THREE YEARS TO BECOME OBE…
Inspired by recent ballot winner blogs, I decided to write a race report about my marathon too. It seems a reasonable use of all the spare time I now have given that I can still barely run a week after the marathon.
I have divided this into three parts like every other blog entry I have ever written (which is one other!).
As background, I wasn’t really training for a marathon this year. I have bored plenty of people in the club with this, but to recap I had a big unachieved running goal of going under 3 hours in the marathon. It had become a big challenge since my first attempt at joining the Order of the Bald Eagle (‘OBE’) in 2015, which took place shortly after discovering on a club run that the OBE existed. That first attempt ended in a 03:00:47 and had been done without a huge marathon-focused training – disappointing at the time, but with hindsight a fairly predictable failure. I then trained in 2016 assuming I’d then easily break the barrier but I hit the wall badly in Manchester (3:09), and then same again in London in 2017 (3:08). I had gone from mistakenly thinking sub-3 was simple enough to it being a major barrier.
I hadn’t really planned to do a marathon in 2018. Over the 12 months since London 2017 though I had managed to build my mileage gradually with only relatively small injury gaps, and had trained well for the half marathons in March. Weekly mileage average was around double what it was the previous year, albeit cross-training was limited. Long runs were now feeling fairly easy and I thought I might as well attempt a marathon again with little to lose.
I eventually signed up for Southampton Marathon only about a month before the race. I knew nothing about the race but that was my only weekend that looked free. It meant I would miss London mile 23 supporting, and the celebrations in the pub afterwards, but I decided it needed to be done.
The great part of signing up last minute to do a marathon is that I experienced very little of the pre-race training anguish.
I had trained for half marathons until March and got the time I was going for at the Big Half (1:19). Since this report will be largely positive I will ignore the Hillingdon short-course debacle the week before that where I would have gone faster than 1:19 (oops, I didn’t manage to ignore it after all!). It suggested now might be the time to start training for a full marathon.
After a recovery week following the Big Half, I decided to see how a 20 miler felt. I still wasn’t intending to run a marathon, and even if I decided to I didn’t want to start focusing on it yet. The problem with Strava is that everyone saw this run immediately and started asking me when my marathon was. The 20 miler (21.1 in the end) felt fine and so I did a medium-long later including some sub-3 pace later in the week to see how I would react to that – again this was fine and was probably the best indicator that I could be ready. I then decided to see how my body would react to two weeks in a row of more than 60 miles incorporating a long run and a medium-long run, and the answer again was fine. And so the plan to run a marathon was born.
By the time I signed up for the marathon, I only had one more heavy mileage week to do. It felt like I got to that ‘last long run’ feeling before really starting the training. I strongly recommend this as a training plan. I had only done three 20+ milers, but crucially they all felt manageable and as if I still had plenty to spare at the end.
After that, I still had a few fun testers that were loosely based on a marathon plan – a 15 miler at 6:37/mile pace which went well, a 10 mile PB at the Towpath Ten, another recce of the Ealing Half course at marathon pace the weekend before the race. The race was definitely on.
2) Build up to the race
Despite the slightly unusual approach to training, I still suffered two parts of marathon preparation that I dislike: a) maranoia, and b) carb loading.
a) Maranoia - Because I wasn’t heavily invested in that one race this time, the maranoia wasn’t as bad as normal. The weather forecast though had me preoccupied. That hit me particularly badly with 4 days to go, along with the discovery that the course was hilly.
The weather forecast varied throughout the week and eventually settled around 17-20C and bright sun. It was better than London, but significantly worse than the earlier predicted cloud, and far from ideal conditions.
I didn’t know much about the Southampton marathon. After signing up I discovered a lot of talk about how hard the Itchen Bridge was. The course is a 2 lap course incorporating the Itchen Bridge four times in all, so not a great start for a planned fast marathon.
During the week I was then sent the elevation profile, which was useful but very daunting. It made clear there was in fact one very large hill in addition to the Bridge, which you ran up at miles 11 and 24. I have attached my Garmin readings from the day in the photo below. These can sometimes look deceiving, but this is pretty much how it felt.
It seems like the description on the website of ‘predominantly flat’ really meant ‘fairly flat for about 20 miles and seriously hilly for 6’.
In the week before, the above factors led me to seriously considering whether I even wanted to run. Thankfully, with the help of a number of Eagles (you know who you are) I decided to re-adjust my time goal a little, but still run to try for sub-3.
It is always recommended to have multiple goals for a race. I had originally decided the following – the ‘A’ goal was 2:53. No big reason for it but felt like the conservative end of various calculators. ‘B’ goal was sub-3 hours although that was really the main one. ‘C’ goal was a PB although that was a bit pointless as it would have meant just missing out on sub-3. ‘D’ goal: Good-for-age (‘GFA’) qualifying time for London of 3:05.
With the heat wave, the hilly course, and to top it off the London Marathon changing its GFA qualifying to at least sub-3 the week before, the multiple goals aspect was ruined. My goals became A) under 3:00, B) under 3:00, C) 3:00:46, D) under 3:00 for GFA. Not a lot of room for error there. Thanks again to everyone who encouraged me.
a) Carb-loading - I felt poor carb-loading had let me down in previous attempts, so I took it seriously this time. It’s not a part of marathon training I particularly enjoy, especially as I don’t like sweet things. I discovered that up to 10g of carbs per kg of body weight was a good aim – so that’s 760g for me - That is a lot of carbs!
I did it for 2.5 days. To illustrate, on the Saturday I consumed: a smoothie, another smoothie, an oat drink, a whole Soreen banana loaf, waffles and fruit, another smoothie, a large bowl of pasta, a pasta ‘mugshot’, another smoothie, another mugshot, a bowl of wholewheat pasta, 2 Soreen bars, an aloe vera drink, a Lucozade, a smoothie, a large bowl of quinoa, a large bowl of pasta, and a final smoothie.
The final bowl of plain pasta on Saturday night was such a challenge that the marathon didn’t feel very daunting anymore.
3) The race itself
I woke up early, well rested, and made my way to the start just a short walk from the hotel. It was bright but the temperature was very comfortable at that point as the sun rays had yet to breach the buildings. That changed around 8:55am, conveniently for a 9am start.
I rehearsed mentally – go out slowly, try to hit around 6:47 for each mile, pass halfway in around 1:28/1:29, then carry on conservatively (I hoped it would feel like that at least) until 20 miles, dig in for 6.2 miles. The standard marathon advice is it’s a 20-mile warm-up followed by a 10k race and I prepared mentally for that. It was to work out exactly like that.
The one-lap half marathon started at the same time so there were several thousand people there – it felt like a big City marathon, but without the hassle, so was very enjoyable. I got into pen position early given the crowd, and now felt nervous for the first time. I positioned myself a few rows back as I recognized one of the 2:30 runners at the front, and the 1:30 half marathon pacer was somewhere just behind, so that seemed about right.
The first mile was 6:35 but it was downhill and I felt like I was significantly holding back as planned. I settled into around a 6:45 pace, feeling very comfortable and building a small cushion with each mile. The race was a lovely course – starting in the City Centre, going through plenty of parks, and along the seaside in just the first few miles. Crowds lined most of the route. We went over the Itchen Bridge for the first of four times, and it didn’t feel as hard as I’d been expecting from the race reviews. The views were great from the bridge, and they’d set up a sprinkler so the heat was bearable … for now. There were quite a few people at a similar pace so a group started to form. The only downside of the course was that the mile markers were often significantly off. This brought back memories of Hillingdon Half when the mile markers being off was due to us having been led the wrong way, and on another day I feel this could have had a negative psychological effect. On this occasion, I conferred with a few runners and we agreed we should just ignore the markers. Thankfully every so often a marker corresponded to my watch (especially the 7 mile marker which I vividly remember being a significant mental boost).
Our group was down to just four of us by the time we got to St Mary’s Stadium at 10k, and ever since mile 3 it was clear we were passing people gradually and nobody was passing us, which was a nice feeling. Three of our group were running the marathon and one was running the half. We got onto a long straight road and as three of us were only 7 miles into our ‘warm-up’ at that point, we started chatting, probably seriously annoying the guy who was running the half who must have been trying to focus.
We ran through some nice parks until we arrived at mile 11 and the start of the mile or so climb. I figured that I was used to the Ealing Half Marathon course, so this would be fine. Sure enough, at first it seemed to go up a little like Eaton Rise, so noticeable but not too painful. Unfortunately using EHM references, it was as if at the end of Eaton Rise, you then had to go up Greenford Avenue, and then straight up Park View Road, and then up Park View Road again. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s certainly how it felt. First time round though, although it was the slowest mile to date (6:58), it was at least bearable.
The three of us arrived at half way at 1:29:00 so exactly as planned for me – I would actually have liked a bit more of a time cushion that that, but thankfully someone in the club had specifically said to me ‘pass halfway in no quicker than 1:29’ so I was able to use that as a positive sign I was timing it perfectly.
The small group became two of us. We continued chatting with the heat building and the pain cranking up. Thankfully the miles were still being ticked off at planned pace. It helped so much to have someone to pace with, although chatting significantly reduced after 16 miles, and became reduced to an occasional encouragement by mile 19 as we approached our second trip through St Mary’s stadium. We finished our ’20-mile warm-up’ with a 6:38 mile. On my watch we had a 2.5 minute cushion (although it was actually less than that as it happened – see below).
The 20 mile warm-up was over. Now the 10k race could begin…
My approach to the last 6.2 miles was to concentrate hard on maintaining marathon pace for as long as possible after that, and hope not to slow too much on the hill. With every further mile around 6:52, the existing time cushion could be used over a smaller number of miles and I hoped that would help me focus. The pain and the heat were building really rapidly now but we pushed on through … mile 21 – 6:51, mile 22 – 6:49, mile 23 – 6:59.
Two things then happened – my group of two became just me (unfortunately Lee who I was running with had a short bad patch and eventually finished in 3:00:12), and we hit the big hill. That hill felt really, really tough this time round. The ‘wall’ was here to be smashed into or broken, and the negative thinking started to kick in – ‘I’ve slowed to almost 8 minute miles’, ‘I’m just going to miss out again’ etc. That expected part of the marathon challenge was here … a 7:22 mile and a 7:19 mile up the hill meant I’d eroded most of the cushion and was now in real pain. I fought hard to think positively, reached the water station at the top of the hill, and told myself it was now or never. I found that last reserve and got back into 6:50 pace knowing it was a gradual downhill from there.
I was in hanging-on mode. A 6:50 pace now felt like a sprint when it had felt more like a jog for the first 20 miles. The mile markers coincided with my watch measurements again, and I passed 25 just under 2 hours 50 minutes, this looked like it was on. The 26-mile marker came and again matched 26 miles on my watch. It appeared I had over 2 minutes left to do 0.2 miles, and that the course would be exactly 26.2 miles long. You expect a marathon to be a little bit long on a watch, but it looked like this would be spot on, and that I would be at least a minute under 3 hours.
I almost started celebrating until I realised I couldn’t even see the finish line, yet I knew from the first lap that it was quite a long way past the next corner. A horrible realisation set in that I could still miss the 3 hours. I now really had to sprint. I turned the corner, could see the line (which ended up being at 26.4 miles on my watch) – 2:59 came up on the clock, this was going to be really tight. It’s hard to comprehend distances at that stage of a race so I didn’t know if I would make it or not. To make matters worse I ran on the left hand side of the road and ended up on the wrong side of the barriers coming up to the line so had to stop and squeeze through a gap in the barriers and start running again … 2:59:20 on the clock, 2:59:30, I still wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. Then the line arrived, almost like a sudden surprise despite the long build up to it. 2:59:42!!!!
I had planned to take the hat and glasses off to get a decent photo finish of my first sub-3 but I had nothing left by that stage. I staggered around for a bit and finally the realisation came that I’d done it! I recovered for a few minutes, thanked Lee for getting me through many of those miles, and then after a few minutes stretching my cramping hamstrings, it occurred to me I could get a direct train to Waterloo and having started an hour earlier than London I would be able to join the celebrations. I jogged to the station at significantly slower than sub-3 pace.
A reflection … While the significant greater mileage put me in the right place physically, it’s amazing just how much of a marathon is mental. The advice that I received from everyone during the build-up (you all know who you are) was vital – so many of the soundbites of advice popped into my head at the right time. On the day I was able to pick and choose the ones I needed – for example as mentioned having passed halfway in 1:29 I remembered the advice to ideally pass half-way in 1:29, when it got hard I remember the comments about the mental adjustment required when it got hard, on the hill I remembered the comment about the hill not being able to stop me if I was on for sub-3 at that stage. Given 3 failures and 1 success, I now feel almost qualified to give advice on the mental side of a marathon – mine would be to store up all the useful advice and find a way to access it when needed, positivity is key to achieving a marathon time.
A week later, as I sit here not yet really able to run again, I still cannot fully believe I am an OBE.