“Is cycling 150 miles harder than running a marathon?”
This was the question posed to me by a couple of people recently. It intrigued me how this same question, using almost words was put to me within the space of a few days.
My gut reaction is a simple answer – running a marathon is easier, for me. And then the more I thought about it afterwards the more complex the comparison seemed.
Firstly, to cycle 150 miles it might be worth considering what is involved. It took me a little over 13 hours to complete the hilly distance earlier this year and this included four feeding stops (probably about 15-20 minutes at each) and a ferry trip across Lake Windermere. Compared to the 700 other cyclists this time was slower than average, even when taking my age into account. Getting ready took several months of training, gradually increasing the distances to the point I was fairly comfortable covering over 100 miles in a day – building up gradually is the key here, with a number of shorter rides in between the longer weekend rides. The shorter rides are important, either for simply keeping those muscles, ligaments etc in good shape, for getting used to some steep hills or some brisker rides to keep my heart rate up to a higher level for a longer period.
For running a marathon, the format is remarkably similar. I aim for a long run at the weekend and shorter runs during the week and these involved a few hills (which I absolutely love), some shorter sprints (bringing a dose of the Runner’s High) and simply a few short jogs around my local neighbourhood to stay fairly supple.
In running a marathon, it takes me about four hours, give or take a little, to run the 26.2 miles. This is running at a steady, constant pace throughout. There are no stops for feeding or drinking – this is done on the move and “little and often” seems to suit me best. The only possible reason for stopping briefly is to use a Portaloo or at the direction of a marshall, so really it is non-stop, all the way.
The events – how they might compare
The Coast to Coast in a Day is not a race, although there is a hint of being in competition with each other or, at the very least, in competition with the clock and yourself. After all everyone is given a timing chip and cyclists are identified as gold, silver or bronze according to their time. You have a fairly broad window in which to start; if I remember correctly this is over two or three hours.
Running a marathon is completely different. Everyone is lined up against the starting line waiting for the gun to send everyone off. We also have timing chips which generally differentiate between the chip time and the gun time, since it can take several minutes to actually get over the start line owing to the 2000 – 3000 other runners.
Coming in towards the finish line is also different. With the marathon it is a case of one last push in trying to shave off a few seconds and come in with a real rush of the Runner’s High and the need to walk or jog a little to aid recovery. After a long 150 miles the applause was just the same but the focus is on having completed the gruelling challenge and never mind the time.
The mental challenge
It is easy to chart a physical training programme and record your progress, increasing long ride miles each week or two (20 miles, 30 miles, 80 miles, 95 miles….). Training ourselves mentally for the challenge is more subtle and less easy to pin down. It is influenced by personality, natural determination, how easy it is to do physically and a whole range of other factors. And yet we shouldn’t under estimate what part this has to play in an endurance event. Being physically fit is essential, yes of course, but I would argue you must be mentally prepared as well. In preparing mentally for a challenge, it is not simply a case of building up the miles.
Taking part in running a popular marathon you’re surrounded by other runners, pretty much all of the time and the effect is to sweep you along. I tend to run a little faster in this situation, which I suppose is part of the general idea. This doesn’t stop the occasional feeling of being low and down, this can happen at various points when it seems a struggle. Cycle events are at times more solitary with people starting at different stages and the field stretching our more easily. It could be argued that the mental challenge is the biggest challenge of all; having the grit and determination to keep going when it all seems to be too much; this used to be referred to as “character building” by unhelpful, well-meaning people. Sometimes the monotony of the cycle training used to get to me, particularly on the same roads, in the same bleak weather, the same irritating rattle all added up to be uninspiring at times. I used to allow my mind to wander onto other things, quite often cycling-related and tried to be positive and this generally worked. Nevertheless there were low periods when it seemed sensible to ask “why am I doing this….?”
It was using my bike on the cycle turbo trainer which was arguably the most difficult. I still do not like it and find it very unmotivating. I can only see it as a means-to-an-end. Some people I know rate spinning classes quite highly and enjoy them, so this could be a possibility in the future.
Sometimes thinking of some kind of a reward is motivating. When I used to be out cycling last winter – and not always enjoying it – I used to think of that red hot shower I’d have when I got bcd to warm myself up, or that lovely coffee with a slice of cake containing 1000 calories. I used to think of losing a little more weight. When I did the Coast to Coast I “gave myself permission” to go and buy myself a carbon fibre bike afterwards (and I still haven’t got around to this and I doubt if I will).
Sometimes any of us will hit a bit of a wall, when our energy levels seem to drop and legs feel like jelly. Generally this lasts about 5 – 10 minutes and occurs around 20-30 minutes in if I’m running and a little later if I’m cycling.
It is also a tricky challenge in the training, for either discipline, when you’re out in bad weather slogging away and questioning why you’re doing it – I find this is a healthy question to ask and reflect on. It was during the Coast to Coast cycle ride that I once hit a low patch, somewhere in the second half when I found myself cycling alone – this was unusual in that event. I also remember feeling a bit fatigued and had cramp. That was the lowest point and probably the most testing. It was also a point where I had to stop because I had cramp in my upper right leg which was extraordinarily painful (I still remember that!). And yet no matter how bad it became, there was no way I was going to give up: I knew I was being tested in a way.
So, which is the most difficult then?
For me, it is cycling 150 miles. Running a marathon seems “easier” by comparison. However, that’s just me and thank the Lord we are all different.