A marathon challenge: the Brathay 10in10

Many of us would find the thought of running a single marathon a daunting challenge. How about running the same marathon 10 times over, in 10 days?

When the Brathay 10in10 first started in 2007, Matt Whitehead was still at school. His first reaction to the event was, why on earth would anyone want to put themselves through that? And yes, it was 10 times around Lake Windermere, one of the most picturesque marathon courses in the country, and a local event for Matt. But still.

And running the Windermere marathon in 2011, his first attempt at 26.2 miles, didn’t do much to change his mind. “It was horrific. I was completely underprepared. The longest distance I’d run in training was a half marathon.”

Yet this May, eight years later, he joined a team of 17 athletes running 262 miles around Windermere in aid of the Brathay Trust. What changed?

By 2016, Matt had moved down to Lympstone in Devon, to join the Royal Marines. I first met him when he came to my ChiRunning workshop in Exeter.

ChiRunning changed his view of running from something painful to be endured to something that could be enjoyable. Instead of thinking why would anyone want to do the Brathay 10in10, he started to wonder just how it could be done.

When he was transferred from the Marines to the Navy after experiencing heart issues, he began to seriously consider training for this gruelling event.

Initially it was the challenge and the chance to test his limits that appealed. Matt didn’t know much about the Brathay Trust itself, but as he learned about the work it does helping disadvantaged young people and familes, as well as ex-servicemen and women, he realized it was a charity he really wanted to support.

Each year, only 17 runners get the opportunity to join the 10in 10 team. In 2018, having completed a couple of marathons and an Iron Man, Matt decided to apply and was delighted when he heard that he’d been accepted.

Time to get serious. But how do you go about training to run 262 miles in 10 days?

The 17 runners met for the first time in January, when they gathered for a training weekend. Rather than being given a set programme to follow, the new 10in10 recruits had the chance to hear from previous finishers on what had worked well for them.

The advice was to run 10 back-to-back days of 10Ks, 10 days of 15Ks, and 5 successive half marathons to help adapt to the load the 10in10 would put on their bodies.

To prepare himself, Matt also ran a double marathon over a weekend. With his heart issues, he had learned to slow down and back off with his running, keeping his heart rate below 150.

To help his body stay strong and injury free, he rounded out his training programme with plenty of strength and conditioning and mobility exercises. Each member of the 10in10 team was also assigned a student physio to keep them in good shape throughout the 10 days.

Finally, May arrived and it was time.

Day one, and the Windermere marathon course took the runners on an anti-clockwise loop, through Hawkshead, Newby Bridge, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Ambleside. With 430 m of ascent, it’s a challenging road route to do once.

With one loop down, and nine still to go, day two was tough. Sore legs and the thought of all those marathons still to be run weighed heavily.

By day four, Matt found himself switching off during his lap. Dehydration was a concern – would he remember to take in enough fluid? – but with a focus on staying relaxed, especially his hands and jaw, the running just seemed to flow.

The best running fuel: custard creams!

Day six was another challenge. His anterior tibialis and Achilles tendon were so swollen and tight that he couldn’t get down the stairs in the middle of the night to get to the toilet. How on earth was he going to run another marathon?

But his student physio helped him warm up his aching and tired muscles. Ten minutes on a stationary bike before hitting the road, and another marathon was completed.

To overcome the potential boredom of doing the same route over and over again, Matt reframed the experience. Yes, he’d run the identical marathon yesterday, and he’d do it again tomorrow, but that meant he knew exactly where all the tough bits were.

He also used mindfulness techniques like noting to help him deal with the inevitable niggles. So when his Achilles felt sore, he found that noticing and labeling what he was experiencing allowed him to feel the pain and then let it go.

Finally day 10 arrived. This time, the 10in10 team would be joined by nearly a thousand other runners, taking part in the annual Windermere marathon itself. Matt finished in his fastest marathon time: 4 hours and 37 minutes. More than 52 hours of running in 10 days. With zero injuries.

Meeting fell running legend and race patron Joss Naylor

Now that he looks back over his experience, what advice would he give to future Brathay10in10 runners?

“Preparation is key. I was surprised I didn’t get injured. We were told at the beginning “it’s going to hurt”, but it’s difficult to quantify what that means.” Matt put the work in beforehand, not just running training, but strength and mobility too, to get his body strong enough for the challenge.

“Make sure the conditions are right. I was lucky that my job gave me the flexibility and support to put in the training I needed.” Others found it a struggle to manage work commitments in parallel with the training load needed.

And to deal with the mental challenge? “Break it down into small chunks and remember why you’re there.”

“It’s a challenge. But fundamentally, enjoy yourself.”

Fancy having a go at the 10in10? You can find out more and apply here. There are no hard and fast prerequisites – each application is considered on its own merits. And if you’d like to donate to the Brathay Trust, you can do so via Matt’s JustGiving page.

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