The one thing that you can guarantee when people hear that you are running a marathon is that they will (after first questioning your sanity for undertaking such a thing) ask you how your training is going. I have no idea how to answer this question. The best I have managed so far is that it’s going, and I’m not injured, so I guess it is going well?
The best chances you get for hard objective feedback on your training is repeat runs on the same course. Here parkrun can be incredibly helpful, but all of my parkruns are recovery runs at the moment, so I can’t look at my times to see if there is any noticeable change. Luckily my club puts on a series of 5K races around a local business park (three laps, try not to get lapped by the fast runners before you start that final lap), which happens on the last Tuesday of each month. There hadn’t been one in December, so my first opportunity to gauge how my training was going since starting up Richard at Full Potential’s plan would be in the January race.
I felt pretty good as I warmed up with a lap of the course, for some reason I was going in the opposite direction to everyone else, but never mind. I did some drills and some stretches to loosen up, and tucked myself into the middle of the pack (partly to keep warm), ready for the off. My new watch gives me the opportunity to predict what time I will finish in, I just have to give it the distance. So I started my watch and off I went!
My first kilometre was all right, but a bit slow (while there aren’t any real hills on the course, it does include a slight rise) and it could also be accounted for by having to weave through the crowd. The second kilometre was worse, though. The predicted time on my watch slipped from 20mins 36secs to 20mins 50secs (my PB on this course is 19mins 32secs). Everything seemed a struggle. It was hard to breathe normally, I couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm and my form had gone right out of the window. My predicted time slipped to 21mins 30secs. Oh dear. Time to dig in and slug it out until the end. The encouragement from friends marshalling the course and from other runners, who could hear the effort I was putting in, gave me a boost. A final burst around the corner and onto the short finishing straight and I stopped my watch at 20mins 58secs, just sneaking in in under 21 minutes.
I wasn’t the only person to suffer from a slower-than-expected race that evening; although there were a few PBs, a lot of people seemed to struggle, so I took some comfort in that, but it laid the seeds of doubt about how I would hit my target time for the marathon. I commiserated with friends, snuck in a quick picture with Chrissie Wellington, who had turned up and I’d only seen as I was completing a cool-down lap (again in the opposite direction to everyone else, and Chrissie passed me twice), then slunk off home to lick my wounds.
In the next few days I had to remind myself that I wasn’t training for a 5K, I was training for a marathon. I hadn’t been working at such a high effort rate in training at that time and it came as a bit of a shock to the system, both physically and mentally (I was unprepared for how tough the effort would feel). I had a sub-par training session a few days later, where it felt like more effort that it should have done to complete just 10 minutes at my proposed marathon pace, which knocked my confidence some more.
Training for a marathon doesn’t all happen in one day, however, and a bad race or week does not mean much overall. The next few weeks saw improvements and I was hitting marathon pace more easily, so I wrote off that week as just one of those things. Maybe my body had been fighting off a cold that I didn’t know about, and as Dr Who said:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.”
And marathon training is the same. Overall you should see a progression, but sometimes it’s just a big ball of stuff that you hope to untangle come race day. There will be ups, there will be downs, hopefully you won’t be sent into the past by what looks to be a scary statue just because you blinked (but there’s a motivator to speed you up on race day).
I ran the same race again at the end of February. This time I mentally braced myself for how much the effort of going as fast as I could for 5K would hurt, I lowered my aims (I had run over 16 miles two days previously and was hardly race fresh), and I didn’t set my watch to predicted time (just ran as hard as I could at every moment and did the maths in my head). It was nasty weather, strong gusts and little cover, but I ran my best. My time? 20mins 14 secs – a time I’d have been happy with the month before and was even happier with this time.