Now that the emotional recount of my very first marathon is penned, I can actually get my head around what actually happened in more objective terms and from there draw lessons for my spring marathon adventure in Paris.
There is just one word for my preparation: abysmal – and littered with overestimation what me and my body could handle. The whole year, I had built my endurance base, worked my way from longer runs, longer bike rides to longer triathlons. It had all been fairly plain sailing and I had a good level of fitness by mid-August. After the British Middle Distance Triathlon Championships in Aberfeldy (I will get to that post eventually), I gave myself 2 weeks easy to recover and then launch into proper marathon training for 8 weeks via the Spitfire Scramble, a 24hr race I did in a team of 6 (will also follow). I had set my heart on an advanced plan, which required high mileage (60 from the start with a 20 mile long run) and the speed sessions had quite a bit of intensity (I like intensity).
But, I thought, I had built a base, I had built up some core strength and I had about 30 years of running experience and the actual split times I needed to run for my ambitious target time (3:15) were well within my grasp. I’m usually not such a high mileage person (40 per week if I’m lucky) and was well aware that the plan could break me.
And break me it did. Buoyed by the success of hitting my rep times during the week, I set off on my first 20 mile run around town. I figured, I’ve got to run on roads so better get used to it. The run itself went well and I was rather pleased. Except after, my right ankle swelled up to the size of a melon and had the temperature of the forecourt to hell. RICE and a very slow and painful hobble the next day and I decided I needed rest the next day. My session on Wednesday went well. It niggles, but no further issues. I set off on my next long run, but thought I’d only do 15 miles to see. Result: balloon and inflammation.
I self-diagnosed with posterior tibial tendonitis caused by the slanting pavements, the tight turns around town and possibly a healthy dose of ‘Too much, too soon’. More RICE, and my ‘candy’ of choice became ibuprofen (I do not recommend doing this habitually). No running. Just swimming and cycling and taping for support. The ankle settled and my September challenge came up: the Equinox 24hr in a team of 3. I ran 1 lap, run walked 2 and walked 5 – and managed ok. But it was obvious, that the ankle needed more rest.
And so my training consisted of cycling moderately, swimming irregularly and strength training where ever possible to get some stability in the ankle. Interestingly, what brought the most improvements was meditating, although possibly just the way I was sitting, with my feet pointing and the front of my ankle being opened up.
My first run attempts the week before the marathon were anything but confidence building, with the ankle still wobbly and a bit unwilling, but at least it didn’t swell or heat up.
So all in all, I totally misjudged my training and then didn’t handle the recovery and cross training very well (I blame having to organise a house move just after the marathon and the associated stress, but that’s really just another excuse). For Paris, I will approach training more conservatively and focus on staying healthy.
Emotional and mental strength
I consider myself pretty robust in terms of mental strength. Over the years I have developed coping strategies for when the going gets tough (interestingly, meditation is great here, too). However, nothing I had ever done could prepare me for the emotional roller coaster that was the Frankfurt Marathon.
On a couple of occasions, I have noted that I react quite strongly to highly emotionally charged surroundings: watching the London marathon, the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics, just being engulfed in that overwhelming cacophony of cheers and roaring applause combined with people on the brink of their physical capabilities.
At Alcatraz, I had experienced similar elation when I touched the shore after the swim and when I finished the race. But that was about a world apart from what went on at Frankfurt. I had no way of controlling my emotions.
Eventually, I just simply accepted that it was going to be a roller coaster, I would shed the odd tear and that this was part of MY package for the very first marathon. I felt breakable and tiny, but at the same time like a giant, if that makes any sense. And it was good that way.
In stark contrast, my repertoire of coping strategies for when the rough times hit came in handy. It helped me to refocus, to keep going no matter what. The time was maybe slipping away, but the main thing was to keep going, to not stop.
Building up a repertoire of coping strategies for when the going gets tough is essential. They are a bit like a perverse comfort blanket as they help you prolong the pain (or rather refocus on other issues). In a marathon, the pain will come no matter how fit you are, but it all comes down to how you deal with it. Whether you accept it as a friend or tell your legs to shut up, is individual.
Accepting that a marathon is emotional runs in a similar vein. Each race will be different and emotions will be different. Trying to suppress them is probably of little use as it will probably upset you more. If your emotions aren’t crippling your capacity to perform, accept them. It tends to be joy, elation, pride. If you find your emotions crippling your ability to race properly, it may be necessary to explore what and why this is happening.
Being determined vs being sensible
Those of you who know me for longer will know that since I was 18, I had always said I wasn’t going to run a marathon until I’m 40. And here was it! I’m 40 in a couple of days and this was my very first marathon. I had built a whole year around this to make this an exceptional experience (at that point I was still convinced I was only ever going to do ONE marathon). More importantly, my family would come and share the experience with me. My brother had initially wanted to run with me, but was diagnosed with exercise induced wheat allergy when he collapsed on a training run, so the marathon was for him as well.
With all this in mind, there was NO WAY I was ever NOT going to race or at least run this, heck, I would walk if I had to, no matter what was thrown at me.
Was this sensible? – Very probably not.
But I couldn’t let this slide. I couldn’t let my family down and I just knew that I would always have this shadow of uncertainty and failure (yes, failure!) hanging over me. Very extreme, I know.
However, it was exactly that that kept me going when it hurt. It is quite impressive where we dig out this abundance of determination, although it does sometimes override our rational thinking and that what is sensible.
Being determined is good. Having family and friends with you or running for a cause definitely give you that extra edge. However, constantly overriding your rational thinking and surviving on determination alone is not healthy and will break you. Choose your battles wisely. I consider the Frankfurt Marathon an exception because it had so much riding on it from an emotional and personal perspective. In any other races, I would’ve let my rational side rule and pulled out. I’m working on a way to channel that determination into healthy paths to capitalise on it at the Paris Marathon.
There were probably a load of other lessons I learned, but these are the ones that stuck out.
What lessons did you learn in your first marathon?
In stark contrast