APRIL 2014: If you find yourself on the sidelines of this Sunday’s Brighton Marathon, and you see a runner wearing number 5050, please give her a special cheer. In fact, shout Happy Birthday! It’s not just any birthday though – it’s her 50th! But that’s not all. It’s her 50th marathon. Yes, that’s right, she’s running the 5th Brighton Marathon (her 50th marathon) on her 50th birthday!
Her name is Nuala Smyth (pronounced ‘Noola’). I just had to meet her…
Nuala, what a fantastic achievement! Less than a week to go now. How are you feeling?
Under pressure – all of my own making though – and not because of having to run the marathon distance (I know how to do that now), but because I want to be sure to finish in under 4 hours. This is because I’m doing the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa in June, and a sub-4 will mean I’m allocated a good starting pen, not too far from the front. If I miss the time, I don’t want that to overshadow my special day in Brighton. I’m reasonably confident though – I’ve managed sub-4 in each one of the Brighton Marathons to date, except for 2011 when I helped pace another runner.
Wow, so 50 times 26.2 miles is not quite enough for you?! Have you already run ultras?
Yes, in fact I ran Comrades last year. I hope to get a Back-to-Back medal at the event in June – it’s a special medal for completing two consecutive years at Comrades off a novice run – which last year was for me.
My first ultra was Doyen of the Downs in 2009 – 30 miles of mud and mayhem! It was very much a case of stepping out into the unknown and was such a tough run. It took place in the December after we’d had a HUGE amount of rain. It was quite a struggle, even on the flat bits. Heading along the Arun River tow path towards the finish at Arundel Castle was case of two steps forward, one step back, on jelly legs!
I’ve also done the local ‘Jack & Jill’ 30 miler and, in preparation for last year’s Comrades, did the Crawley Track, which involved a 6 hour run around the track at k2 – 36 miles to be precise! They blew a whistle after 3 hours to signify half-way, at which point we all changed direction for a little light relief! That was a great way of preparing mentally for the monotony of 54 miles in South Africa (which turned out to be 54 miles in up to 33 degrees heat with a hot sandblasting wind thrown in)!
That’s impressive stuff, Nuala. And would you say that ultra-running is simply an extension of marathon running, or have you found it a very different experience?
Comrades was completely different to anything I’d ever previously done, for several reasons. Firstly, not only is it considered normal to walk parts of the route, it’s encouraged. But also, my re-fuelling strategy during the ultras has been quite different to the usual six gels which I take in a marathon. Boiled potatoes and salt were even provided on the Comrades course!
So, where did the marathon-running all begin?
My first marathon was London in 2008. I’d seen the marathon on TV. It all looked amazing. In fact I got quite emotional just watching it and wanted to be part of it. I got a club place. We only had a small club then and we were only allocated one London place. Myself and one other member were up for it, and I got it. When my name was drawn out of the hat, I cried as I was so pleased.
Mid-forties is relatively late in life to begin marathon running. What had you previously done to keep fit? Have you always been quite sporty?
I grew up overseas and always liked the outdoor life. Also, I have 3 brothers all very close in age and life was pretty competitive – a dog-eat-dog world! I guess there was always a drive to be good at something, to demonstrate that I could hold my own! I’ve always been quite sporty but only really for leisure. I enjoyed swimming and cycling, and did the London-to-Brighton bike ride three times. I took up running properly after getting divorced – I saw it as a bit of ‘me’ time, a great stress-reliever, an opportunity to clear my head and the perfect time for starting something new.
And what has motivated you to go on and run so many marathons? For many people, completing just one marathon is challenge enough!
The fantastic feeling I get after completing a marathon is what motivates me. I just love the buzz. I love that it keeps me fit and I love how it sort of gives me a title of Multiple Marathon Runner rather than just Middle Aged Woman. It makes me feel good about myself.
Of course, each and every one of your marathons will have been unique, taking into account the differing terrain, scenery, weather conditions, your own level of fitness, the people you’ve run with and so on. But would you say there was one which has left you with particularly special memories? And conversely, which was the worst?
There are so many to choose from, but I’d probably say London 08 was my favourite, particularly because it was my first. My family came up to watch. We’d been told it would be almost impossible to spot anyone running. However, my other half, Graham, had plotted out three places for him and my two daughters to see me, worked out my predicted time and we saw each other at each of those points. At one part of the course I spotted my younger daughter who’d climbed up some traffic lights to hopefully catch sight of her mum! I remember shouting to Graham to ask him to marry me, although his response was “No, you stink!” It felt fantastic running past them. I proceeded to run backwards for a while, waving at them frantically. I think the fact that I was wearing a bright orange hat helped them spot me! So, a bit of advice, if you want to get spotted make sure you wear something bright!
As for my worst marathon, that has to be Orpington 2010 when I made a rookie error and took on some fuel I’d never had before whilst running (orange juice, to be precise). The last 5 miles was a most uncomfortable experience and it reinforced the importance of trying out any fuel well before race day!
How on earth do you manage to stay fit and injury-free running so many miles?
I do get injuries but luckily I know now to get any niggles looked at as quickly as possible so they don’t get out of hand. I know the signs by now. For example, I had an Achilles problem, but decided to take a couple of weeks off running whilst it was a relatively minor issue, to ensure it didn’t develop into a full blown injury.
So, what does a typical training week look like? And do you find it difficult trying to fit your training around family and work commitments?
I run 6 days a week – recently getting up to 50 miles a week, which will increase going forward in preparation for Comrades. It’s a challenge to juggle work, family and running and, having a partner plus two daughters, I have a MASSIVE pile of ironing! My work pals all know what I’m doing and are great. I work as a Fraud Officer. It’s a 37 hour week. My hours can be quite erratic, sometimes starting as early as 5am. I just make sure I’m flexible with my training, which I fit around my job. My family are also 100 per cent behind me. I do try to make special time for Graham (who, although not a runner himself, is incredibly supportive), and make sure if we have something planned, that I get my run done so it doesn’t impact on our time together.
And what would be your top tips for anyone about to run their first marathon, in the final few days and on race day itself?
The best advice I ever got was simply to ENJOY THE DAY!!! There will never be anything quite like your first time crossing the finish line. And don’t worry if you don’t sleep the night before; even now, I struggle to sleep. More important is that you get good sleep earlier in the week, particularly the night before the night before the race! Another thing is not to get swept along by the event at the start. Go off steady, and you’ll be able to draw on your reserves nearer the end.
Sounds like good advice! I don’t imagine, for a moment, that it all ends after Brighton and Comrades. What’s next for Nuala?
I’ll definitely continue running marathons, and I’ve already entered three more post-Comrades. In fact, my next big target is to get to 100 and join the 100 Marathon Club. I’d really like to get there by 55.
Nuala, I have to say I’m extremely impressed. Thanks so much for sharing your story with RunBrighton. Have a great run on Sunday, and also in Comrades, and all of us at RunBrighton wish you a very happy 50th birthday!
By Mike Bannister