You’ll have to accept the sacrifices that come with challenges such as the Marathon des Sables. Instead of buying that vintage Chanel 2.55 you’ve coveted for years, you find yourself splashing out on an extra-comfy sleeping bag, anti-venom pump, a rucksack and various other running-related gear that has accumulated around your desk at work and in the corner of the spare bedroom. It’ll all be worth it.
Then there’s the worry about your performance. How does all the long-distance stuff impact on speed? Will you ever be able to beat your 10K PBs again when you’re not exactly running at speed? You know that running 20 miles before work with a rucksack almost the same size as you will help you in the desert but will this compromise your racing at shorter distances? In the past ten weeks I’ve run anything from 60 to 150 miles a week – surely this will have an impact on the half marathons I’ve signed up to as part of my mini-goals?
Well yes, it has but not as I expected. In fact, at the North London Half 2015 I knocked almost three minutes off my last half marathon time (Ealing Half Marathon 2014). How? I’m not sure but here are some ideas as to why all this training is actually improving my overall running performance.
1. Cross-terrain training
Mud, hills and plenty of opportunity to fall flat on your face, cross-country racing is not for the faint-hearted. Up the mileage to a trail marathon and you’re into a whole different ballgame. Not only do you have to climb over stiles, trudge through sludge but you also call on a variety of different muscles just to keep you upright. Seriously, the unforgiving hills make your lungs feel like they will burst and you can hear your heart pumping hard. It’s tough, exhilarating and the perfect preparation for the hills of the North London Half Marathon 2015.
It was an undulating route to say the least around Hendon, Wembley and parts of unexplored North London. One distinctive moment that sticks in my mind was cheering on the pros as they crossed my path on the other side of the road while running downhill towards Wembley – then the sudden realisation that I would have to be climbing that same hill some time later. It was no walk in the park but the experience of having run umpteen marathons in tougher conditions meant my legs were ready to drag me up that hill.
2. True grit
Getting up at 4:50am to run 20 miles pre-work takes dedication, running 48 miles in freezing conditions with your clothing soaked to your skin takes determination, braving the elements even though sometimes you’d rather be snuggled up in bed demands focus. No matter what you goal, this discipline will help you get through the tough times.
The North London Half Marathon was a shorter race than I’m used to but it was by no way easy. Hard and fast was the name of the game, I wanted to try sub-1:30, came out with 1:31:58. It was tough but I gritted my teeth and pushed through knowing that the faster I went the sooner it would be over.
Not to say that everyone has to train like you’re about to run in the Sahara with your ‘home’ firmly attached to your back. But sometimes giving yourself that push to train when you really don’t want to (say on a hangover) pulls you through those moments in a race when you just want to throw in the towel.
3. Speed control
In the same way that yoga connects your mind with your body, running frequently tunes you in to your running rhythm. You become mindful of how fast you’re running and your body’s reaction to a change of pace.
It’s important to know where you’re comfortable, when you can push yourself and for how long. Think of it like gears, you learn how to change gears without wearing out the cogs. Timing yourself using a Garmin, TomTom, Nike Fuel thingy, simple Casio or whatever clock contraption you can find can help define these zones as can joining a club. Whether I’m out on a training run or racing, I make my pace a priority, sometimes playing with it by setting small goals like racing to the next lamppost or trying to beat the bloke who has just run past me. It’s these little things that have helped me establish some speed control.
At the North London Half, I went out fast with the aim of controlling this speed through the good and bad times. Spurred on by the crowds and volunteers, I was able to keep it up pretty solidly. Although if you asked me at the time at say mile 11 what I would do differently, I would probably have said not go out so fast. Do I regret it now? Hell no.
4. Rapid recovery
For this hard and fast attitude to running a half does have its consequences. It may not be the same distance as a marathon but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to tired legs. Running a shorter distance at a faster tempo can be just as demanding as running a marathon while you’re running it.
At the same time, by conditioning your body through training for the Marathon des Sables, I can cope way better afterwards. I ached a bit after receiving my medal from the lovely Keira (so great to see a friendly face) at the North London Marathon but then it was a hop skip and a jump back on my bike to take me home (it was only 2.1 miles to my house, yes to races near me!). Then I cycled down to Gymbox Old Street, tried my hand at Circus Fit class and cycled back. Again, I ached the morning after but that was more down to my rather lame attempts at hanging from a trapeze.
So training more is key?
I really don’t know as everyone is different and I honestly believe you need to find a plan that works for you. All I know is that this training has had a positive effect on my running. It has enabled me to run three marathons, one 48 mile race and a speedy half marathon as demonstrated at the first ever North London Half in the space of three months. Not to mention whipped me into shape – I feel stronger and leaner than ever right now.
And most of all, it has boosted my confidence about running across the Sahara. It’s taught me that my body is pretty resilient and hopefully this will push me through my next big adventure.
My verdict on the North London Half: an undulating well-organised race with friendly and encouraging volunteers. My favourite moment had to be entering Wembley Stadium, it was such a rush. I cannot wait to run it again next year.