The Road To 4 Hours

My journey to a sub-4 hour marathon is a long one. It’s riddled with a lot of good luck, and even more bad excuses. It began how I imagine it does for a lot of people, with a friend who felt like a challenge and somehow twisted my arm into agreeing to join them (usually after a few beers). The story of how I decided I was marathon ready can be summed up in one word; naivety, but that’s a tale for another day.

Yorkshire Marathon 2013

So on a cold morning in late 2013, I found myself lined up with my buddy Jordan, and about 5,000 other runners for the inaugural Yorkshire Marathon.

My “training regime” on the lead-up to this consisted of running to or from work every now and again. I could take the short route of just under 5km, or the “long” route of 6km. There was no routine to this, I just did it when I felt like it. Back then I would usually opt to drive the 5 minutes to work, something which I just can’t comprehend these days.

The other staple of my training was a longer run on most weekends. York and its surrounds are beautiful and a great place to train, but I rarely made it past 15km. In fact I do remember the furthest I ever did manage was 11 miles (I was still working in imperial measures back then). So there was my prep; not even a half marathon and a 5-quid casio stopwatch on my wrist.

So off we plodded on a beautiful cool morning from York, at whatever pace we chose. The only target on the day was to finish. 10k down in 57 minutes, and the half crossed in 2.06, which incidentally was on par with my half-marathon PB at the time. I’d run 2 half distances before this race, and at the finish line of both the thought of doing it all again had made me feel physically sick. Crossing the checkpoint at halfway point here and I felt exactly the same. Who knew if you didn’t even train for the first half, the second half would bring you nothing but misery? At the time, not me.

The rest of the race was just shit, absolute shit. My buddy Jordan, who was the fitter of the 2 of us, pulled away and I was left with my own thoughts, which consisted purely of wanting to stop and go home. As a compromise I started the old run/walk technique. I hasten to point out that the run/walk method of getting across the line for any length of race is a great approach. In ultra running it is often considered THE method. I should also point out that despite officially having no target on the day, I’m pretty sure my quiet goal was already as close to 4 hours as I could get.

Needless to say, the kilometres got slower and slower as I staggered through the North Yorkshire countryside. Half to 30K took an hour, then the following 10k took 1 hour 18 minutes. (The wheels really had come off by then)

Around this point I actually caught up with Jordan who was in real trouble. Something had gone seriously wrong as he was standing stretching out his leg at the side of the road. His body had let him down, but now we were together and that alone gave us the boost we needed to hobble towards the finish line. The comradery of running/training with a team-mate has been key in the more recent journey of creating plans for others to hit their goals.

Speaking of goals, back to 2013, Jordan and I crossed the line in 4 hours 42 minutes. At the time it was slower than I’d expected, but it was easy to see where I’d let myself down. By not going the distance in training, there was no way I could be prepared to deal with the rigours of the back end of a marathon race. I’m not sure at that point I even had any plans to try again.

Sydney Marathon Training

A lot happened in the 4 years leading up to my next crack at a marathon. First of all I spent a year in Australia where I continued to squeeze in runs while on my travels, many of which in heat that I wasn’t used to in the UK.

After a year in the heat I came back to the UK for a summer to see a few friends get married. I started using a primitive GPS watch at the time and such was my pace on my first run in the cold, I assumed it was broken. Somehow during my travels I had knocked off about 30 seconds/km on my shorter runs since York. What was brilliant was it felt like I’d achieved this through no additional effort other than training in more stressful climates.

For cashflow while at home I spent a few months working as a labourer for a bricklayer, essentially lifting weights and carrying them around for 8 hours a day. Following this I did 6 months as a postman which consisted of speed-walking a half marathon 5 days a week.

That summer I entered a half marathon and hit a time of 1 hour 36 minutes. I’d knocked 30 minutes off my PB and hadn’t even trained in the conventional sense. Average pace was 4.35/km and for the first time in my life I had crossed the finish line without the overwhelming urge to curl up in a ball and weep.

After that summer, I moved back to Australia and entered the Sydney Marathon with such an unbridled level of confidence at dominating on the course, it actually embarrasses me to think back about it.

Sydney Marathon 2016

Attempt number 2. I lined up at the North side of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge in sweat-wicking clothing, low-drop racing shoes and a watch that would track my every movement. Based on my (in my opinion, super quick half marathon time), I lined up pretty close to the front. That place behind the elites and the guys who wear the really short shorts, but ahead of the folk aiming for 4 hours. (I’d told a guy on the way down I was aiming for 3.45 but if I felt good, I’d go for a 3.30) 

So off I went like the clappers. 5k in 23 mins, 10k in 48 and the half-marathon mark at 1 hour 46 minutes. I didn’t think I was “going off too fast”. This was my speed across 21km, in fact I was probably holding something back. What I hadn’t done in any of the build up to this race is go above and beyond a half-marathon. My newly found ego had assumed that if I could smash out a half in such a good time, I could just coast my way through the rest of a marathon race. Idiot.

The last time I remember feeling good is at the 15 mile mark (I was still recording in imperial, despite Australia using the metric system in every walk of life, including race markers) where a couple of friends had parked up to give me a bit of encouragement. They agreed that I was on for a really great time. And then it hit me.

First comes the pain in the knees which soon moves up into the hips and back. Maybe this was how marathon running is all the time? Soon after the physical issues arise, the mental side of things take hold. Light headedness and the voice telling you it would be ok to stop for a quick break. I pushed on and probably made it to about 35km before the inevitable run/walk came back into play. At the time I didn’t know what was happening to me, but as it turned out a lack of fuel did become a factor. Back then, I would carry a couple of gels on me and grab water only when I was feeling thirsty and often not before the half way point. Nutrition on runs has always been an issue for me, taking on food makes me feel physically sick. Back then I would get around this by simply not taking anything on, not ideal if you have plans to complete a race. Things are better now, but that’s another one for another day.

Despite all of this, all of the stats on my fancy new Garmin told me I was on target for a sub-4 hour finish. So I hung on to the pace that I thought would get me over the line. That was until I rounded the corner into Circular Quay.

For those who don’t know, our race entered “CQ” from the west, and the finish line was the Sydney Opera House on the East side of the quay. Before rounding the corner, my watch was saying I should make it no problem, the reality seemed to contradict that completely. I had a few minutes to make it around the harbour to the finish at Sydney Opera House, it just seemed too far away. There was only one thing for it. Despite feeling like complete shit, I kicked on and gave it both berries towards the line. The pain in my legs disappeared and despite still feeling faint upstairs I didn’t care, I only needed to keep this up for a couple of minutes and then my heart had permission to stop if it so desired.

As I headed up the ramp to the finish I knew my efforts weren’t going to be enough and I eventually crossed in 4 hours 0 minutes and 30 seconds. It was great to knock 44 minutes off my PB, but shit, being so close hurt.

What lessons did I learn here? If you run the first half so quickly you even scare yourself, you’re going too fast. I learnt not to rely on a piece of tech strapped to my wrist to tell me how to run my race. Finally, I would have to learn to eat something to keep myself going the distance.

Edinburgh Marathon Training

Back in the UK, and working in London I was also back in the office and couldn’t rely on being paid to train and had to deal with 8 hours a day of sitting on my arse. The upshot was that I lived in London, specifically a long way from my office and nowhere near a tube/train station. At rush hour, public transport would take about 1 hour 15 minutes to get to and from work. If I knew I could sit down and sleep for the whole journey I wouldn’t mind, but that was never going to happen. Door to door was about 12km and basically flat. I could run it just as quickly. I could ride my bike to work in 25 minutes. Don’t believe the people who tell you bikes clog up the roads there, they’re the ones stuck behind the cars. Essentially it was in my best interest to get to and from work under my own steam, therefore 75% of the time, I did.

On top of that, I finally got into going long distances on the weekend. I developed a great route around South London that linked up all the hills, parks and trails I could find for a regular 30km session. I would also get the train down to Surrey from time to time to go cross-country. I was definitely enjoying my running more than ever at this point, most likely as an escape from the rat-race that I’d found myself in. This time I felt psychologically ready for the next attempt and so I headed North.

Edinburgh Marathon 2018

This is where people go to make good times. The course is so fast and downhill that a World Record time set here wouldn’t even be scratched into the record books. I stood on the line a bit heavier than my last go, (did somebody say excuses?) but all the same feeling prepared to finally drop below 4 hours. I also had a bit of extra nutrition in my pocket this time. (More than 3 gels anyway)

The gun sounded and we started snaking around the cobbled streets of Edinburgh (dangerous). The first kilometre was lightning fast, not because of excitement or anything like that but instead just trying to find a nice gap in the maelstrom of bodies where you can run at your pace and not at one dictated by someone who perhaps jumped in a little bit out of position.

Once settled, I held a steady steady pace knocking out 25 minute 5k after 25 minute 5k. I was slower than Sydney a couple of years earlier, but feeling more solid and consistent. 20k was done in 1.45 and 30 came in at 2.40.

The 2nd half of the race was essentially an out-and-back along the coast. The “out” part was into a headwind which really took its toll, but I told myself that all the effort would be rewarded when we turned around and headed for the finish. As it turns out, when you’re 3 hours into a race, every minor inconvenience can seem like an Everest, and anything that might go in your favour tends to go unnoticed. Once we swept around the loop to send us back home and hit the straight again, the expected tailwind was notable in its absence. There was no sudden boost, and my pace did not pick up. Another important lesson was learnt here. Whatever happens, don’t expect outside influences to improve your experience of the second half of the race. It’s going to be all you.

Much like Sydney a couple of years earlier, most of the last 10k was horrible for me, with splits getting slower and slower. With less than 5km to go someone ran alongside me and asked me how far we had left. I looked at my watch which of course was counting upwards, and my frazzled brain couldn’t work out how long we had to go. Instead I just thrust my arm out and let the bloke try to work it out for himself. Looking back, another lesson learnt. If my mind couldn’t do basic maths, how could it be relied upon to tell my knackered legs to carry on to the finish?

It couldn’t, and a couple of times I had to stop to stretch out, costing me valuable seconds. Once again being completely blind as to what the final quarter of the race would bring was costing me. By the time I got to the final 2km, I had some kind of second wind and started to get the hammer down, but little did I know it was already too late. I brought up the pace to around the 5.30s, and according to my friends watching on, “looked really strong” as I passed them. I already knew I wasn’t going to make it, and as I rounded the corner to the finishing shute I was ticking over the 4-hour mark, with 100 metres to go. I crossed the line in 4:00:26, knocking a massive 4 seconds off my PB.

Nobody could believe it when I told them, and at the time neither could I. I was a good runner who went for a long run most weekends! How could I not make my target? Looking back there were countless points where I could have gained those 26-seconds, but the reality is I shouldn’t have been in the position of needing to “find those seconds”. I decided then to focus on the “sub” part of sub-4 hour marathon, and make sure I got to the finish line of the next one with time to spare.

Sydney Marathon 2021/2022 Training

And so I find myself back in Australia having not ran a road marathon since Edinburgh (although I did find time for a 50k ultra, but I couldn’t have cared less about my time on that). Not long after I arrived, the Covid pandemic kicked off and was ploughing its way around the world. For Craig and I (Craig had moved out here from the UK the last time I was out visiting) things were relatively calm for those first few pandemic months. When Melbourne was first hit, Craig decided to give the old running game a proper go. We had both done track stuff when we were younger but up until this point, I had been flying the flag in the world of long-distance running. Luckily when he decides he wants to do something, he doesn’t do things half-arsed and soon, he wanted to run a marathon. This seemed like an opportunity to finally put my 4-hour demons to rest so of course I said I’d join him.

There were to be 2 major differences building up to this race.

First, we decided we were going to follow a plan. Up until now, I’d arrogantly believed my own fitness and determination would be enough to crack it. (For some people this is the case, but not for me.) Also, with it being Craig’s first go and neither of us feeling in peak condition it made sense for us to actually build up to something.

Second, this would be the first time where I would have a training partner leading up to a race and although at first this appeared nothing more than a nice thing to have, it didn’t take long for the benefits of training with a mate to become abundantly clear.

After scouring the internet for some guidance, we settled on a 16-week “Sub-4 hour Marathon” training schedule, tweaked it a little to better suit our needs, and decided to repeat the first 2 weeks twice, to make it a 20-week plan. This was initially to get us up to speed, but mainly so we could do our first long run together on a weekend we were together in Sydney.

The first training run together was as an eye-opener. Having came into the schedule with a little bit of running fitness behind me, I found the 13km “long run” pretty easy. Craig on the other hand found himself in some strife. Long story short, he ended up face down on some stairs in Sydney Harbour gasping for air while I bounced around saying things like, “It’s all good mate, this is the last hill!”. Words that were worse than useless to him. While this is an unashamed opportunity to poke fun at my brother in arms, this story serves as a precursor to the rapid gains we would see in our running in the following weeks.

The first weeks were hard, really hard. I’d never experienced going back-to-back with combos of speed sessions, hills and “easy” workouts with a minimum 8km. My leg muscles would beg me not to go out on some days, but once the warm-up was complete, they would invariably get me through. Progress was instantly noticeable as every long run (which had started at 13km and was increasing by around 3km per week) felt a breeze.

By week 8 of the schedule, the weekend runs were beyond 25km, and soon above 30km and honestly, these were the ones I looked forward to the most. By this point, Australia had gone into a hard lockdown, and one of the only reasons we were allowed out of the house was exercise. Well this is a marathon runner's dream! It was more than that, the 3-4 hours out of the house on the quiet Covid-era roads were my time to think, to relax and switch off from the real world. For all the shit going on at the time, I can honestly say I’d never enjoyed my running more.

Meanwhile down in Melbourne, Craig was experiencing exactly the same feelings. It was tough to gauge each other’s progress based on the varying “workout” sessions in the week, but we could always come back to the long run at the weekend to see how we were doing and it wasn’t long before we were clocking a similar pace on these big days out.

Until now, I hadn’t given a second thought to potential benefits of training with a partner (even hundreds of kilometres away). 10 weeks into our plan it was all very clear. Most weekends Craig would head out early Saturday morning and post his time, of course I would see that on Strava and when I went out a little later his pace would quietly sit in the back of my mind. At one point I got in the habit of getting up at 4am before work on a Friday to get my run in, which meant Craig had all the stats he needed to try and match it the following morning.

Of course this is a little bit of competitiveness, but my god it was the healthiest competitiveness I’ve ever felt. Because of the lockdown we would video chat most weeks, usually after the long runs, and over a few beers we would just chat about them. How we felt, how we got a 2nd wind after 25km’s, how beautiful the day was. We would congratulate each other on running 32km’s at a pace that would get us over the line at 3hrs 40mins. Yes I was loving my running again, but now I had a buddy who was too and honestly, that alone was now shaving minutes off our times. We were quietly pushing each other but every week, we were both winners.

So before I talk about the race, if there’s one piece of advice I’d give anyone who wants to tackle their first marathon, or aim for a pace that might feel a little out of reach it is this. Find someone with the same ambition and enthusiasm as you, and ride that runner's high from day one of training to when you cross the finish line. Then ride it some more.

Sydney Marathon 2022

A few weeks before the go, the 2021 race was cancelled due to the pandemic. Ultimately irrelevant, it just meant we kept up our fitness over the summer and repeated the same plan in 2022.

Every long run we hit under target. For myself, I went into this race being confident not because of some misplaced arrogance that I was inherently fit enough to waltz it, but because I’d run over 3/4 of the race way under pace at least 10 times in the build up. Me and my body finally knew exactly what was required to break that magic 4 hour mark.

Annoyingly, as we lined up on the start line I didn’t feel all that great. We had gorged the night before and perhaps some of that was still repeating on me, or maybe I was feeling the additional pressure of this being my 3rd attempt at what some might consider a completely average goal. We had set our watches to pace us for a sub-3.45 race, but as we completed the 4th kilometre at the south end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge it was clear we weren’t going to hit that. We were already behind, but crucially not by a long way, so we still made big gains on the 4 hour target.

It wasn’t long until the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was in the mid 20s. All of the big races in Australia take place between late autumn and early spring where the chances of a cool run are at their highest, but in Sydney you’re never far away from a rogue hot day, even in mid-winter. 4 months ago I’d raced in the Sydney half where I’d been aiming for 1.45. That race topped out at 24 degrees celsius with 98% humidity. According to my heart-rate monitor, I was in the high 190’s bpm for the entire last 5km. It was the closest I’d ever been to passing out when I crossed the finish line. The weather here is a cruel and unpredictable mistress.

Today we had the heat, but luckily not the humidity, and we were sticking to our hydration plan well and we were packing a serious amount of gels each. By now I would take on a sip of water at every station even if I wasn’t thirsty to stave off early signs of dehydration, anything I didn’t want went down my back to keep the body-temp cool.

We entered Centennial Park in Sydney’s east at around the 15km mark and we would be running laps around there for the next hour. I knew the place well; flat and shaded which was perfect as the sun shone higher in the sky every minute. It was here where I really settled into a comfortable pace, as did Craig and we posted some of our best splits. Personally, I was feeling stronger now than I was at the start.

As we exited I mentioned that we had a 3km run back to the city, and it was all at a gentle downhill. I call these free miles because you can ease off the gas and maintain a strong pace, allowing gravity to do its work. The race organisers had kindly positioned a huge TV screen around here (let's say the 25km mark) and we could watch as the elites crossed the line down at the Opera House. We had passed these guys just over an hour ago, with them leaving the park as we entered and by the time we had tootled around in there, they had banged in a cheeky half marathon. If that’s not inspiration then I don’t know what is.

We’d known early on that 3.45 wasn’t going to happen today, but I’d never really thought about the size of the gap between that and 4 hours. We’d blasted through the halfway point and were still feeling really good. Some quick maths with a little help from the Garmin (yes, this time my brain was still functioning) and we worked out that we could bring our pace down to well below the 6 minute/km mark and still easily achieve 4 hours. Of course we didn’t feel the need, so we just plugged along, I even allowed myself to feel a little confident now.

Things didn’t really get too bad until the last 12km I would say. I know at this point, Craig did start to cramp up and find the going a bit tougher. Despite having nothing to base it on, I still maintain that races get really tough once you’re beyond what you already know you can do. Back in York 9 years ago I was suffering from the halfway point, probably because I was an idiot and that’s all I knew. I had a similar experience on my first Sydney attempt where I thought being a bit fitter would make up for lack of experience. Right now we were into unknown territory for Craig and I was offering up borderline patronising words of advice;

“Remember our first training run here? We’ve only got that to go now!”

I’m surprised he didn’t tell me to jump off the bridge we were running over at the time. I should let him tell his own story in, “How I broke the 4 hour barrier on my first attempt”. I’m sure it’ll be a snappier read, and contain a lot less resentment at his ability (or lack thereof) than what I’ve included here.

The heat was becoming more and more of a factor now, pushing 25 degrees. We were on the waterfront so had no shelter in the shade from the skyscrapers or trees. This wouldn’t be doing Craig’s cramp any favours and there is always the risk of heat stroke/dehydration creeping up on you without a moment's notice. I saw this first hand in the half race earlier in the year when the 1.45 pacer just down the road from me literally collapsed to the side of the road in the intense humidity, I even wondered if I should have picked up his flag and attempt to finish in the time as a de-facto pacer, but I’m sure I would have ended up in the same place as the poor guy. If it can happen to the pros, you can be sure it could happen to people like me.

As we rounded the corner to see the finish line over at the Opera House (where years earlier I’d come to the realisation that I would never make it) we had plenty of time on our hands. Even though confidence had been high for the entire race, this was the first time with 800m to go that I allowed myself to acknowledge the fact I would finally break the 4 hour barrier. Thousands of people had already finished and some would have even gone home and showered by now, but all that mattered to me was that in a few minutes time I would be passing under the finish line and the first number displayed on the clock would be a “3”.

The crowds were pretty big by this point and although I’d wanted to stick with Craig the whole way (despite him telling me to go on during his more intense cramping episodes) I couldn’t help myself and started to kick. The last 500m the course seemed too thin, with the walls of supporters (I’m always taken back by how people will come out to see 1 or 2 of their loved ones pass them on the course, but will offer their full support to thousands of strangers who pass before and after them) seemingly on top of you. I felt myself being propelled towards the finish line by the cacophony of noise until eventually (and up that pretty unwelcome ramp) I passed under the finishing posts and stopped my watch.

3 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds. Elation, relief, you name it and I felt it. All I wanted to do was stand there and soak up the moment and enjoy the atmosphere at what had to be one of the world's most impressive finish lines. Of course reality kicks in and because I wasn’t here nearly 2 hours earlier the nearby steward came over to attempt to usher me away from the line. What he didn’t know was that my brother, who I’d spent the last 18 months and 2000km of training with was right behind me and I would be celebrating this achievement under the clock with him. I wasn’t going to move along.

Sure enough, about a minute later he came across the line, dutifully checking and stopping his watch before bending over double to suck in as much oxygen as he could. I hobbled over to force him into the sweatiest, smelliest hug either of us had probably ever experienced. Just like that, we were done and just like it said in the plan, we had time to spare.

The Debrief

I’ll keep this brief, more of a “lessons learnt” exercise. First of all we talked about the heat. The forecast had said a max of about 20. We discussed this cowering in the shade of a tree while it was over 25 in the sun. I made another baseless claim that for every degree cooler on the day, we would have shaved a minute off our respective times. Let it be known, this isn’t some kind of “I could have got a 3.45 in better conditions” excuse. This is me saying that we set out to hit a target and in spite of the heat, and even though we somehow felt less than 100% on the day, we finished with plenty of time to spare. And I knew we would.

What do I attribute it to this time? A range of training exercises, focusing on both speed and distance. Spending hours on a weekend clocking miles my body had never experienced. Learning when to stop because my body was failing me, but knowing when to push on when my mind was making up reasons to stop. Fuel enough to get you to the end of the damn thing is such a simple tip it’s insane that it took me 5 years to realise it myself.

I’m not someone who can enter a marathon distance race on a whim and punch out a world-beating time. I need a plan, and I need to stick to it. Since crossing that line, that’s my advice to anyone who asks me how to run a marathon and isn’t sure if they can. Find a plan that pushes you every week, get comfortable being uncomfortable and your goals will come to you.

Finally, make sure you enjoy it. Try to find others who enjoy it and train together. If you look at each other with medals draped around your neck and ask yourselves, “What next?” then you’ve ticked all of those boxes.

Speaking of goals, we’re off to train for an 80km ultra-marathon to be raced in October. Last year it put me out injured for months. There’s a score to be settled. More on that later...

You can find the exact plan we both used over on our sub 4 hour marathon plan