Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted - One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
Eminem, Lose Yourself
6 years ago, after finishing my second marathon in a very disappointing time, I decided that if you're doing things as demanding as running marathons, it is worth doing it properly. I bought a book called “Advanced Marathoning”, and one thing they mentioned was that you should have a short, a medium and a long time goal. The latter should be very challenging, so much so that it could feel like boasting. For some reason I decided that a sub-3 marathon would be my long-time goal. For someone who had not even broken 4 hours at the time it seemed as far away as the moon and I did not really expect to ever come close. For several years I did not even mention it to anyone.
I had a (relatively) close call in Dublin 2008 but fell short, and when I turned 40 last year I feared my chance had gone for good, which is why I spent last year running ultras rather than marathons. I liked the slower, casual pace, but the little voice in the back of my had never stopped whispering “sub-3, sub-3”. When I got the incredible offer to be coached to one marathon by the Mystery Coach, it was an opportunity far too good to be missed and I did not have to think twice to accept. Training went very well indeed and I grew increasingly confident. In fact, I thought 2:55 was definitely achievable. But one lesson I learned in the last few days is that flying across a continent to a destination marathon is not the ideal way to run a fast time. As much fun as it was to bring Niamh and all four kids, I spent far more time on my feet the days before the race than I would have wanted and wondered if I was to wear myself out before I had even reached the start line.
Marathon Day was sunny and warm, with not a cloud in sight. Apparently the temperatures at the start were still a moderate 9 degrees, but while it was cool in the shade, it already felt warm in the sun. The race director called those “ideal running conditions”, but I was not entirely convinced, not if you are used to running in no more that 5 degrees in the early Irish mornings.
I found the start layout very confusing, there were no signs for the corrals and the layout did not match the map and I inadvertently ended up in the red corral rather than the blue one, but one fellow runner quipped that the blue corral was already filled with yellow bibs. It hardly mattered, even so I was way behind the start line, which seemed strange, considering all the other runners in here were supposed to be sub-3 runners (or sub-90 halfs). I was only a few meters away from Haile Gebrselassie and even though I did not manage to catch a glimpse of the great man himself, his mere presence put the entire event onto a new level.
The gun went and we set off. It took me 48 seconds to cross the start line, in position 793 apparently, not counting the half marathoners and the relay runners. There was a sea of runners ahead of me and of course the usual idiots who started right at the front and went out at crawling pace, two or three abreast, making a complete nuisance of themselves. I ended up elbowing one of them and did not even feel guilty.
We started right at a bridge which meant the first km was uphill and the second downhill, and by the time we were back over land the jostling for position had stopped and I tuned into target marathon pace, 6:40 per mile or 4:08 per km. The course was obviously measured in km, but my Garmin was still set to miles because that's what I'm used to. The other thing I used the Garmin for was measuring my HR, but that can be useless for the first mile or two until the strap picks up the signal properly, so I was not too worried at reading a sky-high number of 177 early on. However, when I checked it later and saw 170 and then 172, it dawned on me that I was actually running at far too high an effort.
That was seriously bad news. Even though the legs felt fine, I have learned on a couple of occasions that a high HR reading is more relevant than the feeling in the legs at that stage and if I ignore the HR reading I inevitable end up suffering badly and slowing down considerably, even over a short distance, never mind a long marathon. I did slow down a little bit, but I still thought Roberto was going to give me plenty of grief for running too hard (he rightly did so after Boston), and I sure was worried I was going to blow up later on.
5k: 21:00, place 497 (gained 296), projected finish time 2:57:14
After crossing the 5k mat slightly later than the planned 20:40, I realised that my HR had never dropped below 170 and was now hovering around 172, which was far too high and I reluctantly slowed down a little bit more. Logic and past experience would have said to drop until the HR was in the low 160s or even lower, but that would have meant going slower than sub-3 pace already and I was not prepared to give up the dream just yet. I feared that I would have to pay for that. The marathon is a question of preserving energy rather than banking time, and for every second you run too fast early on you pay back with interest. The coach had also had one final word of wisdom: The first third of the marathon is to mile 15, the second to mile 22.5 and the last one to the finish, and only then will you give it all. I was afraid I was going to use up all my energy reserves by mile 20, and that I would be walking by mile 20 and crawling by mile 23.
10k: 42:38, place 522 (lost 25), projected finish time 2:59:53
After a run through the leafy Prater amusement park we went onto the grand Ring road and then the “Linke Wien Zeile”. I would have preferred to run along the “Rechte Wien Zeile” because that was in the shade while we were baking in the relentless sun. I am pretty sure that the forecast 16C were in the shade, it was a lot hotter than that in the sun and there was not one cloud in the sky to give us some break. Even if it wasn't that hot, it felt like that to me and it was really getting to me now. I passed my sister's house at km 12.5, and waved to her. I wondered why Niamh and the kids were not with them, as arranged, but I saw them a couple of minutes later. Niamh called out “how do you feel”, and my long answer would have been “Well, I'm still on pace but only just and I don't feel too good, it's too hot and my heart rate far too high and I'm really worried about blowing up and I'm getting tired already”, but all I had time for was “ok”, which did not really pass on the entire message. I also did not want to give her bad news, though it struck me as slightly bizarre, seeing that I was the runner that should be shielded from bad news, not the other way round.
To add to the task, this part was also uphill. It was not noticeable as such but I had studied the course map and the elevation chart. At least I could tell myself that the tough going was due to the elevation gain, not the tiredness already building up in my legs. I knew that negative thoughts can have a real impact on a marathon performance and was ready to believe anything that would keep the dark thoughts at bay.
15k: 1:03:50, place 501 (gained 21), projected finish time 2:59:34
Then Schönbrunn Castle came into view and after two sharp right turns we had reached the highest elevation of the course and the next few miles would be easier. I kept looking at the Garmin, always seeing a HR of between 170 and 172 and the average pace was at 6:48, which meant that I had used up my entire time cushion from the first 5k already. The average pace needed for sub-3 26.2 miles is 6:52, but you never run the perfect racing line and our marathons will always be longer, usually around 26.4 miles on a Garmin and you have to take that into account; 6:48 was the slowest Garmin pace I would want to average and still break 3 hours.
Every time I checked the present pace on the next 3 downhill miles it was significantly faster, between 6:15 and 6:25, but the average kept stubbornly stuck at 6:48, which really started to frustrate me. At one point I actually saw a heart rate of 168, but that turned out to be a once-off. Just as I was about to cross the 20k timing mat, the average pace display finally gave me back 1 second to 6:47, which meant that at least I had a tiny bit of a cushion, even if it was rather immaterial.
One feature of the Vienna marathon is that you are able to drop to the half-marathon because the finish diverts off right at the end. The organisers see that as a plus, to me it is a minus. The thought of calling it a day did cross my mind. I was exhausted already, I did not think my chances of breaking 3 hours today were realistic and I was tempted to spare myself 90+ further minutes of agony and pain, but eventually decided that I had not flown across the continent and spent a couple of thousand Euro for a mere half marathon. Even if it meant crawling home on my teeth, I was going to finish this marathon, no matter how painful. As the half marathoners turned off towards the right, I deliberately looked towards the left. If I could not see the finish line, I would not be tempted by its Siren call.
21.1k: 1:29:42, place 440 (gained 61), projected finish time 3:00:15
I had basically matched my 21k time from Boston 2 years ago, but back then that was achieved with the help of a lot of downhill miles and at the cost of totally shredded quads. I was in better shape right now, but seeing how there was virtually no cushion was not exactly encouraging. I did remember that I had on a couple of occasions managed to run very even or even negative splits, including the last marathon I had raced, Cork last year, and I clung onto that hope.
I had taken a gel at 10k and 15k, and each time it had given me a little bit of a lift. It may have been entirely psychological, but that does not matter. Unfortunately that lift never lasted more than a couple of minutes and was always followed by another low. I took another gel at this point and used the boost to hang on to a runner with a Portuguese flag on his shirt. He seemed to be running strongly and I hoped he would be pulling me along. My pace actually picked up again for a while, there was more shade on the course which made a real difference and I decided that the battle was not over yet. There was still some life left in the old dog.
I also took note as I crossed the 15 mile mark. This was the end of the coach's designated first section and I was still on pace. In fact, the average pace display on the Garmin eventually jumped to 6:46, which cheered me up a lot.
25k: 1:45:55, place 420 (gained 20), projected finish time 2:58:47
I felt like a complete impostor. I felt I was surrounded by strong sub-3 runners and getting totally ahead of myself. If someone had turned to me and told me to piss off back to my own section, I think I would have accepted it. But eventually it dawned on me that the runners around me were suffering just as much from the heat, the miles and the pace and that I was in fact steadily overtaking runner after runner.
We were making our way back to the Prater park and the course just happens to take the same road on the way back home, and somewhere around our km 27, the leaders came the other way on their km 38 or so. That was a seriously cool sight and for the next couple of miles I was distracted by the smooth running style of the elite Kenyans and Ethiopians and the odd Eastern European passing by. I was actually surprised that even at that level you could tell the difference between the runners, the semi-elites looking a lot less smooth than the top runners; I had never seen that before, and here I was having the best view possible.
My Portuguese pace maker eventually faltered but I managed to find another strong looking guy to leech onto, a runner in a black t-shirt, and funnily enough he seemed to be doing the same to a Polish guy in a red and white top. The three of kept running closely together and we overtook a lot of runners as a group. There were several guys who tried to hang on to us, but none lasted longer than a kilometre.
30k: 2:07:28, place 394 (gained 26), projected finish time 2:59:18
Just as we were getting back into the Prater I started faltering again. I lost a bit of time at a drinks station and all of a sudden my two running buddies were 10 steps ahead of me and I was unable to bridge the gap. “There we go, it's Dublin 2008 all over again” I thought, remembering that back then it was at that point that my sub-3 dream had fallen to pieces. I had to find another gear, something, anything, and quickly. We were doing a little out-and back section to the national Stadium, and I could see the runners coming the other way. “The lucky bastards, they are going to break 3 hours and I'm not”.
Then something happened, maybe it was the next gel kicking in, maybe it was just pure desperation, but I knew I had to pick it up and somehow I managed to catch up with my little group again. A runner in a blue top had joined us and the 4 of us took on the completely straight and flat out section to the final turnaround point.
At that point I realised that, as bad as I was feeling, I was feeling no worse than at the halfway point and if I manged to keep that going for another 10k I would still make it. I kept dropping back at each drink station, each time I would have to speed up again immediately to keep in touch, but each time I managed it. I must have been on the verge of dropping behind half a dozen times, but I closed the gap again and again. The runner in the blue top did not last the pace and fell off again and it was back to the original three amigos (who had not talked a word to each other).
35k: 2:28:53 place 351 (gained 43), projected finish time 2:59:30
All of a sudden, and very much to my surprise, the Polish guy who had mostly lead our little group up to now, fell of the pace as well. The runner in black went past and a few second later so did I, trying to re-establish contact with the only runner that seemed strong enough to keep going. I was now entering the coach's final section and that meant it was time to give my full effort and put everything on the line. I was surprised to still being on pace, for the last 25 km I had expected to falter at any moment. Now the finish was getting closer and closer and I was still in the game. I had never come so far still within a shout and I was wondering if the opportunity would ever come again. I'm 41 and I'm not getting any younger.
The day before I had heard an interview by a former Austrian top runner who had stated that the final 5k of the Vienna marathon are tough. Obviously, the final 5k of any marathon are tough but in Vienna the final 5k are uphill. Not much, and when we had run on that road the first time, 30k ago, we had hardly noticed it. This time we noticed it, alright. I had to dig deep and the runner in the black t-shirt kept pulling away. I don't know if he tried to drop me or if my own pace faltered, but again and again I fell a few steps behind and it was getting more and more difficult to catch up.
I started recognising the grand buildings as we crossed the final bridge and turned into the Ring road again. Running on the tram tracks was difficult and unforgiving but it was the shortest distance and I did not have anything spare.
A friend of mine, who I had met a few days earlier, recognised me and gave me a shout. She would then ring another friend to tell him that I was looking really bad, but luckily I did not know this at the time. Actually, I kind of knew. I was hurting so badly, I do not have the words.
40k: 2:50:23 place 318 (gained 33), projected finish time 2:59:44
Eventually I was no longer able to keep up with the black t-shirt and had to look at him slowly inching away, unable to bridge the gap for what would probably have been the twentieth time. I saw that the average pace on the Garmin was back to 6:48. I had absolutely no cushion whatsoever.
The road was uphill indeed and one look at the Garmin told me the present pace was 7:20 or so. This would not do and I gave it one more injection of pace. For the last 3 hours I had started digging deeper and deeper in the hope that I would get home before I hit rock bottom. Now I was so near to the end and Oh My God, I knew this would be incredibly close. Then I looked at the Garmin again and once more the present pace was 7:20. I swore out loudly, startling another runner in the process, and tried to pick it up one more time.
I saw the fabulous Opera house but had no eye for its beauty. My only concern was how away from the finish it was. There was a inflatable arch. Did it signal 1k to the finish? I don't know but I switched the Garmin's display from the pace and HR fields, now largely irrelevant, to just the time, now highly relevant. There were 2:55:xx on the clock. I tried to figure out if I was inside or outside the pace but did not have the energy to do so. All I could do was to run as fast as I could.
I saw the twin museums on the left, Kunsthistorisch and Naturhistorisch, and I knew the final corner into the Hofburg was somewhere around there but could not make it out. At that point I really thought it was all over. I clearly saw the headline of my own blog saying “Noooooooooooooo” with a time of 3:00:08 or so, and in pure desperation started sprinting all out, the final, panicked move of a man who had run out of options. I did not even know how far it was, I could not not see the final turn until I was nearly upon it. Then, all of a sudden, there I was, one more turn, the Garmin said 2:59:00, and all of a sudden I realised that all was not lost after all. I could see the finish line. Despite me sprinting all out two runners went past, but that was entirely irrelevant. I only had an eye for the timer.
In the unlikely case that you were at the finish line of the 2011 Vienna marathon just as the gun time was reaching 3 hours, you would have seen a middle-aged runner in an orange top and black shorts, sprinting all out, screaming his head off in a deranged way, releasing all the tension and anxiety of the last 3 hours, the last 3 years in fact, in one go, at the point where desperation turned into ecstasy, and who crossed the line 2:59:35 after he had started.
That night, when I brushed my teeth, I looked into the mirror and saw a sub-3 marathon runner looking back at me.
Avg. HR: 171 (!!!)