Thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I conquered!
Well thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I sort-of conquered. Not the time I was hoping to run when I mounted my marathon comeback in December, but given the lost month of training, I think that my finish time – 3.45.17 – was pretty much what I was capable of on the day. It places me comfortably inside the Good for Age category for London, should I consider putting myself through all this again, for marathon number 19!
So, Brighton, what did you have for us? A glorious morning of blue sky with air lightly chilled. A well-organised start. An interesting, lively course with enough runners to make it feel like a big race without congestion and bottlenecks. You had friendly marshals and fantastic crowds, with high fives, jelly babies and orange segments at the ready. Oh, and some great race signs! (Is that a gel in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?) You had rousing drumming bands and storming DJs. And you didn’t have plastic bottles – all credit to you.
But, oh, you also gave us a stiff breeze along that seafront! Manageable on the initial eastward stretch, but by the time it came to those last four miles, I was practically weeping. And, I have to say, you dished out quite a few hills, too. I logged 665 feet of ascent! Barely worth mentioning in a gnarly trail race, but you certainly feel them in a marathon.
The overall verdict? You did yourself proud. I almost – but not quite – did the same.
It’s less than 72 hours until race morning! The trepidation has been building steadily, in the face of the great unknown that awaits on Sunday. Will I be able to sustain my goal pace? Will the wind on the Brighton seafront scupper my plans? Will my stomach behave? Will an old injury rear its ugly head, or a new one emerge? Will I hit the wall? The weird thing about the marathon is that these questions are no more answerable on your 5th or 15th marathon than they were ahead of your first. When you’re out there for three hours or more, elements of chance and luck come into play…
Following a race build-up with more ups and downs than a Garmin heart rate profile, I’ve adjusted my finish time goal by 10 minutes – and shortened my taper to two weeks. (The less you’ve done, the less you need to recover from.) But it’s harder than it looks, this taper caper. As a coach, I know that it takes around 14 days for the adaptations resulting from a specific workout to assimilate. Therefore, there’s little point doing anything beyond then to try to ‘get fitter’ for marathon day. But that doesn’t stop many runners trying (to the detriment of their race-day performance).
The aim is to hold on to what you’ve got – not just in terms of aerobic fitness but ‘neuromuscular’ fitness too: this refers to the efficiency of the communication pathways between the nervous system and the muscles, which plays a role in important things like running economy, muscle recruitment and sense of effort. Most experts recommend that you drop volume significantly during the taper, but maintain a degree of intensity. For example, if you were doing a speed session, you wouldn’t skip it altogether, but you might only do a half or a quarter of what you were doing pre-taper.
Less volume means more time on your hands. More time to stress over whether you’ve done enough mileage, whether that’s a cold you’ve got coming, or whether your knee is feeling slightly niggly… No wonder so many of us fall into the trap of doing things we don’t normally do to fill in the spare hours. Take Tuesday. I was having a rest day, but I found myself thinking ‘I know, I’ll do half an hour of drills, to keep my neuromuscular pathways firing.’ I almost did, but remembered the golden rule of marathon week just in time. DON’T TRY ANYTHING NEW OR UNFAMILIAR! That goes for shoes, stretches, gels, massage tools and yes, drills. And then today, when wheeling the just-emptied garden bin round to the back garden, I almost got to work chopping up the pile of branches we cut down the other weekend. Step inside, Sam Murphy, I ordered myself.
How to fill taper time, then? Well, there’s your feet to sort out. Cut toenails short and straight across, file away any hard ridges of skin and moisturise. Check – and recheck – your race instructions. Pack – and repack – your bag. (My book Marathon and Half Marathon From Start to Finish has a handy packing checklist.) Tell your supporters and spectators where you want them to be around the course and roughly what time to expect you. And, if you haven’t already done so, write your name on the front of your top in thick, black marker pen. Then it’s just a matter of putting your feet up and working your way through all those lovely carbs…
After being felled for nine days by a brutal virus, my marathon is hanging in the balance…
I’m facing the situation with equanimity and I’m not sure if this signifies a new maturity and perspective or suggests I don’t care as much as I used to about my running goals. As a dedicated over-analyser, the fact that I don’t have the energy for such navel gazing right now is a clear sign that I’m not fully recovered. For the moment, it simply feels good to be upright again.
The day before the virus struck, I ran 9 miles, 6 of them a tad faster than marathon pace. It felt unreasonably hard, and I should have suspected something was amiss. The next morning – Saturday – it was too late to cancel my coaching duties and I muddled through two hour-long sessions before heading home and climbing straight into bed, fully clothed and shivering. When I woke up, feverish, late in the night, I still had a stopwatch and whistle around my neck.
I didn’t get back out of bed again until the following Saturday and it took me a further two days to put on my running shoes to see if I had anything to give. Not much, it turned out. But two miles is better than being stationary and whatever panic my mind conjures up about how little time I have left and that 20-miler I missed on Sunday, my body knows that it needs to ease back in gently, deadline or no deadline.
I’m thankful to my dear Garmin for notifying me at regular intervals that I am DETRAINING. No shit, Sherlock! But the scientific research makes for dispiriting reading. Studies suggest that fitness declines are sharpest in the first 12-14 days of inactivity, levelling off thereafter. One study of trained athletes found that levels of enzymes associated with endurance performance halved in 12 days, while VO2 max dropped by 7%. Another study showed a rapid reduction in blood volume, a lowering of lactate threshold and a greater reliance on carbohydrate metabolism (instead of fat). But on the brighter side, the research suggests it doesn’t take as long to regain recently-lost fitness attributes as it did to earn them in the first place.
I just have to hope I still have time to make the start line at Brighton.
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.
It’s Friday night and I’m sitting here with a Lemsip, thinking about when life gets in the way of the best laid running plans. It’s week three of being ‘under the weather’ – week three of no running other than my coaching commitments and, more worryingly, week five of the 16-week marathon training plan that had started off so well…
Much as we might do all we can to optimise our performances, it’s a reminder that we are not ultimately in control of everything. There’s little to be done to hurry illness along – and the same goes for injury. You simply have to sit it out and do what you can to make your return a smooth one.
I’ve remained positive, up to a point. I thought of the first week as an unscheduled but probably quite welcome rest and took the time to do some extra core training. Week two, I spent some time rejigging and fine-tuning my marathon training plan. Week three, though, and I’m beginning to wonder whether all my recent hard work has gone down the pan. If it was just any race, I wouldn’t worry so much. But I don’t do many marathons these days, and if I’m going to take on the 26.2-mile beast, I want to give it my best.
My mileage has been in single figures this week. But before I panic, and push myself beyond what I’m currently capable of, I remind myself of the sage advice I once received from a fellow coach. What would you advise someone else to do in your position? The thought of telling someone who has been unwell for a fortnight and still feels bunged up and exhausted to get back on track and not risk missing another week’s training is then put into context – and sounds as preposterous as it frankly is. So, I’ll wrap my hands around my steaming mug, settle down with an extra blanket and try my best to be patient.