How NOT to run a marathon

Yesterday I ran the Shakespeare marathon in Stratford-upon-Avon; as the name suggests, it’s a town best known for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare, perhaps less so its marathon. Yet I was there, along with hundreds of others, to run the 26-odd miles put in front of us.

At all stages in both the build up, as well as during the race, I did everything contrary to the perceived wisdom for optimal marathon performance.

Here’s what happened.

Choose an uninspiring course

From experience, road marathons are easiest when there’s lots of distractions. I did my first one in Paris; I remember running past the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, and having thousands of people lining the streets to cheer us on. There were also heaps of bands and radio stations playing music for quick thrills every few miles, providing a welcome distraction from the repetitive pounding of the road, and ever-tiring muscles.

The Shakespeare marathon saw us start in the centre of town, run past Shakespeare’s birthplace within the first few minutes, before heading out onto country roads for the rest of the race. The second lap (two laps is rarely a good thing too, since it sees you seeing the same things twice) saw us run for almost 5 miles on a stretch of track called the “Greenway”, a bridleway through farmland. In marathon runner speak, that roughly translates as “5 miles of grinding monotony with nay support, music, or sites (both man-made and natural) at the time when you must need distraction.”

Lesson learned: Choose a course that inspires, either in a area of outstanding natural beauty, or in an interesting city.

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Map of the course, showing 2 laps: the smaller loop was the 1st one, the bigger one the 2nd

Put in zero structured training

I ran a couple of long races in December, and found myself reeling from an ITB injury for the first 3 months of 2019. This meant very little running in the key months of January to March. The backbone to previous marathons has always been interval and hill sessions midweek, backed up by a race and/or a long run at the weekend. I didn’t manage that for a single week in the run-up to the race.

Lesson learned: Don’t get injured! But if you do get injured, take the time to have sports massage and/or physio and build strength to address the underlying causes of the injury.

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Low mileage in some of the key training weeks

Run long the weekends before

I’ve had my eyes firmly set on the Bob Graham Round for months, and with the planned attempt now less than a month away, I put in fairly substantial mileage over the two weekends before the marathon to recce different legs of the route. This amounted to roughly 7 hours on my feet the weekend preceding the race, on top of 13 the weekend before. My legs were tired. I had been stretching and foam rolling all week, but I nonetheless still felt weak. Even in the first few miles I could feel that there was nothing there. As the race progressed, cramp started developing and then spreading all over the different muscles in my legs, to the point where it was like running on wooden stumps. Joyous.

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The top row shows the week of the marathon, with the bottom two showing the weeks that preceded it.

Go out too fast

It’s the classic mistake, made by most runners in most races, but you can blag it more in shorter races; over the marathon distance you really pay the price. Given that I had done no training, I had no idea what sort of shape my legs were in, so decided that I’d go out with the strategy of

“Go as fast as I can for as long as possible.”

A disaster waiting to happen. I was consistently clocking sub- 6:30 miles for the first half, and even upped the pace coming up to the halfway point. There were lots of half-marathon runners about at that point, so I offered to pace a couple of them home to a faster finish. This meant speeding up, burning out faster, and triggering my fast approaching implosion yet sooner. But it was fun.

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Ignore the race website information

I had a quick read over the runners’ notes on the website in the week preceding the race to see if there was anything I needed to be aware of, and take account of in my planning. The website said this:

“Drinks Stations are at approximately 2 mile intervals and bottled water will be available at all drinks stations.

Isotonic drinks will not be available.”

Pretty clear cut, right? No food, no iso, just water. Yet this was my interpretation:

”I’m paying for entry into an organised road marathon. OF COURSE there’ll be some electrolytes and something sugary available at some point.”

I’ve never carried anything with me during road marathons, and don’t really carry anything other than water on distances of up to 50 miles. I don’t like planning what I’m going to eat, and instead just plan to go with whatever I’m given. In a road marathon I usually find half a banana and a few glugs of an isotonic drink works well.

But surprise surprise, it quickly became apparent that the race organisers stuck to their word, and provided nothing but water at any of the aid stations. Luckily a little girl gave me a few segments of a satsuma at around mile 15; the sweet taste was pure bliss for the minute or so I was able to drag it out for, but then it was back to nothing. I usually find something sugary can provide a nice boost at around mile 23 or 24 and turbo charge the final run in, but not this time; I was clinging on, with my form becoming increasingly zombie-like as I inched closer to bonking.

Lesson learned: Take heed of what it says on the race website; it’s there for a reason. Add in a few race reviews from fellow runners if you’re unsure about anything. 

If you can’t have fun, what’s the point?

So, with those mistakes and lessons learned in mind, would I do the same thing all over again? You bet.

Given that it wasn’t a target race, I needed to keep it fun, interesting and enjoyable; after all, running a road marathon can be quite dull. Dealing with the fatigue caused by a lack of unstructured training and putting in big mileage in the weeks running up to the race was a fun challenge (I’d never experienced such a lack of feeling in my legs before, but it was reassuring to know I could still keep them ticking over at just under 8 minute miles), speeding up and offering to pace half-marathon runners at the halfway point was great fun and made those 15 minutes highly entertaining, and dealing with the lack of food was superb training for the Bob Graham Round, where it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be famished for long stretches.

Running, after all, should be enjoyable. It’s what I love doing, and if it ever becomes boring or uninspiring, why not mix it up and try new things? Self-destruction can be fun sometimes too.