hour finish looked assured. I could plan strategically. By now I was feeling better, and could have run, but I decided to walk until I approached the right turn to the finish. I’m told Buckingham Palace was there. I didn’t see it – I was staring at the finishing line, and jogging quite comfortably. I was no longer flat footed and exhausted. I was overtaking people and enjoying it.

And then I was finished. A marshal did a high-five at the line, but the rest was a real anti-climax. No carnival atmosphere – people handed us the medal, we walked on to pick up the goody-bags (some ladies complaining there were no small size T-shirts left, which seems a bit of an oversight) and then a long long walk to get out. Nowhere to sit and chill, we just emerged into Trafalgar Square and then I had to push past thousands of unhelpful Weatherspoons drinkers to the meeting point in Whitehall. That was one long walk.

And that was it – apart from fainting on the Tube on the way back.

The time was 05:50:29, and I finished reasonably elegantly. Mission accomplished. Oh, and nice lady Marie, who I left behind in the early stages, beat me. Well done Marie!

Lessons learned

  • Even when training has gone well, a marathon is hard work
  • It’s very difficult to devise, test and execute a feeding strategy for a marathon
  • After finishing it’s a good idea to take time out to eat and drink before hitting the outside world
  • I’m sort of happy – but I could have done better
  • Never again? Well, I’ve signed up for the 2020 ballot, but I won’t get in!
  • I am a marathon runner

The final countdown

5 miles through the Suffolk countryside (click to enlarge)

I’m writing this on the Tuesday before the Marathon – 5 sleeps to go. I’m well into my taper now, and no issues so far. While I’m running a lot less than at the peak, I guess by the standards of most people (especially people of my age) I’ve still covered a fair distance in the last couple of weeks. I’m now talking in terms of my last long run being “just a half marathon”. Last week my daily runs stayed at 10.5 km, but I’ve been trying to run them gently. Yesterday, which would have been long run day, I went out in glorious sunshine intending to run 5 km, but couldn’t resist taking the scenic route and doing 8 km. I don’t feel too guilty about over-doing it, because I succeeded in keeping the pace down to a marathon shuffle, which feels ridiculously slow.

It’s not how fast I go, but the fact I can do it at all!

I’m beginning to understand my pace. If I just run without thinking about it I settle out at 6.5 minute kilometre pace until I get tired, which might be after 8 or 10 miles. If I focus my mind on a controlled push I can take the pace up to 6 minute kilometres for a distance of 10 km or so. With a disciplined focus on slow running the pace comes out at around 7.5 minute kilometres. I can maintain 5 minute kilometres for a mile – that’s an 8 minute mile, and my excuse for the mixed units. I’m sort of happy with that – I was never a great athlete, and the surprising thing now is not how fast I go, but the fact I can do it at all.

I intend just one more run before the event – another gentle run tomorrow. 5 km would be sensible, but if the weather’s nice it might turn out to be another 8 km. I will be focusing on marathon pace, trying to get used to running slower than comes naturally. My sole objective for the Marathon is to finish as elegantly as possible, and I know from running half the distance that the temptation to speed early on will be my enemy, however good it feels at the time.

I’m as ready as I’ll ever be – I’m just hoping above all else that I don’t injure anything or get ill in the next few days.

…and taper

Weather for London Marathon day

Just two weeks to go. I’m formally starting my taper from here, although last week (the first week of April) was also lighter than normal because we were in Wales in the motorhome. I managed three runs during that week. Two of them were on tracks in the Brecon Beacons where we were staying. It was very robust countryside and at times snowing too. I was reminded just how tough are the fell runners for whom this type of ground is normal. For me, accustomed to the gentle slopes of Suffolk, running uphill or down was challenging in the extreme. So the week was very different from the training of past months, and the variety was probably good in exercising some muscles that have had it easy when plodding along a tarmac road.

This week I was back to the old routine for just one more time – a long run of about 20 miles, three 6½ milers and a parkrun. I can’t say I’m sorry to have completed the last long run of the training programme – I’ve found them tough, and somewhat scary, with the prospect of having to complete a further 6 miles for the Marathon.

Next week my long run will be scaled back to a slow (marathon-pace) half-marathon distance on Monday, and I’ll probably taper the shorter runs down to 3 miles through the week, ending with a parkrun on Saturday. After that, I’ll have a week off (maybe the odd stretch) until Marathon day on 28th April. I just hope that my body can stay together for two more weeks and that it doesn’t rain on the day.

Running with Gareth

I’m a creature of habit, so I found it rather unsettling that real life got in the way of doing my long run on Monday – especially since the routine had been disturbed the week before by the taper for the Cambridge Half Marathon, and the event itself. But this week, shock horror, long run day was Tuesday. And after the half marathon break I was back to the 19.5 mile 3/4 marathon long run.

We’ve had remarkably good weather all through the winter, and that has really helped in getting out there for the training runs (which unlike previous years have been almost exclusively outside). But Tuesday was the day that storm Gareth arrived. We got up to find a cold and windy day. Somehow it takes longer to get out of the door when it’s like that. But eventually I was off, having prepared a bottle of plain water for the first of my three 6.5 mile laps, and a couple of Lucozade Sport bottles (acclimatising for the London Marathon) for drink stops as I passed home.

My target for the London Marathon is simply to finish, preferably reasonably elegantly and I’ve realised that, for such a distance, learning to start slowly is key to that. The aim for this run was to practice slow running. My parkrun a couple of days previously fitted in well with that – I had run round gently talking to a friend. For the long run there was no running partner to pace me, apart from Gareth the Gale.

Not only do I normally run alone, but I rarely meet anyone along the way – it’s mostly country lane and farm track. Today was different. First came the man who looked as though he’d just stepped out of All Creatures Great and Small (stories about a veterinary practice in the 1940s). He was in an old Land Rover, dressed in tweed from head to toe, and searching for the Suffolk Hunt Kennel. Conveniently he was very close and I was running that way, so I could put him right.

Then came the tree fellers – two of them, which might confuse an Irish reader. They had been called in to sort out some trees damaged by Gareth and wanted some local knowledge on whether the road was busy. It’s not!

Shortly after that I came upon the man planting a new hedge along a field edge. He was talking to another man in a very big shiny Audi SUV (he probably owns the whole village). I greeted them both and continued on my first lap, moving over shortly afterwards to allow the Audi to overtake as I struggled against the wind blowing across the open fields.

I completed the first lap, picked up a bottle of Lucozade and set off up the hill for lap two. This was less eventful but hedge-planting man was still at it. He greeted me as I panted past, and was somewhat surprised when I said I would be coming back one more time. At the end of lap two, half marathon distance, I was definitely feeling tired. I’d drunk less than half of my sports drink so I continued on to lap three without a stop.

Why does my lap start with an unrelenting kilometre of climbing? I’d been checking my Fitbit all the way to try to ensure that I kept a sensible pace, and trying to do mental arithmetic on my average pace. Battling with a gale, and feeling pretty tired I was convinced it was a slow run. It had started to drizzle on the third lap. By the time I met hedge-planting man for the third time, the rain was getting more insistent. We had a quick chat. I explained this was my third 6.5 mile lap. “One more lap and you’ve done a marathon,” he said perceptively.

One more lap and you’ve done a marathon!

“That’s the plan,” I said. Hedge-planting man had that air of unruffled calm that possibly comes from working outside. It was blowing a gale, and the rain was getting more insistent. But he kept going – no rush, one step at a time. That was a good model for me to follow.

By now I was definitely tired, but I could still plod on. The wind made it hard work, but I knew that would ease once I’d made it through the open fields. The rain wasn’t too bad…

…and then, a mile or so later, it was! I was again heading straight into the wind, with a slight slope helping me. But the rain was torrential – were those just big rain-drops or was it hail? I couldn’t open my eyes. In the middle of the road I turned my back on the wind and tried to clear my eyes. My waterproof jacket was by now clearly not waterproof – I was soaked to the skin. It was cold and windy. I resumed my homeward plod – lucky it was the last lap.

Things became better, the wind eased as I took the turning for the last couple of miles and the rain was past its worst. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush.

The end result? We ran the distance 5 minutes faster than last time – me and Gareth, despite all the stops. Keep going, one step at a time, no rush – hedge-planting man set a good example.

Cambridge Half – so far so good

The weather forecast was a bit gloomy for the 2019 Cambridge Half Marathon, especially in comparison to the February heatwave we were enjoying a few days earlier. The actuality was not so bad. The lack of sun made for good running conditions. There was a little drizzle, but not enough to be noticeable while running. And the earlier dry weather meant that the grass at the venue was in good condition – it has been ankle deep mud in the past.

I’ve done every Cambridge Half since it started in 2012. In the past it’s been my highlight event of the year. This year it’s forming a part of my training for the London Marathon, so it felt a little different, but I was still feeling pressure. It wasn’t so much fear of the distance, as it once was, but fear of screwing it up.

“If the Cambridge Half goes wrong, how will you feel about a full marathon a few weeks later?” said a niggling inner voice.

The Cambridge Half would provide a break from the strict training routine I had been following. I would taper, have a couple of days off, and the distance was less than my regular long run. It would also provide an opportunity to practice discipline in my pacing when surrounded by lots of people, as well as rehearsing the slightly surreal atmosphere of a big running event. I know I can survive a half marathon even if I do blow up after eight or ten miles due to an over-ambitious start. That would be more serious for a full marathon, and I know I’ve always felt pretty exhausted at the end of 13.1 miles. My training for the longer distance was suggesting that I had to work on going slowly at the beginning. So the objectives for the day were:

  • don’t break myself
  • run a controlled race
  • feel good at the end

I won’t describe the run in detail, mostly because I don’t remember the details. At the start I was focusing on taking it easy. It felt very easy, and people were overtaking, but my watch told me I was sensible. I then relaxed a bit and focused on staying comfortable. The record says that I was getting a little faster – I was now overtaking people. The halfway point is just after Grantchester, and not long after that we turn right at the roundabout and head back towards Cambridge along the A603 Barton Road. I’ve always enjoyed that part of the run. We’re on the way back, it’s slightly downhill, there’s lots of space – I just feel good.

Finishing straight

I was still restraining my pace – enjoy, but don’t push. It would be all too easy to get carried away, and I know from past experience that the run back through the City can still be very tough, even with all the encouragement from the lovely spectators. But this time it wasn’t. I think it was at the end of Silver Street that I almost tripped over as I tried to skip a little jig to accompany the bag-pipe player. And then with around 2 miles to go, I allowed myself to accelerate. It was less than a parkrun now, and I was still feeling good. I ran those last miles at around my normal parkrun speed, and still had energy for a decent sprint at the end. Unlike last year, my legs were still good, and I didn’t feel faint. I could enjoy the alcohol-free beer and my brain was still working as I unlocked my bike.

Riding back up the Milton Road to the car, there was a following wind. I was on a high and diced irresponsibly with dick-heads in cars as I sped along. I didn’t die.

All in all, it was a good day. The only mistake I made was to forget to stop my watch at the finishing line. It said exactly 2 hours 15 minutes when I did remember. The official time was 2:14:28. A new personal best just before my 66th birthday – and I wasn’t even trying for a time.

The inner hooligan escapes

With the Cambridge Half Marathon in 6 days time I decided to reduce my long run of the week from the three-quarter marathon of last week to half marathon distance. To make it part of my marathon training, I would run it at something like marathon pace rather than pressing on.

That was the theory. In practice, for the first lap (of two) I was rather faster than marathon pace, but quite comfortable. I picked up another water bottle(with added calories) at the end of the first lap, wasting a bit of time because my wife had locked me out of the front door! Perhaps it was the frustration of that, or knowing that unlike last week I had just one more lap to go, but all my good intentions were thrown aside in that second lap. It started briskly, and just got faster. As I saw the kilometre splits getting faster it spurred me on even more, and the middle 5 kms of that second lap were run in a similar time to my parkrun a couple of days earlier.

So much for plans and discipline – but actually a pretty good outcome. It shows that start slow/get faster can actually produce a decent time. I guess that a slightly faster start might have been faster overall but this was training, and finishing with so much energy shows that the distance training for the full marathon has put me in a comfortable position for running a half – always assuming I stay fit for the next six days.

Of course, the real test comes at the end of April.

It’s not a sprint…

Yesterday I ran the longest distance I’ve ever run (31.5 km or 19.5 miles), and for the longest time I’ve ever run (nearly 4 hours). It wasn’t fast, but I was very happy to complete three quarters of a marathon at a consistent pace. It was certainly a lot harder maintaining that pace at the end, but it does show the importance of not blowing all my energy in the first 10 miles.

And just a couple of days ago I surprised myself by running a new personal best time over 5 km at the local parkrun, so it counts as a good week.

The training plans tell me that I’ve now run as long a distance as I need to in training for a marathon, and I certainly feel happier now that if all goes well I do have a hope of finishing – something that didn’t seem so likely just a week ago when I struggled to finish 17 miles. However, the other thing the books say is that the last 6 miles are as hard as the previous 20, so no smug feelings yet. It’s rather tempting to try a run over the full marathon distance just to see what happens. If I made it comfortably (I use the word in relative terms here) it would do wonders for the confidence, but everyone says don’t do it. There’s a risk of breaking myself, and of course it would be very bad for the morale if I wasn’t able to go the distance.

I did the run as 3 laps of a 10.5 km route from home (so 4 laps would be a full marathon), which gave me a chance to pick up water – I find it a nuisance to carry more than half a litre, and that’s not enough for 4 hours of running, even in these relatively cool conditions. In practice I only did one water stop, after the first lap, so I survived on a litre, which is probably less than recommended. The first half litre was just water, the second contained an energy supplement. I didn’t feel particularly thirsty while running, but was certainly pretty dehydrated after I finished.

Learning points?

  • The run was a successful implementation of good pacing. The intention was to run at around marathon pace, and I was able to maintain that pace consistently and feel that I could have gone further
  • My feeding and drinking worked fine for that distance, but I think could have been a problem with another 80 minutes or so of running. It would be good to see the effect of another drinks stop

Back on track?

Near the end of the 2018 Colchester Half Marathon

After my bad back panic of last week I did no training until Saturday – a whole six days without a run. The run on Saturday was a purposely warm and gentle 30 minutes on the treadmill. Pleasingly I didn’t feel my back at all, so my problem, whatever it was, had gone away as rapidly as it came.

So how to get back into a training routine? Since my treadmill running had been fine, I concluded that the week off would be the equivalent of a taper before an event, so why not go for a long run? So yesterday I set off at what I thought was a suitably gentle pace for my now regular 27km long run. I was having to guess at the pace, because the strap on my Fitbit had broken (as it does once a year).

My legs were feeling much less fatigued than they had in my recent weeks of intensive training, my back was comfortable, and at around five miles or so I was feeling good. There was even a bit of sunshine.

I always find the last 3 or 4 miles (the bit after I’ve done half marathon distance) of the my long run pretty tough, physically and particularly mentally, but this was something else. I was able to keep jogging, just about, one foot in front of the other, but it sure wasn’t pretty.

I’m still not sure what was going on –

  • had I gone too fast at the start?
  • was I still suffering from the after-effects of my cold?
  • did a week without running really have that much effect on my endurance?

Lots of questions and no real answers. I’m hoping that at I have at least gained something useful by experiencing those few miles of very tired running – could be useful in London.

Marathon Training – a Setback

For the last three months I’ve been consistently running five days a week. Now, with less than four weeks until the Cambridge Half Marathon, training has come to a halt. The last time I ran was Saturday, and it’s now Wednesday. I should have done my long run on Monday, but was unsure about that since I had a cold – no big problem for shorter runs, but probably a bit silly to flog through 17 miles just for the hell of it. But that little debate between my rational pragmatic self, and the obsessive part of me that said “Rules are rules – if you deviate from your training schedule you are doomed” became superseded by a more serious problem. Somehow, fiddling around trying to connect a car battery I strained something in my back, and could scarcely walk. Even the obsessive part of me couldn’t run – and I haven’t run since.

I’m not too worried about the Cambridge Half Marathon. I know I’ve got enough residual fitness to run that distance without much training and anyway, if the worst came to the worst, I’ve already run it a good few times, and I’ve been running more than a half marathon every Monday for the last month or two, so nothing to prove really. But what about the London Marathon at the end of April? My first full marathon, and I was lucky enough to get in through the ballot. My training had been going so well I was beginning to believe it was all possible. But a full marathon is a long way. How much training can I afford to miss? On the other hand, if I try to get back into training too early could I break down entirely?

This is my first training crisis – in fact my first training problem of any kind. It had been going superbly. I should be pleased that it didn’t happen a day before the marathon. As a life-long project manager I should have expected some sort of crisis in the delivery of this project. If I look at my previous experiences, I should be pragmatic. Chances are I’ll recover soon enough to get training again without too much effect on my endurance – maybe.

I’m not keen on what comes out of America, but there’s one quote that’s always worth considering at these times.

“Ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you got control over, ’cause if you got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’. And ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you don’t got control over, ’cause if you don’t got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’.”

Mickey Rivers – former player in Major League Baseball from 1970 to 1984 for the California Angels, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.