What it’s like to run a sub-3 hour marathon

Easily one of the most emotive pieces I’ve written…

There have been times over the past two years or so where I’ve barely been able to get to sleep or just relax in general. Why, I hear you ask? Something had been playing on my mind, consuming most of my thoughts and filling me with a mixture of anxiety, excitement and self doubts to the point where mentally, my mind would one day be on a high and the next, at an all time low not knowing what was next. Drastic, it may sound, but when you focus so much of your life around one thing then this can happen.

My goal, since 2016, has been to run a sub-3 hour marathon. That was always crystal clear in my mind.

Over the past three years, since finishing my marathon debut in 03:12:22, this target had almost took over my life. Again, that sounds a bit full on, but running is a sport where you are more or less competing against yourself and you have to have the drive to keep going, as well as bounce back from disappointments to go again.

Throwing a cliche out there, the sub-3 dream had felt like a millstone around my neck for too long. The thing is, without sounding arrogant (I’m not that in anyway – those who know me will testify to that) I knew and fully believed I would get there very soon. I said as much to friends but I just didn’t know exactly where and when.

But, what I did know, was what was required to get there. The key training requirements you need to run a sub-3 hour marathon, in my opinion (unless you are born with the natural gift of great speed), are as follows:

– (For most people) years of running consistently at a decent volume to build strength in your legs, confidence and conditioning.
– Three to four months of high running volume (50 miles plus per week) ahead of the marathon, inclusive of a consistent and weekly long run (between 20 and 22 miles); and speed work.
– Sufficient rest and recovery post-run, with foam rolling, iceing, taping, stretching, hydration and good nutrition all being as important as the run itself.
– Daily strength and conditioning work (even on the one to two days you don’t run a week), working on a mixture of leg strength work (split squats, squats, lunges, hip flexor movements and exercises; core strength: planks, crunches, side planks and then upper body exercises, such as pull-ups, dips and deadlifts).
– A comprehensive warm-up and warm down is needed before and after every run.

As you can see, a lot goes into getting the body in the condition to run at a pace of 6:40-45 minute miles over the 26.2 mile distance, or 4:15 minute kilometres in new money, for just under three hours. Needless to say, the above takes quite a bit of planning and dedication.

For me, making sure the quality of my training was up to scratch has always been difficult, especially as I work in a full-time job which is often demanding. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way – I like to be busy and life isn’t just about running. I feel it’s important to keep that kind of perspective, that said, as I’ve alluded to often in this piece thus far, it’s not easy.

To reach my goal, I’ve had to make the sacrifices for a long time. Avoiding alcohol, cheat food you crave, many fun elements of expat life (especially in Dubai) and choosing rest instead of nights out. Sounds pretty boring, right? Yes, it was – and still is. But, that’s my choice.

Ahead of the Greater Manchester Marathon on April 8, my training had gone well to the point where I had shrugged off the disappointment of picking up a hip injury in December, which meant I was unable to run the Dubai Marathon. That was all in the past and once I got back into full training in late February (pretty late, I know), I felt like I was building every day and coming up on the rails, fast.

As luck would have it or not, I felt pretty ill in the days leading up to the race having picked up a bit of office flu and then the flying didn’t help. I wouldn’t go as far to say it had lowered my expectations for race day but it relaxed me to the extent where I thought, I’m probably not going to run my best today. One of those things, you know.

But there I was on the start line at 8:55am absolutely freezing, just thinking, right, it’s time for my eighth marathon. At that point, I just wanted to get the run out of the way and went out there with the same approach I’ve always had: just give it your best shot. I wasn’t thinking too much about sub-3, the target time I’d come very close to in Stockholm in 2017 (3:02:09) while I’d also recorded 3:07s, 3:08s and 3:11s.

Adrenaline is hard to shake-off and I was certainly running off that for the first 10kms. I was conscious of the fact I’d been struggling to breathe properly or swallow in the days leading up to the race but the cold conditions (around eight degrees at the start) meant my body was trying to warm-up and I didn’t feel the need to drink lots and lots throughout the race.

I slotted nicely into the 3-hour pace group and the main challenge of running through some of Manchester’s small, winding and residential roads on the north-west of the city was that it was very congested (several runners had bad falls and head-on-collisions with cones). Watching only your feet and the runners ahead of you for around 25kms of the race is pretty draining and you expend a lot of mental energy. Even so, at the halfway stage, as you can see from the graphic above, I was bang on the pace required and felt very good.

I then had a decision to make in-between 19 and 20 miles. Fortunately, I felt strong on my feet and moved on from the pace group, knowing full well that by making this call, I had to vindicate it by not seeing them again. I took the risk and moved a few minutes ahead of that marker and knew so long as I maintained my pace, sub-3 was mine. From the 22nd mile to the finish, each mile felt like forever, but it was my mind playing tricks on me, I kept thinking: ‘I’m so close now, if I don’t get it here, that’s it, I’ll never get it’. These thoughts were creeping in even though I was running so well. At the same time, it made me realise what it meant for me to do it and the hours and hours of dedication, as well as bouncing back from disappointments, it took for me to get anywhere near close again.

On the home stretch, coming up Talbot Road towards the finish line at Old Trafford Cricket Ground, I was physically fading but gave it everything. When the timing clock came into view, I knew I had just over a minute to play with having taken a bit of time to make my way through the starting mat. I’d done it! The enormity of what I had just done struck me and 10 minutes or so after I burst into tears. I couldn’t control my emotions, I felt shivering cold and it was all a blur from there.

The biggest lessons in life I’ve learned are keep believing, never give up and always back yourself against the odds. I feel this is just the start, and one day, I’ll work towards the 2:30 marathon mark. Indeed, mark my words. Never stop dreaming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s