My Last Marathon

I’ve only completed four marathons in my life. All of them were back in the days when I wasn’t a committed runner. It seems I was following, what is now, a familiar box-ticking approach to running. My first distance race was a 10K as parkrun didn’t exist then and 5K races were rare. But the sequence is standard – run a few races at a short distance then move on up to eventually do a full marathon. Now I realise training for, and successfully running, a full marathon is a big commitment if you want to do it well. Although I knew then you should do six months of training beforehand, I was only focused on getting the long run done. Again this is a familiar story of modern runners.

On the New Forest paths

My last marathon was way back in 2010 and, for the first time in my life, I was beginning to train more regularly. I began the year by entering a twenty mile race which, when the train had demoralised me enough, I downgraded to ten miles. I followed it up a few weeks later with the Bournemouth Bay 1/2M in 1hr38+ at the beginning of April. To that date, it was the best race I’d ever done and knocked 12-13 minutes off my old Personal Best.

In the weeks following the half I began to lose interest in running and it was by entering the New Forest marathon, scheduled for late September, that I found motivation to get out and train again. I was in decent shape and with five months training, it should have been easy. In fact by early June I’d completed the twenty-mile run leapfrogging from fourteen to seventeen to twenty. I spoke with an experienced runner and he suggested there was no need to do the twenty miles every week and my records show I only did a fourteen mile run after that before disaster struck and I pulled a calf muscle. I lost the whole of July and it was early August when I could run again.

Suddenly I only had eight weeks until the marathon and I’d gone from having over three months to improve on my twenty mile long run to needing to rebuild entirely. Still believing in the necessity of the twenty mile long run but also recognising I couldn’t do it the week before the marathon I squeezed training into six weeks – 9, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20½, dropped to 9 miles and then ran the marathon the following week. I often say the reason it worked so well for me is because I didn’t have time to overtrain or under-recover!


On the day, two non-running moments stand out in my memory.

Firstly I arrived to collect my number which my racepack said was something like #1600. In the sportshall, I saw two collection desks one with a sign saying “Marathon 1-999” and “Half Marathon 1000-2000”. I was confused as my number suggested I was running the half but I knew this wasn’t the case. What most surprised me is how devastating this was to my psyche. I’d prepared for the longer distance, so if I had to run half the distance it would surely be no trouble. I could see it would be a problem if you’d only trained for a half and then found yourself expected to somehow do double the distance but, not when you knew you’d run over seven miles further in training. Somehow it was devastating.

I talked to the organiser adamant that I’d entered the full marathon while he said I couldn’t have; fortunately he was willing to move me into that race anyway. Once I’d got my sub-1000 number I felt calm about what was ahead.

The second issue was forgetting my new running shoes. Of course I knew you don’t run a marathon in a new pair of shoes, so I’d broken them in before the race. But I forgot to bring them along and ended up running the marathon in the old battered pair which had lasted me all through training. Oh well. I didn’t get any lasting injuries so no harm, no foul. Not good race day preparation though, yet not the first time it happened to me!


The race itself went well. Classic autumn day and decent conditions – sunny, warm and not too humid. I’d borrowed a Garmin from a work colleague and watched the miles tick by. I’m not sure whether I went into it with an intended time – I suspect I did as I’d begun to discover the online race calculators. Whether I did or not I found myself running around 8:15/mile and with the help of the Garmin I was able to keep on track. I don’t remember much of the run other than it was scenic and all around the New Forest. I’d bought five gels, which is the only race I’ve ever used them in and on advice took one every forty-five minutes thereby consuming the 4th at the 3-hour mark. It worked well and when I finished in 3hr40min59, I still had one left.

As with any marathon the running got tough in the final miles. I’d covered the first twenty in 2hr45 and the final 10K in 55mins. It was slippage that cost me perhaps five minutes and had I gone into it better trained maybe I’d have achieved a sub 3hr30 time but I was happy with what I’d achieved. I still am.

Most important to me was I’d done the whole run without stopping or walking – the only one of my four. I started running in the early 1990s when races were still predominantly filled by club runners. The sub-4 marathon was the benchmark for any aspiring runner and while it was accepted you might run out of steam and need to walk at some stage; running all the way was a badge of honour.


Incidentally when I arrived home and checked my emails, I found had entered the half marathon five months before, back in April. I’m not sure how I mixed it up but there’s no doubt from the training that I always intended to do the full 26.2 miles.

The Ageing Runner – Part 4 Long distance

If you missed part 1 you can find it here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here.

When we started Poole parkrun the attendance was well below two hundred runners each week which made it easy to get to know everybody. As the London Marathon rolled around in the April, I was excited to follow runners like Liz Yelling, who was aiming at an Olympic place, and Steve Way, who’d run three consecutive 2hr19s. But it wasn’t just the elites who caught my interest, I’d got to know runners of all abilities and using the online tracking kept an eye on a variety of people who’d be running from over four hours through to those attempting to run sub-3.

One of the success stories was Dave Cartwright, who ran a sub-2hr55 marathon on his way to being the fastest man in the 60-64 age group that day. Footage of him crossing the finish line was doubly amusing as he was shown on BBC TV patting model Nell McAndrew on the shoulder who, despite being over twenty years younger, had finished only just ahead of him. Now in his seventies, Dave is still running round Poole parkrun in under twenty-two minutes and completing Blackmore Vale half marathon in under 1hr40. These times are fantastic to most people and yet, they’re not close to the times of the best in his age group as we shall see.

Recently two V55s, Andrew Ridley and Duncan Cooper came 8th and 9th in a field of over seven hundred runners. Their times were 16:27 and 16:35 respectively. Andrew’s age-graded time equates to 95% but his efforts also give insight into how slow decline can be. He set his Poole parkrun PB of 16:15 having only just turned fifty, yet here he is seven years later running only twelve seconds slower. Barely two seconds decline per year. I know Andrew trains very hard to keep his speed intact for 800m racing.

Age group world records for 5000m

TimeAthleteDateTimeAthleteDate
World Record12:35Joshua Cheptegei14-Aug-20 14:07Letesenbet Gidey07-Oct-20
V3512:54Bernard Lagat22-Jul-11 14:34Edith Masai02-Jun-06
V4013:07Bernard Lagat20-Aug-16 15:05Joanne Pavey05-Jun-14
V4514:24Lucien Rault19-Jun-82 15:56Nicole Leveque01-Jun-96
V5014:53Sean Wade25-Mar-16 16:51Gitte Karlshøj23-Jun-09
V5515:30Keith Bateman05-Jan-11 17:29Silke Schmidt27-Jun-15
V6015:56Yoshitsugu Iwanaga14-Nov-20 17:59Silke Schmidt20-Sep-19
V6516:39Derek Turnbull13-Mar-92 20:08Kathryn Martin28-Oct-16
V7018:16Ron Robertson09-Jul-11 20:56Angela Copson25-Jun-17
V7519:07Ed Whitlock23-Jul-06 23:31Lavinia Petrie28-Apr-19
V8020:20Jose Vicente
Rioseco Lopez
04-Sep-21 25:40Yoko Nakano12-Sep-18
V8524:04Ed Whitlock30-Jul-16 27:38Yoko Nakano23-Nov-21
V9030:00Yoshimitsu Miyauchi20-Sep-14 
V9539:43Antonio Nacca04-May-19 

Age group world records for the 10,000m

TimeAthleteDateTimeAthleteDate
World Record26:11Joshua Cheptegei07-Oct-20 29:01Letesenbet Gidey08-Jun-21
V3526:51Haile Gebrselassie24-May-08 30:53Joanne Pavey03-Aug-12
V4027:49Bernard Lagat01-May-16 31:25Sinead Diver28-Sep-19
V4529:44Kevin Castille17-Mar-17 32:34Evy Palm04-Sep-88
V5030:49Sean Wade01-Apr-16 35:06Fiona Matheson16-Oct-11
V5531:52Keith Bateman26-Mar-11 36:47Sally Gibbs11-Nov-19
V6033:40Yoshitsugu Iwanaga28-Nov-20 37:58Mariko Yugeta14-Nov-20
V6534:42Derek Turnbull15-Mar-92 41:40Angela Copson05-Aug-12
V7038:04Ed Whitlock09-Jul-01 44:25Angela Copson28-Jul-17
V7539:25Ed Whitlock21-Jul-06 50:01Melitta
Czerwenka-Nagel
28-Aug-05
V8042:40Ed Whitlock09-Jul-11 51:47Yoko Nakano06-May-18
V8551:08Ed Whitlock12-Aug-16 1:26:15Vladylena Kokina21-Sep-14
V901:09:28Gordon Porteous17-Oct-04 

Age group world records for the marathon

TimeAthleteDateTimeAthleteDate
World Record2:01:39Eliud Kipchoge16-Sep-18 2:14:04Brigid Kosgei13-Oct-19
V352:03:59Haile Gebrselassie28-Sep-08 2:19:19Irina Mikitenko28-Sep-08
V402:06:25Ayad Lamdassem24-Feb-22 2:19:52Helalia Johannes06-Dec-20
V452:14:23Bernard Lagat29-Feb-20 2:28:34Catherine Bertone23-Sep-17
V502:19:29Titus Mamabolo20-Jul-91 2:31:05Tatyana Pozdnyakova06-Mar-05
V552:25:56Piet van Alphen19-Apr-86 2:50:40Jenny Hitchings03-Nov-19
V602:30:02Tommy Hughes25-Oct-20 2:52:13Mariko Yugeta31-Jan-21
V652:41:57Derek Turnbull12-Apr-92 3:07:51Kimi Ushiroda15-Dec-19
V702:54:48Ed Whitlock26-Sep-04 3:24:48Jeannie Rice29-Sep-19
V753:04:54Ed Whitlock15-Apr-07 3:53:42Yoko Nakano23-Nov-12
V803:15:54Ed Whitlock16-Oct-11 4:11:45Yoko Nakano26-Feb-17
V853:56:38Ed Whitlock16-Oct-16 5:14:26Betty Jean McHugh09-Dec-12
V906:46:34Ernest Van Leeuwen06-Mar-05 8:53:08Mavis Lindgren28-Sep-97

Notes on Masters world records

All data was updated from Wikipedia in mid-June 2022. The aim is not to create a comprehensive set of records but to give readers an indication of what is possible. I will periodically update these when I can.

How much do you want it?

I was woken early by the tap, tap, tapping of a bird outside my bedroom window. With it being nesting season, the birds have built a nest up in the eaves and are flying in and out of it frequently. Trying to locate exactly what part of the house the bird was tapping, I looked out from behind the curtains and noticed my neighbour working out in his back yard. It was 6:15am. Most of it was stretching and limbering up as he prepared to do pull-ups on a frame he’s bought. I was impressed as I watched him machining up and down, one, two, three; nice square angles at the shoulders and elbows, four, five, six; barely pausing or fatiguing as he went on all the way up to fifteen. A little rest then another set before pulling the tarp over the frame and going in.

I’d love to be good at pull-ups but I’ve always struggled with them. I claim that with my long arms, I’m mechanically disadvantaged. There may be some truth to this. Most people have a reach (measured from fingertip to fingertip across the chest) that is the same as their height. This is one of those anatomical novelties* you can easily test. Lie on the floor feet against the wall and put a marker against your height. Then lie the other way and stretch your arms from the wall to the marker and you should find you can just touch it. Except when I do this I stretch out four inches wider than I’m tall! Of course doing pull-ups isn’t simply about arms, they’re also about lats, shoulders and other body muscles which I’ve never been dedicated to working out. My days of going to the gym didn’t last long, it always seemed so soulless.

My “I’d love to be good at pull-ups” never translated into action. I may say it when I see a parkour runner effortlessly pulling themselves over a wall, or when I try them at the gym but I’ve never really committed to getting good at pull-ups. It’s the same with playing the keyboard, playing the harmonica, being able to do handstand press-ups, dunk a basketball or win the lottery. They’re all things I believe would be cool or, great to be able to do, but I’ve never taken committed action long enough to be able to do them.

This isn’t uncommon. I’ve heard the words “I’d love to break …” followed by a time for parkrun or a marathon leave the mouth of numerous runners who then take very little action to achieve that goal.


I felt somewhat in awe of my neighbour’s commitment at being out there, working out at such an early hour until I realised I was doing the same thing with my own plyometric and hill sprint workouts last summer, my 800m training this past winter and my current Sunday long runs at 5am.

It takes a dedicated, longterm approach to get good at a sport or complex activity, few people are naturals.  Before the 800m training, I know there were other things I took action to get good at. I began playing volleyball as an adult and scraped up to playing National League 2nd division. I took golf lessons for three years to be able to break 80 and score a hole-in-one. My running took three months of dedicated training to build a base that took me sub-20 at parkrun and onto other running glories.

I’m not sure why some activities find the power of inspiration to invoke perspiration while others fall by the wayside after a week of trying. But if you ever find yourself saying “I’d love to break 20 minutes for parkrun” or “I’d love to run a marathon in under four hours” ask yourself what’s stopping you. Would you really love to do it or are you in love with the idea of doing it?


If it turns out you do want to improve as a runner (or even just think you do) my weekly sessions can help you improve your speed and fitness, along with oodles of free training advice. If you’re interested in personal coaching to help you reach goals you’d love to achieve then I can help you out with that too. Just drop me a line from the Contact page.

* Another anatomical novelty is your foot should measure the same as the inside of your elbow to the crease of your wrist!

Short sprint – Denial

The runner always had an excuse for why he’d struggled or failed. It was the heat, it was the new shoes, people getting in his way, asthma, a summer cold, anything but the way he trained or his attitude to racing. He never improved and year on year the excuses would keep coming eventually evolving into a simplistic one of getting older and more complicated, but unbreakable, ones like rheumatism or arthritis.


I’ve struggled for years to discern what the semantic difference between an excuse and an explanation is. When a runner tells you why they didn’t do well in the race or training session, an explanation can sound like an excuse, an excuse can sound like an explanation.

I believe the difference is in what you do with that information. By definition, an explanation explains what went wrong. It doesn’t necessarily place the blame here or there, it just observes events and tries to find reasons for poor performance. But an explanation can also provide reasons for a good performance. There’s a detached observation going on which can be used to improve performance next time around. It can take the explanations behind good performance and make them a regular, routine part of training. It can take the explanations behind poor performance and look for countermeasures, interventions and ways to address them so they won’t be problematic in the future.

Excuses though only ever relate to poor performance as a deflection of blame. They’re not there to find reasonable explanations which can be addressed, they’re there to protect ego. At their simplest they’re a denial of the facts and reality. It’s said with alcoholics and other addicts that the first step is admitting there’s a problem. If you’ve ever been around one of these types of people you’ll know how difficult, even impossible, it is to get them to accept the reality of the situation. Until they stop denying there’s a problem they can’t begin to look for ways to address it.


From all this you might think denial is a bad thing. For the most part it is. Yet when you play sport or race, being able to deny the circumstances can be a route to success. Charlie Spedding recounts in his autobiography how, prior to the Seoul Olympic he’d been injured and was struggling in training, but went on to finish 6th through sheer willpower. On the day, he denied his recent form and overachieved. But, it’s important to note, he didn’t use excuses during his training as a reason to give up; he kept training as best he could never making excuses. It was only on the day, he used denial as a short-term strategy to get the absolute best out of himself.

It’s all about hard work?

I grew up believing in hard work. I was doing a Sunday paper round from age 11, a morning one at 13, I had a part-time job at Broadstone Sports Centre at 15 and my mum told me that if I ran out of work, I should always ask for more! After the Sports Centre I did a year at Tesco on Fruit & Veg, where I believe Brian and Dave, the managers, considered me hardworking enough to entrust one side of an aisle to me while three did the other.

When it came to playing sport, I brought the same workhorse mentality and desire to do everything I could. That stood me in good stead when I played a solo sport like squash where I’d run myself into the ground, but it could be less positive playing team sports where you have to have the discipline to sometimes do nothing more than allow your teammates to do their job.

Nonetheless when playing I would squeeze every ounce of effort out of my body. Running on and off-court to get lost balls, chasing after opponents who’d broken away for one-on-one opportunities in football, diving after every volleyball that came in my direction, man-marking opponents and jumping to block every basketball shot. Playing volleyball I picked up an array of minor injuries which included jumping into the post while trying to hit an errant set, running full speed into a crash barrier at an outdoor summer tournament trying to reach a ball that had caromed ten yards off-court, and repeatedly diving on sports hall floors to which my hip still bears the scar of testimony. Whenever I trained or played, I would always walk off court dripping with sweat. My effort was as good as you could ask for, even if my performance wasn’t what I hoped for.

When I became a runner, I brought this wholehearted approach with me. I charged off down the road at full speed from the beginning of runs. If I reached a hill it was maximum effort up it. I wanted to get faster and ended up gasping for breath for however long I was running. The only exception was on long runs when, knowing I would be out for two or three hours, I tried to ration my effort. But at the end of it all my legs would still be tired and lacking energy. This approached lasted with me until 2011 when I started learning how to train. Even since, as I learned about the benefits of high mileage, I’ve been willing to put in sixty mile weeks despite relatively mediocre race performances.

What I now realise is that, for me, all that hard work was a mistake.


Having read the biographies of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton and Steve Jones, it’s easy to conclude miles make champions. The overriding message that comes from each of them is how hard they trained. Ex-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is another who talks about training hard.

Steve Jones was the world record holder in both the marathon (2:08:05 – Chicago 1984) and half marathon (1:01:14 – Birmingham 1985). He was the pre-eminent marathoner of the mid-1980s with two wins in Chicago, one at London, another at New York. He talks about how he never wore a watch or heart-rate monitor, how he didn’t think about his diet but focuses on putting in hard work to be able to run hard from start to finish.

Derek Clayton ran 150 miles per week on his way to becoming the world record holder for the marathon during the 1970s. Ron Hill ran as much as 130 mpw when he was running world class times similar to Derek. Paula Radcliffe’s success and notoriety came when she moved up to the marathon distance and set incredible world records that lasted for over a decade. Like Steve Jones, Paula liked to race from the front and go as hard as her body would allow.

Each of them credit their running success to hard work.


But I believe there’s a catch to this. The marathon is at one extreme event of the running spectrum. If you’re interested in running the longest distance in the fastest time then working hard to convert all your muscle fibres to become more efficient at fat burning and aerobic metabolism is a good way forward. Forcing yourself through long, hard training runs to handle the pain of running for over two hours, while feeling depleted, is going to make a difference.

For all their talk of success through hard work, none of these world class marathoners was as successful at shorter distances. Steve Jones was a 5,000m – 10,000m specialist before he took up the marathon. His results in the 10,000m major championships are less prolific. No world record, 12th place at 1983 Helsinki World Championships, 8th place in 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Paula’s track career resulted in a single 10,000m silver medal at the Seville World Championships in 1999. Ron Hill placed 18th and 7th in the 10,000m at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Derek Clayton never tried shorter distances once he realised the marathon was where his talent lay.


I’m trying to highlight that while these runners tell you how hard they worked to achieve their notable successes, what goes unsaid is how all that hard work wasn’t any use in shorter distance races and it’s a lesson I believe we can all learn from.

A key part of training is to figure out where your own strengths and weakness lie with regards to your physiology. It’s something a coach should be doing as they get to know your running. Some people are built for speed, others built for endurance. The more you’re built for speed, the fewer miles you need to run in training whatever the event. This was the lesson I never understood until recently. Even two years ago, I was running sixty miles per week to achieve the same 21-22 minute parkruns I was running ten years ago on only ten miles per week. Yet ten years ago when I upped my mileage from ten to thirty I began to run faster times so there’s a paradoxical element to it. Mileage helps when it’s well-aimed.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and mileage is the key to running success. If you’re a complete beginner, it is obvious you only need to do a small amount of exercise to start getting fitter and faster – one mile per day might be enough. If you’re competing at the Olympics, it takes many miles of training each week simply to maintain your fitness before you squeeze out more. You have to find the sweet spot that is right for your level.

Lessons in marathon training

Imagine running your first marathon in 2hr41?  Imagine doing it off less than three months of training? Most people would be pleased with that, but now imagine you were already a great endurance athlete used to training thirty hours every week. This is Gwen Jorgensen’s story.

Graduating to work as a tax accountant in 2009, Gwen Jorgensen was talked into becoming a triathlete by USA Triathlon. She’d been a runner and swimmer through college so only needed to add the cycling skills to enter her first triathlon a year later. She was good enough to finish with elite status.  Two years later, she competed for the USA at the London Olympics coming in 38th after getting a flat tyre in the cycling section. In the following years Gwen became one of the world’s premier female triathletes, being crowned the winner of the ITU’s World Series in 2014 and 2015.

This lined her up as the favourite for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like the World Series events, the Olympics are a 1.5km swim (taking around twenty minutes), a 40km cycle (1hr) and a 10K run (thirty-five minutes). This is about a quarter of the more famous Ironman triathlons.

In the six months prior to Rio, Jorgensen logged 137 swims, 110 rides and 171 runs. With running being her strength she’s often able to start the run, which is the last part of a triathlon, behind opponents and catch them. She was generally recognised as the fastest runner on the women’s circuit and in Rio ran 34:09 for 10K on her way to taking the gold.

On her way to gold in Rio

Having claimed the Olympic title, Gwen then threw out a curveball, she was going to run the New York Marathon three months later. More accurately she was going to do it in seventy-eight days’ time. She won the Rio gold on 20th August and the New York Marathon was being held on November 6th giving her just twelve weeks and one day to train.

As we now know she ran 2:41:01 to finish 14th and by her own admission she wasn’t happy with that time. Running the NYC marathon was to be the first step towards her goal of winning the (now-cancelled) 2020 Tokyo women’s marathon. The fastest women in the world are running sub-2:20 and in New York she set out with the leaders at 5:40/mile, managing to stay with them for the first five miles before dropping back and finishing the last two miles at seven minute mile pace. The graph below highlights how her performance dropped away in the second half.

Her seventy-eight days of training were less than ideal. She still fitted in triathlon events which meant continuing to train for those and her running mileage came in at fifty miles per week. She’d never run further than ten miles before and with the limited time available, her longest training run was sixteen miles. Another aspect of her training that was less than ideal was she trained off-road which was unlike the tarmac surfaces she encountered in New York.

Gwen’s NYC splits in parkrun terms – a noticeable drop in the second half

So what are the lessons we can learn from this performance? To me, the notable (and somewhat obvious) thing is that even though Gwen never ran longer than sixteen miles in training for her first marathon; her pace was high from the beginning and she was able to get to the end still running. She didn’t end up walking because she has a huge base of fitness from her triathlon training.

On the other hand, her triathlon training wasn’t specific enough to allow her to continue her starting pace and see it all the way through. If you want to get the most out of training then running is going to be better for your marathon than cross-training.


Training off-road didn’t work for Gwen as the tarmac in New York was tough on her legs – she wasn’t accustomed to it. Often elite runners and physios recommend running on softer surfaces to avoid inflicting damage. But I believe this is advice better suited to those running higher mileage. Gwen went from running 30-40 miles per week to 40-50 – it’s not a huge increase.

Also with specificity I’ve known people training for London who do their long Sunday runs over the hilly Purbecks. While it’s nice to get out in the peace and quiet, hills are one thing London doesn’t feature – it’s a flat course other than a slight downhill in the opening miles. Hill training has its place in a training plan as a workout but combining that with a long run is adding unnecessary stress especially for slower runners.


While Gwen is not the first runner I’ve seen who records decent times in half or full marathons off less than perfect training. I’ve seen guys run sub 1hr30 half marathons with barely any long distance training because they’ve got the speed over shorter distances. I’ve done it myself – I ran a 3hr41 marathon with only six weeks where I ran more than thirty miles but I was already running twenty-one minutes for 5K.

This is really key. First you have to be able to run fast, or more specifically you have to have a high lactate threshold which is the result of combining speed and endurance. After that it’s about how much pain you’re willing to suffer as your body fatigues and slows down. Trying to run a marathon on fifty miles per week, in less than three months, with nothing longer than a sixteen mile run wasn’t enough to stop Gwen’s pace dropping in the final miles. I experienced the same on my marathon, I went from running 8:15/mile to 9min/mile in the last six miles.

If you’ve read my post on the 20-mile myth you may wonder, doesn’t this conflict with the Hansons’ idea of not running longer than sixteen miles in training? Superficially it does, but the plans in their book are not aimed at elite runners like Gwen. Their elite plans do more weekly mileage, over a longer training period and go out to twenty miles. The underlying principle of their system is to avoid overdoing long runs if you can’t complete them in two-and-a-half to three hours maximum. I believe that’s good advice.

Chicago 2018 marathon – the wet and windy city

A key driver for Gwen’s change from triathlon to running marathons was a desire to start a family. Typical triathlon training is thirty hours per week with three session per day. Some days that includes a three hour bike ride which, when you add in early morning runs, mid-morning swims, eating and changing is likely too much, although not impossible, to also do justice to raising a baby. Any parent will tell you it’s hard enough as it is. By comparison an elite marathon runner typically trains for thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning straight out of bed and then another longer session in the evening. With a supportive husband, it’s much more manageable.


However things haven’t worked out in the marathon world for Gwen. Her best marathon is 2:36 in Chicago in 2018, which puts her well down the list of American women running the marathon. It’s a time that wasn’t going to be anywhere near the gold medal in Tokyo, so in late 2019 she decided to switch to focusing on the 5,000 or 10,000 metres. Her times are still struggling to be world-class but it’s clear that while she was great at Olympic-distance triathlon she hasn’t turned out be the endurance monster many expected.

Come this autumn we’ll see how all that training has worked out for her with the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Will she even be there? In my opinion, whichever way you look at it she’s had an enjoyably challenging decade. She began it working sixty-plus hour weeks as an accountant which by all accounts (pun intended) she enjoyed. She then became less cerebral, pushing herself physically and competing in two Olympics, winning gold in one. As a triathlete she travelled around the world for the World Series events and at one stage seemed unbeatable with thirteen consecutive wins, then as the joy of parenthood beckoned she took on a new challenge and all that entails. Whatever happens I’d sum that up as living life to the max.

Charlie Spedding’s success

Recently I’ve been reading Charlie Spedding’s autobiography “from last to first”.  He’s a runner I only remember because he was one of the early winners of the London Marathon and being a trivia buff it was the sort of factual list I knew off by heart at one time. The following year he finished second in a time of 2:08:33, which remained the English record until 2014, as he relinquished his title to Welshman Steve Jones.

Published in 2009, “from last to first” looks back to Charlie’s running career which ended twenty years earlier after the Seoul Olympics. Like all autobiographies, it tells of his early life, parents and formative years in running. It details his two major successes, winning the London Marathon and a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympic, events which occurred a few months apart in 1984 as well as a copy of his training diary between them. The final chapters of the book give an overview of how he trained and brings us up to date with some of his thoughts on the reasons behind the nation’s lack of health and prospects for future running success.

At just over two hundred pages, the book is well written and often humorous. As a pharmacist, he clearly has an understanding of science yet is able to tell his story without unnecessarily resorting to big words or jargon. I laughed out loud when he recalled his time at Chorister School in Durham where “One of the lads I played with was a boy called Tony Blair. I don’t recall his skill with the ball, but I do remember his ability to make up rules of the game to suit his team’s situation.” Also the tale of how he was invited to do an inspirational talk at a local psychiatric hospital. Introduced to a patient by the doctor as “This is Charlie Spedding. He’s an Olympic bronze medallist in the marathon”, the patient replied “That’s alright, I thought I was Henry the Eighth when I got here.”

About to undergo Achilles surgery in the 1970s, he almost died in hospital due to anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to a drug. It’s interesting to think that, at the time, surgery was deemed the way to fix these issues. Derek Clayton stated in his autobiography that he’d had nine operations for problems which included his Achilles. Nowadays we understand surgery isn’t necessarily the solution, heel drops can resolve it. My friend, Simon rehabilitated his Achilles simply by doing a month of very easy running after racing twenty-five times in a year. Charlie notes late on that he avoided further Achilles issues when he was in the United States by getting regular massages.

Throughout the book, Charlie impresses how important attitude and mindset were to his succcess. He talks about how he was fortieth or forty-first academically in a class of 42 at junior school but went on to achieve a degree and running his own business. When he first played sport, he wanted to be a footballer but wasn’t good enough; when he ran sprints he was last but then found cross-country and finished second in his first race. Having found what he was good at, he then worked hard at it.

After a decade of high level national running as part of Gateshead Harriers, he sat in a pub and rethought his attitude as to what he needed to do to reach his potential. He realised he needed to be more positive in his vocabulary, to be specific about his goals and to be willing to think differently if he was going to achieve more than the average person. His underlying philosophy was one of getting the best out of himself for whatever talent he had and accepting that as success.

I found many parallels in his writing to how I’ve lived my own life apart, of course, from winning the London marathon or going to the Olympics. The attitude and mindset of always giving your best to fulfil your potential are one that resonate with me. Also his willingness to try new approaches and not giving up when things haven’t worked out. It’s something of a cliché to say “how bad do you want it?” is the determining factor but I’ve met many people who say they want to achieve good times in their running but aren’t then willing to make it a priority or get out of their comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with not doing those things but I believe it’s best not to talk about your desire for improvement if you’re not willing to do the things that are firmly within your control. It’s like wanting to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.

I enjoyed reading this book for its refreshing honesty and humour. It was a very easy read and, as I was loaned this copy, I’ll probably look to pick up my own one in the future for a reread. As an aside, the hospital in which Charlie Spedding nearly died is the one where I was born!

The “20-mile” myth

The Hansons’ Marathon Method contains an interesting approach to training for the marathon. The idea of the traditional “20-mile run” is abandoned with the longest run being only sixteen miles in their plans. Within the book they explore and compare the recommendations of other coaches and plans.

The idea of the 20-22 mile run comes from the days of Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s when he had his middle-distance runners doing this distance every Sunday! It might sound hard but remember these were runners with the capability of racing four minute miles. They’d begin the season taking 2hr35 and slowly work down to completing the runs in little more than two hours – quicker than 6min/mile, but that’s typically the easy pace of a world class runner. I don’t know if it was deliberate to create a course this long or down to the natural geography of Auckland, running in the Waitakere mountain range where Lydiard lived.

Derek Clayton, the world record holder for the marathon through the 1970s ran 150-160 miles every week. It was his belief, and he put it into practice, that he needed to run a 25-mile run every Saturday to be ready for his marathons. It’s hard to argue with a man whose record stood for so long yet Clayton suffered injuries and needed surgery eight times. Very few, if any, modern elites would do this level of mileage regularly now. Although there’s no record of how long these runs took him, given his toughness and general mileage, it’s hard to believe they would have been run any slower than 6-min/mile therefore being completed in 2½ hours.

In Jack Daniels’ Running Formula book he states a Long Run should never be more than 25% of the weekly mileage. The problem with this statement is it suggests you have to be running eighty miles per week to train for a marathon which is unnecessary for all but the best runners. This 25% limit is better applied to his training plans for shorter race distances but even with the marathon he says don’t go over 2½ hours. He makes the point that for someone only running four times per week, the runs are automatically 25% of the weekly mileage!

The 20-mile run is actually an arbitrary distance, there’s no science to this number. In Europe where they work in kilometres the Long Run is often 30K or 35K which are 18.6 miles and 21.7 respectively. People love round numbers! Of course, it’s true that runners used to say “Twenty miles is the halfway point of the marathon” as a reference to when the body starts to hit the wall and you have to dig deeper, but it’s also because they rarely trained much past it so the body wasn’t used to longer runs.

The most interesting approach to the marathon long run is the one detailed in Steve Magness’ The Science of Running. Magness coached at the Nike Oregon Project under Alberto Salazaar, himself once a world-class marathoner. The training knowledge at NOP was of the highest calibre so this method is one used by some of the best runners in the world. The first two months of a training programme are used to build up the Long Run to the twenty mile mark but then after this, there’s rarely specific Long Runs scheduled. They’re replaced by workouts that typically total the mileage. A world-class marathoner running at 5min/mile might do a Tempo run of 15-miles taking 1hr15 and when you add in a 4-mile warm-up and warmdown the session totals twenty miles. US Marathoner Josh Cox demonstrates this workout in the Training Day video.


The Hansons believe your marathon should be based on good physiological principles. They conclude that running for significantly longer than 2½ – 3 hours doesn’t provide those benefits to runners. Certainly in my own limited marathon training, I used to find that a three hour run left me feeling dehydrated whereas I happily run between 2 – 2hr15 every Sunday without taking food or drinks and arrive home feeling fine.

Hansons may limit the Long Run to sixteen miles but they include a run of eight miles the day before which results in a total of twenty-four miles over the two days. As they describe it, those sixteen miles then become the “last sixteen miles of your marathon” rather than the “first sixteen” which runners who set off fresh legged typically do. This is a method called cumulative fatigue and is used by ultrarunners to train for their races which can be in excess of one hundred miles. On a training weekend they might run for 5-6 hours each day to enable them to compile a total closer to their race distance.


When I was marathon training because I was capable of a 22-min parkrun I could reach twenty miles in three hours, it happily coincided with my 9-minutes per mile easy pace. For a slower runner, I would look for them to improve their pace and to use the principles of cumulative fatigue to help them prepare for a marathon. I’ve met far too many 5-hour marathoners focused on reaching the mythical 20-mile run in training because that’s what the guys who were capable of running four minute miles in the Sixties did. The problem is, as they build up through fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty miles they start tearing themselves down Sunday after Sunday with demoralising trudges lasting four hours or more, often in unpleasant winter conditions. Motivation sags, they can’t wait for the taper and end up walking large chunks of the marathon anyway. If you must build up to twenty miles get it done early interspersing the progression with less-taxing two hour runs on alternate weeks to give the body a chance to recover.


This far I’ve focused on the marathon distance but I find many runners don’t believe a Long Run is necessary for anything other than half or full marathons. This is a mistake and maintaining a weekly Long Run is an important part of building your aerobic base. By running further once a week you dig out muscle fibres that would otherwise lie dormant. Does it need to be 20-miles? Definitely not unless you’ve reached the capabilities of the Lydiard crowd.

Middle distance runners typically do a run of 10-12 miles and it goes up from there depending on the distance being raced and the runner’s capabilities. But it’s equally important to think in terms of time. I always aim for a minimum duration of 1½ hours for my weekly Long Runs and a maximum of 2½ hours. Of course, this distance needs to be in proportion to my other running, I wouldn’t do that if I were rebuilding after a layoff and only doing thirty minute runs the rest of the week.

Whatever your event, whether it’s parkrun, 10K or longer don’t neglect a weekly long run. It’ll keep you positioned to pick up on a half or full marathon at short notice while helping you get fitter and faster for your chosen distance.

Marathon speed

Recently I’ve been loaned biographies about Bill Adcocks, Derek Clayton and Ron Hill. These are names from a long-forgotten past but, in the late 1960s, they were three of the best, if not the best, marathoners in the world.

Derek Clayton was the marathon world record holder for fourteen years including the whole of the 1970s. Born in Northern Ireland, he emigrated to Australia in his early twenties and set his mind on becoming the world record holder. His training regime consisted of 150-160 miles each week which enabled him to set the record, first in 1967 with a time of 2hr09min36 in Fukuoka (Japan) then improve it two years later to 2hr08min34 in Antwerp (Belgium). There was however controversy over this latter record as the course was thought to be short. Nonetheless it stood until 1981 when it was broken by Rob de Castella.

Derek Clayton looks out from the cover of “Running to the Top”. Part autobiography / part advice

Bill Adcocks was another great marathoner and, the year after Clayton’s recordsetter, he became the sole Briton ever to win Fukuoka marathon in 2hr10min48. He was only a minute slower than Clayton and, while he never held the world record, until 2004 he held the course record for the original Marathon route in Greece with a time of 2hr11min07. Among his other accomplishments were to place 5th in the heat and altitude of the 1968 Mexico Olympic marathon and win silver at the Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1966.

Bill Adocks running on the left.
The cover of his autobiography “The Road To Athens”

Ron Hill is better known these days as he’s continued running into the 21st century and is famed for his daily run streak that stretched from 1964 to 2017. Arguably he was slightly better than Bill Adcock at the marathon but it’s a close contest. Ron competed for Great Britain at the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 Olympics. In 1970, he set a course record in Boston in 2hr10min30 then followed it up by winning the Commonwealth Games gold in 2hr09min28. He claimed this was the world record as it was faster than Clayton’s Fukuoka time and the Antwerp course had never been successfully remeasured.

Part two of Ron Hill’s “The Long Hard Road” – both parts are 400 pages

Having graduated with a PhD in textile chemistry, Ron began his own clothing line. I remember when I was a sixteen year old attendant at Broadstone Sports Centre, the other lads (Warren, Justin, Eddie, Tim) all wore RonHill Tracksters – navy blue leggings with a thin red stripe down the side and stirrup loops at the bottom. While they were tighter than the woollen tracksuits of the day, they were still looser compared to the lycra of today. Of course I had to get a pair to try and fit in with the cooler, older lads!

The legendary RonHill Tracksters. A favourite of the lads at Broadstone Sports Centre in the ’80s

What I found revealing from these books was that each of them began at clubs where they did regular intervals sessions to develop their speed. Mileage was secondary and a big week in their early years was 30-40 miles. Their best times for 400m and the mile were as follows:

400m / 440yd timeMile time
Derek Clayton52 secs4:07
Ron Hill55 secs4:10
Bill Adcock57 secs4:12
1960s world record45 secs3:51

My big takeaway is that even the best marathoners in the world, who are the most naturally talented towards endurance, could run a 400m or 440yds in under sixty seconds. Yet I know few runners entering parkruns, 10Ks or other distance events who can do this. Do you have to be freakishly endowed with speed to achieve this? I don’t believe so – simply committed to a good training programme. Of course there will be some who aren’t capable but I suspect many more could if they tried.

The related takeaway is that in being able to run 2hr10 marathons, Clayton, Hill and Adcocks were running at 5-minutes per mile. It’s an obvious statement yet most people approaching the marathon are more concerned about training for the distance than being able to run a single mile faster. To an extent, you can build decent times off general runs and progressively pushing harder but often this only leads to being a decent runner at the front of local races with times that are far off those of the best club runners.

When you think about it, it’s obvious – “if you want to run a fast distance race, you have to be fast over a shorter distance”. I know lots of people who do speedwork with the intention of getting fast for their current races but no-one who’s taken a dedicated approach to improving their speed at shorter distances before working on the distance of longer races.