Photo shows Loch Ness in summer
Marathon Special Feature

Getting to the Start Line: Experiences of a First Time Marathon Runner

Never has a race so completely dominated my life for months as this one did. I’d done two 10ks, a couple of 10 milers, and plenty of 5ks, but at the time I signed up for Loch Ness Marathon, on 11th June, I’d not even run a half marathon as I’d had to withdraw from the Angus HAM due to glandular fever. I’d been planning on waiting to see how the Dundee Half DRAM went, but the early bird entry offer ended well before then, and I also knew that a marathon training plan should cover a longer block of time than the 9 or 10 weeks that would allow. Back in January I’d asked David about it, and he’d said to hold off for a while and not risk ruining my enjoyment of my new hobby/ obsession. But I steadily built up my mileage over those winter and spring months, and did some marathon training with Ann-Marie who was preparing for her first marathon at Stirling. It looked like I should be able to handle it, an autumn marathon seemed to fit in better with my work schedule, and lots of folk told me how amazing Loch Ness was for a first marathon. So I finally signed up and immediately went on the hunt for a training schedule.

Photo shows the view from a hill overlooking Cluj-Napoca
I still got some runs in whilst in Romania

Keith kindly sent me a copy of the schedule he had followed for Strathearn Marathon, then David loaned me his copy of Advanced Marathoning. I devoured a lot of the early chapters pretty quickly, then decided to follow the lowest mileage of the three programs in the Advanced Marathoning book. This turned out to be exactly the same plan as Keith had followed, so I already had it in a useful spread sheet format and didn’t need to photocopy it or type it up (I like to be organised and regimented: it’s probably the teacher in me). The lowest mileage was still 40 – 55 miles a week though. Whilst I could easily do a 10 miler with enough notice to taper, I found marathon training to be like an additional part-time job.

In addition to the jump up in mileage, the plan was an 18 week one. I had 15 weeks to go, but also had a fortnight’s vacation booked for the start of July and knew I wouldn’t be able to follow the schedule whilst in Romania. My other half already complains about being a running widow and I didn’t think he would take kindly to me spending 2 or 3 hours a day running after dragging him 1500 miles from home. So I sought advice on Running Friends Scotland, from Brechin Road Runners, from the Footers, and from anyone else who was prepared to offer an opinion. The general consensus was that I had a solid enough base that I could jump into week 6 of the plan, pause it for the fortnight I was in Romania, then re-start it again after the Dundee DRAM. So that’s what I did.

Me, June and Kate before the start of the Dundee Half DRAM. We didn't look quite as cool and collected afterwards.
Me, June and Kate before the start of the Dundee Half DRAM. We didn’t look quite as cool and collected afterwards.

Following a very regimented plan meant I had to do more solo sessions than usual. So even though my training volume increased, the amount of running with friends decreased somewhat if it didn’t fit the plan. I couldn’t go on the Footers Tuesday run if the plan required a VO2 Max session that day, and I couldn’t do intervals with BRR on a Friday when the plan said to rest or cross train. I’d also picked a different plan from Ann-Marie, Nic and Charlotte, so our training didn’t always mesh -though we did get in some training runs together.

I did start to be a bit more flexible though, and I got a lot of support from my fellow runners. Barry very kindly paced me on a couple of Lactate Threshold runs. The first one was problematic as I had no idea what 5 miles at Half Marathon Pace should be. Since I managed the Tay Ten at 7:16 pace I made the optimistic assumption that my HM pace would be around 7:25. So at 4 miles on the first LT run we tried to up the speed to 7:25 per mile. This was comfortable for Barry (who can do half marathons in 1:26), but intensely uncomfortable for me due to a) it being uphill, b) it being windy, c) it actually being faster than my as-yet-unknown HM pace and d) my misunderstanding my blood test results and beginning a course of iron tablets which caused stomach issues. I held 7:22 pace for the first mile, but dropped to 7:45 for the next two, 7:28 for the fourth, and back down to 7:45 for the final one. I was in agony for the final two miles and was really glad to get home without having to jump behind a bush! After I’d stopped taking the iron tablets, and discovered HM pace for me was actually 7:38, the VO2 max workouts got much better. The Footers were also pretty relaxed about me doing general aerobic + strides workouts with them: I’d start running with one group then sprint off for 100 metres leaving them – sometimes mid-conversation, then catch up with another group and do the same thing again. And a few of the ladies very kindly ran about 30 seconds per mile slower than they otherwise would have so I could do my recovery run with them without falling off the back of the group.

Photo shows Angus agricultural land on a sunny morning
The back roads to Edzell on a sunny morning, about 5 miles before I got so tired I wanted to lie down and sleep

Lots of other folk made my training less of a solo pursuit too. Intervals moved to a Thursday, and Stuart started adapting them around my VO2 max workouts. Charlotte and Ann-Marie would sometimes come out on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening and do the first half of my midweek long run with me. Kate sometimes joined me for midweek or Friday recovery runs. And I often had several Brechin (and occasionally Montrose) runners happy to come for a 14, 16 or even 18 mile run on a Sunday morning even if they weren’t training for a marathon themselves, with Michael T. also joining me for the first half of the only 20 miler I managed to do. Michael from Race Recce also ran an extra 11 miles with me after a Strollers beach run one Sunday afternoon, dragging me up the steepest hill in the world as if it was a walk in the park for him. I got a couple of crowns for that run, so I’m not complaining. I completely forgot to take a gel though.

I’m fortunate in that I get 6 weeks summer holidays off, and I was really able to focus on my training for 4 of those weeks. We had great weather too, and even though I had to do a fair bit of training and a lot of solo VO2 max runs it was pretty enjoyable on the whole. I was getting a bit tired though, and I was noticing pain in the ball of my left foot on longer runs, particularly hilly ones.

Photo shows a quiet country road in Angus
Running is a great way to explore the countryside

I did a stonking 20 miler in early August, thanks in part to Michael T’s fast pacing in the first 10 miles, and was feeling like a 3:35 was a possibility. Eight days later, I was in minor injuries getting x-rayed for a possible stress fracture, and turning up at the health centre 15 minutes before it opened to ensure I was at the front of the queue for the drop-in physiotherapy clinic. Thankfully I didn’t have a stress fracture. But I did have a bunion on my left foot, and lots of inflammation due to over-training and over-pronating. As I’d had my gait analysed in one of the Glasgow Run4It stores and told I had a “strong, neutral gait” I was a bit miffed to find that had been incorrect and led to me running in shoes that aggravated the bunion I wasn’t even aware I had. My climbing shoes had also aggravated it, so I decided to stop climbing until after the Marathon, assuming I would still be allowed to run it. But there was no way I couldn’t run the marathon. I felt like I’d poured heart and soul into the training for months, and I’d feel completely empty and bereft if I was told I couldn’t get to the start line.

It was actually a co-worker (who used to be an Army Nurse) who had diagnosed my bunion: the GP I saw had sent me for an x-ray “just in case” and told me to rest. (To be fair, it’s just a small one at this stage thankfully.) The physio did notice it though. She offered to refer me to podiatry, but said there was no way I would get an appointment before Loch Ness so I decided the only option was to go private. I’m aware of how lucky I am to have that option. Charlotte recommended the excellent André at Sole Body Soul, and I decided the cost was worth it. André identified the main cause of my problems – which was that my left leg is shorter than the right one. I don’t know whether the leg length discrepancy is structural or functional, but I do remember a nurse commenting on it when I got my Rubella vaccination aged 14 so I assume it’s structural. No health professional ever mentioned it after that though: maybe they thought I’d grow out of it or it wasn’t important?

Photo shows a phone box at a quiet junction in a small Angus village/ hamlet
I must have run past this phone box hundreds of times now. One of the staple Brechin routes

Either way, I needed custom insoles and a heel lift but there wasn’t time to get fitted for the insoles until a follow up appointment, so he gave me a heel lift as a temporary measure. I needed a lot of soft tissue work during that first appointment and he was so thorough that I had several bruises on my calf and shin the following day. I also kept having to go to the bathroom at work: not to use the facilities but to stretch out the calf. There was also one trigger point on my calf that was so painful at times that I found myself googling “deep vein thrombosis” during my lunch break! (I’m nothing if not stoic lol!).

André had told me not to run on the day of the appointment, but that I might be able to do a short run the following day – so I’d arranged to meet Charlotte after work the following day for a short, flat, recovery-paced run. Thankfully my calf eased off during the run, and by the following day felt a whole lot better. I was still supposed to only be doing short, flat runs until I got the insoles though, so I had another fortnight where I had to miss several long runs and some speed work. My crazy dreams of a Boston Qualifying time were fast biting the dust, and I gained a few pounds in weight. One of my friends kindly told me that I was looking a bit healthier than when she had seen me 6 weeks earlier. But my running shorts were starting to feel slightly tight and I was impatient to get back to running and lose that weight.

Photo shows jars of homemade raspberry jam
I didn’t just spend the whole summer running. I also made a lot of jam. Which is why I had to continue with the marathon training so I could eat it without gaining weight 🙂

Charlotte thought the easing off of training might work in my favour though. I had been getting a bit tired, and 55 mile training weeks were a big jump up from the 30 – 40 miles I was used to. I also listened to a couple of episodes of Marathon Talk where they said it was better to be under-trained than even 1% over-trained, so I took solace in all of this. Foam rolling also played a much larger part in my routine than usual, and I started massaging the muscles in my shins – which I hadn’t realised was something I should or even could do before that podiatry session. I was still keen to get the insoles though.

I finally got my insoles 3 weeks before the marathon date, right when I should have been starting my taper. So of course I did a bit of an inverse taper, building my mileage back up to 30ish miles a week. I did taper in the sense of not doing speed work, and sticking to the same or lower mileage than if I’d been following the plan – only reaching the plan’s mileage the week before the race, when the taper that week still required 32 miles. I also never pushed the long runs any higher than 12 miles, and can’t really remember what it feels like to spend over 2 hours out running. Will this cautious approach pay off at Loch Ness: or will it result in me having no idea how to pace it, or fuel it, and blowing up? I’ll find out soon enough.

Photo shows 10 of the BRR team ready to take on the Forfar 10k
Some of the many people who have helped me through this marathon training block 🙂

As with most things in life, I’ve taken marathon training very seriously. It’s dominated the past few months of my life, and it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride. I haven’t focused enough on nutrition, or on getting enough sleep, particularly when back at work. I still struggle with fuelling on long runs and didn’t really get enough long runs in to practice fuelling. My attempt at using Clif Bloks on a 17 mile training run was a non-starter after Barry, David and I spent several cold seconds in the rain all trying and failing to open a packet of them. We didn’t have any other fuel with us, so that was yet another run on empty. I’ve tried Clif bars and they’re okay but rather *claggy* when your mouth gets dry. I did the Dundee DRAM on the back of 2 jelly babies. After getting more gel stuck to my fingernails and nose than I did in my mouth the last time I tried using them, I’m considering using jelly babies for the race. I have no idea if or when I might hit the wall, and I’m pretty paranoid about it.

It’s not like the 2005 Great Scottish Run where I turned up to the start line woefully unprepared. But I honestly have no idea what I’m going to do on Sunday, or how it’s going to go. I’m not even sure I have any sage advice about marathon training, other than to be a bit less rigid about sticking to a generic plan, make sure you get enough sleep, pay attention to nutrition and practice fuelling early in your training plan, get any suspected injuries checked out quickly by an appropriate professional, and make sure you enjoy the process. I’ve only followed about half of those.

It’s only 2 sleeps until the race, and I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to do a final easy run, or focus on foam rolling, relaxing, and getting enough sleep. I know that whatever happens on Sunday as long as I don’t DNF it will be a personal best. And just getting to the start line has been a marathon process in itself. I still really want a London GFA time though. How will I get on? Will it be enough to make the Marathon Talk podium? I’ll find out soon enough. However it goes, I’m expecting it to be an unforgettable experience. If you’re running it too then I’ll see you at the start line.

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  1. Sharon Mcleay says:

    It is easy to forget the journey you take as a runner. There are a lot of miles and prep before turning up on that start line whatever the event. Go give it your best! Good luck ?

    1. Pauline Belford says:

      Thank you Sharon 🙂 It was David Wilson who suggested I write a pre-race report as everyone focuses on the race but not enough people consider all the work that goes beforehand, unless they have personal experience of it.

  2. Lyn Bow says:

    I cannot wait to see you at the finish line to see how u get on the hard work is done now it’s all down to u on the day try not to stress and enjoy every min of it everything after mile 20 is all in the head don’t let ur head hit the wall ur legs have 26.2 miles in them without a doubt and I hope u get the time u want but don’t be disheartened if u don’t there is plenty more races to try. Best of luck xx

    1. Pauline Belford says:

      Thanks so much Lyn 😀 I know I need to focus more on the mental preparation for longer races. My plan is to distract myself from any discomfort in the last 10k by writing my race report in my head! Looking forward to seeing you at the finish. I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic run 😀

  3. […] word, it would be phenomenal. That covers the effort involved to get race ready (which I covered in this previous post), the scenery along most of the route, the hospitality shown by Inverness for the Festival, the […]

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