MF's guide to your first marathon

MF's guide to your first marathon
(Image credit: Unknown)

A lot of training plans say you need to run five times a week, including one longer-distance run on the weekend, but I don't have enough free time for that. What should I do?

I had the same problem when I decided to take on the Brighton race. I found a plan that said I could get away with three runs a week, but it was so regimented and complex I wasn't able to stick to it. In the end, I decided to run three times a week but combine that with a strategy from most standard five-run-a-week plans. So I did one long run every weekend and upped the mileage in increments of two each week until I hit 21, dropped back down in increments of two until I reached 11, then run between ten and 12 miles until it was three weeks from race day. As well as this run, I was also doing two 10Ks every week.
To keep myself motivated, I'd change the environment and format. Some days I'd run a route with lots of hills in it (I knew the Brighton course had a four-mile hill section), but on others I'd power through the distance on a treadmill with the aim of improving my 10K PB. As I got closer to the marathon I became more conscious of injury so I swapped the speed runs for gentle 7-10K runs around a local park.

Did this training strategy work?

Well, yes - I got around in 3hr 42min - but in hindsight, my training was flawed. I didn't think about getting around in a certain time, just getting around, so when in training I focused on completing the distance, not thinking about the time. Four miles into the marathon I realised I was running eight-minute miles and if I kept it up I'd come in under four hours. If I had worked on my pace in training - say, mastered the eight-minute mile and then tried to improve on it - I might have been able to runner a faster, more disciplined race.

Is it inevitable that you're going to get injured while training?

The sheer volume of training you do when preparing for a marathon puts your body at serious risk. Everyone I know who's done one picks up some kind of niggle. Mine was due to stupidity - about a month out from the marathon I decided to buy a new pair of trainers to run in, naïvely assuming that if they weren't right for me I'd just experience a bit of discomfort while running and could just swap back to my old ones. After doing a 10K in the week in them with no problems I decided to wear them for a 15-mile weekend run. They were fine until about mile 12, then I started to get a burning pain in the arch of my right foot. It got worse and worse so I had to stop running. I assumed it would go away after a couple of days but it didn't and I was forced to do my last three weeks of training on an exercise bike. I felt like an idiot.

How did you feel the day before the race?

My foot was still hurting but I was determined to get around the course. Nonetheless, I was worried about it and whether I had the endurance to keep going beyond 21 miles, which was my longest training run. I was conscious of feeling heavy during the run because I know your stomach takes up to 36 hours to digest food, so I ate pretty normally the day before the race - I didn't go carb-mad - but on the two days before that I'd been eating double portions of every meal to fuel up.
Surprisingly, I slept pretty well the night before the race and, as advised in the marathon literature, got up at six so I could eat three hours before the start. I had a bowl of watery porridge with honey and chopped banana. Apparently it's what Paula Radcliffe eats before a race so it seemed like a good choice. I then attached my timing chip to my shoe, pulled on my charity vest - I was running for COSMIC (Children of St Mary's Intensive Care) - pinned my race bib to it, stuck the energy gels I'd road-tested during my long runs in the pocket of my shorts and jogged down to the start of the race in Preston Park.
The marathon literature also said you couldn't run with headphones in, but since loads of people had them in at the start I assumed the organisers probably had to say it for health and safety reasons and wouldn't be policing it during the race. Thank God - I wouldn't be able to run for four hours without motivational music to keep my legs pumping.

Where should I position myself at the start of the race?

When you sign up you're asked what time you want to get around in. Be optimistic. I said I just wanted to finish so I had to start in a zone behind several thousand runners who'd said they were going to do it more quickly. Once the starting gun was fired it took me six minutes to get from my zone to the starting line, then I spent the first two miles trying to get past people who run at a naturally slower pace. I reckon I lost about ten to 15 minutes because of that.

How were the first five miles?

Once I'd got past the throng of people I felt really good. My foot wasn't hurting too much and the sun was blazing down. The first part of the course took us along a winding route around some of Brighton's most well-known parks - Preston Park and the Level - and during this stage I spotted my family several times in the crowd, which really geed me up to put on a bit of speed. Each mile and every fifth kilometre was signposted and it was as I reached the four-mile mark I realised I was on for under four hours. I noted the time and decided to try to keep to under nine-minute miles from that point on.

When did you first start to struggle?

At about the eight-mile mark. After six miles, we were running east out of the city towards the village of Ovingdean. To get there we ran along a coastal road which offsets spectacular views of the Channel with a long torturous hill, followed by an equally long descent. Once through Ovingdean, there was another big hill to climb before we hit the ten-mile mark - and since the route then took us back towards Brighton, we had to go back up the hill we'd climbed on the way out.

How did you feel when you hit the halfway stage and realised you had the same distance again to cover?

Awful. By the time I reached the halfway marker, I was losing speed. I was still running under nine-minute miles but only just, and the pain in my right arch had flared up. Seeing the crowds as I hit the edge of the city gave me a bit of a boost. I tried to shake off the natural hunched, head-bowed run I adopt when I'm struggling and assume a more poised, efficient gait. The effect of the crowd wore off pretty quickly though and I soon went back to running like a wounded animal.

Was that the worst point?

Oh no. I hit the wall at the 16 miles, and it was a big, hard, concretey bastard. I'd made that classic mistake of starting too fast and now I was paying for it. The distance between the mile markers seemed to triple. I dropped to nine-and-a-half-minute miles but I didn't care - I'd gone back to just wanting to get around. I was looking up less and less and was biting my headphone lead as a kind of comforting ritual to get me through each step. Necking an energy gel every half an hour and water at every water station was helping a bit, but I was in a pretty dark place.

Was it like that for the rest of the race?

Things improved a lot as I hit 18 miles. The route took us out west towards Shoreham Power Station and I knew if I could get to it, I only had around five miles to go, which seemed manageable. My legs felt like they were locking from the knee down and I was getting a nasty stabbing pain in my arch but was convinced it would hold out for remainder of the race.

Do the crowds at the end of a big marathon help you pick up the pace for the last few miles?

The thought of seeing my family kept me running but I didn't have extra speed in me. I got pretty angry at mile 24, because each mile maker was now taking me about ten minutes to reach and, despite all logic, I was convinced the organisers were moving them further and further apart. Although the last mile was basically straight, I couldn't see the finish until I was about 400m away. Pride forced me into a broken man's approximation of a sprint and I crossed the line in three hours, 42 minutes and 21 seconds. This is the start of a beautiful yet testing friendship between me and the marathon.
Next year's event is taking place on 10th April and sign-up starts on 10th May 2010. Go to for more information.

Coach Staff

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