It is hard to believe that it actually happened. I ran 3:13:15 at the London Marathon. I ran a negative split, and a very even pace right to the finish. I obliterated my PB by 17 minutes, beat my goal time by two minutes, and qualified for the Championship start next year. I didn’t get sick, I didn’t get any blisters, I didn’t lose any (more) toenails, and my legs felt fine the next day. In summary: a dream race.
In the week before London, I did a few easy runs, including one of 14km, and a quicker one of 6km at marathon pace. The day before, we drove down to where we were staying in Lewisham, and I went out for an easy 4k with my partner after going to the Expo and getting my number. The expo was very busy on the Saturday and I didn’t really enjoy it, but it got me out and walking around a bit and helped keep me loose. I eat a fairly low carb diet most of the time but introduce carbs when racing, so I had a dinner of brown pasta, grilled chicken and vegetables, plenty of water, and an early night.
The weather for Marathon Day was set to be cold, and I knew I needed plenty of layers. Getting up early, I had my normal breakfast of cold porridge oats, almond milk and chia seeds, and coffee. I wrapped up warm and headed out at around 8 to walk the relatively short distance to the start on Blackheath. I was in the Green start, and I knew I wanted to get close to the front of my pen as my plan was to stick like glue to the 3:15 pacer.
I managed to do around 1km of a warmup run, before the announcers started warning us that the baggage lorries were due to leave immanently. I said goodbye to my partner (whose job for the day was to be by the side of the road at mile 15 with a bottle of Tailwind Nutrition, which I know my stomach approves of), and headed into the start area. After handing my bag over, I saw the extremely long toilet queues, so decided to head back out to a handy thicket of bushes instead. Finally it was time go insert myself into the pen and wait for the starting gun.
With a few minutes to go, I discarded the old clothing that I had brought with me and was ready to run. The gun went, we crossed the line, I started my watch, and that was it. My race plan was simple – stay with the 3:15 pacer, and if I felt good after 20 miles, kick on. I tried to execute that plan, and it did slow me down for the first downhill segment of the race, which can lure runners into going off too quickly. The pace was easy for me, but it was unbelievably congested. I was shoved in the back and had my heels clipped, and getting water was nearly impossible. It was an uncomfortable experience, especially for someone used to training completely alone on very quiet country lanes. After 6 miles or so, once we were past Cutty Sark, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and allowed myself to speed up a bit to get in front of the crowd around the pacer. Immediately I found myself with much more space and felt so much happier. The pace was a bit quicker but still comfortable, and I wasn’t at any risk of getting tripped up or pushed over.
I fell into my rhythm at this point, going at around 4:30/k ish, and settled into the race. Going over Tower Bridge was a huge thrill. The sound of the crowd, and the beauty of the bridge, it was a quite overwhelming experience. After Tower Bridge we turned down the straight towards Westferry and the half way point. I went through half way a few seconds shy of 1:37, just ahead of target for 3:15. I was feeling really good at this point and allowed myself to creep a bit quicker, while still keeping my breathing easy and my form relaxed. A big thrill was seeing the four top male elites come storming past in the opposite direction: Kipchoge and Biwott still running together, Bekele (who waved at me when I called his name!), and Wilson Kipsang, such an honour to see these amazing athletes running, they are like gods to me. Just past Westferry my partner was able to hand me my bottle, which was a great relief. I had eaten four GU chews, and knew my stomach wouldn’t take any more. The Tailwind is mixed with water and contains electrolytes and sodium citrate (which acts as a pH regulator) as well as the usual glucose. I know from experience that my stomach will accept it when other gels and chews are making me feel a bit sick. I grabbed my bottle and drank the contents over the next 8 miles or so.
Miles 15 to 21 take you through the Isle of Dogs, around Canary Warf and finally back towards Tower Bridge for the final stretch down the Embankment. I was in a good rhythm at the point, still not feeling tired, and I was starting to pass people who were falling off the pace. I knew I was a good bit ahead of the 3:15 pacer. Part of me kept wondering when I was going to start feeling bad. The miles ticked by. I didn’t feel bad.
The final three miles are familiar to me as I’ve run the BUPA 10k may times, and it follows the end of the London Marathon route, down Embankment, past Buckingham Palace and onto the Mall. I was still running strong, feeling slightly bemused as I was still waiting for the tiredness to hit me and force me to slow down. Instead I kept passing people and felt myself speeding up gradually as I got closer to the finish. I knew I was going to be under my goal time, it was just a question of how quickly I could get it done.
Finishing in 3:13:15 was completely unexpected and a dream come true. I did a negative split by just under a minute, which in itself is an incredible feat. Almost as amazing was that I didn’t feel at all sick at the finish, and was able to rehydrate, eat, and get on the tube home without any stomach issues or stiffness in my legs. My feet, which in the past have taken quite a battering from a marathon, were absolutely fine thanks to my amazing Altra shoes. It was a dream run, and I will savor it as I know that these don’t happen very often.
I have been asked by a few people why it went as well as it did. Putting aside the role of luck (good weather conditions, good decision making and race planning), I can pinpoint three reasons.
- In the three month training block, I did seven runs of over 20 miles; most importantly, each of these runs included well over 1,300ft of climbing, and I ran them at no slower than 30 seconds per/k off my race pace. This made me feel very strong on a flat course.
- I integrated strength training and conditioning exercises into my regime and was diligent about doing them. Once a week strength work in the gym, free weights and kettlebell exercises, and daily body weight and stretching.
- I didn’t run huge mileage (approx. 60 miles per week average), but I did what I felt my body could cope with, and made the runs count. I prioritised the long run, a mid week run of usually 20k ish, and a speed session, with other sessions done at an easier pace.
The one session that told me I was in good shape was four weeks out: I did ten miles in the morning and ten in the afternoon, at 4.45/k pace for both runs, and felt completely easy. The weekend before London I ran a 5k pb, which told me I had the speed in my legs as well as the stamina. However, I never thought I’d be able to execute the marathon in the way I did on the day. Sometimes it takes that little bit of magic to make it all come together. Hard work and graft got me there, but that special thing that sometimes makes a runner feel invincible, I was lucky enough to experience that on the day when it really mattered.
I couldn’t have done it without:
a) my partner, who supported me through the training, the pain, the foot problems, blisters, planter fascitis, self doubt and vomiting. He also battled through a crowd six deep to get my bottle to me on the day. He’s a hero, basically.
b) my Altra trainers. Amazing shoes. I have awful feet, and these make me forget this fact.
c) my own bloody-mindedness and stubbornness which got me running through a level of pain at the start of the training block, through some shockingly bad weather, up and down some serious hills, out on tired legs, twice a day, back to back after a long run.
So now what? Probably Wings for Life on the 8th of May, of which more later…..