If you have read my Climbing Out of Quarantine blog, you’ll know that my usual routine drastically changed around 12 months ago, like everyone else’s. To fill the physical void created by the pandemic I decided to climb the tallest mountains in Britain, which was great, but I also had another goal. To run a Marathon.
Having played professional rugby for nearly 20 years, I have built up a good conditioning base, for rugby that is.
I consider myself relatively fit for my sport and take pride in still having an influence on matches towards the latter end. The rugby season typically involves a 12 week pre-season starting in November, followed by 25-30 fixtures, played at weekends, finishing in October, where you’ll get 4-6 weeks off and then you’re at it again. Bear in mind, that if I was programming for a marathon, I’d allow 3-6 months to feel adequately prepared. There is no logical way that during a rugby season you should run 26.2 miles in one go, so with the rugby season cancelled, I felt the time was now as I wouldn’t have this opportunity again for a few years. I decided that in 7 days, I’ll be running my first marathon.
As far as smart decisions go, this wasn’t one of them. I broke many rules that I’d apply to my programming and ignored the literature whilst trying to achieve a personal goal.
During lockdown many of us have taken to hitting the roads to keep our fitness up, with gyms opening and closing in line with government guidelines, we at least had the outdoors as our respite. I’d typically run 2-3 x per week for 3-5km each time with my longest single run around 13km.
Although this was a personal goal of mine, the few hours of physical struggle wasn’t comparable to what family friend Gavin Aspinall was going through at the time (see the link at the bottom of this article). I wanted to help in whatever small way I could and raising awareness for his cause far outweighed any physical suffering I would experience.
With the ‘event’ happening on Sunday, I’d taper my training load for the week beginning with my longest run on Monday (12km), followed by two shorter jaunts (9km/6km) and then two full days off to recover. My new trainers came in time for my final run on the Thursday, they felt comfortable if not a little big, the joys of online shopping. Nothing an extra pair of socks wouldn’t fix.
For my nutrition I wasn’t meticulous, I usually eat a well balanced diet and don’t restrict many foods, so I just upped my carbohydrate intake by around 20% for the three days leading up to the run. I woke upon Sunday 8th November 2020, around 5:30 am, drank coffee and had a small bowl of cereal, with peanut butter and toast as dessert. I was setting off at 8am so this gave me around 2 hours for the food to digest and not feel lethargic on the run from overeating. I didn’t have much of a hydration strategy (I know, awful decision) but did push a carbohydrate gel down my sock for emergency energy. The funny thing is, after looking down to my feet around 100m into the run, I noticed that the gel had fallen out of my sock. It was ok, I’d get it when I finished!
The weather was pretty cold but no forecast of adverse conditions so I was feeling confident the only way I’d get wet today would be if I fell in a puddle or through my own perspiration.
With my headphones in and playlist sorted, I set off, happy in the knowledge that I was one step closer to completing a bucket list challenge. This felt new, scary and exciting at the same time.
The first hour felt comfortable, I’d set off at a decent pace and managed to maintain that for around two hours. I was aiming for anywhere near 4 hours to complete the run and felt pretty confident I wouldn’t be far off. I was wrong. Checking the clock every mile or so wasn’t the most enjoyable game I’ve played but it took my mind off the pain starting to appear in my lower body. It was around this time that my headphones, although fully charged at the start, made the noise “battery low, please re charge”. This was fun, so after laughing to myself on the East Lancashire road, the next 2 and something hours was just and my mind. Scary thought.
I had a rough plan of where I was going but could certainly have planned the route out more accurately, flatter would have been nice and also avoiding ten minutes running through farm-land after I got lost cutting though Leigh. Those new white trainers weren’t so clean anymore.
I’d always planned to stop at 11am for two minutes silence and did just that, I paid my respects to those that had fallen and shortly after, received a phone call from my girlfriend in Canada to show some support and check in. Thank you Dom. I spotted a shop close by and took this as an opportunity to get some fluids on board, a bottle of still Lucozade later and I was back on my way.
It was about now where the physical reality of the run sank in, there was quite strong pain in my shins and knees, with my feet beginning to blister too. The pace slowed somewhat here and now it wasn’t about enjoyment but survival. I just had “one foot in front of the other” implanted in my mind and kept on moving. All the while thinking about Gavin and his struggle, which certainly spurred me on.
Shortly after, I checked my Strava and it still showed around 10km left, I wasn’t doing this under four hours at all, with my pace slowing and body starting to shut down, it was clear I was approaching the wall.
I’ve heard about this, but never experienced it. That was about to change. I remember it well, I did an Instagram story with about 6km to go, saying how good I felt and that I’m nearly done. Things changed quickly after this. This would be around 4 hours now, my body wouldn’t work like it did previously, the strength required to lift my foot and run wasn’t there anymore, every step produced pain and I was Dad running better than Peter Kay. It got to the point where I thought I could walk faster than my current pace, without the suffering. So that’s what I did. Inside I was gutted, it was an ego driven goal to not walk and beat the distance in around 4 hours. I didn’t respect the distance enough to put in the adequate preparation or decided the short-term suffering was enough and finally ‘broke” myself.
I remember coming up to Mesnes Park, Wigan and hoping nobody would recognise me and see me walking. So off I shuffled again.
The pace was snail like, with recreational Sunday joggers flying past me whilst I had anguish and discomfort on my face, but I wasn’t far off now. The distance for a marathon is 26.2 mile or 42.2km, so after checking my distance I knew there was around 10 minutes of shuffling left. I could see my end point (my home) and started to make my way to the finish line. Or so I thought. Like I mentioned earlier I loosely planned the route, and it turns out when I thought I’d finished I still had another 1.2km left to go. Hilarious. Running past my house wasn’t a feeling I’d like to relive but I certainly won’t be forgetting it. So, I finished by using a technique popular with beginners, alternating running and walking the distance between lampposts. It was important to me to finish the event running, or my attempt of running at least.
That was it, I’d finished.
I checked my phone, saved the run and opened my front door. Off came my muddy trainers and I collapsed on the couch. It was such a weird mix of feelings, complete exhaustion, some disappointment but ultimately very satisfying, as I lay there for over an hour drinking my way through juice and milkshakes bought before the run. After pondering all of the bad decisions I’ve made in life, this felt like one of the worst. I joke obviously, my next few hours consisted of a bath, a beer and a conversation with myself saying this would be the last time.
So fast forward a few days to where I’m feeling more like myself, walking with less of a limp and now I decide I would like to do a marathon again, but this is how I’ll do it.
- Fully prepare. I’d take 4-6 months of periodised training ensuring I arrive in the best condition I can. A week isn’t enough. Who’d have thought?
- Plan my route better, ideally a 26.2 mile straight and flat road would be nice
- Have a detailed nutrition strategy from a qualified practitioner, and make sure my gels are tucked deep inside my sock!
- Invest in some decent, reliable headphones
- Buy trainers early enough so I can have a few runs in them, socks are important too
- See if someone wants to join me, the great things in life are better shared
Whether it’s running a marathon, climbing a mountain or something else. I feel you can learn a lot about yourself through physical struggle, I certainly did.
Fancy a run?