Serpies Spring into Action for the London Marathon

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Dave Morgan, Rich Phillips and John Franklin in the 2015 London marathon. Photo credit: Lars Menken

Daisy explores why the Spring marathon training groups have proved so popular and how they are benefitting those taking on 26.2 miles.

An off-the-cuff suggestion by Andy Robbins in the pub one Wednesday night led to the establishment of the 2015 Autumn Marathon training group – so it was only natural that a group be put together again in the build-up to the 2016 spring season. What Andy terms as ‘an experiment’ has led to over 250 people joining the two Facebook groups established for spring, with one targeted at Serpies aiming for completion in 3.00 – 3.40, and a second group for those aiming for 3.45 and over. Although many are targeting our ‘home’ course of London, a quick look at the groups shows a good spread of alternative courses across Europe and the USA.

I’ve been exploring why these groups have proved so popular and what people have been getting out of them.

For the naturally-disciplined amongst us who get up in the dark on a Sunday when most other people are still pulling the duvet over their heads, being part of a group isn’t a must if all you are after is ticking the sessions off on your marathon training plan. But for all those other times when your personal motivation is wavering, when the weather is foul and you are feeling hungover, committing to meet a group at a set time and place provides a sense of obligation to get out there. As members of a running club, we all appreciate the strong motivational force of being part of a group, but it is the sheer number of hours required for marathon training that makes group training particularly attractive. With training starting 12-16 weeks before the event, even those with wills of steel appreciate the company of others to provide some variety and fun to what can otherwise be a gruelling schedule. The mix of longstanding club members and newcomers in the groups also provides a great opportunity to get to know Serpies you don’t usually train with.

A key motivator for Maureen Seguin, one of the instigators of the autumn group, was to get people together who wanted to train at a similar pace. The spring groups organise a long run every weekend, with some options to vary the distance, hence allowing people to personalise the sessions to meet their individual training needs. Even within the two pace groups, there are a wide range of different speeds, recognised by the fact that many of the sessions are calculated on overall distance, or ‘out and back’ routes. The groups don’t just cater for the faster runner however – infact, many of those towards the middle and back of the pack have expressed a wish that more people were brave enough to join them. For Catharine Sowerby, one of the principal organisers of the 3.45+ group, it was her first opportunity to lead group runs, ensuring that no-one gets lost or left behind. Although the groups rely heavily on volunteers like Catharine for key runs, individuals who cannot attend particular sessions are encouraged to organise amongst themselves to complete the training together at a more convenient time. Using Facebook as the forum to publicise the runs and share advice makes the groups accessible, allowing people to juggle training with work, friends and family. The time brackets are there to help people of similar pace band together, and are not to be seen as exclusive or intimidating – so if you have felt reticent about joining for the spring season but have your sights set on an autumn PB, then keep your eyes out as hopefully the groups will run again in the future.

Aside from the regular long runs, what many people speak particularly highly of are the marathon-pace runs – what feels like a reasonable pace at the beginning gradually becomes more of an effort, and having someone else’s steady rhythm to follow is often enough to spur you on. Coach Andy believes marathon specific mid-week mid-length runs are much more likely to be completed regularly at a good pace when people train alongside others. One problem Andy has identified when analysing club runners’ previous marathon performances is the fact that they tend not to stick to their race pacing plan: it’s all too common to set off too fast when you reach the start line feeling full of energy from your taper and in great shape after months of training. By providing the option for a longer steady-paced run to replace the staple Wednesday night Three Parks, group members are encouraged to practice their race pace, thus reducing the risk of over-extending themselves in the first half of the marathon. With vigilant run leaders and disciplined pacers, Andy feels that the long runs and marathon pace runs should both be able to provide a challenging session for all abilities.

Another benefit of the group is learning from the experience of others – for marathon virgins, it’s reassuring to see yourself progressing alongside marathon veterans, and whether you’re sharing tips for stretches or snacks, everyone is experimenting to find what will work for them on race day. For slower runners in the group, it is common to see a big improvement when regularly training with people whose pace is slightly quicker, but there are benefits at the front of the pack too as people push each other on to improve. With many training towards London on April 24th, the groups have been able to identify key races in the build-up to use as markers of their progress or sharpeners for the big day, practicing their preparation then sharing feedback afterwards. Andy encourages members to identify issues they have had in tune-up races or previous marathons, for example cramp or temperature control, and then look at ways to manage those issues to prevent them occurring on the day.

We all know the satisfaction of seeing our own running improve – but training regularly with others also enables us to share in our peers’ successful progression. With such a long build-up to one race, it is important to find additional benefits to take away from all the training – because between injuries, adverse weather conditions and sheer bad luck, we know that race day does not always go to plan. In instances such as these, it is less galling to be able to look back at months of training and have some strong positives to reduce the disappointment of not reaching a goal, helping us to get back up on our feet to have another go. For Maureen, despite injuring herself in the lead-up to her target marathon of Frankfurt in the autumn and only being able to train sporadically, she still came close to her PB on the day, so she is back in training for Warsaw, also on April 24th.

The marathon groups epitomise some of the best elements of being part of such a large running club:  people’s generosity with their time and expertise, the wide range of people who make up our membership, and the joy that reaching your own goal provides whilst supporting others in meeting theirs.

And what is Coach Andy’s top tip for race day? “Trust the training”.

Daisy Gladstone has been a member for 18 months and holds the Race Organiser role on the committee.