Category Archives: running

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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Marathon Lessons From The Past 16 Weeks

Opening Titles for the BBC Sport Coverage

I started my 16-week training journey on Boxing Day (26 December) and it culminates on race day on Sunday. Over that time I’ve run, read and eaten all I could to prepare myself for the day. I’ve done that whilst sporting a chronic tendonopathy in my knee, holding down a full-time job, commuting and coping with a bathroom renovation in a one-bathroom house. I’m not saying that this is amazing by any stretch – thousands run marathons each year and many do so with far more obstacles in their life – but frankly it is because my life is so ordinary, so middle-class, so typical that I thought I could share a few tips. It’s not arrogant to think that at some point friends and colleagues might attempt the same and might come to me for some help (as I did with others) so this is pre-emptive:

Start with a running base. I started a 16 week plan that already required the first Sunday run was about 30-40 minutes and even with slow progression in volume it built to an hour+ quite quickly. If you can’t yet run non-stop for 40 minutes or run for 30 minutes 3-4 times a week then that’s your first port of call before you start marathon training. So, if you’re doing London in 2012 then perhaps building your running base through November and December would be wise.

Budget-for and find a good sports rehab specialist. Plenty of places offer ‘physio’ and plenty offer ‘massage’. Look for a local person that understands your work obligations and – importantly – understands running. I’ve had 4 or so sessions of deep-tissue massage both preventative and curative at a cost of about £50 each time. Consider it a monthly cost for an otherwise stupidly cheap activity. Even if you don’t feel sore then have one anyway.

Listen to Marathon Talk. Honestly, as much as I read Sam’s book cover-to-cover, the weekly delivery of fresh news, genuine trials and tribulations of fellow runners and the sense of community that they build is inspiring. It reminds you on a run why you run. It’s a podcast but that doesn’t mean you need to own an iPod, see the Marathon Talk site for full details.

Run your long runs s..l..o..w..l..y, or at least easily. This was something I really struggled with. A siginificant reason for this was my obsession with logging each run on Nike+ & Runkeeper. By sharing the data on Facebook/Twitter it meant that I was reluctant to show slow times. This was stupid. Running 2-3 hours at close to marathon pace each week puts a lot of strain on your body for little gain. I got plenty of niggles in my calves, achilles and knees – so much so that I regularly missed my Monday runs in the middle parts of my training. Psychologically the feeling of extreme fatigue after those runs makes you fear them more too. If I’d treated them as easy sessions and run them at the 5’30″+ pace I should have done I’d have covered less miles on those sessions but more miles overall and progressively I would have seen more than the 400 metre improvement between my 11-week and 13-week 3hr runs. I ran my long runs alone or ahead of my wife but next time I would run with friends and talk along the way to keep the pace easy.

Sam’s training for beginners urges you to run to time in your long runs. That is, run for 3 hours rather than shoot for 21 miles. This was fine for me up until the final few weeks when I started to realise that three hours was not getting me (even at the faster pace) close to the 22 miles I really believe I should have covered on my longest of long runs. Her ‘experienced’ training programs do cover miles, I guess it’s fair to say that after 13 weeks I just didn’t feel like a beginner any more (and to some extent I never was).

It could be that post-event I find even more things that I’d like to talk about but I’m not going to promise an update, I’ll just leave this here nicely archived to link-to when someone asks me about it in future.

So, as the build-up continues, how about those of us running get all excited by the BBC’s wonderful opening title film to this year’s event.

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Virgin London Marathon: Countdown

This week I’ll try and post a couple of things as I lead in to one of the biggest days of my life on Sunday. There are a large number of people blogging about their marathon this year (estimates put the figure at 20% of this year’s entrants) but these two stood out: Gemma Bardsley’s Beats Per Mile is a well-engineered assimilation of running data from RunKeeper, the music she will listen to and photos from points around the course taken at the time she may be passing. It’s no surprise the Gemma and her developers (Marc & Howard) are in the industry , the design is simple and sophisticated and bang on-trend with a single scroll approach. A great showcase for all concerned.

Secondly, I’m a fan of Foot4ward simply because it’s content-rich. Plenty of regular posts, diverse content (data, stories, cartography) and some charming photos. So many event-motivated bloggers set up a page and post infrequent, repetitive and impersonal material. Once you’ve read one mid-pack runners miserable grumbles about training you’ve read a lot so I’m always looking for something a little richer. Foot4ward is just about the only non elite runner’s blog I’ve added to my Google Reader this year.

There’s a good reason I didn’t do a new blog, I simply couldn’t design/code stuff like this, as much as I might sketch it out. I will, however, be revealing my progress live on Runkeeper during the race. More on that later.

Frustrating Lack of Consensus

You’d think that after decades of modern running and sports science that we’d have reached a few consensuses wouldn’t you?

Last week I went along to Runners Need in Holborn to hear from Sam Murphy (see previous post), Brad Jones and a chap from SiS and another from Brooks. During the two hour seminar I learned a few new things: don’t stretch after long runs – especially the marathon itself – it just worsens the microtears in your soft-tissues; tendon injuries show no inflammation in their pathology and that SiS gels are isotonic so you don’t need to sink a load of water with them at the same time.

I also picked up a free running magazine Running Free which I sort of guessed would be a bit cheap and cheerful and so wasn’t surprised when I discovered a rogue apostrophe in Fiona Bugler‘s editorial.  Reading it on the train I found another article by Andy Dubois where he dismissed static stretching. Which I think was the final straw for me. Why is there so little consensus on even the basics of running and training? Surely after decades of research, millions of miles run and hours exercising we’d at least have come to some irrefutable conclusions about biomechanics and physiology?

Listening to the chaps on Marathon Talk (regular long-term runners) I’ve heard them assert that they never or rarely stretch. Last night Brad Jones told us never to stretch a sore tendon, other sites tell you to do just that to avoid the build up of scar tissue. Then there’s Mr. Dubois telling me not to hold a stretch whereas everything I’d heard before then said hold for 30 seconds. Oh, and if you’ve got a tight tendon you might be advised to stretch this out or you might be told that stretching is bad.

My physio tells me to use ice and heat cycles to flush out toxins and encourage repair. Other sites tell you to never heat an injury that is probably inflammation. Brad Jones told us last night that there is no inflammation in tendon injuries so heat and ice are just pain management tools and not restorative/curative at all.

I realise everybody’s body responds differently but surely we’re not all that different. Is it just the consequence of limited amounts of research? So perhaps there are just a handful of decent studies on this stuff? When there are billions of pounds invested in sport around the world I simply can’t believe this to be true.

But all the time there is no consensus I find myself scouring the web looking for the elusive magic answers for the constant round of tendon and muscle soreness that has plagued the second half of my marathon build-up.

On Sunday I ran for 3 hours, somewhere between 32.5 and 33.5km [20.8 miles] (depending on my Nike+ data vs. Runkeeper’s data) and today (14 March) I am pretty sore. Once again I ran too fast and ran too many hills. Next weekend is a half marathon speed session but I failed to get into an organised race so will have to trace out a measured and flat course. This will give me my final benchmark time for London by running it through the McMillan calculator.

And so, to cheer us all up, have a look at some poor lads who’ve been requisitioned to model their girlfriends’ creations on Etsy: Sad Etsy Boyfriends.

Downshift to accelerate

I expected to have lower-limb problems in my training with chronic patellar tendonitis, what i didn’t expect is that an acute ankle overuse injury would take me out for over a week, nor did i expect the psychological impact of a forced lay-off.

It’s been a bad week for my marathon effort. After a good two-hour slog on Sunday afternoon (13 February) I started to feel some pain on the outside of left ankle. By the following morning, walking was difficult and certainly my pain grade was in the 3-5 range. Clearly my 30′ easy run that evening would have to be canned. It turned out that the Tuesday intervals were canned too, the Wednesday rest was inevitable and then on Thursday, with no significant improvement in the walking phase, an attempted threshold session was abandoned after 3′ at just 10kph.

Fortunately I have access to Liam Grimley, and after some intensive manipulation and massage by Saturday morning I have finally started to feel improvement. I’m popping NSAIDs like Smarties, icing whenever convenient and, importantly, resting. But it is a mental challenge. I am desperate to get out on my feet again and I can see empty entries in my running log and the days ticking away. I know my CV won’t drop off a cliff and I’m checking my resting HR to ensure I’m not stepping backwards but there are always CV options at the gym and perhaps now would be a great opportunity to work at those core stabilising muscles.

What I have missed most this week is the structure. I have genuinely been at a bit of a loss with what to do with myself. In the last two months my saturdays have been configured around fueling up for the long run on sunday and getting a 30′ run in. Sunday has been a logisitcal challenge of domestic chores and the run-recovery cycle of increasingly long outings – made all the more difficult by the longest bathroom refurbishment project ever. I have tried to avoid buying Runners World and only briefly listened to an episode of Marathon Talk; not knowing if my injury is likely to entirely scupper London it’s a thought I just need t0 bury whilst I focus on rehab.

My personal feeling is that it is some sort of inflammation of the calcaneofibular ligament, a ligament on the lateral side of the ankle and that this is the consequence of the hypermobility in my ankle being tested in a long off-camber/trail run on the sunday. But frankly, I’ll let Liam decide and treat it.

So, with progress again today in term of pain decreasing, I’ll see how htings progress and hopefully be back on my feet with a good few weeks to go before London.