Is there really any difference between running 26.2 miles in a time of 03:00:01 or a time of 02:59:59? Does that second or two make any difference at all? Certainly not to the effort you put in, or barely to the pace you run at - it must be in the margin of error for most calculations. But ask most runners and that second or two means everything. So after c270 marathons it was time to see if once, just once, I could run a marathon with a time starting with a 02. My PB going into this was 03:05:50 - so at this level a fairly hefty chunk to "shave off".
My plan was to throw everything at it, to go for those marginal gains much talked about in cycling (although only the legal ones). To work on my training, my strategy, my diet, my kit and my race nutrition. To dedicate 5 months to this plan so I could stand on the start line and say - no matter what I gave it my all. Success or not would be partly luck, partly genetics and partly hard work - I could control the last one so I would do everything in my power to.
This is how I did it - sorry spoiler alert - I just told you the ending.
I haven't followed a training plan for a long time. Its hard to find one that allows you to run 30-40 marathons a year, including the odd Quad, a few doubles etc. Anyway I pretty much know what works for me, get some speed sessions in during the week (usually on a treadmill) and run a marathon at the weekend. This gets me by but it doesn't get me to be the best I can be.
A couple of years ago I used the Maffetone method to really work on my Heart rate and this has stood me in good stead since. My Heart rate tends to be much lower than many other runners at similar speeds which is good news for endurance (and got me through my 100 miler). But to be honest that wasn't really going to cut it this time, I needed something, well frankly, harder.
After endless research I was torn between Douglas and the plans of Pzitzinger & Daniels (P&D). It was a toss up but the P&D plans just appealed more. The plans were six days a week (although I tended to run them seven with an extra light day) and involve a lot of long and medium long runs interspersed with speed work, relatively little rest and recovery and on average 70-80 miles a week.
Monday - Rest Day (usually did 5-6 miles)
Tuesday - Effort - 6-8 miles with intervals, or speed work
Wednesday - Midweek Long Run - 10-15 miles
Thursday - Double day - Effort (6/7 miles tempo) , Easy 6 Miles
Friday - Recovery - 6 Miles
Saturday - General Aerobic - 6-10 miles
Sunday Long Run 15-22
I stuck to it pretty well - only 4 :-( Red stickers and 3 :-| orange stickers and the rest happy green stickers :-). Strangely adding a sticker each day worked really well and ended up acting a great motivation.
In total over the five months that was just over 1500 miles or 58 miles in training for each mile in the race. I know lots of runners don't like them but the treadmill was my saviour. With longish midweek runs the only way I could really fit them in was getting up early, getting into London and then doing a session on the Treadmill - when you are up to 15 miles on a Wednesday morning @ 6 am before work you see people come and go in the gym (think record was four HIIT classes ) as you carry on running. It was also pretty useful for the speed and effort sessions as I could push myself on the treadmill pretty hard.
A typical effort session towards the end of the program was a warm up then 200 meters fast (around 10.5 miles per hour or 5:43 minutes per mile) with 200 meters easy repeated maybe 12-14 times then easy run. Easy running was around 8 minute miles to recover. Now that used to be my reasonably hard marathon pace so it showed a lot of progress over the plan.
The plan was hard but overall manageable, it built steadily and I never felt that I was spinning out of control. Would highly recommend the plan
The second string the plan was weight loss. Now I don't think I would be described as heavy generally and I sat within (although towards the top) of the BMI range for healthy. But there is a lot of "science" or maybe folklore around every pound being 2 seconds a mile. I read a great book by Matt Fitzerald around this and it makes a lot of sense to work on both weight loss and appropriate nutrition in build up to a big event.
So starting in the new year out went alcohol (wasted but nice calories!) bread (largely wasted) and in came more healthy eating and a plan to lose about a pound to a pound and a half a week.
Its reasonably hard working in London to find healthy and good for you food for breakfast and lunch. Not impossible but the mass market chains tend to be fairly high in salt and calories. In the end the solution that worked for me (and know its not for everyone) was replacing breakfast and lunch with a balanced meal supplement - I selected Huel and over the months I actually got to like it. Although I came in for a reasonable amount of friendly stick at work for tucking into another "shake" each day.
I took a multi vitamin supplement and an omega oil supplement - just to make sure I was getting enough in general I would have preferred to get it all from natural sources but this just worked for me. In addition when the miles really started to build up, I ended up also adding a protein supplement . Evenings were largely vegetables and chicken or prawns. Mostly stir fried - exciting I know! So broadly speaking a relatively high protein and fat diet and a lower carb diet.
Above is a fairly typical week. The low heart rate training from 2017/2018 had left me fairly well adapted to burning fat as fuel so i was able to run fairly long distances on relatively few calories (typically I burn around 16-1800 calories on a marathon where as many will burn 100-120 calories a mile so 2600-3000). The daily fluctuations were an attempt to compensate a little for higher or lower training days.
In total lost about a stone and a half, wasn't always easy but by setting out a plan and sticking to it it was totally possible. 9 and a half stone is probably lightest I have been since I was about 17! Still in that BMI healthy range but now near the bottom!
In the build up to the race I also took a daily high concentrate beetroot supplement (its really rank !) as there is some evidence to support the benefits of the nitrate concentration for endurance running.
Strength & flexibility
The other two key things I had help with was improving my overall strength and trying to maintain some flexibility.
Matt Eaton has put me through my paces over the past few months with weekly PT sessions specifically designed to help my sports performance. He took my training plan and has attempted to mould a series of weight and resistance activities to help me achieve my goals. They both helped me remain injury free and also gave me an extra edge in performance and durability. Thanks Matt!
Louise Reader from The Body Matters has worked on my legs off and on for tech ten years I have been running. Once every three - four weeks I get a massage and they really help. I am the worlds worst stretcher (that's a lie I cant even call myself a stretcher as I just don't do it) and Louise helps keep my legs in a state to run. Also shes willing to listen to me talking about running endlessly! Thanks for all your help Louise.
I stepped back from running a many marathons as I normally do, but had to feed my 'mild' addiction along the way and tried to build in a number of races that would aid me in my goals and plans.
Enigma Quadzilla - I have done this now 6 or 7 times. Usually I come into it relatively unfit and us it to kick start training. This time I came into it relatively fit and with 2-3 months hard work behind me. I was lucky enough to bump into Stuart Nicolas on the start line - we hadn't met before. Hes a great runner and much faster than me, but this was his first Quad (or over double I think). So we made a good team as it turned out, his speed my endurance. We ended up running together for the entire four days (along with cameos from Dave Barr) and finished in 3:18,3:16,3:18,3:18. It was my fastest Quad by about an hour and a half and very comfortable. Although not drinking limited the social side in the evening and leaving the last night meal to get some sleep while others carried on wasn't easy! But a real confidence boost.
Brighton Half Marathon I don't run halfs. No really I don't. Apart from one last year to support Claire I haven't run one in I think 8 years. But needs must and this was the first of two I had signed up for. This one the warm up and the main race two weeks later. Perfect weather conditions in Brighton, a good fast course and a strong field saw me home in 1:23:30 and a new PB by a few minutes! Before the race I had intended to run at 1:30 pace :-) - but it just felt right. Its a race where if the weather is kind you can fly, if its unkind then you will be blown around!
This race was the one that I first started to believe that 3:00 was possible.
The Big Half this was going to be my fast half - but the weather wasn't kind. Blowing a gale in London and a twisty turning early few miles, added to the difficulty of getting pacing right saw a 1:24:05. Still a time I would have been delighted by a few weeks before but....if the wind had been less...if I had got my pace right :-) Runners are never really satisfied!
Enigma Weak @ the Knees Day 6 another trip to MK and another few laps round the lake. Some poor souls had been doing this for five days already in pretty awful weather, rain and strong winds. This was three weeks before Manchester and was my last long run. My plan was to run 16 hard then an easy last 10 miles. I had toyed with the ideal of going for 3:00 in the week before but (a) the weather and (b) having the family coming to Manchester made me decide against that. Still even in the wind it was a fantastic day for me. Heading off on my own from the start I ran 16 miles below Marathon pace and then turned the dial down to record a 3:04:52 and a new PB - even though this was a "training" run.
I now knew that if I stayed injury free and wasn't stupid I had a three hour marathon inside my legs to unlock.
Lea Valley Festival of Running 10KM did I mention I hate half marathons? Well I dislike 10kms even more! Its just pointless pain and suffering and it takles you far longer to drive there thgan to race. This was two weeks from race day and was a speed session in race conditions. Fairly flat course around the Olympic Whitewater Rafting Centre. Nice race, good conditions. Struggled a lot. Did ok in a sub 40 time but it never really worked. Gave me a few concerns over the plan but I have always been more an endurance person than pure speed so I could live with it - at the very least it stopped me being complacent!
1500 miles done, Stone and a half lost, multiple sports massages and strength sessions, new diet etc etc etc ...only one thing left to do...
Claire had asked me two or three days before the race if I was nervous or excited. The honest answer was neither really. I was treating this race as far as possible as "just another marathon" and I had done 269 of those before. Furthermore when I set out part of the challenge was to see if I could get here, if I could throw everything into a plan and be that disciplined. I had already achieved that. I was going to toe the line fitter than I had ever been, with better times in training, leaner, better prepared ....in one word ready. I had done everything I could possibly do therefore I had , in my view succeeded, the race would take care of itself.
I had booked into an extremely over priced hotel with as it turned out some of the worst customer services and restaurant service to be found but it did have one over riding benefit - it was three minutes from the start. For that reason I would probably use it again! So after my tradition pre race breakfast of rice pudding (don't judge me!) I wandered down to the start avoiding the bag drop etc.
I was in pen B so pretty near the front (A and elite ahead) and was right near the front. Chatted to a few other runners - the thing you find with these races is that generally the further forward you go the less diverse the population. Further back you have all sorts and its very inclusive. (rightly). In A & B its largely middle aged men with tight cropped hair who all look too thin. In a moment of realization I realized I probably fitted right in!
Luckily enough I bumped in the lovely James Bennett one of the nicest and most genuine people in running. We chatted for about half an hour as the clock ticked down and the pen filled up. It was great to see a familiar face. James wasn't race fit but was just going to see how it went.
My initial plan was to find the 3 hour pacer (job done he was 10 yards in front of me) and gradually work my way ahead of him (as crowds would be less) then sit there for 25 miles or so! Great plan I thought. As a sometimes historian I had forgotten Helmuth van Moltke - No plan survives first contact with the enemy. The Three hour pacer slipped into Pen A and was sent off three minutes before most of the people he was supposed to be pacing D'oh! Plan B - DIY...
So I said goodbye to James and headed off. Allowing for not running the shortest route I needed to set off at around 6:45 a mile. Wasn't that crowded, the legs felt good and the first mile was done. 6:44 - I will take that. Most runners know that you can tell in the early miles of a race if you are likely (although not certain) to have a good one. I knew on Sunday that I was going to, I was relaxed, feeling good, running well and it felt easy.
I saw james again a couple of times including him getting me a bottle of water at the first aid station (Thanks!) my food strategy was two shot bloc cubes every 4 miles and frequent mouth fulls of water. It seemed to work. About the same time I also saw the legend Steve Edwards who very graciously wished me well - it was a real boost Steve. And immediately afterwards Claire, Abbie, Bryan and Maureen who had come up to support. Managed to see them again at 16 ish and at the end - thanks guys.
I was happy with my early miles, nice and consistent, steady and feeling easy. Chatted to a few other runners and generally just passed the time of day on a Sunday morning jog. I realized later that at no time did I really think about the big picture - I was just focusing on each mile, getting it done and moving on to the next. I think it worked well.
Half way comes up in Altringham and I went through in 1:28:32 so a little fast but nothing tragic. But kept an eye on it to make sure I wasn't going to over heat. Seeing the gang again at mile 16 was a boost as it was unexpected although I was juggling gels and water at that point.
I had hooked up with a guy named Alex (another spoiler he managed to finish in 2:58 his first sub 3 but at 26 not 51 :-) ) and we ran together for about 7/8 miles. We saw the 3 hour pacer ahead and slowly and steadily caught him up, then breezed past him about mile 20. I now had a 2-3 minute cushion (he was ahead of pace!). Saw another friend about then Rohan Kallicharan who was having a harder race having got married a few weeks ago with honeymoons not being the prescribed marathon training. But he wished me well and gave me a real boost. I have been amazed at how everyone has been so supportive and encouraging on this quest and Ro was no different.
To be honest there was nothing much else to add. The last few miles were pretty easy. I knew I had this, a few choruses of "if you are happy and you know it " got a few takers from other runners but most were far too serious ! And generally I over took a fair few people as I maintained a pretty consistent pace all the way - even splits are the way to go.
The home straight at Manchester is long, very long, too long. You see the finish line but its probably a 1/4 to 1/2 a mile away and it seems every yard. I saw the team again just before the finish and sprinted (sort of) to the line. Coming home in 02:56:47 and a second half of 01:28:15 to beat my first half of 01:28:32 - a slight negative split!
Five months , 1500 miles, countless sessions, 4 pairs of trainers and those 193 seconds meant the world to me at that point.
When I started this I didn't know it was possible but after all that was kinda the point. If it were easy or a given then why put in the effort.
Thank you to everyone who has supported and encouraged me along the way. Its hugely appreciated. Running is truly an incredibly supportive sport and the thing with running is that there is always another challenge round the corner!
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