Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tough times in London

It was one of the most exciting race starts I have experienced. I stood on the start line of the London Marathon in Greenwich last Sunday at 8:57am, surrounded by hundreds of club runners from all over the UK. Just a few feet ahead of me, Martin Lel raised his hands above his head to greet the crowd as he was introduced by the MC. Lel, the marathon legend and twice winner of London marathon, stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in the running world. Meanwhile, 38,000 runners waited anxiously behind me for Richard Branson to drop the starting flag at the sound of the gun.

Despite the grandeur of the event and the associated intense atmosphere, I felt fairly relaxed and confident that I was in for a good performance. The conditions were pleasant, if not a little warm (cold is good for marathons). I had a near perfect build-up to the race, and the legs were fresh and ready for action.

At the sound of the gun, the sea of runners burst across the start line and the race got underway. My plan was fairly simple – start off with a steady pace of 3:36 min/km (or 5:48 min/mile) and hold the pace as long as I could.

As expected, the first ten miles (16km) were relatively non-eventful. The pace felt fine, and it is really just a matter of passing time. The crowd was always there, but was relatively quiet at this early stage in the race. I noticed over these early miles that my heart rate (as reported by the Garmin) was higher than it had been in Rotterdam marathon and in Berlin marathon last year. In both of my previous two attempts at the marathon, I had started off sitting at around 158 beats per minute, whereas on this occasion I found myself sitting closer to 167bpm at the same stage of the race. I also noticed that I was breathing a bit harder than I had done at this stage in Berlin last September.

I was not overly concerned about this because I felt ok, but I did consider pulling back the pace from the ten kilometre mark so that my heart rate would settle. I decided not to reduce the pace because (a) I backed myself. I felt that my aerobic capacity was stronger than it had been last year, and that I would be able to sustain a higher heart-rate for the duration of the marathon (b) I had run conservatively in Berlin and Rotterdam, and I wanted to push the boundaries this time (c) I was not ‘here to play tiddlywinks’: I had trained much harder than ever before, and I wanted a fast time to validate it. So I decided I’d rather try my luck. I figured that it was better to go out in a ball of flames, than to run a mediocre time and wonder whether I could have done better.

The clock hit 58 minutes as I crossed the ten mile mark, and at around that time the clouds made way for the unwelcome sun, and the air became humid. As the spectators sat back and enjoyed a good dose of sun, for the first time I felt like I was working. The first real sign of things going awry was a pang of fatigue that struck as I crossed the Tower Bridge, approaching the 20km mark. This is an epic section of course, with an immense atmosphere emanating from the roar of thousands of spectators combined with the impressive backdrop as you reach the north bank of the Thames. But on this day, the anticipated sense of exhilaration was overwhelmed by rising concern.

The fatigue that I was experiencing was worrying, because on a good day I should feel strong and ready to raise the game at the half-way mark of the marathon. I passed half way at 1h17 minutes and felt ok, but I was not confident about the thought of running a consecutive half marathon in the same amount of time.

Things deteriorated quickly from there. I knew what was happening, but I didn’t know why it was happening. My build-up for the marathon, including race performances, had suggested that the pace I was running would be manageable for most, if not all, of the race. But my mile splits had been inexplicably slipping since the ten-mile mark and the pace began to feel forced.

By the 25 kilometre mark I was starting to hurt, and I had a long way to go. By now my race plan was out the window, and I stopped looking at the clock. I could have sustained marathon pace for perhaps another few miles, but I felt doing so would have only lead to the embarrassment of pulling out or walking later. These were not viable options, particularly since I had plenty of supporters waiting for me on the last few miles of the course. I had decided by now that it was not my day, and that I just needed to settle on a new, more manageable pace that would get me to the finish line in one piece. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Running out of steam is a horrible feeling that only an athlete can really understand. For those of you who are not athletes: you are demanding that your body continue to operate when there is no fuel left in the tank. Everything hurts, tunnel vision sets in, and you effectively lose control of the situation as your body tries desperately to convert fat stores into sugar at a rate that is sufficient to keep you from passing out. There remain no options about whether to speed up in response to the cheering of friends (let alone to wave or say hello), or to strategise and work with other runners. You are no longer racing or competing with anyone. All of your goals and expectations go out the window, and you resort to merely trying to stay on your feet and move in a forward direction.

I have 'hit the wall' before, so the feeling is all to familiar. Fortunately the thousands of miles of training that I have recently accrued meant that this time around finishing was not in doubt. But many of the symptoms were there, and it is still a long and arduous journey to the finish line.

The resignation was hugely disappointing. After months of hard training, a painfully slow and labored jog was all I could really muster up in response to the relentless drone of the huge crowds lining Canary Wharf and the embankment as I closed in on the finish line. The miles ticked by slowly and began to reflect on the hard training it took to get there, the early mornings with burning lungs in Iten, the dark snowy nights running 1000 metre repeats around Nutgrove park. Embankment was supposed to be a reward for all of that effort, but it was not to be on this occasion. Instead I was jogging along at a pace that was slower than my usual ‘long-slow-training run’ pace wondering what had happened.

It wasn’t all bad though! The saving grace was the brilliant support that I received from Alison and my friends in the final stretch. Being greeted by a loyal support crew at the finish line was an excellent boost for the spirits (especially when they think that you were awesome!). I also took some comfort from the fact that despite having a bad day, I was able to hold it together over the second half of the course enough to salvage dignity. Even though the hard work didn’t deliver the performance I was looking for on the day, it wasn’t for nothing because it got me to the finish line. The other redeeming factor is that my legs have recovered quickly because they didn’t work as hard as they should have, so hopefully I can get back into full training soon and set my sights on the summer racing calendar.

In summary, I went out and had a crack at a goal that was challenging (2h32 marathon). I still believe that this target (or something close to it) was achievable, but only if the everything came together for me on the day, which it did not on this occasion. As a result, I blew up and failed to even run a personal best (2h39). That is despite training much harder and smarter in the lead-up to this marathon, and being in much better shape than ever before.

The lessons I have taken from this experience are that:

• Some days it is harder, physiologically speaking, to run fast. Despite being physically prepared and in a good state of mind last Sunday, it seemed on the day like I was having to work harder than usual to sustain the target pace. I chose to stick with the pace rather than back off, and then I paid the price for it (though I don’t regret my decision).
• When you set your sights high and definite, the margins are tight and there is a fine line between success and failure. Small variables have large implications.
• Until now I have only run marathons in cool conditions, and have relied on drinking water alone. I have refrained from gels and sports drinks because I have experienced stomach problems in the past and I these products are commonly known to exacerbate them. But the weather was warm in London. The body dehydrates faster in those conditions and loses salts/electrolytes at a greater rate. This can lead to depleting energy levels. Elite runners use replacements like gels and sports drinks to sustain energy levels. I will train myself to do the same in the future.

Half marathon split: 1:17:30min

Finish time: 2:42:20min

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The waiting game

The last two weeks before a marathon are the hardest. This is because this period of time mainly involves: waiting around/resting, and attempting to lose weight. As you may have noticed, these pass-times/behaviors do not typically go hand in hand.

Picture: there was lots of down-time in Kenya too, but at least I had daisy to keep me company!

At this stage you’ve been focused on the marathon for months. With eleven days to go before the race, you’re fatigued in the body and in the mind. You haven’t had a sip of beer or a piece of chocolate in weeks, and most of your personal/leisure time in recent memory has been spent resting at home instead of socialising or enjoying the usual pleasures of life (hill walking, holidaying, leisurely cycling to name just a few). But when you’re in the midst of a demanding training regime, you barely have time to notice what you’re missing out on. And the training is often quite enjoyable, so it’s all good. This all changes when the taper starts. From here on in, training will be tapered back in order to let the body recover in time for the London Marathon.

Right now it’s hard to imagine running a marathon at my target pace. In fact, if I were to attempt to run the marathon tomorrow I would fall well short, because I’m tired. To prepare for the race then, I’ll spend a significant amount of time stationary and off my feet. Sitting around or sleeping is usually a luxury that should be appreciated, but it can also get boring fairly quickly. Especially when you’re also trying to lose weight.

Training for a marathon is hard, but sitting around on the couch for two weeks thinking about not eating is even harder. As well, it’s not particularly relaxing sitting around waiting when you are anxiously awaiting the marathon itself! It's the unsettling ‘calm before the storm’.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely won’t be starving myself. I need to stay strong and healthy so there is absolutely no benefit in depriving myself of essential nourishment. But I will be carefully controlling my diet/food intake in order to shed a couple of kilograms before the race. The idea is that you don’t want to carry any more weight around the marathon course than you need to. So I’ll only be eating as much as I ‘need’ and no more. I won’t be running as much so I’ll be eating less than usual, and I’ll only eat and drink healthy food types with low fat and sugar content. My diet will be fairly unexciting. Not dissimilar from the Kenyan approach, except that now I’m in Dublin so I’ll be surrounded by people who are enjoying the full western diet.

I’m not sure what will come as more of a shock to the body – the marathon itself, or the Big Mac Combo that I throw at it after the race.