Abingdon Marathon: a race report

If you’d asked me this time last year whether I thought I’d ever run two marathons in a year, I would have laughed and thought it out of the question. But last Sunday I crossed the finish line in my second marathon this year, so really, you never know how things might change.

I felt anxious before Abingdon Marathon. For days before it, I had a dodgy stomach, which probably meant I didn’t have great fuel stores or hydration leading up to the race. I also had a few nights of crappy sleep.

I think the anxiety stemmed not just from the thought of the race itself, but from thinking about what I might be able to achieve. I knew that I was capable of running it in under four hours, but I also knew I hadn’t trained enough this time around for that to happen. One part of me was saying: just go for it. The other was saying: your body isn’t strong enough for that yet.

Everything seemed to be pointing towards going for it. The weather was cool and dry, with light winds. The training status on my watch was ‘peaking’. I felt strong and niggle-free. My friend who was also running, and our friends who were supporting, all said that I was capable. So, I went for it.

The race started on a track at Tilsley Park sports centre. It then followed three loops, two of which we ran twice, mostly on roads but also a trail-like section.

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I started out at about 9:15 pace, which I thought was conservative. Then, from around mile five, I felt good and sped up to about 9:00-9:05. Although it was a small field (under 800 finishers) and a small town, there was some great support from locals who had come out to cheer. I ran alone at times, but also quite often with a small group. I felt almost invincible, chugging along at this steady but fairly quick pace.

In mile 9-10, I tried to open a gel to suck out the contents, but nothing came out (although all the other gels I took were fine). While faffing with this, I managed to knock the lap button on my watch. From then on it gave me splits on the half-mile, which threw me off pace. And then there was a twinge on the outside of my left knee: the dreaded IT band pain that I hadn’t had at all throughout four months of training.

My heart sank and my confidence plummeted. I thought it meant it was over and I’d have to drop out of the race. I also felt suddenly lacking in energy. I slowed down. And I kept slowing down. Thankfully, the knee pain didn’t get worse, and it eased off at times, so I was able to cope with it.

I stopped to drink at a water station somewhere after mile 20. I felt a little light-headed. A marshal was concerned about me, but I assured her I was fine. I then told another marshal that I wished I hadn’t stopped because I didn’t know how to start again, and he said: It’s all mental. You can do it. Just keep going. I really needed to hear that.

I kept going. I ran all of the final 10k except for a brief walk at a water station. Although my legs and knee were hurting and my footing felt unsteady, I stuck to 10-11 minute miles and was very pleased to finally see the running track and the finish line.

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My time was 4:13:10. I am really pleased with this: it’s 12 minutes better than my Hannover time, and I’m glad I felt better in the last 10k of this race than I did in Hannover.

I do think that, had I been less ambitious and gone out slower (at, say, 9:40 pace), it might have been a less painful race for me. But I did the same thing at Hannover too: went out with overly lofty ambitions and didn’t meet them. Would less ambition have got me quicker times? Or did I need that bit of audacity in order to achieve the best times for my current ability?

When I crossed the finish line on Sunday, it felt obvious that I’d given it everything. My legs buckled and I couldn’t even stand, let alone walk, for a while. Much like with my first marathon, it amazes me that only three days later my legs feel pretty much back to normal.

During the race, I found myself thinking: Why the hell am I doing this again?? After Hannover, I was disappointed that I’d fallen over the week before and wanted to do another marathon to prove to myself that I could do better, so a week later, I signed up for Abingdon.

This time, I have signed up for a 10k in February, in the hope that having that to aim for will deter me from signing up for another marathon. I probably will do another one eventually, simply because I want to do it better. But for now, I think I need to let the dust settle and concentrate on other things for a while (and maybe even try to revel in my achievements).

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Green Belt Relay 2019: a race report

Since I last wrote, I managed to run fairly consistently, but kept to shorter distances and slower paces because I didn’t want to aggravate the pain in my right knee (or, more specifically, the IT band). This seemed to work well. I got up to eight miles as my longest run the Sunday before last with no problems. Last week I did a couple of mid-week three-milers and felt pretty good. I was able to run a bit quicker with no pain at all.

But this weekend, I took part in the Green Belt Relay. I’ve done it a few times before. It’s a crazy event but always so much fun that I can’t say no to being involved. The course is about 220 miles around the Green Belt of London, made up of 22 stages. Each team has 11 runners who do one stage each on each day. 52 teams took part this time.

I was due to run stage 11 on day 1 (7.5 miles, fairly flat but with some complex navigation involved, and the last leg of the day) and then stage 17 on day 2 (10.5 miles, also tricky to navigate, and quite hilly).

Because I was doing the last leg on day 1, I spent all day sitting in a car, mainly chilling out, drinking, and eating. So that was good. All teams also have to take part in marshalling the event. On Saturday, I and a few others from my team had to direct runners across a busy road near the beginning of a stage (I can’t remember which one now!)

My day 1 run went okay. It was a late start – 6.50pm. After having been dry all day, it also started raining just as I was about to run. Runners are supposed to carry printed maps with them. I had had my maps in a plastic wallet, but for some reason I had taken them out of the wallet and left the wallet in the car, so when I came to run, the maps got soaked, stuck together, and were useless to me. Thankfully, I ran with another runner for a while who knew where she was going; and then when I slowed, I managed to keep her in my sights so I could see where the turns were ahead.

I started off quickly, feeling good, and ran downhill with a load of other runners. The smooth road turned into a field with very uneven ground underfoot. And then another field. And a kissing gate. And a farm. And another field, another gate, another farm, another field, and so on. At some point my knee decided it was not happy with all this uneven ground, and the pain kicked in. I slowed down. Thankfully the pain didn’t get worse, so I didn’t have to stop; but my leg felt weak and it was tough to keep running on that terrain.

I finished, though, and in a decent time. Not the time I had hoped for; but decent nonetheless. And then we bundled ourselves into various cars and went for dinner at Pizza Express in Basildon.

I was worried about doing my day 2 stage. One of my lovely team members offered to swap with me, so that she would do my difficult 10.5 miles, and I’d do an easier 6-mile stage. I was so tired and grateful that I accepted straight away; but then spent the rest of the weekend feeling guilty about this, especially as she had never taken part in the event before.

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After a much-needed sleep at a Travelodge, I felt better for day 2 (although still guilty, and still worried about whether I’d be able to run at all). I was involved in marshalling another point – one that our team had done before, where runners emerge from a hedge and we direct them up the road. It is a crazy start to a stage (as several runners of that leg remarked to me). We had fun marshalling that bit, anyway.

I was really pleased that my teammate, K, finished the stage I was supposed to do. She did a great time, and clubbed together with other runners en route so that they shared navigation problems together. K assured me that she really enjoyed it, and I hope she meant it!

My stage was quite late again – about 3.45pm. I spent a while before I ran lying on a picnic blanket and rolling on a ball. This definitely helped. I did a short practice jog and felt no pain. I also took some ibuprofen.

I’d actually run the same stage before, three years ago – and I had IT band pain then, but in the other leg. There was a big hill near the beginning that I didn’t remember from last time. I walked most of it. My knee started hurting a lot on the downhill so I walked a bit there as well. After that, although the pain was still there, the road became flatter. I was able to keep up a steady if fairly slow pace, and made sure to keep my stride short. I made it to the end, and beat my last time by about six minutes. Whoop.

I am now feeling rather broken, not just in my knee, but I also had a burning thigh pain which hasn’t gone away yet. I am so stiff and achy, and the mileage I did this weekend isn’t anywhere near as much as I was doing in marathon training!

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But I still enjoyed the weekend. I possibly enjoyed the marshalling parts more than anything else. The rest of my team did brilliantly. I think it was also a record-breaking year overall, with a mixed team winning for the first time, and many course records smashed. I’m already looking forward to next year, when hopefully I’ll have had time to get in some trail running and hills as training so that my body is actually ready for it.

Hannover Marathon 2019: a race report

It’s over! The big day has been and gone. I finished my first marathon and I am (pretty much) in one piece. I have had much to reflect on. I’ve divided my musings into three sections: Before, During, and After. Enjoy, lucky reader.

Before

I realise now that my 16 weeks of training was effective – but only for half marathon distance. I ran a really good half marathon six weeks ago. I didn’t do enough for the marathon distance.

For starters, I didn’t have enough of a base going into the training. I should not have tried to follow a sub 4-hour plan, as I discovered at Week 6 that it was too hard, and I scaled back. My weekly mileage then became too low for the marathon – let alone a sub 4-hour marathon.

But I didn’t think about what pace I actually wanted to run it at. I never sat back and calculated a 4:15 or 4:30 pace – I always planned to try and run at 9:09 and see what happened. So I set myself up for disappointment. I also had a stressful time in other areas of my life, which probably didn’t help much.

A week before the race, I had a nasty fall which meant I didn’t run all week. Even walking was hard. I couldn’t do any stretching or strength exercises. My morale took a massive hit as I didn’t know if I would be able to run the marathon at all. On the day of travelling to Hannover I was an anxious mess. But we arrived safely and it was nice to be with running friends, have fun, and do lots of eating and drinking. We did, however, accidentally end up doing loads of walking on Saturday (almost 27,000 steps!) which probably wasn’t ideal preparation. I did sleep well on Saturday night, though.

On marathon morning we were in a German hotel room so I didn’t have the facilities for my usual pre-race breakfast, which is something like crumpets with margarine and jam and a cup of tea, and maybe a banana. Instead, I had half a bread roll, orange juice, a few sips of Diet Coke, a banana (so one item was ticked off), and half a small Snickers bar. The bread roll was too chewy and I could barely swallow it. I had some stomach trouble (normal for me before a race) so I took two Imodium. I also took two paracetamol for my knee pain.

During

My knee hurt at first and I kept my pace slow – although, with hindsight, not slow enough. I then felt better and thought, hey, maybe I can get up to ideal marathon pace. However, I caught up the 4:15 pacer and overtook him, and then hung out not far ahead of him at around 9:15-9:30 pace for several miles, which felt steady and comfortable.

My pace started to drop at around mile 16. This was because of increasing pain and tingling in my left leg from a too-tight compression sock, and a lack of strength in my left knee and hip, as well as the bashed-knee pain. I also had painful cramp in a place that I’m not going to mention. I walked through a couple of the water stations. The 4:15 pacer sailed past me and I never saw him again.

And then it got worse. My left leg weakness and pain didn’t get so bad that I had to stop; but it did get so bad that I had to take more walk breaks. I also had pain in my right knee and IT band; and painful twinges in my left hip. My feet felt sore and it was hard to navigate any surface that wasn’t smooth pavement. This was around the time that I tripped on a drain cover and went flying – but landed on my feet. That gave me a shock, as you might imagine.

2019-04-08 16.53.19It became very difficult to start running again after taking walk breaks, but I managed it. I ran to the end and finished in 4:25:50. My quads were burning with pain. I cried when I finished. It was a bloody long walk to the medal, water, and other goodies at the end.

After

I was very glad to see my other half, S., at the end (he had just smashed out a 3:18 marathon – a 50-minute marathon PB for him). We had an alcohol-free beer and he came with me so I could collect my bag and get changed. We then joined our friends for lunch and revelled in our various running achievements. After feeling a little disappointed in my time and performance, I realised that it is no mean feat to finish a marathon and that I should feel proud of myself.

10 things I learned:

  1. I should build up a strong base of at least 20-30 miles of weekly running for several months before starting a marathon training plan.
  2. My training should not include both a tempo and speed run in mid-week. I should alternate them each week.
  3. If I have to scale back my training because I am finding it too much, I should make sure to also adjust my goal. Don’t assume I will just be able to ‘wing it’ in the marathon. Identify a new realistic marathon pace and train for that.
  4. If I am feeling tired or stressed because of running or because of other areas in my life, adjust the training plan accordingly.
  5. Taking two Imodium before a race is a good idea.
  6. If I need to take painkillers before the run, also take some with me to take mid-way into the run.
  7. My gels and hydration strategy worked well.
  8. Stretching and strength work is important. It is also important to try not to fall over a week before a race.
  9. If I feel before a race that my compression sock is too tight – don’t ignore it and leave it on. Put on some other socks!
  10. Everything you hear about that last 10k is true. It is absolutely a test of how well you have trained and fuelled; how appropriately you have paced the previous 20 miles; and how effectively you can push through discomfort, possible pain, and mental demons.