When I made my way through through the start arch of the Chevron Houston Marathon course at just gone 0700hrs on a humid, misty Texan morning on Sunday January 15, it was just gone 1300hrs in Britain. And while I was beginning to run my dad, and several of my friends, were settling down after a spot of lunch to follow my progress.
While I was the one who actually had to run 26.2 miles, I think I had the easy job. I was responsible for my race; my friends and family could only watch the split times unfold. And while I was utterly aware of how well I was feeling (or otherwise), they were left to guess from the times.
That could be why, when I finished my second marathon in 3h 16m 40s, and 266th out of 7132 finishers, I was perhaps the person who was least impressed. That’s not a #humblebrag – I’m fully aware that’s a pretty handy marathon time, especially for someone who hadn’t taken up running three years ago. And I’m also aware it was nearly 12 minutes quicker than the 3h 28m 17s I set in last year’s London Marathon. It’s just that I set out with a plan and a target time, and I executed it. The only real surprise for me was that everything went so well.
My finish time was pretty much exactly what I was aiming for. Of course, one reason my friends and family might have been surprised was because I didn’t actually tell anyone else my pacing strategy or target time before the event. That was partly because I don’t like adding to the pressure I put on myself by creating expectations – and partly because I didn’t really decide on my target time and pacing strategy until the night before the event. No, really, I was scribbling out different pacing strategies on the free notepad provided in my hotel room at 2200hrs on Saturday evening…
That scrappy bit of paper ultimately provided my strategy. I worked out the average minutes per mile pace I’d need to hit my target time, and tried to run each mile close to that: I had the first date screen of my Garmin watch set to show the distance travelled, my total time and my average lap pace (with my auto lap set to one mile, obviously). I had my second data set to show the overall average pace, and at various points I’d check to see I was within that.
There are, admittedly, more precise ways of doing pacing, but I was wary of them. At last year’s London Marathon expo there were ‘pacing bands’ you could pick up, paper bracelets that told you how long you should take to hit each mile market to run a marathon in a certain time. I picked up five different versions, and only decided which to use when I was in the Greenwich Park start area.
I didn’t actually refer to it much during the race. Worse, when my pace started to falter late on, and I knew my (admittedly optimistic) target time was slipping away, it became painful and frustrating to even look at it – it was a reminder of my over-optimistic folly. I ripped it off somewhere around 22 miles in.
To give me options, I did pick up what I thought were some pace bands, courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods, at the Houston expo. But I abandoned any vague thoughts I had of putting one on just in case when I discovered they were actually temporary tattoo transfers. Yeah, couldn’t tip those off during a marathon… they would remain firmly unused.
Instead, I just tried to run to an average pace, a task made easier by Houston’s flat course. Seriously, it was flat. Just look at how flat it was!
A flat course made my planning much easier. I could essentially divide the race into 26 (and a bit) parts, and know that each mile was effectively going to be the same. All I had to do was leave something in hand for the latter portions of the race when my legs were likely to be sore. That was a lesson I learned hard from London, when I set out a little bit faster than I meant to, and – possibly due to a recent illness, possibly due to a lack of marathon experience – really, really struggled in the final few miles. Like, really struggled. Really, I struggled.
In Houston, I was more disciplined. I avoided getting sucked into the atmosphere and speeding up. I tried not to get pulled along faster than I wanted by quicker runners. I just tired to make sure that, near the end of every mile split, I tried to make sure my pace for that mile was somewhere around 7m 25s.
Another factor that helped my discipline was the weather. There were some pretty serious pre-event warnings about the energy-sapping humidity forecast for race day, and I was particularly cautious to ensure I was running with a bit of reserve. I also really planned out my mid-race refuelling and hydration strategy – I drank early and often from the Gatorade and water stations, and also started out with a bottle to guarantee I could get decent fluid on board. And after my previous struggles I finally cracked how to drink out of paper cups while running – a subject I’ll return to in the near-future.
During the race, I tried to stick to my plan and focus on enjoying the experience. I tried not to worry about how far I had left, or what my legs felt like. I just tried to take in all the sights and experiences, letting them distract me from the task at hand. Of course, people tracking me online didn’t have the luxury of being distracted by the awesome spectators.
After last year’s London Marathon, I wrote about the slightly surreal realisation, every time I approached a timing mat (which were placed at 5k intervals, plus half-distance) that friends and family were charting my progress, and studying my splits and times. I had exactly the same feeling during the Houston Marathon, with the added amusement of a six-hour time difference to consider. Even in this connected age, the ability of people to track my progress on a marathon amazes me.
In Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, my dad was hitting refresh on his computer, flicking between the split times for me and my brother (who did the half marathon) and the live feed of the finish line. In various other parts of the UK, friends and colleagues (some known to me, others I’ve only found out about since) were routinely clicking on the website to see how I was faring.
Back in Texas, in the Hampton Inn Houston Downtown, my mum was tracking my split times on her mobile phone to work out when to leave her hotel room to find a spot at the finish.
And, in perhaps the most surreal example of all, while running the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, my brother was able to keep track of my progress through push notification splits sent to his watch by the Houston Marathon app.
Knowing people are tracking your split times creates a strange form of pressure: I couldn’t help but think about what conclusions they might be drawing. Would they think I was going too fast? Or too slow? Would they think I had adopted a good pacing strategy?
In the end, I tried to put such thoughts out of my mind, and focused on my own race. I’d find out after the marathon what they all thought.
In brief: my mum thought I was going a bit too fast. My dad thought I was pacing it superbly. My brother found motivation in his running from my split times. And, back in the UK, one of my friends later confessed to amazement by the fact I ran the first 5k of a marathon quicker than he’d ever run a 5k…
As an uptight Brit, such compliments are pretty hard to receive. Honest. I tried not to think about where my time would sit among other marathon runners, or in terms of how fast other people can or can’t run. I just wanted to run the marathon to the best of my ability.
I had a plan. A last-minute, relatively loose plan scribbled out on a scrap of paper, but it was a plan. And I stuck to it, and delivered. And that’s what I’m most happy about…