We hear from a marathon runner who is intent on making up for lost time after a lengthy injury absence
It reads a bit like a film plot. The year is 2018 and Lily Partridge runs a personal best of 2:29:24 to finish eighth in the London Marathon. It’s the fastest time by a female British athlete that year and would have been good enough to rank in the top three for the previous three years.
Time stands still for Partridge, but the world around her changes. The year is now 2023 and the UK lead is 2:22:17. What was once good enough for top 20 on the British all-time list has now dropped to 28th. A once lauded performance – still her best ever – cast off into the archives.
“I remember saying at one point that I felt like I’d fallen into a coma and woken up in a different generation,” says the 32-year-old. “There’s just been such a jump [in marathon performances over that period].”
For what it’s worth, her own behind-the-scenes story is equally compelling.
Partridge, who has represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the road, track and in cross country, will line up in December’s Valencia Marathon after a lengthy return to fitness following surgery for Haglund’s deformity (an abnormality of the bone and soft tissues in the foot) in 2021. Not one to shy away from competition, her last two years have included a busy race schedule and a necessary reality check.
“I know some people won’t race until they’re absolutely ready to go and firing on all cylinders, but in my head, I was like: ‘That could be bloody ages’,” she laughs. “If I’d taken that approach I probably wouldn’t have raced until this summer. To me that wasn’t an option because I love racing and I get a lot from it. Obviously you want races to go well, but I felt quite realistic for a lot of the time about where I was at. My goal was just to get back enjoying it and to stay healthy.
“It’s been fun, but it’s also been quite hard because the goalposts of my fitness have been moving forward constantly. You think: ‘Is today going to be the day when that move forward comes again?’. Every time it feels a little bit like you’re rolling the dice, like: ‘Am I where I’ve been for the last couple of weeks, or have I moved on again?’. It’s been quite fun to figure it out, but some of those races (Partridge highlights the Big Half as one in particular she got ‘a little bit wrong’) have been really painful.”
Everything came together when she clocked 70:36 at the Copenhagen Half Marathon in September. The Alan Storey-coached athlete – who has a lifetime best of 70:31 (2015) – finished first British woman and second European in 18th overall, a reminder that she could still be competitive in the highest quality of fields.
Looking ahead to Valencia, Partridge is respectful of the improved depth and quality of marathon running in the UK since she last completed 26.2 miles. Personal motivation, however, comes from being back on a marathon start line healthy. For too long she felt like she was a spectator as her competitors went on to achieve bigger things.
“When you run well, people often ask what’s changed, but there’s nothing [I’ve changed], I’ve just been healthy enough to be able to do the work that I’ve been trying to do for the last couple of years,” she says.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going for the Olympic qualifying time [of 2:26:50] in Valencia. I’m not not going for that time, but my focus is to execute the best race that I can on the day and that’ll be what it’ll be. I feel like I’m in a good place right now so I don’t think that time is unrealistic, but my goal is to run the best race that I can run and hope that puts me in amongst it.”
Partridge – who runs her own running coaching business (Team Elite Running) with her partner and Tokyo Olympian Ben Connor – has been focused on rehabilitation and staying healthy since her surgery in 2021. She has progressively increased her long runs from earlier this summer and does ‘physio exercises rather than gym workouts’. “I still feel like there’s stuff I need to add in [to my training],” she says, “but there’s no rush.”
Monday: 10 miles and strides. “If I’m really tired after a big Sunday I might split that run into 2 x 5 miles, but it’s generally 10-11 miles of work.”
Tuesday: (am) 6-10 miles of fartlek with efforts from 200m up to a mile, usually on the trails; (pm) four miles easy (6:30-7:30min/miles)
Wednesday: (am) 10 miles; (pm) four miles easy
Thursday: paced session on tarmac trail – tempo-paced workout such as 4 x 2 miles or 10-mile tempo; (pm) four miles easy
Friday: (am) 10 miles; (pm) four miles easy
Saturday: Easy run such as 5-7 miles, then short hill efforts, then 2-3 miles to finish. “We don’t count it as a session, but it’s about getting the legs activated and getting some speed/power work in.”
Sunday: long run – 18-20 miles
READ MORE: AW’s how they train series
“I’ve been really enjoying my fartlek/interval stuff over the summer, just because I don’t ever look at pace on them. The trail that I use is a bit undulating, so the pace doesn’t really mean anything. It feels nice, it feels like I’m going back to doing what I did as a kid, just going along and smashing it for half an hour on soft ground.”
Least favourite session
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy them when I get out there, but evening runs – especially when I’ve had a tough morning session and I’m tired – are probably my least favourite and hardest to get out the door for.”
» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here