Monday, November 19, 2012

Maratón de Valencia 2012

The long and the short of it is that the Marathon didn't really go as planned. If you want the gory details, then read on...

When my wife left in the morning she wished me luck but instead I managed to slip over while getting out of the shower and landed flat on my back. I suppose you could say I was lucky in that I didn't hurt myself but I would say that my "lucky days" tend to be those during which I manage to keep upright.

Like last year, I decided to go to Valencia on the AVE train - just over an hour and a half from Madrid - only this time I went without my family. The weather looked as though it was going to be really grim but, in the end, it turned out just perfect (well, almost perfect as you will see). I had two lunch menus of pasta at the train station in Madrid (for some reason it was cheaper to order two puddings, one of which I didn't want) and another helping of pasta for dinner with my Serbian friend (and faithful reader of this blog) Nebojsa in Valencia.

In the meantime, I had to go and pick up my race number at the Marathon Expo. Even though the hotel was really near the start, the Parque de Ciencias y Artes where the Expo is held is so large and confusing that it is difficult to avoid walking more than one would like to the day before a Marathon. Still, it was a lovely day (in spite of the forecast rain) and I had the chance to buy some interesting stuff in the Expo. I bought some more Wright socks, which I have found to be very good in blister prevention as they are made of two separate layers of material, as well as some amazing lubricant in a disturbingly phallic dispenser, especially formulated to eliminate chaffing in Ultramarathons and Triathlons.

Be prepared to have some explaining to do in customs
The dispenser contains a powdery substance which, when rubbed together, becomes a liquid which coats your skin with a rubbery sheen. I found it so convincing that I bought it on the spot. Whether it actually works or not, remains to be seen. It was the first time I had seen this product which apparently is made in Germany by one of the sponsors of the Maraton des Sables - the crazy self-sufficient Ultramarathon run through the desert in Morocco over 6 days and 243 kilometres.

As I was queuing up to get my race number, an official photographer of sorts asked if he could take a photo of me holding it up so I gladly obliged. Let me know if you see the photo anywhere!

After walking too much around the Expo I went back to the hotel and slowly lowered myself into the hottest bath that I could reasonably tolerate and tried (unsuccessfully) to watch an episode of Mad Men on Netflix via VPN and the sluggish hotel's free WiFi. I slept extremely well that night and woke up (a little reluctantly) at 6 am on the Sunday and went down for breakfast where, as you can imagine, it was difficult to find a table that was unoccupied by skinny people wearing shorts and vests. I had a dilemma as to whether to wear sunglasses for the race or not, given that it was still expected to rain during the Marathon. The skies looked as though they had got all the rain out of their system in the heavy storm during the night but I decided against wearing them in the end; as it turned out, it would have been the right decision to take them. A couple of hours later and I was warming up near the start with Nebojsa, who was a bit nervous before running what was to be his very first Marathon. Finally, we parted company as I went to the first "cajón" (corral) behind the elite runners and he went to one further back.

Every March in Valencia the "Fallas" are celebrated with exuberant fireworks displays. Unfortunately the African runners at the front of the 15,000 deep human mass were unaware of this cultural peculiarity and so mistook the "bang" of a few errant fireworks as that of the official starter's gun. Before they had advanced even 20 metres they realized their mistake, but not before the other 14,995 runners behind had all moved up. It took about fifteen minutes and a lot of gesticulating and squashing before we were all once again behind the starting line. I was so jammed up against the hairy back of the guy in front that my watch lost sight of the GPS satellites. At last, the gun went off for real this time and, in spite of the crush, I was able to get into my rhythm in less than a minute.

As usual, my plan was to run the first half at a pulse rate of 163 bpm. The first few kilometres - at least according to my GPS watch which was probably still slightly disorientated - I ran a little too fast but soon settled into a comfortable rhythm of around 4:05 per kilometre. In retrospect I think I spent too much mental energy looking at my pulse rate and calculating my split times when I should probably have just relaxed a bit more and concentrated on a comfortable rhythm and good form. After 6 kilometres Jaime came up beside me and we exchanged a few words before he crept by - that was the last time I saw him.

Once the crowd of runners had started to thin out a bit, I noticed that there was a blue line painted on the floor which presumably was the optimal line to take. Partly because I wanted to run the shortest distance possible but also partly because I liked the idea that I was literally tracing the footsteps of those incredible Africans running a number of minutes ahead, I decided to follow it although I found that with the recent rainfall, it was a bit slick so I kept slightly to one side of it. Another little innovation I noticed along the course (bear in mind that running does get a little boring after a while so anything can catch your attention) was that the organizers had taped large boards to the back of the bins where we threw the used water bottles, like the back board of a basketball hoop.

The first half was pretty uneventful and I arrived at the halfway mark with 1:27:30 on the clock, only a few seconds slower than in Seville back in February. Just at this moment, Santi passed me saying that "We will probably meet again in the 35th kilometre" as he was already starting to feel the effects. I told him that it was unlikely more out of politeness than anything else as I was feeling pretty good up to that point but almost immediately I started to notice that it was feeling like harder and harder work just to keep the same spring in my step. In the end, I was right: I didn't see him again, either.

I particularly remember one guy who passed me earlier on. I remember him because he was wearing the same t-shirt as last year, with the encouraging words "ALL SHALL FALL" on his back. I thought that this was quite an amusing thing to put on your back and spent probably more time thinking about it than I should have. I tried to turn it into a psychological advantage by imagining that it would only effect people in front of me as he too soon disappeared off into the distance. (It's just possible that I am being paranoid and there are a number of people who are both fans of the black metal band "Immortal" and of running Marathons.)

Apart from the botched start this year, the Valencia Marathon is impeccably organized. The roads are so wide that at no point do you feel inhibited. The 10K that runs in parallel is confined to its own side of the street and, before you know it, they've already run their course leaving you in complete peace. There were bands every couple of kilometres or so it seemed and along one particular stretch just after the half Marathon marker they played Chariots of Fire just as they had done last year - cheesey, I know, but effective. At one point the course ducks under a couple of bridges and this time they had hooked up a powerful sound system which blasted some rave tune I can't remember the name of through the echoing tunnel, causing us to whistle and shout. It couldn't have been at a better moment but it wasn't enough to stave off my particular fight with fate. "El hombre del mazo" was waiting for me as I came out of that tunnel. Nebojsa told me later that the "man with the hammer" exists in German as well and that a well known book on running recommends that you have a good answer ready for when you meet him. I think the problem was that I didn't really know what to say to him this time. I'd prepared for a different race and a different pace so, when he appeared, I was all too ready to offer him up some of my minutes. If I could just run the next 10 kilometres at my everyday training pace of 4:30 per kilometre, I would still make it to the finish line before that crowd of people running along with the 3 hour pace setter. Just then I was overtaken by a man pushing his toddler along in a pushchair...

Three kilometres at 4:30 pace later the hammer man came back and asked for more. Again, I perhaps too readily traded some more minutes just so that he would go away: I reasoned that I should at least be able to run under 3:10 which is, after all, the qualifying time for the London Marathon that I would like to ruin in 2014. But then I remembered that I already had a qualifying time for that Marathon so this too became an idea too feeble to hold on to. A loudspeaker cheerfully announced that "it was only a little further, you can win!". I basically didn't care what my time was by this point, I just wanted to get to the finish. I stopped under the hose of a fire truck to freshen up (someone took a pretty cool photo of me here - again, I would love to see it). I really had to grit my teeth just to keep going - occasionally I would try to pick up the pace a little but my calves would put me back in my place by starting to quiver and tighten in the first throes of cramps. For some reason, my bloody shoulder - the one whose ligaments I tore a few years ago - really hurt a lot - it never usually gives me problems, least of all while running. I even ran some stretches with my eyes closed (someone shouted for me to open my eyes, something I took as a reminder to face up to my fate rather than because I was about to crash into them).

The support from the crowd along the whole course was excellent but it was especially good along that final chute. I crossed the line just a few seconds over 3 hours and 11 minutes. It doesn't seem like a big deal: 2 hours 54 or 3 hours 11 minutes, but those 17 minutes contain a significant proportion of the melodrama that I have had in my life. Perhaps that is a shameful thing to admit - that some of us are so lucky that we have to pay money to suffer and "feel alive" but I do think that that is part of the reason we run. Regarding luck, I've often thought that luck is only temporary and that it is possible to go from being one of the luckiest people on the planet to one of the unluckiest in a single instant. I prefer to think that I run Marathons because of the feeling of privilege I have of being able to run at those kind of speeds almost effortlessly (for most of the way at least). I have learned from my now 6 Marathons run that what is more important to me than the time is to have felt in control. I got my ass kicked by the Marathon again this time but this is what for me and for many people makes it so fascinating. I shall certainly respect it more next time around.

The only frustrating thing has been not to really know why I faded so much in the second half. Was it lack of motivation? Was it because I had actually peaked two weeks earlier? Was it because I trained myself this time and didn't do any lactate or VO2 Max tests previously? Was it because of the 90% humidity? Was it because I had become overconfident after feeling like I had dominated the Marathon at last in Seville? The humidity was even cited as a reason why the elite runners didn't run so fast this year but my experience in Amsterdam in my first ever Marathon four years ago told me that my heart rate would have been correspondingly higher for a given pace: in other words, my strategy to run at a prescribed heart rate should have somehow taken that into account.

I hobbled back to the hotel and flopped onto the bed where I lay with my legs contracting and twitching all of their own accord. I managed to get my kit off but I couldn't face taking a shower because of the hot knives that I knew would stab those raw areas around the groin and underarms (perhaps I should have tried that new product I bought after all). The brand new pair of Wrightsocks I had bought the day before had worn through both layers but, amazingly, my foot was completely unblemished (apart from the trademark rubbing I get on top of my little toe from the Vivobarefoot Ultras).

Wright or Wrong socks?
After a well earned siesta I set off to meet Nebojsa and his wife for lunch - he'd managed to meet his goal of breaking four hours in a very consistent and controlled manner that would have made me extremely happy had I managed to have achieved that in my first Marathon (I did almost exactly the same time in Amsterdam but my second half was about 40 minutes slower than my first half!). On the way I stopped off to watch some of the people who were still running the last few kilometres. I sincerely think that these people are the real heroes of the Marathon. If I knew that I would have to be pounding the pavement for over 5 hours I wouldn't dream of going through with it.

I think my idea of running a Marathon in a new city (or at least one in which I had not previously run a Marathon) in a reasonable but not optimum time was a good one. Without my realizing, this objective stealthily converted itself into running a Marathon in a city I had already run in with the only interesting goal being to run it in the best time I could under the circumstances. My wife said that perhaps I should stick to Half Marathons but the fact is that I do enjoy the hulabaloo of a Marathon and I also like having the focus and discipline that training for one requires. I'd like to be able to find that sweet spot in between feeling like I am "slacking off" and being masochistic. I'd like to get to know how to be able to consistently run an even paced Marathon at a pace that still feels like a challenge. I can only get there by running more Marathons...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob,

    I had a great time with you!

    I guess that on that kind of speed for a result around or below 3 hours external factors influence your performance so much...i dont think many runners made their PB this year in valencia.

    hope to see you soon again, till then will keep on following your blog.