Sub 3 hours in my 1st street marathon… hurray!!!

We’re in the middle of February and the weather is cold outside. I’m sitting at the kitchen table and the window glass is fogged with the warm air coming out of the oven. People out-of-doors walk briskly through the street, burrowed in their coats, hiding from the dark chilly breeze, patches of ice everywhere. Winter engulfs the city sharply as the night settles in, bringing all its might during the grim hours of the day.

I’m pleasantly drinking a glass of wine at the moment, appreciating how housing in Germany can provide comfort during the toughest season of the year. My friend Carlo has invited us for a wonderful dinner at his place. We always enjoy bringing our families together and the relaxing moments we spend together, talking about life, our beautiful wives, our loving children and what life may be preparing for us ahead in the road.

Let’s be clear about something: there’s no better pasta than the one prepared by a good Italian friend at the heart of his home-kitchen. The consistency was flawless, the texture was al gusto, the sauce creamy as desired, not too much nor too less, all perfectly matched with a fantastic Parmesan cheese topping it all. Add to it a good start with fine-grained bread, fresh mozzarella with thin sliced tomatoes and loads, loads of natural basil leaves… oh my… please bring more wine.

We love sports and end up inevitably speaking about it whenever we get together. Football is a recurring subject as he absolutely loves it. To watch and to play. He also runs. We have to face it that getting a team of players together is not as easy as putting your running shoes on and hitting the road. So we end up talking a lot about running as well. Which is very easy going as I’m a runner at heart. Conversations usually end up with planning a session together by the banks of the Rhine or day dreaming about the next challenge.

Amid another glass of wine he comes up with an idea: “What if you’d run the Düsseldorf Marathon?”…

My first thought goes into the absurdity of it. I’ve never done a street marathon and after falling in love with trail running, going for any ultra distance only makes sense when there’s that sense of connection with a surrounding that immerses you into a myriad of beautiful thoughts. Easy to find in nature but difficult to tap into when you’re running in asphalt in the middle of concrete buildings.

He elaborates: “You’re living in this city for nearly 10 years and never did a street marathon in your life. If one day you’d think doing one, it should be here. Think about that in a couple of years you could be living somewhere else. What are the sporting achievements you take with you? You’ve had excellent marks on 10k, half-marathon and relays but what about the queen of all distances?… Come on, it would be fantastic to tell your children that at least once in your life you’ve done a marathon under 3 hours”

My mind is wobbling through imagination land, browsing through screenshots of the marathon track, seeking to grasp which emotions would hit me, how it would feel like, which audience would come to support, how the weather would look like, who would I run along with, the taste of crossing the finish line…

Wait a moment!
Did he say 3 hours?!?…

Of course… if I’d run a street marathon at all, it would have to be a good performance and the mark seems all but reasonable. But that means…

I feel a sudden pull into reality. I feel the sweat, the pain in my legs, the mental pressure to keep up with a challenging pace, the only one capable of making me cross that finish line within target. From dream to reality there’s a big gap… one thing is to play the race in your mind, like a short movie that you haven’t seen yet but can anticipate, like an editing exercise where everything plays in fast-forward, a race in one swipe, detached from the senses and built solely based on your creativity… another thing is to go through all the preparation, the whole training plan, as much on days of beautiful blue sky and sunny weather as the ones full of cold darkness, just like the one outside the window now… and then to be in loco, at the stage of all dreams, your brain loaded with all the pressure that you’ve made it so far but now you have to really put up with it… the constant speed, the steady pace, the balanced nutrition, the perfect hydration strategy… the glory of the realisation of a preparation well done, while at the same time the inevitability that pain will hit your muscles and your mind, no matter how well prepared you are…

The night is colder outside and it’s even darker now. As if the universe is raising an eyebrow and reminding me that training for a marathon in April will have to be done during the tough months of winter that still lie ahead.

Is this something I really want to do? Tempting it is, hard it will be. Challenges are however to be taken and there’s no personal best without going through the pain. Remember Murakami? “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.

“Do you know that Chris, Samba and Johannes are doing it as well?” – there’s a blink of an eye on my friend’s look. He intrinsically knows he’s got me now. I love getting the community together and there’s no better way to go through painful trainings than to do it together. What if… together… could work… would be awesome actually…

I know it deep within that there’s little room for running away from this thought. Like a planted seed, it starts growing in the upcoming days, through the weekly trainings, with talks with the folks I’d be running with and with the realisation that what was initially just an idea over a glass of wine is about to become reality. There’s a lot of work to do but I’m set for it.

The winter are difficult to keep up a regular training schedule and a lot of business travel doesn’t make it easier. There’s times however where, no matter how much you juggle and how hard it is, you just do it. And this was definitely one of these cases… I’ve put in the kilometres to build the endurance and I took all the mandatory interval training series to improve the anaerobic engine required for the race’s demanding fast pace. Snow, rain, wind, sun, hail, darkness, light, loneliness, community, friendship, tribe, … there’s a bit of everything when you train for a street marathon. Get ready when you set yourself into it, acknowledge your commitment, leverage on your will to do it to go through the training plan and steadily build the fitness level you require to achieve it.

Piece of Guidance: if you plan a big endeavour and want to be certain you’re putting the effort in the most efficient manner, get a training plan. It will help you keep focused and in a consistent path towards race day. There’s a wide variety of online resources you can tap into. Needless to say that I deeply recommend beAPT – Aerobic Philosophy Training. Coach Paulo Pires and his beAPT community is an absolute master of his domain. With the added benefit of caring for your health!

With a blink of an eye the day has arrived…

The race day is always packed with emotion, either because of anticipation of a beautiful track or the anxiety of knowing you have to push yourself out of the comfort zone to meet your targets. In this case it was definitely the latter… oh boy… I knew I’d have to be running fast. Butterflies in my stomach, I got ready early morning and have hit the starting area with my mind set on the fact that, despite all the training and preparation, now was the time to prove wether I could do it or not.

Best way to relieve some of the built-up pressure? Meeting the guys before the start!
It is amazing how friendship and a casual chat can calm down your nerves and get rid of a ton of anxiety.

Smiling at the Düsseldorf Marathon start line

Warm-up completed, start line photo taken, plastic bag gone, cheerful wishes of a good race to everyone around, embrace the rain that just started pouring down, focus on the target…

Off we go!!!

Piece of Guidance: on cold days and to avoid the challenge of taking a jacket which will make you too warm during the run and that you don’t want to loose by leaving it behind, use a garbage plastic bag as a wind stopper. Place it on top of your gear, for protection and temperature control. Cut an opening on the bottom centre (for your head) and two on the botton sides (for your arms). Turn it upside down and wear.

The first 10 km went really smoothly. The start of the race is always filled with the enthusiasm of finally living the moment, plus the lightness of fresh legs and mind. I usually talk… a lot! I share the positive energy with the ones around me and wow… have I heard different reactions… all the way from “shut up” to “from now on I’ll always race with you” 😉

We stayed together as a pack and a little bit ahead of the 3 hours pacemakers.
There were just too many runners around them…

Piece of Guidance: most street marathons have pacemakers with visible signs on them (typically a large flag on the back or a floating balloon). If you’re planning finishing in a specific time, consult the race organisation to find a suitable pacemaker for you. It really helps to stay close with fellow athletes that share the same goal and, most importantly, will go through the same challenges.

The second quarter of the race was about enduring the rain. Body was warm but the feet were getting soaked. I tried to ignore the fact that that might compromise the race and focus on the positive aspect that having my clothes dripping wet could be a good way of regulating body temperature and avoid overheating.

Pushing through the Düsseldorf Marathon’s rain

As Chris and Samba started falling behind, I kept my pace. I tried to find the right balance between slowing down a bit to allow them to catch up and keeping up the pace to ensure I’d cross that finish line below 3 hours. They weren’t very confident at the start that they’d be able to make it really… injury and lack of training hindered their focus and they might have good reasons for it.

Piece of Guidance: if you’re running with friends towards a common goal, establish the rules of engagement at the start. What happens if someone lags behind? Do you try to keep up together anyhow or decide to split up? Companionship is great and I love it… in particular races however, you might want to focus on your individual goal. Best case, take the decision together. Ultimately, answer the question yourself: “what will I do if my partner starts falling short?” Different races might have different answers and both are valid. You just need to know beforehand which one it is.

Playing at home, I had a big advantage: my family could cover the event very nicely. We’ve ended up meeting several times along the track and being able to witness my kids’ enthusiasm was a strong booster to morale. On my usual long runs in mountain trails, the opportunity for them to see me at regular intervals is quite reduced. With a track spreading outwards in the city yet often converging to the center, the Düsseldorf Marathon is very well dimensioned for friends and family to be able to participate and see the runners more than once, without having to commute long distances. Despite the rain that was falling during the first half, they were there, cheering, pushing, motivating, screaming… oh yes, my younger one did scream… “go get that guy!”, “don’t let him get away!“… gotta love child’s innocence 😉

Piece of Guidance: define checkpoints in the race and work towards them. Don’t think of the finish line only but specific locations along the track where you can check your progress against time or distance. To give you an additional edge, bring family and friends and plan where to meet them. It will lighten up a smile in you and you’ll be looking forward to those moments. Logging kilometres in the meantime with the anticipation of getting there.

Shortly after half way, my peers fell out of the race… damn!
And then I was overtaken by the 3 h pacemakers. No… no… no…

My mind started going into overdrive… am I loosing my speed?… I may be getting tired… being dragged by the rain… legs getting heavy… I check the watch and start making calculations. I’m ahead of time actually! What the hell is going on then? Why am I behind the pacemakers now? There’s a flock of runners around me, chasing those pacemakers, feet loudly cranking the floor, sometimes nearly in unison. I decide to keep up my pace. Stay as is. Things seem to be fine and there’s still a long race ahead. I’d later find out that would be the right strategy, as the pacemakers made it to the finish with a bit of time to spare.

Piece of Guidance: plan your race in detail, calculating in advance where you should be at which time; use your memory or take a cheat sheet with you; review your progress at regular intervals to understand if you have to adapt or to get motivation from the fact that you’re doing absolutely fine and according to plan.

The last quarter of the race came really fast. We’d be running through the beautiful renowned Königsallee where a lot of spectators would be watching, including my wife and kids. Last checkpoint before heading towards the river and the beloved finish. I had missed out the last aid station and was starting to feel dehydrated. Knowing my kids had “strategically” taken a water bottle from home, I was suuuuper eager to find them.

As I made my way into the Königsallee there they were! I’d be getting my water now.
I shouted out for it…
“Water!”

But they kept cheering… unable to hear my request amidst their enthusiasm… I shouted again…
“Water!”

Nothing…

I was already completing the curve and nearly leaving them behind, when my wife realised the predicament I was in.
In a desperate attempt to give me the bottle, she threw it at me. And time just slooooooowed down… I saw the bottle smoothly traveling through the air in my direction, in a spinning flight, my hand stretching towards it, their trajectories getting aligned… the slender touch of the projectile in my right hand, my fist closing its grip, the bottle falling within my grasp… the desire of the precious liquid coming to an end as I’d at last be having the chance to replenish for the last 2 km… or… maybe not…

Booooom!

A loud crack echoed as the bottle hit the ground hard, my hopes of killing that unwanted thirst going down the drain.

Bugger!!!

So what happens when things don’t go as expected? Try to play them in your own advantage.
If there’d be no water and the race was coming to an end, the faster I’d get there the better 😉

And so I ran… ran with the remaining energy and will to the end… finishing up in a time of 2h58m24s, within target and with a good feeling overall.

My legs were definitely getting very heavy on the last kms and my mind thoroughly tired of sustaining such a fast pace. But it was done. Very happy with the achievement!

Cheers to my running mates, that kept up with me through all those hard training sessions.
Cheers to Paulo, heartfelt coach and dear friend.
Cheers to my family, my lovely wife and children, for encouraging me to always give the best of myself.

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