Health Warning: Very long and very rambling race report ahead. Typing this took nearly as long as running the marathon.
My goal for this marathon was to finish under 3:30. This would be a massive improvement of my previous PR, but my training had been solid and basically uninterrupted from injury for the first time ever. I had run 1:35 in a half-marathon 7 weeks earlier, and this indicated that my goal time was indeed within reach.
Ideally you would go into a marathon feeling as strong as possible. That wasn’t exactly the case for me. My right quads hurt near the knee. My left hamstring hurt near the knee. I had gotten a sharp pain in my left hamstring when stretching 36 hours before the start. And to top it all off, my back was very sore the day before the race, so much so that I was worried about not making it to the starting line.
Come race day most of that was forgotten. I got up before 6, had some porridge, plenty of water, and eventually headed into town. Niamh was there to support me, which enabled me to shed some extra clothing at the last minute and just give it to her. The weather forecast had been bad, but as it turned out the meteorologists at Met Eireann should all be sacked. It never rained a single drop, and I think the temperatures were about 15C/60F. Perfect.
The start is very crowded, and when the gun sounds we shuffle forwards. I cross the start line about 90 seconds later, and off we go. I had expected a lot of weaving in and out for the first two or three miles, but it is much better than expected, it looks like most of the slow runners started behind me (though there are always exceptions). In fact, there are definitely more people overtaking me than the other way round. But remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
My plan was to start at around 8:20 pace, and gradually speed up to 7:50 over the next 6 miles. I miss the first two mile markers, which means I don’t get any feedback on my actual pace. As most people keep telling me, the first miles in the marathon are always faster than you think, so maybe I’m doing 8:00 pace? Then the 3-mile sign comes into view, and it’s taken me 25:30 so far– that’s 8:30 pace, slower than planned. Damn. I resist the temptation of speeding up, and still hope that 7:50 pace will come naturally. At that stage a runner starts chatting to me, he’s noticed my t-shirt from the Bantry half-marathon 6 months ago, and we talk for a bit. His goal is 3:40, I tell him mine is 3:30 but I’m already behind. He eventually pulls away from me, and I don’t see him again (though I expect I passed him at some stage later on). By mile 4 I’m on 8:20 pace, and by mile 5 I’m on 8:15, and it becomes clear that I’m not getting into the groove as hoped. I’m filled with negative thoughts. Did I eat breakfast too late? I’m hot. I should have worn a singlet. Why did I opt for a t-shirt? Everyone else is in a singlet. Maybe my training runs were short? Maybe I measured the courses wrongly, and my 20 mile runs were only 18 miles, thus giving me less of a fitness boost than expected, and at a slower pace? Eventually I reach mile 6; it’s another 8:15 one. To reach 3:30 I have to do 26 8:00 miles in a row. I’m 2:30 minutes behind schedule already, and I decide to stop wallowing in self-pity and do something about the situation. I wasn’t sure if that was the best thing to do. I remembered Zeke’s quote from a few weeks ago about other people’s race reports “I felt really good at mile 2 so I picked up the pace… Then I scroll down to about mile 16 in the report and look for the gory details”. I know perfectly well that I might be about to become another victim in that statistic, but what the hell. If I keep churning out 8:20, I’ll finish in 3:40 and will be disappointed. If I speed up now and blow up at mile 20 I might finish in 3:50 and be just as disappointed, but if it works I might be able to rescue the situation.
I speed up, but it feels faster than marathon pace. Will I really be able to hold that for 20 more miles? When the 7 mile sign come into view 7:50 have passed. Good. In fact, the best thing about speeding up is psychological: The self-pity stops, and I focus on the task in hand. And, I’m finally on pace. But my HR reads 171. Damn, that’s much too high, I’ll pay for that later on. The next mile is downhill, which is lucky because it means I can speed up and drop the effort at the same time. I also notice that I start reeling in other runners from here on. At first that worries me, but then I remember that in all of my races this year I’ve started overtaking lots of runners from a third into the race, so maybe that’s ok. The next mile is 7:40, but, as I’ve said, it was downhill. I do remember the next mile from last time. It’s climbing up from the Liffey valley, making up for the downhill mile we’ve just had. 2 years ago I had to walk some if it. In fact, I was astounded that most people were running it. Today it feels easy. It’s less steep than any of the hills along Caragh Lake, and I manage 8:00 pace without too much effort. From here on I’ve got one problem: my timer doesn’t display the seconds of my time once I’m past the hour mark, which means I won’t be able to tell my pace anymore. I decided it doesn’t matter. I’m running by effort, not by timer. By mile 8, the time is 1:05. Of course, that could also mean 1:05:59. In fact, it is definitely closer to 1:06, because after the faster two miles I should now be about 2 minutes behind schedule. I keep going at what I think is 7:50 pace, and by now it feels ok. Maybe it’s marathon pace after all.
The day before the race I had a chat with Cliona, my sister-in-law. She mentioned that her house is just beside the 10-mile marker, or maybe it’s the 11-mile marker, she’s not sure. Whatever, I press a bag of gel into her hand, with instructions of handing it to me as I pass. From 9 mile on I keep to the left side of the course and start scanning the spectators by the side of the road. I’m not wearing my specs, and I’m rather shortsighted, which means I have to be careful or I’ll miss her. And of course I still have to concentrate on staying on pace. Eventually I spot her, at the very last moment. I just about manage to grab the gel, and I’m off again. From mile 8 onwards to mile 15 the course is gradually climbing; not very steep, but steadily, and we are running into quite some headwind. I try drafting behind some big guys for a while, but can’t really tell it if makes a difference or not. I never spend much time behind anyone else, each time I soon feel the urge to speed up a little, overtake them, and repeat the same thing with the next runner. Eventually I reach the halfway mark. The official time says 1:47:30, my clock says 1:46, and since it took me 90 seconds to cross the starting line, it looks correct to me. It means that I’ve made up a good bit of time, but I’m still one minute behind schedule. If I want to reach 3:30, I’ll have to run negative splits by at least 2 minutes. I know it’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.
Very shortly after the half-way mark I spot Fionnuala, one of Niamh’s best friends, ahead of me. I surge towards her, and we start chatting for a bit. We both have got blisters developing, but we’re both feeling good. Her target time is 3:40, and we start running together for a while. I think it’s the first time ever I’m running beside someone I actually know, and it feels good, as if you reinforce each other. We stay together for the next 2 miles. Eventually she looks at her timer, and I immediately feel she’s dropping back a bit. My guess is her watch told her she’s running a little bit too fast. There is a water stop at mile 15, and after finishing my bottle I notice she’s no longer beside me. I start looking around and hear her shouting “Keep going Thomas”. I wish her good luck, and I’m off again on my own.
The stretch between mile 15 and 20 is usually my death-match stretch. I’ve always felt very tired at that point, but still miles away from the finish. Literally. This time it’s different. I feel really good. The mile markers, normally spaced out far and wide between, keep flying by. For the first time today I keep thinking “this is fun”. I know that goes against everything Dianna ever said, but I am really enjoying myself. I recognise the stretch at mile 18. This is where the cramps started 2 years ago. Yup, there’s that yellow building to my right, there’s the viaduct, and that’s the hill where my right calf blew up. This time I fly by. I do receive a warning shortly afterwards though. The course is again climbing, all the way until mile 20.5. A good mile before the crest a painful spasm shoots through my right hamstring, and I know that I’m about to cramp badly. I immediately ease back considerably; quite a few runners that I’ve just overtaken go past me again, and I’m desperately hoping that my leg will hold up. Just one more mile of climbing, then it’s downhill all the way. Please, Hammy, don’t do this to me. I’m not sure how long this lasts, but I feel better eventually, and dare to up the effort again, ever so slightly. The leg is ok, and by the time we crest the final hill I’m back on pace again. Shortly afterwards, I see Niamh and the kids at the side of the road. I shout that I feel great, receive another gel, and I’m off again.
The next 1.5 miles are downhill, and then there are 4 flat miles towards the finish line. I feel amazingly well and manage some great pace on that stretch, though with that stupid cheapo watch of mine I can’t tell how fast exactly I am. Up to this point I’ve counted the minutes from the start, and tried to figure out how far into the run I should be by now. From mile 22 on, I start counting backwards instead. 4 miles at 8:00 pace take 32 minutes. I’m passing said sign at 2:55, so I’ve got 35 minutes left, and I still feel great. I will make it. Then, all of a sudden, a huge big bear falls from heaven, lands right on my shoulders and wants to be carried. The sudden change in my legs is startling. At mile 22 I keep marvelling how well I’m feeling, and 4 minutes later I’m completely, totally and utterly exhausted. Come on Thomas, come on, keep going. I push on. God, that hurts. All of a sudden the signs are miles apart. Finally, mile 23. 3:03. Good. Still on target. Keep pushing. That hurts. I keep thinking “this must be the worst pain possible, as bad as childbirth” (though I have been reliably informed that that’s not the case). A few minutes later I think “just 20 more minutes of this and I’m done”, and nearly stop running, because 20 minutes of this seems more than I can manage. And I still keep overtaking loads of runners. I fact, at least a quarter of the participants seem to be walking at that stage. When I was still a 4-hours marathoner I thought that the walkers would all be confined to my part of the pack, or further behind, but apparently this is not so. Whatever, if they’re not trained enough, that’s their problem, I keep on pushing. Mile 24. 3:11, I think (to be honest, I can’t remember). Good ….
Then it hits me. I’m a complete idiot. I’ve been counting backwards from 26 miles. But a marathon is 26.2 miles. That’s an additional .2 miles, and those will take, what, 2 additional minutes? Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t, sh*t. I might miss 3:30 after all. All that pain for nothing. Well, I’ve come that far, and I’m still in with a chance, and I’m damned if I don’t give it all from now on. The legs are screaming, and I desperately want to stop. Then I remember Mike’s advice. If you want to slow down, try speeding up first. If you’ve ever been there, it makes some kind of sense. Running at a different pace uses different muscles, or at least it uses the same muscles in a different way, and what the hell, it might just work. I accelerate. I keep flying past everyone else. My face is a grimace, I’ve never been in so much pain before. A few spectators call out “Go on Timberland” (that’s what it says on my t-shirt). That helps. It really does. But it still hurts. A lot. Mile 25. One more mile. More pushing. More pain. I nearly burst into tears, partly because of the emotions (6 months of training might finally pay off) and partly because I’m in agony. Wuss. God, I’m in agony. Mile 26. Nearly there. Have I mentioned that it hurts? It hurts. One thing I don’t like about the Dublin marathon is that you can’t see the finish until about 50 meters before the end. There’s the last corner. There’s the line. The timer says 3:30:09, but I was always only concerned about the net time, so I can safely subtract the 90 seconds it took me to cross the starting line. I’ve made it with a minute to spare. The pain disappears without a trace. I’m so elated I raise my arms as I cross the line. I always thought that looks stupid when anyone but the actual winner does that, but what the heck.
Official net time: 3:28:42
I’m a sub 3:30 marathon runner.