Beatson Cancer Charity ambassador Andrew Dickson is running in this year’s London Marathon to raise money after his dad Jim, sadly died in 2014. Here he gives us his motivational reasons, running tips and advice on how you can follow in his footsteps…
“I could never run a marathon.” It’s the most common response I hear when I tell people I’m preparing to do my third one this month – and in many cases there’s every chance they’re wrong. While the human body isn’t designed to run 26.2 miles in the one go, up to 50,000 people will be on the start line at the London Marathon on April 23. I’ll be among them wearing my yellow Beatson Cancer Charity vest and I’m anything but a typical runner. For a start, I’m a little under 15 stone – and that’s after an extended period of regular training – so I’ve more weight to carry around the Big Smoke than most others. Running doesn’t come naturally to me either. Although I’ve been down this road before (quite literally), I hadn’t done any running at all for six months before I began training and it’s seven years since I last went the distance.
In my experience, marathon training is a very personal thing. A standard programme lasts 16 weeks and you’ll find a wide range of variations online which are more detailed than I can be here. If you’re starting from scratch, the likelihood is you will need longer to build your fitness and get into the right condition to complete the race. The first time I ran a marathon 10 years ago, I was heavily overweight at my starting point so I gave myself nine months to prepare. It was ultimately too long and with a couple of months left I felt burned out, yet I was able to dig deep and while I didn’t break the four-hour barrier which is so sacred to so many, I wasn’t far off it in 4:09:11. Sod’s law dictated the 2007 London Marathon was the hottest on record at 23 degrees and the talk afterwards was more normal conditions would have allowed for times around 15 minutes faster – hence one of the many reasons I’m back having another go following a disappointing 4:16:41 in 2010!
My latest training programme has been seven months long and in two parts: a casual, less-rigid period aimed at building fitness followed by a more structured schedule intended to increase mileage capability over time. Once again, I was starting at a weight heavier than I was happy with so from September until the end of last year, my objective was to bring that down and improve my aerobic performance. That was achieved with some running but not a huge amount as there was much more of that to follow. Instead, it was evenly balanced with spin cycling classes and personal training sessions, where the focus was on building core strength through upper body weight work and suspension training on a TRX frame. From January, there has been much more running – in line with the standard 16-week plan – building up to a longest distance two and a half weeks before the race of just over 18 miles in just under 2:35. Since then, I’ve been tapering and reducing my workload in order to be fresh and ready for the full distance. Despite the best efforts of a persistent hamstring strain in my right leg over the last month, a couple of sports massages and lots of rest among a few more light sessions to keep my fitness up should ensure I’m in reasonable shape when the gun goes off.
Of course, you learn a lot as you go along when you’re training for a marathon. Although you’re working to a plan in those final 16 weeks, don’t overdo it because if you are training with an injury which is getting worse, you’ll risk putting yourself out of the race. It’s better to scale back your work for a few days to gain more in the long run, no matter how much you fear falling off the pace. In general, get rest at the right times. I’ve always found it good to do a half marathon six weeks before the race to use it as a trial run for everything from what you eat beforehand to wearing your race outfit and experiencing what it’s like filtering through the start and finish lines. Living in South West London, this year I did the Surrey Half Marathon but trained too close to the race and after five miles I could feel fatigue creeping up my thighs. Sure enough, I got slower as the run wore on and came in five minutes off where I was expecting to be.
Training is tough so eat the right foods. That means ditching pizzas and curries for sweet potatoes, oatmeal, beans, eggs, green vegetables and Greek yoghurt – although you can allow yourself occasion cheat days so long as they don’t impact on your work. Get plenty of protein in your system through chicken, fish and protein shakes (using water, not milk). Cashew nuts, cereal bars and fruits such as bananas and kiwis are all high in energy while hydration is so important. More than half of your body is made up of water and you’ll sweat out thousands of calories on race day so it’s essential to keep replacing it. Two litres a day is your minimum requirement, although I’d suggest at least three. It goes without saying how important it is to get your long runs in and at least 18 miles as your longest is recommended. Some people go as high as 22 and that’s fine but make sure it’s not too close to the race. I had aimed to do 20 as my longest run but the impact of my hamstring injury meant my final run was coming less than three weeks before the marathon so it was smarter to do less. It takes time for your body to recover from doing the full distance so it should be borne in mind that applies to your longest training runs too. And don’t worry about still having a few more miles to add on come race day – adrenalin and sheer determination should see to that. At that stage, just run the mile you’re in and the rest will take care of itself.
Start carb-loading three or four days before the race rather than just one. Cut your toenails too. Don’t panic if you don’t sleep much the night before. And don’t doubt yourself. You’ll have weeks thinking you can’t do it leading up to the marathon then a lifetime knowing you did afterwards. Lubricate. Relax. Get over the start line and do everything you can to conserve energy. You’ll always feel you can go faster than you are initially but you’ll reap the rewards for pacing yourself. As fun as it was high-fiving kids in the crowd going around the Cutty Sark after six miles in 2010, I paid for it later so this year I’m taking the spoilsport approach! Get your name printed on your shirt because you’ll get such a lift as a stranger shouts your name in encouragement when you feel you can’t go on. Every marathon runner is in danger of hitting the wall because the body typically runs out of its natural energy stores between 18 and 20 miles in. Combat that by using energy gels which slowly release carbohydrates into your bloodstream and give yourself a boost with a handful of sweets such as jelly babies. Just don’t eat too many or you’ll want to throw up by mile 22 with another four still to go. Stay focussed. Trust me, the rush you get when you cross the line is like nothing else – so keep your emotions in check then let them go once you’re done.
Every marathon runner has their reasons for going the distance. There are certainly health benefits and since starting out I’ve lost 20 pounds but my main purpose, like so many others, has been to raise money for charity. I lost my dad Jim to oesophageal cancer in 2014 and after the wonderful treatment and care he received at the Beatson before he died, it’s with great pride I’ll represent the Beatson Cancer Charity in my capacity as one of their ambassadors in London. By April 23, I’ll have run more than 500 miles and completed 112 training sessions but it still won’t compare to the suffering my dad went through. Keeping that in mind will be a big driving factor on the day.
While statistics suggest some will avoid it, I’ve no doubt every single one of us will encounter cancer at some point in our lifetime, be it personally or through a family member or friend. Yet while it might seem as rife as ever, being diagnosed doesn’t necessarily mean the end like it used to - and that’s where the Beatson comes in. Without their assistance, the number of people living with cancer and beating it in Glasgow and the West of Scotland wouldn’t be nearly as high. In the three years since its foundation, the Beatson Cancer Charity has received phenomenal backing but the fight against cancer never ends so they need continued support. I’m doing my bit for the Beatson and you can too. You could never run a marathon? Well you’ll never truly know if that’s the case until you try – and the answer might just surprise you.