10 things I learned in my final attempt at a sub-3 marathon

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Having missed out on a sub-three-hour PB by two-and-a-half minutes in Chicago in 2012, I was unsure whether or not I could go through the whole exhausting rigmarole again. But once the sore legs and disappointment had worn off, the lure of dipping under the 180-minute landmark started nagging at me once again. Just one last go, I told myself (and my wife). So I signed up for 2013’s Virgin London Marathon. Here’s what I learned this time around. Although they are observations gleaned during sub-three training, they can apply to marathon training whatever your time target.

1. Choose a schedule that works for you. Then don’t look at it

There are many different schools of thought on the best way to train for a marathon. I’d put myself in the traditionalist camp, believing that to run better or faster you need to run more in training (but I’m lucky enough to not get injured very often. Others might get along better with less running and more cross-training or strength and flexibility work). So my new schedule involved slightly more mileage than the previous one (774 against 722, an average of just over 48 miles per week). It also involved a lot more intensity – there was a period during peak training that I didn’t have a complete rest day for 25 days. Twice-daily sessions abounded. There was a lot of marathon pace work. All of this written down in a grid looked terrifying. For this reason, my ‘coach’ took the wise decision to only deliver the schedule to me in four-week blocks, making each chunk less intimidating.

2. Get a coach, whether they’re a coach or not

My ‘coach’ was in fact the former advertising director of this magazine. As far as I know he has no formal coaching qualifications, but is an excellent runner. The schedule he gave me was the one he’d used to break sub-three in London, so I knew it worked. Marathon training can be an immensely draining and solitary pursuit, so it’s a huge plus to have someone (whether that’s a qualified coach or just a clued-up, ‘been there’ moral supporter) just to talk to – whether that’s to discuss the specifics of pacing a tempo run or to simply have them tell you everything’s going to be all right when you’ve had a bad session and want to jack it all in. (There was plenty of the latter.)

3. The challenge is also mental and logistical

It’s not just the physical workouts that take it out of you. It’s also the mental challenge of training continuously for four months, building the marathon schedule around your life. Or, more accurately, building your life around the marathon schedule. But it’s amazing how you can find time for workouts in hidden corners of your routine if you really try – on 22nd March my training diary shows that I sandwiched a steak lunch in between morning tempo intervals and an evening recovery run. (There’s no record of whether I was sick or not.) In the end, the daily (or twice daily) run became a fact of life.

4. Make long runs more enjoyable – add hills

Previously I’d gone out of my way to find the flattest route I could for my long runs. But I read that the legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard had his athletes do their long runs in the hills above Auckland, combining the endurance gains of the long run with the strength- and form-building benefits of hills. When I did likewise, I found to my surprise that the changes in elevation actually made the run more involving and less monotonous. Although I was still aiming for a specific average pace across the whole session, my pace could now vary depending on the terrain. Running these early in my schedule definitely prepared me for the rigours of later heavy training better than a flat run would have done.

5. Don’t expect smooth progress

Marathon training won’t run smoothly. There will be doubt and despair. A graph of my progress would have rises, plateaus, sudden dips and then steeper climbs. My diary comments on my midweek long-ish run (up to 12 miles) at marathon pace, my most dreaded session of the week, are telling: ‘Feb 27: Hanging on for last 3-4 miles. Mar 6: Really tough. Mar 13: Blew up at 10 miles. Worn out, demoralised and angry.’ But, after the breakdown came the breakthrough: ‘Mar 20: Felt controlled, more spring up hills, no loss of form.’ So it’s important to keep the faith during the low moments and believe that the improvements will come.

6. Race short every week

Every Thursday during marathon training I did a three-mile handicap race – short enough to incorporate into the schedule and not require a lot of recovery time. As well as forcing me to run faster than I otherwise would have done in a solo workout, and being an exercise in getting used to running in discomfort (very useful for the last miles of a marathon), this offered a tangible weekly update on my fitness when I knocked 20 seconds off my PB and ran 17:20 10 days before the race, it was a big confidence boost.

7. Learn to love double days

Twice-daily training sessions have something of a fearsome rep – the preserve of fanatics and elites. But having done plenty during sub-three training I’d say that’s a bit undeserved. My second session of the day would typically be an easy evening recovery run after a quality session earlier in the day. While I’d be lying if I said I launched enthusiastically into them with my legs still aching from lunchtime speedwork, once I’d got the first mile out of the way my legs eased their way into the run. It was useful to learn that you can still hold form on tired legs – essential knowledge for the last miles of a marathon.

8. Sweat the details

The running is the most substantial part of marathon training, but attending to nutrition and recovery shouldn’t be overlooked. Having lost over a minute to a toilet stop in Chicago, and haunted by the ‘runner’s trots’ during training, I worked out that a solid breakfast pre-run didn’t sit well in my stomach. Instead I opted for a 33 Shake superfood shake which fixed my digestive issues while still giving me plenty of energy for the run.

9. Stay positive

A big dilemma was how to pace the race. A lot of advice advocated an even-paced race or a slight negative split (the second half run faster than the first). I can see why this is sensible advice – a steady first half prevents people going off too fast and crashing later on – but I don’t think it’s that realistic. Going through halfway in a slight positive split (1:28:49) gave me a security buffer to cover problems or slowing in the second half. If you look at the halfway splits of runners in the London Marathon over the past few years you’ll see that the vast majority ran positive splits. This suggests that, apart from the elites and the leading club athletes, some kind of fall-off in the second half of the race is the reality for most runners.

10. Your mind is your biggest ally… and your worst enemy

In the first half of the race, good brain was my friend. It reminded me to take on water and controlled my pace. That changed. After 19 textbook miles, ahead of schedule, reality bit – my hamstrings started cramping up. Having had the problem when running Boston in 2011, I knew that my best plan was to stop and stretch them for a few seconds rather than try to run it off (hence the value of the positive split). It worked the first time, but when I had to stop again three miles later, I thought my race was up. At this point bad brain told me that I should jack it in and step off the course. Logical brain hit back, reminding me that my baggage was at the finish and the quickest way to get there was to keep running. So I kept going. By mile 24, I was convinced I was slowing down and it required an immense effort of will just to keep going. In fact I was on goal pace, it just didn’t feel like it. The lesson is that you need to prepare to battle your mind in the closing miles – at this stage it’s a bit like an overprotective parent worrying whether or not you should be pushing yourself so hard. Perversely, I was so tired that I tried to run as fast as I could just to be able to stop at the finish sooner. As I reached Big Ben, I realised that I was still on target by around half a minute. What followed was the longest and most stressful half-mile of my life – with my ever-tightening hamstrings I had visions of doing the runner’s equivalent of a Devon Loch (younger readers: YouTube it). But they held out, and I crossed the line in 2:59:24. I’d like to say I punched the air or kissed the ground at this point. In truth, I just felt numb, happy simply to not be running. But as I passed through the finish chute the joy and sense of achievement set in – and they’re feelings that are still with me today. It might sound weird to a non-runner, but setting the goal and working so hard to reach it is one of my life’s proudest achievements. And it makes all the doubts, aches, pains, black toenails and sacrifices worth it. That’s a feeling that, whether you’re aiming to win a race, chase a PB, or just finish, unites all runners.