21st October 2018

by Rodney McCulloch

Well it’s been quite a couple of months now since I ran Abingdon Marathon, and afterwards I have definitely been feeling a post-marathon low. You might recognise the feeling – something you’ve been working towards for several months and then it’s over, done, race ticked off, so what next? In the following few weeks I’ve recovered physically, but in running terms I’ve been going through the motions and lacking a specific focus. One thing I am focused on however is finishing this write up for Abingdon Marathon, putting this year to bed and moving on to next year’s targets!

For the second half of 2018, my main goal was to go for a sub 3 Marathon – ideally in the Autumn on a fast, and flat course. I was looking at a few different options, such as Frankfurt or Amsterdam, but online I noticed one UK event in Abingdon was being mentioned again and again, getting a lot of positive feedback for being a fast and flat course, with a relatively small race field and superb organisation.

Spring vs Autumn Marathons

Having run a few marathons I have found out a couple of things. I prefer an Autumn race to a Spring one – at an Autumn Marathon you train in the summer months, daylight, and warmer conditions than race day, but with a Spring Marathon you have the cold dark evenings, and then potentially have a race in April in warm conditions you haven’t trained for. The second thing I’ve noticed is I prefer a low-key event with a smaller field, compared to the big city ones. Abingdon seemed to tick both boxes, so I entered the race in early May, over 5 months before race day on
21 st October.

Looking back on my previous 4 Marathons, it’s safe to say my CV has been mixed! On my first race over 26.2 miles I ran 3:04:10 at Kingston – a local, low-key event in perfect Autumn conditions back in October 2015, I was delighted with my time on a first Marathon, earning a GFA time (by 50 seconds) for London 2017. My second marathon was at Brighton in April 2016 - I aimed for sub 3, ended up doing 3:21 – I was having a great race until reaching the Shoreham Power Station where the wheels fell off in the last 6-8 miles, my head checked out and I had no plan B once sub 3 disappeared.

Marathon performances so far (pre-Abingdon)

In April 2017 I finally got the chance to run London Marathon via Good For Age, but when race day came - from early on I didn’t feel great, the noise felt too much and I didn’t handle it well, combined with some serious foot cramp issues in the closing miles I finished in 3:27, hobbling down the Mall – I have unfinished business with London! Earlier this year I decided to enter Southend Pier Marathon on a whim, and focused on having a good time rather than running a good time, and I ended up with an even paced 3:28 clocking, just a minute slower than at London.

Training

After recovering from the Convergence Ultra in early June, I started training in earnest in early July. The summer proved to be very hot, and those first few Sunday long runs were tough with temps well into the mid-20s by 8am, but it was good to share the runs with Aaron, who was a few weeks ahead of me in his training block for Berlin, and keeping my pace in check. In the first few weeks the long runs were tough, but as each week passed I could feel my fitness improving, better strength at the end of those long runs. I dealt with the warm weather knowing there was zero chance of anything even close to 20C come race day in Abingdon in late October, but it was good training experience all the same.

Marathon Training locations around Europe during the summer

During August I had a lot of time booked away on holiday in Germany, and then Austria. I was worried the extended holiday might disrupt the training, but in reality it was making of it. I was getting good long runs in the various parks I visited across Europe, in Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, Zell am See and Vienna – it was a great way to see more of the open spaces and the views.

On the days I wasn’t running, I was covering a lot of steps walking around several European cities, and the odd mountain hike or two thrown in, in Austria – that balance seemed to work very well for me. When I returned to the UK in September, I promptly ran 17:35 at Bushy parkrun – my fastest parkrun for 7 years, there would’ve been a time a few years back when I’d have given up on those times, but that’s given me more confidence that parkrun PB of 17:16 from 2010 is going down!

A few weeks before the race I picked up a hamstring niggle, I was still able to run but there was a degree of pain in the background. I was still ticking off the long runs, but midweek training was limited, and I avoided any speed sessions which could’ve aggravated the hamstring. I got through Cabbage Patch 10 the week before with no issues, the Marathon pace felt reassuringly comfortable giving me a much needed mental boost before Abingdon.

Race Weekend

Ready to go on race day

And so to race weekend. I had booked an AirBnB place, less than 10 minutes away from the race venue at Tilsley Park athletics track, to the north of Abingdon town centre. The hosts were very welcoming, it was a good environment to unwind, fuel up and sit down in front of the TV to catch a bit of Strictly Come Dancing. I slept well on Saturday night, and the first thing I noticed when I looked out of the window was fog – I was pleased to see this – it meant a cool, still start to the morning, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

It was good to catch up with a few familiar faces at race HQ – where a large number of 26.2 runners were taking part, along with fellow SHAEF Shifter Aaron who was taking part in a second Marathon a few weeks after Berlin, and his partner Louise supported both of us on the route. Local friends from Bushy parkrun - Stefan and Katrin, gave me a nice surprise as they had travelled up to Abingdon to support, no pressure! The last 30 mins before a marathon always feels like an eternity – I just wanted to get going at this point! I did my warm up and joined the start area less than 10 minutes before we were due to set off – at how many big Marathons can you do that?

A foggy start to the day in Abingdon

As the fog slowly lifted, about 750 of us set off on a lap of the 400m track before heading out on to the roads of Abingdon. I settled into a good rhythm in the first few kilometres, averaging around 4:10-4:15 for each split. In the early stages of the race I was able to relax and focus on the group I was with, taking in the surroundings of the countryside, passing the town centre and reaching the Thames towpath soon after 10k. We then headed south on to the two lap loop – the next time we’d see the town centre we would be in the last 3 miles, a lot could happen in next couple of hours!

After 10k by a foggy Thames

After an hour I clocked 14.2k, on track for where I needed to be and still feeling very relaxed at this point. It was good to see Louise, Stefan and Katrin supporting on the route in several places, and there was also a large contingent of supporters from 26.2 RRC. At the furthest part of the course in the business park there was the FetchEveryone group offering some loud support and refreshments! The drink stations ran like clockwork – there were clear signs well in advance when the drinks were coming, and they were well stocked of water or energy drinks. Even though it was a cool start, I knew it was important to keep fuelled early on in the race, so I took drinks at every station.

Double buggy runner about to pass me just after halfway

I reached halfway in 1:29:06, the groups were now starting to thin out a bit, but still good a number to work with and stick to a steady pace. Behind me I could hear the supporters giving loud encouragement to a runner pushing a buggy, as he got closer I noticed it was a double buggy! He seemed to be cruising along together with a clubmate, as he flew past me at around 23k, Stefan took a great pic just as he was closing in on me. I found out later he (Dr. David Bruce) set a new world record for a double buggy, running 2:54:22! His wife Caroline set the women’s WR in 2017 on the same course with 3:22:05.

Entering the second lap, I still felt in control of things, but cumulatively with each mile, the same pace of around 4:15 per km (6:50 per mile) was getting harder – what started off as an easy run now was well into controlled tempo mode, but this is what you expect in a Marathon, controlled tempo is fine, provided you’re in control! I reached the 2 hour mark having completed 28.6 km, and I started to head into countdown mode in my mind, working out the average pace required for sub 3 – I was just inside but not much room for manoeuvre. By this stage the fog had lifted,
and the clouds were clearing as the sun came out as passed the business park for second time, reaching 20 miles in 2:16.

Reaching 20-21 miles, this is when things started to get really tough. The breathing was getting harder, the legs were feeling heavier, and the sun was out. I was now struggling to maintain the pace I had been doing for over 2 hours, and seeing people pass me that I hadn’t seen for at least an hour or more. I knew the pace was dropping even without looking at the watch, at this stage I just told myself to keep running – it doesn’t matter what the pace is, just avoid walking like I had at Brighton and London when I had mentally checked out. The whole race had a real local community feeling, with all the marshals coming from local groups, running clubs and parkruns, and local residents came out to support which was very welcome, particularly in those last few miles in the town centre.

Heading into the finish

I was relieved to see the track come into view, completed the final 400 metres and finished in 3:10:49. It wasn’t the time that I came to Abingdon to run, but 99 times out of 100 you get the time you deserve at a Marathon, it’s a physical and mental test. No regrets about trying for the sub 3, if you never try you never know! I don’t feel like I’m far away but there’s still things to work on for sub 3 – looking at the nutrition, increase the weekday miles as well as the Sunday long runs, and improving my strength. There’s no shortcuts at the Marathon!

A big thanks to those who supported me on the day – Stefan, Katrin, Louise, the various 26.2 contingent on the course, and well done to fellow SHAEF Shifters Aaron and Colin on their races. A special mention for Steve Ramek who ran 2:59, he had been chipping away at his Marathon times over recent years, so I was delighted for him to achieve a sub 3 time.

With Steve from 26.2, and fellow Shifters Colin and Aaron.

Despite the outcome I felt I was able to take a lot more positives out of the race this time, it was my second fastest marathon from the five and I held it together better than at Brighton or London. Abingdon is a superb event – everything I had heard about it was spot on – it’s a low key, no nonsense race, fast course, excellent marshalling, well drilled drink stations, good local support and a relatively small field in Marathon terms compared to big city events. It had just the right mix of competitive depth around the 3 hour mark without ever feeling congested; a world away from the circus in London. I was very pleased to have found this event, and I plan to do this one again in 2019.

Graph of 5 Marathon performances so far

One of the highlights of the day was finding a good country pub for a decent lunch with Aaron and Louise afterwards, it did not disappoint!

Refuelling with Aaron post-Marathon

Reflecting back on this year, my favourite 3 events this year have been the Southend Pier Marathon, Convergence and Abingdon Marathon, all for different reasons. I was also pleased to run my fastest parkrun in 7 years. I like to try and find the balance between ‘fun’ events which are more of an adventure, and those where I am going after a time. The plan for next year is to build up over the shorter distances of 5k/10k/half for the first half of the year, (hopefully a PB or two) whilst accumulating a decent weekly mileage base in the process to build from when the Marathon training kicks in from July onwards. Bring it on!