How to run a negative split marathon

For those with a more impatient disposition – and I count myself as one of them – I’ll cut to the chase and tell you now that the secret is humility. I’ll expound…

Midway through 2016 I found myself running the final stage of a 70.3 distance triathlon. Violent weather had cancelled the swim and shortened the bike stages. The unexpectedly shorter course had made the ride thrilling! The later start, in total contrast, had made the run, in heat, (and I don’t mean the animal kind of being in heat) a disaster.

I was racing with friends, and people I normally run ahead of were overtaking me as the temperatures rose, as the exhaustion accumulated, and as my depression deepened. Everyone has a bad race from time to time. You can usually chalk up such performances as a blip, but when you enter a race so very confidently, and when the kick in the groin comes so powerfully and so unexpectedly, and when I reflected on how this triathlon was only a test bed for an event double the distance a few months later, my confidence took more than a knock.

My ego was taken to a very humbling place. After a time, I lifted my head and looked around and found it to be a place where the world hadn’t ended, where I was still blessed enough to be able to do these things at all, and where the result was only awful because I had been arrogant.

The race had reminded me that I wasn’t “all that”, that there are all kinds of awesome, and that it’s not about being better than a time… or any other person. I still get a knot in my stomach, and the feeling of sick in my throat, when I reflect on the attitude with which I had entered that race. The humility I received that day was a painfully glorious gift.

In the aftermath, I reapplied myself to training with more consideration, and more respect. I dialed back on the intensity as my long runs became run / walk,. I was being kinder to myself, gazing at the world through gentler eyes, and felt a greater love for everyone who is challenged, whether by their own design or by circumstance.

My A race that season went well. Or rather 95% of it went well. The very end was miserable, and in physical terms it was worse than my lesson from earlier in the summer, but it didn’t knock me. I already knew that my battle wasn’t about victory over something or someone but rather it was about self-knowledge. As I sat on the herb and cried for a moment, still about 7 miles from the end of that run, and unashamed by the tears, I looked down at my road ID, where my girlfriend’s emergency contact details sat alongside my motivational quote: the ancients Greeks had placed it at the entrance to the Oracle at Delhi: “know yourself”.

My first ever marathon negative split came 4 weeks later. My A race was out of the way and this was just for fun. (Kind of ludicrous to say that 26 miles (42 km) was “just of fun”.) I had my plan and it began by picking a pace group that would get me close to the goal time I believed I could achieve. When we set off, I watched that pace group slowly pull away from me. Friends also went past me, and I smiled wit affection for them as they faded into the distance. At 6 miles, the gap between me and my chosen pace group had stabilized, or at least it had seemed to when the course straightened up enough for me to see them, which wasn’t often. After that, the gap between us began to close.

By 10 miles they were always in sight and I could use them as a hare. By 14 I was past them. At 17, I had never felt better. At 20 I passed the friends who had passed me at mile 3… and yet through it all I wasn’t running against anyone else. I didn’t care who was ahead of or behind me. During the race I had stopped to hug my girlfriend several times, and to pause when I saw friends spectating or volunteering along the course. It’s easier to have fun when your ego stops getting in the way.

The pace group had been a tool to ensure I ran the race the same way I trained: begin slowly, find a rhythm, settle down, wait for the auto-pilot to kick in, and then ride the wave. You can’t do all this if you’re responding to the music you hear, the people you see, your perceived energy levels, the pace your watch is giving you, and your ego’s assessment of where you ought to be.

It was’t until I crossed the line that I realized I had run a personal best. It wasn’t until I checked the splits that I realized I had run the second half faster than the first, by about 2 minutes.

Having said all this, I’m not convinced that negative splits should be a goal if you want to run a personal best. In most cases I suspect personal bests are run when a person goes for it, and then clings on as best they can at the end. But what it does do is confirm how well you know yourself. You won’t get a personal best if you go out too fast too soon.

Maybe I was wrong when I said at the beginning that humility was the answer. The answer is knowing yourself; humility simply makes the execution easier. So if you’re an impatient type who hasn’t hasn’t read all the way through the post, I hope at least you’re a curious type, who skipped to the last paragraph to make sure it aligned with the first. I’d also like to say, with utmost and genuine respect, that I wish you much growth, much knowledge and much success in all the challenges you embrace.

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