NEIL TEMPEST SHARES HIS JOURNEY OF A SUB 3 MARATHON
One thing I’ve learnt from doing endurance events over years is that there’s always a journey you go through when preparing for a big race, which sometimes can actually be more rewarding than the race itself. No matter how experienced, you never stop learning about yourself and I suppose that’s why I love doing them.
Sport has been such an integral part of my life and I’ve been very lucky over the years to compete in various sports around the world. Growing up rugby was the focus mainly because of the school I went too. I played for a highly respected school in the UK and looking back it helped shape who I am today.
I continued to play at University however not long after graduation I decided to put my rugby days behind me. I’d suffered a few serious injuries over the years and only until I’d finished playing could I fix them. My love for sport and fitness continued and for a few years I trained but the difference was I had no real purpose anymore other than staying fit and healthy. The competition element had gone and I needed a challenge to focus my energy towards. Having always played more explosive sports the world of endurance intrigued me and doing a marathon and Ironman was something on the bucket list.
After doing research I read that running a sub 3 marathon was highly regarded amongst amateur runners and only 2% of people that attempt marathons achieve this milestone. Never shying away from a challenge, I instantly signed up for London 2013 marathon and the goal was to go sub 3. I had no clue of what running a marathon entailed, never mind breaking 3 hours but training finally had a purpose again. So the journey began, I download a training program from the London marathon website and away I went on my little mission.
No surprises that after a few months of following a sub 3 program taking my running from zero to hero, I was injured and unable to run. My body had been so use to power training, it struggled to make the quick transition to endurance and I’d picked up the famous IT band syndrome A.K.A. runners knee. I never knew that such a small irritation injury could cause major problems, and after several months of broken training and failed physio treatments I knew race day was in serious doubt. With only about two months until race day and barely able to run I knew I had to pull out.
I’d never put my mind to something and failed so miserably. To add insult to injury, I decided to run for charity and had already raised over £2000. I felt so embarrassed that I’d let all these people down who had sponsored. I deferred my place to the following year and a close friend recommended a physio clinic in Leeds who specialised in athletes to fix my issue.
After a few months of treatment, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel and was finally running again. I was more focused than ever to run the 2014 London marathon and not let everyone down who had sponsored me. I was still determined to go sub 3 however I slowly began to understand that it probably wasn’t going to be as easy as I once naively thought. Training had been going much better second time round until another injury struck a few months from race day. This time in my opposite knee which was an area I’d suffered from rugby. I was back on the physio table unable to run. I was so frustrated, no way could I pull out again. I was beginning to think that maybe my body wasn’t cut out for this marathon business. In the end I had a terrible last couple of months of training and limped to the start line. I was determined to run no matter what, I just couldn’t pull out again. Even though I knew deep down I didn’t have the fitness, I set off at sub 3 pace pumped full of pain killers to mask the pain. Looking back, I know this was a stupid decision but only marathon runners can probably understand what I was going through and why I had to run. After 18k I knew I’d blow up if I maintained the pace so I decided to ease off the gas to ensure my day didn’t turn into a complete nightmare. The positive was I completed the marathon, the negative I’d failed in my sub 3 attempted running 3hr 8mins but to make matters worse my knee needed surgery.
I landed fresh off the boat in Dubai at the end of 2014 summer, just about recovered from my knee surgery. Still more determined than ever to do this stupid sub 3, I joined Dubai Creek Striders in my third day of Dubai and immersed instantly into the running community. Until this point, I’d only ever ran alone so I absolutely loved being able to train with people, but more importantly train with stronger runners who I could learn from. I’d signed up for Paris 2015 marathon so had around 6 months to get myself into shape post-surgery. I trained with some amazing guys over this period including Johan, Sam and Cliff to name a few and learnt so much about the art of a marathon.
The New Year had come and I was probably in the best running shape of my life. Constant speed, interval and long run sessions had seriously whipped me into shape and I was feeling good for the final 3 months of training. As April dawned my usual problems started to appear, however this time hips issues. The last couple of months of training were horrible and the problem had become so bad that every time I ran I would get shooting pains through my right side. Being frustrated was an understatement, so much hard work had gone into this and to pick up another injury at such a crucial time was sickening. We all have imbalances in the body and unfortunately when you are pushing yourself to the limits, these have an ugly way of showing themselves.
I was stood on the start line at Paris with a pocket full of pain killers…..Again. The frustrating part was that I felt super fit unlike London, however every time my right foot would strike the ground I would have terrible pain effecting my running form. Considering the issues, I ran strong in Paris and was on target until the wheels fell off at 35km. People talk about hitting the wall in races, well this felt like someone smashing a sledge hammer over my head, never had I felt so weak in my life. The last 7k was awful and I limped to the finish line in 3hr 3mins.
After Paris I felt disheartened with the whole experience. I was sick of injuries and just longed for the day to be able to race injury free. I came back to Dubai and was in recover mode again trying to get myself sorted. The world of triathlon was calling so I decided to put my little mission to rest for a while and focus on something new.
The next couple of years I focused on Triathlon which seemed to be kinder on the body as 70% of training is non-impact. I successfully completed Copenhagen Ironman in 2016 breaking 10 hours and then Dublin 70.3 Ironman in August 2017, qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships in South Africa 12 months later. Despite having some fantastic experiences in Triathlon, the fact I never broke 3 hours in a marathon really annoyed me.
Using my Paris result, I’d secured a good for age slot at London 2018 marathon which I’d deferred from the previous year. This was my last year to use it and I knew that I had a small window to potentially focus on London which would fall in April, and still have 4 months to focus back on Triathlon for the World Champs. The main concern was getting injured again preparing for London and then not being able to compete in South Africa.
After some thought I set myself little targets to work towards. Sept to Dec I’d focus back on running 3 times a week, which included all the sessions needed to run a fast marathon especially speed sessions which I felt previously had caused a lot of my issues. This time I would combine my experience from triathlon and use the bike and swim sessions for extra fitness without having the impact of running. Some guys are able to run 5/6 times a week covering 100+kms. Learning about my body over the years I’m not one of those athletes. However I’m a massive believer in quality over quantity and making sure every training session has a purpose rather than just training for the sake of it. So the goal was to train hard up to Xmas and get a solid base, if injuries started to appear I’d back off and just cancel this whole sub 3 mission and focus on South Africa. If Xmas came and I felt good, I’d step things up and focus for London in the April. I was pretty relaxed about the whole situation and decided to let things take its due course.
Xmas came and everything felt amazing. I’d built a solid base again and most importantly the body felt strong. I decided to up the running to 4 times a week, combined with two bike, swim and conditioning sessions. I made sure that all long runs involved at least 70% of the run on soft track to minimise the impact on the body and this seemed to be working. I’ve never had a coach and always write my own training plans, however I always sense check elements of my training with top athletes to make sure I’m not missing out anything crucial. After some advice from Phil Clarke, the last 8 weeks of training involved race pace efforts at the end of long runs which I’d never done before. One of my last 38k long runs involved the final 10k at race pace which was brutal.
April came and I was shocked that my body had survived the last 6 months without virtually any issues. Yes I’d spent a fortune on yin yoga, weekly sport massages and preventative physio treatments but all in all things felt great.
At the start line I knew that this was probably the best chance I’d had of achieving my target. I’d received so many amazing messages of support before the race and I knew it was time to deliver. It was officially the hottest London marathon on record and there were warnings on the tanoy that everyone should run slower than their originally planned pace due to the conditions. Lucky I was coming from Dubai so the heat didn’t phase me, however frankly the guy on the tanoy could of said the world was about to end, there was no way I was slowing my pace. The pace was 4 minute 15 second kilometers for 42 k’s and that was final.
The race started and the first 21k flew past. Even though I was feeling the heat, I felt strong. I promised myself that no matter how good I felt, I was not getting ahead of myself going any faster than 4:15’s. I was giving myself a 40 second buffer and that was it, I didn’t need to run any faster. Just over half way running over tower bridge is probably one of the most iconic points of the race and the wall of noise that hits you literally makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I was running on air and had to force myself to stay at target pace. The body wanted to go so much faster but I knew how you crash and burn if you let moments like these take you away when feeling like superman.
When I hit 30k that feeling of ecstasy had completely gone and my legs felt heavy which was concerning. I was very conscious how I hit the wall at Paris so I was a bit disheartened feeling like this with still 12k to go. But this is the part I love about racing, when every fibre in your body is wanting to slow down, stay strong mentally and it’s amazing how much further you can push your body when on the limit. With no time for feeling sorry for myself, I weathered the storm by breaking the last 12k down into 3 mini races. Get yourself to 35k and think of nothing else. Once at 35k, get yourself to 40k and think of nothing else. Once at 40k, get yourself to 42k, and after that the final 200 metres no matter how bad you feel you can survive.
I’m not going to lie, the last 12k was horrible, but the shear mental strength of not giving up, breaking it down into small sections and having that belief was enough to drag myself over that finish line in 2hr 59min 43seconds. Crossing that line was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in sport, to set yourself a goal over 5 years ago and to finally achieve it was something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.