Chastened, humbled, drained, even emasculated. All words that could be used to describe my emotional state at the end of the Dublin Marathon. Not exhilarated or elated or exalted, empty at absolute best. I’d just finished another marathon, finishing in a respectable time of 4:14:09, off only five weeks of concerted training, and after all it was only meant to be a training run. In the weeks running up to the marathon I’d said over and over when people asked me what time I was planning on doing Dublin “it’s only a training run, I’m just looking to get round”, but then I’d add “once I get in under four hours I’ll be happy”. As the marathon approached though I was putting in some good training runs (ignoring the fact that they were primarily around 10k with only a couple of 20k plus runs), I was lighter than I’ve been at any stage since first year in secondary school and I was getting confident.
In the run up to the marathon I was gorging on books on running, trying to fill my mind with tales of excellence, absorb by proxy all the knowledge of all these running greats – Dick Beardsley, Alberto Salazar, Alan Webb, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett. It’s something I always do when I’m into something – read absolutely everything I can on the subject – but with the marathon approaching I put myself on an accelerated learning program to see if all this knowledge could be translated into even a tiny bit of power. One thing that seemed to link most of the heroic feats and performances that all these guys accomplished was an ability to push beyond normal physical boundaries when it really mattered, ignoring the body and succeeding through sheer willpower. They’d all managed to overcome what Tim Noakes called the Central Governor, the part of your brain that tells you to slow down so as to protect your body from damage. Noakes found that one of the things that separated elite athletes from your ordinary Joe Soaps isn’t necessarily their physical gifts – their fast/slow twitch muscle fibres, their VO2 Max, their narrow ankles – but their ability to suffer. If you have two athletes with similar physical capabilities then the one with the greater ability to suffer, to deal with pain and anguish when they’re competing will win.
Going even deeper I found a book called Run – The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel by Matt Fitzgerald. Now I know that sounds a little bit new age and Tony Robbinsy, but Fitzgerald is a long established and respected coach, nutritionist and author of many coaching books as well as the training plans offered through the Training Peaks website. In short he knows his shit. The premise of this particular book is that the principal focus of training efforts should be to train the mind, that a confident, relaxed, comfortable athlete, but also one that has been trained to endure suffering, is one that’s going to maximise their abilities. This sounded fantastic. OK, so I’m only at the start of my training cycle, but I’m not short of confidence at the moment, I can get relaxed and comfortable, and the enduring suffering bit, well I’ll deal with that on the day, won’t I? That’s what these guys did. The hurt came on and they just dealt with it. Between that and going at a nice steady pace then surely I could get round these 26.2 miles, and why not, if everything went well maybe push on for 3:49. Who knows? Maybe I could have one of those miracle days and even get low 3:40s?
Well I’m sorry, but in my experience the marathon doesn’t do miracles. It tramples all over your dreams and crushes your lofty aspirations. If that’s all you have in the bank that is. No amount of positive thinking will get you round 26.2 miles in an aggressively targeted time unless you’ve the miles logged, the hours and hours on the road, especially in your long runs. Any sane, objective person will tell you that. Unfortunately though, despite wittering on incessantly about the use of logic and rationale, when it suits me I throw all that out the window and can jump head-first into a purely emotional choice. I have an infamous spreadsheet which I use to calculate the actual real cost per year and per month of various prospective car choices, which I then totally disregard as soon as I see anything black with M or XR emblazoned on it. I did exactly the same in the run up to the marathon, disregard facts and logic and go all in on a brand new approach. This was running, but with a cerebral edge to it, and dear God but didn’t that appeal to the (ever so slightly) pretentious side of me. It meant, to my now twisted mind, that I could take a horrifically blase approach to the marathon and everything would be alright as long as I thought it would be. I was travelling up to Dublin in the morning with Mark and Paul, leaving shortly after six, yet it was approaching midnight and I was just sitting down to watch tonight’s Love/Hate (I couldn’t see it earlier as I’d been in Dublin sitting in the IFI for the day watching horror films).
My first inkling that my approach might have some flaws in it was standing around waiting for the off when the national anthem was played. I was meant to be enjoying this, I was going to skate around on a wave of enjoyment and positivity but I was finding the whole thing a bit anticlimactic. Two years ago the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck as they played Amhrán na bhFiann and I was grinning from ear to ear. Today – nothing. The thought occurred to me then that maybe it felt anticlimactic because a climax requires a build up? OK, not a great start to the whole ‘enjoying the marathon’ thing, but once I get going I’ll be fine. I always love the first 10k of a marathon, there’s so much enthusiasm and positivity, so much energy that people are struggling to contain. Today though I felt nothing. I kept on telling myself to enjoy it, and in fairness I wasn’t moping around, I was running at a very controlled pace, conditions were decent, overcast, not too cold but a bit windy, especially going through the Phoenix Park.
Trying to run smart I kept running abreast of groups through the park, trying to avoid copping the brunt of the wind. One person I spotted who was definitely running his own race at that time was a guy who looked like he’d run straight off Venice Beach, resplendent in pastel vest, shorty short short, mullet and headband. Keeping the dream alive! Just after that I spotted Joseph Clifford of “He Ain’t Heavy” who was pushing his brother Ciaran around the 26.2 mile course in a specially designed but huge wheelchair, an enormous and incredible undertaking. These two very different ends of the spectrum of marathon participants really lifted my mood, and from 10 – 15k I started to push on a bit. I still wasn’t feeling anywhere near as good as I had on my training runs of late, just a bit flat and heavy legged as opposed to feeling really fresh, light and full of energy. Maybe I would have been better served by getting more sleep each night rather than reading for an extra hour after I went to bed in the preceding week, regardless of how late I went to bed. And maybe I should have been in bed at nine the night before, with a good dinner inside me, when I knew I had to be up at half five the following morning. I was sure I learned a lesson before about getting a good dinner and good night’s sleep the night before a big race. I’m almost certain in fact that I’ve learned it (or you know, written it) at least half a dozen times.
Regardless of the need for sleep and general conditioning in the lead up to a race I was still somewhat confident at this point. I had a cunning back up plan, which involved 40 grams of maltodextrin, 5 grams of BCAAs, 4 grams of beta alanine, 500ml of water and 200ml of apple juice. When combined together you’ve got essentially homemade Powerade or Lucozade Sport, but with no nasty sugary additions or nefarious corporate sponsoring. As part of my experiment I was also running on no breakfast, just a large coffee with a spoonful each of butter and coconut oil (a homemade Bulletproof coffee). The plan was gel at 13 miles, then pick up the bottle off my brother Gugs at 18 miles, then maybe just one more gel at 23 miles or so and I’d be done. Natural fuelling as much as possible, minimise GI stress (gastro intestinal stress, basically when your stomach starts to churn because you’re throwing a load of stuff at it to process, exacerbated by running), get most of my carbs in as a liquid. I’d left the bottle in Gugs’ the night before sending him a message to let him know where it was. This I had to do as he was out at the Samhain festival for the night (you can see where this is going, can’t you?). I have to point out here that I was at pains to say to Gugs all week that I wasn’t relying on him to be there, that if he was there great, if not, no bother, my marathon was definitively NOT hinging on me getting this bottle off him.
I probably should have had a more concrete plan in place for if he wasn’t there, and I definitely shouldn’t have been spending the five miles all the way up to the KCR (where I was due to meet him), imagining how great things were going to be when I got the bottle off him, and how my marathon was really going to start there, and how this was going to be some sort of magic elixir that was going to replace my legs with those of someone who had 18 weeks of training in them. Coming up to the KCR I kept one of the small water bottles that I had just finished, then got another one and emptied that. Two 375ml bottles would be so much easier to carry than one big bulky 750ml bottle. That had been my only concern with the bottle, it’s size, but now the perfect solution had been presented, this was how it was meant to be. Definitely a good ome……….
Nope. Not there. Oh balls. Maybe when I reappraised the importance of the bottle and raised it’s importance from ‘negligible’ to ‘actually quite crucial’ I should have informed Gugs. Or given it to someone else. Or given someone else a backup bottle. I wasn’t thinking that as I ran through the KCR scanning the crowd of faces on either side of the road. I was thinking of a load of expletives that I’m not going to detail here just in case my mother has made it this far. Suffice to say that my, already neutral at best, mood worsened considerably after that and just two miles later, at mile 18, I adopted a run walk strategy. Walk 100m, run 900m. As soon as I broke the seal on it the walking genie was out and so now as soon as my legs started to hurt, well it was a run-walk strategy wasn’t it? Stomach started to churn, first hint of nausea, walk. Strategy. What happened to enduring suffering? Gutting it out? Well I found out, somewhere on the side of the duel carriageway headed for Donnybrook, that the question you ask yourself again and again when the suffering starts is “why?” Why should I do this? Why should I endure this? What’s the motivation? Well if you’ve spent the last six weeks telling yourself and everyone who asks that this is just an inconsequential training run (albeit one you’ve assigned a fanciful target to) well then the motivation is a little bit lacking. This wasn’t a target race, this wasn’t anything I’d been building towards, I’d treated it as just ‘a run’ of 26.2 miles and I was getting out exactly what I’d put in.
Very shortly after that I saw up close and personal what it actually meant to endure some suffering, what having real motivation meant. Just after the 24 mile marker I was shuffling along when I saw someone out of the corner of my eye take a stutter step. I turned to look and saw a woman to my left stagger and almost fall as she tried to take another step forward and I put out my hand to steady her. As I looked at her I could see she was completely disorientated and out of it and as I took both her arms she just collapsed backwards. Myself and couple of spectators helped her sit down at the side of the road, but despite being unable to stand she tried to claw herself to her fight saying “I have to finish”. We got her some water and some jellies and tried to get her some help, but again she was adamant that she had to finish. She could barely tell us her name, she couldn’t focus on us, she certainly couldn’t stand up let alone run, but she was asking how far to mile 25, saying she had to finish, pointing to her t-shirt, saying she was running for Barretstown, a charity founded by the actor Paul Newman that provides therapeutic recreation programmes for seriously ill kids and their families. It was quite a humbling moment, the amount of bitching and moaning and walking I’d been doing, wussing out at the first real test when this woman was an example of exactly what I’d been reading about. She’d pushed beyond what her body was capable of, ignoring the exhortations of her brain to slow down or stop to the point where her brain had to shut her body down. I’m not saying that this is what you have to do for a race to be worthwhile, or that this is how far people should go, but it was a real lesson in how far people could go, and if I got nothing else out of this marathon at least I’d remember her and how far she was willing to go.
After a few minutes with her some more help was on the way and I left her with the ladies who had been with me looking after her. I made one last deal with myself at this point, the only one I didn’t actually break – no more walking. There was only 3k to go, nothing in the greater scheme of things, just keep shuffling for three more kilometres. Catch that person in front, then the next one, then the next one, all the way to the end. I wasn’t suddenly filled with a bolt of energy from the heavens, or anywhere else for that measure, and I couldn’t even muster the energy for any sort of a ‘sprint’ finish. Instead I dragged myself across the line in 4:14:09, before slumping across the nearest barrier and leaving myself hanging there for quite a while. I just felt utterly spent and empty, which at least from a physical standpoint is a good indicator that I used up whatever stores of energy and fitness I may have had. I wasn’t really ready for rationalisation yet, I just trudged along to get my goodie bag and t-shirt before going to meet Paul and Mark again.
I put a bit of a front on when I met the lads but all I could think about was how wrong things had gone, how I’d failed to do the number one thing I’d set out to do (enjoy it!), how I’d prepared so badly and why the hell I do this to myself. I realised today that despite ostensibly making a pig’s mickey of the whole thing, I’d actually learnt a whole lot from the exercise. Sure I didn’t run a ‘good’ race, I’d been wildly optimistic with my targets and pacing, casual in the extreme with my approach and the whole thing smacked of hubris, with a whiff of arrogance, but at least now I know a whole lot more of what not to do when attempting to run a marathon. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to running in general, and marathons in particular. I learned a whole lot more about myself in that four hours yesterday than in the forty hours I’d spent reading in the weeks beforehand. I might not have liked a lot of the stuff I was learning at the time but it’s what’s going to stick with me.
Brilliant running from both the lads as usual, 3:38 for Mark and 3:19 for Paul, off it must be said not ideal preparation for the lads either. The just don’t moan about it as much as me.