Breaking barriers: The art and fun of making a sub-3 hour marathon happen

Kamil Suleiman flying down the home stretch of the 2016 Winelands Marathon.

Kamil Suleiman flying down the home stretch of the 2016 Winelands Marathon.

Determined to one day break the sub-3 hour barrier, I entered for the Cape Town Marathon. However, the club’s head coach Farouk Meyer suggested that I should rather target the Winelands Marathon because my body was still recovering from Comrades. I hesitated, mainly because the Winelands seemed a tougher route and I did not have the experience of racing a hilly marathon for a personal best time.

I was only convinced once I ran a couple of half marathons in August and found out that I was getting too tired early in the races. I called Salih Solomon, one of the best runners I know, for advice. I just needed that encouragement to skip Cape Town Marathon and he explained to me from a physiological perspective why I needed to do skip the race. Then, I decided to run it without the racing chips until the halfway mark and take a lift to the finish. And so, Winelands became the target.

When you are a newbie, it doesn’t matter how smart your training or racing strategy is, the chances are high that you will improve your time in each race by the mere fact that you become fitter month after month. However, this improvement is not indefinite.

I have previously participated in nine marathons, of which I ran three of them at a comfortable pace. In the other six, which I’ve plotted in the graph below, I raced to the best of my ability.

kamil2

The graph shows that gone are the days of surprise personal bests. In fact, although I’d tried hard to run a sub-3:00 marathon since Peninsula 2015, I hadn’t succeeded. Even training harder did not result in achieving my goal. That’s why I decided to make use of the club’s training programme for the 2016 Peninsula Marathon. That helped me improve my time by three minutes to a new PB of 3:06, but still six minutes shy of my goal. The same training and same fitness level might get me what I want but the chances get slimmer and slimmer when unknowns such as weather turn against me. Then what are the convincing reasons why I should be able to run a sub-3 hour marathon before I could have the realistic confidence to do so.

Weakness as an opportunity for improvement

In terms of weekly mileage, I did not see a reason to deviate a lot from my Peninsula Marathon programme. Therefore, I came up with a similar programme for the 9 weeks between September 12 and race day on November 12. I felt that assessing my past training habits and identifying my weakest points was the most effective way to get that needed difference.

Here are the three points that I came up with.

  1. There was little or no strength training incorporated into my previous preparations. The one time I attended a few strength classes, they were a couple of weeks away from my race day which probably was only counterproductive. Here is a link to a piece that explains the reasons that strength training results in a better performance. It reports research outputs that prove performance improvement in different aspects such as speed, running economy, and VO2-Max. Therefore, in addition to the 1-hour-per-week that I started training for 2 months before the program, I decided to add a 2-hour-per-week strength training into 5 of the training weeks. The sessions focused on different areas and parts such as the core, the back plane, the groin, the quads and the calves.
  1. My eating habits were terrible. It’s true what they say about not being able to outrun bad eating. I generally ate excess amount of meals that were rich in carbohydrates and fat such as pasta and juicy meat. Although I didn’t see weight as my problem, it is logical that for a similar weight, a better muscle development and less undesirable fat is promoted by eating better. Therefore, I moderated my eating habits by replacing a portion of what I thought were too much and with foods that are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals such as lean beef, chicken, beans and vegetables.
  1. Previously, I didn’t taper well. In tapering weeks, I didn’t mind running as fast as I could because I fell into the misconception that the faster you run, the better. I even raced the Lion of Africa 21km two weeks before Peninsula Marathon because I did not understand that it would have strained my body. This time, although they were fast sessions, I decided not to reach close to making a hundred percent effort. I decided that the closer to the race day it got, the shorter the sessions would be or at least taking a break in the session. That way, one is not only well trained for the race, but will be waiting for the race to give it the hundred percent of the fitness level they have reached that is not reduced by the fatigue from training.

The above action plans gave me the strong hope to improve by close to 10 minutes. That was good enough to target a 2:55-2:58 finishing time that would still encourage me to push for the sub-3:00 finish even if something unforeseen happened.

The program and the training

Below is a graph of the weekly mileage that I ran.

kamil1

The next one shows the weekly hours spent on running and strength training.

kamil3

Here are a few of the guidelines that I generally followed:

  • I tried to stick to my plan, but if I missed training, I did not try to make up for it because it can result in too much mileage in a short space of time. For example, in the first week, I wanted to run 60km. But because I did not get the chance to train enough mileage early in week, I changed it to 52km.
  • In the 6 mileage weeks, I tried to keep my pace to a reasonable range of between 4:30 and 6:00. Yet, I’d sometimes run slower or faster, depending on the difficulty level of the route and how I felt on the day.
  • I generally did not run twice a day. If I was tired, I’d take a short break and continue which would push the body to a reasonable limit followed by ample time to recover before the next session.
  • I mostly alternated elevation profiles. If I ran a very hilly route in a session, I’d try to plan the next one to be a flat route to maximize recovery between similar training sessions that use similar muscle groups.
  • My longest LSD was 32km.

Race Day

I’ve gone through the elevation profile multiple times and I’m also familiar with the area as I worked in Technopark for more than three years. Assuming everything would remain under control, I had planned my rough pace and arrival time at certain points. I also planned to take brisk walking breaks at least every 5km and in hilly areas as many times as I felt were necessary. Because I expected a more difficult route in the second half, I wanted to be at the 21km mark in about 1:28.

It was a relatively windy start. Descending down a road between wide farms, as I was taking my first walking break at around the 5km mark, a group caught up with me. Because they were running at a similar pace, I decided to join them. At around 10km, the group split with some of us taking a walking break while the others continued. After a short run, I decided to run a little faster to catch up with the group that had gone ahead, as I felt strong. The wind direction was changing every now and it was making me uncomfortable. At about 15 or 17km, I noticed that the group’s pace was a bit slower than what I set out to do. I decided that, although minimizing the impact of the wind was important, it was worth taking the risk of running alone a bit faster.

I was hoping that by the time I turned right into the R44, the wind would subside, but it didn’t happen. Combined with that tough hill, it only made me more miserable. The area where people normally enjoyed the beautiful scenery, particularly seeing the strawberry and wine farms, had become a place of fighting my own negativity. I arrived at the half way mark about a minute slower than where I wanted to be. What my body and my pace were telling me were adding to my pessimism, and it didn’t seem  like I would make it. I was thinking about what I had to do next, mulling postponing my goal to another race and push for what is more realistic or keep being stubborn? I decided to rather take it kilometer by kilometer and see how I felt after 5km.

Then, the other steep hill followed that was really challenging. Every now and then I took short, brisk walks. At some point, around 24km and in the middle of that exhaustion, I noticed something really positive. After all, it didn’t look like I was special in that fight with the hills. In fact, I noticed that I was consistently passing runners. It was wonderful to feel that the hope was still alive. As I reached around the 25km turn around, I passed a group runners. My pace for that effort level was way faster than what I had predicted a few kilometers earlier.

Then it was cruising towards the 30km mark. Here was the best part of the race. I planned to reach the 30km mark roughly 2:08 into the race. I arrived there still feeling in control and I checked my watch. Guess what? It read 2:08:12. It was incredibly good news.

kamil4

The only fear I had was that my calves were feeling heavy, a sign that seemed like a muscle cramp was about to start. I had to take a pinch of salt as I believe it helps. But the momentum continued. I finally reached at the heart breaking 32km mark where the 2km long, hilly gravel road was waiting for me. I had planned to take 10 minutes there as I would then have about 34 minutes for the last 8km. The first kilometer was tough and I was breathing hard. But I was still running faster than the five minutes pace. The next one became even easier, which I couldn’t believe.

Once I finished the gravel road challenge, what excuse would I have on the asphalt? Every now and then I stimulated my brain by targeting someone afar to follow and close the gap, then eventually pass them. However, my personal vendetta was still with time. I followed the last guy probably for more than 5km because I had to be cautious. I had to balance between being fast and avoiding muscle cramps. Kilometer by kilometer, my calves felt more and more tense, but my remaining time felt more under control. I decided to take my last walking break with about 4km to go and the struggle continued, similar pace, similar pain.

At about 40km, I decided to push harder and harder. Then at the 41km mark, I had about 7 minutes. That’s it, now you have nothing to lose. I love this unique moment: the adrenalin pumping, the sprinting, body and mind focused on the finishing mark. What muscle cramp? I passed the last runner. He greeted. To be honest, I didn’t respond. I sprinted into the finishing straight at a pace that I had no idea I was capable of. Yes, I made it, I made it, I made it! 2:56:40!! I had planned the race very well and it has been executed with precision. But, I had no idea how to celebrate it. It’s an incredible feeling.

It was an incredible sight to see Coach Farouk Meyer jumping with joy like a child. He has been coaching me for the entire season and checking up on me to make sure everything was under control. Then there was Mujeeb Kajee, a friend and a very efficient runner who has been giving me tips and motivating me that I can’t fail this time. He was also waiting fingers crossed that I would come in in those last 5 minutes. Then there was Coach Pine, Zarina and other members who were on the road supporting us. I am very grateful for belonging to such a supportive club – Itheko.

kamil5

To make the days victory even sweeter, I finished 12th overall out of 1777 finishers and third from my club to be part of our club’s team to win the team prize.

By Kamil Suleiman