London Marathon 2016 Race Report

Race time: 2 hours 40 mins 15 secs

Race position: 314th

Male V40-45 position: 45th

 

Build up

I arrived in London with my family on the Friday afternoon, full of anticipation and a few nerves.  My training had gone really well for the past 16 weeks.  I had followed a new approach, with more high intensity work – most of my running being done in the Threshold heart rate zone, which improves efficiency and sustainability of running at around marathon pace.  I had slightly reduced my weekly mileage, but still ran over 1000 miles in training at an average of 65 miles per week.  But my pace was a lot faster, with 11 out of the 16 training weeks averaging below 7 mins per mile across the week.  The signs were good, with new PBs achieved at 5k and half marathon in recent weeks, and some strong long training runs in the bank.  I had even managed a successful taper (for the first time ever) and arrived in London feeling strong and fresh.

My target was to achieve a sub-2.40 marathon, and I believed I was well placed to run around 2.37 or even faster.  With the confidence I had gained in training, I would go as far as to say 2.37 was my primary goal, which would mean running the marathon at just below 6 mins/mile.

However good the previous 16 weeks had been, there is still time for things to go wrong even in the final days and hours before the race.  I have experienced that before.  Sadly, things didn’t go exactly to plan this time either.  Having had a nice Tapas meal in Camden, where we were staying, I went to bed early on the Friday night.  I was asleep by 9.30am, but 3 hours later I was wide awake, and with the marathon demons messing with my head I didn’t get back to sleep at all.

Every piece of advice about the week before the marathon talks about the importance of getting plenty of good quality sleep.  I had not slept well all week, and I think I start to get myself stressed about needing to get to sleep, whenever I went to bed.  I was now really concerned about my lack of sleep, having been awake since 12.30am on the day before the race.

I had a short run on the Saturday morning, which felt good.  My son, Jonny, and I then set off for the Excel arena, accompanied by fellow runner Jase Brannan.  We got through registration quickly, and after a brief trip round the Expo we headed back to town to meet the family for lunch.  This was followed by the Lion King – a good chance to sit down (and have a short snooze!).  Then back for tea and sorting out my kit etc for the next morning.

Me & Jonny at the Expo

Fun at the Expo

I was in bed by 9.30pm, but despite being awake for 21 hours I struggled to get to sleep – getting increasingly anxious about not sleeping.  I did eventually fall asleep and actually managed a half decent night, which is rare for me before the marathon.

Race day 

After my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge, I met Jase in Camden and we set off for the race start at Blackheath.  My stress levels were quite high, and I soon started to panic when there were no taxis to be seen anywhere.  We reverted to plan B and had a pretty smooth journey over by train.  I arrived at the Championship start area about 8.55am – which gave me 65 minutes before the race start.  That sounds plenty, but ideally I like a good 75-80 minutes to really prepare, do some sitting and meditating and yoga to calm myself and then to warm up.  Unfortunately that didn’t really happen and my final prep for the race was a bit rushed.

Arriving at the start area - cold and nervous!

When I entered the Championship start area I had to have my race vest checked to make sure it complied with UKA rules for the race (because it was the UK and English Championship).  I was told that I had to cover up my name, which was on the front and back of my vest, because there are restrictions on the size and amount of “advertising” allowed on vests.  I was annoyed, as I had got my name put on deliberately for this race, as you get so much encouragement during the race; and I lost more precious preparation time taking my vest off and moving my numbers.

I had been told that the Championship area was quiet and calm, which should really help my preparation.  But as I entered the changing tent this was clearly not the case.  Maybe it was the cold weather, but it was packed.  I had just wanted to go and sit and be calm for a while, but that was not going to happen.

I carried on with the rest of my preparation and soon it was 9.40am and time for a warm up.  Again I was disappointed by the facilities.  I had been told we could warm up with the elite runners and expected a nice stretch of road to do this.  But the arrangements had changed this year, and we were packed in like sardines to a very short stretch about 200m long – far from ideal.  I looked around and did find a separate road which I don’t think we were supposed to run on.  I got a bit of a better warm up there, but I was away from all the other runners and didn’t want to miss the walk to the start.  So my warm up was curtailed.

Soon after 9.50am I was waiting on the start line.  I wriggled my way through the pack and got a place about 50m back from the front.  Not a bad place to start.  I could see the elite runners being introduced just ahead.  The build up had been far from ideal and I was disappointed with this.  But I could now take a few minutes to just stand, take it all in and try and keep myself level and calm for the race ahead.  I still felt pretty good and was ready to go.

The race start – miles 1-8

The first couple of miles were quite busy.  There was enough room to run at a decent pace, but it did require concentration to continually find gaps to run freely in.  I felt as though I was staying relaxed.  However my hear rate was far too high.   My race strategy was all based on pacing by heart rate – I planned to run the first 8 miles between 138-144 bpm (the bottom end of my threshold zone) and then gradually allow my HR to rise to the top of threshold (155 bpm) by 21 miles, before giving it whatever I had left in the last 5 miles.  But in the first mile, my HR was already at 155.  I felt fine, but I’m sure the lack of time to relax and to ground and calm myself before the race was impacting me, along with the lack of sleep and associated stresses.

With a few downhill miles, I tried to relax further into the run and get my HR down.  It did come down, but for the majority of the first 8 miles it hovered around 146-148 bpm, which was too high.  My early pace was around 6 minutes per mile for the first few downhill miles and as the route flattened out it settled around 6.05 per mile.  This was slower than I anticipated, but I did not want to push any harder and see my heart rise further, this early in the race.  I just hoped that I was keeping something back for a stronger, faster second half of the race.

Despite these concerns, I was enjoying myself.  The atmosphere was just brilliant.  I loved the crowds, the music and the dancing as we passed through the different areas of South London.  I was running with a smile on my face and I was feeling good,.

Miles 9-14 – starting to pick it up a little

My strategy for miles 9-14 was to allow my HR to rise slowly but keeping it within 145-150 bpm.  I was already running at 146-148 bpm when I started this section and so I focused on maintaining this, which I did quite successfully in the few miles up to half way.  My pace remained fairly consistent at around 6.03-6.04 per mile – just slightly faster than in the first section.  I was feeling strong, although as we approached half way I did notice a slight tightening in my legs.

The support was still amazing as the route wound its way through Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey and started the climb up to Tower Bridge.  It’s fantastic to have so many people screaming at you!  I loved crossing Tower Bridge, amused by the bloke in the Tutu who was revving up the crowd!

I did let my discipline slip a little in miles 13 and 14 as I climbed up to and crossed Tower bridge, and in the mile after that as I looked out for my family.  My heart rate crept up to about 152, so above my target range.  My pace picked up with this and I was enjoying myself – mile 13 was 6.04 mins, including the main climb on the course up to the bridge, and mile 14 was 5.58. I would potentially pay for pushing too quickly, later in the race.

After Tower Bridge, I turned along the Highway towards the Isle of Dogs.  My family were watching near Shadwell, meaning they would see my just before miles 14 and 22.  It was great to see them and give them a wave, and I knew this would give me a much needed boost later in the race too. 

The Highway - mile 14

Spotted the family - time for a wave

I passed half way in 1 hour 19 mins 49 seconds.  This seemed a bit slow, bearing in mind my 2.37 target.  I had had to hold back to keep my heart rate in check, but I was motoring now and I hoped that I had kept plenty in reserve to deliver a stronger, faster second half.

Miles 14-21 – stepping up the pace

As I moved into mile 14, I picked up the pace.  I was spurred on by huge crowds on the Highway, including my own family.  I felt strong and enjoyed driving on and passing a lot of runners.  I had held back during the first half and now it was time to push on.  I still needed some discipline and needed to keep my heart rate between 150-155 bpm.  I settled into a nice rhythm, with 6 consecutive miles at 5.58-5.59 mins and a 152 average heart rate.

As we moved into the Isle of Dogs, it started to feel tougher.   I knew it would.  There are a few little hills and more twists and turns, and it just feels less vibrant there.  As each mile wore on, my legs continued to feel tighter.  By mile 17-18 although I was still running at sub-6 minute pace, it was feeling like harder work.

My 5k splits up to this point were encouraging – after a fast downhill first 5k (18.41) I ran the next 3x 5k splits at around 19 minutes each, and then the next two 5k’s were faster at 18.42 and 18.51.  But, could I sustain this for another 8-9 miles?

Mile 19 was again sub-6 minutes, but I was really feeling it as we left the Isle of Dogs and headed back towards the City.  The wind was blowing more strongly into my face, my legs were tired and I felt quite weary.  This was the time to dig in, but I was struggling a little.  I managed to keep mile 20 at 6.00 minutes, but my heart rate was up at 156 showing the extra effort needed.  Mile 21 was then worryingly slower at 6.15 mins.  I was in danger of letting this slip away. 

Miles 22-26 – the final push

As I continued back towards the City, I tried to dig in.  Despite it feeling very tough, I was still passing other runners and hardly anyone passed me.  I knew I would see my family again just before the 22 mile mark, and that spurred me on.  It was great to see them.  I managed to wave and almost smile – but with less enthusiasm than earlier.  I was very focused and needed to keep my concentration.

Despite my effort, mile 22 was still off the pace at 6.10 mins.  I was losing time and for the first time I started to realise that I might not beat 2 hours 40 mins.  That thought had never crossed my mind in the previous 16 weeks.  I had always been focused on how close to 2.37 or faster I could get.  Now I knew I was going to have to speed up to get under 2.40.  It was 50:50 at best.

With only 4 miles to go I pushed on hard.  Everything hurt, but I was counting down the miles.  I had to stay focused and pushed on.  I picked up the pace in mile 23, running it in 6.05 mins – a better time, but not fast enough.  With 5k to go I realised I was outside that goal and would have to run the last 5k in around 19 mins or faster.  My 5k splits had dropped off, after the two strong 5k’s between 20-30km.  The 30-35km split was 26 seconds slower than the previous split, at 19.17 mins and the next 5k turned out to be even slower at 19.22 mins.

Mile 24 was a good one, getting under 6 mins, with a 5.58 min/mile.  If I could sustain that then I had a chance.  I went through the tunnel before the Embankment.  This had really inspired me last time I ran London, with the music blasting and uplifting mantras decorating the tunnel.  This time, sadly, there were no mantras, but I enjoyed the music and it drove me on.

Coming up from the tunnel onto The Embankment is one of my favourite parts of the race, as you hear the massive roar of the crowd, and you see The Thames and the London Eye in the distance.  I pushed on towards The Eye and the Houses of Parliament.  Sadly I couldn’t quite sustain my pace and mile 25 slowed a little to 6.05 mins.

Mile 25 - trying to keep it going (Photo: Richard Sands)

 I turned the corner past The Houses of Parliament, and into the final mile.  I didn’t know exact timings, but I knew the final mile would have to be well under 6 minutes if I was to get under 2.40.  I had forgotten quite how hard the final miles of a marathon are, having not run one since Manchester, over a year earlier.  Somehow I was managing to keep going at a decent pace.  I was passing so many runners at this stage, which encouraged me.  But it felt like an eternity before the “1k to go” sign came – looking at my watch, it needed to be a sub 3.30 min final km – which felt unlikely.  The next 200m to the “half mile to go” marker took so long – and the same story as I approached 600m and then 400m to go……  I turned past the Palace and onto the Mall for the final stretch.  Looking up I could already see the clock approaching 2 hours 40 mins.  I knew I wouldn’t do it.  I sucked it all in and gave it one last push.  I didn’t even notice the crowds as I tried desperately to hold it all together and get over the line as quickly as I could.  I passed a few more runners on the Mall before crossing the line in 2 hours 40 minutes and 15 seconds.

There was no celebration as I crossed the line.  My immediate emotion was disappointment.  Getting a time over 2.40 was never an option.  Not even a consideration.

I continued walking down the Mall and towards Horse Guards parade.  I reluctantly had my photo taken with my medal, but not with any enthusiasm.  But within a few minutes my mood was lifting.  I had run a good PB, and finished strongly.  I had also loved every minute of the race with its fantastic support and atmosphere.  I smiled all the way round (or when I wasn’t grimacing!!). There was a lot to be happy about, and as time has passed since the race, this has outweighed the disappointments.

Reflections

First the positives……

My previous PB at Manchester was 2.41.26 but days before London I heard that the Manchester course was short by 380m (there’s another story and another rant!!).  So if I add on the time for an extra 380m then my previous PB would have been over 2 hours 43 mins.  So my London time was a good 3 minute improvement on my PB

In many ways this was the best executed race I have done.  I started steadily, and picked up and grew stronger as the race progressed.  My 5k splits are a good indicator of my race story – after a steady first 20k, I ran very strongly from 20-30k which was exactly my strategy.  Sadly I just could not maintain the intensity and pace needed, and I dropped off a little between 30-40k.  But despite that I ran as close as I ever have to an even split: 1.19.49 and then 1.20.26.  I also passed so many runners in the second half of the race – I would guess 100-150 – and was passed by less than a handful.

So there is a lot that I got right and I am very satisfied with that.  But looking critically, I simply wasn’t fast enough throughout the race, and I didn’t have enough in the tank to maintain the pace in the last 6 miles.  I’ve reflected a lot on this and think I understand why.

My high heart rate at the start of the race was a tell tale sign, and the fact that I could not get this down to targeted levels in the early miles was ultimately the problem.  My HR was 5-10 bpm higher than it should have been throughout the first half of the race.  This meant I didn’t have enough left in the tank later on.  Why was this?  I’m pretty clear on the reasons:

  • Lack of sleep – my disastrous night’s sleep on Friday left me tired, but also increased my stress levels
  • Arrived at the start area too late to allow me to properly relax and calm myself
  • The busy Championship start tent, being asked to move my number etc all stopped me preparing properly.  I just didn’t feel calm and grounded when I started the race
  • Lack of a proper warm up area – some people don’t think a good warm up for a marathon is needed.  However I like to get my heart rate up to the levels at which I’ll start the race, and run for 3 minutes at that level during the warm up.  I didn’t get the chance to do this properly, only managing couple of minutes warm up.

All these factors meant that I simply wasn’t as fully prepared, rested or grounded as I needed to be when the race began.  When trying to get to the faster times that I am aiming for, the margins are very thin and small things can make a big difference.  On the plus side I am encouraged and confident that I can get these things right next time and still make further improvements on my time.

So, time for me to stop rambling on.  Overall it was a great experience.  Not just the race, but the journey over the last 16 weeks.  I have improved my running significantly, and I hope and believe there is more progress to be made.  Without doubt, London is the best race I’ve ever done.  I won’t be back next year as I want to keep it special.  But I will be back in due course, and can’t wait for that!!

Post race curry

Celebrating with Francesca

Race splits

5k times:

1-5k                18.41              3.45 min/km

6-10k              19.00              3.49 min/km

11-15k           19.05              3.50 min/km

16-20k           18.57              3.48 min/km

21-25k           18.42              3.45 min/km

26-30k           18.51              3.47 min/km

31-35k           19.17              3.52 min/km

36-40k           19.22              3.53 min/km

41-42k             8.20              3.48 min/km

 

Strava mile date:

1          6.01 min/mile           HR 147 bpm

2          6.05 min/mile           HR 150 bpm

3          5.55 min/mile           HR 146 bpm

4          5.57 min/mile           HR 147 bpm

5          6.08 min/mile           HR 147 bpm

6          6.09 min/mile           HR 148 bpm

7          6.08 min/mile           HR 148 bpm

8          6.03 min/mile           HR 147 bpm

9          6.09 min/mile           HR 149 bpm

10       6.04 min/mile           HR 149 bpm

11       6.03 min/mile           HR 149 bpm

12       6.02 min/mile           HR 149 bpm

13       6.04 min/mile           HR 152 bpm

14       5.58 min/mile           HR 153 bpm

15       5.59 min/mile           HR 152 bpm

16       5.59 min/mile           HR 152 bpm

17       5.59 min/mile           HR 153 bpm

18       5.59 min/mile           HR 155 bpm

19       5.59 min/mile           HR 156 bpm

20       6.00 min/mile           HR 156 bpm

21       6.15 min/mile           HR 156 bpm

22       6.10 min/mile           HR 156 bpm

23       6.05 min/mile           HR 157 bpm

24       5.58 min/mile           HR 157 bpm

25       6.05 min/mile           HR 158 bpm

26       6.08 min/mile           HR 160 bpm

0.4       5.55 min/mile           HR 164 bpm

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