The long run is absolutely critical to a successful marathon training schedule. I am writing this having just completed my 20 mile effort in preparation for a spring marathon. It's fair to say it's an element of the marathon build-up I utterly dread. It's long, painful, slow and with no immediate reward at the end. I always feel like I deserve a medal or t-shirt at the culmination of this run.
Maybe that's a symptom of modern culture, I want the instant gratification. Unfortunately you don't get it from the 20 mile training run. But I also accept that it is an essential component and the cornerstone of any training programme for the 26.2mile distance.
The pay-off will come instead on marathon race day - if I get everything else right that is. It prepares you physiologically and mentally for the big race. Physiologically, a run over this distance strengthens the heart, leg muscles and ligaments and increases endurance. Mentally, it also is an important step to take. Even if you are passionate about running, doing it for three hours or more can be a testing experience. There are tough moments. Tiredness, hunger, pain and even boredom can be among the hurdles that you need to overcome.
Coming through this session relatively unscathed gives you a real psychological boost and puts you in good stead for a marathon. It gives you confidence you can tackle the big distance. It's also a great opportunity to experiment with various elements of the race, such as nutrition, clothing and pace setting.
On a personal level, I learned a great deal from my 20 mile run. I learned I need more nutrition to carry with me. My personal preference is for Jelly Babies and I ran out of them at about 15 miles - which means I need to pack a few more come marathon day. I also learned that my old socks - the least stylish ones, the tattiest of all - are still the best footwear option for me. 20 miles and not a hint of a blister!
Finally, I learned that I can be a little bolder in my pace setting. I covered the second 10 miles, 15 minutes quicker than the first. It's nice to do negative splits, but that gap is a little big and gives me belief I can be a little more ambitious over the opening miles.
To all those tackling their long runs in the coming weeks, you have every bit of my sympathy. But whatever you do, no matter how much the long run takes out of you, make sure you take something from it too.