What I learned running a marathon with no tech

Let’s get something out of the way right now: if you’re someone who doesn’t like to run with a watch or music, a running purist, then you won’t like this recollection of my Liverpool Rock’n’Roll Marathon.

But if you’re like 99% of the people that I was rubbing shoulders with at the balmy start, then you’ll shudder at the thought of running any race without something on your wrist monitoring what’s happening.

Maybe you’ve not gone ‘full watch’ yet, preferring a phone with your favorite app, but whichever method you use nearly every runner wants to look back at specific highs and lows of any run, and especially in a marathon.

Last week I said I wanted to run the Liverpool Rock’n’Roll Marathon without a watch, but I shoved in loads of caveats. My plan was merely to not look at my watch during the race, but as I was preparing my race kit the night before I realised I should do it properly.

This marathon was a ‘freebie’. I’d signed up on a whim last week, wondering if there was any pace left in my legs after my heavy training for the London Marathon last month.

In the time that had elapsed, I’d basically not run any distance over 10k, preferring to get back to enjoying speed work and setting some delightful personal bests. I’d even had a week off running, ending a 608 day streak of lacing up my trainers every day and panting around town.

I’d eaten all the cake and burgers. I’d made friends with alcohol again after a six-month sojourn. I’d run a very fast 10K on the Thursday… and then gone out and drunk a LOT of beer, champagne and prosecco the next day, getting to bed tremendously late and waking up far too early just a couple of days out from the race.

I was reminded of a quote from ‘Keep On Running’ by Phil Hewitt, the diaries of a serial marathoner: 'You need everything to come right if you are to run a good race. Absolutely everything.'

I had done everything I could to make sure nothing was going to come right.

The sad, exposed moment the flesh was stripped of its power

So, back to the night before: I decided that if I was to really experiment with my free marathon, I should learn something about myself. How do I really do in a long race without being battered by data the whole time? Do I really need music? Could I actually enjoy something like this?

I resolved to do it. I put away the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR watch I had primed, I turned off the Apple Watch 2, and I tidied away my headphones. On the day it would just be me and a pair of trainers… nothing else.

(Well, apart from shorts and a t-shirt and socks obviously. I was pretty sure they were mandatory.)

Thanks to my immense hangover from the day before, I actually slept for about nine hours before the race, my body desperately trying to rebuild itself from the destruction I’d put it through… before a marathon. Before trying to run 26.2 miles.

It was amazing sleeping through the whole night before such a big race - I knew I had done everything I could to ruin my chances, so I was fully relaxed. I awoke  like a lazy cheetah having a nap in the sun, munched on some porridge, toilet’ed a couple of times and ambled down to the start.

But even that slow jog was a struggle… and I realised that I didn’t actually know the time without a watch. I started trying to work out the hour by the height of the sun, but I realised I didn't know how to do this (and it was cloudy).

Alone with no tech

Thankfully, I made it with plenty of time to spare, pitching up at the start and slipped into my ‘corral’. (Not pens... the Rock'n'Roll Marathon Series is an American concept, so that took a moment to work out).

I looked around - everyone had a watch or a phone. Everyone. Admittedly I was starting fairly far forward as I hoped to do the race in under three and a half hours (the humility radiates off me, I know) but I suddenly got nervous, realising I was about to leap into the unknown without any idea how I was going to do.

There would be no music to lift my spirits when things got tough. There would be no rise in emotion when I saw that I was ahead of pace… but then again, no despondent feeling when I was behind.

The issue here was my goal - you need to have an idea of what you're intending to do so when your brain starts to melt out of your ear through tiredness, you've got a plan to fall back on. 

I knew I was in bad shape, but at the same time my mind had crafted a lot of reasons that I would shatter my personal best because...well, I’m a deluded idiot (AKA, a runner).

I’d rested so well the last few weeks. That had to be worth a few minutes. The London training wouldn’t have left me. My speed was increasing in shorter races. I wouldn’t have the pressure of having to keep checking my watch to know how I was doing. 

I would float around on a nirvanic cloud, enjoying the feeling of listening to my body, and I would turn the last corner to see the clock only just having clicked past three hours and I’d get my Good for Age time to get me a spot in the London Marathon next year.

The Beatles did some stuff 50 years ago. The city was proud.

The klaxon sounded. We were off. And as I crossed the line my hand twitched to my wrist to start the timer, only to semi-erotically caress naked flesh.

I was in, and there was nothing to do but run for the next three to four hours.

Well, actually after about 200 meters, there was something to do: spill around a slow woman playing on her phone. She was dawdling along and fiddling with an app, seemingly unaware of the fast runners (again, humble, I know) having to break and spill around her like a rock in a stream.

I still can’t work out whether she was a late-starter from the half marathon that began an hour ago, or just someone who didn’t realise how important it was to start in the right pen...corral. Either way, it was a narrow miss.

After that, it was just enjoying the city, Liverpool putting on its best front for the runners. At each mile was live music, the crowds were thin but lively, and the course excellent.

I was having a great time - I managed to miss the first two mile markers and realized that I had no idea if I’d set off too fast. I was sweating a bit, despite the thankfully cooler conditions, so all I had to do was sip on my water bottle or, well, run.

(One other thing I’d tried with this race was taking on more gels. I always wondered if I under-fuelled during long runs, so I packed as many as I could into my fashionable bum bag / fanny pack and went for it. This was bouncing around hard behind me, but I figured it would get better as I sucked through my sugary harlots).

When I got to three miles, I instinctively looked down to see how I was doing for the 5 kilometer distance. My assortment of thin arm hair just stared back at me quizzically, essentially saying ‘I don’t know. 24 minutes? What do you want me to do? I’m just follicles.’

What was interesting (to me, anyway) was that I kept passing, then getting re-passed, by the same people over and over. The course was a touch hilly in the first half, and I’m pretty good up the inclines, but terrible down them.

I mean, who can’t harness gravity? What’s wrong with me?

It got to the point where I was passing the same chap up each hill and he’d steam past me afterwards - after the third time of this happening, we got chatting as I pointed out between us we had the undulations sorted. 

We laughed in a very British way and then had to deal with the awkwardness of panting next to each other without saying anything for a while.

The course, however, was a visual treat, dragging away from the inner city out to the stadia of Everton and Liverpool football clubs, through the cramped housing and dilapidated but beautiful buildings. 

There was a boarded up street where a single sign hung, heralding the demise of the Liverpool Red Triangle Karate Club. I wished I could have been there in the heyday.

(Update: I've had a browse and it may actually still be open. I'm signing up if I can work out how I can actually get into the building...)

Credit: John Bradley, Wikipedia (cropped)

At about 10K we started to hit more parks, and my spirits were still lifting. I had no idea how fast I was going, but people around me were starting to breathe more heavily - thanks to my lack of headphones, I had nothing to concentrate on but my form and breathing and I was happy mine was seeming OK. 

I guessed my heart rate was nice and low, as I didn’t feel sick, I’d had a couple of gels and things were going well. My senses felt slightly heightened through the lack of music, taking in far more of what was going on.

Case in point: a man ran past me coming out of one of the parks, and he smelled amazing. I briefly thought about speeding up to tell him, but then decided that might have been a bit weird.

Or would it? Surely everyone likes compliments? No, it would be. Best leave it.

Eight miles popped its head up. I was heading downhill, still feeling good… but something happened. People started to stream past me and disappear. I didn’t want to speed up any more than I had to, as I knew that I was going to suffer at some point with my lack of training.

Even when we hit flat and uphill areas, I didn’t catch them. I started to worry. Was I out of gas already or were they speeding up? With no watch on, I had no idea, so just kept going and dancing like a freakin’ idiot past every band to keep me occupied.

At 10 miles, I passed a clock and accidentally looked at it. Dammit, now I had an idea of how long I’d taken and an idea of my time… except I read it wrong and spent three minutes trying to do incorrect calculations. I’d either run it in a personal best or the slowest 10 miles of my life.

As we passed 11 miles, I saw my father, who shouted out ‘YOU’RE ON FOR 3:05!’.

Goddammit Dad, were you not listening to me at all at dinner last night? I didn’t want to know this!

But something must have clicked subconsciously, as all of a sudden I was picking off everyone in front of me with zero feeling that I’d changed pace. And I mean I was flying past, easily clearing all those that got me a few miles ago and then some more.

I decided that now was the time to tune into the body, monitoring my pace through nothing but my breath and how rhythmically I could move my legs. It was tough to do, but it must have worked in some way, as I don’t really remember what happened between then and 19 miles.

I hooked up with a few other runners going at a similar pace, and started chatting to them to keep me occupied, trying to switch between keeping an eye on my breathing and having a lovely time with my new chums.

Russ was trying to go all out to break his time of 3:23 from the year before. Bryan was angry that he ‘messed up’ London, going from a sub-3 attempt to a 3:20 with a last 6 miles collapse. And Matt just wanted to do the same as me: see how well he could do after London, albeit with better training and diet.

They also discussed pace - we were still on for around 3:06 after 14 miles. This didn’t lift my spirits as I knew I was going to fall apart at some point, so I just hung onto them and hoped for the best.

We must have set some cracking mile times then though, as the pace between us definitely ramped up. Bryan suddenly bolted into the distance and I never saw him again, and at about 16 miles Russ gave in and stopped for a breather. 

(I still don’t know which Russ it was, but sadly nobody with that name finished faster than 3:27, according to the results).

But me and Matt forged on. We pushed and pushed, running together until a hilly section at 18 miles and I started to get worried. We weren’t doing a silly pace at all, but I knew I was probably going a touch fast, and in a marathon five seconds per mile can make all the difference.

I slowed. I slurped more gels, starting to really loathe the feeling of my rhythm being broken to achieve this. Then the 19 mile mark popped up, and the anchor was thrown out behind me. I was struggling hard, and I had no music to switch on to distract and lift my spirits.

The only thing of note was that I suddenly caught Matt up again, and asked him how he was. ‘Terrible,’ he breathed. ‘You?’ 

I resisted the urge to ask my pace, but I knew it was terrible. ‘Yeah, getting chewed up now,’ I said, which looking back was probably a bit cryptic. ‘Promise to get each other to mile 20 before we walk?’

I offered my hand, and Matt shook it. We were two warriors together, ploughing past some fancy houses in Liverpool, and we were going to make it as a pair. 

I knew that we would get to 20 miles and then push on to 21. Then the 22 mile mark would roll around and we’d realize it was so close to the end that we were going to mak…

‘Sorry mate, I’m going to have to walk,’ wheezed Matt a minute or two later. I nodded and shook his hand again, running on but reduced to a lovely shuffle by this point.

After that, the run to the end became nothing but a grind. Going down a main road and under a tunnel was dull and difficult, every change of direction torture on my hips.

At mile 22, the pacer running to finish in three hours and 15 minutes whizzed past me, his time flag whipping proudly in the wind.

That was it. My race was done - I wasn't going to get a good time. At least I was in a nice park by this point, and heading downhill. But there was no point in pushing any more, as it didn’t matter what time I recorded.

The painful finish

After that, it was a long, drawn out run along the river for the final three-and-a-half miles, punctuated by me deciding to walk a bit for every mile. I took on some caffeine to perk me up, and then counted to 50 before going again.

I’m not sure if the caffeine helped, but I started talking to the first person I could find at around my pace, and we ran the next couple of miles together without walking. 

Then I saw one of my good friends from my running club at mile 24, who had done the half marathon together, and while him running too fast and chatting alongside me was torture, at least I could leave all the pace to him and just try and drag myself along too.

But while it was a lovely thing to see him, this was the first time in the entire race that I’d been glad of not wearing a jot of technology. I knew I was reduced to a shuffle, but I didn’t need my watch pinging up telling me just how far my pace had fallen. 

I was so tired that there was no way it would be motivating, just a club to the face reminding me that usually I can run this pace with my eyes closed.

Eventually, the turning for the line came into sight, a muted affair but one with a big crowd. My friend turned off and I was left with a slingshot to the line.

Then came the best part of the marathon - any race, in fact - and one that gives me goosebumps still to think about it. The point when the finishing line is in sight, the time is ticking away ahead of me on the big yellow clock, and the crowd is at its greatest.

While you spend any marathon mostly running ‘easily’ you’re largely using your aerobic systems, where your body is using oxygen to fuel your muscles. This means that your sprinting, anaerobic, system is largely left untroubled and oddly intact after three and a bit hours of running.

I’m an attention seeker. The crowd is usually so entranced by politely clapping runners in that all it takes is one fist pump and a huge cry of ‘COME ON!’ to get  the place to erupt.

That’s precisely what happened here, and it was magical. The roar of the watching hoards still makes the hairs on my neck rise, remembering the sensation of lifting my tired legs to a sprint.

I could feel every muscle straining, and I was keeping a few brain cells locked to making sure nothing went ping, given I’d just lifted these legs 50,000 times.

Like Maximus, raising the gladiatorial crowds. But with scary-faced sprinting.

But the rest of me was flying, sprinting with every sinew to catch the guy in front. The commentator was screaming ‘Look at Spider-Man go! He’s sprinting!’ And the crowd was roaring me on.

I crossed the line just under 3:17… my official time clocking in at 3:17:45. 

I was jubilant. Seven minutes lost? I’ll absolutely take that. I probably made up about 30 seconds just sprinting at the end, which I didn’t do at all in London, but overall that wasn’t a fall as large as I was expecting.

A few days on, and reflecting back on the tech-less marathon, I’m not sure how I feel. There was certainly no pressure, and not having anything to think about other than running was lovely and, well, pure.

I also loved not having to be repeatedly told that my pace was falling to terrible levels towards the end, not seeing a virtual pace disappear into the distance.

But I missed my watch terribly. Today’s running tech is so slick that there’s no worry about getting set up at the start - GPS lock is rapid and it’s just a simple tap to get going, not messing about with phones and cables and tiny displays.

The best thing about the Liverpool marathon was the lack of pressure. I had no time in mind. If I'd stopped, I wouldn’t have cared, no training to have wasted, no effort I should have put in unused. It was me against me, and the satisfaction of being able to run that quickly while almost purposely trying to scupper myself felt fantastic.

I feel like I’ve learned another few bits about what makes up my marathon puzzle, knowing what I need to do to enjoy the race rather than feel like it’s a demon to be thwarted. And that feels ace.

(Although, I still slightly hate them. Marathons are still really, really far and no technology can change that).