My first Ironman marathon started out quite well. I ran the first 10k in about 50 minutes or 5 minute kilometres. The second 10k however started to hurt and I slowed down to about 6 minute kilometers. By the time I was on my third lap I was walking each aid station and taking on an energy gel at every one. Considering they were only about 1-2km apart meant I was taking on a gel, coke, water and whatever else I could stomach every 10-15 minutes. Needless to say it didn’t go well.
My third and fourth 10k’s each took about 75 minutes and like I said involved walking every aid station and towards the end I was stretching that walk a little further every time. I was also very ill by the end and finished in almost 4.5 hours despite the fact that my first 10k was run at 3.5 hour marathon pace.

Three months later I watched Ais do her first Ironman in Sherborne in the UK and she not only posted the third fastest women’s marathon of the day, beating all bar two pro women in the process, but she did it with a big smile on her face. It was the most impressive thing I’d ever seen. Click on through to read what I learned from Ais and how I managed to get my Ironman marathon time down to just over 3 hours.

Only a couple of months before Aisling’s debut IM I wasn’t even sure if I could finish an Ironman never mind consider running the whole marathon at the end of it. I just wanted to get to the finish line in any way I could. Run, walk or crawl and here was someone showing me that the marathon wasn’t necessarily the infamous sufferfest we were all told that it had to be.

Related post: Double run days

Aisling who was an elite ultra runner coming to Ironman had never considered the possibility that she would walk. In the same way as it never occurred to me that I’d get off my bike and walk the hills, it never even occurred to her that she would do anything other than run the whole marachnophobia, after all 42k is a short run if you’re used to racing 100k ultras.

Aisling taught me that running the entire marathon was not only possible but that it was the only way to approach the day. If I went in thinking that I might have to walk then inevitably when it got hard that’s what I’d end up doing. If however all of my preparation, both mental and physical was to run the entire thing then that was much more likely to happen.

Ais almost seemed to wear it as a badge of honour.

So what did I do for my next race that allowed me run the whole marathon?

Get your head right.

The first thing was that I went into the race with the expectation that I would run the whole marathon. I started to assume Aisling’s mindset. I was now a runner and a runner would run a marathon. They wouldn’t walk, no more than I would get off the bike and walk up a hill.

Have a plan.

The next thing was to get my pacing correct. Starting out too fast inevitably leads to falling apart and falling apart leads to walking. In my third Ironman I set out with a specific pacing plan and it led to my fastest Ironman marathon to date. Aisling had told me I wasn’t allowed to race the first 10k. I was to run so easy that it felt like I was a dog straining on a leash. I started out this easy and managed to last 8k before I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. I picked up the pace at that point and as a result of the easy start I was able to not only hold a faster pace but I continued to get faster and faster.

I ran the first 8k at 3:30 marathon pace and because of this pacing strategy I continued to speed up for the rest of the marathon. So much so that I finished with a 3:06 marathon. Allowing for the slow start this means that I was able to do a large portion of the run at sub 3 hour marathon pace.

My plan was: run 10k way easier than I thought I should go. I was allowed to race the next 20k as hard as I wanted and was to hang on for dear life for the last 10-12k.

Have the guts to stick to the plan.

One of the most difficult aspects of Ironman racing is the self control part. Starting out with a plan is all well and good but sticking with it requires an entirely different skill set. Formulating a pacing strategy in the calm before race day is completely different to being able to stick with it in the heat of racing and with the excitement of  the first couple of miles of an Ironman marathon. It’s very easy to get caught up in “racing” in the first couple of kilometres of the marathon but what I remind myself is that if someone is running faster than me then they are either a faster runner, in which case I shouldn’t be running at their speed. Or they are starting too fast and I will see them shortly when they blow up and in this case I still shouldn’t be running at their speed.

Related: Learning how to race Ironman

Train as you plan to race.

I include ran sessions with long intervals at just faster than Ironman pace, just slower and exactly on my target race day pace. Getting the body used to running at or above your target pace is a crucial part of not only training the body but also testing your ability to run at your target speed and also learning how you cope with the discomfort of a long hard effort.

Long run on tired legs

We do almost all of our long runs on tired legs to get us used to the sensation that we will encounter on race day. There’s an argument for doing your long run on fresh legs as it will be better quality but for most people learning to cope with what’s we will encounter on race day is a more important lesson to learn.

Related: How to train for an Ironman triathlon

Two hours all year round.

Alan Ryan who’s a four time Kona qualifier, including two podium finishes told me years ago that one of the things he credits his signature strong run finish with is maintaining his long run year round. Even in the off season he maintains a two hour run every week. If you only do a half a dozen or even a dozen long runs in the lead up to your Ironman then you are much more likely to fall apart.

Set a realistic target

If you are aiming to run a 3:30 IM marathon and you’ve never gone faster than 4:30 in an Ironman before and your training hasn’t been significantly different then taking an hour off your previous best is probably unrealistic. Long runs and tempo pace runs will serve as a good guide to what’s possible on race day. If your long run is done at 6 minute k’s then expecting to be able to hold 5 minutes per kilometre is probably a little optimistic.

Practice race nutrition in training

This is a golden rule and one that’s very misunderstood. You must practice your planned race day nutrition in training, but it must be done at your target race pace or effort. Your efficiency is completely different on a long easy run than on a long race pace one. I would typically take only one energy gel on an easy 3 hour run and often don’t take any. However once I start to introduce race pace efforts my energy requirements increase and I need to take on fuel more often. Depending on my current fitness and efficiency this might even be as much as a gel every 20-30 minutes. This has to be tested and practiced in training and not on race day to establish just how much you need to eat and also how much you can physically stomach. If you are running so hard that you need a gel every twenty minutes but that much sugar makes you sick then you need to adjust your pace and nutritional plan.

Related: How to train to do a faster Ironman

Don’t try to get time in the bank

Don’t start out at 3:30 pace if you’re aiming to run a 4 hour marathon. Trying to get time in the bank to allow for falling apart later on means that you are almost guaranteed to fall apart much worse. It almost always leads to much bigger time losses than you “put in the bank” at the start. It also hurts a lot more.

If you’ve any lessons you’ve learned while racing or completing the Ironman marathon that I haven’t covered here post them in the comments.