There are some months where I struggle with a topic for this blog. Not much seems to occur which is particularly noteworthy, whether it is due to (yet another) injury, a lack of racing or simply keeping my head down, grinding out training. This month however, I am spoilt for choice. With three half marathons in four weeks, I am trying to find my racing feet once more. I am tempted to delve into the merits, and potential pitfalls, of racing. How many races is too many? I would explain why each run should have a clear, definable goal. I would highlight the importance of not judging your own, or another athlete’s fitness on any single race alone, without knowing the full training picture. I would explain the role that building confidence can play, especially in distance running. But perhaps, all of that is a topic for another month.
Last weekend also signalled the IAAF announcement of the new Olympic qualification system for Tokyo 2020. With my timeline filled with various athletes, journalists and coaches complaining about the changes, it would be a topical subject to debate. However, I feel like the arguments for and against have already been exhausted. At least now, the route for qualification is known. Each marathon runner can sit down with their coach, and plan and prepare their schedule for the twelve months or so that lie ahead. Indeed, that is what Andy, my coach, and I will be doing this very weekend. While there is definitely a question mark over the fairness of the new system for track runners, on the roads, where there is much less of a barrier for entry to high level races, I believe that the system is a positive change. With the marathon numbers capped at eighty athletes in both the male and female races, it goes without saying that it will be tougher to qualify than for Rio. However, it is the Olympic Games. The harder the qualification process, the sweeter the feeling for every athlete that gets to stand on that startline in Tokyo. The way that the new qualification works means that there will be no doubt, the best marathon runners in the world will be on the startline, and that can only be fair. While it might appear with hindsight next year, that there were easier routes to qualification, or certain races provided a better opportunity to qualify, at the end of the day, there is no back door route in to the Olympics. If you are good enough, you will be there. No doubt it is a topic that will come up again over the next year, so that too is not the topic for today.
No, for this month’s blog, I want to put on my coaching hat again. The Springtime marathon season is just around the corner. With several of the athletes that I coach running marathons, be it the Manchester, London, Belfast, Rotterdam or Hamburg marathons, I feel like I will spend most of April looking up marathon results. But it is around this time in the marathon buildup, that I have noticed a worrying phenomenon emerge. I am confident that I am not alone in observing the symptoms. It was the same before Dublin and the Autumn marathons last year, and indeed with a number of my other athletes in the past. It is what I believe could be called ‘Marathonitis’ – the Fear of the Dream. I have yet to come across it in any of my medical textbooks, but I can honestly say that it exists, at all levels of running. Symptoms normally set in around five or so weeks out from marathon race day. It starts off with a subtle under-par session. Nothing terrible, but just a tiny bit off where the athlete should normally expect to be. It is quickly followed up by a tempo run that goes horribly wrong. And then to complete the unhappy triad, there is the long Sunday run that is cut short. Normally all three occur within a two week period.
But that is not all. There are several verbal warning signs too. Not necessarily negative, for the moment anyway, but the beginning of the seeds of doubt festering, growing. “I can’t do this. I’m not fit enough. Hopefully everything will come good. I think I’m getting something. It felt like a struggle. A marathon seems like a long way”. Based on the feedback I get, the enjoyment of training and in running itself has disappeared. Each run feels more like a chore. And with each day bringing marathon raceday ever closer, that feeling of unreadiness only grows stronger.
There are two big causes of ‘Marathonitis’ in my eyes. Firstly, it is an expectation of running a time which is (nearly) beyond realistic possibility. The optimism created in the patient/runner’s own mind blurs the reality and only ever leads to one place – disappointment. Secondly, and the more common cause, is the fear of achievement. The runner knows deep down that they are capable of achieving their long held goal. However, they are too afraid of going for their goal and failing. Too afraid of past experiences or the expectations that they have placed upon themselves. Therefore, training suffers and they can tell themselves that they were not ready. That the poor marathon result was expected and they were never in good enough shape to run their goal.
So how do you fix it? How as an athlete do you remind yourself of your talents, of your abilities, and of your dreams? The first step is belief. But belief has to be based on fact. I remind the athletes that I coach of what they have done in the past. The times that they have hit in sessions. The races that have gone well. The weeks upon weeks of solid training that they have done. So many marathon runners, pick their goal time and then do the training. Yes, it is good to have a rough time in mind at the start of the process, but five weeks out from the marathon, there is no hiding place. You have to be honest with yourself. And, as a coach, it is sometimes, the hard conversation to be had. Sorry, but it is unlikely that you are in shape to break three hours. Never say never, but based on the training that you have done and times that you have hit, this time (usually slower, on occasions quicker) is a more realistic goal. All the while, remembering as a coach, it is my role to offer advice based on the available evidence and an element of realism. It is not my place, or anyone else’s place for that matter, to put limitations on what another runner can or cannot do.
The marathon is a fascinating event. As an athlete, I have learnt and am continuing to learn so much about it. As a coach, I am learning even so much more. Each runner is so different and presents vastly different challenges, which is what I find so enjoyable. There is no set ‘best’ way in which to train for a marathon. I quickly found out that what works for one athlete, does not work for another. So, with that in mind, for every runner who has their focus on an April marathon, my one piece of advice is this. Talk to other runners. If you are not where you want to be in your training, ask other runners what they would do. If you feel like you have lost the enjoyment of running, ask other runners what they would do. So many people try to overcomplicate marathon running. No one person has all the answers, so find the answer which is right for you. Set a realistic target goal, stop being afraid and go out and achieve your dream. It really is that simple. Good luck, and to all those soon-to-be first timers, welcome to the club!
As a final note, following on the success of the DreamRun Dublin project last year, applications for this year will open at the start of April! More details to come shortly so keep an eye out on Twitter / Facebook / Instagram. For anyone looking for advice or potential private coaching going forward, just drop me a message on the contact page and I will get back to you as soon as possible.