The diary of a Marathon Runner!

My writing isn't as prolific as it should be, it's hard to keep on top of it, when you're trying to balance family, work, training and events and the small matter of a Challenge that absorbed a fair chunk of life for a couple of years, so I'm going to try and play catch up a bit, although a fair amount of my musings will probably end up in the story about The 100Peaks, but that's for later!
So I've decide that I'm going to dedicate this post to write (or muse) purely about the Marathons I've taken on this year, marathon running in general and my experiences along the way. This year I completed Chester Ultra (50miles+)/Greater Manchester Marathon/Paris Marathon/Virgin Money London Marathon and The Milton Keynes Marathon.

While in the grand scheme of things taking on 4 Marathons and an Ultra during the course of a calendar year (January to December) isn't a big deal for many seasoned athletes, I do however believe it's an achievable goal for many that have aspirations to take their 'first' marathon experience on to the next level.

My belief for that lies firmly in the idea that once you've trained (properly) for a marathon and you enjoy doing that distance, the training and maintenance miles become second nature and if you combine that with solid strength training, cycling and HITT (and avoid injury), you have the foundations pretty much sorted for continuing on the marathon journey and extending it further in to the even longer stuff.

Obviously I'm not a coach so don't quote me on that, but I've done enough of this now to understand what works (for me). Sure there are areas where I can improve massively and the idea is, you should 'always be a white belt', so I will listen openly to those that really know their stuff, and let's face it, most of what any of us cling on to, is a result of what we're told by our peers, I'm no different!

For me, the marathons were 'wind down' or as much as I shudder at the word 'taper' for The 100 Peaks Challenge which I took on during May/June of this year. So although I 'only' did those 5 marathons in the calendar year they were on consecutive weeks beginning on 29th March with Chester Ultra and finishing on 1st May with MK Marathon (well actually that's not strictly true as I also did Greater Manchester/MK & Berlin during the same 2016/2017 year period).

Again for many seasoned athletes that's no real biggy, especially when you reflect on what someone like Ben Smith achieved with his 401 Challenge or indeed Steve Edwards (The Man inside the Machine) is doing in pursuit of 1000 marathons all sub 3:20, he's currently approaching 800!

The marathons were part of a much grander plan and for me the goal was to run each at sub 3:30, aiming to at least get close to 3:20 and be consistent, so as to not put the body under too much stress for the Challenge that was due to begin three weeks after the final marathon in MK.

I reasoned that running between 3:30 to 3:20, I was, based on what the science (courtesy of Dr Nick Tiller @ Sheffield Hallam and from tests conducted there and at UCL and Brunel) was telling us, that I would be running comfortably and within myself to allow sufficient recovery to run consistent marathons over that period. My predicated run time based on a standalone target is between 3:05 to 3:10 (unless of course you believe what you're Garmin is telling you. Mine suggests I'm capable of running sub 2:50, not sure how many decades that's shaving off but I'm not sure even with my mind-set that's achievable now. Although, that sounds like a massive contradiction when I write that and repeat it out loud, I guess it's a target)!

In the build up to that race period I worked very hard on volume of training, it was necessary for The 100 Peaks anyway, but it made a massive difference to my physiology as well as my physical preparedness, and of course my mental fitness!

I know because I've been there, endurance is 'pure and simple' about the mental battle. If you prepare right, no matter how demanding the course or the number of miles you're running or taking on, mind is King and it will give in far quicker than the legs if you allow it. The legs may tell your brain they're tired, but if you train your mind to overcome that and just keep going, you can overcome anything.

I spent six weeks at the beginning of this year working in Copenhagen, and it was in those 6 weeks where I achieved the majority of my gains. When you're confined to a hotel room outside of working hours in winter, what else is there to do other than train!? I used those six weeks to my advantage and trained, morning, lunch and evening. Those 6 weeks I went completely back to basics and just ran and did press ups/core work and some HIIT and the difference I made in terms of lean muscle and my running was massive. So much so that before Chester my VO2 had hit 61ml/kg/min and I was the lightest (at 12 ½ stone) I'd been in 20 odd years! In those six weeks I shifted a stone, I don't know what the specifics are in terms of the ratios between body fat and lean muscle mass, but all I know is that I started those six weeks at 13 ½ stone and at the end of it, was in the best shape I'd been in, in some considerable time!

However, it was the prospect of running Chester that was biggest mental hurdle, I'd done similar distance with The Cateran Yomp, but we'd done that fully loaded with 35lbs and at a much more leisurely pace. The cut off was 24hrs and full distance 54miles of the Cateran Trail, and we were well inside that in under 19hrs. But it wasn't a race and we never treated it as such. So in essence, this was my first Ultra race. I had formulated a plan based on what I knew I could run at comfortably, but this would be a complete trial and error event.

My race planning is always meticulous and this was no different except that I hadn't really taken much notice of the route profile. Massive schoolboy error! The first half meandered quite wonderfully around Chester and I ran that first half in 4hrs and felt in good shape, then the second half hit and the wheels fell off a bit. I never realised that once we hit the Sandstone Trail that it would be quite so hilly especially when we got to Frodsham.

However, when I look back I think as an introduction to Ultra running it was the perfect baptism and a fine way to pop the Ultra Cherry. The goal for me was to aim to finish within the Top 50 (I like Gold as a colour, Silver and Bronze not so much), I completed in a little over 9hrs 30mins and placed in the Top 30, so for me that was job done. The most pleasing part though was, that come the end, knowing that I was in that position, when I needed to step up the pace to ensure I wasn't passed, the legs listened. Those that have done the course will know how soul destroying that last stretch is, and will understand how difficult it is to summon up the energy to fend off those chasing you down!

The course was absolutely stunning and certainly exceeded my expectations. Whilst the hills were hard, they also brought a new challenge mentally, coupled with tremendous views, sloppy trails, great descents and the 6 miles of doom along the tow path to the finish, it will live long in the memory.

GB Ultra's (Wayne Drinkwaters and his teams) organisation was incredible. Signposting on the course was great, except for a couple of errors which were possibly more as a result of poor observation on my part and the support from the aid stations was magnificent. If you're considering your first Ultra I couldn't recommend it enough, so much so that I'm aiming to run it (again and improve upon 2017) in 2018.

Next up the following week was Greater Manchester. I approached Manchester with a massive spring in my step based on what I'd achieved the previous week and felt in good nick and fully recovered. The previous year I ran 3:36, so there's a natural target to hit. The previous year had also been a bit of shambles in terms of race organisation, not that I suffered as a result of it, but there were lots that did, however I loved the experience of running it and was glad to be back to do so again.

There were a couple of tweaks to the course and of course the main issue of bag collection had been sorted and I will stand by the notion that if you're dream to do London is trampled all over by the inevitable rejection magazine, you can go far worse than sign up to do Manchester. Manchester this year was both great and bad on a personal level. Despite hitting 3:20 which was the expectation, I managed my race badly, running well at 20 and on for sub 3:15 I believed I didn't need to follow my race plan, because I felt good.

Therein lies the lesson! At 20 miles I should have taken on extra salts as I'd so routinely done since my first marathon at London in 2014 (when at 20 miles I'd got cramp). By the 21 mile mark cramp hit and for the final 5 miles I suffered badly, I remember as I got into Trafford the cramp was so bad it had forced me to stop and someone from the crowd ran up to me and literally spilled isotonic down my neck and literally kicked me in the arse to get going again. I couldn't have been more thankful to that person and if nothing else it will now serve as the warning to never deviate from the race plan!

Obviously at 20 miles I got greedy and ran the risk of compromising the whole month ahead, and instead of sticking to the plan so I could enjoy the whole race, that natural instinct to push took over, sometimes we need to learn to reign it in, especially when there's a big goal in mind.

However, as the adage suggests in every failure there is a lesson, those lessons help us grow and improve and whilst failure might be slightly over dramatic for running a 3:20 marathon, in essence I could have messed things up massively!

Personal run issues aside, 2017 Manchester was a massive upgrade on 2016 Manchester, and although I can't do 2018, I will run it again. It's a great fast course, with incredible support, and for the love of God who doesn't love beer at the finish line (even if it is non-alholic)!

Paris followed Manchester and I originally signed up for Paris believing it to be a Marathon Major! Ah alas! However, it felt like a major, had all the trimmings of one and definitely felt like one from the moment we stepped off the Eurostar to the moment I was stood proudly with my wonderful family in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Going to any race expo to pick up your bib number is exciting and Paris is no different, I also had the added bonus that I'd won a pair of Asics Dynaflyte Paris (that I had to pick up) and the race bling (and finishers Tee) was fantastic!

Race morning I walked the few miles from our apartment to the race start on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The streets were quiet and already race ready and only populated by road sweepers, bin men and sleepy marathon hopefuls. It was quite a beautiful walk on a very lovely morning and the buzz was the same for me as I've ever experienced for any big city marathon.

With the lessons of Manchester firmly etched on my mind, I never deviated from my race plan and decided that as it was unlikely that I would venture back to do Paris, that I would just enjoy the whole experience. Which I whole heartedly did, the course rivals London for landmarks if not exceeds it, the on course support is amazing, not in London's league, but there are few marathons that could lay claim to that. It was a tougher course than London and I'll be honest the 5 miles through Bois de Vincennes and the last 4 miles through the Bois de Boulogne as wonderful as the respite from the heat (on the day) was, they seemed to go on for ever! But again as Manchester I would recommend it as an alternative to the disappointment of not getting London.

Many people have levelled at Paris that it's not a great marathon, for me that's all down to perception, race experience and your own expectations. Of course it helps when you hit target, and although I know I could have pushed harder, I was satisfied with my 3:27. I found nothing negative about running Paris and would happily run it again if Mrs R said I could! I would honestly suggest it should be a marathon any serious city marathon runner should sign up for. It's not expensive in the grand scheme of things and it's so accessible, and it's a definite feel good marathon.

A week off followed Paris before London, which was welcome as it would have been my little brother Lloydy's birthday. It's always a difficult time, and although it may have been better to focus on running to help, it gave me chance to recharge, or as the case may be, get fat!

I did nothing at all in that week and remember seeing a pic of me, which my cousin had taken as a snapshot from the TV at the start of the marathon, looking like I'd been on the pie train!

This was my third London in four years, the previous two times I'd run for ABF The Soldiers Charity, this year I was running for The MSSociety. The first year I ran London in 2014 the target was 4hrs, frustratingly I hit 4:01. The following year I knocked 20 minutes off that time recording 3:41, so again although the target was 3:30 to 3:20 I had a target to improve upon as I had at Manchester.

London is, as anyone that has done it will tell you, remains the pinnacle of Big City Marathons (of course I can't reference that against New York or Boston as I haven't done them yet, so others that have, may argue differently), the experience from the moment you arrive at the expo to filing into Horseguards with your medal around your neck is hard to beat. It draws you in, I hate London, every working day of the year I commute in, and find it to be nothing more than a hive of ignorance and self-centeredness. However, on Marathon Sunday London turns in to the most wonderful, welcoming, humbling city in the world, and there is not much that can make you puff your chest out and crack on than the support you are given around the whole of the route.

Despite the previous exertions I settled into my rhythm very quickly and although feeling sluggish was running well, once again running inside 3:15. Then as if Manchester hadn't happened, and there had being eons of time passed between those two marathons, my race strategy went fully out the window! At 20 miles again, feeling great, it's warm, I don't feel the need to take on extra salts, ½ mile later I'm struggling! Of course by then it's too late, once cramp has struck you're fighting it all the way home and I struggled massively until I saw my awesome family at the start of Birdcage Walk. That couldn't have been timelier as all the way up Embankment to Westminster, all I wanted to do was stop and try and let the cramp ease out, but I'm a stubborn mule and luckily that saw me through to the end.

That London, despite recording 3:23 became my biggest performance disappointment, once again overlooking my race strategy and forgetting the lessons or indeed ignoring them, cost me dearly. Not so much in time, but the whole enjoyment of the final stages of the race and ultimately what would have been a much improved time. It was very naïve of me, however, that still doesn't detract from the whole London experience and one I hope to experience a few more times yet!

My final marathon was on May Bank Holiday and my home City Marathon, Milton Keynes. I love MK, it's a marathon like no other, has the coolest finishers tee and bling and a stadium finish. The course is varied and is a lot tougher than you'd expect. I ran it in 2016 and for 2017 I had been appointed as a race Ambassador. Again I would urge anyone that hasn't done MK to do it, that's not just the ambassadorial spin, it really is a great event and although nowhere near the scale of other city marathons has a great feel about it.

Truth be told for me though as much as I love running and love MK Marathon, I was just glad to get this one over and done with. When I finished London, the target was in sight and I can't say I really enjoyed those final 26.2, don't get me wrong I enjoyed the day, but it was a means to an end and completing it (in a decent time, 15 mins quicker than last year) was about getting my training complete and then be able to focus on The 100 Peaks.

There are a few things that would be obvious to you, if you're still reading this, that are lessons I will always abide by now and that is firstly 'always stick to your race plan!' And secondly…..

…..tapering sucks, to be honest, we all know that, it's not new! However, during that race period, I took the idea of tapering to the next level and did little during the week in the build up to the weekends races, purely more than anything to ensure I didn't injure myself in anyway. In some way, I think I suffered a bit from that approach as I definitely felt quite sluggish come London. During the week between London and Milton Keynes I added some miles and run sessions and definitely felt a lot better come MK Marathon.

Since then, post The 100 Peaks Challenge, I have learnt a lot about what my body is capable of, coupled with the science and experts I've been fortunate to have been exposed to and worked with during that time, I've learnt that training hard, really does pay off! I've also established I'm capable of far more than I believed possible and that I'm fitter than I anticipated or even gave myself credit for.

Whilst I probably won't adopt Eliud Kipchoge's approach to tapering in future, I will trust in my body to cope with the demands that I've become accustomed to and trust in Dr Nick Tiller, who as an endurance athlete, sports scientist (and friend and someone I trust and look up to) that when he tells me, when I ask "is tapering for endurance athletes a myth?" And he responds "good question. The research says no, it's not a myth. Volume reduction of around 50% seems optimal for performance." I will ensure I listen!

Thirdly, you need great support to help you achieve and I know I'm very lucky in that regard. There are two things that keep me going throughout training and events and that's doing my little brother proud and knowing that when I'm done, my precious family will be at the finish.

There is nothing better than seeing those smiles, and when or if you're struggling remember why you put yourself through these things, ultimately the pain you feel is transient in regard to the accomplishment that is etched across your family's faces when you're done!

Next up for me is Boston Marathon, with my time for Greater Manchester I qualified for this iconic Abbott World Marathon Major. So hopefully, come 16th April next year I will have a reference for what it means to have done 3 Majors and how they all compare!

Happy marathon running and beyond people!


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