Loch Ness Monster

October 1, 2012

Two and a half years ago, I couldn’t run for a bus. Yesterday I ran a marathon in 3 hours, 13 minutes and 32 seconds.

As most of you will have heard all too often, my first attempt at running a marathon did not go to plan. The Loch Ness Marathon, therefore, was as much about redemption for me as anything else. The tricky part was that I still don’t really know what went wrong at London so I couldn’t be certain what to change this time round. I decided to leave as little to chance as possible. Firstly, I took on email based coaching from the amazing Sam Murphy and followed her schedule to the letter.  Every minute of every mile of every run! Secondly, I took nutrition more seriously than before, eating and drinking reasonably well throughout my training and ensuring I followed a carbo-loading plan in the three days before the race.  Lastly, I planned my race experience in detail, from arriving in the Highlands two days before the race through to a pacing plan and a fuelling strategy.

The drive from London to Glasgow, and then Glasgow to Loch Ness went incredibly well with lots of help from Mrs Pingu and baby Elsie on sparkling form. Our accommodation in Fort Augustus turned out to be great and an unplanned trip to see Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Dundee United the day before the race (for complicated reasons) was low key and low hassle enough not to worry me at all. My biggest concern going into the race was a very mild, nagging cold that had been bothering me all week. It never escalated to anything even vaguely serious but often felt like it could do. When I woke up on race morning however, nerves aside, I felt better than I had done all week. Weather conditions were perfect. Cool but not too cold, dry and what little breeze there was would be behind us for 25 miles.

My buddy Rob was making his marathon debut and had a less straightforward journey up from London, but we were both all set and raring to go. I’d heard some bad stories about the bus trip from Inverness to the race start so we were glad to be faced with the much shorter journey from Fort Augustus.  Even then, the buses collected us 25 minutes late which was a minor, unnecessary stress for someone like me, who likes to arrive very early for races. We were dropped off near the start at 9:30am for a 10:00am kick off, and with a 10-15 minute walk to the start line plus bags to drop off, it was all a bit tight.  That said, I managed a five minute warm up and felt ready to go. The location of the start was high in the hills with sensational views and a pipe band marching through the field to see us off only added to the drama.

My race target was 3 hours 15 minutes.  I knew this was achievable on a fast course, but from everything I had read, Loch Ness is not as quick as the course elevation suggests.  Somewhere, deep at the back of my mind, I knew that 3:10 would qualify me for a London “good for age” place as well as entry into Boston, but that was never on the cards. Following advice from Coach Sam my plan was to divide the race into three sections. I planned to really hold myself back for 9 miles and lift my effort level for the next 9. I viewed the final segment as two sub-sections as it began with two miles of uphill that I had heard broke the spirits of many runners. After that, I would have 10k (6.2 miles) to go where I would give everything I had left.

On the flat this would have meant around 7:30 per mile for the first section, but as there was so much downhill, my actual pace was a fair bit quicker.  There was a drop of 273 feet in the first mile alone, according to my Garmin, which resulted in a 6:52 mile. This felt like jogging and I really could not have gone much slower (honest, Sam!) The rest of the first section I hovered around 7:15 pace or a little either side. By the 9 mile mark I was feeling great, almost like I had hardly started.

The second section was flatter so I lifted my effort level to maintain a pace of around 7:15 per mile. This was my favourite part of the race. I was working hard, but not hurting too much and I must have overtaken 50 runners and don’t recall one coming past me. I was reaping the rewards of the restrained start whilst others suffered around me! By the time I approached the “big hill” at 18 miles I was starting to feel tired, but not concerned. As it transpires, the big hill was not that bad at all. I was fully prepared to drop to 8:30 pace but managed a 7:52 and 7:37 for the two miles of the climb. I had done a lot of hill training that clearly paid off as again, I passed a lot of people on the climb.

So, I hit the 20 mile mark knowing a 49 minute last 10k would get me my target of 3:15 which would be doable if I didn’t implode. There was a smaller climb in mile 22 which finally broke me. At 7:58 this was my slowest mile of the race and after that everything began to really hurt. As much I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the race, the last 4 miles were miserable.  To borrow from the Marathon Talk boys I “zipped up my man suit” and bashed out 4 more miles in the 7:30 to 7:45 range.  The final three quarters of a mile into the wind was particularly nasty, but I even mustered a bit of a kick in the home straight and finished in 3:13:32. I was delighted!

Here are my splits.  Within minutes of finishing I received a text confirming my time and finishing position, which was a nice touch. I came 101st out of 2,551 finishers which was very pleasing if ever so slightly annoying to just miss the top 100! My fuelling plan also worked really well. The intention was to drink to thirst, but fuel to a plan.  I took on gels at 5.5 miles, 11 miles, 16.5 miles and 22 miles and I probably only took on about 600ml of water throughout the race.

Once I crossed the finish line, my body just shut down. I saw Mrs Pingu and Elsie in the home straight and they came to congratulate me before I shuffled off to collect my bag. My plan was to head back to the finish to cheer Rob home but I found a bench to sit on and couldn’t move.  It was just as well I didn’t try to make it back in time as I probably would not have made it. The performance of the day came from Rob. His public target was anything under 4 hours though he secretly hoped he had 3:45 in him. I thought he was in shape to break 3:40 if he had a good race. None of us expected him to cruise home in 3:27. Amazing effort, especially in his first marathon.

The race itself is an absolute cracker. Aside from the slightly late arrival at the start, the organisation was excellent. The camaraderie amongst the runners was fantastic and the race village at the finish was lovely. The course is faster than its reputation would have you believe, but not as fast as the elevation charts imply. It’s just a bit too lumpy for that and the long periods of downhill at the start actually take a lot out of your legs, although I had trained to counteract that. The best thing about the race, inevitably, was the scenery. Previously, I had claimed this would not be a factor in my choice of events, as I tend to focus so much on my running I don’t notice anything around me. This was an exception. Mile after mile of breath-taking views of the Loch and the surrounding hills. Simply stunning. The biggest disappointment for me was the crowd support. I knew there would be none for the vast majority of the race but even once we were in Inverness the crowds were very sparse. Those who did come out made a great effort, though, which was certainly appreciated in the final miles.

As ever, I have a few “thank-yous” to dish out.  Firstly, the team at The Running School in Chiswick who helped me take my first steps towards improved running technique. My knees held up brilliantly throughout training which is testament to the work they did with me.  Secondly, Anna Markee, sports massage therapist at The London Osteopathy Clinic who prevented a calf and heel niggle from becoming an injury in the final weeks before the race. And thirdly, a huge, extra-special thank you to Sam Murphy for coaching me to achieve my target, and a 36 minute PB, no less! Following her training plan has been the most I have enjoyed my running and the results speak for themselves. I could not have done this without her.  Lastly, and most importantly, to Mrs Pingu and Elsie for putting up with the 5:45am alarm calls, being abandoned for my weekend long runs and the incessant, obsessive talk of almost nothing else for the last five months.

After what happened in London, I feel both elated and relieved to have done myself justice over the marathon distance. Psychologically, a marathon is a completely different beast to shorter races. You can’t hit the wall (in the true sense of exhausted glycogen stores) in a half marathon, but you sure can in the full distance.  When I started on my running adventure I could not possibly have guessed it would come to this.

I’m going to take a few weeks before deciding when to take on my next challenge (and what it will be), but I do have a place in an ultra-marathon next February should I decide to go for it.  Or, maybe, I’ll go the other way and focus on some short stuff with a view to significantly lowering my 5k and 10k PBs. At some point in the next couple of years I’d also like to have a crack at a super fast, flat marathon but probably not until 2014.


4 Responses to “Loch Ness Monster”

  1. Stevie Says:

    A cannae no believe it, well done.

  2. […] The third and final target I set myself was the big one. I aimed to break 3 hours and 30 minutes in the Loch Ness Marathon with a stretch of 3:20. As regular readers, friends, family, anyone else who had the misfortune to ask, a bunch of people who didn’t ask at all and various other strangers I met in the street, will know, I did it!  I ran a pleasing 3 hours 13 minutes and 32 seconds. […]

  3. […] is a challenging target, for a number of reasons.  My current marathon PB is 3:13:32 which means I need to improve by around 30 seconds per mile. Secondly, Mrs Colin is due […]

  4. […] I recently had my first tattoo done by the awesome Rodrigo Souto at Black Garden Tattoo. It turns out that getting a tattoo has more in common with running marathons than you might think. They both hurt, but the pain is more than worth it. People who don’t do them think you are mad and many can’t understand why you would put yourself through it. There is strong camaraderie amongst both communities. The preparation is also weirdly similar. I was advised to have a restful week, to sleep well and to avoid alcohol before my tattoo. I was told to eat a good meal beforehand (but nothing out of the ordinary) and to bring sugary snacks and drinks to take during the event. Apologies to the lchf crowd! My tattoo even took pretty much exactly the same length of time to complete as my last marathon! […]

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