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Breaking 3 hours - Nikki Gibson

Well the title gives it away really! But the amazing time is really only a tiny part of Nikki's journey. If you haven't read her original interview please go back and give it a gander. It's hard to put into words how pleased I am for Nikki - her drive and consistency and sheer mental strength are so inspirational. I haven't edited this at it reads more like a chat and Nikki always puts sneaky compliments in...!! When she's not running Nikki is a Performance Physiologist at the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport.

Can you tell us about your marathon journey?

My first marathon was Paris in 2013, which I ran in 3:31. I wasn’t really a runner then so pretty sure I thought I was the bee’s knees. When I joined Edinburgh AC and I learnt what a real runner was! When Karla (that's me!) ran 3:07 in Berlin, my mind was blown. I thought she was incredible (still do!)

Not long after that on Valentine’s Day in 2014 I had a bit of a cardiac incident during a run. I lost consciousness and hit the edge of a curb very hard, fracturing my arm and dislocating my shoulder. I couldn’t run for about 4 months. In the end the cardiologist decided I had probably not been recovering or fuelling properly and pushing too hard, but once I was more on top of this I could start running again.

The next year in 2015 I ran the Edinburgh Marathon on a windy day in 3:04. That’s when sub 3 really came on my radar. I went to Amsterdam in October 2015, and ran 3:01. Everyone thought I’d be gutted with this, but I was perfectly satisfied that I couldn’t have gone a single second faster in that race. I knew I’d done my best.

Then the battle really started to be honest. There was an expectation from myself and the people around me that I would easily go onto break 3 hours next time round. I ran my first London marathon in 2016 and had an absolute shocker. I just didn’t feel good at all. I stopped at 10 miles when I saw my family and told them I just couldn’t do it that day. My sister told me “Just do the best you can”. That stuck with me the whole way round and I finished in 3:20 something. That really hurt to be honest. I’d put so much into the training and I was so, so disappointed. Heartbroken is probably the best term. Anyone who runs knows how much you put into something and how much it hurts when it doesn’t pay off.

I sulked for quite a long time, then in 2017 ran Frankfurt marathon with the aim of just having a more positive experience and enjoying it again. I negative split 3:07 and had a great time. So it was back to London in 2019, with sub 3 surely in the bag. Again, from the word go I felt awful. I felt like I was going to be sick, and sub 3 pace was far too hard even at 10k. I tried to draw on my previous bad London and stay positive, telling myself just to enjoy the atmosphere. At 16 miles, my right IT band started cramping up and felt like a golf ball. Every foot strike hurt. I death marched to the end in 3:16. Again, gutted.

So I just parked the marathon really, until this year when I just thought I had to have another try… see below!

A lot of your pals and teammates have felt your sub 3 was a long time coming - you certainly have been in stellar form before - how did this build up take shape?

I’m a firm believer that it’s not really the last 2-3 months of training that are important, but the last 2-3 years. I started going to Garry’s Edinburgh AC track sessions about a year ago and they really laid the foundations for me to get fitter. Sessions like 6 x 1 mile really pushed me on. Last year I had my best cross country season, and then ran a 10k PB – all laying the ground work for me to go on and start to train for a faster marathon.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and obviously everyone’s world changed. I used running to ground me, to keep a routine, and for something to do! Since April, I’ve averaged about 100 miles per week, with my biggest week being 122 miles. I’ve focussed on hitting two quality sessions a week and a really solid long run. One thing I included every 2-3 weeks before a marathon was even on the cards was a longer hilly tempo (up to 10 miles) with the specific goal of building my pure aerobic fitness. I had a bit of time focussing on speed within that and ran a 5k PB of 18:25 and a mile PB of 5:26. After that, I ran a marathon with my friend Emma to celebrate her 42nd birthday. Running the marathon felt very comfortable, but it also was fun and still felt special even though it was virtual, so that sort of planted the seed.

After focussing on 5k work I wanted to start playing with some even longer tempo work just to keep my training interesting so I started an aerobic block. That went well… then that started to go really well. One Sunday I ran 20 miles 2s slower than goal marathon pace at the end of a 120 mile week, and it felt like I was jogging. At that point I thought I should probably give a virtual marathon a crack. I decided it would be a shame to waste the fitness.

When did you decide to try to run it?

After that 20 mile tempo, I just thought I don’t know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to get this fit again so I really better have a go. It also started looking like we might go back into a stricter lockdown, so I thought I better get this done while I still can.

Can you tell us about the 10 weeks prior?

One of the things that I think was important for me was that my build up was actually only 6 weeks, and that’s including a 2 week taper. As I said, I really think I spent the last 2-3 years building my foundation, then the last 6 weeks were just the icing on top of the cake. Previously I think I’ve been ready long before race day with a longer build up.

What training did you do?

Miles, miles, miles! 

I had two key days – Wednesday and either Saturday/Sunday. Working from home made big Wednesdays feasible. I was up early, toast, black coffee, big session, and still at my desk for 9am. I couldn’t do those Wednesdays with a commute in there.

The biggest difference for me in this build up was how comfortable 6:52 per mile felt. Previously I might have hit the sessions, but I’ve been going full gas. This time, 6:52 felt very comfortable and I’d then just be able to keep training through and hit a big/hard session on the Wednesday, without needing ages to recovery.

A general week would be something like…

Monday – 8 miles AM/4-6 miles PM (depending how tired I was)

Tuesday – 10 – 11 miles AM/4 miles PM + 6 x 10s Hills to get neuromuscular fired up for my session the next day

Wednesday – Warm Up, long tempo work at or faster than marathon pace… good sessions were 12 x 1k off a 90s jog, averaging 4min/k, 10 miles at 6:50 pace with 2 miles at 6:20 to finish, 20 x 1k with the ons at 4:03 and the offs at 4:23, Cool Down in the morning (and at my desk by 9am!)/ 4 miles PM then Gym

Thursday – 10 – 11 miles AM/4 miles PM

Friday – 8 miles AM/6-8 miles PM

Saturday – often just 1 run of about 12 miles

Sunday – some sort of big tempo, like 20 miles just a bit slower than marathon pace, or 35k at 95 – 97% of marathon pace (about 7min/mile) AM/20 min very slow shake out in the evening + Gym session.

Who set the training?

I based a lot of it on what I’ve learnt/read/listened to over the last few years, but largely speaking it was probably based on a lot of Renato Canova’s philosophies about running… it’s not about volume or intensity, it’s about volume at intensity.

What about strength and mobility work?

2 weight sessions a week in my garage focusing on squats, lunges, single leg dead lifts, calf raises and hip strength.

5 – 10 min foam rolling and lunge circuit before every run

5 – 10 min hip and hamstring mobility after every run

This is something I was really diligent about. If you’re going to run big mileage, you’ve got to do everything you can to keep your body in one piece.

Did you change your diet?

I’m not a massive drinker, but with no weddings/family gatherings/birthday nights out, I didn’t drink for 8 months. Needless to say I was slurring my words after one cider post marathon!

One thing that was different to previous marathons was that I didn’t over think my diet, and I didn’t carb load in the days/night before. I just kept everything the same because I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on myself… it was just a usual Sunday run. I think this made a massive difference for me. Previously I’ve started feeling heavy and gone on to have tummy troubles throughout the race. I had none of that this time.

The week before what did the taper look like?

Again, I didn’t taper nearly as dramatically as I usually do and it worked much better for me. When you’re running so much, if you just go to nothing you’ll feel as flat as a pancake. 2 weeks out I cut down to 80% of my mileage so was still running 90 miles. Then the week of, I did 4 x 5mins at marathon pace on the Monday (which again, felt so comfortable I just thought this is really on), 1h on Tuesday, 10k on Wednesday, 8k on Thursday, 30mins on Friday, then raced Saturday.

How did you choose a route?

A lot of long, agonising time spent on Garmin Connect and boring my other half/friends with different suggestions! I really wanted to just run something from my front door, again just to mimic any other Sunday run and remove the pressure. I also wanted something that would be as traffic free as possible but would also have ‘run out’ options so if it was too busy to cross at one point, I had a stretch of road that I could keep running on and cross when there was a break in traffic! In the end I opted for canal/meadows/down the coast – and I had a bike behind me to protect me from traffic which was amazing.

Can you walk us through the run itself?

I left my house at 7am and jogged the mile down to the canal (my start point). I stopped about 3 times to re-tie my shoe laces and panic about my socks.

I then got started, and for the first 2k although the pace felt comfortable enough, my sock was ruffled in my shoe!!! I kept thinking well I could just stop, fix it and start again, but the minute I thought that, it seemed to sort itself out. I kept going along the canal, all feeling good and comfortable. I then got to my first potential drama point of crossing the road from the canal over to the meadows… there were 3 green men at the traffic lights all in a row… that’s when I thought, this is going to be my day. At the meadows, my friend Karen met me on the bike for a few cheers and so did my mum and dad. It was amazing to see them all. I was just absolutely cheesin’ at this point, I was having to slow myself down I was feeling so good. It was then down Holyrood park to Duddingston, where I got a wave and a cheer from Hannah on the bike too. My parents were following me in the car and ground to a halt in front of me at Duddingston. Afterwards my mum said ‘we couldn’t believe you got there so quickly, we nearly missed you!’

It was then down to Portobello, where my mum and dad popped up again, this time my Dad had a home-made sign saying ‘Go Nikki!’ This was such a lovely surprise and boost. Along Porty prom, I got waves and cheers from Emma and her son Elliot, and Elaine (all socially distanced, at different points). Before I knew it, I’d hit half way in about 1:28:45, and again I thought this is on. I’d actually just been listening to a Podcast (Inside Running Podcast!) for the first half of the marathon, just wanting to stay relaxed, just another long run. My sister and niece were waiting for me around 25k. Seeing my wee niece’s excited face really inspired me to keep going. I hope when she’s a bit older she’ll be proud of me!

After that, I put on some music and started to dig in a bit. My plan had been to run steady until 20 miles, then start racing. I’d felt so good, I’d gone a bit early really and started racing at half way, so instead of it just being the last 6 miles that were tough, I started to put the hammer down for the whole second half so by 20 miles, it was already working a little bit harder.

My other half was waiting for me at 30k with additional gels and water… when she’d supported me during the Frankfurt marathon I’d asked her to hand me a gel at 30k. As I ran passed her during Frankfurt I’d said ‘I feel great’ so she’d thought I’d meant, I feel great so I don’t need the gel, and she’d pulled her hand away!! I’d screamed at her to run with me and give me the gel, so she’d had to jump the barrier, try and run along with me and give me the gel – I think it was all a bit dramatic for her!! Before this attempt I’d said to her I want you to offer me a caffeine gel and a non-caffeine gel and I will take both from you. On the day, as I ran towards her I decided I only wanted the caffeine gel, at which point she panicked, ‘WHICH ONE IS THE CAFFEINE ONE?????????’ queue panic again and me screaming at her ‘caffeine, coffee, the brown one!!’ We got there in the end!!! 

I then dug pretty deep along the coast, but with 5k to go I looked at my watch and realised I had 25 minutes to run the last 5k. I just kept working. I then calculated I only had 10 minutes of running to go, and at that point I realised I was at 2:45, and was going to go a good bit under 3 hours. In the end I ran a 2 minute negative split, and a 35s half marathon PB in the second half of the marathon in 1h 26min 40s.

Eighteen months ago, we lost my Gran. This year, my uncle passed away quite suddenly, and very prematurely. I was very, very fond of them both. During the marathon, I thought of them a lot. They would think I was mad, but I wish they were here to tell me that.

I’d pictured the moment of breaking 3 hours probably close to every night for the last 6 years. I’d thought of fist pumping, tears, dropping to my knees and kissing the ground. In the end I think I just stopped my watch and then panicked I hadn’t saved it! I couldn’t believe it. I just don’t think I’d processed it really. After all that work, it had been totally straightforward.

Did you have any moments of doubt?

To be honest, no, I didn’t. I knew it was on from the word go.

How did you feel afterwards?

Just so elated and relieved. And then sore!

I didn’t actually get properly emotional until the last mile of my first run back when I had a wee cry. I think it just hit me that I’d actually done it.

How are you feeling now?

I was really horrendously tired for a few days. I took the dog out a walk a few days after then we both immediately went straight to bed afterwards and fell asleep – jacket still on! Since the end of the week I’ve started to feel a lot less tired and my legs are fine.

My biggest problem now is I can’t stop eating cereal!!!!

Any plans going forwards?

A lot of people have asked me or commented something along the lines of ‘don’t you wish it was a real race’ or ‘isn’t it a shame it wasn’t a proper marathon’, and to me, it really doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. If I go to run an official event marathon in future, it’ll be because I loved the process of training for the marathon – really, really pushing my limits, writing ambitious sessions and nailing them was the most satisfying process I’ve ever been through. In terms of it not being “official”, I only run for me. I’m competitive, with myself. I want to be the best version of myself I can be and for me, that box is well and truly ticked. I know I’ve done it, and I don’t need it to appear on my Power of 10 to know that I achieved my goal, and am a sub 3 marathoner.

I had a conversation with a lovely friend not so long ago who asked me about my mileage (this is actually when I was more 80 miles per week), and did I not want back off a bit for the sake of longevity – if I kept going I might not have knees to run when I’m 60. It’s a valid point and was food for thought, but I’m such an all or nothing person. If my previous history is anything to go by, I won’t be running in 10 years’ time. Instead of the top 10 running shoes in 2030, I wouldn’t be surprised if I know more about the top 10 cigars! While I still love it, I’m going to set myself ambitious goals, throw myself into it and make hay while the sun shines. If that’s not what life’s about, I don’t know what is!

When out Nikki on twitter @nikkigibson1988 or on Instagram @nikki_edin

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