One thing I’ve learned over the past few months of training for the Dubai Marathon is that the mental game is everything in endurance events. It’s something that people kept saying to me, that covering 42.2km was all in the head, but nothing quite compares to living through the weekly grind of sprint intervals and long runs to really drill that point home.
The fun really started in October. Marcus and James Piecowye had, between them, decided that James and I would be running the Dubai Marathon. They’d discussed it on James’ weekly Get Fit Radio show and had agreed, on air, that we would train to run further than we’d ever run before.
I didn’t really have a problem with that. James had been the social glue that had held the Men’s Health Middle East Transformation Challenge group together for eight weeks in early 2017, and his infectious enthusiasm is difficult to tamp down with a simple no, no matter how many times you say it. He had a rough start to the Challenge but never took his foot off the gas when it came to pushing his physical limits, and his results were tremendous.
Given that I’d played a part in getting him started on his latest fitness push, I felt it was only fair that he push me into something that I was desperately uncomfortable with. Like most people, I’d thought about running a marathon for a while. A friend of mine ran the Boston Marathon in gumboots about 25 years ago, which had always impressed me; and there’s no shortage of people around InnerFight that provide the inspiration to follow their lead.
I’ve never liked running. At school, the only kid slower than me in the 100m had one-and-a-half feet (lawnmower accident), and I was usually buried in the middle of the last third in the annual cross country among the kids who’d decided to bunk off for the morning, and the sneaky smokers. Running sucked, no matter how much I tried to get better at it, and while my levels of fitness were decent thanks to a life in rural New Zealand, I could never find a pace, groove or rhythm to running that felt comfortable. Rowing changed my life, and mountain biking was far easier and faster than running.
The event still seemed a long way off in October, and those first training sessions of short sprint intervals with names like Hurt Locker really sucked. Fitness started to build slowly but it was the mental drive to commit to those regular sessions that really gave me with kick in the pants to get moving in the mornings. Fitness is absolutely critical, but the desire to compete and the fortitude to press on when you’re absolutely tapped isn’t stored in your muscles or found on a plate: it’s in that organ that sits between your ears.
Fitness won’t wake you up at 4am for a three hour run before work; it won’t help alleviate muscle pain during the first few minutes of a long session – or the last 10 minutes of the same run. It won’t push your thresholds, or make you go further. Attitude is everything, and a bad one will ruin your best preparations.
As the weeks fell off the calendar and the runs started to get longer and longer, confidence came in cycles. Sometimes I had lots, but there was always a nagging doubt about my ability to really make the distance. My longest training run was 26km, and I said to my dad who’d cycled alongside me for the run that I had no idea how I’d ever manage to cover the rest of the marathon distance. I was tapped. My knees ached. My feet hurt. I was drained, and I struggled to get up the stairs. It was awful; much worse than I’d imagined.
Three days later, Marcus had scheduled a three hour run. The alarm went off, I got dressed, Vaselined my feet, put on my shoes and set off. My legs still ached and I was in no real condition to put in a decent performance. It was a slow run, but I got in 23km on dodgy knees and clicky hips before collapsing on the lounge floor in a sweaty mess.
I still don’t really know what got me through the training. The nagging thought of having to put in the miles and time on my feet to stand a chance of completing the marathon was probably central to that. James’ constant Instagram feed with better times, faster pacing and far better post run buoyancy helped too. But that mental commitment to the process is what really gets you out of bed to run in the morning. Knowing that the pain you’ll endure over the next three hours, and the sense of accomplishment you get from doing something fairly epic before most people wake up, is utterly tremendous.
Making that commitment was the toughest part. That’s where the discipline really lies. It’s not in sticking to a training programme or nutrition plan: it’s in saying yes, and fully committing to the process in the first place. In my mind, the decision to do or do not happens right then. Making a half-arsed decision means you’re not fully committed to the idea and that you’ll end up quitting or finding an excuse to fall short.
People asked me why I wanted to run a marathon – and I never really had a good answer for that. Truth is, I didn’t. I hate running, but I never saw that as a reason not to run a marathon. I just wanted to see what was possible given my aversion to a sport I was never really good at. But I’ve always done my best to follow through with commitments – something those in the 5.30am CrossFit class know a little about.
It was tough. The long sessions were extremely demanding, and I really didn’t know whether I really had a problem with my knees, or whether I was just soft. Sucking it up and pushing on is fine if you’re tangling with inner demons that want you to give up – but training with an injury is something else entirely. I spoke with Marcus about it because it didn’t seem to be getting any better – and with four weeks to go, some of the most difficult sessions lay ahead. I got them done, tackled the issue with anti inflammatory tablets when I thought I needed them, and hoped for the best on race day. I didn’t want to see a doctor who may suggest I sit the 2018 event out. Not this close to the event, thanks.
If you’re unfamiliar with the marathon format, I’ll let you in to a little secret. It’s a very long way. There’s a reason people use the phrase “marathon effort”. It means it’s pretty bloody tough – and with dodgy knees, it’s a real drag. I hit my personal wall at 26km and never quite found a way around it. I downed what I could manage of the food, water, cups of fizzy drink and free cans of rocket fuel on offer around the course – and managed to keep moving for the next 16 and a bit kilometres to finish with a decent run. But at no point did I want to give up, nor did I feel that I wasn’t going to get to the finish.
My only thought during the whole event was on that last 200 metres. The pain of training; the long hours plodding away in the dark, alone; the stress that mounts as race day approaches – it all disappeared as I ran towards the line over those last few metres. It’s a surreal experience, and it’s hard to hold back your emotions as the timing mats beep for the final time and someone drapes a finisher’s medal around your neck. Everything floods in at once and you simply don’t have the energy to fight back the tears. I’d covered almost 520km since starting out in October, and it had been a hell of a journey.
The relief of finishing is utterly overwhelming, and the sense of achievement far outweighs any pre-race stress that dogged the week leading up to the event. The discipline that comes through sticking to a well prepared training plan toughens your mental resolve, enabling you to press harder and further than you’ve ever thought possible. Without it, I’d never have had the drive to get past 10km.
And that is reason enough to want to run a marathon, even if you hate running.
By: Carlin Gerbich, InnerFight Member