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Things I learnt from my third marathon

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

After the disappointment of the Sydney marathon, I decided to run Canberra again in 2015, so I could have another crack at the sub 3 while I was still fit. I entered in late 2014, and started training at the beginning of December. One thing I did differently for this program was get the help of a coach, who gave me a program to follow.

This was the hardest block of training I have done for a few reasons. I felt heavy all the time. My pace was significantly slower on my long runs and mid week runs that it was for Sydney, but it didn’t feel comfortable. I did the interval sessions on my program solo instead of training with my club, and I struggled through a lot of them. Training through summer also meant battling with the heat, which for some reason didn’t seem to be as big of an issue the year before. I also had a lot going on outside running, things were tricky at work and had to move house.

The end result was my worst marathon to date. I went into it not knowing what to expect. Like with Sydney, I thought I could definitely break 3 hours, but I don’t think I ever had a specific idea of how that was going to happen. I was vaguely aiming for 2:55. I ran alright at the beginning, starting behind the 3 hour pace group and catching them around 10km. I felt good around 17km, and moved ahead of the bus. I started to feel fatigued around 27km, and the pacers had caught me by 30km, at which point I started walking.

I contemplated dropping out at the last out and back section, but pushed through. I ran/walked for 10km, at times thinking my sub 3 goal wasn’t out of reach yet (it was). I managed to run the last 2.2km, and finished in 3:07.

There was a lot to be learnt from my third marathon!

Don’t rush it – I entered Canberra 2015 because I wanted to make use of fitness I had from training for Sydney, and thought it was best to try to go sub 3 again quickly. In reality, my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t stop to think about what went wrong in Sydney, and what to do differently. While I can see why it might be worth trying again quickly if something is out of your control, like bad weather, but my problem was predominately poor preparation. I should have waited until I was mentally prepared to give it another shot.

Don’t over commit to training – I struggled with the program I got for this marathon, mostly because it meant doing a lot of sessions by myself. I was used to doing all my interval sessions with my club, but trying to do the specific ones listed in my program meant doing them by myself. I often missed them if I was too tired or unmotivated, and ended up trying to squeeze them somewhere else in the week, often a place that made absolutely no sense. The best example was the time I missed Thursday intervals, did fartlek at 6:30pm on a Friday night, then ran a hard 5km the following morning. I obviously didn’t learn my lesson, because the next week I did intervals on the Friday, then attempted a 10km tempo the following day (not well) #makesnosense

Looking back, I barely followed the program at all, making it a big waste of everyone’s time. When planning your training, it’s important that you don’t commit to things that aren’t going to work. If you can only realistically run four days a week, don’t attempt to do five. If you are going to sign up with a coach, speak to them about when you are available to train to make your program as simple as possible to follow. If you are following an online program, find one that works around your schedule. If you want to join a running group, find out when their sessions are held, and plan your training around that. If you need to change things or miss a session, remember it’s important to maintain the overall structure of your program.

Consistency is key, and it’s better to be consistent with sessions you can manage than trying to do too much.

Building endurance is not just about the long runs – I thought I was doing well in this program because I ran more long runs and more mid week long runs than my two previous marathon training blocks. But I made such a mess of the training around those runs, that they weren’t enough. There were too many weeks with multiple days off, runs cut short and time spent tapering or recovering for other races. I changed the structure of the program, backing up from a speed session with more speed instead of recovery, and went from one extreme to the other, sometimes having weeks where all I did was the two long runs and others with not much more than the multiple speed sessions.

In isolation, the number of long runs might have made it look like I was more prepared for this marathon. But elements of a program don’t exist in isolation, and the sporadic nature of my training overall meant I hadn’t done enough running for the time I was chasing.

Plan for training during holidays – I recently wrote a couple of posts about training while on holidays, you can read them here and here. During the build up to this marathon, I had a trip to Cairns booked. It was only 4 nights and it wasn’t planned to be super busy, so there was time for training. But it was February, and it was hot.

My program included a 12km tempo run at 3:58 pace on the Saturday, and a 35km run on the Sunday. The Friday and Monday were rest days, so I only had two runs to get do while I was there. I didn’t mention the trip to the coach, probably because I thought it would be fine. My plan was to do parkrun as part of the tempo, and run again on a similar course on the Sunday.

There were so many things that went wrong. My hotel was about 5km from the start of parkrun (well away from the centre of Cairns). There were no footpaths on most of the roads that I would be running on to parkrun. I wasn’t comfortable running on the road in the dark, so I left later than planned. The later start meant it was H.O.T! Everything is always easy in hindsight, and a big part of the problem was that a 12km tempo was a really tough session for me at the time (more on that later), but there is no way I was ever going to get that run done.

The two separate sessions merged into a one – a three part, 26km run on the Saturday, which included a 9km warm up, a decent parkrun, and a 12km slog in the heat afterwards. The last part is still one of the toughest runs I’ve ever done. I felt so drained when I was finally finished, all I wanted to do was sleep, and I barely had any energy to enjoy the rest of the trip. I also did none of the sessions on my program for the week that followed (all of them I shortened or skipped).

Long story short, if your program includes training when you will be away from home, plan properly and take different weather conditions into account, otherwise you might be doing more harm than good!

Build up to harder sessions – My program included a few tempo sessions of around 10km. I hadn’t done anything like that in training before, and really struggled with them. Looking back, I don’t think I was physically or mentally ready to attempt a session like that. If I was asked to do one now, as a much more experienced runner that I was then, I would still find it challenging.

I managed two 10km tempos during my preparation. The first one had so many stops it was practically an interval session. The second one was much better, with only a couple of quick stops for water, but neither were a big confidence boost.

When I revisited the tempo run in the lead up to the Berlin Marathon, I started by doing 10 minutes, then adding to it each time. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, because doing proper tempo runs was something I learnt from my fourth marathon. But the main thing I took away from these sessions when training for Canberra is that attempting something I wasn’t ready for, didn’t help me at all. It didn’t give me much confidence, and I didn’t get the training benefit intended. Building up your training is a work in progress, and not something that needs to be rushed.

Try to reduce external stresses – Easier said than done, but as a general rule, you will respond better to a training load if you aren’t juggling a million things at once. I was quite drained during most of 2015 with a couple of life things, and didn’t run as well as I wanted to. It wasn’t the only reason, but it didn’t help. When preparing for a marathon, it’s worth making it a priority. That might mean entering a race when you aren’t too busy with work and life, or putting other things on hold for a little while. I wrote another post about fitting training into a busy lifestyle here.

Don’t spend too much time looking at your watch – In the first 10km of the race, I was behind the 3 hour pace group, because it seemed like they had gone out quite fast. I could see them ahead, but instead of using that as a guide on pace, I spent a lot of time checking my watch. This led to speeding up and slowing down based on the pace I saw, which probably used a lot of energy I could have made better use of later in the race. These days, I will check my watch as a guide, but don’t react to it.

Take the time to reflect on your race – If there is one thing I did right in Canberra, it was the decision after finished to take a break from the marathon. Things weren’t working, I wasn’t enjoying it, and the only thing I knew was that I wasn’t doing another one for a very, very long time.

A very, very long time ended up being 18 months, which was what I needed. It gave me the time to work out what I needed to change, and get my head in the right space to commit to training. It ended up being the start of my favourite marathon yet.

Things I learnt from my fourth marathon, coming soon!

Finish of the Canberra marathon
At the finish line of the 2015 Canberra marathon. I don't look disappointed, maybe I wasn't overly suprised!

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