“The best way to train for a marathon… is to run a marathon.”
– Thomas Jefferson (just kidding)
“Second weddings are a triumph of optimism over experience.”
– Samuel Johnson
A Moment of Clarity
I was in the Cotswolds for a friend’s second wedding. His father looked much older than I remembered. My friend’s father had been diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer. The family was not sure how long he had left to live. They were not sure he would even make it to the wedding. I noticed his father was in great form at the pre-wedding drinks night, chatting with other guests, and even drank a few pints of beer.
I was drinking a few pints too and started thinking about my own grandfather’s stone-setting ceremony in a few weeks. This lead me to think about my own mortality.
My big focus (distraction?) over the last 3 months was training for the Moscow Marathon 2015. It would be my first marathon and was still a month away. I was living in Moscow and wanted to run the Moscow Marathon since 2013. There was still doubt about my ability to run the full distance. This was my third attempt, the last two years I did not even manage to start. I wondered if I was cursed to never start the race.
The training this year was going well, but what if something happened again? Nursing my pint, I had a moment of clarity. The best time to do anything is always NOW!
Not now now because I was drinking a pint in a Cotswolds pub, but I already had a 32km long training run planned for Sunday (three days away).
What if I pushed out the long run into a full 42.2km? I would either:
A. Fail, but apply the lesson(s) learned to the Moscow Marathon in a month
B. Succeed, and gain confidence for the Moscow Marathon in a month
It seemed like a win-win outcome as I discussed it with my beer. I retired to my bed to sleep on it.
The Seed is Planted
The wedding was the next day (Friday). It was great and I enjoyed it. Best wishes to David and Iulia for a happy life together!
Thoughts about trying to run a “personal” marathon were at the back of my mind all day. We only regret the things in life we don’t do.
I woke up slightly hungover on Saturday morning and decided to run a marathon on Sunday.
On the train back to London I made plans. I used the route-builder on Strava to map out a 42.2km distance along the Thames River path. From where I was staying in central London I could run to the Thames River path and follow it to Kingston. The route would finish near Kingston rail station so I could catch a train back to London for a quick shower and breakfast before heading to the airport for my flight back to Moscow.
My flight was at 12p, so I worked backwards to figure out what time I needed to do start running:
- Flight boarding – 11.30a
- Arrive at airport – 10:45 am
- Travel to airport – 9:45 am
- Shower/Breakfast – 9:15 am (pack everything the night before)
- Finish marathon, travel from Kingston – 8:30 am (at the latest)
- Start running – 4:00 am (ouch!)
I gave myself 4 hours plus a 30 minute cushion to complete the marathon based on a pace slightly slower than average pace on my long runs. It would be an early start if I wanted to catch the flight and run a marathon. My schedule was very tight and any small problem would mean missing the flight.
Back in London I visited a running store to buy a 600ml water bottle with a handstrap, and 2 energy gels. My nutrition plan was to have the first gel at 2 hours, the second gel at 3 hours, and drink water only when thirsty. I stashed 20 pounds cash in a pocket to buy food at the end in Kingston, or in case I abandoned the run and took a taxi back. I wanted to get 8 hours of sleep before the run, so I planned a pre-run evening schedule:
- Sleep – 20:00 pm
- Meditate – 19:30 pm
- Pack bags and prepare clothes for run – 19:00 pm
- Dinner – 18:00 pm
The Moment of Truth
When my alarm went off at 3:55 am, I jumped out of bed and into my running clothes.
It was still dark as I walked outside at 4:00 am. The sun would rise in less than an hour, but the streetlights were glowing.
I felt excited and tried to conserve the raw energy for later. I made a wrong turn off Trafalgar Square onto Whitehall instead of Northumberland Avenue, so I tried to do a U-turn. It was dark, so I didn’t notice that the curbs on this part of Whitehall are more than twice the height of normal curbs. My foot didn’t connect with the ground where it expected it to be. I fell hard onto the road. My left hip, knee and hand were bruised and bleeding as I scraped the asphalt.
Immediately I felt an urge to stop running. My mind urged me to cancel the plan and admit the run was over. Argh! All that planning and preparation for a stupid mistake.
No, let’s keep going. Let’s see if I can still run.
My hip, knee and hand were throbbing in pain. I kept going. I headed down Northumberland Avenue and over the Golden Jubilee Bridge. The pain was getting worse. Maybe it was the increased blood flow. Maybe I could overcome the pain.
After a few kilometres, the pain from the fall went away. I was glad I didn’t give up.
Everything else was fine until my inner thighs started chafing around 14km. I was determined to do this run. I decided to ignore it for now, deal with it later. After another 10km, the pain from chafing also went away. Now I could enjoy the run.
I was not sure which side of the river to follow so I switched sides by crossing every bridge I came to. This was a terrible idea because going up and down stairs slowed me down. Now I know which side of the Thames Path to run on: Stay to the south side as much as possible, especially after Kew Bridge.
Unfortunately, I was on the north side of the river after Kew Bridge. The trail disappears into a residential area with no river access.
Eventually I was on the south side again in Richmond, but made a bad decision to cross into Teddington (north) and more failed river path attempts:
During the run, I had Strava on my smart phone and set the GPS run tracker to announce the distance, pace, and overall time every half kilometre. This helped me to see where I was going when I lost the river path. By this point, I felt fine. I was on track to finish under 4 hours at a natural pace, so I didn’t push. I had the 2 gels as I planned, and didn’t drink any water for the first half of the run.
As I approached Hampton Wick, my phone kept announcing my distances.
40km… 40.5km… 41km… 41.5km… 42km…
I took out my phone and stared as the number reached 42.2km. I ran a little bit further, just to make sure.
I ran a marathon.
My head didn’t explode, my legs didn’t fall off. I broke the barrier. There were no crowds, no finish lines, no medals. But I ran a marathon. And I finished under my 4 hour race day goal (3:53:24).
The silence made it a special experience. I was racing myself, and I won.
Now I had to get back to London. There was a shop nearby where I bought water and a few snacks, then I headed for Kingston station. This was when my plans fell apart.
Kingston station was closed for repairs. There was a replacement bus service to Surbiton station for trains to London. At Surbiton station, there was only slow Sunday trains which stopped at every point back to London. I quickly realized there was no way I would make the 12:00 pm flight and I needed to reschedule my ticket for the 13:30 pm flight as soon as possible.
This seemed like a minor inconvenience because… I ran a marathon.
On the train back to London I told the guy I was sitting next to that I had ran a marathon. He was puzzled, but I didn’t care. I ran a marathon.
I was delighted by the experience. A huge surge of confidence swelled in me. I ran a marathon.
Back in London, I quickly showered and rushed to Heathrow. I completely missed my 12:00 pm Aeroflot flight, and I would not be able to catch the 13:30 pm flight. There was an overnight flight to Moscow I considered taking. Every time I took a short-haul overnight flight I vowed to never do it again. I trusted my previous experiences and decided to stay overnight at the Yotel and fly the next morning. Not exactly my plan, but I didn’t care. I ran a marathon. I told the Aeroflot ticket salesperson the reason I missed my flight was because I ran a marathon. She pretended to be greatly impressed.
Yes, it turned out to be a bit more expensive than I expected, but the experience was priceless. I hung out out in the airport terminal to eat more and daydream, then checked into the Yotel where I did some work and went to bed early.
I ran a marathon.
The next morning I flew back to Moscow. My legs were a bit sore, but nothing painful. I ran a marathon.
There were still 4 weeks before my actual race. I was glad I ran my own marathon first before the race. This proved to me beyond a doubt that I could do the entire distance. Entering the race fully confident in finishing the distance meant I could focus on enjoying the experience.
You probably don’t need to run a marathon to build enough confidence to run a marathon, but I really liked the idea of making my first marathon a personal marathon against myself.
Running an organized marathon is fun and there is a raw energy in the air, but you don’t need to pay money to run a marathon. You can just run a marathon. There is no medal, but why is there a need for accreditation? The experience is different. It was a different kind of intensity without the crowds and clutter of an organized marathon.
I highly recommend it and hope you experience it too.
Top Tips for Running a Personal Marathon:
- Plan the course – use Strava route builder or some other mapping software to figure out the course. It’s your marathon, so make it interesting and personal.
- Plan food/drink – definitely bring water (drink only when you are thirsty) and some snacks (eat something every hour)
- Plan transportation – unless you are running a loop, figure out how to get back. You will be sweaty, so figure out what you will do about that
- Do another one