The Inaugural South Norwood Marathon

It was never about the race, the city, the medal or the other runners.

It was just about me.

A challenge.

Was I capable?

Could I do it?

Most people will know me as a trail loving ultra runner at home covered in mud & eating snacks on a hill somewhere on the North or South Downs. The girl who pops out for 20-miles on a random Friday morning simply because she can & calls an overnight run a good night out. Someone who will run ten trail miles to avoid two on the road.

So what exactly was I doing entering Peterborough Marathon? I mean, it’s not a particularly  glamorous place to go & run a flat, mainly road 26.2.

I fell in love with trails & ultra running sometime in the middle of 2017. I discovered the joy of running for the pure enjoyment of it, not simply to chase arbitrary times. I abandoned roads, trails became my thing. Long trails. 50km, 50 miles, 100km & then in 2019, 100 miles along the South Downs Way. I relished in the challenge of the increasing distances. In pushing myself & seeing what I was capable of. I achieved more than I ever thought possible in two & a bit short years of ultra running.

I’m a goal driven individual. I like having something to work towards. I don’t do aimless. I like a challenge, a plan, something to push me. In life, in running. As I built up the distances, ultras did that. Challenging myself to go further, higher, longer. To see what this body of mine could do.

But in amongst all these challenges, there was one thing that was always bugging me. My marathon PB. Don’t get me wrong, I was super proud of my 3:53, but looking at my ultra times, I knew I was capable of more. I was kicking myself that I had essentially given up on the distance & not run the race that I knew I could. Running fast over 26 miles just felt too hard. I’d become far too comfortable with the gentle jogging of ultras.

2020 rolls around. A significant birthday.

As a little birthday treat to myself I enter my second 100 miler. This time on the North Downs in August. But I need something to focus on until training kicks in for that towards the end of April. I’m not good without something to work towards, in running, in work, in life. I decide it’s now or never, time to give the marathon distance one last bash.

January kicks in & I buy some new road shoes, abandon my trail shoes & gain a marathon training plan. Although I’ve run seven or eight in the interim, I haven’t specifically trained for a marathon since 2014, when I first dipped under four hours in Toronto. Perhaps a reflection of my confidence over this distance I start training for a marathon but don’t actually enter a race. I decide to wait before I commit.

I swap the trails for road.

Training sees a complete change of mindset.

I do consistent speed work for the first time in six years. My first session is a solo 400 metre reps around Dulwich Park. I feel as if I am dying pushing a pace I haven’t run at for a long time. I don’t even manage to finish the session.

Perseverance.

Within eight weeks I am running mile reps at the same pace as those 400’s.

It’s not that I haven’t done any training since 2014, but rather my training changed focus & direction. I was injured for all of 2015. I barely ran. In 2016 I returned as a very nervous runner, scared of injuring myself again I plodded around Brighton & London marathons at a very easy & comfortable pace. After thinking I might not, I was just happy to be running again.

Then I discovered trails & ultras & road marathons lost their allure. I trained for endurance. To go far & long. Speed was irrelevant.

Until now.

Now I needed to beat the distance. I needed to prove to myself that I could, that I was capable. I wanted that PB, that sub-3:45, sub-3:40 & dare I even dream of 3:30?

I put everything I could into training. I ran those mile reps. KM reps, hills reps & many other reps. I did lung-burning tempo runs, threshold runs & marathon paced runs. Mid-January my long-run included 2X 2 miles at goal marathon pace. I wonder how the f**k I was going to run that pace for 26.2 miles. The next week it was 3X 2 miles at marathon pace. The following one I managed six miles at pace. Only another 20 to go.

I missed my trails. I longed for the slow., easy, comfortable pace of the South Downs, the North Downs, the paths where my feet felt at home. But I kept going.

February arrived & with it Ciara & Denis. They threw everything they had at me, trying to stop me; torrential rain, 40mph winds & still I trained. 18 miles with four lots of 2 miles at marathon pace. I tried out Group One on the Wednesday night club run for the first time & wasn’t left behind. I ran those mile reps faster than I had ever run them before. I ran a parkrun. I thought I might PB. I failed miserably.

My longest road run since Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October 2018 ended in dehydration & feeling quite unwell. I doubted. Thought giving up. This was hard. Cutback week arrived & much needed easier miles, rest & recovery.

Four weeks to go. The big one. The plan said ten miles easy, ten miles at marathon pace. Needing a change from the roads of Croydon I headed over to South West London. A loop of Richmond Park, down to the Thames Path, along to Bushy Park, ten miles. Pick up the pace. check my heart rate. 12 miles. I was struggling. Relax, breathe, keep going. Rhythm found. 14 miles. 15 miles. Back to the Thames Path. Across the river. Kingston, Ham, Petersham. 18 miles, 19 miles. Outskirts of Richmond. 20 miles. My final mile was run 20 seconds quicker than goal marathon pace.

Hold that thought. My 20th mile was run 20 seconds quicker than goal marathon pace. Quicker than my half-marathon pace & not far off my 10km pace. How the f**k did that happen?

Was I going to do it? Could I do it?

Confidence boosted, I entered that marathon. Peterborough. Chosen because i) it was flat, ii) it was a small field (big city races are literally my worst nightmare), iii) the route was predominantly through parkland & on small residential roads (remember, I hate road running) & iv) my parents lived in Peterborough & so I had a ready made cheer-squad!

Four weeks to go. Operation marathon PB was ON!

Then came my final big week of training. 

Six tempo miles. My tempo pace was now my 10km pace. Six months ago my tempo pace had been SLOWER than I was aiming to run the marathon at. 

The BIG birthday & with it an off-plan birthday treat of 16 miles on my favourite South Downs Way Trails. ❤️ Another six easy. Then ten easy on Saturday morning before my final long run. 

Seven easy, 13.1 at goal marathon effort at the Croydon half-marathon, two cool down. Ironically I was less than a minute off my half-marathon PB without racing. The PB that had been run on a super flat course with a pacer. Croydon was not flat.

© Stephen Siu

I was ready. Three weeks to go. Taper time.

The next day, Monday 16th March. All races in the UK are cancelled due to the coronavirus. I was ready, my race was not.

Devastated is too strong a word with everything that is going on in the world, it is only running after all. But having put 12 weeks of hard work in to training for this marathon I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to prove that I could.

But it was never about the race.

The medal.

Or the other runners.

Somewhat selfishly it was always about me.

A challenge. I was ready. But was I capable? Could I do it?

So with no race to run, I ran my own marathon. Alone, solo, by myself. To prove to myself & no one else that I could. That I was capable.

I didn’t taper. I wasn’t rested. I didn’t carb load. I decided the day before that this was what I was going to do. I told three people of my plans. I barely slept that night. A bit like a real race to be honest.

Early Friday morning before the sun was up I set off alone from South Norwood Country Park along the Waterlink Way. I’d plotted a route. 6.5 miles out, 6.5 miles back. Repeat plus a little bit more. Striders will know this as the Ladywell marathon training run, extended up to Lewisham. I carried water, fuel & determination.

I saw the sun rise. A giant red ball in the sky. Normally I would pause to photograph it but I was on a mission. The paths were quiet. I had the route to myself. I got into a rhythm, I struggled to slow my feet they were so keen to move. Soon I was at my first turn. The rest of the world began to rise.

I zoned out listening to podcasts, glancing at my watch every few minutes to check pace & heart rate. Fearne Cotton, Elizabeth Day & Russell Brand kept me company with conversation, chat & thought-provoking discussions.

Half-way & back in South Norwood Country Park. My fastest ever 13.1. I was on track. We go again. Lap two. My pace started to slow. I knew I’d started too fast, got carried away, cocky & over-confident. I always do.

The paths are busier on lap two with people who woke up at a normal time. I had chosen this route as I knew the paths were wide & that there was plenty of space to keep to the physical (social) distancing guidelines. It wasn’t an issue.

The final turn in Lewisham. 20 miles. Six to go. Mile 20 I somehow run in 7:41. By mile 21 I am a minute slower & mile 25 two minutes slower. I have ALL the energy still but my legs just don’t want to move anymore. Come on legs!

Just one more mile.

I arrive back at South Norwood Country Park as my Garmin clicks over 26 miles. Point two to go. I try as hard as I can to pick up the pace for a sprint finish but my legs just won’t do it. The park is now busy. Runners, walkers, dogs & kids on bicycles.

And then I am done.

But it was never about the race. The medal. Or the other runners.

It was always about me.

A challenge.

To prove to myself that I can.

And yes, I can.

26.2 miles in 3:36:59.

A 15 minute PB. A London GFA. A BQ.

See my Strava

It wasn’t run under race conditions, it’s not official. If I wanted them, it wouldn’t get me that London GFA or that Boston BQ. But it was never about the race, the GFA or the BQ.

I can hold my head up high & say that I ran my best & I will proudly say that my marathon PB is 3:36:59. It’s MY personal best & the only person that it is important to is ME.

I won’t lie. Running a marathon at pace by yourself is hard & I was hanging on at the end. As with ultra running it became a pure mental game. A quick glance every now & again at the tattoos on my wrists, a little reminder that your body achieves what your mind believes.

And now?

My focus, after a few weeks recovery, turns to the North Downs Way 100. To my beloved trails. Peterborough Marathon has been rearranged for September, four weeks after the NDW100. I’m not going to run it as i) I won’t be recovered from the NDW & ii) I can’t hold onto this pace for six months whilst ultra training & the whole reason I signed up to run a marathon was to PB. If I’m not going to PB I have no wish to plod around a flat road marathon.

So that’s me done. I’ve proved to myself that I can. Will I run a road marathon again? I don’t know, there are so many other things I want to do.

Onto the next challenge!


A word to end

This is a paragraph I didn’t really want to write but I now feel as if I have to. After uploading my marathon to Strava I got an abundance of congratulatory comments, positivity & support. I also received some abuse from people who felt I’d been irresponsible (they weren’t quite that polite in their choice of phrase).

The government guidelines during the coronavirus are that we are allowed outside to exercise once a day. There is no mention of a time limit or a distance limit only that we should practice physical distancing & keep two metres away from other people whilst exercising. I did think long & hard as to whether running a solo marathon during this crisis was a sensible idea.

I planned a route that I knew well along quiet, wide paths, avoiding main roads so that I could respect physical distancing as I ran. As much as I dislike out & backs & laps, this is what I ran. Two laps, I was never more than seven miles from home & I started before 6am when I knew there would be few people around. I also knew, having run numerous 26.2+ miles, that I was fit enough to cover the distance without causing myself harm. With these precautions, I felt the risk was low & decided to run.

I knew there would be some people who disagreed with what I did but I wasn’t expecting the level of online abuse I received & it saddens me. For a while, it put a cloud over what I had achieved. It took the supportive comments of both friends & strangers who told me I’d done nothing wrong. I’d run the distance responsibly, within the recommended guidelines & that I should be proud of what I’d achieved to lift that cloud.

And I am proud.

I mean, I just bloody ran a 3:36 marathon!

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