As I’ve  said a few times, one of my goals for 2014 is to run a marathon in under 3:30. A goal like this forces me to take my health and training seriously, which in turn creates a cascade of positivity throughout every other area of my life, which is one excellent reason to take up a sport and set challenging goals.

Image: View from Sangla Valley © Martin Holland

Such a goal requires some serious training, and so I arrange my work schedule around my training schedule, which in turn makes me plan my work carefully and gives me more focus. I take extra care in my diet which makes me feel more energetic and buoyant, and as I improve and get stronger and faster I feel more confident and positive in my life and work. I also sleep more deeply, and because of all the hills around here my thighs are beginning to look like small boulders, which is also nice!

Identifying patterns like this takes time and an honest inward eye, but this process has allowed me to identify what is really important to me, increase my productivity, reduce my time behind a desk, increase my sense of accomplishment, and just be generally happier and more fulfilled. I’ve believed for a long time that prioritising my physical fitness over my work life would actually benefit my work, but this is the first year that I’ve really tried to put that theory to the test, and I couldn’t be more excited by how well it’s working out.

When I set a big goal like this I approach it by breaking it down into smaller, incremental goals, and in this case I decided I would enter and train for at least 4 events this year and increase my speed with each one. For the past few months I’ve been based in Himachal Pradesh in North India, so imagine my delight when I searched for races in India and discovered the 3rd Himalayan Marathon taking place not too far away from me. I should really have only signed up for the half marathon, but it seemed like it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to run a marathon in such an amazing place, so I signed up and started training.

A few minutes before signing up for the race I had twisted my ankle very badly, and this injury stopped me from beginning my training until the 12th March, giving me just 8 weeks to train. I wasn’t in bad shape but I was going from a bit of a standing start, not having been for a run in about 4 months. I knew this was ambitious and so I held on to the option of only doing the half marathon if I felt like I was going to hurt myself. I’ve learned from experience that I will train to failure if I commit to doing something that turns out to be beyond my abilities, so giving myself a safety valve like this helped me keep my ego out of my training, and allowed me to rest injuries when they occurred and to train within my limits.

Martin Holland Marathon Runner

Training in the foothills of the Himalayas

My Training Schedule

I used Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 1 Marathon Training Guide which is easy to follow and is freely available on his website (he has a bunch of different plans depending on your level of experience and fitness). The plan is a 16 week program and assumes you already have a good ‘base’ of running (ie, that you’ve been running a few times a week for the past 6 months or so). I had to start the program at Week 8 and would rely on my residual fitness and the hard work my legs had done during the Gunung Bondang Expedition to get me through it in one piece.

It became clear early on that I wasn’t fit enough to jump into this program half way through, and I quickly picked up a couple of little niggles (my left thigh, my left calf, my right ITB which brought back bad memories) which experience told me to rest, so I ended up missing quite a few of the training runs. The longest run in the program was 32km, of which I managed about 21km before being sucker punched by a horribly steep climb a mile long that left me completely exhausted and reduced to walking the last 11km home, feeling pretty deflated and defeated.

In total I managed 14 runs in the 8 weeks of training leading up to the race, three of which were around 20km. I didn’t do any strength work or cross training, except for a handful of yoga classes and a little light stretching after a few of the runs. I was definitely over training and finished most of my harder runs with a comforting beer and pizza. In hindsight I’m amazed that I even managed to get round without hurting myself.

Himalayan Training Ground

My amazing backyard – awesome trail running country

During my training I was concentrating on running with good form and wasn’t really worried about speed. The Himalayan Marathon is a high altitude race starting at around 2700m, and it has a total elevation gain of around 900m. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to run uphill for 21km before turning around and running back downhill, so I was aiming to finish in under 5 hours with 4 hours 30mins my target. I think my saving grace was the fact that there is nowhere flat to run where I am currently living. Literally nowhere. This meant that I was getting serious hill training in with every run, and the gradients on these hills were much steeper than the actual marathon.

For my last big training run I wanted to be sure that I could climb 900m in 21km. I was sure that if I could do the uphill section that I would be able to stumble back down again and get to the finish. Without the luxury of a car to come and collect me 21km away, I had to run loops from my guesthouse, meaning that I would have to climb and descend the 900m over a 21km course. I tried to find steep descents so that I could spread the climbs over as much of the course as possible. In the end I climbed 800m over about 11km and ran a total distance of 19km in 2 hours 10 minutes, which gave me hope that I could finish the marathon, and maybe even race it.

Travelling to Sangla Valley

To get from my base near Dharamshala to the race location in the Sangla Valley took me two days by local bus, with an overnight stop in Shimla. I managed to book a seat on the bus to Shimla which was a nice enough journey, albeit with nowhere for my bags except between my legs. I had a window seat and the fresh air combined with the views of passing valleys and plenty of podcasts and audiobooks to listen to made the journey quite fun.

Shimla is one of the original colonial British hill stations, and was actually the seat of the British government during the summer months either side of the monsoon. Today it is really crowded and not much to look at, but there is a section along the Mall where you could really let yourself believe that you were standing on a high street somewhere in the Cotswolds which, given how long it’s been since I’ve been in the UK, was a very strange experience.

From Shimla I boarded a bus headed to Rekong Peo, with my destination a place called Kamcha. From there I would presumably pick up another bus to Sangla and then find my way to my hotel. This was mostly educated guesswork as directions, maps, and bus routes or timetables had proven to be hidden in mystery. Stupidly I didn’t book a seat and had to laugh at myself as I realised I was going to be standing all the way on this overnight bus to wherever it was that I was headed. I wasn’t the only one, and by midnight I was part of a soild mass of flacid limbs and floppy heads that were only left standing by virtue of the fact that there wasn’t any room to fall down. I became extremely grateful that there was a 5 day acclimatisation period and that I wouldn’t be running the marathon the next day.

Kamcha Dam, Himachal Pradesh

The damn dam at Kamcha!

At 2:30am I was deposited on the side of a dirt road in a steep sided valley in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Kamcha, as it turns out, is a hydroelectric dam, not a town. It was pitch black and there was nobody around. I had no battery on my phone to check if I was in the right place, but luckily I had packed my sleeping bag and bivvy bag, so I found a shelter and tried to get some rest before sunrise when I was sure some people would emerge. This was still India after all.

Sure enough some construction workers emerged with the first rays of light, and before long I had hitched a ride to the tiny village of Sangla and then on to the race accommodation and starting point, Banjara Camps, near Batseri Village. I spent the next 5 days here eating great food, making new friends, enjoying the spectacular scenery, and of course running the 10k and marathon, all of which I’ll write about in my next post, coming soon to a computer screen near you!

Banjara Camp, Batseri Village

Lovely tented accommodation at Batseri Camp

Coming soon – the Himalayan XC Marathon and 10k Race Report

Useful Links

Running and Living Himalayan Marathon Website Himachal Pradesh Bus Schedule, Availability, and Booking Banjara Camps Website

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