Preparing for the next marathon

Some of the ups and downs of the training for the 2023 Milton Keynes marathon

After my two marathons in 2021 (Boston and Milton Keynes) I didn’t enter one in 2022, but after a total of five attempts (London 2018, MK 2019, lockdown 2020, Boston 2021, and MK 2021) I still felt I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to achieve, or reached a reasonable approximation of my potential. So while in Cyprus in 2021, I succumbed to temptation and email marketing, and entered Milton Keynes within an hour or so of entries opening – following up with a booking at a central Premier Inn for additional commitment.

In a neat bit of symmetry, my training ended up being completed in Cyprus in late April 2023.

I started off in a fairly good place from a fitness perspective, and added to that some decent weight loss during 2022, the two combining to give me my first sub-50-minute 10k in September, followed by a sub-49 in November when I also set a new 10-mile PB. I had 9 runs of over 10 miles during the autumn, and felt reasonably ready for the start of the more focused training.

Felixstowe in November as the sun rises, where I improved my best times from 10km and 10 miles.

New Year’s Day saw me within seconds of my six-year-old 5km PB at Felixstowe parkrun, so I was happy I was in good shape. My 17-week marathon training plan started on 2 January, and was fairly conventional with a long run every week – mostly on Sundays to accommodate parkrun on Saturdays. As with the 2020 and 2021 plans, my intention was to make those long runs as varied as possible, planning a number of day trips and short holidays around them.

  • 8 January was 21km along the sea-front at Walton, Frinton and Holland
  • 15 January was 24km from Witham to Colchester
  • 22 January was 21km mostly along canals from Dudley Port to Aston, but with a visit to Sandwell Valley Country Park
  • 29 January was 30km along the Leigh Branches of the Bridgwater and Leeds & Liverpool Canals.

And that run along the Leigh Branches was where it went wrong – I had a very minor foot niggle beforehand, which I ignored. The run itself went really well, completed with remarkably little effort and no after-effects on the legs or digestive system. But my right foot rapidly rebelled with some sort of strained ligament, and by the Tuesday I could barely hobble a few paces.

For a short while I leant on Time, the great healer, which helped a little, but not enough, so before long it was off to see Rosie, my occasional physiotherapist. She was fairly confident and encouraged me to keep running, in conjunction with her efforts, a range of strengthening exercises, but for much shorter distances – “up to 10km”. After a fortnight, the foot was twinging a little, but giving me more confidence, and so for our planned trip to Hampshire (staying in Arundel), I reduced the length of my long-planned run around Langstone Harbour from its original 30km to a theoretical maximum of 22km, but with a number of break points where I could use public transport to get me back to the start. I thoroughly expected to use one of these, but felt good until about 16km, by which time it was impractical to do anything but continue, which I did. Needless to say, I’d stupidly overdone it, my foot rebelled again, and once more I could barely walk.

So more support from Rosie, more rest and strengthening, twice-daily massage, and then followed a rather more gradual return to both longer running and the desired volume of weekly running. While waiting to run long and more, I ran faster, and I set a new 5km PB of 23:08 at Bedford parkrun on 4 March, followed by a 47:36 for 10km at Felixstowe the following weekend. Longer running started five weeks after Langstone, though with the overall weekly volume still reduced:

  • 26 March was 16km around eastern Bury St Edmunds, a series of overlapping loops allowing me to stop if needed. I kept the effort low, and it went well
  • 2 April was 25km along the Two Tunnels path to Bath and then much of the Bath-Bristol railway path. This was really encouraging – I ran much faster than planned (better than 6-minute kilometres) with only modest effort, and made me think that my original 4:15 marathon was perhaps achievable after all. But both my Spring half-marathon races, planned to thoroughly test pace and fitness, had been dropped, so I was still in some doubt about whether my feet (by now the left one had joined in at a low level) would turn the persistent minor niggles back into major pain, and how my relative lack of running would impact on my capacity to run the marathon itself – I might be back to longer weekend runs, but my planned midweek runs were 50% of the original length to moderate the overall volume.
  • 9 April was 24km mostly on the canals of Dudley and Stourbridge – again fairly easy effort-wise (despite being one of my hilliest ever runs), and the remark made by my friend Paul afterwards that I looked as though I could do it all again was an interesting observation.
  • 16 April was a local 27km at about 4:17 marathon pace despite losing a fair bit of time seeking ways around and dithering about wading through several floods I encountered on the roads.
  • 22 April was the final long run, a moderately undulating 21km trail run on the Akamas peninsula in Cyprus at the start of a week’s holiday (with a little bit of work) with my Dad. This was much harder than I wanted, probably a combination of tiredness from the flight the previous day, the hills, the loose surface of the trail, and the moderate heat and sun, but it did nothing to improve my confidence.

So, should I stick with my January 2023 target of 4:15 marathon pace that I’d put at the top of my marathon training plan? I was conscious my PB was 4:27, and I’d not succeeded in getting even close to the training plan, so was 4:15 too ambitious? Or should I be more modest? On the plus side, I’d lost a lot of weight (by the time I left for Cyprus, I was not overweight for the first time since 2009), but how much reliance should I put on that, in the absence of the volume of training I’d wanted? In the end I settled on a 4:19 pace, planning for a gradually slowing pace throughout (reflecting my experiences in all but the lockdown marathon), adjusted further for a fast downhill at the start and slower uphill at the finish.

Trail running from the villa in Pissouri

I had three shorter runs during the rest of the week in Cyprus, finishing on the Friday with a trail run of just over 5km during which I fell and badly grazed my arm, gently bruised my hands, and wounded my pride. Not a good omen. I ate far too much during the week, didn’t sleep particularly well at all, but got back to the UK smoothly albeit getting to bed after 1am on Sunday morning as far as my body clock was concerned. On Sunday I unpacked and re-packed, had an hour’s gentle walk with Lucy and the dogs, and late afternoon headed for Milton Keynes where I finished my careful pre-race nutrition with a bag of Wine Gums, a pizza, and two Gu puddings.

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