Steve Smythe, who recently set a record 40-year span of sub-three-hour marathons, is running his 36th London Marathon on Sunday. Here are 36 of his running thoughts and tips
1 The world’s best?
To me, the Virgin Money London Marathon is easily the world’s greatest marathon. It has the best elite fields, the best course, the best crowds and is the best organised event. I am biased though, as it starts less than a kilometre from my home and it has been one of the major events for around three-quarters of my life. It is the only event where I can claim to be a local resident, a competitor, a reporter, a coach, a spectator, a TV viewer (thanks to BBC iPlayer) and even an official, as I check the team results for UK Athletics and England Athletics!
2 The ever-present minus one?
My marathon career started five years earlier than the inaugural London event when I ran 2:54 in Harlow in 1976. In the first London Marathon I ran my PB of 2:29:42, but I am not the most experienced London Marathoner. I can claim to be currently the 13th-equal, as 12 remain as ever-presents, though some may have run their last one last year.
3 The missing year
I regrettably did not run in 1983 after entering. As I had an injury in January of that year, I decided to do another race on the same day that I could win – a track mile. Obviously that’s now of no importance and a regret. However, I was fit enough to run a half-marathon the week after London and I could easily have done London in sub 2:40. It’s not really a consolation to know that year was slightly short and I can claim to have done every full-distance London Marathon!
Having run a marathon every year since my first in 1976 (I did a few others in 1983) and having recently set a world record for the longest sub-three-hour span in Seville, I can claim to be one of the most experienced marathoners in the world. You could argue my experience in London is rather narrow having generally been exclusively in the top few thousand runners and I appreciate it is different for a runner around 4:00 to 5:00 where it is more crowded.
While it is good to follow schedules, I think it is important to do what’s right for you and adjust the schedule for your own needs or health at fitness at any one time. However, it is always good to have a sounding board on training and race strategy. I have given schedules to runners of all abilities and as I get older I will get slower and slower and I see myself as not a 2:29 marathoner, but as an ex-2:29 marathoner.
6 Perfect build-up?
I had a pretty good build-up to Seville this year and did for nearly all my marathons between 1976 and 2010. A sign of my age maybe, but the last seven Londons have been less than perfect. If it has gone as planned, don’t change your targets now. It is possible to have a perfect build-up but an awful race.
My physio/osteo bill seems to be ever expanding and I have spent considerably more money on treatment than I have on kit and races this year – and more time on the treatment couch than the track. But I think it’s worth it. It’s too late for this year but if you have a problem that’s not going away, go to a physio, osteo or get sports massage before you target your next race.
Due to a hamstring problem, and little training since February, the chance of extending my record span over 40 years and 119 days is very unlikely. The sensible advice is if you have an injury, don’t do it. However, if you have been training specifically for the marathon, have charities relying on you, have no other important upcoming race commitments (or, like me, you are trying to keep a streak going) and it’s a niggle that you think you can manage, then be sensible.
If you are ill, don’t run. It’s not worth it.
Get there in plenty of time, have clothes you can dispose of after the start and don’t queue up too late for the toilets. Chances are, if you don’t feel like going when you join the queue, you probably will by the time you reach the toilet!
Whatever I do this year, I will try and enjoy it. I actually enjoy the whole week and, having been an accredited journalist since the 1990 race, enjoy the press conferences before and after, and the expo, as well as the race and the crowds. This year, attending the conferences it was reassuring to know that very few runners have had a perfect build-up. Most had missed planned races, had to ease back the long runs or had niggles or illness.
12 Health and fitness
So, the key to a good marathon is to stay healthy and get the training done as close to the planned schedule. Despite my previous 41 years of marathon experience, I failed there.
Secondly it is important to get the taper right. Ease back but keep some speed in the legs to avoid lethargy, but rest when you can in the final week. Again, I haven’t got that right as I’m typing this a few days before the event at 1am and can’t do the strides I would like because of my hamstring!
It is important when you have a marathon to have a target. For some it is to finish, for others it is a PB. If you have been running for nearly 50 years like me, then the only way I could PB is on a bicycle but I found my 40-year sub-three target at Seville was as good as a PB target in my youth to help me focus on training pre-race and then drive me on during the race.
However, make the target realistic. Probably 90% of runners miss their targets. If you make it too hard you will fail and you want a target that still might be achievable at 20 miles, not one that you realise you have no chance of achieving even at 10 miles in as then all incentive goes. Going close to a target can be a consolation. Missing it by miles isn’t.
However many marathons you have done, pacing well is essential. Run as evenly as possible at the pace your training, past results and half-marathon show is realistic. You will not suddenly become a better runner just because it is a big race and you feel great. Stick to the pace plan and if you are going to make up time, do it in the second half and not the first. Most PBs and record times are set by runners who have run conservatively on the first half.
16 Energy conservation
While it is good to look for friends and family to give you incentive, don’t overdo the greetings in the first half of the race. If you high-five everyone, joining in with every band, you are likely to run out of energy. You will probably not feel like reacting to the crowd late in the second half of the race.
When you can, focus on your form, pace and the road ahead and try and control the pace if you suddenly go through a crowded area. It is easy to inadvertently pick up pace without realising, but you will pay for it later in the run.
Personally, I like to have a gel (or sports beans, etc) in my porridge, one before the start, one at 10km, one at 15 miles and one at 20 miles. It may be psychological but I do feel I get a boost and have felt more confident in my closing miles since I have been happier with that routine.
19 Using the other runners
You may be running with a friend or club colleague which is good, as long as they are the same ability as you and wanting the same target. If you can, I find it helps to focus on a runner ahead who looks like they are strong and running evenly and use their pace to help you. That might be more difficult the further back you are. If you have a major time target, look for the pacers.
20 The warm-up?
Some have described the marathon as a 20 mile warm -up for a 10km race. It won’t necessarily be a good 10km race as the warm-up would have worn you out but the success of the marathon is tied up with how you run that last 10km. It is obviously far better psychologically to be passing people, feeling strong and in control, rather than a shuffling wreck being constantly overtaken. This is the most important section but pay attention to the first 20 too.
21 The course – first 3 miles
The London course may not be as fast as Chicago and Berlin but it is quick for those targeting a time inside 3:15. For runners slower than that, it can be too crowded. The only real hill on the course is downhill at three miles (close to the Woolwich Royal Artillery Barracks), though there is a short sharp downhill and uphill before that for those on the red start. Don’t get carried away on the downhill stretch.
22 Three miles to 12 miles
The part from Woolwich to Greenwich is not memorable but Greenwich has the Queen House, Royal Naval Hospital and Cutty Sark to distract you and the crowds are exuberant there, but watch the sharp turns. The Cutty Sark to Tower Bridge part is not my favourite section as it includes a rather faceless and quiet loop around the Surrey Docks, but it is important to assess pace and how you feel. The marathon has barely started.
23 12 miles to 20 miles
The crowds begin to build around Tower Bridge – a popular place as the runners pass close by again around 22 miles. Try and hold back off the bridge, as you are not at halfway yet. I always quite enjoy the point along the highway where I get to see the leading women pass by on the other side. I never enjoy going through the tunnel around 25km and I usually tell on the Isle of Dogs loop whether I am having a good or bad one.
24 20 miles to the finish
As I touched on above, this is key to how well you do. The crowds are good, it’s reasonably straight and wide and you need to find ways of motivating yourself to keep running strongly while losing energy. It will be the hardest few miles but it is possible to maintain a good pace to the finish if you have trained well and paced it right.
25 The bumps
Most of the climbs are more bridge crossings, such as Tower Bridge and coming out of subways. They are climbs you wouldn’t notice normally in training. However, when racing 26 miles you notice all the bumps and therefore it is important not to attack them but ease up on them and conserve energy.
26 Using technology
Don’t overly rely on your satellite watches. They can be used as guides but many measure the marathon as around 26.5 miles due to tunnels and not being able to run the shortest route. For example, you need eight-minute miles for a 3:30 but you won’t necessarily reach your target if your watch says 7:59 and it has measured it as half a mile over the marathon distance. You may need to make manual adjustments and aim for 7:55 or faster.
27 The wall
In normal circumstances, unless you have been doing regular 30-mile runs, you will begin to run out of energy after 20 miles. The way to counteract that, apart from lots of lots of training (for which it is too late now), is to run as evenly a target pace as you can through to 20 miles and get a boost from your diet and gels and other energy sources.
28 Crowd support
The crowds are greater around Tower Bridge and in the last few miles. If you are really struggling along the Embankment, the crowds probably won’t be much help but if you are still in control, they can be a great help. Don’t wear earphones – apart from being against the rules, you cannot hear supporters or on-course music. More importantly, you might miss urgent instructions from marshalls or the police.
One of the main reasons you slow is dehydration. Even on a cool day, it is possible to lose at least 2 kilograms of fluid and you need to start well hydrated and replace fluids during the race. Do it in small doses every few miles and try and keep the levels topped up.
But don’t drink too much – it is more dangerous overdoing the water drinking than having too little and, once you’ve started running, you don’t want have to stop at the toilets continually.
31 Dropping out
I have dropped out of marathons but not since the 1980 Olympic marathon trial, when I wasn’t running well and my athletics fan tendencies overruled the runner so I wanted to find out who was making the Olympic team. To me it’s a last resort but, if you are badly injured or feeling terrible, you have to weigh up if it is worth continuing.
32 Post marathon
Try and walk after the race. Rehydrate sensibly, not just alcohol, and rest up when you can. It is easy to pick up colds and viruses post race when you are run down.
33 Post run week
A week off running won’t harm you – walking and swimming or cycling might be easier. Don’t try and run fast for a while and until the legs are recovered. Thirty years ago, I did run a sub-3:00 at Boston and then again in London six days later but it wasn’t sensible and I didn’t run well that summer.
34 Assess your run
Analyse how you ran. If you had a perfect build-up and it went well, you may think your marathon career is over. If it didn’t and you think you can change things to do a better one then consider it for the autumn or next year.
35 Don’t waste the training
Even if it didn’t go well, your training should have given you a good base of fitness for other events, whether a 5km, half-marathon or triathlon. Remember, Paula Radcliffe came off her first marathon in April and that summer ran some of the fastest 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m races in history. The endurance increased her ability to hold speed. You can, too – just don’t start the training too soon.
36 New targets
Think about the future and set out a plan for the autumn and new year. With a clear run, I am hopeful about next year when I hit the M60 category of a sub-3:00 and if I do (and haven’t done so this time) it will be my 60th sub-3:00 too.
» The April 20 edition of AW magazine is a London Marathon preview special and is available in shops now and or to read digitally here