I've never been so unfocussed before a marathon. Before Berlin I was obsessively writing lists, checking every detail of what I needed to do, following guides of what to do in the week before to the letter ("Tuesday - cut toe nails"). Before Edinburgh the administrative side of it wasn't as obsessive, but I was writing long detailed race plans ("keep HR steady, take first 6 miles gently, speed up when you get to the sea front, aim to get to half way in about 1:52"). I worked out what pace per mile I needed to do for 3:45, 3:50, 3:55 and so on. I had a pile of pace bands so I could decide which combination to wear on the day. Before Amsterdam I chucked my stuff into a case on Thursday night, didn't print off any pace bands, and couldn't tell you what pace I needed to do to hit any particular time.
I've had other things on my mind, and it came up quite quickly. I'd done the training in a more disjointed way than normal, and while I'd got enough long runs in, I'd barely raced since Edinburgh. Before Edinburgh I watched my half marathon time drop, and used that to get a realistic idea of what time I was looking for. My only half marathon since then was the Great North Run (2:58) which wasn't exactly a guide to what I expected to achieve running for myself. I knew that I was in sub-4 form, but didn't think that I was in a position to push for 3:45 this time round (although I wanted to give that pace a go at the start of the race to see how it felt), and my main plan for the race was to just run to how I felt. Stick with the pacers if I felt good, otherwise just concentrate on getting round and leave any ambitions of a good for age time another day. I just wanted to finish in a sub 4 hour time rather than making an effort to beat my PB or get GFA (I've missed this year's deadline anyway, so have another chance to make it before I need to apply for 2009).
The morning was sunny, and warmer than I expected. After breakfast in the apartment (which had been stocked with my pre-race breakfast foods of choice), we set off for the start at the Olympic Stadium. When I got there I decided that it was warm enough to change from capris to shorts, so did that during one of only two loo visits. I handed my bag in and used a foil blanket to keep myself warm until the start. I was in the 3:30 - 4:00 start, so tried to position myself towards the back of it so I didn't get drawn off too fast. I found the balloons of the 3:45 pacers so decided to start near them. I did wonder what I was doing there, because I haven't really focussed on Amsterdam as such it was a bit of a shock to the system to find myself on the start line of a marathon, and for the first time I managed to summon up some excitement about it.
Start - 5k (26:22)
I started off with the 3:45 pacers, and found it quite crowded at the start. I tried to make sure I didn't go off too fast, and was into a nice rhythm quite early. I nearly tripped over a bollard after 3k, and at this point realised that I hadn't taken any energy tablets (I usually take them every mile, but without mile markers - only kms - I decided to take them every 2k, which was a bit longer between tablets but easier than working out a more complicated plan - particularly given that I only realised about the lack of mile markers the day before the race) so decided to take them on odd kms rather than even ones. At about this time I also decided to get out from behind the pacers because it was too crowded, and I tried to keep up a similar pace but just in front of them. It's nice to have them set the pace, but there's so much jostling and elbowing that it's harder to run, and takes more energy than running a similar pace alone.
5k - 10k (25:44)
My fastest 5k of the race. The end of the last stretch and the start of this one involved running the last few miles of the course, I was feeling pretty good and trying to convince myself that it was nice, easy and flat, because I knew I would be dreading doing it the second time round. I have bad memories of that last stretch from last year's half, which is along the same route at the end. We went past the stadium, and out onto the main loop. I was still sitting in front of the pacers but not killing myself. There were water stations every 5k or so, and they were only giving out cups rather than bottles, so I got into the habit of running 5k at a time, walking through the water station and then setting out to run another 5k. Breaking it down into manageable chunks helped. I stuck to my Edinburgh technique of having dextrose tablets and water rather than sports drinks, as I find I can stomach it easier.
10k - 15k (26:48)
A bit slower along this spell. We got onto the banks of the Amstel which made up quite a large portion of the race. As we got onto the river we could see the leading men coming up the other side many, many miles ahead. There was a particularly evil bit where I could see a water station just ahead (the one which was just after the 15k point). I thought to myself that it was a bit early as we'd only just passed the 14k marker - and then noticed that we got taken off the banks of the river and round an extra little loop before rejoining the river and getting to that drinks station. Still, at least I knew that it was there and it gave me something to aim for, with a little walk break when I got there.
15k - 20k (26:11)
I picked up a bit of speed again. Running along the river was quite easy for me, I do a lot of my long training runs alongside rivers, canals and sea fronts, so it felt very familiar, even if it was a different river. I could see people coming the other way ahead of me, then got my own back after the turn at about 19k when I saw everyone who was still behind me. I was still just ahead of the 3:45 pacers, and keeping a fairly consistent speed.
20k - 25k (26:22)
I got past the half marathon point in 1:50:56, and started to relax a bit knowing that I could start counting down the miles instead of up. However, this is the point where my mind starts to play tricks on me. Not having had a clear idea before the race of what time I wanted to achieve, I started to tell myself that I could do the second half in about 2:09 and still break 4 hours. This was a bad thing, because it put 4 hours in my head as the time I wanted to beat rather than, for example, deciding to try to break 3:50 or even 3:45. Should I have been trying to think about doing the second half in 1:55 instead, and focussing on a faster time? I don't know. But I was still going pretty well and keeping the speed fairly consistent.
25k - 30k (27:05)
This is where I started to slow down. Not too much at first, but you can see it starting. 5k took over 27 minutes for the first time. It became more and more of a struggle to get to each km marker. Instead of breaking it down into chunks of 5k, I had to break each chunk of 5k down into smaller stretches, just telling myself to get to the next energy tablet, or even the next km.
30k - 35k (27:57)
More of the same. The critical point came just before 35k. The 3:45 pace group caught up with me at about 34k, and I started getting jostled and elbowed because of the mass of runners. It reminded me why I don't like running with the pacers. I made a decision to fall a little behind them because I couldn't face the elbowing and trying to avoid people's legs which was taking up too much energy, but realised that they would start gaining ground on me, and that I probably wouldn't be able to keep up. At the water station at 35k I stopped for my normal walk and drink, while they carried on ahead. At that point I gave up any thoughts of keeping up with them. I was still focussing on breaking 4 hours, and I started to relax as that meant that I had 55 minutes to cover 7k.
35k - 40k (31:02)
Here comes the crash. Having given myself a 4 hour target I started focussing on New York and adopted a walk run strategy. With hindsight, I could have run more than I did. My legs weren't too sore, and I still had energy - my issues were more mental. Because I'd given myself loads of time in my head to finish, I started finding that I was taking advantage of it. I was thinking "I can walk for a while here and keep my legs a bit fresher for New York" rather than "if I carry on running I can break 3:50". I wasn't actually aiming for a PB at this point, just to get to the end comfortably and within 4 hours. I just didn't have the willpower to force myself to carry on running. I struggled through the Vondelpark (where my half marathon last year came off the rails), and was very relieved when I got to 40k, because that was near the end of the park and I'd told myself that whatever happened between 35 and 40, I'd make myself from the end of the park to the finish. I couldn't face any more dextrose tablets after 37k, and my problem wasn't energy anyway, so I stopped taking them in an attempt not to feel ill.
40k - 42.195k (13:04)
I ran most of it. I definitely ran the last 1k, and a bit before that, but might have had a bit of a walk break between 40k and the end of Vondelpark. Because I'd been walking when I probably didn't need to I actually found the energy for a bit of a burst of speed once I got onto the track in the stadium and overtook a few people. Well, when I say speed it's all relative. Coming into the stadium I was a bit disappointed to be so close to going sub 3:50 and missing out. I realised that with a bit more commitment through Vondelpark I could have done it, but I was still pleased to finish in 3:50:35 and take 90 seconds or so off my PB, which I hadn't really expected to do until very close to the end.
I got my medal, took my chip off and got my bag back. I cooled down very quickly, and was ravenous (it's always a good sign in my experience when you finish a marathon still able to stomach solid food) so dived into the goodies I'd packed in my bag and the stuff from the goodie bag. Sometimes I find there are only certain foods I can face after a long run, this time round I just wanted food and wasn't at all fussy! I gave the gatorade a miss though, I'd been avoiding the sports drinks all the way round after my experiences of them in Berlin, and didn't want to mess my stomach up at this point. I considered waiting for Jen to finish, but started feeling too cold so decided to head back into town, stopping for a sandwich and a hot chocolate on the way before braving the stairs up to the apartment (for those who have visited Amsterdam, the very steep stairs might be familiar, for those who haven't, imagine something not much more sloped than a ladder...). I had a shower and a bit of a nap before Jen got back, complete with finishers medal (but I'll let her write about the rest of her day). A bit more of a nap followed before heading out to get takeaway pizza because no-one particularly fancied leaving the apartment, but I was still hungry and needed feeding! I slapped some freebie samples of muscle rubs onto my hamstrings, and felt my legs feeling happier and happier by the minute.
I think that if it hadn't been for New York I might have been able to manage about 3:48ish, as I wouldn't have had that thought in the back of my mind that I needed to keep something in reserve. I also think that next time I need to forget setting myself a fall back target of sub-4 and make that target a bit tougher - maybe aim for 3:40 with a fall back target of 3:50. Had I told myself I wanted to beat 3:50 when I got to about 35k I think that I could have done, but because I didn't focus on it I let it slip way a bit.
On the other hand, a PB is a PB and it gives me something to aim at next time, without making New York more of a challenge than it already is. Given my lack of focus coming into the race, to get a PB at all is an achievement I didn't really expect, so I'm not going to spend too much time thinking of what might have been, other than to the extent that it will help me prepare better next time. I think what I need is mental tricks as much as anything physical to get me through the 35 - 40k section. I always struggle there, and it's increasingly mental rather than physical - because I've never run through it, I don't expect to be able to.
On the other hand, it says something that I think of a 31 minute 5k between 35 and 40k as a "crash". To put that into perspective, in Berlin I think that my fastest 5k might have been about 30 minutes, and my slowest nearer 45, and that was only just over a year ago. Last year in the Amsterdam half, I clocked 2:00:29. I did the second half this year faster than that, and the first half faster still. Back to back.
And if you write a list of all the women at running club who have run a marathon this year, you will find that I have the two fastest times on it, even though I still feel like I could run faster in the future. Not bad at all.