If marathon running seems too far from your capabilities, you're certainly not alone. For many of us yet to take on 26.2 miles, it can seem like an awe-inspiring, but impossible task.
Neil Grayton didn’t believe he was capable either, until he crossed the finish line for himself in 2018. We chatted to Neil to find out more about his motivation to enter the London marathon, and to get his top tips for this year’s first-time runners…
When Did You First Start Running & Why Does It Appeal to You?
Up until the age of 18, I was a competitive swimmer, so I was always physically active, but then when I went to University, I stopped doing much exercise, as you do - there were gym sessions but not very much cardio. In my mid to late twenties I would do a bit of swimming or running, but not really in a structured way or with any kind of outcome. I joined a running club when I was 30 and went for a year or so, but didn’t really fall in love with it.
2 years ago I made the decision that I needed a focus outside of work and wanted to get fit, so I signed up for a personal trainer. She was also a running coach and got me running 5k quite quickly – I progressed on from there. I love running and other forms of exercise; it's a method of escapism for me and when I'm exercising my mind clears.
What Was Your Motivation Behind Wanting to Enter the LDN Marathon?
The marathon was something I have always been fascinated by, in awe of all of the people from different walks of lives and different levels of fitness that were able to complete such an incredible feat - I never believed that I would be able to achieve something like that. After starting to exercise I began to believe in myself a bit more, and the improvements it was giving me mentally, along with the mind over marathon documentary that had recently been aired, for some reason gave me the courage to enter. I guess there was also the knowledge that there was a high chance I wouldn’t get through the ballot!
You Were Heavily Involved With Heads Together’s Pre-Marathon Build Up - What Did This Entail?
Heads Together were great. As I was a ballot runner, I didn’t have to raise money for a charity, but Heads Together was one of the reasons I chose to enter the ballot in the first place, so I felt like I couldn’t miss the opportunity to raise some money for them.
They saw my charity page and asked me to write a blog post for them, which they shared on their social media, and then on the training day they asked me to stand up and talk in front of the other runners. This was pretty daunting, as it was putting myself out there very publicly, and talking about some pretty personal feelings, but the Heads Together team were amazingly supportive, and the other runners couldn’t have been kinder afterwards. I actually got to meet one of the runners from the Mind over Marathon documentary, who spoke to me to say how impressed she was with my talk.
I then also got to go to an evening with Mind over Marathon, where they got all of the documentary guys together to catch up on their experience from the marathon and what they had done since. The support from the other runners and the Heads Together team really helped during the training, as they kept reassuring me that my training was going well and that I deserved to be running the marathon.
What Did Your Average Training Schedule Look Like?
My weekly training was pretty intensive and I was probably doing a fair bit more training than most of the other charity runners, due to having my personal trainer and her giving me running coaching. I was doing a gym session once a week, cycling for 60 mins once a week, a long run on a Sunday, a speed run session and a hills run session once a week; so a total of 6 sessions each week, with one rest day.
I ran the Cambridge Half as my last proper race prior to the marathon, and my long runs had gone up to 18 miles. I was due to run a 20-mile race 5/6 weeks prior to the marathon, but due to the Beast from the East, this was canceled.
The last couple of weeks came down in total training miles so that my legs weren’t tired come race day, and the speed work increased. There was a lot of runs with blocks of marathon pace as part of them.
Were There Times Where You Had No Motivation or Energy to Run?
There were absolutely times that I didn’t have the motivation to get out and train - the hardest points were always surrounding the long run, with my head always struggling with the concept of being out for 2 and a half hours to 3 hours, especially when it was really cold.
I think I made amends with myself that, there were going to be times that it was better for me to just let my head win out, rather than forcing myself to get out. But most of the time, [I was motivated by] the knowledge that once I got out running, I would actually feel a lot better and be glad I went.
I struggled a lot in the build-up with a crisis of confidence, but the support network of friends, coaches and running partners definitely helped with that, and getting out and achieving runs longer or quicker than I had before, helped.
What’s Your Top Tip For Getting Through A Highly Demanding Training Schedule?
Something I have learnt in the year since the marathon, thanks to a torn hamstring, is that rehab and strength and conditioning work are super important to maintaining your body and your training. Running will definitely get you a long way, but you need the strength and conditioning, and most importantly you need to take the rest when it is planned.
But, do remember to eat regularly, just gradually increase your food intake, and make sure you fuel before and after a training session.
Can You Tell Us About The Experience on the Day Itself?
Race day was like nothing else I had done before. The start of the day is interesting, you make your way to your start, and there's just lots of runners, all looking very nervous and being quite quiet. There is a lot of waiting around, and making sure you are in the right place at the right time; 'have I been to the toilet, have I dropped your bag at the right place, where is my start section, what time is it, how long is it before I get to start running... just let me run!"
Then your wave starts you want to just sprint off, but I was strict and settled into a comfortable pace, trying to take some of the atmosphere in, as there were a lot of people lining the roads already. You get a couple of miles in and everyone merges together, which is quite frustrating. It is difficult to run at points, you go from a 4 lane road to little more than a single track road, and everyone is bunched up.
I was looking out for my friends - there were so many points when I just wanted to see someone I knew - and when you do, it is amazing!
The first 16 miles were going perfectly to plan, I’d run the whole way, and then the heat took hold, my calves started to cramp and I just needed to walk. As soon as I stopped, my heart sank, that was my goal time gone, but I knew deep down, all that mattered to me, was getting to the end. I walked the next 2 miles, but we were at Canary Wharf and the support by this point was insane, so every person you went past would cheer you on.
At 18 miles I saw a set of friends, and that was the boost I needed. They shouted at me as I left them to just run/walk the rest of the way, so I started jogging. I could only manage short jogs, but it was enough to get me moving.
One thing I remember the most is running past one spectator who was stood there with a beer, and as I was walking towards him he made eye contact and just started shouting at me that I was doing amazing. As I went past, he gave me a massive slap on the bac and I felt the biggest lift at that point - this experience totally personifies the support you get the whole way around.
Finishing was pretty amazing - I crossed the line with a guy I had been running the last 2 miles with, and we had both kept each other going. As we went our separate ways and I was stood by myself, it dawned on me, that I had made it. That high is pretty special.
What Was The Biggest Challenge You Found With The Whole Experience?
For me, the biggest challenge was having the belief in myself that I could actually get around. Everyone around me believed I could and would tell me regularly, but I was always doubtful. That is just part of my personality, but I’m certain everyone has that doubt.
Finally, What's The Biggest Piece of Advice You'd Give to Any First-Timer Running The London Marathon This Sunday?
Don’t worry about the time or about running the whole way, just enjoy the experience. I had been in football stadiums and swimming pools with lots of spectators, but being in the middle of the road with thousands of people shouting at you, and having people pick out your name, is something else. I’m not sure you would ever get that anywhere else.