I normally control my pre-race nerves pretty well, but London was different. Months of hard work had gone in to this performance. So many long runs, so many long tempos. I stood just outside the Championship runner’s tent trying to gather my thoughts and focus. I normally have a good idea of the best and worst scenarios that a race may entail. The Marathon is different. Anything could happen. If I go too hard too early, I could blow up. I have so many friends and family supporting me, expecting a good performance. I didn’t want to let anyone down, but most of all I didn’t want to let myself down.
What time are you going for? What’s your aim? Have you got a target?
Over the last two months these sorts of questions have been put to me by nearly everyone that knew I was training for a Marathon. It is a valid question. I was never able to give a sufficient answer. I didn’t know. My target kept changing. Initially sub 2:40 seemed like a good aim. I had run a 74 minute half marathon (Great North Run 2015 74:19), and running at over 6 min/mile pace seemed doable with a big training block. However, as my training progressed I grew in confidence. 2:35 was on. Then in quick succession I set PBs for 10K (Trafford 32:15) and the half marathon (IAAF World Half Marathon Championships – Cardiff Half Marathon 71:56). Maybe 2:32 was on. Oh, but that’s so close to the next boundary. Could I run sub 2:30? Was it worth the risk? If I went out at 5:40 min/mile pace and blew up I could end up crawling over the line in a time that would destroy my self-confidence. You can’t run a marathon every week (unless you are crazy like Swansea Half Marathon co-founder Nick Francis). I wouldn’t be able to set the record straight if I messed it all up.
I asked my Dad for advice. “Don’t do something stupid, just run 2:35, there will be other marathons”. Very true I thought, but you can only debut once. I browsed powerof10.info for some guidance. English Commonwealth Games Marathon runner Steve Way ran his debut marathon in 2:35 off very similar 10K and HM times. Maybe I was being too optimistic.
I felt great a few weeks before the Marathon but the taper had destroyed my confidence. The 3 week taper plan was to ease off the mileage and keep some intensity to my runs. Of the 19 days allocated to the taper, 11 of them I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. What was I thinking? There are a number of reasons for my lack of running in the lead up to London, but I am not one for making excuses. It comes down to me to get my plan in order and with the taper I messed up. So on the 8 days I did bother to get out and run I covered a mere 66 miles. Over 3 weeks that is poor. I felt sluggish.
I read somewhere that losing a pound of fat, equates to a minute in the marathon. Those are the sort of free minutes I could do with. My weight normally hovers around the 11 stone mark. Way too heavy for a 5ft 9ins marathon runner. The plan was to try and get down to 10 1/2 stone. That would be a great weight to race at. Did I succeed? No. My taper had hurt me. I had put on a few pounds due to the lack of miles.
In the final taper week I tried something recommended by Steve Way. Carb deplete for 4 days and then carb load for 3 days. The theory behind this approach is that you cut out all carbs, and go for short, high intensity runs, to deplete your muscles of all glycogen. You then refill your legs with glycogen by eating 10g of carbs per kg of bodyweight. Apparently, the muscles are ‘tricked’ in to storing more glycogen than usual – vital for a race where ‘the wall’ is a big possibility.
Carb depletion is tough. Eating loads of meat and cheese sounds great, but I never realised how reliant I was on carbs. I felt so slow and sluggish on runs. Worse than that though I felt weak, and light headed during the days. The worst bit was that my girlfriend Vicki, had her birthday on my second day of carb depletion. We went out to a lovely restaurant and I had to leave my triple cooked chips, and scrape the breadcrumbs off my large mushroom. On the plus side I was down to 10 stone 10 lbs, but I realised I would be putting all of this back on as my muscles stored glycogen in the carb loading phase.
Carb loading was meant to be difficult to reach the desired levels of carbs. Not for me. I went big. Way too big. In my head I had to smash down as many carbs as possible because I didn’t want empty muscles. Well I started to track what I ate using the myfitnesspal app but I realised that I was eating too much when I had reached my daily goal of 700g of carbs by lunch time. That didn’t stop me though. I continued to gorge on carbs for the next two days just to be safe. This included a Cambodian meal out. Who tries Cambodian food for the first time two days before their Marathon? It was nice though.
11 stone 4 lbs. Damn it. It was time to forget weight. Forget the taper. Focus on my goals. I had made a list of things that were important to me. I allocated something in my life that mattered to each mile. Each mile had a reason. I never memorised the list and which mile meant what, but it had motivated me. If I felt like my conditioning had taken a knock over the last few weeks, it was time to get mentally strong.
Toast topped with banana and honey. Porridge with honey. Instant coffee. Breakfast done.
Should I take the beetroot shot that the expo man convinced me to buy. Oh go on then.
When I arrived at the Championship runners’ tent (one of the perks of qualifying for a championship place at London) I was immediately greeted by some runners I knew. Eamonn Kirk, a fellow Swansea Harrier, talked to me about his lead up. He had been struck by illness and niggles which had ruined his last 7 weeks. It could be worse I thought to myself. Eamonn is a great guy and is always positive, he didn’t seemed phased, and was here to enjoy the day. What a brilliant attitude.
I sipped on Lucozade. I took a small energy gel and 2 pro plus. I ran very small loops of the warm up area. I was ready.
A huge pocket of adrenaline filled my chest, and then the gun fired. It was the usual start. Absolutely no room. Running really short strides because I didn’t have the space to run my regular stride length. At this point I normally go wide and put in a burst to fly past the slower runners and settle in to a fast pack. My first mile in Cardiff half had been 5:05. Don’t you dare I thought. I decided to gradually move through the other Champs runners until I found a pack travelling at sub 2:30 pace. I couldn’t not give it a shot.
Ahead of me I saw Mark Jennings, a Welsh runner from a local club that would be close to the sub 2:30 mark. I’ll sit behind him for a couple of miles I thought. As I approached he took a few steps to the side, and stopped running. No!! Surely not. I turned my head as I continued and it looked like his day was over. I felt horrible for him. All those months of training and then something (turns out to be a calf issue he was carrying pre-race) stops you in the first mile.
Mile 1 – 5:39, that’s ok I thought. Just about right. Keep it sub 5:40 for as long as possible and then as it gets harder hold on to come in under 5:43 min/mile pace.
In the second mile I settled in to a big pack. They were moving nicely, and I sheltered near the back. I was feeling good. I was starting to feel some flow. I stayed with the pack as the miles ticked by. The atmosphere was building. I was starting to enjoy myself.
A runner with a cap on backwards seemed to be leading the group. Perfect pacing, what a guy. We are all going to run sub 2:30 because of this guy, I am going to go over and thank him as soon as we cross the line, I envisaged. It didn’t last long. Our perfect group started to fall apart. Cap man slowed. A few others pushed on. Go with the faster runners. Stay on pace I decided. I felt great. I had to stop myself pushing on to much. My legs wanted to push on to 5:20’s. This is not a half marathon, I kept telling myself. “Put the bunny back in the box” I started to repeat in my head. I started to smile as I imagined Nicholas Cage in Con Air. “Put the bunny back in the box”, “don’t go too fast”. It worked, I stayed focused and kept my 5k splits pretty even.
Mile 8 was gel time. I didn’t feel like I needed a gel but I knew I would need the energy later. I still don’t really understand gels. If someone takes enough gels, do they avoid the wall? I had gone with a 3 gel strategy. 8, 13, and 18 miles was the plan. I took a 4th gel with me as backup. I chose SIS berry gels with caffeine. I tried them out in a 20 mile race, which I ran as a tempo/practice run a month before. I held 2 in my hands, had one in my small zip pocket on my Ronhill shorts, and one secured by 2 elastic straps on the cleverly designed shorts. I say cleverly designed, that gel fell after 6 miles. I had tried a gel belt in my practice event. All 3 gels fell in the first 100 metres on that occasion, so the shorts were still winning.
I passed halfway in exactly 74 minutes. I couldn’t believe how easy it had felt. Last October I was dying in Cardiff Half as I finished in 75. Halfway is good but I knew that 20 miles was where I wanted to feel strong. A ’20 mile warm up and then a 10K race’ had been my mantra beforehand.
Something went wrong in mile 16. I didn’t even notice the pace slowing to 6:19 for that mile. I was losing my focus. I picked it up again but the miles were getting tough. There were less runners to run with now. I still hadn’t seen my girlfriend or my family. Where are they? I questioned. I needed some support now. It was quiet running through the Isle of Dogs section of the course. The crowds were smaller. This didn’t help.
My average pace was slowing but I was still under 5:40 min/mile. I took my final gel before 18 miles. It felt good to be running with my hands free and nothing in my pocket. It felt like freeing up my hands and pockets meant that it was now business time. The crowds were picking up again and I heard my name from behind me. I looked over my left shoulder and there was Vicki and some of my family. I was really quite far down the road from them, and I was amazed I had heard them through the deep crowds. It was the spur I needed. They looked delighted. I was happy to be passing them on target for sub 2:30. I knew this would have probably surprised them.
The 20 mile mark was a hugely significant marker. I knew the race was on and that I was in a great position. My pace would slightly slip through lack of concentration and then I would pick it up for a bit. It was really starting to hurt at mile 23, but I kept telling myself that all I had to do is run a steady 5k. One parkrun. Come on, I urged myself. I was in pain but I was passing people. Everyone around me was slowing. The crowds were unbelievable running along the embankment. My form was starting to suffer, but I knew I was going to make it.
I needed that finish line to come but at the same time I felt confident. I was going to break 2:30. My legs were heavy as I turned towards the Mall. I past the sign stating that there were 385 yards remaining. I glanced at my watch. Shit! The time read 2:29:01. I have less than a minute to get around the corner and over that line. It was time to sprint. I had come too far to let it slip by trusting the average pace function. I wanted this so badly. How was I meant to sprint on completely destroyed legs. Well, I did. My form was all over the place but I got my legs moving swiftly. I covered the final 385 yards (352 metres) in 54 seconds at an average pace of 5:09 min/mile. During the final stretch I reached 4:10 min/mile as I desperately lunged at the line.
Had I done enough? I stopped my watch and anxiously looked at the time. 02:29:57. Come on! I had done it. I always get nervous about chip timing and whether I had timed it right but I was confident that I had started the watch before I had crossed the start line. I had achieved my goal. I was ecstatic. I was the last person to cross the line below the 2:30 mark and I couldn’t believe I had done it.
Pain & Jubilation
I was so happy as I was ushered away from the finish line. My feet were hurting and I removed my racing flats. All my muscles were starting to seize up. I hobbled over to the finishing tunnel to collect my medal and have a photo taken. I was beaming. I couldn’t wait to see Vicki and my family. I collected my bag from the championship truck which had beaten me to the finish line. My feet were getting worse. I tried to find out my official time on my phone but the app wasn’t working. I tried to carry on walking, but my feet weren’t working either. I was in agony every step I took. A member of the St John’s medical team approached me and asked if I was ok, and whether I needed assistance. I put on a brave face, thanked him and said that I was fine and was just stretching before proceeding. I didn’t move for 5 minutes. Every time I tried to take a step pain would hit me and my muslces would start to cramp. After 10 minutes and a few strides another St John’s medical team member suggested that I receive a massage. I was desperate to see my family and celebrate but I knew I was getting nowhere fast. I accepted the generous offer. Inside the St John’s tent I was treated very well. Four members of the team worked on my legs and feet. I felt spoiled. They gave me salts, and chatted to me. They taped my foot and said I had injured myself during the race. They were brilliant, and I was able to hobble slightly faster after they had finished massaging my tight muscles. I thanked them all, and can’t emphasise enough what a great service they provide.
Being reunited with my family afterwards was amazing. Vicki ran up to me and hugged me. Straight away she confirmed that I had done it. I felt so proud to have achieved something I worked so hard towards. My official time was recorded as 02:29:55, and I came 70th in the mass race. Including the elites that put me in 99th. Not bad for a debut. I hobbled over to my family. They had all been worried about me, because I had taken so long to make it to the meeting point. Robin and Meg, friends who have moved to London, were there to support too. As much as I felt amazing, my main emotion was relief. Relief that the race was over. Relief that I could stop worrying. Relief that all of those months of graft had paid off.
We headed for a pint, and then moved on to a Mexican restaurant for some grub. It was all a bit rushed because we had to head back to Swansea. It would have been good to reunite with other runners who had completed the race but we had to start the cramped 4 hour drive back to South Wales.
After the event I was able to analyse and reflect on my performance. Initially I thought I was the 3rd Welsh runner across the line, which would have earned me my first individual Welsh Championship Medal. It turned out that I was 4th. Finishing 4th in the Welsh Marathon Champs on my first go at the distance is a great achievement, but it really drives me on to want to go better next time. Additionally I was the second Swansea Harrier to finish. The quality Craig Hopkins (PB of 2:16:50) finished 18 seconds ahead of me. I have never met Craig because he trains over in the USA. I knew of his talent and didn’t have any idea that he was just up the road from me. He obviously had a tough day out after injuries and a less than perfect marathon buildup. He went through half in 69:02 looking to run close to his PB, but faded in the second half. If I had known that there was another Harrier just out of eye-shot that might have been enough to drive me on to finish a little quicker. You never know how you are going to react when there is something motivating you to go a little harder during a race. I am delighted with my race. I paced it really well and did exactly what I had targeted. It does make me want more though. I know I could have prepared better. I am also aware that I did not race the marathon and just ran at my target pace. I don’t know what would have happened if I had pushed harder in the early miles. I have no idea what would I could have achieved if my target had been 2:28 for example. I have so much to learn about running and fueling a marathon. London was an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to go again at this mammoth distance. Next time I want to set my target even bolder. If I blow up and fail, then at least I went for it. Bring on next year.