Saturday, 15 September 2012

Chasing my 3 hour dream - Fitness in Dubai and the 2012 ING New York Marathon

I’ve always loved running, not as much as I love football, but I love it all the same. Like football, I’ve never really been any good. I thought I was good at both when I was 10 years old, but since there was only 11 other kids in my class at my age, compared to them I was. Moving to comprehensive with 250 kids my age put me right in my place. I was OK; that was it. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, and I stopped trying to be good at football or running. I turned into a short, fat teenager supplementing my daily diet with at least two bars of chocolate and maybe a quarter pound of sweets.
At 17, in an attempt to shift a bit of weight I started to jog. That was 1995, and even back then the Great North Run was a massive event not only in my region, but was one of the biggest half marathons in the world, so I decided to run it later that year. On Sunday 17th September 1995 I completed the Great North Run in 1h 57m and placed 9,991st.
I swore I’d run the Great North Run every year until I died. (I haven’t run it since 2004.) Each year my time improved, 1h 49m in 1997, 1h 39m in 2000, and 1h 27m in 2002 (despite all the Guinness at university!). As much as I loved the event, my running holy grail has always been to run a marathon in less than 3 hours. As an impressionable youngster I was told, “You’re only a runner if you’ve run a marathon in less than 3 hours. Until then you’re just a jogger.” Total bullshit in my opinion, but it’s still always been my ultimate fitness ambition. (Since my dream to play football for Sunderland died in 1990.) Just thinking about running 26 miles 365 yards (or 42.195km) in less than 180 minutes scares me. That’s running at over 14kph or over 8.7mph for 3 hours solid. It’s madness!
I did attempt the London marathon in 2002. I was running pretty well at the time since I’d joined a running club and was doing the odd cross country race. However, it was just after 2h 30m at mile 18 in that race that I realised just what the marathon is all about. I’d been on target for around 3h 20m, but I got cramp everywhere, the last 8.2 miles were sheer agony. My pace dropped to 10 minutes per mile and I finished in 3h 48m. Never again I swore.
On a Tuesday night two years later, I was enjoying a curry and a few beers with friends when I got a phone call, “Paul, I’ve got a friend who’s injured and can’t do the London marathon on Sunday. Do you want his race number?”. “Err, OK,” I tentatively replied. Pint down, I sobered up pretty quickly.
Without the burden of months of marathon training I didn’t have high expectations, so I just tried to go out there and enjoy it. And I did, it was a great race. I loved it, even though the heavens opened after 13 miles and my feet had blisters on top of blisters. I finished in 3 hours 31 minutes. I’m looking at my 10k split times from the race now as I write this and I’m very pleased with the consistency, 48m 03s, 48m 27s, 50m 59s and 51m 30s. That’s 12.5kph dropping to 11.7kph. Never again I swore.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day 2012. Maybe it was the hangover, or an early mid-life crisis, but I thought about what I’ve always wanted to do and the 3 hour marathon was staring back at me. So, if I was going to try one last time to run a 3 hour marathon where would I want to run it? Easy, New York baby! And what do you know; the application process for the 2012 ING New York Marathon opened the following day. It’s like they prey on New Year’s resolutions. I submitted my application but knowing how difficult these big races are to get into so I didn’t think I had much chance, if I was a betting man I’d say the odds were maybe 8-1.
On Thursday 26th April I received an email, “Congratulations, you’re in!” Holy shit, I’m in. My wife didn’t know what to make of it either, “what do you mean, you’re in?” My head started swimming at the prospect of it, here it was, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. A huge opportunity to fulfil an ambition I’ve held for so long. Logistics, flights, hotels, the costs, charities, training schedules, booking time off work, running all that way. It took me more than a few days to make sense of it all.
And then it started. The training. But more than that, it’s the constant thinking about it. It never really leaves my mind, I’m always thinking about it. Every meal, every drink, every training session it’s there looming ahead in the future, each day a day closer to happening. I guess everyone who’s entered a race or event they’ve always wanted to do feels the same. It reminds me of an exam, just much more enjoyable.
For me the hardest thing about training for a marathon is all of the questions, each one like a science project that has to be experimented with and solved. Let’s start with kit from the bottom up;
  • Are these shoes too old or too new?
  • Are they tied tight enough or too tight?
  • Thin socks, thick socks, two pairs of sock or no socks?
  • Vaseline on my feet or not? (Really I’ll try anything to avoid blisters, but the real bastard about blisters is what works one week might not necessarily work the next week.)
  • Shorts, how short? Or leggings? Do you wear underwear under shorts? 
  • Hydration belt or not? If so what to take, keys, money (I usually keep emergency cash under the inner sole of my left shoe), energy gels, tissues, Vaseline?
  • Long sleeved or short sleeved top? One layer or two? How to cope with joggers nipple, shave and use plasters, Vaseline or a compression layer?
  • Will it be cold enough for hat or gloves (not a consideration here in Dubai!)?
  • Music or not? If so what earphones, and how can I make sure they won’t fall out when I sweat?
  • Visor, sunglasses, sweatbands? How can I keep my hair out of my face? 
  • Can I actually face going out in public wearing this much Lycra?
And all that is just kit. Then there’s this lot to fret over;
  • What should I have for breakfast and at what time?
  • Where can I get supplies on route, and at which stage do I want to take on these supplies? 
  • What’s the weather forecast?
Anyone who has trained for a long distance event will tell you that the backbone of their training was a long run ideally once a week. This is easy running at a pace slower than what you want to run the race you’re training for (between 30-90 seconds per mile slower). These runs increase your endurance and train your body to use fat as a fuel. This is essential for the marathon, since the amount of carb your body can store isn’t great enough to sustain that much continued running.
Since May, these long runs have been my stable diet of running. And let me tell you, just because you’re running slower, these are not easy. After running for more than an hour there’s a load of mental and logistical challenges you need to learn to deal with. For anyone who has visited Dubai between May and September, you’ll know that the conditions are far from ideal! The temperature doesn’t really drop below 30c, and that includes the middle of the night. Initially I tried to do all my running outside, and I did some great runs around, JLT, the Springs, Meadows and Marina, but with my sleep cycle I found it very difficult to be able to get up early enough to avoid being caught in the midday sun. Soon I was seeking out an alternative and the treadmill became the best option. I’m no huge fan of the treadmill, but I’ve learned to deal with it as best I can.
My wife’s iPad certainly helps; I rent a couple of movies in advance and hope they’ll help me through it. Watching Forrest Gump was a highlight, watching Alan Partridge got scary when I couldn’t stop giggling and thought I’d fall off the machine. There have been some poor ones too (Goal 2, American Psycho…). Like any runner, some days for whatever reason, you just can’t perform like you want to. Its best not to over think these ones, let it go and look forward to the next run.
Last week my nerves really started kicking in. I’d had a poor run and I started downsizing my dreams, but then I thought about it and questioned why? I’ve committed so much to this, my wife has been so supportive, I’ve already raised much more money than I thought I would, and I know all my friends are family are right behind me. I want to give this my best. Like a student preparing a revision timetable I assessed all the time I have until the race. I researched marathon training schedules online, and I’ve settled on one by Hal Higdon which I really like and he’s the authority for marathon schedules. (See the plan in full here: Once I’d fixed on my plan I was totally invigorated. I entered each session into my calendar and started looking forward to each and every session. This past week I’ve followed my plan to the letter and I’m loving it. There’s times when I feel great and I want to run further or faster, but I trust the plan and I’m sticking to it. I think knowing I can further or faster makes me look forward to my next session even more.
I’m raising money for Motor Neuron Disease and Parkinson’s, two charities very close to my heart. Often during my long run I think about how lucky I am to be fit and healthy and move well and to be able to chase my dream. I think about my Aunty Maureen and my Granddad and how they suffered. And I think about how so many other people are suffering right now, not only those with the disease, but their loved ones too as they all battle the best they can with these incurable diseases. They need help, and I’d like to say everyone who supports me in every way I’m very humbled and grateful.
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve got a 10 miler to run today and 20 miles tomorrow (with Gandhi to watch on the iPad) and I can’t wait to get started. I’ve got 49 days until race day; I can’t wait to get there.