Marathon effort

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As mentioned in my last blog, I made a New Year’s resolution this year to run my first ever marathon in May. Now that I am officially signed up for it, it has finally hit me that I am going to have to go through with this. Which is slightly intimidating, to say the least…However, rather than trying to imagine how my legs can possibly carry me the distance of a full marathon, my strategy is to focus on the immediate task of following a training plan. Fortunately, I have been provided with one by my experienced husband who also happens to be training for a marathon taking place the week after mine. Yes, we are training side-by-side, sharing the triumphs and the failures as we tick off the days.

So far, it has become very clear to me that training for a marathon is a serious business and only suited for the most organised. There is not only the challenge of trying to fit in the runs and interval sessions around a busy life with children and work. It’s how you do it all while managing to tackle the laundry that is the major test. However, at 6 weeks in and after getting through some serious mileage that has been ticked off on my marathon star chart, I am still feeling optimistic. Admittedly, I am also feeling very tired and every time I walk up any stairs, I can feel my legs complaining…Incredulously, my husband has assured me that my knackered legs and the resulting ‘cumulative fatigue’ of training will somehow help me run a marathon well on tired legs. Which makes me wonder who, exactly, wants to run a marathon on tired legs? Why would anyone do that? Why aren’t I following a training plan that will help me run a marathon well on well-rested, springy legs??

His reply is that if you train with tired legs you will get used to what it is like running in the final kilometres of the marathon when you are shattered, without having to run a full marathon beforehand in training. Of course, I focused on the ‘not having to run the full marathon beforehand in training’ because even if the concept of cumulative fatigue goes completely against my runner’s intuition, I have totally mastered the tiredness. But he also claims that 10 days before the actual event, I will be lowering my training intensity significantly and tapering so that I will in fact, be able to start the marathon on fresh, springy legs. Well, I will believe it when I feel it.

Regardless, another area which I would argue is of equal importance to the physical training to help run a marathon well is my favourite subject of nutrition. There is no getting away from the fact that when you run for anything over 90min, your body will be out of energy and needing fluids. But how you do it makes the difference between feeling well, energised and running a good race or crashing out with stomach cramps and exhaustion. There are literally hundreds of sources of advice on different nutrition strategies that all claim to help you run your ultimate marathon. There are even a greater number of targeted sports food and drink products on supermarket shelves that all say they will help you do it. Of course, once people around you also find out that you are running a marathon, you will be inundated with horror stories and even more advice on how to fuel yourself properly through it.

However, even if they swear by using a particular fuel, it doesn’t help knowing whether you should do it, too. Should you carry an energy drink or water? A bar or dried fruit? What about some gummy bears and gels? The truth is that besides the basic nutrition fundamentals of needing to top up your energy and fluid stores with something easy to digest, there isn’t a shortcut to knowing what will work well for you. That is, other than trial and error. Which is a bit unfortunate because until you find out what works well, you have to find out what doesn’t…

Now I may be a Nutritionist and a runner but the trial and error business goes for me, too, because as a marathon runner, I am a newbie. I may have several half-marathons under my belt but I have never managed to do anything more than take a difficult sip of water during any of them. Instead, I pass by the water stations whilst trying to avoid the eyes of the disappointed marshals who hold out their open water bottles to me. I know there is no point in trying to drink as from experience, I only choke or get a cramp. I have managed to get away with this in past races except for a half-marathon I ran in exceptionally hot weather. However, now that my training runs are beginning to stretch out further than a half-marathon, I realise that I seriously need to do something about this.

Yet knowing something and acting on it are two entirely different things. Which is why I faced my first 22km run without much more thought other than to bring a drink and a snack. My husband suggested we run a pretty out and back route that was more familiar as being one we used to cycle. In other words, it was extremely undulating. But I wasn’t put off and started to plan my provisions. I decided I would carry a little water bottle and hide it enroute around the 5km mark so that I could retrieve it again at 17km. With the drink sorted, I then concentrated on the food. Looking around the kitchen I began to investigate into the very back of the cupboards and discovered a half-eaten old bag of dried bananas. Perfect, I thought as I clingfilmed some together. With the bananas tucked into my pocket and my water bottle in my hand, we laced up and set off.

Still in the perpetual zone of cumulative fatigue, it was a difficult start for my heavy legs. I couldn’t believe that I was expecting my legs to run farther than I had ever gone before. What would happen after 21km? It was completely unchartered territory. In the meantime, I carried my water bottle and passed it from one hand to the next. With kilometre 5 approaching, I was looking forward to abandoning it but the question was, where? As we ran down the busy road I could see that the roadside was littered with rubbish as if it had been launched from the windows of every passing car. I took a quick swig of water before planting the bottle next to a road sign, hoping that it wouldn’t also be used as a target.

With the bottle stashed, we carried on running but my next thought went to the bananas. It seemed to me that it made sense to eat well before I was completely out of energy. Maybe when my energy tank was about half full. But would this be at the halfway point of the run or after running for an hour? As I debated this in my head we ran ahead and before long approached a long hill leading up to a pretty village. The effort of climbing was starting to make me feel slightly sick and I couldn’t imagine trying to eat. But as we neared the top of the hill, I could see that we had only reached 9km and I knew I could buy some more time. Without much more than a quick glance about, we headed downhill on an even steeper descent and ran in blissful relief.

As the bananas started to heat up in my pocket, we carried on down the country road a further couple of kms until we got to the halfway point. As we turned back, I started to reach for the bananas but I stopped myself when I saw the steep hill in the distance that we had happily run down. I had a sudden flashback that many years ago, this very hill had been the scene of a cycling crash between 2 of my children and the source of a still longstanding massive argument over who was at fault. As we ran towards the hill we deliberated over the notorious battle on bikes. In rehashing the intricacies of the old argument, we slowly reached the top of the hill and it was banana time at last.

Rather than stop at 13km, I carefully unwrapped the circles of banana and popped a warm one in my mouth. As suspected, it tasted like what I imagined was a piece of very warm banana skin but was rock hard and chewy. I wondered if sourcing it from the back of the cupboard had been a good idea after all and I wondered if it would bounce around my stomach as I ran. I decided that the best strategy would be to treat it like a sweet. Which meant that I sucked it for the next 2 km until it finally fell apart and I could swallow it. It was just in time because by then, we had reached the bottom of the longest and steeped hill of the entire route. As we started upwards, we were passed by cyclists who effortlessly pedalled on. It felt to me as if we were attempting a Tour de France stage although my husband helpfully assured me that at most it would be a 3rd category climb. Once we finally reached the top, I rewarded myself with another banana and we began to head towards the final 5km.

Spotting the road sign again, my water bottle still sat just as I had left it, albeit with more rubbish. After a final drink, we began on the home stretch and some more familiar roads. I knew that I would be passing the half-marathon line and the farthest I had ever run. Of course, once we hit 21km all I could think of was the next and final km I would have to do before we reached home. Eventually, we arrived as we passed 22km and I had a new distance record.

Home at last and after some proper refuelling, I began to reassess my nutrition strategy. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see that I was still lacking one. On the plus side, I managed to get in a little water and a couple of dried bananas, which is a first. I also ran the distance and at a nippy pace, despite the cumulative fatigue. But on the minus side, I had to admit that I had got a bit dehydrated and two dried bananas are not going to get me much further than 22km. I simply have to find a way to get in more fluids and energy if I am going to train even farther and try to run a full marathon. I think this is going to take a bit more work and a lot more bananas…

In the meantime, I have found another use of dried bananas even if they are very old. They actually taste amazing when they are baked into Banana banana blueberry scones.

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