A definitive* guide** to running marathons***

*not actually definitive
**not exactly a guide
***or other distances, it’s up to you really…

 

The tl:dr version of this blog is: You should definitely run lots of marathons. Or none.

 

It’s not quite the epic that Vicky has gone through in the last 12 months and written about so eloquently, but I thought I might jot down some of my thoughts about running marathons, now that I’ve completed my third. I think that people have some preconceptions about running 26.1 miles which I’d like to challenge.

To set the scene, I came to running fairly late – I’ve only been running for the last four years. I quickly got hooked, and worked up to running my first half marathon (Cardiff of course) in October that year. Since that time I’ve increased the number of half marathons year on year, and in 2016 I decided to see if I was up to running a marathon. I blame it on dry January – in a moment of sobriety I entered the Manchester Marathon. Immediately afterwards I was convinced that marathons were not for me. A week later I was bitterly wishing I’d got through the ballot for the London marathon because I was ready to give it another go. That convinced me to put my name down for the following year’s Manchester marathon as soon as the early bird email landed in my inbox. This time I’d train differently and avoid the pain and anguish.

I went faster, and I enjoyed the event a lot more, but I still didn’t feel I did the race justice, and felt just as broken at the end.

And now I’m a few weeks away from running my first ultra marathon (I’ll leave you to imagine how nervous I am as I write those words), and I’ve just run my third marathon, this time in Gloucester, as a training run! What sort of crazy is that? I won’t even dwell on the fact that I’m also running two marathons in April.

But I can say that each marathon has taught me something about running that distance, and although I would still not say I’m a marathon runner, and I can’t hand on heart tell you at the moment whether I actually enjoy running marathons or not, I think I can offer up some thoughts which might be of interest. So, here are some statements I’d like to address…

  1. I’ve only got one marathon in me. Wrong. If you can run a marathon, you can run two. Or twenty. If in fact what you mean is, ‘I don’t think I’m going to enjoy running marathons so I only want to go through that experience once, therefore I want to pick a particular marathon to tick off a challenge and move on’, then you should think again.

Let me explain. Firstly, if you are going to run a marathon, you will almost certainly work through a training plan. This means that in the lead up to the run you are going to be running long distances, certainly 20 miles, and hopefully a bit more (see point 2). So actually you will be running quite a few long runs. If that’s the case, then it shouldn’t phase you to plan to run more than one actual marathon, should it?

Secondly, I can honestly say that practice might not make perfect, but does make better, and more enjoyable. To that end, if you have a desire to run one particular ‘big’ marathon, I would recommend starting with a ‘smaller’ marathon. You will almost certainly hate bits of it, suffer, and most importantly learn. When you do then ultimately complete the marathon you’ve been aiming for, you will actually enjoy it more, appreciate it more. I had no real ambition in any of the marathons I’ve run to date, other than to improve, and see whether marathons are my thing. When I do Newport Marathon in April (one that might arguably be more of a landmark run), I will know in advance that I can do it, and I will be able to really appreciate the event running with good friends

2. Lots of short training runs = one long training run. Wrong. Well, to be precise, probably wrong – ymmv. Certainly I can say that in my experience, it’s the really long runs that count come the big day. When training for my first two marathons, I had training plans which I followed pretty strictly. But here’s a confession – some of those really long runs, the ones that took me past 20 miles, I cut them short. I got bored, I got fed up spending hours away from home, and I told myself that if I ran 18 miles instead of 22, well I could just run a separate 4 mile run another day in the week and I’d still have the mileage overall. Right? To a degree, yes, but it missed a couple of very important things.

Firstly, just ask anyone who’s done a marathon one question – when does it hurt? When does it start to get hard? Guarantee that they’ll tell you a distance somewhere between 18 and 20 miles. Because at that point for some reason your body starts to realise that you are trying to do things to your body that it’s just not built for, and it start to rebel. The smallest twinge, or ache, or niggle will magnify in your mind to be intolerable. You’ll begin to convince yourself that it’s actually a sign of a real injury, and we all know you shouldn’t run through injuries. Secondly, it is the time you start to get bored. You’ve been running for how long?? It all starts to pile up, you will get depressed, get emotional. Until you have been through it, it’s very difficult to explain, but it happens at that crunch point.

So, whilst you are getting the miles during the week as a whole, you are not building strength in your body to run through discomfort and you are not training your mind to run long unending miles. It’s one of the reasons I always recommend doing your long training runs considerably slower than you plan to run your race – you are not training yourself for speed in these runs, you are training for physical and mental endurance. Mix your training up, run short and fast some days, long and slow on others.

3. If you are a runner you should aim to run a marathon. Longer=better. Wrong. I said earlier that I’m still trying to work out whether I enjoy marathons. It’s true. I know I can run a marathon, but can I honestly say that I enjoy it? I can easily say that I find 10k races a bit short for me, 10 miles, half marathons and 20 miles I can finish with a smile on my face and I know are a good distance for me, but marathons? As I mentioned above, they can be a real rollercoaster of emotions. During the Gloucester marathon I had a couple of moments where I really couldn’t care less if I finished or not, but I also had some sections, even in the last few miles, where I was absolutely on a high. Before I start each marathon I feel nervous and doubt my ability to finish, and yet with each race completed I find I look forward to the next marathon more and more.

So that’s my feelings about this distance. Am I a ‘better’ runner because I can run a marathon? Absolutely not. I still may decide at some  point that it’s not the distance for me, and I won’t feel less of a runner if I ‘only’ run half that distance. The important thing is to find what works for you – what gives you that runner’s high, what best tests your abilities, and if that’s a 5k or a 100 mile ultra, it’s all down to your personal preference. Running is for fun people, when you don’t enjoy it you’re doing something wrong!

4. It gets easier with practice. OK, well this is mostly true. My experience is that I’ve had different issues each time I’ve run that distance, and I have learnt each time. In 2016, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t train the distance properly, didn’t do the time on my feet properly, and had a glute problem flare up just a couple of months before the race. I hit mile 16, my hip and glute started to hurt, and I got demoralised. At the end I hurt more than I’d ever hurt before and I really didn’t thing that this lark was for me.

In 2017 I did run more, but still missed some of the long runs. I did get some more races in as part of my training plan – something I think is really useful, as everyone runs differently when they are in a race and it’s good to experience that in training – and when it came to the marathon I enjoyed it much more. I probably didn’t pace it very well, running the first half too quickly, and this time I started to hurt about mile 20, but I went faster, smiled more, and recovered more quickly.

This year I have been running considerably more, both in terms of overall mileage and in terms of long runs. Because I am training for an Ultra, I’ve had several runs of 20 miles or more in the last few weeks. My average speed has probably dropped compared to previous years, but that hasn’t been a problem. So how did this year’s marathon go? Well this is the first time that I had no real pains at all – my body is fitter and more prepared for distance running. There was an additional mental challenge in that the Gloucester marathon was actually four loops of a circuit, but I was able to turn this to a positive because after the first loop I could anticipate the route and prepare for the climbs and turns.

The challenge came came at mile 22, but this time it was actually something rather unusual – I was hungry! Normally during a race I might get low on energy, but I never feel hunger, and I certainly never want to eat immediately after a run. It may be because the run started at 10:45, much later than runs normally start, but towards the middle of the run my stomach started to rumble, and I was craving real food – my Cliff Bloks just didn’t cut it! This really peaked in the last three or four mile, when I found I was crashing and didn’t have the energy to keep my pace up. I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t in pain, I just needed fuelling. Immediately after the race we headed to the bag drop and refreshment room. I ignored my bag and headed straight for the selection of cakes. Two large slices of chocolate cake (which barely touched the sides) and a coffee later, I was starting to feel more normal. And we then stopped at the supermarket nearby to get sandwiches!!

So in summary, I’d say that marathons are not for everyone, but that everyone should be able to find the event or distance that both challenges and delights them. When you find it, enjoy it! If you do decide that the big ‘M’ is the one for you, then train, train, and train a bit more. Put the distance in. Put the time in. Find friends with the same lack of good sense and run with them. Smile (still learning this one). And don’t put all your eggs in one basket – there are lots of good marathons out there so go experience more than one. You won’t regret it (for long).

 

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