London Marathon: 2019 Race Review
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Instead of writing this post I should be tying my timing chip to my shoes and pinning my race number to my vest ready for the London Marathon 2020. But the world is in lockdown. There's no timing chips in sight and I've raced only once this year. If you'd have told me a few months ago that the London Marathon would be cancelled I would have been devastated. It is devastating but suddenly perspectives and priorities have changed and instead I remain immensely grateful that we can still run once a day. With no race this weekend it instead feels like an opportunity to reflect on what happened last year and share how I managed to reach my goal of a sub-3hr marathon.
The marathon distance is a distance to be respected. It requires hard work, dedication and training. Anybody who crosses the finish line should feel an overwhelming sense of achievement.
When I set my sights on getting a sub-3hr marathon it felt like an impossible task. I knew I needed to train hard and this is where the Flexi-Plan came into play. I had an unpredictable schedule (I was in my final year at medical school with exams, placements and an elective in Tokyo) so rigid training plans didn't work for me. Instead I made a list of the types of run I wanted to achieve in a two week period and I fitted them around my schedule.
Training doesn't come without sacrifice but I did try to balance it with what was going on in life. When I was in Japan I used my long runs to explore new places as I could run at an easy pace as long as I hit 20 miles. I used quieter weeks to really hit high mileage (sometimes 100 miles + a week) and busier weeks to get in shorter speed sessions. My training didn't look like a perfect 16 week plan but I had weaved speed, hills and endurance around my day to day life.
- Try and do speed work with a group. It kept me accountable and being with faster runners really improved my pace.
- Find a plan that you can fit around your life. Don't be afraid to swap days around depending on what commitments you have.
- Plan new routes for easy long runs so they stay interesting. I found exploring new environments also really helped to keep my pace under control.
What an anxiety-provoking time! In the week before the London Marathon I only ran on flat surfaces and I ran short distances to keep my body ticking over. This is not the time to add fitness - it's about recovering and making sure your muscles are ready for race day. This is the running that I did in the week before race day:
- Sunday: 8 miles, 7.30min/mile
- Monday: 4 miles, 9 min/mile
- Tuesday: 4 miles, 7 min/mile
- Wednesday: 3 miles, 8 min/mile
- Thursday: 4 miles, 8.30 min/mile
- Friday: Rest
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Race day!
Taper week isn't just about cutting down on mileage. Nutrition, sleep and planning ahead are key parts too. To keep things simple:
- Increase the proportion of carbohydrates consumed. I didn't increase the amount of food I ate overall but more of my plate was made up of pasta, rice and bread than usual.
- Sleep sleep sleep! I didn't make any evening plans during taper week. I was in bed early every night and really tried to increase the amount of hours I spent asleep so my body could recover and repair.
- Prepare everything in advance. This includes testing out kit, collecting race numbers and planning the strategy for the race.
This is where things get really exciting. The London Marathon Expo is open in the days leading up to the race and it's where you collect your racing number and time chip. Try and go earlier on in the week if you can as it's quieter then. There's loads of running gear to buy, shoes to try, interesting talks to attend and more. Make the most of it as it really is a fantastic opportunity to try out lots of new stuff. But, if you do buy anything, don't wear it on race day! You won't have had the chance to test out the new gear on a long run so don't take the risk.
Having a race plan is key! What pace are you setting off at? How are you keeping track? Do you have a back up plan?
To get a sub-3hr marathon you need to be running a 6.50min/mile (4.15min/km). There are wristbands available at the Expo that list the times at which you should reach each mile marker. I wore one of these as a back-up in case something happened to my watch and I set my watch to a 6.40min/mile pace as I wanted to run each mile slightly ahead of schedule. I also set my watch to manual laps so I could lap it each time I passed a mile marker. That way I knew exactly what my speed was for each mile rather than relying on the accuracy of my GPS. My plan was to check my pace each mile and then adjust the speed of my next mile accordingly.
It's hard to sleep the day before a big race. For some it's the excitement, for me it was the nerves. I felt like this was my one chance to reach this goal (I'd be starting work just a few months later and I knew I'd have less time for running).
I got up early on race day and had a big glass of water so that I was hydrated but would have plenty of time to use a toilet!! I had my normal breakfast of porridge - with no toppings that could upset my stomach - and a small coffee. I'd practiced running on this breakfast so many times over the previous few months.
I then walked up to the start line with my Dad. I knew he could give me a small pep talk and that's what I needed. I was fortunate to be running from the Championship start so I said my goodbyes and went into the pen. I used the toilets more times than I can count; had a few swigs of water and half a flapjack; and warmed up as usual. Then we were off.
Running fast is usually tough but at the beginning of a big race it feels like you're flying. You're running in a pack, there's cheering everywhere and adrenaline is bubbling up inside you. The temptation is to run even faster as it feels like you can sprint for eternity, high on the energy of the race. Somebody once told me that to run a marathon you have to survive until 20 miles and then the race can begin. I kept this in mind and used my watch to stay focussed. I checked it so many times in those first few miles, slowing my legs to keep on target pace.
The first 8 miles were a breeze. I knew my parents were in Greenwich and my running club had a cheering point a few miles further along. Knowing where to look for supporters made that first section fly by. It wasn't long though before things started to hurt. My quads felt heavy and my lungs were working the hardest they'd ever had to. The long stretches through Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf felt particularly challenging and there were moments when I was convinced I couldn't keep going. I questioned why I was even trying to do this. I took one mile at a time and each mile that I completed on pace gave me the kick to keep pushing forward.
At mile 25 I finally knew I could make it within time and that's the point at which I could relax and enjoy the moment. The adrenaline rush returned and the course became a tunnel of noise from the crowd either side, the cheers sweeping me forwards. I crossed the line and felt in shock. I was too dehydrated to cry and too tired to smile. The training, the pain, the anxiety - it was all worth it.
3 hours is the goal for so many marathon runners and it feels like the success of a lifetime once you've done it. A huge part for me was the support I had from others, both in my running groups and from my family and friends.
I also learned a lot about myself - I'm proud that I did it, but I think there's a time and a place in life. If I committed to that level of running all the time I wouldn't be able to do other things in life that I enjoy. Right now I am just focussing on using running to maintain my health and sanity during this difficult period for us all.
If you have a big running goal I hope this blog helps but it's just what worked for me. We are all different so for marathon runners out there, remember to train safely and seek the support you need - be that from a running group, coach or physiotherapist.