Brighton Marathon 2018: Why you need to train your head as well as your legs.


This is a tale of doing everything you can to train for something, and just for absolutely NO reason having a really, REALLY bad day.  Or maybe there is a reason. I’m still trying to process it via writing it down here.

I started off feeling pretty strong. I thought I felt ready, standing at the start. I felt good, I was having a lovely time with my friends and, yeah, we were all there to run a marathon, but it was just a fun weekend away, really! I was more focused on road-trip snacks than mentally preparing myself for running 26.2 miles. This was my third marathon – piece of piss, I’ve done this twice already. Maybe I was even a bit cocky, or just naïve. But I’d done all of my training. I’d clocked up the long runs, the marathon-pace runs, the speed sessions, I’d done it all. I was apparently so breezy and cheerful on the 20-mile run I’d done a few weeks before that I had teetered over from motivational to “now you’re just being annoying” – especially when I got a sugar high from a gel at mile 17 and wouldn’t shut up.  I was an old hand now, dishing out sage advice to my friend Clare, who was doing her first marathon, about how to cope with the darker times (Jesus, little did I know what dark times I was in for).  But hell, I was physically stronger and fitter than ever.  Bring it on. Sub 4:30. Big PB. Let’s go. 

But it was not meant to be. I thought about lying, actually, while I was grinding out the miles, crying, hating it, hating myself, already thinking about what I would tell people about why my time was so much slower than I’d hoped.  I thought about saying that my hip – which had started playing up from a combination of training in the cold and over-compensating for an old injury on the other side – had gone again. Or maybe that I’d thrown up or that I’d had to spend an hour in a portaloo, which no one who saw my Strava splits would believe, but anything seemed better to me than actually telling the truth, which was that it wasn’t my hip, or my stomach. It was my head.  It was ALL in my head. Physically I was, and am absolutely fine. My hip doesn’t hurt any worse than the other bits of my legs, which is a normal amount after running that flipping far.

I did the first 8 or 9 miles with my amazing friend Gemma. We set off according to plan, slowly building up to our marathon pace of 10:15, which we were due to stay at for the first 20, and then give it some extra welly for the last 6. This was the plan. The plan quickly went out the window for me, because pretty early on I started listening to the little voice in my head that tells me I can’t do it. That it’s too far. That I can’t run 20 miles at that pace, let alone have anything left for the last 6. I started doing the body-scanning thing – this hurts, that hurts, I feel really sick. I’m going to BE sick (this after the second gel). So I told, no, FORCED Gemma to go on without me, while I slowed right down and then walked. She didn’t want to leave me, but I REALLY didn’t want to feel responsible for fucking up her race too; bad enough that I fucked up my own. Initially I felt better once I didn’t have to worry about that, but the trouble is, once you start walking, it’s very, very hard to keep going. You’ve set that precedent in your head that you can walk now, and so it becomes really hard to even run a mile without having a bit of a walk.  And this is so completely different from starting off with a controlled run:walk strategy. So even by mile 8 I had to completely let go of that idea of getting in under 4:30. But what the hell, I could still PB, I could still beat my last time of 4:35… Yeah, that didn’t last long either. Then I was thinking I could still beat last year’s Brighton time of 4:56 – then, well, OK, but I could still do sub 5 hours and claim some dignity. You play these mind games in your head, calculating what you could now do. But to be honest, it just all went to shit. My head was spinning. I cried and ran/walked, sobbing from about mile 13 to mile 23, when another friend from the club, Asif, caught up with me and I ran/walked (and in his case this WAS a deliberate strategy, that got him a great PB!) with him for a bit. The chatting and the company cheered me right up because by this point the goal was to JUST. FINISH. THIS. Just survive. The high points were seeing lovely friends on the course, and really, really nice total strangers telling me I looked strong and I could do it. And I actually enjoyed the last mile immensely.  But I came in at 5:06. A full half an hour slower than my PB, and 36 minutes slower than I had planned/hoped. 

And I’m sitting here the next day thinking WHAT THE HELL WENT WRONG?

So I think its a few things – firstly as mentioned above, I was a bit blasé, maybe. I don’t think I went through the same mental preparation that I went through the first couple of times. MARATHONS ARE HARD. And it’s a mental battle.  But thinking back to that first marathon, that first Brighton Marathon, the mental preparation for running that far, for beating that distance was just as important as the physical training. That first time around, I spent a LOT of time mentally preparing myself.  Coach Tony is a HUGE believer in positive visualisation, he drums into all of his athletes how important it is to picture yourself crossing the finish line, and also to prepare some mantras to get you through those dark moments. The first time I took all that on board, did all of that stuff, it DID work, it DID get me through those awful dark moments (you can read about that first marathon here, if you’re not offended by VERY bad language). Tony was one of the friends I was in Brighton with and after we’d all met up for dinner, he took himself back to his hotel room because he said he needed time by himself just to get his head in the game for the marathon the next day. I didn’t really think much of this at the time, but now I realise that that’s what I should have been doing too. He’s done something like 11 marathons and Iron Mans (Iron Men? Iron Mens??) and STILL needs to mentally prepare himself. I was all like “Oh, I’ve DONE this before, I’ll be FINE”. No, I needed to get my head in the game and I didn’t do it. 

The second thing was that I don’t think I’d ever fully taken on board and accepted my marathon pace. During the training we did a lot of runs at that pace. Most Thursday nights we’d do 7 miles on tired legs from the week’s training at marathon pace, and I found those runs to be the hardest runs of the week – because I was SO tired, it was evening, my legs were still feeling the weekend’s long run and the Tuesday-morning track sessions, and my Wednesday-morning running group. I ran every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so I think I subconsciously associated running that pace with feeling knackered.  And if it felt that hard running 7 miles at that pace, how the hell did I think I could run 26.2? I hadn’t accepted and assimilated that I could do it because actually I did run the first 20 miles of Abingdon at that pace, so I HAD already done it. But I hadn’t deep down accepted it and believed it.  And me and Gemma DID run the first 8 miles at marathon pace, after a mile warm up (up an eff-off hill, as it goes), but my brain just hadn’t accepted that I could keep going at that pace, so I didn’t.

The third thing is that Brighton is sold as a ‘Flat Race’. That, my friends, is a dirty rotten STINKING lie, and they should be ashamed of themselves. The first THIRTEEN MILES are all up and down some pretty long grinding hills. Look at the elevation if you don’t believe me. And that takes it out of you mentally and physically. It feels like it’s going on FOREVER. And, YES, I know I’ve run it before, but it’s like childbirth: you forget the pain and just think about the lovely brand new medal. I mean, baby.  I actually blanked out those hills.

I would like to point out that now I am super proud of myself for battling to the finish feeling that bad. I have no negative feelings towards myself at all now. But at the time I hated myself. I felt like I’d totally messed it up, and I’d let myself down, and I’d let Tony and his training down, and everyone tracking me and everyone at the club would know that I messed it up. It felt devastating. I started questioning everything about myself. Around mile 15 I’d done such a character assassination on myself you’d think I was the Pol Pot of runners. I was never running again, let alone running another marathon. I could never show my face at Headington Road Runners again. I was getting a new hobby: going back to crocheting Star Wars characters, playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with those many-sided dice, or making my own cheese or something. I was DEFINITELY selling my place for Abingdon marathon in October… but now I’ve calmed the fuck down, I think I can learn a huge amount from this.

When I got home and we’d discussed it over pizza – because he’s very good like that – Matt (my husband) asked me whether I’d rather get a PB but injure myself, than not get a PB and feel better and fresher afterwards? Well, obviously as a runner (which I still am, not a cheesemaker) my answer was ‘How big a PB, and how bad an injury?’ but it was an interesting question, because I don’t feel nearly as bad today as I have done the last two times. I haven’t even had to go down the stairs backwards. So either that’s because I’m physically fitter, or because I didn’t work as hard. But I think I DID work as hard… you still run 26.2 miles whether you run it in 3 hours or 5. And 26.2 miles is a long way. This kind of reinforces the fact that this was not a physical issue. You can be fitter than EVER and your head can still mess it up for you.

So now I’ve reflected a bit, I’m thinking that I WILL do Abingdon again in October, and I’ll learn something from this experience, and not just physically prepare myself, but mentally prepare myself a hell of a lot better too. I’ve learnt anew to respect that distance, and that whether you’re running your first marathon or about to become a member of the 100 marathons club, you must ALWAYS respect that distance, and you must always prepare yourself for it. Not just through the hours spent physically preparing yourself, pounding the pavements, but all of that mental preparation that I did for the first time. The irony of it being that as a soon to be coach who is also a therapist, I never thought my mental game would be what was lacking. But as Tony also says “Every day is a school day”. He really needs to stop being so right all the time. It’s annoying. 

But right now I’m taking a bit of time to feel really proud, because as many others have said to me over the last 24 hours, it takes a lot more grit and determination to finish something when everything is screaming at you to stop, than when  you’re flying through and it feels easy. And there was no point in those FIVE LONGEST HOURS OF MY LIFE that I ever contemplated stopping. I wasn’t going to go through all of that and not come home with a medal. 

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