I’ll never be a marathon runner, but …


There are few things in life as satisfying as achieving a stretching, long-term target. Despite the coronavirus lockdown, my Good Friday turned into a great Friday as I ticked off a major fitness goal, almost exactly a year after I set it.

Today is 18 months to the day – October 12th 2018 – since I embarked on my health and fitness journey. I’ve lost over four stone, managed to get my type 2 diabetes under control, completed a Tough Mudder and generally undergone a lifestyle transformation so drastic that even close friends say they barely recognise me now.

I did my first Parkrun almost exactly a year ago – April 6th 2019 – completing the 5km course in 37:10. Having established a baseline, I set myself a target of 30 minutes by the end of the year. After an ankle injury and terrible autumn weather, I made it as far as 33:06. It was a significant improvement – and one I’m still proud of – but it wasn’t where I wanted to be.

At the start of this year, I reset my 30-minute target for the end of April. By February, I had lowered my personal best to 31:54. And then coronavirus hit. Parkrun was cancelled. So I decided to reframe my target: still 30 minutes for 5km but on the road instead.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been running at least three times a week. Mostly I’ve been building my speed over 3-3.5km. A little further, a little faster, a little more confidence with each new run. Earlier this week, I posted a time for 3.75km – three-quarters of a Parkrun – that translated to almost exactly 30:00 for 5km. Nearly there.

Great Friday: The agony …

On Good Friday, I woke up to almost perfect running conditions. Dry. Hardly any wind. And about ten degrees outside. If ever there was a good day to lay down a marker, this was it.

That was the idea, anyway. Less than a kilometre in, having set off at a comfortable pace but with my calves already protesting, I was about ready to give up. But experience has taught me that the first five minutes isn’t always the best indicator of whether I’m on a good or a bad day. So I kept going.

Get to 2km, then see how I feel.

I have a variety of different routes around Thatcham that allow me to tailor the length of my runs on the fly. I reached the turning point for my 3km loop and realised I was settling into a decent rhythm. Not great, but definitely improving.

Okay, push a little further. Aim for 4km.

I was now approaching the point of no return: 2.5km, half-distance. My legs still felt like I was running through treacle. I glanced down at my watch for the first time and was surprised to discover I was bang on 30-minute pace.

Now it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Empty the tank. See where this goes.

I’m not going to lie. The third quarter of my run was an uphill struggle. Literally. There’s a long, mostly straight stretch between about 2.5km and 3.5km where all you can see is the road ahead of you tilting steadily upwards. In objective terms it’s an innocuous 1% incline; to my eye it looks more like the north face of the Eiger.

One step at a time. Focus on the top of the climb. Ignore the lactic acid in your legs.

… And the ecstasy

Every runner will recognise that there is a particular moment when suddenly the pain fades away and you know you’re going to be okay.

For me, it’s the moment I hit the 4km point of a 5km run. It feels like someone has suddenly given me a shot of adrenaline. I stop thinking in kilometres and start thinking in metres. Knowing I have only six minutes left feels so much easier than seven or eight.

Today, it doesn’t even matter that the final 500 metres is the steepest section of all. I know I can give it everything now. Two hundred metres to go. One hundred. Fifty. A token attempt at a sprint finish.

Stop the clock! Be kind to me, okay?

29 minutes, 47 seconds! YESSSS!!! I’ve done it!

Now what?

Here’s the thing. The surge of positive energy that flows through you as you realise you’ve achieved a goal that has taken a year to build towards is amazing.

But the moment soon passes.

What follows is a sense of … emptiness.

Okay. Been there, done that. Now what?

You often hear top sportspeople talk in these terms. Winning Wimbledon. Becoming a world or Olympic champion. Fulfilling a goal they have been working towards for years; the pinnacle of a career. How do you top that feeling? What do you do next for an encore?

The greatest sportsmen and women are able to refocus. Find another, tougher mountain to climb. Strive harder, achieve even more.

A new target

So what, in my own, much smaller way, is my next mountain?

For me, it boils down to a simple choice: either run further or run faster.

I don’t have any desire to ever run even a half-marathon. Completing 10km, regardless of time, does have a certain appeal in a tick-the-box-and-move-on kind of way. But my next goal now is to keep working on my 5km pace, setting myself a new target time of 28:52.

If that seems like a specific number, it is. 28:52 is the average finishing time at Parkrun. This may seem to some like I’m setting a low bar for myself. But from my perspective, as someone who will never be more than a reluctant runner, it represents huge progress compared to where I started.

18 months ago, I could barely run 500 metres. At my first Parkrun 12 months ago, I placed in the bottom 10% of finishers. Six months ago, I had yet to break 33 minutes. I also turn 50 in less than five months’ time. So, yeah, I’ll take an ‘average’ time.

I’m giving myself three months to reach my new target: July 12th. That will keep me focussed on moving forward.

However, I am going to bask in my own personal glory for a day or two. I’m no Olympic champion. In running terms, I am to Eliud Kipchoge what Derek Pringle was to Malcolm Marshall. (Look it up, kids.) But I’ve achieved something personally significant and I’m going to take a moment to recognise it.

Now, where’s my beer? I think I’ve earned it.


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