Lessons from the London Marathon, part 1: training

I might have mentioned that I ran the London Marathon earlier this year. I mean, I don’t like to go on about it, but… I. Ran. The. London. Marathon. And in January next year, I’m running another one – the Chevron Houston Marathon. Yup, that’s Houston, as in Houston, Texas. Yee haw.

While it’s still six months or so away, it won’t be long before I’m hard into training and preparation. At which point I’ll probably question why I’m putting myself through this again.

Why am I putting myself through this again? I’ve explained this before, so here’s the short version: I’ve done a marathon once, and I need to do a second to work out if I actually enjoyed it or not. And also to see if the knowledge I built up preparing and running my first marathon helps when I do another.

And what did I learn? A lot. An awful lot. So, to prepare for marathon number two, I’ve been making a list of the lessons I learnt on marathon number one. And, er, here are some of them.

Now, you’ll note these aren’t necessarily lessons about structured training plans, race pacing, pre-race diets and that sort of thing. They’re more random insights I picked up. And, obviously, these are personal lessons: they might not be relevant to anyone but me.

Clearly, you learn a lot when you’re training for, running and recovering from a marathon. So I’ve split this into various parts. First up: the training.

1: Marathon training doesn’t have to take over your life…

It’s an oft-used cliche that marathon training dominates your life for months. But that wasn’t the case for me.

Now, I was doing a lot of running before I started training, so maybe that’s why ramping that up wasn’t too much of a change. I also live close to where I work and don’t have kids, which meant it wasn’t hard for me to fit in training runs free of distractions.

But still, with a bit of thought and common sense, it was possible to tailor my training around my life, rather than having to tailor my life around my training.

2: …but it will take over your thoughts

Seriously. I thought about the marathon a lot. And, as it drew closer, I thought about it even more.

Training, preparation, diet, picturing what the day would be like – if my brain had spare capacity at any given time, marathon thoughts would seep in there. By the final weeks it was pretty much all-consuming.

3: I got grumpy as the marathon got closer

Really, I did. I’m generally quite an upbeat, cheery person (well, I try to be…), but in the weeks before the marathon I became grumpier and snappier – probably how a coping device for my pre-race nerves. I was less tolerant and patient with others – especially when people tried to give me advice about running the marathon…

4: Long, timed training runs are boring

Marathon training involves long runs. And those two-plus hour training runs can be pretty boring. Here’s the problem: when your training programme calls for running for a set time (rather than distance), you can’t make it end sooner by running faster. You just have to keep on plodding. Finding a variety of places to run is pretty important.

5: Races are a great way to break up your training

I entered two half-marathons and a number of smaller races in the build-up to London. The half-marathons were there to serve as practice for racing longer distances, but they also served as a good distraction from marathon training.

In the build-up to each, I focused my training on that race, making for a welcome change from the norm and giving me a short-term goal to aim for.

6: Lots of people will ask about your training…

Really, they will. Once people work out you’re in training for a marathon, lines such as ‘hey, how’s the training going?’ becomes the default way you’re addressed.

Or it could just be I’m so boring people don’t know what else to say to me.

7: …but not all of them want a long answer

You can respond by delving into your long training plans and pre-race aspirations, and watch eyes glaze over. Most people just want a simple ‘it’s going well, thanks.’

8: You’ll get lots of advice

Advice. Lots of advice. So much advice. Some will come from marathon veterans. Some will come from people who’ve never run.

All the advice is invariably well intentioned. But, for me at least, it wasn’t entirely helpful. The only person I really listened to advice from? Myself.

That’s just how I roll.

9: Your training plan will go wrong

It will. Of course it will. You might get busy in work, or at home. I managed to fall properly ill at a wholly inopportune moment. If you have a rigid, inflexible training plan it will only cause you stress when it falls apart.

10: Marathon running is a solitary pursuit…

For the 3h 28m 17s I tackled the 26.2 miles of the London Marathon course, I was part of part of an amazingly large communal event, along with tens of thousands of others. But the actual race is just a small part of running a marathon, compared to the hours of training and preparation you put in – and you’ll run a lot of those miles by yourself.

10: …so it’s easier with a friend…

Neither me nor my friend Matt can quite remember how I persuaded him to join me in signing up to run the London Marathon for the South West Children’s Heart Circle. But I’m very glad he did.

Knowing someone else training for a marathon really useful: you have someone to talk to who understands what you’re going through, and who you can train with.

11: …but not all the time

That said, it’s important that you don’t become too reliant on anyone else. Me and Matt having a different natural running pace, so while it benefitted both of us to run together, it was also useful for both of us not to do everything together.

12: It’s hard work – so embrace it

Yes, it’s hard work. It’s training to run a marathon. Of course it’s hard work. If you’re going to do it properly, it’s going to involve lots of running and general fitness work. It’s going to require effort. It’ll probably hurt. You’ll ache a lot. You’ll have to go out training in the cold, wet and dark. You’ll have to find the time to fit in long training runs. You’ll have to structure your life a bit. And you’re going to have to run a lot.

Training for a marathon is hard work. Really, it is. I found I had to embrace that. It’s hard, but hard is rewarding. Honest.

Coming soon (well, soon-ish, when I get round to writing it)… part 2: the pre-race build-up


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