Monday, April 27, 2015

Madrid Half(?) Marathon report

Waiting for the train back home after the race, I overheard someone saying that he'd seen some people finishing with lots of gas in the tank ("sobrados") but that he had left everything out there on the course. This was the same advice I gave to my ten year old in preparation for a triathlon which he is taking part in at school this week. His mum tells him that the "taking part is much more important than the winning" but I put a little "twist" on this by saying that "it doesn't matter where he finishes relative to everyone else, but that he should feel that he has tried his absolute best". The face of concentration and suffering he wore when he ran a race last year made me much prouder than I would have been if he had finished first with a smile on his face.

So this advice was what came to mind when I did something I have never done before: I pulled out of the Half Marathon after only 4 kilometers. In spite of knowing that the first few kilometers were uphill, it felt far too much like hard work for the disappointing splits I was turning out. I remember thinking that there was no way I'd be able to maintain that pace for another 17 kilometers and that, even if I had, I wouldn't feel proud of having done so. I looked for something or someone other than myself to blame - not having trained for it specifically, having gone out on a "bender" on Friday night (as well as Thursday - something extraordinary for me these days) or just having turned 43. My head was so full of all these negative thoughts that I started to slow down and eventually stopped. I was so angry with myself that I did something I am even more ashamed of: I punched a lamp post making my knuckles bleed. I had such a bad attitude that I thought of titling this post "Growing Old Disgracefully". I sat by the road for a while, wondering what to do - do I get the metro back home, should I just finish the damn thing anyway, etc - when I had what turned out to be a brilliant idea. I remembered that a friend was running the Marathon which had set off in parallel with the Half, and I thought I could run with him for a while and try to help him pace himself.

Luckily Alessandro is quite a big chap with a beard which made him easy to spot, and I also knew that he'd be running with the 3:30 pace setter. He looked pretty relaxed and was able to keep a good conversation going without any difficulty, so this helped take my mind of things as well, I suppose, as his. At the 14 kilometer marker, the Half Marathon veered off to the left but I kept going with Alessandro to the right. A couple of race officials came chasing after me and I thought I that they were concerned about the fact that I had only paid for the Half Marathon inscription - actually, it turned out they were just worried that I had made a mistake and that my times wouldn't register.

It was a pretty horrible day but fairly good conditions for running as far as I am concerned - no wind, cool with a bit of drizzle. I didn't feel the need to drink anything the whole way and I'd already thrown away my gels (near the famous lamp post) as I wouldn't be needing them. The pleasant drizzle soon became a quite insistent downpour, however, and the puddles turned into small lagoons that were almost impossible to avoid: after stepping in a few of these it became pointless to try to avoid them anyway. We decided we would stop chatting and take things seriously at the 30 kilometer mark, just after coming out of the Casa del Campo. After this, there were several stretches that were quite narrow and where it was difficult to keep up a good rhythm, especially with people falling like flies around us.

There were a lot of supporters in spite of the rain. A major Marathon is different from any other competition in this respect: the whole city gets involved. Any shorter races don't really capture people's imagination in the same way and longer races are generally the reserve of "freakies" who are spread out much more sparsely along remote routes. At one point I saw a runner in front of us stop briefly to give his mum a kiss and I turned to watch her wiping tears of pride as I ran past. I love the emotion of Marathons - all the human stories unfolding before your eyes - it really makes the admission price of my own personal suffering all the more worthwhile.

I hadn't really planned to run the full distance nor was I even sure that I could, not having trained for it, but I felt good, and Alessandro's own story of wanting to finish without "hitting the wall" like he had last year motivated me to carry on. Of course, finishing a Marathon would take some of the poison out of the injury sustained to my self confidence by wimping out of the Half Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get a medal for my efforts and therefore be able to say that this was the 9th Marathon I had completed - making New York this year the 10th. I thought that I would try to blag my way through the finish line and, if anyone noticed that my race number was the wrong colour, I would try to convince them by telling my story (and potentially offering to pay the difference in race fees).

Alessandro was going well but I could hear his breathing getting more laboured and saw that he was gritting his teeth with the effort. He complained suddenly of cramp in his hamstrings but was able to run through it for the last couple of kilometers. When I saw the finish line come into view I gave in to the irresistible urge to sprint for the line. More than anything else, I still needed to vent my frustration. Alessandro finished in 3:30 and change and was deservedly very happy with his race. The splits were very even and, given how easily he was able to talk during most of it, I'm sure he can knock a good chunk out of that, now that he has a solid reference time to judge himself by.

I got my medal without any difficulties but I did have to turn away suddenly to avoid detection by one of the race officials. Luckily the guy handing out the medals was none the wiser. I didn't get one of those plastic shawls they hand you to help keep you warm, though, and I really could have done with one.

By now it was really raining, even by English standards. I hadn't bothered to leave anything at the baggage check because it was situated at the finish line, about 2 kilometers from the start, which would have meant an extra 4 kilometers in my legs before even starting the race. I had turned up with a t-shirt that I had bought for 3 euros the day before from Decathlon and a waterproof poncho from a Chinese shop, both of which I had no qualms about chucking. Making my way back to the start from where I had to catch the train home was quite unpleasant. A guy working for the Metro made a gesture to say that it was crazy to go outside dressed as I was, in a vest and shorts, and said he would have offered me something to wear if he had anything.

By the time I got back home, the day was starting to brighten up significantly. In fact, the only time that it rained the whole weekend was during the Marathon itself. I weighed myself and I had lost so much weight that my scales didn't recognize me (I mean this literally). We went for lunch at an Indian restaurant where I ordered a Vindaloo with extra fresh chili, but even so I continued to shiver for at least an hour after getting indoors. I know that they say that you should try to keep warm after exercise - something which I have always found amusing as I tend to be literally steaming afterwards - but this time I went a little too far. Even though running the Marathon made me get home a bit late, my wife would have preferred that over me coming home pissed off with myself. In the end I managed to turn a bad situation into a good one, but I shouldn't let myself forget that - for all the Marathons I may have run - the Half Marathon commands a respect of its own.

Looking over the results, I saw that I was one of the last people to finish the Half Marathon, in a time of 3:31. Not a bad time for a Marathon considering I had not trained for it and that I had run the first 4 kilometers in 15-16 minutes before sitting around for another 7 or so - not exactly what you would call "even pacing". But when I looked at the overall results, I realized that, had I run the 1:20 or so that I had been hoping for, I would have finished about 35th out of 7,000, so it was clearly an unrealistic goal for my current state of fitness and preparation. Had I just run at a slightly more realistic pace with more realistic expectations, I would have done a fine time (not a personal best, obviously) and finished in a good position. Lesson learnt. I'm pleased to finally have been able to run the Madrid Marathon given that I actually live in Madrid. It's a bit like saying that I haven't been to the Prado Museum because I can go any time (I haven't been yet). I've always shied away from it because of the hills getting in the way of a fast time, but it didn't seem any more difficult than the New York Marathon to be honest. I'm thinking now of entering every year and taking it in the same spirit I did yesterday. It may seem to contradict my philosophy of always doing the best I possibly can but I don't see why I can't enjoy the privilege of having the whole city to myself (and the other 20,000 runners).

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