Marathon: What went wrong?

I have waited almost a week to write this post. I’ve composed at least some of it many times over and started composing it close to midnight last Sunday, 17th April. So, what went wrong on Marathon day?

Firstly it’s important to state that for many people 3:57:32 is a perfectly reasonable – even impressive – time to complete a marathon in. Friends, family and colleagues have assured me that ‘sub 4 hours’ seems pretty good. Only it wasn’t. I don’t see myself as an average amateur, I didn’t at any point through my training. I knew this was training that saw me run a personal best (PB) of 1hr 42″ for the half marathon just 12 weeks after starting the programme on Boxing Day, December 26th 2010. Plugging that time into the McMillan running calculator had given me a predicted 26.2 time of 3:35:28. From that, an A-goal target of 3:40:00 was set (with a B goal at 3:45:00) and subsequent training runs were tweaked to aim for a 5’11″/km (08’24″/mile) marathon pace. I wasn’t going to shoot for the 3:35, I was playing it safe for an achievable goal.

What happened?
A familiar tale to those of you who have spoken to me this week but by mile 1 I was 2 minutes outside A-goal pace and hugely frustrated by the congestion. I was tense and feeling it more than I usually do, right the way through to at least 1 hour – concentrating on not weaving too much or getting slowed down. By 13 it was hurting and I was at 1:53:22 – about 9 minutes down. Descending to Docklands I was feeling miserable, experiencing unfamiliarly heavy legs and ‘knowing’ I was too slow; at 17 miles I pulled up and gave in to the central governor and walked for two minutes, stretching off and then running a clean mile or so before pulling up again. At that point the pattern was set. The next ten miles I think I walked about 5-6 times (the Runkeeper data is unclear) for various spells, all under 2-minutes. By which time the damage was done.

On the day I did too many things differently
Music: In almost all of my training runs I have run with music or a podcast. On marathon day I’d heard and read that the atmosphere is such a huge part of the event that it would be almost churlish to run with headphones in. So I didn’t. I didn’t take strength from the crowds so much as I missed the monotonous pounding of generic dance music that helped me throughout my usual training runs to dissociate from what my body was saying.

Fuel: It was a hot day (more on that later) and despite knowing the course was peppered with Lucozade and water, I wanted to stick to what I’d trained with (sensible) so I ran with 500ml of Lucozade Lite and aimed to drink most of it by 13 and all of it by 20, relying on water and regular on-course drinks for the final 6. As it happens I just didn’t drink regularly enough in the first half of the race and by 10 I had most of my drink left, by 13 probably over half remained. Coupled to this, I added a little flexibility in my gel strategy too, taking the first gel around 70 minutes and then not really knowing what to do about the remaining gels, roughly taking them between 25 and 40 minutes apart. On my long runs I had been disciplined at taking them every 30 minutes from the 70 minute mark. Perhaps this lack of hydration and possible bonking (depeletion of glycogen stores and reliance on fat burning) was making my legs feel so damned heavy?

Walking: I never walked in my training runs. Even on runs that averaged faster than I ran on marathon day and on runs that exceeded 20 miles. Once I’d given-in it was psychologically impossible not to fall into the pattern of walk-run. It might be fine by Jeff Galloway but it’s not fine by me, I signed-up to run 26.2, not walk it. Perhaps it allowed me to finish at all, I’ll never know.

Panic: The start was not good. My position in pen 6 (of 9) was because I’d underestimated my finish time when I applied two years ago. It meant I was running with people that were not sub 4 runners and it meant that ahead of me were a group of runners all linked together for charity. Within 600m of the start line we were standing still as people peeled-off to pee. When mile 1 ticked by I was already stressed about an even paced run and that tension remained through the congested period of the first few miles. Tragically, my data shows my first 5km I cleared in 28″ and the 10km in 54″, I was slow but not crawling like I felt. But that stress and weaving (as well as the odd stride to clear the pack) had taken its toll.

External factors
These are not excuses but more contributory factors. I’m convinced my own mistakes (above) were more important to the final time but those mistakes were made, in part, by the following factors:

Heat: The temperature rose steadily throughout the race to a maximum at 13:45; Wolfram Alpha shows it peaked at 19 C (66 F) but I believe I heard on the day that it went higher in central London. My two longest long-runs were run in the range 5 C – 13 C (40 F – 55 F). Tom Williams on Marathon Talk mentioned after the high temperatures the week before at the Brighton Marathon that it should only account for c. 6 minutes variation in time based on results in the hot 22 C (72 F) 2007 London Marathon. Clearly I wasn’t used to it and I reacted badly, it was then compounded by poor hydration early on. Something my attempts later in the race to take on water more regularly failed to correct.

Congestion & Crowds: I should have run an organised race in my training plan. I didn’t and I forgot what it’s like to run both behind and around fellow runners, and even from experience in other events, the race was particularly bad. The first miles out of Blackheath are heavily congested and do not always use the full width of the road. There are toilets at 600m from the start which creates a bottleneck; there were runners with slow predicted times and running in groups; there were no pacers in my pen and I had assumed I could rely on running with a pacer to keep me in check for the first half.

Nike+: I use the sensor (non GPS) version and the short strides in the first part of the race meant it wasn’t tracking my pace properly so it counted in the first mile way before I reached it. It was then innacurate for the remainder of the race, right the way through to the point it packed-up entirely on my iPod Nano (6 Gen) after just under 30km thanks to too much sweat and an erroneous ‘end workout’ action which was never given. In all of my training runs I’ve used this – well calibrated – to judge my pace. I had nothing giving me clear data on the day. This made me feel I was too slow. As it happens, my Runkeeper app was chugging away in my back pocket and recording that I was running some great splits: from 5km to 10km I was under 5:16/km and at peaked at 4:56/km (under 8 minute miles) at the 13km (8 mile) mark. In future I will not run a marathon without a GPS watch.

Final thoughts
So it wasn’t atrocious at all but it wasn’t at all what I wanted. It’s a day that I wanted to enjoy but I didn’t do it justice. I experienced some amazing moments that eclipse anything I’ve ever done in sport, turning on to Tower Bridge to face the crowds, crying weakly as I got my medal. The crowds are joyous but I’ll be honest and say that at times you just don’t care, your selfishly wrapped up in your own world – even without the headphones.

I know I’ve moaned a bit, even whinged at my performance but reading the wonderful Sir Jog A Lot post this week I feel a little better. A seasoned runner, a pacer for Runners World, also got caught out by a few of the same issues.

I’ll be back to apply on 26th April for the ballot and I’d consider a charity place if that doesn’t work out. I know I might not get my best runs at London unless the stars align, and might look outside the city events. But in the meantime I’m back into training with at least the Humanrace Kingston 16-miler in my schedule for the Autumn. And that 1:42 half marathon can do with a little trim too…

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3 thoughts on “Marathon: What went wrong?

  1. Congratulations on even completing the marathon! The heat was worse than most expected and, having watched the highlights, wasn’t commented on enough on TV. Four of our guys were forced to pull out on the day, so well done for getting round!

    P.S. I would KILL to be able to run a sub-4 hour marathon! Only something like 30% of runners get round in under 4, and you’re one of them. Nice work.

  2. Darren cornish says:

    Really useful post John. Had many of the same emotions when completed my first marathon in 2005 – also London. The congestion in the first 6 miles completely threw me from my planned run and I never felt good from there – finish in 3:51. My advice, do a marathon other than London, any regional event. Then come back wise to it. And get a Garmin (405 is great) and set ‘virtual partner’ on your target time. Lastly, run for fun, the rest follows.

  3. Strange coincidences – after you tweeted me out of the blue about something completely unrelated, I glanced over at your blog and spotted this post. I got my confirmation yesterday of entry for the 2012 London Marathon and will be targeting around 3:40, exactly as you were. I’ll keep in mind your experiences as I plan my run. Good luck with the ballot!

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