I’ve harboured a desire to improve my marathon time for the past few years, and I’m going to put that out there before starting this. As a runner I don’t like to pigeon hole myself and, while my preferred race is something you’d probably class as ultra-trail, road running inevitably features a lot in my life. I live in London and run everywhere to fit in the majority of my training so, to be honest, I consider it to be pretty invaluable.
On one hand, I like that ultra running isn’t all bragging about your road PBs and boring people with your race splits, as is maybe a stereotype of road running. It’s more about the experience, running wild, views over times, etc etc. But it’s also glaringly apparent to me that most of the UK’s (and world’s) top ultra runners are also pretty speedy on roads too. Your Sally Fawcetts, Sophie Grants, etc, have fast marathon PBs, plus I’ve watched friends I admire edge closer to the magical sub-3 mark (Sorrell, Kate). And, you know, Spartathlon.
So that’s how I found myself at the start line of the Zurich marathon, wondering if this would be the race to beat my longstanding PB. The last six months of training had gone well. After the Autumn 100 last October, I’d had a few weeks off then pretty much commenced Grand Union Canal Race training while I still had the miles in my legs. I sketched out a 6 month training plan, peaking at 95 mile weeks, which initially looked daunting. But consistency paid off and my legs felt good throughout – I kept my weekly mileage increases small, with a few cutback weeks. Call me a traditionalist, but I’ve always been a firm believer in big mileage, and wondered if this would also pay dividends for a marathon PB. With regular trips to track for speed work, mixed with a couple of long marathon-paced runs (plus a lot of fannying around on the North Downs Way and Lake District, which I classed as cross training), come Zurich my legs felt in great shape.
As well as good physical conditions, mentally, having my family around me was always going to be a big positive too. Zurich would be my Dad’s Z race in his alphabet challenge, plus my brother Edd and husband Jon would also be running. Edd probably won’t thank me for saying this, but he possibly signed up in the very early stages of my Dad’s challenge three-or-so years ago without necessarily giving much though to actually running 26.2 miles. But, being the good big sister I am, I wrote him a training plan for Christmas. We were in this together.
I had the splits for an evenly-paced 3:15 finish committed to memory: 7:20-25 min/mile average pace, 45 minute 10k, 1:36 half. Even so though, I couldn’t resist lining up in front of the 3:15 pacers. I’ve run enough marathons to know my tendency is to go out a bit too hard (then struggle after 20 miles), so when, after 5 miles, my watch showed an average pace of 6:55 min/miles, I was a bit worried, but figured it was all bankable. I reached the halfway point in dead-on 1:33 feeling comfortable – the sun was shining and physically and mentally, everything felt great.
There’s a lot of ritual and superstition involved with my marathon racing strategy, from pre-race breakfast to fuelling during the race. I don’t think I’ve ever exceeded three gels; despite wondering if a fourth would be beneficial, my stomach always tries to dissuades me. I had a SiS electrolyte gel after 50 minutes (because, heat, sweat), a caffeine one at half way (because, caffeine), then an orange one (my favourite flavour which I know wont make me want to hurl when I’m tired and potentially grumpy) at around 30k. There were regular water stops at every 3k – just enough to grab a bottle at each one, but not too many that you were constantly dodging swerving runners and bottles.
The route took in a couple of loops around the city, then headed along the side of Lake Zurich and back on itself. There’s just something about out and back courses that I love. I got to cheer on the elites ahead of me, then see my Dad, Edd and Jon on the way back. I waited and waited for the inevitable fade to come, but it didn’t. I found myself overtaking runners ahead of me, and wasn’t sure if it was them slowing down or me speeding up (I’ve since been reliably informed by Strava that it was the former).
The last five or so kilometres were back through the city along streets lined with people cheering. From experience, those final few miles can seem torturously slow, so I pledged to myself not to look for distance markers, just to smile and run strong. I couldn’t resist glancing at my watch though, which was hovering around the three hour mark, as though time had slowed down.
The home stretch came as a surprise, hidden around a corner. As the finish arch came into view, I could just make out 3:05-something on the clock, and I had what can only be described as an ’emotional moment’, where the bittersweetness of the heartbreak of a failed PB attempt three years ago, combined with knowing I’d put my life into running for the past year, all came together. 3:06:14 on the clock.
One of the first things I did after crossing the line was buy some roaming data for the day to upload my run to Strava. Best £3 I ever spent. My Dad crossed the line soon afterwards in 3:57, my brother five minutes later, and Jon, who’s been nursing an Achilles injury, not long afterwards. My mum also deserves a medal for supporting my Dad on so many of his races.
If you want to read more about my Dad’s phenomenal achievement of running 26 marathons through the letters of the alphabet, his blog’s here: notjustanotherrunningblog.wordpress.com/