If you want to run a marathon, you need a proper training plan. Or so I used to think. When I set my sights on my very first marathon – the 2010 Exmoor CTS, dubbed the toughest trail race of its kind – I’ll be honest: I was scared. There’s something iconic about 26.2 miles, and the prospect of going the distance on the day was worrying enough. Even more overwhelming was all the hype that went with it. Choosing a training plan; building up mileage; pre-race taper; nutrition; carb-loading; stretching; recovery – it felt like a whole new world, and I felt far out of my depth. So I studied other people’s training plans; I planned long runs and back-to-backs; I stretched; I tapered; I even subjected myself to a sports massage in the name of preparation.
When the big day came, I was astounded by the laid-back attitude of a fellow runner with whom I shared a few miles along the coastal path. Lean and wiry, he looked every inch the long-distance runner – so I asked him how he trained. “I don’t, really”, he said. “I just like marathons. I run one every month, and that keeps me ticking over.” I struggled to reconcile this with the received wisdom of what it is to run a marathon – but I filed it away in my mind for future reference, none the less.
With hindsight, my approach to that first marathon went against the grain of everything I’ve ever believed in life
It was a tough race, but I finished it. Yet with hindsight, my approach to that first marathon went against the grain of everything I’ve ever believed in life. I was blinded for a moment by the hype. I believed I had to behave in a particular way if I wanted to be a marathon runner. Yet when all’s said and done, the best way to achieve your big goals is rarely to study what others do and copy it slavishly: the best way to do it is the way that works for you.
If marathon running really required a regimented training plan; regular long runs and rest days; sensible nutrition and plenty of sleep, I would have given it up years ago. Now with two young kids and a thousand and one obligations, those things are out of the question. But I’m not prepared to give up on big goals just because they’re not convenient. I’m still running marathons. But I ditched the rule book, and I’m doing it my own way.
I ditched the rule book and I’m doing it my own way.
I smile inside when I think back on that conversation on the trail in Exmoor, and how astounded I was by my new friend’s outlandish approach to training – because my approach is now closer to his than I ever imagined possible. Back in 2015 after the birth of my son, I completed the Mont Blanc Marathon – my first Alpine marathon – off the back of five big training runs spaced over the five months leading up to the race. Each long run was an organised event – I find it easier to give myself permission to take the time I need for a long run if I do it that way. One of them was an ultramarathon (Kintyre Way 35), one was a sprint triathlon at Keswick Mountain Festival (a bit of an anomaly, but as a terrible swimmer and cyclist, I figured that the sheer physical exertion of getting round would count as good marathon training). Unconventional marathon training, maybe, but ultimately it was effective. Again, I finished the race, and I felt in no worse shape than I had done upon completing Exmoor back in 2010.
So this year, I plan to do it again: with even more constraints on my training time, following the addition of my daughter to the family, and even bigger goals. My training plan consists of a series of long and long-ish races, each of which will be a true test of my fitness and willpower in its own right.
It began on Sunday with a return to That’s Lyth: the 24-mile tour of the Kendal countryside organised by the LDWA that I also used to kickstart my marathon training in 2015. Twenty four miles is a clear nine miles further than any run I’ve completed in the past 18 months, but That’s Lyth is as much a feast as a running event, so it felt like a safe environment to test my legs and lungs. It’s a tour of four village hall checkpoints, each offering a mouthwatering array of indulgences for flagging runners: donuts at Checkpoint 1; hotdogs at Checkpoint 2; chocolate biscuits at Checkpoint 3; hot soup and cakes at the finish. Unconventional running fare, perhaps, but it does the trick. That’s another aspect of my unconventional marathon training: I want to reduce my reliance on run-specific nutrition (which can be pricey and inconvenient to get hold of) so that I can run on ‘real’ food – giving me the flexibility to make do with whatever comes to hand at the time.
With those Lakeland miles in my legs, I’m confident that another marathon distance will be within my grasp in a couple of weeks’ time – then another, and another. Then it’s just a question of making the next big leap to ultra, when I tackle 50 miles around Lake Annecy at Maxi Race in May.
If you don’t mind a bit of pain – mental and physical – on the way to the finish line, you CAN do it
Running long distances is just the same as any other big goal: there’s no right and wrong way to approach it. By all means, do your research; explore the options; understand the challenge ahead. But if you’re honest with yourself and know your capabilities; if you’re smart with your goals and determined in your ambitions, if you don’t mind a bit of pain – mental and physical! – on the way to the finish line, then you CAN do it: and it’s up to you to find a way to make it happen. So don’t give up hope before you start. Regardless of what the rule book says.