Come Sunday morning there will be a few dozen elite athletes preparing to run 19.8 laps of St James’ Park and 45,000 everyday runners from all over the world, heading off to run their own version of the London Marathon. I have a mixture of excitement and nerves about being one of them.
When lockdown happened and my highly prepared and trained for Paris Marathon went out the window I got into a pattern of running 30 minutes each day just for basic fitness and headspace. Virtual challenges advertised on twitter got an eye roll. I was happy to wait till the real things came back.
But, when London Marathon announced spaces for the virtual run I couldn’t help myself. I moved to London when I was 18, have been here 25 years and doubt I’ll ever leave. It is home. And London Marathon is my race mecca. I had entered before thinking (a common failing in runners!) and only when emailing my coach afterwards realised I’d given myself 5 weeks to get from running a parkrun distance to managing 8.5 times that distance. Ouch.
We always say the reason you only need to go up to 20 miles in training for London is that the crowds carry you along the final 6. But on Sunday we won’t have that. We’ll be doing the distance on our own, self-supported and without the atmosphere that usually keeps us going.
So, as a Sport Psychologist what advice will I be giving myself on how to cope with being alone, not having support and not having a that amazing atmosphere.
- Smile every mile. Smiling is a great way of tricking our brains into thinking we are using less effort than we actually are and so can enjoy it more. If you watch beeps every mile this is a good time to give a good grin.
- Fill your ears. Usually at London marathon you get continual cheering and bands. We will only have quiet this time so pick your favourite ear filler: music (helps you go faster), podcasts or audiobooks and lose yourself in entertainment or knowledge. I’m planning a mixture of Hamilton songs (because my husband won’t be there to complain) and Mark Manson’s new book on relationships on Audible.
- Have snacks. I love working with Ultra athletes because they are all about the snacks – their races are basically eating competitions. Have something yummy on you that you get to look forward to for when everything feels a bit much.
- Take messages with you. Ask friends or family to put messages on a sticker which you stick to your gels. Each time you pull out a gel you get a lovely message to make you smile and feel loved.
- Have an instructional mantra. This is to remind yourself about good form and technique when you get tired. Mine is head up. That one instruction changes my entire stance; chest forward, shoulders back, more oxygen in, lift my feet higher and stop doing the marathon shuffle.
- See if anyone you love (or even like!) can be out on your course somewhere – having them to look forward to seeing will keep you going when it is tough.
- Expect it to be tough. 26.2 miles all alone is a big ask. No-one will find it easy – even those guys going under 2.30. There will be tough moments but if we expect them, accept them and welcome them in, we can wait for them to pass and be proud we kept going.
- Wear the race number you were sent – it will get you waves and smiles and help build the sense of community.
- Break down the route you are taking into chunks. Have a plan for each chunk; constructing a blogpost for one, counting the number of squirrels you see in the next one, seeing how many other runners you can say hello to in the third. Each chunk gives you a nice distraction.
- Know your why. This is most important. If you are getting up to run 26.2 miles on your own you need to know why. And you need to remind yourself of it regularly. Are you fundraising? Raising awareness? Proving something to yourself, or others? Giving yourself purpose after a crappy year? Write this reason on your hand or water bottle and when it gets tough glance down, and think through what finishing that marathon will give you, and others. Your why will be the equivalent of the crowd, getting you through that final 6 miles.
Have an awesome time on Sunday and hopefully I’ll be joining you with a virtual medal, an enormous smile and a very real pint of shandy (post marathon treat).