Surprising yourself

Since my last blog post recounting my first 100 mile race, the South Downs Way 100 in June 2015, I have:

  • suffered from shin and knee pain (now under control)
  • trained sporadically for races
  • run a new marathon PB at the Milton Keynes TBL Reverse Marathon by Enigma Running in November 2015
  • eaten too much and out on around half a stone, which I have yet to lose
  • managed to get a place in the 2016 London Marathon through the public ballot at the 6th attempt
  • run my first half marathon since 2013 at the Festive Half Marathon in Portsmouth in December 2015
  • set myself some challenging goals for 2016 after deciding this is the year to push myself and go faster

After setting myself these 3 challenging race goals I set about putting a training plan together for the London Marathon and North Downs Way 50. This was an interesting process and I have no idea if the plan I ended up with will work – particularly as I have to balance training for a flat road marathon with a very hilly trail ultramarathon – but then I guess that’s all part of the fun isn’t it? When I ran my first marathon 4 years ago, a the London Marathon via a charity place, I used the MyAsics website to generate a training plan. I’m now aware that these off the shelf plans have their place but make no allowance for the specific needs, lifestyles and ideal training loads of individual runners. The cookie cutter approach isn’t one I now subscribe to, preferring to take inspiration from others to write my own training plans. I have always based my training plans upon mileage but this time t is a combination of time based runs (weekdays) – which include steady/easy paced runs,  hills repetitions, interval runs, tempo runs and recovery runs – and mileage based runs (weekend long runs). Thanks to @jonfielden in particular for some really helpful advice as I drafted and redrafted my plan.

I decided upon an 18 week training plan for London, with a further 3 weeks after this in the run up to North Downs Way 50. Today I finished Week 8 with the Portsmouth Coastal Half Marathon. This is an event I ran in 2012 as a fitness tester ahead of my first marathon and I planned the same again this time around. For context, I managed to finish in just under 2 hours then which boded well for my intended debut marathon time of 4 hours 45 minutes. However, I got my training wrong in 2012 (specifically, running my long runs way too quickly) and executed the race poorly, going out too fast in typical schoolboy error fashion. After a strong first half I ended up walking with some running for the second half and finished in a disappointing 5 hours 16 minutes. My training ahead of today’s race has been inconsistent, with the planned 5 runs a week plus 1 strength/mobility/yoga session not quite being followed. Long days at work, a short bout of sickness and some loss of running mojo early on have meant that I have only managed 1 x 5 run week, with only 3 runs most weeks. I have, however, completed all of the long runs and run further than planned on several occasions.

What did I conclude from this before today’s race?

  1. I was ambitious planning 5 runs a week – work keeps getting in the way so I’m rethinking my plan and considering changing it to 4 runs a week so I can get the strength/mobility/yoga session in as I know this will help my running
  2. My fitness is not building as quickly as I had hoped – although I have felt good on the long runs I have also felt like I have been struggling on the shorter weekday runs (except the hill reps) in recent weeks
  3. I had serious doubts about my ability to hit my race goals – the Portsmouth Coastal Half Marathon would be a real test of my fitness and progress against the plan and race goals

I decided to adopt a different race strategy this time. In the past I have underachieved in races, holding back to avoid too much suffering. Today, I decided to go it at 8 minute per mile pace with the view to achieving a new PB of 1h45m. Would I blow up and limp into the finish like I did in my marathon debut? Or would I push through the pain and realise I could perform much better than I thought? There was only one way to find out. I set off at a fast pace (for me, anyway) but was conscious not to run at 5k pace as I was sure I would not be able to sustain this. For the first 4 miles, before we hit the muddy beach and trail section, I was bang on 8 minute per mile average pace and feeling uncomfortably good. I needed to take in a GU gel (I am a recent convert to gels and these have been a great source of energy on my long road runs in particular) earlier than expected but this helped keep me going.

In the middle third I struggled and my pace dropped. However, I regrouped mentally at the 7 mile marker as we returned to the pavement for a couple of miles and was clicking off 8 minute miles again. Back to the trail and beach and this time my pace dropped but not as much. I looked at my Garmin at the 10 mile marker and realised that my Plan B time goal of 1h50m was within reach, refocusing and running a steady 8 minute pace again. I managed to maintain this, except while crossing the Bog of Doom in the park between mile 10 and 11, and found myself running below 8 minute pace in the final mile along the seafront. Committing myself to a sprint from the 13 mile marker to the finish I realised that I was so close to a sub 1h50m finish. I crossed the line and checked my watch to see it reading 1h50m16s (official time 1h50m14s lager confirmed) and was delighted. A new half marathon PB by more than 9 minutes. I did it.

Maybe #Project41024 is on after all. I think that I could have finished in 1h45m on a flat road half marathon course with no muddy beaches, trails or boggy parks to run through. According to the highly respected McMillan Running Calculator my half marathon time today sets me up nicely for a sub 4 hour marathon.

Given that I have another 10 weeks to train for this I am reassured that if I train with greater consistency and focus I can get fit enough physically and mentally (something I am still working on) to finally achieve the sub 4 hour marathon I think I am capable of. Which would be nice. Onwards.