Feeling unfit as he neared 40, Jon Welch, pictured above right, took up running. Fast forward five years and Jon, who lives in Norwich, has just run his first marathon and sub four hours, too.
Running less was key to it – as well as some lunchtime interval runs around Chapelfield Gardens. Here he tells me how he did it.
Was this your first marathon? What sort of running had you been doing before that and why did you decide to step up?
Yes, this was my first. I’d done seven half-marathons before this race, plus a couple of 10Ks and handful of Parkruns. A marathon seemed the logical next step, I suppose.
I remember the London Marathon launching when I was a kid. It was a massive event that seemed to capture everyone’s imagination. Even then I thought it would be great to be a part of something like that, and a real achievement to finish. But it was no more than an idle dream, really – not least because I didn’t run and didn’t have much inclination to start. Much later, once I’d run a few halfs – which once would have seemed impossible to me – I started to think a full marathon might be within my grasp.
How and when did you first get into running?
Five years ago. I was nearing 40 and was pretty unfit so decided to do something about it. A few friends had started running, and one told me about Couch to 5K. At that point, I wouldn’t have been able to run more than a few hundred yards, so I didn’t hold out much hope. I used to see runners and think they must be mad. But I decided to give it a try and downloaded a podcast called First Day to 5K. It’s similar to Couch to 5K – you start off walking, then running for short distances, and week-by-week, the proportion of running gradually increases.
I was progressing quite well – enjoying it, even – but a few weeks in, I got a pain in my left knee and then in my right ankle, so I stopped. I started to think my running career was over virtually before it had begun. Then I wondered if my footwear was to blame. I did have proper running shoes but I’d picked them off the shelf without any expert advice. So I went along to a specialist running shop where they put me on a treadmill, analysed my gait and sold me a pair of shoes. I was a bit skeptical but they did seem to make all the difference. I’ve got through quite a few pairs since then, of course, but touch wood, I’ve been largely injury-free. A few weeks later, I did my first Parkrun and was delighted – and surprised – to finish in under 25 minutes.
Why Liverpool for your first marathon?
My friend Pete started running two or three years ago and we often chat about it via text. He’s originally from near Liverpool and did the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon there last year and really enjoyed it. Last June he asked if I fancied doing this year’s full marathon with him. I thought a year was far enough in the future not to worry about, so I said yes…
Also, I went to university near Liverpool so I knew the city a bit. I’ve always liked the place and the people. I also liked that you could just pay your money and get a place, rather than take your chances in a ballot.
How was it overall? Were you running with anyone else?
It was great – an absolutely fantastic experience. I met up with Pete, who I hadn’t seen for a few years, near the start at the Albert Dock and we had a good chat. It was his first marathon, too. We were both in the same starting corral, although we both planned to run at our own pace rather than together.
The crowds on the roadside were so friendly and supportive and the route was interesting, taking us round Everton’s ground and past Liverpool’s. There were some great views down across the city and the river before we headed back through the city centre and then out again, winding through Sefton Park and then coming back along the Mersey for the last few miles.
Every mile or two there were music stages with bands playing, which provided a bit of a morale boost. After I finished I met up with Pete’s family and watched him cross the line as well. He loved it as much as I did and we’ve hardly shut up about it since. It feels great to have this shared experience.
How did you get such a great time? Did you hit the wall? Were you surprised to finish so quickly?
I’d trained pretty diligently, running three times a week, so I’d covered quite a few miles. I really wanted to finish in under four hours, and I thought that was realistic if everything went well.
I’d read and heard quite a lot about “the wall” and was keen to avoid hitting it. My friend Gordon, who’s done a few marathons, gave me some very good advice and suggested conserving energy for later in the race by running a few seconds slower than target pace for the first five miles. I did my best to do this but managed it only for the first couple of miles or so before my pace started creeping up, even though it was quite quite hilly.
I’d been nervously looking at the weather forecast in the preceding days, and was a bit worried when I saw temperatures of 20C predicted. Luckily, it wasn’t that hot on the day – only about 13C or 14C – but away from the river, where there was a nice cool breeze, it was very humid. I carried a bottle of sports drink and had another bottle in a belt containing an electrolyte drink and was careful to drink regularly, even when I wasn’t particularly thirsty. I also carried some gels, and grabbed some more from the feeding stations, and made sure I took those regularly. I also took a few jelly babies for an extra energy boost.
At about 16 miles, I felt my calf tighten, and I was worried it was going to cramp up, but I just kept taking on fluids and luckily I was fine. I kept an eye on my pace all the way with my GPS watch. I was running a few seconds a mile quicker than I’d aimed to, and felt quite comfortable, but unfortunately the watch battery died after about 20 miles, so I had to guess a bit from there onwards. Luckily the last few miles were mainly downhill or flat so I knew there were no more nasty climbs. In the last few miles I went past a lot of people who had either stopped or were walking, and I hoped that wouldn’t happen to me. I knew that if I could keep going I was on for a good time, and seeing and hearing the crowds along the dockside as I got near the finish really helped spur me on, especially when I spotted my wife and sons a couple of hundred metres from the line.
I felt ecstatic as I crossed the line, and I was absolutely delighted with my time of 3:47:43. As I said, I was hoping for under four hours but I surpassed my own expectations, which is a lovely feeling.
What training programme did you follow? How did you find out about it? It seems to be based on the idea that less is more when it comes to training – is that right?
Yes, I’ve got a great book called Run Less, Run Faster, which has become my training bible. Again, Gordon put me on to it. The general idea is that you do three runs a week – an intervals session, a tempo run and a long run, each of which does a specific job – rather than pounding the streets endlessly. I followed a 16-week programme in there aimed at a 3:55 marathon – I thought I’d try to give myself five minutes’ leeway!
You’re actually supposed to do a couple of cross-training sessions a week as well so I did these at the gym, but once the mileage increased I found that was leaving me too tired. So I ditched those sessions and just stuck to running. During training, I found I was naturally running slightly faster than the various target times for each section, so I started to think I might reach my goal. I also ran the Broadland Half-Marathon midway through my training and knocked about three minutes off my PB so the signs were encouraging.
You did five 20-mile runs before the marathon which struck me as a lot. Did it help or not?
Yes, that was what the programme said so I just went along with it. They were fairly well spaced out, though, so there was a lot of recovery time. I know some plans have you running even further, maybe up to 22 miles, so it didn’t seem excessive.
Did they help? Definitely, although I was still a bit fearful about what a further six miles may entail. A couple of the training runs – one in particular – felt really hard, but it was satisfying to know I’d pushed on even when I wanted to stop. On race day, I had that experience to draw on and everything just came together, and I can honestly say I felt far less worn out than I did after any of the 20-milers.
You’ve got a young family so how easy was it to find the time to train?
Well, most of the interval sessions and tempo runs took no more than an hour, so I was able to squeeze them into lunch breaks at work. The longer runs did eat into the weekends a bit – not least because you don’t feel like doing much else for the rest of the day afterwards – but thankfully my family were very supportive. Maybe they even liked having me out of the house for a bit!
It sounds like you were taking it very seriously at the end with food etc – was that the case?
Yes. Even though I’ve lost a bit of weight since I started running, I knew I could do with shedding a few more pounds. I figured that every one I lost was one I wouldn’t have to drag around the streets of Merseyside, so in the last four weeks before the race I really cut down the calories. It was tricky because I didn’t want to leave myself without enough energy to run, but I seemed to get the balance about right. In the end I lost about 10lbs in a month, which I think helped massively.
It’s strange, really. I started running to get fitter and lose weight, and then I found myself trying to lose weight to run faster. I’ve read that every pound you lose makes you two seconds per mile quicker, so I reckon the weight I lost bought me eight or nine minutes over the 26.2 miles. In the final three or four days before the race, I was loading up on carbs – not going mad, but just aiming to get the bulk of my calories from them. And on race day, I had a big breakfast of porridge, chocolate milk and oat bars about three hours before the start, washed down a bit later with a couple of double espressos for a caffeine boost.
Have you got any more marathons planned?
When I entered Liverpool, I thought it might be my first and last marathon – something to tick off the bucket list, really. But I enjoyed it so much I fancy doing some more. I haven’t got one in the diary yet, but I think I’ll look to do another next year to see if I can go a bit quicker. London would great, obviously, if I could get a place, but there are lots of other interesting-looking ones. Meanwhile, I’ll probably look to do a few Parkruns and possibly a 10K over the summer, and maybe a half-marathon in the autumn, and see if I can knock a bit more off my PBs.