Marathon reflections almost 40 years on – is age just a number?
I can’t match any of the heroics we’ve read about from recent contributors, so I’m simply offering some personal reflections on my very sporadic running career.
I first voluntarily went for a run in 1983 (discounting the earlier horrors of compulsory school cross-country, at which I was useless). I’d discovered rowing in my third year of Uni, and started running, mostly short and usually flat-out, to complement that. In my last year, I decided to try my first marathon - the Cambridge Boundary Run in March 1984. As its name suggests, a route around the town limits, a mostly flat mixture of city roads, country lanes through open countryside, and trails. How difficult could it be?
On paper I had a 10-week, c.40mpw training plan, but after rowing 5-6 days a week plus weights session, I was barely able to fit in half that planned mileage, and only did a couple of long runs, nothing over 17 miles. Thus (un)prepared, I lined up with a few hundred other students in my rowing sweatshirt clutching a paper “map” of the course. No carb-loading, GPS, HR monitor, comfortable wicking materials or even any hydration/nutrition supplies.
I don’t remember too much about the race itself apart from it being quite windy and exposed out of town, and the long hill at around 18 miles just as I was hitting the wall and desperately scrambling for a mars bar. I’d worked out a few milestone splits for finish times from 3:10 to 3:30, so most likely I went out too fast, and faded to finish in just over 3:25, which is so far still my PB. I do remember I could barely walk up or down stairs the next few days.
Roll forward almost 40 years to Spring 2021, and the equivalent age-adjusted time would be about 45 minutes slower. But mid-way through training for the MK marathon I’m optimistic of breaking that PB, having just missed it in Gloucester last January. How can that be?
It isn’t down to years of “miles in the bank”. I stopped soon after Uni, and only ran briefly with the club in my mid-thirties (when I ran London in 3:44), and then for another couple of years in my mid-forties. Most recently I started to run because of a cycling accident in 2018. Even then I didn’t get properly into it until a chance conversation on the run with Mark Sysum in Cirencester Park in late 2019 (aged 58) which nudged me to re-join the club.
Since then, and notwithstanding Covid, I’m sure that the various pointers, advice and encouragement I’ve gained, directly or indirectly, from club members have helped give me both the confidence and the motivation to gradually step up my training frequency and volume. So far this has led to steady progress and (fingers crossed) not too much injury down-time.
Compared to my 1984 self, when I race the MK marathon in May (hopefully!) I will benefit from much better kit and modern H&N products and strategies which should banish the wall. But I’m guessing that’s probably worth no more than 15 minutes improvement.
I’m certainly no stronger now than I was in 1984, nor faster over shorter distances (I could run 5/10 miles in under 31/65 minutes back then, both out of reach now).
It’s pretty obvious therefore, the main reason I hope to overtake my younger self will be the extra endurance gained from running consistently and fairly prudently for the last 18 months or so, including sticking this time to a structured 40+mpw marathon plan having enough long runs in it (but not too much at high intensity).
Not quite the old tortoise and the young hare, but you get the idea.
If I had to distil something potentially useful from this personal reflection, it would probably be three things.
· I would really encourage “younger” runners to keep on running, despite inevitable pressures of work/family life. I’m now regretting not having done so, and am constantly impressed by club members who successfully juggle all three.
· Conversely, for “older” runners, it’s never too late to start or re-start. Join a friendly club to benefit from decades of actual running experience.
· If you happen to suffer from a competitive nature (even if just with your younger self), be consistent, persistent but also patient. (e.g. keep your 4week rolling “ACWR” ratio between 0.8-1.3. See https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20841513/acute-to-chronic-training-ratio-calculator/)