Thursday, 30 May 2013

My First Marathon: From Fantasy, Through Reality, To Missing The Target, But Still Being Proud

It's been a few years now since I really started thinking about what's on my bucket list, and running a marathon has been on there since the beginning. I run a lot of half marathons and recently discovered that I absolutely LOVE 10k races, so it seemed that now was the time if there was ever going to be one, so I signed up for the Edinburgh marathon just before Christmas.

Tens of thousands of people do London year after year, with preparation ranging from excellent through to bugger all. How hard can it be right? Very, very hard as it turns out...

With Christmas over, and winter still holding its icy grasp over the UK, I embarked on a very ambitious training programme, designed to get intermediate runners over the line in 3 hours and 30 minutes. You might spot mistake #1 here, but I've been used to running 40+ miles a week for probably 4 months now, so I thought it would be OK.

And this seemed to be the right programme for me judging by the way I was chewing my way through it: I was hitting the sharper ends of the pace goals over distances and intervals, and was on occasion surprising myself with how long I could sustain some quite hard paces: 7 minute miles weren't a big ask any more, and I could do a few miles at 6:30 before coughing up half of my stomach contents. I was running more than one half marathon per week faster than my previous PB of 1 hour 37, and could go out and run 10 miles the next day, instead of having to walk down the stairs backwards. The target 8 minute mile was getting easier and easier as the months wore on, and the distances climbed: a 50+ mile week, then another 50+ mile week, then... illness. Bloody illness strikes in the week I'm supposed to hit my first Really Big Distance at the weekend. After a week of the plumbing not working properly, and losing about 3kg, I set off to attempt 18 miles to find myself on my knees at 14 miles and walking home deflated.

"Ignore it and carry on as planned" explained a seasoned marathon runner I work with, and I took this sage advice, resisting the urge to re-spin the following week, and took the week easy as my training programme suggested, before going for the worst week of them all at over 55 miles for the week, ending with 8 miles on Saturday, followed by 20 miles on Sunday. (The coach that designed the programme I took on believed in simulating late race fatigue by putting in a decent distance the day before a long run.) This went down OK, actually really OK, and I finished thinking "I could do a bit more, just a little bit, but I could..." I'd done 20 miles in 2 hours 36 minutes, which was ahead of what I'd have to do on the day to achieve 3 and a half hours, sweet!

The weeks plodded by, training started to get really boring, and I began to fantasise about how much I could take off 3 hours and 30 minutes. Then the sensible Iain started to worry: fantasy and hope are never a part of plans I make, and this needed to be changed into a proper goal. So, when the last 20+ mile run came around three weeks before race day I decided to go out at 3 hours and 20 pace to put a marker in the ground about what I'm capable of. I figured, if I could actually do this over 20+ miles, then that would be the plan on race day, but no faster, and if I couldn't do it, then I'd stick to the original goal of 3 hours 30. I also planned to make this run "as far as I can possibly go in 3 hours", rather than just 20 miles, and started out with some trepidation on one of the hottest Sundays we'd seen so far this year.

After 14 miles, I got the bleep to tell me to speed up (oh yes, this sadistic trainer was coaching me to fast finish even the longest runs to get me used to overcoming fatigue), and I gritted my teeth and went for it. 7:45 miles turned into 7:20 miles, and life was good. For about a mile. Then, it got harder and harder to maintain it, but I carried on ploughing the effort in. "This is training, not a performance" I kept telling myself, as I spiralled back towards 8 minute miles. By the time I reached the final steady 2 miles (back to race pace), I was clocking 9 minutes a mile and my body was hurting in places I didn't know I had places. One of my nipples was bleeding, and so were a couple of toes (I found out later) and my inner thighs were raw where my shorts had been rubbing. Shit. Well, no actually, I was really pleased with this run as it turned out, as I now knew my limit: anything down towards 3 hours and 20 was clearly absolute bullshit for me, and my original target of 3 and a half hours looked much more realistic. Plus, I had actually put in a very good training run that had accustomed my body to fatigue just that little bit more.

After this mammoth run, the taper began, and everything started to slot into place. I was starting to find my target 8 minute mile pace easier to lock down (although I could easily average this pace, I previously had trouble truly running at that pace, oscillating between 8:15 and 7:45), and runs that I had once considered a long way were simply childs-play: 7 miles? I'll do that between putting the kids to bed and tea, it'll only take 50 minutes...

And all of this brings me to race day. Sunday 26th May, two days after my late Brother's Birthday, and I was still waiting to raise a glass to him, because I'd been off the sauce all May. My whole family was staying with my Sister-in-Law in Stockbridge, and we'd had a lovely few days in a very sunny Edinburgh. And here was a big race-day factor: A Very Sunny Edinburgh. It was to hit 19 degrees during the run, which is pretty unfair for Scotland in May!

So, how does a marathon feel? If you haven't done one, read on, and if you have, then you're like me, and enjoy the empathy and shared experience of reading about someone else's journey.

I'm standing at the start, and I've kissed my wife and young boys goodbye-for-now. It's a nicely sparse crowd, and I'm not expecting the Great North Run style crush and constant weave just to get to where I want to be. I look around and take in the people around me, some of whom must be looking at a similar goal to me right? A couple of charity groups, a fair few lone runners like me, a couple of small club running groups and a really broad range of ages. Everyone looks like they're taking this seriously, but they all look happy. I've already run up and down the road a bit to warm up and stretched a bit, so I'm not bouncing around on my toes. Instead, I stare at them for a bit and try to get my heart rate below 80. It isn't going down. "Five minutes to go" we're told, then it seems only moments later that it's two, then the start sounds and we start to walk forwards. Mercifully swift as starts go, and I feel ready as I shuffle forwards with everyone, setting RunKeeper off and making sure my watch is ready to start timing at the start.

As I cross the start, I see my wife and youngest son, and hear my eldest and Sister-in-Law shout "Team Charlton!", and this is all just what I need: to feel like I'm starting with a spring in my step and the wind of support at my back.

The first few miles are really nice: we swing by the foot of Arthur's Seat and enjoy the support of the crowds. It's warm, but not hot, and at this stage, the psychological effect of the sun on my face outweighs its capacity to exhaust me. I completely miss the first mile marker, but at two, I see that I've been averaging about 7:50. This is OK, as I always knew that I'd start a tiny bit fast and level it out. I tell myself that I have 20 seconds in the bank to play with later. I miss the third mile marker as well, but at four, I see that I'm still going a bit quick (7:45 average now, so I'm getting faster), and start to make a real effort to reign it in. My heart rate is sort-of where it should be at just over 150 (about 80% for me), and I feel comfortable.

Miles five through eight aren't eventful, but are really pleasant, running along by the water, with very little wind to disturb us, but the heat of the sun beginning to build. I've got the pace under control as well, but my heart rate is higher than I've been used to in training, no doubt because of excitement. It's at this stage that I really "settle" into the race: I now have very constant companions - The chap called "FRY" in the MacMillan top, the older fellow from Kennilworth running club and a host of others, all seemingly plugging away at 8 minute miles just like me - I'm now used to the way this race is signed, and I'm not gasping for water when it comes around. If there is a section of the race that I really enjoyed in a sustained way, then this is it (plus the next three or four miles perhaps).

After a brief jaunt inland a bit, we come back to the coast at about 11 miles, still trucking along at just the right pace, but with over a minute in the bank now. But it's through this next stretch, that the heat of the sun begins to become quite noticeable, and I start to worry about the second half of the race: I really want to pass through the half-way mark feeling absolutely fine, but I know that's not going to happen now, because I'm waiting for water when it comes around and I reach straight for that first energy gel like I really need it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not in any sort of trouble yet, but I had really hoped that the first half would have taken a little less out of me.

My half marathon passes in just under 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is pretty much spot on, but it's practically immediately after this that I see the first few people stopping running. What? Half way, and people aiming for 3 and a half hours are messing up? This is the first psychological shock for me, and it really knocks me, but I remind myself  how many times I've run this far and much further. It's a slow start to the attrition of the running crowd, but it's a start nonetheless, and it is pretty relentless from here-on-in.

If I'm honest, I don't remember too much about the race from 13 miles through to about 17 or 18, but the same constant crowd are still there: Fry hasn't given up and the guy from Kennilworth is also plodding along at the same old pace. It's perhaps a symptom of really trying to block this part of the race out that my memory is weak, as I have a real psychological problem with this "no-man's land" around about a third of the way through: the brain says "just over half way", but the body is starting to say "are we nearly done yet?". And by 18 miles, my body really is starting to ask what's going on. As much as I try to block it out, the low-level pain in my gastroc muscles, and the way my hips are feeling is becoming pretty hard to ignore, and the heat of the day is now really upon us. I have sweated buckets by now: my shirt is hard where it isn't wet from all of the salt, and I'm wiping crystalized sweat from the inside of my shades every mile or so. The water stops aren't coming fast enough for me now.

But something positive happens at around 18 miles, and we turn back along the coast. I find myself saying out-loud "that's good, home stretch" as we round the bend, and a couple of people look at me and smile. Smiles, nice, really nice, we're all still holding together aren't we?! Although the number of people shuffling along, walking or stopped is now beginning to climb, it's still only a few. It's at this stage that people who are clearly much more seasoned fast finishers begin to stride by looking great. Good for them I think, and try to feed off some inspiring performances, rather than be dragged down by poor ones.

With my "problem patch" nearly over, I start the slow mind game of ticking off the miles towards the finish. I am definitely counting down to the finish, rather than up from the start now: "when I get to 19, then it's only 1 to go to 20", and so-on. A quick stop for a piss at about 19.5 makes me feel positive, because I can't be too dehydrated if I've managed to fill my bladder, and it only knocks about 15 seconds out. As the mind game continues, I feel OK. In fact, no, I feel pretty damn good, as I pass 20 miles still on target. Then 21, still on target. Well, give or take 15 seconds. Can I do it? No, I CAN DO IT!

But then it happens, and I've been told about this. The Wall. A great solid wall that you can practically feel hit you because the change is so huge, and happens so quickly. 21.5 miles if memory serves me correctly, and my muscles no longer contain any energy. All of my muscle's local glycogen stores are depleted, and I am now running on my body's longer term stores, so whatever I have kicking around in my liver, and beyond that in my fat stores, plus whatever I can get into my bloodstream by eating. Every single stride deposits more lactic acid in my muscles - and I can tell - and the pace at which I can run is now simply a function of my circulation and blood sugar level. I am begging for energy gel stations (why didn't I carry my own?! Why?!) and jelly babies. As I've heard one runner put it, the first 20 miles is just transport, now the real race starts, and I know what they mean.

As I reach 22 miles, for the first time in the race I didn't just do another 8 minute mile: it was 9 minutes. Boom, pace blown apart, and I realize in an instant that 3 hours 30 is a pipe dream, because the prospect of another 4 miles feels like buttering a whole loaf of bread with one knife-full: better spread it thin, or I'll never get to the end. So, I plod on at 9 minutes, playing mind games the whole time to count my way down in bite-sized chunks to the end. Mile 23 comes around in another 9 minutes, and I'm happy that I'm maintaining this pace. I still don't have the confidence to put any extra pressure on, as my fellow runners are beginning to evaporate into an ever-thinning column, with probably ever third person I see at this stage shuffling, limping, walking or stood still. Who am I kidding, it's taking ever increasing pressure to maintain 9 minute miles now, so there's now no way I can increase the pace.

I run the 24th mile for Rory, imagining him stood at the 24 mile marker, smiling and running to meet me, and this is some comfort, as is my only seemingly constant companion now, a MacMillan runner called "Hoppo". I'd attribute a big slice of my grit over the last few miles to this guy's presence, as he's always a few yards ahead, a few yards behind, or at my shoulder, and the crowds are constantly shouting "go on Hoppo!", and I feel like I'm tagging along on his team.

Mile 25 is for Evan, but the mental pressure is now beginning to fade, because I'm so close to the finish. I remember thinking "when I see that 25 mile marker, I'll know that nothing can stop me, I've done it! I've really nearly done it!" That said, the pain in my hips is bad enough to make me consider lying in the bath for about a day, and my gastroc are now bar-tight , with the lactic acid burn completely engulfing my quads as well. And there it is, 25 miles gone, only 1.2 to go, and all is well in the World...

The 26th mile was for Libby really, but I can barely remember thinking about her except for at the start of the mile and when I got to 26 miles: this is the magic mile, when we owe every yard to the crowds, and the most amazing range of emotions will sweep through you, giving the biggest and best high you can have, legal or illicit. Halfway through, there's a big setup with an announcer and loads of people cheering, which is just what's needed, giving me that amazing buzz and lift to actually speed up. A quarter of a mile later, I'm cursing the bastards for lifting me up too early, as I realize that the last half mile can't be sustained like this, but I manage to hold on to about 8 minutes a mile, which is amazing considering how I'm feeling.

Even writing this nearly a week on, I can still feel the amazing welling of emotion that comes when I pass the 26 miles marker and see the big crowds at the finish in the distance. Nothing can go wrong now, no matter how much it hurts. The crowds come closer, and I see runners ahead of me start to pull away, as they get their final lift to sprint to the finish and I start to get excited. One of them is doing aeroplanes with his arms, zig zagging around the course, and the crowds are cheering him on like he's an elite winner (he got his pic in the paper for that stunt!) All of a sudden, I'm in among it myself, and the voices all blend into to one, and then it hits me. Right in the back. The biggest wave of pride, joy, relief, excitement and just plain love for everything that's living that I've ever had and it feels like it picks me off my feet and hurls me forward. I won't find out until I check my RunKeeper later, but I'm somehow doing my fast 10k pace from here to the finish, which shouldn't be possible, based on the way I felt 30 seconds ago, but there it is: I'm accelerating towards the finish, not to reel in any other runners, just to cross that damn line as soon as is humanly possible. For the home straight towards the finish, I'm not looking at anyone, but I'm listening as hard as I can for Rory, Evan or Libby over the sound of my own thumping heartbeat, and I realize that I'm going to cry, any second now.

Crossing the line, time seems to slow down, and everything goes on hold. I hit my watch and see that I've done 3 hours 35, which isn't really registering. There's a ball of emotion in my throat that doesn't seem to know what to do with itself and I clutch a barrier, panting madly, suddenly realizing what I just did to my body. Then I hear a shout and look up, and there are my family, leaping up and down 10 yards away, but I can't get to them. Unless you heart is made of granite, you too would cry like the baby I am at this point, and it doesn't seem to stop for ages. Best. Feeling. Ever. I've run 5 minutes outside my target, but I know know that it's an awesome achievement all the same. 3 hours and 35, no-one can ever take that away, and I'm more proud of this than any other PB I have, even though today was going to be a PB no matter what!

Now this is all in the past, the memory of the pain is fading (as has the real pain in my legs), but the memory of the high is not. I can walk down stairs forwards, and I've even been for a run today, and I could run where I wanted, at whatever pace I wanted, and the sense of freedom after such a constrained and grueling training regime is awesome. I owe a huge amount to my Wife for supporting the mammoth training effort, and to the crowds for the role they play in getting everyone through those last few agonizing miles.

So, what did I learn from this?

#1, pick a realistic goal. If you don't have one, then find one by doing something you think should be easy, then something you expect to be hard, and keep going until you really do know your limits.

#2, don't let fantasies about your performance creep in: when it comes down to it, you have to put your faith in your body knowing it's capabilities thoroughly, not test it to failure.

#3, enjoy race day: on a big race like Edinburgh or the Great North Run, having a massive goal that's going to take luck and a following wind will destroy your enjoyment, so instead take comfort in your companions instead of getting narked by them, and just drink in that support: it's pure magic.

#4, a marathon is about three-quarters stamina, followed by one-quarter endurance. No matter what your target pace or time, you simply can't make your body store the energy you need, so you WILL be in pain for 3 to 6 miles at the end. Try to prepare yourself for this if you can, but it's admittedly pretty hard unless you go out and run 26 miles a few times beforehand, which is not something us first-timers get the luxury of.

#5, prepare for a psychological battle. The poor and unfortunate walkers, hobblers, and weepers in the last few miles will make you feel like you're walking home from a battlefield, rather than approaching the finish line of a big race. Don't succumb and you hopefully won't become one of them. Bite size steps towards the finish, mental games, hard sums, whatever it takes, because that doubt and anxiety are replaced by overwhelming pride and joy when you see the finish post.

#6 ANYONE who has run a marathon in ANY time deserves MASSIVE RESPECT! It's simply not something the body really wants to do, and if you've pushed yourself through that barrier, you are a very strong man or woman.

#7 The woman standing on the last bend shouting "It's just around this corner, it really is! Keep going, it's literally around this corner!" for probably three hours on the day deserves a medal: she has no idea how much those words will have meant to thousands of runners, me included.