Marathon pace. Two words that will mean different things to different people. But in the main, it defines itself as the pace at which you train, equivalent to the pace you intend to run a marathon. And those two words are pretty much dominating any conversation I’m likely to have about running for the first few months of this year.

I’m now in almost halfway through training for the 2018 London Marathon. Potentially it will be my defining race of the year, a race in which two years ago I got close to going under 3 hours for the marathon. Since then, the sub-3 hour marathon has come to be the one time based goal left for me to really want to conquer. Sure, I’d love to run a true sub 18 5K (I’m close), and a sub-35 10K (still 2 minutes out), but truthfully, the one time I would be proudest of would be to say I ran a sub-3 hour marathon. I know not everyone obsesses over times and personal bests, but as a runner capable of running reasonably quick, the sub-3 hour is a realistic and tangible goal. I won’t hang my hat on London being the place I do it, for I refuse to set myself up for crushing disappointment. But having earned a Good For Age place there again, I feel that this is the moment in my running career to be going for my ultimate target.

And so, in a slight nod to Nike’s application of science and furthering the human possibilities at marathon, any and all entries (aside from race reports) are going to be tagged #Breaking3! Only this is going to involve a lot less science, more hills, a work/family/life balance and shoes in various states of distress!

There is going to be a lot of marathon pace training in my training cycle this time. I haven’t actually tried it very much during previous training cycles, save for throwing it in during the middle of a long run, and even then I struggled to actually reach the pace I would later come to employ on my flat marathon race days. But nearly nine weeks into training, I’m running around 6:40-6:45 mile pace at least twice a week, and it’s now established into my Sunday long run training too. So far, I’m hitting the right pace about 85-90% of the time, save for a few slightly quicker miles or a borderline 6:52, which is pretty much on 3 hour pace. Saturdays are currently seeing an increase more or less of a mile per two weeks, and I often utilise my part of local parkrun course to run these. It’s off road, it’s got a slight hill, it’s rocky when it’s dry but nice and muddy when it’s been wet, as it has quite a bit lately. It’s giving me a good solid base to carry out my marathon pace training – the section I use is a 1.25km loop, or roughly 3/4 of a mile. All in all I’m hitting, on average, 4 out of the 6 runs per week in my training plan, which is a greater level than where I was at for London 2016, although I wish my circumstances would allow just a little more free time to run on Mondays and Wednesdays!

I honestly believe the stars are aligning, so to speak, to make London 2018 my most realistic shot of cracking the sub-3. I’m part of a club set up now, I’ve got much more experience of long distance racing and I’m coming off the back of a fairly injury free year. I’m running consistently quick in training, feeling more comfortable at running inside my target marathon pace of 6:40 per mile, and I’ve tailored a Hal Higdon plan to suit my daily lifestyle and also to target specific workouts aimed at improving my speed endurance deep into a run.

My long runs have generally gone pretty well, and it’s been great after laying off anything long distance towards the end of last year just to get out and run mile after mile for a rough couple of hours or so. At present, my marathon pace target has only been thrown in towards the back end of these runs, the idea being once I’m a little tired, I should be attempting to run that pace. But I’m starting to reach what I like to call ‘the business end’ of training – the longest, hardest runs of your program. The canal will be the best replicant for what I can expect in London, given its not entirely flat from Brighouse towards Mytholmroyd and back. I tried one such run last weekend, picked up from the forums – 2 miles warm up, then 10 miles starting at 10 seconds below target marathon pace, and increasing the pace by five seconds every mile until by the end you’re running 35 seconds faster than your target MP. Then a further five miles at around 30 seconds below. I came in at 6:55 per mile, and was doing pretty well until the weather played havoc and forced me to change my route from the canal towpath to the roads. I still managed to crack on almost as scheduled, running miles 10 to 12 at 6:32, 6:18 and 6:14 – not too far off where I intended to end up. I sure as heck felt that run for roughly the next 48 hours from when it finished, but it was absolutely worth it to try and prepare myself for my ultimate goal.

I’m also making use of my local park, now the host of a parkrun, to use the back session of the course as a trail circuit for my marathon pace and tempo workouts. When I’m not getting harassed by dogs running off the leash, I’m able to use the 1.25km loop to great effect, getting a small hill to climb and descend, ground going from firm to muddy depending on how much rainfall it receives, and each Saturday I’ve been down there long before the parkrun starts to run loop after loop. I’m usually maxing an average 6:10 pace at the sharp end of my tempo workouts, hugely reaffirming given on the roads I can hit below 6 minutes. The rugged terrain will certainly set me up well for my tilt on the concrete roads of the capital.

The midpoint of my training arrives this Sunday and takes in a familiar race – the Liversedge Half Marathon. A course described as prohibitive to personal bests, but with enough steep descents as it does tough climbs to whip up some serious pace. In 2014 I took my time down from 1:31 to 1:26, and the year after, having lowered it inbetween to just above 1:25, I ran 1:22:41 in what I regard today as one of the finest races I ever ran. Injury and a preoccupation with the challenges of marathons and ultra marathons have meant that since that race, I’ve only run one half marathon, the Sir Titus Trot in 2017, where I recorded 1:30:03 – albeit the course was long by about six tenths of a mile – I was closer to maybe a high 1:25 that day. I’m fairly certain I’m going to end up just running as hard as I can and seeing if I have the spark to still run a stonking half marathon PB. I’d love to break 1:22:41, just to see if I can get closer to 1:21, roughly where I was told by a shop assistant I could take 10 minutes off my debut 1:31 at this distance. I never believed him, but I got tangibly close before my injury in 2015, and I’ve no reason to believe I’ve peaked yet. Not to mention that come the day of Liversedge, I’ll probably set off like a freight train on the first downhill and hang on for the big 14% drop about 5 or 6 miles in. The way things are right now, I’d probably regret it if I didn’t run to improve my PB.

Whatever happens, The Liversedge Half Marathon will be a measure of where I’m currently at for the marathon, although given its completely different profile to London, it will be important not to read too much into my finishing time. I haven’t got near that PB since 2015, owing chiefly to injury, and progression to marathon and ultra distance races. So Sunday will be a day to push myself, but at the same time to try and take some sort of strategy out of that race into the marathon. Most likely, getting my pacing strategy right. But that’s hard when London as nothing the likes of a 14% downhill to contend with!

There’s not much left to say at this point, but I intend to provide an update sooner than the six or seven weeks it’s taken me to laboriously put this post together. The weather looks to be taking a back seat this weekend from the horrid wintry conditions thrust upon my area in recent weeks, which should make for ideal racing conditions and hopefully a positive experience to write home about.

So to my readers, thank you for continuing to check out my posts, and I wish you all the best for whatever your goals are this year.

More on The Hal Higdon Marathon Advanced 2 Training program can be found here