Ray O’Connor talks about training for a marathon and beating the pain barrier

I am glad this article is appearing close to the race date because I would hate to think what I write here might cause you to have yet another second thought.

Barring Arctic explorers and that bloke who did the distance in shorts and a pair of sandals in 25C (google Wim Hof if you get the chance – he had a fag when he finished), every marathon virgin must break into a cold sweat when they complete the entrance form.

It is a feat which mere mortals must struggle to convince themselves is personally possible. To every competitor gearing up to do the Cork City marathon on June 1, I salute you.

I am glad this article is appearing close to the race date because I would hate to think what I write here might cause you to have yet another second thought.

Running the marathon must be like standing on the side of the ocean on Christmas Day, in a ridiculous santa hat, preparing to throw yourself in –— to the power of 1,000.

And at least when your legs thaw out after the swim you’ll be perfectly mobile. I imagine the marathon debutantes would love a dip in the freezing water at the end of the race just to numb the pain…

At the outset a confession — a confession. I am not training for this race — 26 miles in one go is a feat I cannot even begin to contemplate. I am, as a colleague referred to me, “a short-distance sprinter” trying to relate here to the “hairy marathon types”.

Ray O’Connor talks about training for a marathon and beating the pain barrier

I run four miles at a decent lick and then fall over…and in the face of almost seven times my normal distance, I can do naught but embrace my laziness, my lack of ambition and adventure, my cowardliness. I therefore bow before the distance runners with nothing but awe.

With less than a month to go, if you are planning to run the 26 miles and you haven’t been deeply engaged in training for the last eight weeks…well, I will merely say ‘Oh’. 

Let’s be honest, when you embarked upon this endeavour, you probably turned to that old reliable — Google. And it wasn’t to find out the best food to eat or the most suitable running shoes to fit your gait.

It was to find out what training programme would ensure the least painful journey to a completion on the day itself. Several different plans were probably clicked on before the cruel realisation that there is no magic formula that will avert long and intense effort.

Ahead of writing this — and to frighten myself — I looked at a random training plan, which was a guide to preparing for the full distance in a 16-week period. It would have been perfectly pleasant, if one could have omitted the Saturday schedule each week. 

On the other days, the max distance expected was eight miles. But from the fifth week on, the distances went up by two miles each week — starting at 11 miles. Weeks 11, 12 and 13 meant running 17, 18 and 20 miles respectively.

Now, anyone reading this who is living/working/breathing within 200m of a person completing a marathon for the first time should take note that they are about to run 20 miles for the first time within a matter of days. 

They may have a far away, distracted expression— be patient. It is a milestone that may seem to be very daunting — it’s practically the distance from Cork to Mallow, after all.

But it is also a distance that, once achieved, will give the first-timer a huge adrenalin high, an immense psychological boost that, despite all those nights waking in a cold sweat thinking it might not be possible, the full distance is within their grasp.

This period of preparation is fairly crucial to a successful outcome on June 1 and that’s not just a short-distance wuss trying to sound knowledgeable — it’s the view of a man who has more than a few miles clocked up.

Ray O’Connor started off as a novice at the age of 30 — so much so that an 8ft Womble almost beat him in the London Marathon. Ray realised that he was never going to be one of the faster runners, so he set his sights on endurance.

He has now completed 134 marathons, including two 100-mile distance events and ten marathons in ten days — twice. 

He has also competed in 24-hour events and in 2009, finished the Marathon Des Sables, which is considered to be the toughest foot race on Earth, at 156 miles over six days in the Moroccan desert.

For Ray, right now is the time to road-test almost everything to do with the race. In fact, for the dreaded 20-mile “long run”, he suggests that the new entrant run at the same time as they will on the day itself.

“It should all be rehearsed,” he says. “What you have for breakfast on the day of the long run can be the same as what you have on race day.”

With typically, less than a half an hour of frenetic fast running ahead of me, the only concern I have around food is not giving myself a stitch by gobbling down a steak dinner 20 minutes before my run, and whether to give myself a sneaky, but very brief, sugar boost with a Quality Street a few minutes before I hit ‘go’ on the watch.

However, marathoners, (more recently called snickers…sorry) have to be more meticulous and it is essential they get their ideal pre-race diet plan nailed down now, especially as there is a diversity of opinion out there as to what is the best approach.

“There is the whole notion of carb-loading,” says Ray. “Some people swear by it, others don’t. It used to be that you would read you had to carb load for 48 hours before the race, maybe on Thursday start eating pasta and potatoes.

“It is really the day before the race you need to get carbs into you. You will be testing that before your long run. Try to carb-load and see if that agrees with you, because it does not suit a lot of people.”

Also, you are facing into a super-human task, but don’t rush out in the coming weeks to give your feet a treat with a new pair of runners. And definitely don’t switch to a new brand.

If the ones you are wearing now have got you up to near-maximum distance, they are likely best suited to taking you those extra miles. 

Even I, as a lowly four-miler, learnt that to my cost when I switched temporarily from my current brand (not naming names; I wouldn’t want to “tick” anyone off), to another and found the new pair made me feel like I was trying to drive the balls of my feet into the ground. 

The strain was very quickly too much for one leg’s calf muscles.

On that topic, Ray is adamant that the race is not over if a slight niggle develops at this point in the training cycle. “Don’t panic. Give yourself a couple of days off and, if it is still there, get straight into physio.

“With four weeks to go, most small injuries would be able to be looked after within that time and full recovery would usually be possible. 

"Three weeks out, you have reached your maximum and, once you have got to that, you take it easier. Your mileage comes down and down and, in the last week, you are doing very little anyway.”

The weeks and months of arduous preparation are almost behind you, so let’s fastforward to the day itself. Lets take the race from mileone — to the end.

Stretching on the start line

Ray is not a fan of over-indulging in the Kama-sutraesque positions many people get themselves into to warm up:

“I see a lot of people on a marathon start line and they are doing rigorous stretching, and all that. I would not buy into stretching on the start line at all.

“We are talking to regular runners. You should be loosening out and stretching very lightly, but you are not going to take off in your first mile and run a six-minute mile.

"The best advice for going into a marathon, for mid-pack runners, would be to ease yourself into the race and, if you can, let your first mile be almost your slowest mile.

“It is going to be congested and if you do your first mile a minute slower than you had intended, for the rest of the race that is almost like a stretch in itself rather than doing anything rigorous.”

Hydration

According to Ray, many people drink way too much water just before they set off on the 26-mile course.

“You will see some people who will down one or two litres of water. What you have to think is what you would be like if you were running with a two-litre bottle of water in your hand? You wouldn’t do it — so why would you run with it in your stomach? That will cause other problems.”

After 134 marathons to hone his thoughts, Ray says the competitors should consume two to three litres the day before. 

“Overnight, you are fully hydrated and then you just take sips on the start line. You are not going to get dehydrated between mile one and the first water station. Once you hit the first station, take a sip and do that at every table. If it happens to be a hot day, you will need to take a bit more than that.”

Food

Until I interviewed Ray, I had assumed that competitors downed a sugary drink and gobbled a banana halfway along to get themselves to the end of a race.

But those in the know are partial to energy gels (I thought he said energy jabs and had unpleasant images of people desperately searching for a vein when the wall appeared to be approaching).

“A lot of people take energy gels, but the best advice is never take one during a race if you have not done it in training or had one before,” says Ray.

“They can be very upsetting, very sickly. I would take one an hour— but I know some people would take one every half hour. Some have caffeine in them and some don’t.

"In your training, you want to experiment with that. Some people get a good kick out of the caffeine, but it doesn’t agree with others.”

The “Wall”

On my short runs, I often find myself three miles in thinking I should stop and thumb a lift (this article is rapidly making me lose all respect for my efforts). 

But ‘the wall’ truly does loom large in front of the hundreds of runners in every race. Ray has a good technique for knocking it down thanks to a conversation he had a number of years ago when he was going through a bad patch at around mile 24.

“A girl running with me asked if I was OK. I said ‘no, I am really bad, I think I am going to pull out’. She said: ‘Well, how is your head? Do you have a headache?’ and I said ‘No’.

"And she said: ‘how is your neck and shoulders, are they stiff?’ and I said ‘no’. She worked right down from my head to my toes and there was nothing wrong with me.

“That is what you need to do when you are really struggling. Ask yourself ‘what is it that is actually bothering me’? 

You might find that it is nothing, just tiredness and everything seems to be exaggerated, with you thinking you’re going to throw up. Do a healthcheck on yourself mentally. It is also a good distraction through the pain, as well.”

Ray says the wall is often that your carbohydrate levels have gone down, the glycogen in your muscles is depleting. “It is a physical thing, not just a mental thing. But it is your mind that will really exaggerate that physical, tough part.

“Also, if you feel really bad at mile 22, look around you. You can bet there is someone around you who is actually much worse than you.

"A lot of people will hit the wall — if you can even get to mile 23 and sense the city centre coming closer to you again, you will start to pick up again. It will pass.”

Walking vs running

There is nothing wrong with walking for a while in the marathon. In fact, Ray says there is nothing wrong with walking the whole thing.

“You have to listen to your body. If you are really struggling, there is no point in pushing yourself to a point where you are going to fail. The ultimate goal is to finish the race. A lot of people will walk some part of it. It is actually quite sociable.”

What isn’t sociable is…

Earphones

This is another alien concept to me. My low boredom threshold means I simply will not contemplate my half-hour slogs without ensuring I coincide them with an engaging radio programme. But, for Ray, the earphones should remain at home for the race.

“A lot of people get hung up about the fact they have music when they are training, so they have to have it to keep them motivated for the race. 

"What they don’t realise is that, firstly, they won’t be alert to everything around them and it is actually dangerous to have headphones in, because an ambulance could be coming up behind.

“You are not with the rest of the race, you are in your own world. You might as well leave them at home and soak up the atmosphere. You will ultimately do better, because you will hear the other runners around you, the sounds, the music on the course. It is a different atmosphere.”

On that note, remember there are several hundred fellow sloggers in the same boat as you. Feed off them. Everyone is in it together to get to the end and get that medal. Ray says participants should embrace that, rather than fight it.

“You see people getting upset with the crowds or trying to zigzag in and out, running their own race and not going with the flow. I would recommend you let the Cork City Marathon take you from start to finish.”

So another salute to you full distance racers — and you halfers and relayers can have one, too, especially as many of you are doing it to raise money for a myriad of worthwhile causes.

Just remember: take your time, hose slips of things that will finish two hours ahead of you probably won’t do half the celebrating you will when you get the feeling back in your knees.


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