Saturday, 23 October 2010

Amsterdam Marathon - 1 down, 7 to go!

Every race has a purpose.  Some are a trial of body and mind, some a tune up for a special event, some a bit of a jolly somewhere fun, and some exist solely to provide a personal best.  After this year's quest at the Three Forts Challenge, I decided to use my new-found fitness to grab a PB and a new club age-group record.  The record was a pretty soft 3:30, since all the club's quicks are 40+.  Shortly after I entered, my friend Steve kindly dropped his objection to running a marathon and dropped in a 3:22 just before his 40th birthday.  I figured that 3:20 was possible, if difficult.  Then, I went a little mad - I've wanted to put in a sub 3:15 for a few years, and was finally fit enough to try.  So, I put together my training plan for a 3:15, mentally switched the race goal from a PB to a (fast) trial of body and mind, and got to work.

The build-up wasn't the best.  You'll have seen in the previous installment, I'd managed to put in very little running in the final weeks before my taper.  In the end, my weekend runs eased correctly, but I was only getting in one other run each week due to other commitments.  But, the forecast was for perfect conditions (10C, light breeze, mostly sunny), and Amsterdam is incredibly flat, so I decided to lay it all on the line and stick to the 3:15 target.

Nic and I arrived in Amsterdam early on Saturday, dropped our bags at the hotel (too early for check-in), and headed for lunch (Italian).  After lunch we headed to the Expo to get our numbers and hunt for bargains.

Olympic finish - Wow! (pictures courtesy of Nic)

It was just a little exciting to get to the Olympic stadium.  I've been in bigger stadia, but never an Olympic one!  The marathon starts inside and finishes on the track finish line, and the half starts outside and finishes inside.  I was already over-excited, but actually being there had me smiling from ear to ear.  We had a peek in on our way to sign in.  I just couldn't see how thousands of runners would fit on the track!

The number pick-up was easy, as was the t-shirt collection.  Everything seemed busy but well-controlled.  The Expo was small, and had a few items worth buying.  But, I was a little disappointed to see so many new-season products - I was really hoping to pick up some end-of-line shoes to replace the ones I would race in.  We did find Ice Power, which eased Nic's sore calf as we walked about during the day. (Aside: it felt great on the legs during Monday's sight-seeing as well).  Not finding any great bargains, we headed back to the hotel for a nap before heading for dinner.

Sunday morning was clear and fine.  Breakfast was a bit of a disaster - I struggled to make myself eat more than a bit of muesli and a banana.

No time like the present!

Even in the walk to the stadium, my body wasn't keen on the energy bar I was stuffing in.  Pre-race excitement was obviously getting the better of me.  When we arrived, I kept an eye out for club-mates Ned and Sheila, who would be finishing a few minutes either side of my target 3:15.  We had agreed to meet at a statue that was barricaded off, so I expected we wouldn't see each other until we got into our start pen (3:00-3:30).  That's when the "Olympic inspiration" jumped up and bit me for real.  I hadn't really noticed the torch tower on Saturday, but the early-morning sun was playing on it and the goose-bumps ran down my spine.

Is that a torch I see before me?!

I planned to set out at better than 8-minute mile pace (crowd-willing), so I did a slightly shorter version of my usual pre-race warm-up.  Everything was moving well after the 20 minute walk from the hotel, so I peeled off the insulation, checked my baggage, and headed for the starting pens.  Somehow, 7000+ runners did fit into the space!  But, because of the well-organized start pens, it was easy to get in the right place and also to meet up with Ned and Sheila for a last-minute "Good luck!".

I'm in there somewhere!

Seven thousand runners squeezed into two hundred metres.
As we got closer to the starting time, the organizers cranked up the "Chariots of Fire" theme tune.  The pulse quickened and adrenalyn started to pump.  I had to close my eyes and do some deep breathing to re-focus and keep from getting totally caught up - after all, I had a plan to follow.  Finally, the gun fired and I watched as the elites rounded the bend and headed out through the tunnel.

The first mile was an easy 7:40, gently easing into race-pace.  The crowds were loud and fantastic, cheering on the runners in a variety of languages.  I settled quickly into a pace that was comfortable, but constantly found myself having to ease back.  My mind was saying "keep it at 7:27", but my body kept aiming for 7:10.  In the end, I compromised at around 7:20 - it required concentration to keep from going faster, but I felt quite relaxed and at ease.

Along the first few miles, there were a steel band and a brass band (I only noticed on the walk back...).  The crowds in Vondel park cheered and then occasionally looked confused as runners darted off the course (the call of the bushes).  Through the first 10k, I was concentrating so much on keeping my pace back and avoiding the tram tracks and other runners, that I have to admit I didn't take in much of the surroundings at all.

I was keeping such a tight focus on slowing the pace that I didn't really notice the distance.  I'd accidentally slipped up and let in a 7:13, so I was now keeping a beady eye on the pace section of my watch.  I did, being a bit of a magpie, notice an increase in foil packets on the road.  I thought, "it's a bit early for all of these gels!"  So, I had a check of my watch and was surprised to see 5.8 miles had already passed.  I untaped my 10k gel from my water bottle and squeezed it in just in time to chase it with some water from the 10k water stop.  Then I drained my 250ml bottle and disposed of it.  At that point, I was 10k down, feeling good, and everything was on target for a 3:15 finish.  I knew it was the second easiest section of the race done, so just tried to stay relaxed and enjoy the easiest bit - 10k-20k.

The second 10k is, I think, the best part of a marathon.  You're in your rhythm, still have (hopefully) the energy for 32k worth of running, and haven't hit the serious pain yet.  The race headed out onto a long canal section, which was very pretty.  It was also just a bit more breezy than it had been in town.  There were only a few bystanders by their houses, clapping us on.  About a mile down the canal, a VW bus was hooked up to some big speakers and belted out some tunes to cheer us up after a quiet section of the course.  As I approached, a pumped-up version of the overture to Aida was playing.  I smiled widely as we passed, enjoyed the music, and accidentally knocked out half a mile at sub-7 pace. 

The course took a short turn away from the canal at this point, seemingly just to make the correct distance.  As we neared the turn-around to go back to the canal, I kept an eye out for Ned, who should have been about a minute in front of me at that stage.  I gave him a shout as we passed, but missed Sheila, who was about 45 seconds behind me.  Coming back to the VW, I again got carried to a short section of exuberance, but checked it before it got out of hand, hitting 10 miles at 73:30.  It was a little faster than I'd planned (about 5 seconds per mile), and I started to wonder when payback time would come around.

The long drag up the canal kept going, with a band (and comically bad singer) on a barge keeping everyones' spirits up.  Finally, we crossed over and headed back to town.  Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that the breeze was becoming a slight wind, since it had been at my back.  Now, there was a headwind with only the shelter of the few runners nearby.  I now had no problem at all staying back to a 7:25, and hit half-way at 1:37:27 - dead on target.  We smiled at the camera and kept plugging away and towards the soulless part of the course, where only empty highway awaited. 

As we left the canals, Sponge Bob Squarepants passed me.  I wished him well, and bemoaned getting beaten by a cartoon character.  He advised me that he normally runs a 2:40, so I shouldn't feel bad.  Which is worse, getting beaten by a cartoon sponge, or getting beaten by a cartoon sponge that's taking it all really easily?!  Sponge Bob got a lot of cheers at an underpass, and we left the support behind for a while.  Why is it that 15-18 miles in a city marathon seems to be in the emptiest part of town?  By the time we got out of the wind I knew for certain that payback for the early pace was not too far away.  I popped my final gel a kilometre early (29k), figuring it wouldn't hurt and that I was going to hit trouble in 15-20 minutes. 

The little rises on the road started to feel like hills, and I started to experience a few breaks in pace for the first time.  By 18 miles, my calves and hamstrings were a little hot, so I eased back a bit further.  It's funny how keeping back to a 7:25 early on was almost impossible, but slowing to a 7:33 after 17 miles is really quite easy.  I took the opportunity at around 18.5 to stop and admire the folliage of a hedge, hoping that the nagging in my bladder would go away to be replaced by a feeling of renewed energy.  I was sadly disappointed.  It just turned out to be a waste of 30 seconds.  I kept my pace below 8-minute miling as my back and piriformis muscles started to complain that I hadn't finished this run yet.  I pushed on, reminding myself that 8-minute miles from here would still get me that club record.  I played all the mind games I could, remembering all the hard, cold hill runs and how I could manage to keep moving on this flat, easy course. 

Inexorably, I slowed further.  Any obstruction cracked my shaky rhythm further.  Sheila passed by, encouraging me to keep going.  I stayed with her for about 100 feet before I realized that I just couldn't keep moving.  My legs were seizing up and it was a struggle to get one foot in front of the other.  From 21 miles, I was doing short walks of 50-100m every kilometre or so, hoping to get through the bad patch, but never really finding the end of it.  I kept the pace at 9-9:30 pace until around the 39k marker, where the wheels finally fell completely off.  By this point, I was working hard to stay on the right side of 3:30, but I could feel that slipping away as well.

At the 40k mark, I confirmed on my watch that 3:30 would require a miracle.  As we re-entered Vondel Park, the crowds cheered us on, encouraging me with kind words like "You can do it, only 2 kilometres left! Keep running!"  Oh, to still be running, instead of shuffling!  Unbidden, the reality of the situation finally broke through all of the positive thinking: "Marathons are really quite tough!  What the **** was I thinking when I signed up for 8?!?!?!"  I half-chuckled to myself at that thought and walked/shuffled/jogged to the end thinking, "Don't do something stupid for the sake of 15 seconds, you've got a marathon in 4 weeks!".  I entered the stadium and watched the continuing stream of people that had been steadily overtaking me since around 21 miles.  It was like watching the first 15 miles of my race in reverse, as people I hadn't seen for 3 hours came by. 

I crossed the line, relieved to be finished, and headed for the exit. I came across Ned and Sheila, who were waiting to see how I did.  Ned had posted yet another 3:14:xx, and was a little disappointed by that.  Sheila had run an absolute cracker to finish in 3:22.  We made our way to the medals and refreshments, and went our separate ways.  I walked back to the hotel, showered, started to eat all of the post-race food I had waiting, and then made my way back to the stadium for Nic's finish of the half.

The happy half marathoner!
Boringly, as runners do, we spent the rest of the day (and the next) talking about our runs.  I enjoyed lasagne followed by a beautiful steak as an accompaniment to the celebratory beer. Nic again chose red wine as her evening recovery drink. 

Following our extended analysis, I am pretty happy with the time, if not the way the last 12k went.  The final 5 weeks of training wasn't great, so aiming for the 3:15 was always a risky strategy.  I'm also pretty sure I didn't take on nearly enough carb in the few days before the race.  That, at least, is something I can put right before the next one!  Bring on the Endurancelife Coastal Trail Series!

Medals all round!