2h 56min 32sec
“Performance is directly related to one’s willingness to experience pain and cope with it” – I don’t know if I heard this somewhere else or my brain became too philosophical during the marathon, but it ran in my mind continuously during the race. And it’s so true. The faster you are, the more pain you will have to deal with and your brain will try to convince you to slow down by all means possible. And in the end performance is all about how you cope with all this.
I started to train at the beginning of the summer and followed a self designed training plan with far less mileage than the vast majority of training plans out there. The purpose was to prove that it’s possible, at least for me, to train harder for shorter periods rather than running hundreds of miles every week or so. The two races I’ve trained for were the Stockholm half marathon with a sub 80 minutes aim, and the Chester marathon with a sub 3 hours aim.
I knew that the half marathon, even if I had already ran 4 of them, compared to just a single marathon, was the hardest one to achieve. My Stockholm time was 81 minutes and 42 seconds. It was the hilliest one I ever did, it was still my fastest one breaking my PB with 3 minutes, so from my point of view it was not a failure, but a part-success.
Back to the marathon, the pressure was on. My last simulation and my longest run during the training was of 35km with over 2 minutes faster than the 3 hours pace, so I was reasonably faithful that I am physically able to run a sub 3. But a marathon is not just a physical strength, mental preparation had to play a big role. To tackle this pressure, I needed to prepare my race close to perfection.
So what is actually race preparation and why I needed it? Well, you see, there are loads of things that can go wrong during a race. For lots of these, you can’t do too much, at least not the day before. But the remaining few can be reduced to zero. Hydration, nutrition, stretching, meditation, sleep, taper running, I’d say I mastered all these perfectly for Chester. And that was what gave me the edge.
I started just behind the England Athletics Age Group team and basically ran with them throughout my whole race. To be able to keep track of my pace I’ve split the whole marathon in 3 big equal chunks, each one of 14km. Since I wanted to finish in under 3 hours, it simply meant that I needed to finish the 14km chunks in under 1 hour each. And further more, split each one of them in half, meaning I had to run each 7km segment in under half an hour.
Just before my 3rd km, when we were exiting Chester and heading to the countryside, I noticed a pretty long downhill ahead. So I decided to leave my pacing group and head to the next one and started to run faster, but manageable. It was about 1km in total and I was quite content with myself, I thought that effort was worth even though we were only 15 minutes into the race. My first 7km were 29 minutes and 10 seconds. A quite good 50 seconds buffer if anything goes wrong towards the end. I felt so good that I decided to wait until the next time the road ahead looked good for overtaking and go for another faster 1km. When I say faster, I mean around or just under 4min/km, while my target average pace for the whole marathon was 4:17/km. And so, I managed to run the next 7km with another 50 seconds buffer. The middle of the race was even faster, I decided to run closer to 4:05/km and it worked just fine, no fatigue, no physical problems.
By the time I got to the 30km mark, I had a really comforting 4 minutes buffer, I could basically slow down significantly and still make it to the finish line in under 3 hours. Since I didn’t eat anything that morning, I didn’t want to drink any carbs, so I stuck to just water. Judging by the temperature outside, I estimated that only drinking once every 10km will do just fine. Which did brilliantly. I didn’t feel dehydrated at any time nor bloated from too much water. The last third of the race was, expectedly, the hardest, so I drank at 29km and at 36km or so, a bit more often. And the last sip felt a bit forced to be honest, so I didn’t actually drink too much of it.
Cheering and the “Heartbreak Hill”
Small groups of people on the side of the road were also quite helpful. The Welsh part of the marathon was not as friendly, lots of farmland and villages were not as vibrant – read, actually boring and empty – but on the English side lots and lots of cheering and music and people really happy to scream “well done, vegan” and “nearly there”. So England 1 – Wales 0.
One of the funny things I tell myself when I see a hill in front of me is “I can only do 20 more of these and then I’m done”. The high number of 20 seems funny, but it also helps me cope with the hill better. And while the entire marathon course is undulating, the English side seems a lot more challenging with steeper hills to climb. The last one I think it had almost 1km in length, it kind of took everything off me. They should call it the “Heartbreak Hill of Chester Marathon”. But lucky me, after that climb, the remaining few km were fairly easy.
Pain and motivation
First two thirds of the marathon I had absolutely no unexpected physical problems. As usual, my right hip started to get sore after around 20km. But then, limb by limb, my body started to give up. First, the other hip started to be a bit sore, a thing that doesn’t happen usually, not even in training. Second, after two thirds in the race, the calves started to be sore and tight, I could feel them with every step. Then, 3-4 miles before the finish, my feet arches also started to feel sore, one by one. None of these were actually too harsh to slow me too much. If anything, I had a very comfortable 5 minutes off my 3 hours target.
During the last 2-3 miles, the long hill, the pain throughout the body, the very reasonable time advantage, the fatigue, all these made me lose my motivation to finish strong. At some point, I thought that even if I’d walk to the finish, I’d still get a sub 3. I kept going, but you can see this effect in my 10km splits of the race: 10K 41:39, 20K 41:11, 30K 41:32, 40K 42:31 – last 10km were over 1 minute slower and the remaining two km were actually even slower than this. But it didn’t matter in the end, I couldn’t even be bothered to race the others before the finish line. I was in time, nothing could stop me, but nothing could motivate me either.
The finish, 2 hours, 56 minutes, 32 seconds. Andreea usually races with me and she’s slower so we only meet later. But not that day. She was there, at the finish line, a strong and hard race needs a comforting hug from the other half. Hot tea never tasted so good. My body saw the first carbohydrate at around 12:15, although it burned around 3000 calories that morning. Brilliance all over the place.
Now, onto the next target. I want a flat one! Which really flat races did you run and recommend?