Well it has been a long 18 weeks of training to get here but I can finally say that last week, I ran my first ever marathon. It was a tough 42km but I survived it mostly unscathed except for a couple of my toes which are still very sore. After the race, I was naturally a bit nervous to take off my socks in the big reveal of my feet. I have to say that frankly, they are not for the faint-hearted having been battered, bruised and now modelling a rainbow of purple shades. But I don’t care or even mind wearing flip flops in the rain. I am still walking around in a marathon-induced happy haze as I continue proudly sporting my new technical t-shirt. At moments like these, when everything is still fresh in your head it can be helpful to take stock of what went well and what didn’t. After a marathon effort, I thought I would share 5 lessons learned about how to run one well.
- Keep the faith in a good marathon training plan
Following a marathon training plan – or any other training plan – was an absolute first for me. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how I would get on with one and was even less convinced that it was completely necessary. After all, I had always followed a basic ‘run a bit further every week’ plan to train for half-marathons and even managed to run more than one race with only a few days’ notice. But while I was considering whether running a marathon would call for a different approach to training, I was outmanouvered by my husband. Before I could stop him, he presented me with a complete 18-week marathon training plan that he had worked out based on the Hansons Marathon Method. As it was immediately blue tacked to the kitchen door, I realised that training for a marathon was going to be different.
At first glance the training plan looked straightforward and easy to follow and I soon got stuck into a routine of running 5 days a week. However, as time flew by and I upped the mileage further, my legs always felt tired as there wasn’t enough time in the plan to fully recover. The method of training on knackered legs to help me run further seemed ridiculous. At the same time, I couldn’t understand how I could be expected to run a full marathon when according to the plan, the farthest training run I would do was significantly shorter than the full 42km. The more I lost confidence in the training plan working, the more I felt compelled to stick to it, if only to show that it wouldn’t work. Fortunately, my compliance paid off in spades and I reaped the rewards on the day of the marathon with an all-out sprint finish. To put it simply, I learned that you shouldn’t doubt the method of a good marathon training plan. If you stick to it then you will be in the best shape possible and will feel the results on the start line.
- When illness or injury forces you to take a break, all is not lost
Training for a marathon is quite a commitment but any good training plan will also allow for some flexibility. Sometimes training has to be slightly tweaked or running days swapped to fit around the reality of a busy, unpredictable life. However, when illness or injury strikes and you have no choice but to take a clean break from training, does it mean that your marathon hopes are already over?
Not necessarily. It depends on the illness or injury and how many weeks of training that you had to miss. The question is whether it is worth it. The truth is that you may not know the answer until you try to return to training. The key is to not push yourself too soon when you start again and to give yourself the time to see what you can do. Chances are that you will be fitter than you realise and after a couple of weeks, your legs will carry on as before. I, for one, missed a full two weeks of running halfway through my marathon training plan due to a procedure on my back. It then took me two more weeks to slowly catch up again. I eventually got back on track and in the end, missing two weeks didn’t affect my fitness. Ultimately, although it is important to stick to a marathon training plan, getting ill or injured doesn’t always mean that you have to throw in the towel.
- Don’t do it on your own
However you look at it, 42km or 26.2 miles is never going to be a walk in the park. So if you’re going to do it, you might as well get all the help that you can on the day. Pick a race that has lots of support because running a marathon is far easier when you are being applauded and cheered on by crowds of spectators. There is nothing more encouraging than high-fiving countless small children who wait with their hands outstretched along a course. There is also something to be said for running a marathon where there is live music at different points of the race. Being entertained by drumming, swing bands and even just the top 40 blasting from a pub is the perfect distraction from your aching feet.
Of course, don’t forget to bring along your own support crew in the way of family and friends. Tell them it will be a fun day out. They don’t need to know that they will have to wait for hours trying to spot you among the Where’s Wally of runners, only for you to run right past them. Ideally, get them to help you keep going in the second half of the marathon when you are easier to spot and it starts to get really tough. When you feel like crawling, you cannot underestimate the power of your family shouting at you that you can do it.
- Practice makes perfect when it comes to refuelling and hydrating
Running a marathon without refuelling and hydrating is a surefire way to hit ‘the wall’. However, it can take a bit of trial and error to figure out which snacks and drinks work for you. The trick is to try them out while you are still in the training stage. If you also know what will be provided by your marathon at the different stages you can test these out, too. If they work it will save you carrying them during the race. But no matter how you decide to refuel and hydrate, stick to it on your race day. You may not want to offend anyone but be prepared to disappoint dozens of smiling spectators lining the course, when you turn down their offers of gummy bears, jelly babies and homemade cakes. At least you’ll still be running. Straying from your refuelling plan risks finding out what people mean when they talk about gastrointestinal distress…
- Get on with the race and get over yourself
The last and most important thing I learned about how to run a marathon well is to just concentrate on putting one foot in front of another. While you are running you can’t do anything else about your home life or work so get on with it, already. You signed up for this thing and spent months training thousands of kms in all kinds of weather. You wore out at least one pair of trainers but now own far too many pairs of running socks. And you fuelled yourself with the equivalent of several fields of oats and a plantation’s worth of bananas. No one forced you to show up on the start line. You want the medal and the t-shirt?! You have no choice but to keep going.
Besides, there are plenty of other runners you can commiserate with when it gets really torturous. However, do not make the mistake of feeling sorry for yourself if you are still moving forward. There is always someone who has it much harder than you and hasn’t stopped running. And it is not always the people wearing Big Ben or rhino costumes. About halfway through my marathon after a particularly difficult section, I started to run and chat to someone who was normally a sub 3 hours runner. But this time he was simply trying to finish the race as it was the first day of Ramadan and he was fasting. Although he said that he had dispensation to eat and drink during the race, he chose not to. He was pretty tired already but his strategy was to monitor his heartrate and keep it nice and low. He also told me that whatever happened during the marathon, he was absolutely going to finish it and so must I. You can’t really argue with that.
Now at last with the race behind me, I am putting up my appalling looking feet and am indulging in a two-week post-marathon recovery period. However, I expect to be itching to get back to some running before long. In fact, I have already signed up for the two-day double marathon, Race to the King at the end of June. I’m beginning to wonder if this time I have bitten off more than I can chew…
Speaking of which, here is another recipe that is worth taking a big bite out of: Herby soda bread.