Die Wondering or Die Trying?


I may not have died wondering, but I certainly died trying.

Two weeks before the Amsterdam marathon, in a last moment decision,I pitched up at the Rietvlei Parkrun and ran the 5km route in 17:45. A time which while certainly not my fastest over 5km’s was certainly a step closer to where I’ve been focusing my training.

With a week to the Amsterdam marathon I toed the line at the Gun Run 10km in Cape Town in what had to be some of the best running conditions I’ve experienced in a long time. Flat, fast route, hardly a breathe of wind and a blanket of thick mist to keep things cool. After the previous weeks 5k I felt like a 10k PB might just be in reach. I certainly did not (and still don’t) feel anywhere near my best shape but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The gun set us on our way and like a herd of bulls to a red flag the field set off at a blistering pace for Beach road. With a quick glance at my watch I realized I was cruising at a pace of 3:10p/km but knew that I needed to reign things in. I did and pulled the pace back to between 3:20 and 3:25p/km. The pace felt comfortably hard and very much maintainable, I was on for a definite PB as long as I could hold the pace. Along the promenade and toward the waterfront on a long flat stretch of road. I started to work as we climbed ever so slightly out of the waterfront and up toward the main road. My pace had dropped slightly on the small pull but once I hit the main road I was back into my rhythm and kept working.

I had First Lady in my sights. She had come past me around the 4km mark and had opened up a gap of around 300m’s on me. She become a target, something to keep me focused and to get me to that PB. Besides, today felt like a good day not to be “chicked”, (when a female beats a male). She held a steady pace and I was forced to dig deep to eventually catch her with only about 200m’s to the finish line. As I turned the final corner it ended up a sprint finish between myself and a local guy who managed to pip me just before the line. That final push proved to be just enough to have me hunched over for just a moment for a quick “dry-heave.”

I had run a new 10k PB. Taking 51 seconds off my previous I finished in a time of 34:28. A massive improvement and a good sign given that I don’t feel anywhere near top shape, both fitness wise and definitely diet wise.

Anyway, those were my 2 Sunday’s leading into Amsterdam marathon, and of course not to forget Mont aux Sauces 50km trail run only 6 weeks before.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt as both a runner and a coach is that you never, or at least you should never, stop learning from your race experiences. Amsterdam was no exception and I come away from it with plenty to chew on.

Racing, ok, hammering a 10k a week before a marathon was never going to be the smartest thing in the world, but hey it was better than racing a 21k or something longer just before. Besides, flat, fast 10km courses in this country are few and far between. What I had underestimated however, and this will differ from runner to runner, was the impact of the 10k on my calves.

After the 10k race the legs felt pretty good and I had very little stiffness in the twenty four to forty eight hours following. But that Tuesday when I lay on the massage table with Stacey (my massage therapist) working her magic I realized that the calves where a little tender and that they had taken a bit more abuse than I initially thought.

Anyway, I don’t think this alone was responsible for the calf issue to come during the marathon, but certainly set the ground work for some accumulated fatigued.

Next, came the flight. Generally, when it comes to long flights I don’t travel well. Eight hours from Joburg to Dubai, a three hour wait and then a six hour flight from Dubai to Amsterdam. The gap between rows is always so small and I’m never quite sure what to do with or where to put my legs. If only I were a little more flexible I could put them behind my head. On long flights clearly everything drops from my head to my feet because I tend to land with kankles of note. On this specific trip, funny enough, although I had swelling in the feet and ankles it was not nearly as bad a before. What I did feel however were my calves.

By the time I landed in Amsterdam on Thursday lunch time, I felt like my calves had turned to solid rock. And then comes the walking.

Despite living in a third world country, as South Africans a fair number of of us tend to have things quite easy. We wake up in the morning, get into our cars, get frustrated in the traffic but eventfully we drive into the parking bay at the office, no walking required. We sit behind our computers until we can no longer ignore the growling hunger pains starting to distract our fellow workers. At which point we get back into the car and drive to the nearest or our favorite shop to refuel and drive back to the office. After work we once again get into our cars, sit frustratingly in traffic before driving into the driveway of our homes only to spend the evening sitting in front of the TV. Of course, a small percentage of us will head out for a run at some point during that daily routine. But, given the amount of time we spend sitting each day, exercise is a very small percentage of our day. Oh, and then while we’re here, come race morning we get into our cars, drive to the race, sit there until we need to get to the start, finish our run, get back into the car and drive home.

The problem with all of this, certainly in my case, is that once I land in a first world country will actual working public transport that most people use on a daily basis to get from point A to point B, I have to get these third-world-country-legs walking. Walk from the plane to the train, stand (usually, on the train), walk from the train to the tram, stand (usually, on the tram, oh, and use your core to keep yourself from falling over when the tram flies around the corners), walk from the tram to the accommodation and then climb the stairs to the accommodation. And then you proceed to do some walking around the city to check out the sites.

When I ran Munich marathon, I thought I had learned my lesson. We had toured (walked) the city flat for five days before the race. By the time race day came along my calves were so fatigued I ended up tearing my soleus muscle. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, I suggested that on the Friday instead of walking we hire bikes and cycle around. Which we did and which turned out to be far wiser than walking. Peddling however still required the calves and we still had to walk a whole lot further than what I properly walk in a weak.

Friday evening, my calves were sore. I had been massaging arnica oil into them each evening, before going to sleep with compression socks on to try and help them recover. Durning the night I could feel the calves and when I woke up I had a particular spot, slap-bang in the middle of my left calf which felt like someone had inserted a hot coal into it during the night. I was immediately concerned that I had developed DVT (deep vein thrombosis) and decided to get it checked by a doctor before ending up dead on the side of the road during the marathon. Of course, this process required more walking and in the end did more damage than good with the doctor closed on Saturdays (yes I checked their website before heading out.) The rest of Saturday saw more walking, although we tried to limit the walking by sitting on the hop-on hop-off bus.

Sunday morning, race day. Not the greatest conditions with wind gusting quite heavily and picking up throughout the morning. Walk to the tram, only to discovery that there were no trams on that route on race day. Walk to central station. Catch train 50 along with thousands of other runners. This meant standing in a train so crammed that the only way you’d be able to scratch your butt would be to rub up against the person next to you. Fortunately, I developed no itches, neither did any of my neighbors, at least I think not, hang on a minute, what was that fidgeting…..doh!

After breathing in each other’s exhaled air for between 20 to 30 minutes we climbed off train 50 and jumped onto train 51 for more of the same. Fortunately that was only one stop and we were there, well, at the train station at least. More walking to the stadium, a short warm up and then a long slow walk amidst 16,000 fellow marathon runners onto the Olympic stadium track where we split off into our various starting batches. I started in the white batch up front and it was pretty awesome to see the elite Kenyans and Ethiopians come out onto the track and to the front of the white batch

9:30am, the gun sounded and we were off. I had no doubt in my mind of what I was here to do. I certainly wasn’t going to die wondering and my plan was always to go out on sub 2:40 pace. Turns out, I certainly didn’t die wondering, but in the end, died trying. And I wouldn’t have it the other way round for anything in the world.

The first 5km’s felt ok. The pace came easily but I struggled to find a rhythm, so one minute I was 5-10 seconds too fast, the next 5-10 seconds too slow. This was the first small alarm bell, but I was on pace, or there about’s.

As we made our way towards the 10km mark I was certainly enjoying the experience. Metal fencing erected all the way along the side of the road with plenty of crowd support to go with it, something we don’t see in marathons back home. I was still on pace through 10km’s but I could feel my calves and this was not a good sign. They were tight and they were feeling sore, alarm bell number two, a little louder this time. My biggest concern was that the calves hold for the duration of the race, the last thing I wanted was another Munich and a torn muscle. I knew I was in for a long day, but I was going to fight for as long as I could.

15km’s in and the toughest section of the marathon. Anyone who’s ever run a marathon will know that the middle section of a marathon is the toughest. This is usually between 20km’s and 35-36km’s. In this marathon the tough section fell between 15km’s and 32km’s. Just after 14k’s you leave the crowds of support and head out up along the Amstel river. We had a strong wind coming straight at us and although there was some support on this section it was limited and you felt all on your own. My biggest concern coming through the 15km mark was an increasing burning feeling underneath both my feet and I realized that I was developing blisters. Alarm bell number three and the biggest of them all.

I kept at, increased my pace slightly to catch a small pack ahead of me and stuck with them for a while until the group dissolved. The route took you up for what felt like an eternity next to the river before you finally cross over a bridge and ran back alongside the river in the opposite direction. The going here was a little easier because you no longer ran head on into the wind. Along this stench you cross over the halfway point. Although I came through halfway in 1:20 still on 2:40 pace I had slowed and with the tightness I was feeling in the calves and the ever increasing pain I was feeling under my feet I knew I would not be able to hold that pace. But, I still believed I could hold a 3:50-3:55p/km pace which would still bring me close to 2:45.

There’s not a lot I remember about the second half. I remember some ladies holding motivational boards, “Smile if you’re not wearing underpants”, i mustered a smile, “Punch here for energy”, I knocked that boards lights out. I remember passing a number of runners who had either started around me or had come flying passed me, some where walking, some stretching out a cramp and one or two had pulled out. I remember beating last years winner, Kenyan, Wilson Chebet, but only because he too had pulled out and was walking on the road with a Red Cross jacket draped over his shoulders. But most of all, I remember pain, lots and lots of pain.

I’ve experienced pain in the past. I’ve had some very painful Comrades marathon races where it’s felt like the cartilage in my knees has been replaced with nails. I experienced an extremely painful operation 15 weeks back where for 7 straight days I did not know what to do with myself and it felt like the pain would never ease. So, I know what pain is and I can handle lots of it. But what I experienced during this marathon, while not the worst I’ve experienced, was simply debilitating.

I’m not sure how I developed blisters under my feet, I’ve never struggled with that before. It is possible that with the tight calves I had adapted my mechanics slightly and that was causing the issue or the shoes I decided to go with were simply not adequate for a marathon. Although, I ran my marathon PB last year December in them at the PE marathon in a time of 2:48. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, from around 26km’s my feet were hurting so badly in they felt numb. I felt like I could no longer pick them up and place them down, they simply rolled over and crashed into the hard road beneath me. There was nothing I could do, my pace was slipping and the best I could hold was a 4:30p/km pace and even that at times was simply too much.

But, I came here to finish and to die trying and that is was I did. My mind blurred with pain, I pushed on, desperate, for nothing other than to cross that finish line and find relief from this blinding agony.

I must have looked like a wounded buffalo with two dead fish for feet because for the first time in the race, apart from one or two calling out my name, almost everyone in the crowd cheered and tried to encourage me as I hobbled by.

After what felt like an eternity I turned the corner to an electronic board which read, “500m”. In through the front of the stadium, under the tunnel and onto the tartan track of the Olympic stadium I eventually managed to drag myself across the finish line in a time of 2:51. Very disappointed, but oh so happy to be able to stop.

An international marathon is always a great experience and I thank God for the opportunity to take part in the event and even more so, for the ability to run. Looking back, there are lessons learned and things to improve on. Here are a few of them which may help you in your first or next marathon.

1 – Plan long walks apart from the running sessions. When we run we train the muscles to withstand fatigue during a run. Walking mechanics are different to running and while we use the same muscles to walk as we do to run, we use them differently. In most cases, the days leading up to and the morning of an international marathon are going to require far more walking than we’re used to. Plan 45 to 60 minute walks where you can over and above your running training at least once or twice a week.
2 – Make 100% sure that you’re in the right shoe for the day. For my PE marathon my New Balance Minimus shoes were 100% and probably for any other marathon in SA. Given the walking and the fatigue coming into my muscles as a result, these were not the right shoe for me for this marathon and I needed to go with a shoe that had a little more relief on the calves and the feet. Even if that meant me losing some time to energy loss associated with a more cushioned shoe, that loss would have amounted to far less at the end of the day.
3 – Sometimes you need to push yourself, back yourself and see what happens. I don’t for one minute regret going out at 2:40 pace, I was in 2:40 shape and I gave myself every opportunity of achieving it. In this case I’m far happier with dying trying then flying back home wondering, “what if?”
4 – Choose your races carefully. Those who know me will know that you’ll very seldom see me at races unless I’m there to push myself. I’ve always advocated planning ahead and been selective when it comes to racing. In this instance I tripped myself up a little. Although I don’t think the 10k race was the worst thing in the world, it did form the base of a week of accumulated fatigue, perhaps if this was a local marathon with little or no walking before hand, the 10k may have had no negative impact or very little.
5 – Never stop fighting until you cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter if you’ve missed your goal time and you’re off pace, keep working and fighting to finish that day in the best possible time you can. There’s nothing worse and nothing more regrettable then quitting on yourself during what was turning out to be a great fight.
6 – Write up a race report on every race you run. Learn from your mistakes and turn them into positives next time round.

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