On Sunday I set a new marathon personal best and, if I’m honest, it was a complete accident.
The day before the race I confessed to my friend that I didn’t even really want to run this marathon, my running mojo had been kicked into the long bushes as the fear of Marathon des Sables loomed overhead. I hadn’t set out to run a fast marathon at the Gloucester Marathon, the aim of this race was to simply put time on my feet. I find getting the motivation to get out and do long runs pretty hard so booking in a marathon seemed like a sensible way to get some time on my legs without the pressure of setting any sort of good time.
But come the finish line I had gone almost two minutes faster than ever before and the way did that was simply by splitting up the marathon into chunks.
There is an age-old phrase by Desmond Tutu, certainly not suitable for people doing Veganuary; “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time”. I think running a marathon fits to this phrase. If you look at the metaphorical mountain that is a marathon and think only of getting from ground level to its peak, you’ll struggle to push on. If you take it one step at a time, one mile at a time, the summit loses its sinister aura.
So, I thought I would create a little cheat sheet to help those currently looking at that summit lingering high above:
• Divide the race into when you take your gel or chew. Make it to mile 5 and I can have that gel. Divide it by rewards.
• Divide it by support; get your friends and/or family to be at specific points along the race. In doing so you’ll have that swell of emotional support spread out, knowing you have it to look forward to in the next 5 miles or so will keep you moving forward.
• Pick out landmarks along the way. This is a great one for all you selfie takers. Two miles till the Cutty Sark, push the pace up now and then pause for a selfie.
• If you have done a marathon before and know roughly what time you will be aiming for you can divide it by time; hours or half hours. In doing this you can work out your pacing and use the divides as an opportunity to reassess your goals and push on to the next.
• One way I used to divide up the race was to imagine it as a 20 mile long run followed by a 10K race. Slog out the 20 miles, which you will have likely have run in the build up to the race but would probably be the longest you’ve ever run and when you get to the unknown, hit the reset button and treat the final miles as a 10K race. Just with more chaffing, sweat and heavy legs.
• Pick a runner ahead and aim to overtake them in the next mile. Once that one is down just pick another! I always use this during the last few miles of a race but especially in the final meters as a surge of competitiveness to be sprinting across the line.
The way I do it now is to split it into five parts:
In the first three of four miles I tend not to worry too much about my pace, the only thing I try to make sure is that I haven’t gone off too hard. I am happy if the pace of these few early miles is near my pace but preferably about 10-20 seconds slower. I use these early miles to run a mental scan of my body, check over every muscle and assess the evitable paranoid muscles that flare up in pantomime pain. By giving myself a free pass for these early miles it gives me time to get through the crowds and settle into some sort of a rhythm. By mile five and my first gel I aim for my pace to be settled and my mind focussed on the race ahead.
The next chunk is up to half marathon distance. By that point I can look at my watch and do a simple bit of arithmetic to work out what time I could finish the race. I’m not the brightest of sparks so that is one of the easy spots to predict a finish.
The next point is mile 20, with 6 miles left I usually calculate that I will run at a 10minute per mile pace so 6 miles means one hour, again simple maths. The downside is that if I am aiming to PB and I get to half marathon distance only to realise that I am already short it can be an instant demoraliser.
The penultimate part is what I like to call the death zone, which is what the final part of summiting Everest is called, is everything after mile 24. By this point of the race I am hanging on by my finger nails, everything hurts and everything sucks. It is the time of the race where I try as hard as I can to drum up any scraps of motivation to simply keep moving forward, lumbering towards the finish.
The final part is my favourite; when I see the finish line. Now is the time that I scrape the barrel of energy and sprint to that medal!