April 2006

When I started training for the Marathon in January, my fiancee Batzi asked me what, for me, would constitute 'success'. I replied: 3 hours 57 minutes - because I felt that if I could beat, when four years older, my time in the 2002 marathon (3 hours 58 minutes), that would be a real achievement. On my application form for the marathon I had estimated 3 hours 51 minutes, knowing that the faster the estimate, the better would be my starting position. From the start, Batzi assured me of her complete support, and accompanied me on almost every one of my training runs in the months that followed.

I began proper training around the beginning of January, but almost immediately took a nine-day break to get over a calf injury.  I intended to follow the rule that I kept to in 2002, to protect my calf muscles by doing all my runs on the comparatively soft and even surface of the local Copthall running track. My training was to consist of three runs per week, on Sunday morning, and Tuesday and Thursday evenings, these being the times that Copthall Stadium was open.  Although marathon runners customarily do a long Sunday run, I quickly decided that I should attempt my long runs on my mid-week sessions, as my legs and metabolism generally were more warmed up in the evening. I intended to increase my long runs at a rate of a quarter of an hour per week. This was proceeding quite well during late January and early February, with my longest run having reached around eleven and a half miles. Then, during the second week of February, I suffered a bad head cold.  Luckily it coincided with a calf niggle, so my resulting time off from running dealt with both the cold and the calf problem simultaneously. However, the cold left me with lingering stomach problems, probably because of swallowing mucus. When I returned to running after the cold, I found that my runs needed to be punctuated by frequent pit stops.

Shortly after resuming running, I interviewed the successful Jewish marathon runner Daniel Felsenstein, who told me that his marathon training placed little emphasis on long runs, and involved a lot of quality track work.  I myself had been finding that my natural rate of lapping Copthall had been no faster than eight minutes 45 seconds miling, a full half minute slower than my equivalent natural per-mile pace in 2002. I could well do with some speed training. Accordingly, on both the Saturdays 9 weeks before and 7 weeks before the marathon, I ran a five-kilometre time trial at Copthall, on each occasion hoping to beat 23 minutes (the weekend 8 weeks before the marathon, Batzi and I spent on the coast at Bournemouth). My times for 5 kilometres were each around 23 minutes 20 seconds, with the second attempt slower than the first (albeit in windier conditions). Meanwhile, in my mid-week runs, I still wasn't extending the distances I was achieving. I was unable to run for more than an hour without needing a pit stop. As I walked back from that second time trial, seven weeks before the marathon, I told Batzi that I thought I was heading for a four-and-a-half hour performance in the marathon. My confidence was no stronger the following Thursday, when I only managed to run five miles despite aiming to achieve a much longer distance. By the following day I realised that I needed to make major changes in order to achieve the long training runs that are an essential part of marathon preparation. I looked at an online race calendar, thinking that if I entered a half-marathon, that would at least mean that I would achieve a run of that distance. I entered the Brentwood Half Marathon that weekend (so six weeks before the marathon), and was well pleased to run it in 1 hour 41 minutes, with my speed increasing throughout the run. Although I had thought that I was starting too fast, with my first five miles each taking eight minutes, I had found that I could increase the pace to seven and a half minute miling for the remainder of the race. I was pleased that I had completed the race without needing a pit stop, and, looking ahead to the need to take on board energy during the marathon, that I had successfully experimented with sucking sweets during a race.

I next looked for a means of achieving longer distances. The online road race calendar only offered one suitable opportunity, so I rang up my chosen charity, British Emunah, and contacted Martin Fine, another of their runners, who was of a similar standard to myself. Thus on the following Saturday, 5 weeks before the marathon, I ran 21 miles through the streets of London with Martin and his friend David Pinnick. Although the run was punctuated with a few three minute breathers, it was hard especially the long climb from Swiss Cottage to Hampstead boating pond after more than 17 miles of running. The following Saturdays I ran with Martin and David respectively 22 miles, 23 miles and 18 miles, and these runs really boosted my stamina and confidence. My mid-week runs had become stronger and faster. For the last two weeks before the marathon I 'tapered', which was largely a sub-conscious process of deciding not to push hard in training, and to conserve energy in daily life. I caught the traditional pre-marathon cold 12 days before the race, but did not let it interfere with my training schedule. Six days before the race I hurt my knees by breaking out into a sudden sprint while wearing street shoes, when I thought I saw a traffic warden descending on my car, but ice treatment on Friday helped to reduce the pain.

I had, in the last few weeks before the marathon, been selecting the songs for a 'Marathon Folder' I set up on my little music player. I had decided that I needed songs with no beat whatsoever so that they would not induce me to alter my stride rate to fit in with the music. The songs were to be enjoyable and moderately, but not overly, stirring. I had 'road tested' my selections on my runs at Copthall, and had deleted the ones that were unsuitable.

*****

The day of the race, Sunday 23rd April, dawned overcast and wet. Martin, David and I travelled up to the start at Greenwich by taxi. Our taxi deposited us at the entrance to Greenwich Park at 8 a.m., and we made the long trudge up the road inside the park to the field alongside our designated 'Red Start'. Rain continued to pour down, which encouraged the runners to crowd into the changing tents which became crowded and warm. Here I was recognised by Peter Bohm, who had been my contemporary at Cambridge and had served a term as President of the Cambridge University Jewish Society, but who I hadn't seen for many years. I made the necessary preparations in terms of choosing my running clothes, applying muscle cream and liniment, depositing my belongings for transport to the finish, and visiting the toilet. I put into my shorts pockets about a dozen hard sweets and my music player and headphones. Five minutes before race start I entered my starting gate, number five out of nine, seemingly designated for runners estimating to finish with times between 3 hours 45 minutes and 4 hours. I had not found time to do any warm-up, but I stretched my calves for a couple of minutes once inside the gate. I was so far back from the start line that I was not aware exactly when the race started. I, and those around me, passed the start slightly more than five minutes after the gun had sounded, but my official time would take account of this, with my personal 'clock' only starting at the time I crossed the start line, as picked up from the transponder laced into one of my shoes.

Soon after the race start I took out of my pocket my music player and heaphones, to try, for the first time, listening to music during a race. I immediately judged the experiment a success, because it took care of the mental aspect. It had the effect of mentally detaching me from the race, whereas physically, I was not only in a race, but in probably the most congested one I had ever paticipated in. The music helped me to run as I felt and I felt, in those early miles, like running slowly and with no desire to extend my stride length. The first few miles would serve as my warm-up, and I was mindful of James Espir's advice to take them slowly.

As it was, my first three miles averaged 8 minutes 53 seconds per mile, and I realised that this pace was too slow. I gradually increased my speed, and passed the half-way point in 1 hour 52 minutes. This was almost four minutes slower than my equivalent time in 2002, and the thought recurred to me that if I beat my 2002 time, it would indeed be a success. But I continued to gradually increase the pace. The cool and wet conditions were conducive to running, apart from the fact that my clothes were completely soaked through. My music was keeping me both energised and somewhat detached from the race. At various points my calves and my suspect knee were hurting, but I tried not to let this affect my speed. During the course of the race I sucked about half my sweets (in lieu of the energy gels that the experts recommended) and jettisoned or lost the rest. I took on some of the energy drink supplied at a few of the drink stations, but tried not to drink too much.

For much of the route, the road was narrow and the congestion was such that, to run at the pace I wanted, I had to be forcing my way through the entire time holding both arms out in front and asking to be allowed through. My healthy respect for the 'Wall' kept my speed in check however. By the latter stages of the race, my hamstrings were certainly feeling the miles. Nevertheless, at about 22 miles I began to feel confident that, at my fourth attempt, I might finally evade the Wall. I told myself that if I managed to keep going for just a few more miles, I would achieve something that I would be proud of for years. I did some mental calculations on the basis of eight minutes per mile, and realised that I could be close to 3 hours 40 minutes. As I moved into the last three miles I felt confident to increase the pace further. I continued to increase my speed for the rest of the race, and finished in a time of 3 hours, 38 minutes and 32 seconds.

I felt fine after the race, but for the following few days I could not bend down and could only walk down stairs backwards. But I had the satisfaction of having beaten my 2002 time by more than twenty minutes and having finally conquered the Wall.