Friday 18 April 2014

Race report: ABN Amro Rotterdam Marathon

Before the race:

Alarm went off at 7am disturbing me from some very bizarre dream where I needed someone to sign a permission form for me to use a rowing machine in a bike shop (no, I don't know either). We hopped (sort of) out of bed and went down for breakfast.

The breakfast area filled up with lithe sporty looking people while we were in. I filled up on bacon and eggs, some cucumber and tomato, and a few bits of cheese. We got slightly odd looks for not stuffing our faces with carbs. Sorry athletes, that's just how I roll. A coffee to kick-start my brain, and I'm fuelled.

Breakfast, LCHF style (if anything, a bit low on fat)

This will be an interesting experiment - I completed Ironman 70.3 Zell am See/Kaprun on water with 2 gels in the run and that was around 6 hours, but I've never run this far on LCHF (low carb, high fat). I've decided to take 3 gels with me "just in case". I'm prepared to eat them at 2 hours, 2:30, and 3 hours in - but only if I feel I need them. One has caffeine in case I really need a boost. I'm also prepared to throw them all in the bin in the first 5km if they jiggle around too annoyingly in my bum pocket. I'm not planning on drinking any sports drinks from the aid stations, just water as and when I feel I need it.

It all depends how far up my effort level I am. The harder I work, the more carb I'll burn - even though I'm well fat-adapted I will still burn some carb, just less than my fellow runners. I can go further (much further) without fuel, but there's a limit. If I go really hard, then I'm expecting to need something. I don't know, it's uncharted territory - we'll see what happens. When I get back to London I should get a gas analysis test - that'll tell me precisely my fat/carb fuel mix at different intensities - then I'll know for sure how much I should need to eat, and roughly when.

Mrs had this done quite a while ago and the results were really interesting - I didn't see the point at the time as I wasn't very well adapted for fat as a primary fuel.

The marathon organisers have just tweeted that there are pacers! I don't know why this surprises me - it's a big marathon, of course there will be pacers. My target pace of 5:30 per km would get me in 3:52:04 if I ran it absolutely evenly. There's a 3:45 pacer who will be running at 5:20 per km if he holds even pace. He'll be starting behind me (I'm in the 3-3:30 start pen, I was originally gunning for a 3:30 finish but thought better of it as my training progressed!).

Pacers and their start pens

So I should set off at 5:30 per km (as per plan, even if it feels slow, it's correct - and if I'm faster, SLOW DOWN!), after a few km the 3:45 guy should catch me up, do I go with him? He'll have a big "bus" of runners with him, 3:45 will be a popular goal I'm sure. He'll only be 10s per km faster than me, 10 seconds in 5:30 is 3%. Sounds like nothing, but would be a big difference over that time and distance.

What's the worst thing to do? Change your plan on race day. You don't think straight, you don't correctly evaluate risk, you're excited and full of hormones and adrenaline. Don't change your plan on race day. 3:45 is my dream outcome but not at the cost of exploding and coming in over 4 hours. So the plan is this:

Set off at 5:30 per km. Hold 5:30 per km. Let the 3:45 guy pass me (he should only drift by slowly - 3% faster in fact. I hold him in sight for a long time, it should take many minutes for him to pull away. When I hit 35km I see how I feel. If I think I have more, and can hold it to the end, I'll give it a nudge. If at 40km I think I have a little bit more, I'll give it a little bit more. I won't get distracted by the 3:45 guy, but if he happens to stay in sight and it looks like I can catch him in the final 10km (not having been dragged round by him - I made that error with the 1:40 guy at the Royal Parks Half two years ago) then I'll wind it up. I know I have a strong finish, I know I can dig deep and find more than I think I have. The challenge here is not physical, it's mental - stay on plan.

Stay on plan.

During the race:

I took to my start pen about 25 minutes before the off. Everyone seemed relaxed, a few people were warming up (well, I think that's what they were doing). I sat for a while, taking it all in. Finally here. A marathon that I've trained for and really hope to complete. I was feeling confident on a finish, but very unsure of what time I could pull off.

With ten minutes to go I stretched out a bit, did some activation exercises to get my glutes firing properly (thanks to Mike from The Tri-Life for those), and did a bit of bouncing and squats/lunging. Not as good a warm up as a jog with some strides would have been, but there was no room for that and I figured I was going to be doing enough running as it is...

Then, after a rousing chorus of "You'll never walk alone" (no, I don't understand why either but the Europeans seemed to enjoy it) the canon sounded and we were off! Sort of! As I was in start pen D there was a fair amount of shuffling to be done first. Thankfully when we crossed the timing mat and our clocks were officially ticking there was room to run. I'm not sure the time difference between the gun and me crossing the mat - it'll be clear later why I wish I'd paid more attention.

The route - spoiler: I got to the end

What a completely different experience to yesterday - everyone was running, most people were going in straight lines, and no one was dying horribly (well I would hope not, in the first 5% of the race). I was determined to hold my 5:30 per km, as planned.

As predicted the 3:45 pacer arrived before too long, between 5km and 6km. I was suddenly enveloped in a jostling crowd. I briefly considered staying with him, but decided not to - I had a plan, you don't change it on the day, and you certainly don't change it randomly in the race!

The kilometres were ticking along nicely, all between 5:20 and 5:30 - perfect. No reason for heroics. I let a lot of people overtake (I was in the wrong starting pen, after all) and didn't let it get me down. I focused on keeping good cadence (90-92 steps per minute) and clocking up the kilometres on pace.

I was loving it. Absolutely loving it. Pacing was easy and the kilometres were flying by. I saw my first walking person at 18km, looking a bit broken. I remembered thinking at 7km that I was a sixth of the way, then at 14km a third - only another sixth to get to the half-marathon point. That came up in no time.

Making good time, bang on pace

Half way passed with a few more walking people, the tide was coming in a bit and I was moving up the field. No additional effort required, I was just faster - but still on my pace. The next mental targets were at 28km which is two-thirds distance, and then from 32km it was a single-digit count-down to success!

I ran over the race-logo landmark bridge for the second time, marking the first and larger of the route's loops completed. Following a few more km winding round the city centre we were out for the second loop.

As 30km went by I was full of happy. I had slowed for water at 10km, and 20km, missing out every other station. The weather was lovely, sunny, warm, with a gentle cooling breeze. I was thinking I would run the whole race on water - what an outcome that would be!

How quickly things can change. It got harder to hold pace, and my thoughts got more negative. The kilometres still seemed to be passing well but were taking a lot more effort. I passed my first "dead" person - he was sat in the bushes (where people (and people here equals "men") were ducking in to pee). He was sat with his back leaning on a tree sobbing. A spectator was trying to talk to him, but he didn't seem to want any of it. Or maybe they didn't have a common language, it was hard to tell.

Walkers were more plentiful now and they took a fair bit of avoiding. I thought about the gels in my pocket. If you get random negative thoughts then fuelling may be required. I decided to go on water for a bit longer. By 34km I was finding the going hard. My pace had really dropped and my legs were hurting - primarily my hamstrings and calves and Achilles tendons. I could still put the effort in from my mind, but I didn't seem to get any faster.

Just before 35km I had a gel - it was bloody lovely. At the 35km point I had another one, and a couple of cups of water. I quickly felt better mentally, but still couldn't make my legs work any more. I vowed to have my final gel, the caffeinated one, at 40km.

Fairly even, but you can see where it gets hard

I saw a few more dead people. At 38km or so there was someone receiving what I can' only describe as "emergency medical attention", there were people in uniforms and beeping boxes. Not good.

I told myself that I was trained for this, that I could do it. There was need to walk. I refused to walk. I didn't walk. In any training run I'd have stopped by now, or worked out a "walk 60s, run the rest of the km" tactic. I kept in my head that this wasn't a training run, this was the real thing - I declared to myself (out loud) that I refused to walk unless I literally couldn't run. And that point never came.

40km came though, and I walked through the aid station to take my gel and drink a couple of water cups (that bit of walking was allowed). For the first time in the race I looked at my total elapsed time - it read 3:47 (no seconds displayed when you're over an hour). 3 hours and 47 minutes and 40km done, 2.2km to go and 12 minutes and an undeclared number of seconds to go if I'm to get in under 4 hours.

Oh God I'm going to have to run harder.

This is what "running harder" looks like when you've got 41km in your legs - ouchy!

The clocks on display showed gun time, of course, so I had no idea what I was aiming for by those clocks - and my watch display was set to show me cadence and heart rate only (kilometre splits would pop up for 10 seconds each kilometre). I had no choice but to run hard. Running hard after this long was a mission. I missed the 41km marker - was it even there? Before i knew it there was a huge "1000m" on the ground - just a kilometre to go. Got to run harder.

We were back in the town centre now, at 500m to go there was a sharp right turn and I could see it - the green finish banner in the distance. I had no idea how long I had, I just had to try and run harder. It was, admittedly, a bit pathetic - by no means a sprint finish, but it was at least faster than I'd managed the last 5km.

With 300m to go I had to avoid a man carrying his tiny child down the finishing chute. I'd like to take a second to ask why, WHY, do people do this? It's crazy, I'm running as hard as I can (let's ignore how fast that actually is for a moment) to get in under 4 hours, I can hardly see any more, I certainly can't run straight, and I definitely couldn't take anything that would pass for "evasive action". I can't guarantee I'm not going to bump into anyone - and if I did and they fell over and the kid got hurt, then what? It's rank stupidity and should be banned.

As it was I crossed under the line in about 4:01:30 or so according to the clock on the banner and stopped my watch. Was it good enough? No idea! I stumbled around a bit and eventually had to lean on the crowd control barrier. I was absolutely buggered. My legs were on fire, I could only just stand. It took me a while to operate my watch - you need to "save" the exercise before you can review it. Did I make 4 hours?

Did I make it? Did I do enough? I had no idea at this point

Yes, yes I bloody well did. According to my watch I'd completed the Rotterdam Marathon in three glorious hours, fifty-nine painful minutes, and nineteen bloke-with-a-child avoiding seconds. 41 seconds to spare, and even if I was a few seconds off at each end with my watch-button pressing I should still be under 4 hours. I pumped the air in celebration a few times - every little bit of "don't walk" and "come on, push harder" was worth it. Every single good choice had contributed to achieving my goal. By just forty-one seconds!

Kilometre pacing benchmarked against the 5:30 target pace

So happy with the first six 5km sections, spot on target pace

Need to work on what happens from 32km to 42km!

Now, give me my medal and point me at the bar.

After the race:

Safe in the knowledge now that I'd hit my goal and didn't have to run anymore, the pain started to come. My hamstrings, quads, calves, and flutes were all tightening up and starting to feel cramps. I could hardly walk for the first few minutes. I staggered through the other finishers, they were coming thick and fast, and past the stalls of bananas and iso-drinks. I found a space to sit on the floor and spent 5 or 10 minutes stretching out. Others around me were doing the same, there was much grunting from representatives of many different nations. It turns out "argh" is a word in every language that means "I've just run hard for four hours and sat down, and now I can't get up again".

It's all about the bling

I got up in the end, took a few more waters from the stalls, and tried to get out. There was a big queue to get out so I had to stand/shuffle for 5 or 10 minutes - it felt like forever. Why was there such a queue to leave the finish area? It was because all the friends and family that came to meet the runners clearly had to stand right at the exit, as close as they could possibly get. The result was that runners had to file past, in single file, for about 20 metres to get through them. Thanks guys, thanks a lot - can we have some room? We're knackered, can hardly stand, and really need a bit of space.

A new Personal Best category for me on Garmin Connect

I walked very slowly back to the hotel room - my legs were completely ruined. Mrs arrived about 20 minutes after me, similarly broken. She had gone off too fast and had a tough second half. She came in with a great time though of around 4:23 - she was aiming for under 4:30. Objectives achieved.

First thing is first - pub for my second lager of the year!

We were both hurting far more than we thought we would. I swear I wasn't this broken after Wales Ironman in 2012, and Mrs has felt better after ultra-marathons! We think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it's fast, flat, and all on smooth concrete. This means every step is exactly the same - very little variation. Exactly the same movement over and over again, this is bound to break you down. Secondly, marathons are hard! You have to get your pace right from the start - and if you don't there can be a really long way left to run.

Grant was absolutely right!

I've heard so many times that the marathon really starts at 20 miles, or even 22. I now understand why. When it falls apart it happens so quickly, there's no gradual decline here! So what happened? Was my pacing wrong? Was it food? Did I get dehydrated? Was I not strong enough?

My heart rate plot tells a story - it looks like there are step changes upwards at about 40 minutes, and 80 minutes. I then stay roughly at the same level until around 2 hours and 50 minutes - when it started getting hard.

Heart rate plot - pleased my final 2km effort actually registered!

This corresponds to changing temperature - it was certainly getting warmer. It may also be nutrition or hydration - I wouldn't expect those to have any effect for a few hours though, so maybe contributory factors in my drop off? Maybe I should have eaten and drunk more right from the start. On the same day MPHinLondon, who is also on a high-fat and low-carb diet, ran the London Marathon and took a gel every 5 miles starting from mile 5 (and he ran 2:58!) - though he did experiment with carb loading ahead of the race too.

There's clearly lots of experimentation to follow, but this is only my first after all.

In the last 5 days my mind has already gone form "never again, I've done one now, nothing to prove" to "hmm, I wonder which one to do next spring - or maybe in the autumn". Seems just like triathlon, this sport could get addictive!

Now, about that original target of three hours and thirty minutes...

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