Achieving another marathon personal best – arbitrary goals

This was an interesting one to write. A new marathon PB of 2.30.41 but more importantly, a new set of experiences to draw on. This piece is, in part, me processing what happened so please forgive me for its length and indulge my reflections. You don’t have to, of course. You can just swipe past.

The build up – nothing to lose
I was cock-a-hoop with my last race in Amsterdam (2.31.46) as I had finally broken through the 2.35 “barrier” and had secured a marathon performance I felt that reflected my capability. I also felt that it provided an opportunity. I felt that I now had license to really go for it, to take some risks and see if I could push my aging frame even harder and go into hallowed territory under 2.30. I had previously never really believed it was possible for me, despite encouragement from non running friends that with 2.35 to my name, I was so close. I now thought, I have 2.31, I’m happy with that so why not try and go quicker – I have nothing to lose. Keep that thought in mind later, when you read what happened!

I also had a strong level of fitness to build on, but after a bit of a break over christmas I got ill. A chest infection at the turn of the year set me back a few weeks but learning from the past I took my time and recovered reasonably quickly and by early February I was returning to some form so set my sights on Manchester as the sub 2.30 attempt.

This piece isn’t actually about the training this time, but by way of summary I put in record numbers of weekly miles, accumulating to about 750 over 8 weeks, and a strong performance in the VPHTHAC club 20 mile championship race (1.53.30) gave me encouragement. But, in admittedly difficult conditions, I ran 72.22 in The Big Half, and despite the kudos of a personal best it was a bit off what I wanted from that race and I knew then that 2.30 was borderline but of course I was going to try – I had nothing to lose, remember!

So let’s fast forward to the race. What happened? I’ve broken my experience into stages.

Stage 1 – it never felt on.
Before the race and in the early stages of the race, I didn’t feel as fresh, loose or relaxed as I would have wanted or have felt in the past. In the first hour, I had a slight stitch, a little backache and hip soreness. But I told myself this would pass and soon settled into a rhythm, a few seconds behind a pack that included the acclaimed ultra runner and former international marathoner Steve Way and stuck to my plan even though it always felt a little harder than it should have done. Manchester is a flat course, but there are some inclines and each one felt harder than I would have expected.

Stage 2 – it actually was on.
I passed halfway in just over 74 minutes, quicker than planned, and so I consciously slowed a little. I passed 20 miles in 1.53.40 ish, more or less on target. I passed Steve Way and his now smaller pack, and by mile 22 as I was holding my pace and catching a few more guys ahead of me I actually thought, for the first time, that it was on. I had 2.30 in my sights. As I passed mile 23, I had 19 minutes to complete the last 3.2 miles….I could do this, I thought, but perhaps as an early clue to what was about to unfold, I couldn’t work out what pace I needed to run at to bring 2.29.59 home. The maths was too hard.

Stage 3 – it most definitely wasn’t on
By now, I felt extremely tired on any incline, and at one stage I nearly stopped until I literally shouted at myself to keep going. Then in the last mile or so, I developed a limp, on both legs. My left quad was sore, as was my right calf and right hip. At the time I thought it was just muscle damage, I was developing an injury. My brain failed to connect the failing leg mechanics to the stars that were starting to blur my vision (and not just because Steve Way sauntered back past me) or the fact I couldn’t definitively state that I was inside the last mile until I actually saw the finish line. As I limped, I slowed and I knew my race was done, that I wouldn’t get under 2.30, I now just wanted to finish and finish I did.

Stage 4 – 2 more hours of pain.
I stopped my watch (a seemingly pavlovian response to stopping running) and as if in sync, my body stopped working too. In hindsight, what I thought was simple muscle damage that Joe Dale would be able to Fix, was actually me hitting the wall. It wasn’t hitting the wall in that getting tired kind of a way, it was hitting the wall in a Callum Hawkins, Jonny Brownlee, David Wyeth, Annie Faye kind of a way. I’ve always wondered how, in particular Callum and Johnny didn’t know what state they were getting into, and be able to take appropriate action, but now I do – your brain simply doesn’t tell you. You think its something else, you think you are in better shape than you actually are, you think you can do it. Given that I always talk about how the brain is designed to protect us from danger and will always ask you to stop before your body is ready to, this can only mean that in these moments of extreme fatigue, the brain must stop working too. I had never thought that was possible before. To be fair, when I’m coaching and I talk about switching the part of your brain off that is designed to protect you, and letting your heart drive you on when it hurts, I do say “up to a point”. The challenge is knowing when that point is!

My brain stopped working for a while afterwards too. People kept asking me questions. I thought i was lucidly responding to them all, taking pride in accurately stating my name, and date of birth for example, but again, in hindsight, there was a clue to my condition in my repeated responses to their question of how are you feeling – “I just want to go to sleep” . I think it was that that prompted them to plonk me in a chair and wheel me to the makeshift A&E department which is what the medical tent turns out to actually be. Annoyingly, despite my best efforts at getting some blissful shut-eye, no one would let me sleep (or let me drink, not that I was that thirsty – i just wanted to sleep), and once they had inserted a thermometer where the sun doesn’t shine, and established my core temperature was at 39.7 degrees it was ice blankets all the way. It took an hour of that to get my temperature back to acceptable levels, and a further hour for my skin to warm up again and for my family to arrive by which time I was feeling more normal. I look terrible in the pictures I made my wife take, and yet I was being told that i looked a lot better! It then became clear that they were actually a bit worried for a while, although no one said (and I didn’t ask) what, specifically, they were worried about. A packet of crisps, some water, some hugs, some tears and I was physically capable of leaving two painful hours after finishing the race.

Before I move on and analyse why I think this happened, it’s worth thanking the amazing people that helped me. There are volunteers, like Joan of the the Red Cross who had traveled from the Scottish borders, to wipe me down, change my ice blankets and undress and dress me, and then there are A&E professionals (Doctors and nurses) who are seconded to a private firm hired by the Manchester Marathon to provide first class emergency care. Those staff get all expenses covered and a couple of hundred quid in their pocket for the weekend in return for putting thermometers up hirsute and vaseline lined arses like mine. Perhaps I was lucky as I was their first finish line patient for the day, but I received excellent care and attention.

Thank you Joan, Rebecca and Caspar, you sorted me out. But why did it happen in the first place? I don’t really know, but here are some thoughts.

It is possible, but unlikely, that I was a little dehydrated. I drank what I always drink before the race – soluble vitamin c with breakfast and then a carb/electrolyte drink just before the race. During the race, which was well stocked with drinks stations, I had some, but not much, water. I also had two carb and electrolyte drinks handed to me by friends (Ewan at 8miles ) and family (at 16 miles). I maybe didn’t drink enough of either of them but I can’t believe it would have made too much difference as I never train with drinks. I also had my normal mixture of gels – pure carbs, carbs + electrolytes and carbs + caffeine. So nothing too unusual there. I wasn’t desperate for fluid afterwards although I did get a little cramp each time I was asked to roll over on the bed in the medical tent.

Given that I had a core temperature approaching 40 degrees, it is possible that I was unknowingly fighting a bug of some kind. At times in the last fortnight, I felt that I might be getting a cold but passed it off as the usual maranoia and I’ve not felt great since the race but of course that could be the stress of the race. Who know!

In the days leading up to big races I normally try to keep my heart rate as low as possible and control how I feel about external stresses. I also make a concerted effort to keep calm, and keep my heart rate low on the morning of the race. For whatever reason, this didn’t really happen this time. I’ve had a relatively stressful period of managing work, home, family and personal balances and a few things added to that in the days leading up to the race. No one is to blame for this, as it is about how I handle the stress more than the stressor itself but on the way to the start-line I certainly felt more on edge, and probably had a higher heart rate than I would have wanted.

My intention was always to try and finish at the significant, but arbitrary, milestone of 2.29 – which requires an average of 5.43 minutes per mile. I say arbitrary because it is just a unit of time – 2.30.01 is only two seconds slower than 2.29.59, after all. My intention was to set off at 5.41ish pace which is broadly where I had trained, and be half way in 74.30 ish. Two things threw this out slightly as I went out a little quicker, with 4 of my first 5 miles ahead of 5.41 and I got to halfway in just over 74 minutes.

First, Steve Way looked like he was pacing a team-mate at 2.30 pace and was 50m ahead of me the whole way. I didn’t want to catch them as I’m okay with running on my own, but I tried to keep them close. which I did until I actually went past them (probably a mistake as they ultimately beat me) at around 20 miles.

Second, according to Garmin I ran a short race, which I put down to either Garmin inaccuracy or running smarter race lines (legally, I hasten to add, when you run alone in a long race it can be illuminating how badly some people run tangents on the course, especially when they’re in a group). It is possible that I ran less than 13.1 miles by halfway and hence I was quicker than plan. I don’t measure total distance when I’m running, preferring to use average pace (see below on mental strategy) to guide me so had no means of checking that on the course.

Mental strategy
As I said, I NEVER felt that great, and as such I never thought that 2.29 was on during the race. I also never expected to get so close. If anything I thought I’d be battling from much earlier than I actually did. What kept me going, but also ultimately led to the collapse, was my mental strategy. I have written about this before but its worth doing so again. I break all of my races up into chunks of time, rather than distance. The logic behind this is that time passes anyway, so you may as well fill it by running, but distance, especially in the marathon can be daunting. On this occasion, just as I did in Amsterdam I broke the race up into 3 sections of 30 minutes, and then 12 sections of 5 minutes (I’ll explain the 5 minute strategy shortly). This mentality turns the marathon into a two and hour half run, rather than a 26 mile one. Seems easier!

When I set off and didn’t feel great, I just told myself to not panic, stay patient and run at goal pace for 30 minutes, I know I can do 30 minutes with no problem. And so 30 minutes passed. Then I told myself to do it again and then once more – I knew I could run at goal pace for 90 minutes, I’d done it at the club 20. Even if I wasn’t feeling 100% I knew I could do that, and then who knows what might happen – there’s only one hour left and I had a plan for that – 12 x 5 minutes. Those that follow my training on strava or are coached by me know that I often structure tempo runs in 5 minute sections. This is because I think that 5 minutes is both a short enough amount of time to do anything for, almost irrespective of how bad it feels, and a long enough amount of time to actually make significant forward progress. When I do this, I simply focus on maintaining my pace in the 5 minute section I am in, and not look ahead. I aim to hit my pace for 5 mins at a time, and then move on to the next 5 minutes. As I knew I was slightly ahead of 2.29, and as I knew I was struggling a bit, I planned, on the fly, to hit 5.45 pace for each 5 min block. And it went well for the first 6-7 of them. In fact, I managed to run some of them closer to 5.40 and it was at this point – around mile 21-22 – that I thought for the very first time, that it might actually be on. So I carried on but shortly after, with less than 5k to go, it started to unravel.

By focusing on the short term goals (5 minute goals) I was able to keep pushing and ignore the way my body was feeling until eventually my body really did fight back. I did this because I thought I had nothing to lose, I had given myself a licence to see what could really be done. I tested my body in a way that it had never been tested before and the strategy helped me do that but also ultimately led to the collapse. Had I not implemented this strategy, I am certain I would have slowed earlier, finished considerably later, but been more together at the end.

So, it’s pretty much impossible to know exactly what caused the meltdown, in truth I suspect it’s probably a little bit of all of everything but how does all this leave me feeling and what do I do in future?


What to make of it all?

It’s been a difficult one to process. The vaguely dramatic physical meltdown meant that I never had that euphoric “I’ve finished the marathon” feeling and despite overwhelmingly positive messages it hasn’t quite felt real as a result. It has felt a bit distant. The existence of video footage at the end means that I now think about the finish with that as the image, rather than what I actually experienced through my own slightly starry eyes.

There is, too, a small element of disappointment that I missed sub 2.30 by such a narrow margin but that is outweighed by a significant amount of pride in running 2.30.41 and that I managed to push through and produce that performance when I was sub-par. I have two young boys, and values that I am attempting to promote with them is that we always try our best and that we never give up. I am proud to have done that in their presence and we have agreed that my medal, which they keep in their bedrooms, will now be a symbol for never giving up.

Never giving up as a value requires a footnote though – never give up unless you’re putting yourself in genuine physical and mental danger (rather than discomfort) especially if the goal is essentially arbitrary. In life, it is entirely appropriate to walk away from things that endanger your mental wellbeing, like stressful jobs that perhaps pay well (another arbitrary goal?) but drag you down. Perhaps it’s okay to stop chasing arbitrary running goals too, certainly when they endanger you.

I got very close to my arbitrary goal, I’m amazed and proud of getting so close but really I am just proud to have run a marathon in 2 hours, 30 minutes and 41 seconds. By the end of the year, I will be close to the top 100 marathon runners in the UK. I like those outcomes but I do not tie my self-worth to them. Instead, I tie my self-worth to how hard I work in training and in races and being focused on process rather than outcome, it is more significant to me that I have now learned that I need to be very careful because when I give myself license to take risks, things like this can happen. and lets be clear I am not proud that I exposed my family to what never giving up can sometimes lead to and I am not proud that I forced them to temporarily stop their tour of Manchester City’s stadium to come and get me from the medical tent, especially as the Manchester City supporting one, Leo, is autistic and hates last minute changes to plans and big crowds of noisy people (I was discharged at about peak finishing time). I don’t want that to happen again.


What does it mean for me and for you?

The truth is that I don’t think any of this would have happened had I been trying to run 2.33, for example, rather than the rounder number of 2.29. The key to successful marathon running is to focus on running the race you are in the condition to run, not to focus on an arbitrary goal. So, if you’re reading this with a forthcoming marathon in mind, as so many of you probably are, I would urge you to spend time working out what condition you are actually in, rather than thinking about the arbitrary goal that might be slightly faster or slightly slower than your condition. It’s what I always do with the people I coach, and it’s what I will be returning to in the future myself – that doesn’t mean I won’t be brave, or ambitious, and it won’t ever mean I give up, it just means I will be more considered and more flexible when I need to be.

Right, what’s next



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