A marathon not a sprint


So, yesterday, after talking about it for a few years, I finally got around to doing a marathon, over in Llanelli. It was a warm day, along the coastal path, with only about 600 runners. I've been following a training plan since the beginning of the year, so was reasonably confident.

I was aiming for a 4 hour finish, and was on target for this until mile 17 when I hit a bit of a psychological as well as physical wall. The route is two loops of a figure of eight and this was the furthest point out, and suddenly, the thought of having to come back all the way round again seemed too much, and before I knew it I was walking. I had to abandon my target then and refocus on simply finishing, and allowed my pace to drop significantly. I finished in 4 hours 11 minutes in the end.

It is customary for me to make some tenuous connection to learning when I do running posts, by way of allowing myself the indulgence on an ed tech blog of boring everyone with running. But it's not that difficult to make, and the following were all genuine thoughts that occurred to me yesterday:

1) You can make it achievable and manageable, but you can never make it easy. Even if you have the best trainer in the world, and support teams, dieticians, and the ability to give up work and train full time, you, and only you, still have to do it. Privilege or money may gain you some advantage but ultimately it comes down to individuals. 

2) It's worth doing because it is tough. Related to the above point, if you could make it easy, there would be no point. There were a couple of times when I was running on my own and could easily have taken a shortcut where the route doubled back on itself, but really, what would be the point?

3) The long haul is rewarding. I've done lots of shorter races, but doing a long distance has a different aspect to it. As we move to increasingly shorter chunks of learning, it's worth remembering that prolonged endurance has its own qualities.

4) Experience pays off. I was struck by how many elderly runners finished ahead of me, and how many younger runners were behind. A lot of the veterans had a pace they stuck to, and they had the reassurance of knowing they can do this distance. 

5) Never say never. I have already begun to experience 'forgetting the pain of childbirth' syndrome, as when I finished I vowed never to do another one, and I'm already thinking 'perhaps if I planned it differently next time'. You will hear many people who complete a study programme say the same.

6) Formal structure is essential for motivation. If something is tough then you really need to be forced to do it. I could have just run my own marathon, so why pay to go to an event? Because it is a definite goal that becomes difficult to justify giving up on. For all the wonders of informal, DIY learning, the formal course provides this same legitimising and motivating structure.

7) Social pressure is also a strong completion factor. I told everyone, plus I had very generous sponsorship from a wide range of people, so I had a strong social element to keep going (a very big thankyou to all those who sponsored me). This was particularly useful in training, when the question of 'why am I doing this?' came to me more than once. In education then establishing these social connections for students (eg through Facebook) is more than a nice to have but a key factor in success.

8) Within the same framework there is a lot of variation. Everyone is doing the same basic thing – running 26.2 miles but the variety of strategies and styles is fascinating. Some people run in pairs, others walk every 5 miles, some have music, some have a shuffling gait, others long bounding strides. This probably says something about not being too restrictive, and providing a general structure within which there is room for individuality.

9) You get to drink guilt-free beer afterwards.


  • Alan Levine

    Way to go Martin! I’d dream of just finishing in the 4’s…
    In addition to your points, I’d add:
    * while you can read many books and watch a lot of videos about running, it is something you get better at only by doing so, repeatedly.
    * we focus and think about the finish, but later realiza it was the process of getting there that was more powerful

  • Rob Letcher

    Another thought- perhaps we’d have more runners if we focused on finishing rather than finishing fast and gave the runners control over their own route. Same with learning?

  • Phil Greaney

    Great achievement, well done. I agree with these excellent points, too – I think these ‘big ideas’ are sometimes lost in the minutiae of (naturally, inevitably) thinking about the specifics.
    I tend not to publicise any projects I am working on (I publicise everything else instead). For me, there’s nothing worse than hearing someone is going to be a spaceman/woman, or lose a stone, or write a novel or whatever and then falls at the first fence. Six months in with something under my belt to show for it – then I feel comfortable. So, the peer pressure doesn’t get to me as such, only my own self-directed gnawing sense of doom :0)
    But I think you’re right in that the social peer pressure thing (especially now our networks are often broader) can and does work.
    Well done – now you’ve done it, you can slide effortlessly into a lush life…

  • Martin

    @Alan – thanks, and yes, your second point in particular is true, and resonates with learning. It’s something students often struggle to appreciate as they focus on marks and the immediate, that it is the process that is significant.
    @Nick – of course I’ve read Murakami’s book 🙂 ( I liked his point about when he’s running he doesn’t actually think about writing much, what he mainly thinks about is running, but that in itself is a kind of meditation.
    @Rob – I think lots of runners make that very choice. I’m not sure about your own route, there is something about the shared experience (‘what about that hill at the end!’ etc)
    @Brian – let’s be honest, I don’t feel _that_ much guilt about drinking beer…
    @Gillian – ooh, tough combining the two, I only really had room for one. Good luck with both!
    @Phil – yes, I think you need to be pretty certain you can complete before publicising. I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d just started running, but I’ve been going long enough now to know I could do it.
    @Pepsmccrea – I think we can safely assume the sahara marathon is not on my agenda – Llanelli in April was warm enough!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *