Dave Burton at his debut marathon – photo by Lis Yu
We’re going to try something a little different here, so please forgive me if it doesn’t quite work out as intended!
A little background to ease us all in. My good friend of probably 10 years now, Dave Burton, decided to take on the challenge of his debut marathon, having it coincide with his 50th year, and also the inaugural Birmingham International Marathon.
I had hoped to introduce snippets of his training accounts to dovetail them in with my own progress over the summer, but for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Instead, we have an interview to shed some light on his experience as an older runner looking to debut in the 26.2 mile distance.
First things, first! How do you feel now that you’ve had a day or so for the dust to settle after the race?
Without giving away too much, too soon, let me say this: the walk to New Street Station from the finish was the hardest mile of the day!
So, why did you decide to run a marathon? Why now and not earlier?
I reached 50 this year and had to accept that competing against younger guys and chasing PBs was no longer realistic. The marathon represented a new challenge. Being 50 also made achieving the London Marathon Good For Age standard a more realistic goal.
Additionally, Birmingham had not hosted a marathon since 1985, so it felt great to be part of the first marathon the city had seen for quite a while. There’s something special about running your home events. You recognise more of the other runners participating, often including friends and colleagues.
Rightly or wrongly, there is so much attention on the marathon distance, and I felt it was about time I had a go at it myself.
Tell us a bit about your running background
I took up running in my early 20s as a way to combat the stress of actuarial exams. Youth, rather than talent, took me sub-38 for the 10k before a bad football injury stopped me from running.
Roll on 20 years. You and I were in the same pub quiz team, discussing your aim of a sub-2 hour finish for the then approaching Great Birmingham Run half marathon. That reignited my interest. We ran it together in 1:45 and a friendly rivalry over the years that followed pushed us both to sub-1:30 half marathons, sub-19 5ks, and so on. My Cardiff 10k ‘Millennium Best’ in 2014 ranks as my most satisfying race – it was the first sub-40 for over 20 years. You PB’d, too, and it was probably the last time I’ll ever beat you!
Time to talk about training! Did you follow a plan? How did you set your goal time?
I started out with reading Pfitzinger & Douglas’ Advanced Marathoning from cover to cover, documenting the key learnings to better understand why certain sessions are covered, and so on.
You kindly produced a 22 week plan for me. In essence and spirit, it was a lite version of the one you adopted and modified for your own Yorkshire Marathon. This was a godsend as it enabled me to just focus on the running. It took the thought out of which sessions to do each time.
For my age and gender group, a 3:20 or faster finish time is required for the London Marathon Good For Age standard. This felt reasonably conservative as my half marathon times suggested I should have been capable of 3:10 to 3:15.
And how was the training? What did you feel gave you the biggest training boost? Any particular challenges?
In truth, the training stretched me. Some of the sessions, particularly mid-week 10 to 14 mile ones, had me swearing with incredulity at the brutality! Marathon pace was also tough, initially.
Having you oversee my training introduced some discipline. I was genuinely afraid of being told off for straying from the schedule! I even found myself apologising to you for having a crack at the occasional Strava segment!
I enjoyed training over the summer. I guess you feel the cold more with age and the long, light evenings give you more flexibility around when and where to run. I began to particularly enjoy the relaxed Thursday evening 10 milers. That used to be my long Sunday run, and now it felt like a light jog in the park admiring the view.
Unfortunately, minor injuries compromised the schedule and we made the right decision to drop the target to a sub-3:30 finish instead. Plantar fasciitis struck around late July and made an increasing number of runs quite painful. I found I had to run more on soft surfaces, such as grass, which limited where I could run. 17 to 22 mile runs around Rowheath Playing Fields was very tough, mentally! I had to alternate between clockwise and anti-clockwise laps to provide some variety. Having a high boredom threshold helps!
You convinced me to eventually see a physiotherapist about my plantar fasciitis. I don’t even see GPs unless things are falling off! Most importantly, you nagged and encouraged exactly where it was needed.
Leading up to the big day, how did race preparation go?
You and I planned the build-up to, and the day itself, in meticulous detail. Nothing was left to chance! It was so important to not throw away all the hard work in the final week due to poor strategy and planning.
Carbo-loading was new to me and I put on about 2kg in the days beforehand, largely due to an additional increase in water retention.
We planned my pace of 7:45 to 7:50 per mile, anticipating a slight slow-down in the second half due to fatigue.
Most importantly, we planned my nutrition strategy. Due to a lack of energy drink stations on the course, and only Gu brand gels being handed out, we devised a plan where you were to hand over pairs of my preferred Isogels at miles 9, 18 and 24.
Tell us about your race day experience
With my wave starting at 08:30, it meant getting a taxi at 07:00 and having breakfast at 05:45!
I was lucky to arrive just before the queues for the loos started to really build up. I was paranoid about having possibly overdone the carbo-loading and didn’t want to share my debut marathon with the gingerbread man (Marathon Talk joke for those unfamiliar). The baggage drop entailed choosing a seat for your bag on your favourite number bus – I went for lucky number 7. I was all set but did wonder if I’d applied enough Vaseline when I bumped into Darryll Thomas, greasing himself down as if preparing for a Turkish wrestling bout.
After a sluggish start trying to find some rhythm on the rolling downs of the A34, I settled into a comfortable 7:50 pace.
I focussed on trying to be as fresh as possible for mile 20 and the distance simply flew by. It felt like I was running a completely different race from everybody else! I started more conservatively, and so was overtaking people at miles 4 and 5 who had overdone it on the undulations early on.
By halfway, the race was settling down and I started to run with four other guys, including a Fenland-Lincolnshire runner, who I’d chatted with much earlier. It felt like we were just about to start running as a group, but that got trashed as we merged with the blue wave. I lost all sense of who was in the same race and had to weave in and out of runners for much of the next 9 miles. I managed to follow the Fenland runner as he scythed his way through the crowds, but his increased pace proved too much and I dropped back.
Nonetheless, I felt great at 18 miles, which made it feel more like an 8 mile race. The inclines in miles 21 and 23 were tough and my quads started to cry for attention after the final incline. However, I managed to maintain pace reasonably well, and my final two mile splits were only slightly slower than average. I managed to catch and take the Fenland runner in the final mile!
I finished in 3:26:02, so well within my sub-3:30 target!
You know, that’s faster than either of my first two marathons!
I’m lucky you made so many mistakes for me to learn from!
Ha! You genuinely looked like you enjoyed it!
It was a great day! There was a good vibe from it being the first marathon in Birmingham since 1985. Starting on the track at Alexander Stadium also gave it a real sense of occasion.
Positively, the route got the boring sections with no spectators out of the way early on, paving the way for good local support in the residential areas. The support from you guys and other friends on the course was awesome. A big plus of doing your home marathon.
You touched upon a few negatives earlier. Were there any others?
I spoke of the merging of the waves not working.
There were no isotonic drinks on the course and the supplied Gu energy gels were scarce. The gel station appeared 3 miles earlier than planned and there simply weren’t enough volunteers handing them out, which was very poor organisation given how critical they were. Somebody queried this on the official race Facebook page, but the organisers have not responded.
Also, flat course, my arse! The first few miles went up and down the flyovers and underpasses. The inclines in Bournville and Selly Park were tough, too.
At mile 5 in Digbeth, I may have slightly twisted my ankle on a pothole. I was incredibly lucky this wasn’t a showstopper!
At mile 24, one of the safety pins holding my bib in place failed. I feared for my bib detaching completely and not registering a time!
Any post-race thoughts you can share with us? Anything you would do differently? How is recovery going and what’s next?
I felt I nailed it. I ran fairly conservatively, with it being a venture into the unknown of a first marathon, and I managed to maintain a pretty even pace all the way round that made for an enjoyable experience.
I’d like to try a flatter course to see what I can achieve. I believe I have a sub-3:20 within me, but I’m not sure whether I can remain injury-free.
Next time, I’d also look to train more with other runners. I enjoy running solo and getting lost in my thoughts, but that became very tough, mentally, later in the schedule when my body was creaking.
I don’t have any immediate running plans. After the regimented routine of 22 weeks, I’m looking forward to just running for the fun of it. It would be great to try another marathon next year, and I’m tempted by trail runs now that I’m not scared of the longer distances.
Being able to walk normally took about 2 to 3 days. The biggest challenge was being confronted by 5 flights of stairs on the Tuesday morning due to the office lifts being out of action. I’ve also felt my immune system waving a white flag in recent days.
And finally, any words of wisdom for would-be marathoners?
Yep, lots, but three things in particular. Firstly, treat the distance with respect, so read up as much as you can before starting training. Secondly, learn to run slowly! Building endurance requires lots of mileage and it’s counter-productive to push yourself hard trying to look good on Strava. Instead, aim to run the long runs 10 to 20% slower than marathon pace, and if it doesn’t feel too slow at first, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Finally, force yourself to have an easy week at least every 4th week to give your body time to recover.
Congratulations, Dave, and welcome to the marathon club!