It’s often seen as the Holy Grail of athletics. 42.2 kilometres of sustained running. The marathon.
My first marathon started on 6 January 2013 and finished on 25 June 2016. That’s 1265 days of preparation for a journey of just under five and a half hours along Victoria’s beautiful Surf Coast trail.
I used to be a runner. As a kid I played squash and took that back up as an adult after a ten-year break. When I started playing squash again, I read a few training books to find a few drills I could use to improve my skills and get back to playing at the level I thought I was capable of.
One of the pieces of advice, repeated by several former players and coaches was the need to be able to run continuously for 30 minutes. I was a member of a gym so I set a goal of running for 30 minutes continuously at 10kmh on a treadmill.
It took a few weeks but I got there with a combination of walking and running intervals.
While working on the treadmill I got to chatting with a couple of guys who went running once a week out from the city around Melbourne’s famous Tan Track and back to the gym – a round trip of around 7.5km. So I joined them and pretty soon got the running bug.
That went on for a few years until I pushed myself to my goal of the time – a half marathon. But then, without another goal in place, I slipped back to my old sedentary habits.
When I started running my second running career at the start of 2013 I’d not run for about a decade. Each year, I added about 2kg to my frame. My morphology (body shape) means I stack the weight on around my belly. By January 2013, I knew I had toes but I’d not seen them in some time!
Getting started with running wasn’t a considered decision. I’d played some basketball with my son late in 2012 and tore a hamstring badly enough that I could barely move. That was a wake-up call but I hit the snooze button on it for a few months.
I started running at a local park using a Couch to 5k (C25K) app. There was no way I was going to run on the street. I was self-conscious. I was overweight and I could barely get through the 60-second intervals the app dictated. My calves ached, my lungs screamed. But the voice from the app coming through my headphones never told me to give up so I didn’t.
I persisted and 12 weeks later I could run continuously for 30 minutes again. I wasn’t covering 5km yet but I was able to slowly amble along for the full half hour. And, in order to defeat boredom, some of those later C25K sessions even hit the streets near the park!
In the months following finishing C25K I started adding a little bit of distance to one run each week. The great thing about C25K, after the first couple of weeks which I think were the hardest mentally and physically, was that I started to look forward to running two or three times each week. So, slowly I added a few hundred metres, then a kilometre to one of my runs until 10km didn’t seem impossible.
There are apps that guide you from C25K to 10km and beyond but they all follow a similar pattern. Slowly add distance each week on a cycle that adds distance over two or three weeks and then step back for a week to allow your body to recover from the extra effort.
Once 10km was ticked off, I turned my attention to a half marathon
In the middle of 2013, my life completely changed. My marriage broke down and I was living alone for the first time in my life. Running became therapy. As I built the distances up through the second half of 2013 I had time to think about what was next in my life.
Without running I doubt I’d have met my new life partner – the person who introduced me to trail running.
The Two Bays Trail Run is a 28km trek from Dromana beach on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, over Arthurs Seat to the Cape Schanck lighthouse. There are some serious hills, narrow tracks and spectacular views. But entering the race is only half the challenge. In order for your entry to be accepted, you need to qualify by running a sub 2:15 half marathon.
That meant some more serious effort and preparation.
I’d run a half marathon before but that was another life and another me. This version of me wasn’t certain of making that time – even though the target time was a full half-hour slower than my last 21.1km.
I ran my half marathon at the Yarrawonga Mulwala Multisport Festival in September 2014. My time was a solid 2:06 – exactly 6:00min/km (the C25K goal coincidentally).
With that, I was able to run the Two Bays Trail Run in January 2015 and so commenced my trail running career.
Moving up to the 42.2km
After completing my second Two Bays Trail Run in 2016 and the Roller Coaster at Mt Dandenong a few weeks later, my partner and I set some race goals for the year. The Surf Coast Trail marathon – a 43km race taking in hills, some reasonably technical trails and beach running – was a key goal.
Training for a marathon is a very time-consuming and, if I say so, selfish pursuit. Preparing to run 43 hard kilometres means setting aside a chunk of time for a long run (that builds to 36km or so before you taper) plus shorter runs during the week, recovery time on the foam roller or with a massage therapist and actual rest. During the 12-16 weeks before running the marathon, social events and work are planned around training – not the other way around.
I thought my biggest obstacles in the path to running a marathon would be my body. I really didn’t think I would ever build the endurance to run the distance and I never expected my body to stand up to the workload of the training or the race.
It turns out that the base I’d built over the 1265 days before the marathon had hardened my mind and body to the task. This was something I’d read but never really thought about.
Endurance is built in layers. And unless you have a solid base layer, it’s not possible to lay the other layers on top. My slow build up through C25K, working up to 10km, the half marathon and then 28km for Two Bays had created a base I could build on.
That base was as much psychological as physical. Completing events that were physically challenging – Like Two Bays and the Rollercoaster Run – had me believing in my own ability to run further than ever before.
That might sound trite but those runs, although they were shorter, created a self-belief I had lacked.
I had two goals in running the Surf Coast Trail Marathon
- Qualify for the 36km Wonderland Run
The specific time wasn’t important per se. As long as the Wonderland Run judges were happy I could complete their event within the cut-off time, based on my marathon time, I was happy. I’m not even sure what the actual qualifying time is.
Legend has it, Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to relay news of a military victory. After saying, “We were victorious!” he collapsed and died from exhaustion.
But a marathon isn’t just a physical trial. Your mind goes through all sorts of different stages and fatigues just as much as your body.
The great thing about trail running is everyone is your friend. At different stages of the race, I ran alongside many different people, striking up conversations, encouraging each other. When I’ve participated in road races, there was far less camaraderie on the course.
My time for the race – 5:27:28 – was never going to trouble those allocating podium finishes. But it was a victory. Trail races are nothing like road races. Aside from the hills there are tree roots, rocks, beaches, narrow paths and all sorts of other things to overcome.
On the road, running is largely a matter of left foot/right foot – repeat about 45000 times. Trail runs are more like left foot/dodge a rock, right foot/jump a puddle, left foot/duck under a low branch, right foot/stop sliding on soft gravel.
The mental fatigue was harder to contend with. That’s not to say a road race is easy – running 42.2km is never easy. But conventional wisdom says trail running is at least 20% harder – and it gets more difficult as the trail becomes more technical.
Most running coaches suggest taking a couple of weeks off training after a marathon. The first few hours after the run were pretty hard. My legs were sore and tight and I was famished – there was not enough food anywhere in the first couple of hours.
A quick trip to McDonalds on the way home for two Cheeseburgers and some fries sated me until we had a full roast dinner later.
The next day, it was bacon and eggs with lots of sides for breakfast.
By the Monday morning, two days after the run I was feeling quite good. My legs weren’t sore and I was moving well. That night my partner, who completed the same marathon (her second) and I went to the local pool for an easy swim, sauna, and spa.
I took my first run, an easy 5km on Wednesday – we raced on a Saturday – and felt great. By the following Saturday, a week after the marathon, I went to my local Park Run and clocked a Personal Record for 5km.
I’m now back to preparing for the Wonderland Trail Run before turning my attention to the Melbourne Marathon in October.
- If a middle-aged, overweight man can complete a marathon, after a solid preparation, anyone can. But it takes perseverance and commitment.
- Build mileage slowly and give yourself time to recover. Cycle your training so your body has a chance to recuperate between sessions.
- Enjoy the preparation and race. It might be hard but there were plenty of runs where I stopped to take a picture and enjoy a view.
- You can prepare for a marathon on three to four sessions per week.
There are lots of books and articles covering the minutiae of running a marathon. There are training plans, nutritional plans, motivational techniques and hundreds of other tidbits of information. Read lots but evaluate what works for you.
The reality is completing a marathon is a deeply personal achievement. I was very emotional in the hours after completing the Surf Coast Trail Marathon – texting my daughter, I had tears flowing down my cheeks.
It was a hugely satisfying personal experience and one I’m thankful God carried me through.