Losing My Marathon Virginity – Lessons Learnt

I underestimated the marathon. Simple as that. Partly through arrogance – “I can run as well as anyone else”, and partly through surrounding myself with such experienced and seriously inspirational people. When you watch someone run 7 marathons in 7 days your brain kind of tells you that just doing one is going to be ok.

Just One Marathon

(Image © TattyDon)

I was honestly going to just do one marathon. Just a tick in the box and then back to the distances that I enjoy. Everyone told me that I wouldn’t leave it at that and I ignored them! Part of that thinking was that I thought I could just run a marathon, bag a decent time and then pop it tightly in the done it box. I had two main targets: Sub 3:45 but really to run my ‘target time’  of 3:30  (Two Half PBs plus 20 minutes). I ran a 3:46 hitting the wall big time at 20 miles. That left me not only missing my target but more importantly it made me very aware that there are a significant amount of lessons I could take to improve the time and to ‘ace’ it next time. I now know exactly what people were saying when they said you need to just do one to understand what it’s like. With that in mind I’m actually pretty pleased with the time and with the things I’ve been able to take away to run the same marathon next time. 


My Top Ten Learning Points:

  1. Hotel Location: Stay as close to the race as possible and in a town. Better meal choices, less driving, more chilled start
  2. Practice Absolutely Everything Before You Arrive. Clothing, gels etc are obvious but this should include the things you think are easy – like drinking water. 
  3. Don’t Walk – Even Once. Once you have started it’s way too easy to do it again. A shuffle is way better for the head than a walk.
  4. In Head Preparation: Think in advance how you will deal with each quiet section. Especially when that section might fall around the 20 mile stage. 
  5. Don’t forget it’s your first one: Use the first one as an experience. Almost as a training run.
  6. Long Runs in Training: Look into whether it is worth (for the head at least) going further than most training plans recommend.
  7. Define your race goals well before you start training. Research your plan well ahead of time based on those goals. Align that plan to ‘real dates’ – If you do your long run on a Friday, make sure the plan says that. 
  8. Run Types in Training: Understand why each type of training run is important and how it fits into the overall training programme. Stick to it – don’t just chase the miles.
  9. Nutrition: Properly understand the effects of food on racing. Learn the importance of proper nutrition pre, during and post racing.
  10. Alcohol: Take it out of the equation. It provides no benefits to marathon training – only negatives.

Race Learnings in more detail:


I’ve broken down the lessons learnt into three main areas: The Race Weekend itself, Training and finally Nutrition. Whilst there were certain learning points to be taken from the weekend itself, it’s the latter two that I think provide the real opportunities for improvement. 
The Race Weekend – All that training, nerves and excitement and it all comes down to one weekend:
  • Pre Race:
    • Hotel: We (My ‘support crew’ and I) stayed out at Crawley, about 40 minutes from Brighton. This worked well in that it meant that we weren’t battling into Brighton on the Friday night but wasn’t so good in other areas. Firstly, going down on the Friday was definitely the right decision. Getting in early to the Expo on the Saturday from Crawley was much easier and left us with the day free and no pressure  – and we avoided the horrendous queues later in the day. We were however restricted to the menu in the hotel (which meant I changed the pre race dinner I had had for every long run), I did a lot of driving and also it left us with a pretty early start on the Sunday. In future, I would definitely stay much closer to the event.
  • Race:
  • Nearly Over
    (Image © TattyDon)
    • Pacing: The aim was to run at about 8:15s which would have left me with a finish time of around 3:36 (well inside the 3:45 target). We went off pretty fast running the first 10 miles at an average 8:06, the second 10 miles at 8:22. 20 miles therefore was pretty much back on target at a 20 mile PB of 2 hours 43 but we had already started to slow significantly. At 20 miles the wheels fell off!
    • Water Stations: The Brighton organisers decided not to go with bottles this year but instead to go with paper cups every mile. Two learning points here: The first is I should have practiced drinking from a cup whilst running! Sounds simple but I just couldn’t do it without waterboarding myself. I’m sure there is a way (I gather since that squeeze it into a funnel and pour it down) but my main lesson here is to think things like this through and practice and test it again and again before the race. The second element associated with the water stations are that with cups it is way too easy to walk. I realised the best way to drink the water was to stop and drink it. That turned very quickly into an excuse to stop (or walk) through the water stations.  
    • Walking: For the first time since I started running properly I walked during a run. I’m gutted about that. I’m not just talking about the water stations. During that last 6 miles I walked several times. Maybe if I had learnt to drink from cups whilst running I wouldn’t have walked although to be honest I doubt it. I’m not even sure I could have done anything different having hit the wall. But looking back on it now, I wish I had slowed to a shuffle (as I recommend in my ‘Things I wish I’d known’ post). Even a 9:30 – 10:00 shuffle would have kept me going and might have made the difference. 
    • The Wall: I wasn’t worried about the wall. I thought I had experienced it at the MK20 and maybe I had. This was like that but multiplied by ten. Parts of me hurt that had never ached running. My hips, my back, my arms. My chest go so tight I thought I was getting an asthma attack. I wasn’t thinking coherently – these days I calculate splits, finish times etc on the fly all the time. I remember stumbling for about half a mile over how long six miles would take at ten min mile pace. My head was completely gone. I needed that though so that I can anticipate, avoid or cope with it next time.
    • Mileage:  I arrived at the marathon having done two long runs of 20 miles – both in race conditions in addition to several runs of around 17 to 18 miles. Whilst this is in line with many training plans, I had neither run a full 26 miles in training nor had I run for nearly four hours. Six additional miles (or an additional hour) is a long way – over a quarter again. In retrospect I would look to go longer in training (in time perhaps rather than mileage) and look for a training plan that facilitated that. 
    • Support: The crowd support was at times overwhelming. Just awesome. I can vividly picture the middle piece of the race where you come back into Brighton near the finish line. It felt like there were crowds five deep up against the crash barriers at both sides. It was just incredible. I think the finish straight was like that as well although that’s a bit of a blur to me. I remember a lot of shouts down that bit. There are bits of the course though where there is no support. Out towards Roedene in the first ten miles or so it was ok. I was still fresh. Hitting 20 miles in the empty industrial estate near Worthing was really tough though. There were far less people about there. Just where you needed the crowds. I had no strategy for how to deal with that, how to occupy my mind to avoid the doubts creeping in.

Training: Those months of dedication and early Sunday starts
  • The initial training plan: A few people asked me in the build up to the race which training plan I was using. My response that I wasn’t really sure left the next question generally unvoiced: “Why was I using that plan?” My plan was a result of me googling something like “marathon plans for sub 3:45”. I then discounted any that had more weeks in them than I had left (because I was starting late due to injury). I ‘merged’ the resulting plan with one for 3:30 as I still wasn’t clear on my goals. Finally, I heard someone talk about heart rate based training and so reengineered it to fit that. The result was a fish mash of plans only very loosely related to any goal that I had. Hardly scientific! My plan also had Tempo runs on a Wednesday and a rest day on a Friday. I generally do a Tempo club in on a Friday so throughout I was switching dates and runs round in my plan. I had ended up with a plan I didn’t trust and which I couldn’t reliably follow anyway…
  • Training Plan: This is the big one as far as I am concerned. Even though I read books on marathon running, told others the value of Long Slow Runs, of Tempo Runs and Interval Training, I did none of that. I purely focussed on mileage, driving out mile after mile at marathon pace. In retrospect that was my biggest mistake. The stats from running friends performing well at the Manchester Marathon show the value of varied training. Next time, I will stick to the plan but also understand better the purpose of each run type.

Nutrition: Apparently it’s 90% nutrition ten per cent training (or not in my case…)
  • Race Nutrition: I paid very little attention to this I talked of carb loading without really understanding it. I threw gels down fairly randomly during training and races, again without understanding the purpose of them. I changed my pre race meals to suit the environment I was in at that time rather than aligned to any plan.I hit the wall, I cramped up and I pretty much collapsed. Wonder why that happened…
  • Overall Nutrition: I paid absolutely no attention to my nutrition throughout the whole training period. I changed nothing. Only towards the end when I was ill (again) did I start even taking vitamin C and Zinc supplements. I had always backed off taking supplements  in the past because “with a rounded and balanced diet one shouldn’t need them”. It was only late on that I accepted that I don’t have that. 
  • Alcohol: This is the one thing that I am really kicking myself over. Most of the other points on this page are about doing things better – improving training, nutrition and pacing. My consumption of alcohol throughout training can have had no positive impact on my training at all. In fact, there is plenty of evidence out there pointing to the detrimental effects of alcohol and marathon training in terms of muscle regeneration and dehydration. Realistically, if I wanted to succeed, alcohol was something I needed to cut out and would likely have provided me with a big hit. 


Where Next?

Contemplating the Future

(Image © TattyDon)

So… what next? My intention is to do way more research before my next marathon to understand the reasoning and the science behind some of these lessons. I want to understand the value of the Long Slow Runs on training for instance – it always feels so counterintuitive to run so slowly as a preparation to running fast.  I want to understand nutrition better in general and get my race day fuelling right  – collapsing or cramping on the finish line is not a sensible long term strategy. I intend to approach Brighton 2016 with a whole different mindset – my body trained and fuelled so that I am really arriving with the best chance I can possibly give myself. 

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