Monday, 15 August 2011

Reflections (3:49 and all that)

I’ve done a lot of thinking about SF. So much happened in such a short space of time that it’s taken me a while to get my head around it all, and particularly to contextualise that new PB. On a basic level, cutting such a large amount of time off my personal best in one race is unusual – it would have been much more comprehensible to have taken off 5 or maybe even 10 minutes. 15:31 is a long time when you’re waiting at a finish line.

The main reason I’m struggling to get to grips with that time is mainly that I never allowed myself to believe that it was possible. You might remember that I promised to be ecstatic with anything from 3:48 to 4:04, but a little niggle of doubt never really let me believe that I could run the lower end of that spectrum. I had my fingers burned in both Paris and Brighton, when I became so obsessed with running sub-4 that I almost forgot to enjoy the experience and ended the races a little deflated when I failed to achieve that goal. The marathon became a wily, sneaky adversary which I just couldn’t quite figure out. I allowed myself to believe that my training had been good but mitigating factors had ruined both races, often telling people (albeit truthfully) that I tripped over in Paris and had a chest infection in Brighton*, and that otherwise I would definitely have run sub-4.

I now know that this isn’t true.

The simple fact is that for my first two marathons I was only adequately prepared. Looking back over my running log from those crucial pre-race months I realise that I consistently took the route of least resistance (sometimes literally), setting myself unambitious training schedules and then failing to complete them anyway. SF was different. Perhaps the massive over-commitment of a 12,000 mile round-trip, compounded by the enormous entry fee and contextualised by the knowledge that this was a very, very hilly course made me wake up and smell the fear. On training runs this year I would actively seek out the toughest, hilliest courses Edinburgh had to offer, whereas for Paris and Brighton I meticulously planned the flattest routes I could find. 

For SF I made greater sacrifices of time and energy, pouring my all into training. I spent hours studying course maps, videos, elevation charts, weather patterns and memorising the location of aid stations. I cross-trained and took vitamin supplements and had sports massages and invested in new gear. The result is that seven months of training was focussed completely on success at that course, on that date. I could not have been more ready for SF, and I’m a little embarrassed to think of how relatively unprepared I was for my previous marathons.

All that said, and I’m struggling to type this: I know I can go faster.

Because I was so reluctant to commit to a finish time goal, I only designed a race strategy up to 20 miles, planning to ‘just hang on’ thereafter. I went through 4 miles in 34 minutes, 10 miles just under 1:26, halfway in 1:52 and 20 miles in 2:50, all absolutely according to my carefully-composed plan. But I allowed myself to ‘fly blind’ in the last and most important 6.2 miles, giving me no reason or motivation to reach particular markers at particular times, which also impaired my ability to predict finish times on the run. The result was that I just bargained with myself, struggling lamppost to lamppost on some occasions. If I had decided that I needed to be at 23 miles after 3:16, for example, I’m pretty sure I could have done it. I reckon I might have lost as much as 5 minutes as a result.

Furthermore, remove the long haul travel, jetlag, early start, non-ideal race week and some of the more aggressive hills from the equation, I’m pretty sure I could pick up probably 15 seconds a mile, which is another 6 and a half minutes over the whole thing.  Ecstatic and humbled though I am by 3:49, I guess I’m saying that sub-3:40 is realistic in the not-too-distant future.


Happy running


2011 to date - miles: 845.28, parkruns: 6, races: 4, miles biked: 78.47, metres swum: 1225

*I really was ill - when I dug out my fuel belt ahead of SF, which I last used in Brighton, I found a Dequacaine tablet in there left over from the race. Dequacaine is a super-strength cough sweet, which more or less gives your throat a local anaesthetic. I think I had it on prescription. What the hell was I thinking running a marathon in that state!?

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