• Sarah Russell

What was your marathon time? Who cares.

I wrote this post 2 years ago in response to the experience one of my charity team runners had had after running the London Marathon in 2018 (the hot year!). The post had an amazing response at the time, but I changed websites and it disappeared. So as we head into marathon madness time, here it is again.. slightly edited.


If you're running a marathon this year, the first question on anyone's lips will either be 'Oh what time are you aiming for'... or (after the event) 'Oooh what time did you do?'.


If there’s one question designed to make me roll my eyes, that’s it.


Frankly, who cares?  And why on earth does it matter?

We seem to be a society obsessed with marathon finish times. Sure I get it. Time can be important for some... and I understand that hitting a PB or goal can be motivating and bring about a sense of achievement. I've been there myself. But now I'm older and slower and have 30+ marathons under my belt, I'd also say my best marathons have nothing to do with the final time.


The best ones are the ones where I've had the most fun, seen the coolest sights, felt in control where things went well and felt really strong (or didn't throw up!). Or where I ran with my hubby or friends and had a great time. They are the ones where I've created the best memories or overcame the biggest challenges to get there. They are the ones that matter and that are etched on my memory.


I have been coaching marathon runners for many years and it makes me so sad when I hear runners declare on the finish line - ‘Oh it was a bit slower than I wanted/was aiming for’… said with a tinge of disappointment.  Like they need to apologise for just having done something so amazing (and so hard). On the finish line of a marathon the only feeling you want (especially if it's your first) is one of euphoria and superhuman heroics!


One of my charity runners (after the super hot VLM year in 2018) told me that someone said to her ‘But you didn’t really run the whole way did you?’ because she had approached it with a jog/walk method. She had raised thousands of pounds for her charity, it was her first marathon and it had been – up until that point – the most incredible day of her life.


She said she wanted to cry.


Years ago you were a hero just for completing a marathon. These days there’s an overwhelming pressure on runners to achieve a time.


The problem starts long before runners even toe the line. Most people set themselves a finish time goal based on what they think they ‘might like’ or some stupid marathon predictor time tells them they could do, or because they read it in a magazine. Or just because it sounds good (or because they want to beat the time of their mate/partner/work colleague). Most of the time it’s not realistic or based on any evidence.


Then when they don’t quite hit their target on the day, the shine is taken off their otherwise epic achievement. And I’d estimate that happens to around 80% of first time marathon runners.


It’s the first thing I tell the charity runners at the start of my marathon coaching workshops. ‘Do NOT set yourself a goal time’ I say until I’m blue in the face. 


Because here’s the thing.


Your marathon time is an ‘OUTCOME’. It’s not a target.


It’s an outcome of everything that went 6 months before it and on the day itself - the weather, how much training you did, how many injuries or illnesses you had to overcome, how busy you were at work, how many sleepless nights with your children you endured. It’s also an outcome of what happens on the day, most of which you won’t have much control over (take the weather in 2018 as a perfect example when runners were adding 30-60 mins to their times).


There are just too many variables and in a marathon, it’s so rare for the stars to align. I’ve run 30+ marathons and I can count on one hand the times it’s ‘come together’ on the day. Sure the more competitive experienced runners will know how to get it right, will have targets and goals, and they'll care about their time, and maybe this post won't resonate with them so much.


This will resonate with the average first time marathon runner, maybe doing it for charity who's caught up in the 'marathon madness'. Or for the person who's struggled through, overcome loads of barriers just to toe the line, yet feeling the pressure when asked 'Oooh what was your time/what time are you aiming for?'. This post is for you.


Every single person who runs a marathon (regardless of the time) should be very very proud of themselves. Just finishing a marathon is an incredible thing to do, especially if it's your first. Do not let anyone pour cold water on your achievement. And don’t feel you have to justify ‘being slower than you wanted’ to anyone. Least of all to yourself.


In fact if anyone asks what your time was, just ignore them and answer ‘I had a brilliant time thanks! It was the best day of my life and I’m so proud of myself’.

Running a marathon is a privilege. So many people are sick, injured or unable to run at all and would love to be healthy and well enough to get out there and run 26.2 miles. In fact, just being able to run at all is a privilege and we should never take it for granted.


So as you prepare your marathon when the training gets tough, you're feeling the pressure and people are asking 'what time you're aiming for?' Or afterwards when you’re feeling exhausted, tired, tearful.. and maybe just a tiny bit disappointed in your finish time? maybe just change your mindset a bit.


Step back and keep an eye on the bigger picture. Take the pressure of (it's not like any of us need any more in our lives!). Step away from Strava and the online forums and groups and try not to get swept up on the ‘finish time’ bandwagon. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Just be super proud of you. End of.


Think about the memories you’ve created, the incredible cheering crowds, the music, the friends and people you met along the way, the barriers you overcame to get there, the injuries you battled, the money you raised for charity and the people you ran in memory of. Store those memories and cherish them because those are the things that really matter. Not your sodding finish time, because in 5 years time you probably won't even remember what it was.


About the author.Sarah Russell is a running coach and clinical exercise specialist from East Sussex. She runs a running group Sarah’s Runners in Kent where they focus on running for enjoyment, health and wellbeing. www.sarah-russell.co.uk www.sarahsrunners.co.uk 

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