After what was almost certainly the most consistent Winter of training I’ve ever had… owed massively to avoiding racing XC (seriously – I don’t care what you hear anyone down at the running club say about it being good strength training – more often than not, if you want to improve your marathon running, ditch the XC season in favour of higher mileage on the road), and after forgetting to complete the second part of the entry process for the London Marathon before the 28th Jan Champs race deadline – I was on the plane to take part in the the Zurich Marathon.
Training had gone very well; it had been very consistent, and whilst there was less speed work involved, there was a greater consistency of mileage, and there had been more work nearer to threshold pace. I’d set myself a target of sub 2:30 and if all came together on the day – sensible pacing, good conditions, no mystery injuries appearing, no stomach issues… I was confident I was in the shape to achieve it.
Well two and a half of those came true…
I’ll spare you the long story of the weekend (Ha!) – but will summarise by saying it was awesome to experience Zurich for the first time, accompanied by my wife, visiting and staying with my big brother (who was also Marathon’ing). The race prep had gone well, the carb’ loading had gone well, I’d done a bit of stretching – my ongoing Plantar Fasciitis niggles were still niggling, but no more so than they had for my entire training schedule (and I had decided to tape my feet for the race with KT tape, which would definitely fix everything). I’d kept an eye on the weather forecasts which were forever changing, but regularly hinted towards it being wet and cold.
Marathon morning, my eyes open and it’s raining. Balls. It’s also cold… Balls… Breakfast, shower and a tram ride later and I’ve kissed the wife goodbye for the next couple of hours as the Simkiss brothers toileted, changed, lubed up, wished each good runnings and parted ways with 7mins to go; just enough time for another last minute toilet visit if you ask me.
2 minutes to go and I join the starting pen – 1 minute to go and I ditch the 7 year old stinky orange training top that has haunted McCarthy since the project began. It was 2 degrees, it was raining, and I was about to start a Marathon.
*insert generic race starting noise here because I’ve forgotten what it was*
We were under way and whilst jogging calmly (but invariably a little faster than target pace) the crowds of runners surged ahead as I felt that weird ‘hairs on the back of the neck sensation as you cross the start line, knowing what an monumental effort lay ahead. Settling into a comfortable pace I was working my way steadily through runners whose initial eagerness had dulled.
Trying to get a gauge of how the pacing was going was nigh on impossible… Target pace was 5:43/mi, or in euro speak, 3:33/km… the combination of tall buildings and crap weather in the city centre meant the GPS pace readout was bouncing around anywhere between 5:02/mi and 6:23/mi for current pace, which rendered the average lap pace equally useless – combine that with the difficult to spot km markers, meant a first lap split of 4km in 14:03… 9 seconds up on target (assuming the km marker was in the right spot).
Somehow it took another 4km before another marker was spotted, though this one was a 15:04 split… despite seemingly no change in pace or effort, I’d apparently lost a minute. By this point the rain had gotten heavier and progressively turned to sleet; I was moving past the lead female and joined into a nice little international threesome. One more kilometer done in an apparent 2:52 and I’d given up paying any attention to the course distance markers, and the GPS watch… anyway it was now snowing heavily which was just bloody ridiculous.
Whilst my ability to sprecken sie German is essentially non existant, the two guys I ran through 9km with spoke enough English that we established we were all shooting for a (sub) 2:30 finish, and that we would work together. Passing through the 10km marker with a timing clock and timing mat, I felt loosely confident it would be an accurate 10km distance – it passed in 35:35 – 5 seconds behind target, perfectly acceptable in my mind – but sufficiently slow to warrant a surge in pace from my two sub 2:30 counterparts, who rapidly moved away from me. I was now running alone, in the sleet, 20m adrift of the two in front.
On the plus side, I started to rattle off the (apparent) km splits with near perfect pacing without even checking my GPS watch pace:
I was now properly on my own, with a 100m’ish gap ahead. Glancing to the right – you could barely make out the opposite side of the lake – such were the crap weather conditions. My gloves were soaked through and my hands were cold – I couldn’t quite work out if my gloves were actually helping at all, or just dead weight. I decided to hang onto them, at least until the switchback, in case there was a chilly headwind/breeze.
At one point (I forget where exactly) a steel drum band were playing a dance version of the tune ‘Popcorn’… which bought back vivid memories of my childhood playing a computer game called ‘Leaper’ (https://www.youtube.com/
Halfway… 1:14:51. I’d say that was just about perfectly to plan, though as the next km passed in another ideal 3:31, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t feeling as fresh as I’d like at halfway in a marathon. My feet had been a bit sore from the off (as they have been for the past 10+ months), but really you should sail through halfway feeling like you’ve done nothing more than a jog, and I could tell I wasn’t quite floating along. Ah well… with little option but to keep on running, and sticking to the plan, that’s exactly what I did. I started to reel in a couple of runners… with one guy now only 20m ahead he was hit by the gingerbread man, and diverted into the hedges with a code brown emergency. Alone again I started to drop seconds on my km splits – on paper it wouldn’t have been a cause for concern, but inside I knew fatigue was starting to creep in and the hamstrings were tighter than I’d have liked.
The support on the long out and back portion of the course was greatly appreciated; albeit sparse – perhaps a couple of people every hundred metres or so (so nothing quite like the 5 deep crowds of VMLM), but it was always super enthusiastic cheering despite the miserable conditions and was enough to keep you motivated. Whether they were all shouting “Op op op”, “bop-bop-bop” or “hup-hup-hup” I’m not sure, but it brought a smile to my face, and was far more motivating than the usual “well done”, “keep going” and “not far now” comments I’m accustomed to as a British runner.
As the race leaders came down the road in the opposing direction I knew I wasn’t too far from the far end of the course and with it, the switchback point… having seen several athletes pulled up at the side of the course having thrown the towel in – I decided to count the athletes passing in the other direction to get an idea of position. I was expecting a 2:30 finish would put me around 20th and the count was up to 9 as the course split into a lollipop style switchback with a loop at the end, rendering my position counting pointless as I had no idea how many athletes were on the large loop of the lollipop – I could count another 3 ahead in the distance but really I was clueless. A left turn away from the lake and I was unexpectedly faced with a hill (an actual hill), it was full of supporters along with another band playing cheerful music, and no sooner had it appeared, the 150-200m upward slope was done and immediately repaid with a steady descent. Psychologically I was now heading for home, having past halfway over 3 miles ago it was only now that I really felt I was in the second half of the race.
Along the long (~13km) stretch back towards the city I saw and overtook 2 runners ahead of me – there were another few elites at the side of the course awaiting collection having pulled out the race, but over those 8 miles (aside from runners still on their way to the switchback) two fellow runners is all I saw, and sadly they seemed to come and go very quickly. The sleet had settled to drizzle, and I had finally made the decision to ditch the wet, soggy and surprisingly heavy gloves which were doing bugger all to keep my hands warm. My splits were now consistently a few seconds off and progressively slowing – 3:37, 3:36, 3:38, 3:37, 3:40, I went through 30km with another 3:40, 31km in 3:39 – I was now counting down the km’s, and there were 11 to go, and they’d all be hard graft. At this distance in last year’s marathon, (after a slower start and slower target) I was starting to wind up the pace, this year I knew my 2:30 target was slipping away but I was actually quite content given the conditions and length of time spent plodding away in near solitude… So long as I could hold it together I was still on for a PB, and that would be a fantastic result.
The soreness in my feet had gone, and at 20mi the hamstrings had tired and were lacking drive, so I made a concerted effort to try and increase the pace figuring that sometimes (although rarely) an increase in pace can help break you out of a rut. The km splits improved slightly, 3:36, then back on target with a 3:31 – but that improvement was short lived, as the splits fell further away, 3:37, 3:37, 3:39, 3:43… It sounds like only seconds difference between each split, but the effort required to recoup those seconds was unfathomable. All the runners who were still on their way out to the switchback loop had long since passed and I was utterly alone, grinding out the km’s and counting them down, one by one knowing that at least the final few miles would be around the City Centre and would have some decent crowds.
Mile 24 and the pace dropped to it’s slowest… the calves and achilles were tightening and feeling like a frayed bit of rope with individual fibres tearing one by one with each stride. 6 minutes dead for that 24th mile, and as motivating as the crowds were upon reaching the city centre, it was only sufficient to prevent the splits dropping further away from target. I had confidence I could maintain this pace to within a few seconds, and there was no concern over not completing the remaining distance – I just couldn’t go any damn faster!
Rounding the final bend with a long final straight – my wife Emma was waiting, cheering, and bouncing around ecstatically – I missed what she said at the time but the look of joy on her face nulled all discomfort as I increased the pace as best I could to the finish line – arms aloft as I finished with a shiny new PB of 2:31:47.
It turns out Em’s excitement was down to me being so far up the field… a top 10 finish (including elites) in an International Marathon actually felt like quite a big deal, and really added to the sense of achievement.
A Manchester esque baggage situation meant that after the half mile walk to collect my bag, and being the first person there – it still took 10minutes for the volunteers to find my bag… time was tight as to whether I was going to make it back to the finish in time to see big bro Chris cross the line, and hopefully sneak under the 3hr barrier. As I hobbled back as best I could the time read 11:31am, so the three hour mark had passed – I looked up and spotted the other Simkiss competitor in the finish area; I’d missed him finishing. Emma and I rushed over to find out how he’d got on… 2:57:44. a 42 minute PB and comfortably breaking the 3hr barrier. From halfway in around 300th position he’d reeled in nearly 180 runners in the second half to negative split by 4 minutes. Superb performance.
With time to reflect, the conditions were something quite special – I can’t put a figure on what effect the weather had, If I’m honest with myself I can’t say it felt like it had much physiological effect while I was running – but at halfway I was in 26th position, and including the Paula Radcliffe impersonator I can only recall overtaking 4 runners from then on – so to finish 10th suggests 12 dropouts/retirements over the second half of the race, which with well trained athletes must surely suggest the conditions played a part?
Had you asked me a month ago how I’d feel if I didn’t break 2:30, I’d have expected myself to be gutted and miserable, but I’m genuinely ‘at one’ with the result. A new PB, and the marathon distance didn’t feel much more than one of the long hard training runs. It was a performance which didn’t hit my original target, yet didn’t demoralise and instead has only invigorated me to push on for Berlin.
Now how soon can I start getting back to normal mileage?