For most people, running one marathon in a year is enough. In 2022 coach Nick Bester decided to run four marathons in four weeks (on three different continents). This was his experience.
Last year, I embraced the challenge of doing 4 marathons in 4 weeks.
I hadn’t originally planned to do this at the beginning of the year but due to the knock-on effect of races being delayed from Covid, it just so happened that the marathons I had entered a while back all landed one week apart. The marathons were Berlin, London, Chicago and to top it all off - Cape Town.
As a coach would I recommend doing four marathons in four weeks? Most certainly not.
Was it a productive way to train? Hell no!
Would I ever do it again? Not a chance.
Do I regret it? Not one single bit. Sometimes in life you just have to embrace challenges that you know are not the smartest idea at the time, but will push you to your limits.
Doing the correct training for a challenge such as this is key to remaining injury free. What helped me a lot was consistent high mileage weeks in the build-up. My three peak weeks topped out at around 100 miles/162 kms.
Doing that sort of mileage doesn’t necessarily make you faster runner but it certainly helps speed up the recovery process.
There’s also a big difference between ‘racing’ a marathon and ‘running’ a marathon.
When you go all out and race a marathon it takes a lot longer to recover than if you had run it at a slightly easier pace. In this case I knew it would be best to race my first one, which was Berlin. The other three, I decided to help pace friends and fellow runners to achieve their target times.
It’s an experience and a challenge I will remember forever. I have no regrets. Here are some of my highlights from each race:
#1 The Target Race: Berlin Marathon
This was the first of the 4 and the one I would be racing ALL OUT! All my focus was on Berlin, as if it was my last race on earth. I knew that if I thought about the races to follow, then this would hold me back which I couldn’t afford to do as I was pushing for a target time of sub 2:20. The margins were tight and I knew I would have to have a perfect race to be able to execute a sub 2:20.
I managed to get into quite a good pack early on in the race. We were all sharing the work between us which just makes running at a faster pace feel easier. My strategy for this race was to do a negative split. If I look at all my PBs, they all had negative splits. So for me, it seemed that adopting that strategy would give me the best chance of breaking my goal of 2:20. Our pack went through the halfway mark in 70:16. If we had to double this that would give me a time of 2:20:32. However, I was feeling really strong and knew I could pick it up and push on through the second half.
From about the 25 km mark, the pack I was in broke up, which meant it was solo running for the last 17 km. I felt really good and started to pick things up, picking off runners one by one. I find nothing more motivational than overtaking runners in the latter part of a marathon when the going gets tough - it just adds fuel to the fire.
That morning, I forgot to write down split times on my arm. I knew I felt good and was running faster than the first half, but I also knew the margins are extremely tight and that I may have left a bit too much time to make up in the last 17 kms.
I gave it my absolute all, leaving nothing out there and truly believed I was breaking 2:20 until I ran under Brandenburg Gate. I did the maths and that’s when I realised for the first time that sub 2:20 would be just out of reach. With 352m left, no matter how fast I ran I knew I would miss it by a few seconds. Having said that, I did not give up, I dug as deep as I possibly could, and finished in a time of 2:20:08.
Initially, I was devastated as I’d come so close and believed for such a big part of the race that it was possible. But once it sank in, the fact that I had done a 51 second PB was something I was immensely proud of. You know how the rule goes: you can never be upset if you’ve done a PB.
What a race it was! Berlin is most certainly a race I’ll be doing a lot more of in the future years.
#2 The Coach: London Marathon
A week later and it was time for my favourite race in the world - the London Marathon. One of the biggest reasons why it’s my favourite is because of the unrivalled vibes you get to experience whilst running over Tower Bridge. If you’ve been privileged enough to run this race, you’ll know exactly the part I’m talking about.
This was a special one for me, as I would be running with an athlete that I coach, Anya Culling. She had made huge progress since we started working together. The last time she ran this race was three years before where she finished in a time of 4:34. Given her recent form, we decided that her target should be sub 2:38. knowing that if she had the perfect day we could run at 2:36:XX. It ended up being a perfect day.
I was surprised about how good my legs felt given the fact I went all out at Berlin the week before. My previous race strategy of running a negative split certainly helped speed up the recovery too. I wouldn’t go as far as to say my legs were fresh but running with Anja at that pace felt good. Besides, being her coach, even if I didn’t feel good, I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness or negative vibes as she was flying and on track for something truly special. She cruised around the course in 2:36, finishing second non-elite British female and third British female overall. Fast forward a few months after this and we realised this had run her into an England vest.
To see the work she’s put in over the last couple of years and watch this play out right next to me is something I’ll cherish forever - one of my proudest coaching moments to date. Personally, I was also pretty stoked to have banked the 2:36. Halfway through the challenge and onto the next one we go.
#3 Having a Crack: Chicago Marathon
Two days after London Marathon, I did my go-to pre-race track session, which is 10×400m (60 second recovery). During the session I felt fresh and strong and the split times suggested this too. I ran faster reps than compared to before Berlin, at the same relative effort and heart rate. ‘Shall I have another crack at a sub 2:20 at Chicago?’ was the question running through my head throughout the session and for the remainder of that week.
I thought to myself, “You only live life once. I know there’s a huge outside chance but even if it’s 0.1% then I’ll have to give it a go”. I was travelling there with a mate, Vinny who was looking to break 2:40, so I knew that if I didn’t feel good from early on I could pull off to the side then pace and help him achieve his goal. I carbo-loaded up, put on my for fast shoes and went for a sub 2:20 from the start.
As early as 10k in, I knew sub 2:20 wouldn’t happen. At that stage I was on track for a 2:19 but the body didn’t feel good. I thought what’s the point of killing myself if I know I’m going to fall short of my PB. So I pulled off to the side for around 5-6 minutes (I started two minutes before Vinny). Once he caught up,I started running with him and we formed a sub 2:40 pack.
Apart from a few tummy issues, it was smooth sailing until the end. The pack lasted a long way, almost until about 5kms to go, which is a lot longer than usual. Vinny finished in 2:39. My official time was 2:41 given the fact that I started two minutes before him.
#4 The Cherry on the Cake: Cape Town Marathon
Three down and one to go and this where I really started to find it tough. The changing time zones and lack of good sleep resulted in the body not feeling great. However, I knew I could smell the finish and that just 42.2 km of beautiful Cape Town roads lay between me and completing this challenge. My family is from South Africa which gave me the extra boost I needed.
As I started the race, I thought a time of 2:30 would be a great way to finish. I quickly realised from early on that this sort of pace did not feel comfortable so deep into the challenge. Of the four marathons, Cape Town was by far the hilliest too. From the halfway point onwards I really struggled, more so mentally than physically. I found that my mind just had nothing more to give. I had done over 140 km of racing in the three weeks prior to this and I was really struggling to find the energy to get me through this last bit.
Thankfully, en route, I met another runner, Gerald. We started chatting and decided to shoot for a sub 2:40. We both went through phases when each one of us felt stronger at different times. But never did we leave each other. It’s amazing how each race has a different story. The bonds and connections you make with fellow runners going through the same pain and emotions as you in these races is something that only marathon runners will understand.
I picked it up towards the end and finished Cape Town Marathon in 2:39. Wow, was I relieved to have crossed that finish line! It was the sweetest feeling of the four weeks - even sweeter than when I ran my PB at Berlin marathon.
The toughest parts I found throughout this whole marathon series was the travelling between destinations, the endless hours lost at the airports, lack of routine and my nutrition and diet that was completely out of the norm for me.
The only feeling I can relate to the feeling I felt after completing this challenge was when you finish the Ultimate Human Race - the Comrades marathon.
My average time across all four was 2:34:12.
One of the best parts about it all was having post-race treats and after post-race treats!
Work hard, play hard! A theory I have always lived by.
What a marathon series it was! I loved it but it is something I won’t be doing again anytime soon.
Onwards and upwards,