It is completed: my fiftieth marathon, in Malaga, one week after my trauma in Dorset. Despite having felt almost hundred percent recovered on the day, it turned out to be an experience in two parts: the good one and the bad and the ugly one. Let’s start with the good part.The good: It was one of those build-ups that are almost perfect. The smooth arrival at Malaga, getting your bearings (and race number) without stress, having an enjoyable afternoon cycling down the Costa de Sol with spectacular views, all that was then topped off by stumbling into the Christmas season opening of an amazingly decorated town centre and having dinner at a truly nice and special gastro bar with excellent food. My apartment was very central and only 10 minutes walking distance to the marathon start and finish, which couldn’t have made getting to the start line any more hassle-free. No getting up at unholy hours to catch unfamiliar buses or trains, no messing about with bag-drops, portable loos or how to make waiting in cold temperatures work. It was perfect: I left my place at 8:30am for the start at 9. The event somehow felt bigger than 3,400 runners, yet there were no hiccups and I could leisurely stroll to the right pen and even had time for stretches. Surrounded by palm trees, a colourful morning sky and pumped up, excited runners I could not have had a better start. And so it continued for the first half of the race. I found my pace and despite still feeling a slight soreness in my quads from the ultra the week before, I had hopes for doing a solid under 3:30 finish. Running along the seaside was very uplifting, the temperatures were around 16 degrees, but it felt cooler because of the constant light breeze and because many parts of the route were not in the direct sun. The runners high came to a sudden stop pretty much after the first half, which leads us to part two.The bad and the ugly: Not long after I passed this inflatable arch that marked the half marathon distance (21.1 k or 13.1 miles) I felt this weird weakness creeping up. Despite having had hitting-the-wall moments before, this felt different. It is not about tired or achy legs, but about “I actually need to stop and lie down”. A feeling I only experienced during the ultra the week before and hoping it was not PTS from this traumatic event, I reckon the cold was still lingering. (I am actually getting sick and tired writing about this damn cold.) I stopped at kilometre 23 (mile 14). Because there were almost the same distance between me and my bed in the apartment I had to come up with a plan. I decided to do a serious walk-run alternation. And so the work began: Each new kilometre sign was an achievement, the masses of runners overtaking me needed to be ignored as well as the pacemakers for sub 3:45 and eventually sub 4:00 hours times. I had to keep it together, somehow. And again, the weird thing was that my legs themselves were not tired or worn-out, just the overall condition was “feeling weak”. It became an absolute drag and I would lie if I said I enjoyed it. In addition, all the little things start to bother you: Missing or slightly wrong distance markers. Why was there none for 30k? Or for 35? And 38 surely came to early, or not? I can recommend to rather rely on your own tracking device than the markers. Then there was this blue line on the road that normally indicates the shortest route, but here were sections where it definitely didn’t. Other sections had only half of the road closed off and on the other half saw heavy stop and go traffic that produced a lot of stink. There were plenty water stations, which is good, but why do the helpers have to force the water bottles again and again into your face? Even if you just picked one? I know, I am being petty, but that happens when I don’t enjoy myself. However, I managed to get a grip on the last 3 k (or 2 miles) and managed to run them without stopping. The route saved the town centre with the stunning cathedral, nice historic buildings and Christmassy extravaganza to the last, which really helped to make it to the finish. Once passing the finish line, some of the welcomers to honour your effort with a medal turned out to be children with Down syndrome. The runner before me got a big kiss on her check together with the medal from one of those helpers and I got a really lovely smile with mine, which somehow was the most touching way of receiving the medal that I have yet experienced. So I can say my fiftieth marathon did end on a high and it is not all about strength, toughness and endurance, but also about kindness, heart and smiles. Thank you!
I am getting ready to face my fiftieth marathon. Number 49, the ultramarathon in Dorset last week, proved that even when running more marathons than probably the average runner, starting and finishing can never be taken for granted. This is what I love about the the distance: it makes you more aware of how much you are dependent on grace, because many things are outside your control. I am very excited though, finally feeling better after being affected for two weeks by this nasty cold. I did question my decision to squeeze my fiftieth into 2017, travelling all the way down to Malaga to have a bit of a warm and exotic environment to celebrate. The mental post traumatic stress caused by what I will now refer to as the Dorset-Ultra-Experience made me weary and doubting, if running another marathon the week after (or even at all!) was really such a clever plan. Now feeling better and recovered (I still can feel my quads hurting a little bit though), it feels right again. I have done it before (which, again, does not mean much) and Malaga is a great place. I really enjoyed spending the Saturday here and it seems the perfect place to escape the wintery London and run along seaside and historical buildings at 18 C degrees! Here a few pictures that in took yesterday. Malaga Marathon, I am coming!!!
Coming back to Dorset for running an ultramarathon, four years after having done the marathon distance in 2013, did not feel good. Don’t get me wrong, Dorset and the Jurrasic Coast Path, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an absolute stunner. In 2013 I described it with “what paradise must look like” despite being the most difficult route (and experience) I had ever done. The 2017 revisit was overshadowed by health concerns. Normally I don’t do colds, but 10 days before the event I came down with one that made me stay in bed for a week and when I got up on event day I still felt more like continuing to rest than running 33 miles (54k). It did not help either that I had to get up at 2am, to be ready for running buddy Cathy to pick me up at 3am for the over 3 hours drive down to Dorset. Once arrived I was slightly concerned how cold it felt, the weather forecast promised relatively mild 9 degrees Celcius. My nose was running, my head still a little bit achy, but somehow I managed not to abort the whole thing and avoid having a first DNS (did not start) in my running book. At least I wanted to try, thinking I can always stop and have to deal with a first DNF (did not finish) later.And so it happened that despite not feeling well I stood at 8am at the start line of the CTS Dorset Ultra event, equipped with an extra layer of clothing, first aid kit, whistle, head torch (all mandatory stuff), a pack of tissues (not mandatory) and still wondering what I was getting myself into. The CTS Dorset trail is rated by the organiser with the highest difficulty level 5, for extreme terrain. The Ultra distance, if completed, earns you 3 qualifying points for the infamous UTMB race, which is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world, over 100 miles (160k) through Swiss, Italian and French mountains. Here I was with all the gear and a pack of tissues walking up the first hill together with about 250 other ultra runners. The first half of the race went much better than expected. I almost forgot that I was not feeling well. The beauty of the dramatic coastline and the buzz that naturally comes with the start of a race, especially with one like this which offers so much jaw-dropping scenery, helped to lift my spirits. Yet the hills remained daunting. The first few miles had three of them to offer, hills that can only be compared with climbing up a muddy staircase without steps.The big shift happened pretty much half of the race. By then I had lost my pack of tissues (after taking out one that I used), the snot was running down my nose and the reoccurring coughs did not sound encouraging. But I could have dealt with that. What hit me was the very sudden feeling of complete depletion. It was not just about feeling tired. My legs started to destabilise, felt wobbly and having had no experience running with a cold I did not know whether this was normal or concerning. I started to walk even though it was flat and slightly downhill. The legs did not recover. Whenever I tried to resume a light jog I felt there is nothing left to jog on. Even walking was a challenge. Then the unforgiving terrain started to hit back in form of seemingly endless hills and I did not think I would be able to finish. I had almost the same distance again in front of me, was getting colder by the minute and even the downhills started to become more challenging than they should have, due to my increasingly burning quad muscles. At some point, I started walking down the hills backwards, which presented additional challenges but at least it gave my quads a break.It was horrible. I still don’t know what made me carry on. Probably the unclear plan how to exit a scenario like this and the feeling of not wanting to have the first DNF in my running record. This way the second half of the race became the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The fact that I could carry on at all was due to factors outside my control: the mild weather (9 degrees and no strong winds) and the thin Ronhill windbreaker jacket, which I bought two days before and turned out to be extremely useful. In preparation for this event, I had gone into my usual panic mode, wondering what would happen if I had to run at zero degrees and so had decided to spend ridiculous £140 on this jacket, but now I was glad it did. As a fourth layer, it helped to keep me relatively warm and even the hood was very useful when my head started to cool down. So when I came back to the base station and had to go out for the final 6.5 miles to complete the ultra distance I somehow resisted again to stop and carried on. Not because I wanted to, but just because I felt I am not collapsing, freezing to death or hallucinating. I was now used to dragging myself onwards one step after another, completely ignoring time or distance. So I thought “no DNF in my book, and better get this damn ultra thing done”.A decision I regretted half an hour later when I was sitting next to a downhill path stretching my quad muscles. They finally denied any functions and rather cramped. Once I could stand again I tried to move down somehow. I really should have let myself roll down, I am sure it would have been at least twice as fast. It all seems like a bit of a blur now, but the one positive thing is the beautiful sunset I could witness and I even thought about taking pictures. The last three miles, a flat bit before the last steep downhill, I tried to do a forward movement that resembled something remotely similar to a gentle jog. When I reached the last descent I climbed down feeling more like a survivor of a disaster than a triumphant finisher. I had no clue what time it was when I reached the finish with only a few people standing there. One of them was Cathy who did have a blast doing and finishing her marathon. I tried to be gracious and to be happy for her. When I went to return my chip and get my medal, I was told that did not check-in at all check-points and times are missing. I resisted the urge to kill the messenger and said I am absolutely sure I got readings at all check-points and can prove it with my personal running tracking. I need to email the organiser, I was told, and show them the proof of my results for it to be official. Until this happens I did not officially finish. I was beyond any emotions.
At least I got the medal. When I checked the results today I found that they put me wrongly into the 12 miles longer Ultra Plus race and of course for this race I missed some check-points. The email asking to correct this went out. However, I am not sure if the whole thing was worth it. Yes, I did finish and I do assume I get it sorted with the organiser. But I feel also slightly traumatised. The previous positive memories of “running through paradise” turned into “surviving a disaster”. There is no real sense of achievement, probably because one of my main running goals is enjoyment. Saying this, my other goals are “not to get injured” and “to finish”, in that order, which I think I did achieve. Still, I am not quite sure what to think about this experience and I need to let it go for now. Time will tell I suppose.
Update from 04/1/2107: My results are corrected and I am officially a finisher. Time is 8:25:27 and I came 112th out of 146 (not that it has any significance, I am just surprised to see that there were still quite a few fellow runners behind me).
For the last six years, every new marathon medal just went on top of the others, burying the older ones under a pile of newer ribbons and metal. It was time to dig them all out for a little bit of marathon medal indulgence. Here is the documenting picture:They are 48 in total and arranged in strict order: Top left is the oldest and bottom right the latest. Hopefully, I will get to 50 by end of this year. Next one is the Dorset Marathon, along the Jurrasic Coast Path, which has UNESCO World Heritage status. I did the marathon distance back in 2013 and this time I will give the 33.3 miles distance a go. It is the hardest and most beautiful marathon I have done yet, check out the organiser’s video and you get the idea. For the 50th I am treating myself with a winter weekend break and go to Malaga. I booked it a little bit last minute, but it was too tempting trying to complete the 50th before the end of 2017.
So, here we are again: Five years after doing Athens as my 4th overall marathon, it was time to give it another go (as my 48th). It was a weird mix of going down memory lane, finding some things are not how I remembered them and re-discovering this spectacular event and place all over again. Despite common runner’s knowledge that because of the hilly route Athens makes it a rather tough one, I did not remember it as being so hard. I did remember a steep incline around kilometre 30 to 32 and a constant rise pretty much from the beginning but thought it was ok. My memories were wrong (I should have read my old blog post before). It is pretty hilly and I early had to hold back to avoid risking cramps. The temperature of over 20C was not helping, but at least that was consistent with the first time. The positive surprise was the steep incline was not that steep and ends at kilometre 31 rather than 32. From there it goes all downhill into Athens. The finish in the old authentic stadium, the Panathenaic, was even more glorious than I remembered. This time I took more in. Not sure if they did any restoration in the meantime, but the marble stone everywhere looked just awesome and the scale of this place, the big steps and impressive shape made you feel like running into an ancient monument. Which pretty much is exactly what you do. The Panathenaic Stadium dates back to 330BC, was excavated 1869 and refurbished as a venue for the first modern Olympics in 1896. As part of this, the marathon was revived as a competing distance, following the course that legend tells and finishing in the Panathenaic Stadium, same as marathon runners now do every year. Hence the title: “Authentic Marathon”. When I did it in 2012 there were 9,000 marathon runners (from memory), this year there were 18,000. And you could feel it had the vibes of a much bigger event: Longer waiting times, more runners to dodge, but also more spectators and support. It was great. Another big and consistent plus was the immaculate organisation. The not so easy logistics of getting all these runners out with buses to the start line at Maratonas, lining them up in eleven (!) different start blocks, ensuring there is enough water, loos, wind protection, etc available, getting all the clothing bags efficiently from the start to the finish, all that was done without flaw. So, having done Athens again, five years and 43 marathons later, I am still as excited as the first time. And I have not even mentioned the medal which resembles the Panathenaic and this year comes with a golden ribbon. It’s is the nicest medal in my collection yet. I was a bit surprised though that I did not manage to shave off more time from my first result (I now did a 3:50 time compared to 4:17 before), but I still cannot more highly recommend this one to avid marathoners. It is simply a must-do event and I am sure I will come back – maybe in another five years.
One of the great things about running marathons is that it can be very social, while doing running itself is often a rather individual thing. When running the Frankfurt Marathon today I was feeling this connection with the running community more than usual. It was the 8th marathon I did with running mate Michael. Frankfurt is his home turf and to make it easier for me I was offered to join his company’s running team. Some conference rooms in a hotel close to the start line had been booked and we had a great reception there, before and after the marathon. It was great to get one of their T-Shirts and feeling part of a bigger team. And it came quite handy that the company is huge, and the runners come from all over Germany (and the world?) which meant I was not sticking out as the one who does not really belong and could mingle, feeling part of the group. And there was the other thing: the chance to get on the podium and to win a price. Michael made me aware that all the fast runners dropped out this year and apart from one the highest estimated times were 3:30.
It meant I had a fair chance and when running I started hunting down my fellow runners with the same T-Shirt. So I ended up running next to Achim for a while. It is always great to make new friends on the way. Achim was the one who gave me a new boost at kilometre 33, when I started slowing down. He pointed out a strong looking couple in front of us saying, just follow them, they are good. So this is what I did. And it worked and I got some pace back. At one point I overtook Katrin from the vegan running blog bevegt.de. Katrin and Daniel run this (German) site and I listen to their podcasts, because I am interested in a carefree vegan diet. Well, they don’t know that I am their friend and when I overtook her it was an awkward spot with incline, so I did not want to distract her and said nothing. But still, it was nice feeling “connected” even though she had no clue that I did. I ended up overtaking another fellow runner with the same T-Shirt and at some point even Achim had dropped back. So I entered the great Festhalle (Festival Hall) and did the last 200 meters on the legendary Red Carpet. Only in Frankfurt. It was like a big party. And my time was respectable too: 3:28:07. Enough for getting on the podium? I did not find out, because I had a flight to catch and could not stay long enough for the company’s award ceremony. Anyhow, it was a great and unforgettable day with friends and that’s was running marathons really is about.
Update from the day after: Michael informed me that I did make the second place! And I won a voucher, not sure for what though. But hey, this is the first time I won anything in a race.
The day did not start great: waking up to a weather forecast that has stayed consistent for a week and shows that you will get completely soaked from 8am on, including thunderstorms, is never great at marathon day. Well, I sent up one of those desperate “God, pleeease!?” prayers (if someone can change the weather last minute, it must be him) and got up, still not sure how to get to the shuttle buses that would bring us 30 kilometres out to the start. These busses left at the other end of Venice, Google Maps said one hour to walk. When I chose my accommodation the main criteria was close to the finish, but who could have guessed that finish line and shuttle busses are at the opposite sides of Venice? I bumped into runners the night before and they said just to follow other runners, I would be fine. But I wasn’t. The other runners caught a water-bus along the Canal Grande and I followed them. It took the water-bus 15 minutes for five stops, at least 10 more to go to Piazzale Roma, from where we still had to walk at least 10 minutes to catch the shuttle busses. Against the trend I decided to leave the water-bus and walk the rest. I already missed a marathon start this year and did not intent to repeat that experience. It turned out walking was definitely fast enough, so I caught my shuttle bus together with a countless number of other runners. The bus was so packed that my suddenly inappropriate layers of jacket, jumper and running shirt immediately caused me breaking out in sweats. But there was no space to take the jacket or jumper off, the journey took at least half an hour and by the end I was so sweaty like having been half into the actual race. Anyway, I made it to the start area, a little bit too early for my taste, but better then too late. The looming thunderstorm made me nervous. While I was waiting I was getting cold, the first rain drops came down and I just did not like the scenario that was starting to play out. But against all odds the weather kept up. And I started running in dry conditions. And everything hurt. The kind of “hurt” where you think it is just not your day. Great. At kilometre 15 I had enough. But no options, but to continue. And suddenly there was a shift. Rather than focusing on everything else and that a sub 3:30 is so not going to happen, I focussed somehow on the basics: regular, calm but deep breathing, posture, the road ahead of me. And I found my zone and things got better and even enjoyable. And then came the bit that was almost a spiritual experience. After kilometre 31 the route was leading to a straight line, vanishing into a fixed point and then nothing. Of course this was the bridge leading to Venice. But you could not see Venice, only sense it. The general visibility was good but not clear, and at some point you saw Venice slowly taking shape and materialising at the misty horizon. The feeling was magical and the pull this caused was unprecedented, especially at this point of a marathon, where the going gets tough. This wasn’t tough, it was something else. At that point I realised that it still had not rained and the sky did not look like it would any time soon. Had God really listened to my winging this morning? I felt much loved. The slow appearance of this seemingly floating city, surrounded by water and shrouded in clouds suddenly awoke thoughts of a New Jerusalem descending from the sky. A goosebump moment – with a harsh wake-up in a worldly reality. Once we entered Venice, the route led us through a grey and dirty port/industrial area, which was definitely an anti-climax and it gave you goosebumps for the wrong reason. Once pushed through (two kilometres that felt so much longer than the five before) you had the final four left, leading through all the good Venice stuff that you signed up for:
Seaside to your right, Basilika Santa Maria to your left, running across the Canal Grande on a temporary bridge especially for us, running towards and into the Piazza San Marco with the 41k marker placed directly in front of the glorious Basilika.
The last four kilometres of a marathon had never felt any better. It was absolute amazing, almost divine. What a glorious finish to what started out to be a running disaster in making. I am feeling very thankful.
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 too-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, exiting at Uxbridge and taking a tube home safely. The new shoes were perfect and lived up the challenge. No sores, no blisters and overall, despite all exhaustion and not really understanding how after 39 ks to carry on for another 33 running, the possibility of finishing my first proper ultra race 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.