Year ago I was far from ready for full marathon. I went for the half marathon distance, pulled my calf 3 days before the race and ended up running through brutal pain. That was really stupid. It took a month before I could resume even very light training. But after that race I decided that in 2014 I will go for the full marathon. So when the registrations 2014 Standard Chartered Marathon opened in October 2013 I duly signed up.
Initially after getting the spot I was quite excited as this was to be my first full marathon. But then I squeezed in freezing marathon before Christmas and the initial excitement somehow evaporated. Moreover I had no special preparation for marathon as all my training was focused on the trail running races. Endurance was not a problem. But to keep pretty much half marathon pace over 42km of never ending concrete – for that I definitely haven’t trained at all. So the closer it was getting to the race date the more I felt that this race is something I am not too keen on doing. But as I signed up already I decided to do it.
I set myself target to finish sub 3:30, something I missed out on in my first marathon (blaming it on freezing weather). I placed my mind in the “this is my last road race” territory. I hoped I would finish within my target time to avoid the temptation to go and try again in case I failed. Most important – I wanted to finish without any injury.
After very cold week luckily it warmed up a bit on the race day. For me it was borderline decision whether to run with or without a long sleeve layer under my racing shirt. At the end I opted for the long sleeve layer.
The start was scheduled for 6:10am but was delayed by about 5 minutes after the starting line arch deflated. Whoever was in charge of that managed to inflate the arch quickly and we were on the way.
I had relatively OK position at the start so I could run in normal pace from the go but they were some really silly people slowing down all of a sudden to pose for photos. Someone should tell them that without break lights those behind them have no idea they are slowing down and someone will ram into them – and that I did on several occasions not feeling guilty at all. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the moment and have fun if that is your plan after the start. But then please start at the back of the pack …
The good thing is that the road is wide and despite all these initial difficulties I could settle into my pace within the first kilometer. I was running tad faster than my plan but as I felt comfortable in that pace I decided to try to maintain it and build up some time buffer in case crisis hits later on. Whether this approach worked out at the end or brought the crisis much earlier that is what I would love to know …
Somewhere around 3rd kilometer a guy greeted me while passing me. He must have mistaken me for somebody as I had no idea who he was. But he become a kind of beacon for me. After he passed me he soon settled on a pace similar to mine about 50 metres ahead. From then on when I tried to figure out how am I doing I looked around to see where the “beacon” is.
I was on 3h20mins pace and surprised how many people were still on that pace by the time we reached the Stonecutter’s Bridge on 8th km. The first half of the bridge was uphill and it was the first bit of the race where I passed much more people than passed me. My legs were still light and I enjoyed this mild climb. What I did not enjoy at all was the strong sewage stench at the second half of the bridge…
After the first bridge came the first tunnel – Nam Wan Tunnel. It was about a kilometer long, all downhill, pace good, all still OK. Somewhere here I had my first gel of the day – I would have 2 more during the race. There was no GPS signal in the tunnel so now my watch was about a kilometer short of the actual distance.
Soon after exiting the tunnel the Tsing Ma Bridge came to the view and so did the leaders who were already on their way back after the first turn at the end of the bridge. This was my very first time crossing this bridge on my feet. Interesting experience.
I made it to the turn at the end of the bridge still feeling fresh, still on 3h20mins pace, still building up some time buffer. As at every previous water point I drank some sports drink and a bit of water and kept on going. After leaving the Tsing Ma Bridge we soon approached the second turn and went towards the Ting Kau Bridge. Nothing really significant happened here. I kept on going and after the last turn at the end of the bridge I soon reached the half way point. Half marathon done sub 1h40 (according to the official results my half point time was 1:31.58, that if true would be my half marathon PB), still on or even faster than 3h20 pace. I however started to feel that it is unlikely I could keep this pace for another 21km.
All was OK though for another 2-3km. Pace steady. But then all of a sudden not far ahead of the next tunnel came the strike from my usual nemesis – calf cramps. And nasty they were… I knew here that the last 18km will really hurt. I tried to look ahead to see where is the next water point, to see how far I need to go before I can flush one my salt pills down the throat. With no water point in sight I just swallowed it without water and went on.
Unfortunately it did not seem to work as well as it worked during HK100… I had to make first brief stretching stop and limped forward trying to keep at least 5mins/km pace. Here I lost the sight of my “beacon”.
Once I reached the next water stop at the tunnel entrance I took another salt pill, this time with water. And this time it did work, for a while at least. I could run the downhill road inside the tunnel although I am sure my running style was no longer pretty. From time to time I could feel some spasms in my calves but for a while it was manageable. I did feel dizzy though in this tunnel and I was really glad once it was over. By now after another GPS signal free tunnel my watch was about 2km behind the actual distance.
Not far behind the tunnel was another water stop. Here I actually stopped to make sure that I drink properly, did some quick stretching and went on. However soon the cramps were becoming worse and more frequent. The ICC came to sight (well, the bottom half only, the top half was hidden in the clouds) and I knew the final tunnel is only few km away. But to get there was 5-6km of real struggle. I had to make 2 more quick stretching stops… I went for water and another salt pill at the water stop ahead of the Western Harbour Tunnel. I obviously slowed down way too much as someone behind rammed into me while I was picking up my cup of water. My fault entirely but unfortunately that was the condition I was in. Brain went for short holiday.
This last tunnel seemed to go on forever. I was passed by many people on the first downhill part but I could also see many people stopping and stretching. Some seemed to be at even worse condition than me. The slow moving Citybus in the emergency lane was really tempting… This was also the last time during the race that I saw the visually impaired runner with his 2 guides. They were around me for most of the race (one leading him on the rope, the other running ahead making other aware of their presence). Thinking about that how amazing is it that 2 people run a full marathon in order to make it possible for the 3rd person to complete it…
I started to feel a bit better on the uphill end section of the tunnel. It was about 6km to go after crossing the harbour (my watch was now about 4km behind, after all three GPS free tunnels). Once my watch picked up the signal again I checked my pace as I had no idea if I am running slow or fast or how. Doing a quick math I knew that finishing sub 3h30mins will be really touch and go now… I was doing 5:30mins/km and that would not be enough. I needed to speed up but instead I had to stop for quick stretching again somewhere near Macau Ferry Terminal as the cramping was now the worst I ever experienced.
After trying lots of different strides and postures I settled on “Chaplin walk” style run. With feet pointing sideways I somehow managed to minimize the cramping. I was running again at 5mins/km but by now even that would not be enough. I did not want to face my son telling him I failed. I tried to push a bit around the Central ferry piers. I have no idea how I managed to get from here to the end. I glanced on my watch from time to time. I was now doing 4:40-4:50mins/km. The sub3h30mins time was back on cards if I managed to keep this pace till the end.
At the bend between Tamar and Wanchai Exhibition Centre I passed the “beacon” who seemed to have run out of steam and I kept pushing. I don’t know if I was cramping or not, I managed to block everything off … I only looked down at the road and kept pushing at the pace I started the race. I slowed down on the road leading up to the “IKEA bend”. But by then I was only few hundreds metres from the finish line. Left turn then right turn, Victoria Park and the blue and green carpets towards the finish line. When I saw the clock just switching from 3h27m to 3h28m I knew I would now do it even if had to crawl the last hundred metres.
I crossed the line at 3:28.52 – that was what my watch said. Overall I was feeling good, energy to spare but my calves were done. No injuries though if I don’t count few minor blisters. I was happy to have finished and even happier to have made it under 3h30mins.
I could see from this race that time around 3h20mins is something within my reach. But that would require me to focus my training on marathon and to spend hours and hours pounding the concrete. Not something I am too keen on doing. Never say never but with this marathon under my belt for now I am done with road races. Trails and hills and climbs and descents and ultras is what I will be focusing on from now on.