Valencia has one of the fastest marathons in the world, with a flat course and typically calm and cool December weather combining to make it the place to go for both elites and amateur runners looking for a PB. Having decided not to run a spring marathon and instead focus on local races for the first half of the year, it was the perfect target for a big race to train for over autumn.
My wife and I flew to Madrid on the Friday before the Sunday race and after a 5k shakeout run on Saturday morning, caught the train to Valencia. We eventually managed to navigate the tram system to get to the expo and pick up my race number and goodie bag. Not wanting to take any risks with my stomach, I had my standard pre-race dinner of fairly plain instant noodles followed by cereal and oatcakes, then went to bed at 9pm.
I slept surprisingly well on the Saturday night (my Garmin body battery even reached 100%!), waking up with my 5am alarm to have breakfast (more cereal, I brought a whole box with me from home) then dozed a bit until it was time to go. I don’t like waiting around at the start of races, so arrived 40 minutes before. There’s a long walk from the tram to the start line and long queues for the toilets, so that turned out to be just enough time to drop my bag, use the portaloo and get to the start line 5 minutes before the 8.15 start.
My main goal for the race was sub-2:35, but I felt like I was probably in at least 2:32-2:33 shape. Along with my PBs in the build-up, this made it very tempting to target the big scary round number of 2:30. So my plan was that if the conditions were good (it was about 10 degrees and calm) and I felt strong I’d aim for halfway at about 1:15:30 and see what I had left in the second half.
My start pen was allocated based on my London Marathon time last year, which put me in the 2:38-2:50 pen. I tried to get as far forward as possible, but the start is so crowded and there are so many runners in that category that for the first kilometre I couldn’t do anything other than just go along with the crowd. I went through 1km about 20 seconds slower than planned. The crowd slightly thinned out over the next kilometre, but I still lost another 10 seconds. Not a great start to lose 30 seconds over the first two kilometres and I’d hardly noticed the iconic bridge at the start because I’d been too busy avoiding tripping over other runners and finding gaps to get through.
Finally I had some space and could get into my own rhythm. The pace of 3:33/km felt as comfortable as it ever has for me. I would stay at the same pace for the next 33km (20 miles). Apart from the lost 30 seconds at the start, the official results showed that every 5k split up to 35k was between 17:38 and 17:48, varying by only 2 seconds per kilometre. This was even though my GPS ended up out by 400m, so I only knew I had been so consistent when checking the results later. It just felt like a natural pace to run at, which I guess is the benefit of doing so many marathon pace kilometres in training. It was a few seconds quicker than my training marathon pace, I guess the main difference was the perfect weather in Valencia compared to the constant wind on the riverside in Dundee.
The first part of the course goes out towards the beach and then around some quieter residential sections. To be honest I don’t remember much of this, it was the typical marathon waiting game of running at a set pace and wondering if you’re going to be able to maintain it. Due to starting in a pen behind my target time, I was constantly getting onto the back of groups then realising they weren’t quite going at the pace I wanted to. So it never felt like I was in a consistent group, but I was at least getting the psychological boost of constantly passing runners.
The halfway timing mat came at 1:15:16, so if I wanted sub-2:30 I was going to have to negative split. It felt like I was on a good day, so all previous thoughts of just beating my stated 2:35 goal were put aside, I was going to have a go at 2:30. Three weeks before I’d run 1:14:30 at the Glen Clova half with an awful cold, stomach issues, hilly course, windy day, tired legs, every excuse in the book. I convinced myself that surely I could at least manage that again even if I had already run 21km!
Just after halfway the route goes past the old town and the crowds and noise build up. Even on the best day, there’s always going to be a moment in a marathon when it starts feeling hard and the doubts creep in. For me that was around 25km (could I really keep this up for another hour?), so the crowds were a welcome distraction, as was seeing Katy (my wife) at around 28km. I gave her a thumbs up and realised I wasn’t actually feeling that bad. Looking at the data afterwards, my heart rate had increased from mid-170s bpm (87% of max) at halfway to 180 bpm (90%) between 25 and 35km, which is the difference between comfortably hard, and uncomfortable but still sustaintable for a while.
Passing over the 35km timing mat I did some calculations and realised I was almost exactly on target for 2:30:00. I’d been patient, now it was time to see what I had left. The route goes out to a residential area, but the crowds were still great – Valencia really lives up to its claim to be the ‘Ciuidad del Running’. My GPS had been a bit dodgy in the built-up area, so I didn’t know whether to believe the pace on my watch. I felt like I was speeding up, but when the legs are so tired the perception of pace can be deceiving.
Finally the 40km mat came into sight and I couldn’t believe it – under 2:22 meant that barring collapse I was going to make sub-2:30. Every other marathon I’ve slowed at least slightly after 35km, but this time 35-40km was 17:17, my fastest 5k split of the race. All the 35km+ long training runs definitely paid off!
Katy was apparently at around 40k, but I was so focussed I didn’t even notice her. There were signs counting down every 100m for the last kilometre and soon I was on the blue carpet, an iconic finish stretch to rival London or Berlin. The BBC footage shows me looking ok apart from a slight wobble, but I was definitely desperate for the finish! I kept pushing hard because I remembered Harry telling me the DRR record was low 2:29 (I missed it by 3 seconds in the end), crossed the line, stopped my watch at 2:29:20 and joined the celebrations of the other runners who had broken 2:30!
I picked up my medal and finishers goodie bag (including three persimmons and various other assorted food) and found my way to pick up my bag. I checked my phone to see all the kind messages from people who had followed along in the tracking app or commented on the post on the DRR Facebook group – thanks everyone, it really does mean a lot.
The marathon over, it was proper holiday time! Paella and my first beer for months tasted great and my legs even felt ok enough to explore the old town of Valencia. We visited Cuenca with its unique hanging houses and enjoyed some winter sun before it was time to head back to a very frosty Dundee.
Overall it was the perfect training block and perfect race for me, the only sad part was that DRR clubmate Mairi was planning to be running in Valencia too, but unfortunately suffered an injury. I’m sure 2024 will be her year – we’re both in for Berlin!
This was the highlight of a big year of running for me, with PBs at every distance. When I first broke 3 hours at Loch Ness two years ago, I could never have imagined getting close to a 2:30 marathon – 3:33/km was my 5k pace. It definitely took a lot of hard work as I’ve described in the section below. It’s lucky I like running! And I get a lot out of the club runs and all the races we go to together, that’s what has really pushed me on.
I’m now looking forward to an easier December for running, maybe a hard parkrun or two, but no more races. As tempting as getting the elite treatment at the Manchester Marathon is (sub-2:30 qualifies me to have my own bottles at drinks stations amongst other things!), I really enjoyed just doing smaller local races with big DRR presences in the first half of this year, so might do the same again.
A few people asked me about my training, so here are the details for anyone interested. Follow me on Strava if you want to.
In 2022 I ran two marathons – 2:44 at Edinburgh and 2:42 at London. Over the year I averaged 75km (47 miles) per week, building up to 100km (62 miles) per week in the 10-12 weeks leading up to each marathon. I followed the Daniels 2Q training program, which involves two long (25-30km) runs each week, both of which typically have long periods of marathon or half-marathon pace included in them. The rest was mostly easy running with an occasional race/hard parkrun.
Over 2023 I increased my mileage and have averaged 105 km (65 miles) per week over the year so far, building up to more than 130 km (80 miles) per week in the 10 weeks before Valencia. The higher mileage doesn’t just help the marathon times – it has also helped me set big PBs at all of 5k, 5 mile, 10k, 10 mile and half-marathon this year. At least for me, the only difference between training for a marathon and training for the shorter distances is the specific hard workouts – the same amount of easy distance running still needs to be there.
While I had success with following the Daniels program for previous marathons, having run a few marathons I knew what worked for me and I designed my own training program this time. It was heavily influenced by Daniels (when I didn’t know what to do for my mid-week long run I often just did one of the workouts from his book), but my main long run done once every 7-10 days was based on the writings of Renato Canova.
I did three types of long runs:
1. Long runs with sections at marathon pace either continuous or as long intervals – starting at 15k early in the training block, but extending the distance each time until reaching 3x10k (with 1k recovery in between each at only 30 seconds slower than marathon pace) as part of a 40k (25 mile) run five weeks before the race and up to 26k (16 miles) continuous at marathon pace two weeks before the race.
2. More than 2 hours continuously at 5-10% slower than marathon pace. Canova’s elite athletes will sometimes even go over the marathon distance when doing these, but I did around 35km (22 miles).
3. If recovering from a race, a progression run starting with some easy kilometres and building up to marathon pace or faster than marathon pace depending on feel.
These are hard runs, you have to be very disciplined with the pace to make sure you recover and can still do the next week's training. It's better to be a few seconds per kilometre too slow than too fast. They also rely on a strong base aerobic fitness, if you haven't spent years of doing long runs you might want to alternate these with easy-paced long runs.
I tested this style of training in a short 5 week training block leading up to the Dundee Marathon, where I ran just under 2:39 on a warm day. It seemed to work for me, so I scaled it up to a 12 week program for Valencia.
In total, I did 6 runs of over 35km (22 miles) in the 12 weeks leading up to the race, all including long sections at marathon pace. In previous blocks I’d never done any over 35km. I think this is the reason why in previous marathons I’d always faded at least slightly towards the end, whereas this time my fastest 5k was from 35-40km. As I was preparing for a flat marathon, I did most of my long runs back and forth along the riverside, hiding a water bottle in the bushes.
The rest of the running was mostly easy (more than 1 minute/km (1.5 minutes/mile) slower than marathon pace) apart from occasional races or hard parkruns.
I had to switch around the long run days a few times because sometimes the weather would have prevented me from getting the right pace in. That often meant going out for my long run in the evening after work instead of at the weekend. However, a sample week looked like:
Monday: 8k (morning) + 17k (evening), both easy
Tuesday: 3x3k at half-marathon pace (2 minute recovery jog) followed by club at however fast Adam/Stefan/Kai wanted to run (25k total)
Wednesday: 10k easy
Thursday: 20k either easy or with some intervals depending on recent training load
Saturday: 15k including parkrun at no faster than half-marathon pace
Sunday: 35k including 25k at marathon pace
My last long run was 32k (20 miles) with 26k (16 miles) at marathon pace two weeks before the race, followed by a taper reducing the distance to 100km in the second-last week and 45km in the six days leading up to the marathon. I kept some intensity, including 3x5k at marathon pace seven days before the race and 5k at marathon pace four days before the race.
Race shoes were the Nike Vaporfly 3. All training runs were done in the Saucony Endorphin Speed 3 except for harder long runs in an old pair of Vaporfly 2s.
In the race I had gulps of water at four water stations, probably adding up to 400-500 mL total, so about the same amount as in the bottle I stashed in the bushes during my long training runs.
I had 6 High5 gels during the race, plus one before the start. I practiced having them once every 20-25 minutes during my long training runs.
I didn’t do any strength training, stretching or cross-training – I know I probably should for injury prevention, especially as I get older.
I get lots of sleep, which probably helps the recovery. I’m lucky to work from home half the week, which helps with not having to wake up early and in getting out for evening runs.
Nothing special with nutrition apart from lots of carbs and enough food to make sure I don't fall below my healthy weight. No alcohol during peak training or in the lead up to the race.