Winging my Dublin Marathon training yielded a respectable finish
I was faster than 40% of participants and not once did my training involve a long run
Mary McCarthy: ‘Did I embrace the long runs and the sanctioned leave from the kitchen and the kids? Not exactly.’
Nobody was more surprised than me when I ran the Dublin Marathon last year in 4 hours, 21 minutes. This was faster than 40 per cent of participants and without including one long run in my training.
I had no plans to sign up as, even though I like running, it is mainly a chance to listen to podcasts and I always run at a leisurely pace. And I liked to complain that never-ending housework meant I could never get out for long runs, unlike some of our friends.
So one Sunday in February, in a bid to stop the whining, my partner called my bluff. He whipped out his mobile and in minutes had signed me up to the Dublin Marathon and a highly-focused WhatsApp marathon group with four runners with PBs starting from 2:32 (my brother Louis), with the rest hovering around 3 hours.
I had no excuse now. Did I embrace the long runs and the sanctioned leave from the kitchen and the kids?
The more my WhatsApp group detailed their interval sessions, injuries and latest acquisitions of Nike Vaporfly 4% running shoes, the more I became the joker in the pack, stubbornly refusing to engage in what I then viewed as the madness.
Instead, I formulated my own weekly programme. For four months I got up at 6am (otherwise it didn’t happen) and jogged for 7km listening to podcasts. Previously, I had swam three times a week for 20 minutes so tagged this on to the run. I enjoyed that time before everyone else got up, felt I was getting fitter and figured I could always walk it on the day. I ate well; lots of avocados, nuts, very dark chocolate and I cut out alcohol.
Determined not to drop out, I ploughed on with the training that did not put me out of my comfort zone for one second and I ignored the warnings I was not doing enough.
Race day crept nearer and the WhatsApp group got concerned coming over for some carb loading the day before. They laughed at the fanny pack of dates and Brazil nuts I had intended to bring with me. My friend Ed handed me five energy gels and told me to keep one for the last two miles.
As it turned out race day was overwhelming – but in a very good way.
I was surprised at how much I wanted to be part of it. I attached myself to the four-hour race pacers following a conversation with an Italian man at the start line. Race pacers are experienced runners who display their time and these ones had big blue balloons.
I was downgraded to the 4.20 pacer, but was running comfortably – apart from one part towards the end when I felt like a car with no fuel. That was when Ed’s energy gel was a lifesaver. I had not used gels before and was amazed at the effect. And the effect of the crowds cheering, the kids high fiving, and the inspiration of the other runners.
A man in his 70s raced past at my bad stage calling out “come on, you can do it, nearly there”. I was so grateful for this comment; it was like a shot in the arm.
The pride I felt crossing the finishing line was something I had not expected and, initially, I was delighted I had proved the naysayers wrong. It was only over war stories in the pub afterwards that regret started to creep in.
Perhaps I could have tried harder and got a better time? Did I miss out not training with the others? I had a feeling of not quite earning my stripes. There was nothing half-hearted about marathon day and I felt like a fake.
If I were to run it again I would be more purposeful in my training, though I could probably only still give around three hours a week to running, but even if I did not improve my time at least I would know I had tried my very best.
My brother had been posting tips from his running coach, Adam Jones of Rathfarnham Athletics in Dublin, so I asked his opinion on optimum training in limited time. He asked about my lifestyle before the race and noted that being on the go all day with young kids and walking everywhere provides a decent level of fitness so I had started at a good base. “The mindframe of just exercising for a certain time each week is wrong. Housework, carrying shopping and young children, walking and cycling all count towards fitness.”
Jones says people come to him asking how they can break the three-hour finish time and he can tell in one glance if it’s possible. “There is a science to it, and by following the rules you can get there, but your life outside running is a major part of it.”
He says he would still follow the advice of Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand athletics coach who was a big name in the 1960s, with his focus on endurance and bursts of energy. “Aim for two fast runs at your threshold, what I would call steady state runs, of 30 minutes to work on aerobic strength, and one longer slower run of around 1½ hours to build endurance. You also need a tempo run where you are running as fast as you can for 20 minutes building this up to 45 minutes.”
Jones advised that many runners new to the marathon will experience minor injuries, such as shin splints, which are caused by overuse, or imbalance of muscles, and 10 minutes of stretching and conditioning exercises performed correctly three times a week will help avoid this.
He suggests using the training as an excuse to cut out alcohol. “I do think, and can speak from personal experience, that breaks from alcohol are hugely beneficial to health generally and allow for body recovery processes.”
Jones warns that if you don’t lengthen the tempo and the longer run, you will plateau at a level of fitness, so if you want a faster finish time you will need to build this up.
Wyoming-based running guru and author of The Cool Impossible Eric Orton agrees it is doable, if not the best strategy, to keep training to a minimum for those with a decent level of fitness, but that they would need to be careful not to do the same thing day in day out. “I would suggest two short runs at a good pace, and two fast interval runs where you run as fast as you can for 2-4 minute intervals, and one longer run for as long as possible at a pace slower than your marathon rate.
“Don’t underestimate what 20 minutes can do for you regularly and I would rather see four days of 20-minute fast runs, mixed in with a longer run, than three days of one-hour runs.”
Race pacers no place for fantasy
He says race pacers are only beneficial if you are honest about your true speed and it’s not a wish list. “If you are a four-hour runner and attach yourself to the 3.30 pacer you are going to get into trouble, but if you run with the correct pacer this will help you to be patient and not shoot off from the start.”
One of the downsides to not doing very long runs, he says, is that on the day you cannot be confident of your true pace.
He believes the greatest performance enhancer is discipline as this will boost self-belief, which is just as important as training. “It’s valuable to use your training for self discipline in your running, and eating well with a focus on good fats, veggies and fish and avoiding alcohol. This will have a profound effect on your mental psyche.”
And when your inner voice gets negative, catch yourself as negative action will follow that thought. “Rather than thinking ‘I can’t keep this up’ instead think ‘I can do this for another mile’ and then instead of stopping in defeat you will carry on”.
‘This is good pain’
Processing negative thoughts and turning them into positive ones is something winner of the National Title of the 2018 Dublin City Marathon Mick Clohisey thinks is essential on marathon day. “When your thoughts turn negative, and they will at some stage, reverse them. Tell yourself ‘this is good pain, it’s going to pass’. Be kind to yourself and don’t let the negativity in. Try to imagine how you will feel once you have completed the race.”
The international distance runner and coach recommends harnessing the positive atmosphere that the spectators in Dublin always offer. “In the Dublin Marathon the cheering crowds had an immense effect on me. I felt like we were all in it together.”
And if it does not go as planned, he advises to just keep on going and be glad to finish the race. “When I ran in Rio in 2016 the race did not go well , I was not feeling great and I knew I was not going to perform as well as I hoped, but I kept on going and made the most of it .”
What advice would he give to those only training a few hours a week? “It’s important to fit the long run in consistently. Ideally, you would be increasing this. You would need a minimum 1½ hour weekly run to get the body used to long distance.”
He advises letting the easy runs absorb the hard ones. “If you do everything at the same pace your body cannot sustain this. Better to have runs where you forget about pace and can chat away, mixed with runs where you are flat out and there is no way you could talk, and then a longer one where you could chat, at a push.”
Clohisey says the key to getting quicker is interval training with periods of hard running and then a rest when you walk or jog. “This could be done in different ways. You could run for 1km as fast as you can with 2 minutes of walking or jogging in between; or a time-based training with 4 minutes of fast running interspersed with 2 minutes of rest.”
Smile and wear sunnies
And does Clohisey have any gold nuggets of advice for the big day?
“The previous week increase your carbs, have two decent dinners the night before and on the morning a simple breakfast like porridge with berries and a small coffee. Try to get to bed early the week running up to it and don’t worry if you find it hard to drop off the night before as the adrenaline will get you through.”
He warns never to go into the marathon without trying out the energy drinks or gels you plan to use as they may not suit your stomach. His drink of choice is an electrolyte one from Swedish brand Maurten.
His final tip is to relax and enjoy the crowd’s support. “Try to smile, as your body relaxes when you do, and the key to running faster is relaxing. I always wear sunglasses as this relaxes my face and I find it makes a difference.”
So the verdict is, provided you are fit to begin, you don’t need a perfect training schedule for a respectable finish.
A warning on winging it is that on race day there is nothing half-hearted about the atmosphere and you will want to be satisfied you gave it all you had, regardless what time you finish.
As Clohisey rightly puts it on marathon day: everyone is in it together.
2018 Dublin Marathon fact
– Peak 5 minute finish window was 4:25 to 4:30 (707 runners, or 4.3 per cent). Slower than the 2017 peak 5 minute window of 4:15 to 4:20 in 2017