I run ultras, but I’m only now learning how to race a marathon

Challenge 3 of 12 meant a homecoming of sorts for me, running a marathon down the many memory lanes of a place I once called home – Wrexham. Sharon and me were up at 3.30am for the two-and-a-half hour drive from the English midlands to North Wales. I was aiming to manage a few demons and learn a few more lessons on how to race a marathon.

Challenge 03 - The Wrexham Marathon 2017

I was a student in Wrexham, between 1997-2000. It was my first time away from home, my first time looking after myself. I was a shy lad when I started, with no real outward confidence at all. But, luckily for me, I fell in with a crowd of people who gave me some confidence, as well as many, many great memories. I’m still honoured and privileged to call them my friends today.

I’ve not been back to Wrexham in over 15 years though, and as we drove through the crisp dawn, I found my thoughts meandering the myriad ways I’d changed since those early years of adulthood. A lot had shifted within me since those innocent days. And so this marathon felt a little extra special. The Tim Vincent who used to tentatively tread Wrexham’s streets was now going back to run its marathon.

“Yeah, but if you can run ultras, you must find a marathon easy!”

So say many people to me. The truth is that despite running ultras, I genuinely find marathons really hard! Actually, I’d honestly say I find them harder than say a 50-miler! I know I can run a marathon, and often do the distance as training runs for the ultras. But I’m only just really learning how to race a marathon. 

It’s all to do with the pace. I don’t really race an ultra, I just aim to stick to a steady pace. I’ll have a mph figure in my head and try to cling on to that for as long as possible whilst keeping time in the checkpoints down to a minimum. But that miles per hour number is generally a very easy pace. For example, on my last 100-miler, I aimed for 5mph, hoping that with well-timed checkpoint stops and the inevitable slowing down towards the end, that I’d cover the distance in 24 hours. It just about worked. I needed to apply this strategy, with some key tweaks, to figure out how to race a marathon distance.

Learning how to race a marathon

There are three tweaks that I made for the Wrexham marathon, all three of which I’ll be doing again.  Firstly, don’t get carried away and go out too fast. I mentioned above that in ultras I’ll have a steady pace, allowing for a slowing down at the end. But in marathons, what I’ve tended to do is set out too fast, thinking that I’ll get five or so miles in at just under 8-minute mile pace, before gradually slowing down as tiredness kicks in. For Wrexham, I had a time in mind of 3h45m, and planned to run a consistent pace throughout. I knew the end would be hard regardless, but was confident that my mindset was strong enough to force my body to keep moving. 

The second thing that I implemented was a proper hydration strategy. I’ve been guilty of being a little blasé about this in the past, but for the Wrexham marathon I made sure that I took on a good amount of water for the entire week before the race. And then on race day itself, I’d sip little and often. This latter tactic I’ve employed in the past too, but have still found myself feeling very dehydrated during a race. In part, no doubt due to not taking on enough fluid on the days prior to the race, but probably more so due to my breathing. And this was vital the third lesson.

Breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. What I’d found in the past was that I was breathing in and out entirely through my mouth rather than my nose, or mouth/nose combined. This was having a very debilitating effect on me. During the past few long runs (2 hours or more), I’d got to the point where I’d had to stop and walk. I felt that I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs and my windpipe was hurting – it felt cold and ragged. I was coughing and clutching at breath, almost sucking the air in. It was painful and, if I’m honest, more than a little frightening.

An internet diagnosis

I did some homework on it, and wondered if I may be struggling with exercise induced asthma. The symptoms seem to fit, but I’m yet to go to the doctor’s to get a full diagnosis. As alarming as it sounded initially, I was later to find out that other high profile sports stars had suffered with similar things, David Beckham and Paula Radcliffe to name but two. Dr John Dickinson, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Kent, explains what can happen –

“If you go for a run, when you start to run harder you experience mouth breathing which means the lungs have to warm and filter the cold air which produces inflammation in your lower airways and smooth muscle constriction so the airflow is limited when you breathe out.”

Back to lesson one in how to race a marathon – pace. In previous races, by going out too fast, I was working my lungs too hard initially, forcing all of that cold / dry air through them, thus drying them out. So, by keeping my pace consistent so that I could breathe in through my nose all the time, I stopped this from happening. I finished the race in 3h47m. Despite trying my hardest to stick with the 3.45 pacer, Matt (big thanks to him for his easy company and great pace-making!) for as long as I could, I had a slight wobble around miles 18-22 where I lost a few minutes. But, I finished strongly, just over two minutes behind him in the end.

Learning how to race a marathon – Wrexham Marathon 2017 finishers medal
The boy came back, and left with one of these!

A different finish

The race finished where it started, right in the middle of the town. There was a keen hill for the last half mile to the finish line, and being pretty strong running uphill, I increased my pace for the last few minutes. When I was about 200 meters from the finish, I spotted a group of teenage lads on one of the town benches. I could tell they were watching me, but was unsure in what way.  As I got closer, as one they burst into loud cheers, enthusiastically clapping and encouraging me on to the finish. Thanks, lads, I really appreciated that! I felt 10-feet tall. And I feel like I’m finally learning how to race a marathon.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll probably also like this one on the Belvoir Challenge 2017. Also, if anybody has any advice on exercise induced asthma, I’d be very grateful of your comments!

Thanks. Tim

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