The problem with setting targets – especially when you then begin to broadcast them – is that there comes a point when your body has to cash the cheques your ego has been writing. For me that day came at the Boston (UK) Marathon.
The race starts in Boston’s market square before passing the finish line and out of the town and into the countryside. The first few kilometres were just about trying to find whatever rhythm I could while the field thinned out. By around the 5 km mark the race had thinned into clumps of runners and I found myself with another runner from ‘somewhere or other’ Spartans running club (I didn’t even catch her name, but I think her running vest had Ruth on the front). At this point we were running at around 4 minute 45 second kilometres, which is a bit quicker than target pace, but it felt very comfortable and having never run very far on the flat I didn’t really know what pace was sustainable so I decide to just go with it. The race route is unbelievably flat – as advertised – and I can honestly say that the only gradients that I noticed were a pair of bridges over Hobhole Drain. Out of Boston the route take us through field after field of arable farm land – some fields big enough to be considered counties in their own right. Despite most of the route being rural, the support from the side of the road was brilliant. Even as the race began to stretch out there was always a chirpy spectator, marshal or water station to shout (encouragement) at you.
I run through 10 km, and then 15 km still holding the same pace and still feeling comfortable, it’s somewhere around this point that I separate from my run buddy as she appears to need to drop her pace a little (I accept it is unlikely she will read this, but I hope you got your GFA time). I try to carry on at the same pace without trying too hard.
As the morning mist finally began to lift the never ending horizon of this part of the world began to show itself. I have lived in Devon for over 15 years now, but spent 6 years before that in Suffolk and I thought that was flat before I arrived in Lincolnshire. I’m still not entirely sure if the Lincolnshire horizon is where the sky meets the ground or just where my eyesight is beginning to fail.
As I pass the 20 km mark I begin to start doing some time extrapolations along the lines of “if I carry on at this pace I’ll finish in…” and so on. Now this is all well and good while the going is good – and it was good up to and just passed the 30 km mark but it can come back to haunt you if you find yourself locked away in the hurt box.
All the way to 30 kilometres all had felt reasonably comfortable, but soon after it became decidedly uncomfortable. I began to feel my pace dropping, not too much at first but it definitely began to feel more of an effort as I passed from the distances I had run in training and the fatigue began to bite. By the time I got to 35 km my quads were screaming and my pace had disintegrated. Every time my feet hit the ground 10,000 volts of electricity was sent straight to my quads. Anything more than a survivor’s shuffle felt impossible. The only thing that kept me running was the guy about 20 to 30 metres in front of me. Although I felt like I was hardly moving, he wasn’t pulling away from me, so I just concentrated on keeping him in sight, and slowly (emphasis on slowly) I began to try and reel him in. Now, I’m aware that this makes me seem like a bit of a wanker but it wasn’t about beating the guy in front it was just about getting everything I could out of myself. I just had to keep telling myself that I only had to run another 3 miles, then another 4 km and so on. Mentally I think this 5 km was the hardest thing I think I have done, stopping myself from chucking in the towel and walking. I’m not sure I was exactly running in the truest sense, but I didn’t give in and walk.
As the route takes me back into Boston I began to feel better. Not so much physically, but mentally I feel a boost. The finish was almost in sight. As the finish draws closer I have never been happier to see a row of road cones as they funnel runners to the right hand side of the road. I begin to pick up the pace again, trying to hide the last four miles of dark suffering from the runners who have already finished and the spectators giving up their Sunday morning to cheer us on. I round the final corner and across the finish line. No celebrations and certainly no dabs. Barely even a smile through gritted teeth.
Reflecting on the training, I felt that it had gone reasonable well. I followed the same training plan I had for my only other marathon, at the Eden Project. This time however, I tried to include more hilly runs, and more off-road running to help mix up the training and to vary the load on the body. The biggest advantage I had this time was an actual proper running watch. While training for the Eden Marathon I had to track my runs using my Garmin Edge bike computer in my pocket. This was fine in the most part where I just wanted to run for a certain time at an easy pace or a tempo block. The issues came when I needed to do specific efforts and distances. This time I just needed to program it into the watch and it would beep, bing or vibrate whenever I needed to change it up.
The one thing I don’t think I trained well for at all, nor am I sure how to train for, is pacing. I get the feeling that you can only learn to pace a marathon properly is by running more marathons, but after feeling like I was comfortable for over 30 kilometres I was in the suffer box with my guts beginning to protest and my quads shot. I haven’t got the pacing aspect dialled in yet, but if I am going to be able to push on and find how fast I can go I need to find out how to manage the race better – but then maybe nobody can pace a marathon and you just learn to suffer better. That’s not to say I am disappointed with my time, but I would like to be able to finish a marathon feeling that everything went as well as I could have hoped. I think that’s the marathon dream.
So that brings me back to time. I set out targeting a sub 3 hour 30 minute finish time, and if I was offered this before I started I would have bitten your hand off at the shoulder. I got in under that, at 3 hours 28 minutes and 56 seconds (knocking over 30 minutes off my PB), and while I am pleased with the time, it also leaves me with a tinge of disappointment. This is mostly due to the way that the wheels came off towards the end. I don’t know if it was just I went off too strong, or the unfamiliar terrain – running on the flat is harder than I thought it would be – but I didn’t anticipate my legs objecting in the way they did. Fatigue yes, but an actual revolt was not a part of the mental preparation, but this hasn’t put me off marathons so I guess I will have more chances to perfect the art.
On a personal note, I would very much like to thank my wife for spending the better part of 2 days to travel half the length of the country to watch me run away and then run back a long time later, and also to my parents for performing grandchild sitting duties and the biggest (and best) roast dinner upon our return.
Picture Credit: Pictures 3 and 4 taken by Market House Photography Group (http://mhpgls.wixsite.com/mhpg)