For those of us who build up for a big race, particularly a target race, there’s a question waiting at the end, one that bubbles away under the surface of emotion. The wave of euphoria at running a PB. The pride in finishing a race. Or suffering an issue that ruins your race.

My last target race was a happy experience all round, a smashing new PB and finally unlocking my capabilities at 10K. But the question cannot be ignored. What comes next?

Well, for myself, the sub-3 hour marathon, or namely, how to prepare better for it, has become one of my key conundrums in how I can ensure I last the heat of 26.2 miles. I still think about how my race at the Blackpool Marathon turned to disaster. Its not something I dwell on, but moving forward, I want to try out different things to improve my chances of achieving my ultimate goal.

And so, for the last seven weeks, I’ve been training for a 20 mile run with the intention of taking part in a local 20 mile race at the start of November. Its a canal based race, and I want to do it solely to try out a different style of pacing a marathon, without actually doing a marathon. The catch is that I’ve only given myself only seven weeks in total to get ready, but as of time at publishing this, I’m pretty much where I want to be with days to go before the run.

I took a week off training altogether after Salford. It timed with some dental treatment that meant I couldn’t run that weekend after, but that fit perfectly to me to get back into things the Tuesday after. I went on a run with my running club’s Group 4 runners, who are of a decent ability but wouldn’t be going at a pace I couldn’t handle. Well, at least, not until after 10km into the run, when I started to drop off the back of most of the runners, whom, with no disrespect whatsoever, I’m normally quicker than. That my longest run within that 10 week block preparing for Salford was only 9 miles, and the last run at that distance being over a month prior to this particular evening, certainly found me out.

Thankfully, it didn’t take much longer to get up to speed. I passed the first few weeks of training fairly comfortably in the end, but I had a hiccup with a somewhat botched trail run this past weekend, aborted due to a faulty headtorch, getting caked in mud above knee height and unable to carry out my intended route. But overall? I’d say my progress towards this 20 mile race is going well, as long a I complete my next two weekend long runs without the same hiccups.

My shiny new Brooks Cascadias, before I wound up knee deep in mud in the dark

A few weeks ago I might have considered whether there might be anything to make me reconsider jumping right in – namely whether it was too much, too soon. Well yes, that was a worry, but I came through 14.5 miles and 17 miles in the last two weeks to reach a point where I feel I’m peaking in time to race. So right now, Sunday is a goer.

HOWEVER… Autumn has arrived in my part of the UK with showers aplenty, at times bringing the risk of flooding. Its not the rain itself that would stop me, but what it can leave behind.

You see, this race I want to do is also situated on the same canal as the King of the Hill Half Marathon I ran last year. Although I won that race, my time was well down on my PB, not least of all because the Huddersfield Broad Canal towpath was absolutely riddled with puddles, left behind by an autumnal storm that came and went the day before the race. It absolutely broke my stride pattern from any sort of real consistency. I won with a 1:28, my slowest half marathon time since 2014. Not being exactly local to Slaithwaite means I have no idea exactly what conditions on the canal will be on the day, but the weather that week might be a good indicator. And the forecast doesn’t look too good from Friday onwards, with rain forecast every day and on the day at present. I’m not averse to running in mud, but its more than likely my next marathon will be on the road or perhaps another canal towpath, and so with the organisers themselves warning of extreme wet and muddy conditions, it doesn’t bode well.

I’ve reached a point where its not so much about the race as just running 20 miles in a controlled setting to practice a pacing strategy. The purists will say I can only maximise my experience by racing against other people, and they’d be right. I feel perfectly happy to agree. But I’m not too bothered about winning the race, or setting a PB over 20 miles for the sake of it. Which is why I’ve gone as far to consider running on my own at race pace effort, but on my local canal, which isn’t too far away – not two bus rides anyway – and has a better overall surface for running, being paved or at least packed trail for at least the first eight or nine miles. In other words, its less likely to get riddled with puddles and therefore offers a more realistic underfoot experience to if I raced a road marathon. Its the same canal I ran this past weekend for 17.5 miles total, and some of that at marathon pace. Its my favourite place to run and I know it very well. To that end, I can wrestle back a bit of control. But by the same token, I’ll have other things to worry about. Like what time I wake up, if I’m not ‘racing’, making sure I stick to my race day diet, tending to my wife and kids if needs be before setting off, if needs be, and then go out and run, and at what time. I have the rest of my family’s afternoon and evening to consider as well. Its fair to say this wouldn’t make doing these 20 miles like any other race, more like a training run, but I truly believe in what I’m doing regardless of whether I compete on Sunday, or just run against the clock. My training won’t be a waste, I can assure you all.

Its not the only opportunity I’ll have to race 20 miles before my next marathon either. There’s other races locally in the calendar I can try out and any will give me a decent experience in testing my race pace strategy for marathon distance. I could potentially enter a winter marathon early doors if I keep my training up, but I’m more likely to knuckle down with training across winter and possibly aim for the local Spen 20 road race as preparation instead. Or maybe do both if schedule allows.

Regardless, autumn is blossoming and truth be told, its my favourite time of year to run. Yeah, sometimes the weather can be horrid, a bit cold, and the darkness occasionally foreboding. But it can be worth its weight on those mornings you emerge while its still dark, only to be later greeted by the autumn/winter dawn in all its glory.

Daybreak on the Rochdale Canal between Sowerby Bridge and Luddenden Foot, 27/10/2019

And on that note, I’ll keep my eyes on the weather forecast, the skies day and night, and decide in the next 24 hours if I race for a medal, or simply for personal progress. As long as its a positive step, I can’t ask for more from a largely successful seven weeks of training.