Well. That was a tough one.
Marathon number 4, Richmond RunFest Marathon. A small, local race in familiar territory. Why was I running this race again?
I hadn’t really considered that question beyond wanting to achieve a time goal. I’d booked it almost a year ago in the aftermath of getting around the 4:30 mark in New York, wanting to set myself the challenge to jump up by another 15 minutes and getting under 4:15. That was sort of it. No ‘first marathon‘ excitement, no charity incentive, and no fancy Five Borough vibrancy to get hyped up about.
In fact this marathon is about as far from my last one as you can get. It’s so close to home that some of it is on my weekly Sunday long run route. When I signed up that was part of the appeal; a race where I could sleep in my own bed, eat my own food, get a bus to the start and run a route I could practice beforehand. No drama, just me against the clock.
As it turned out the lack of drama surrounding this marathon ended up being both a blessing and a curse.
It might be obvious from how little I have been writing that I’ve had a few personal challenges this year. I hadn’t booked a Spring marathon, deciding to give my legs a bit of a rest. Thank goodness for that decision. Spring went a bit awry in lots of ways, and any marathon I had entered would have been deferred.
Things had recovered sufficiently by the summer in time for me to start my standard 16 weeks of marathon training, just in time for the heatwave. I actually didn’t mind the heat that much most of the time and my training started to go really well. I was getting faster, leaner and stronger and PB’s started falling here and there; I ran a 26:20 5k at the start of my training and ended up with a new mile PB and a target parkrun time of 25:59 by the time I made it to taper. I also smashed out a 1:56 half marathon – my first ever sub-2.
I wonder though if the lack of fanfare in my mind around my ultimate target race made me complacent? Should I have been cracking out all these fast training times and race PB’s or focusing on the task at hand? To be fair, the fast times over the summer happened because I was feeling good in each instance rather than by any particular design, but maybe I underestimated how hard running a sub 4:15 marathon actually is. Maybe I should have saved the real speed for the winter.
The race on Sunday was really, really tough. There’s lots of reasons why that was, I think.
Partly I don’t think I ran enough during taper, contradictory as that sounds. My legs felt half asleep.
Partly I had a cold that started to come on a few days before the race, so I was definitely slightly affected by that – I was dizzy from about 11 miles in and was finding it harder to control my breathing than usual, so my legs wanted to go faster than my lungs could handle and I felt weirdly out of control and out of sync with my heart rate for most of the race. That felt a bit scary, especially for someone who’s still recovering from a severe bout of anxiety.
The anxiety also had a part to play. I’m still taking anti-anxiety medication. Not a huge dose, but it definitely has an effect. Sometimes I find that my brain doesn’t feel nervous, but my body still has a physical nervous reaction. So I felt a bit like I had jelly legs before the start and for the first half of the race and couldn’t decide if it was nerves or the flu.
I was mentally quite discombobulated before the gun went off, and I just had a funny feeling this was going to feel tougher than it ought to have done. I went off a bit fast for the first 5k and struggled to bring the pace under control. By the time it was under control, it was too late and I felt a tiny bit on the wrong side of overcooked. From 12 miles it was tough, from 18 miles I was hanging on. The final 10k was brutal. My brain was all over the place and my legs not much better, I wanted badly to stop at every stride, but I didn’t. I kept grinding out the miles and, eventually, I made it.
I had started the training with the goal of running under 4:15, and my time ended up being 4:10:49. I more than met that goal. I was 71st woman, and 13th in my age category. I was firmly in the top 50% of the race. These are all huge improvements.
So afterwards, why did I feel just a little bit flat about it all? I mean, at the start of the year I couldn’t have run a half in the pace I ran a marathon in yesterday, so what’s my problem?
It was a perfectly nice, well organised race but the fact that it was a smaller, quieter event means that, for me, it’s going to be remembered as less about the glory of getting that time and more about what it’s taught me. Not just the race, but the training for it. I’m taking loads of lessons from it all this time around:
Lesson 1 – Never wish for it more than you work for it
I feel like I’d got into my head that maybe I could do something closer to 4:05 than 4:15. Which is actually really silly, and disrespectful to the distance. I’d trained for sub 4:15. I ran sub 4:15. Actually, I smashed 4:15’s face in with my Adrenalines. This is what I mean about covering shorter distances faster making you get carried away; I’m sure there is an old adage that if you multiply your half time by 2 and add 20 minutes that’s your marathon time. So 4:10, effectively, is bang on. And I AM hugely proud of it.
Lesson 2 – Running marathons is bloody hard
I hadn’t forgotten exactly, it’s just been so long since my last one and I’m quite comfortable running 20 milers, so maybe I did forget how brutal that final 10k can be when you almost fall off the knife edge you’re balancing on.
Lesson 3 – Getting faster at running marathons is even harder
My friend Allie has an almost identical marathon PB to the time I ran yesterday. I think I’d got into the habit of talking to her about this achievement like it was a foregone conclusion that she would have done it at the time, and that I could do it too. That’s because I think she’s incredible and a far stronger runner than she gives herself credit for, but the first thing I said to her yesterday after the race was ‘bloody hell mate, that’s really hard’. I get it now, and I apologise for ever taking for granted that she achieved such a massive thing.
Running 9:30 minute miles for a marathon is so far outside of my comfort zone it’s not even funny, and I had to put the work in. It’s really important to take care of the full spectrum of fitness if you’re going to work towards a big improvement goal – I added in some good work around strength and nutrition but yesterday really showed up the importance of focused speed work and longer mid week runs. By simply upping the pace I was struggling by 12 miles and in pieces by 18 miles. I’ll definitely take that lesson forward into the next training plan.
Lesson 4 – Appreciate the things you did right
I learnt a lot about effective long run training and simulating the race experience so you are fully prepared; I’d done three of my long runs on the course and one on the closest approximation of it I could find, mostly alone. If I hadn’t done that I don’t know how I would have coped yesterday. I wasn’t expecting there to be lots of crowds so I was ok with it being a lot of fairly quiet distance. There was a young lady I passed just before 16 miles who had stopped to call someone, really upset because she was finding the lack of crowds very tough and de-motivating. I knew the monotony of the towpath would be as much of a challenge as the distance and I’d prepared for that. I will just give a shout out to the marshals though, especially the younger volunteers, who were doing sterling work cheering us on around the route. Thank you.
During this training cycle I also started to really push myself out of my comfort zone and achieved times I wouldn’t have dreamt of this time last year, including my shiny new marathon PB. There were points during the summer when I genuinely felt like an amateur athlete and not just a person who runs, and I want to feel like that more. This is the result of three years of club running, and of being surrounded by amazing fellow runners. Which brings us to…
Lesson 5 – Times aren’t as important as the people who help you get them
OK, so maybe the streets of Richmond weren’t paved with marathon supporters in general yesterday, but that wasn’t a problem for me, because I have the best running mates. As well as the support all summer from my coach and my regular Sunday running crew, and the pre-race messages and good luck wishes that came my way I had back up in person.
Mr. Duff was of course with me from the start, getting up at the crack of dawn after the heaviest week of his own training plan to make sure I was ok before the start of the race. He was out on the route as well, in quiet points where the cheers were very welcome.
Christina, who was running the half as her own Autumn target race (and smashed it!), turned up early and barged through people in the start corral to give me a huge hug and some last minute fighting talk before heading to the start to scream encouragement at me. I’m sure she sacrificed at least a minute off her own time with that expended energy and it was greatly appreciated!
Allie positioned herself about 6.5 miles out, which was also just under half a mile from the end. I was still going strong when I saw her the first time but the high five and the stern ‘there’s less than half a mile to go, just get it done’ in response to my pathetic ‘I’m really struggling’ was exactly what I needed to hear. She got some funny looks from the other runners for this brand of ‘encouragement’, but it wasn’t meant for them!
Jenny went as far as working out her own 20 mile training run route so she could cheer me on the go at 12 and 18 miles. I missed her at 18 (I think she was too fast for me), but was losing my mind a bit at 12 and really needed the boost to morale. Even if she did need to sprint round a load of slightly unimpressed looking people to find a high five-ing spot!
And Melissah…well, Melissah won the race. She got to sit on a throne and everything. She ran a brilliant sub-3, had her presentation and then headed to the finish funnel to scream me over the line.
Fast runners are not scary elitists. Fast runners are motivating, supportive and fabulous.
You see? Even writing that last lesson out has put a huge smile on my face, and changed my mindset from why I didn’t run 4:05 to ‘goodness me, I ran a 4:10 marathon’. I trained for 4:15 and I ran 4:10. That’s some achievement and I AM rightly proud of myself.
As my father in law pointed out after the race, in some ways I ran even better than Eliud Kipchoge. Yes, fine, he broke the world record for the marathon, but only by 1 minute. I took 21 minutes off my marathon PB yesterday. I bet it’s been ages since Kipchoge could say that. And he didn’t have several sweaty running buddies jumping on him for hugs afterwards either.
I started this piece thinking that the main conclusion would be to make sure in future that I have a compelling reason to run 26.2 miles before I head to the start line that’s not just centred on achieving a time. I was even going to mention that Sunday was the 5 year anniversary of me giving up alcohol. However whilst that is something to celebrate and a pleasing coincidence it’s not why I was running the marathon. It hadn’t even crossed my mind til a few weeks ago.
No. My main conclusion is to acknowledge that running marathons at faster paces is super hard, that there’s nothing quite like the feeling when you achieve what you set out to do, and there’s noone quite like the people who see you through it – from the start line to the finish line.
Thank you my brilliant friends. We did it!
Duffrunning has been nominated in the 2019 Running Awards in the Personal Blog category. You can vote here under ‘blogs’ and then ‘blog (personal)’. Thank you!