I ran a full marathon on the morning of Saturday 23rd of March 2019. I enjoyed the company of supportive friends for most of the run, making it a joyous excursion. It was my second marathon and thus equal longest run. I achieved a personal best time of 3:41:46, as measured by GPS running watch. Surprisingly it was comfortable, having avoided hitting the wall by consuming enough food before and during the run.
I had built the speed and endurance to bring my marathon PB below 4 hours, and achieving that time for the 26.2 miles before I had aged 26.2 years was an arbitrary but sufficient reason to give that goal urgency. I had a year of consistent and effective training in 2018, culminating in running under 90 minutes for the half marathon. A Boston qualifying (sub 3 hour) time is a distant yet increasingly realistic goal for me, but my marathon PB remained that of my first race in 2013. At 4:24:40, I was confident I could better this time even without a structured period of training, relying purely on my current base of 50 km per week. Having presented the idea to a few friends in February, it was looking difficult to find an ideal weekend. Finally my hand was forced (by my own availability) to set Saturday 23rd of March as the date. Inviting friends to join me for sections from a few landmarks along the way committed me to the time and pace.
Training was minimal; simply maintaining a base of 50 km per week rather than following a formal marathon training plan. Having taken a long and gentle recovery from the last race on the 17th of November, my focus was rebuilding weekly distance by commuting to and from work via running. By March I was adding a few extra sessions, often by extending the commute. The longest session in the lead up was a reasonably hard effort running a half marathon sub 100 minutes, and a 100 km bike ride. These together gave me confidence I was in shape to run both at the speed and for the time required.
The day before I ate a lot of carbs. Cereal for breakfast, large serves of rice and potatoes for lunch, and a large pasta dinner. Additionally I had snacks of dried fruit throughout the day. I roughly attempted to follow the Western Australian Carb loading program. On the day I woke up around 0300, being an ideal 3 hours before the “race”, and had some oats and toast before going back to sleep. I had a banana as the last piece of food before putting on my shoes, and packed 5 gels (60 mL, 22 g carbs) and a litre of water in a small backpack to carry with me. I finished that water by 27 km when a friend handed me a fresh bottle. I took the gels at approximately 7, 16, 23, 28, and 34 kilometres in.
Conditions were near perfect. Setting out it was 8 °C, humid, a little cloudy, and very slightly windy. Gradually we got more sun, a little more heat, and a little more headwind. At 0900 temperatures were 9 °C with a 16 km/h breeze from the north, giving us a motivation boost when the headwind became tailwind on the turn back to Oxford. The finish was comfortable 11 °C, sunny, with the same 16 km/h northerly blowing.
The First 10
Distance: 0-10 km, Time 0:0:0-0:53:22, Average Pace 5:20/km
Out of Jericho and across the southern edge of Port Meadow I was feeling fresh and comfortable, enjoying the cool, the company, and the daylight. Oxford being further north than Sydney is south, I still find the variation in daylight between winter and summer extreme. It was quiet on the paths for the first few kilometres, being before 0700 on a Saturday morning, and it was lovely to have quiet water to run along and ease into the run. I was a little worried that the first kilometre didn’t feel particularly fast, and my friend had started his watch a little earlier so there was a little confusion about clashing paces, but after a couple more we settled into a rhythm around 5:25/km pace. The fourth kilometre was along road, then down some stairs to get back on the Canal for 6 km more. I took my first gel at 7 km, orange flavour, it was tasty.
Distance: 10-15 km, Time 0:53:22-1:19:55, Average Pace 5:19/km
At 10 km we came off the canal path and turned onto the road. I was enjoying the path so much I missed the first exit before the Sparrowgap Bridge, so a short detour was needed. Langford Lane runs along the southern edge of the airport, possibly the least scenic part of the run bordered by car dealerships and a construction site. As usual a few aircraft enthusiasts were watching the airport from their cars by the side of the road. Interestingly there’s a Bio-Rad office here, due to the $70M acquisition of AbD Serotec. Turning right onto the A14 on the eastern footpath, I was surprised to be passed by a bike as they usually take the path on the western side which is more continuous. We reached the gates of Blenheim Palace 15 km in and 100 m above sea level, the highest elevation on an otherwise very flat run. Touching the wall of The Crown (and wishing for a coffee) was the turn around point.
Distance: 15-21.1 km, Time 1:19:55-1:51:12, Average Pace 5:03/km
My friend decided he had a little more distance in his legs, and the combination of a slight down hill with the wind behind us saw the pace pick up. Around 18 km along we realised we could chase down another friend’s half marathon PB of 1:52:xx, which for the next 3 km became the goal. I took my second gel, salted caramel, it was also tasty. At 20 km my running partner for the first half took off at 4:30/km pace; setting his own half marathon PB, as well as beating that other friend’s 1 h 52 min. I followed at a more conservative 4:56/km thinking it would be my fastest km of the day. We rejoined and laughed that on top of the extra distance and a blister, finishing out the half marathon had left my friend with an unexpectedly long walk to the next bus stop. After a warm goodbye I carried on.
Back to Oxford
Distance: 21.1-27 km, Time 1:51:12-2:21:46, Average Pace 5:16/km
The run became little boring on the way back into Oxford, hugging highway and then joining my usual commuter route. The familiar 3 km stretch between the ring road and central Oxford went by extremely quickly, as the kilometres started to click by. I took my third gel on entering Oxford at about 23.5 km. It was tasty. At 27 km I ended my only solo segment; joined by another friend kindly waiting with a fresh water bottle for me.
Castle Mill and River Thames
Distance: 27-31 km, Time 2:21:46-2:43:51, Average Pace 5:28/km
We ran together along the canal and I shared the story of the first half, the highlight being unexpected 6 km of extra company and chasing down half marathon PBs. I was feeling generally quite good but my knees were starting to hurt a little. Looking down at the watch to see a 5:40 lap I had to put in a little more effort to stay on pace. This made me a little nervous that “the wall” was looming ahead of me. I got the fourth gel down, also tasty, and took some more water. We met another friend at Christ Church Meadow and I was feeling stronger coming off asphalt and back onto dirt. After a lap of the meadows friend 3 and I carried on while friend 2 dropped back and took some slower kms to rejoin strong for the finish.
Christ Church to Donnington Bridge to University Parks
Distance: 31-39 km, Time 2:43:51-3:26:17, Average Pace 5:18/km
The two of us were joined by two more friends before Donnington Bridge, and now running in a bunch of four I was feeling ecstatic. I took my fifth and final gel just before turning towards the river, all 5 tasty. Crossing Donnington Bridge, enjoying the views, the sun, and the breeze, I looked down to see only 6 km to go. I knew I had the energy in my legs, and rejoining friend 2 I knew I had the support to drive me to a strong finish. Iffley Road quickly became Longwall Street, and with the sports grounds either side us I knew University Parks was only a few minutes away, peaking my confidence.
Distance: 39-42.35 km, Time 3:26:17-3:42:35, Average Pace 4:53/km
We entered University Parks with 3 km to go, but without a set finish point. One 5:23 km in I knew the 2.2 km loop meant that I could see the finish point. I mentioned to the bunch that the LMH gates would be the finishing line, and proceeded to empty the tank: running the last two kilometres at 4:45/km and 4:32/km, buoyed by the group cheering me on. I felt amazing. Stopping the watch I saw an incredibly satisfying 3:42:35 for the 42.3 km (allowing a little extra distance in case of GPS glitches along the way). A few minutes after stopping and catching my breath, the soreness started to catch up with me. I kept moving, and crawled home at a 7:48 pace. A shower, stretch, and keeping legs elevated was the start of the recovery.
On the jog home my legs were already a little stiff. The standard recovery routine of stretching, hydrating, and elevating helped, and by mid afternoon I was feeling strong enough to do some shopping and check on some experiments in the lab. That was a mistake: a stiff road bike saddle on top of slight chafing wasn’t much fun. I took Sunday off completely and was running a gentle 7 minute pace on Monday. I noticed a sharp weight gain, making me a little paranoid that I overdid the pre-race nutrition, but a little literature search revealed plasma volume increases 20% the day after a marathon and remains high 3 days later. At time of writing I’m easing back into training, and feel confident I’ll be fully recovered in the next week or two.
The Next Challenge:
I am now following a training program directed at going under 40 minutes for a 10 km race. My long term goal remains to achieve a sub-3 hour marathon, qualifying for a place in the London or Boston Marathons. Other secondary (but more short term) fitness goals include improving my strength in powerlifting, and completing a long distance ocean swim.
Some General Thoughts on Marathons:
Marathons are pretty popular, with the 2019 London race attracting over 400,000 entrants. One of the friends who joined me noted simultaneously that he hopes to run a marathon, and that it’s odd that as a society this is the distance we have arbitrarily decided is the defining one of running. After my first marathon I realised I didn’t give the distance enough respect, and thought that it would be at least 5 years before I attempted another. I had naively attempted to break 3 hours on my first attempt, and that hubris meant I didn’t even run under 4. This time around I learnt from my mistakes, and am happy with the base I’ve built. The “why not” attitude that had me sign up for that first attempt in 2013 persists, reflected in the impromptu nature of running the distance absent an organised event.
The support was amazing, and made this artificial event the most fun race I’ve ever run. A huge thanks to Oscar, Kimberley, Josh, James, and Haraman for giving me the energy to run hard and finish strong. Of course a huge thanks as well to training buddies Mike and Gavin who were there for the many miles that made the day possible. I took over 40 minutes off my PB. I have to thank ONI as a whole; I wouldn’t have expected that working at a fast paced startup would leave much time for such big improvements in fitness, but the community here really inspires me to make the most of every moment. Thank you all!