Tag Archives: Virgin London Marathon

Professor Marathon: What the London Marathon results teach us about pacing

About 3 miles into the 2012 London Marathon I came across a girl called Kayla who I had run most of a half-marathon with about 2 months previously. I asked her what her race plan was. Her answer was interesting:

“I plan to do the first half in 9 minute miles, then step up to 8.30 minutes miles until the last 10k and then try to give it a big finish.”

I remember thinking at the time what a brave plan it was and I would be impressed if she did it. We split up at mile 13 as she picked up the pace and I stopped for 10 seconds to high-five my family and friends standing at the side of the road.

Being older and more conservative, I planned to try to run the whole race at exactly the same pace – 9 minutes a mile. As things turned out neither of us succeeded in our aim that day, but interestingly I caught and overtook Kayla at 23 miles. She had completely blown up and was running at little more than a shuffle. I would love to tell you that I strode past her confidently but in truth I was just shuffling faster than she was.

This story is a great illustration of the perils of marathon pacing and is worth a closer look. I am not a coach so I am going to use some facts from the results of last year’s London Marathon to illustrate a point.

If you divide the marathon in two and measure your splits as two half marathons then you have three possible outcomes. You can run the first half of the marathon faster than the second – this is a positive split. You can run the second half faster than the first – a negative split or do them in the same time – a neutral split.

Kayla’s race plan would have given her a negative split. It is what everyone dreams of. Use the first half marathon to find your feet and then roar home during the second half. The negative split is the Holy Grail – even for the elites. But when you are thinking about your marathon pace, let history and experience be your guide. Statistically a negative split is very difficult to achieve.

In an effort to gain some insight into marathon splits, I have laid my hands on a spreadsheet showing the results for all 36,665 finishers of last year’s London Marathon. I have analysed the results of everyone who finished in between 3 hours and 5 hours. In total that was 24,927 people.

First let’s look at how common a negative split was. Of these just 1,151 managed to run the second half faster than the first. The other 23,776 ran the second half slower. So just one in 20 people managed a negative split.

In the London Marathon as a whole 1,383 runners ran a negative split compared to 35,282 runners who ran the second half slower than the first.

Second let’s look at the uglier side of that statistic and analyse the number of people in the same group who hit the wall, many of whom may well have done this by trying to run a negative split. I have counted anyone who took more than 30 minutes longer to run the second half than the first as having hit the wall. To put this in perspective, Kayla in her completely exhausted state, ran the second half just under 10 minutes slower than the first so would not have hit the wall according to my definition. This will give you an idea of how dramatically slower a 30 minute difference is. 3,314 poor runners in the 3-5 hour bracket fell victim to the wall, meaning that three times more people hit the wall than ran a negative split. This might not be just because they got their pacing wrong – poor nutrition could also cause this – but pacing will surely have contributed.

This just confirms what I experienced which is that the second half of the marathon is much harder than the first. In particular the last 6-8 miles is tough. Someone once said that a marathon is a 20-mile prelude to the hardest 10k you will ever run and that is about right.

If you are running a Spring marathon, before you decide on your pace strategy and contemplate attempting a negative split don’t listen to me listen to yourself. Ask yourself this question and answer it honestly: “How am I going to manage what 35,282 people in last year’s London Marathon, including all of the top runners, couldn’t?”

Whatever your race plan – good luck?

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The night before your first Marathon

On Sunday a Twitter friend of mine is going to run her first Marathon in Florida. Following her tweets describing her preparation has brought back all the wonderful memories of training for and completing my first Marathon in London almost a year ago. The motivation, anxieties and excitement of the occasion were captured in this blog post that I wrote the night before I ran. I hope it helps to inspire my friend and everyone who is running their first Marathon on Sunday.

This was originally posted on 20th April 2012

“Every journey has a beginning and this journey started on the streets of Camberley, a town in Surrey, where as an 11-year-old I would run around the town centre on errands for my Mother. I ran because it got me where I was going faster and I enjoyed it. In my teens and twenties I ran because I found I could compete. And now I am a born again runner whose love for the sport has never been greater. I am a runner. Not because I have a certificate that says I am. I am a runner because I run and I run because I love it.

I also run for another reason. I run because I can. Time has taught me not to presume this is my right. None of us know what is round the corner. My Father, once a proud and charismatic man, sits in a nursing home surrendering to the onset of dementia. My beautiful 11-year old niece suffers with Chrone’s disease and faces days of constant pain. My Wife is asthmatic and struggles to draw breath every day. My friend Phil will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a tragic car accident. What wouldn’t these people give for this gift I take for granted.

Each of the 35,000 runners who start Sunday’s London Marathon will have their own motivation for taking part. Some are driven by the will to win, some by the clock, some to help causes close to their hearts and for many it is simply about challenging themselves. The London Marathon has given me the opportunity to challenge many things in my life. That I am still athletic. That I can still take on a challenge. Some would call it a mid-life crisis – I would call it one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. But most of all it has allowed me to prove to myself that I won’t be complacent and take my gift for granted; that I will not let age be a barrier; that I will not let time be an excuse, but that I will make the most of the gift I have because I can.

Standing on the start line on Sunday will be a group of people bonded by this incredible event. A group of people who have committed themselves, in some cases to the point of obsession, to achieving their goal. They have lost count of the times they have risen from their beds in the dark to train while most people slept. They have run hundreds of miles braving Arctic temperatures and all kinds of weather. They have spent countless hours on long lonely runs. Only they will understand how much of a challenge this has been. Only they will know that the bravery of the Marathon runner isn’t about crossing the finish line, it is about having the courage to conquer the fear of standing on the start line. And above all they will understand that Sunday’s London Marathon isn’t about the 26.2 miles that a million spectators will see, but about the hundreds of miles they haven’t seen.

My London Marathon journey has been far harder than I ever imagined it would be. But is has also been the experience of a lifetime. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of what has gone so far. Yet the hardest part is to come. As a continuous endurance event, I have no doubt that my 26.2 mile run on Sunday will be one of the toughest things I have done. As I run beyond 18 miles and into the unknown, I don’t doubt that my spirit will be challenged and I will need to find something that I haven’t had to find at any stage in my training. But at that moment I will remind myself of every step I have taken reach this point. I will think of those people I have listed above, draw on the inspiration that their determination gives me and remind myself that I run because I can and I run because I love it.

Tomorrow I am going to run the Virgin London Marathon.”

Getting specific in 2013

I have to very honest and say that I am sad to see the end of 2012. As an English sports fan I have to rate it as a vintage year. Amongst the many highlights were a home Olympics and a Tour de France champion. It is also the year in which I ran my first marathon, at the age of 52, and equalled my half marathon personal best (PB) of 1.52 hrs. And if that wasn’t enough I also did my first triathlon and fell head over heels in love with the sport this year.

But I am not a great one for looking backwards and dwelling on the past – I prefer to look optimistically to the future. The fact that I couldn’t tell you exactly where my London Marathon medal is, but suspect it is buried underneath a pile of socks in a dresser drawer with various other finisher’s medals, illustrates how un-nostalgic I am about the past! So what about 2013?

I try to be very specific about my New Year’s resolutions, especially where they concern my running and triathlon. Last night I listened to several people resolve that in 2013 they were going to “get fit” or they were going to “eat better”. How do you know if you have been successful? How do you assess these? I think if you are to stand a chance of staying motivated and achieving what you set out to achieve then you have to set yourself very specific goals that you can measure.

As an example the very first objective I gave myself when I decided to get off my sofa and get myself fit and healthy (I can scarcely believe that it is over two years ago now) was: To lose 30 lbs by Easter. Then it was: to run 10k in under an hour by the end of June. No grey areas, these were “pass or fail” objectives.

Here are the goals I set myself this time last year (and the results):

  1. Complete the London Marathon in April (success)
  2. Complete my first sprint distance triathlon in the summer (success)
  3. Beat my 1/2 Marathon PB (almost – I equalled it!)
  4. Complete an Olympic distance triathlon (fail – I got injured a week before)
  5. Beat my 10k PB (fail – I didn’t attempt it for several reasons)

There is no hiding from these and I can’t pretend that I succeeded where I failed. I like it that way.

This is want I want to achieve, on the sporting front, in 2013

  1. Beat my 1/2 Marathon PB in March at the Bath Half
  2. Run a sub 50 minute 10k before 1 October
  3. Complete an Olympic distance tri in the summer
  4. Complete a 1/2 Ironman Tri before the end of the year (I am entered for Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote on 5 October)

I have one other sports related goal and here I am going to break my own rule about being specific. I want to get a better understanding of the extent to which what I eat day-to-day has an effect on my performance and then try it out. I am going to start with an obvious one and cut out alcohol until after the Bath Half on 3 March. I am not a big drinker anyway but I think that even small amounts of alcohol effect my recovery between runs. If you are in a training program that involves four runs a week it is important that you recover quickly after each one. Maybe once I understand the relationship between food and performance I will make a more specific resolution.

As sorry as I am to see the end of 2012, I am really excited about what 2013 has in store. As well as sporting challenge I am hopeful that 2013 will bring me some really exciting challenges professionally and personally. But above all else I hope we all remain healthy and happy.

Whatever you are planning or hoping for this year I hope that 2013 is everything it can be and more for all of you. But remember when you set your goals – get specific!!

My London Marathon

The atmosphere started to build almost from the start of my journey to Greenwich Park from Barons Court at 6.45 in the morning. It only took two stops on the Underground before several fellow Marathon runners got on, immediately recognisable by their red Virgin kitbags and timing chips on their shoes. Conversation was instant: “Is this your first time…which start are you on?” Numbers snowballed with every stop, all bound for Charing Cross. Eventually an army of us arrived at Greenwich.

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Nervously waiting in Greenwich Park

There was an air of nervous excitement in Greenwich Park. I had arrived early to enjoy the atmosphere and just take in the occasion. I chatted to a few people in between trips to the loo but after a couple of conversations all I wanted to do was to get on with it. At 9.00am it was time for me to start my race routine. I stripped off, packed up my kit and checked my bag onto the baggage lorry. After a quick warm up I was in my starting pen buzzing with anticipation. The spirit of the runners was fantastic. I was chatting with a group of runners around me. At a different time and place we would have buried our heads in our newspapers and ignored each other – but not here. On the start line of the London Marathon the goodwill and spirit of shared endeavour was palpable.

Then the moment came. “4, 3, 2, 1…” boomed out over the PA system helped by the crowd. We didn’t hear the hooter but we heard a cheer and then…… nothing.  I am sure someone further forward was running but we weren’t. After a few minutes we began to shuffle forward, then walk and then stride out. Finally after about 15 minutes we walked through the gates of Greenwich Park, turned sharp left and there in front of us was the start line – a large red arch emblazoned with the words: “Good luck- we’ll see you at the finish”. Without a moment to take in the scene we were running under the arch and into the 2012 London Marathon.

The first few miles had a party atmosphere. The sun was shining brightly, it was warm, people were chatting and laughing and the large crowd at the start were very enthusiastic. But it soon became obvious that the crowd hadn’t gathered just for the the start – it was going to be like this all the way. I tried to settle down into a rhythm but the sheer number of runners made it almost impossible to get any pace – no bad thing. As things spread out I picked my way past a few people but then thought better of it. “Go with the flow” I told myself “Be patient”.

After about 3 miles the runners from the Red Start and the Blue Start converged. A loud chorus of boos went up when we saw them which was answered by their jeers. It was all good natured and in a moment we merged into one race. On through Charlton the crowds didn’t let up but a real taste of what was to come greeted us in Greenwich Town Centre. Spectators standing 3 or 4 deep on the pavement hollering their support. A jazz band was playing outside a pub and the smell of smoke from a barbecue hung in the air. This wasn’t a long distance run, this was a party. As we ran through Greenwich I experienced the first of two incredible coincidences. In front of me I recognised a girl called Kayla who I had run most of the Race Your Pace ½ with in February. She seemed pleased of some company and we ran together for the next 10 miles.

The next big landmark was the Cutty Sark at about the 6-mile mark. As great as it was to see this famous landmark back on the London Marathon course, the sharp hair pin bend in the road that wound around it became a real bottleneck and the race slowed to a jog. I had to keep reassuring myself that there were over 20 miles left in which to make up any time we lost here.

Once we passed Cutty Sark I felt as though I had really settled into my pace. Despite the crowded road I was managing to maintain my planned 9-minutes a mile pace, I felt good and so far there was no complaint from my knee. As we pressed on, still south of the river, through Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey I was bowled over by the sheer size and enthusiasm of the crowds. Over the next 6 miles we passed choirs singing, a band of bagpipers piping, cheer leaders, a drum ensemble, a steel band and several mobile discos. Every pub had a party. South London was rocking!

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Crossing Tower Bridge – just a half marathon to go!

With the 12-mile mark behind us and almost 2 hours on the clock, we left Bermondsey on Tooley Street before taking a sharp right hand turn towards the River Thames. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. It seemed like all of a sudden soaring above us in all its glory was Tower Bridge – what an incredible sight. The bridge was packed with people occupying every vantage point. Even the small windows at the very top of the bridge had people leaning out of them. Crossing this iconic London landmark in this way, deafened by the noise of the cheering crowd, was a real moment to savour.

Over the bridge we turned right and started the procession out to the Docklands. For many this is a low point. You instinctively want to turn left over Tower Bridge and head towards the City and the finish. Turning away from all that just reminds you that the job is only half done. For me though this was to be a high point because another ½ a mile or so down the Highway was the Shelter cheering point where my family and friends were. Looking intently at the passing runners trying to pick me out were Cate and Matilda together with my sister Lucie, her family, our friend Tor and her daughter Sophia.  I saw them before they saw me. I stopped briefly, enough time for shrieks of recognition and high fives all round before continuing on my way with a loud cheer from all the Shelter supporters ringing in my ears. It is difficult to describe just how uplifting it is to see your family and friends standing at the side of the road supporting you. It put a spring in my step for a mile or two. In all the excitement I had also just passed the half way mark in almost exactly 2 hours. So at this stage I was on track. But the hard part was to come.

I felt OK as we ran through Limehouse and started a 3-mile loop round the Isle of Dogs. As we ran up the Westferry Road during mile 16, the second of my coincidences happened. Alison, one of the many runners with who I had shared the experience on Twitter, appeared just in front of me – at least I thought it was her. I had never met her but I recognised her from the cause she was running for which was written on her back. I ran just in front of her to see if she had a name on her front and she did. I said a brief hello, but knew that if she felt like me, now was not a great time for conversation, so I pressed on. Out of 37,000 runners, what were the chances?

It was somewhere about mile 17 that I began to feel the effects of my efforts – nothing sudden, but my legs had become noticeably heavier and my feet were sore. The Isle of Dogs part of the race was my low point. It was a long way into the race but still a long way from the finish. I tried to break the race ahead into “bite-sized” chunks. Let’s get to Canary Wharf I told myself – we can think again there.

Canary Wharf was worth getting to! It had been designated as the “Virgin Money Mile”. The race program promised this would be a mile of “cheering, music and excitement”. It was a perfect description. Once again spectators were standing many deep on the pavement and the atmosphere was amazing. Canary Wharf is a small business district and is made up of a collection of skyscrapers. It was a little disorientating not to be able to see the sky but the atmosphere more than made up for it. The noise of the crowd and the live music echoed around the buildings making it all sound louder than it really was. However this only briefly took my mind off the job in hand which was getting harder and harder. I had now passed mile 18 and maintaining my pace was becoming a challenge. I felt like I was working hard but looking at my watch I could see my pace was dropping. On top of this the route through Canary Wharf was full of twists and turns – there are 6 ninety-degree turns in the space of a mile. This meant a lot of stopping and starting which disrupted any rhythm I had left. By the time I turned out of Canary Wharf I think I knew that a sub 4 hour finish was going to be very hard. The next couple of miles were tough.

As we turned onto Poplar High Street at about mile 20 I felt my morale lift very slightly. For the first time all day we were pointing straight at the finish line even if it was over 6 miles away. I tried to encourage myself. “It’s just a 10k” I said over and over. At this point I had to admit that I wasn’t going to beat 4 hours. It was now important that I gave myself a new goal or I knew I would see my time just drift away from me. My watch said 3.07 hours. I told myself that even in my current state I could run 10k in an hour. “4 hours and 10” I told myself. “We are going to finish in under 4 hours and 10”. And on I went.

On Poplar High Street, for the first time all day I felt hungry. I had eaten nothing apart from energy bars and gels since 6.15 that morning – no wonder I was hungry. And then something extraordinary happened, as if someone intervened to help me. About 20 yards ahead of me an arm came out of the crowd holding a peeled banana. It sounds comical to recount this now but at the time I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I looked at the man holding it as if to ask if the banana was for anyone in particular. He nodded at me, the look on his face telling me that it was mine if I wanted it. I took it and thanked him. He said nothing and bent down to pick up another banana to peel for the next runner in need. It tasted like no other banana has ever tasted! As silly as it may seem, that moment above all captured the spirit of the London Marathon for me. This man was spending his day giving to people in need and asking nothing in return. Whatever else he was, at that weary, fatigued moment he felt like my guardian angel.

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I am nor sure what the funny face was all about!!

As mile 20 came and went in Poplar, I knew that the next hour was going to be hard – harder than I had imagined. I had a mental plan to cope with this, but of course having devised it in my head and never truly tested it I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was no good – it wasn’t helping me. As the fatigue set in and every step became an effort I reached for anything I could to help me. Eventually I managed to get my daughter, Matilda’s, voice in my head saying “Come on Daddy you can do this”. I went round that short phrase on an endless loop. Then my niece Molly joined in. Molly and Matilda are great friends and the mental image and sound of them encouraging me really lifted me.

People will tell you that the crowds will carry you through. They are right to a point, the crowds were a huge support – I will never have anything but the highest praise for the London Marathoncrowd, but this was now about me. About how mentally strong I was and about what I had in my heart. The race was taking its toll elsewhere. Runners were stopping to stretch out cramp, others were standing by the roadside being treated by St John Ambulance volunteers. Gone was the jovial atmosphere of the first few miles. Everyone was now in their own world grimly trying to hang on – each in their own way. Around me more and more people started walking. I knew that if I walked it would be very difficult to start running again. “You are not going to walk” I ordered as if I was moderating a conversation between my mind and my body. “You are not going to walk” in between my daughter spurring me on. “You are not going to walk” became my mantra.

Progress was slow but I kept pace with my new sub 4.10 goal. Every step was an effort but eventually, after what seemed an age, but really was about 25 minutes, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The Tower of London was the first landmark that told me we were at the beginning of the end – 23 miles down. We ran on into Lower Thames Street and the familiar surroundings where I have done many of my early-morning training runs before work. Under the bridge at Cannon Street with hundreds of cheering spectators looking down on us and then into the underpass on Upper Thames Street. Here I saw Kayla again. We had split up at about mile 13. I asked how she was doing. She looked at me with a straight face and uttered a single word: “Shit!” No humour. Just an honest appraisal of what she felt. She didn’t want to talk so I pressed on.

As we came out of the underpass and back into the daylight by Blackfriars Bridge the first thing I saw was the London Eye. A welcome and impressive site. But as I came round the long slow bend onto Victoria Embankment I couldn’t quite take in what I saw. The entire length of the Embankment was a throng of people on either side. They were standing 5 or 6 deep as far as the eye could see, surrounded by flags, balloons, sails, banners. It was the most incredible sight. The noise of cheers, hooters, horns and music was almost deafening. Just when I thought I had seen it all in Greenwich, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf, this! It was as though the London Marathon had saved the best for last. Every charity had a cheering point on the Embankment, each doing its best to be the loudest and most encouraging. Every time I looked up at the crowd I saw nothing but smiling, friendly faces willing runners on. I had my name printed across my chest and must have heard “Come on Peter” 20 times as I ran.  If I had not been so entirely spent I am sure I would have cried but I didn’t even have the energy for that. I looked out for Cate and Matlilda at the Shelter cheering point but my mind was fuzzy and I couldn’t quite work out where it was – even though I had written its location on a band on my wrist! But as I made my way down this human corridor of goodwill I knew my job was almost done. I even found a slightly longer and faster stride although not for long.

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Running up the Mall with Buckingham Palace as the backdrop

Slowly Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament hove into view as I ran under the 25-mile arch. Never have those historic buildings looked so good! A sharp right into Parliament Square and then on into Birdcage walk – almost there. A sign board in the middle of the road told us there were 800 metres to go. I could see the next sign up ahead saying 600 metres to go but it was a long time coming. At the end of Birdcage Walk we took a sharp right in front of Buckingham Palace and under the arch which said “You have 385 metres left”. This was our gateway to the Mall to begin the triumphant run down the home straight, the run that I have done over and over in my mind in the last 4 months. I thought I would want to savour it, to enjoy my moment of triumph. I had even thought, when imagining it, that I might want to slow down to let the moment soak in but not a bit of it. I just wanted to cross the finish line and stop running. Slowly but surely my weary legs carried me along the Mall and to the finish. I crossed the line after 4 hours and 8 minutes of running and went from London Marathon Runner to London Marathon Finisher.

For a moment I felt nothing except a physical sense of relief that I could stop.  I walked for a bit, feeling slightly unsteady and was funnelled into the finish area with everyone else over a small wooden walkway. At the end of it I was greeted by a cheerful lady who smiled and hung a medal round my neck. God bless her. She had probably hung several thousand medals that day, but she looked me in the eye with a huge smile and said a heartfelt “Well done” as if I was the first person she had decorated.

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Showing off my finishers medal

As I walked through the finish area I took a moment to myself. I looked at my medal and finally the excitement overcame me and I punched the air with both fists and shouted “Yes!”. Then excitement gave way to emotion. Exhausted and with my defences low and feelings high, there were a few tears.

I was soon reunited with my family and friends at the Shelter reception in Villiers Street. Shelter have been a fantastic support and their after race party was no different. I almost lost it again as I walked in and the entire gathering stopped and applauded me as they did every runner who arrived at the party having finished. Everyone was on a “runners high” – chatting away furiously, each with their own war stories to tell. It was just a marvellous time to savour our experience.

So my London Marathon 2012 story is at an end and I think it has ended successfully. I didn’t make my sub 4 hour target. But written on my wrist during the Marathon, as it had been on all my long training runs, were the words: “Be All You Can Be”. I think on the day I was that – I left nothing out on the course.

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At the Shelter reception with (L-R) Sophia, Cate and Matilda

My memories of this experience are too many to list here – but all positive. The million-strong London Marathon crowd who lined almost the entire 26-mile route are unforgetable. The run over Tower Bridge, seeing my family at the Shelter cheering point and the Banana Man on Poplar High Street are also highlights. But the run up Victoria Embankment will be the indelible image that will always stay with me. It was simply breathtaking.

I am sure I will actively enjoy the satisfaction and sense of achievement of my London Marathon run for some time to come but there will come a time when I will, metaphorically at least, pack my London Marathon 2012 experience up in a box and store it away. And I will open it on occassions in the future when I want to remind myself of the soaring spirit that people are capable of; or when I want to reassure myself that we can do anything when we put our mind to it; or if I want to reaffirm to myself that in the right conditions, the default behaviour of human beings is to be generous, kind and helpful. But most of all I will open it simply to bring back all the special memories of that extraordinary day in April when I ran the London Marathon.