• Helen Phillips

Meet our VLM19 Marathoners #21: Olga

Not everyone can run a marathon. You have to be a special kind of determined and crazy to train and then complete 26.2 miles on the day.

In my VLM19 Meet Our Marathoners Series we meet ordinary people who have battled through and achieved extraordinary.

Today we meet Olga, who ran VLM19 for NSPCC. Please read on to hear her story.

Tell me about your running journey

I started running after my husband and I moved to Bristol (from London). I didn’t know anybody in this new city and I wanted to do something for myself.

I still remember my first run in March 2016. I drove from Redland up to the Downs (running up the hill wasn’t an option) and I ran a lap of the park at the slowest pace. After that I ran by myself about twice a week and I entered Bristol 10k without thinking much of it. The scale of the event took me completely by surprise. 12,000 runners and myself. I didn’t know anybody there. I noticed a lot of people wearing club vests and cheering each other on. I thought to myself: “I want that.”

On a post-race high I joined a running club called Great Western Runners in June 2016. All of a sudden I was surrounded by people who were all training for a marathon. Or at least it seemed like it.

“What are you training for?” was a standard opening question of the small talk. “Surely you are in for the Bristol half?”. I didn’t have any answers ready. Soon I signed up for more races. The other people in the club were really encouraging, which in turn motivated me to run more.

After a year with the club I signed up for my first marathon, Abingdon Marathon in October 2017. I trained for 4 months with a goal to run it under 4 hours. The training was going well, and my running friends kept telling me to aim for sub 3:45 – the “good-for-age” qualifying time for London. To me it seemed impossible, but I thought I’d run the first half around 8.35 min/miles (the speed needed for 3:45) and then see how I feel. Everything came together on the day and I finished Abingdon marathon in 3:38 which meant a place in London Marathon 2019.

A few friends from the running club signed up for a brand-new race – Newport Marathon. I thought let’s get another marathon experience in the bag before London.

Preparing over the winter was tougher but we did a lot of the long runs together as a group. I ran well, and I felt strong. About four weeks before the race I dropped a crate on my foot at work. My foot hurt when I ran. The Physio suggested to rest as I’d already done most of my long runs, then go for it on the day. This race experience was completely different to Abingdon. I suffered. I hit the wall around mile 10. Everyone was overtaking me. My muscles ached. If it hadn’t been so cold I would have walked. Surprisingly my foot didn’t hurt at all. I finished in 3:53 and I felt disappointed.

Meantime London Marathon tweaked the rules slightly and I wasn’t sure if my “good-for-age” time would still be good enough. But on the day, I finally found out I was in!!!

Why did you decide you wanted to run a marathon?

I first came across the London Marathon in 2002, just after I moved to London from the Czech Republic. I watched, cheered and soaked up the amazing atmosphere. For a brief moment I wondered if I could ever do something like that. I didn’t know anybody who had run it, and it seemed like something completely out of my reach.

When I started running in 2016, it has been always on the back of my mind, that I would like to run the London marathon.

How much have you raised for your charity?

Getting “Good For Age” place meant I didn’t have to do any fundraising at all. But it didn’t feel right taking a part in the biggest fundraising event and not doing my bit. I chose to raise funds for the NSPCC, because I work with young children and I recognise how important their work is. I am glad I did. It gave me a sense of purpose, when I struggled with the training.

I raised just over £2000, from friends and family through sharing my marathon journey on social media.

Did you have a goal for the marathon?

Before starting the training for the London Marathon, I wasn't sure if setting the ambitious goal of sub 3:30, was the best way to run this race. Thinking maybe I should just take it easy and enjoy it. I now feel that having a target time kept me focused and gave me something to aim for in the tough second half of the race. Or I could have easily let it slip and really struggle to keep going, with nothing to really push me on.

The best way to enjoy it was to race it and to give it my best effort. And so I did.

How did training go?

My training went well. I stuck to my plan. There was a group of us in my running club who trained together and we really bonded. I ran 5 times a week, between 28 and 50 miles a week. My longest run was 20 miles.

What do you love about running?

Call me a weirdo, but I love the Sunday long runs. There was a group of us training together and I always looked forward to our Sunday social runs around Bristol. It gave me great sense of achievement being able to cover the distance.

Saturdays were my marathon pace runs (up to 10 miles). I ran on the cycle path alongside the motorway. It was hard to push myself, but in the end these runs were really crucial to pacing my race right. I learnt to “feel” the pace and it meant I didn’t start too fast and blow up early in the race.

Do you have a post run treat?

During my training I lived on porridge, bagels and bananas. I drink two cups of coffee a day – coffee before I head out for a run is mandatory!

A week before a race I drank beetroot juice – not exactly a treat, but it is meant to enhance performance.

Is there a song that motivates you through training?

My guilty pleasure is Roar by Katy Perry.

Do you have any running superstitions?

I always wear my club’s vest (Great Western Runners) to races, but this time I wore the NSPCC charity vest with my name on it. It brought me good luck.

I need to have a caffeine gel at mile 20, otherwise I am not that fussed about gels and happily accept jelly babies from strangers along the way.

What were you most looking forward to on race day?

Crossing the Tower Bridge and it lived up to my expectations. I knew I was running the London Marathon, obviously, but it wasn’t till I reached the Tower Bridge that it really hit me: THIS IS ME RUNNING THE LONDON MARATHON! ME! Who would have ever thought!

Tell me about race day?

The big part of the London experience was sharing an apartment with fellow club runners. It helped to calm my nerves knowing we are all in the same boat whilst we were all chilling and carb-loading together the night before.

The amount of support I was getting was incredible. Even though I put my name on my charity vest, I didn't think people would be shouting my name as I ran by the entire time! Never, ever, in my life, have I had so many people cheering for me, it was out of this world.

I was aiming for sub 3:30, to give myself the best chance to do it, I needed to run the first 10 miles as close as possible to 8 minute/miles and not get carried away.

I knew that the pace on my running watch wouldn't be accurate on the day due to the crowds and tall buildings. I did a lot of marathon pace runs in my training to be able to feel the pace from the level of effort. As we started running I kept counting and checking half mile splits and adjusting my pace slightly to be on point for 8 minute/miles when my watch beeped the full mile. The only time I let myself go faster was at mile 3, to make the most of the downhill. By the mile 4 I was settled into the pace and it got easier to run evenly.

Ideally I wanted to run at this pace till the half way point, but as the crowds were getting louder it was harder holding myself back, and I sped up to 7:50 minute/ miles after mile 10. It was also around the mile 10 I noticed how the mile markers kept slipping further and further away from the distance shown by my watch. It became clear I would need to run a few more sub 8 minute miles to make up for it.

Since then I tried to alternate between one mile faster pace, and one at 8 minute/mile, but as my legs were getting tired and I lost my ability to feel the pace accurately as more effort was needed to sustain it. From around mile 19, I needed to give it my all. I took my caffeine gel and I went for it. I was checking the wristband splits against the time on my watch at the mile markers and I knew I had around 1 minute to spare. That meant not slowing down at all. I visualised running down the Embankment a lot of times in my training, but actually running down it was a bit of a blur, and I didn't really take it in. I kept switching between good thoughts - how much training I have done, the NSPCC Fundraiser, the people who wished me well and who want me to succeed. And simple practical thoughts - my legs are hurting, but I can hold this speed, my breathing is in a good rhythm, grabbing a jelly baby from a stranger rather than faffing with a gel to save time.

I must have been in the zone, because a few people later said they saw me in the last few miles but I didn't see them. My watch beeped every mile but I stopped noticing. Later I learned that my fastest mile was the 24th mile on the Embankment - 7:23 minute/miles - so all that visualisation in training must have helped.

I had nothing left when I finished. I felt happy but totally overwhelmed. I did it! 3:29:28.

How did you celebrate your achievement?

I had a meal at Nando’s and I took couple of days off work to spend it with family. My Facebook page exploded with lot of people congratulating me. I celebrated the achievement but I really enjoyed the whole journey, the training with people, making friends and pushing myself to my limits.

Olga You're Awesome! You smashed VLM19!

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