Run Don’t Run Race Report #2 – Virgin Money London Marathon 2014

It’s grey and cold in London today and it’s making me look fondly back to last Sunday when it was warm and sunny and I was out and about enjoying myself. And running 27 and a bit miles from Blackheath to the Mall (yes, I know marathons are 26.2 miles, read on).

It felt like a much longer journey to get to the start line of the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon. This included:

  • a decision never to do another marathon again after an unpleasant debut 26.2 (forgetting I’d already entered the London 2013 ballot)
  • “failing” to get a ballot place but then being swept up by peer group pressure and gaining a 2013 place through a running club ballot
  • overdoing it in the January 2013 snow, developing a stress fracture and pulling out of that year’s marathon
  • the dubious honour of being able to defer my place to 2014 as a “sick and injured” runner
  • the ups and downs of a 16 week training programme including a couple of pbs, a 10 week parkrun streak (including a shameful 5k after a very big Friday night out involving several cold drinks and throwing of shapes) and relentless niggles and injuries
  • the expense (but also indulgence) of 5 sessions of sports massage and osteopathy (to think, 5 years ago I refused to let anybody I didn’t know do anything resembling massage because I’m ticklish and thought I would collapse into hysterics)

There was a great sense of camaraderie when we lined up in the huge start pens up on Blackheath with hot-air balloons nodding at us in the breeze but once we set off it was the people of London who got us through the mile after mile after mile. There were crowds lining the whole route, initially stood outside their houses, some in pyjamas, but from Greenwich onwards we were treated to the same volume of crowds and tunnels of noise that Mo and co had run through earlier. There were bands and DJs too and I think it was Deptford where I heard Pharrell’s “Happy”. It sounded so authentic, I thought it was a DJ but I did literally “laugh out loud” when I discovered it was a live band with a singer, probably twice the age of Pharrell who looked like he’d spent the last 30 years in the pub.

My paranoia about my stroppy left hip ruining my big day proved unfounded although I could have done without the sudden jabbing pain in my right knee after a mere three miles (I ignored it and it went away). There were other niggles that built up and faded away over the course (note to self: if there is a next time, do those strengthening exercises and stretch more religiously, so boring but you know it makes sense). The heat was another potential spoiler but although I remember it being sunny, I don’t ever remember feeling too hot. However it might be a factor to bear in mind if I want to one day go faster (and I think one day I probably can).

I thought I could possibly do this race in under four hours but had six targets to spur me on:

1. To get to the start line (believe me, there were times as close as 3 weeks before that I thought I might not make it).
2. To finish.
3. To run the whole thing (I used to have a golden rule never to walk during a race, which I’m ashamed to admit I broke towards the end of my 2012 marathon).
4. To beat my debut marathon time (4:28.57).
5. To beat my wife’s marathon time (set in 2004).
6. To go below 4 hours.

It was good to tick one target off as early as 10 o’clock in the morning and I felt on course to achieve all six after three miles, slowing down or speeding up to make sure that I reached every mile marker in 9:09 minutes. However, at the Cutty Sark, the road narrowed, the volume of runners increased and my legs started to slack off. From then onwards I started to watch the likelihood of achieving targets 5. and 6. slip away, trying to balance up the need to go faster with the impact this might have on targets 2. to 4. Eventually I stopped paying too much attention to my Garmin and just soaked up the occasion.

Delirious at Mile 20

Delirious at Mile 20

One of the bonuses of London 2014 was that I think this time I avoided The Wall. Seeing those familiar faces at my running club’s water station at mile 20 at gave me a boost but this also marked the point at which walls typically start to appear. Although the option of lying down for a couple of hours would have been very welcome, the legs kept going, especially after the wild scenes at Run Dem Crew’s 21 mile spot which is just like midnight in a night club on New Year’s Eve which goes on for hours.

The Embankment is often described as the “home straits” for marathon runners but I know it doesn’t end until you get to Big Ben. Running along it last Sunday, Big Ben was temporarily Small Ben or the Embankment is way longer than I’d previously imagined. It went on forever, and I wanted to argue back “No I’m not!” to all the people screaming “Keep going! You’re almost there!”. In fact the Embankment was so long, my Garmin told me I’d actually done 26.2 miles when I finally reached Parliament Square and I still had two thirds of St James Park to run around.

And then, after what I hoped looked like a sprint finish, but was probably more like a drunk man stumbling after a night bus, it was all over. And I couldn’t stand up. I kept trying to but my head started swirling around and I had to grab on to the nearest fence. 10 minutes later I still couldn’t stand up without feeling like I was going to faint. Eventually I had to be escorted to the medical tent where I had my pulse and blood pressure checked along with lots of questions about how much water I’d drunk and my medical history (thank you so much St John’s Ambulance, you are now my heroes). Finally I got my act together and was discharged to find my family (including the reigning house marathon record holder) and go for a long anticipated pint of beer.

15 minutes after being unable to stand up....

15 minutes after being unable to stand up….


Although I couldn’t fault the London Marathon, for now, I could barely walk and had no desire to do another. Ever again. By the next day I was double checking on the deadlines for the 2015 ballot. The whole occasion had fully rewarded all the time, emotion and effort I’d invested. I had achieved the first four of my targets and think I know what to do if I want to reach the remaining two. I think one day I will be back!

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Runner Paranoia

20140308-114102.jpgI tend to worry too much about a lot of things that don’t really matter. Whenever I’m planning for some work related event at which I will either get the credit or the blame, I usually prepare myself to get the blame when in actual fact things tend to work out well. This then clears the decks for me to start worrying about something else!

I like to think that running provides me with lots of time to forget about the things That are bothering me and have to admit that when I’m out on a long run with my mind wandering, I can generate all I kinds of new solutions to the things I worry about. However, just recently I’ve found myself worrying about things that wouldn’t be an issue if I’d stuck to my guns and remained the non-runner I’d been for most of my life:

1. Injury worries

I’m currently training for the London Marathon, having deferred my place from last year because I had a stress fracture. And now I worry I’m injured again. It’s not a stress fracture, it’s an ache at the top of my leg. I’ve tried stretching, ibuprofen and sports massage. I finally went to see the chiropractor who suggested I should pull out of last year’s marathon. She felt that this year’s injury was not terminal and with a few tweaks I could carry on getting marathon-ready. I did carry on, have done two half marathons at good times including a personal best but I still expect my left leg to drop off at any moment (it still hurts). I think about this more frequently than your average man thinks about sex. I need to deal with it!

2. Fundraising worries

These result from 1. I decided to raise money from my marathon efforts for a charity called CALM. Ironically, one of the reasons this charity exists is because a lot of men don’t deal very well with things they worry about. What I’m worried about here is that I will need to pull out of the marathon because of 1. And then I will need to explain this to the people who have already handed money over. This is stopping me from plugging my fundraising efforts and raising as much as I could. I need to deal with it!

3. Beetroot worries

I have learnt tolove tolerate the earthy taste of beetroot juice, the runner’s ambrosia. If you haven’t read the research then Google it now. But I sometimes forget about my beetroot addiction until I notice its unfortunate side effects. After the Reading Half Marathon last weekend, I think I traumatised a number of men I was sharing the urinal with as the Ribena coloured urine streamed past them in the Madejski Stadium toilets. When this was still happening later that evening I still had the words “internal bleeding” popping into my head until I’d managed to perform a reality check. I need to deal with it!

4. Parkrun volunteering worries

This is a new one. Today I volunteered at parkrun because I didn’t want to aggravate 1. and further jeopardise 2. It also meant I could avoid 3. for once and have a huge coffee before going out instead. I ended up scanning the barcodes as the runners finished, which allowed me to have flashbacks to my time as a checkout operator in Sainsbury’s all those years ago. That was until I realised they didn’t have scanners in Sainsbury’s when I worked there. It was that long ago. There were all kinds of glitches in today’s new role: a dodgy finishing token I had to watch out for and in no circumstances scan, people with barcodes which wouldn’t scan, people without barcodes, a moment when I scanned the finishing token before the runner’s barcode (a serious no-no). I am now worrying that some inadvertent error will mean I have ruined what felt like a really good start to the Saturdays of over 50 people. I will therefore not publish this blog until I see the results have been published. Once this has happened I will have dealt with it (until the next time)!

Tomorrow I aim run 19 miles and hope I make it home with two functioning legs. Beetroot juice will be involved and I wonder if the run will give me enough confidence to go all out to recruit more sponsors. I’m also hoping no disgruntled parkrunners spot me, jumping out of their cars to harangue me about their result or lack of it from today. Whatever happens, I definitely expect to generate more things to worry about, to fuel my Runner Paranoia.

Keeping going

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Today’s inspiration

I sometimes think I’m making up for lost time with this running malarkey, cramming in as many variations on the basic “going out for a run” as possible, signing up for races, buying kit and gadgets. If I’d got into running before my forties I think I might be a bit more laid back. Today I’d ventured out primarily to exorcise the demons from last weekend when I’d blown up at mile 8 of a planned 11 mile run and skulked home in disgrace. So I was pleasantly surprised to get through my new 8-miles-in psychological barrier and keeping going until my Garmin said I’d done exactly 13.1 miles. A cheeky half marathon I’d never planed to do at a gentle pace and even a burst of speed in the last half mile.

This got me thinking – how long could I have kept going today, and how long could I keep running into the future. So I’ve done a bit of research to see how sensible I’m being. My first stop was an article by Jeff Galloway Your best running may be after forty. Well full marks for the title – (conveniently overlooking the fact I barely ran for a bus for the previous 25 years) I did my first 5k at the age of 44, and have gone on to deliver more than just the odd PB, Jeff’s spot on there.

Jeff also goes on to advise Avoid continuous use of muscles, tendons, joints , suggesting people of my age should do strenuous exercise every other day. I think I’ve learnt this lesson from the foolish days of Janathon earlier this year when I challenged myself to go running 5 days a week. I succeeded, but also succeeded in getting a stress fracture so I’m consciously avoiding high-volume challenges now (Juneathon?, not on your nelly).

Break up your workouts in segments to reduce aches and pains? Not sure I’m keen on that idea. He suggests doing a couple of shorter sessions a day rather than something longer and tougher. For me that would mean more dawn-starts and I have to fight to get out most evenings, so one session every now and then isn’t something I can take for granted.

He recommends us mid-life crisis runners Use walk breaks. That’s always been a bit of a no-no for me. Ever since watching hundreds of “runners” walking the last couple of miles of London’s Run to the Beat half marathon a few years ago, I’ve scorned this practice. I told myself “Imagine – they go into work on Monday morning and tell everyone “Oh, I did a half marathon yesterday” when in fact they’ve just been out for a bit of a stroll.”This was, of course, until I did my first marathon and again tutted and gradually became more incensed at the (usually older) people who walked up every hill. When I wanted to lie down and hibernate at mile 20 and then could barely walk, let alone run for much of the remaining 6 miles it was a different story, especially as the uphill walkers then cruised past me and were standing around admiring each other’s medals as I collapsed over the finish line. So maybe one day walk breaks will be a useful strategy but for now I hope to just make damn sure I can run for more than 22 miles before I tackle the London Marathon next April.

A longer warmup is advised. Does walking down the stairs and putting on my shoes count as a warm-up? Hmmm, I thought not. I’ve got two excuses for not warming up: 1) the same reason I have for not breaking up workouts into segments – I like to exaggerate about how busy and important I am so I don’t have time and 2) I think I’ll look silly, jogging past the neighbours, high-stepping, kicking my own bottom and doing that Morecambe and Wise dance. There are periods of time when I take an almost religious approach to post-run stretching (currently I’m more agnostic and have to force myself to lie on the floor and go through the tedious motions) and I try to con myself into thinking that the stretching compensates for my warm-up phobia. However, I think Jeff might have a point here so maybe I need to learn a warm-up drill that to the untrained eye looks like I’m just walking down the street.

Apparently forty-something runners should Avoid all-out exertion. Jeff says “Running at your limits, after a certain age, can produce lingering fatigue and permanent aches, pains, and damage.” I tend to avoid training plans that use “RPE” (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to measure how hard you train – not “scientific” enough for someone who spends hours poring over the lovely bar charts my Garmin produces. However, I do think I tend not to spend much time running at the higher rates (9 or 10 out of 10) – the feelings I have when really overdoing it tend to remind me too much of the burning lungs and nausea of my teenage running experiences. When it comes to racing however, I love to beat my previous self and sometimes really go for it. I also like running intervals, not too fast and with the reassurance that very soon I’ll be getting a rest. So long as the subsequent fatigue doesn’t linger, I’m afraid I’ll be carrying on with this bad habit, Jeff.

Finally he says we should Control injuries and fatigue by taking action immediately. You can’t argue with that although my immediate action when I started to get the symptoms of a stress fracture was to go out running every few days to see if it still hurt (it did). I’m not sure this is the kind of “action” Jeff had in mind. I think it helps to have access to the right kind of experts to provide the right kind of advice when it comes to injury which can be expensive and time consuming. As I get older I think applying Jeff’s approach to fatigue is helpful. Last Sunday I never wanted to run again, didn’t think about it at all on Monday and on Tuesday evening did the slowest recovery run ever. I “recovered”, did some very satisfying intervals on Friday morning and today surprised myself by proving I could still cover a half marathon. Forcing myself to do five sessions this week was certainly not the right response.

So unscheduled days off when tired, subtle warmups and maybe strategic use of the occasional bit of walking it will be, if I’m to keep on keeping on. Any other tips would be much appreciated.

Over-Trepidating

What’s that, two or three weeks since those first few uncertain baby-steps in the boglands of Epping Forest after 6 weeks off? The confidence and length of run have been slowly increasing although the hypochondria seems to be full-blown. I’ve had one sick-day from work so far in the 21st century but in the last week have had sore throats and other spin-offs that led to a “pneumonia symptoms” Google search in one particularly feverish moment.

On Wednesday night I managed a 30 minute plus session including three blocks of 10 minutes on concrete rather than in the muddy forest which felt pretty much like the good old days apart from burning lungs. My return-from-injury programme emphasises an easy pace but I seem to have something a little faster etched into my running DNA. In injury-free January, a long slow distance run should have been at 10 minute mile pace but on reviewing Wednesday’s run I noticed that I’d generally been doing 8 minute something. The reason I’d reviewed my pace was because in the middle of this run, Mr Stress Fracture’s sleep seemed to have become disturbed – was he having a bit of an unsettling dream, twitching and thinking he should suddenly leap up, wide awake after his hibernation?

For hours and days after I was convinced the shin was twingeing (new entry in my Hypochondriac’s Lexicon), slightly seizing up if I sat still for too long. Such was my paranoia that at times I had to remind myself that it was my left shin that had been injured as I sensed something going on in the wrong leg.

In stronger times, Saturday would have been a perfect running day – a couple of spare hours, cool but bright spring sunshine. Should I test that leg out one more time or take a few more weeks off? I plumped for the former but returned to the soft ground and did the most boring route I think I’ve ever done. Round and round (and round) the pint-sized local park. And it worked: 24 minutes of running in total, definitely taking it easier, Mr Stress Fracture sleeping soundly in his scar tissue hammock.

And so to Tuesday. As well as fantasising about a return to running races, I’ve developed a sideline in artisan bread baking. Today I’m making my own burger buns and have a spare 45 minutes while they rise. A cheeky run in Epping Forest? it would be rude not to.

With my buns in the oven (arf arf) I’m sitting here reviewing my longest uninterrupted run since January’s 12 milers. First time I’ve run tightless (don’t worry, I remembered my shorts) in 2013 too. 15 minutes through the slightly less treacherous mud of the forest, no obvious pain to speak of although I still run in the style of a man who thinks his leg is liable to snap with every step taken.

Is it too early to start eyeing a gentle return to the world of Parkrun in a couple of week’s time? And how did my buns turn out (missus)?
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