Achieving a Marathon Personal Best: Luck, Environment, Training, Race Strategy
Amsterdam Marathon, 2.31.46. Blimey.
So much to say. Let’s start with some context.
My personal best was 2.35.55 (set at Edinburgh in 2016) and this was my fourth attempt to beat that. I’d trained well and those that asked me about my objective before I raced would have heard me say something like “around 2.35 would be nice”, but in reality I was confident I would run a PB, and I was optimistic about running as fast as 2.33. A good day with everything going my way might end with 2.32 to my name while 2.31 was the stuff of spine-tingling dreams.
So, how on earth did it happen?
On reflection, I’ve identified 4 factors – luck, environment, training (obv) and race strategy. Sorry, there’s a lot in this one. Bear with me.
In each of the 4 road marathons I’ve run since Edinburgh something has gone against me in last few weeks before the race:
- Berlin 2016 was a bout of plantar fasciitis (2.39)
- Boston 2017 was hot (AND hilly AND generally just hard – 2.48)
- Florence 2017 was a sprained ankle and torrential rain (2.38)
- London 2018 coincided with the official launch of global warming (2.39).
As the wonderfully articulate Kelly Clark would say “that’s the crapshoot of the marathon for you”. However, before Amsterdam, the running gods were on my side. Firstly, with illness. I managed to avoid new school term illness through the crucial last 4 or 5 weeks before taper and then was sick not once, but twice in taper. A short-lived flu bug thing followed by a stomach bug thing kindly came along one after the other with a good 10-12 days to recover properly, and in fact it’s arguable that the days off I was patiently forced to take actually helped me. What a serendipitous bonus. Then, on the day, the weather was perfectly cool, overcast, a light breeze – especially ideal conditions when you’ve trained all summer in the extremes of an over-heating planet. So, luck: tick.
I am also incredibly lucky to be part of the flourishing team at Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets AC – we have a number of runners of a range of ages, abilities and experiences all pushing each other on, a number of whom also ran Amsterdam (and ran very, very well). This counts for something in training, where you need to work hard to keep up both literally and virtually (now that we live in a Strava and WhatsApp driven age of transparency over training progress), AND in the race when I needed to hold my pace.
When it comes to a marathon, more digital tech, in the form of race tracker apps, facilitate our thirst to follow our club mates online and comment (mostly supportively) on the race as it unfolds through multiple WhatsApp or Facebook groups. As I was ploughing through the back half of the race, I could hear the animated commentary. “Hobbs has held pace through 30k, he’s still going at 35k”, and I really didn’t want them to be able to colourfully speculate that “Hobbs is in the pain cave”, or “tough 5k for Hobbs” as they had done in previous races, especially Boston.
Rather than peer pressure I see this as the power of a supportive crowd. Of course, we all rib each other, often daily, about performance, running style, age, capability, even clothing choices, but when push comes to shove we want to see our team-mates run well, not least because it inspires us to run even better ourselves. During the race, I knew I was placing second for the club, and I wanted to run well and I wanted to stay there, if I slipped even by a minute I knew I’d be overtaken such is the talent in our club. I had to be brave. So, when you add that environment to the merciful luck I had with the ideal conditions and well-timed illnesses, you can see why things might go well. What else?
Oh yeah, training. Where do I start? Let’s go back 4 weeks to this pleasing session; (https://www.strava.com/activities/1862487121) – an over-distance run (27 miles) that included 90 mins of tempo (either a little quicker, a little slower or at goal marathon pace which was 5.50 mins per mile) split into 3 x 30-minute sections. The key part of this session, inspired by Josh (Griffiths) who ran something similar before his stellar London marathon in 2017, was the third block of 30 minutes which I planned to do after about 2h 15 of running to try to replicate running that painful last 10k of the race where, frankly, pain or glory awaits.
Aside from that there are three other things worth highlighting about that game-changing run;
- First, that I didn’t pay any attention to distance (I rarely do these days), I set my watch to lap pace and lap time and just ran 40 mins easy, 3 x 30 mins tempo with about 15 mins easy in between and a further 15 minutes or so easy at the end. Only after I finished did I know that I’d run 27 miles. For me, running to time, not distance makes the task seem less daunting, and was something I later applied to the race.
- Second, that I was spontaneously joined at the end of the second tempo block and for the remainder of the session by the mercurial Sam Farah, a 31 min 10k runner who was also looking for a tempo run. Sam hates running on his own so just jumped on what I was doing, and he kept me disciplined in the tough final block when I may otherwise have suffered – I ran that final block in an average pace of 5.42 (2.30 marathon pace) – luck and environment again!
- Third, in order to control the environment as much as possible AND work on mental strength, I ran all of the tempo sections around the 1-mile loop at the west end of the home of running, Victoria Park. I think it was about 18 laps – I didn’t care.
This was a breakthrough session, one that I had planned but failed to execute in each of the last 3 marathon training blocks and it gave me huge confidence in my fitness AND helped form the plan for race day.
The training is obviously more than one session though. Clearly, I had to build up patiently to that and I actually took it on a stage the following week by doing 2 x 45 mins at tempo albeit not for 27 miles this time (https://www.strava.com/activities/1889525677) However, this result was really the outcome of over 2 years of disciplined training since Edinburgh. Even though my results over the marathon distance haven’t shown it, I felt I was getting stronger and faster with each training block. My ability to sustain a greater volume of miles each time (and I really believe that there is no substitute for volume – I’ll post about that another time) and the PBs I have run at every other distance in that period, including most recently a hugely confidence boosting 16.01 over 5k in the summer, were strong indicators of evidence of that.
Also worth noting is something that I’ve said before that in marathon training blocks that track based speed work hasn’t really featured. I do the odd short session to sharpen my legs, but I’ve concentrated instead on long tempo runs, volume, and other races including fells, trails and cross country which act as a good substitute for those lung busting, endorphin releasing VO2 max sessions. And then of course, in this training block, we had the greatest summer to train in ever. It was hard for a while but I was convinced that if I could train well in the heat (something I have struggled with in the past), it would have massive benefit in the autumn.
This effect was exacerbated by a fantastic summer training camp, I mean family holiday, across Europe, where it was even hotter than the UK, including a two-week spell in Croatia where I was looking forward to building some volume. Croatia is an increasingly popular and spectacular tourist destination and I highly recommend it but the running is hard. And I highly recommend it! As well as being the official name of Croatia’s coastline, a Dalmatian coast is the name of the geographical feature where mountains run parallel to the coast (source: my geography degree) which means that you either have to run along the narrow, winding coast (where the only place to put a road is, which therefore gets full of traffic and is pretty dangerous) or up the mountain. I ran up the mountain. Slow, challenging and at times a bit technical for a flat-track bully like me, I planned 3 long runs, or rather as I saw it, 3 chances to beat the mountain;
- Race one, the mountain won easily – https://www.strava.com/activities/1766451636
- Race two, a score draw despite a field of thistles that did break me – https://www.strava.com/activities/1784676684
- Race three, I returned victorious to draw the series from a seemingly impossible position – https://www.strava.com/activities/1797768930 though in fairness to the mountain this third leg was somewhat shorter than the others due to my fear of a unpredictably rumbling storm and the sapping first leg defeat was so comprehensive that the mountain could legitimately claim the win on aggregate over the three legs.
I felt those rugged hills changed everything – I felt way stronger than I’d ever been, AND I ended up coming back from holiday having lost weight! An unexpected bonus given that I frequently refuelled on unhealthy doses of pizza, first class (and cheap) Croatian gelato and local beer throughout the trip.
Training + environment + luck: tick, tick, tick.
- Race Strategy
The last piece of this hindsight jigsaw is the all-important race strategy. I have written about my 5 minutes by 5 minutes strategy before http://themilestonepursuit.com/distance-time-choose/– I used it successfully for the Wokingham half marathon earlier this year and it has worked in training for a while now. I’ll try and explain more. During those brutally long solo tempo training runs, I break the overwhelming overall task up into a manageable series of continuous 5-minute reps. I set my watch to lap pace and lap time and single-mindedly focus on staying on the pre-planned pace for 5 minutes at a time, and when I reach the end of the 5-minute segment, I hit the lap button and just keep going. Call it mindful running if you want (I should probably give it a proper name), I focus on the present – I don’t think back and I don’t look (too far) forward. I run for 5 minutes at a time, 5 minutes at a time, 5 minutes at a time – all I need to do is hold this pace for 5 minutes at a time.
Now, that’s great in training, but much trickier in a race, especially a marathon as its obviously a lot of 5-minute segments and executing that would require a lot of mental energy. However, in my experience the marathon usually feels comfortable until after halfway, to about 15 miles or perhaps 1h 45 or so. I was also confident from my training that I could sustain the pace required for at least 90 minutes so I decided to be more relaxed in my approach up to that point and planned to break the first 90 minutes into 3 x 30 minutes segments – just like the 27-mile session, only this time it was obviously continuous. My objective for each 30-minute segment was to hold marathon pace in that section and not worry about what had already happened. I had practiced this in training and I also spent time visualising the race feeling easy until 90 minutes. It felt achievable.
Now, this is where I envisaged the race really beginning.
One of the many advantages of running a fast marathon is that it is only two and a half hours (and a bit) of running – it is actually over quickly. My logic was that if the first 90 minutes feels relatively easy that just leaves one hour to navigate, a tricky hour of course, but its just one hour, and I planned to break it up into 12 x 5 minutes segments. Just like I had practiced in training my plan was simply to hold pace for 5 minutes at a time and then do it again, and again and again. In effect my plan was to treat the race as a 2h 30 run (plus whatever was left) rather than a 26.2 mile one.
Furthermore, my intention was to ignore distance markers on the course apart from halfway and 32k (to check that I wasn’t running dramatically over or under distance rendering the pace on my watch inaccurate). Distance can become daunting, whereas time will pass even if you do nothing so somehow doesn’t seem so hard -I find it easier to focus on holding pace for 5 minutes than to hold pace until the next mile or km marker. I was really happy with this plan, I felt relaxed and actually really looking forward to executing it.
So how did it pan out?
- I ran the first 30 minutes at 5 mins 47s per mile pace, a little ahead of plan (5.50 per mile).
- I pulled the pace back for the next 30 minutes (5.49 pace) which included a stretch into the wind
- For the final 30 minutes I picked it up a little again (5.46 per mile), especially just after half way where we had a lovely downwind stretch along the curving Amstel river that included an uplifting sighting of a young goat ambivalently standing on a tree stump, which amused me.
My pre-race plan was to get to half way in 76.25-76.30, and I went through in 76.09 but I was feeling in control and running well. At one point, I had switched off from distance so much that I had to work out where I thought I was on the course. At no point did I have that dreadful feeling of “aaaagh, I’ve done 18 miles and I’ve still got 8 to go” that I’ve had in previous marathons. Sure, there were a couple of wobbles and a little anxiety that I was overcooking it but by and large I was feeling good and it was just me, my legs, time and a few other runners.
Now crunch time – the so often painful last hour and a bit. I concentrated hard on holding pace for each 5-minute split and while I began to slow a little as we headed south away from the Amstel river and back into the breeze, navigating the increasingly tough inclines of underpasses and bridges as we went, I never let the pace slip past goal pace and the 5-minute segments kept ticking by. In fact, I was so firmly focussed on looking up the road, staying as tall as I could, and holding my pace that I ran over into 6 minutes a couple of times, which I then saw as a good thing, as it would just reduce the amount of time I’d need to run at the end!
Before I knew it, there was only 20 minutes left, something like 6k, and once I’d worked out that sub 2.30 was out of the question (it was never in the question) and even though I was definitely tiring, I convinced myself to stick to the plan. It helped that I was passing a good number of other runners, and once out of the famous Vondelpark I was willing the magnificent 1928 Olympic stadium to re-appear and so it did much quicker than I imagined and I was delighted to see 2.31.xx on the finish line clock as I rounded the final bend of the track with 100m to go.
Prior to that tumultuous point, just like in my training runs, I didn’t know my overall time as I only had lap time set on my watch and while I obviously used the on-course clocks towards the end and thought I might be heading for 2.31, you can never fully trust your in-race mental arithmetic so I wasn’t exactly sure where I would finish. I remember feeling relieved that it wouldn’t require a “sprint” finish to get under the arbitrary unit of time that each minute represents, although I did remind myself that I may never get the luck, the environment or the fitness to run this fast again, so I didn’t let up the pace and there was even a rare sight of me nearly smiling down the home straight as I realised what I was about to do.
I was so happy. I thanked everyone and anyone within a 50-yard radius, shed a little old man tear and waited for my inspiring team-mates to come triumphantly down that amazing finishing straight, one by one, bang on their own schedule. As I congratulated them, each one of them immediately asked me how I had done, and when they each looked happy and a little stunned it started to become real. I had run the race of my life, finished in 2.31.46 and no matter how lucky I am, how much I am a product of the environment I am in, how the training or the race plan worked or didn’t work, no one can EVER take that away from me.
Now, what’s next?