Today’s lesson: it turns out that not running a marathon might actually be harder than running one.
Now, that statement is, of course, almost entirely untrue. There are very few things I’ve done that are harder than running a marathon. Running a marathon is physically and mentally demanding. It’s a personal, physical and psychological challenge. And even in this age of mass participation marathons, only a very small percentage of people have ever managed to run one.
Not running a marathon, by contrast, is easy. After all, millions of people don’t run a marathon every day.
Here’s the thing though: the Virgin Money London Marathon took place today, with more than 40,000 runners taking part. I wasn’t one of them. Last year, I was. And, frankly, I wanted to be out there again. Far more than I expected.
Now, I entered the ballot for this year’s race, but didn’t get in. I chose not to pursue a charity entry again, and since I’ve already run the Houston Marathon this year, I didn’t think I’d miss it that much. Sure, running last year’s London Marathon was a thrilling experience, but it’s an experience I now have and will never forget. But as this year’s marathon approached, my feelings began to change.
I’ve written before about the experience of running FOMO: the fear of missing out. Today was a bit different. It was, if such an acronym exists, a case of running KOMO: the knowledge of missing out. I knew exactly what I was missing out on. I knew the intoxicating concoction of emotions and sensations that you encounter running one of the world’s great marathons.
As this year’s marathon drew closer, even small events began to bring the amazing memories of last year’s race to the front of my mind. Every time a weather forecasters briefly mentioned the likely conditions for the race in their reports, I’d remember how obsessive I became with checking the forecast last year. Every time a news bulletin featured a story about a charity runner, I’d remember the joy of fundraising last year, and the honour I felt the first time I pulled on my South West Children’s Heart Circle running top (by the way, if you’re in the mood to donate, it’s still a very worthy cause…).
As mentioned previously, I did toy with the idea of going into London and watching this year’s marathon. But, in the end, I thought that might be too close. So I decided to revert to an old family tradition: watching the marathon while eating sausage sandwiches.
Yes, one year after I was pounding the streets of London, this year I watched the race from my living room while eating sausage sandwiches. And they were very tasty sausage sandwiches too (the secret ingredient: Gran Luchito smoked chilli mayonnaise. Seriously, it makes pretty much anything taste better…).
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) April 23, 2017
But while the sausage sandwiches and freshly brewed coffee tasted good, the more I watched the TV, the more I wished I could trade them in for a clutch of energy gels and a bottle of Lucozade Sport.
Almost every time I looked at the television, I saw something that reminded me of last year: whether it was the mass start in Greenwich Park, an images of runners rounding the Cutty Sark or just an otherwise innocuous street that I vividly remembered running down.
It brought all the emotions, all the sensations, flooding back. Watching the elite women and men race up a small rise on Embankment and then past the Palace of Westminster brought back memories of just how much I hurt near the end of last year’s race. Watching them sprint down The Mall made me reflect on trying to spot my mum and brother in the grandstand last year (I miserably failed: I made the amateur error of looking in the stands on the wrong side of the course…).
It was hard, it really was. So I eventually decided I needed to break myself away from it. So, naturally, I went for a run.
Although this was a run with a difference. There’s no shortage of beautiful places to run near where I live, but since I covered most of them during marathon training runs, I decided it was time to head further out of London. I hopped in my car and headed for Virginia Water, at the southern end of Windsor Great Park.
I’d never been running before, so it was a complete change. And on a pleasantly sunny Sunday, I carved out a lovely route around the lake and up past The Totem Pole (a gift to the Queen from Canada back in 1958).
It was all really very lovely: a relaxing, stress-free, brilliant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But it’s not where I’d really liked to have been running today…
In short, not running a marathon really is rather hard. But only because I know what I’m missing out on. And, frankly, it probably won’t seem so hard tomorrow when I wake up and my legs are working properly.
Because, clearly, running a marathon is absolutely, definitively, unarguably harder than running one. So if you were one of the 40,000 plus people who ran the London Marathon today, congratulations. You’ve just done something utterly amazing. Enjoy it.
Pop quiz: it’s the day before you run the London Marathon. What are you having to eat tonight? Chances are it’s pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why? Because carbs.
If you know knowing at all about marathon preparation and diets, you probably know about carb-loading. Put simply, eating carbs before you take part in a long race is a good thing. And what’s a great source of carbs? Pasta. So the night before a marathon? Eat pasta.
The science, of course, isn’t quite that simple. Science rarely is. Now, I’m not a scientist or nutritionist, but here’s the basics: the energy in most food comes in the form of carbohydrates, sugar or fat. Carbs are slower to break down, and your body will store carbs in your muscles and liver as glycogen.
During a longer race – we’re talking a half-marathon or longer – your body needs extra energy, so it finds glycogen or fat to burn and turn into that energy. It’s harder to turn fat into energy, so when you run out of glycogen you can run low of energy. Yes, we’re talking hitting the wall here.
In short, if you’re doing a long run, carb-loading before the race builds up your glycogen levels, allowing you to run further without hitting the wall.
Still awake? Good. I’ll try not to delve into too much more science, especially since I’m clearly not an expert on such things.
So, the night before a marathon? I’ll have a big, steaming bowl of pasta please. Lots of pasta. Give me carbs!
Hold on a second though: it’s not quite that simple. First, lots of studies now suggest you should increase your carb intake steadily in the week or so leading up to a big race. And secondly, there are loads of foods other than pasta that can provide you with good carbs: rice, potatoes, whole grains, beans, that sort of thing.
But still, here’s the thing… the night before I do a half-marathon, marathon or other long race, there’s only one food I want: pasta. It’s become a tradition.
In fact, I’ve even got a specific dish that I cook. I had it before I ran last year’s London Marathon. I had it before I ran this year’s Houston Marathon. I call it my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta. I’d give you the recipe here, but frankly the title of the dish pretty much gives it away.
Basically, cut up some chicken and coat with some paprika and other spices. Then cook the chicken along with lots of vegetables (mix it up, but think onions, chilli, peppers, broccoli, spinach, that sort of thing). Add in a tin of chopped tomatoes, a bit of water or stock and allow to thicken a bit. Then season, and add some more spices if needed. Meanwhile, cook up some pasta. Mix the pasta into the sauce, and serve, topped with basil and a hint of cheese. Ta dah.
Does my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta help me run a marathon? Honestly, I don’t know. But it surely doesn’t hurt. It’s good carbs, along with some healthy chicken and veg. It’s freshly cooked, so I know exactly what I’m eating the night before a marathon (that’s important). And, most of all, it’s a great big, steaming bowl of pasta-based comfort that makes me believe I’m heading into the marathon suitably carb-loaded. That’s worth it for the confidence boost alone.
Also, I love my spicy pre-run chicken pasta because it feels like I’m taking part in a grand marathon tradition. If you polled the runners in the London Marathon – or any other marathon for that matter – I bet pasta is by far the most popular meal the night before the race.
And that’s why, if and when it’s time for my third marathon, or my next big race, I know exactly what I’m having to eat the night before.
Pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why?
Read more of my random running loves here.
So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.
You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.
Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.
I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.
And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.
But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.
I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.
I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.
I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.
Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.
So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.
That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.
Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.
Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.
All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.
It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).
Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.
After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?
Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.
And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.
But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).
And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.
Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.
And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.
Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.
But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.
That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.
But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.
I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.
But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.
You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.
And, yes, it’s going to hurt.
But it will be incredible.
But mostly incredible.
London Marathon 2016 runner 47812
Running a marathon is tough. That won’t be news to anyone, obviously. So anything that can make such a tough task a little bit easier is always welcome.
When one of my good friends signed up to run this year’s Brighton Marathon, it seemed only right to go and cheer him on. So, along with my other friend (and fellow 2016 London Marathon runner Matt) last weekend I headed to the south coast to take part in a spot of marathon spectating. It was a great experience – and it also taught me a lot about what it’s like to experience a marathon from the sidelines.
The first lesson: if you think the logistical planning involved in running a marathon is tough, try spectating. No, really, it’s complicated!
When you’re running a marathon, your biggest challenge is getting to the start on time, dropping off your bag and kit, and then getting ready to run. Most big marathons will take care of the rest: dump your kit bag in the right place at the start of the London Marathon, and it will be magically handed to you after you finish.
Spectators have a lot more to consider. You’ve got to work out how to get there, where you’re going to spectate and, if you’re cheering on a friend, what time you need to be there to make sure you see them. And you’ve got to work out how to do all that while trying to account for an unknown number of other spectators, and the disruption in the city you’re heading to due to road closures because, you know, there’s a marathon taking place.
It’s not easy, and requires lots of planning. On last year’s London Marathon, my brother managed to head to the start with me, saw me three times out on the course and made it to the finish – while also finding time for a Gregg’s sausage roll. I have a new-found respect for his efforts.
Me and Matt spent much of Saturday evening poring over maps and spectator information from the Brighton Marathon website, while poring over train timetables and parking options.
Brighton is about an hour’s drive from my house, but with the city limited parking at the best of times, let alone on an unseasonably sunny weekend during the school holidays with a marathon on, the train seemed a better option. Well, aside from having to work our way around the inevitable line closures caused by weekend engineering works in the London area. And it was while delving into train timetables that we stumbled across a brilliant plan: don’t get the train to Brighton at all.
Eager to avoid the huge crowds we anticipated around the start and finish areas and the centre of Brighton, me and Matt had identified a chunk of the course a few miles west of the town centre, in Hove. We reckoned the crowd would be a bit thinner there, and the twists and turns of the course would make it possible for us to see our friend four times in relatively quick succession at miles 15, 17, 18 and 24. And, almost by accident, we discovered a train route that went from Clapham Junction to Hove, without going near Brighton.
This turned out to be a genius move. The train was much quieter than ones heading to Brighton on the way down – and the difference was even more marked on the way back (a Twitter search for #brightonmarathon results in lots of pics of a massively overcrowded Brighton Station on Sunday evening).
The other great benefit of heading straight to Hove was that it made for a far more relaxed start. Because our first spectating point was at around mile 15, we had a few extra hours to play with to get in position.
Mind you, it was a bit surreal being stood on a platform at Clapham Junction at 0915hrs, contemplating that the marathon was starting some 50 miles south of us. And even more odd checking my friend’s split times through the Brighton Marathon app while on the train to Hove.
Those split times taught me another important lesson of marathon spectating: following someone’s split times is much more stressful than actually running one yourself! Seriously, every time check provided more questions than answers. Was my friend going too fast? Was he going to slow? Was that slight drop in pace planned? Trouble is, the only information we had to go on were the split times every 5k or so – a hugely incomplete picture. At least when you’re running a marathon, you know how you’re faring.
Still, our stress at interpreting split times was more than tempered by our relaxed start. We even arrived in Hove with an hour or so to spare before we needed to be in position, giving us time for an absolutely lovely cooked breakfast. If you’re ever in Hove and need a quality breakfast, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wolfies Kitchen.
Fortified by breakfast, we then headed down to the course, and got in position. The Brighton course featured a section which involved running down one side of a street, doing a small loop and then running back the other. That meant we got two viewing chances for the price of one. We duly spotted our friend going past, shouted enough until he spotted us and gave us a pained wave, and then waited for him to return. I think we even did our part by giving him a bottle of water.
We then dropped down a street and saw him again five minutes later, before heading further down to the seafront, where a stream of marathon runners were making their way along the final few miles of the course on the promenade. It was all wonderfully English seaside: blue skies, a pebble beach, brightly coloured beach huts – and an ice cream shop.
Wait, did somebody say ice cream? And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at that? Is it wrong to sit eating an ice cream while watching people run a marathon? Probably. Maybe. But, well, it was a darn tasty ice cream…
Now, contrary to these tales of breakfast and ice cream (and I haven’t even got into the ma-hoosive sandwich I munched at Hove Station while waiting for the train home…), my Brighton trip wasn’t all about food. It was a chance to get caught up in the wonderful vibe and atmosphere of a big city marathon. And, in a way, it was payback time.
On both the London and Houston marathons I completed, the crowd played a huge role. The encouragement, clapping, cheering and support really did help me push on in moments when the pain kicked in and I began to doubt myself. So I didn’t stop at cheering on my friend in Brighton.
I’m not exactly the world’s most outgoing person, and I’m certainly not the whooping and hollering type. But I spent an awful lot of time last Sunday clapping, cheering and yelling encouragement at random strangers running the Brighton Marathon. And it was a lot of fun.
There was even some utterly random chat. Since it was a warm, sunny day I stuck on a cap in a desperate attempt to protect my pasty, fast-burning English skin. It just so happened to be a Houston Texans cap, which actually caught the attention of one runner, who somehow had the resolve to shout some Tony Romo-based banter at me as he passed.
A particular memory of the Houston Marathon was the encouragement that came from having complete strangers call my name – a benefit of having it emblazoned on my race bib. Plenty of Brighton marathoners had their names written on their shirts, and where possible I took to shouting their name in encouragement.
Mind you, I learned there was some balance to it, especially when we were stood at our final spectating point on mile 24. There was an art to reading the body language of a runner as they approached: some were pushing on strong to the finish, some were gritting their teeth and hanging in there. A few looked utterly defeated.
I eventually began to read from a runner’s body language how receptive to cheering they might be. And, contrary to what you’d expect, those runners who were really struggling often didn’t take too well to it. Perhaps they were just exhausted; perhaps their time plan was out the window. Many just seemed to want to get to the finish quietly.
By contrast, many of the middle group of runners – those clearly struggling but still pushing on – really did seem to feed off the crowd support. And if, in some small way, my being there to clap and cheer played some small part in getting them to the finish, it was worth the aching hands that resulted in clapping almost non-stop for several hours.
With my marathon running friend having his family in town, and with our train home departing from Hove, once we’d seen him head past mile 24 we set out for Hove Station. By the time I was back home late on Sunday afternoon, I was strangely, well, exhausted. Spectating on a marathon, it turns out, is hard work.
That said, it’s nowhere near as hard as running one. Despite that, as much fun as my day was, it would have been even more fun to be racing, not spectating.
Wait, what’s that, you say? Entries for the 2018 Brighton Marathon are now open? Hmmmm…
One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.
But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.
That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.
And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.
To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:
- To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
- To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
- To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
- To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
- To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
- Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…
1. Pick your target
Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.
The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.
2. The approach
Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.
The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.
Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.
3. It’s high five time
Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.
Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.
4. Never look back
Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.
Advanced high fiving: The next level
Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.
But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.
The high five chain
This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.
The ‘hit for power’ board
This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.
Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!
For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.
The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.
This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.
If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…
So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…
The first ‘proper’ race I ever entered was the Wedding Day 7k. As the name suggests, it takes place on a seven kilometre course. Even at the time, it seemed a slightly odd distance. But, as time passes, I’ve come to realise that it’s just downright unusual.
Years back, in the days before easy access to precise measurement equipment, online race comparison websites and the like, races were all sorts of strange distances. It largely depended on what course organisers could carve out of whatever roads, trails or paths they could get access to.
But, in the increasingly homogenised and standardised modern world, events have become far more standard in distance. Generally speaking, the vast majority of events are run over a handful of particular race lengths – 5k, 10k, 10-mile, half-marathons and marathons.
On, balance, that’s common sense. Those distances give people a good idea of the effort required to train for and complete in any given event, and it also makes it possible to compare progress on different races in different places at different times.
But that theory doesn’t entirely hold. No two race courses are the same: just think of the variation possible in both elevation changes and surface, for example. My best 10k race time was set on the virtually flat, wide Tarmac of Castle Combe Race Circuit. I can’t really compare the time I set there to my times on the Richmond Park 10k, which takes place on a hilly, mixed surface course.
But, most importantly, races of unusual distances are fun. They offer variety, something a bit different. And, frankly, the races I’ve competed in over unusual distances have been some of the most fun. I don’t think that’s coincidence: it seems the races organisers who persist with non-standard event distance races are the most proud of their events, and their history. The Wedding Day 7k is a great example. Another was the Treggy 7, a seven-mile trek in Cornwall featuring a great big, whopping hill.
Here’s another: last weekend I competed in the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. It features three different distances, and none of them are standard: you can take your pick from 8.2, 16.2 and 20.1 miles.
The distance stems from the course: it’s effectively a loop of the River Thames towpath and nearby roads from Kingston-upon-Thames down to Hampton Court Palace and back. The 8.2-milers do one loop, the 16.2 runners do two (a slight shortcut on lap two accounts for the fact it’s not quite double), while the 20.1-mile runners add an extra mini-loop early on.
Interestingly, the course is virtually the same one I’ve done several other runs on – the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon, and the Kingston 10 Miles. Those races add in extra loops and twists to make up standard distances, so the Kingston Breakfast Run organisers could do the same, but they choose not to. Excellent.
Now, the distances aren’t entirely random: the run is frequently used as a training effort for people tackling spring marathons such as London, with plentiful pacers to help people round in particular times.
Since I’m not doing this year’s London Marathon (boooo!), I just did it for fun. For fun? Yup. And on very little training too. Fun. Little training. So I did the 8.2-mile distance, right? Nah… I was planning to, but when I went to sign up, it was only a few pounds more to double my mileage… so the 16.2-miler it was.
Well, it’s only a few miles more than a half-marathon, right? Well, yes, except I’d only run further than 10k a few times since I finished the Houston Marathon back in January. And it was only a week or so before last weekend I really comprehended that, at 16.2-miles, the Kingston Breakfast Run would be the third-longest race I’d ever do.
But, strangely, I didn’t feel all that much pressure. Because it’s not like I had anything to compare the race to. I didn’t have a 16.2-mile PB, and it’s not like I’m going to tackle many of them – unless I return to the Kingston Breakfast Run again (hint: I will). With the inability to compare my time to pretty much anything else, I found myself free to experiment a bit more.
As a result, I set out at something approaching my half-marathon PB pace, with the intention to see how long I could keep that pace up past 13.1 miles. It’s certainly not a tactic I’d use on a marathon, when I’d be determined to run at a pace I felt I could sustain. But on this event, I felt free.
So off I went at my half-marathon pace, and yes, I did predictably struggle in the final few miles when the pace, and my lack of training, began to tell. But I didn’t mind all that much, and I just concentrated on having fun.
If nothing else, doing a 16.2-mile race was a good challenge: it pushed me on from a half-marathon, but without the sheer pain and effort required to do a full marathon.
Which is why I love unusual race distances: they don’t just become another 10k, 10-miler or half-marathon. They’re challenges in their own right. They’re events you can do for the challenge and fun of doing them.
Oh, and in the case of the Kingston Breakfast Run, there was also an awesome goody bag, courtesy of Lidl. Among other things, it featured peanut butter, a bag of seeds, peppermint tea, and shower gel. What more could you want? (If the answer was muesli, then don’t worry: there was also muesli).
A mug. Yup, instead of a medal you get a mug.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) March 26, 2017
As noted in the past, I’m a big fan of events that hand out non-medal-based finisher rewards. It’s a nice point of difference that makes them stand out. A bit like having a race that takes place over an unusual difference.
Here’s a really quite random list of places. Your challenge: to work out what they have in common (this is a bit like Only Connect, except with more options and not quite as difficult…).
Barwell Business Park, across the road from Chessington World of Adventure.
The Sprat and Winkle Line trail, Hampshire.
Sam Houston Race Park horse racing course, Houston, Texas.
Panshanger Park, Hertfordshire.
Parque de el Retiro, Madrid, Spain.
Leith waterfront, Edinburgh.
Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard in East Malling, Kent.
Any idea? Alright, given the subject matter of this site you’ve probably been able to give it a good guess – so you’ve probably figured out that they’re just some of the places that I went running – either in a race or just for fun – in 2016.
Some of those places were lovely: The Sprat and Winkle Line was a pleasant trot through lovely English woods. The Parque de el Retiro was an amazing tour through a grand Spanish park. Some of them weren’t: sorry Barwell Business Park, but you are, and always will be, an anonymous collection of semi-industrial units. Although you do have that in common with the scenery surrounding Sam Houston Race Park.
But whether beautiful or bland, scenic or smelly (hello parts of Leith…), they’re all places that I was able to explore because of running. And for every place I’ve run that would make for a lovely tourist trip, there are plenty of others that I wouldn’t ever have gone to if I hadn’t been running in, through or past them. In a way, that makes running in such random and odd places – and yes, we’re talking business parks, industrial estates, schools, country backroads and so on here – really quite special.
Think about it. A joy of running a big city event like the London Marathon is that you get to see some world-famous landmarks from a different perspective. Running over Tower Bridge, or passing Buckingham Palace as I turned onto The Mall, during the marathon was a really cool experience. But it wasn’t like I’d never been across Tower Bridge, or visited Buckingham Palace, before.
But before I tackled the Larkfield 10k last year, I’d never been near East Malling Research Station. I may well never go back there again. But, thanks to running, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it.
So there you go. I love getting the chance to run in some beautiful, scenic and spectacular locations – the centre of London, downtown Houston, heck, even just the Thames path near where I live in Richmond-upon-Thames. But I also love getting the chance to run in places that I might never think of visiting otherwise, no matter how unusual, odd, ugly or drab.
Previous Random Running Loves…
As the wheelchair, handcycle and athletes with disabilities began the Chevron Housron Marathon at 6.45am, to rousing applause from the other runners, it took me a few moments to recognise the music being played over the speakers: Do it Anyway by the Ben Folds Five.
I was so busy humming along and reflecting on the song’s title making it a clever choice to recognise such incredible athletes, that it took a while before I remembered to be surprised at hearing the Ben Folds Five being played at such a big occasion. The Ben Folds Five. The Ben Folds Five!
The piano-rock three-piece is among my favourite bands, but they’re hardly in regular rotation on mainstream radio, hence my surprise – and delight (As an aside, if you’ve never heard of them, head straight to Spotify…).
Fifteen minutes later, the musical choice to send the first wave of runners across the line was Come on Eileen, by Dexys Midnight Runners. It was defintely a more mainstream choice – if still not an entirely obvious one – and while I did struggle to find a particular reason for it (other than to support the three runners named Eileen who started the half marathon), it was a suitably jaunty number to set the field on its way. Although the ever-changing tempo did make it hard to slip into a running rhythm.
Of course, that does mean I’ll never be able to listen to Come on Eileen again without some vague flashback to crossing the illuminated start line in the early hours of Sunday January 15, 2017.
Do it Anyway and Come on Eileen were just the first of many tunes I heard while running the Houston Marathon, which combined with many other noises to form a rich tapestry of sound that was a truly spectacular assault on the sense.
But it wasn’t just sound: turns out that marathon running also exposes you to plenty of smellls, too. Smells? Want to know more? Read on…
You’re never that far from music on the Houston Marathon course, and a key reason for that is all the ‘Hoopla’ zones the organisers set up and support. Once you’ve left the start behind and hit Washington St, numerous bars have live musical acts performing for the runners. And that was a trend that continued round the course. Rock, jazz, blues… it seemed every musical type was covered.
Going past Rice Stadium, runners were entertained by a section of the Rice University Marching Owl Band. There were belly dancers doing their thing to some suitable music.
Occasionally, radio stations were set up on the route, playing tunes and reading out messages of support.
The sound didn’t just come from the music, of course. There were the frequent shouts of encouragement from the spectators (read more about that in the first of my series of reflections here). There was more shouting at many of the drinks stations:
It was a duelling drinks chant to help ensure you could find the right fluid. Even once I’d realised that the Gatorade was always offered out before the water at the drinks stations (and that the two drinks came in different coloured cups), the regular calls added a spot of familiarity approaching each drinks station – and was just another example of how great the organisers and volunteers were.
But neither the music, nor the cheers of the crowd, provided the sound I’ll remember most from the Houston Marathon. Because, permeating everything, was the sound of cowbells.
Now, cowbells aren’t a particularly big thing in Britain, but they were hugely popular among spectators on the course (including my mum, niece and nephew). That could have been because at least two event sponsors – Skechers and Geico – were handing them out to fans, or it could be because Texans just like cowbells.
Regardless of the reason, the small bells can make a tremendous noise, especially when there are lots of them being rung together. And, strangely, it never really got annoying. I’d kinda expected hearing cowbells ringing virtually non-stop for just over three hours would be annoying. But it wasn’t. So there you go…
One of the more unusual moments I remember from the London Marathon was passing a KFC about an hour into the route. As I approached, I was hit by the distinctive whiff of fried chicken. I couldn’t decide – I still can’t – if it smelt glorious or terrible. It both made me want to eat friend chicken, and unsettled my disposition mid-marathon run.
Regardless, it demonstrated that the effort of running a marathon heightens all your sense. And the Houston Marathon course passed a lot of restaurants and bars. And Texas didn’t disappoint.
A few miles into the course, a Jack In The Box smelled particularly tasty, while a handful of taquerias gave me a desire for Mexican (frequently my post-race dining of choice, of course). I was a little surprised not to smell fried chicken when the course passed a Chick Fil-A, until I remembered that chain doesn’t open on Sundays…
Not every smell was quite so pleasant. Just after half-distance the course briefly traversed an access road to Interstate 610 (aka Houston’s inner loop), and perhaps unsurprisingly there was a generally unpleasant sort-of eggy smell in the air. It was hard to resist speeding up to try and escape the smell quicker.
But let’s finish on a positive note, and the most glorious thing I smelt on the marathon route – and by a wide margin. And it was something very, very Texas: smoked meat.
Heading down Kirby Drive, the course went past Goode Company Barbeque, and even though it was several hours before it opened for business the meat smokers were clearly already in action. And it smelled… glorious. Just glorious.
You’ll find the glorious, distinctive smell of a wood smoker whenever you get near Texas BBQ, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any that smelled that good before. Perhaps that was just because my senses were being heightened by the marathon. Or perhaps it was just really good quality BBQ.
Alas, I didn’t get to find out: not only was Goode Company BBQ not open, but I was busy running a marathon. But here’s the thing. It smelt so good that, had it been open, I may well have been tempted to take a break from the marathon and sample some brisket…
A short update this. Basically, just to say that it’s all over. Marathon number two: done. And the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon went about as well as I could have hoped.
If you read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that the weather was my biggest concern in the lead-up to the race. And while it wasn’t out and out hot, Houston was shrouded under a murky fog that trapped in high levels of humidity. It was the sort of sticky, warm and humid weather that even had some Texans I talked to concerned about running – so as a Brit who’d done most of my long-distance training in somewhat colder conditions it was a major worry.
But I kept in control, stuck to my pace plan and took advantage of the plentiful drink stations, and the occasional wet towels and sponges being handed out. I did fade a bit towards the end, but that was as much to do with fatigue in my legs as it was the heat – and I didn’t fade anywhere near as dramatically as I did on last year’s London Marathon.
The end result was a finish time of 3h 16m 40s – enough for 265th out of 7109 finishers and, more importantly, a good chunk faster than my 3h 28m 17s time on last year’s London Marathon. Unfortunately, I failed to find the DICK’S Sporting Goods PR Bell in the post-race zone, so I was unable to ring it.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 15, 2017
Perhaps more important than the time was the fact that, apart from a very slight wobble when the legs really began to ache with just under three miles to go, I enjoyed myself throughout. That was a different experience from London, when I spent much of the latter part of the event genuinely not really enjoying myself (until the glow of post-race satisfaction arrived).
The two events were very different events, of course but, as it was after the London Marathon, my mind is currently a blur of sights, sounds, smells and sensations from my 26.2-mile jaunt around the streets of Houston.
That’s why this is a short update: it’s going to take a bit of time for me to process the memories into coherent word-based form. But I will say this: it was a great event – slickly organised and well-run, with the course lined with enthusiastic spectators, volunteers, police and support staff. If you’ve ever had a hankering to do a marathon in Texas, I’d thoroughly recommend it.
And, coincidentally, early entries for 2018 have already opened. I’m tempted – and it’s scary to think that on the day of marathon number two I’m even contemplating the prospect of doing a third…
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: for a mass participation event, running a marathon is a lonely pursuit.
That sounds contradictory, until you consider that preparing for a marathon involves month of training, preparation and planning – which you’ll largely be doing by yourself. It’s only when race week arrives that running a marathon turns from an individual exercise into a large shared experience. And the event that kicks off race week for most marathons is the pre-event expo. Walking into the 2016 London Marathon expo to collect my race number was the moment where I fully grasped quite how big the event I’d signed up for was. Walking round an exhibition hall buzzing with the anticipation and nervous excitement of a mass of would-be marathon runners made me realise that I was just one runner among many, one small story of an epic tale.
If my experience of the London Marathon expo lessened the surprise element of attending the Houston Marathon expo – sorry, the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Exercise Institute EXPO, to give it the correct, on-brand name – the event still provided a big injection of excitement and energy ahead of Sunday’s race.
The Houston expo was a slightly smaller affair than London – which figures, given there are fewer runners in the event – but it also felt a bit more relaxed and less overwhelming. It was a fun place to wander round.
Actually, having stayed in downtown Houston close to the race HQ in order to be close to the expo, it was great to see how the city is embracing the marathon. There was loads of signage up for it on lampposts downtown, and plenty of hotels and businesses had marathon signage up to. A nice touch.
The basic elements were the same – race registration and packet pick-up desk, an event merchandise stand, sponsor stands with random freebies and a bunch of stalls from running groups, shops, events and purveyors of assorted products. But there were also some further examples of the differences in running culture in the UK and America.
For starters, as with other American races, the Houston Marathon features a T-shirt that’s given to you pre-event. British races, including the London Marathon, generally only offer finisher’s shirts. Although it’s worth noting that the Houston Marathon also features finisher’s shirts – so every runner who completes the course gets TWO T-shirts.
Well, I’ve got three, if you count the ‘in training’ top my brother bought me for a present a few months back. And, actually, I’ve now got four, since I couldn’t resist buying one of the classy official shirts at the Expo. Is four T-shirts for one event excessive? Probably, but that’s for British Airways to decide when they weigh my suitcase at check-in on the flight home…
There were also plenty of freebies to pick up, which could also cause trouble for the BA scales. Some of the corporate-badged freebies were similar to those on offer in the UK – such as fridge magnets, stickers and those inflatable ‘bang bang’ sticks (my niece and nephew will doubtless ensure they don’t survive to join me on the flight back to Britain).
But some of the freebies aren’t so common in Britain: half-marathon sponsor Aramco was handing out bandanas with the 13.1-mile race route on them. And capes (which, again, my niece and nephew are likely to be taking off my hands very soon). And Skechers was offering free dog tags and cow bells (I’m almost scared to contemplate the wall of noise my niece and nephew will generate with the latter…).
There were plenty of other nice touches at the Expo, including a wall that featured the name of every runner in the event. Since it was in alphabetical order, it was a nice touch to find me and my brother (who got me into this mess, then chickened out and switched to the half) right next to each other.
There was also a great collection showcasing every event T-Shirt offered by race organisers.
And there were also plenty of adverts highlighting a photo opportunity to ring the ‘PR’ bell if you set a new Personal Record (or Personal Best, if you’re British) on the event. The bell is sponsored by a sporting goods chain, which caused the very immature Brit in me to chuckle.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 13, 2017
The most important thing to pick up, of course, was my race number – A1960. The timing chip is already on the back of the number, safety pins were included with my pack and, basically, I’m now all ready to go.
The one note of concern coming out of the expo was based around a familiar theme: the weather. While having breakfast this morning, I received an email from the organisers issuing a ‘yellow’ weather advisory. The headline: ‘Organizers urge runners to slow down and adjust pace for Sunday’s race’. That was a worry – backed up by a big, yellow warning flag in the expo hall.
The forecast is now for temperatures to exceed 74 degrees Fahrenheit (around 23C) on race day. More worrying is that humidity is expected to exceed 90 per cent. The Houston Half Marathon taught me about running in high humidity, and it’s not all that pleasant. It could well cause issues, especially for a Brit who isn’t used to running in such temperatures on a regular basis. Oh, and given my struggles to collect drinks from paper cups.
Wandering around Houston this morning you could definitely feel the humidity, even though a thick fog doused the city early on. It was a reminder that you don’t need direct sun to feel the heat out here.
The weather warning also highlighted one more cultural difference between running in Texas and Britain. One board in the expo highlighted the ‘event alert system table’, which lists the various warnings the organisers might issue for various conditions. The yellow warning – in effect for this weekend – is labelled moderate. But the bit that made me chuckle was at the bottom: the ‘<50F Cold Weather Alert.’
So anything under 50 degrees Fahrenheit is classed as cold weather worth issuing a cold weather warning for. 50 Fahrenheit? That’s 10 degrees Celsius. That’s… positively mild compared to the English winter in which I did much of my training… And, frankly, I’d probably take icy cold conditions over 90 per cent humidity.
But, hey, you can only run in the conditions you have, and all that. And this is Texas, where the weather is bonkers and the forecast seems prone to changing by the hour. All I can do is rest up and see what things look like on Sunday morning…