Running on Empty: My First Marathon

As often happens to many of us when we reach a milestone birthday, there’s a pressure to ‘tick boxes’ and for me, after turning 60, it was simply to take part in a road marathon. Despite running and cycling for many years, in events lasting days rather than hours, I’ve never done a marathon on the road before and in the view of many I’m sure, can barely claim to be a runner. So it was that the weekend before last my wife Diane and I, together with our 28-year-old son, Niall, set off for England’s North-West coast where Niall and I would be taking part in the Blackpool Marathon.

It won’t come as a surprise to many runners of a certain age that, despite weeks of prior training, I strained my left calf the day after I ‘officially’ began the marathon program taken from 80/20 Running by Matt FitzGerald. A lengthy history of such injuries told me that it was a potentially problematic one and that I needed to take it seriously which could mean missing a large chunk of training. Fortunately there was a lot of cross-training in the early part of the program and, thanks to being an enthusiastic club cyclist, I was at least able to maintain the aerobic fitness that the first weeks of the schedule were otherwise intended to build. 

Having a background in sports massage, I decided to treat the strain myself using a straightforward protocol as there were no contraindications: question was, would I stick to it? Doing too much too soon is probably the most common way to undermine an otherwise effective treatment regime and I needed to discipline myself not to repeat a mistake I’ve made at least once before. To cut a long story short, things went very much to plan and despite an early hiccup I was able to rejoin the schedule at Week 11 – just as the speedwork should have been starting! 

Rehab & Training

My initial objective of running sub 3 hrs 30 mins seemed unlikely now and I was forced to modify the schedule with a view to successful completion and avoidance of further injury. Lots of stretching, strength work and plyometrics (mainly skipping) seemed to pay off and eventually my right calf encouragingly reverted to its ‘weaker’ role. A fairly meagre marathon mileage of about 30 miles per week on average was supplemented by approximately 100 miles of cycling to avoid overtaxing the calf and derailing the project entirely. 

Once I was sure I could handle easy/steady runs I began, gently, to incorporate speed work, gradually increasing the distance but never allowing it to be more than 75% of the total workout. There wasn’t the time to incorporate as many long runs as I’d have liked so I’d be relying on the base I’d developed over years of endurance training – running and cycling – to get me through the event. However, by the end of the program I’d managed to build my long run up to 20 miles while still feeling I had something left, so felt confident of managing the distance. 

A feature of any successful training regime – particularly as we age – is the need for sufficient rest and sleep. This was something I could control and after a tiring penultimate week, did almost nothing for the final seven days (a short one after the Easter weekend) except stretching, limited training, sitting around with my feet up or sleeping. 

Kit-wise, I’d invested early in a pair of Brooks Ghost road shoes which I’ve come to love and always wear in combination with Ronhill ‘Hilly’ marathon socks for long, non-technical runs. Without doubt it’s the most comfortable footwear combo I run in and great for my knees which, in general, appear to be weathering well. Normally I wear zero-drop, i.e. no heel lift, shoes of some type but I didn’t fancy subjecting my Achilles to 26 miles of hard surfaces. 

Nutrition & Medication

Despite not eating primary sources of carbohydrate for 4 years this would be the first endurance running event in which I’d taken part as a ‘low-carb’ or ‘keto’ athlete. In 2019 the missus and I competed in the inaugural  200-mile Chase the Sun cycle sportive in Northern England/Southern Scotland on our tandem (you can view our video here), consuming only a handful of mini-cheeses and cherry tomatoes to finish comfortably, well within the ‘sun-up to sun-down’ time limit. 

Our entire lives and all of my activity over the last four years has been fueled almost exclusively by protein and fat, mainly from animal sources and avoiding seed oils entirely. For the record, I’m 5’ 9” tall and weigh 68 kg (150 lbs) before exercise, with something like 10% body fat. Personal reasons for the decision to avoid carbohydrates were three-fold: for general health, to optimise body fat as a fuel and to improve recovery after arduous events. Years ago I thought I was beginning to suffer from arthritis (I’d noticed a long-term inability to make a tight fist in both hands and I struggled to walk downstairs the morning after a long run) but almost made the mistake of accepting it as inevitable. That’s all gone now and I’ve never felt healthier. 

When I was much younger and a member of the UK’s territorial army, I’d take painkillers and anti-inflammatories habitually (as well as large quantities of sugary supplements) during and after long runs and marches, because that was the ethos back then. It was still a feature of all of my activities until a few years ago. Today I choose not to mask pain or discomfort with medication, at least until I might feel overwhelmed, which hasn’t happened yet. 

In my early twenties I sprained my left ankle severely and for decades it gave me nothing but intense grief when it was stressed (the second day of the mountain-marathons in which I used to take part were always a nightmare for me especially as I’d be expected to keep up with a team-mate). It seems to be a rapidly receding memory now. While ‘low-carb’ appears to suit both me and the wife, speaking personally, I can say it’s been a game-changer.    

Race Day

‘Breakfast’ for me consisted of what was left of the miserly tub of full-fat Greek yoghurt packed by Diane (yes, it’s got some carbs in it but believe me there wasn’t much left after Niall had nabbed some for a bit of supper). Years ago I’d have got up super-early for porridge with syrup, dried fruit and bananas; now I can get at least an extra hour’s sleep by eating something small and easily digestible just to placate the ‘ghrelin growls’ that might occur a few hours later.

The previous evening we’d eaten at a very nice Italian restaurant where the food was great and the staff were excellent. I had barbecued ribs to start, lamb neck to follow, a glass of red wine, plenty of water and an espresso coffee accompanied by a tiny biscotti (consumed with enthusiasm despite being non-keto). Untypically – because I hate waste – I also ate a couple of the smaller potatoes and a few carrots which came with it. I drew the line at the sweet barbecue sauce though. We might usually have taken our own food to cook in the apartment but that morning Diane had won £125 on a couple of scratch cards. Personally I don’t approve but I was happy enough to enjoy the proceeds which exactly covered the cost of the meal for three – all we had to find was the tip! 

After carrying our luggage to the car, we strolled leisurely onto a beautifully sunny but worryingly windy seafront to pick up race numbers. My only concern was a distinct lack of sleep, the result of booking an AirBnB next door to a nightclub from which the noise had been loud, long and strangely unmentioned by the host. Eventually I opted to spend the night in the much quieter dining room with only a towel for a blanket (there was extra bedding apparently but I didn’t want to go raking around at three in the morning). 

Otherwise I felt fine: my legs were good and were ready to run. For our warm-up we jogged back to the apartment to avoid waiting in the long queues for the toilets, pinned on our race numbers then headed back to the start for some gentle stretching before we lined up.

Blackpool Marathon: Lap One

Almost as soon as the race began the enthusiastic, chattering mob descended a steep, very unmarathonlike cobbled hill before doubling back alongside the beach and climbing steeply onto the promenade which would take the race through town, up and down the seafront. My intended pace of 8’:30/mile for the first couple of miles looked to be hopelessly slow as we were swamped by runners, many of whom I fully expected to see again before the finish. Resisting the urge to chase, things remained relaxed until we reached the turn at the southern end of the course – the 5-mile mark – to head back the way we’d come. 

The advantage of a slightly descending gradient and tailwind on the outrun was now reversed and my pace dropped even further. It was at this point Niall and I separated as he took the decision to stay where he felt comfortable. I drew slowly ahead, now down to around 8’:45/mile. Although I could easily have increased the pace I was reluctant to do it so early in the race, being a road-marathon ‘newbie’ but already I was thinking of settling for an enjoyable, injury-free run. 

The northward leg through the town, on a gently increasing gradient past the Pleasure Beach, South Pier, Tower and North Pier passed encouragingly as I finally started to catch runners instead of being caught but once we were level with the start we encountered the full force of the wind. We then left the road and switched to an undulating path along the headland, and while it undoubtedly enhanced a stroll it seemed, to me at least, to magnify my effort out of all proportion. 

It was a relief – as I’m sure it was for most – to reach the northern turn at 11 miles where the course descended alongside the beach. This was flat and sheltered all the way to the start/finish area until it kicked up steeply to rejoin the promenade and begin the second lap. But for a couple of errant cars, I was impressed with the traffic-free roads which, in a busy seaside resort like Blackpool, was testament to the marshals, race organisers and local authorities given that it didn’t exactly have the status of the London Marathon. 

Blackpool Marathon: Lap Two

With the sun on full-beam, those of us who didn’t fancy carting additional weight for 26 miles were taking advantage of the water stations dotted along the course at three-mile intervals as well as a couple of much appreciated intermediate ones. I’d sip a very small quantity but most of it was tipped over my head. Despite the gusty off-shore wind, I could feel the skin on my milk-white shoulders tightening up, not having had the sense to apply sunscreen. 

Most runners at this point might mention nutrition but as it no longer figures on my radar it relieves me of the burden of carrying additional bottles, bars and gels and having to talk about them. One of Niall’s gels had leaked in his pocket and had matted his shorts to the hairs of his legs which, apart from being a cheap waxing treatment, was just one more good reason not to bother with it all. I still remember running on hot days on the fells wondering whether, in the absence of water in the streams, I could justify using the precious fluid I was carrying to wash sticky fingers. 

To be honest, the greater the duration of an activity, the better I feel; it’s always bio-mechanical stress that gets to me first. Several studies have been done with low-carb/keto athletes but there are very few in which the athlete is either fully fat-adapted or is taking part in an event of sufficient duration. One of the problems of eating quantities of processed carbohydrate gel is keeping it down. I’m well acquainted with the misery of needing to eat but being unable to retain it, usually when you’re struggling with hydration into the bargain.

All that was concerning me at this point was the effect that remorseless pounding on the hard surface was having on my right ankle, not my left, which historically has always been the case. I’d sprained it [the right] badly last year during walking rehab after a relatively uncommon stress fracture of my left fibula (you wouldn’t believe the year I had). In recent training my quads have been first to show signs of fatigue because I’ve been avoiding hard surfaces and so masking, to some extent, the limitations of my ankle. 

By now I was passing the start/finish for the final time and knew that, in all probability, I was going to make it – but the wind was really beginning to take its toll. Whether it was stronger or, more likely, my fatigue was increasing, progress had slowed noticeably and the unwelcome undulations mentioned earlier decreased my pace to around 8’:40/mile, heading towards 9 minutes at times. My objective was the northern turn at 23.5 miles; if I could get there I knew I could finish at a pace that wouldn’t detract from my average. 

Despite feeling that I was struggling, I’d been steadily catching runners for the last six miles which was great for morale, but a mile or so into the ‘badlands’ a couple of ladies cruised past: one was moving beautifully and finished a good couple of minutes ahead, the other I was able to steadily close down but couldn’t overtake. She finished a few seconds in front of me, in floods of tears but impressively remaining upright in spite of an equally tearful friend draped around her neck. I have no idea how she managed it. 

The Finish

An increase in pace to 8’.0/mile seemed to revitalise me and the run back was probably the best part of the race with plenty of overenthusiastic starters left to pick off. Maybe I could have done it earlier? Entering the final couple of hundred metres I found myself very much on my own and mercifully relieved of the prospect of having to muster a sprint – for which there seemed to be very little collective appetite.

Diane had been popping up at intervals on the course which was another morale booster and was dutifully on the line to collect video evidence of the conquering hero’s return in 3 hrs 41 mins 55 secs and 80th place in a field of 365 finishers (I’m always happy to get into the first third of the field never mind the first quarter). 

Niall had been going well in the first half of the race but in the last few miles succumbed to recurring bouts of cramp (my advice to ditch the carbs is usually politely ignored and in fairness wouldn’t be easy for him as he’s an excellent chef studying for a food science degree). He’s also a grafter and despite the discomfort pushed on resolutely to finish in 4 hrs 41 mins 10 secs. When I talked him into entering his first ever race I forgot to mention it was a marathon!

Post-Race

The next day I was out on the mountain bike for a gentle twenty miles of railway paths and country lanes to ease my legs and mobilise my ankle. Although I started well enough, by the time I returned home I was exhausted and it was no surprise that, a couple of days later I was in the grip of a viral illness that ultimately delayed this post by a whole week. Cold sores were another indicator that I was run down and that I’d drawn a bit too heavily on limited resources. None of this has marred the event though, which I enjoyed very much, particularly because I was able to do it with my son and, at £35, it’s decent value (I could have paid twice as much to take part in the Manchester Marathon a couple of weeks earlier). Having said that, I’ve no plans to do any more road marathons (yet): the box has been ticked and the ‘monkey is off my back’ so to speak, one that had no chance of ever getting a banana!

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