I’ve got a big birthday coming up this year. I’ve set myself a challenge to attempt before it arrives – a sub-3.30 marathon. I last achieved the heady heights of a sub-3.30 ten years ago, and thought I’d packed away my PB-chasing shoes over the distance (my only two marathons since then have been as a London Marathon sub-4.30 pacer and a windswept hilly affair in Orkney). But I’ve surprised myself with a hankering to know where I stand against the 26.2-mile beast as I approach my half-century. So, on April 14th I’ll be toeing the line of the Brighton Marathon.
I’m excited rather than scared. OK, I’m a little scared (any goal that’s worthy of your pursuit should send at least a tiny shiver down your spine) – but unlike in my younger years, the fear isn’t of failure, it’s a healthy dread of the hard work and discipline I’ll be putting in over the coming weeks.
Being the wise elder that I now am (!) and with ten more years’ experience of coaching runners, I’m fully aware that there’s a lot more to attaining a goal than picking one off the shelf and doing what it says on the tin in order to achieve it. When runners approach me about coaching, they often say ‘I’d like to go for the sub-4 [or sub-3 or sub-whatever] please,’ as if they were picking something off a menu. The assumption is that providing they do everything the programme says, they’ll get there. But it’s not that simple. You and I could follow the exact same training plan and run the same race but get totally different results because we’re bringing two completely different bodies, sets of genes, experiences, mindsets, strengths and weakness to the table. There is no set formula – for example, 40 miles a week, or three 20-milers – that everyone gunning for sub-3.30 must follow. Some will do far less and still get there – others could tick all the right boxes but fall short, or end up injured and not even make the start line. The truth is that coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person. And if there’s any runner’s strengths and weaknesses I know inside out, it’s surely my own.
“Coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person.”
I view putting a training programme together the same way I do cooking. At first, you follow a recipe to create the desired dish. But over the years, you become more like the Swedish Chef in The Muppets – omitting certain ingredients while adding a sprinkling of this and a dash of that to tailor it to your own requirements and preferences.
Given what I’ve said about individuality, it would be foolish to share my marathon plan with you, even if you, too, are 49½ years old and looking to relive your glory days. But I will tell you that it is built around a fortnightly cycle, rather than a weekly one, in order to fit in a range of different training intensities without overloading myself or omitting those all-important easy runs. And that I’ll be hitting my peak weekly mileage earlier – and staying there for longer – than I used to, allowing me to focus on increasing pace and leaving space for cutback weeks before a taper.
There are no guarantees, of course. It’s an experiment – an educated guess based on what I’ve learned about myself as a runner over three decades but especially the most recent one, in which I’ve come to accept that you can’t simply bend the body to fit the mind’s will. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned thus far is that while having goals adds purpose, structure and excitement to your life, it’s the pursuit that provides these, not the attainment. And on that, there is no age limit.
This article appears in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine’s March 2019 issue.