My Journey to the 2016 London Marathon
(The last 4 weeks)
It is Easter week and I am on a one week family ski trip in Langenfeld, Austria. I just ran a 1:19:45 flat course half marathon this past Saturday in Rheinzabern, which is almost five minutes behind my half PR of 1:15:09 just two years ago. Running feels like a chore to me, my legs are very heavy, and any kind of faster running like intervals, tempo runs, and marathon pace runs feel extremely difficult. I am tired after a long winter season marathon buildup averaging between 7580 miles a week with a peak of 90 miles last week. Skiing with my family during the day is so much fun, but trying to get in 75 miles during the week in the mornings and evenings seems like an enormous undertaking.
Despite this, I grind through the week and choose difficult mountain runs on a few of the training days. I am getting too soft on hills and I need a kick in the ass. I am slightly annoyed with my good friend, former high school teammate, and professional running coach Matthew Nark of Nark Running Strategies on my Wednesday morning 10 x 90 seconds at nearly an allout pace with short recoveries. His prescription for the day feels impossible and my legs just won’t allow for it. I fail to come close to the prescribed pace, so I jog to the nearest steep hill and punish myself with 10 x 10 second hill sprints with walks back down. I run easy the remaining 3 days in Austria, but given the hills and mountains my HR rarely stays low. After a tiring fourhour drive back home on a warm and almost summerlike 60 degree Sunday evening, I put on my singlet, shorts, and head lamp and take off for my last 20+ mile run before the London Marathon and my last run of a long week. The goal is a 22 mile long run with an 8 mile marathon pace goal finish. I manage to complete the long run, but with only 7 miles at well below goal marathon pace, nearly 20 seconds per mile behind pace. At this point I am not confident at all that I am even remotely ready to run a sub 2:40 marathon, a time goal I set out to achieve over four years ago.
Three weeks out
This week of running has not started any better than the last. I skip my Wednesday 2 x 5k tempo run due to fatigue. I cannot imagine trying to run any faster than 8 minutes per mile today, so I jog on a leisurely 10 mile lunchtime trail run. It is Thursday and I do not feel much better than yesterday, but I lace up my shoes and head out to the local track. I average only marathon pace on the first 5k, well short of the 5:30s/mile pace I am shooting for. After a short rest, I average 5:40 pace on the second 5k. Ok, so maybe that isn’t too bad, and maybe I still am pretty fit. After a couple days of easy running, I head out for my Sunday 15 mile long run with the goal of running the second half at marathon pace. My total weekly mileage after today’s long run will be around 60. I can feel that the additional rest and reduction in mileage is helping my speed. There is a noticeable extra pep in my step today. My stride feels faster and easier to maintain. I
nail the fast finish run and even manage to run near half marathon PR pace for 3 of the faster miles. Things are looking better.
Two weeks out
I will continue to reduce mileage down to a total near 50 this week. I start the week with an easy bike ride to and from work with friends. I give myself a reward with a Biergarten stop on the way home. It has been a long buildup and a cold beer sounds good right about now. My Wednesday workout of 12 miles with 12 x 60 seconds nearly all out and 60 seconds of jogging goes well despite strong gusty winds and heavy downpours. I choose a nasty hilly trail route because I like the mental and strength boost the Austrian mountain running has given me. With just over 10 days before the London Marathon, my confidence is improving, but I am still unsure if I am ready to achieve my dream marathon time of a sub 2:40.
It is now eight days before the race and Mat wants me to run 8 x 3 minutes at tempo pace (5:30s/mile) today. I run very well in the 10 mile workout while my boys bike and giggle loudly riding through mud puddles next to me on a flat and fast bike path alongside the German Autobahn. I feel much more confident in my speed after this run today and running is becoming fun again. Today, just a day after yesterday’s intervals, and a week out from race day, Mat wants me to run a 5 mile marathon pace fast finish at the end of a 10 mile run. I struggle greatly to keep up with marathon pace on the windy, rainy, cold, and hilly 10 miler. I have doubts that I am not ready to hold a 6:05 pace for 26.2 miles and perhaps Mat is having me do too much faster running so close to the race.
One week out
I run a very easy five miler on Monday. I will take Tuesday off and run my final marathon pace tuneup on Wednesday. On a warm and sunny Wednesday I run 8 miles including 5 x 5 minutes at London goal pace. Suddenly, 6 minutes per mile is feeling much easier. I am happy the forecast calls for much cooler weather than this in London. My energy levels have been rising rapidly throughout this final week of my marathon taper. I start carb loading on Thursday morning with a large portion of sweet potatoes and beet juice with one boiled egg. I slightly increase my overall calorie intake while replacing most of my normal portions of fats and proteins with healthy sources of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, rice, fresh fruit, small portions of fruit juice, plenty of vegetables, pasta with tomato sauce, and unsalted pretzels. I also reduce caffeine intake and increase water consumption throughout the week. It is Friday, and Mat has me run 5 miles with 8 x 100 meters at a very fast pace. I go shirtless on a 70 degree sunny day in Germany before my afternoon flight from Stuttgart to London. The sun feels great on my back. I finish the five miles feeling fresh and ready. Yes, it looks like once again Mat knows exactly the recipe to get me ready for a peak race and a chance at a new PR. The forecast for London is well below normal temperatures with a chance of sleet, snow showers, or rain and it will certainly be windy. I think if the weather is not too bad in London,
then it is still possible to achieve my goal. Mat and I discuss that I will need to run a smart negative split race by conserving energy until later in the race and finish fast. It worked in Berlin and it will work again if I can execute.
Marathon day in London
After 7 hours of sleep I wake up feeling fresh without an alarm clock as I have all week. I notice some text messages from my very understanding and supportive wife and children and it lifts my spirits. I pound a half liter of water right away. I prefer to drink more before a marathon on race day as early as possible and drink much less in the final 90 minutes before the race. The last thing I need is a bathroom stop when I am trying to trim 34 seconds of my 2:40:33 PR. To date out of all the marathons I have run with a time goal, I have never had to stop for a toilet, quite the opposite of what I go through in the weeks and months of training beforehand. My legs are well rested and I can feel the positive effects of three days of solid carb loading and last night’s prerace dinner of calf liver with pasta and tomato sauce and a glass of red wine at Fiddie’s Italian Kitchen. I look out the window and see that it is raining. The forecast calls for the rain to move out within the hour. I eat a breakfast of three pieces of white toast with butter & honey, one banana, one cup of rice cereal with almond milk, a small portion of mandarin oranges, a small portion of scrambled eggs, a cup of orange juice, and one cup of black coffee. It is 7:40 AM and time to head out. The race starts at 10 AM and it will take an hour on the London Underground and Southeastern Railway to arrive in Blackheath with plenty of time before the point to point race starts. I arrive in Blackheath around 8:45 AM. It is easy to figure out where to go because there are crowds of runners in front of me. It is about a half mile walk from Blackheath station to the runners’ start areas. The town looks like what I would expect a nice English town in April to look like; we walk by a few nice pubs and restaurants with flowers outside on what appears to be a main street. Police officers have the area covered and wellsecure as they call out where the runners should go. The smell of grilled food is already in the air so early in the day. I have a buzz that this could be my day as I snap off some selfies and other photos. As we walk closer to the start area, I notice a huge line of people making the big mistake of walking in their race shoes through medium length wet grass. I find my way to a sidewalk slightly out of the way. Like Mat said, I need to control every variable possible to have a successful race, and avoiding waterlogged socks and shoes is one of them. There are three blimps towering over the open fields, one for each runner start areas: green, red, and blue. I am supposed to go to the blue area for the UK Championships since I qualified for this race with a sub 2:45 marathon time and I am a member of the UK running club Serpentine. Any member of a UK running club or any UK citizen who runs under 2:45 in a marathon qualifies to run with a UK Championship entry.
The UK Championships meeting area is perfectly situated close to the race start line within the blue area. It has two tents for championship runners to change and stay warm in, which is quite a luxury on this lower 40s F, chilly, and breezy morning. The area has many portajohns and fewer people so I will not have to wait in long lines to go to the bathroom my usual 35 times in the hour before a big event due to nerves or whatever else causes the issue. I am very fortunate I am starting in this area. I am thankful that my fellow Serpentine running club teammate, Alex Jeffreys, brought my jersey to Berlin so that I could take part in this amazing event. It relaxes me. I am no longer concerned with whether it will rain or how bad the headwind might be. 15 minutes before the race start a man with a loudspeaker announces to us that we need to move our clear bags storing postrace items to the truck so they can transfer them to the finish area. I keep on my arm sleeves, a headband, a pair of cheap gloves, and a warm 8 year old long sleeve running shirt that has an old stench to the point that no washing machine on earth could take the smell away. I ditch two of my seven gels I have brought along for fuel because I think five will be enough. I hand over my bag and head to the start line. A couple of minutes before the gun goes off I throw my old shirt and the headband to the side of the road. It is go time. Race 5k Time 18:55 – Diff 18:55 – Pace 6:05/mile, 3:47/km The gun goes off and I quickly settle into what I think is a tad slower than goal pace. I am thankful I started up towards the front because the road is not all that wide. I notice quickly that many people are trying to pass and run aggressively. I know this is folly. Starting too fast in this race is something I will avoid at all costs, as I have been burned late in many previous marathons from fast or even goal pace starts. Around mile 2.5 I throw off my arm sleeves. It is very chilly, but I am already warming up despite the increasing wind speed. There are occasional speed bumps on the course in the first three miles and the marathon staff personnel call out warnings to the runners. Having just run the Berlin Marathon last fall, I am disappointed that these streets are rougher on the feet and legs. The road is not as smooth as the perfect streets of Berlin and it feels as if it will be easy to trip up if I am not careful. I am definitely going to feel my feet and legs ache later. I take note and focus on staying with the marked blue line, which is the shortest possible path along the marathon route that officials create mainly for the elite athletes up front. I make sure to watch out for other runners and not step on anyone or be stepped on. It is more crowded three miles in than I expected. Despite my efforts to start slower, my first 5k is faster than the 6:08/mile pace Mat and I agreed to target in the first 20 miles. I know from the past few years of sub 2:40 marathon attempts that I need to run an average of around 19 minutes per 5k through the entire race. Our goal was to come in slightly above 19 minutes per 5k for the first 30k with energy still in reserve and then finish as fast as possible in the final 10+ k. I clocked the first 5k in 18:55. I am not worried though because up to this point I haven’t been sporadically speeding up and slowing down, I
haven’t been weaving around people, and I have been relaxed, save for the slight anxiety about the running surface and slightly increasing winds. Race 10k – Time 38:12 – Diff 19:17 – Pace 6:12/mile, 3:52/km
I have now found the conservative pace that I was looking for the first 5k. The Garmin Forerunner 620 has been inaccurate on two of three mile splits earlier on by showing my average lap pace as my goal of around 6:08, but then flashing an actual faster split three to four seconds lower to my surprise. Can I trust this watch? It functioned poorly under the Frankfurt skyline in October and I went out too fast in the first 10k of that marathon. I still have plenty of packs to follow and I notice runners are still running very aggressively this early in the race. The wind is starting to pick up from my front right side and sometimes as a headwind. I am starting to feel warmer. I finally ditch the gloves and down the first of five GU gels I am carrying along at mile five. Race 15k – Time 57:26 – Diff 19:14 – Pace 6:11/mile, 3:51/km We pass the packed and rowdy area of the Cutty Shark and I feel a surge of adrenalin despite keeping the pace on target. The crowd support is great here. I hear many calls of “Go Serpentine!” We turn gently to the right and head straight into the headwind. I am focused on tailing people closely to avoid energy loss from the wind. I know that a small amount of wasted energy now can derail me in the end. I notice that this race seems to have water stations every mile and that relaxes me. I take Salted Caramel with caffeine GU gel number two at the 15k mark. I am confident that I am on the desired pace now and fixated on seeing 6:086:09/mile on my Garmin. Race 20k – Time 1:16:33 – Diff 19:07 – Pace 6:09/mile, 3:50/km I am totally focused and “in the zone”. My breathing is fine and I am running comfortably hard. I am locked very close to 6:08/mile pace. I feel like I definitely still have a chance at a sub 2:40. I cross the London Tower Bridge enjoying the huge crowd support at km 20. Race Half – Time 1:20:34 I remember Mat and I discussing that I would be about 50 seconds behind pace after 20 miles. I do the math and figure I am about 25 seconds behind pace right now. I am roughly on track, and I have plenty of reserves still to go harder later. I am also now running with the wind from my back and it feels effortless. Race 25k – Time 1:35:19 – Diff 18:46 – Pace 6:02/mile, 3:45/km We are running towards Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. I down my fourth GU gel of the day and slip in my two fastest miles thus far without burning too much energy. The crowd support
was supposed to be weak in this area but plenty of people are out cheering the runners on. The wind is helping me slightly now and the cool mid to upper 40s F air feels good. I notice at 25k that I have already begun trimming the time deficit too early. It is a reminder that I need to be careful in the next 5k to conserve energy for the remaining 12.2k.
Race 30k – Time 1:54:09 – Diff 18:50 – Pace 6:04/mile, 3:47/km I have shifted from being careful not to go too fast to being careful not to go too slow now. I am close to 6:08/mile pace, but the Garmin is showing readings at times of 6:15/mile or more. I hit a couple 6:08 miles. But then at mile 18, I record a 6:14, my slowest split of the day so far. This surprises me because throughout the mile my Garmin lap split was showing 6:08 pace. My confidence slips slightly and I realize I have to pick up the pace to goal pace or slightly better, at least temporarily.
Race 35k – Time 2:12:57 – Diff 18:48 – Pace 6:03/mile, 3:46/km I rip off a 5:55 19th mile without digging too deep, passing many runners and my confidence returns. But am I starting the kick too early? Any faster now and I may jeopardize the finish. I try to push slightly faster than 6:00/mile pace, but we are now heading back towards the Tower Bridge and the headwind is catching me at times. There are no runners to tail because most are going slower than me. I conserved energy while they went out too fast and now they are paying a heavy price. I see a lot of runners in agony and some even dropping out or moving off to the side of the road. As I pass the 20 mile mark with a 6:05/mile goal pace split I consume the fifth and final gel from my belt. I feel confident that I have fueled and hydrated properly during the race so far. Now it comes down to a final 10k where the real race begins. I start my kick gently and hit the next mile in 5:59. Not exactly as fast as I wanted to go, but it may be good enough. I pass through the 35k mark and notice that I am a few seconds faster than 2 hours and 13 minutes, the pace I needed to be on track for a 2:40 marathon. I still have energy reserves and I have not hit a wall yet. I notice so many people are cheering for my UK running club Serpentine as I run by. I acknowledge their support as best as I can without using too much energy. Race 40k – Time 2:31:42 – Diff 18:45 – Pace 6:02/mile, 3:45/km I hit another mile split at 5:57. This gives me confidence that I am actually slightly ahead of pace now. I am starting to lose energy though, and I drink the sports drink Lucozade offered on the course. I know my friend Andi and his fiancé will be spectating around mile 22.5 and I hope to see them. Within a few seconds of thinking this, I see Andi waving and cheering my name loudly in front of me on my right. I wave to him as best as I can with my right hand and smile. The crowd is so loud. I am struggling to hold pace now, but I am invigorated from seeing my friend on the course. I am trying desperately to hold on to the pace and I run two consecutive 6:08
miles. Just before I run over the 40k mats I see that I am 18 seconds ahead of the needed 2 hours 32 minutes pace. This is a huge confidence boost. I can do this! Race Finish Time 2:39:57 – Diff 8:15 – Pace 6:03/mile, 3:46/km
My Garmin shows a 6:00 split for mile 25. I see the London Eye to my left across the Thames River. I remember reading tips on the London Marathon that said when you see the London Eye to your left you will know you are only a little over a mile away. All I need to do is hold onto a 6:00/mile pace the remainder of the way and it is mission accomplished. But I am really struggling now. My heart rate is soaring from near 160 in the first half to the mid 160’s later and to now over 170. I am starting to feel my breathing go out of control. I have a cramp developing in my right chest muscle and on the lower right side of my abdominals. This isn’t good. I see a sign showing 600 meters to go. I am not sure that I can pull this off. I feel myself slowing and I have anxiety now about where my time stands. Further ahead of me a sign shows 400 meters to go. I see on the clock there is approximately 1 minute and 27 seconds between me and a sub 2:40 marathon as I pass by it. I know at this point I must sprint the remaining 400 meters or fail. A “Pain is temporary” quote from the Nark Running Strategies Facebook group just popped into my head. I feel like there is somebody sticking me with a dagger in the right side of my chest and right abdominals. My breathing is completely out of control. I turn a right corner for the final straightaway. The crowd support is epic. I can hear the cheers and yelling but my vision is blurry except for the big red finish line in front of me. I run full speed across the finish line mats in relief and immediately stop my watch. My breathing is still out of control, but I am done now, finally. A few seconds pass. I look down at my watch with anticipation. Did I do it? 2:39:58. Marathon staff personnel are tending to ailing and fatigued runners who just crossed the finish line. I let out a loud “Yes!” three times. Many workers and runners look back at me and smile. By running the final 400 meters at a 5:26/mile pace, I finally achieved my goal of a sub 2:40 marathon. And Mat Nark had me trained and coached perfectly to sprint at the end when I needed to the most.