Phil’s marathon track session

April is spring marathon season and a focus for many runners’ training cycles. Me? I’m not really a fan of forcing myself out in the wind and rain during the long, dark winter evenings, and this year I had no plans to race in April. However, having followed up a huge marathon PB in October with a solo sub-3 days before Christmas I had managed to carry my autumn fitness into the new year and it seemed a shame not to make the most of it. The solo run had proven that I could run well without the extra kick I tend to get on race day, so I decided to take the idea to its natural optimum and attempt a marathon on the track.

Now the first thing anyone has asked me about this, before or after the attempt, is won’t/didn’t you get bored? Sure, the prospect of 105-ish laps doesn’t the sound the most inspiring, but most 24-hour endurance records have been set on tracks and I was planning to run for a fraction of that. Couple that with the mental strength developed over years of ultra-marathon running and I wasn’t at all fazed by the prospect. In fact I felt it would work to my advantage; I have a 9-year relationship with Jarman Park running track and am intimately familiar with how even subtly-different paces feel there – I once estimated and ran a mile there to within 2 seconds without a watch. On top of this it struck me that most of the ‘admin’ surrounding such a run would be greatly simplified; I could set out a table with water bottles and gels, the toilets would be close by with no queues, and if I picked the right time there would be minimal ‘traffic’. And boy did I nail the timing.

Before joining GVH I joined, and am still part of, the group known as RunWorks that meets up at Jarman Park at 8pm on a Monday. So as an added motivation I decided to dovetail my attempt with one of their sessions, starting shortly after 5pm and aiming to finish close to 8pm. Rain had been forecast for this time, but when I arrived there was no sign of it. I set up my bottles of water and Tailwind on a picnic bench right next to the start line, along with a few gels, and set off for a brief warm-up. This was literally one lap as I was keen to get going, but when I initially started my watch reset itself within 50m so I eased off and jogged back to the start.

There were no such problems second time around and I soon settled into a comfortable pace as a handful of other people arrived to make use of the facility. I had in my mind to aim for around 2h55 and to break up the run (and to help me keep track of the number of laps) I decided to switch direction every 20 laps, or approximately 5 miles. I was also slightly concerned about any imbalance that might be introduced by running the whole thing in one direction. By the time I reached my first switch there was another runner doing a reasonable pace in the inside lane, so I moved to lane 2. This served to add a few extra metres per lap and in my mind would legitimise my target of 105 (a marathon is about half a lap further). My watch seemed to have a real issue with me running clockwise and was vastly overestimating my pace, as well as undercooking the distance per lap, so I knew I had to rely on counting to ensure I did the full marathon.

Everything was good up until the time I switched again. The watch issues had messed with my head a bit and as I turned to run the ‘proper’ way again my legs were not feeling nearly as fresh as I would have expected at 10 miles. I set about focussing on getting to half way, alternately taking sips of water and Tailwind every 4 laps. Once I was clear of the half marathon things improved. I’d popped a salt tablet earlier, as well as a gel, and using maths rather than my watch I knew I was still on for a good time. Things took an even better turn when former RunWorks coach Mark Hadaway turned up with a third of the run left and proceeded to keep me company.

From that point on a good result was never in doubt. I felt energised by Mark’s presence and as more of my friends started showing up with 10k to go my momentum just built and built. I was consistently nailing around 6:40 minutes per mile and the prospect of dipping under 2h55was now a real possibility. As I entered the final 5k Mark ducked out and a couple of other friends joined me for the home stretch as people started counting down the laps. I can’t overstate how motivating it was to get to the end of a run (not a race) and have all your mates cheering you on – it was something I’ll never forget. My final lap of victory was run solo and I crossed the line for the 105th time in 2 hours 54 minutes and 39 seconds.

And that was it. I’d run a track marathon in my second fastest time with no wall, few concerns and a joyous finish. It just goes to show that if you put a bit of thought in you can turn an apparently dull undertaking into a truly memorable event.

Would I recommend it? Without hesitation.

Phil Robbins