Anyone can Run 20 Miles. It’s the Next Six that Count.

JAMES KELLY’s marathon blog: “if every stride averages one metre, and the race is 42.195km long, he or she will have to take 42,195 steps”

hare hounds marathon run running stamina
Now you’ve made the decision to run the marathon and there’s no getting out of it.  There are too many witnesses.  And some kind souls have sponsored you, and you’d be pretty embarrassed to give them their money back.  Particularly as you spent it on a bottle of wine for formal instead of keeping it aside for charity.  It was only one bottle!
Shortly after deciding to run – or perhaps as an incentive to run – you’ve set yourself a target.  It might have been a general one: aiming to finish the race, aiming to beat a friend/relative/person in fancy dress, aiming to raise money for a charitable cause.  It might be a more specific one: aiming to finish in the top 1000, aiming to win a Half Blue, aiming to run 2:25.  This target now lives with you every minute of every day, mocking you when you fear the challenge ahead and goading you every time you stay up too late or reach for another slice of pizza.
How do you manage to quieten this fiend and make the marathon an enjoyable rather than a painful experience?  Well, the Government’s reclassification of certain drugs has removed one option.  Happily, another one remains: you can set yourself a training schedule.
There are as many approaches to marathon training as there are NatSci lectures in a week.  But there is a common philosophy that guides all of them.  Irrespective of your competitive aims, you must be able to cope with the race distance.  And that means getting the miles (or kilometres if anyone from the EU is reading) in.  Lots of them.
Former Olympic bronze medallist Barry Magee, one of the stable of Kiwis who took the 1960 Olympics by storm, has remarked, “anyone can run 20 miles.  It’s the next six that count.”  And who are we to argue?  That caution applies just as much to Haile Gebreselassie (World Record 2:03:59) as it does to the colourful characters lining up at the back of the mass start.  For every competitor, the marathon represents a step into the unknown, into that shadowy region where mind and body begin to fail, senses grow both more dull and more acute, and the world looks as it does when leaving Soul Tree at 2am.
To really make those next six miles count, it is crucial to train both body and mind to function even as they try to shut down.  Next week I’ll report some of the weekly training schedules that have been used over the years (as well as my own), but for now let’s content ourselves with developing a more schematic approach.  There are two constraints that limit the flexibility of the training schedule: starting fitness level, and the date of the marathon.  The sooner the marathon, the more important the initial fitness.   So really it’s best to play it safe and give yourself a long time to build up to the race.  This will enable you to increase volume more gradually, protecting yourself as much as possible from the rigours of marathon training and limiting the physical and mental anguish to the race itself.
As I’ve already hinted at, the conventional wisdom is that training volume should gradually increase as the marathon approaches.  (Ideally this should be offset by a gradual decrease in drinking, dancing and late night socialising, but maybe that’s why we aren’t professionals!)  The term “gradual” is of course deliciously vague, but increases on the scale of 7-10% generally prove to be both beneficial and manageable.  Peak volume will usually be reached three to four weeks before the marathon, with a subsequent easing down designed to freshen up the legs (and the mind) for the race.
Diverse training sessions are necessary to hone both the aerobic and anaerobic systems, but the primary focus of marathon training is on the aerobic system.  Rarely will the marathoner run quickly enough to generate lactic acid (unless he tries to sprint the first 800m to get on tv, and subsequently discovers just how foolish that Warholian 15 minutes was!); it is the aerobic system that is taxed by the thousands of strides that will be necessary to finish.  (Here’s an indication of the challenge that faces the marathoner: if every stride averages one metre, and the race is 42.195km long, he or she will have to take 42,195 steps – and look, I’m not even a Mathmo!  If something goes wrong with even one of those 42,195 strides then the athlete might miss his or her target.)
And how is the aerobic system developed?  Well, in a marvellously circular fashion, we arrive where we began: by running plenty of miles.  Long runs to accustom the body to fatigue.  Tempo runs at race pace to prepare the lungs to be as efficient as possible.  Steady runs that, over time, simulate all of those 42,195 strides that the race will require.  We’ll return to the question of training many times over the next few weeks, and so perhaps it’s not worth our time to discuss the specifics at this stage.  Instead we’ll conclude with the distance runner’s mantra, succinctly put by our very own oracle Barry Magee: “speed kills, distance doesn’t.”