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They Don’t Teach You This at Marathon School

Monday, September 28th, 2015

marathon school

And There’s Probably a Reason for That…

Last year I was first Scot home at the Berlin Marathon.

I followed it up with a 2:42 at the London in April.

And I was confident of achieving my dream of going sub-2:40 in the Berlin Marathon 2015.

All was going well until an Achilles problem I’d been managing for six months stopped me running.

And I mean stopped. Between 5 July and 14 September I didn’t pound the Tarmac once.

I rested it.

During a marathon training block I’d be averaging 50+ miles a week. And as the weeks slipped by I knew that all thoughts of a PB were out the window. I decided not to run it.

I kept myself busy, gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge and experience of Achilles treatment in Glasgow.

But, after two months, it was still swollen and not much better than 11 weeks before.

So, at my wit’s end, I decided to heed the advice of one of the many medical advisers, and start running on it.

And This is What Happened Next:

Monday 14 September: 2 miles slow, didn’t hurt too much.
Thursday 17 September: 3 miles Steady round a local golf course with Neal Gibson: not too bad at all.
Saturday 19 September: 3 miles at 6:30 pace, back in the game.
Monday 20 September: 5.5 miles Steady, no ill effects.
Tuesday 21 September: hmm what would happen if I just gave it a go.

I Was Going to Berlin, Anyway, You See…

My brother in law lives there. I’d bought my flights. And I would have been there on marathon day anyway to support my mates.

Those who know me thought I was mad, and advised against such folly. But it had a certain sort of warped logic for me.

Particularly when a Google search for advice drew a blank.

So I set myself a challenge.

I wasn’t going to take it seriously.

I wasn’t going to undergo the usual hairshirt sacrifices (diet and behaviour) needed in the last few days before a marathon.

I had two questions:

Q1: Could I Go Sub-3 in a Marathon on No Training?
Q2: And What Lessons for Competitive Marathoning Could I Learn From the Experience

Week Leading Up to the Race

  • Last run on Monday 21 September.
  • Busy at work.
  • No special diet (apart from eating 12 bagels Friday through Sunday).
  • Bought some special £50 Achilles massaging socks at the expo.
  • Went out for a wine/beer Friday and Saturday night.
  • Spent the day on Saturday wandering round Berlin then seeing Wunderkammer (amazing).
  • Told two people about my goal. Brother-in-law Martyn. And Bruce Carmichael, who appeared out of the ground from a u-bahn staton as we were making our way to Fassbender and Rausch on Saturday.
  • On race-day morning I eat four bagels, one 200mg caffeine tablet, two Naproxen (painkiller favoured by ultra-runners), and a salt capsule.
  • I took with me a Paramol capsule, two SIS caffeine gels and (most bizarrely) one left sock.

The Race

I met my Giffnock North clubmate and erstwhile training partner Jason Steele at Brandenburger Tor. While he looked strong in the warm-up, I cut mine short. My foot was hurting.

We lined up in separate pens and all I could think about was his comment the day previously: “If you beat me Dave, I’m going to give up running.” I THINK he was joking.

To cut a long story short, my “race” went well. I was on for a sub-3 until around 16 and went through half in 1:28.

I tired towards the end and posted a 10-minute positive split (not a good thing).

But I was in control the whole way round and ran to my breathing, which was measured.

I smiled a lot more than last year.

And when my Achilles recovers I’ve still got a training partner. Jason motored past at mile 16 as I stopped to take an iced tea (as you do).

Here are my splits:

David Sawyer split times berlin marathon 2015

A1: No I Can’t

While I will never have the chance to test the question again, the definitive answer to this question is no. I could have gone faster, but not sub-3. Muscle memory only gets you so far.

A2: Lots

#A: Respect to the Marathon

Of the nine people I know doing marathons yesterday, seven of them didn’t quite fulfil their potential. For a variety of reasons. They all ran well and had done everything right, but it didn’t quite happen for them on the day.

Paradoxically that’s why we love it so much. Because it’s so hard. So when you do nail it, it’s such a euphoric feeling you’re on Cloud Nine for days.

#B: It Can Be Amazing

I spent part of Sunday afternoon with Bruce Carmichael, who we bumped into for a second time outside the Ritz Hotel (post-race refreshments).

Before yesterday his PB was one second shy of mine.

Yesterday he took seven minutes off to post a low 2:35. Everything went right for Bruce, and you could see the glint in his eyes.

#C: No Shortcuts

Marathons find you out. You get out what you put in.

I’m glad I didn’t go sub-3 but I’m pleased I had a go too. Competitive marathoning’s all about setting yourself a challenge. I’d much rather go hard and blow up than never go hard at all (to bastardise that loved and lost phrase).

#D: Don’t Listen to People (However Right and Well Meaning They Are) E.g. All My Friends and Family, with One Exception

It made no sense to do what I did yesterday for the following reasons:

  • Risk of serious injury e.g. a snapped Achilles.
  • Why rest a complex injury for three months then do a marathon.
  • I was never going to get a PB.
  • I could have set back my recovery.

But actually:

  • My Achilles held up pretty well.
  • I enjoyed it. I’ve never felt so relaxed pre-marathon…and that helped.
  • And I showed I can do a decent half with no miles in my legs.

#E: Breathing

I’ve meant for some time to start experimenting with heart rate monitors. That’s a definite now.

Because I focussed on my breathing I slowed as the race went on.

Equally, when fit, if I’m pushing on with no change to my breathing patterns, I can go faster. It’s not all about naming a time and sticking to it.

In the past I’ve had negative splits in marathons. Perhaps if I’d been less rigid in my approach and more focussed on my body, I could have pushed on.

I am going to give this some thought.


There is a reason they don’t teach you this at marathon school. If this was a slot on Blue Peter it would definitely come with a “Don’t Try This at Home” hazard warning.

But I enjoyed my sixth marathon. Now hurry up and get better annoying Achilles injury so I can start flying again.

P.S. For anyone in my predicament, searching the Internet like I did in vain, you may find these details useful:
– I’ve been running for three years.
– Marathoning is my thing. All my training/other races build to my marathons.
– My Achilles is swollen but runnable on. It’s unlikely to snap and is a manageable injury.
– My race weight yesterday was half a stone heavier than usual.
– For the first six weeks of the three-month lay-off I was doing core conditioning in the house five days a week (incorrectly it turns out, but it definitely helped to build a strong core).
– I took up Pilates two weeks ago and have had three classes. Excellent core work.
– For four weeks of the three-month period I was cycling to work and back twice a week, plus a hilly 20-30-miler on a mountain bike at the weekend.
– Aside from walking that’s the full extent of my physical exercise over the last 90 days.

If anyone’s ever done anything like this before I’d love to hear your thoughts. Email me. I’ll reply to everyone.

Photo credit: B.Positive.2014 / Foter / CC BY-SA