It’s been quite a while since the race, and I’ve finally got round to rounding things up. Why the wait? Well, part of it was a desire to think about just about anything other than running or training post marathon. The other factors being birthday celebrations, stag do’s, weddings etc. meaning that I’ve definitely made up for any abstinence from alcohol during training.
Now that neither training or socialising are quite so extreme, I’ve been able to reflect on the race day so here’s the summary of my first attempt at a marathon – AYM style…
Race day nutrition
Fist up let’s talk food. It is after all, pretty much my favourite topic.
Despite dabbling with a low-carb approach during training I was by no means fat adapted, so the marathon itself was always going to require some hefty replenishment of glycogen stores.
My approach was built around UCAN Superstarch. You can read about it here, but in summary it’s an extremely long chain carbohydrate (hence the starch part of the name), that absorbs very quickly. These characteristics are unique and are supposed to provide continuous energy without inhibiting your body’s ability to draw on fat as a fuel source. I can only make a guess about the latter claim, but having used a single serving of Superstarch (water only during the race) to run a half marathon PR in preparation it certainly lived up to the consistent, stable energy claims.
In fairness, as long as you eat properly before a race and expect to finish in 2 hours or under, running out of fuel – whatever the carbohydrate source – is unlikely to be an issue. As a result, this test race probably wasn’t the best indicator of how effective it would be for the marathon, but I was confident enough to stick with it (and keen enough to avoid energy gels!).
So, this is what I ate/drank in the build up to and during the race…
The night before:
Salmon, sweet potato, quinoa, lots of greens, with a few nuts and seeds.
Race day breakfast:
3 scrambled eggs, spinach & tomatoes + 1 serving of Superstarch.
Race day carry:
1x UCAN Superstarch serving
1x UCAN Hydrate electrolyte sachet
5x Homemade Phat fudge servings
4x Homemade ‘energy gels’, consisting of…
- Innocent super smoothie
- Chia seeds
- Beetroot extract powder
Whatever I could get my hands on! Followed by a few beers. Not optimal for recovery but very much needed.
The overall strategy was to put off the need for simple sugars for as long as possible. With the Superstarch at breakfast providing the basis for energy demands, I’d use Phat fudge exclusively for the first half marathon. In doing this, I was betting on the effort required to maintain target pace being low enough that I was still able to draw on a significant proportion of fats – thereby sparing glycogen reserves. At the halfway point I’d then knock back the second Superstarch serving, and start taking the homemade ‘energy gels’. Whilst I hoped this would see me through, I strongly suspected I’d need something extra in the last 5 miles. Luckily you could pick up gels/sports drinks on the course which allowed me to retain options for the end of the race.
Quite a few assumptions then and plenty of ignoring the ‘don’t try it for the first time on race day’ advice. In particular, I was taking a punt on my ability to consistently draw on fat as a fuel source. Despite having no data on this, there was a couple of reasons it felt like a reasonable risk.
Firstly, almost all of my training had been faster than race pace, and I’d felt comfortable (heart rate within aerobic threshold, breathing steady) some 30 sec/per/mile under what I was going to be running. Secondly, for longer training runs I’d tended to run fasted, just on fats, or with Superstarch prior & only water during. In other words, I knew what it felt like to run for extended periods with glycogen stores low. These experiences gave me confidence that my nutrition plan – whilst ambitious – wasn’t completely unrealistic.
Read on to see how well placed that confidence was…
My goals were very clear; finish under 3 hours 30 min with a negative split (second half of the race faster than the first).
To do this I’d planned to run the first half marathon at or just under 8min/per/mile pace, reserving as much energy as possible. From there I’d steadily increase the pace over the next 7 miles trying to run on feel as long as it was under 8 min/per/mile pace. Despite having never run past 15 miles continuously I was pretty confident I’d be OK up to the 20 mile mark. After that it was all based on hope that I could hang on!
Here’s how it went in practice…
After the excitement of the mass start I managed to settle into a comfortable rhythm within the first few miles. Negotiating the crowds & used water bottles I went through halfway (13.1 miles) in 1:45:30, which was just behind the target 8min/per/mile pace. Close to ideal, but it left me with a likely zero sum game – I was either going to achieve both or neither goals. No pressure.
Luckily, I felt pretty good through miles 14 – 20 and was able to turn up the pace to between 7:30 – 7:45 min/per/mile. By mile 21 however, things had got ugly. Very ugly.
After feeling like I was floating round on a wave of support for the first 20 miles, I suddenly couldn’t hear the crowds any more. In fact I couldn’t really focus on anything other than how much my body was keen not to be running at that point. Certainly not at the pace I needed to maintain. After avoiding most simple sugars up to that point, it was time to get fully involved. I picked up a Lucozade energy gel & drink, chugged them down and resolved to cling on. This took the form of trying to run more efficiently, putting my head down and grinding out each stride, or nicking any extra pace I could get on downhill sections. I was desperate not to fall behind 8 min/per/mile pace and wasn’t fussy about how I managed it!
Those miles were a bit of a blur so I’m not quite sure when I started to perk up again, but the detailed splits suggest it was somewhere around the 24 mile mark. Whether it was the fuel/hydration kicking in, or if it just snapped me back into consciousness enough to start drawing from the crowd again, things improved. It wasn’t much easier to maintain the pace, but at least I felt like I had the energy for the battle again.
With my face switching from an extreme grimace to massive smile and back again every few seconds it must have looked a little strange for anybody watching, but Embankment to Westminster was incredible. Euphoric.
The fight went on all the way to the Mall, when after a few checks of the watch I finally knew I’d done enough to make it. The result was a 1:42:36 second half marathon, giving a total race time of 3:28:06 and a -3 min split.
A first marathon finish & all targets achieved. Pretty solid way to round off the 20’s!
How did I do it?
Well, the foundation was months of consistent training combined with hours spent researching & experimenting with how to unlock any extra performance (without running lots of miles!). Despite the lack of experience running longer distances I also had a very clear race strategy and executed it about as well as I could have hoped. Ironically, the ‘extra’ challenge of running a negative split was actually very useful.
When it came down to it though, achieving my goals had a lot more to do with the support I had leading up to and on the day. Everyone who donated so generously to my fundraising efforts – some of whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years (or ever met!). The hordes of people who lined every street to mainly to cheer strangers. The team at the Mental Health Foundation who do so much, for so many & ask for so little. My incredible friends and family who stood out in the cold for hours and shouted at me like maniacs regardless of whether I actually spotted them or not (sorry team!). They are the ones that keep you going when things get desperate & they’re what makes the London Marathon such a special event. Thanks to you all.
The two big questions that people asked after the race were “would you do it again?” shortly followed by “if you did, would you train for it normally next time?”.
When it comes to the first question, the answer is yes, absolutely… just not any time soon. Despite the agony it was an incredible experience (I can see why people get addicted to the challenge & the atmosphere). I’m also pretty sure I haven’t got close to my absolute potential yet, and the opportunity to test that will always be a draw.
As a first time experience however, the challenge, the unknown, the timing next to a big birthday; it would be difficult to top. The mention of a good for age qualifying time (sub – 3:05) did intrigue me, but to run that much quicker would take a whole other level of dedication & sacrifice – something I’m not prepared to commit to right now.
If anybody has any ideas of other challenges I might be able to take on in a non-conventional way let me know, I’m open to suggestions.
Finally, in response to the question about whether I’d increase training mileage if I ran another marathon, the short answer is “yes, but not by much”. If you’ve read any of my other posts you won’t be surprised there’s also a long answer, but I’ll save that for another time.
Note: If you’re interested in trying Superstarch, go to www.generationucan.co.uk* and speak to Kate Litchfield over there. She had some great advice about getting the most out of the product and helped talk me through potential strategies.
*This isn’t an affiliate link & I don’t stand to make any money from the recommendation.