CAN I RUN A MARATHON?
By Chris O'Brien - April 2019
26.2 miles is a long way. Here’s my running story and how I trained to run my first marathon aged 48.
In 2017 my wife, Marie and youngest daughter Kate, joined Birstall running club through the Couch to 5K programme. They encouraged me to join too - so I started running to build up my fitness. I soon caught the running bug and I built up my distances, 5km to 10km and after joining BRC in August, I managed to run the John Fraser 10 mile road race in September.
2018 was the year I ran my first half marathon, and my second and third. I had a good year running shorter distance road races and loved longer runs such as the Leicester Runners 10 mile Egg & Cake. The natural progression now was for me to run a marathon. I entered the ballot for the London Marathon (along with 400,000 others) and was unsuccessful. Marie was delighted when she received the email ‘You’re in’. I was quite really pleased for her and a little bit green with envy, so I went looking for a marathon I could do myself. After some research, I decided that I would run the Brighton Marathon on the 14th April 2019 as it claimed to be well supported with crowds along huge sections of the route which really appealed to me. So I booked my place and parted with my entry fee in October. It would also be held on a very poignant date for me, as it would be my Dad’s first birthday since he passed in 2018.
My eldest daughter Shannon also chose to run her first marathon at Brighton, as well as Samantha Bray from our club. I was nice knowing that I would be training with them and the other club runners who were running April marathons.
Finding a Training Plan
Most training plans are similar. They consist of a variety of several runs per week such as easy club runs, speedwork (or interval runs), tempo runs (such as Parkrun) and long runs. Some include cross-training activities such as cycling, gym, swimming, yoga etc.
I looked into what time I might expect to finish in, based on my best half-marathon time (and other longer race times) and then also looked at my club standards table to see what the same standard in marathon distance might be. My best HM time was gold standard - so a marathon in that time would be 3.40.00. I found a ‘sub 3.30’ training plan and that became the basis of my training. I thought that if I train for slightly better time than I expect then this will have a positive effect, if I could keep up the training. I also kept my ambition to myself, telling people who asked that I was just aiming to finish ‘anytime under 4 hours’ or ‘just in one piece’!
Marie printed out various training plans from a running book I had. These were based on finishing in 4hr30 / 4hr00 / 3hr30 - so that got stuck up in the cupboard - so every time I needed a glass or bowl, I would see the scheme! Marie stuck her plan up to.
Brighton is a ‘Spring’ marathon, and therefore my training would occur in the 16 weeks leading up to the 14th April. I thought this would be a great motivator for me to get out and run during the cold/dark days/nights from January to March. It also meant that my plan would begin on Christmas Eve, and we were actually on holiday in Fort William the week from Christmas to New Year. And I wanted to eat all the food and drink all the beer (and wine) during the festive break. So I squeezed in a few runs (around eating and relaxing in Scotland) and decided I would get ‘on it’ in the New Year! I did return home with a larger waistline, a 8kg heavier frame, and a more chilled and refreshed mind. Oops!
The first half of the plan
The first half of my training plan was about building up mileage from 26 miles per week up to 47 miles. This was based on 5 runs per week. I already was running 3 times a week (club run on a Monday and Friday, and speedwork on a Wednesday) and then I would add in another run in the week and a Long Run at the weekend. After the first 3 weeks of increasing the Long Runs, the 4th week was less distance.
Weeks 5 - 7 increased the mileage again, with week 7 ending with my longest run of 3hrs with Elisa, James, Shannon, Sam. I had run 21 miles and 47 miles total for the week. Bang on plan.
I had looked into race supplements. Club runners had told me that your body can store enough energy for about 90 mins of activity before you are depleted. Any runs longer than this amount need additional energy to keep you going. Different people like different ways of keeping your sugar and salt and hydration levels up.
I have began testing sports gels on my long runs to see how I get on with them. I tried High-5 gels / SIS gels / Nutrition bars / hula-hoops / Pretzels / Jelly babies. I am taking theses at different times to see what works for me. I found that taking a gel every 4 or 5 miles was acceptable.
I am also looking at my diet more closely and I started taking more protein to help my body recover and repair after long runs and speedwork. I like a protein drink after these efforts was the easiest way to get some protein in me within 30 mins of finishing.
We also found a recipe online to make our own isotonic sports drink aka Marie's special brew. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
The 2nd half of the plan: Longer and longer runs
The Long Run at the end of week 8 was 13.1 miles, at a brisk pace of 7m30s/mile - so I chose a hilly route from home around the roads of Bradgate as a test for myself. It went really well and was fasted too - no breakfast / no fuelling / just running. I managed 1.37.10. This was bang on plan and a good mental boost for me. As some of my shorter club runs had been unproductive according to my Garmin stats.
I was now halfway to race day and I began filling in the second page of the plan! I visited the Leicester Running Shop and had my gait analysed and purchased some new ‘expensive’ trainers. Never had I ever paid 3 figures for shoes. I would be wearing these badboys on race day so most runs would be done in these now.
Shannon picked up a knee injury so she now was resting that. A reminder that the training is difficult and arduous and hearing of injuries and niggles are common.
Week 9 ended with an ambitious run from Rothley to Wanlip, Cossington, Barrow, Cotes and then back. I published the route on the club Facebook page and several runners joined in. It was so cold and foggy but we all did it and It actually blew my mind that I could run to Loughborough and back as I regarded this a long drive in the car. Completing it gave me such confidence boost. 50 miles for the week was the most I had run too!
During week 10 I continue getting lots of support and advice from my club runners who have ‘been there and done it’, and it is helping me work out what is working for me. At the end of the week I ran a HM and it was so hot I ran in just a vest. I decided a flat out & back would be good as I thought that would be similar to Brighton. I found this run particularly challenging and had gone too fast too soon and faded a little during every mile. A lesson in pacing was learnt. Don’t go faster to start and then hold on, as that was painful.
In Week 11, was not a great week. I noticed I had picked up a niggle on an existing knee injury, so I did not do speedwork this week and overall I did less mileage than on the plan. With my confidence knocked from the dodgy HM attempt, this was the first bump in the road.
Week 12 ended with the Notts 20 race - which I treated as a long slow run. I decided to run with Sam Bray as Shannon was injured. My plan said 22 miles so I ran a WU mile - then the Notts 20 - then I ran a mile out and back from the finish. Mile 23 was so difficult with a huge headwind. 51 miles this week. Mojo restored!
Week 13 ends with an 20 mile run from Birstall to the King Power Stadium and then along the River Soar to Mountsorrel and back home. 18 miles exactly with the last 4 as fast as I could. It was just myself, James Passingham, Geoff Law and Martin Boyce as we had a few no-shows. Cheers lads for a great chatty run. That will do! 47 miles (2 above)
Week 14 and Marie wanted to run around Rutland Water - so I planed an 18 mile route for me ands a 22 mile for her. These were both out & back runs. It was really hot and really quite difficult possibly as they were both solo runs. I felt exhausted at the finish and had about an hour to wait before Marie would be back from her 22 miles so I stretched and got some food and walked to loosen up. 37 miles (5 under plan)
It’s now only two weeks to go and time to taper! I wasn’t feeling fresh. | am feeling pretty tired and getting fed up of the training schedule! I try and keep level-headed. This was normal apparently.
Week 15 ended with 12 mile run which for me I felt the need to go faster than marathon pace. I ran really well and had minimal recovery time according to my Garmin watch. All the training had paid off and I was feeling good.
The Taper and race prep
The week before the race was all about rest. No Monday run. Speedwork was replaced with a 4 mile slow jog. I had a couple of walks in the gym pool and a sauna to relax my muscles. I kept off Strava to avoid seeing other peoples running. I had lists to make, bags to pack and check. This week is also all about carb-loading. Actively eating more bread, rice, potato and pasta based meals. Less fibre too.
I laid out all my running clothes and packed some spares in case the weather was colder. I sorted out my hydration belt and gels and fructose sweets and vaseline etc.
I printed out my confirmation letter that would be needed on the Saturday to collect our race numbers.
By Thursday - I had packed my bags and re-packed them several times. I also packed a separate bag with all the things I would need when I wasn't running.
The perils of a faraway marathon!
We left Birstall at 9am on Saturday and headed south. A fairly slow journey as it was the first day of the Easter fortnight so the roads were really busy. We arrived at 1pm and headed down to the event village to get our running packs. It was bitterly cold and as we walked through the famous Brighton pavilion it began hailing. I was thinking that I wanted it to be cool for the run - but not arctic!
We walked on towards the event village. WOW. What a lot of stalls and shops there were. We collected our race numbers. I chose RED which was 3hr 30 and faster runners. Shannon chose the yellow group which was 4hr 00 to 4hr30.
We then collected our T shirts and sampled some freebies including a large glass of Erdinger (alcohol free beer). As we headed to our apartment, the heavens opened and it began raining again. We arrived back soaked to the skin. Time to get the coats on the radiators!
We got to the apartment and unpacked the car. Our apartment had a jacuzzi and a sauna so we all got it to warm up and relax and discuss and plan the next morning!
After an hour or so chillin’, we emerged from the luxurious treat and Shannon & I sorted out our clothes and gels and bus bag, while the support team cooked a chicken pasta meal. Protein & Carb loading!
So now to relax. We sat and watched some comedy before going to bed at a reasonable time. Alarm set for 7am!
We got up and ate some porridge and drank some sports drink. I then did some stretching exercises and got dressed into my race gear. It was 2degC outside but dry and sunny. From our apartment I could hear the event speakers and music. It was a 20 min walk to the start in Preston Park. Samantha Bray got dropped off at ours and we all walked there together. Lots of runners were all headed in the same direction converging at the start.
We then had a few photos before getting into our starting pens. Now I am on my own. In the fastest lane. First marathon. Nerves are high. I need another wee - but I had just been. So I queue again in the loos in my pen and then squeeze out a nervous wee. I head for the start as the music builds and the countdown begins, and then we are off. I click on my Garmin watch as I cross the start but nothing happens - so I fiddle again until it starts!
During the first mile everything is calm. Runners are getting into their flow. No one is overtaking. A spectator shouted out ‘not far to go now’ which made me chuckle. I get chatting to a lady runner who advised me to keep to my target pace regardless of how I felt at any point. For me that was just under 8 min/mile. For those few words of advice I was so grateful, as my pacing is generally not consistent and when your ‘in the moment’ it’s easy to get swept along.
Mile 1 to 4 were through the town. Lots of support and noise from spectators. People shouting my name all over the place, and I would look to see who it was. At Mile 4 I saw Shannon and Sam running their 2nd mile. That gave me a massive buzz! Coming up to mile 5 I took my first gel.
Mile 5 to 8 were east along the seafront and mostly a slight uphill incline (like Loughborough Road) but for 3 miles with a headwind. I started chatting with a runner, James, who like me was running his first marathon. Chatting away during the uphill took my mind off the climb. The views of the sea and cliffs were amazing.
At mile 9 James and I turned inland, away from the coast road, so I took another gel, and after a small dogleg we turned back, then west and ran back downhill towards Brighton with the wind on our backs. It felt magical. No effort required. It was time to use the hill to catch my breath and slow down the pace to keep me close to my target. I did go slightly faster but new that was banked for when I would need it in the latter miles! I also saw Shannon and Sam! AGAIN! I am buzzing!
We ran into town and there was an arch in the middle of the road. HALFWAY! And just before it I saw our support team (Marie and Kate and Joe), what a buzz. I crossed the halfway timing mat at 1.43.07 - OMG! I felt so elated, but there was a long way to go.
At Mile 14 you tun inland and run parallel to the seafront. I could see runners ahead in as straight line for 2 miles and a few coming back towards me. This felt tough seeing so far ahead. James saw his family here for the first time and he stopped for a hug. I carried on and before long he was behind me as I could hear the crowd calling ‘come on Chris’ followed by ‘come on James’. At mile 16 you run around a street block and then head back east into town. I took another gel. There’s lots of support and music to keep us motivated.
Just after mile 18 you are back on the seafront heading west towards the warehouses, and power station. It seemed so far off in the distance. Time to keep my focus. By now I am passing quite a few runners who have slowed or are walking. We are in ‘the wall’ zone. Relax and smile!
Mile 21 has just passed and we are just about to turn around and head east. That meant one thing - headwind. As soon as we rounded the corner it was a battle. Runners formed an orderly queue and moved over to the right to get some respite from the warehouse walls and drafting started. It was like this until we got to Mile 23 where we moved up onto the sea wall. Now there was no hiding from the 15mph headwind. It was so tough and I felt it in my legs. It felt like running in slow motion. I had felt this on a training run and so kept faith that I wasn’t slowing too much. I was 10 secs a mile slower than my target. I was still overtaking some runners but also being overtook. James looked strong and pushed on at a constant pace. I couldn’t keep up. I pushed on aching for the next mile marker to come. It did but mile 24 to 25 was 20 seconds down. Smile and relax was now out of the question! Then I saw Marie, Kate and Joe and that gave me the uplift I needed. I pushed on and picked up my speed again. As I passed the 26 mile marker I could see the Finish line and went for it. The smile was back! My watch pinged about 100 m from the finish to say I had completed a marathon. I was so glad I wouldn’t need to run any further that the official end point.
A happy ending!
I had done it!
26.2 miles - Done!
Target time - Beaten!
Emotions - All over the place!
I collected my medal, foil blanket, clothing bag and freebies. I was buzzing. I was walking like a cowboy but buzzing! Runners were congratulating each other - some sat, some lying down and some hobbling. I sat for a moment and contemplated what I had just done and felt very proud.
I met Marie and we then headed over to the end to see Shannon and Samantha finish together. They had done it too!
We all regrouped at the end and hugged and shed a tear or two. What an adventure. We came - we ran our socks off - and we hobbled home with massive smiles. Exhausted!
Back at the apartment we were glad to have the jacuzzi. A bottle of fizz was cracked open and the debrief began. We had survived and we both felt better than we had expected to feel. No blisters, no serious muscle problems apart from glute and hip ache.
So recovery week began. Absolutely no running for me at all. Just walking and a midweek swim helped the aches to dissolve. By the weekend I could have ran but decided to leave it a few more days. And I was able to spend the weekend preparing for Marie’s marathon in London on the 28th April too. Go Marie!!!!
So I have now joined the 1% of the population that has ran a marathon, and of course I am now an expert (not). I stuck with my plan and it worked for me. Here are some of the key things I have learnt:
Build up slowly - Many use a 10% increase as a benchmark for increasing your Long Run mileage.
Don’t overdo it during training - Trying to run too fast or too far, too soon is not productive.
Long Slow Runs are just that. You should be running 1 to 2 minutes per mile slower than your expected race pace. The speed did return at the end of my plan!
Practice everything on your Long Runs - From breakfast to bowel movements to clothing to fuelling - try things out on your Long Run and eventually you will make a routine that works for you.
If your injured, rest - Trying to run on muscles that are not well is not going to help you improve. Shannon had 6 weeks of not running to plan and still managed her marathon.
Look after yourself - Listen to and respect your body. Rest if needed. Use foam rolling / stretching excersises.
Eat and drink well - I ate so much during the 16 weeks and still managed to lose 8kgs. A ‘Win-Win’ situation. But do increase your protein intake to help your muscles recover.
Listen to advice from your club members - They have been there and done it, and it’s all good bits of info that worked for them.
Marathons are not all about speed - I have lots of respect for anyone who finishes a marathon, especially slower runners. Mo Farah can run a fast marathon, but can he run for 5 hours or more in one go, as many marathon runners do?
Enjoy the race - You only run your first marathon once so smile, relax and enjoy it. There will be tough moments but the euphoria of crossing the finish line is incredible.
So can you run a marathon? YES YOU CAN.
Will it be easy? HELL NO.
Will it be worth it? ABSOLUTELY.