There is always a special relationship between coach and athlete, each case being “an experiment of one” as the great coach athletics Wilf Paish once described it. [He has the unique record of coaching athletes to Olympic medals in widely differing events – Peter Elliott to silver in the 1500m in 1988, and Tessa Sanderson to gold in the javelin in 1984. He was also a huge influence on my coaching ethos, having led a fascinating coaching course I went on when learning my trade.]
At the end of the day, as a coach you give some advice, the athlete does the work, and then s/he has to deliver the result on the day. If the target is a marathon there are many ways that this result can turn out, some good, some not so.
I have watched two friends run marathons in the last couple of weeks, once remotely via a tracker and the other time on the course at three separate locations, but both times highly emotionally engaged in the event and the outcome, having been that advisor.
Firstly, it was my niece Linda in the Great Welsh Marathon. She has two young children, aged 2 (at time of race) and 10 months, and was trying to regain some form and fitness, and I suspect some “me time” (much as she loves her children btw!). She approached me in December to ask for advice on maximising her training time, explaining about her husband Mark’s support and their joint commitment to juggle life to make it happen.
We worked on this over the months, with a result that she went (knowingly) into the race on far less training than I would normally recommend to a (first time) marathoner. In summary Linda did a gradual build up month on month, going a mile longer on each long run each week from January to a peak of 21 miles, with one other run of 20 miles. The weekly mileage was necessarily low. For example in the biggest month of March there was just 141.4 miles in total, giving an average for those ‘big’ weeks of 35 miles per week. Many runs were also done alone, and quite a few with a racing buggy with one (or two) children in it – good strength training.
How did it go? Very well in the end. Whilst on pace for something in the 3-40 range for a good part of the first half, the finish time drifted a little in the second half. In fact, the pacing was very good throughout, but gradually became harder to sustain. For example, the first mile was at 8-28 per mile, while the 13th was at 8-44 and the 26th at 9-22, but with a brilliant 8-06 pace for those last 385 yards. The finish time was 3-50-57, for 37th female out of 183.
How did Linda feel it went? The instant response came in a Whatsapp message: “Job done. Serious serious head wind. Smashed it.” The more considered afterthought was, “you know what, I might do a 50k ultra next!”. One tough cookie.
Secondly, clubmate Paul did the London marathon this year and we hooked up for training together back in the autumn. This consisted of me suggesting weekly mileages, long runs and sessions each week, with him fitting the efforts he did each day into his busy lifestyle – two young kids and two jobs (one of which is DJing, which involves very unsocial hours). We were joined by Tim from a neighbouring club for many sessions, particularly the important track ones (see first photo in this blog).
Looking back, the training went pretty well, with a couple of minor blips on the way. There seemed to be a natural limit of 60 miles/week, which was achieved five times in the build-up. An impressive eight 20+ runs were included, with a longest of 24 miles, one of the vital parts in marathon training in my book. Another important ingredient is good long track training sessions, as they are monitorable for effort and progress. Paul did some excellent ones, including 8 x 1 mile in times ranging from 5-45 for the first down to 5-30 for the last.
He achieved several PBs on the way, confidence was high, tapering went well and a sub 2-50 PB very much looked on the cards. He ended up with 2-58.
So, what happened? It is very difficult to be specific and pinpoint any particular issue. The training had been done, and the weather was far kinder than it had been the year before. Paul’s initial thoughts were, “people will not understand when you put so much time/effort, and sacrifice so much for one race for it not to go to plan, it is so so so frustrating. I wish I could just go yeah never mind but today has hurt big time.”
The graph shows his splits from Strava, and the significant tail-off in the latter stages of the race. On further reflection he added that he was very disappointed, “as I was on for 2:46:00 for 18 miles. Severe cramp kicked in from 21. I know a lot of people would kill for that time but for me I know what shape I’m in and it turned out to be a frustrating day! Thank you for the amazing support from my family & friends – you guys were awesome, thank you.”
Having got new PBs in the build-up for 20 miles, half marathon, 10 miles and for the parkrun, Paul has come out the other side disappointed, with severe DOMS, but massive fitness. I have advised him to put it down to a ‘bad day at the office’. He has plenty of opportunities to put that fitness to the test at forthcoming races at a range of distances, starting perhaps with a 10k.
The point of writing this is to emphasise that a) there are different ways to prepare for a marathon, but b) that you cannot guarantee that things will turn out well on the day. While these two examples demonstrate two of the possible outcomes, a quick look at some of the elite athletes at London can show even more variants. Not all is as it seems at first sight.
It is clear that winner Eliud Kipchoge had a pretty awesome day – a course record, the second fastest marathon ever, and a run that had negative splits – with his first half done in 61-37 and the second half in a sparkling 61-00. Much heralded Mo Farrah could be said to have had a bad day though, despite his 5th place. He lost contact with the leaders at the halfway mark, but at 35k he was still on sub-2-04 pace and within a minute of the lead, but he faded and ended up with 2-05-39.
Charlotte Purdue had a great breakthrough running her own (even) pace race to finish 10th in 2-25-38. Her running was so even that the Marathon App shows her 5km splits varying by no more than 2 seconds, with a range from 3-25 min/km to 3-27 – amazingly consistent if correct. Other than running faster, she couldn’t really have had a better day. Callum Hawkins has been given great credit for his Scottish Record of 2-08-14 in 10th place. He said in an interview straight afterwards that he was going for 2-07, and was quoted on social media as saying he, “went all in today and the wheels came off in the last 5k. Ground it out and held on for 2:08 and a Scottish record. Thank you to everyone for all the support, really helped me through the tough bits.” It’s a fine line though if his splits from the App are to be believed. Having consistently run 2-59 splits for each 5k up to 35k, he then slipped to 3-01 per km (just 2 seconds slower) from then on. Those 2 seconds multiplied by the 7 remaining kilometres only account for the 14 seconds over 2-08 that he ran. Hardly a dramatic falling off, and to me more a case of the pace being harder to run at, because of the accumulated fatigue.
I had a similar good/bad experience in my best marathon, in London way back when. Despite achieving a massive PB of 2-34-53, I had an unwelcome stitch for three miles from 17 miles onwards. Having run at faster than 6 mins per mile up to then, that 5-mile sector from miles 15 to 20 was at 6-15s, and every mile after 21 was slower than 6 mins. So, a very pleasing result, but I have often thought of those lost minutes that drifted away from me and how cool 2-31 something would have sounded now. Anyway, I hope these examples illustrate the range of possible levels of satisfaction, or indeed disappointment, that athletes can have after completing that unforgiving beast The Marathon.