How I got into running and knocked 20 minutes off my marathon time in 10 months.
A few days after London, Rick asked me if I’d mind writing a few words about how I improved on my marathon time, what got me into running etc. I have to admit that I really enjoyed writing about this and it seemed to take no time to spew out my running life story! I did get a bit carried away and filled about 7 pages so sorry for hijacking Rick’s blog! I hope some people find it interesting bedtime reading. If you just want to know what training I did then it might be best to skip towards the end!
How I started running….
Through much of my childhood I was always outside but didn’t really do a lot of exercise. My main passion in life from around the ages of 12-16 was fishing! My dad is a keen runner and something always intrigued me about giving it a go to see what it would be like to be in a ‘real’ race.
Me at 17- my biggest ever catch- a 24lb carp
My athletics career through school was taken up by throwing a discuss on sports day ( I competed twice in 5 years, each time because nobody else from my class wanted to), I was quite a stocky child and I think at one point I earned the nickname ‘Tubsy’ due to my barrel like shape. This was by no means bullying but given in good humour. Once I left school my cousin got me interested in Rock climbing and I also started to go to the gym a bit to try and get into a bit better shape. I played a bit of football and I’d run on the treadmill at the gym once or twice but hadn’t managed to run more than a couple of miles on the road.
My first real race came in 2007 with the ‘Good Friday 4 mile race’ around the park in Southport (aged 17) I had asked my dad if there were any races I could try and he suggested this one. I really enjoyed the race, I found it tough but I distinctly remember the adrenaline rush from trying to sprint past as many people as I could at the finish, I loved the atmosphere of the whole event too. I felt a real sense of achievement that I’d kept running a decent pace for a full 4 miles. I think my time was around 27minutes but I can’t remember exactly.
The following summer I ran 4 more local 4 mile night races with little training (1 or 2 3mile runs a week) but got my time down to around 25 minutes. I then went to University and settled into the usual fresher’s lifestyle in catered halls with 3 cooked meals a day and plenty of nights out, inevitably I put on a fair few pounds! I still kept reasonably fit from rock climbing and mountaineering club but did little (if any) running.
Nobody ever pushed me to run more but my dad would usually ask if I had been for any runs lately. This just helped me to remember that I could run! The following spring I felt the urge to have another go at running and I entered the Freckleton half marathon with the view that I would have to get fit to run that. This got me to run 2-3 times a week with little structure to my training, I ran in a pair of trail walking shoes and my longest ever run up to then was 12 miles after which I felt exhausted. I got round in 1:32:11 on quite a windy day (I would love to see my splits for that day as I suspect my first mile might have been slightly faster than the rest!).
The next time I would run again properly was autumn when I did a 10k in just under 40 min’s shortly followed by another half marathon? This one was a fair bit quicker and I finished around 1:26 but again I ran the early part of the race quicker than I could really handle. Spring 2009 I was starting to get the running bug and entered my third half with a couple of friends. I took around 1:25 for this one. I don’t know if the times had improved due to any change in training or just my improved pace judgement! My training still consisted of 3 or 4 10k runs a week depending on when I could fit them in. I would just do this for the 6 weeks before the race and then run very little until the next time.
My transformation into a club runner
Ever since first watching the London Marathon I had fancied giving it a go but soon discovered that with the ballot system and the over subscription it was not as simple as just sending off an entry form. I decided that my best chance to get in would be to try and get down to times that give me a ‘good for age entry’. By this time I really wanted to break the 3hr mark for the marathon but first I had thought that I might be dreaming a bit and only ‘real runners’ runners were able to run that quick. Besides I could never have imagined running 2 half marathons back to back!
In June 2009 when working in Liverpool on a year’s placement I decided to go for it and Join Southport Waterloo AC (where my dad had been a member in the past). |I hoped that the extra people around me would help me to get some consistency in my training which I needed if I was to run 3hrs. When I picked up my club vest from the club secretary, I distinctly remember him asking “are you sure you don’t want a large one?” My response was “No, I could do with losing a bit of weight anyway!”
From then on I started training more consistently with a group. I met Simon Tobin at my first race and he introduced me to Brian Davey’s Monday night speed sessions and I started entering any local races that took my fancy. I was probably running between 25-35 miles a week and I started knocking chunks off my times; and I clearly remember trying (and failing) to chase down Rick in the September 2009 Rufford 10k race! I was amazed that I had kept sub 6 minute miles going for 10km. This felt like a real breakthrough and I am very grateful for all of the encouragement I received (and still receive) from the other Southport members. I remember speaking to Brian about how sometimes I wondered why I bother running especially when it hurts in a race! He said that he thinks about how fortunate we are to be able to run and what some people, unable to run due to sickness or disability, would give to be able to run like us. This thought stuck with me and I’ve never thought about quitting in a race since!
As for marathons, I knew that to get into London I would have to run sub 3:10 before July 2010. I entered a 20 mile race (after a winter of cross country and a mixture of local road races). I surprised myself how long I could hold a steady pace on a flat road for! I finished in 2:03, much quicker than I’d expected and straight away entered Chester Marathon (Which was around 10 weeks later). Without a break in training I went from running 35 miles a week almost straight up to 50 miles in worn trainers which triggered off some pain in my plantar fasciitis. I tried to run through it but after finishing a long run something in my foot gave up and I couldn’t run on it at all. 6 weeks before the marathon I had to stop running and keep fit on my bike! I thought that my 3 hour ambition might have to wait another year.
3 weeks out from the race I found that I could run again and I had kept reasonably fit on my bike but still didn’t run more than around 30 miles a week. I decided to just give the Marathon a go and hopefully run a time to get into London. I set out downhill at 2:50 pace and hit half way in 1:24:30 but much to my disgust the last 10k was slightly uphill which I definitely hadn’t anticipated. This slowed me down a fair bit but I hung on in the hope getting the 3 hours. I finished in 2:56:37, very dehydrated, my running form falling apart with blistered feet and all my joints feeling like they had been hammered. I think that this race was the biggest learning experience in my running. I had managed to make almost every mistake in the book and I had never felt so tired in a race. I was still delighted with my time but I knew then that there were dozens of changes that I could make.
To start with I had upped my training too quickly, wearing worn trainers on mostly road surfaces. I had done almost all of my runs at a steady-hard pace and not allowed many easy runs to recover. This led to a niggle that had held my running back in the run up to the race but instead of resting and trying to find out what was going wrong I tried to man-up and run it off!
My build up to the race wasn’t ideal either. 2 weeks before the race I got some new trainers which blistered my feet. I decided to resort back to my old well-worn racer trainers for the race but my blisters still weren’t fully healed.
The race was on a bank holiday Monday but I decided that I would be fine to have a few beers and a greasy BBQ on the Friday before! This had led into more than “a few beers” and left me feeling groggy on the Saturday. I decided that I would just check my legs were still working on the Sunday (the day before race day) so I did 2 miles at my target marathon pace to see how it would feel. This was another No-No. On race day I felt ok but decided to drink very little at the drinks stations despite it being a hot day. My thinking was that I’d managed off just a few gels in my 20 mile race and that drinking would just slow me down but really I needed more for the marathon in particular with it being a warmer day.
Ok, so that’s enough of what went wrong with that one, I entered London, at first thinking I would just do whatever training I felt like and go for the event. In summer 2010 I had a 2 week break from running where I cycled lands’ end john O’Groats. I think this helped my endurance but also made me realised how much I liked being just on my 2 feet. I had another month break where I spent my savings travelling around Australia.
Giving London a proper go!
On the trip to Australia I remember having a moment where I was thinking about the marathon (which I had now secured a place). I thought to myself that I wanted to get back and give it a real crack! When I returned to University in October I joined the athletics club and got back into regular training with a big group. I discovered that the London marathon is used as the marathon race for Brisith Universities and Colleges Sport competition (BUCS). I thought that this is going to be my only chance to get a BUCS medal but looking at past results I would need to run under 2:40 to have a decent chance.
At the start of term I remember George Gandy (the main man for endurance at Loughborough (and one of the top coaches in the UK)) giving the new members of the athletic club an introductory talk and one thing that stuck in my mind was how we should be aiming for a steady progression and that it is of little use to hammer every session and peak in a few weeks then get injured!
Before Christmas I wanted to just work on my overall running fitness for the cross country season. I planned to very gradually build up my mileage (by 2-3 miles a week) until I got into a solid routine with around 50 miles a week. I had seen good progression in my running up to Christmas and it felt that I was on a roll. I think that it is important to be able to see some kind of measurable improvement, even if it was just an extra 1mile a week total or a second or two off a run time.
I then followed a solid structured 16 week training plan before London. I had noticed my running improving weekly and was feeling like I could do more and more each week. From the first week in January my weekly mileages were as follows, 50, 55, 57, 58, 60, 63, 58, 63, 67, 68, 68.5, 67.5, 69, 83, and then I tapered 59, 42, and 50 (including the race). These figures were by no means anywhere near some of the top runners but I was worried that if I over did it I would end up injured and given that I had never run anywhere near this distance before 60 miles a week sounded like a lot for me.
7 weeks before race day I spoke to George in person. He is very knowledgeable about the marathon and so any advice that he gave I had complete faith in. I was already on with my training and ideally for me to get a full training plan I would have had to go to him earlier. I had been on the right lines but I was advised on some key sessions to get into my build up, given some advice for how to reduce my mileage in the taper and finally, some tips for race day. The main 3 sessions were 15kmarathon pace/10k quicker (5 weeks out from the marathon then again 3 weeks out, aiming for improvement) then 10kmp/5k quicker the week before the race.
The general layout of my training for most weeks was as follows…
Monday – Rest - later on in my plan I started to do a very easy 4-5mile recovery run just to get a few extra miles in. If I felt any aches or pains the rest would usually sort them out by Tuesday.
Tuesday – Intervals – for the first few weeks after Christmas I alternated 20x400 (1min rest) with 6 by 900m uphill (jog back recovery) with a mile or 2 warm up /cool down for each. By repeating sessions I could see a measurable improvement in the times for the sessions. In the later weeks I added a 4 mile easy morning run (8min/mile)
In weeks 11-13 I was a test subject in a study where I had to run 5k flat out on a treadmill so I built this into my training. For 3 weeks I ran the 5k before walking to the track and doing some yasso style 800’s but with just 400m easy run recovery. I was hitting my target marathon times for these with 2:36’s. I think that for me the standard Yasso 800 session alone would under predict my marathon time but seeing as I had done a flat out 5k and the recovery was shorter than traditional yasso’s the times were pretty accurate.
Wednesday –afternoon - medium long relaxed group run – starting at 10 miles building up to 15 in the later weeks (7.5min/ mile) off road/ hilly. We would usually be working quite a bit harder up the hills although the rest of the run was more casual.
In the evening I joined the club group doing some strength circuits – core, squats, box jumps etc. (Devised by the George Gandy)
Thursday- 7-9 mile steady run mostly on road (usually with friends), some weeks would be 7min/mile, others would be speeded up at the end if there was no race on Saturday this could get a bit silly and we would be flat out racing at the end
Friday – 10k easy( 7.5-8min) mile off road
Saturday – relaxed run (6:45-7:30/mile) depending how I feel as to pace (usually would fartlek the hills) or cross country race. (I ran 7 XC races or similar in the 16 week build up after new year!)
I think the cross country really helped with pace judgement and knowing how much I could handle before I blew up! It is hard to compare times on different courses so I wouldn’t get stressed about the times I was running and although these weren’t my main target, I have an inability to take it easy in a race so all of the races I would give all I had on the day!
Sunday- Long run – usually would stick to around 7:30/mile but sometimes slower depending on terrain, usually hilly/off road, would try and pick pace up a bit at the end. I think this run is what made my marathon so I’ll give a few more details. I would still do a long run after a Saturday cross country race and this gave me some confidence that I could still run a decent distance on tired legs.
I built these runs up from 14 miles in Jan to 17 by end of Feb. I then did the following long runs
9 weeks before - 18.5miles – hilly steady
8. 20ish in 2:34 hilly steady
7. 20ish in 2:34 hilly steady
6. 21.5ish in 2:42 hilly steady
5. 17.5 easy on sand dunes then 3.5 at a tempo (5:40/mile with a tailwind)
4 1mile warm up (half marathon race) then 1mile cool down (no taper for race just relaxed runs later in the week) I had been advised to do a 16 mile marathon pace run this week but I decided to replace this with the half marathon! I surprised myself in this race to run faster than I expected to win the race!
3. 23miles (I was told to just run for 3 hours)
I did a 16 mile marathon pace run on the Wednesday of this week with the aim to run the first 10 marathon pace and last 6 mile quicker. I persuaded a friend to cycle with me to keep the pace! He found it quite funny at the end when he told me “ you know when I said you were doing 10mph down beacon road” “oh yea?” “ well actually you were closer to 11mph for some of it. I averaged 5.52 min/mile for this run which gave me a lot of confidence for the marathon
2 .17miles easy
10 days before the marathon I did a 9 mile marathon pace run on my own. I did the first mile too fast (5:33). The rest of the run felt very hard work but I managed to still average my target pace of 5:57/mile.
1, 1 hour relaxed
As for the day, this time I followed all of the taper advice and dropped my mileage but kept some speed work. The rough plan was to do as George had said and run the first 10 miles easy and hope it would feel like a warm up, conserve energy to 20 miles then spread out what I had left in the rest.
My plan was a bit more detailed (I worked out each mile split down to get me 2:36:37) which would give me a nice round 20 min PB. I then decided targets for 10miles, half way, 16 miles, 20 miles (allowing about a minute either side of the target) and memorised these I thought through this just about every night the week before the race before I fell asleep so I didn’t have to think about it on the day. I decided that I didn’t really want to bother with a pace band on the day.
I also memorized a few thoughts that would keep me going on race day but one of the main thoughts that I wanted to get home was “no excuses”. I didn’t want to have any doubt whatsoever that I couldn’t run my target time so I just thought about what I planned to do in the race. I knew that I would be more than happy with anywhere near 2:40-2:45 and that is what I told everyone but in my mind I planned to run 2:36:37.
The plan was
Miles 1-3 easy
22-26.2 all out
I took a gel at approximately 5.5, 11, 16.5, and 22 and drank a lot of lucozade in the first half of the race (more than I felt like I needed at the time). I also had a soaking at every shower and wet my head with water regularly to keep cool.
The time on the race clock as I crossed the finish line the clock read 2:36:34. I think I made up my 3 seconds to run below my plan in a sprint with 2 other runners in over last 400m but I can’t remember which of us crossed the line first! As it happened, our start was delayed so I had run slightly quicker than the clock said and my chip time was 2:35:52. The standard of the other students was quite high this year but this time was good enough for a bronze medal which I am over the moon about. I think that without really believing I could run that time, I wouldn’t have had a chance. If you had asked me what I thought I was going to run 4 months ago I would have honestly said around 2:44 but I managed to convince myself otherwise. I consider myself very lucky that the build-up went well and it all came together on the day. With the Marathon it seems like any problems are magnified by the distance of the event and even the top athletes can have a bad day!
On the trip to London, Paul Cain had told me about how Steve Way (a runner from Bournemouth had lost 5 stone and in the space of 3 years he had gone from being an overweight smoker to run a 2:19! I was really inspired by reading his story. As the Addidas saying goes “impossible is nothing!”
Hopefully I can pull off another improvement next year and smash this years’ time. I will aim to follow a similar plan with more miles and see what training my body feels like it can handle. I think a few more tempo runs usually do the trick to help my race pace feel more comfortable so I’ll try and get a few of those in too. My training will depend heavily on what job I end up doing as to the training I can get in but I feel there’s still room for improvement!
As for summer I’ve taken a week off running to recover properly but I hope to smash a few PB’s over shorter distances and get a bit more speed in my legs… Thanks for reading, Ben
Mile 22ish I think, taking a Gel before starting the “all out” section of my race (photo courtesy of Steve Lewis photography
THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE