The Back Story
This is my story, this is my race, this is my experience of the Brighton Marathon in my attempt to break 3. It’s a race report too but that sounds so boring and soulless, so impersonal. What I experienced in Brighton was none of those things. It was emotional, and personal, a celebration, a culmination of five months of training in which I publicly declared as part of my 3 in 3hr marathon challenge that I was shooting for sub3. A lofty goal and not a time I have got anywhere near since 2013. But the sub3 time I set back then is not significant to this story and isn’t even in the record books so this quite frankly was my first shot at breaking 3 hours and making it official.
As runners we are obsessed with time, splits and pace. When training for a marathon it occupies our every waking existence. Not a day would go pass when I didn’t think about the 3 hour goal. It was all consuming and all training was shaped towards getting me fitter and closer to achieving that goal. The 5 and a bit months of training (Nov17-April18) went really well. I couldn’t have hoped for better really. However observers were commenting that the volume of miles I was putting in was much too low to have a genuine shot at sub3. And if you look at all the marathon training plans they would agreed too. I averaged only 30 miles per week throughout training, with the final 6 weeks before my taper averaging 40 miles.
The MK Winter half marathon was the best marker to estimate my marathon time. I crossed the line there in 1:26 flat. I also posted an 18:18 MK Parkrun PB and a 37:30 10K time in the weeks leading up to Brighton. None of the online marathon calculators gave me a chance of success. Even the most optimistic calculator (on Runners World) based on a multiple of your half marathon time didn’t inspire any confidence. And the newer Fetch Running calculator which is the new kid on the block (based on the finishing times of 1,000 marathon runners all of whom had run at least 5 marathons and 5 half marathons) put me outside 3:15! And there was yet another calculator where as well as putting in recent race times you could also put in your training miles and yes you guessed it that gave me even less chance. So all the combined marathon wisdom, statistical analysis and off the shelf training plans didn’t point towards success. In fact if you really believed it all it pointed to only one result…. Total failure.
So where did my self-belief come from that I could even get close to a sub3? Honestly…. I just believed that it was possible and I think that is all it takes. But this was not a misguided belief that had no substance or validity, but a true deep seated self-belief backed up my hard graph that unless someone can prove to me otherwise then anything is possible. So that is the mind-set I took into my training and into my ‘3 in 3 Marathon Challenge fundraiser'.
All my long runs had been banked even if the last one with friends Andy and Richard Inchley did end with me totally bonking at 18 miles (having fasted) and dragging my sorry backside through the last 5 miles at about 9 minute pace! And this run was over 45 seconds per mile slower than sub3 marathon pace. Why didn’t that even shake my confidence? It should have. But nothing was going to shake my resolve to succeed. I’m such a stubborn person, which admittedly is not an enviable trait but in this situation I think my total stubbornness and single-mindedness to succeed helped.
Race Day ~ Pre-race
So to race morning …. Well about 1:44am to be exact. I was ready to get up out of my three-tier bunk bed in a 12-berth hostel dorm. With my Buff blacking out everything, and some seriously good ear plugs blocking out the snoring and late night drama outside on the street I had rested enough. Don’t confuse rested with slept well though. I rarely sleep well the night before a big race, but I was bored of being horizontal and was ready to run. Damn I thought, I’ve got to lay here for another 4 hours. Time passed as it often does in this situation feeling impossibly slow but actually dawn soon breaks and now I really do need to get up and I’m not feeling as keen as I did 4 hours ago. Porridge was consumed, Nutella pancakes made and remade (first one was too thick and stodgy so I didn’t want to risk it). Double dose of caffeine and then out the door.
The hostel was well situated with a mile walk up the road to Preston Park and the mass start. However my 1:26 half marathon time at MK actually put me on the Withdean start for ‘invited runners’ only whom all had aspirations of a sub 3:15 or better. That was a nice touch from the organisers. Nothing wrong with being made to feel a bit special. But the contrast between Preston Park and Withdean could not have been any starker. Preston Park with over 20,000 people crammed into their funnels and brightly coloured arch ways with sounds and music blasting out the tannoy and nervous excitement all around.
|Preston Park mass start|
Withdean however was another mile up the road and once I arrived I was met with what appeared to be an under-publicised inaugural Parkrun. It was so low key… It was absolutely perfect! I found the male dressing tent and sorted out my gear with bag duly deposited in the lorry. No possessions other than vest, shorts, socks and shoes, Garmin, oh and the obligatory newly acquired Buff (purchased from the very nice Henry at the Expo Buff booth!)
15 minutes to warm up with some very light shuttle runs up and down the road. I can’t help but watch what others are doing to warm up. There are always those that clearly know every stretch in the manual and execute them with precision and mastery. Me on the other hand, I don’t. I run a bit. Stop. Untie and retie my shoe laces… twice. Think I’m happy with those and then run a bit more. Final loo stop and into the starting pen at the very front of the Brighton Marathon on the fast start. Nice. Top organisation and a warm welcoming relaxed feel to it all. Mixed up at the front are the elite club runners with names on their vests. The 3 hour pacers were at the very front too so I shuffled forward 50 yards to join them. My plan was very simple; I was not to let them out of my sight, or even let a gap of more than 10 metres open up between me and them. I met one of the pacers (Tom) at registration the day before where we had a quick chat and I picked up an old school sub3 pace band. You can’t rely on GPS for accurate splits. Stopwatch times checked off at each mile marker against the pace band is the only way to know for sure.
And so here we are at the start of the Brighton Marathon with the full weight of expectation on my shoulders that sub3 on low volume training and after a huge break from any serious running for 3 years is possible. No pressure then! But secretly I love it. I love the drama. I love the whole process and I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. You can’t be afraid of failure otherwise you will never truly know what you are capable of. I believed with God’s grace that as I stood on that start line with a slight welling up of emotion bubbling up inside that I was capable of running a sub3.
That’s the preamble over …. Let’s race!
The hooter goes and we're off. There was no danger of sprinting off in an overexcited stupor as I calmly slotted in behind Tom and Fass (the other 3hr pacer). All I had to do was stick close and that’s exactly what I did. They tell you when starting a marathon that the pace should feel really easy, you shouldn’t be pushing at all. They tell you that even if the pace feels right you are probably still going too fast and should slow down further. But this just isn’t the case at 3 hour pace. This requires you to run 26.2 miles each one at precisely 6:52 or under (the pace band was actually at 6:51 and had a finish time of 2:59.30). The reality is that at this pace it doesn’t feel slow… not at all. And there was no backing off! I was going to be working hard from start to finish and I was under no illusions of that fact but was relishing every step.
We are heading down London Road towards Brighton sea front with crowds on either side cheering us on. This really was the London Marathon by-the-sea as I’ve heard it described before. But then what’s this…. why are we heading back in the other direction and what’s that on the other side of the road? Why are those runners coming down what looks like a bloody big hill. Oh crap it is a bloody big hill and they were the leading pack and we obviously had to go up first to come back down! Now I’m not the type of runner to get overly concerned by hills. Well not normally but at this pace I did start to wonder. Thankfully the hill was short lived and wasn’t going to massively effect the overall pace. In fact it didn’t at all and thanks largely to the downhill it equaled out and we were bang on pace. Tom and Fass were doing a great job! Tom especially I noticed from the start was managing the effort. Not hitting the mile splits bang on but the effort level was very even which is far more important.
So more about the 3 hour group I was running with. There were perhaps around 20 of us and as I’m not one to keep myself to myself and didn’t intend on running this marathon in a self-consuming bubble of silence. So I would regularly say a few words to Tom and other runners around me. Nothing of any significant note but I wanted to feel ‘connected’ to the people around me and it just makes the time go quicker. Plus why not harness that group energy and engender a ‘we’re in this together’ spirit. I didn’t consciously set out to do this. It wasn’t a deliberate game plan but it felt very natural. I was enjoying myself and wanted to share that with others.
The group naturally split into two with Fass leading up front with 10 or so runners around him, and Tom with the rest of us some 10 yards behind. But that gap would yoyo throughout the race and the pacers would interchange the roles. Tom was a 2:45 marathoner so this was surely just a walk in the park for him right, and I found out much later in the race around mile 20 when chatting to Fass that he had never run a sub3 before! Now that takes some serious guts doesn’t it. I thought I was confident but I’d never dream of taking on pacing duties for a time I’d never run before. That’s nuts. (Note: Fass’ half marathon time was 74 minutes though :-O )
So we hit Brighton sea front and we are now five miles into the race. I remember it because I was checking off the major miles that meant something against the pace band. 3 miles was Parkrun distance give or take so seeing that past in 21 minutes was reassuring. And at 5 miles 34 minutes passes which calms the nerves and by now you are settled into your running. Any pre-race nerves have long dissipated and now you start looking ahead, just not too far ahead.
These were my mile splits up to mile 5 ~ 6:45, 6:48, 6:54, 6:49, 6:35 (All good!!)
Anyone that knows the sea front at Brighton will know that the road gradually rises towards the East. Nothing too concerning but enough to keep you monitoring your effort and backing off ever so slightly so as not to overdo it. Again Tom was managing the effort incredibly efficiently on the hills so I just stuck with him and chatted a bit. I think these remarks about me nattering away might suggest I was simply cruising around the course. Let me reassure my readers that this wasn’t the case. Even in these early miles I knew I was working hard to maintain the pace. Any slip in concentration even for a moment would see gaps open immediately.
The next out and back 7 mile section took us all the way up the coastal road with amazing views to our right over the ocean before a 1 mile dog leg left section, immediately followed by a cheeky little rise in the road before we then headed back towards the centre. It was in this section that a bigger gap appeared between Fass out front and Tom. Around mile 10 Tom put in a little injection of pace to close the gap which was thankfully on a small descent. Didn’t make it much easier though and I was aware then that the effort level seemed to be rising and I was working harder.
These were my mile splits between 6 and 13 ~ 6:50, 6:56, 6:55, 6:56, 6:53, 6:46, 6:40, 6:38
Put your hands in the air if you have having fun!! ~ Half way!
Mid-section ~ keep it going now
We hit half way in 1:29.23. Bang on 3 hour pace but with almost no safety cushion.
Responding to the steel drums at half way
The last 7 miles had flown by and hitting half way was hugely encouraging. I felt okay and importantly the 3 hour pack was back together. There was no room for gaps now as we continued on with my occasional motivational shout outs to the group to keep tight and stick together, stay strong etc. I don’t think I was being annoying but you may have to ask them that question. But in fact Tom posted a nice comment on my Strava activity post-race about my contribution to the group dynamic and the difference he felt it made to the whole group. This was a huge compliment and actually way more meaningful than whatever time I ended up achieving. Yes I was totally focused on the time, but that was only the potential end result (and one of many possible outcomes). During the race itself your finish time is immaterial. It’s what you do during the race that matters most. It’s the whole experience that can’t be expressed by a time. If that was all I was interested in I certainly wouldn’t bother writing this report. And if others were only interested in the race result you wouldn’t be reading this either. So evidently it’s about a lot more than just the end result. For me it’s about how you conduct yourself? How do you interact with the crowd? How do you interact with other runners? What joy do you bring to others and yourself, and what will you look back on and think about it when all is said and done? Okay back to the race..
So I was now into the middle section of the marathon ~ miles 13 through to 20. The first half marathon breezes by in a bit of a blur and whilst not effortless by any means if you are already suffering by half way then clearly you have got something very wrong, which unless injury related can only point to over-cooking it. I was in my stride and really focusing on managing my effort. Tom and Fass helped hugely in this respect because I didn’t have to constantly look at my watch to check the pace. Instead I could just focus on running as efficiently as possible and on maintaining good form and posture. It’s when you get tired that your running form deteriorates which leads to greater inefficiencies and loss of time, and then even poorer form. All the hills were now behind us too so it was ‘just’ a case of keeping going, continue to enjoy the great support from the crowds and bands, and hope that the wheels don’t fall off.
The group was running well and these miles were pretty uneventful. And quite frankly uneventful is good! The biggest aspect at this stage was keeping hydrated and fuelled. It used to call it drinking and eating but as a friend pondered the same question on the Ultra running Facebook group; when exactly did drinking and eating become hydration and fuelling? :-D It’s a damn good question. The cynics amongst us will point to big business and marketing of sports supplements. You take the most basic human need sound far more exciting and invigorating by dressing it up a bit. Well you know what at this pace I needed it. I never buy gels or energy drink supplements for running. In training I use water only and all my long runs were completed in a fasted state. But at this level of intensity that won’t cut it. I needed fuel and the Brighton organisers had it SPOT ON. I was slightly concerned about drinking out of paper cups, but my concerns were unfounded. They had just the right number of water stations along the course with every other one also stocked with energy drink as well. The gels stations were also well spaced out. Can’t fault it. The trick to drinking from a paper cup is to pinch the cup to form a small opening at one end. Thus it doesn’t end up in your face or inhaled up your nose. It works. You can have that tip for free folks and you will need it if you are running in the London Marathon this Sunday as they will also be using cups for the first time, in a bid to reduce the huge amount of waste and plastic packaging ~ over ½ million bottles in one race! That’s a lot of poor sea turtles feeding on our lazy, disposable, chuck-away culture and screw the impact. Things have to change and the Brighton marathon organisers have been working hard to tackle this and have done it well.
So I was feeling well fuelled and hydrated ;-) the legs hadn’t fallen off, the pack was tight and if anything I think we were gaining one or two more people in our merry band with each mile that passed. I was focusing more than ever on staying tucked right in behind Tom and Fass.
My mile splits between miles 14 and 20 ~ 6:45, 6:51, 6:58, 6:53, 6:56, 6:46, 6:53 (not happy with the 6:58 ~ a bit sloppy and its these tiny margins that could come back to get you!)
The final run in, it’s ‘just’ 10k to go….
The group hit the sea front and turned right running West away from the finish. This was the final section and the business end of the race. Everything that went before this is now completely irrelevant. No matter what you have done up to this point it’s these next 6.2 miles (10k) that matter, or as I shouted out to the rest of the group, “it’s just two Parkruns guys, break it down, we have got this, let just stick together and stay tight”. And that was all there was but as anyone who has run a marathon will know too well those last 6 miles are as tough as the previous 20 combined. In fact I would probably suggest that they are twice as tough as what has gone before and with every step it seemingly gets tougher, and tougher and tougher.
It was a wide flat straight road parallel with the coast line heading straight to the ‘Power Plant’. I knew nothing of this section and didn’t know what to expect. The group was clearly now suffering and the first splits in the pack were forming. People were starting to fall off the pace and within a mile it was getting serious. I was sticking to my game plan and was now between Fass who was leading with Tom immediately behind. I wanted to position myself more forward thus having the best chance and security net from Tom behind who in my mind was the 3 hour line looming directly over me. The Power Plant section was how I imagined Canary Wharf to feel at the London Marathon 10 years ago when it was barren, empty, uninviting and all consuming. We had a high brick wall to our left blocking any view of the sea and industrial units to our right. The road had narrowed, the surface a little uneven and there were speed bumps to look out for too. There were groups of supporters at the far end at the turn around point which was a weird loop through some factory gates, around the back of a timber plant, and out again on the road now heading East with the sea (somewhere) to our right.
The mile 22 marker was now somewhere up ahead as I spotted it when coming in the opposite direction. The legs were really feeling it now and had been since mile 20. It was time to dig really deep and draw on all that training and self-belief. It’s crazy but if you get the pacing right in a marathon then it really does come down to a 4 mile run. Which feels like a sprint in slow motion on extremely fatigued legs. They are screaming at you to slow down, and your brain is providing very suggestive and unhelpful thoughts that they have given enough for today, that you should be very grateful that they have got you this far, and that you should take it easy and ease through the last few miles cos if you don’t you’re going to fall apart in spectacular style.
But we can’t slow down as we are right on the wire with what I thought to be about a 20 second time cushion. Fass had stepped on the gas. Tom is now behind me and I’m only looking forward gaze firmly affixed on Fass and we are speeding up. The group is now blown wide apart with just four of us in single file in a peloton style formation. Fass was leading with Mr Grey (dude in a grey t-shirt who was running his first mararthon!) just behind him, then Mr Orange who was losing the heels of Mr Grey. I’m right behind Mr Orange and urging him onwards and telling him not to lose his heels. Close the gap I shout. We are passing quite a few runners now as our 3 hour speed train files along hugging the far right of the course. It feels both amazing and ludicrously difficult all at the same time. I’m right on the edge and my legs are tightening up but mentally I’m still on it. I haven’t let my concentration drop once in this race. I still had the same utter self-belief that I will break 3 hours. I just had to hold it together for another 3 miles. Just one Parkrun left to go and without doubt the toughest 3 miles of my life.
We hit the promenade proper now. The tall brick wall to our right disappears and reveals the sea. The crowds build up and support us on our way. People are milling around, sitting on benches, eating ice cream and drinking beer. Some look on unware of the unfolding drama and how close we are to the 3 hour cut off. By now I didn’t even know what the time gap was. My Garmin was saying the total average pace was 6:50 minute miling but as the miles progressed through the race the distance was getting more and more out of sync from the actual mile markers so I couldn’t trust the numbers and it was now simply a case of pressing on.
A gap had opened up now on the promenade. It happened so quickly and in a bit of a blur, and it was every runner for themselves. Fass had drifted to the left and I was sticking right. Tom passed me at some point in mile 24 or 25 and I did everything to stick with him. He was flying. I was hanging on but still on pace knowing that if I just kept it going I would break 3 hours. I missed the 25 mile marker post which meant I wasn’t now sure how far I had to go. Visually I could see the Palace Pier in the far distance which marked 26 miles. The promenade was just so damn long! I was letting out some roars and fighting the extremely tension and tiredness in my legs. They felt like would go at any second then my right leg momentarily buckled from underneath me. The best way I can describe it is as my foot went down the usual recoil and spring in the muscle just wasn’t there. Then again, right foot down and no recoil. It was throwing a wobbly and ceasing up. Not cramping as such but it caused a sudden slow down. You see it on the Mall in London every year where a runner's legs involuntarily give up and simply stop working. This was happening to me but I had to fight on. I tried to regain my form and focus which seemed to work. It felt awkward but I could land on my right foot again without my right leg buckling under me, so on I went.
I knew I had lost time during this episode and one look at my watch confirmed the worst. My pace had dropped in this mile to over 7:30. That was going to completely wipe out any time cushion I had built up. I pushed on as best I could trying to recover form and pace and giving it everything. But missing that damn 25 mile marker board meant I didn’t now know when to really push on for home. I didn’t know if I was in mile 25 or 26. I’m not really sure how much, if any, difference this made as I was going as fast as I could at every moment in those final 4 miles. It wasn’t as if I was pacing it and holding anything back. I was rinsed.
The pain etched in my face all too clear to see
In my mind sub 3 had gone. I had lost too much time to make up over such a short distance, or so I had thought. This was I think the ONLY mistake I had made in this entire race. I made an assumption based not on fact or numbers, but based on a feeling that I thought I’d blown it. I had accepted my fate and the unfortunate turn of events and was now weighing up in my mind the difference between pushing hard for a 3:00.2X time, 3:00.3X time etc. I shouldn’t have been thinking like that. I should have still been pushing even harder than before, if that was even possible. I didn’t have the numbers in front of me, I didn’t even know what mile I was on, and how far I had left to push. At the time I just felt a complete overload of every emotion, every sound, every sight, every feeling assaulting my senses all at once. All the while I was edging ever closer to the palace pier and I was therefore sure that I was nearing the final stages.
We headed left and right and were now back on the road. I was passing runners and starting to fight harder, instinct kicked in to drive forward and the crowd roared me on. A couple of runners were on my left shoulder coming up to overtake me. I fought back. I wasn’t going to start losing time and positions now. So I pushed on not to break sub 3 (that was long gone I thought) but just to finish strong and do justice to an amazing race. I pulled away went past the pier and looked down at my watch. Impossibly it seemed I did still have a chance of a sub3. Seriously!? I honestly didn’t know how but pushed with everything I had. It was the final long straight all the way up to the finish line.
The final push down the home straight
The gantry clock was now in view and ticking away. It was 2:59XX. I can’t remember exactly what the seconds were but I can remember thinking damn I’ve still got a shot at this. I think I can actually go sub3. But I think I screwed up the distance calculation in my foggy head. As I passed the 26 mile marker with 0.2 miles to the finish I translated this to 200 yards (in old money) to go which I then equated to roughly 200 metres. What a numpty! Thinking yes it’s in the bag I got XX seconds to cover 200 metres. I’ve got this. Bolt can run that in 20 seconds. Think I can manage it in 30. Of course everyone knows that the final 0.2 miles of a marathon is actually 321.869 metres (Google where the heck were you when I needed you most!). And that extra 121.869 metres was enough to see the clock tick over the 3:00.00 mark.
I crossed the line in 3 hours and 11 seconds. My chip time was 3:00.05!
Tom and Fass patting me on the back as I cross the Brighton Marathon finish line
It official!! Marathon PB 3:00.05
The non-alcoholic beer AND the medal tasted sooooo good!!
My mile splits between miles 21 and 26 ~ 6:55, 6:58, 6:44, 6:56, 7:05, 7:08 (grumble grumble) and 6:03 pace over last 0.3 miles which is what my Garmin measured.
What if.... The questions...
I had already accepted my fate 2 miles before the finish that I wouldn’t break 3 hours and so despite the final dash and rush of adrenaline that I might break it I can honestly say that I felt only joy when I crossed the finish line. There was no hint of disappointment with what happened, I wasn't gutted and I not writing this as some kind of front to hide the truth. I have no need to do that. I have always talked openly about my goal which was to run sub3. That was the goal. I didn’t achieve that goal today. But we are talking about just 6 seconds! 6 seconds that I could have recouped in just mile 16 alone (that was a 6:58 mile; 6 seconds over target pace). Or 6 seconds that I could have found by running just ¼ second faster per mile during the race. One quarter of one second! When you think of it like that then clearly I can’t be remotely disappointed in any way with my performance, or how I executed the race. I followed my race plan to the letter sticking with Tom and Fass every step of the way. I had no control over the weird mile 25 muscle spasm that clearly cost me those precious seconds. So I can honestly say that I’m 100% happy with the outcome based on the training I put in to get me here. And I'm super chuffed with my new official marathon PB of 3:00.05 which will be in Power of 10 (unlike my last one in 2013).
I also like to think that I have justified my approach to low volume training. Training volume is a very personal thing so I'm not about to preach to others that this will suit everyone because clearly it might not. But in the same way others who run very high volume (70+ miles a week) should not preach that their way is the only way to achieve sub3 fitness because that wouldn't be accurate either. What this has taught me though is that whatever your approach in training and during the race itself you just need to work hard, and even then you might not (quite) achieve the result you were looking for or expected.
Based on this performance I’m very excited about what the next 5 months of training has in store. This sets me up very nicely so after I’m fully rested and recovered I will go into phase 2 of my training full of the same optimism and self-belief that I took into Brighton. The focus now is the Warsaw Marathon on 30 September which is Marathon #2 in my 3 in 3hr Marathon Challenge.
You can sponsor me here www.sponsorstuart.me
I’d like to finish by reflecting on running in a group over the whole race distance. This certainly made the whole experience far more rewarding. Far more personable. Running marathons can be such a solitary existence, which despite being surrounded by thousands of other runners you can be totally alone, cut off and transfixed on your watch and split times. It’s really only just occurred to me that if I was to shoot for a time faster than 3 hours in Warsaw (I’m not saying I will at this point and it depends how my training goes), but my point is that I won’t have the opportunity to run in a group like I experienced in Brighton. If I ran a solitary marathon I think I’d really miss the group dynamic, the energy and excitement that I experienced on Sunday. It was the best marathon experience I’ve had so far.
So thanks must go to Tom and Fass for making it so special and congratulations to then both for breaking 3, and especially to Fass for whom it was his first. That was some run.