Book review – The London Marathon

Ahead of this year’s London Marathon, I happen to be reading a book all about it. This is pure coincidence as I picked it up off the charity bookshelf a couple of months ago for 50p. It’s been sat waiting to be read ever since but I had to finish off the badly written Chris Waddle autobiography first!

Published after the 25th running of the race, “The London Marathon – the History of the Greatest Race on Earth” was written by John Bryant. A marathoner himself by the time of his death in April 2020, he’d run London twenty-nine times, He was an established writer and journalist who’d worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph ad Daily Mail among other newspapers.

Often the people writing these sorts of books aren’t that involved, simply just writing up what they’ve researched on the subject. Bryant cannot be accused of that. He had run a 2hr21 marathon and coached Zola Budd when she was competing for Great Britain in the 1984 Olympics. It’s very clear he understands what he’s writing about and, also how to write it well. It’s a very engaging book split into twenty-two chapters with each detailing a piece of history or what the marathon experience is about.

I’m only about a third of the way through but so far I’ve read about Chris Brasher and John Disley, the founders. About the first race in 1981 and the dark years which followed in the life of its joint winner, Dick Bardsley. It details the British winners (including Charlie Spedding and Steve Jones) in the following years asking them why we no longer have the same success. It tells of Spirodon Louis, the winner of the first Olympic marathon in 1896 and interestingly that his win may have been assisted. How the marathon distance became established at its current distance rather than its differing distance of 22-25 miles. There’s a chapter about Ron Hill, who I previously wrote about, which confirmed my memory that the first 26.2 years of his streak involved running twice per day and once on Sundays.

Upcoming chapters promise a look whether the women’s time will match the men’s, the rise of African runners, what older runners can achieve, the celebrities and ordinary people taking on the marathon challenge. There’s a look at the logistics of organising as well as the demands on the runner’s body. It features the elite runners, the world record holders of the time Khalid Khannouchi and Paula Radcliffe, as well as discussing the potential for when a sub-2hr marathon might be run. Spoiler – it’s been done.

What is fascinating is how much of this info is now common knowledge. It’s easy to forget how far sports science and our understanding of how to train for, pace and prepare for marathons has come. Reading about the early Olympic marathons, the competitors like Dorando Pietri were breakfasting on beefsteak and coffee; gargling with Chianti, drinking wine and taking drugs such as strychnine ad atropine during the race. There’s even a brief look at shoes, barefoot running and the Tarahumara almost five years before Christopher McDougall wrote all about it in Born to Run.

At 260 pages, John Bryant provides an excellent and informative overview of the London marathon through its first twenty-five years. His well-written account is a pleasure to read, striking an excellent balance between story-telling and factual detail. It’s a book packed with looking at London from many different angles and I know it isn’t going to take me long to finish.

The 2023 London marathon takes place this Sunday, April 23, returning to its traditional Spring slot after three years displaced to October due to the pandemic. While it’s now too late for me to coach you for it, there’s always next year. If you think you might like to be coached, please feel free to contact me. I’m sure I can help you become a fitter, faster runner at any distance whether it’s the marathon, parkrun or any other race.

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.

A week with Ron

Just before Christmas, I was lent a copy of Ron Hill’s two-part autobiography “The Long Hard Road” which is packed with detail on his life and running up to when he wrote them at the start of the 1980s. I talked briefly about it in my Marathon Speed post. Coincidentally the latest issue of Runner’s World (February 2021) contains a feature on Ron which, of course, goes nowhere into the same level of detail but does give an outsider’s view of what he was like.

The legendary Ron Hill adorns
the cover of Runner’s World – Feb 2021 issue

Ron’s famous for his fifty-two year run streak and I’ve read analysis elsewhere suggesting he overtrained prior to big races. But let’s rewind, as I’m two hundred or so pages into part one and still learning about his early training and racing. On page 91 he details a week’s training which was the general schedule he began to follow from August 1961 and on through the next couple of years.

Details of a week’s training from Ron Hill’s book “The Long Hard Road” Pt. 1

About two weeks after formalising the schedule he won his first marathon, Liverpool, in 2:24:22 which gives us an indication of his level of fitness. Up to this point his training had been irregular with weekly mileage varying between 50-80 miles. He even took days off at that stage!

The training week I’m analysing follows the format he used throughout 1962-64, averaging 85-90mpw. His diary begins on a Saturday before Christmas …

The first thing to note is while 91½ miles of training sounds daunting, he’s actually only doing about 1hr – 1hr15 of training each day. The morning sessions are 25-30 mins; and the evening sessions tend to be eight miles of faster training which I’d estimate took 40-45 mins. The Sunday ‘long run’ of 11 miles will be just over the hour. What makes the 91½ miles achievable is being a fast runner – the majority of his running is done between 5-6 min/mile so he’s covering 10-12 miles per hour.

Saturday Dec. 16th

Morning – 4 mile course – 24:27 (6min05/mile)

Evening – 12 miles total. Ten mile race – 1st in 49min59 (5min/mile)

My thoughts – the 10-mile race is 5min/mile. According to Jack Daniels this gives Ron a marathon pace of 5:20/mile – which fits with his first marathon being run at 5:30/mile.

This 5:20/mile gives us a boundary for the 80-20 rule modern elites follow – 80% of their training will be slower than this. This 10-mile race is definitely in the 20% category.

Meanwhile the morning run is in the 80% category. JackD suggests an easy pace of 5:55 – 6:40/mile for someone at Ron’s level of development, so at 6:05/mile it looks about right.

Sunday Dec. 17th

11-mile long run.  No time given but run with two others at a “very gentle” pace

My thoughts – at over an hour, it’s slightly longer than an ideal recovery run from yesterday’s race but it certainly falls into the 80% category.

I find it interesting Ron had now been running over four years and his long run was only 11 miles. He managed to win Liverpool marathon without any specific build-up – there was no 20-mile run. It suggests he had natural talent for distance running but, as you’ll see, he ran hard almost every day and in doing so he used the same principle of ‘cumulative fatigue’ that ultra runners use to train for their big races.

Monday Dec. 18th

Morning – 4 ½ mile course – 26:51 (6min/mile). Says he “pushed it a bit”

Evening – 8½ miles – 6 laps of fartlek including fast lap (4:49)

My thoughts – the morning run is slightly longer and faster than on Saturday but Ron’s Sunday was easy by his standards. Falls into an 80% run.

We have few specifics on the how long the fartlek efforts lasted but due to the fast lap, I’d classify this as a 20% run.

Tuesday Dec. 19th

Morning – 4½ mile course – 28:36 (6min20/mile) – “fartlek” “pushed intervals along a bit towards the end”

Evening – 8½ miles – at Firs – 4 laps at race pace (19:35 – 4:54/mile) + 2 laps fartlek

My thoughts – once again, while the average pace suggests it falls within the 80%, by doing a fartlek and pushing along the intervals, this begins to get into the 20% zone.

The evening session is definitely a 20% run, in modern terminology you’d call this a 20-min Threshold or Tempo run.

Wednesday Dec. 20th

Morning – 4½ mile course – 28:08 (6min15/mile) “pushed it where I could”

Evening – 10 miles – 20x440s in 1min10 with 220yd recovery

My thoughts – once again the pace of the morning run is under 80% but Ron isn’t allowing his legs the recovery they need from the race (80% session).

The evening session is the 6th consecutive session where he’s putting in effort rather than simply running easily (20% session).

Thursday Dec. 21st

Morning – 4½ mile course – no time given – “fartlek” “legs tired and leaden at the end”

Evening – 8 miles – “number stride fartlek” up to 60 and back down twice over

My thoughts – finally we see the results of hard racing on Saturday followed by trying to push things on Monday to Wednesday. I’m guessing the legs felt particularly tired because the previous evening was five miles worth of interval work. Yet Ron wanted to do a fartlek that morning. It would probably qualify as an 80% session on average pace but it’s another hard one in my book.

In the evening he did the “number stride fartlek” workout he invented:

“I ran 10 double strides hard effort, counting each time my left leg pushed off then jogged 10 double paces, then 15 double strides with the same number of paces jogged, 20, 25, 30, and so on, up to 55 or 60, then back down again to 10. Half mile jog, then repeat the sequence again. The bursts were relatively short, but it meant a lot of hard work in the acceleration phase each time, and I found it very tiring.”

Ron describes his “number stride fartlek” session (p.73)

I calculate this to be over twelve minutes of all-out hard running. First effort of 10 double strides only takes around 5 seconds, the second effort about 8 seconds. By the time he’s on the 60 double strides it’s taking over 30-seconds for each effort and he’s still got to come back down the ladder again. In total there are 21 efforts ranging from 5 – 30+ seconds.  He’s packing in a lot of acceleration and hard running here.  When you add it all up he’s totalling over 6-mins of all-out hard running on one of these efforts. That’s a session in itself for sprinters and he did it twice over.

Now compare that to the recommendations of Jack Daniels who would suggest doing eight strides after an easy run and describes them as “light, quick 10- to 20-second runs (not sprints) with 40 to 50 seconds of recovery between” (Daniels’ Running Formula 3rd ed. P.152).  That’s around 2-3 minutes worth and not all-out.  I begin to wonder how Ron ever survived running all those years – definitely a 20% session.

Friday Dec. 22nd

Morning – 4½ mile course – 30:04 (6min40/mile) “easy running”

Evening – 7 miles – ran to Firs and back for six laps of field

My thoughts – at last we see a day of easy running. After the “number stride fartlek” his legs probably weren’t able to do anything else in the morning (80% session).

No time is given for the evening session but it was probably an easier run (80% session).

To summarise, what I’m seeing here is almost constant pushing to run fast. The only days where this doesn’t happen are Friday and Sunday. He raced every Saturday so probably took things easier on Friday to give himself fresher legs and recovered on Sunday.

In terms of the 80-20 rule, it’s hard to know for sure which category sessions fell into I’d estimate he was closer to 50-50. The rule relates to doing training 80% of the training at an intensity where no waste products from anaerobic metabolism are being produced. Their presence upsets the body’s chemistry, uses fuel stores quicker and fatigues muscles thereby leaving the body less able to perform effectively in the next workout.

But beyond the anaerobic metabolites, there’s a question of muscular recovery. When racing or running at high speeds, the muscle fibres get micro tears that have to rebuild stronger. Without adequate recovery this mending doesn’t occur. Ron has it going in his favour that he’s in his early 20s so he’ll still be recovering quickly, but even a young person is only capable of doing three workouts per week – maybe more occasionally. If I’m sounding critical I’m happy to admit when I was Ron’s age, I had no respect for the recovery process either. I used to play sport hard almost every day. It wasn’t unheard of for me to play an hour of competitive basketball then go to volleyball training for another hour. Or play a game of squash at lunchtime and another in the evening.

On p. 108 Ron provides the bare bones of his schedule … (“It was hard training, but as I was seeing improvement and success, I didn’t mind it. Morning sessions rotated on a weekly basis. Evening sessions on a fortnightly basis. I had a card in my training log and I ticked off each session as it was done.“) … it’s a lot easier to see the pattern and intensity of sessions:

MORNING(4½ mile runs)EVENING
MonFartlekWeek 1MonFartlek with bursts
TuesFastTuesFour laps of the Firs (3½ miles) at racing speed
WedsFartlekWeds20 x 440 (usually around 68sec)
ThursFastThurs“number stride” fartlek
FriEasyFri7 miles easy
Week 2Mon20 x 440
Tues4 laps at racing speed
Weds20 x 440
Thurs4x repetition laps at the Firs
Fri7 miles easy
Saturday would have been a race later in the day and Sunday only one longer run

Ron is doing four specific workouts plus a race each week. He ran 64 races in 1962! And he’s pushing it on four mornings. His body is under a huge amount of stress and it’s no wonder that, after a year of it, he was eventually forced to back off and take three easy weeks (30-40 miles) in December 1962. As he recounts his year, he’s usually trying to run through some kind of nagging Achilles, foot or quad injury.

I’m certain if he had simply jogged the morning runs each day he would have been in a much better position (but still not an optimal one). Some people can handle more intensity and training than others and it’s clear Ron could. But it’s also clear from how his body reacted that his training was too much even though it helped him get faster over the next couple of years. More recovery sessions would almost certainly have allowed him to do stronger workouts to make the same gains and possibly even run faster.

But enough of the analysis, Ron says he was seeing improvement and it’s certainly the case. As he started this training he won the Liverpool marathon in 2:24:22 in August 1961. A year later he won the Polytechnic Marathon in 2:21:59. It led to him representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the European Championships in Belgrade. He didn’t finish the race pulling out at 30km five minutes down on the leaders. In 1963, he tried to defend his Polytechnic title and, while running faster (2:18:06), he came 2nd to Buddy Edelen. In 1964, Ron ran his fastest time yet with 2:14:12 at the Polytechnic which would have been a World Record had Basil Heatley not been beaten him. It gave them both a place at the Tokyo Olympics but Ron could only finish 19th in the marathon (2:25:34) and 18th in the 10,000 metres – a distance he’d been ranked at 3rd in the world in 1963.  Nonetheless in three years he took ten minutes off his marathon time with his training regime. At other race distances he also saw improvements – his 2-mile time going from 9:12 to 8:50; his 3-mile time from 14:08 to 13:29; and his mile time down to 4min 12.5sec.

This is the question mark against Ron’s training methods. He was capable of winning one week, struggling the next. He won the Boston Marathon and Commonwealth Games in 1970 but then failed to even secure a medal at the Munich Olympics when he was the favourite.

I believe more recovery runs each week and fewer workouts would have allowed him to find the consistency to be a winner more frequently. Maybe I’m being unfair to him and as I get into the later parts of his autobiography, I’ll find he did what I suggest but his hard-working reputation leads me to doubt it. It’s instructive that as he prepared for the AAA Championship 6-mile race, key to selection for the Olympics, he was still running in local races. Modern runners are more selective about when they race. Constantly pushing his body meant it had to give out at some stage, so it often happened when everybody else was rested, at the top of their game and able to push harder.

Regardless of the results, I believe Ron got the best out of his talent and had a career to be proud of. His best marathon time was 2:09:28, only a minute or so behind the world record in place a decade and a half later. As a coach, you love people who are committed to their training and willing to work hard so there’s no complaints there.

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

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.


Halloween’s arrived and I find myself with a running streak stretching back into 2019. It was never my intention to run every day until we got hit by coronavirus when my plans to do Bournemouth Bay 1/2 marathon went out the window. Usually I’d have taken a rest day going into a race but of course there was no race so I kept on running. “To run every day of 2020” became my new challenge.

Continue reading “Streaks”