Sunday, 7 September 2014

When a marathon is half-empty or half-full

Bonjour! Well, let's start with the facts. This weekend, over the course of two races, I ran 39.3 miles at an average overall of around 9.31 per mile. This may have been quicker, but for a massive falling apart in Saturday's marathon at around mile 17 that I didn't really recover from for the rest of the race (although the sprint finish I managed indicates that there may have been a psychological element involved.) I'd last run Somerset Levels and Moors Marathon on my 30th birthday in 2011, so I knew roughly what to expect, although the passage of time had allowed me to forget just how brutal the hills at mile 19 and mile 24 (roughly) were. A mile or so before the first hill, after an uncomplicated steady run, almost stride for stride with my brother Joe, something changed in an instant. I have a number of theories on why this may have been. Looking at it holistically, I'd done very few long runs this year, hadn't had a brilliant amount of sleep in a long time, my diet could have been better of late, I may not have been too well hydrated (partly because a lot of my water went over my head rather than down my throat) and psychologically I may have known there was a big hill climb coming, and that I wouldn't be able to sustain the same pace going up it. During the first half of the race I'd seen a man head-butted by a horse (he was fine, just a little confused for a moment or two!), and had nearly lost my footing once or twice running through a potato field. Aside from that though, nothing especially out of the ordinary had happened and I'd enjoyed a comfortable run through stunning scenery with great company. When the low point came it marked the start of a deterioration that just didn't lift. If this had been an ultra race then perhaps in another few miles I would have felt better again after getting plenty of fuel on board and having slowed my pace for a while, but seeing as it was a marathon I just wanted to get to the finish as quickly as possible. It turns out this wasn't very quickly. It made me think of one of the standard "If you've done 100 miles this'll be a walk in the park for you" comments I'd overheard before the start between other runners. I'd commented at the time that in some ways a marathon is more difficult than a long ultra, because during a marathon there's an expectation that it should be one constant effort rather than being broken up into sections. If I had been on a long ultra I'd have taken time at the aid stations to properly refuel, but during this race I tried to just take on a little liquid, then take some for the road, not stopping for more than a few seconds each time. The shorter the race, the more expectation there is to just get it done, which brings us on to Sunday's effort......

For a bit of fun, seeing as I had a rare free weekend, I'd signed up for Bridgwater Half Marathon the day after the marathon. I had no idea how it would go, but seeing as it was 'only' a half, I still expected to run every step continuously. It may not be quick, in fact I wasn't even sure if I'd break two hours, but I was hoping just to enjoy the run and prove to myself that I was getting back towards a reasonable level of fitness compared to that I'd achieved in spring last year (probably the fittest I've ever been so far.) From the start I could tell that my legs weren't fresh, but I had also feared that it would feel like an absolute suffer-fest straight away, which definitely wasn't the case. In the first mile I was constantly overtaking people, and then gradually over the next one began to reach the point in the field where everyone had hit a steady pace. For the next few miles I would focus on somebody ahead who I would try and gradually reel in. Occasionally something would make me run a tiny bit faster (the sound of distant gunfire around mile three for instance), but I pretty much kept up a constant sustainable effort. Between mile 4 and 5 I overtook some people I'd been reeling in for some time, one of them saying "Hey, are you that writer?" as I passed. I had a brief chat, remembering a few people yesterday who told me they'd enjoyed my book and thinking that this is something that may happen during many races I run from now on, then a mile or so further down the road 'Eye of the Tiger' was blaring from some speakers in a house. I had a little bit of a dance, much to the enjoyment of the locals it seemed, and hugely enjoyed the next downhill section. I did have a bit of a low patch between miles 8 and 9, but there was never a point during the race when I was thinking I'd have to walk; the effort always felt totally sustainable, which is what I'm aspiring to in every race. During an out and back section I got to see those at the business end of the race, and tried to imagine where abouts I would be in the field if I'd entered on fresh legs. Before too long it was my turn to go past people who were further behind, and was surprised to see Jon Pike, who I'd met that day, just a short way behind Jon Tofts; Mr Pike had estimated a finish time of around 2 hours, 35 minutes whereas Mr Tofts had been aiming for around 2 hours. In the end they both finished together at around the 2 hour mark, but when I saw them close to each other with a few miles to go I was thinking either I'd been running a lot slower than I thought, or that the two Jons had both run like warrior poets. Luckily it was the latter, and although my last couple of miles felt tough I felt myself accelerating slightly, particularly towards the end. No sprint finish this time, but I did have a protein shake thrust into my hand just after I crossed the line. For the record it was disgusting but I drank it anyway.

So overall, during the course of these two races I got to run a lot in the sunshine, had some stunning views over the Somerset Levels and generally marvelled at how wonderful the outdoors is, got to chat with lots of great people about this sport we all love, and got to stuff my face after the races. What's not to like? A number of people have commented that what I did this weekend was crazy, but it just reminds me how all things are relative. As I sit and type this Adam Holland is shortly to begin his fifth marathon in five days, and after today he will only be half way through the whole challenge. On Saturday I met Isobel Wykes, who will be running round a 400 metre running track for 24 hours in a few week's time, presumably whilst trying not to be driven slowly insane by the monotony of the situation, and perhaps inventing lots of games to play throughout (shame I-spy doesn't work with one person.) About four years ago I was worried I wouldn't be able to run every step of one 10k race. Seven years before that I wondered if I'd ever even be able to walk a mile again. Putting one foot in front of the other is, like most things, something you just get better at with practice and more able to endure the more you do it. If you are able to run and you think a challenge like this is beyond you then the first thing you need to change is your mindset. Do that and the rest will fall into place.

Signed copies of my book 'Everything Will Work Out in the Long Run' are now available on a print on demand basis, can be ordered via this link.......

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