I attended a talk recently by Scotland’s national endurance coach Robert Hawkins.
It was all about how he trains his boys, Callum and Derek, both brilliant athletes.
As a marathoner, I was more interested in the Derek half of the talk. I learnt a lot.
But the point that resonated most was a throwaway comment about the difficulty of training for a spring marathon north of the border.
This year particularly.
I’ve lived in Scotland for 25 years and this winter has got to be the worst on record.
As I write it’s sunny outside but I’m shivering thinking about those ice cold Bella RR Sherbrooke Hill Loops, or that Strathyre 20-mile ice fest with Stuart Macdonald.
Or maybe I just noticed it more because I’m a runner now.
Either way, anyone who made the trip down from Scotland to try and PB in the London Marathon deserves a medal. Hawkins’ secondary point was that we’d all be better focussing on autumn marathons, when the weather training gods are kinder to Scotland’s running community.
And this year, it really seemed like the Scots were coming.
There were loads more people doing it from my club, Giffnock North, this year, and lots of friends from different clubs the length and breadth of Scotland.
All with high hopes that all that sacrifice – on their and their families’ behalf – would pay off. We’d ran through blizzards, showers, gales, and on ice to toe that start line. Time to make it count.
And what of me?
I had one simple goal: to outperform my training and go sub-2:40 in The London.
I felt in good shape.
I had minor niggles such as a callus on the sole of my left foot and my recurrent Achilles problem, which never stops me racing but doesn’t make life easier.
I’d had a good week in Glasgow and a great build up to the race staying with Sami, Mandy, and Marley in Ealing.
Race day morning had gone to plan and I arrived at Blackheath bang on time.
This was my first time on the championship start and warming up with Kimetto, Kipchoge, and Kipsang was an amazing experience.
I lined up six rows back, just behind the elites, and crossed the start line in 10 seconds (this would make the maths easier as the race went on).
Here’s how it played out:
The first few miles passed in a blur. I held back the pace for the first mile to 6:00, and managed to hit an identical pace for the next. But then I got carried away.
I started running to feel. My heart rate seemed fine and my breathing controlled. I decided to roll with it and get that average pace down so I had some in the bag for later.
After 5k, the blue (champs place) and red (fast good for age) starts merge. 18:37.
It didn’t cross my mind that slotting in 10 yards behind Jack Arnold and the footie-guy-Southside-Six winner from Bellahouston Harriers might be over-extending myself. I was flying.
Mile 4 5:57, 5 6:00, 6 and 7 6:05s. Past Cutty Sark and my average pace was 5:59. I was feeling good. In control, and on it.
At about this time, I started to feel that left Achilles niggle, the crowd noise was blotting out my breathing, and my smile turned into a grimace. “Dig in David,” I said to myself. “In. The. Zone.”
My race strategy in marathons is basic.
Get to the half on-pace and give yourself a chance, know that at some stage between 13 and 20 you’ll have to draw on some sort of inner strength to get you through a wobble, then rely on the fact that you’re a marathoner and pass as many people as possible in the last 10k.
The average pace was ticking up now, mile after mile. Where were all these hills coming from? And why was no-one running with me this year?
Pre-race I’d worked out I needed to hit an average pace of 6:04 (the actual pace for sub-2:40 is 6:06 but you have to allow for deviation from the racing line).
I hit the half in just over 1:20. I worried about the ever-increasing average pace but knew that it was game on.
In retrospect, miles 16-18 are where the race got away from me.
By mile 16, my left Achilles was giving me serious pain. I wasn’t able to bounce off my left foot and my right calf was having to compensate. I knew the marathon shuffle wasn’t going to see me break sub-2:40 so I went for the nuclear option.
Paramol is the strongest over-the-counter painkiller. It contains codeine. It was the only thing I took with me. I unwrapped the silver foil, popped in the capsule and glugged it down with some Lucozade Sport I was carrying.
Now I’m no doctor BUT I’m pretty sure two 500mg Paracetamols, 300mg of caffeine tablets, two bottles of Lucozade Sport, one SIS caffeine gel and a Lucozade on-course carb gel…plus a Paramol capsule is NOT a good mix.
What followed was a mile of ridiculousness. My HR went through the roof, I run-wretched, my head was dizzy, I had a weaving sensation, and my internal dialogue was going: “You idiot. You’ve blown it. You’ll have to stop. What were you thinking of.” Around this time, I gave up on my 2:40. I let it go.
Mile 16 6:34, 17 6:13, 18 6:22.
But I was calming down, and running pain-free again.
Then I stopped.
I’m still not sure why I did this. I think it was the weirdness of the Paramol episode that made me crave fuel. Either way it was a good move. As I was swigging down Lucozade Sport watching in a daze as runners I’d passed hurtled past me, along came Nigel.
Having never met each other before, Nigel Rogerson and I had ended up running most of the Berlin Marathon together last September. It was brilliant to see a friendly face. Back in the game.
Ironically, the last 10k was the most enjoyable bit of the race for me.
I felt strong, I was bouncing along on my toes and my form was good. Mile 25 was my best split of the race in 5:54, just like last year (post-publish addition, in the last 7k I passed 79 runners and was overtaken by just seven).
I finished in 2:42:21 gun time (2:42:14 chip time), with a 1:20/1:22 first/second half split. A 1.5-minute PB. I gave it all I had and am proud of battling through that confusing mid-race negativity and finishing strongly.
Nige finished a minute behind after the call of the Portaloo again knocked a minute or two off a Marathon Major time. Not sure how you train for that Nige.
So, I’m sitting here on the train back to Glasgow, after a slap-up meal fit for a king at my good friend Sam Kumar’s last night.
If you’ve read this far you’re probably a mate, family or someone trying to improve their marathon time.
This was my sixth marathon and I’m learning lessons in every one. Looking back over yesterday, here’s what I’ve learnt for next time:
#1: Sometimes it’s not the physical side of injuries, it’s the mental. While popping that Paramol was a gamble, it paid off. The pain, while not really hampering my running, had been nagging away at my mind for miles. Yes, I had a wobble, and please don’t try this at home but, for me, it was the right option.
#2: Running a whole marathon on your own is hard. You’ve got to run with groups, clubmates, random strangers you’ve sparked a conversation with. Even though we hardly ran together this time, the serendipity of meeting Nigel at mile 19 made a big difference. No man is an island and all that.
#3: I went off too fast. Don’t go off too fast. And I wish I’d done more MP in my training instead of cramming it all in to race situations in the last six weeks.
#4: London has more hills than you think. And every time I ascended one, it knocked a second off my average pace, particularly Tower Bridge.
#5: It’s all about the shared experience. In years to come, I won’t remember much about the race yesterday. What I will remember is the afternoon I spent with my clubmates afterwards. The banter, the elation, the tears, and the free beers. We’d all trained hard since the turn of the year, been through a lot together, and it was great to just spend some time revelling in that.
#6: Marathons are powerful things. In the muster area on Horseguards Parade afterwards, the most wonderful thing happened. A man got down on one knee and proposed to his partner. Queue tears all-round.
And what of the wider Scottish running community? All my friends who have braved the long, cold winter (and spring, come to that) to test their mettle.
A couple of stand-out times from Alastair Scott (mentioned before) and Jack Arnold from Bellahouston Harriers, with 2:34 and 2:37 respectively. But special mention for two guys posting their first sub-3s. A well deserved 2:57 for John McGeehan and 2:54 for Paul Clawson of Bella’s Road Runners and Harriers respectively. Brilliant.
Right, work calls.
Next up for me is Berlin in September when Nigel Rogerson and I will be posting our first sub-2:40s, inshallah.
Meanwhile, time for a little break from running. Less dedication, more enjoyment.
I’m off to eat a horse.
P.S. A special thank you to my family for supporting me in this endeavour, particularly my wife, Rachel. Love is…and all that.