Two weekends ago I elected to run 20 miles on my own, rather than enter a local race over 20 miles, to try and get a better understanding of what I’m capable of and what I can do to improve my prospects of running a sub-3 hour marathon in future.

Since my last marathon in Blackpool back in April, I’ve pondered how I can get back to the standard of three and a half years ago, when I ran 3:02:39 at the 2016 London Marathon. Since then, Blackpool has been my fastest marathon, in a time of 3:20…something. It honestly doesn’t matter to me. My previous three marathons (not counting the two ultra marathons I ran in 2017 at a slower pace) have either been a case of reckless abandon (Snowdonia, never a serious sub 3 attempt, more a bucket list race); heat exhaustion (London 2018); and severe cramp (Blackpool 2019). Snowdonia can be considered an extreme, as I, like many, were undone by the giant 2 mile uphill near the end, though the long drag out of Beddgelert has something to answer for too. London 2018 was largely a case of a lack of heat preparation due to the bad winter, but even so, London and Blackpool were prime targets for a sub 3 hours – favourable courses, closed roads, mostly flat (with some undulations). I’ve tried slight tweaks to nutrition and fuelling before and during the race, and still I haven’t unlocked whether its down to my diet, my pacing, a lack of strength/conditioning, a combination of more than one or of all three? Or just plain bad luck?

I trained for this run with the intention of entering a local 20 mile race, however, this race was on a canal where I raced last year, the day after a storm. It made the course quite muddy but crucially, the frequency of puddles meant it was difficult to get any consistency into my pace and cadence. I kept my options open until the day before the race. It rained most of the day. To that end, given it had rained for most of the week as well, I decided not to race. Why? Because my next marathon will almost certainly be either a road marathon or a paved canal towpath. So I wanted a run with potentially as few puddles, potholes as reasonably possible. My alternative option was to run on my own. But instead, I ran on the Calder Hebble Navigation and Rochdale Canal, as the towpaths are majority either paved, or flat trail. It takes a lot to cause puddles, and if it ever does, then it’s probably flooded. So I decided to stick to my local canal, with only a mild elevation upwards out and a slight descent overall on the way back.

The first aspect I intended to look at with this run was my pacing strategy. Essentially I just wanted to run a different strategy to how I have run marathons lately and that is to go negative – a faster second half in comparison to my first half. Given I wouldn’t be racing, just running against the clock, I had to set a few loose rules for running this 20 miler would have to be as close to a race day as possible.

The rules I set, therefore, were as follows:

  • Eating the same (more or less) race day breakfast as usual – in my case, porridge and a banana.
  • To ideally set off no more than 3 hours after breakfast, but no earlier than 2.5 hours.
  • To run the planned course exactly as I would have raced.
  • No stopping to rest. This did not include potential traffic crossings or getting stuck behind people on the canal towpath.

Kit

  • Asics Gel Fujitrabuco Trail Running Shoes
  • More Mile long sleeve half zip top
  • Karrimor shorts
  • Thorlo N84 Runner socks
  • Zone 3 Zero Calf Guards
  • Montane ‘Buff’ /Neck Gaiter thing
  • Sunglasses (it was a slightly sunny day and the sun was piercing through the clouds. Needs must.

I should note, this is not my usual race day kit, but was more a consideration for the weather that day. I didn’t need to go out in full club kit necessarily – the clothes are for comfort, not to do the running themselves!

I recorded the run on the Garmin Forerunner 610 watch, recording in miles, which I backed up on Strava, which read out in kilometers.

Nutrition

My nutrition (aside from breakfast) consisted of the following:

  • 1 x SiS Go Energy sachet (mixed with 500ml water)
  • 3 x Maurten Gel 100
  • 1 x Torq Banoffee guarana gel
  • Flapjack
  • Chocolate and Blood Orange ‘Scream’ (Soreen) Malt Load Bar
Not the whole tray, honest.

The route

The route ran from Elland Road, Brighouse, joining the Calder Hebble Navigation at North Cut and proceeding west along the canal, turning left at Salterhebble and onwards towards Sowerby Bridge. This section has a few moments of elevation primarily at locks and bridges, with a slightly steeper climb at the end as the Navigation ends and becomes the Rochdale Canal.

From there it was onto Tuel Lane, turning left to join the canal towpath, leaving briefly to go over the bridge at Hollins Mill Lane and back onto the towpath until the village of Brearley (9.5 miles out). There are a few more gradual elevations along this section of the route. Coming back east, following the same route back other than to leave the Calder Hebble Navigation briefly to head onto Halifax Road (A6025) towards Elland Bridge, turning right and then left at Gasworks Lane, following the road back onto the towpath. At North Cut, turning right to continue onto the towpath towards Brighouse Town Centre, heading up the hill at the end onto Wharf Lane, past the Sainsbury’s and then right onto Armytage Road. To get up to 20 miles, I ran onto towards Grove Street, turned left and then left at Wakefield Road. I managed to cross here safely thanks to the kindness of a driver, and had one more potentially dangerous road to cross, at the bottom of Clifton Common, but safely navigated this to enter Wellholme Park via Oak Hill Road. I then basically followed part of the Brighouse parkrun course to finish.

The run

I had a bit of a late night after attending a fireworks display in Huddersfield the previous evening, so I ended up waking up at 6:45am and eating my breakfast just after 7am, which was porridge mixed with almond butter and chia seeds, a banana, and a black tea.

I was out of the door for about 9:50am and jogged as a warm up to my starting location, which was on Elland Road as it leaves Brighouse town centre. I chose this rather than starting once I joined the main road away from my house so as to eliminate the busy traffic crossings early, before getting down to business.

I set off about 9:55am, following Elland Road on the pavement before turning left at North Cut to join the Calder Hebble Navigation. I’d started briskly at around 7:15 mile pace, marginally quicker than I expected, but by my standards these days, fairly comfortable. I got into a sensible rhythm as I worked my way along the canal, with my mile pace dropping into the lower 7’s…

After 30 minutes I took the Torq gel. I must say for a flavoured gel I really seemed to enjoy it. Banoffee works so well as a flavour, I daresay it tasted moorish! But I only had one of these. I took it at this time because I had read, when looking at the new Maurten CAF GEL 100 gels, that the idea is to maximise caffeine performance by taking 200mg of caffeine prior to your race/event. Well, I’d had a cup of tea, but I elected to stick to taking the gel on the run, rather than before. The Torq gel with guarana contains 98mg of caffeine. My cup of tea had an estimated 80mg

On the way towards Salterhebble, I had to stop very briefly as I got bottlenecked behind two walkers, as two cyclists overtook the three of us. I got going again within two seconds, and this seemed to energize me into pushing the pace a little more. Indeed, I broke into marathon pace for the first time and from then on it was ‘go time’.

One big hindrance to my charge was reaching the end of the Navigation upon arriving in Sowerby Bridge. I dealt with the two climbs into the town fairly well but could not cross the steady flow of traffic at the pelican crossing. The watch was paused and I jogged impatiently, waiting for the little green man to appear. And sure enough, he did, and it was away again. Onto Tuel Lane and then onto the Rochdale Canal, Maurten gel now at the ready, I dipped just under 6:51 for mile 7.

I had the Maurten gel on 50 minutes, though I was making a useful habit of having the gel ready several minutes before, so I wasn’t fiddling about with my knock off flip belt too much. Truth be told though, its a handy thing to have. It has four compartments for your gels and other bits, once flipped over they’re all perfectly secure, and the inside layer is pretty much a tunnel system – ie, I could reach a gel from either side, but I tend to just familarise myself with which gel/flapjack/whatever is in each side, and make a system out of it. The first two gels were both ‘front right’. And on the gel itself, ever since I learned Kipchoge used them on his marathon world record, that I’ve been using them since. They’re fairly thick, not as liquid as a conventional gel, but the winner is the neutral flavour. Once I’ve swallowed the gel there’s no kickback from my gut. It seems to work seamlessly.

I had one more stoppage when I briefly lost my bearings heading up and over an awkward canal tunnel at Hollins Mill Lane. I began to go up…and up…before quickly realising my error, and heading back down onto the canal. From there it was fairly smooth sailing, as I continued onward beyond Luddenden Foot and to my halfway point somewhere around the village of Brearley, approximately 9.5 miles from where I’d started. Though I officially turned around at 9.48 miles, as there were a few dog walkers oncoming, and I didn’t see the point in running further towards them just to turn back. So I touched the nearest mooring post and headed eastwards for the remaining 10.5 miles. I’d reached the turning point in around 1:06:29, if memory serves me correctly.

The hard work began from here, as it inevitably does as the long distance run carries on. Thanks to fiddling about unwrapping the flapjack I’d brought, and then attempting to eat the crumbling oaty mess, I dipped to a 6:56 for the tenth mile in total, but improved to a 6:38 on mile 11. It was convenient that shortly after passing Luddenden Foot again, another runner began his run at a slightly faster pace than I was setting. I desperately tried not to get distracted by what he was doing but I realised I could use him as a tow, a drag – after all, you do plenty of that in a race setting (unless you’re leading). That meant even though I had the hill at Hollins Mill Lane to contend with again, I kept to a 6:48 and a 6:54 for miles 12 and 13. The other runner was a short distance ahead, but I was keeping him in my sights.

Arriving back into Sowerby Bridge, I sensed now that I really had to push on and keep under my marathon pace consistently if I was going to get the most out of this session. Instead of running to Tuel Lane, I instead cut through a short alley onto the main road through the town, with the idea being I could get over the road quicker and on with my run. It worked. The traffic on my side was stopped at a red light, and it was safe to cross with nothing immediately oncoming in the opposite direction. By doing this I thought I’d seen the last of the other runner, but I was too focused to care too much. Down one hill and down another as I rejoined the Calder Hebble Navigation, taking another Maurten gel at this point, I ran a 6:31 for mile 14. In my rear pocket, Strava was informing me I was clocking sub 4 minute kilometers. And I saw the other runner. I was gaining on him! 6:26 for mile 15 – my fastest of the entire run. I had managed to bridge whatever gap I had and followed him once more as we progressed through Copley.

I won’t deny, the little aches and possible cramps were starting to appear, but I was doing what I could to ward these off – lifting my knees and raising my heels back higher up my body to work the muscles at the top of the hamstrings, something I learned from a video on YouTube. It seemed to be doing the job, as it seemed to lessen the forewarning quick. And I was still motoring. A 6:48 at mile 16, though slower, was within my targets.

Approaching Elland, I took the exit off the canal which leads to the main road past a bedroom showroom. The alternative is to carry on to the cobbled slope just past Elland Bridge. However, this would have meant looping back to Elland Bridge, and it felt better to do a quick left, uphill and right. The other runner continued on. I would reach the bridge first, seeing the other man coming back towards the bridge. I gave him a quick acknowledgement, which may have gone unnoticed, and it was on with the final part of my run.

Into the 17th mile, I took my final Maurten gel, as I rejoined the Navigation via Gasworks Lane, now with no runner to tag onto, I battled against my body’s signals and was continuing to run around sub 4km pace according to Strava lady. Mile 17 fell for 6:40, 18 for 6:35, and 19 for 6:41. With each passing mile, I drew confidence. This was going how I wanted it to. I had one mile to go, and I wasn’t content to slow down. But I had a tricky finish to navigate. I managed to clear the final section of canal fine, now onto Armytage Road, home of Brighouse’s largest industrial estate. I made a decision here to take the third left, to double back towards the main road and then into Wellholme Park.

I got over the first main road thanks again to a kind driver, and then over the next one safely enough, and joined Wellholme Park. However, I’d miscalculated the distance slightly, as I still had around 0.4 miles to go. I ended up leaving the dirt track at the back of the park and followed the parkrun course, but this meant running on the grass, which was muddy. My progress slowed, but only because my well worn Asics were no match for what was now underfoot. Physically, I could have kept going and going.

I finally reached 20 miles and stopped the watch. I clocked 2:16:08.

So what did I learn?

Well, the biggest and most obvious take is that a slower start reaps benefits over longer distance races, but more than that this run has given me confidence to believe in a different strategy. Its been too easy for me to get drawn into going out hard in the past and that’s led to me paying the price later. That was most evident in Blackpool when both my hamstrings detonated. On this day it felt different. It reminded me a little of when I ran Manchester and London in 2015 and 2016 respectively. My two fastest marathons, never matched since. In each, I started off cautiously and caught up to the three hour pacer gradually. This run reminded me of how I used to approach the marathon, ie. more respectfully of the distance. It reminded me that there’s more than one way to run it.

Mile split data from my 20 mile run (03/11/2019). Note it says 2:16:09.

Is it exactly how I will run my next marathon? Perhaps not. I would consider running outside marathon pace a little bit longer over 26.2 miles. It wasn’t my intention to run a 6:47 at mile 5, it seemed to be a reaction to pedestrian traffic on the canal. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to leave myself with too much ground to make up. At 20 miles, I would have had just under 44 minutes to run the final 6.2 miles to clock a sub-3 marathon. Put me in a real marathon situation with 43:52 to go and I’d be feeling fairly confident I could run a 10K at that stage in that time or less, so long as I was feeling good and free of cramp. But yeah, 1:09:12 for the first 10 miles, 1:06:57 for the second half. Mission accomplished.

I can’t remember what I went through 13.1 in, but I’m guessing it was close to 1:30, which if I’m making advances into a sub-3 finishing time in a real marathon augurs well – in the past I’ve tended to go through halfway in the marathon around 1:28 to 1:29, so I feel I can hopefully relax if I go through halfway a little bit slower in my next marathon.

Pace/elevation charts from my 20 mile run, 03/11/2019

I also like to try out different gels and nutrition strategies on these marathon training sessions, as is generally recommended. Aside from my breakfast, in which I drank a cup of black tea, I took a Torq caffeine gel at 4 miles (30 minutes into the run), and then Maurten gels and some flapjack in twenty minutes intervals thereafter. The Torq was new to me, but it seemed to take easier on my stomach than most other flavoured gels. I was certainly able to keep going beyond taking my final gel at about the 17 mile mark, but what I need to think about more carefully is how I fuel myself across 26.2 miles. I completely forgot to take any kind of salt tab with me, something, which I would agree may help with staving off cramp in the critical phase of the marathon – but given I took Saltstick tabs during Blackpool and still cramped up badly at mile 21, it can’t just be a case of gobbling salt tabs. A greater consideration there needs to go into what I eat before the race and making sure I get the balance right with pre race drinks – I certainly don’t want to flush the salts out, and I often wonder if taking a carb loaded drink before Blackpool was more detrimental than beneficial.

What’s next?

Working to get ready for 20 miles over seven weeks confirmed to me that I was quickly able to get up to speed, should I ever want to race that distance on a whim.

I had an easier week following this run, as I felt like I had the marathon legs in the first few days afterwards. But at the back of my mind following this I did consider if I just wanted to meander on until the end of the year. It doesn’t sit easily with me that I’ve worked to get back to this level only to let it drop again. To this end, I’ve considered entering a January marathon, or at least another 20 mile race.

I have entered the Rock ‘n’ Roll Liverpool Marathon, which is on May 24, 2020. While that will undoubtedly be my ‘A’ race for the first half of 2020, I’d feasibly have time to train over the next seven or eight weeks, and see if there’s a local marathon or 20 miler I can enter early January, giving me time to focus on recovery and then getting into the swing of training for Liverpool. Its a tricky decision – I can’t deny feeling buoyed by how well this run went, but at the same time I don’t want to jeopardise my chances of reaching the sub-3 mark. For now, I’ve kept my powder dry, so to speak – I’ve not entered anything else, yet, and I’ve maintained my training to stay around 25-30 miles a week. So we’ll see, as long as I stay injury free.

All in all, this was a great little personal challenge/experiment of mine – to train for seven weeks to get up to 20 mile standard shows how far I’ve come along as a runner that I can do that. It might not have been in a race, but I’ve shown I can focus on my own effort and potentially run a marathon differently. To that end, I think I can consider this a success.