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Marathon training lessons

From watching the faces of the London marathon finishers in St James Park years ago, I'd always been equally intrigued, scared, and attracted by the challenge. Before kids I dipped my toe in running - a habit culminating in a few half marathons finished in honourable times. But somehow the marathon always seemed unreachable, not for me.

However in January this year, after running the Battersea Half with my friend, we decided to take the plunge and registered for the Brighton Marathon, early April. We were kind of in the middle of a marathon training with our prep for the Half, so why not carry on for a few more weeks and give it a go?

Other reasons that pushed us to pick that event: fitting in with optimal training conditions at the end of Winter / early Spring, not too cold and not too hot either. Brighton is a location fairly easy to get to from South London. I was also seduced by the city and sea views promised during the event.

So, we chose a training schedule, more or less stuck to it for the following ten weeks, and showed up on the day, with typical nerves and anticipation.

How did it go? Frankly, it was so much harder than I thought! A total rollercoaster of emotions, with the first 15km spent almost floating on a cloud, tears in my eyes, feeling so grateful for my body and the crowds for carrying me through the streets of the city. The cheers gave me goosebumps, the signs brandished by spectators made me chuckle, the touching messages attached to runners backs made me cry, what a spectacular moment to be part of.

Then things started to turn a little sour when fatigue and 'technical glitches' appeared: I stopped countless number of times to pee, my earphones let me down after about 4 hrs, I lost sight of one pacer after another. I kept thinking about my fam and friends, about the 'just enjoy it' words of wisdom - but it was incredibly testing. Not really a wall, just discomfort all over and the motivation crumbling down, with a growing desire to throw myself in the sweep vehicle and call it a day! The last few miles were never ending, but then came the realisation that yes, I will indeed cross the finish line. So with that a massive rush of adrenaline, trying to pick up the pace for the last few metres, and then an overwhelming emotion, more tears when I cross the finish line and get handed over the medal.

I'm not going to lie, I was a little disappointed with my finish time (5h52), I felt I could have done better, tweaked the prep, filled in some gaps... the beauty of hindsight. An achievement nonetheless! I hear marathon runners are never happy with their performance, that's why they have to enter the next one, and the next one after that, and then suddenly they're hooked!

Regardless of finish time, I think they were some valuable lessons gathered during the preparation of the event, so thought I would drop my two-pence below, in case it can help anyone taking the plunge!

Breaking mental barriers

'I'm not a sporty person'. 'I can’t drive a car'. Those were notions I grew up with. To be fair they were true to a degree - I was the chubby kid, happiest dressing Barbies up whilst watching TV and hoovering all the snacks. It also took me three goes to get my driving license, and even on the third time I felt I had to grab the certificate from the examiner and run!

But these things could be changed, they didn't define me. Sure it was hard, uncomfortable. When I started driving to unfamiliar areas, I had to give myself pep talks out loud in the car, to push through my resistance and reassure myself that I was able to do this. Same thing happened during the marathon: towards the end I was a bit delirious, my music had stopped, there wasn't much going on in the street and I had to dig extra deep to keep going.

But for me the biggest turning point was made earlier on in the year, when, after many conversations and a bit of research, I clicked 'why not me?', and then decided that yes, I was going to try a marathon, registered and then got on with the training. I think this can be valuable in any area of life - breaking the status quo and switching to a 'growth mindset' instead: the one that pushes you out of the comfort zone and into the zone of genius, where big changes can happen. But the first step is to break through that mental barrier from your brain trying to keep you safe (but in reality keeping you in the stagnation zone).

So much happens in the mind. Sure, running or driving is partly about ability but this can be worked on over time with practise. The first building block is having the belief you can do it. The Netflix documentary ‘Match Point’ on aspiring tennis champions illustrates this perfectly: even if they face the world tennis number 1, the emerging stars need to believe they can beat him, it’s such a mental game!

Slow and steady…

Just like most things in life, you probably can't improvise yourself a marathon runner overnight. Or maybe you can, if you have been running consistently for years and then it's just about upping the training. But I loved how slow increments helped towards reaching the ultimate goal. For me, all the running started over 15 years added up. Then kids appeared and the running fell by the wayside. Only to slowly reappear during lockdown and then become more and more absorbing. It's not the running chasing PBs any more, more the running to get out of my head, release the endorphins, enjoy the rush of energy. I had to take it really slowly as my pelvic floor was not playing game, but this helped me become more aware of what I needed to do to get in better shape. I might fall out of love with running again some time but for now I enjoy taking it slow, forgetting the stats to focus on all the mental goodness.

Marginal gain at its best

I loved all the prep work that came with the long training runs. You experiment and learn. The world of running is definitely a rabbit hole, I remember thinking when I started - how much is there to talk about when it’s all about putting one foot in front of the other. Well, there are tons of factors that can have a critical impact on your performance. Your overall health of course, influenced by nutrition, your sleep, your other activities. What fascinated me is how we carried on fine tuning all our gear for the big day, getting quite geeky about running vests, water intake, which gels we should take on the day, sexy compression socks, finding THE perfect leggings that will stay in place no matter what, agonising about 'the last meals'.

Of course being a beginner I haven't even scratched the surface, there is probably so much to improve on posture, stride, and more factors I didn't even know existed. It's an art and it's definitely worth experimenting sooner rather than later as the number 1 advice for marathon runners is to NOT introduce anything new on the big day.

Decomposing the task Decomposition in project management is a process of breaking a large, complex project into smaller, more manageable parts. It works in business and definitely in the context of a marathon too. What is a marathon? 42km? Ouch. Or more or less 4x 10km? Or 10 small chunks of 4 little km... that's better. This helped a lot during training when we did our 30km run and had a rush of confidence (naivety?) - we're 3/4 of the way there... we're officially doing this!

Equally when you devise a training plan, there is a lot of free help out there that can help you strategise your efforts. So you can map out your runs each week, small and long, slow or more pacy ones depending on your goals, and you can condition yourself and get more confident that you're on the right path in 'Project Marathon'. What I would do differently is to consider variety - I focused solely on running and getting the kms in, neglecting the recommended cross training, and I definitely felt it during the race.

Together is better

One of the pieces of advice an old friend gave me to prep is 'find yourself a running buddy'. Luckily I already found THE one prior to the half marathon training, and I can genuinely say it's made all the difference. We committed to do our weekly long run together, no bunking out come rain or shine. I looked forward to these sessions: sharing progress, wisdom, a nice chit-chat whilst discovering new parts of London - what's not to like!

I also loved the Community feel found on Strava - when you want to record your progress but don’t want to spam your friends who have no interest in running. It was like finding a new tribe, talking at length with old colleagues who got the running bug a while back and helped me get rid of the resistance and giving it a go. Also how funny that clubbing friends have now gone all out on the running / fitness front! I imagine being part of a running club can have the same effect - sharing the load with like-minded peeps.

Enjoy the journey

The benefits I've seen from training have been amazing. On top of sleeping better, having more energy and guilt-free feast after big training sessions, the best perk of all is the added focus in my everyday life. It helped me to prioritise better, planning my days and my weeks more carefully to allow for training time. The mental health benefits are immense, it helped me focus and lifted my mood no end, even during the critical hormonal time of the month!

So I would say just for that, give running a go if you haven't already. It can be a couch to 5km or an ultra-marathon or something in between, but the focus, joy (after the pain), and sense of achievement are priceless.

What do you think? Have you run one or several marathons? What's exciting you about them, what is preventing you from trying? I would love to hear from you.

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