Solo

If there is one image which sums up marathon training, it is probably the one above. Early morning, no one about, weather a bit grey, drizzle, not too warm, sensible people still in bed. But you are out there, just getting in the miles.

Running a marathon is a solo pursuit, some would even say it is a selfish pursuit. Yes, I run often with friends, but finding the will to keep going, to constantly haul yourself out the door on the days when you really do not fancy it, being able to stay motivated when you are weeks or months away from race day, all of that is down to you as an individual.

“having an impact”

When I say it is selfish, what I mean is that you have to sacrifice things that you would normally do – nights out, activities with the family – just so you have the time to fit the training in. Now you could argue of course, that all you are doing here is, for once, putting yourself first and prioritising something which is important to you. And I totally get that. But you cannot ignore that by committing to marathon training, you are having an impact on those around you.

The time commitment is the biggest thing. Clearly this depends on your training plan, but all of them require hours of work each week. building up until you get to the peak of training just a few weeks before the race. And that is the point at which I have now reached. This week will be my biggest week of marathon training, running the furthest and for the longest time since I began training for the Manchester Marathon around three months ago.

An evening run at the beach for a change

My training plan involves running four days a week, with another day for cross-training, and two rest days. In reality, I run five days a week, eschewing cross-training for another opportunity to stick some more miles in my legs. This has meant, for the best part of the last month, I have been running around forty miles plus each week. This week, with a long run still to go on Sunday, I should top out around fifty miles (80km). That is a serious time commitment to fit in with everything else that is going on.

While I mention that marathon training is a solo pursuit, I do not want to minimise how motivating it has been to be back running regularly with the JogScotland group of which I am part, and all of the other runs I have done with friends. That has been an enormous help to get me through what I have found to be a very challenging programme. I am truly grateful to have such a supportive bunch of running friends.

“It is all about the individual”

But when it comes down to it, no one else is going to run the distance for you. And that is what I mean about marathon training being a solo pursuit. It is all about the individual. It is easy to watch events such as the Great North Run in the UK last week and lump all the runners together into one group. But that belies the fact that every single person who goes up to the start line has had their own journey to get there and has their own reasons for running. And their reasons for running may be very different to mine.

While this week is the biggest week of training, I have actually felt really positive and strong so far – I know I still have the biggest challenge to go, the small matter of twenty one miles in the morning – but mentally I am ready for it. That is such an important factor. It would have been easy for me this week to take my car over to JogScotland on Tuesday and Thursday, saving my legs for the Sunday run, but I wanted to run over and back, to get in the extra three miles that that entails in addition to the run with the group, to give me that additional bit of belief and that mental boost.

Seaton Park was part of my route on Saturday

When I started out on my training plan, there were times when the enormity of what faced me ran the risk of overwhelming me. It seemed so hard. It was over such a long time. There were so many runs. The mileage looked too high. But you have to have faith in the process, you need to trust that you will get there. It was never about running a marathon on week one, it is all about running a marathon on week sixteen.

As well as running with the JogScotland group, I also ran at the beach during the week with a friend and then did my usual Sunday morning 10km and a bit around the Seaton Park and beach area of Aberdeen. I am in the process of breaking in news shoes, which I hope to use in the race, so it is important to try them out on shorter runs first. For the twenty one miler tomorrow, I will be returning to my shoes I have worn for a while.

The new shoes for the race

We have the route planned, a relatively scenic tour of the city, and as the Manchester Marathon route is fairly flat, I have also not put in too many big hills either – apart from, of course, the final three mile uphill stretch back to the house. That will be a supreme challenge, battling on with eighteen miles on the day in our legs (I am running with my friend Jeanette) but one we will tackle together and get each other through it.

Sunday’s long run route

The other thing about running a flat course is to get your legs and feet ready for that. That might sound a bit daft but when you are used to running in a hilly area – as we are here – then your feet (and the rest of you) are changing position as you run. A different position uphill compared to your position going downhill. When you run on a flat course, you also do not get the benefits you get from downhill stretches such as a bit of time to catch your breath or to push on. Running on the flat is just fairly relentless and your legs and feet in particular are just doing the same thing over and over again. Just another thing in the long list of things to think about when it comes to marathon running.

One other factor to consider is also my start time for the race. Due to a number of factors – social distancing, the fact the half marathon is also being run on the same day, my estimated finishing time – I am not due to start the marathon race until almost lunchtime. So this means I have had to reconsider my nutritional plans, factoring probably having two breakfasts before I actually start. I will definitely be ready for dinner by the time we finish.

Not exactly ideal

When I heard this news, I was pretty fed up, but it is simply another bump in the road. Now I am ok with it. It is what it is and I cannot change it. It is a bit like the weather on the day of the race. It will be what it will be. No point in worrying about it. For the moment, the only focus is on getting through tomorrow, and then the taper can begin. Three weeks to go until race day.

Imagine

Think about the marathon finish. Dream about it. But also think about coping in the tough times. Do that to make sure you get to that dream.

I look up. I see the finish line in the near distance. My legs feel strong, my lungs are bursting with energy. I pick up the pace. The four hundred metres to go sign spins by, then the two hundred metre sign. I am flying. All the effort has been worth it. All the sacrifice. The months of training. I pass other runners on the way up to the line. I raise my hands in the air. I punch the air in delight. Across the line and I am done.

In my head, that is how I would like to finish the Manchester Marathon. In my dreams. But visualising a finish like this is something which many people will do. Why not? It is great to have that thought to sustain you through the miles of training. Having an end goal, an ambition, for it to be achieved and for it to end in the best way possible.

“Be prepared to go through every other emotion”

But while I have this thought, I also have other thoughts, and I think these thoughts are as important, if not more important, than that vision of the perfect finish. And these thoughts are all about the other side of distance running. The perfect finish might be what you aim for, but to get to that place, you need to be prepared to go through every other emotion.

And so those thoughts are about the times when things are hard; when things are not ideal. When the perfect finish feels unattainable. When the distance seems too much. When the effort feels like it is going to be for nothing. It is for the tough times in a race. And it is about thinking of those things now and preparing for how I am going to handle those times that I think is a vital part of race preparation.

“There will be difficult moments”

You might feel this is a bit fatalistic, almost defeatist about thinking about these things, but I take the opposite view. I think if I do not prepare for these moments then I am a bit in denial of the reality of what lies ahead. There will be difficult moments. There will be times when the legs are tired. There will be times when the mind is fatigued. And this is how I am going to cope. And if I cope with these moments, then I can make that dream finish a reality.

So what do I do? Well, first of all, simply thinking about these times is half the battle. I am not sure if everyone else does. But now I have had that thought, what can I do about it? For me, it is about remembering everything I have gone through to get here. It is about thinking about the runs in the heat, the runs where I have struggled but I have got through.

“Just about slogging through”

For me the toughest miles are likely to be between fourteen to twenty miles. This is the part of the run that is just about slogging through. The mile markers at this point really do not help, serving more as a simple reminder that there is still a REALLY long way to go. So it is about viewing these as just points to be ticked off, miles to start counting down to the finish rather than counting up from the start.

It might also be a strange thing to say to people whose only view of a marathon or a long distance run is watching the Great North Run or the London Marathon and seeing the big crowds, but there are large parts of a long distance course where there are no crowds (including those mega events). So there is little point thinking, “oh well the crowd will get me through” if you hit a tough patch and the only people around you are other runners going through similar agonies.

But let’s assume we get through that point and keep going. It is about thinking, when there are six miles to go and everything is sore that I can run six miles. I run six miles before breakfast. I run six miles without thinking. I can run another six miles. It is about thinking about every 10km I do with my friends on a weekend. It is about thinking about the six mile and six and a half mile runs I do with my JogScotland group. It is about ignoring the twenty miles I have done and focusing on the task ahead.

“you will make it to the end”

When I get to 5km to go, well it is just a parkrun then isn’t it? And parkrun is just a hop skip and a jump. In fact, I am so focused on the big miles at the moment that I do not even regard running a 5 km right now as being any kind of challenge. All of this is purely mental, it is about convincing the tired and aching limbs that they can keep going, that they are capable of going further, that you will make it to the end.

I would urge anyone doing any distance race to think about these things. The best preparation is not just about getting lots of miles in your legs, it is about thinking about the whole effort required. Think about the good things, of course, but also the bad. And by doing that, I will get to the start line in the best shape possible to end up with that dream finish. And yes, think about that finish. Think about that a lot. Oh, and all the food and drink at the end. Definitely think about that.

Running with friends has been great this week

On the physical training front, I have had a really positive week of running. A little bit of a cut back week, with only (yes, only) a half marathon run as the long distance run this week. I ran it with my friend Susan who is training for the London Marathon and it went really well. We got totally soaked as it was chucking it down when we started but I felt good throughout the whole run.

My other, shorter runs, have also been good. I have felt a strength in my legs which I have not felt for quite some time, allowing me to push a bit quicker on some of the runs. I always worry that I become very one paced when I am marathon training, focusing on distance rather than time so pushing myself on some 10km runs has been really good, even to the extent that my final mile has been my quickest mile.

Another thing I also did this week was look back at some of my blogs from previous marathon training blocks. You know what? Most of them were about how hard I was finding it, how it was a struggle, how it was tough. That actually made me feel a bit better about how this block has gone. Memory has a way of distorting my view of the past. In my head, they were a breeze. In reality, they were as difficult as this one. Next weekend is our last long training run. Twenty miles on the plan. Four weeks to go until Manchester Marathon.

Realist

A Sunday off when there are only five more weeks to go until the Manchester Marathon? Adapting to circumstances is part of the training journey. As is fighting through when times are tough.

It is 8 am. On a Sunday morning. I’m lying in bed. In a hotel. I do not have any running gear with me. Five weeks today I am due to run the Manchester Marathon. I should be out training, right? Well, this was a week when life kind of got in the way.

You have to take marathon training seriously. The challenge is so great, that you must recognise the requirements needed to get around the twenty six point two miles runs. But for the vast majority of those who take on the task, running is only part of our life, it is not our sole focus. So you need to be flexible. You need to work in the training around the demands of normal life. And that is what happened this week.

Some months ago, my wife and I booked this weekend away, so I was always going to need to adapt my schedule to make sure I stuck, roughly, to the plan I am following. The fact that this week was also when I was due to run the first of my two twenty mile training runs, the furthest distance I will go before race day.

In order to get that run done, I looked at alternatives. A number of friends are also marathon training right now. My regular running partner, Jeanette, is doing Manchester too, another friend, Susan, is training for London and another, Mark, is training for Chicago. So initially Susan and I planned to go out on Friday morning, then Mark and Jeanette joined in too.

“The mental challenge… is not to be underestimated”

While I have trained for two marathons on my own before, there is no doubt when it comes to the really long runs, doing them with friends definitely helps. The mental challenge of a 20 mile plus run – never mind the physical challenge – is not to be underestimated.

So with a long Friday run then planned, I also aimed to change my schedule for during the week. Monday and Friday are my usual rest days, so I decided to not to run on Thursday. I did around nine miles on Tuesday, combining my JogScotland run with runs to and from the sports centre where we meet. Then I did an early morning run on Wednesday with my friend Cara. Two runs done, rest day to go. Sorted, right? Not quite. Life was about to intervene once again.

“twenty miles into my legs”

On Thursday, one of the other run leaders got tied up at work so at the last minute I agreed to take out the five and a half mile group that evening. It was a lovely night and I had a really enjoyable run with the group, but it meant I went into Friday’s run having already put about twenty miles into my legs and would be running for the fourth day in a row.

Running on tired legs is something you need to get used to in distance running. Regardless of your preparation, the final miles of a long race are going to test you. This is summed up for me, by this quote from the great Australian runner, Rob De Castella, “If you feel bad at ten miles, you’re in trouble. If you feel bad at twenty miles, you’re normal. If you don’t feel bad at twenty six miles, you’re abnormal.’

So with all that in mind, on Friday morning, the four of us set off. I had planned the route, starting and finishing at the beach area in Aberdeen, essentially to take out the big, uphill finish which we usually face.

The route started and finished at the beach

The first hour zipped by, and we stopped for something to eat shortly afterwards, at around seven miles. While during the actual race, I will eat on the go, for the training runs we do stop to take on some fuel. I run carrying an electrolyte drink and use gels for nutrition, also taking a peanut bar which I take a bite of every time I take a gel.

For the marathon I plan to eat at six, twelve, seventeen and twenty two miles. When I take on food, it takes a while for it to kick in and for me to feel the benefits, and it is certainly the case that if I feel I need to have something, then it is probably already too late and I am likely to suffer for a while. It is important for me to eat BEFORE I feel I need it.

“I felt like I was a dragging anchor”

On reflection, eating at seven miles was, for me, a bit late. When we got past to around twelve miles, I was not feeling great. I felt like I was a bit of a dragging anchor for the others, my pace slowing them down. We regrouped at thirteen miles and took on some more food. Miles fourteen, fifteen and sixteen were a continued struggle. Physically I was heavy-legged, it was a part of the run I just had to force myself through. This was the mental challenge. I have said many times before that running builds resilience. I needed resilience during this period, just to keep going. My running partners were storming it. I was the one holding them back.

By keeping going, as we got towards mile seventeen I began to feel a bit better. I made it through what was, for me, the toughest part of the run. I am not saying the final three miles were easy, they really were not, but I never doubted I would finish and get to the twenty mile mark. And I guess that really was just the point. It is another milestone passed along the way to the start line.

Me with Mark, Jeanette and Susan at the finish

There is no doubt that I am finding this training block really hard. Definitely lots of ups and downs, but I am getting through it. I feel my weight is a factor at the moment. I find it very hard when marathon training to actually lose weight. The training load is severe and perhaps I seek a bit of comfort in food. Maybe a few weeks now of watching what I eat a bit better will benefit my prep a bit more than just crunching out more miles. We shall see.

I am so happy for my friends at how their runs went. They absolutely smashed it and got through it far more comfortably than I did. They are in great shape for their own marathon challenges ahead. I may not be in such great shape, but I am still optimistic I will get through it.

I am also taking comfort in the fact that the run came at the end of a week where I had run more than I had planned, and taking Thursday and Friday together, I ran close to the marathon distance itself. When it comes to the race, I will have done nothing like twenty miles of running before I take my place among the crowds at the start. I need to hold on to these thoughts.

The good news is that the race is coming into view, but I am not kidding myself that I still have a long way to go. Next weekend the long run will be around twelve miles, with another twenty to come the weekend after. In reality, there are only two really long runs left. The twenty and then the race itself. Five weeks to go.

Progression

The road to the start line of a marathon is long. It is about making progress along the way. I finally feel my training is beginning to pay off and this week I completed another major challenge.

We are twelve miles into our long run. The plan is to run eighteen. But at twelve miles we had planned one of our nutrition stops, so we stop. Glamorous location. On a dual carriageway near a bus stop, beside a bin so we can put our gel wrappers in when we are finished. And that was when I noticed it. We were twelve miles in. And neither of us were even breathing heavily.

I was running with my friend Jeanette as we continue our Manchester Marathon training. I have been finding this training block a bit of a struggle but this was very different. This was how it was supposed to feel. This was hard, yes of course, distance running is hard, but getting to the marathon distance actually felt achievable. And I have not felt like that for a very long time.

“the importance of rest… cannot be underestimated”

So what was different this time around. compared to last week? I think there were lots of reasons. We had taken a bit of pace off, we had planned our nutrition a bit better with stops at six, twelve and another planned at around fifteen, the weather was slightly cooler (but not much) and I was also mentally better prepared. The events of the previous week had forced me into a bit of a reset, making sure I took my rest days during the week and not pushing things too hard with my other runs as well. The importance of rest in a training programme definitely cannot be underestimated.

Now we still had more than six miles to go when we stopped so it was not like we were almost done. That was another significant thing. I realised how far I still had to go, but was not daunted by that. It was more like, “ok, another 10km before we finish? Let’s do it.” And by the time we both got to the finish – and we ended up running nineteen miles – I think we both felt that we were prepared to go further.

Smiling at the end of the run is always a good sign

The other thing the run did was get me to within thirty nine miles of completing the virtual North Coast 500, which I started back in the middle of April. This is a challenge to run five hundred and sixteen miles, starting and finishing in Inverness, following the route of what has become an incredibly popular tourist route in recent years.

This week was due to be slightly easier than the previous two – what I would refer to as a down week, where the mileage scales back slightly from previous weeks before revving up again. This was primarily because we had a twelve mile run scheduled for the weekend, as opposed to the big mileage runs like we had done for the previous couple of weeks.

“on target for my biggest monthly mileage”

However, the temptation to get to the finish line before the end of August was too great for me to resist. So I ran to and from my JogScotland group on Tuesday night to grab an extra three miles, then I ran six miles rather than five with friends on Wednesday morning. I also managed to cock up my distance planning for my JogScotland group on Thursday, so rather than running sixe and half miles we ran seven, but honestly that was unintentional. These little additions would mean that I could get to the finish on my long Sunday run. It also meant I was on target for my biggest monthly mileage of the year, which is just what you want in the thick of marathon training.

Saturday morning was just a stunning day to be out, it truly is on days like this that I realise how lucky I am to be able to enjoy where I live. Also coming at the end of a week where a friend I was at college with passed away, it made me appreciate it even more.

So on Sunday I planned out our twelve mile route, and I would complete the challenge after ten point seven miles. While Saturday was a much nicer day than forecast, Sunday was much worse than forecast. There was a bit of drizzle in the air but it was still a bit muggy as we ran from one side of the city to the other, getting to the halfway point at Torry Battery – again with Jeanette – where there is another of the lighthouses on display which are dotted around Aberdeen right now.

So as we ran back and came along the side of the River Don, I passed the mark to complete the challenge. Five hundred and sixteen miles in four months and ten days and I have finished in the top two hundred for the challege. For August, I have now run one hundred and seventy nine miles – far more than I had thought I would do at the start. Another goal has been achieved. I should also point out that shortly after passing the the finish line, the route I had planned (so I have no one to blame but myself) went up the biggest and steepest hill I could choose to finish off our run. We only need to do it once in our training plan so that is it out of the way.

Through lockdown I have found these virtual challenges to be really motivating. I realise they are not like real races – nothing is – but just chipping away at them with every run gives you a sense of achieving something when you are running. It is really hard when you start, as you seem to be getting nowhere and there is so far to go, but as you progress, you begin to realise that you are actually getting there. In fact, I think this is a bit like setting out on a marathon journey. It can seem impossible at the start, but slow progress will get you there in the end.

For now, it is all about the next long run and this is where things get really serious. The plan for next weekend is a twenty mile run. Also next weekend, life gets in the way and my wife and I are going away for a few days, so the Sunday run will become a Friday morning run. Am I nervous about it? Of course. Do not think I am not. Do I think I can do it? After the last couple of weeks, definitely. That was not how I was feeling only a few weeks ago. It is all about the process. It is all about making progress – whether it is one mile, five miles or twenty. Six weeks to go to Manchester.

Downs and Ups

Sometimes you need to sit back, realise what you have achieved, rather than get down when things on a run do not go to plan. This is one of those times.

This was the week of marathon training where I gave myself a proverbial slap. I need to stop overthinking, stop over-analysing everything, relax a bit and get on with it. It has been one which began on a real low point, which in reality I should have viewed as an achievement. Let me explain.

Last weekend, my friends and I were aiming for seventeen miles on our Manchester Marathon training plan – and in fact we exceeded that – so then why was I so gutted at the end of the run?

When I got up to get ready for the run it was raining. It was not too heavy, but with the prospect of being out for the thick end of three hours, I hummed and hawed about whether to put on a rain jacket or not. In the end I put it on. That was the first mistake.

“Being polite… I said no”

Within about ten minutes the rain had gone off, and while the weather throughout August has not been brilliant, it has been consistently warm and muggy. When I met up with my friends, they offered to put it in the running backpack they were wearing. Being polite and not wanting to add some weight to what they were carrying, I said no. That was my second mistake.

In fact, technically, that was actually my third mistake. My first mistake – which only became apparent much later on – was that I got my fueling strategy wrong by not eating and drinking enough the day before.

The pace for the run was good. We were very consistent at knocking at miles around the ten minute mile an hour pace, which is our target for the race. I know there is an argument that we should be running even slower on that on our long runs, but it worked well for us last year when we trained for the virtual Dublin Marathon, so have decided to stick with it.

The route was ok too, not too hilly but still any run of seventeen miles is going to involve a few inclines here and there and generally I felt ok for most of the run itself. Until the final few miles. As we ran back along Aberdeen beach, preparing for the last uphill miles back home, I began to feel very hot. The effect of the rain jacket on me was that I was now a bit like a boil in the bag chicken.

I might have been smiling, but I was also toasting on the run with Jeanette and Derek

So physically I was not doing great, but also mentally, I was a bit shot to pieces. The run was going to be closer to nineteen miles rather than seventeen due to a slight detour we had taken. My brain was not ready to process this at this point of training. I was there to run seventeen, not to do nineteen. By the time I got to just beyond seventeen miles, having flogged myself for a mile and a half of the hill, I was done. I stopped my watch. I then ran/walked the rest of the way back home, angry with myself for giving up when I did.

As I rested up back home, I began to recognise what I had actually achieved. I had run the furthest I have run in many months, and my weekly mileage reached forty three. Again, the furthest I have run in a seven day period since training for the virtual Dublin marathon last year.

“Craig, get over yourself with your crappy attitude”

And this is why I needed the proverbial slap. I had done almost nineteen miles. ALMOST NINETEEN MILES. I thought to myself, “For goodness sake Craig, get over yourself with your crappy attitude about how bad it had been. A few years ago you could not even run for nineteen minutes, far less nineteen miles.” A bit of a reset was needed.

What, just what, did I have to be disappointed with? In reality, I had nothing to be disappointed with. I had done the distance I had set out to do – and done a bit more. I should have been finishing that run celebrating another stage achieved, another milestone along the way to twenty six point two. And that is what I have focused on this week. Memory is a funny thing. In my mind, my previous training programmes were all perfect but I know that was not the case. Training for a marathon is a process, and that process is about the downs and the ups. The rest of the week has been very much on the up.

Resting up and assessing my run

My two runs with Jogscotland – part of the six mile group then leading the five and a half mile group – were really positive. I felt good through most of the runs and strong come the end of them, ready to go further. And again, as I kept telling myself, this was coming off the back of a really big mileage week. I should have been expecting to feel worse.

Another positive this week was running with a friend who was up in Aberdeen on holiday. Lindsay was in the city to visit some castles and distilleries so we took the chance to get in a couple of runs together so I could show her some of my favourite places – down at the beach and around Aberdeen University. It was great to have a chat and do my tourist guide bit and combine that with a bit of running.

Running with Lindsay on a warm morning at the beach

Another positive was receiving my medal for being part of the recent Run Around the World virtual running event. This is where teams attempt to run the equivalent mileage of the distance around the world over the course of a month. This ran through July, so while I did not contribute as many miles as I would do normally as I was in Japan, I still manage almost seventy as the team I was in made it around with a day or so to spare.

My third Run Around the World medal

The final thing I have taken out from this week is reinforcing the importance of rest days. My final mistake from last week was that I had run for three days in a row before my long run, doing around 10km each time. I think that also told when it came to those final miles. I had already got perhaps too many miles in my legs and my head to carry me to the end.

This week I have gone back to my tried and trusted two rest days – Monday and Friday – have taken it a bit easier in terms of pace on my runs and am currently eating and drinking a bit more today before the next long run tomorrow. Eighteen miles on the plan, but mentally I am prepared to go longer. Let’s see how it goes. Seven weeks to Manchester.

Questions

Doubts have crept in, I know in my head I can do this. I have done it before. I know how hard it will be. I know I will get through it. The next month is crucial.

It would not be a marathon training block without a bit of doubt. And this week has been full of doubts. Doubts about my ability to do the distance. Doubts about my ability to get through the training. Doubts about whether I will do another marathon beyond this one. Rather than question myself too much, I need to remember this is just part of the process.

On each of my previous marathon training programmes I have hit this kind of problem at some point. I vividly recall getting up to twelve miles when I was training for my first and having a run that was so awfully bad that the only thing I could do to make things better was to actually step away from training for a bit. I do not feel at that stage, but it is a useful reminder that the route to the start line is never a straight path.

Since coming back from Tokyo, I have felt that my body has been struggling to adapt to the rigours of the training regime once more. More than two weeks of inactivity, while good from the point of view of giving my body a bit of a rest from the stresses and strains, definitely made it tough to find my way back into running and feeling comfortable at a certain pace.

Since Tokyo things have been tough

On my long run last weekend, I suffered through it. Another humid morning, perhaps going out a bit quicker than we had planned (I ran with my friend Jeanette), and the inevitable uphill finish made our half marathon distance run feel really tough for me. I know I am not expecting to run a marathon tomorrow, but I still felt that a half at this point of the programme should have felt a bit easier than it did. I think I got my fueling strategy wrong, along with the pace. Something to learn from.

It did remind me of a fourteen mile run I did last summer, preparing for the Dublin Virtual Marathon. At the end of that I was totally spent. I mean done in. I could barely walk another step, far less run. But I got through that, and I plan to get through this.

“a struggle to catch a breath”

The other thing I have been struggling with is breathlessness early on in my runs. It usually takes me a few miles to settle into my running anyway – something which I have written about before – but this felt different. This was more like a general struggle to catch a breath in the opening part of a run.

My run with my local JogScotland group on Tuesday night was a case in point. I ran with a friend I had not seen for ages so we naturally fell into a conversation about what we had both been up to in recent times. Except that I was really struggling to be able to talk. I genuinely was thinking that there was something wrong with me, so bad I felt in those early couple of miles.

I had a similar feeling on Thursday, when I was leading a group running a shorter distance at a slower pace. This should have been something very comfortable for me, but again early on I found it way more taxing than I should have. It was a really odd feeling. As an asthmatic, trust me, I know how awful it feels when you cannot settle your breathing or feel that you can really get a breath. But this was not an asthmatic reaction, this was just a feeling that I was really struggling to handle what my body was going through.

“it has certainly worried me”

Now on both occasions, later in the runs I felt ok. Pushing past that initial stage, focusing on settling my breathing down (more than I would normally do) helped and by the time I got to around four miles things had calmed down. However, it has certainly worried me. The one positive has been my thigh issues which dominated last week appear to have gone away – thank you Deep Heat!

But when worry like this creeps in, it can impact your confidence about what lies ahead. The next month is really crucial for training. This is where you get into the really big miles, the maximum weekly mileage as you build up your body (and as importantly your mind) to be able to endure the marathon distance. The marathon might be run in October, but it will be made through August and September.

“this is serious stuff”

My long runs for the next few weeks (in miles) goes seventeen, eighteen, twelve, twenty, twelve and twenty. Bearing in mind these runs will come on top of more miles being run during the week, this is serious stuff. I have followed training programmes from the American runner and coach Hal Higdon and one thing he said really stuck with me. “If you want to finish a marathon, run thirty five miles a week. If you to finish a marathon well, run forty five miles a week.” This week I am on track for forty one miles. I am, in fact, doing ok.

And this is also where I need to calm down. This is supposed to be for fun. If I do not remember that – plus the fact that I am running this in memory of my friend DJ to raise funds for Mental Health Aberdeen (you can donate here) – then I run the risk of taking all the joy out of the journey. I am not a pro athlete, as a hobby runner, all I need to do is make sure I get round. That will be achievement enough.

I have had a couple of better runs toward the end of the week with my friends Cara and Susan, and that has given me a bit more faith and a positive outlook.

With Susan and Cara at one of the Lighthouse Art Trail Sculptures

So we move on to the seventeen mile run tomorrow and the next big test in the training schedule. Weather looks ok, hopefully not too hot and humid and I will certainly be focusing on an easy pace to get going so I can overcome those early mile issues and keep a bit more in the tank for the final few miles.

While doubts have crept in, I know in my head I can do this. I have done it before. I know how hard it will be. I know I will get through it. I know my friends will help me. Eight weeks to go.

Thigh Society

When mental resilience comes to the fore in marathon training. Early on I was really struggling. I could not find a way to get comfortable. My legs felt so heavy, particularly my thighs. My breathing was erratic. How was I going to get through this?

This week has been about one thing. Getting back in to marathon training. However, no one seems to have told my thighs….

It was always going to be a bit difficult to find a rhythm again after almost three weeks of very little activity due to my work trip to Tokyo, and while the motivation is most definitely there, I have found it physically a bit more challenging than I had anticipated.

After a couple of 10km runs last week, the test was seeing how I would cope with getting back in to the marathon mileage for the weekend long run. Fifteen miles was on the plan, and while this was always going to be a stretch, it was only four weeks ago that I had comfortably run a half marathon so it was not completely out of the realms of possibility.

“I could not find a way to get comfortable”

I had felt good on the 10km runs, but the run on Sunday was different. I ran with my friend Jeanette, who is also training for the Manchester Marathon, but early on I was really struggling. I could not find a way to get comfortable. My legs felt so heavy, particularly my thighs. My breathing was erratic. I was finding it difficult to hold a conversation, even though we were running at our planned pace of around ten minutes a mile.

It would be fair to say that in those early miles there was no way I thought I could complete the distance. At that point it was just about keeping going; about hoping that I would get to a stage where I would begin to feel a bit better and hopefully be able to hang on after that.

The views were the best bit of the run

I think it would be fair to say that I only began to feel a bit better once I got to around the 10km mark. The legs were still heavy, but at least my breathing had eased and mentally, I had began to think that this was doable, rather than impossible. The route was one we had run before, so I knew what was involved in getting through it, but I found some of the downhill stretches quite painful, which was not good.

The final two miles was uphill, always a bit of a struggle, but we gutsed our way through it to get to the end. Well I say we, I mean me. This was definitely more about the head than anything else.

Jeanette and me, with me pretending I was enjoying it

These are types of runs which tell you a lot about yourself. It would have been so easy to give in early on. It would have been easy to say, “enough” after a few miles. It would have been easy to tell myself that the break had meant I did not have enough in the tank. That would have been the easy thing to do. But marathon training is not about doing the easy thing. Marathon training is about doing the best you can in the circumstances you find yourself. And when you find yourself in difficult circumstances and get through them, then that is the best thing that you can do.

The resilience you need to get through a long distance run is what came through on Sunday. So while I cannot say that I enjoyed it very much, the mental strength which came from getting through it is what really counts. Knowing that I can feel that bad at two miles and still get through fifteen is now embedded in my brain. It might might have been good, but it showed guts. That will do for me.

The 15 mile route

During the week, I returned to leading at my local JogScotland group, taking out the six mile runners which I really enjoyed. It was a small group on only four and again it was a warm night, but it is such a nice and positive experience to go round with such a friendly bunch of people. If you do not run with a running group, I would really recommend it. Definitely one of the best things I do.

I also managed a run with friends Cara and Susan really early on Thursday morning – at 6am – the first time we have run together in months. For various reasons we have not been able to get together so it was lovely to run with them both once more. However, on all the runs this week, my thighs have felt really sore and stiff.

“The last thing I need now is an injury”

I am not sure if it is a bit of cramp that comes on, or if it is a muscle strain, or if it is just my body reacting to the return to proper training. Whatever it is, I am deliberately running a bit easier than I would normally in the hope it eases off. A bit of deep heat too would also be appearing to help. The last thing I need now is an injury.

Saturday morning was back to my routine 10km run at Aberdeen beach, but this time with an added bit of fun. A local charity is setting up a Lighthouse Trail. This type of thing has been common in Aberdeen in recent years (last year being an exception) where artists create pieces of work and they are dotted around the city and further afield. So it was really nice to be able to spot a few on the way round.

The marathon plan says a half marathon distance tomorrow, which hopefully will be straightforward enough. I will apologise now for anyone out early tomorrow morning if you detect a whiff of Deep Heat as I plod my way around, but I think if it helps my thighs then it is definitely going to be applied. Nine weeks to go until the Manchester Marathon.

Tokyo Drift

Weeks of inactivity, fitness drifting away. A trip to Tokyo has tested my marathon preparations. Not it is time to get back on track.

What happens when the plans you have made to at least do some training when you are away on a business trip fall apart and you feel your fitness drifting away? I just have to suck it up, make the most of what I could do and get back to it now I am home.

I have just returned from a work trip to the Tokyo Olympics. I was away for almost three weeks, just when my marathon training for the forthcoming Manchester Marathon in early October was beginning to ramp up.

Prior to going, I knew that for the first two weeks while I was away I would be unable to do any running. Japan had introduced strict quarantine conditions that meant for fourteen days all I was allowed to do was stay in my hotel room, take designated transport to work, be at work and come back to my hotel room. Oh, and I could use the 7/11 shop around the corner from my hotel to do any shopping.

And that was it.

My plan therefore was to do some Resistance Band training in my room, maybe some HIIT sessions, something to keep the blood flowing and maybe get my heartrate up. However, I am not the smallest guy in the world, but my room was not the biggest. So as a consequence any time I tried to do anything, all I managed to do was bump into various things. The wall, the bed, the desk, the chair, my luggage, so any hope of that kind of work went straight out of the window.

My compact hotel room

At least with work I was walking a lot. Routinely doing more than 10,000 steps a day was ensuring I was getting in some activity but those first fourteen days were pretty hard. I totally realise why the conditions were in place and I was very privileged to even be allowed to travel to be there in the first place, but it was tough to spend twelve hours at work, then twelve hours in my room. Even breakfast had to be collected, after sanitizing my hands, putting on gloves and then putting what I wanted into a box, and then eaten in the room. In the room was also the only time I could remove my face mask, which had to be worn indoors or outdoors at all times.

After two weeks – and a raft of Covid testing – I was finally cleared of the quarantine and was able to do at least some exercise outdoors and a bit of sightseeing. The only problem with exercising outdoors was, of course, the local temperatures and humidity. It was 31C when I made it out for my first run – a very slow and steady 5km in the boiling heat – and having to wear the facemask was an additional challenge. I am used to wearing a buff in winter time to keep my face warm, but wearing a facemask when it was this hot was extremely uncomfortable. Within the first mile it became soaked with sweat and so breathing became more laboured as I went on.

My first run was very tough

For a 5km run at home I would never even contemplate taking a drink with me, but in these temperatures it was essential, as was trying to find any shade., which was in short supply. It felt good to be out again, however, as I had felt my fitness ebbing away during the previous two weeks. I had also been suffering with really bad leg cramps at night, almost every night, a consequence I felt of not doing anything and also possibly being a bit dehydrated because of the heat.

I had hoped to run with some friends when I was out there, and of course this had to wait until we had all cleared our quarantine, so on my final full day in Tokyo we made it out to run up to and (hopefully) over the Rainbow Bridge. This is the bridge you will see in a lot of the Olympic coverage as the rings are positioned close by.

Phil, Will, Phil and I ran at 7am on the day of the men’s triathlon, but even at that time of the day, it was already extremely humid and warming up by the second. We made it to the bridge, only to then discover that the elevator we had to take to get up onto the bridge itself did not open until 9am. While that was disappointing, it was really nice to run with these friends and perhaps we will make this a regular Olympic tradition if we cover future games.

At the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo

We managed four miles that morning, but again I felt about dead by the end of it. The fact that the athletes are competing in these conditions and delivering incredible times and performances is an enormous credit to them and their preparations.

I returned to the UK on Tuesday this week, and with the rules changing, do not need to quarantine so can resume my training. I do feel incredibly lucky to have traveled and had the opportunity to be part of the games. It is the fifth I have been involved with, since starting in London in 2012, and the heat here was a total contrast to the minus 14 conditions I ran in when I was in Pyongchang for the winter games back in 2018. Back then I was training for my first marathon. This time it is for my fourth. The experience of the past three has helped me rationalise my lack of training over the past weeks. Now it is a case of trying to get back into the training programme, focusing on getting the long runs done.

The Olympic ribbons from my accreditation pass

Having come back I have run a couple of times. A gentle 10km on my own early on Thursday morning when the jetlag had me awake shortly after 5am and then on Saturday morning with my friend Cara. Running in the cooler temperatures has really helped and so far I have felt much better than I thought I was going to. Part of the process of rationalisation has been about accepting that the past few weeks have given my body a chance to rest, so now after the rest, it is time to try and step things up.

On Sunday, I hope to run fifteen miles with my friends Derek and Jeanette, who are also doing the Manchester Marathon. I have no idea how it is going to go. Running a marathon teaches you mental resilience, tomorrow is going to be a big test of that, never mind the physical challenge. Let’s do this.

Deal with it

There is nothing I can do to change my circumstances, nor the circumstances for the marathon race. All I can do is try and grind out the next few weeks.

What to do when you are supposed to be marathon training, but you cannot actually go for a run? This is the dilemma I now face as I travel, for work, out to Tokyo for the next few weeks.

Formal marathon training for Manchester only really kicked in a couple of weeks ago with the start of the weekend long runs. Two weeks ago we did eight miles and last Sunday eleven (though I added a bit on at the start to get to half marathon distance) so things are progressing ok. The runs felt good, not too hard, but always with a realisation that there is so much further to go.

“I am not allowed to run outside at all”

At this point, the miles should just be slowly building, but in reality they are going to come to a grinding halt for me. Covid restrictions in Tokyo mean that I am not allowed to run outside at all for at least the next two weeks after I get there, and the hotel has no gym.

This week I decided to do a longer run midweek just to get a few more miles into the legs. An eight mile run on a damp and grey night – my ideal running conditions to be honest – and most pleasing, my fastest miles were my later miles, including the stretch back uphill on the way home. I know I am still not in peak shape and need to lose some weight, but I am pleased with where I am.

Love running by a stream

I find the sound of running water very soothing so if I can, I try and run past a nearby small loch on my runs, and as this was about four miles in, I stopped to appreciate the sound and the view.

On Thursday, I began my journey to Tokyo. I say began because, as things stand, I have only made it as far as Amsterdam. A delayed initial flight meant a missed connection, an overnight stay in the airport terminal (and I mean on a bench in the terminal as all the hotels were full) and I am now awaiting a flight to Paris for a connection into the Japanese capital.

This has been a pretty stressful event, but it did offer me a chance to be inventive. And I think that is what I will need to be over the coming weeks. Schiphol Airport is huge, so I chose to walk around it. It took me close to an hour to get around, recording slightly more than 5km in the process, so if nothing else it kept me mobile and kept the legs ticking over.

Walking around the terminal building

The following morning I did an end to end walk – a bit quicker this time, probably because I was so shattered after a traumatic day of delays and attempts to sort out the onward flights – and that racked up another couple of miles. Now I know that none of this is remotely close to the distances I would be doing this weekend (probably another half marathon), but it is better than nothing.

I cannot simply let the next few weeks pass by without doing anything, so I am going to try doing some HIIT sessions and room workouts to keep things going. I even bought a set of resistance bands and have them packed away in my stuff in order to use them while I am in Tokyo itself. I have no idea what shape I will be in when I get back, but I plan to slot straight in to the distance schedule when I do get out running again. I am hoping that the last five years will have built up some natural fitness that I can tap into once more. And if not, well we will meet that challenge when we get there.

“the plan is the plan until the plan changes”

I think one of the most important things about training for a race is not to become too obsessive about the plan. The plan is the plan until the plan changes. This is supposed to be a bit of fun, so there is no point in stressing over it. In saying that, I am sure by the time I get to the start of September I will be in full on panic mode.

That is, of course, assuming the race definitely goes ahead. I was really saddened to see the Dublin Marathon being cancelled once more (I did the virtual Dublin event last year) and while the Great North Run is going ahead, it is doing so with massive changes in the route and arrangements. I really feel for the organisers, it is such a challenge for them right now.

It will be what it will be. There is nothing I can do to change my circumstances, nor the circumstances for the race. All I can do is try and grind out the next few weeks, do as much as I can do within the confines of my hotel room and see what things are like when I get back.

Sweat

Running and sweating go hand in hand but lately I feel like I am turning into a puddle on every run. But now my Manchester Marathon training is about to be severely disrupted by a trip abroad.

Is it possible to sweat too much? Asking for a me….

I know the weather has warmed up in recent weeks but after almost any run these days I am absolutely dripping within a few miles, so much so that I am genuinely beginning to think that there might be something wrong with me!

I genuinely do not recall leaking as much as this before, though rather bizarrely sweating more has been something I have done much more of since I started running a few years back. And when I say I sweat more, I mean I sweat more than I did previously when I exercised.

This was amplified on a family holiday a few years back in China in summertime when a walk in stifling humidity on the Great Wall resulted in a swift trip to the gift shop to buy the biggest t-shirt they had in order to immediately change into to save me from soaking the bus seat when I got back in to head to Beijing. (I am a bit larger than their typical Chinese customer so this remains the one and only XXXL t-shirt I own).

Now I know that sweat is something we all do when we are running, but holy cow my run this morning ended with me totally drenched. This was a 10km with a few hills but the temperature was not too high as I was out quite early – not as early as last week, which you can read about here – so perhaps the humidity played a part.

At the highest point of my run on the moors

The other factor, which I try to ignore but I really should not, is probably my weight. I am hoping to use this training block as an opportunity to lose a bit of heft that I have put on during lockdown. There is another whole post waiting to be written about my battle with body image but this is not the blog for that. However, I will confess it is something I have struggled with for a long time.

My one consolation is that the Manchester Marathon which I am training for is not until October, so plenty of time for things to cool down before that, but the next couple of months promise to be challenging in terms of temperature as the training builds up. I will come back to this shortly.

Clearing skies as the temperatures notched up

Other than the 10km this morning, my running this week was dominated by leading groups at my local JogScotland club. A six mile group on Tuesday was followed by a five mile group on Thursday and on both occasions it was an opportunity to chat and get to know new people, particularly with the five mile runners.

Most of the folk in the group I did not know or knew only a little, so it was great to have a chat with them as we went around. One thing I am trying to do with any group I lead is to talk to each of the runners on our way around. Whether that is trying to be encouraging or to find out more about them, I think it is an important part of the overall experience. Equally, if we are heading uphill, conversation is an optional extra….

Nice to get my Coaching card through this week

Unfortunately, group leading is having to take a back seat for the next few weeks, as is running, as I head off for a work trip to Japan. It really is not clear how much running I will be able to do when I am away, and also, if I think the temperatures here are warm at the moment, then I am really not prepared for temperatures in the high twenties Celcius (high seventies, low eighties Fahrenheit) and significantly higher levels of humidity.

“Core work and strength work”

So it may be that I need to resort to other measures to maintain fitness when I am away, so I have bought some resistance bands and plan to do some hotel room workouts while on the trip. Core work and strength work is something which I have wanted to do during previous marathon training blocks but have never got around to, so this is my chance to perhaps improve on that front, though I will be missing out on what would normally be a big training month of miles in my legs.

I just need to accept that, and realise that through August and into the middle of September, I just need to get my head down, pick up the training plan from that point and get on with it. It is less than ideal, but as this will be my fourth marathon I am not panicking about it. If it was my first, I certainly would be!

What I mean by that is that I know what is ahead of me, both in terms of the training I will miss and the challenge of the actual event. If this means that I tone down my time ambitions for the race – to get sub-4.30 – and just focus on finishing then so be it. Too often, we become obsessed with time, when in reality we should concentrate and celebrate simply completing the event safely.

And as this time I am running to support a charity in memory of my friend DJ who died suddenly at Christmas, then I have all the motivation I need to get through it. If you can, please help support the work of Mental Health Aberdeen – a charity of which he was President and a cause he was passionate about – via my JustGiving page.

For now, I have a series of Covid tests to look forward to and a period of running isolation to get through before I even get to Japan. Not the most pleasant of prospects I realise, but necessary in this all too strange times. Take care and stay safe everyone.