In 2013 I had my first attempt preparing for an ultra race. Despite best intentions it somehow did not happen. Now, four years later, I am there again. Still not sure why with all my running it seems to be so bloody difficult to do what all ultra runners do and keep going, However, I should appreciate that I did increase distances, had longer-than-marathon training runs and my first ultra race in form of a six hours challenge. So I signed up for the Country to Capital Ultra race in January. Big thing for me. And a lot of things to get nervous about. First, it takes place in January. While the cold does not really bother me, my worry is the wet cold. Second, there is the awkward mix of trail and tarmac. The first half can really turn into a mudslide when wet, while the second is more hard surface along the Grand Union canal towards the London centre. My running OCD kicks in, wanting to control all possibilities. In order to prepare I have to get another pair of trail shoes, that would also work on tarmac. A visit at runner’s to-good-to-be-true running shop Run and Become sorted me out. It is notoriously difficult to find the right pair of shoes, mainly because of size 13, where shoes start to be comfortable. But it was my day and I am now the proud owner of a pair of Inov8 Trail Talon 250, which needed to be tested. So I went out to one of those infamous “recce runs”. To be honest, I only picked this word up from seasoned British runners, having no clue what it actually means or how it is pronounced, but I did sense it has something to do with checking stuff out. So this was exactly what I did. I caught a train to Wendover, used the smart DynamicWatch app on my Garmin FR630 to show me the way and off I went. The next 39.x kilometres passed by much smoother than I could have hoped for. Despite occasional hold-ups, the route on the Garmin watch did give me the confidence never to get totally lost. In preparation for this recce run (which I now know is military slang for examining an area) I got a bigger backpack than usual, filled with a two-litre water bladder, a nice piece of vegan pizza from the night before and an approach of not getting stressed but see where and for how long my feet will carry me. I did part of this route in 2015 when I accompanied my friend Ruth for her first ultra race, so some trails looked vaguely familiar. The weather was warm but great and I tried not to stress out when I wasn’t sure about the route and at some point I had the vegan pizza and other food and it was all really, really fun. Even getting a bit lost was fun, because I roughly knew (thanks dynamic.Watch) where to go to. So I did end up joining the canal and exiting at Uxbridge and takin a tube home safely. The new shoes lived up the challenge perfectly. No sores, no blisters and overall, despite all exhaustion and not really understanding how after 39 ks to carry on for another 33 running, a proper ultra felt closer than ever before. Happy days.
People close to me usually know that Munich (München in German) is not on my list of favourite places. They also know that this is not based on experience, I actually have never really been there. Which does raise the question about my irrational dislike, but that’s another story. It happened that I got back in touch with friends who live in Munich, loving it and innocently invited me to come. It came to a diplomatic incident which I am not proud of and which made me rethink and decide to give this place a chance by signing up to this year’s marathon. And so I did. And I have to apologise to Munich, it is a lovely city. It probably helped that it was introduced to me by lovely hosts, but even the first impression of picking up my number at Olympia Park (which by the way served as a model for London’s Olympia Park) was very impressive. I instantly fell in love with the park, the iconic architecture of the Olympic Stadium and Halls and was thrilled to know that I would start and finish the marathon here.
But also the rest of Munich surprised me, especially all the old buildings and places that must somehow survived the war or had been rebuilt remarkably well and reminded me strangely of Italian cities. Where do the perceived Mediterranean influences come from? Well, as said, it surprised me and I loved it. The actual marathon had the charm of a big event that actually did not feel that big. There was a sense of flexibility and heart. So when I got all in panic mode because I forgot my timing chip, there was an easy way to get a replacement just 45 minutes before the start. The marathon route passed all the nice buildings and places I had been shown the day before, but also led through the English Garden, a name I was familiar with, but I had no clue how big it was. I felt reminded of Central Park in New York, where the word “park” does not really describe it. It’s more like a large piece of nature within a city. The English Garden was from kilometre 8 to 15 and it was great. The weather forecast had said rain all way through, but it did not happen. Thank God. Having gotten soaked would have definitely spoiled the experience because there were quite low temperatures (felt even worse coming from summer months of running) and there was a wind stronger than usual. I started to feel cold three quarters into the race, even without rain.
Overall I had a blast, did an under 3:30 time and entering the Olympic Stadium for the finish with dramatic film music playing and friends to cheer you was one of those goosebumps moments that reminded me why marathon running is such a great thing. And now Munich, unexpectedly, became part of this great thing. I say again sorry to Munich for my unjust prejudice and I am sure I will be back.
Running through the Brandenburger Tor for the finish is something you can’t get enough of. So I did Berlin the second time (after I had my first go in 2015). And worth mentioning: it was the 44th Berlin Marathon and also the 44th I was running. A sign? Coincidence? More likely the later, nevertheless, it’s a nice one. Something that couldn’t be said of the weather.
You felt eerily reminded of Peking Marathon events (I can only judge by pictures I have seen), but instead of smog it was only legit mucky weather. Unfortunately it was warmer than my preference, which made the whole thing more challenging than expected. Rain can have the welcomed side effect to cool you down, put this felt more muggy. At kilometre 30 my legs had enough of the sub 4:50 min/km pace. There was a lesson to learn from previous races where I forced them a few kilometres more, only to be defeated on the last stretch and being paid back so that I had to walk or hobble the last bits with the most spectator, missing out on the biggest fun. So I tried to be nice to my legs and negotiated a slower but not sluggish pace (to date I have not managed to produce any of these mind-over-matter superhuman stories, where I push through the pain and defeat my body). In return my legs where nice to me, did not cramp and even recovered towards the end and I had a blast running the last km, passing the Tor, stretching out my arms and doing a plane thingy, high-fiving many hands. It was again a moment of goosebumps and greatness. Thanks Berlin, all the spectators and helpers who showed up despite the moody skies. Again, you made the event very special. And inviting all runners, their friends and organisers to a great after party to celebrate the big and little stories was really nice. I am sure I will be back, if I am lucky enough to be drawn again.
What is “Fränkische Schweiz” in English? It is an area by Nuremberg, Germany, close to where I spent a big part of my youth. Now it was time to do the marathon there and wanting to write in English about it made me check the dictionary. So, here you go: It is “Franconian Switzerland” – and no, it has nothing to do with the Swiss. Now the technicalities are out-of-the-way, I want to add that it is the first marathon where my parents came with me, which made it really special (I had to run 43 marathons to see my parents at the finish line). The race itself was quite spectacular, too. They closed off an entire A-road (or B-road in Germany, B for Bundesstraße), which goes along the amazing Franconian Switzerland’s scenery. The marathon route was quite simple, running up and down this road (B 470) for 42 kilometres, but the backdrop was stunning. Unfortunately I did not take pictures, having been rather busy chasing my personal best. It was great running weather, much cooler than the hot August summer days earlier this week, so I thought I might have a chance here. The official times are not published yet, but I must have missed it by a few seconds. At kilometre 38 I desperately had to pee, something that had never happened before that late in a race. (When you think you’ve experienced it all.) Anyway, it was a great small event and a lot of fun to share my marathon passion with my folks. And if you ever consider doing this one, don’t forget that the right airport for Franconian Switzerland is Nuremberg, not Basel or Geneva.
Yesterday I did the six hours Musik Legends Challenge. The idea: Run for six hours and try to do as many laps as you can. I was a little bit nervous, not quite knowing what I would get myself into. Pure boredom and uninspired running of 3.75 miles (6 km) loops in Northampton? Or would it be a great way to explore the terrain beyond marathon distance, not focussing on the number of miles (or km) but overall time and having every round a save base station to come back to? It turned out to be the great, despite the odds increasingly being in favour of dull.
On race day it was announced that due to last minute street closures, they had to change the course to 3.3 miles (5.3 km) and instead of loops we pretty much had to run up and down the same way along the busy A45, traffic noise and uninspiring views included. Initially it was said that the course is half tarmac, half trail, but now it was 10% trail and 90% tarmac. The trail bit was very nice though and marked the turning point of the route, something that later turned out to be rather motivational. And so we started. I didn’t have a game plan, as usual. I just worried how to survive six hours running with dignity and so I focussed from the beginning on a much slower pace, than I probably ever had started any race with before. Once the first “loop” (rather back and forward) was done, the shock of the missing trails, boring views and iritating street noise hit me. How often do I have to do this now? 10 times? 11? Maybe even 12!? Having been just over 30 minutes into it I found this rather hard to comprehend. And another observation sunk in: This event was called Music Legends Challenge and was dedicated to Prince. But what happened to the music? There was none. Zero. The only Prince related thing was that runners were encouraged to wear purple, so you had roughly half of the runners wearing this colour. Big deal. I started my second “loop”, still no being convinced that I would managed to endure this for 6 hours, especially having had a late night out with too many beers the night before. My legs felt heavy and somehow unready to face any challenge.
The turning point came after “loop” four and its name was Paul. Paul was what I would call a seasoned marathon and ultra runner, but came across so down to earth that it took a while to realise this. He did the Grand Union Canal race this year (145miles!!) and had attempted an other race over 250 miles non-stop running where he literally dropped out early: He collapsed, was unconscious, stopped breathing and needed to be revived, which took 15 minutes. It turned out later that he must have caught a nasty bug on his holiday just before the race. Now four weeks later he was happily running this race, entertaining me with his unbelievable stories. “Loops” five and six passed by in a breeze and suddenly over 3 hours running were done. My spirits somehow got lifted. The whole back and forward running had something comforting. You saw the same nice runner faces over and over again, encouraging each other (“Looking strong”, “nice running mate”, “good job”). The tiny loop at the end, the trail bit, became a real booster which you started to look forward to. The street noise became something familiar and reoccurring and the base station a point of interim reward. And so I went on: “Loop” seven, eight (marathon distance, but still 1 hour and 45 minutes to go), nine. I did not think in pace or distance, I only checked my running watch for how much time was left. At the end of “loop” nine I got the feeling, that in theory I could finish twelve in total. The rules are that you can start any new lap under the 6 hours cut-off and then still finish it. It felt that I could finish my eleventh just in time to start the twelfth one. I still can’t explain why I did not get really tired or had to stop and walk. I just didn’t. I ran on and on and on. I knew with finishing the twelfth lap I would have done just under 40 miles (63 km), much more than I ever though I am capable of. But because I never counted miles it did not seem to be a biggy. Weird how the mind works sometimes. And it happened as I hoped: 5 hours 58 minutes into the race I finished lap eleven. Asking the officials if I could still go out for the last one, the answer was: “Of course, if you do it within the next 2 minutes.” And so I went out and finished the race with just under 39.5 miles (63.5 km) in about 6:33 hours (don’t have an official time yet). I was one of the last ones to arrive, most of the other runners were gone, but I rung the bell which indicated I broke my own distance record (my first ultra marathon) and I was given the biggest, heaviest medal I have ever seen. What a glorious finish to what turned out to be one of the best feel-good races I ever had. I am still puzzled what actually had happened here, but hope I will continue working on these ultra distances and continue to have fun with it.
What has Prague in common with an English medium sized town called Milton Keynes? I can tell you, not very much, but one thing is, they both had marathons in the first week of May. And I did run them both. It’s a first for me, to run two marathons in the same calendar week. But what a different experience it was: Milton Keynes is best known for their concrete cows, Prague is best known for, well, being Prague. While Milton Keynes has the charm of a dystopian George Orwell place, Prague is just amazing and running a marathon there felt like a huge privilege.
At the start they did not play some up-pumping rock tunes, but (very fitting and classy) Smetana’s The Moldau (Vltava). The first 5k were great, we passed all the stunning buildings of the Old Town and when we crossed Charles Bridge, it felt a bit like a fantasy movie, with all these stone statues left and right – a goosebumps moment. Milton Keynes tried to score with a finish in their football stadium. Which was fair play and fun in some way.
However, the best thing about Milton Keynes was that I had family and friends around, friends to run with and family to cheer. But then I also met friends in Prague and ran with them and had one friend to cheer. And in Prague I had a lot of beer before and after and the whole place came across as very chilled and relaxed – absolutely loved it. Milton Keynes famous concrete cows I even missed. Never saw them, despite having passed a sign that indicated something. Milton Keynes was built 50 years ago on a green field, I guess just because back then the government could, the same way the Chinese government can today. And being the artificial grid city it is, the running felt a bit like maze running, with all the pedestrian ways and roads weirdly meshed under and over each other. I constantly thought I had been at this or that point several times before, just because so many corners looked so similar. Prague in fact did repeat some parts of the route, but because it was such a great experience and nice backdrop I did not even notice or would have wanted it to be any different. Well, it is completely silly to compare these places, but I thought I should give it a try having run marathons in them in the same week. Milton Keynes was on UK’s bank holiday Monday and Prague on Sunday. Time wise Milton Keynes beat Prague though: I did a 3:37ish time while Prague was 5 seconds above 3:40. And when it comes to the medals the difference could not be more obvious. But hey, at least the ribbons are both in a shade of light blue.
Saturday night before the race I started to panic: I visited Hamburg’s recently opened opera house Elbphilharmonie and nearly froze to death. The building is truly amazing with viewing platforms and awe inspiring architecture, inside and out. But the location is also extremely windy and despite the 8 degrees temperature it felt like zero.
The weather forecast for marathon Sunday said the same 8 or 9 degrees temperature, but even more wind. So I worried that my shorts, short sleeved top and thin running gilet means I am hopelessly underprepared for Hamburg’s weather. At least I’d got a thermal hat to keep my head warm. On the other hand the forecast also said there won’t be rain, unlike the day before and the predictions for the days after. Out of lack of real alternatives I made it to the start line in my shorts, short sleeved top and thin gilet, covered in one of those foil blankets, still worrying about the potential freeze horror lying ahead of me.
It came different: I did not only start to rain just in time when we started running, it also hailed and not only at the start, but also throughout the race. The little hailstones do get you, feeling like tiny needles piercing your skin with their icy coldness. To our luck each hail attack did not last for too long and once it was over, the simple absence of ice on you, made you feel warm. Really warm. Weird, right? The rain did also stop and even the sun came out a few times. But this constant thread of cooling down too much had an unexpected positive effect on my running attitude. I felt I simply can’t afford going into my “let’s see how it goes today” mode of motivation. I ran against the fear that at any time I might end-up next to the road in fetal position, shivering and shaking. So I ran faster than I thought I am abled to do and managed to do a new personal best! Yeah!! Only by 17 seconds, but hey it’s a PB!!! 3:25:45. I am over the moon. And even having done Hamburg for the fourth time now and facing a moody weather even worse than London weather’s (mostly undeserved) reputation, this marathon was a great event, with a lot of music, not only put there by the organisers, but also from the many balconies of residents that threw little cheering parties. There is a several hundert metres long tunnel part of the route, which was prepped up with light effects and sound boxes spread out all way through playing Eye of the Tiger. And then there was this attractive girl holding up a poster to runners saying “You are sexy” and when I read it she made eye contact and pointed to the words indicating it also applies to me!! Only in Hamburg. It might be rainy, has hail and weather that makes you wonder why anyone come up with the idea to have to 2 million metropole (Germany’s second biggest) at exactly this place on earth, but Hamburg does rock. Big time.
Does Rome have more rain than London? Some articles out there are seriously suggesting that and today I might start to believe it. I had been running 37 marathons (about 10 of them in UK alone) without ever experiencing severe rain. The most unlikely candidate to end this streak did end it: Rome. It was raining today and it rained hard. Not all way through, but a solid 90 minutes at the beginning, to get the runners completely soaked, and just after the finish, when you rather wanted to chill in the sun and not being re-soaked while you are getting increasingly cold trying to find your way home. I am still a little bit baffled. The other interesting twist to this Rome Marathon (which turned out to be a fantastic event after all) was the “system” of letting runners start in waves, depending on their estimated finish time. My running partner Michael and I were both in the medium fast group, which was represented by a green number. All three groups, blue for the fastest and orange the slowest, had their own starting arch, identified by ballons that matched the colours. Without any delay we followed the masses of runners which were herded towards these three arches and for reasons still not clear to me our green line ended up joining the orange runners. At this point we realised that the second wave must had already happened and maybe only green runners who used their elbows had managed to get to the front. As a result I had to dodge slow runners the entire marathon, which can be very stressful, because you are constantly distracted finding a path through the running crowds and never find quite your own flow and pace. But despite all this I managed to do a much better time than I thought would be possible, based on my current training level and shape. And it turned out to be a great run. It is a little bit like running along buildings that belong more to historical drama than to reality. Super cool, I loved it. At some point I felt very much reminded of my Florence Marathon in 2013, only bigger and greater. And then the medal: It is the nicest one I have received. The ribbon is done in burgundy, with golden and lightly rose writing and together with the golden medal ist looks very classy. So, apart from the rain Rome was all the good and Italian spirited race that I hoped for. And even the rain was not just rain: It was in fact a thunderstorm, right when I started and the thunder was echoed by shouts of a crowd of weather-excited runners. In Rome even rainy marathons are done in style.
The Rome Marathon preparation presented a rather different challenge to me: getting the medical certificate that proves I am fit too run a marathon. (The fact that ten days ago I just successfully completed one does not seem to prove anything.) I had been there before in 2013 when I did Florence and Pisa, which also required this certificate (it comes down to an Italian law from 1982 after all) and while it was sort of an annoyance, it did turn out to be rather straight forward to arrange. Not so this year: drawing from my 2013 experience I rocked up at my GP, who was French and kind of familiar with issuing these certificates. The French have a similar law. The checks took 5 minutes. Two minutes later I was out of there, with a stamped and signed paper. Off it went to the the organisers to confirm my successful registration for the race. Only that they did not. Apparently I had the outdated form from last year, which could not be accepted anymore. The new form required ECG, lung test and urine analysis not older than 30 days. So I went back to my French doctor who was surprised by this level of details required, same as me. £260 was the price tag to get this done. UK prices. I wrote to the organisers and asked if there is an other way. And there was: for foreign runners who have difficulties to get these examinations they offer to get it done in Rome prior to the marathon for €70. Alternatively a proof of membership of an British Athletes affiliated running club would make the need for a certificate obsolete. So I investigated this route. Unfortunately these British Memberships seem to have a fixed start day, always running from 1st April to 31 of March. So how do I ensure that when I sign up for a running club end of February, that by 2nd of April (the date of the Rome Marathon) I have a proof of a valid membership for the new and not only for the old period. None of the three different running clubs could or wanted to answer this question. So I ended up organising a medical appointment in Rome. The time window for applying had long be closed, but here the Rome organisers were rather flexible and I did get a slot. But there was one condition: I still needed to bring a full urine analysis for the appointment, written in English not older than 30 days. I just had got a whole health screen done, with urine, blood and you name it analysis, but unfortunately that was 45 days ago. So I went to my GP the third time, peed into a cup the second time within 45 days, paid £26 and got an email a few days later with access to the online portal where I could download and print out the result. Which I did. But the print out looked worryingly informal and my concerns were growing that it might be rejected based on missing formal stamps and/or signatures. An email to the organisers to double check this was not answered. So on the last day I went to my GP a fourth time asked for a stamped and signed copy, which they were happy to do, but I had to come back later. Finally on my 5th visit, when I collected it, I felt I had everything in place to start journey to Rome. Which turned out to be right. After I managed to locate my contact in Rome just in time, who should bring me to the medical practice where the EGC and lung test was performed, I got the clearance from a smiling Italian doctor: “Good news”. When I finally was the proud holder of my start number (12 thousand something, which shows how last minute I got the clearance), I felt like a finisher already: running the whole thing now can’t be more difficult than getting this stupid paperwork sorted. And I got an explanation why it is so different this year: the Italian Athletics Federation came up with these great ideas just recently. So if you want to run marathons in Italy, better be prepared.
Sorry, but I have to add this: the results are here and I did it in 4:05:22! Not that the number has any significance or is in any way special. I believe if this marathon had not been the unfolding running drama that it was, I would have finished it under 4 hours. But what makes me so excited is that there actually are results. For the last two days I could not find my times and I thought that the 50 minutes late start disqualified me in some way. But no, I was not disqualified and the results can be found here. And as an extra bonus there are even some race pictures. If I ever want to become member of the 100 Marathon Club, now I can officially prove I’ve done it, Jerusalem will count to it. It gives me some strange piece of mind.