Quite a lot to unpack with this one. My official time was 6:37:32… but there’s a slightly complicated story behind it.
Issues that arose during the 20-week training block for this marathon:
1. Energy gels, which only previously caused problems when I took eight of them during the London Marathon last October, now make me feel sick more often than not. Water with electrolyte tablets in it also makes me feel sick. On a bad day, plain water by itself also makes me feel sick. (Spoiler: marathon day was a bad day.)
2. The chronic-for-over-a-decade-now pain, stiffness and inflammation that affects my lower back, hips and piriformis is, unsurprisingly, not going away. I am in the process of hospital investigation (they suspect it’s spondylitis due to the inherited HLA-B27 gene I have that causes my chronic uveitis), but this process is a slow one.
3. The biggest interruption to my training, however, was an overuse injury affecting my right calf and hamstring. I had successfully completed every run on the plan during the first ten weeks; however, my right knee was becoming so stiff and painful that I was hobbling every time I set off, and so I made the decision to rest it for ten days leading up to the Sheffield Half Marathon. After that, I went to the physio, who said that I shouldn’t do any runs longer than two miles for a few weeks. I followed this advice (and started doing a lot more strength training) but it meant that I couldn’t get a lot of my important longer runs in during the second half of the plan. I was able to do a 14-miler and an 18-miler four and three weeks out, respectively, but I would really have preferred to do a lot more than that. I also wasn’t able to get a lot of the other weekly mileage on the plan done during the second half, as I was nervous about triggering the leg injury again – it got a lot better with rest, but the niggle never went away completely.
My eventual plan for the marathon pacing strategy:
1. As a slow runner (6:26:41 marathon PB at London last year), I was terrified about getting caught by the sweeper bus (which, the race pack told us, would be travelling at 6 hour 30 minute pace behind the pack after the last runner had crossed the line). As such, I planned to start off doing sub-13-minute miles for the first nine miles, keeping to sub-14-minute miles for the next nine miles, and then trying to keep to sub-15-minute miles for the last nearly-nine miles. This, I hoped, would give me a bit of a buffer and allow me to finish within the cutoff. That was my C goal (or, as I described it to Geth, ‘not getting arrested for getting in a fight with a sweeper bus driver’ – I was genuinely worried about how I’d react if the bus caught me, because I knew how upset I’d be!).
2. My A and B goals were sub-six and a PB, respectively, but I knew that at least the first one was fairly unlikely. Something to hold over for the next marathon attempt.
What actually happened on the day:
1. I went out faster than I planned. I really did try to keep it slow, but the first few miles of the Edinburgh course are all downhill, and so I was averaging 11:30-minute-mile pace for the first five miles or so.
2. After that, we hit the flat bit along the seafront, so my pace settled down, but I was already beginning to feel extremely sick from the gels I was taking at four-mile intervals. I had been experiencing nausea after I got back from my long training runs, which I had identified as being a result of the gels, but I hadn’t experienced it during an actual run before – or at least not so badly or so early on in the run.
3. The five-mile point was also roughly when my hip seized up. I was surprised and disappointed about this, because the daily 30-minute strength sessions I’ve been doing for the last four or five weeks have been really improving my back/hip issues on the whole, and I’ve been walking a lot better and moving better in general. I had taken some pre-emptive ibuprofen before the race to prevent this from happening, and normally this strategy works, but yesterday it emphatically did not. My hip pain and stiffness didn’t ease up until about mile 22.
4. By the halfway point, two things were making running very difficult: (a) the fact that I felt like I was about to throw up at any moment; and (b) my completely-seized-up hip turning my running form into a horrible misaligned shuffle that was most definitely nowhere near the goal pace for that part of the run. However, because I was starting to take extended and frequent walk breaks in order to mitigate these issues, I realised powerwalking was a non-ideal solution to both: I didn’t feel quite as nauseous when I powerwalked, and my powerwalking pace at that point was quite a bit faster than my attempted run pace (though, again, nowhere near goal pace). Powerwalking seemed to be the best option of a bad lot, so that’s what I did for the rest of the race.
5. Mile 18 was probably the point at which it couldn’t really be called ‘powerwalking’ anymore. I had given up on the gels after mile 12 due to the nausea, and I felt so sick I couldn’t even drink much water (especially not from my own flasks – the rubbery taste caused by the flask stoppers, something that normally doesn’t bother me at all, was absolutely vile to me in my nauseous state), so I was becoming under-fuelled and under-hydrated. However, mile 18 is also the turnaround point where you head back to Musselburgh, so it did feel like the end was sort of in sight – I just had to keep death-marching.
6. The marshals on the course were all absolutely lovely, and every single one of them gave me an encouraging ‘not far to go now!’ along the long stretch home. As such, even though I slipped outside the 15-minute-mile average pace at around mile 21, I really believed I was home free from the sweeper bus – after all, the marshals wouldn’t be so encouraging if they were just going to DNF me, right? They were just going to let me finish now, surely? I was so close, and getting closer and closer and closer…
7. The sweeper bus caught me at 24 and a half miles. I felt like I was going to cry. ‘You’ve done really well to get past 24 miles!’ said the nice lady on the accompanying motorbike. ‘But we have to close the finish now.’ They offered me two options, which I wasn’t expecting and totally caught me off guard:
- Continue on the pavements and not receive a time, medal or goody bag because they were about to close the finish area
- Get on the bus, be driven 1.5 miles to the 26-mile marker, run the remaining 0.2 of a mile down the finish straight and receive a time, medal and goody bag
The first option was horrible and demoralising because of the idea of having come all that way to be faced with an empty, packed-up finish line. The second option was also horrible and demoralising because it felt like cheating – a really weird kind of cheating where the race officials were asking us to do it? I know it was them being nice and basically saying that they considered us to have near enough finished to be given a result, and I do appreciate the gesture. Nevertheless, I knew that in my head, it would never fully properly count as a completed marathon if I did 1.5 miles of it by bus. It had been a very long day, and I was definitely not mentally all there by that point, and yet I had to make this very difficult decision on the spot.
8. I got on the bus. A very subdued bus full of people with expressions matching mine. It felt, for the sake of my own immediate mental wellbeing, like the lesser of two evils.
9. I got off the bus, and found enough energy to shufflerun down the finish straight, and collected my medal and goody bag. None of this felt like the victory it usually does. It felt hollow.
1. I’ve been feeling pretty rubbish for the last day. I know there are positives to take from the experience but I’m struggling to find them at the moment. I keep agonising about the decision point, feeling like I should have just gritted my teeth and soldiered on and taken the moral victory and accepted the DNF. But in that moment, I didn’t have the mental fortitude to do that. I wasn’t strong enough to face an empty finish, and I wasn’t strong enough to keep running when I felt really sick, and I wasn’t strong enough to stick to my fuelling strategy when it was making me feel sick… I keep dwelling on all the points where, if I’d just pushed a bit harder or stuck something out for a bit longer, I wouldn’t be feeling like I do now.
2. I know I have to move on from this, but it’s going to take a while. Still, I can at least identify some of the lessons to take away for next time.
The beginnings of preparation for the next one:
1. After my streak saver shufflejog this morning (day-after-marathon streak savers are one of the hardest things about maintaining a daily running streak!), I (slowly and stiffly) did my usual 30-minute strength training routine (and optimistically observed on Strava that ‘prep for the spring 2023 marathon starts here’). I’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, but I already feel so much better for it, even if it didn’t quite save me from the hip issues yesterday. It’s going to be an absolute cornerstone of my routine for the next year, and will hopefully limit my risk of niggles and injuries. I’m also considering checking in with the physio more often for a bit of prehab, even when I don’t feel injured. One positive I can take from yesterday is that my calf/knee/hamstring niggle didn’t bother me at all, and I think that’s because I’ve been strengthening it in accordance with the physio’s advice.
2. I want to focus on faster running for a while. My only remaining big race of the year will be the GNR in September, and I would like to get back down towards the half marathon times I was doing before the pandemic. (My PB is 2:23:42, set at the Inverness half in March 2020, and I would love to get close to that again!) I want to start doing speedwork again (there wasn’t any in either of the marathon training plans I’ve been following most recently, and my usual parkrun is hilly and non-speedy, so I’ve not really done any speedwork in over a year).
3. I need to think carefully about the training plan I follow for my next marathon, because none of the ones I’ve done have really suited me and they’ve always gone slightly wrong. I need to work in distance rather than time (because I’m so slow that I don’t get the necessary mileage done if I follow a time-based plan); I need a decent weekly interval session or similar (the last couple I’ve done have contained no speedwork, as mentioned above); and I’ve found in the most recent block that five focused sessions a week are too much for me, so I need to find a plan that only has three or four. I also need to remember to factor my rest day streak savers into my weekly mileage. Running every day is important to me for reasons of routine and I want to continue doing it, but I didn’t twig during this last block that it meant I was doing two extra miles per week on top of what the plan was asking.
4. I need to learn to fuel during the run with real food. I’m never taking another energy gel again – it’s not worth it. Mini chocolates used to work for me before I decided I was going to be a real runner who takes gels, and friends have recommended bananas and cereal bars. This might require a lot of experimentation, but I’ve got a year to do it.
5. The only thing that has ever properly mitigated my lower back pain has been weight loss. When I’m at my ideal weight, I barely notice any pain. However, I don’t find that maintaining my ideal weight is possible without feeling fairly hungry and deprived, especially when I’m doing a lot of exercise. I’m going to need to put some serious thought into finding a happy medium on this issue.
I’m still rubbish at marathons. Yesterday was an especially bad experience. But I want to get better, and I’m going to keep trying.