How to prepare for a marathon

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If there’s a textbook definition of how not to train for a marathon, then I’ve got a well-worn hardback copy with margins full of notes. Thanks to a combination of two jobs, the QPR fixture list, family and friends who don’t remember what I look like any more and a troll brain keeping me awake at night by listing all the things I haven’t done yet, finding time to train not just sufficiently but smartly is a perennial challenge. Generally speaking, I transition swiftly from “Fuck it, I’ll just enter and worry about it later” flippancy through the “I’ve got ages yet, I’m sure I’ll be fine” phase to the “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL” climax of marathon preparation, and end up at the starting line relying on adrenalin and stubbornness to carry me through.

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I can’t make excuses for my lifestyle: it’s my choice to watch QPR in all corners of the country, it’s my choice to drink lots of gin to make up for them losing, and sheer necessity to hold down two jobs to pay for this habit. I’m not giving up on either QPR or running though, so I have to regain control of the situation somehow.

How do I do this? The same way any rational person does. Lists.

After the Edinburgh Marathon last year mum and I listed everything we’d do on our next marathon, and thanks to the wonders of technology (specifically, my iPad mini and Evernote) that list – as does a new one for each event – goes everywhere with me. Whenever I do a race or try out a new tactic in training, I make note of what I discover – what are the best kinds of food on the run, what picks me up at the end of a race, which vest is most comfortable to spend ten hours in. Although the term “diary” gives me Judy Blume nightmares, I suppose that’s what my lists have, in effect, become – my training diaries. I review and refine them, have little ticks beside them so I can check off items as they go into my race bag, even separate them into sections for before, during and after the race. And I always keep the old ones so I can look back at successful (or not to successful) strategies.

Sadly mum had to drop out of the races we’d planned to do together this year through injury, but she’ll always be my support crew and I learn as much from her experiences as I do from my own. When she said she wished she’d had a tuna sandwich at the end of Edinburgh – very specifically that – I laughed, until it made me realise what I had been craving but been unable to articulate; that is to say, salt and protein. I couldn’t stomach tuna, but a sausage roll or a ham sandwich would have gone down a treat. When I left her all my ibuprofen and Vaseline for Brighton thinking she could give me some at the last cheer point to save me carrying it, it took me until mile 20 to realise that a) I needed it immediately, not at mile 25 and b) I had a perfect ibuprofen and Vaseline shaped pouch around my waist all along, and I’m an idiot. On the list.

Obviously the contents of everyone’s list will be different – what’s good for the goose sometimes gives the gander a dicky tummy – but I like to think that there are a few key questions you can ask yourself during race preparation to point you in the right direction.

What do you need before the race?
What do you need during the race?
What do you need after the race?
And how much of that can you get rid of?

That’s right. Whatever you think you need, you probably only really need half of at most, especially if you’ve got an overnight bag and public transport – not happy bedfellows – to think about on top of everything else. What’s more, most races these days are well stocked with water, snacks and energy supplements, so although you should never run a race assuming you can rely solely on checkpoint provisions you don’t need to carry enough water to cross the Sahara. This is one situation where my pervading fear of other people (zombies) actually puts me at an advantage. Like doomsday preppers, I always try to pack my raceday bag like I have to make a sudden getaway. Andy is such a lucky man.

As I write this I’m in a hotel room in Istanbul, preparing for the marathon on the 16th November. Packing for the whole weekend was a three week operation of written and re-written lists, bits and pieces stowed away in the suitcase for safe keeping, changing my mind between using new minimalist kit and tried and tested favourites. I’ve broken my usual holiday packing rule and taken two options of most items with me, just so I can leave the decision until the last possible moment. 22 hours out, this is what my race looks like:

Before:
Nutrigrain bars (breakfast)
Joggers and running jacket over race kit
(15 mins yoga warm up)

During:
Running bra
Istanbul Marathon shirt
Running shorts
Marathon socks 
Peaked Buff
New pink running shoes
Garmin 
Pacing band
Handheld with Shot Bloks in pouch
iPod shuffle and earphones 
Race number (on shorts)

In bag/for after:
Directions to start
Recovery drink and bottle
Nutrigrain bar
Silver foil blanket 
Joggers and running jacket again
Raceday pouch – safety pins, hair grips and hairbands, Imodium and ibuprofen, antibacterial gel, Vaseline, lip balm, tissues
Flipflops
QPR shirt

In recent races and long runs I’ve worn my trusty ultra belt and that’s been fine, because I’ve either been running ultras or trail races, so I’ve needed plenty of space to carry energy bars (well, cake). This time though, it’s my old nemesis: the city marathon. What’s more, it’s a potentially flat and fast one, and the first time since April I’ll be able to find out for sure how fast I can finish, so I want to be as light as possible. The weather forecast promises perfect running conditions. And Andy has challenged me to break 4 hours. Eep.

So as usual, I’ve prepared for it by throwing everything I know about race prep out of the window. Three days in Istanbul prior to race day may turn out to be a mistake, because Turkish food and wine is fucking amazing, and I’m wearing a top I’ve never tried before and a handheld bottle I’ve never raced with before. This is where I fall back on my raceday list, the psychological anchor in my anxiety storm.

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I could probably halve this list again if I needed to, but sometimes it’s the little comforts at the end that get you through the last few miles, and my QPR shirt and flipflops are two I can’t really do without. Some items are a practical necessity, some a requirement of the rules; some are purely because you know they’ll make you feel better. And at this stage, the truly valuable preparation has been happening for the last six months, not the last three weeks. Now it’s time for me to stop obsessing over which t-shirt to wear and get on with it.

So how do you prepare for a marathon? If anyone cracks it, do let me know…

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