Why being an Eagle changed me from hating marathons to possibly enjoying parts of them
The brief was to write a blog that that may inspire others to run a Spring marathon next year.
If so, the title of this blog may suggest you should not be reading this. So feel free to stop, after all it did not take long to write; unlike marathon training - that takes a huge amount of time. Come to think of it, I’m really not sure why people attempt marathons. But I digress…
Actually this blog aims to show that even I can now enjoy parts of marathons; and so I would think everyone can. So please read on.
Some context; I have divided my experience below into three key parts of a marathon – preparation, running, and recovery. As background, my general thoughts on those aspects of running, which inform my thoughts on marathons are:
1) Preparation: I don’t like training plans. Unpredictable work and having two small kids make a plan hard to follow, but fundamentally training plans just add stress to my life. I think about my training a lot, but it’s very rare for me to choose what session I’ll do more than a day in advance;
2) Running: I only really enjoy running when I’m going fast. Anything slower than tempo pace is just a necessary evil;
3) Recovery: it’s boring.
The way this then translates to races for me is:
5k race – fun
10k race – reasonably good fun
Half marathon – tolerable
Marathon – not fun
Clearly not everyone feels that way, so things can hopefully only be better than I set out below.
2015 - How I came to run another marathon
Given my feelings about marathons, I’ve not tried to run many. My only marathon prior to November 2015 was back in 2009. That’s where I learned that I do not like them.
Then, in September 2015, I moved back to Ealing, ran my first race as an Eagle at EHM 2015 (though not a visible Eagle as I did not have my vest yet), and it turns out what would normally just be a ‘tolerable’ distance was incredibly good fun.
‘Maybe I should run another marathon’, I thought.
At that time though, my only real goal in running another marathon was to break 3 hours. It felt like a time that was achievable, so just needed to be conquered. Having a good training base after EHM I thought I’d design myself a 5 week training programme and just get it done.
I signed up for a small marathon for the end of November. I ran it in 3:00:47. I failed to achieve the only goal I had that day, and didn’t really enjoy it that much. But I guess I also didn’t dislike it as much as I thought I would.
2016– How I came to run Manchester
A month after the above, still obsessed with breaking 3 hours, I decided to run another marathon. But it needed to be one that had the 2015 EHM formula – lots of Eagles there. So I chose Manchester 2016.
Spoiler alert – it didn’t go to plan.
It happened as follows:
Marathon training plans are tough. With my natural fear of training plans (and as an aside I really admire people who have the mental strength to follow a 14-18 week plan), I decided that 10 weeks of training would be enough. Like previously I had a good base and fitness, so the only rule would be to do a long run before work each Tuesday – starting at around 15 miles and gradually increasing to 23 miles. Then run as normal the rest of the time. I’d then run a fast half marathon 3 weeks out from Manchester. Then taper. Then dip under 3 hours in the marathon. Then retire from marathons. That was the plan.
The plan didn’t go to plan. I got injured in week 4. Fortunately I could still cross train so I was able to do some even more horrible training than long runs, by working up to 3 hour sessions of cross-training in the gym. But no long runs. As a rather obvious learning point, this is not recommended as preparation for a marathon.
After my foot healed, I had a few weeks of gradually increasing running, and got up to 15 miles again. But it was already time to taper. I did actually run a fast half marathon at the end (fast for me anyway at 1:22). I tapered. But did very few long runs. Again, as a rather obvious learning point, this is not recommended as preparation for a marathon.
But in my mind the plan to dip under 3 hours in the marathon was on.
I didn’t have many long runs in training, so I was actually quite looking forward to long slow running for once. Did I mention the lack of long runs is not recommended?
Now to the race itself.
The build up to a marathon does have some aspects to it that I knew in advance would be fun – mainly the opportunity to enjoy a lot of pasta. I had 4 courses of pasta on the Saturday before the race. So far so good.
I arrived on the start line feeling quite confident, albeit with a few mental doubts about lack of distance training, and unfortunately a cold. I would have rated my chances of sub-3 at around 71% then.
Like many marathon stories, the first 20 miles were enjoyable (well, the 19.7 or so in this case). Right from the start there were Eagle cheer squads. My garmin failed almost immediately, but eventually started reading pace again so although slightly irritating to not know distance, it meant I could ensure I wasn’t going too fast. Eagles were popping up everywhere to provide encouragement. I got completely distracted by the anticipation of when I would next see Eagles cheering, waving flags, and holding amusing signs. I passed half way in 1:28. It all felt fairly easy.
It wasn’t long after that the easy pace became a lot harder though. By mile 17 the doubts had set in as 6:40 pace was feeling harder than it should, and 9 miles to go sounded rather a lot to me. Thankfully two Eagles cheer squads in short succession gave me the confidence to carry on at the same pace until 19.7 miles.
At this point, it’s worth emphasizing that the Eagles squads alone made the marathon worthwhile. I revisited this from the other side of the barriers at mile 23 two weeks later, and I almost wished I was in the race. But back to Manchester around 19.7 miles…
I hit the wall. This didn’t happen in my 2015 marathon in quite the same way; it was a very gradual decline then. In Manchester I very suddenly felt I had no energy at all to go any further. This is the real challenge of the marathon and when the test of physical and mental readiness really comes in. In this case, I failed it.
The last 6 miles were awful. As I had to slow to walking pace, the 3 hour pacers passed me. I can’t remember exactly where as it’s all a bit of a blur, perhaps it was somewhere between the first 22 mile marker, and the second 22 mile marker about half a mile down the road from the first. The trauma in that moment of realising those 3 hour sessions in the gym were wasted distracted me momentarily from the severe physical pain. That’s really just part of marathon fun I guess. I finished at a jog in 3:09.
By recovery, I mean beer.
My disappointment was largely cured instantly by walking into the Wetherspoons to the cheers reserved for each marathon runner that entered the pub. Meeting new Eagles, and seeing ones I knew, sharing stories of running and cheer squads with them, banished any remaining thoughts that maybe this hadn’t been worth the effort.
Later that night further recovery involved dancing, lunging and some recovery pole dancing. I did not even get injured in doing so.
I really do strongly recommend marathon recovery.
Had I run this marathon without being an Eagle, I would have seen it as failure, and definitely not fun.
But it was fun. I’m glad I did it. I will do another one.
And this would have seemed like a crazy thing for the pre-Eagle me to say, but I’d even do one where I knew I could not beat 3 hours. If there were enough Eagles going.
So I have revised my philosophy on racing. It is now:
5k race – fun
10k race – reasonably good fun
Half marathon – tolerable (EHM more than that obviously)
Marathon – not fun
Any race as an Eagle, including marathon – fun
The only two bits of advice I have are:
If you’re going to run a Spring marathon, make sure you do some long runs first; and
Run a Spring Marathon. It’s fun. Why wouldn’t you?