Back in May 2018, I’d started feeling like a road marathon was something I “ought” to do. I’d experienced the elation of my first trail marathon (the Hardmoors Osmotherley race) back in October 2017, and I was signed up for the remaining five marathons of the Hardmoors 26.2 Series races in 2018. I was getting used to seven or eight hours spent on my feet, and getting to know my body better: my needs and preferences for food and drink, and the shifts in my emotional state over lengthy, hilly runs.
But although my stamina and self-knowledge were improving, my speed wasn’t. If anything, I was getting slower. So I wondered if a road marathon was what was necessary to focus me on speed for a bit; to boost my fitness, and my ability to hold a consistent pace, non-stop, over four or five hours, without the excuse that hills provide for slowing down (and scoffing malt-loaf).
But I didn’t really want to do a road marathon. It felt like a worthy, but ultimately depressing – and physically punishing – activity. It might be good for my body and my fitness, but I worried about a road marathon’s effects on my mind. I knew from the past that the pleasure I get from running almost always operates in inverse proportion to my levels of obsession over performance times. Trail marathons offer so many joys: joys that are sensual, aesthetic, intellectual, social. I couldn’t see where on earth anyone might glean pleasure from a road marathon, except from the sense of accomplishment of a PB. And who cares about that, right?
So I applied for the London Marathon ballot, assuming I’d be safe in not getting a place. It was being reported that a record number of runners were throwing their names into the hat, and that only one in fourteen would get a place. Then I forgot all about it. I wouldn’t get a place, but I’d done my duty and made a nod towards improving my road fitness. In June and August, I ran the Hardmoors White Horse and Rosedale trail marathons, and in July, my first ultra: the Lakeland Trails 55K. And then I went on holiday, and shortly after that, started a new job.
In October 2018, a magazine fell through our letterbox. I was on my way to put it straight into the recycling, when the word ‘marathon’ caught my eye, and then the red, white and blue of the logo. I racked my brains: was the magazine a consolation for having failed to get a marathon place, or…did it accompany confirmation of a place? A couple of hours later, an email arrived in my inbox, and there it was: I had got a London Marathon ballot place, in my first, half-hearted attempt.
I felt like an utter fraud. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of disappointed running friends, now resolving to run for a charity and fundraise. I didn’t feel either excited or nervous or anything really. I just felt like a mendacious chancer: so many runners wanted this, deserved this, more than me. But it had happened, and turning down the place wasn’t going to do any good, so I resolved to make a training plan. But how? I’d already signed up for the Hardmoors 55 race in March 2019, and I had no idea how to combine training to increase my endurance over 50+ mile distance (and 2500+m of ascent), with the speed training (over flat tarmac) necessary for London, which would be only six weeks later. I posted on various FB running groups, and the advice was pretty much unanimous: don’t aim for an ambitious PB at London – the congestion will stress you out; just soak up the amazing atmosphere. This was the first time I’d really considered that there might be joy to be found in a road marathon. And I started, ever-so slightly, to look forward to it.
I still didn’t do any road-specific training, though. After October 2018 I ran four more Hardmoors trail marathons, and, in mid-March 2019, the Hardmoors 55 ultra. Two weeks after that – 4 weeks before London – I started to panic, and decided to run a fast half-marathon, on tarmac, to shift my focus towards the skills necessary for road-running. It went well: I ran a half-marathon PB (1:51:57), knocking almost 8 mins off my previous PB from last summer. The longer distances and higher weekly mileage had clearly increased my fitness without my realising. But then I lost my drive, and when it came to running the standard 21-mile long, slow run that most road-marathon training programmes seem to encourage 3-4 weeks before race day, I did do it – but I did it, not on tarmac, but on the determinedly off-road, very hilly, Yorkshire Three Peaks course. The run was utterly breathtaking and sublimely beautiful and I loved every second of it. But it was not good psychological or physical preparation for 4 hours on flat road.
In the past, I’ve had a tendency to self-sabotage before races. It’s as if I’ve been so afraid of embarrassing myself, that I’ve dropped off my training three to four weeks before an event, to give me an excuse for being shit; so that, in the event of a disappointing performance time, I can say, ‘oh, I’m capable of much better. It was just that I hadn’t put the training in…’ When I get sucked into obsessing about performance times and PBs, running can make me terrified of exposure and judgement and falling short. That’s why I don’t do road events, or road training, as a rule. And now I found myself slipping back into some of the negative behaviour I used to have around running.
So when race day came around, I felt woefully underprepared. I knew that I could get round 26.2 miles: that wasn’t my anxiety. But I wanted to *enjoy* London, and I was angry with myself for not having done the training to ensure that I was confident of doing so. I knew what my usual nutritional requirements were in order to fuel a day out in the hills. But I had very little idea of what I’d require over a shorter period of time in which my pace would be faster and more consistent and there’d be no hills and no breaks for walking (or malt-loaf). In fact, I didn’t know if I could run for four hours without stopping to walk. I didn’t even know if the race would take me four hours, or four hours fifteen, or four hours thirty, or five hours, or six hours. I felt completely and utterly clueless and had no idea what to expect.