Marathons: Tips from a Pro ... maybe

posted by Felicity (Fawkes) Hawksley, a Women Talk Sports blogger
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 8:18pm EST

About Felicity (Fawkes) Hawksley:

Freelance sports hack, ex-rower, keen cyclist and professional accidenteer. Enjoyer of insane self-made challenges. Proud to wear Dark Blue on Boat Race Day. About to escape the country to follow th...more

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I've always been one for experiments. Us sisters, when we were little, ate some dry dog food, just to see what it tasted like (salty). Then there was the time that, aged about 9, I convinced my little sister to let me lick her eyeball, just to see what it was like (salty).  Then there was the phase we went through where we set fire to root vegetables (acrid) and left a dead frog rotting on the bird table (minging). Then there was that time more recently, that I got malaria for three grand (interesting).

When it comes to marathons, I always experiment. I've never, ever trained for one. The furthest I've ever run outside a marathon, is 17km, and that was very, very hungover. I came to marathoning via rowing, so I was already pretty fit by the time I ran one. But, as us boaties were fond of saying “a rower's not a runner” - and indeed that's the case. Too much muscle on the outer thigh (gives you that rolling 'I'm at sea' gait), too much upper body muscle and a physiology designed for hauling large weights around, but not dashing up things in a sprightly manner. When I shook on another marathon (in precisely 30 days) over Saturday lunch, I knew, just knew it'd be another Hawksley classic. Here's a few of my favourite moments from marathons/orienteering events and self-imposed mega-jaunts over the years:

That time my trainers got nicked

Oh yes, the day we were due to leave for my first marathon, some absolute scrubber nicked my trainers from the gym. I had to buy a new pair and run in them for the first time the next day – unbelievably, no blisters.

That time we got a bit drunk

We'd had a hard week. My running partner confessed to a day on ward rounds surviving off brownies and coffee. We arrived in Dorset at her family home and proceeded to make inroads into the gin. Swiftly followed by some rather excellent red wine. Her house was one of those lots-of-beams-and-sloping-floors type constructions. Cue much staggering downhill in bedrooms, infectious giggling and beaning myself on a beam, stepping down into the bedroom. Waking up with the whirlies on the morning of your race is not, I'm told, best practice.

That time we did no training

A bit of a theme. I always say that I “like the distance to be a surprise”. And I honestly do. 30K feels horrible. 41K even worse – why would you practise feeling dreadful? If you spring the distance on your body on the day, it goes into coping mode. Fact. All fine, so long as you don't care about the time. You have to find someone with a good sense of humour to be your running partner. All our training runs were short and speedy-ish – we used to have a bin on top of Headington Hill in Oxford that we dubbed 'Amelia and Felicity's Chunder Bin'. We thought seriously for a while about sponsoring it. When we “compete” (in the loosest sense of the word), we like to call ourselves 'Giraffe' and 'Pit Pony' – Amelia, the tall, loping and laid-back and me, the stubborn little bugger that goes for ever and ever. Together, we make a good team. Designate a pace-Nazi pre-race.

That time we accidentally led five serious men astray

Ah. They were not pleased. Isle of Wight marathon. It was, to be fair, badly signposted. We had seen no-one for about 30k, but run on heart rate and began overtaking people in the last quarter. Some men thought it would be a wonderful idea to tag along. We took them down some rather steep cliffs and on an extra 4k jig round some unplanned coastal routes, before rejoining the trail. We also got lost twice during the same marathon, racking up around 50k, instead of the usual 41-odd.

That time we had no safety kit

Never, ever read the rules before you race. They demand all sorts of things. On an orienteering thingy in Somerset, we read the part of the rules that said “no safety equipment, no start”. Now, I pretty much always carry a bivvy bag and a penknife. Carrying one now in fact. But this list wanted all sorts. We had no triangular bandage and we were a space blanket down. After futile midnight trips to Boots and Tesco, we settled for some inventive Blue-Petering. Half a curtain for the bandage and a sanitary towel wrapped in tin foil as a space blanket. From 20ft, it passed muster.

That time we thought it would be hilarious to go up Pen-Y-Ghent at 5am in 70mph winds, or something

Yes. This was a moment where I genuinely feared for my safety. Clinging to a rockface in the dark of a November morning is not big-LOLs. I have never been so soaked in my entire life.

That time I forgot my glasses

Was also the time I touched the brakes a bit too hard coming round a bend. I went down like I'd been sniped. 40 bajillion speed bumps later and I was in Taunton hospital, in criminally smelly kit, sporting a shoulder that's required two surgeries and counting.

That time we went for a wee in a bush and a man thought we were cheating

We dashed off-piste for, as Patsy Stone would say, a quick slash, and were yelled at by some righteous old fart who thought we were trying to cut the course. Quite how he thought we were going to do so, considering we were next to a massive, open lake, I don't know. We were laughing so much, I nearly fell over.

That time I changed my foot strike

Having read about how humans should mince about landing on the ball of their foot, rather than heel striking, I decided to teach my muscle memory in one go, rather than the gentle breaking-in that's advised. When I stopped at the end, my calves felt like melons. I seized up good and proper. Couldn't get my feet in shoes for about four days. Still have Marathon Toenail.

That time I hallucinated

It was a cold day. It was a windy day. I thought I was drinking enough. I wasn't. I had no idea I was hallucinating until well after the marathon. I waved to a friend's mother (wasn't there), some dogs (also not there) and chatted to a nice lady for the last couple of miles (not sure about her). Apparently the dead give away was my face, all crusty like salt-baked cod. The picture below is from that marathon.  My eldest sister tells me I look like a "muscly old man trying to flee a nursing home".  Charming.

That time we developed a hatred for the blue lady and her friend

Some clearly emotionally labile woman kept on re-overtaking us and then falling behind. During the course of a marathon, this is deeply irritating. It's hard to be both competitive and crap at running, which is the class I would put myself in. Eventually, with about 8 miles to go, we well and truly ditched them. I saw Blue Lady on the Strand about three months later, running, and made a point of overtaking her at high speed. A decision I regretted later.

That time there were cows

We were blithely jogging through a woody glade, lovely, lovely, when a big-arse old cow hoved into view. Then it brought its friends. Some of whom were male. We had to clap and shout and shoo the buggers off. They did a lot of staring at first, but eventually bogged off – good, because I'm not sure my speed was up to outrunning an enraged heifer.

So I've entered Dorset marathon - a beast with 6000 ft of elevation and dubbed 'extreme' by the organisers. I have been mostly, but not entirely, sitting at my desk for the past two months. I can no longer rest on the laurels of my rowing fitness, and I'm seeking advice on how to stabilise my shoulder enough to run with a pack. Should be a good laugh.

When it comes to off-road marathons and ultras, I subscribe to fell-runner Helene Diamantides mantra: find the pair of shorts that don't chafe (bright pink M&S men's swimming shorts for me), the food that you can keep down (peanut butter sandwiches) and if needs be, ask a friend to speak to you very roughly whilst force-feeding you chocolate.

And for God's sake, don't forget the Vaseline.

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