97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles

Your sun so bright it leaves no shadows
Only scars carved into stone
On the face of Earth
U2 – March 1987

If I think hard enough, I can probably remember each and every one. Not just my marathons, each of which are easy enough to recall, but the long runs which go before, which form the basis of any training campaign. Those twenty-milers which lie at the far end of all those long weeks of running.


Because no matter how much you increase the frequency of your regular mid-week runs, at morning, lunchtime or evening, somewhere along the line you’ll find yourself facing one of those runs which seems to occupy all three.

It’s nothing like that, really, since even I can polish off runs like this in three and a half hours, give or take a bit. But they seem to occupy far longer, not just in the time spent actually running, which can feel like for ever, but in the time spent thinking and worrying beforehand and in the hours spent recovering afterwards.The first time I ran twenty miles, I collapsed on the doorstep for half an hour on arriving home, before levering myself wearily into an armchair. There I pondered for a good while more, slept another hour, and then tucked into an enormous meal which was brought to me where I sat, slumped and immobile for much of that evening.

These days, I make less allowance for the distance, and so do those around me. But still I’m preoccupied for days before, planning how to fit it in, and it has an effect afterwards. I may not rest up quite like I did then, but I’m not exactly bouncing off the ceiling either.

It does take planning. Weekends should be best, but they’re often too busy at home.

Early mornings should be fine in the summer, but somehow my body doesn’t like waking up to such a hammering. So it’s afternoons or evenings which work best for me.

Although no single run can define a training programme, I’ve still no doubt that these are the most important runs you’ll do in the whole schedule. Speedwork, tempo runs, hill runs, fartleks …

I’ve tried them all, and yet in each and every marathon I run, I’ve always made the same new observation. That the marathon is all about ENDURANCE – nothing more, and nothing less. It really doesn’t matter how fast you ran your intervals three weeks ago. It doesn’t matter how well you ripped up that climb last month. It doesn’t matter that you beat your lunchtime best on Tuesday. The only thing that counts at all is just how you feel, and how you run, in the final miles of your marathon. That’s why the long run is so important in preparing you for the race.

It takes a lot of training, to be fit enough to run this far. And it takes it out of you, when you do. That’s why just one twenty-miler may be all you need, or all you want, before your race. Some people do more, especially if they’re training extra hard. That first year, for London, I completed just one twenty, and it nearly killed me. Eighteen months later, I did three before Chicago, where I ran a personal best. Three again before Stratford in 2003, three more before London a year later, and one more before Blackpool soon after – each time chasing that improvement which hasn’t yet come.

That’s eleven times now, I’ve run twenty miles in training. And today, I’ll make it twelve.

There’s no good window to do the run this time. Those smoothly ascending numbers in Hal Higdon’s spreadsheets make perfect sense, in a perfect life, but brook no allowance for reality. Because those family holidays and business trips just crop up where they will, and you have to work around them as best you can.

That’s how it’s always been, for me. That’s why I find myself running now. I know it might be better to run this far in Spain next week, but I know too well it’ll be far too hot along the beach. It might be better to arrange everyone else’s plans around me, so that I can run, but then again I might just want to live a simple life. It’s run this week, or not at all – that much is clear, so I’ll just get on with it, and do my best.

An extra hour or two at lunch will have to do. An unconventional working day, but I’ll make up the hours, there’s no doubt I will. An understanding boss who runs is a great help at times like this, and I pass on my thanks as I head out today at eleven o’clock.

It’s warm, already. Too warm, in fact. But that’s how it is. Just deal with it, mate, and run. The route I’ve chosen is familiar enough – along the Worth Way to East Grinstead (10 miles), and along the Worth Way back again (another 10). It’s a boring run, in many ways, along the old railway track. Just the uncertainty to enliven my time, of not knowing where an unexpected collapse might catch me out. As they do, from time to time, on runs like these. And as indeed they often must.

It seems to me that the point of ever longer runs is that the last few miles are always hard. In early training it’s miles 5 and 6 which catch you out. And then it’s 9 and 10. A week or two more, and it’s 13, 14 which hurt so much, but by that stage, miles 5 and 6 are a piece of cake. Maybe it’s only by persistently extending that endurance envelope, oh so cautiously and painfully, that your capabilities really do grow.

My first ten miles pass right on cue. Slow, deliberate, steady. They take me to the hilltop town of East Grinstead – it’s hardly Alpine, but its modest slopes test me out, just a bit, and I’m glad it’s not entirely flat. It’s hot though, and so I buy some extra juice. The next few miles seem really smooth, as the long slow hill back down to Crawley Down eats up the miles quite fast … a little too fast, though, I soon find out.

Because although 15 miles are safely run, my legs have each gained 10 kg in weight, and my mind’s not quite so clear as once it was. The village shop is quickly raided for another drink, and my legs decide to walk again whilst I gulp it down. I’ll run a mile or two more, and then briefly rest. But straight away I discover (deep down perhaps, I always knew) that it’s not quite like that, and the walking urge catches me out again too soon, at mile 16. The last four miles are not that great. They hurt like hell, but maybe that’s fair enough. It’s hot, and it makes a difference, it really does.

Four miles of struggle – that doesn’t sound so tough, but it’s hard work all the way. Dispiriting stuff, I find, to run a few minutes, then walk a few. But that’s how it is – there’s just no other way. Usually the final stretch sees a rise in pace, as my goal approaches. But not today. Just one walking break inside the last mile – I’d rather not, of course, but with spinning head and grinding feet I know that’s how it’s got to be.

Ten minutes later, it’s over. A long shower, and then I’m back to work. I’m not moving much from my desk this afternoon, but otherwise it’s like any other working day. Most folk have gone home by the time I leave, my hours made up. But I’m walking freely, more or less. No injury problems, and that’s a saving grace.

And so – that’s one more time again that this geologist has run twenty miles in training.

Just one more scar, carved into stone.

Related articles:
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41. A Lincolnshire legend – Sir Isaac Newton
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
37. Lord Beeching and me – the Worth Way
122. Cephallonia dreaming

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