Last summer I set myself the ambitious target of running a sub-80 half marathon at Oxford in October. My PB at the time was 83:31, so while I wasn’t a million miles away, knocking off 3:31 seemed a tall order. Nonetheless I find big targets like that motivate me, so that was the goal. Over the summer training went well, and much to my surprise when it came to Oxford I appeared to be in shape to at least attempt going under 80 minutes. In the end I came up 30 seconds short, but a three minute PB is not to be sniffed at.
After the success of that ambitious target, I decided to be equally, if not more, aggressive with my spring marathon target and set the goal at sub-2:45 – a massive 12 minutes faster than my current PB! That time would qualify me for the “Championship” start at London, and also guarantee entry for Berlin Marathon, another race I’m very keen to run. In all honesty I didn’t think I’d be anywhere close to that in time for my first London Marathon, but I hoped I could take a big chunk out of my PB there, as a stepping stone to perhaps attempting sub-2:45 at Frankfurt in October.
Just as I was finishing up planning my training for London I was surprised to discover I had been selected by Men’s Running to take part in their “Big Marathon Challenge” feature this year. I would receive “expert” coaching, as well as loads of free ASICS kit and the assistance of the ASICS Pro Team, consisting of a physiotherapist, dietician, and sports psychologist. It also provided free entry and accommodation for the Greater Manchester Marathon, so my target race switched. The tough target time, however, remained!
Training did not get off to the greatest of starts, thanks to heavy snowfall that cancelled the Telford 10K which I was targeting for a PB. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would prove to be a repeated problem for this training cycle! Most of the first week was limited to slow trudges through the snow, although thankfully by the weekend the snow had receded enough to get back to proper running. I kicked off my long runs with a 20 miler averaging 6:53/mi, which definitely bode well.
As mentioned, the Big Marathon Challenge included coaching and I was looking forward to working with someone and seeing what insights they could offer in to my training. Unfortunately though, it’s fair to say our thoughts on appropriate marathon training differed greatly. While I was keen to try new things, my previous training had yielded huge improvements over the past few years, so I was not willing to completely change a clearly working formula. Sadly, the coach didn’t pay any attention to my previous training, and refused to listen to my feedback. Ultimately I decided I was better off sticking to my guns, and continuing with my own plan.
For previous marathon campaigns I have stuck fairly strictly to plans from the excellent “Advanced Marathoning” by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas. I’ve slowly built up the mileage over the years, eventually graduating to the “up to 105 miles” plan last time around. I’m a big believer in high mileage training, and I firmly believe that my high mileage approach has led to me being a stronger, less injury prone runner. It has also led to huge reductions in my PBs at all distances, in a surprisingly short amount of time. If you want to become a better runner, forget complex interval sessions or spending hours at the gym – just run more!
While I was generally happy with my previous plans, I wanted to mix things up a little this time around. While the overall structure of the training remained very similar to classic Pfitzinger – with a midweek faster session, a medium-long run during the week, and a decent length long run, ran at around MP+10%, on Sunday being the key workouts – I borrowed some of the BAC sessions made famous by Steve Way, as well as some of the long run workouts from the training plans of the NAZ Elite training group.
I hoped these changes would add some extra training stimulus, and help mix things up as the long continuous LT runs Pfitzinger prescribes can be a bit of a slog especially on tired legs. I know that’s the point of them, but I felt like the BAC and NAZ sessions would give just as good, if not better, results while being a bit more interesting. I also felt like I was ready to introduce some harder elements to my long runs, now I have been running 100+ mile weeks for over a year (on and off) and am more comfortable running that kind of volume.
The other change I made, which I experimented with leading up to the Oxford Half, was an adjustment to the way I did my easy mileage. While I kept Monday super easy, running at my usual recovery pace of around 8:30/mi (although I very much let the heart rate dictate the pace on these), on other days I switched things up slightly. So instead of doing say 2×7.5 miles at recovery pace, instead I did 10 miles in the morning, still at an easy pace but a good minute per mile faster than recovery, and then 5 miles at recovery pace in the evening. This kept things easy enough that I was still recovering on those days, while the slightly faster pace provided a little extra aerobic stimulus.
Overall training went very well. I gradually built up a base of mileage in December, eventually hitting just over 100 miles for the final week of the year. This included a 10 mile race which I aimed to run at target marathon pace (6:17/mi). The course was quite lumpy and the weather wasn’t great, but I finished averaging 6:20/mi which I was pleased with given the high mileage week. While clearly there was a lot of work to do, it reassured me the target wasn’t entirely crazy.
After a recovery week, and a ridiculous race at the rescheduled Telford 10K when I got lost on the warm-up, it was time for the real work to begin with a block of four 100 mile weeks leading up to the Worthing Half Marathon. I was pleased with how quickly I got used to the grind of those big weeks, and had a positive race at the Linda Franks 5 where I set a one minute PB despite being at the end of my second 100 mile week in a row. The training was working well, and things were definitely heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately though, disaster struck when at the end of a 24 mile long run I had to swerve to avoid a dog, and jarred my ankle. While it felt fine at the time, in the hours after the run my Achilles began to feel very tight and sore. It felt okay on a recovery run the next day, but I knew something was definitely not right, and it continued to nag after the run. When it still hadn’t improved the next day I began to really worry, and I was concerned about potentially making things worse by continuing to train on it.
Thankfully, this came at a good time (if there ever is one to get an injury!?) as it was already a planned recovery week ahead of the Worthing Half Marathon, which allowed me to treat it cautiously. The fact that training had been going well also gave me confidence that backing off now wouldn’t be a big problem. If I was in the middle of a peak week, I’d have probably been tempted to push on, but instead I took the rare decision to have a complete day off.
I was also heading up to Warrington that week for the Big Marathon Challenge, and the ASICS Pro Team, which included physiotherapist Sarah Connors, would be on hand to offer their support and advice. Perfect! Sarah spent a few minutes working on my ankle, and as if by magic it was like I had a new one. The tightness was gone and the Achilles felt totally normal. A few easy miles around the track confirmed everything seemed ok, and it appeared disaster was averted!
The ankle issue meant I’d had a much more aggressive taper ahead of Worthing than I had planned, running less than 50 miles the entire week, including the half. However, I hoped this would at least mean I’d be well rested for the race, and indeed that was the case. You can read the full report for more detail, but in short I ran another big PB despite the poor weather. Based on how I had converted the Worthing Half in to marathon performance previously, I knew that accounting for the bad weather I was roughly where I needed to be. Suddenly the prospect of running 2:45 at Manchester seemed like much less of a pipe dream.
With the Achilles feeling fine after Worthing, I could crack on with the final big block of training – five weeks above 100 miles including two over 120 miles. This was no doubt hard work, and I felt quite tired at times, but I was pleased with how I was coping with the toughest training I’ve ever done. I put in some really big sessions, like a monster 20x1km session at the track, and a big BAC session that ended up averaging 6:32/mi for 18 miles. I also put in some tough long runs which featured tempo and marathon-pace work, which I hoped would better prepare me for those tough final six miles in the marathon.
Unfortunately, two bouts of snowy weather cancelled both half marathons I had planned to run as marathon-pace sessions. While at the start of the training plan I was happy to trudge out the miles in the snow, at this key point I was eager to keep my running up, and not lose any sessions. I was therefore forced to run many, many miles on a treadmill which was utterly mind-numbing. However, I’m sure the experience of spending 2½ hours on a treadmill helped greatly with my mental endurance, and I was hopeful that I could use that experience to aid me at Manchester.
While the snow-cancelled races were frustrating, I was confident that my training had otherwise gone pretty much perfectly. I knew I was in as strong a position as I could have hoped to be, and that 2:45 at Manchester was at least a possibility.
Most of the hard work was now done, but I was keen to ensure I still stayed sharp as I eased back on the mileage and intensity of my training. The final big session took place 2½ weeks out – the aforementioned monster 18 miler that consisted of 30 mins @ MP, 4×5 mins @ LT, then a final 30 @ MP to finish you off. It was an incredibly tough session, but it went very well and left me full of confidence. That Saturday I also ran the local parkrun, taking the
win first-finish and also running a small PB.
A small spanner was thrown in the works when I headed out on my long run the day after parkrun, and found my right glute rather tight. It didn’t ease off through the run so I decided to call things quits at 10 miles instead of the planned 17. As with the Achilles issue in February, I was pleased with how sensibly I approached this. I knew that two weeks out I was going to add very little to my fitness, but could do major damage if I was silly. Thankfully the glute felt fine the next day and the issue didn’t reoccur.
The taper otherwise went pretty smoothly. I had the usual phantom niggles and slightly off runs where the heart rate is much higher than normal or the pace feels harder than it did previously. One of my final sessions featured just 10 minutes at marathon pace, and while the heart rate was in the right place, the effort felt far too tough to be realistic for the full distance. Luckily with this being my fifth marathon I knew these things are common and nothing to worry about. I can’t pretend I enjoyed it, but I was able to process it fairly rationally, and not panic about losing fitness like I have done previously.
Going from running 120 miles a week to less than 70 meant I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. Following discussions with Stuart Holliday, the sports psychologist on the ASICS Pro Team, I was keen to ensure my mental game was as strong as my physical one. You can do all the training in the world, but if you are not prepared for the battle with your brain over the last six miles of a marathon, you are in big trouble. This was emphasised to me when reading the excellent book “Endure” by Alex Hutchinson, which explores how the mind can affect performance.
I therefore spent some time thinking about how I was going to approach the last part of the race. I made plans to break down each mile in to a separate mini-race, to try and avoid the overwhelming feeling thinking “oh god there are still six miles to go” can have. I was also keen to avoid the possibility of backing off if the possibility of 2:45 slipped away. I know looking back at previous races like Frankfurt when I realised sub-3 was no longer on, or Brighton when sub-2:55 slipped away, that at this point I can give up a bit mentally and lose more time than I have to. I wanted to ensure at Manchester I got every last second I could out of myself, whether or not I was sub-2:45.
And if all else failed, I knew I had my trusty motto that I like to repeat over and over in my head to block out the pain – “don’t be shit“.
I headed up to Manchester on the Friday before the race, in order to avoid any potential traffic stress on Saturday. I ran a gentle five miler around Salford, and enjoyed exploring the area. I also began with the carb loading plan I had worked on with ASICS dietician Ruth McKean. Nothing too out of the ordinary, just an increase in the amount of easily digested carbs (i.e. lots of white pasta), and a reduction in fat, dairy and fibre that can cause issues during a race. I tried to stick to it as best I could given I was away from home and didn’t have a kitchen, although I have to admit I may have eaten one or two extra jelly babies…
The day before I did my usual 5K run with a few strides to wake the legs up. I felt great during the strides and the legs turned over nicely, so it appeared I was all set. I met up with my fellow Big Marathon Challenge teammates for one last plate of spaghetti, while we all shared our hopes, dreams and fears about the following day. It was then off to bed ready for the early start the next morning. I slept poorly, as I usually do on the night before a race. However I’d thankfully banked plenty of sleep over the previous week, so still awoke feeling fairly perky.
After my usual breakfast of bagels and jam, followed by the dreaded concentrated Beetroot shots and a few double-espressos, it was time to get the show on the road!
My hotel was a short walk to the start line, so I didn’t bother with bag drop and headed straight to the start line. The weather forecast had been pretty decent all week, with little wind and cool temperatures predicted. These turned out to be correct, and the weather was pretty much perfect – 2 mph winds, temperatures between 8º to 10º, and dry. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to use the weather as an excuse today!
I bumped in to a few people I knew in the start corrals, and the time quickly passed as we discussed our training and goals. With very little fanfare a starting gun fired, and we were off! I find the start of a race slightly stressful, as I always have visions of falling and having my race ruined before it even began, so I was relieved to get away smoothly. The race starts on a wide dual carriageway so it didn’t take long for everyone to comfortably space out.
I knew going in to the race that 2:45 was definitely possible, but also marginal, so I was keen to ensure I didn’t go out too fast and mess the race up early on. 6:17/mi was the goal pace, and I definitely didn’t want to see anything faster than 6:15/mi for the first mile. Strava shows I largely achieved that, starting out at 6:00/mi before quickly settling down to around 6:15/mi, for a 6:13 first mile. I was feeling good, and my breathing certainly sounded far more relaxed than some of the guys around me, so I settled in for what I hoped would be a comfortable effort before the real work began towards the end of the race.
While the crowd support around Manchester is generally very good, it’s surprising how quickly you find yourself in fairly quiet suburbs at the beginning of the race, as you loop around back towards the start line. I didn’t mind this too much though as there were still plenty of runners around me, and it gave a chance to settle down and concentrate on getting in to a rhythm. A 6:14 and another 6:13, and before I knew it we were through the first 5K in 19:19 and heading back past the start line and the large crowds of support.
The next ten miles were very much a case of staying relaxed, keeping the effort level in check, and enjoying the scenery. 6:14/6:16/6:17 took me to 10K in 38:46 (19:27) as we headed through Sale, followed by 6:19/6:15/6:20 for 15K in 58:17 (19:31) on the way through Brooklands to Timperley. So far things were running to plan – I was right on pace and the legs were still feeling good.
6:15/6:16/6:14 brought me out to Altrincham and probably the worst of the minor lumps on what is an incredibly flat course overall. The crowds were great here though, and any hills were soon dealt with as I went through 20K in 1:17:55 (19:38) and halfway in 1:22:13 – what would have been a PB this time last year!
We were now heading back along the same piece of road we’d come out on, and it was nice to distract myself by looking out for my fellow Big Marathon Challenge runners in amongst the throngs of runners – I had forgotten how busy it can get on course at a big race! I continued to tick off the miles, and while the effort levels were perhaps creeping up a touch, I was very much in control and feeling good. 6:19/6:13/6:22, and 25K in 1:37:22 (19:27).
We now left the runners heading in the opposite direction as we began our journey out to Carrington, the crowds gradually dwindling the further out we got. 6:14/6:17/6:20, for 30K in 1:56:50 (19:28). Thankfully I was still feeling good so didn’t need their support, and I smiled to myself as I passed the 16 mile marker thinking (admittedly slightly erroneously) “less than 10 miles to go!”
While things were going well, I knew I was getting towards crunch time as I approached 20 miles, and was expecting things to start to get hard at any moment. 6:18 and 6:15 got me there still on pace, but almost like clockwork the effort started to increase in that 20th mile. I hunkered down for what I knew was going to be a tough 45 minutes, and began repeating my winning mantra – “don’t be shit“.
Mile 20 was 6:23, the slowest so far but by no means a disaster. According to my watch, at this point I had something like a 40 second cushion to get in under 2:45, so I knew it was just a case of not panicking, and grinding out each mile with as little loss as possible. 6:24 and 6:22 followed, so I was losing a little but still in the best shape I’ve ever been in at this point in a marathon. Most importantly, my head was still in the game and I wasn’t thinking about stopping at water stations or giving up ever running again. 35K in 2:16:33 (19:43).
I saw the ASICS sports psychologist Stuart Holliday out on the course at mile 23, which was a nice boost as he shouted encouragement to me. I was having to dig ever deeper to keep the pace doing, but the legs were still just about managing it and while my will was being tested, that chance of getting under 2:45 kept me focussed. I thought back to all the hard training runs I’ve done, and how far I’ve come since starting running six years ago, and was determined to put in my strongest ever performance.
Mile 24 passed in 6:22, so I was still holding on, although the thought of another 2+ miles of what I was currently going through felt almost impossible. I saw another runner I knew, who unfortunately wasn’t having the day he deserved, and tried to offer some encouragement as I passed him. As I willed myself along, the legs grew ever heavier and more tired and the yearning to slow down or stop became ever harder to ignore. But somehow I just about managed to block it out as that chance of sub-2:45 beckoned me towards the finish line.
6:25 for mile 25, and I knew things were now going to be very close. I gave that last mile everything I had, begging my legs to go faster. The crowds gradually increased, and while I don’t really remember seeing a single person, the ever increasing roar definitely helped inject a little energy in to my sapped body. I somehow managed to raise my pace to 6:19 for mile 26, and with the finish line now in sight I tried to sprint as fast as I could.
I quick glance at my watch suggested I still had about 10 seconds in hand, but I knew that may not be accurate so didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Every step felt harder than the last, but the legs kept going and I somehow managed to hit 6:00/mi pace at the very end. Finally I passed the finish line and hit stop on my watch. I glanced down, praying I’d see 2:44:xx, but alas it was not to be – 2:45:06 for 92nd place out of 9342.
I immediately grabbed for a railing to help hold myself, as my weary legs almost buckled having finally been given the chance to stop moving. The disappointment of missing my target by such a tiny margin briefly flashed through my mind, before the overwhelming joy of what I had achieved sunk in. I ran my first marathon in 3:33, and I’d now taken nearly ¾ hour off that in just three years. Not bad for someone who avoided PE at all costs at school, and wouldn’t run for a bus before 2012! I’m no natural athlete, but it just shows what can be achieved with a bit of hard work and belief.
I headed straight back to my hotel after the race for a nice hot bath to help the muscles recover. I then headed back out to soak up the atmosphere and see my fellow Big Marathon Challenge runners, all of whom had done amazingly well. The entire team set PBs, despite several facing tough injury issues through training, so hats off to each and every one of them.
I’m confident that I gave it my all on Sunday, so any nagging frustration about missing out on the sub-2:45 goal has dissipated. I’ve never run such even splits – my slowest mile being just 8 seconds off my goal pace – and I’ve certainly never given it my all at the end of a marathon like that before. While I’m sure I could look back and identify areas where I could have saved a second here, or a second there, I am content that 2:45:06 is what was in me on Sunday.
I’m very pleased with how my training worked out. I’m glad I trusted myself and chose to part with the coaching that was offered as part of the Big Marathon Challenge. My high mileage approach continues to yield massive improvements, and I’m certain that I would not have been able to run the time I did on Sunday if I hadn’t put in all those big mileage weeks. It requires a bit of faith at times, as the miles do mean your paces when running faster sessions can suffer a little. I often struggle to even hit half-marathon pace during training, but you just have to trust that come race day the mileage will have done the job and the speed will come.
I also think the tougher long run workouts I did made a big difference in being able to keep the legs moving fast over those final miles. I was genuinely scared by several of the long run sessions I did, and almost considered aborting several of them before I’d even started, and opting instead for the standard long runs I’m comfortable with. Every time though I surprised myself with what was possible, and by pushing outside my comfort zone I learned a lot about myself and further increased my confidence in what I was capable of. I suspect my next marathon training plan will look very similar to the one for Manchester.
A big thank you must go out to the ASICS Pro Team for their support and assistance. Sarah’s physio work saved my campaign when she fixed my ankle issue, and Ruth’s nutrition guidance ensured I was fuelled perfectly for the race. Perhaps the biggest thanks must go to Stuart Holliday though. I’ve no doubt his tips, as well as the impetus his involvement gave me to pay more attention to the psychological side of things, played a big part in helping me keep it together in the final six miles of the race. The marathon really is a mental as well as a physical challenge, and I’m sure what I’ve learned will continue to pay dividends in the future.
I am now enjoying a well earned week off running as I let my legs recover from the torture I put them through. However I’ve already begun to think about the future. I am looking forward to running London in a little over a week. I have no intention of racing it, but hopefully the legs will be recovered enough to get around and enjoy the crowds. It will be nice to experience a marathon without the pressure that comes with racing one.
After that, I’m planning to spend the summer working on my speed. I will be running the Bourton One Mile Challenge in July, where I’m hoping to run a sub-5 minute mile. Speed isn’t really my forte, but it will be fun to mix things up a bit. After that, all eyes will be on Frankfurt. Handily, it is still within the qualification window for both London Championship entry and guaranteed Berlin Marathon entry, so I can hopefully find those missing seven seconds there, and perhaps a few more.
I keep expecting to plateau with my racing times, and I’ve already wildly exceeded what I thought I might be capable of. However, given how much I am still improving I am hopeful I still have plenty more to come. I am very motivated to keep pushing, and who knows how much faster I can get? I am looking forward to finding out…
“By a persistent effort of will it is possible to change the whole body. The athlete must always keep in mind this concept of change and progression. He must never accept his limitations as being permanent, because they are not.” – Emil Zátopek
|1||6:11 min/mi||138||-9 ft|
|2||6:13 min/mi||147||-5 ft|
|3||6:13 min/mi||154||10 ft|
|4||6:13 min/mi||177||-27 ft|
|5||6:15 min/mi||178||-15 ft|
|6||6:17 min/mi||180||12 ft|
|7||6:18 min/mi||180||8 ft|
|8||6:14 min/mi||183||-3 ft|
|9||6:20 min/mi||183||-5 ft|
|10||6:15 min/mi||181||16 ft|
|11||6:16 min/mi||162||5 ft|
|12||6:14 min/mi||172||3 ft|
|13||6:18 min/mi||168||17 ft|
|14||6:12 min/mi||170||0 ft|
|15||6:21 min/mi||175||-8 ft|
|16||6:13 min/mi||175||4 ft|
|17||6:16 min/mi||176||-16 ft|
|18||6:20 min/mi||178||2 ft|
|19||6:18 min/mi||176||-3 ft|
|20||6:15 min/mi||176||-2 ft|
|21||6:22 min/mi||173||-11 ft|
|22||6:24 min/mi||171||-9 ft|
|23||6:21 min/mi||152||22 ft|
|24||6:22 min/mi||157||7 ft|
|25||6:24 min/mi||178||4 ft|
|26||6:19 min/mi||184||5 ft|
|0.2||6:00 min/mi||189||3 ft|
|Total||2:45:06||26.2 mi||6:17 min/mi||171|
|1||6:15||1.01 mi||6:12 min/mi||138|
|2||6:13||1.00 mi||6:12 min/mi||147|
|3||25:04||4.01 mi||6:14 min/mi||173|
|4||6:34||1.04 mi||6:18 min/mi||180|
|5||5:37||0.90 mi||6:13 min/mi||183|
|6||12:39||2.01 mi||6:17 min/mi||182|
|7||6:30||1.04 mi||6:16 min/mi||163|
|8||6:16||1.01 mi||6:13 min/mi||172|
|9||6:14||0.99 mi||6:17 min/mi||168|
|10||6:13||1.00 mi||6:12 min/mi||170|
|11||6:13||0.98 mi||6:20 min/mi||175|
|12||6:26||1.04 mi||6:12 min/mi||175|
|13||5:31||0.88 mi||6:17 min/mi||175|
|14||6:51||1.08 mi||6:18 min/mi||178|
|15||6:18||1.00 mi||6:16 min/mi||176|
|16||6:17||1.00 mi||6:15 min/mi||176|
|17||6:23||1.00 mi||6:22 min/mi||173|
|18||6:25||1.01 mi||6:22 min/mi||171|
|19||6:25||1.01 mi||6:20 min/mi||152|
|20||6:22||1.00 mi||6:22 min/mi||157|
|21||6:22||1.00 mi||6:23 min/mi||178|
|22||7:45||1.24 mi||6:14 min/mi||185|