Robbie Simpson, 24, has spent the past six months meticulously training for the London Marathon. His goal is to dip under the 2hr 14 minute mark required to be considered for a place on the Great Britain team for this summer’s Rio Olympic Games. He has, until now, been recognised primarily as one of the world’s top mountain runners, but this weekend (24th April) he aims to make his mark on the roads. Although he has competed successfully in many long distance mountain races this will be his road marathon debut, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
I asked him to outline how well his preparations for the London Marathon have gone, how determined he is to achieve his goal and what the future might hold, regardless of whether or not he makes it to Rio. Here’s what he said:
You have been training specifically for London for about six months. How do you feel the preparations have gone? Has it been all plain sailing or have there been any glitches?
Generally it’s gone well, better than I’d thought and I’m very happy with the six months. There were a few really difficult times when things didn’t go as planned; one session where I completely hit the wall, a race where I just had nothing in the legs, and one or two niggles. Right now I’m 100% happy with the time as a whole and how it’s come together, now it’s just the last week or so of tapering and freshening up which should help me feel good
You must be pleased to have seen your half marathon times improving during this period?
Yes, I was definitely happy to keep chipping some time off my PB. Last year when I raced in Berlin it was a perfect course with pacemakers and I felt great most of the way so it was a hard PB to break. I’m still disappointed not to have gone faster this winter as when I ran in Paris I felt I paced it poorly and was capable of running much closer to 64min.
In what way has marathon training been different from your mountain running training in the past?
I used to include flat running in my mountain training but usually slower paced and the speed sessions were short (usually max of 12km of intervals). Now the pace I used to run at which felt fast is now just a normal steady running pace. The sessions are twice as long, often running speed sessions doing 20-25km of fast efforts. And of course the main difference is running almost no hills at all. Some of the runs are still undulating but in a typical week I’ll only total up 2,000ft of uphill running compared to 12,000ft in the mountain training. Most of my training is still off road, except the faster sessions. Running on smooth gravel paths I find much better for recovery than tarmac.
You have been following the Canova training method. What are the key characteristics of this approach? What are your feelings about it?
The sessions are really big volume at marathon pace but the recovery days are easier and you have more of them so you have the chance to recover fully before the next session. Also you spend the first block of the marathon training developing pure speed and getting as fast as possible on the shorter distances so when you start running at marathon pace it feels more comfortable. Occasionally the plan includes ‘special block days’ where you do a hard session in the morning (15km of running at marathon pace) or a race then in the evening do another big session (another 15km fast).
I think this method really suited me coming from mountain running, very quickly I was running PBs after the speed training block. And also I really enjoy running doing these big sessions because it seems very logical to me when preparing for a marathon. I met some guys who do sessions half the size and run fast splits which look great on the training plan but probably don’t prepare you for running 42km fast. Once I reach the last 10km in London then I guess I’ll know how well the training has worked! At the half marathon distance it isn’t really long enough to know how good you’ll feel after another hour or running.
You haven’t run a road marathon before, but you have done long mountain marathons. Do you feel this background will help you at London Marathon?
I’m very sure the experience of running lots of long races will help me, generally I’ve been better on the longer mountain courses so I’m hoping it’ll be the same in road running. Often I’ve been able to push myself really hard in the later stages of races like Sierre-Zinal and the Jungfrau marathon, the last parts have been my strength. I know many of the other guys think of running for over 2 hours as being long so they might be worried how they will feel near the end. The main difference is running the constant fast pace with no change in rhythm but that’s what the training has helped me get used to.
The Olympic Games qualifying standard is 2:14. How confident are you about achieving this given you have never run a road marathon before? Generally, what is the minimum acceptable outcome you expect from the race?
With the marathon I think it’s very difficult for someone to predict a time for their debut. So many people talk about running 2.14 or 2.12 then run 10 minutes slower because they underestimated it. Also you get guys like Callum (Hawkins) who come in and run 2.12 straight away. I am confident that under 2.14 is possible and that’s the target I will aim for because it’s the qualifying time. When I get to 30km then I’ll find out if it’s realistic or not but until then I have to believe it. If I aim for a slower time like 2.16 or 2.18 the chances are I could run a well paced race and beat my target but the qualifying time is 2.14 so it’s the only time I have in mind.
As usual it will be a fast race with the leaders going out at 2:04/2:05 pace. Obviously you can’t get involved with that sort of pace so what will your strategy be?
The plan will be to run with a group of British guys also going for 2.14, letting the faster runners get away early on so I don’t waste energy early on. Callum is in shape to start off faster so I won’t make the mistake of going with him (again!) but the other guys should be at a more manageable pace. I think the group will stay together for at least the first half until people start dropping off then I heard at around 30km it gets really hard with a small hill and some tight corners. That’s the point where I need to feel strong and stay on pace, hopefully catching a few guys as well. The first half is supposed to be a bit faster than the second so I need to get to halfway in around 66min or just over to keep 2.14 as a realistic target.
There are a few other Scots with Olympic aspirations. Does that give you additional motivation? Does it help in any way?
Having other Scots there definitely helps, we’re all happy to see each other do well and it’s been great for me to learn from their experience in the last months. Callum is in unbelievable form right now so I’m excited to see how he gets on against the top English guys, as well as the world’s best. Maybe he can burn them out so me and Derek (Hawkins) can catch them in the second half! Derek is very experienced at marathon now and ran around 2.14 a few times, so running with him for as much as possible could be a good strategy.
Just how much do you want to make the team for the Olympic Games? You have devoted a lot of time and energy to achieving this target and have been living as a full-time athlete in an effort to reach it.
Anyone who starts sports at a young age has the idea of qualifying for the Olympics but very few get anywhere near. Just being in the trial race and running for a place on the team is already something exciting which I’ll remember as being a high point in my running career, so actually qualifying would be unbelievable! I’ve met so many positive people who are already going to Rio from other countries so it’s been great for boosting my confidence and seeing that it’s realistic. As the months have passed and the good sessions have been ticked off each week I’ve got more and more determined to make the most of my chance
If you didn’t make the team this time around, will you still have marathon aspirations for the future (Olympic Games/Commonwealth etc)?
Whatever the outcome in London I plan to do more marathons, including the Commonwealth Games qualification. I’ve enjoyed the training and I want to keep improving in the next years. From this one I can learn how to prepare better next time and run as fast as possible.
Would you accept a place in the European half marathon championships if not selected for the Olympics?
The European championships are before the Olympics. I haven’t actually thought about it but if I was offered a place then I’d consider it, depending on how it fits in with mountain running. It’s easier to train for a half marathon and the recovery time isn’t as long.
Your first love is still mountain running, so, whatever the outcome at London, what are your aspirations in this field for the rest of this year and longer term?
I always plan to keep racing in the mountains and I think mixing in some high quality road races can be very beneficial to that. It’ll be interesting to see how the transition goes when I next start mountain racing again. If I made the Olympic team I wouldn’t race in mountains until after then, probably going for the Jungfrau marathon. If not then I’ll start the season as normal once I’m recovered from London and I’ll aim for Sierre – Zinal and also Jungfrau. Once London Marathon is done I’ll plan things exactly.
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