The Berlin marathon has been my focus ever since I started this journey into the world of professional running. Not only is it widely regarded as the fastest marathon in the world, as proven by the multiple world records set there in previous years, but it also acts as a qualifying race for the 2016 Rio Olympics. For me, it is the gateway to achieving my goal of becoming an Olympian. It is the next step on the road that ends with the opportunity to challenge for success in Rio, wearing the green vest of Ireland. Ever since last July, when my season ended abruptly through injury, I have been eager to start back into marathon training. It was therefore with trepidation and excitement that I began my marathon build-up five weeks ago.
How do you train for a marathon? It is a question I am asked regularly, as if I have the answer to what is essentially an unanswerable question. I normally laugh it off, ‘Miles, lots of miles’ I reply. In truth, I don’t really know how best to train for a marathon. Neither does my coach for that matter. I have no medals from major championships (yet), and my coach has never had an athlete at world class marathon level. Granted, we know the general knowledge behind the physiological adaptations that can occur with certain training. We know the need for preparation and the almost obsessive attention to detail that is required. But underneath it all, we both still question, are we missing something? Are we taking the optimal approach?
I have raced three marathons in my life: Dublin 2012, London 2013 and Moscow 2013. The lead in phase to each was disjointed, broken up by a combination of full time work and injury. Never before have I had the opportunity to execute a sixteen week marathon build-up plan. All throughout the winter and indoor seasons this year, I have wanted to do marathon training. It is where I believe my real strength lies. The track and cross country are fun, albeit painful, distractions but the marathon is what I love. While it may be two years since I last ran a marathon, I vividly remember the sensation that hits at around twenty two miles. There is a point in every marathon where you will want to give up. It is inevitable. There is no way around it. Everything is in agony. Your arms are heavy, your legs are screaming and each breath is a struggle. It is no longer about completion of a race, it is a question of survival. It is a unique, somewhat addictive, feeling.
The past five weeks have been hell but an enjoyable hell, if such a thing can exist. Life has consisted of nothing but running, eating and sleeping. There has been no spare energy for any distractions. A walk to Tescos for food is exhausting. An easy day consists of ten miles in the morning finishing with ninety minutes in the gym, followed by a further ten miles in the evening. Let me repeat, that is the easy day! My life has descended into a continuous ongoing cycle of two hard days followed by three easy. At the end of the two hard days my mileage is already close to sixty miles, most of which have been completed at sub 5.30 pace. I recently read an article about members of the West-Brom football team having to run a total of twenty-six miles every three days as part of pre-season training. They were being heralded as elite athletes, training hard. I would love for them to spend even a week in my shoes to see how they fare. For the past month, my weekly mileage has been well in excess of one hundred and twenty miles, all under seven minute mile pace, mostly under six. I was soon begging Andy, my coach, to go back to track training, only half joking.
If success in marathon running was as easy as training hard, there would be a lot more successful marathon runners. Sadly, it is not that simple. An athlete can be in sub two hour marathon shape and yet, for a multitude of reasons, not perform on race day. Part of good preparation is to minimise the potential for these factors to occur. I already know exactly what kit I will wear on race day, the shoes I am going to wear, what to eat for breakfast and at what time. What to eat the night before, how much and when. I am fine tuning my drinks strategy for during the race, another key factor that has the potential to scupper even the best athlete. I have practiced on my long runs waking up as if it is the morning of the race. There are so many things to think about when planning to race a marathon. For my first marathon in Dublin, I ran simply for fun, to see if I could complete the distance. I had nothing to drink until after the sixteen mile mark. Previously, I had never run over twenty miles before and had never taken liquid whilst moving. The whole day was a completely novel sensation and experience for me. This time I want to be prepared. I want to be ready. I may not succeed but at least once that finish line in Berlin has been crossed I can look back and say I gave it everything. I always remember a news story from a few years ago. At the football World Cup in Korea 2002, Mick McCarthy had stuck a poster on the door of the Irish changing room before the team arrived. It read simply ‘No Regrets’. I know I will not be able to run forever. When the time comes that I look back at this time in my life, I do not want to wonder ‘What if?’. I will want to know I did everything I possibly could to achieve this goal of mine. In essence, in thirty years’ time, I do not want to look back and wish someone had stuck a poster up on my door. What about you?
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the finest performances of a Northern Irish female athlete in recent years. Kerry Harty/O’Flaherty ran 9.42 over the 3000m steeplechase last week, to not only smash the Northern Irish record but also more than likely secure a seat on the plane to Rio next year. We were both part of last year’s Northern Irish Commonwealth Games’ team and I know how hard she has worked to get to where she is now. It is great to see Northern Irish athletes getting the chance to compete against the best in the world. Hopefully come the afternoon of September 27th, there will be at least two more Northern Irish names on that flight list, my training partner Kevin Seaward and mine. No regrets.