Thursday, November 29, 2012

A runner's excuses

Well, I've just completed my first full marathon in 6 or 7 years. I should be feeling pretty chuffed with myself. And I am, but... well, my time was just awful, EMBARRASSING. 5 hours - WTF? I could walk the distance in 6-and-a-half. This was feeble; very, very disappointing.

Amongst my excuses...

It was a 'long' course
A marathon is only supposed to be 195m more than 42km, but... this one went on for a long, long way after the 42km board. I wondered if perhaps the organisers had become confused with the Imperial measurement of the distance - 26 miles, 385 yards - but even that couldn't account for this agonisingly protracted finishing stretch: I'd guess it must have been over 500m. Moreover, several competitors who had clever GPS applications on their smartphones recorded the overall distance at well over 1.5km longer than it should have been. I rather suspect the organisers had measured the course on a flat map, not taking into account the effect of the numerous hills. And, oh my god....

It was a VERY hilly course
A German runner with one of those of GPS gizmos told me that he'd clocked ascents totalling over 500m - yup, an extra third of a mile vertically upwards. That's a hell of a tough race! Even Lezan Kipkosgei Kimutai, the amiable Kenyan who won all three stages of this 'Ultra' event very comfortably (and who looks not much more than half his forty years!), took nearly 15 minutes longer than his personal best. Most competitors, I would think, were taking at least 25-30 minutes longer. Still, I ought to be able to run a marathon in less than 4'30". Except that....

I hadn't trained enough
I'd only been training in earnest for barely a couple of months, and had been focusing my efforts on preparing for the Xiamen Marathon - which was 8 weeks later. The opportunity to take part in this event came up at very short notice, and I was really killing myself for a week or two to try get in shape to attempt it.

You really can't train for hills like that in Beijing
As I've observed before, the centre of Beijing is pancake-flat. You've got to go quite a long way out into the countryside to get in any decent practice running on serious gradients.

I may have overdone things slightly in my final preparations
I wasn't confident in my ability to last this distance, having not attempted it for several years; and having, until recently, struggled to complete even a half-marathon distance. So, I forced myself to do a full-distance dress-rehearsal around the Houhai/Qianhai lakes in Beijing (well, pretty near full-distance; getting on for 40km, I reckon) only 10 days beforehand - and that hurt, a lot. Psychologically, it gave me the boost I needed; but physically, I think I wasn't fully recovered from it.

And I wasn't able to 'taper' properly
Most long-distance runners recommend winding down your training in the last two or three weeks before a big race. You shouldn't stop altogether, but you usually do only a few light runs in the last week or so. I had to stop altogether - because of an unseasonal freeze and snowfall in Beijing the weekend before the race that made it impossible to go outside.

I had perhaps been dieting too severely
I'd managed to drop 20lbs (9kg) in less than two months. I have been careful to try to maintain good basic nutrition during this, but shedding that much weight takes it out of you - I think it has compromised my stamina a bit.

I haven't recovered my bounciness of gait yet
The weight loss hasn't yet brought much improvement to my pace. In my head, I still feel like the fat man I was a few months ago, and I'm just not picking my feet up very well, not really stretching out my stride.

I don't like my new shoes
This is a terrible thing for a runner to confess. When you buy a new pair of shoes, you're expecting them to be a central part of your life for the next couple of years, at least; you're expecting to be inside them almost daily, for hours at a time. It's a big deal. This is a closer intimacy and a more enduring commitment than I have ever experienced with a woman. I've been a Nike man for... nearly 30 years now. I have experimented with Reebok and Adidas and New Balance, but these dalliances have only served to reassure me I am well-and-truly wedded to the swoosh. But bloody Nike seem to have come up with a major redesign of their insoles. They always used to have removable, customisable arch-support inserts; but now - that's gone? I have very high insteps, and I really need all the arch support I can get. These latest shoes are in general very comfortable - no problems with blisters or runner's toenail - but they make me feel flat-footed. And I fear this is at least partly responsible for my attenuated stride, and my extreme susceptibility to calf muscle and Achilles tendon strains. I may have to investigate the Reebok option again.

I was ill
When I arrived at the first race location - the small, touristy city of Kaili, in the eastern portion of Guizhou province - it was smothered in low cloud and fog, and the damp air was thick with construction dust and other pollutants: it was the kind of foul brown fug, the off the scale of Air Pollution Index toxicity that we so often  suffer in Beijing, but which we naively hope more rural districts to be free of. After one evening's exposure to this, the glands in my throat swelled up like tennis balls. I'm not sure if it was an allergy or a cold or a response to airborne toxins, or a combination of these. But I had a sore throat and a mild fever and a nose streaming with snot throughout the three days of the event. If I'd been at home, I would have just cowered under the duvet feeling sorry for myself until the symptoms receded. But taking part in something like this gives you a huge shot of adrenalin, which enables you to overcome - or at any rate ignore - such physical infirmities.

I got my pacing all wrong
It's always a problem with big races. I am essentially a solitary runner: I don't adapt well to being surrounded by other runners. And much as I try to discipline myself, I can never completely resist the temptation to race against people - particularly in the opening few kilometres, when the field is so densely packed and there are so many people getting in your way (in China, security is non-existent, so you invariably get hordes of local people crashing the start, and trying to run along with you for the first few kilometres). Seeing people ahead of you who are obviously much slower than you - old people, short people, untrained runners, people with injuries - is annoying; you want to get them behind you as soon as you can. But if they've somehow picked up 20m or 30m on you before you pass the starting line... well, overhauling them is a gruelling and painful challenge - and it wears you out. Or, it would - if you weren't so absurdly adrenalised at the start of the race. And because of this surplus of adrenalin, however much you try to rein yourself in and to run well within yourself so that you'll be able to maintain the same sort of pace consistently through to the end, you always find yourself going quite a bit faster than you normally would. And that's not good. I know this danger, I should do more to guard against it; but I'm inexperienced, out of practice, haven't done anything like this for a long time. 

And my start in this marathon was just ridiculous: I reached the 5km mark in under 26 minutes. And I'm pretty damned sure - since I had covered most of this route in my walking explorations of the city centre over the previous two days, and since I have a pretty accurate inbuilt sense of distance anyway - that this was wildly mismeasured: I reckon it must have been closer to 6km at the very least, maybe more like 6.5km. Even if it really was only 5km, that's nearly as quick a pace as I've ever managed to maintain over a 10km race, and nearly 10% faster than I've previously run a marathon. If it was more like 6km, that's around a 3-hour-marathon pace, at least 20% better than I was capable of even in my prime. And there were some very steep hills in this section as well! Yep, I scared myself with that opening sprint: I deliberately pulled back to a gentle plod for a few kilometres to try to preserve my stamina - but I knew I was going to be completely gutted well before the end.

I was gutted well before the end
Those hills just got ridiculous. In the first half of the race, there were four or five fairly long uphill drags. In the second half, as we got out into the picturesque countryside of Qiandongnan, the hills were mostly very short - few more than 500m, many only 50m or so - but they kept coming, one after another. It was impossible - and dispiriting - to keep count: there must have been 20 or 30 of the bloody things. My stamina was flagging badly during the last quarter of the race. And then I began to feel the worrying twinges of an old knee injury, so I began to walk the uphill stretches over the last 7 or 8km. Until then, I had been on course to finish in about 4'20".

Fate - and the organisers - were messing with me over the final kilometre or two
Because this three-day event is evidently conceived primarily as a tourist promotion exercise by the Guizhou government, each race has to end in some touristy hotspot. On this first day, it was a heavily reconstructed 'model village' of the Miao minority people - hilly, and with cobbled streets: NOT what you want for the closing stages of a marathon. What's more, there were no signs to let us know where we were going or how long was left (over the last kilometre or so, it's nice to have distance markers every 100 or 200m, to reassure you that you're nearly finished), and the road was so winding that we couldn't finally see the finishing line until it was just a couple of hundred metres away. Trying to pace yourself over the closing stretch in conditions of such uncertainty is... not nice. Moreover, the organisers hadn't been able to do anything to clear the streets, so we were having to weave through gaggles of tourists... and the occasional motor vehicle. Then I paused briefly to check on the status of a young Brit who was limping home with a bad injury. And while I was doing that, I got overtaken by a China Post delivery van - which almost completely blocked the narrow streets; and followed the route of the race all the way to the end, at a crawl; and belched huge clouds of choking blue smoke into my face. Thank you, God. I was able to squeeze by it before long - but I gripe that it may have made the difference between me finishing a few seconds inside and a few seconds outside 5 hours.

I didn't find out exactly how long I'd taken, because the organisers had already dismantled the official race clock. [I heard a rumour that they'd decided - without, of course, telling anyone - to reduce the time allowed for this first race from 5 hrs to a niggardly 4hrs 30mins. They did chop back the allowance for the next day's race from the advertised 4hrs 30mins to only 4hrs - although it was 90% of the full distance, with a vicious 3km hill at the end. This kind of arbitrary change to the parameters of the competition is particularly rough on people who finish within the advertised time limit but outside the new reduced limit, and are thus denied an official classification in the event. I don't give a rat's ass about that, I was just taking part for my own enjoyment. But a lot of people were pretty disgruntled about it. A further post is brewing on the legion failures of organisation surrounding this event.]

So, anyway, damn - 5 hours??!! I have my excuses, but that really is a pretty piss-poor showing. I ought to be capable of doing a marathon inside 4 hours, goddammit! At least, I was 7 or 8 years ago, when I was really training seriously. And I'm going to get back to that level again - or die in the attempt!

Perhaps 4'30" might be a more realistic target to set myself for Xiamen, though....

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