Practicing for when it all goes wrong

Marathon season is upon us and I was reflecting back on my 2006 London Marathon when lots went wrong and how I would prepare differently inspired by the story of Seal Team 6’s training for the Bin Laden mission.

Drinks bottles World Trophy.jpg

It was my third marathon and for my first one I had been obsessed with learning to drink properly on the run. Racing an elite marathon is treading a tightrope on energy consumption and every extra calorie helps.

I had the bottle size optimised, the concentration of sports drink fine-tuned and could pick bottles of tables at speed with left or right hand. My practice served me well and I was able to wash down a few kilometres worth of extra carbs in those drinks which contributed to two excellent performances.

All well and good, but what if those bottles weren’t there on the table every 5 kilometres? That’s what happened in 2006 and I wasn’t prepared. I got to 5k in about 40th place and no bottle, just wreckage everywhere from the leading groups who had knocked bottles off the tables and they hadn’t been replaced by the volunteers. No worries, it’s only the first of 8 drinks stations I thought. However, the story was repeated at the second table and to make things worse the pace I was running at was faster than I had planned for and it was a cold wet day. Anxiety levels rising, one third into the race, three quarters of an hour without a drink and the prospect of no drink at the next station I backed off the pace and ploughed a lonely furrow to the finish. Although I got the remainder of my drinks and ran what was then a best time of 2hrs 20mins I could and should have been much quicker that day.

Fast forward to Seal Team 6 and their preparation for the Bin Laden mission. they repeatedly practiced in training what they would do if their helicopters crash landed short of the target zone. By the time the mission took off they were well drilled in improvising their way around cock-ups and calamities. Sure enough, one of the helicopters crash landed and yet the team still carried out their mission.

For me, more effective preparation would have involved practicing with the sub-optimal official brand of race drinks which were available every few miles rather than relying on my own rocket fuel mixture at the elite stations every 5km. I could also have had some gels stashed in my shorts for emergencies. Lastly I could have rehearsed the scenario in my mind about the fast pace because the best strategy would have been to stick with the group and improvise on drinks rather than slow down and run solo.

Sometimes it pays to practice a scenario you hope will never materialise.