Malaga – Good, Bad And Ugly

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!

The Morning of Marathon Number 50

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!!!

Dorset Ultra – Paradise Lost

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).