“The PBs Have Always Been Secondary, I Just Enjoyed Running”—How Anya Culling Took Two Hours Off Her First London Marathon Time

 Anya Culling standing on a running track.
Anya Culling standing on a running track.

There are no shortcuts in running and when you see a dramatic drop in someone’s personal best for the marathon then it’s almost always down to a lot of hard work. That’s the case with Lululemon ambassador Anya Culling, who went from running 4hr 34min at the London Marathon 2019 to an astonishing 2hr 34min at the Copenhagen Marathon in 2023, when she represented England.

Prior to this year’s London Marathon, when Culling will take a place at the elite start, we spoke to her about her running journey and just how she got so quick.

How did you get into running and what was your first marathon like?

I ran my first marathon in 2019. That was the London Marathon. I did that for charity. It was a challenge. I’d never done much running before. I was sporty as a child. I played hockey and cricket, and my family is competitive, but I was never quite as good at sports as any of them.

I did some training for that 2019 marathon, but I didn’t do a lot. I went for some dog walks, which I would run bits of, or I’d run around the school rugby fields. I threw myself in the deep end. I didn’t know what I was doing—didn’t have carbon shoes, didn’t follow a plan, didn’t have a watch—didn’t understand anything.

It was the hardest and most painful marathon I’ve ever done. I didn’t catch the running bug and I downed tools with running for a bit longer.

Anya Culling running in the London Marathon
Anya Culling running in the London Marathon

When and why did you start running again?

I didn’t like not being very good at it. I’d got to county level in hockey and cricket. I had to work hard to get there, but I felt like I succeeded. I felt like I hadn’t succeeded in the marathon. I wanted to commit and get good at it.

Lockdown gave me the kick I needed to take up running. I downloaded Strava on the day we went into lockdown.

As we started to come out of lockdown, we were able to run with friends and do it more as a social thing. That was the only time you could see your friends so I always associated running with that. Then the more I enjoyed it, the more I wanted to do it.

I was running around Battersea Park, in London, and I’d see the same man every day. That was Nick Bester. One day we just got chatting and he later became my first coach.

Anya Culling
Anya Culling

You ran 2hr 36min at the London Marathon in 2022, how did you progress to that point?

I did the Rome Marathon at the start of that year, and I did that in 2hr 43min. The one before that was Valencia and that was 2hr 52min, and the one before that was Manchester and that was 3hr 5min. So I was chipping away 10-15 minutes each time. It wasn’t that I just knocked off two hours.

When I ran 2hr 52min at Valencia 2021, I placed in the 1,000s because Valencia is such a big marathon. Then I did Rome in early 2022, and I came first European female and first non-elite, and I think I was top 40 overall, including the men. I thought, “Wow, l really performed there.”

Nothing changed with my training for London 2022. I just inched my way forward. I put my success down to the fact that the time and the PBs have always been secondary. I’ve just enjoyed running.

Along with gradually increasing training, did you change your lifestyle?

I’ve always just rolled with general life. I probably went out slightly less, but I’ve never changed my diet. When you get to doing the amount of running that I do, it’s about getting the calories in before worrying about everything else.

The biggest change has been training my brain like I’ve trained my body. That became a big thing in the weeks before a marathon. Working on my psyche and self-belief, and ways of canceling out any self-limiting beliefs.

I also did more strength and conditioning. I think you can only get away without it for so long until something happens, and then you wish you had done a few calf raises! I didn’t want to get to that point before I started. I want to be in the sport for as long as possible, and the only way I’m going to do that is if I enjoy it, stay injury-free and be happy and healthy.

What would be your top tip for runners looking to improve?

Consistency. You just need to string together a block of good consistent running. It’s about piling it up and building layers on layers.