12 April 2016
This year I’ve been asked to give a short talk to some of FRU’s other runners, so I’m writing this to get my thoughts in order. It won’t be a training guide – there are loads of these and as a mediocre runner at best I’m nowhere near qualified. But I hope this might be useful.
General marathon advice
If you can run a half, you can run a marathon
26.2 miles is quite a long way, but people tend to overestimate the difficulty of completing a marathon. It’s hard, but it isn’t that hard. If you’re just out to complete the distance, all you need to do is stay on your feet for between four and seven hours – and keep moving forwards.
Unfortunately, I’m a bit of an expert on running marathons on wholly inadequate training (variously I’ve been young / stupid and had a very inconvenient series of colds & flu in the weeks running up to the race). So I know whereof I speak.
If you can run 13.1 miles you can do this, unless one of two things go wrong. It may hurt during, it may hurt tomorrow and you may have to walk a bit – but you’ll get around.
If you’ve followed a sensible training plan you’re way ahead of this point and have nothing to worry about.
Don’t get injured (but don’t worry about it)
The obvious thing that can go wrong is that you get injured. This happens, but beyond completing a sensible training programme and resolving not to do anything daft, there isn’t much you can do about it. Stuff happens. If you’re unlucky, you may get injured, either in training or on the day.
Since you can’t really do very much about this, try not to worry about it.
If you do get injured, either before the marathon or during it, do the sensible thing. If you’re injured and can’t run, don’t force it. There will always be next year.
Don’t go out too fast
(Everyone says this; because it’s true.)
The other thing that can go wrong, which you can control, is going out too fast and hitting the wall hard. This is surprisingly easy to do in the general excitement.
Personally, I wear a GPS watch and try to make sure I’m running a bit slower than I normally do for a long run for at least the first half. If, after that, you’re feeling good, you can always speed up (I generally don’t). If it’s starting to hurt, you can always slow down (or walk for a bit).
Similarly, if you feel you’re in difficulty, it’s perfectly all right to slow down. Try to stay ahead of the point where you’re in serious trouble. It’s better to slow a bit sooner, rather than a lot later (or have to stop entirely).
This is where I draw quite a sharp distinction between people who are running for a time and people who are running to finish.
If you’re running for a time – particularly a fast one – you need to push the envelope. The whole point is to run at a pace just a smidgen below the one that will get you into trouble (for some people crossing the finish line smiling is a sign they didn’t push hard enough).
That’s fine if you’re pushing hard for a fast time, but it’s silly if your aim is to finish.
But do try to keep running
I’ve walked for at least part of the course in at least half of my marathons. But it’s well worth trying to stay at a run for as long as you can, because once you stop it’s hard to get going again.
(Again, everyone says this; because it’s true.)
As noted above, people do tend to worry – and one manifestation of this is to try and cram in more training close to the race.
This never works.
If you’ve done the training, you need to back off and give yourself time to recover ready for race day. If you haven’t, it’s too late now. And trying to condense the training you haven’t done into a few weeks before the race will just make things worse.
If you’re following a plan, just do what it says.
Don’t go overboard with carb-loading or pre-marathon nutrition
I think this is an area where people often do more harm than good. Yes, if you properly arrange your pre-race eating you can maximise your performance. It’s certainly sensible to make sure you have a good dinner Saturday night and eat something to fuel your run on Sunday morning.
But if you eat a metric tonne of pasta the night before and then shotgun a bunch of carb gels before you start you’ll just make yourself feel awful.
It starts off fun, but the end can be hard
Having said that running a marathon isn’t that hard, this is the point to admit that it is still quite hard. I tend to split the marathon into three sections.
The first half is quite fun. The atmosphere is great, you haven’t run that far yet and all is good.
Then there is a quite long bit (somewhere between 5 and 10 miles) where you start to feel it, but you’re running comfortably. It’s not quite as fun as the first bit, but things still aren’t yet that unpleasant.
The final section is what makes the marathon different from shorter races. 26.2 miles is just a long way, and you’ll feel that at the end. The last few miles can hurt. This is where you have to dig in, grit your teeth and push on. You will make it!
It’s significantly quicker to register on Wednesday to Friday, because many runners are from outside London. They tend to arrive Friday or Saturday, and register on the Saturday.
Personally, I also like to spend a very quiet Saturday, rather than make my way into and out of ExCel.
Play your arrival
I don’t like to arrive too early, but you also don’t want to be late – or deal with a lot of stress. Make sure you know which start you need and how to get there.
Be prepared for a slow start
London is massive and there are loads of runners. So it can take a while, after the race formally starts, for you to reach the start line. Don’t let this put you off and, if you tend to get cold, bring an old fleece or a bin-bag you can wear and discard.
Best bit / worse bit
The best bit of London, I think, is running over London Bridge.
The worse bit is immediately after this, just before mile 13. This is where the course loops out to the East, and you can see all the much faster people returning from that loop (they’re closing in on mile 23 at this point). About a mile later the parallel routes diverge again, so just hold on!
Meeting people at the finish
London has a set of meeting points at the finish. But it tends to be incredibly busy and the mobile phone system tends to get overwhelmed. You’re also not going to want to do a lot of moving around looking for your friends and family!
I’ve found it’s often easier to meet people a short distance away at a pre-arranged spot. Definitely have a backup plan for if you can’t get through on your phone.
After the marathon
In the days after the marathon, you will almost certainly suffer from Dalek syndrome. The primary symptom is repeated cries of ‘Oh No! Stairs!’ This tends to last a week or so.
Take a week or two completely off and let yourself recover. It’s probably best to take it easy for at least a month after.
Don’t say never again
My theory is that people fall into two camps. First, there are people who run one, tick it off their bucket list and have no urge to repeat the experience. Second, there are people who end up running lots.
But there is really no way to know which camp you’re in immediately after the marathon. So it’s probably best to avoid giving your family and friends ammunition for future teasing by making any definitive statements.
If you’d like to run a marathon, do it! If I can, anyone can, and it’s really a great experience.
And, if you’re about to, good luck and have fun.