Most of what I write on this site is marathon advice and information, but today I thought I’d share the story of my own first marathon.
I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons, but in the end, that first marathon is what catalyzed me to run dozens more in the few years since.
My first-ever full marathon was the Standard Chartered Marathon in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands – where I happened to be living and working back in 2012.
The Stanley Marathon holds the title of the world’s most southerly AIMS-listed marathon – at 51 degrees of latitude south of the equator, the Falklands are the last stop before Antarctica!
My Running Background
I was always a bit of an amateur runner.
In my late teens and early twenties, I would regularly go for a half-hour run in the evenings to unwind and get some exercise in.
One summer evening, I decided to push that regular half-hour run a bit farther and went out for a full hour. It felt great.
That summer, I started running around the city I lived in during the evenings. I’d go out for one or two hour-long runs. Running became my means of transport for doing basically everything – be it visiting friends or going to the shops.
Once I started working in the Falkland Islands, running became a means of exploration. From the small town of Stanley, (pop: 2,100), I could run out to the surrounding beaches, coastlines, and wilderness.
By this point, I was 23 or 24 and regularly running 10-20km routes, at least a couple of times per week.
That’s when the Stanley Marathon raised its head.
A marathon had always been a big ‘one-day’ dream of mine, but it seemed unattainable – the distance was more than double my previous longest run.
But buoyed by my enthusiasm for running, my love of running around the Falklands, and support from a few friends, I committed to the marathon – with about 3 months of time to prepare myself!
First Marathon Preparation
Given I’ve gone on to write literally hundreds of pages of advice on how to prepare for a marathon, it’s funny to think that I was probably the most ill-prepared runner at the start line of the Stanley Marathon in 2012.
In terms of training, at the time I didn’t believe in following a structured plan.
Up to that point, I had enjoyed running for the sake of running, and my training had consisted of going for long, winding runs without caring about pace or distance.
I seldom carried water and never brought any food or fuel with me.
I would occasionally plan my runs to pass by village shops where I could stop and get something. I’d usually get a bottle of water and some nuts and things to keep me going.
I had recently taken up barefoot running, but knew better than to attempt my first-ever marathon in minimal shoes. So I dug out a battered old pair of Asics and started training with them again.
Up to about a month before my marathon, the longest run I’d done was around 12 miles. I ran out to the lighthouse on the edge of the Falklands and back, which I reckoned was about 12 miles. I was still running a few 10km’s per week too.
As you can imagine, I was nervous about the upcoming marathon.
It was a totally unknown distance – there was a very good possibility that I would crash and burn. The last thing I wanted was to tell everyone I was running a marathon, then drop out two-thirds of the way through.
So one day, while back home in Scotland, I quietly went out and ran 27 miles.
That’s right. I ran more than a marathon.
It might seem like the worst thing I could’ve done, but it was just what I needed to dispel my doubts.
I plotted a circuit that left from my house and stopped in past several local villages, before looping back home. It was just over 27 miles.
I quietly loaded up my iPod (this was 2012, remember), and set off.
I took my time, knowing that a conservative pace would increase my chances of success.
I circled the route and reached home just as the sun was setting. My legs were beaten but I had done it.
I had run more than a marathon.
It took me around 4hrs 30 mins. If I can do that, then the actual marathon should be doable, right?
And that was about the extent of my training.
I used to be, and still am, a bit of a contrarian when it comes to conventional wisdom.
When it came to nutrition, I rejected the idea that I would need energy drinks or gels to keep running for hours on end.
In longer training runs, I would typically just get by with water (often just at the end of a run) and the odd snack – usually nuts.
I looked upon the other runners who planned their nutrition seriously as a bit OTT, and at the back of my mind, I thought that they were almost cheating by making the marathon easier on themselves.
So, my marathon fuelling strategy was pretty simple (though deeply, deeply flawed). Instead of preparing specific energy gels and drinks, I went around the marathon route the night before the race and hid a few Mars bars in strategic locations, thinking that they might be nice to have.
I know, it was fairly unconventional. Did it work? Read on.
The Start Line
To give you a picture of how prepared I was, here is a summary of what I looked like at the start line:
- I was wearing board shorts, which I didn’t realise would chafe after about three hours of running.
- My running shoes were years-old Asic Nimbuses with huge holes in the toes and elsewhere. I’d used them for a lot of long training runs in bad weather, and another runner commented that they looked like they were ‘held together by mud’.
- I had a cotton shirt, regular socks, and my iPod in my hand.
- I had no energy gels or drinks, other than the aforementioned Mars bars I had planted at various points throughout the course. Furthermore, there were aid stations which supplied snacks and Lucozade Sport electrolyte drink – in my wisdom, of course, I had already recided I was going to reject all of that stuff.
- On the previous evening, I had eaten a huge bowl of pasta with pesto then passed out. In the morning, I had made a smoothie of bananas, orange juice, peanut butter and a few seeds and things. So at least I got that part correct.
- I wore a Casio F91W. A great watch, but it doesn’t measure pace or location. Just the time.
On top of the above, I had set myself the goal of running the marathon in under four hours.
I didn’t really know why.
I knew it was a benchmark many marathoners liked to aim for, so why not me?
The Course – An Overview
Stanley is a fairly small town on the shore of a sheltered inlet. Given its small size, the majority of the marathon route takes place on the town bypass, which runs east to west.
The marathon route basically goes ‘out and back’ twice to the town’s airport, a few kilometers east of the town.
Underfoot, the route is pretty flat and is either gravel or graded road for the whole event.
What makes it interesting is the wind.
The Falklands have a near-consistent westerly trade wind, and on the day of the 2012 marathon is was blowing at a pretty fresh 30-35 knots.
Given the 2 x ‘out and back’ structure of the course, you are practically always running either with a strong headwind or tailwind.
It essentially goes something like this, roughly:
Miles 0 – 1: headwind
Miles 1 – 6: tailwind
Miles 6 – 13: headwind
Miles 13 – 20: tailwind
Miles 20 – 25: headwind
Miles 25 – 26.2: tailwind
As you can imagine, the headwind from mile 20 to 25 is an absolute killer. More on that later . . .
My First Marathon
The Start Line
I made my way down to the start line behind the bank on the town’s shoreline and joined the rest of the 57 marathoners. Typical of the Falklands, the runners were was a mixture of military personnel, locals, and people such as myself there on random work assignments. There was also a group of Japanese runners who were traveling the world bagging marathons.
We huddled under the wind-blustered starting banner, and the Governor of the Islands (who also ran the full marathon) fired the starting pistol. And before I knew it, we were off!
A few runners sprinted away immediately disappearing out of view while the rest of us were still getting started.
I felt a strong adrenaline surge and found myself practically floating for the first few minutes. A few work colleagues lined the early stage of the route to support me and even commented on how strong I looked.
This is going to be easy, I thought.
The First Half – Off To A Flyer
The first half of the marathon was probably the most fun I’d ever had while running.
The first long stretch of the bypass out to Stanley Airport had a good tailwind, and I floated on, chatting to other runners and really enjoying the spirit of the event. Several familiar faces drove by, waving and smiling. And I was flying. I kept reminding myself to hold back on the speed, that I’d need my energy later on.
At the aid station around mile 6, I faithfully rejected the energy drinks and snacks they were offering, and stuck to a glass of water. I also ran past the first of my hidden Mars bar stashes, ignoring it because I knew I didn’t need any more energy – I was doing just fine.
At the airport, the route turns around and runs back towards town – right into the 35 knot headwind. But this was alright, I had trained in these conditions and knew what I was doing.
My pace was still great. In fact, I pushed through the six-or-so miles of headwind and reached the halfway point in one hour and 35 minutes!
No way! I was way ahead of my four-hour pace target!
And what’s more, I was feeling great. All that I needed was to maintain my pace for the rest of the run . . . easy, right?
The Second Half – When The Wheels Came Off
From the halfway point, the next six miles were back out to the airport, with a good tailwind.
In theory, this was an easy section – long, flat, good conditions.
But it’s precisely the point at which things started to get rough.
A friend had warned me that “a marathon doesn’t really start until after the halfway point” and this was something I learned first-hand that day.
A couple of miles after the halfway point, my boundless energy levels started to falter.
I was feeling more drained, running was becoming a bit of an effort. My feet and legs were starting to feel a little clunkier, and what’s more, my shorts were starting to chafe.
I wasn’t even aware of it, but my pace slowed right down in those miles after the halfway point.
I at least had the sense to raid one of my Mars bar stashes and try and top up my energy levels. But it was probably too little too late.
By the time I reached the airport again – around mile 20 – I was in a sorry state. My progress had deteriorated and my pace had become a sullen trod. I was still running, but it was graceless, pushing my body with effort.
At the aid station at mile 20, a volunteer offered me a bottle of Lucozade Sport with an outstretched hand.
Without even acknowledging my thanks, I grabbed at it and thrust it into my mouth.
That syrupy, artificial, luminous liquid remains the best thing I’ve ever tasted to this day. It was instant refreshment for my exhausted body.
And then I turned around for the final long stretch – five miles back into town, directly into the wind.
This stretch is, and will likely remain, the low point of my running life.
The wind had picked up and was blowing fresh bursts of air, buffeting my progress. I plugged in my iPod and tried to dig deep, pushing through the pain.
For around forty soulless minutes, I ran back along the Stanley bypass at a poor man’s trudge. The headwind made it seem like I was practically running on the spot.
Looking at my watch, I saw my four-hour goal start to evaporate. I was on a seemingly endless treadmill here, making no progress as the clock ticked.
This was the low point.
I stopped my trudge to walk for a short stretch.
My legs were telling me to stop. They were wound tight with all the running and were unwilling to keep going.
At that point – around mile 23 – I remember thinking that if a friend had driven past, I was ready to ask them to just take me home.
I didn’t care about my 4-hr target.
I barely cared about finishing the marathon.
I just wanted it to be over.
I did eventually reach the end of the purgatory that is the Stanley bypass in a headwind, and got back to town.
In a cruel twist by the route planners, you have to run through town and then actually pass the marathon finish line around the 25-mile mark, before doing a final loop around the west end of town and coming back to finish.
I had walked/ran through town, alternating in order to keep making progress while giving my poor legs a break. As I approached the 25-mile mark, I knew I had some friends and colleagues waiting there to see me finish, so I puffed out my chest and ran past them, waving. Even worse than running past the finish line was passing the BBQ at the finish line, and smelling the burgers being scoffed by the faster runners.
Anyway, passing the 25-mile mark, I looked at my watch. Three hours, 48 minutes.
Well, would you look at that.
My legs were on strike, but I knew that I was physically capable of running that final mile-and-a-bit in under ten minutes – if I was lucky.
I dug deep, flipping through my iPod to find suitably motivating music. I plowed up to the west end of town, found the turning point and gave a wave to the marshall.
“You’re cutting it fine”, he said, with a typical Islander wry smile.
And then I rounded back towards the finish line. Passing the governor’s house on my right, I could see the bank off ahead. Checking my watch, I knew it was going to be tight, but I would make it.
The sight of the finish line brought a deep surge of adrenaline, which opened my tired legs up and let me sprint the last few hundred metres.
I rounded the corner of the bank, through the crowds, and crossed the finish line in 3hrs, 57 minutes and 59 seconds.
After the Race
As I stood around taking pictures at the finish line, the adrenaline began to burn off.
My legs locked up quickly.
I hobbled over to the BBQ tent, using my friend Sarah as a crutch, and scoffed a burger. Someone offered me a seat but I knew better than to sit down.
I managed to get home and enjoy the rest of the day with my legs elevated.
The afterburn effect was kicking in – I called friends and family and told them that I’d successfully finished.
For the next week, I could barely walk up and down stairs. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t care.
I had become a marathon runner.
I had finished my first marathon, and I was hungry to run more.
Not only that, but the experience had shown me the weaknesses in my old approach.
To perform well in long distance running, you need proper planning, training, and preparation.
Winging it once you get to marathon-length runs or longer doesn’t work. By structuring your preparation and planning properly, you give yourself the best chances of having a successful run – one which minimizes your discomfort and maximizes your chances of success, however you define that.
So I began taking notes, addressing my own shortcomings and researching ways to become a better marathon runner.
All of these small steps eventually led to the creation of this website – Marathon Handbook – where my aim is to collect all the tools and knowledge I’ve accumulated and share with others.