My First Marathon and the Value of the Only-Just-Achievable Challenge
So I feel a need to add a massive disclaimer right up front - I’ve not actually run the thing yet. Technically, that means that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but that doesn’t normally stop me - and at 10 weeks into an 18 week training plan I have recorded a new PB over 5k, 10k, 10 miles, and 13 miles, lost 22 lbs, run through miles and miles of amazing countryside, hills and woodland, run the Great South Run, scared a deer, learned that thigh muscles can make knees hurt (seriously?) and learned to love wearing tights.
But most, most importantly of all - I’ve also learned to love running again. For it’s own sake, not for the weight loss, or for a reward of food at the end - this isn’t Crufts - but simply for the love of it, the independence of covering the miles under your own steam, and the runner’s high that comes on when everything clicks and you feel like you can go all day.
It’s the greatest thing in the world.
I’ve been a runr (that one’s free, lads) for around 5 years now, albeit somewhat sporadically. A few years ago I was running almost every day, but with no particular goal in mind, so when I got distracted - that was it. I was done. Going back to it was only ever demoralising, a reminder of how much easier it used to be. I couldn’t quite work out how to fall back in love with it, and get back to that amazing place - when you find yourself ‘squeezing a quick run in’ instead of finding any excuse you can to stay sat down.
That changed back in August when a good friend suggested (I think he might have been joking) that I sign up for the Pompey marathon. As I considered it, something clicked - and I realised that this was exactly the sort of challenge I need. The sort of challenge - and this bit is really, really important - that is achievable, but only if I nail the training. And the food. And the sleep, and the hydration, and so on and so on. Essentially, I couldn’t cut a single corner if I wanted to cross the finishing line - and that was exactly the sort of clarity I needed.
So if you aren’t sure what you’re capable of, or if you’re feeling a bit directionless, try it. Your only-just-achievable challenge could be a marathon too - or a 10k, or a parkrun, or an ultra - but just trust me. Get yourself signed up, get your shoes on, and get running. And as you asked (you didn’t, but I’m telling you anyway), here are the things that have worked for me.
1) Read 'Racing Weight' by Matt Fitzgerald. A brilliant, practical book that has done more for me than almost anything else; there’s nothing like dropping nearly two stone to make the miles easier. There’s no pseudoscience here, just good advice on how to measure, monitor and improve your diet quality, weight and body fat.
2) Get a plan. I had a look around online and settled on one of Hal Higdon’s, because the length suited me, and because I looked at week 1 and knew I could do it. The rest, I thought, should follow - and amazingly, so far, it has.
3) Run trails. Seriously. This probably should have been number one. There is nothing better than finding a route (loads of books around with good walks in them - just run instead), getting out in the middle of nowhere, and getting hopelessly lost. The peace and quiet, the fresh air, the scenery, views, wildlife, the lack of people. The other week I ran 17 miles along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, starting at 6 in the morning, and didn’t see another human for 11 miles. For someone as antisocial as me, that’s blissful. If you just run circles around your hometown, please give it a go at least once - you’ll be converted. And when you are, get some decent trail shoes as we head into the wet, muddy months.
4) Run slow. For 5 years I thought that I had to run flat out every time, as if that was how you get ‘fitter’ - nothing could be further from the truth! Find what I call your ‘all-day’ pace. This is usually a pace at which you can hold a conversation, and should account for 80% of your weekly miles. If you can put in the miles at this pace, you’ll avoid injury and - I promise - will get quicker and quicker without needing to push yourself (too hard). Yes, there should be hard runs in there, but less is more in this case. Plus you will love running this way. ‘No pain no gain’ just isn’t true, in my experience - if you want to keep running, it really shouldn’t hurt and make you want to die.
5) Sort your nutrition/hydration out. This is more important if you’re running long (over an hour, in my limited experience) but if you are, get a pack and bladder. Drink when you’re thirsty, but eat before you get hungry. Gels, chews, try them, and stick with the ones that don’t make you feel sick. Keep your blood sugar up if you want to avoid hitting the wall. Equally, sort out your pre-run food - breakfast for me is always 2 hrs before I run, and consists of bagels with peanut butter, black coffee, and a glass of beetroot juice. Not let me down so far. I missed breakfast once, before what was my hardest run to date - and it was only 5 miles!
But the most, most important piece of advice I’ve got for you is get on with it. Set yourself that challenge, and set yourself up for success. If it requires everything you’ve got to offer, just imagine how it’ll feel when you see it through. No ifs, buts and maybes. No shrugs, no ‘only’. And while you’re stretching, reaching, pushing, learning, tripping, swearing, I absolutely guarantee that you’ll love every minute of it.
Thanks to Adam for his insights into the world of training for your first marathon!
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