Cast your minds back to November 2007 if you will. It was such a sweet and innocent time for me as I approached the finish line of my first marathon in New York. Little did I know just how much this marathon addiction would take hold of me and the rest of my life as I crossed the line in 4:09.
5 years on and I’ve still not managed to kick this dirty habit, which has dragged me around the world to fuel this addiction of the wonderful 26.2. I’ve had my fair share of the wet, miserable cold ones (London), the blustery coastal ones (Edinburgh), flat as a pancake fast ones (Berlin, Chicago & Amsterdam) and most recently, the too warm to be running hard in uncomfortable ones of Frankfurt and Rome.
Training for Rome began in earnest back in Dec 2011. Steadily building up some base mileage and endurance in the legs, through the cold winter months. There were runs where I’d come back and not be able to feel my fingers/keys enough to open the door. How I longed to be rid of the constriction of hats, gloves and all manner of multiple layers both up top and down below. To be whistling through the streets in just my racing shorts and singlet were a far cry away during the first 3 months or so of training. We even had a period where the mere sniff of snow brought the whole country to a halt and unsurprisingly the training too.
Thankfully, the cold snap passed and training continued:
- Mondays - recovery runs/rest day
- Tuesdays - intervals
- Wednesdays - recovery runs/rest day
- Thursday - marathon pace (mp) runs
- Friday - Easy miles
- Sat - longer Easy miles
- Sun - long runs
The combination of the hard Tues/Thurs runs and the long sunday runs were taking their toll and I was forever grateful once tapering time began late February. With the hard work ‘banked’, there were then 3 weeks or so of progressively less and less mileage, so that I would be refreshed and full of vim and vigour for race day.
For me, the 4 months of blood, sweat and tears were all about these 3 little numbers:
My obsession with these 3 numbers has intensified over the last year or so. Previously it was 3:10 (for the 2012 race), but now it’s 3:05. For my age, a Boston marathon Qualifier (BQ) - the time you need to be able to even apply for a ballot place in the marathon, has now been reduced to sub 3:05 for the 2013 race. With my current PB of 3:11, that means I need to shave off a whole 6 mins and a second or more. That equates to finishing just under a mile quicker for the whole distance! Or to be even more pedantic, it means I need to be going 13.78s/mile quicker which doesn’t seem a lot but is proving one tough cookie!!
We arrived in Rome friday night, so literally dropped our bags off at the hotel (conveniently only a mile or so from the start line) and headed out for yet another carb loading fest. My weapon of choice: Spaghetti Bolognese, no cheese please!!
Friday night sleep is normally vital, as race day eve’s sleep can invariably be broken by nerves/butterflies. Thankfully, I’d brought my own pillow and was out like a light.
Saturday was all about getting to the expo and back asap, spending the rest of the day putting my feet up and continuing the carb loading/hydration in earnest. The expo itself was a short tube ride away followed by an ominously sun drenched walk to the building itself. Finally, it hit home that I was going to be doing it, as we lined up with the thousands of other runners picking up their race packets. Pretty slick affair by all accounts, contrary to stereotype that is ‘just the Italian way’, which translates as something more of a snails pace. We were swiftly directed into the belly of the building, picking up our race numbers and timing chips, before heading back upstairs to pick up our kit bag and then head through all the stalls that they had. Stalls from a plethra of the other international marathons on offer throughout the year, and of course the essential kit stations galore.
Chilled a lot for the rest of the day, taking in what sights we could whilst trying not to be on our feet for too long. In my earlier excursions abroad for marathon weekends, I’ve made the mistake of trying to pack in too much on the saturday in terms of sightseeing, only to pay for it the day after by turning up to the race with tired legs. A definite no no.
Another carb loading meal (this time, no-cheese pizza and then pasta) and time to run through the final pre-race checks. Laid all my kit out ready to jump into in the morning, got breakfast on the go (soaked porridge oats) set the alarm for 6:30 (race was at 9) and hit the sack once more.
Sleep was good and woke up refreshed, got into my race gear + warm clothes on top to head down to the race area. Got all my breakfast down me before 7am, to ensure that nature took it’s course (rule #1 Go before you Go!!).
With our agreed meeting points on the course, where I’d look out for my missus in the flourescent green wig (my very own grotbags) at 20k, 35k and 40k, I wished her a great day running around after me and headed out.
The excitement built with every step, as the course itself ran more or less past our hotel front step. To see the barriers that had mysteriously appeared overnight set the butterflies off big style!
On the tube to Circo Massimo was a sea of runners in various states of undress, some in just their race kit and others wrapped up to fight the early morning chill. The jostling nervous crocodile of runners made their way to the start area, out in the sunshine that already warmed us enough to not have to wear our warm kit on top. Normally, I’d wear my tracksuit bottoms and long sleeve top up until the last minute, but the temps were already up enough for me to happily shed these.
Having located my bag drop lorry (2294), I headed off for the invariable millionth pee stop (pre race nerves) before listening to some last tunes to gee me up even more, dropped the bag off, warmed up and headed to my starting pen. As we marched into our pens under the shadow of the Colisseum, the music pumping in the background, another massive smile broke out on my face. The realisation of actually being there, with just minutes to go before the race start hit me right in the stomach. The smell of all the menthol from the anti-chafe gels, the sweat from those around you as you huddle and gear up for the start gun, the murmur and cheers as the mass body of 12,000 or so runners psyche themselves up for the long road ahead. 5-4-3-2-1 ‘Bang’ and we were off!! The elites tear off at nosebleed inducing speed as us mere mortals just catch a glimpse of their flashing soles in the glorious sunshine. Taking a quick glance behind me at those held back in staggered start let off the pens behind us, i smile again as i see some of the faces that would be chasing at my heels all the way to the finish.
The first mile proved slow as we all found our stride along the cobbled streets of Rome. Being careful not to go out too quick, the bunching eased after the first mile and by the second the garmin was telling me i was on pace (sub 7mins/mile). In these early stages, it all feels easy. the 4 months of training have drummed into the legs that this is what is expected of them. stocked full of carbs, i consciously run through a mental head to toe check of how things are feeling:
- is my cap on right to fully shield the eyes from the sun?
- hows my head position?
- shoulders, are you nice and relaxed?
- arms pumping nicely, hands clenched softly?
- singlet feeling ok?
- nipple plasters still on?
- posture nice and upright?
- short shorts feeling ok?
- lucky pound still in there?
- feet feeling good? landing softly and pushing through every stride?
- trainers still nice and snug?
and the list goes on… this inner checklist continues as we run southwards before swooping right to encircle the city before turning back into the city for the closing stages. all is feeling and going great as we approach the 20k marker where i start to look out for the my bright green wig adorned Future Mrs Phan (FMP). and there she is, as i spot her some 100metres ahead and so veer to the right of the pack so as to throw her my best wishes. Seeing anyone you know on the course is always such an uplifting feeling but to see a loved one never fails to inject some air into the heels. we pass quickly and i shout out ‘te amo’ nice and loud, to the whoop whoop of the crowds. must hold it together for our next meeting at 35km! my splits continue to look good as the race enters the 3rd quarter. The crowds continue to line the streets, cheering and clapping us on but i’m pretty much zoned out as we whizz through the northern streets of Rome before we head into the last 10k.
Most marathon runners will agree that the race doesn’t start until mile 20. Unless you’re a full time athlete with time on your hands, us mere mortals bang out long runs that last up to 20 or so miles and no more. The reason being that anything more should be left until race day, as the hammering your body takes will otherwise impair the rest of your training schedule. On this day, for me, the race began to run away from me here. As you can see from my splits, they started to ebb over the 7min/mile mark and not for love nor money could I pull it back. By the time I got to 35km to see FMP (aka “Grotbags”), I was gasping. Gels and hydration had gone well, with a caffeinated gel bang on every 45 mins and constant mouthfuls of water to combat the increasing sweat rate in the rising temperatures. However, by the time I saw FMP again, the heat really was kicking in and was starting to take it’s toll. I shouted out for water as the pained expression on my face told her all was not well.
The checklist was now getting harder to run through, as every effort becomes tougher. The legs definitely don’t feel as sprightly as they did 15 miles or so ago. All the muscles are aching to stop and the cap is definitely sweat drenched on top of my head. I’m looking at the splits more frequently now and it dawns on me that today isn’t gonna be the day. Until mile 20 or so, I was on course for hitting a new PB of around 3:06-7, gunning hard for that elusive sub 3:05. but as we head into mile 21, the power in the legs seem to have all but depleted. I’m the closest I’ve been to wanting to walk for a long time, but the pride takes over as I want to run the WHOLE thing. Breathing was still good, taking longer breaths in to fill the lungs than to breathe out and empty them, but it’s all about the legs which just aren’t playing ball. Instead, I have this horrible lead like feeling that seems to be overtaking the muscles, pulling them tighter and tighter so that my running stride feels more like I’m trying to run through mud!!
I’m now completely zoned out, not hearing the rousing clapping as we head once more up and around the Colisseum before the finish line. With the target time of 3:05 long gone, it’s all about pride now as I push with every last ounce of energy to keep going as fast as I can. But there it is in black and white, as the garmin shows my pace dropping more and more. The final hill in the last km proves torturous as my run becomes more of a plod, hitting 8+ min miles as the lesser affected runners pass me in their droves. Swooping down into the home straight, it’s a sprint finish with all I can muster as I stop the watch and cross the finish line:
My second fastest marathon time ever, but still not fast enough. My first thoughts are to keep moving as we’re herded along by the smiley helpers with their medals, space blankets and nutrition. I stagger for some 10 minutes, throwing isotonic drink down me as quick as possible. Food is the last thing I want right now. All I can think about is what went wrong in those last 6 miles!! I’m already formulating what I can do better/differently in the next one.
There is an array of different faces that line the finisher area, some happy, some sad, some distraught with pain and others just looking downright knackered. I fell into this latter category and finally got my bag back from the race drop and headed to some shade to get my stretch on!!
All in all, it was a wonderful race in terms of a sightseeing course. However, I don’t really remember seeing much of it during the race, as I’ve got such tunnel vision in terms of checking where I’m running, watching out for other runners, gel packets, bottles and any other obstacles. From a cheering you on point of view, the course did prove sparse at times which made for plenty of quiet contemplation along the run. There wasn’t one shout for #Phantastic™ or #Teammotivation which I’d proudly strapped to my racing vest. After a quick call to FMP to arrange to meet back at the hotel, I walk back to the nearest tube and gladly take every escalator on the way back.
After a tearful/sweet post run meet up with FMP, it’s time for the best shower I’ve had in 4 months before we head straight out again for some sightseeing and a much needed bite to eat. We head first to the Spanish steps and begin my refuelling in earnest. We take in some guilt free afternoon tea and head back to the hotel for a late afternoon siesta before heading out for a celebratory meal by night where I wear my medal at dinner with pride.
Roll on marathon #11. 3:05, I’m coming to get you!!