The Non-Runners Guide to Training for a Marathon

From zero to 26.2

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Since about forever, I’ve categorised myself in the ‘non-runner’ category. Running was for other people. The ones who sprung around pavements like human gazelles. The ones who thought a running club was a nice way to spend a Tuesday evening. The ones who ran effortlessly for many, many miles with huge grins from ear to ear. They were ‘runners’, and I was categorically not.

Now, I had dabbled with prior attempts to become a runner. I overcame an initial battle to run more than a few seconds at a time and completed the Race for Life in memory of my grannie. A few years later, back on the running bandwagon, I completed a 10km but I certainly didn’t feel like either made me a runner. I couldn’t be a runner as I was a sweaty, huffy-puffy beetroot-faced mess, with wobbly legs, literally crawling round while others would sprint past me.

In 2010, I started working for a charity and it was my role to help organise their events – the London Marathon was a key one of these. Very quickly, I was surrounded by our marathon runners, meeting them at training dates and pre-race events, and the thing is these runners weren’t all gazelles.

They were just people, wonderful human beings who were all connected by one thing: they each had their own story which had led them to consider running a marathon. There were also the ones that were driven by charities they were deeply connected to. Runners who were running in memory of a loved one. Runners who found it helped them with their mental-health, or provided a focus while they battled terminal illness. Runners who wanted to be the fastest person dressed as a sumo wrestler, or a vegetable. And then there were the ones that made me think maybe, just maybe, I could be a runner after all.

My first run was on 1st May 2017, and my leggings kept falling down, I lasted all of 17 minutes and I cried as I was so overwhelmed.

That was seven-years ago and I am now a week away from the London Marathon, sitting here wondering if I can wrap myself in bubble-wrap this week to be sure I can get to that start line. There have been huge challenges, sweat (obvs), tears, and many lessons learnt. It has been a huge journey for me and one I thought others might appreciate learning from too. So with that in mind, here is my guide for any non-runners who might fancy finding a new possible to their impossible.

Even a non-runner needs the kit

I made the decision last April that this would be the year I would run the London Marathon. I had watched wonderous women in the A Life Loved Facebook Community run the London marathon and, like I had been all those years ago, felt blown away by how inspiring it was. I wanted in.

I picked up a book, thanks to a great recommendation once again from said Facebook Community, ‘Running Like a Girl’ and lapped it up in a few days. It is the most hilarious, honest, read from Alexandra Heminsley, who too overcame a struggle with running to go on to run a marathon (and now multiple marathons and even open-water swimming). At the time, I couldn’t even run a mile, but one of the great tips this book gave me was to write a diary of each run. I set myself up with the first bit of runners’ kit: a notebook, and I wrote about every single run. So, it is for this very reason that I can tell you my first run was on 1st May 2017, and my leggings kept falling down, I lasted all of 17 minutes and I cried as I was so overwhelmed. The latter becomes a key theme of most of my runs.

I have a photo of that first run and it’s of my trainers’ out on my lawn on a sunny day. The feet of a runner you might think… nope! It would turn out that running in these trainers would lead to all the ankles, feet and knee-aches. A couple months later, in Pizza Express of all places, I looked down in my feet in my new sandals and realised that my foot no longer looked how it once did. What a delightful conversation that was for my husband.

Me: *Screech* what has happened to my feet?

Husband: What? Your feet?

Me: My foot! It looks weird. Look!! *wafts foot over table*

Husband: Can we focus on the pizza please?

Post-pizza and several days later, I booked myself into a physio. I felt like such an athlete. The physio kindly informed me that a combination of my trainers, and poor technique (he actually said I was running with “only my calves, putting all my weight into one toe… and that I had lazy buttocks…”- felt a bit less like an athlete then), were causing said injuries and I needed some trainers which should be 1-2 sizes bigger to allow my feet to swell when I run. Hmmm, running is just so glamorous.

Off I went to a running shop to have ‘Gait Analysis’ and out I walked with some new trainers. For a while these felt a bit like running in clown shoes, but quickly sorted out (most) of my new injury quirks and now I feel significant love for these trainers. Ah, the times and memories we’ve shared.

By June, I had significantly improved my kit game and now had leggings which stayed up, my clown trainers, and more wicking Lycra-wear tops than you could shake a stick at.

The longer you run, the bigger the adventure

Over the Summer months, my basic aim was to try to go further. To start with it was just a game of keeping the legs running for longer, but then came distance. At the start of July, I signed up for my first half marathon – in October, and found myself a 14-week training plan which would take me to the day.

On the 9th July, I did a 10km, which was organised by the local Rotary Club across stretches of countryside. I met Jo, who was also new to running. I was lucky to find Jo, because as it would turn out, we’d meet an angry swan on route and it turned out that Jo was much braver than me and managed to encourage the swan with a stick off the route and out of our path. With the swan out the way, we carried on, but the sun was beating down (it was 26 degrees) and it took 1 hour and 26 minutes to finish, which felt like a lifetime.

Running was starting to get fun. Dare I say it, I was beginning to enjoy it.

By September, I’d managed to run 200 miles cumulatively and had really started to collect up some adventures. I’d been able to take running with me wherever I went, whether that was Wales, or Scotland, on holidays. I’d got lost in fields. I’d seen beautiful summer evenings. I’d joined in with weekend Park Runs and found a community on my doorstep. Running was starting to get fun. Dare I say it, I was beginning to enjoy it. I was going further, I was getting faster, I was even grinning, and I was about to run my first half marathon.

Running a marathon is a game of patience

It was October and the time had come for my first half marathon. I fully had the fear. I was absolutely terrified that I wouldn’t make the time before the Sweeper Bus (which is basically the bus that follows the slowest race pace you can run, because it was deemed in the instructions as a “serious athletic event”). But, I had done my prep: I was filled with carbs, I’d completed my training plan, and I had all my kit ready to go.

As I set off, I was flying. The first eight miles were some of the best I’ve ever run. I channelled my inner “serious athlete” and mile after mile just passed away, and I was in awe of the beautiful views and all the people cheering along the way.

– My neice, Erin, who I’m doing all of this for –

Then, as a brutal reminder that running shouldn’t be that kind, an evil hill appeared, stitch set in like an unrelenting witch, and I found myself googling “how to get rid of stitch while running” whilst trying not to be sick on the path. So, while the first eight had been some of my best running times, the next five were some of the absolute worst. The only saviour was a man who gave me a sweet at mile 10, reminding me at least there’s sweets in the world.

A combination of the crowds, my Dad running alongside me for half a mile, and a fellow runner tapping me on the shoulder saying, “You are nearly there!” got me over that finish line.

I was a mess. My calves were broken, and I needed new feet. However, I was so grateful for the lessons learnt – and a new appreciation for the importance of patience and pacing in the long-distance running game. I needed to learn to slow down, so I could then find that energy as the miles clocked up.

When the darkness comes, find the music and your reason to run

As the half came and passed, I was now faced with a new realisation that all that summer dreaming had failed to make me recognise a horrible fact of Autumn life: it was getting darker. Now obviously, I knew when I signed up for an April marathon that it would be dark and tough. “Ooof” people would say, “that’ll be tough training on those dark, cold, winter nights, and of course I thought it would be tough. But, of course there is a difference between thinking tough and doing tough.

Suddenly I was getting home from work on dark, cold evenings, and I was having to put on my trainers and go out there. The mind-power involved when its freezing, icy, misty and dark, is another level. A few things that got me through:

  • There are some songs that sound absolutely spiffing in darkness than you just don’t hear in the same way in the light. Try listening to ‘Rhythm of the Night’ on a night run and you find renewed appreciation for that slice of 90s pop. Other songs recently enjoyed have been Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by your Grace’ and Coolio ‘Gangster’s Paradise’. Anything by Jay-Z. I’m just more gangster by night.
  • Chilly temperatures called for some new kit and I think has taken my pro-runner look up to ‘almost pulling it off level’. And I have a new appreciation for a sleeve which you can put your thumb through. Thumb warmth is living your best life.
  • This is when it became more important to run for a reason, and mine became so important to me. I have chosen to run for The National Autistic Society, for my niece who has autism and I just want her and other children growing up knowing they can keep using their autism super-powers to be just who they are and that’ll make a better world. And for Oxfam, my employer, who show that humanitarian warmth to everyone around the world – and are always there for people who need it, providing dignity, hope and freedom. It was these dark nights when I also hatched a plan to have a ribbon tied to my running vest for each mile, either in memory of someone or for a family or friend who has been so supportive, I called it my ‘memory miles’.
  • The other thing is that it made weekend runs in the light an absolute party.

Sometimes you just need to have a cry

Now I mention early on that tears were a key theme of this whole experience, and nothing that can be truer than the final chunk of the marathon puzzle. In the final few months, half marathons have become a common-place distance and I’ve had to navigate the world of 14+ miles. Now, I can tell you something, 14+ miles deserve those eyes to leak.

It’s not just pain tears, I’ve had those. I’ve had tears because when you really let yourself get out of your own head, you unleash a world of tears. You cry because it’s a beautiful day, and the things you see. I cried recently because I saw a dad give his coat to his little boy because it was cold. And you cry, because even when you spend miles doubting you will ever make it home, you always do.

A few weeks ago, I surpassed a huge milestone in training and I ran 20 miles. It was 5 laps of a perimeter of Dorney Lake for the Marathon Preparation runs, and I had created a plan where with each lap I’d inter-change between podcasts and music on each lap. 2 miles in, my headphones broke. I had a little weep, of course, but it was actually the best thing that could have happened because I was encouraged to look up and chat along to people as I ran – and I got to hear their stories and their reasons to run. I met someone who had a son with autism who too had been inspired to run for a charity who offered support to families, and someone who was running for their Dad who had Alzheimer’s disease. I was surrounded by all these wonderful people and once again was brought back to where it began. Let’s be honest if you are going to run 26.2 miles, you’d better well have a blooming good reason. And you just as well know, that’s going to make you cry more than anything else.

It’s not about being better than someone else, it’s about being better than you used to be

A few months ago, I also discovered something called ‘Jeffing’. This is basically an approach when you run for timed intervals (say 90 seconds to 10 minutes) and then you walk for a timed interval (say 30 seconds to 2 minutes), and it came at a time when I was massively struggling with distance and it changed my outlook on running. My approach has been 5 minutes run, and 1 minutes walking, and suddenly my times have improved, I was feeling and running stronger and happier, and was almost back to Summer running joy levels. *Almost* as nobody should be that joyful running 15 miles.

Now, it’s been a funny few weeks – as the day has snuck up on me, so has all the self-doubt that my Jeffing approach will make this less of an achievement. I’ve started comparing myself to others; ‘They can run all of it and I should be able to’,  ‘People will think I’m stupid for walking!’. And then this little quote popped up on my Facebook, and it just captured me: “It’s not about being better than someone else, it’s about being better than you used to be.” 

I’m about to have a go at doing a marathon, and have had to overcome the points when that has felt impossible to find my new version of possible: walk and running it, I’ll finish it. They call this the turning point in marathon training when you go from not knowing if you can, to knowing that you will.

I’ve just got back from my final ‘long’ run, which was only 6 miles. Only 6 miles. This isn’t the voice of a non-runner, hey I’m sounding increasingly like a runner.

Wish me luck and strength from my jelly beans to my jelly legs.

Love,

Kate, your Non-Running Runner

P.S. I would highly recommend the A Life Loved Facebook Community if you want a fantastic, kind group of people who will support you. Their advice has been invaluable, from tips that help you get you home on mid-week long runs, to boosts of confidence at low points, to advice on good leggings! Don’t do anything without them by your side!

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9 Comments

  • Wonderful words Kate – I can relate so much!! I too went from ‘can’t run 1km without stopping’ to a trail marathon and ultra marathon. And heck I still cry! And still pull up on a 5km parkrun and have a paddy and refuse to move! And with that said, I still can’t bring myself to train for a road marathon. Serious kudos lady – inspirational stuff.

    PS. You ARE a runner. Because there is no right or wrong way to be one. No body type, no time cut off, no kit determinant. You, my dear, ARE A RUNNER.

  • I can really relate to this Kate – I’m in training for my second half marathon (so not a patch on you!!) and crying/continual self-doubt is a regular emotion for me… but that feeling of slowly increasing the miles and fitness almost without realising it, and visualising the end goal makes the 6am freezing starts worth it. I also never defined myself as a runner (or indeed any sort of exercise-r) so sometimes feel a bit like a fraud but as Clare says above, if you run you’re a runner! Hope you have a wonderful marathon next weekend – you’re inspirational! x

    • Ahh Katy, glad you have a shared experience and a half marathon is absolutely a patch on this! Such a hard thing to do. But you are so right – the end goal makes every single cold morning worth it, and knowing you are getting fitter stronger is the best reward. Wishing you so much luck. When is it?

  • “The Longer you run the bigger the adventure” – flipping love this and the whole article! I hope you have the most amazing time on Sunday, I wish I was watching this year but will be cheering you on from afar! Xxx

  • Oh Kate, I found this so inspiring! I’ve always lived running and am doing my second half marathon next month – but the whole 26+ miles terrifies me. Still, on Sunday I signed up to the 2019 Brighton marathon so your post couldn’t have come at a better time. Now I want to get my trainers on and get out there RIGHT NOW! Thanks so much for sharing this honest and moving story, and GOOD LUCK!!!

  • Absolutely love this article! BEST of luck for the marathon. I find running one of the most rewarding and freeing experiences even though it’s bloody hard work! Xxx

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