Trust the Process: Paris Marathon 2022

It has taken me 10 years to finally run a sub-3 hour road marathon and it’s taken me just over a month to process that fact, and to finally sit down and write something about it. It is a strange feeling to have achieved what was the first ever goal I set myself when I started racing in 2012. Back in 2012 it was certainly a reaching goal that did not consider the fact I only took up running a year before and off the back of years of drinking too much, smoking cigarettes and taking quite a lot of drugs! But, every road marathon I lined up for from 2013 in Pisa through to Paris in 2022 I always stated my goal was to run sub-3. The difference this time was that I committed to the training, focused on one single race and one single goal and I was very specific with the process. The other major difference was that I had an additional motivating factor to get it done – the imminent arrival of my first child who is due in August 2022.

I will take you back to December 2021 where the sub-3 dream started to feel like something I was ready for. At that time for some reason unknown, everything seemed to coalesce to set me off on the best and most consistent training block I have ever put together (joint best when held against the Cheviot Goat 2019 training block). Back in December 2021 I had been training for a winter ultra as this is something I’ve done for a few years now. I was on a 12 week training block which initially was focused on running my longest race yet at 83 miles, and which was focused not just on completing that race but competing. Along the way I had doubts start to surface about why I was training for an 83 mile race, why did I really want to race a mid-winter, night time ultra? The answer was not satisfactory – “Because that’s what comes next…” – was all I could really come up with.

It just was not good enough to keep the motivation high enough to keep the mileage high enough to race 83 miles so I dropped to the 45 mile ‘half’ distance and that seemed to provide at least a little boost. But the doubts around ‘the why’ kept resurfacing and kept on making the training feel unproductive, a slog and not really at all that enjoyable. To cut a long story short the race was due to start at 2300hrs on December 11th and I didn’t make it to the start line. I experienced a lot of fear, anxiety, crippling self-doubt and burgeoning depression in the couple of days leading up to it and when I got to my pre-race accommodation I just fell apart. I just wanted to go home and be with my wife and think about what I really want from running, what I really enjoy about running and to figure out why I felt the way I felt. Contributing to this sense of flight, and the desire to return to the roost was the fact that on December 4th we found out that we were going to be parents. I fought the feeling of flight for quite a while and took a drive to the buses that would take us to the start line but in the end I didn’t board and instead drove home that very night with a sense of ever increasing relief as I got closer and closer to my front door. I knew my heart wasn’t fully in the ultra at least 4 weeks beforehand because I’d already entered the Paris Marathon for 2022. At the time it was not apparent to me that what I wanted was what I’d always wanted – to run under 3 hours at the marathon distance.

As the ultra approached, and as I began to feel more and more demotivated, I threw in a couple of road runs into the mix and they were the runs I enjoyed the most throughout that 12 week block. I think over the last 4 or 5 weeks of the block I ran 6 or 7 road runs, and all of them at a decent pace. Subconsciously I had made the move into marathon training.  After getting home from my abandoned ultra I took a few weeks off structured training and I just ran when I felt like it and on whatever surface I felt like, and at whatever pace I felt like. I went to the gym a bit more, I did some swimming and some biking and during this time it really began to set in – I was looking forward to a focused, hard, intense training block and I absolutely was going to run under 3 hours. There was no doubt in my mind this time, there were no trail or ultra races in my calendar to distract me and after Christmas I put my 14-week Paris Marathon training block into TrainingPeaks and started to feel more motivated, energised and excited about training and running than I have felt since 2019. I used the Asics Sub-3 Marathon Training plan – something I have attempted to follow in a very unfocused way in 2 of my previous 4 ‘attempts’ at sub-3!

This time, I was absolutely determined to follow the plan as closely as I could and I am grateful to a couple of people who helped me along the way – firstly my wife who always encouraged me to just get out the door and if I still had doubts made the suggestion to speak to my long run buddy Sean. Sean is a very accomplished marathon runner and it was his suggested adjustments and amendments to the plan that made all the difference. It was also Sean who gave me the mantra early on “Trust the process”. That mantra was oft repeated during the 14 weeks to Paris and when I began to doubt the mantra (usually before the week’s long run) it was Sean who came to the rescue and trained with me for 15 to 20 miles.

The process, when all was said and done, was pretty simple:

Monday: Rest or Easy Run

Tuesday: Intervals

Wednesday: Relaxed/Aerobic

Thursday: LT/Tempo

Friday: Rest or Easy Run

Saturday: Easy Run (or tune up race)

Sunday: Long Run at various paces (or tune up race)

Monday-Friday: 30 to 60 minutes of yoga every day

Once per week: 15 to 30 minutes of foam rolling

All the running took place on the roads as I didn’t want to take the risk of getting pulled back to the trails for any reason – it has happened many times before when I was supposed to be ‘focused’ on achieving this longest held goal! The commitment to a ‘road only’ plan worked well for me and made the training block super specific to the end goal. To get current for a moment, I am in week 2 of a 9 week road half marathon training block and I feel I have enough discipline now to be able to run on the trail once or twice a week for my easy runs. There are a couple of reasons for this – I know instinctively that running on trail will naturally moderate my pace, I know that it will strengthen my ankles and calves and I know that the impact is lighter than the road so my recovery will be quicker. In retrospect, my easy runs during the Paris training block were not really easy at all, they were more like relaxed aerobic efforts and usually with a few faster bits thrown in as I couldn’t help myself.

For the first time in training, I really and truly listened to my body and acted on the feedback sooner rather than later. This is something I have never really mastered in 11 years of running – I’m either feeling great and putting in big miles and/or high intensity or I’m slacking off and capitulating due to a lack of recovery and/or sensible training and then mentally beating myself up about it. The mental side of capitulating can be dangerous for me as I have seen over the years sometimes this can lead me into a period of depression, anxiety and often inertia to varying degrees from manageable, to very unmanageable. But this time around, if I felt a run might not be right for that day, I’d take a look at the plan and switch it around, or I’d just take an unplanned rest day and not beat myself up about it. Unplanned rest days usually meant a bit more yoga and probably an easy walk with Sarah and those days were often really refreshing and grounding. Again, a big thank you to Sarah and Sean here for helping me to navigate this aspect of the training – aside from the speed and endurance I built during this training block, I built up mental strength and self-belief and learned to relax when the going got tough instead of either immediately capitulating or conversely, picking it up and grinding myself to dust…and then capitulating.

Sean taking the lead during a 20 mile training run, Week 9/14

I have always enjoyed running fast, but I have never really put together a block that has improved my speed exponentially from the first week to the final week. I really learned about the importance of interval and threshold training, and I embraced both – particularly the intervals. Over the course of the block I came to love the Tuesday interval session and I did not miss one of them. Of them all there were I think 2 during which I didn’t hit the numbers, and I didn’t beat myself up about it, I just trusted the process and moved on to the next run in the sequence. The intervals and threshold sessions, combined with a selection of road races throughout helped me to take down lots of my previous PBs and that in itself was a motivator week on week. I really looked forward to each race and headed to the line each time with no expectations and having put no pressure on myself. Prior to this I put all kinds of expectations and pressures on myself before every single race:

I need to run X time for it to be a success

I need to finish in the Top 5 or 10

I’m here to win

I’m here for a podium, nothing else will do

This time each time I got the line all I said to myself was:

I’m here because I love to race

I’m here to give 100% of what I have

That was it and it was the same from the first race in January (Fred Hughes 10) to the A-Race in Paris. It was liberating and it was exciting, and it was yet another thing I took form this block that will stand me in good stead for future training and racing, and I think also for life in general – even if I might not be 100% I can still give 100% of what I have, and that is good enough! With that approach I achieved the following over the course of 14 weeks:

5 Miles PB 28:27 (January 2022 – Fred Hughes 10)

10km PB 35:51 (January 2022 – Fred Hughes 10)

10 Miles PB 58:24 (January 2022 – Fred Hughes 10)

Half Marathon PB 1:17:15 (March 2022 – Essex 20)

20 Miles PB 2:02:39 (March 2022 – Essex 20)

Marathon PB 2:54:43 (April 2022- Paris Marathon)

Essex 20, March 6th – 2:02:39 (43rd)

Something else that changed for this one was my approach to setting goals, and to selecting my race calendar. I booked Paris in November 2021 as my A-Race for early 2022 and at the time I was planning to do what I normally did following completion of my abandoned winter ultra – book in my race calendar for 2022 as far ahead as possible. This time I took stock, stepped back and after some searching around for what it was I wanted from running and what I enjoyed about racing I decided to book only one more race well in advance. The way I saw it Paris was my first half of the year A-Race and the Wooler Trail Marathon became my second half of the year A-Race – Paris was on the road, Wooler is on the trail. Not long ago I would have booked a lot of ‘preparation’ races to lead into Paris and into Wooler then and there, but this time I decided to sit back and wait a while. I recognised that in years past I have packed my calendar so full that that was a pressure on my mind as well as my time, and this led to mental burnout and a loss of motivation. There have been so many DNS races in my past and I saw that for what it really is – a huge waste of my finite resources both mentally, physically and importantly with a baby on the way, financially. For Paris, I identified a few races that would be of benefit and that fit with my training plan and booked them one at a time – I’d finish one, wait a while and then book the next and if I missed a place because of waiting I had a few options:

E-mail the race organiser and see if I could get a discretionary late entry

Find another race

Undertake a more challenging training run instead

This has carried on past Paris. I only had Wooler in the calendar afterwards and I took some time to evaluate how I felt and what I wanted before deciding on a course of action. That course of action was to see what I could do at the half marathon distance on the back of a great marathon training block, so as I mentioned above I currently find myself in Week 2 of my first ever focused half marathon training block and I am really enjoying it.

So, that was the process I followed really, and I can confirm that trusting that process has transformed my running and my mindset for the better. Not to mention it has given me a 2:54:43 marathon which is a 21 minute and 12 second improvement on the previous personal best. I am still buzzing to have gone under 2:55 because at the start, back in the post-Christmas lull when I entered the plan into TrainingPeaks, I set my goal as 2:55:55 and I have sweat buckets, I have shed blood and I have cried a fair few times along the way to get to where I wanted. It feels great to finally have a London Good For Age time and a Boston Qualifier too – after 9 years of applying in the ballot and not getting picked, I now might actually get into London at some point.

The Arc de Triomphe

But what about the Paris Marathon itself? Well, it would be remiss of me to omit a breakdown of that, and I guess quite a few of you reading this were pretty much expecting that from the get-go! Before I get to that I have to admit that I was very much in the zone pretty much from the first kilometre right up until the last 400m when I knew I had something I’d wanted in the bag and I could begin to smile – it was at that point that my vision expanded from the narrow box of the few hundred metres of road just in front of me, to the things off to my periphery!

To put it simply the course was not easy at all and that was a surprise to me after about 8km! I had reviewed other people’s runs on Strava and I felt I was familiar with the course profile and the route, but I was really taken by surprise with some of the tighter turns, narrower sections and many and regular undulations. Those undulations don’t really make themselves known regularly until about halfway and by that point I’d gotten used to the pace, to the narrow bits and the turns so I was kind of in a place of enjoyable security. Then the undulations become more pronounced and more regular. As you approach the section along the river Seine there are a number of underpasses to get through and then quite a few more as you move away from the Seine. I was so focused that I managed to miss the Eiffel Tower and pretty much all of the sights to see!

The Eiffel Tower

As we approach the 34km mark it was apparent that a hill was fast approaching – not an undulation, a hill. This hill seemed to be a shock for a few people in front who were making their way up it and I felt like I was reeling people in until around half way up and then I felt like I was going backwards as people passed me. I doubled down on my pace and refused to be dropped. As we crested the hill in a small group a water station was right there which absolutely messed with any rhythm I had started to build over the top! This was by far the most challenging part of the day for me and it was the first time I doubted my ability to hold my pace – but I grabbed a couple of water bottles, moved into a clear space of road and focused on keeping my head high and my turnover solid and then the negative thoughts went away. That is pretty much all I can remember! I do remember there was lots of support out there – loud and happy people, great and varied music – this was most welcome over the final 5km as the wheels started to wobble and I think the support helped to keep them on. From that 34km mark to the end my pace dropped fairly steadily but I didn’t blow up and I managed to hold on to a decent form and a decent cadence and I knew with about 2km to go that I would definitely be crossing the line under 3 hours – my watch was reading long so I didn’t really know how far under I would be and I think this helped me to grit my teeth and to keep pushing with as much effort as I could muster over the line.

Paris Marathon, April 3rd – 2:54:43 (941st) 

Normally I would end a blog post like this with a view to what’s next for me. What is my next goal? Well, my next goal is to go easy on myself and to take a break from structured training when Baby Flowers arrives in August. I am going to take time to get to know my son, to support Sarah and to really embrace being a Dad. Once we’ve settled into our new family rhythm I will think about what my next running and racing goal is. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the running I’m doing now!

Lakeland 50, 2021: ‘fun’ in the sun!

LOVE FOR LAKELAND

Sitting here in my Lakeland finisher’s shirt two weeks after the race, I felt compelled to write about my third run around the fantastic Lakeland 50 course. Yes, it’s that good I have run it three times and I don’t doubt I will run it again.

The 2021 race wasn’t the result or the race I’d wanted but I’m proud of myself for finishing under 12 hours. I am also happy to have finished inside the top 100 for the third time. Initially I had gone to race with the stated ambition of lowering my 2016 course PB of 10:31:58 – the omens on race day were good. It was hot and there was no chance of rain, and I like running when it’s hot. The omens leading up to race day, on reflection, did not point to my being able to run 10:30 or better. But that didn’t stop me having a go!

TRAINING…‘TRAINING’

I approached the 2021 Lakeland 50 initially as I do any other A-Race. Two months before the start of the training block I mapped out the overarching plan in TrainingPeaks in a structured and methodical way. The shortest block I ever allow myself is 10 weeks and I have found the longest my body can withstand is 14 weeks (not including race week).

For 2021, I planned an 11 week training block which included weight training, speed sessions, long runs and hill sessions. It also included a trip to the Peak District and a trip to the Brecon Beacons where I planned to run at my Lakeland 50 goal pace/effort.

I have laid out the overview of how each week of my training went below, and it will soon become apparent why it was unlikely I’d be beating my course PB!

Clearly there is way more red than green in the training table and for some reason I decided to spend quite a bit of time running speed sessions and, you know, throwing in a 10km road race/PB attempt into the mix. The speed stuff and the 10km race totally detracted from the importance of running long on the trail, running with kit and fuelling for a long day out! By the time long run day came around prior to getting injured in Week 7, I was basically too tired or too distracted to get out on the trails for a long run. But for some reason none of this was registering as detrimental to my ‘Lakeland 50 training’ – very much inverted commas!

Compounding tightness in my glutes and hamstrings leading up to my 10km PB, I injured myself properly on the Tuesday of Week 8 by stupidly getting carried away in the gym. The session I had planned was primarily deadlifting, but only to 80% of my maximum, but instead because I felt great I pushed on for a PB. Whilst I was lifting beyond my maximum it still didn’t register in my mind that this wasn’t exactly optimal training for Lakeland 50.

Normally I keep a close eye on my training on a week by week basis – I will look back at the previous week’s training and make adjustments to the week ahead if needed but every 4 weeks or so I will check over the entire block from start to finish to ensure I’m on track and so I can move sessions around as appropriate – usually depending on other commitments, tiredness, niggles and life stressors. But this time out I didn’t look back over the block, or look ahead over the block. I basically just did what I had pre-programmed in April and if I didn’t feel like doing the pre-programmed stuff I swapped it out. On reflection this is probably the most spontaneous ‘training’ I have ever done for something I considered to be an A-Race. I spontaneously dumped long runs, I spontaneously did 3 workouts in a week, I spontaneously entered a 10km and spontaneously started (and stuck to) swim training from Week 4 onwards. There was seemingly no rhyme or reason to the structure of each week as it changed almost daily from the overarching structure of the block based on whatever I felt like at the time.

RACE DAY

I may not have put in the most disciplined, structured or specific training block for the 2021 Lakeland 50 but by the time it got to race day I actually felt surprisingly strong and confident. In my mind I had arrived at the start line undertrained, fresh and with a positive mental attitude. That is all I needed to get me moving and to then keep me moving towards what I still felt to be an achievable course PB.

I ran the first 16 kilometres to Howtown checkpoint very comfortably, smiling the entire way and enjoying the views. I felt much better than I did in 2017 which is the last time I ran the course. I fast hiked the uphills and cruised on the flat(ish) and downhill sections. Fast hiking uphill is my strength and I guess my training kept that up as each week at the gym I warmed up with 15 to 20 minutes of running and fast hiking at between 10-15% gradient on the treadmill.

Ullswater

I had analysed my previous two runs at Lakeland and I knew that if I didn’t dawdle at aid stations and instead got what I needed, and quickly, I could save myself quite a lot of time. So into Howtown I did just that – I had my mug filled with juice, I took three biscuits and emptied two packets of salted crisps into a zip-lock bag and I was on my way pretty quickly. I knew the climb up Fusedale was coming, and it was 16 klicks to the next aid station at Mardale Head. I love the Fusedale climb, I have done since my first race and the 2021 race was no different – Strava tells me I ran segment PBs on every segment from Howtown up to and out of the Mardale Head checkpoint.

Haweswater

I was in and out of Mardale Head nice and quickly too then away up my favourite section of the course with a mug of juice and a jam sandwich. There’s nothing specific about why I like the climb out of Mardale at all either, it’s not like it’s easy going. The view is behind you, it gets steeper as you go, it’s winding and it’s rocky but I absolutely love it. The heat wasn’t really getting to me, and boy was it hot, and I enjoyed the descent and run over to Kentmere as it gave a little bit of breeze.

The climb out of Mardale Head

I got to the Kentmere checkpoint which is around halfway and I was feeling very, very good! My watch was telling me I was on pace for about a 10 hour finish and my mind and body felt that was realistic. I had been eating enough, drinking enough and as per my pre-race plan I had stayed within myself physically and mentally – by that I mean I had said ‘Hello’ to a few people along the way, but I hadn’t struck up a prolonged conversation as I have done in my two previous races – my plan this year was very much to run my own race and to do that I would have to do it solo.

I departed Kentmere with a mug of juice and some frozen fruit feeling great. Then, all of a sudden I did not feel great at all. My stomach started to make strange noises as I fast hiked with my mug of juice and fruit, and almost as soon as my mug was empty my mouth went very dry. I knew I would have to experience a bad patch at some point, it’s almost inevitable in a 50 miler and even more so in the heat. I just hiked as fast as I could but could feel the energy draining – I did my best to talk to myself positively and to maintain an outward smile. I was still passing people at this point and the feedback I was getting from people was I looked strong – that was great to hear and things started to feel like they were getting better as I got to the top of Gatesgarth Pass.

Alas, they may have seemed to be getting better but when I went for a pee it was very worryingly dark, darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not a good sign. But I put that out of my mind, took a drink of water, forced down a Shot Blok and then I began the descent willing myself to put a decent shift in. My plan at this point was to take advantage of the downhill and to drink and eat once it flattened out a bit. Even making the plan was making me feel better and I was still very much in the position of believing that I could achieve my goal. Then I slipped or tripped (I don’t really know which) and feel head over heels. It was a shock. My hands were cut, my knees were cut, I’d hit my ribs the rocks and landed on my shoulder. I sat there for about 5 minutes in the sun starting to feel worse and trying to pull my mental game together. I chanted a mantra of ‘This too will pass’ interspersed with a good few swear words. Eventually I got up and tried to get moving again but all the self-belief and positivity seemed to have been replaced by self-doubt, nausea and a wonderful headache that made thinking, let alone running, feel painful.

Somewhere outside of Kentmere

I kept trying to run for about 2km and then I stopped for another pee and saw that it was still dark. I stopped, drained a bottle of water and felt like I was going to throw up and then attempted to eat a Shot Blok which went down like gravel. From this point I knew it would be difficult to hit a course PB – still achievable but it would be hard work and likely painful. I tried to run again and to get the motivation back but as soon as I hit patches of shade heading to Ambleside I basically gave up and walked the 8 or so kilometres to Ambleside with my legs feeling like they were on fire, my head aching badly and my stomach absolutely refusing all but the tiniest sips of water. Eight kilometres has never felt so long and I was feeling extremely demoralised as I was passed by so many people.

The most crystal clear thought I could pull together in the woods just outside Ambleside was that 10 hours was not going to be salvaged, a course PB was also unlikely and maybe the race was over for me. Ambling into Ambleside I figured I’d drop at the checkpoint. I called my wife and let her know that is what I was going to do but she told me I should think about my options when I got there – goals can always be adjusted, and I’d be so proud of myself if I pulled it together and cracked on! She said it didn’t matter how long it took. Those of you reading this who have been in similar positions will know that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear at that point, the words came easy from the wife but the actions required to do what she knew I could do did not at all come easy on my end of the phone!

Heading into Ambleside

After ending the call I was still pretty much sure I’d be giving up. The last two times I have loved running through Ambleside and I have felt great on arriving and leaving that checkpoint. This time was an entirely different experience. I limped along with my head down and all I could think about was getting to the checkpoint, withdrawing from the race and then finding some paracetamol, a cold juice and perhaps lying in the park for a nap before getting a bag of chips.

Ambleside: should I stay, or should I go now?

I got to the checkpoint walking and still despondent, about to call it a day when a wonderful volunteer (dressed a lemur, or maybe a sloth?!) sat me down, told me to relax and to try and start eating. I mentioned my pee was very dark and then all of a sudden two people in high vis t-shirts were there to look at me. Hello there race medics. I thought they’d tell me I was done for and in all honesty that’s what I wanted! I wanted that decision taken out of my head and out of my hands, I didn’t want a choice to carry on. I wanted to quit. But damn it – they told me I could finish, I could even have a good last third, I just needed to sit and be patient. They asked if I had any SCaps or anything like that but when I said I didn’t like them as they’d made me feel crap at previous races, they said not to mind and to eat two bags of salted crisps, drink some juice and get a litre of water on board. They would ask me how I felt after I’d done that. So, to my surprise, I did as I was told. I sat on the floor with my hoard of goodies and started to make my way through them. Slowly I began to feel much better. So much so that I even managed to eat half a jam sandwich!

After I had finished my stash I got up, went to find the lemur/sloth volunteer and asked to refill my bottles because I was going to get myself on out of the aid station. I cannot explain how good it made me feel to see the smile of this volunteer and to hear their words of encouragement and positivity – I don’t remember what they said but I remember the feeling. I was going to finish…but first, please could she persuade the medics to give me two paracetamol to get rid of my headache! It didn’t take long before I had two paracetamol in my system – once they were in my hand my resolve strengthened and I almost cried with joy and relief! I think I was in the aid station for about 40 minutes and that was enough – it was time to get up and get a move on. I was going to finish the 2021 Lakeland 50 and I was going to finish strong. I felt rejuvenated and the air had cooled a little which was refreshing.

On the walk out I had a word with myself, adjusted my expectations and said to myself let’s get back to Coniston in 12h30m or less. It can be done. I will do it. And then I did it.

On the way to Tilberthwaite

The last 25km were really good and I made up a lot of places. I was moving well again, not quite as well as the first 45km but well enough and I was enjoying the scenery and the feeling that my mental game is getting stronger with every passing race. I don’t have many specific memories of the route from Ambleside to the finish but that wholly unexpected feeling of rejuvenation, resolve and enjoyment carried me to Coniston mostly with a smile on my face. I may have let go of the 10 hour finish and the course PB at Ambleside but I carried a racing mentally out of there – everyone I saw in front of me with the blue Lakeland 50 bib gave me something to work towards and I did just that. Nobody passed me from Ambleside right up until the final checkpoint at Tilberthwaite. Over this whole final section I kept myself to myself, kept my interactions with other runners to a minimum and kept on moving forward at the best pace I could muster right until I crossed the line.

Lakeland 50, finish #3

I made it back to Coniston in 90th place in 11 hours, 14 minutes and 6 seconds. My slowest time at Lakeland 50 but I think my most gratifying finish of the three. I didn’t reach my A-Goal of 10:30 or better but I did reach my B-Goal of a top 100 finish and my other goal of just enjoying myself. The enjoyment, even through the suffering on the way to Ambleside, was very real. If you know, you know. To suffer is to grow. I enjoyed every step up to the point I fell. I took a lot of learning, not quite enjoyment, from every step of the way into Ambleside and I felt my mental strength grow as I sat there willing myself to get up and get going and then the enjoyment returned as I walked out of Ambleside and starting running again.

I’ll be back again. And next time it might be for the 100…