Richard McDowell: The guy who beat Guye Adola at London marathon 2018

London Marathon 2018 was one of the hottest races of the year: both literally and figuratively.
Both elite men and women fields were stacked with Olympic Champions and World Record holders. And the temperatures were in the mid 70s (F, 23 degree C). 

And yes, to all y'all Indian people, it might seem like a nice, pleasant temperature but running raises your core body temperature and it is harder for those who are running at incredibly fast speeds.

And it panned out with many favourites dropping out or finishing much slower than they are used to do finishing. And I have a LOT of interest in elite races, but this particular race also was being contested by a guy who I have really grown to admire over the last few years and infact, I aspire to follow his footsteps(at the same pace, maybe faster).

I first came to know about Richard McDowell through a Whatsapp group consisting of Indian Triathletes. Richard was in India for a while, working here and racing in local races. He did his first marathon at Hyderabad where he ran a 2:59. On that group, we used to post our workouts and if there was 1 guy faster than me, it was him. I admit, many of my faster workouts in 2013-2014 were inspired by Mr. McDowell's tempo runs. He even did an Ironman in Zurich and wrote a pretty fantastic race report, which I read almost everyday, while training for it.
I was kinda hoping to beat his marathon time on that course, but a poorly timed fall during the run leg meant I couldn't send him a consolation message.

He moved back to England and now being a family man, he chose to spend more of his time running to stay fit. The man manages a daily job, his dad-duties and still trains like an absolute beast, or should I say, like a turbo ferret?

All pictures courtesy: Richard McDowell
From 2:59 in 2012, he went consistently up and just yesterday, he ran a 2:27:56 at London, finishing 15th overall in the Non-elite field!

And in doing so, he managed to beat a particular Ethiopian, Guye Adola (Marathon PB: 2:03:26), who succumbed to the London heat and finished 5 minutes behind Richard.

Elites are elites, they have their pages in history books, they have more time to train, sleep and recover. But people like Yuki Kawauchi(Boston Marathon winner 2018) & Richard, who work 40 hours a week and still run that fast.

I left doing Ironmans last year, in hopes of improving on my marathon PB of 2:56:24 and live up to my running VO2 max test results of 72.6. And the man I looked at was Richard.

He was kind enough to run a marathon on Sunday and fill-out my annoying questionnaire on Monday, filled with some amazing answers!

I hope you guys enjoy it:

Arunaabh(A):  Every year, I wait for this race, because time and again, you show that with great consistency, it is possible for someone who started off with a 2:59 marathon, to progress to Sub 2:30, while managing work and family along the way.
When you started off purely as a runner, did you have a specific time in mind that you would want to see yourself run in X number of years? Or you just took the progression as it came?

Richard (R): Thinking back to my first marathon in 2012, in Hyderabad, I set myself what I thought was a sensible target of sub-3, both being achievable and a nice benchmark.  Marathon pace was a nice steady 4:15/km, and the number of running miles I did in the 18-week period leading up to that race was pitifully low (475km), albeit I was also riding and swimming.  Subsequent to returning to the UK and getting a bit more balance back in my life, triathlon training had to take a backseat, especially after becoming a father.  Switching to just running was much simpler and also a lot cheaper!  After a 2:51 in Edinburgh in 2015 (running fewer training miles of 419km), the next nice target was 2:45 which would qualify me for Championship entry into the London Marathon, starting just behind the elites.  I achieved that in my first London, 2016, running 2:43 (off 529km of training), and then 2:40 in Bournemouth in the autumn (stepping up the training considerably to 934km).  I increased my volume of training and brought my PR down to 2:35 in London 2017 (1141km), but a lot of that training had been on an injured heel.  Plantar fasciitis had been brought on after a heavy foot-fall on a rock during the winter cross-country season, and the symptoms were getting increasingly acute resulting in an entire summer off sunning immediately after London.  Sub 2:40 is a nice time as it qualifies you for free entry into a lot of UK marathons, and starting right up the front.  The next obvious target was sub 2:30. I participated in some physiological testing (VO2max, lactate threshold etc) and the outcome of that was a good way off an elite, but did have the potential to go sub 2:30, so I just needed to do it!

A: Armed with “4% faster” shoes, a great mileage leading into the race and brilliant form, were there any doubts about handling the heat of the day?

R: There were plenty of precautionary emails from the organisers in the lead-up to the race, and the weather was going to be unseasonably warm for and April in London, but after 5 years of riding and running in India, I didn’t have too many concerns about the heat.  23 is pretty temperate compared to where I did a lot of my first few running and triathlon races; India, Indonesia, Thailand, Switzerland, South Africa.  I’m a pretty slim athletic physique, not carrying too much excess insulation, so fairly well suited to warm conditions, and used to keeping cool where required.  I think a year of enforced exile in Orissa in very hot and humid conditions were probably a lot worse than anything the London Marathon organisers were envisaging!  I always wear a white cap which I douse with water at every opportunity which seems to have a good impact on body temperature.  Having said that, I was aiming to knock off over 5 minutes from my personal best of a year ago, having missed a summer of training, so would ideally have been wanting slightly less trying conditions, given the opportunity.  However, I had the perfect excuse ready if I missed my target!

A: Let us talk about your build-up towards this race, which I’m pretty sure you treat as you’re a race. As this is early in the season, most of your training happens in the colder months of the year. How do you fit in the “speed” part of the training along with your usual commute runs?

R: I do the vast majority of my running commuting to and from work, which is just under 20km each way.  I don’t often run both directions, I can mix and match with cycling, train, motorbike or car.  With a shower at work it’s a perfect time-efficient way of getting my miles in – the time penalty for a 20km run only being about half an hour over cycling the same distance, and actually quicker than the train door-to-door.  I did start double-running this year, running half-way to work in the morning, train the 2nd half, before running all the way home.  A nice gentle 10km to shake the legs out in the morning seemed to work quite well before a harder session in the evening.  Strava has been an excellent way of both tracking my runs, and to add in a competitive element, picking segments to smash here and there.  The hardest runs were probably Fartlek sessions, a particular favourite being 1 minute very hard, 2 minutes easy, repeat 15 times.  I can’t deny the best way to get speed sessions in is probably on the track with a group of fast friends to push you, but this just isn’t practical for me at the moment – I haven’t actually trained on the track since my son was born over 2 years ago.  Also combining a speed session with a 20km total run length can be a little daunting but needs must.

Weather is a factor, but I’ve never missed a commute because of it, I’ve just made sure I’m prepared.  I have an amazing revolutionary featherweight Goretex jacket which is incredibly breathable which I can run hard in and not worry about sweating, a cap which I’ve sewn a holder for a powerful headtorch onto, a plethora of gloves suited to various temperatures, and a big stack of shorts, tights and tops.  I did have an incident last year of running to work in very cold temperatures while being under-dressed and needing help from a colleague to remove my inadequate gloves and watch before painfully re-animating my hands in a warm sink and taking a long hot shower.  Fortunately, I’ve never repeated this faux pas!  In the winter the vast majority of my commutes are under the cover of darkness, and as 70% of my commute route is off-road on unlit footpaths, a headtorch is essential.

A: You were pretty badass biker too. And an incredibly fast runner. I’m sure you don’t miss doing that time-consuming Ironman training, but do you miss doing triathlons?

R: While in India, without any family commitments, triathlon training was perfect to keep fit and fill my time.  It was a great way of making new friends and travel for events.  I’ve seen some amazing parts of the world as a result of planning holidays around triathlons, but priorities have now changed.  Swimming in particular, the discipline which I was abysmal at, was a challenge to maintain subsequent to moving back to London.  Despite having a fantastic 100-yard open-air pool nearby, the hours timetable made getting a decent length swim in before work challenging.  It’s also impossible to combine swimming with any practical travelling.  I do often take advantage of some scenic swimming if the opportunity arises when travelling – one incident amused while attending a conference in Lake Bled, Slovenia; colleagues were starting to gather for breakfast as I walked through the lobby in a wetsuit, returning from a 4km swim in the lake!  For me, Ironman is something which I feel I’ve been and done, although not necessarily excelled at, but somewhat takes over your life, and is a long day of pacing.  Half-Iron however is fun – you’re finished by lunchtime and recovered by tea time, and can properly push during the race, and the amount of training is significantly less.

A: How does the rest of the season look like for you? Do you plan to run Berlin or some other faster course and bring this time even lower?

R: The track season is virtually upon us now, being an old codger, I’ll be competing in the local veterans’ league at distances ranging between 800m and 5000m.  I also have my first ever 10,000m track race in May, hoping to crack 32 minutes, and a few road races.  I’ve signed up for the Bournemouth Marathon, one I did a couple of years ago, which isn’t quite as quick a course as London, but fun.  I also have a fun hilly off-road marathon which is inspired by the Marathon du Medoc, with copious wine and food stops along the way.  Fancy dress is encouraged, and I’m the current course record holder, so I’d like to improve on that.   No immediate plans for Berlin, but it would be fun to tick off all the majors at some point in my life, although I’ve no idea when that might be feasible.

A:  Any advice to me/runners who want to run Sub 2:30s in a few years’ time?

R: I think I’ve learned that over the past few years is that it’s years of training which nets you good times, not a season or a few months.  I had entered the Chester Marathon for autumn 2017, which was when I was suffering from plantar fasciitis, and made a last-minute decision to race.  I trained for 3 weeks and treated the race as a fun relaxed jog.  However, at half-way, having taken the first half very steadily I felt fantastic, so dropped the hammer and knocked out a 2:42 without really trying, and felt fresh at the end.  Consistency is key, don’t build your mileage too quickly to avoid injury, and if you’re getting niggling injuries frequently, maybe physically you aren’t suited to such high mileage, so find a level which is sustainable.  I seem to be fairly fortunate that my body can handle the weekly miles with ease, although I don’t run an excessive amount.  My 18-week training block totaled about 1450km, including a week off with the flu, so an average of about 85km a week, with my biggest week being 133.  I’ve varied my speeds a bit more this year, still averaging relatively quick 4:00m/km, but a range of slower and faster stuff, not just plodding around at middle pace.  The danger of middle pace is that you fatigue and sustain the same sort of muscle degradation, but don’t see much physiological gain from the efforts.  Easy paced runs don’t strain the body much allowing recovery, while the hard stuff gives you the gains.  I’m no coach, but I have had a cursory glance at Pfitzinger and Douglas’s Advanced Marathoning, which I followed for my 2-week taper, and will probably pay more attention to for the actual training in future!

A:  Last but not the least, were the Nike 4% really 4% faster? 

R: Impossible to say, but there were a lot of people wearing them in the Championship start!  They are very soft and forgiving, so the soles of my feet took much less punishment over the 42km than they have wearing racing flats in the past.  It may have helped reach the finish feeling fresher, but who knows.  They will certainly be my marathon shoe of choice going forwards!

This is an extract from an email I sent a buddy post-race, which is most of a race report, which you might find interesting to include some of:

"I listen to the Marathon Talk podcast and a while back they interviewed a runner/statistician guy called Barry Smythe.  He had collected a lot of marathon performance data from different events and calculated the quickest way statistically to get a PB.  For London, most people ran a PB by running a 4% positive split, thus running the 2nd half 4% slower than the first.  For a 2:30 finish, which was my goal, meant coming through halfway in 73 minutes, and then running the 2nd half in 77. That sounded pretty daunting, as my stand-alone half time (albeit from a few years ago) is 76.  However, that was the plan, and I was relatively confident, especially being only 1 second slower than our fastest club runner in the National 12-Stage Relays one week before the marathon.  Halfway was pretty much spot on 73, and I just kept on pushing, although never felt like I was pushing too hard, was pretty much under control.  Was passing loads of runners who must have been starting to find it tough, quite a few of them at quite a major speed differential.  Had a minor scare at about 40km when my watch said I’d just run a 4:00km instead of the 3:35ish of most of the preceding ones, but I managed to pick it up again.  What was nice was being so far ahead of my 2:30 goal that I had loads of time in hand and could afford to jog it in for the last few miles and still be in target, so I was very relaxed.  I then passed Kojo Kyreme (a local legend who holds most of the strava segments, or at least features high in the leaderboard) who has stopped on the Embankment with apparent cramps.  What’s a more impressive scalp, Kojo or bib number 4, Guye Adola, one of the pre-race favourites, who was jogging it in around the Tower of London, presumably because some of his appearance fee was linked to finishing the race!  Dimos, one of our club marathon heroes passed me at Big Ben, which was a bit of a surprise, but there aren’t many other people you would be happy to be beaten by!  Had 17 seconds on me at the end, and no-one else in sight.

Regarding nutrition/hydration, I didn’t do really do anything different to previous years, but slightly fewer gels, as I’ve historically adhered to the High5 guidelines, which may be aimed towards selling lots of gels than anything else!  2 gels 20 minutes before the start, 1 after 40 mins then every 30 minutes, 4 in total on the run.  I probably didn’t need the last one as I did a few little pukes after crossing the line.  For the water, I think I had less pre-race than normal, as I only took 500ml of high5 with me from the house, which I think I finished on the train, and started the race a bit thirsty!  Had been hunting around for water in the champs area and came up empty… Every water station entailed a small sip of water, the rest was thoroughly over the cap and body.  I think this has quite a major impact, keeping the surface cool then keeps the core cooler, less sweating, less drinking required, less salt loss etc.  Keeping cool along with running apparently within myself meant that I wasn’t experiencing any of the trauma of a lot of others.  Felt fresher than I’ve felt at the end of any marathon, average HR of 161, 2 sore toenails and nothing worse.  Bladder came back on-line mid-afternoon (which can sometimes take a while) and back to pre-race weight of 63kg this morning, so no overall fluid loss on the day.  Maybe the Vaporfly 4% shoes really are pure magic, but perhaps given the popularity of them pre-race, and the relative scarcity of PR’s suggest otherwise!

Was very bizarre coming into an almost deserted post-race area.  Saw a couple of top British club runners who had both missed their sub 2:20 goals by several minutes, but that was about it.  Was absolutely staggered to discover I’d finished 15th in the champs start!  My 2:30 goal would have placed me about 50-60ish most years, but being 2 minutes faster, and most folk being a bit slower pushed me up the order massively."


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