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Going the distance

March 1, 2010

It’s probably fair to say that anyone training for a marathon has good weeks and bad weeks. I’ve had a few bad weeks recently, missing out on my target mileage and having to call a couple of my long runs short. And while the Paris Marathon is still 40 days away, it’s not very far off in real terms.

26.2 miles can be an intimidating distance. My long runs have been building up to race distance, but recently I’ve been having problems with completing the full runs. Once you’re past the 20-mile mark, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain your speed, and running the final few miles becomes a psychological battle as your body aches and there’s that niggling desire to just call it a day.

I’d managed to make it up to 23.9 miles. Close to the full distance, but the final mile had been agony. A week after that I was on holiday and had to cut out the long Sunday run entirely. A week after that, trying to push it up by an additional mile was a step beyond and I had to cut the run short. And then I came down with a cold. It felt like the distance was creeping away from me.

So, on Sunday, I decided to try a new strategy. I hadn’t been taking water out with me, and my energy levels had been dipping towards the 18-mile mark. Armed with a magazine of carbo gels and a two litre Camelbak, I set off into what the weather forecasts had been promising was 17mph winds and potentially torrential rain. Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad – although you can’t dismiss the effects of a strong headwind after 20 miles while you’re climbing a hill.

After 24 miles I was starting to slow down. You get to the point where your hips ache with each movement, any twinges in your ankles or knees as a result of the dips in the pavement are amplified, and the few miles stretch out before you as challenging as most of the distance you’ve already run. Still, I gritted my teeth, took regular sips of water to wash down the last gloopy carbo gel and set about making it through. The final three miles of the run were tough, but they didn’t have that ‘can’t do it’ quality of some of the final stages of my previous runs.

And, finally home, I’d done just over 27 miles. Knowing it can be done is a huge mental boon, but I’d like to do it in a little more style on race day. (Staggering out of a footpath, all luminous yellow and lycra, covered in sweat and orange carbo gel, fiercely sucking on the tap to my backpack, looking slightly feverish – ideally not how I want any finishing photo to look.)

Over the next 40 days, I want to try to find a way to make those last few miles less agonising. Mid-week longer runs (scheduled in for between 20 and 30km) are likely to be adapted to take a two-step approach: 10 miles relatively easy to build up some fatigue, and then trying to run timed miles with jogging breaks.

In the meantime, I’m going to have a well-earned recovery day.

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