Steph Twell never imagined her first London Marathon would look like this.
The 31-year-old Scot and New Balance athlete is one of the 200 elite runners who will be competing this Sunday on a closed-circuit loop in St. James’ Park. There will be no crowds, sightseeing or cheering, and all participants must stay in the same hotel. They cannot get too close to one another, or train beyond their designated space of 40 acres. They will be subject to strict Covid-19 testing and required to wear masks at all times, unless they are eating, training or in their private rooms.
Twell knows this is going to be a surreal week, but she’s ready to embrace it.
Racing on 2km loops against world-class runners such as Brigid Kosgei and Ruth Chepngetich, the experience is bound to be an unforgettable milestone in the young marathoner’s career. While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruption to her training, Twell has managed to stay on track by adjusting her mileage and replicating gym workouts at home. Confident that she has done everything within her power to prepare for this massive feat, she is now more excited than ever for Sunday.
Training in lockdown
Like many elite runners, Twell’s training was completely uprooted by the sudden lockdown. She was spending time in Flagstaff, Arizona, in preparation for the New York Half Marathon, when sporting event cancellations started to multiply. Just three days after New York was called off, organisers of the London Marathon confirmed its postponement to October. With her racing calendar starting to look a little blank, Twell immediately had to reassess her training plan.
'I was in mid-peak stage and had to adapt by going into maintenance mode – that was the most important thing to me, because we didn’t know when lockdown was going to end,' she tells Runner’s World.
As social distancing measures increased, a key concern for Twell was injury prevention. Without access to gyms or physiotherapy, her ability to effectively strength-train was severely impacted. She was consequently forced to lower her mileage to minimise the risk of any potentially detrimental damage. While she managed to maintain her strength by completing circuit workouts with her neighbours, she was eager to get back into the gym.
'I still don’t feel like I was able to train maximally until gyms reopened and I was able to see physios,' she reveals.
During this time of interrupted physiotherapy, Twell had no choice but to treat any niggles independently. She has since become more attuned to her case of plantar fasciitis, and developed mechanisms for coping with the painful condition.
'I’ve had to learn how to manage it,' she says. 'That's been really interesting. It hasn’t stopped me from training, but it’s maybe impacted that next 10%.'
But it’s not just the physical side of things that have been affected by the pandemic. Twell admits that, while maintaining fitness has been relatively straightforward, maintaining her ambition hasn’t been so easy.
'It’s not like I’m uber talented, I still have to put everything in place to make that work,' she reveals. 'When you invest all that energy into it, it does take away that motivation.'
From track to marathon
Despite the negative effects of lockdown on her London Marathon training, Twell may also hold a few advantages over her competition on Sunday. As a middle- and long-distance athlete, the novice marathoner knows she doesn’t need the landmarks to keep her going.
'I do have that ability to focus really well, and I think that comes from learning tactics in track racing,' she explains.
While some runners may lament the lack of sights and spectators on this year’s closed-loop circuit, Twell is just grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a historic version of Britain’s most iconic race.
'Who gets to run by Buckingham Palace and have the roads to themselves for 2 hours?' she says. 'It’s a very lucky position to be in.'
Twell may be one of the select few competing in the elite race, but she is also hugely supportive of the 45,000 participants completing their own personalised London marathon.
While most virtual runners may not be aiming for a sub 2:30 time, she believes that their commitment to clocking up 26.2 miles without the support of an organised race is an accomplishment in and of itself.
'I think it’s so impressive that people are creating their own start lines, their own finish lines, and getting over something mentally themselves,' she says. 'That’s the beauty of the marathon event, being patient with your mind. It’s so inspiring.'
She also hopes that it will introduce people to other runners in their community, highlight the social aspect of the sport and dispel its unfair reputation as a solitary or lonely pastime. For Twell, marathons are about far more than just PBs and medals.
'I love the marathon training because it’s social. I love the brunch after, I love the whole package!' she reveals.
Unfortunately, that ‘package’ looks a little crumpled this year.
Athletes are required to stay in a bio-secure hotel prior to the marathon and adhere to strict social distancing practices. In the hours before the race, they will also be equipped with ‘Bump’ devices, which monitor their movements and notify them if they become too close to one another.
This restricted interaction has been tough for Twell, who would usually prioritise spending time with loved ones the day before a major race.
'Normally I’d go for a walk with friends and have a coffee, but this will be different because I'm going into the biosphere,' she says.
While she may not have her usual support network with her, Twell hopes to connect with the other athletes in the build-up to the starting line.
'I really believe this is such an unusual experience that we need to make the most of it and help each other have the best race we possibly can.'
Still relatively new to marathon running, Twell is also excited to meet some of her top inspirations in the flesh. 'It's an opportunity to be rubbing shoulders with people that I look up to, and think wow, I’ve still got a long way to go in my career.'
It’s also a chance to pick up some invaluable training wisdom from some of the world’s fastest runners, and maybe even a couple of recipe ideas that’ll take her pre-race fuelling to the next level.
'I will definitely be spying on what Eliud eats for breakfast!' she laughs.
What shoes does Steph Twell run in?
If people are interested in what these elite athletes eat to run so fast, they’re even more interested in what they wear. Twell trains predominately in her trustee pair of New Balance 1080v10, which provide the necessary support to cover a variety of terrains.
'I feel safe in them,' she explains. 'I don’t feel like they’re too light, they have a grip that’s very important to me as I do run on trails and in forests as well.'
She has also recently fallen in love with the FuelCell RC Elite, New Balance’s latest addition to their range. 'They're unbelievable – like responsive pillows! You manage your body weight loading on every single leg. It's just streamlined and makes you feel higher off the ground,' Twell reveals.
Once she’s happy with her choice of shoes, Twell isn’t picky about her racing gear. She always runs with a reliable sports bra and her watch, but doesn’t get too fixated on her attire.
However, having not seen her husband now for six weeks, there’s one thing she knows for sure she will be wearing on the day – her wedding ring.
Learning from past mistakes
With Sunday quickly approaching, Twell is maintaining a positive attitude and keeping her nerves at bay. Her first two marathons have given her the confidence to take on the distance and equipped her with some hard lessons.
She particularly mentions her failure to prioritise hydrating at the water stations during Valencia – a seemingly harmless error that could have had serious consequences later in the race.
'That under-fuelling can catch you out,' she says. 'Just get to the table and take it. It means you’re less likely to bonk later on.'
What's next for Steph Twell?
Although the fate of international races remains unclear, Twell is hopeful that restrictions will ease off and regular events can resume.
'I would love to race the Valencia Half marathon in December,' she reveals. However, aware that this may not be possible, she is also open to trying more virtual races. 'Just making a fake race can put your mind into that frame of being focused.'
As for now, Twell is embracing the experience of what could be her last real-time competition for another few months.
But virtual or not, one racing tradition will never change – the sweet taste of that celebratory post-marathon meal.
'I’ll probably have pizza with wine and definitely a sweet treat,' she reveals. 'Some nice chocolate is good, I’m not picky!'
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