Marathon motivation

Head of Health Content at Bupa UK
17 April 2018

This Sunday, the capital’s streets will be taken over by tens of thousands of runners. Some will be running for charity, some to challenge themselves. Some will don high-end running gear; others will opt for a ridiculous costume. For some it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but for others just another 26.2 miles ticked off. What all these people have in common is that they’ll need an extraordinary amount of motivation and drive to carry them around the gruelling course of the London Marathon.

A number of my colleagues here at Bupa UK are gearing up for Sunday’s race. I caught up with them to find out about their marathon-running experience, and to ask about their motivation during training, and on the big day itself.

How many marathons have you run?

Michelle Harrison, Specialist Health Editor
This will be my first. (Eek!) Before getting a place this year, I’d never run more than a 10km race.

Kieran West, Strategy Director (... and former Olympic rower)
This is my first. Although I used to be a full-time sportsman, the longest I’d run in one go before was about 90 minutes (you don’t do too much running when training for rowing), so it’s a whole new challenge for me. At 6ft 8 and 100kg, I’m also not particularly built for long-distance running!

Dylan Merkett, Web Editor
I’ve done quite a few endurance events, ultra-marathons, Olympic-distance triathlons, half marathons ... but this is actually my first marathon-distance event.

Dr Eleanor Atkins, Clinical Fellow
I’ve run seven official marathons so far, plus a 24-hour ‘ultramarathon’ and a couple of long training runs where I’ve covered the distance. My first two marathons were about five years ago, and my last five have all been since 2017.

Michelle Harrison ready for the London marathon
Michelle Harrison

What’s your motivation for running the London Marathon this year?

It’s been on my bucket list for a long time. I love to challenge myself, and always need a new goal to focus on. I really enjoy exercise – it helps to clear my head, feel confident and always puts me in a good mood. I’m also running for an amazing charity (Beat), raising funds and awareness for a cause really close to my heart.

I’ve wanted to do it for years and never managed to get my entry through the ballot. It’s an amazing event, a really exciting physical challenge, and for me it provides a great opportunity to raise money for JDRF, a charity that helps children cope with the challenges of type 1 diabetes. My 11-year-old goddaughter was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago. Watching her bravery in coping with it, and seeing the difference that support from JDRF made, I’m really glad I have the chance to help her and those like her going through such tough times.

The London Marathon is one of the iconic events on the UK sporting calendar, but it was a total accident really. My wife, Gemma, asked me to enter her into the ballot because she couldn’t get to a computer. I thought I may as well apply too. I then forgot about it until the magazine confirming my entry landed on the doormat. I got in; Gemma didn’t! I’ve since been told that it’s quite difficult to get a place through the ballot so I thought I shouldn’t really pass it up!

I’ve always wanted to do the London Marathon since watching it on TV as a teenager. I love the idea of having supporters all the way through the race, and running past some iconic landmarks. A charity very close to my heart was looking for runners, so I signed up to run for them. The Circulation Foundation funds research into vascular disease, which is as common as cancer or heart disease, and accounts for almost a third of all deaths in the UK.

Bupa's marathon motivation blog - Kieran West
Kieran West

How have you found your training, mentally? Have you struggled with motivation at any stage, and if so how did you overcome this?

I’ve really enjoyed the experience, but I’d be lying if I said every run was amazing. I struggled most with motivation when it came to really long distances on the weekend during the cold winter months. Going out again and again, when your legs are permanently fatigued, knowing every time you’d be out slightly longer in the cold, wind and rain alone – that was mentally very tough.

I’ve tried to stay positive and focused on my goal – I visualise race day and imagine what it will feel like to see my friends and family on the sidelines, and how proud of myself I’ll be crossing the finish line. My friends, family and colleagues have also been there at every step cheering me on with words of encouragement and unwavering support when I needed it.

Motivation hasn’t been an issue, but getting myself back up to something resembling decent fitness has been hard work, particularly given the unfamiliarity of this form of exercise. I break long runs down into manageable chunks, run routes I know, and use the familiarity to make them feel shorter. In 2,000m international rowing races, I used to count strokes in sets of 10 from start to finish, as I always knew I could push myself for 10 more strokes. When things get tough in training I do the same, counting to 100 – I have a suspicion I may be doing that a bit on the day …

I enjoy exercise and I’ve always been active, so getting out of the door isn’t generally an issue. But you have to be pretty lucky to go through a 16-week training plan without losing a bit of motivation at some point (especially during the British winter). So for me it’s just been a case of recognising this and then taking steps to deal with it.

I did a sport science degree and I’m a bit of a numbers geek, so I enjoy the process of training as much as the day itself. I love counting back from race day and working out what I’ll be doing on each day, and then seeing how my minutes-per-mile pace comes down for a given heart rate. There’s something satisfying about seeing hard work produce tangible results. So checking my running app and seeing how I’ve improved keeps my motivation up.

Mentally I’ve been fine, but I did hurt my knee in January and that put training on hold for a few weeks. I’ve had to modify my goals a bit, and won’t aim for as good a time as I’d have liked. It’s disappointing, but better than doing more damage by carrying on! I’m running as part of a ‘five marathons in five months’ challenge, and raising money to fund vital vascular surgery research has motivated me far more than running for myself ever has done in the past.

Bupa's marathon motivation blog - Dylan Merkett
Dylan Merkett

How have you found balancing your training with other commitments like work, family and social life?

I work full time and have been training on average four times a week. I also had a big fundraising target so have been busy organising bake sales, raffles and pub quizzes at every opportunity. There have been days where I’ve felt pretty exhausted at work and have had to turn down social events, but this is something that’s so important to me and running has become something I really enjoy. I’ve still managed to fit in time with friends and family around my runs and on rest days. But I’m very much looking forward to a night out with the girls soon, and running just for the fun of it this summer!

It’s been challenging at times but usually manageable. My wife works and I have a young daughter who I take to school, so mornings are out. There have been occasions when I’ve needed to push hard at work, so I’ve missed a few sessions here and there, but I’m still usually able to get out five days a week. I find routine makes training more manageable, so I train at 8pm on weekdays (after my daughter goes to bed) and around 4pm on weekends, after the day’s activities are done. Knowing when I’m due to train each day makes it easier to plan around, and my wife is really supportive, which helps.

To help with the time issue, I decided not to follow a training plan that has ‘long runs’ close to marathon distance. I’ve capped my runs to no more than 16 miles, but I’ve been running six days a week at shorter distances, using lunch breaks and early mornings. Ultimately I’m doing this for fun, so if anything comes up and I have to miss a run now and again, that’s totally fine. I didn’t want the training to take over completely! Unfortunately I don’t have much of a social life these days, so that hasn’t been a problem ... However, I am missing a good friend’s 40th the night before the race!

I’m normally a vascular surgery doctor. Compared with a surgical rota, my current role is very flexible and easy to fit training around. I’ve been doing shorter interval sessions that I can squeeze in on the treadmill before work, and incorporating training into other activities – such as running to yoga classes. My partner has been revising for a big exam so I think he’s very grateful to get me out of his hair when I head off for three-hour training runs at the weekends! I’ve been able to catch up with friends in the evenings as I do most of my training in the mornings.

Bupa's marathon motivation blog - Eleanor Atkins
Dr Eleanor Atkins

Are you feeling mentally prepared for the race?

Yes! It’s my first marathon so naturally I’m really nervous and I’m sure I won’t sleep the night before. But I know I’ve put in the hard work over the last five months and have trained as much as I can. I know every part of me is going to hurt by the end of it, but no matter what happens I won’t give up. I’m just really excited now and want to try and enjoy every second of it.

There’s a big unknown for me about the race ... I’ve not run the full distance before: in training, my longest session has been 20 miles. However, I’m feeling ready. When rowing, we had a mantra of ‘controlling the controllables’, which means worrying about the things I can influence and not letting anything else bother me. So I’m mentally prepared to run at my pace for the race and confident I’ll make it to the line in a reasonable time ... it’s now a case of doing it!

I’m really excited for the day! I know I’ve done as much as I can to prepare myself physically to get around the course. I’m going to make sure that all my kit and travel prep is taken care of in the days before so I can relax and take it all in on the day. And I’m sure that, if I’m struggling, the crowds and the atmosphere will be an incredible distraction.

Yes. Having done four marathons since December, I know I can cover the distance. I’m excited now, but it’s the biggest marathon I’ve ever done by a long way and I think I’ll be more nervous before the race. I’ve sorted out my travel plans well in advance, and that’s helped to put my mind at rest.

What will you use to spur you on on the day?

Jelly babies! (Kidding … well kind of …) My friends, family and colleagues will be in the crowd cheering me on; knowing they’re there will be amazing. Also knowing that years of dreaming of completing a marathon and months of training all comes down to those few hours and an experience I’ll never forget means I want to be present and try to enjoy every moment – even when my body wants to give up. When I need to dig deep, I’ll think about my chosen charity and why I’m running for them. Remembering how lucky I am to have a place this year will help too. I’ve also perfected my running playlist over the last five months so will be part-dancing, part-hobbling my way down The Mall!

The excitement and fun of being in such a major event, the enthusiasm of the crowds, the challenge of the competitors around me, the desire to do justice to those who’ve sponsored me, and the fact this is a challenge I’ve wanted to take on for a long time. It’s going to be an amazing experience and I want to go out there and enjoy every minute!

Burgers, beer and seeing my family at the end!

I think the enthusiasm of the crowds will keep me going! A few of my family and some friends will be in the crowds, so I hope keeping an eye out for them will distract me as the miles fly by. I have a pacing plan so I’ll keep to that as much as I can and let the beeps from my GPS watch keep me on track.

Best of luck to our London Marathon runners!

Nick Ridgman
Head of Health Content at Bupa UK

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