An Idiot’s One Month Marathon Training Programme

aka Learning To Run

Oh shit…

At time of writing this post it is exactly 32 days before the 2016 TCS New York Marathon. I’d entered back in May, but kind of put it to the back of my mind (you know, life and shit). But now it was inescapable, it was one month away and I had never run more than six miles in my life, let alone 26.2. Some initial research indicated that marathon/running novices should take four months to train and that the experienced prepare themselves over three months. Yeah. Shit…

Could my misguided belief that somehow ‘the rules’ don’t apply to me also extend to the laws of nature? After a quick search of whether it was possible to run a marathon without any training (no seeing a couple of twats called Jedward had managed it did not inspire me) I set about getting myself race ready… in one month. Thus my panicked text to friend Mdavid Low aka MD — experienced runner and erstwhile Nike employee.

The Context.

Full kit wanker

Health-wise… i’m a pretty active 39 year-old, 80kg-ish, 5'-11"-ish, guy. No injuries or duff joints. From childhood I switched sports every three years or so, meaning I never exerted and wore out the same joints. I commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan regularly on a heavy (45 pound) but beloved Citibike, covering about 20km to 30km a day. That’s about it in terms of exercise. I’ve always had a decent set of lungs and legs. Oh, and I am determined as fuck when I have a goal in mind.

Fortunately lungs, legs and head is what I would come to learn is pretty much what you need.

Life-wise… I’m busy in a full-time role and I have two awesome and little boys aged nearly 3 and 5, so life is full. To be honest, for me and my wife, balancing it all has felt like (first world) survival mode for a little while. None of which in my mind was compatible with a four or three month training programme. Also, those that know me will know that I have a tendency to leave things to the last minute. So, because life and me, I had a month to get race ready. What follows is how I did that.

Disclaimer: Before any ‘experts’ get excited, this is categorically not a guide to training for a marathon in one month, because it is probably not such a good idea. This is simply what I did and what I learned (and tbh info I would have loved to have come across in the situation I found myself in, thus the share).

The Cause.

So why run in the first place? At this point i’m going to fess up that i’m no altruistic angel and I originally applied because I live in New York and the New York Marathon is the largest/greatest marathon in the world, the personal challenge, bucket-list, approaching 40, kind of cliched bullshit.

But i’m also an MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) aka Doctors without Borders donor. It is an organisation at which my wife, who is in development/fundraising, used to work (which I admire her greatly for). I applied for the Marathon through MSF because I had a connection to them and that’s how you can get to run the Marathon. However, in this process I found far greater purpose (and a whole lot more)…

So I was committed to running and raising for MSF, but had not felt so comfortable asking for contributions from friends and family. But in the subsequent months, seeing the utter madness currently taking place in Syria, the devastation, the impact on children, that hospitals themselves are being bombed (by our own fucking planes) was gut-wrenching.

We’ve all seen the pictures of kids being dragged out of the ruins of bombed out buildings in Aleppo by the White Helmets, knowing that their chances are slim. As a father of two young boys you can’t help but think of what it would be like for you. Imagine if it was you and there was no hope of medical care for your loved ones even if they were pulled from the rubble. But they have a hope and a chance because MSF are right in there, alongside stoic Syrian doctors and nurses, all putting their own lives at risk to save others.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) supports eight hospitals in Aleppo city. It runs six medical facilities across northern Syria and supports more than 150 health centers and hospitals across the country, many of them in besieged areas.

Apologies if this all seems gratuitous, it’s not pulling on heartstrings, just a reality a million miles from ours playing out right now. So screw my original motivations, this is what it became about and I am was going to try my damnedest to raise $5,000 for the cause. If any of this resonates and you would consider donating, you can do so on my fundraising page right here.

The Plan.

So, here we go… MD kindly swung into action and pulled together a training programme for me on a shared Google Doc we could both input on, as well as a set of conditions and a shopping list. It was going to be a pretty gruelling month, a vertical climb with a 20 mile run 12 days in. Bear in mind I had not run in a couple of decades and had never run more than six miles at best. His first message was “get out and give me 5k today”...

If you’re interested, here is a link to the training programme itself. Feel free to copy, steal etc.

The Tracking.

In terms of tracking my runs, I was already a keen Runkeeper and Apple watch user, so tracking my activities became even more interesting. I began to build my circuits in my local area on Runkeeper for the various distances I needed to cover. Runs would take place early before work, or I would shift my working day around the run and still get the output. Being a bit of a geek (I work in design/tech) I enjoyed the satisfaction of creating the circuits, delivering on the challenge day by day, and of generating and reviewing the data. The runkeeper app on the watch allowed me to learn to pace and work my split times. No way I could have calibrated myself without it.

The Diet.

“Diet is everything at this point and u barely have time to adjust. U got to strip it all out.”

One condition MD gave me was that I was going to be vegan from right now, through to the marathon. Apparently many atheletes go vegan in the month or months before their event. Aim is to cleanse, simplify and optimise your digestive system, lose water weight, better flush toxins and speed up recovery from runs (experts and carnivores, please excuse my amateur take).

Hang on. Vegan? That’s no meat or dairy right? WTF? My entire diet is non-vegan. I love bread and butter (My desert island food - I could live on that shit alone the rest of my life) and I enjoy burgers, cheese, bacon and meat in general as much as the next red blooded male. Also, the worst meal I have ever had, bar none, was a vegan place in San Francisco where the entire menu was an exercise in denial. It was a vegan restaurant but the menu listed ‘meat’ dishes like spaghetti bolognese and beef burgenoin. Every dish our party had was beige, pale and clammy in colour. Thank the gods it has shut down now.

Anyway, if it was what I needed to do, I would do it. So I grabbed myself a sayonara slice of finest New York Grandma style pizza and kissed goodbye to my diet of 39 years.

Being vegan is like having sex wearing not one, but two, condoms. It is deeply unsatisfying, lacking in sensation and there is no climax (although MD responded to this point that it makes you last longer. Touche!). I cannot carry on with it post marathon. Going to restaurants and being relegated to one dish on the menu, or even just having to order some sides. The rock bottom moment for me was eating a veggie burger (first and last ever).

Also, who invites a vegan around for dinner? “Oh honey, should we invite Jules and Michelle over for dinner? Oh hang on wait, Jules is vegan isn’t he? erm.. forget about it”. It is also quite an arsehole thing to pull on your partner as it screws home cooking.

But I will learn from it and do it again for a stint. I actually felt great despite the inconvenience. I became one of those vegans who has to tell everyone the are vegan (which I began to hate about myself). Just like marines, they all somehow let you know within minutes of meeting them that they are or were a marine.

I learned from advice from vegetarians that you need to plan your meal. You just need to plan as you can’t freestyle “where should we get lunch today?” as a vegan. So I made up a list of dishes I could eat on a spreadsheet and planned ahead what and where I would eat including: Vegetable Soup, Simple Tomato Spaghetti, Bread + Spread, Brussel Sprouts, Salads (pear, wallnut etc), Avocado Toast, Falafel, Stir Fry Tofu, Vegetable Pile (Open kitchen), Pesto Pasta, Pizza (no cheese), Jacket Potato. Frankly there are things you can eat and lots of places you can eat well.

Another ask was that I up my water intake to a gallon of water a day to help with the flushing of toxins and lactic acid in my legs as well as general health. Save to say I was a regular visitor to the little boys room (not sure if that’s a saying in America, but I don’t mean I was peeing in my kids bedroom, it means the men’s restroom).

I also don’t eat breakfast, which had to change as the race is in the morning. So every day began with a protein shake (see below) within one hour of waking.

The Shopping.

I had to pick up a bunch of gear to put on my body for the task…

  • Kit. I went full kit wanker on Nike gear. Pretty much because Nike owns running (and because MD gave me a big Nike discount when I we worked together on something in Portland). The kit has shiny bits all over so I can be seen running at night and it looks fresh. Also. Neon.
  • Running shoes. You need proper running shoes (doh!). So I went to Brooklyn Running Co and after a brief consultation (always best to go to a proper running store and get assessed) opted for a pair of Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 33. They are ultra fresh so you can wear them with your regular clothes and still be slick (other brands, no way you can pull that shit off).
  • Compression Socks. To aid recovery after runs I was told to pick up some sports compression socks. On brand, I opted for Nike Elite Lightweght Compression Socks but you can get them from Zensah and CEP. You wear them after your runs and during the day to improve circulation. They “should should be literally nearly impossible to get on.” apparently.
  • Water Bottle. Needing to drink a gallon a day meant I picked up two 1,000mL bpa free Nalgene bottles, one for at work and one for at home, which pretty much followed me around 24/7. Was helpful to have with me at all times.
  • Protein Shaker Bottle. To drink the various powders and protein shakes.
  • Foam Roller. In order to work out the lactic acid that would build up in my legs after runs and generally stretch post run I used a foam roller. All kinds of things you can do and it hurts, but definitely helps.

As well as a bunch of things to put in my body…

  • VEGA Protein and Greens. This was my breakfast replacement (for the breakfast I never used to eat in the first place). Important for energy balance in the day and actually pretty healthy. I got used to it and mixed it every morning in my protein mixer.
  • Chloroxygen. I was advised that 12 drops of this stuff in a glass of water just before your run would be magic. Apparently it boosts your blood oxygenisation. I have no idea if it worked, but together with everything else it worked. Oh, it also makes your stool green, so don’t freak out.
  • Creatine. Only in the last ten days of the training program, I took one teaspoon of this before any run over 3 miles. Apparently “Creatine helps to regenerate a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your body’s main source of energy. When creatine stores in your muscles are depleted, the production of ATP comes to a screeching halt and your energy is dramatically decreased.” So there.
  • Vitamin B12. As I had shifted to a vegan diet I would be lacking in vitamin B12. It used to be commonly found in water, but everything is now treated out. Animal products have it as they drink unfiltered water, but it is also lost when cooked. It is a natural energy raiser and improves blood oxygenisation.
  • Clif Shot Energy Gels. Apparently after 90 or 120 minutes of running your body has depleted its natural energy reserves. So when you’re running you need to get that energy replaced just in time for when you tap into it. There are lots of different products, but I went with these CLIF SHOT® Energy Gel packs.
  • Earth Balance Buttery Spread. I love butter and bread. The notion of not being able to have bread/toast/bagels for a month was too much. I am also a butter purist and cannot stomach inferior butter or other spreads. But somehow this Vegan Buttery Spread is actually good (cannot believe I am writing that). Either way, major concern alleviated.

Learning to Run.

When I started out I have to admit I developed rigor mortis in my legs after the day one 5k run and day two 5 mile run. Great, “i’m fucked, how can I do this” I thought. But with every run, learning to prepare (diet & rest), stretch, recovery got faster and the impact lessened. I ran in the sun, rain, early morning and late and night. Within two weeks I would be enjoying running 10 miles and it would feel great with no payback in my legs the next day. 20 days in was was able to enjoy running 22 miles.

I don’t know which of the myriad of changes it was, but it worked and I did not fuck with any of it or cheat the diet. I got great satisfaction in covering the miles, reporting in to my coach MD, and geeking out on the data I had generated (if you check out the doc you will see links to activities on my runkeeper profile).

The learning to run part involved learning to get comfortable running slowly, which was super awkward at first. Learning to pace myself. I did not manage to follow the entire programme set for me. I missed out the cross training sessions and the spin class sessions. I was cycling a fair amount every day in addition to the running so told myself that balanced it out. Also in the final week with all the travel I missed two of the shorter runs. There was one 7 mile run where I had not eaten properly the night before and I was all over the place, a lesson I needed to learn.

By day 19 I had cracked it. Comparing the chaos and stop start of my day twelve 22 mile run to my day nineteen 22 mile run the difference was huge (see below). I learned to pace and achieve the highly desired negative split (running a faster second half of your race vs the first half) that runners aspire to. All things I learned over the course of the training through MD and other runners I came into contact with. I did my final distance run of 15 miles on day 26 of 32 and my final training run on day 30 of 32.

My pace and splits over 22 miles on day 12 vs day 19 of training.

The Ice Bath.

I was told to take ice baths after my longer runs. This involved buying a couple of bags of ice from the local store and filling a bath with cold water. 20 to 30 minutes after the run would help my legs recover. “the exposure to cold helps to combat the microtrauma (small tears) in muscle fibers and resultant soreness caused by intense or repetitive exercise. The ice bath is thought to constrict blood vessels, flush waste products and reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.”. This took a little getting used to for my extremities, but once everything is numb its ok.

The Burpees.

Man, the burpees. The horror. Burpees were also a part of every workout in increasing sets every week. Starting with 15, 20, 30 and then 50 in a session. I did 500 over the month-long training programme. I was sent this video as a reference.

Oh The Places You’ll Go.

I’m extremely fortunate. I get to travel and October was a busy one for work. Get out early, run, then start the day. My training runs took me through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the grid of Bed-Stuy (where I live), the leafy loops of Prospect Park, the Golden Gate and Presidio of San Francisco, the Stanford campus, Richmond’s royal park and Thames river of London, wrapping at a chateau and river in Namur in Belgium.

Reading this makes me cringe at the extreme privilege of my life. I would and could have done all of the training if I was based in Brooklyn the whole time. Prospect Park’s 3.35 mile loop was all I really needed. But the point of this is that I experienced the places I visited in a new and more visceral way, through new legs and eyes. Unexpected.

The Soundtrack.

Tunes. Music helped me get through a lot of the programme and I know of many runners talking about preparing your mix for the marathon (even though you’re not supposed to wear headphones). I have always been into electronic music so I just went back to the same tunes that I used to sweat to on a dancefloor in London back in the day to sweat to on the streets of Brooklyn. The irony was not lost on me that this new context was a slightly healthier endeavour than the prior.

The Results.

Well I am done with the training programme. The New York marathon is on Sunday in 48 hours. I’ve run 156 miles over the course of a month (including two 22 mile runs), done 500 burpees, and lost 8% of my body weight.

I feel fucking fantastic, mind and body sharp and aligned. I’ve found a new place for me. I’ve not directly or indirectly contributed to any animals being killed for 32 days (that’s got to generate some karma). I’ve travelled and seen places from an entirely new perspective. I’ve found a far greater purpose in the endavour and been buoyed by people’s generosity. I also learned a whole lot about myself in the process…

  • With the right approach, your body will adapt to what you ask of it immensely quickly. 12 days in I was covering 22 miles, never having run more than six in my life. I lost weight and improved conditioning.
  • A small/medium gesture you extend to someone can be an exponentially larger on the receiving side. I am infinitely thankful to MD, without whom there is no way I would be ready for Sunday, who took the time out to help me and open up a whole world of learnings. ‘Small’ gesture on one side, life impact on the other. I will remember that. Thank you MD!!!
  • I learned that with the right coaching, structure and objectives I can get things done and I can deliver on promises to myself and others. I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery the last five years and this one is a bit of a relevation.
  • Running is good for the head. My therapy. Our lives are so full, the bandwidth of our being so polluted by technology (ironically the industry I am in). Running creates that space for you to be with yourself, be with your thoughts. In that space large and insurmountable problems you carry in the mind get broken down into smaller more manageable pieces. You learn that whilst literally nothing has materially changed to your situation in the time you went running, that it is surmountable. So much is simply a matter of perspective.
  • Horizons, those trees back as far as you can see, just seem closer now. I remember looking at the Golden Gate Bridge in the far distance (5 miles or so) last week and not even skipping a beat. ‘Just do it’ indeed.
  • Humans probably were maybe not intended to eat meat and dairy. I feel great. Genuinely the best shape of my life. Mind and body sharp and focused. Energies balanced (no more 3pm energy dips). All of which is really fucking annoying if that is what it takes. I am going to change up my diet out the other side of this (after I ceremonially destroy a Shake Shack Double ShackBurger).
  • Running is a great way to experience the place you live and the places you visit. I will now be taking a pair of running shorts and shirt wherever I go. It’s just a couple of light pieces of clothing to add to your usual bag. It’s also a good reason to always be wearing a fresh pair of running shoes.

Let’s do this…

If any of this resonates and you would consider donating to my goal of raising $5,000 for MSF, you can do so on my fundraising page right here

Disclaimer Repeat: Before any ‘experts’ get excited, this is categorically not a guide to training for a marathon in one month, because it is probably not such a good idea. This is simply what I did and what I learned (and tbh info I would have loved to have come across in the situation I found myself in, thus the share).


[Obligatory Update]

I had a less than ideal build up in that I landed in NYC from London the day before the race at 5pm and picked up my bib form the Javit’s Center 20 minutes before closing at 7:40pm. It was great to see my boys after a week away, but my two year old decided to wake us up at midnight and four and five in the morning. Anyway, I headed out at 7am for the big day to get my 8am Staten Island Ferry.

The Finish Line.

Job done…. 4:24:39 finish time, average pace of 9:48 per mile, and uninjured. What it was like to experience my first New York City marathon is for a different kind of post. Save to say it was bucket list material and well worth it and every donation and shout of support on social or from friends on the course got me there.

Managed to see my boys and my lady along the route (but had to double back a block to find them as I missed them on the first pass).

My GPS told me that I actually ran closer to 28 miles. I had no idea what pace I was running at as my Apple Watch and Runkeeper froze (going to get a Garmin). The last six miles were hard AF but I got there. I remembered to just try and enjoy it, and I did.

I really pushed for a negative split around the halfway mark, but ended up tailing off, but it beat me and the last miles were hard. I guess that’s the difference between a month and a three-month training programme or starting with a base level of running condition. Makes me determined to get it right next year and hit under four hours. I’ve got to invert the chart below from the 17 mile mark.

It’s A Wrap.

Thanks for indulging me on this idiot’s odyssey. The most important thing was that, at time of writing we managed to raise just over of $5,000 for MSF. The fundraising page will remain open till the 11th of November (if you’ve not donated, please take the chance to do so). See you next year when I am going to do it better (still within one month though).

[Obligatory Update — 2018]

I kind of fell into being a normal person, yet a runner… Completing my first ever race inspired me into running. My next goal was to complete the 9+1 race requirement to automatically qualify for the the 2018 New York Marathon. So 2017 was filled with races and early Sunday morning starts to experience the five boroughs in an utterly unique way. Nine races later, including four half marathons, I hit the target, collecting a set of beautifully designed medals along the way. So I will be running the 2018 New York Marathon for the first time as a non-novice runner, but still deploying my one month routine. I can highly recommend joining the fantastic New York Road Runners org and going for the 9+1 goal if you live in New York and want to set yourself a follow up target.

I have also had several people use the one month training regime above to prep for their own marathon challenge. Please do reach out if this works for you (but again, please don’t try this at home folks).