Archive | October, 2013

Don’t Stop Believing

28 Oct

A marathon journey

I should warn you at the outset, this blog post is pretty long and self-indulgent.

I started running in 2001. I ran my first marathon (Blackpool) in 2004 in a relatively modest 3.29. From that moment, however, I had the marathon bug. My initial aim was to break 3.15, a time which would enable me to qualify for the national championships, which are held as part of the London marathon each year. Unfortunately, as an inexperienced marathoner who, frankly, hadn’t done enough miles to tackle the distance, this first marathon also led to my first significant injury, and then my second significant injury. It was the best part of 2 years before I toed a marathon start line again. This was my first London (and marked the time I fell in love with the London marathon!). I was still in that easy period when you can almost run a PB simply because you’ve learnt your race-craft a bit and improve by just continuing to train. I ran 3.23. That autumn, despite having had a 3 week break travelling over the summer, I chipped another 4 minutes off and ran 3.19 at Cardiff in the autumn of 2006.

I began to think I had this marathon lark sussed, and looked forward to breaking 3.15 at London next spring. I also began to take my training a bit more seriously, and became an aficionado of Pfitzinger & Douglas’s book “Advanced Marathoning”. I followed the up to 70 miles a week schedule religiously and had a real breakthrough in London in April 2007, not just breaking 3.15, but smashing it: 3.07. I was even more certain I had this marathon lark sussed, and looked forward to breaking 3 hours in pretty short order.

My first sub-3 attempt was in Amsterdam that autumn. My training (P&D again) went pretty well, but a few weeks out I tore my left calf. To be frank, I shouldn’t have toed the start line. Having toed the start line, I should have pulled out at mile 10 (or km 16, seeing as I was on the continent). I didn’t. I pushed through the excruciating pain, and managed 3.05, chipping another 2 minutes off my pb. Although I was frustrated to have missed 2.59, I took heart from the fact I could run 3.05 off one and a half legs, and looked forward to breaking 3 hours the next spring. Just to complete my foolishness, however, I did the Great South Run (10 miles) the next weekend, before taking my end of season break.

The calf never quite settled, and I had problems in my lower left leg for most of the winter. With regret, I pulled out of the 2008 London marathon, cross-trained like a demon and got myself ready for Abingdon that autumn. It was probably in autumn 2008 that I was at (or near) my most frustrated. I was in brilliant shape that autumn, but on the Tuesday before the race I slipped on a kerb running in the rain and sprained my ankle really badly. I had to pull out of Abingdon, and I’d ended what should have been my glory year without even starting a marathon.

Still, I told myself, there was always 2009: I could get my sub 3 then.

By Christmas Eve 2008, a slight niggle I’d been carrying had turned into a significant back problem. I couldn’t walk without stabbing pains and barely ran in January 2009. I did do London, after a very curtailed and compromised build-up, and ran 3.10. I told myself this showed real progress, as I’d run pretty close to my 2007 time but off only a fraction of the training. I decided, however, that I’d consolidate over shorter distances in the autumn and then focus on a spring marathon in 2010, as my dream of breaking 3 hours before I was 30 was already over (I turned 30 that summer).

I was in pretty good shape in spring 2010. Untapered, I ran 2.20 for 20 miles (7 minutes per mile), which was only 8 seconds per mile slower than I needed to manage to break 3 hours. I don’t know if that race took too much out of me or if I was just unlucky, but despite setting a pb (3.03 – getting closer!), sub-3 eluded me yet again.

Undeterred, I entered the Cologne marathon that autumn. I trained pretty solidly, although not following P&D as closely as I had in the past. Cologne was my first really bad marathon. The race was supposed to start at 11.30 (something I hadn’t realised when I entered) and was then delayed, so we ended up starting with the midday sun blazing down on us. I suffered badly with the heat (and was probably already a bit dehydrated on the start-line) and had to run/walk the second half. I remember finishing and shaking physically for an hour or so afterwards due to what was probably mild heatstroke. There is a school of thought that you haven’t lived until you have lain on the grass next to a pavement in Cologne in shorts and a sports bra, glugging water frantically and trying to think of a way to get your mother to look up “symptoms of heatstroke” for you on the internet without worrying her (as you may suspect, this is not possible: she will worry!). I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. It was a wretched experience, and made me take a decision to not race marathons in 2011, because psychologically I wasn’t ready to put myself through a 4/5 month build up just to risk disappointment and frustration again.

As readers of this blog will know, in July 2011 Chris was diagnosed with MND, and so for 4/5 months I focused on training for my first multi-stage ultra. Recovery from that took longer than I’d hoped, and probably explains a below-par 3.07 at London in April 2012. I decided to focus on half marathons in the autumn, but unfortunately ended up with hamstring problems and didn’t manage a half-marathon pb.

And so to 2013. By this time I hadn’t run a marathon pb since 2010, a half-marathon pb since 2008 or a 10k pb since 2008. In December 2012, planning the following year, I went back to basics. I followed P&D’s 24 week (yes, 24 week!) up to 70 miles a week schedule. And I followed it religiously, although I did also do various cross-country races as extras. But the odd extra tempo run, even through muddy ice/snow, never killed anyone: it simply freezes your feet.

By February/March I knew I was in brilliant shape: I’d taken a minute off my 5 mile time and 3 minutes off my half-marathon time. Sub-3 was there for the taking at London. But the god(ess?) of marathoning looked down on me, shrugged, and determined I should have a really bad cold/chest infection 3 weeks before London. For the best part of 2 weeks I couldn’t even walk fast without getting out of breath. Had it not been for the tragic events at the Boston marathon finish line, I probably wouldn’t have felt fired up to try and race London that spring. In my heart of hearts, I knew I probably hadn’t really recovered from the virus, but I wanted to be there, and it was sub 3 or nothing.

It ended up being nothing. I recorded my first ever DNF, dropping out at 20 miles after a painful 4 miles in which I’d haemorrhaged pace and had been working far too hard for that far too slow pace. The curious thing was that it was the easiest marathon failure to deal with, because there was a clear reason. I shrugged, took my usual post-marathon week of sloth (it should probably be Week of Sloth) and then spent the summer doing track and shorter races (up to 10k) around P&D’s 18 week schedule, as I’d entered the Frankfurt marathon.

I had a brilliant summer. I took over 40 seconds off my 3k time, about 15 seconds off my 5k time, and nearly 40 seconds off my 10k time (finally breaking 39 minutes!). In mid-August it felt like things were shaping up nicely, and I headed off for a week’s walking in the Lakes, timed to coincide with a cut back week. It was on the bank holiday Monday that I began to feel the god of marathoning really disliked me. Near the top of Great Gable I felt something in my calf go: I then had a sharp, stabbing pain and couldn’t walk without feeling that sharp, stabbing pain every step. I knew this wasn’t cramp, because I’d been here before: I was 90% certain this was another calf tear. This may explain why pretty much my first words involved “27th October” (the date of the marathon). Although it hurt to weight bear, I didn’t think I’d make it worse by walking on it and figured the time I saved by getting off the mountain quickly and thus getting ice on it to begin the healing/recovery process would be better than waiting for an air ambulance. Half-crying, I hobbled down the mountain, disproportionately frustrated that yet another marathon campaign seemed to be in tatters. I almost didn’t care: I can remember sliding down some pretty bad scree and risking further injury. I got back to our holiday cottage and put ice on the calf. I can remember sitting in the pub that evening and realising I didn’t know what everyone else was talking about as I was zoned out. I felt numb and empty. A friend was going home on the Tuesday anyway, so I travelled back to Bristol and was able to see a physio the next morning. There was a certain grim satisfaction in having my self-diagnosis of a calf tear confirmed. Her view was that I couldn’t and shouldn’t race the Bristol half (some 2.5 weeks away) flat out, but that I might recover in time for Frankfurt.

I re-joined a gym and cross-trained religiously. I hadn’t been told Frankfurt was definitely off, and clung onto that. I did my prescribed physiotherapy exercises every day. I wanted to give myself every chance of still being able to do Frankfurt, because I knew what great shape I’d been in before the injury. By the time of the Bristol half I’d been pain free walking and doing steady runs for about a week, and so I paced my friend Becky to her first sub 1.30 (in fact, it ended up being her first sub 1.29). It felt comfortable, and that was reassuring: I’d run a half-marathon at marathon pace and it had felt just as it should.

The next week, I ran at the Midlands road relays and managed to take a good 40 seconds off my course best (admittedly from quite a few years ago). Although it’s only about 4.5km, I had at least got close to 5k pace, so I started hoping that perhaps I hadn’t lost too much fitness when cross-training.

The next week I did the Weston Prom Run and improved my 5 mile time by 10 seconds. This last one was a really big reassurance because I paced it appallingly (I went off faster than 5k pace, racing blind, i.e. not looking at my splits) and still ran faster than I had in February. Although it was going to be touch and go getting enough long runs in to be marathon fit without doing so much that my legs couldn’t recover in time for the race, suddenly it was game on for Frankfurt.

I managed to fit these races into a short (4 week) block of 65-70 miles per week, and although not all of my times in my faster sessions were quite where I wanted them to be, there was enough promise in some of the sessions that I knew sub-3 was still possible, and probably more than possible. I flew out to Frankfurt on the Friday, knowing I just needed the weather to be kind and things should be ok.

And then it was marathon day. The first km was slow (4.24, when I needed 4.15s) as the start was really crowded. I told myself to ignore it: I had 41.2km in which to claw back those 9 seconds. I soon hit 4.15s and after about 10k felt ok (I felt pretty sluggish in the first 10k, but told myself this was just warming up). Whenever I tried my ‘A’ target pace of 4.12s (for a 2.57 finish) my legs didn’t feel too keen, but there were plenty of 4.13-4.15 kms there, and I went through halfway in 1.29.12. It was looking good and I felt strong. Even when it started raining and we all went from feeling pretty warm (it must have been 16 or 17 degrees and something like 80% humidity when we started) to feeling a bit cool, I told myself it was a good thing that it was now cooler, and I would benefit from that as I don’t run well in heat (see Cologne above…). I continued to tick off the kms at about 2.58 pace and felt great. Even at 35km there was still a good chance I’d break 2.59. The god of marathoning had one final trick up his sleeve, just to make me realise that nothing can be taken for granted in this marathon game. In the final 5/6km the wind really picked up and although I pushed pretty hard to try and counteract this, it took its toll in the final 4km. My pace dropped to about 4.20-4.25km. But it didn’t really bother me, because I knew I had a decent cushion of time and that sub-3 was still there for the taking. Suddenly, I’d gone past 41km. Even though everything hurt and the wind was still strong, I started smiling. And then the finish area came into view. As I turned to go into the Festhalle where the marathon finishes (with a laser show!), I heard someone (not sure who!) shout out to me: Jools, sub 3. I entered the Festhalle and saw the finish line clock still showing 2.59.xx and realised that even on the gun time, let alone chip, I should sneak under (it had taken me 45 seconds or so to cross the line). I crossed the line and glanced at my watch, which I thankfully remembered to stop. 2.59.06.

I smiled but also felt tears prick my eyes. At times, and even as recently as the previous week, when my mile repetitions at 5k pace had ended up being 10k pace on ridiculously sluggish legs, it had felt as if this was the one target which would still elude me, and in the future I’d look back on 2013 as the year that nearly was: welcome pbs at every distance, apart from the one I really loved and cared about more than anything. I was handed my medal and rose (at Frankfurt they treat the ladies well!) and made my way through the finish area, grabbing some food, energy drink and beer (actually, at Frankfurt they treat everyone well!).

I retrieved my bag and then had a 21st century moment. After sending my mum a text, so that she could stop fretting (she has the honour of being my emergency contact when I race…) I logged onto Facebook to a wealth of status updates and wall-posts from people who had been following my progress online. I’d shared this marathon journey towards sub-3 over the last 6 years with so many people, and they’d shared the final 2 hours and 59 minutes (and, it turns out, 4 seconds) with me. But I think most of them were simply bloody relieved – perhaps nearly as bloody relieved as I was – that I’d finally done it.