10 Surprising Discoveries During My First Marathon

I finished the Manchester Marathon in 3 hours 38 mins. That’s how I felt at the end.

If you are bloody-minded enough to do the same, there’s masses of advice on the internet already. So instead of repeating or summarising all the usual stuff, here’s a list of things that surprised me.

Surprise #1: Starting fast worked well

The night before the race I made a last-minute change of plan. I decided to start fast. That was the opposite of what everyone told me to do: you’re supposed to start slow, then speed up towards the end if you can manage it. Pah! I knew I’d be knackered at the end and wouldn’t want to speed up even if I could. I’m 100% certain that I got a better time as a result.

Surprise #2: Gel packs to the max

I showed up with two energy gel packs, but the experienced-looking runners had bandoliers full of them. I had brought too few. By the end I was dependent on well-wishers’ jelly babies – goddamn it I loved those little guys. A shot of sugar straight to the bloodstream. Would’ve liquified and injected them if I could.

Surprise #3: Pain, pain, go away

I was fine for the first 5 miles, then my right leg started to stiffen up. Not good, that was way too soon. I decided to push on at the same pace and hope it went away. It did – but then my left ankle started to hurt. That stopped about the same time as my arms started aching (arms, wtf?). And so on and so on. Different bits hurt at different times, you’ve just got to roll with it. Had a couple of painkillers in my pocket, and finally gave in and took one at about 15 miles. It made no noticeable difference to my body, but having painkillers with me helped psychologically.

Surprise #4: It’s a race against the course and the clock, not against the other runners

Aka *EVERYONE IS PASSING ME*

The consequence of starting fast is that you will inevitably slow down as the race progresses. Even those going at a steady pace – never mind the freaks who are speeding up – will begin to overtake you. This is not a good thing psychologically. I felt like I was going backwards from about 9 miles in. Runners streamed past me, like I was like driving at 40mph in the middle of the motorway. It took me a mile or so to reset: I’m running my own race, for my own time; I don’t need to beat all these people.

Surprise #5: Obsession with my split time

My gradual slow-down was measured in precise detail by my Nike+ app. Every kilometre a robotic American lady told me how long I had been running, how much distance I had covered, and what my average time per kilometre was. Time per kilometre was my main guide. I knew that an average of 4:59/km = 3 hrs 30 mins, that 5:19 = 3 hrs 45 mins, and 5:39 = 4 hrs 00 mins. I started out around 4:51 per km, but I knew I couldn’t maintain that pace. The average km time kept creeping up. As I passed the halfway mark, I worked out that I’d need to stay under 5:13 to finish in under 3 hrs 40 mins. As the average time per km crept up, I got more and more nervous – 5m05s, 5m06s, 5m07s… every time a the American lady started on a new kilometre announcement I whispered a silent prayer that the average pace would not have increased. The battle lines were drawn: I had to slow down my slow-down.

Here’s my pace chart, showing speed per km. Thankfully I managed to stay just ahead of the 3 hrs 40 mins pace. I averaged 5:12/km for the marathon as a whole.

I didn’t feel like I hit the famous ‘Wall’ at any specific point – but looking at this chart, I guess it was at around 16 miles, when I started to shift down before stabilising at a lower pace. Coincidentally, it was at around that point that I decided I would never run a marathon again.

Surprise #6: Terry Prachett, runner’s friend

I spent ages beforehand crafting a lengthy, pumped-up playlist for the race, and deliberately avoided the songs on it so that they would sound fresh on the day. But by the time I reached halfway through the race, I was bored. Even I can only listen to so much Britpop. So I switched to an audio book, and found salvation. I can recommend Terry Prachett’s The Night Watch as a pleasant distraction to all future marathon runners – though I have had to re-listen to the chapters that played during the last few miles, as somehow I don’t seem to have followed that part of the story.

Surprise #7: Random supporters are there for you

Thousands of people lined the route and cheered the runners on. That really helped, much more so than I expected. I managed a weak thumbs up to most of those who shouted for me personally. Pro tip: write your name on your top in big letters – it will substantially increase your share of random personalised encouragement.

Surprise #8: Runners’ cameraderie

Another nice surprise. It’s daunting to see paramedics treating stricken runners, and it’s nerve-wracking to see ambulances racing past you to some unknown pain point – what lurks just a few miles ahead? But those who were still standing would actively encourage fellow runners who were in trouble. Many people began to walk near the end, but they got regular pats on the back and kind words in the ear from those passing them – come on mate, nearly there now!

Surprise #9: Time and space warp towards the end

The last 10km seemed like entire marathons that had been surreptitiously added on to the main event, and the same for the last 3km. I literally could not imagine how I was going to run that far. It boggled my mind, the sheer thought was exhausting. (This is rather ridiculous in hindsight, because by the time you’ve only got 3km to go you have already run 39km!). So I tried to trick myself. The last 15km became three sets of 5km, a distance which I know I can do ok. But when the first kilometre of the first set of 5km took what seemed like half an hour, I realised that my targets had to get shorter. By the time I got into the final kilometre, I was running two traffic cones at a time – just get to that one… now just get to that one… And then for the final 500m, all I could aim for was to get from one group of people to the next – just get to the girl in the pink coat… now just get to the guy in the glasses… come on, nearly there…

Surprise #10: What’s next?

You can’t train for a marathon just by running a bit further each time. I ran 220 miles over 6 months in training – but I also had to cross-train (interval training, hill running), do weights in the gym for the first time ever (intimidating!), eat more healthily, drink less beer, etc. Without a specific goal in mind, I’m rather lacking in direction sportwise – I need a new (and preferably less gruelling) challenge!

Here’s my training plan for the final three months.

For now, I’m happy to fill the time with writing :)

So thanks for reading!

~ Todd

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Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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