The impossible distance
Yesterday I did something I would have considered impossible a few years ago. Not impossible for everyone, but just for me. I never believed I could run a marathon. I thought I was simply not athletic. Running was just a talent I didn’t have. Even when I finished my first 5k, I considered a marathons to be an impossible distance. Of course, I thought 5k was impossible when I first started running. I couldn’t even make it down one side of Clapham Common without stopping, doubling over and gasping for breath.
But running one race after another—5k, 10k, 15k, 10 miles, half marathons—gradually changed what I considered possible. Each time I started training for a new distance, there was the niggling doubt that I wouldn’t be up to the task. But each time, I managed to run the distance. Until, after my second half marathon, I began to wonder if I’d be able to run an entire marathon. It seemed crazy, but once I had the idea in my head, I had to try it.
When I mention I’m training for a marathon, a lot of people have asked me “Why?” I usually answer that it’s a goal I’ve set for myself. While that might be true, it’s not the real reason. After a certain point, I wanted to run a marathon to prove myself wrong.
Changing the plan
When I originally started training, I set myself a goal of running Kielder in four hours. As it became clear that we were going to move hosue and that I was going to have a much longer commute, I revised that goal to four and a half hours. I dropped strength training and speed work. I used my limited time to build up endurance and adapt to running hills and trails. Before moving to Crondall, most of my running was done in London. There weren’t a lot of hills and very few trails. Most of my hill training was done in Brockwell Park, where I would essentially run up and down the same two hills over and over again.
My new commute added another challenge, I was now cycling to and from Waterloo Station to work, though some days I would run to work. I was also cycling home from Winchfield station. This meant between eight and eleven miles of cycling every weekday.
Even though I had already revised my desired finishing time, I still stuck religiously to my training plan. The plan included cross training on Saturday. About two weeks after moving to Crondall, I started to feel sluggish and tired. Most of my runs sucked. I’d initially enjoyed cycling every day, but after a couple of weeks I was exhausted. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me: overtraining. It wasn’t something I’d ever had to deal with before, but what I was experiencing was practically a textbook description of how you feel when overtraining.
I changed my training plan again. Cross training days became rest days. I reduced the mileage of most of my runs for the next couple of week to give my body time to adapt. I also forced myself to skip the next three runs. It was hard, but I knew I had to give myself time to adjust to the cycling commute or I’d just burn myself out.
After these adjustments to my training plan, things went well. I loved running my long runs around Crondall. The views were amazing, and there were some bits that were proper trail running. As my long runs got longer, I started running on St. Swithun’s Way and the North Downs Way. I found this much more enjoyable than running in London. That said, I also enjoyed running along the Thames on the days I ran into work.
The final change I had to make was to running in shoes. I’d been running barefoot for most of a year. After a few attempts at running trails barefoot, it became clear that running real trails was a different thing entirely than running on the paths through Tooting Common. I realized that I’d have to choose between adapting to running trails barefoot or running the marathon. I bought a pair of Brooks PureGrit and started running my long and medium runs in them. I ran most of my short runs barefoot, with the exception of the last two weeks. I ran every run in shoe to make sure I’d fully adjusted to running in shoes.
I don’t deal with simple carbohydrates very well. I’m very susceptible to the energy spike and energy crash. I tried gels during a half marathon and during some training runs, and had the same issue: big energy bump, then no energy whatsoever.
So I needed to find something that would work for me. When I was talking about the issue at work, Gavin Love suggested using trying nākd bars. The ingredients seemed right: fruit and dates, no extracted sugars. This should mean that they’d release energy over time as I digested them rather than all at once. I was a bit worried that they’d fail like a fig and chocolate recipe I tried during a race. They seemed similarly rich.
I tried them on a few long runs, and they seemed to work well, so nākd bars it was. I settled on eating one every five miles. At first I ate them while walking, but over my last few long runs, I experimented with eating while running. If I took small bites and focused on chewing thoroughly, I could manage it. There was an added benefit to choosing nākd bars: my son George loved it when I had a chocolate one left over after a run.
In the weeks before the race, I was excited and slightly nervous. Most of my anxiety focused on my right shoulder, my right foot and my stomach.
My right shoulder often gets tight during a run. I’ve been working on relaxing my shoulders when running, but it has proven a hard habit to break. In the run up to the race, it started hurting been when I wasn’t running. It turned out to be the cycling again. I wore a backpack when cycling. In the evenings, I carried two heavy U locks during the five mile trip home. I started leaving the U locks at the station, rather than carrying them home. During the other part of my commute, I strapped my backpack to the front of the Boris bike. After a week, the shoulder pain was gone. It didn’t feel that bad during my runs either. But at that point I was tapering, and the runs were much shorter.
My right foot was also a worry. On my longer runs, it had been hurting towards the end of the run. I’d had trouble with tendinitis before. This wasn’t bad, but it was enough to get my attention. It was better during the taper, but I could still feel it a bit on a 14 mile run.
The final worry was my stomach. I ran two 20 mile runs during my training. The first one went great! I felt pretty good after it. Joanne and George met me at the end of the run, and I had enough energy left to walk up to St. Martha on the Hill. I felt pretty confident after that run. The second 20 mile run didn’t go so well. At mile 17 my stomach cramped up. I effectively ran the last three miles doubled over with pain. I ran until I hit 20 miles and walked another mile, after which my stomach seemed to settle. At first, I thought it may have been the nākd bars.
It seemed a bit late to change my nutrition strategy. I was worried. The nākd bars had worked up to this point, so it made sense to think about whether something else had caused the stomach cramps. I realized that I’d started the run late, so I’d eaten my mid-morning snack of yogurt and fruit. I’d also dressed too warmly and overheated. Either one of those could have been the cause. I decided to stick with the nākd bars, avoid yogurt and dress in shorts and a t-shirt unless it was really cold.
I considered running another 20 miler, but I was concerned I might be overdoing it. I didn’t want to overtrain again so close to the start of the race. In any case, I learned something from that last run. I ran three miles with stomach cramps. Somewhere I’d read something along the lines of “You will probably struggle while running your first marathon. Along the way, there will probably be some pain, but that is part of what makes it worth doing.” I don’t remember where I read it now (probably a Runner’s World quote of the day), but it worried me. Though I’d had injuries and niggles, I’d never really had a painful run. After the stomach cramps, I knew that I could be in a moderate amount of pain and keep running. I know that probably sound a insane to non-runners, but I suspect it will be familiar to many runners.
All this meant that I went into the race worried about my shoulder, foot and mile 17.
My father-in-law and his sister drove me up to Kielder on the morning of the race. The forecast had been changing between sunny skies, light rain and heavy rain for the past few days. I was feeling pretty good about the race, and probably bored Roger and Sue to death talking about my training.
We parked and walked to the buses. One the way the way to the bus, I started chatting with a more experience marathoner. When he found out this was my first marathon, he offered the following advice, “For the last few miles, ignore your Garmin. Just let your legs do what they want to do. Don’t try to speed up or slow down. If you do that, your legs will just keep running.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I’m glad I ran into that guy. I wish I’d gotten his name so I could say thank you.
We got on a bus and went to the starting area. I talked with Roger and Sue, bought a running pouch for my nākd bars (which I usually kept in a Camelback I’d left at home) and watched as the clouds came in. As it got colder, I briefly considered putting on a long sleeve shirt. The memory of the stomach cramps kept me from doing this. Instead I pulled out a bin bag and slipped it on. I probably would have overheated in a long sleeve shirt. I was glad I’d read the race guide one last time and noticed the recommendation to bring a bin bag.
I dropped my bag off, jogged to the starting point and did a few dynamic stretches. I reviewed what I thought would be my strategy: run at a pace of 10:20 for the first 20 miles, think of 20 miles as the halfway point, and try to go a bit faster for the last six miles. Based on the advice in Hal Higdon’s Marathon book, I also planned to walk the drink stations. If all went to plan, I should finish in about four an a half hours.
Fast out of the gate
My Garmin—which is old and doesn’t have the best battery life—was turned off until I got to the starting area. I thought twenty minutes would be enough time to get satellite reception. It wasn’t. I’m not sure if it was because I was hundreds of miles away from my last run or because of the trees. In any case, I started without the Garmin.
On my last two mile run, I tried to run slow and came pretty close to the 10:20 minute per mile pace I was aiming for. I tried to hit the feel of the pace of that, keeping I slow. It was a lot slower than many of runners around me.
I didn’t get satellite reception until about two miles in. When I finally glazed at my watch, I was running at an 8:40 pace, over a minute and a half per mile faster than I thought I was running. I clearly have work to do on my pacing.
After that, I had to continually pull myself back. It was difficult. “Nothing faster than 10:00,” I’d tell myself. I’d adjust my pace so it was somewhere between 10:00 and 10:20. I’d run for a bit. When I looked at the Garmin again, I’d be running at 8:20, 9:00, 9:30. Too fast. I’d make an effort to slow down, and repeat the whole process. “Run slow now so you can run fast later,” I told myself. My body refused to listen. I feel like I spent far too much time looking at the Garmin. Kielder is a beautiful run, and I was missing most of the scenery because I couldn’t pace myself. And that was probably because I didn’t spend enough time working on pacing during my training.
Running to the hill
The first thing I was focused on was a hill at 10 miles. The race guide made this seem quite challenging, so I wanted to see how I did. At 6 miles, Roger and Sue were at the Butteryhaugh spectator point. Madeline, Joanne and George weren’t with them. They were coming up separately, so I suspected they’d run into problems. I thought I’d see them at Belvedere, near the halfway point.
I continued to struggle with my pace, running faster than I wanted to, pulling myself back, and repeating the whole thing. The miles slipped quickly past. Just before 10 miles, we went up a hill. It didn’t seem that bad. Was that the hill? I was worried about that? I was feeling pretty confident.
Despite my plans, I’d run through the first two water stations. I’m not really sure why. It may have been because I didn’t see anyone else walking them. The ten mile hill seemed easy, but I was still worried about my pace. I decided walking the water stations might help me slow it down a bit, so I walked the water station just after the hill and most of the following water stations.
Onwards toward the dam
I wanted to focus on 20 miles as the half way point, but after the 10 mile hill, my focus shifted to the dam. This was partly because the Kielder trail signs counted down the miles to the dam. It was also because the dam was at 17.25 miles. Almost exactly the distance when I got stomach cramps on my last 20 mile run.
But first there was another challenge. Just before (or was it after) the half way point, there was another hill. Another hill? I wasn’t expecting it. If the route guide mentioned it, I hadn’t filed it away as something to be concerned about. It seemed about as steep and high as the ten mile hill. I didn’t really struggle, but it was unexpected.
Although I was trying to focus on 20 miles as the half way point, I did a mental check once I came to the half way point. My shoulder hurt a little, and my foot felt OK. I could feel a bit of friction on the ball of my foot, but it didn’t seem like blisters. My stomach seemed fine. The first two nākd bars didn’t seem to cause a problem, but I wasn’t at the dam yet.
After the halfway point, I started looking for the Belvedere spectator point. Fourteen miles. Fifteen miles. I didn’t see it. I remembered seeing a few four wheel drives and about a half dozen people as I made my way up the unexpected half-way hill. Was that the spectator point? If so, the buses probably couldn’t make it there. Come to think of it, the spectator point at 3 miles seemed the same: a few four wheel drives and a smattering of people. I figured there were probably some spectator points that the buses couldn’t get to.
In any case, I was a few miles away from the dam. Many stomach still felt fine. I ate another nākd bar. As we got closer to the dam, I noticed some runners walking up hills. Many of them from running clubs. I ran with a woman who was worried about how tired her legs were. She dropped back as we approached a hill and said she was going to fast walk up the hill. Walking up hills? I hadn’t really considered it as a possiblity. I thought back to the route guide and remembered the mention of a “tactical walk” that made me think the ten mile hill would be difficult.
I kept running. We were nearly at the damn. 17 miles. My stomach felt fine. I reached the dam and my family was there to cheer me on. I ran towards them and gave George a high five. As I was crossing the dam, they’d already managed to catch a bus. They were banging on the window, still cheering me on. It put a huge smile on my face.
I would either seem them at the Bull Crag spectator point or at the finish, depending in what they decided to do.
Making it to “halfway”
I still felt pretty good. The woman I was running with at that point had run the Kielder marathon the year before. She finished in four and a half hours, my target time. Just before we parted ways, she said, “Now comes the hard part.”
“The hard part?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “If I remember correctly this last bit is harder than the first.”
Uh oh. I thought the last part wasn’t that bad, relatively flat compared to the first part of the route. I remembered a mention of a hill, but the route guide made it seem manageable. “At this point, the hill might feel steeper than it is.” Surely it wouldn’t be too bad? I’d just have to see how it went.
At 18 miles I felt a bit of a twitch in my stomach. Was that a stomach cramp? I wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel too bad, but it didn’t seem to be going away either. I did my best not too think about it.
Mile 19. The Tower Knowes spectator point. There were a few people here. I didn’t expect to see my family here, though. We’d agreed beforehand it was too close to the dam. They probably couldn’t get there in time.
There was also a drink station. I walked it. As soon as I slowed to a walk, I felt my legs go a wobbly. It was almost cartoonish. It should have been accompanied by a slide whistle descending quickly to a comically low note. If my legs could speak they would have said, “Oh, great. Are we done then?” I grabbed a drink and ran. “No. No. No.” I told my legs. “We’ve got a ways to go!” I was talking to my legs. Hmmm. It seemed to work though. Once I got them going, I felt OK again and regained my pace.
A few more hills. I knew they weren’t big, but more and more people were walking them. It was tempting, but after the mile 19 drink station, I didn’t want to stop.
I was at twenty miles. Half-way. Since the dam I’d kept the pace pretty steadily between 10:20 and 10:00. I felt pretty good, but now I was trying to keep the pace up rather than slow myself down. No sign of the dreaded wall. I decide not to eat a nākd bar, though. I was still worried that the slight twinge in my stomach would turn into full-blown cramps. I also skipped the drinks station.
The last “half”
“Just a 10k to go,” I told myself. “Easy. Just a 10k.”
Somewhere after mile 21, I started to slow down. It became more and more difficult to hit my target pace. It happened gradually. It had been happening over the last few miles, while I was still telling myself that I feel good. It definitely wasn’t a “wall.” It didn’t arrive suddenly, and I didn’t slam into it. It was more like a bog: the deeper you get, the more difficult it is to move quickly.
And then it happened. The hill. When I looked up at the multiple switchbacks, it looked massive, and the runners looked like ants. I started to run up. The route guide was right. It felt steep. Really steep. At that point, I had no way if objectively measuring how high or steep it actually was. Nevertheless, I was sure it was the steepest, highest hill I’d encountered that day. When I was close to halfway up, I felt a familiar twitch in my left calf. On no. Cramp. My calves have always been prone to cramping. When I was transitioning to barefoot running, I woke up a few times with midnight calf cramps. My massive calves would cramp up into the size of a golf ball. I slowed down. I could still feel the pull in my calf. It was tensing up, about to crumple into a painful little ball. I stopped and moved to the side. I massaged my calf for a minute or so. It didn’t cramp. I walked the rest of the hill.
When I got to the top, I tentatively tried running. I ran. My calf seemed fine. A bit tense, but it no longer felt like it was going to cramp. I was running nowhere near my target pace. The numbers on my Garmin were depressing. And then I remembered the guy I met before the race started. “For the last few miles, ignore your Garmin. Just let your legs do what they want to do. Don’t try to speed up or slow down. If you do that, your legs will just keep running.” He clearly knew what he was taking about. After that point, I stopped looking at my watch. I focused on keeping my legs going.
At about the same time, I became aware of the pain. My right shoulder was more painful than it had ever been. My right foot hurt too. Everything else from the waist down was sore. I didn’t feel any blisters, but they were probably there, masked by all the other pain I was feeling. When did everything start to hurt this much? It had snuck up on me.
At the next hill, almost everyone was walking. I thought I’d try. I was immediately greeted by the same slide-whistle slump I felt at the mile 19 drink station. Nope. I’d have to run. I needed to keep my legs going.
At some point during the last three or four miles, the conversation in my head was like listening to one of George’s Thomas the Tank Engine stories: Edward and Gordon. “I can’t do it. I will do it. I can’t do it. I will do it.” I think this is how I started singing to my legs. That’s right, for the last three miles of the race, I sang to my legs. Out loud. Whatever came into my head. “Come on, legs. You can do it. Come on, legs. There’s nothing to it. I know you can go, go, go. Come on legs, let it flow.” That sort of thing. For three miles. I passed a few people and was passed by a few people. All the while singing out loud to my legs. I’m not sure if anyone noticed. I think everyone was ensconced in their own private worlds of pain and determination at that point.
Even with the singing, the last three miles were hard. It kept my mind off of the pain, but I still felt completely exhausted. I cursed every small hill. The mileage signs never came quickly enough. And I sang silly songs.
Boom to go
I was wondering when the 26 mile sign would come. I wasn’t just wondering. I was desperate for it. I was silently beggaring the gods of running to make it appear. Suddenly, I saw a sign. Was that it? No. This sign said “BOOM TO GO.” Boom to go? What the…? “I wish I had some boom left.” I muttered to myself. When I got closer, I realized it actually said “800m to go.” 800 meters? “That’s not far,” I thought. “But I have no boom.” As I was thinking about how I had no boom, my legs were proving me wrong. They were running faster than they had in the last seven miles. I honestly have no idea how this happened. I still cannot fathom where the boom came from, but it was there. We’d done this before, my legs and I: running to the finish. I’ve always tried to keep a little extra in reserve to make a last dash. But this time, I was sure it wasn’t there.
I was dashing for the finish, baffled and giddy. I was still wondering if I could keep it up for the full 800 meters. I wasn’t sprinting, but it felt like it. Surely my legs would give out before then? I passed one of the marshals, who shouted “Just 300 meters to go.” 300 meters? I can do that! And my legs went faster. I passed the 200 meter sign. My legs went faster still. The finish line was just ahead. I spotted my family, cheering for me. I veered over to high five George and ran past the finish line.
Silver superhero cape. Medal. Banana. Water. Coconut Water. Goody bag. T-shirt. Red socks. Energy bars. By the time I reached the bag drop area, my hands were full. The end is a bit of a blur. I found my family, and did some dancing (how could I still dance?) with George while I waited for a massage.
It sunk in slowly: I’d run a marathon. I had no idea of my time. I didn’t really care. I’d run a marathon. It was not easy, but I’d proven that it was possible.
I’d find out later that night that my time was 4:29:20. Just under my target time of four and a half hours. When I first found this out, I laughed. I told Joanne, “It makes it seem like I planned it.” I meant that the actual race was nothing like the plan I had in my head. But writing this out makes me realise that I did plan it, but more importantly I changed the plan when things didn’t go the way I expected them to. I’d done something I thought was impossible, but only because I repeatedly changed the plan. If I’d tried to do stick to my original plan, I would likely have failed. I would have aimed for a time I could no longer achieve. I would have continued overtraining. I would have tried to run barefoot when I didn’t have time to adapt to barefoot trail running.
Running has taught me a lot, but I think being adaptable is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned (so far).
I’ve learned a lot of other lessons from this marathon.
I probably won’t be walking the drink station in future marathons. I’ll need to sort out my shoulder. The pain in the last few miles was crazy. And I am going to have to pay some serious attention to my pacing, focusing on being able to pace myself without referring to my watch constantly.
The Kielder Marathon was very well organized. While the race packs arrived a bit late, they contained most of the information I needed on race day. The bag drop was probably one of the best I’ve seen. The signage was excellent, both before and during the race. The marshals were fantastic. They were everywhere. During the race, it seemed there was one around every turn offering encouragement or advice (usually along the lines of “Careful on the way down this hill.”). The route is beautiful, even on a cloudy, drizzly day. I definitely believe the claim that Kielder Marathon is “Britain’s most beautiful.”
The one area that could be improved is providing information on the spectator buses. As I mentioned above, not all of the spectator points were accessible on the buses. There was nothing in the Race Guide or Map that made this clear. The ferry was also not carrying spectators. The map and guide both gave the impression it would be. This caused my family a bit of worry. Mostly, they were worried about me not knowing why they weren’t at a point we’d agreed on. Perhaps in future, Kielder could provide a guide for spectators.
Despite the issues with the spectator busses, the Kielder Marathon was brilliant. If you’re considering it, I can’t recommend it enough.
And finally, I want to say thanks to all the people who helped me while I was getting ready to do this.
Thanks to Joanne and George for putting up with all the long runs. And for driving to meet me at the end if some if then. Thanks especially to Joanne for listening to me talk endlessly about running.
Thanks to everyone at MyBuilder for listening to me talk on and on about running and nutrition. And for still wishing me good luck, even after having to out up with me.
Thanks to Mike, Ingrid, David, Lindsey, Danielle, Helene, Jo, Tanya and everyone else that posts their running updates on Facebook. You guys inspire me to get out there every day.
Thanks to my Mom for being the one person to keep doing Daily Challenge with me. It helps me keep on track and broadens my health and fitness knowledge. I know I don’t manage to do it every day, but seeing her on there day in and day out makes me very happy.
Thanks to Joanne for getting me started running and for being there when I needer her most.
Thanks to David for the encouragement when I first started running and for giving me my first running watch.
Thanks to Melissa for getting me running again and for the great advice since then.
Thanks to Madeline for originally suggesting the Kielder Marathon to me.
Thanks to Madeline and Roger for the place to stay in Northumbia. Thanks especially to Madeline for the amazing pre-race dinners and the special pre-race breakfast.
Thanks to Roger for driving me all the way up to Kielder, and on his birthday, too. Thanks to Sue for the great company on the way.
Thanks to Roger, Madeline, Sue, Joanne and George for coming along and cheering me on.
Thanks to the organisers, marshals and volunteers who made the Kielder Marathon possible. They did an amazing job.
Thanks, you guys. I couldn’t have done it without you. I’m incredibly grateful to have such amazing people in my life.