Running goals are like false summits, this may seem like a weird analogy but bear with me. You spend years climbing towards that time goal, eyes transfixed, and yet when you finally run under that certain time instantly you begin imagining if you could go faster and that next false summit edges through the cloud cover. The most potent example of this for me is the marathon distance.
When I signed up for my first marathon I had the time goal of running under five hours. In the end I finished half an hour slower than that goal and I became obsessed with crossing the line with a sub five time. However, when I did it at the Sun Francisco Marathon a few months later I felt little celebration or pride. I was already looking at that next summit; sub four hours and 30 minutes. It would take me almost 15 more marathons before I crossed the line of the New York City Marathon in 2018, a few seconds under that elusive time. I finally had done it. I cried on that day, the picture below is a reminder of how much of an ugly crier I am and how powerful the marathon distance is.
And yet, only a day later as I sat down with a few other runners for brunch someone asked me what was next? It didn’t take a second to think of it; sub four hour. I vowed that it would be the last and true summit to marathon running for me, if I got under that four hour mark I would no longer be in pursuit of a time. In London the next year I shaved a huge 14 minutes off my time but that’s where it stopped, that summit has loomed overhead ever since.
With lockdown easing and races making a slow and cautious return I had a marathon in the plan to finally attempt to go under the four hour mark in the marathon distance. Having a PB of 4:14 from London Marathon back in 2019 it was an ambitious ask but with a relatively good training cycle under my belt and a big PB in the 50km I felt confident, maybe too confident.
Then Covid came to shuffle the schedule and my ambitions. Richmond Marathon, my A race, the race I had pinned my hopes of going for the PB, was cancelled like so many others. Instantly I trawled the internet and found another marathon on the same day; Worcester, that’s a relatively flat city I thought naively. About a week after I had set my sights on Worcester, Richmond became Kempton Park Marathon two weeks after it’s original date. So one known marathon became two unknown races.
What could go wrong?
Well to start with the Worcester Marathon, wasn’t in Worcester at all but in the hilly, I repeat hilly, countryside surrounding it. The heat of the day combined with the killer hills proved way too much for me. I struggled far more than I had ever done in the marathon distance. By mile 10 I knew the goal was not going to happen. I had been moving at a great pace for the first five miles and then slowly I felt my strength seep out mile by mile, step by step as if it was leaking through my shoes. The rolling hills felt more like mountains as a seemingly endless river of sweat stung my eyes. By mile ten my head was down and the sub four hour goal was gone and I still had 16 miles and another loop of the torturous course to go. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic but I utterly hated that run and it was the first time in a marathon I have debated quitting a race. The heat of the day wasn’t as oppressive as I described and the elevation was more mole hill than mountain. And yet, for a man who prides himself in staying positive and resolute, I felt defeated by the race long before it was over. It took everything, and some Haribos from a friend, just to keep plodding on. I didn’t want to let this race defeat me.
To my surprise I actually still managed to finish in 4:30, a time that made me weep with joy only a year and a half previous and yet this time around I felt nothing. I picked up my medal, got in my car and drove home. I tried to rid myself of the memories of the race, for fear that they would affect me in the next marathon. I tried as best I could to rebuild my resolve in materialistic ways; like buying a pair of carbon plated shoes, and in motivational ways; visualising the race going my way and there being a three at the start of my time rather than a four.
However, as I made my way to the start of Kempton Park Marathon a week later, I knew in my heart that it wasn’t going to happen. Once again I had my head down but this time before the race had even started despite my best efforts to re-motivate myself. Once I had started I tried to sweep those negative thoughts away by pushing hard, the first miles felt great and a spark, however small, was lit within me. The carbon plated shoes pushed me onwards, the placebo affect making an elite out of me. (I will be posting my review of these soon as well as an overview of my experience with Hoka One One shoes in general. Spoiler alert, it is very mixed!)
It was a painful course, with 8 loops to get you up to the marathon distance over lots of different terrains as you ran on the racecourse itself with its spongy shredded material (think small pieces of carpet), the potholed tarmac of the outer ring and grass crossing points. Not a course really made for a pair of carbon plated shoes but with the course being flat as a pancake I decided it was either now or never!
On the first lap I felt great with a body full of adrenaline and nerves I pushed on, by the second lap those lacklustre fuels had already started to wane and by lap three I knew I was in trouble. Getting lapped by people already was a huge demoraliser and every time it happened my head went further down and my body slowed another degree. By lap five I was walking, finding morale to push myself back into a run was already proving hard and my head begged me to just step off the course and quit. This urge to quit became the theme of these two marathons and it wasn’t until a few weeks later when the dust had settled that I realised why. I entered and took on these marathons for all the wrong reasons.
It hit me when I hung these two marathon medals with the 25 other marathons in my collection how out of place these two were in comparison. Before Covid and my focus on sub four hour I picked marathons in awesome places or with amazing elements in them; running over the Golden Gate Bridge, running in the lowest point on earth or in the land of Lord of the Rings or just running past family in my spiritual home. These two races I picked purely because I wanted to run a marathon and to be painfully blunt there was absolutely nothing memorable about them (besides a blister or two I had nothing to remember them by).
Running marathons had become only about the time on my watch. In pursuit of a goal I had forgotten completely about what running and the marathon is actually about for me.
Marathons to me anyway, are about the challenge and the adventure. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone in many ways but to also celebrate how far I’ve come. When I started running back in 2016 just 1km was hard so to get to the start line of my first marathon in 6 months was epic and the change I went through was dramatic. When people ask me for advice the week before their first marathon I say forget goals and plans and simply enjoy the race. That is a celebration, the victory lap to how far you’ve come as a person. But I was no longer practicing what I preached. A nondescript race course in an industrial area and roads that were just like mine at home were hardly a fitting tribute to the epic distance. So in the final, endless loops of the Kempton Park Marathon, I made a vow to myself and etched it upon my future resolve; to no longer enter races just to hit a goal, to earn another medal or for likes on social media. I would enter them for the adventure and joy of it all, resetting my perspective right back to where I started.
So while this may be two tales of falling short in my pursuit of a time, it is more importantly a reminder to myself to not get swept up in the social media echo chamber and to follow my own path because that is crucially is where joy resides. So where did my own path lead me after these two races? To the trails and to ultramarathons…