What does it take to run a marathon?
That’s a question with lots of possible answers. Some more helpful than others. We’ve all seen those memes about the need to be a special kind of idiot and all that jazz.
I’d agree, not that marathon runners are idiots exactly, but it does take a certain amount of stubborn, willful disregard for what’s strictly sensible. It’s bloody hard work, running a marathon. It takes a lot of time, effort, determination, and chafing in unpleasant places.
So what extra things does it take to run a marathon to the magic target I’m aiming for this time? I might as well be honest, because you’ll find out when it’s time for the Mile 23 spreadsheet anyway; this time I’m going for the classic target. The Big One. The one that Mr Duff, when he’s feeling particularly Aberdonian, might describe as ‘the back of four’.
In these first few weeks of the plan I’ve been spending lots of time building the mileage back up and even more time trying to find out what I need to do to start feeling like I might be capable of achieving a marathon time that starts with a 3. Even if it ends with a 59:59, that’ll do.
I’ve learned that, put simply, it takes being able to maintain a pace of 9:09/mile for a really long way. And let’s face it, for London it’s probably best to err on the side of knowing damn well it’s going to be half a mile further than it should be, and aiming for flat 9’s.
I learned from the England Athletics marathon workshop that it takes rather more Lactate Threshold and hill sessions than I’m traditionally fond of. I have diligently added these into my plan and so far, I’ve managed to convince myself I’m enjoying them. I also discovered that running slower than race pace but faster than training pace is actually sub-threshold running, which sounds far more technical and which I put to good use to bag a new PB at the Fred Hughes 10.
I learned from a Runner’s World Facebook post that it takes being capable of a sub-50 10k and a sub-1:50 half when training starts, so if that’s true I’m screwed before I’ve even started. I’m stubbornly choosing to go with the dismissal of this advice by a particular non-Eagle runner friend on that one; he immediately said not to worry about it because ‘you don’t run hard enough when you run shorter distances anyway’. I think I’ll refuse to let this one bother me til we see how I get on at Fleet Half. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.
More of that stubbornness. On Tuesday when I found myself running 16 laps of Osterley track on my own in the snow I had one of those brief moments when you wonder if the naysayers are right and runners are all, in fact, mad. But then I remembered a conversation I’d had with my father in law at parkrun back on Christmas Day.
We were running together and talking about different approaches to training. I’d been comparing my December can’t be arsed attitude to Mr Duff, who is quite strict when it comes to his training. If it’s in the plan it’s getting done, come hell, high water, snow or a plague of frogs.
‘Well’ Dad Duff had said, ‘that’s the key isn’t it? That’s what gets you through it all. Making sure you go out and get it done, even if you really don’t want to. That keeps you going when it comes to the day’.
And he’s completely right. I kept that advice in my head for the whole session on Tuesday and ended up loving the run, watching my footprints form more complex patterns with each lap, enjoying the fact that I could see my stride length was consistent in the snow and vowing to sort out that weird outward turn on my right foot. It was quiet, peaceful, and gave me enough space to think clearly in all that perfect blankness.
Just keep going. Keep going, and soon the thing that seemed so hard is suddenly done.
I missed one training run in the first week because I was completely knackered and my body was feeling the effects of coming off the medication for anxiety I’ve been on since March last year. I cut myself some slack that day, but I’ve been fairly strict about getting my sessions in for the rest of these early weeks. The fast sessions and hilly sessions and pacing technicalities will become important very soon, I know. But in this ‘build phase’ I’ve been concentrating mostly on getting out there without giving in to the dark and cold and wet. I've also learned that being part of a running club is a godsend with this (although I already knew that!). Making arrangements to meet a friend or being out anyway because you're leading at track definitely helps to combat the winter running blues.
Marathon training. What does it take? Just keep buggering on.