Monday, 16 April 2012

The long and winding road - my first road marathon

If you run marathons, the first thing people ask is "what's your PB?"  7hr45 doesn't sound very impressive, even the unfittest of my friends could smash that, but if you factor in altitude, heat and mountains it makes a bit more sense.  Having never run a road marathon before, and not really wanting to since discovering trail-running, I started to wonder what I could do in a 'normal' marathon race.  Would I be any good?

I failed to gain a place in a major race this year, so had a window of opportunity to try a road marathon before the trail running season got underway.  I signed up for the Marathon du Lac d'Annecy on 15th April with my pals, Nikki & Ali.  A very snowy season here in Chamonix meant that the trails would be inaccessible until late spring anyway, it would give me a good level of fitness through the winter and hopefully kick-start my trail marathon training.  I loved running during the winter, training at night on the x-country ski trails, wearing crampons & head-torches and disappearing up to our thighs in fresh powder in the woods at weekends.  Leila the black lab couldn't get enough of it either.  As the huge snow dumps in town melted, we gradually substituted snow & ice-running for roads and made a weekly trip down to an area where we could run on snow-free roads for our long run.

We followed a training plan from Runner's World, knowing we were pretty slow compared to most other runners, but aiming for sub-4hrs.  We managed a couple of half-marathons in training at race pace (11km/hr), but really had no idea if that would be achievable over double the distance.  Our plan did not include any 20 mile runs, which seems unusual and at odds with most advice I'd read about?  I really wish I'd done one anyway, at race pace, to know how realistic that pace was, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Then a couple of weeks before the race, Nikki had to pull out.  Shin-splints or possibly worse were causing her a lot of pain after one of our long sessions.  Our physio recommended various exercises to improve imbalances in her running technique, but no running.  I started having problems with one of my hamstrings, which felt unhappy whenever I did any speed work, but swimming, massage and stretching seemed to keep that under control.  Ali was fine but seemed to be more interested in late-night sessions than training, and also managed to collide with a pillar a few days before the race!  It felt like we were falling apart as a result of our training.

We headed to Annecy the day before the race and took our minds off running with a little retail therapy and a lot of eating.  No cake, but a big fat banana split for pudding!  The weather on the day was less-than perfect - persistent rain and below-average temperatures.  Better than searing heat I know, but still a bit of a shame for runners and spectators alike.

The rain was heavy enough to require a jacket at the start. Tempting as it was, the umbrella hat was a bit too uncomfortable to wear while running, although my husband made good use of it when spectating!

I had read up on and practiced my pacing so decided to go for just under 11km/hr, or 5min30/km.  In training that had felt comfortable for some weeks so I didn't think it was daft.  I did consider taking it a little slower, but was worried that, if I went too slowly initially, I wouldn't make that time up in the later stages.  I expected to be able to continue at that pace for at least 3/4 of the race and could take it slower at the end if I needed to.  I lined up behind the 3hr45 pacemaker with the intention of keeping them just in sight, but not quite as far back as 4hr.

I warmed up within a couple of km and was ready to lose my hood, but the rain was annoying without it.  Andy & Nikki appeared at about 14km, so I grabbed my cap.  I saw them a couple of km later and ditched my jacket as the rain had started to ease off, however I made the fatal error of leaving my gloves in my jacket, which I really regretted later.  I felt great for the first 18km, no problems at all with the pace, in fact I felt like I could have run faster.  After that things started to go downhill.  My running tights started chafing and got really uncomfortable.  Unfortunately my favourite tights had disintegrated 3 weeks beforehand and although I had tested out my new ones on a longish run, it was obviously not long enough.  I stopped a couple of times to try and sort things out, but the tub of Vaseline I'd applied earlier clearly wasn't doing its job!  I didn't ever feel like I'd hit 'the wall' but everything gradually started seizing up and running just felt harder.  I had eaten well beforehand, hydrated sufficiently, taken gel blocks, energy drinks and anti-cramping tabs along the way, so I am confident that my nutrition wasn't to blame.

I managed to maintain a reasonable pace up to 30km, but after that I dropped down as low as 9km/hr.  It became evident by 35km that I wasn't going to hit my target time, which was quite demotivating, but I kept going, mentally aiming instead for 4hr10.  My hands were freezing  which was hard to ignore and was making the rest of me feel cold too.  I was 'treating' myself to a short walk at every km marker, imagining my easy runs from home and pretending I had only just started running rather than already having a lot of km under my belt, to try and convince my body that it wasn't tired.  Nothing really worked, I was hobbling in pain, so I just had to keep plodding on until the finish line was eventually mine at 4hr12.  My buddy Ali crossed the line at 4hr18 - I know she wanted to go faster too, but realistically she hadn't done as much speed work and is usually a little slower than me, so I think she should be very proud of her achievement.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointed with my time - my mum thinks I'm being hard on myself, but you have to have goals?  I knew I could run a marathon, but the whole point was to do it well.  I thought that my pace would allow for a little slowing and that I could still achieve my goal.  The one question I didn't ask myself was "will I be more upset if I take it easy and know I could have gone faster, or if I don't achieve sub-4hrs?"  The latter is definitely the case, but I was too focussed on the former.

The first surprise in all of this is that I didn't totally hate my road-marathon experience!  It was supposed to be a bit of an experiment and there is no way I will ever prefer it to trail-running, but there is something quite soothing in the monotony of running on a flat surface and it requires much less concentration than running on an ever-changing surface.  Despite the weather, there was a great atmosphere along the race route and, had there been clear skies, the scenery would have been lovely, so it's maybe quite different to a city marathon.  Ali & I have already decided that we will do it again, if only to show that we can so sub-4hrs.

The second thing, which is no surprise, is that recovering from a road race feels so much harder than after a trail race.  Hilly, trail-running works your muscles with much more variety than road-running and subsequently my legs barely hurt after a trail race.  2 days post road-race and I'm still struggling with walking on the flat, let alone stairs and am really not convinced that pounding the tarmac is good for you.  It feels like someone is standing on my lungs after my speed efforts - trail running is much easier for me pace-wise.

The third pleasant surprise, which we are all very happy about, is that we may have proved that cake & wine could indeed be part of the magic formula to successful marathon running.  I think we all had our best training runs after messy weekends of unhealthy living.  So hoorah to that!  But for now, we're heading back to the trails, where we belong.


  1. Good run Sam, don't be too hard on yourself, the rain and cold will take its toll and running 26 miles is never easy. I'm sure you'll get a sub-4 at the next road marathon you do, but in the meantime get back to the trails.

  2. Great effort and an equally good report. It says more about you when things are tough and you get through it. Chapeau! Looking forward to reading of more adventures.