Thursday, November 12, 2009

New York City from a different angle

"Come on, come on!", I exclaimed silently as I was stuck in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway with several other runners, heading to the start. The day has arrived. With only one and a half hours to go, the excitement rose with every minute that passed. So, although we were probably going to make it in time, I certainly had no intention to take my chances - after all, "losing" the race before it actually began would have been tragic. As a genuine newbie to this event extraordinaire, I could not know what to expect. It's the New York City Marathon, the world's largest marathon by a distance - anything was possible! More than 43,000 people had to be accommodated in the start villages at and around Fort Wadsworth, a former United States military installation, next to the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. Every single one of them had earned their presence throughout the previous months by dedicating part of their lives to preparing for the event. Indeed, it's only about the last 42k that day, the last of countless kilometers completed in anticipation of the final long run. It might sound easy from that angle but it was clear that the ultimate stage would be all other than a piece of cake. Before the test could begin, every single one of us had to make our way through the monstrous amounts of marathon enthusiasts to get to our assigned start villages, baggage trucks, one of thousands and thousands of porta-potties, and eventually, the designated starting area.

When we arrived, most of our fellow participants had already made themselves comfortable in the start villages for the last couple of hours. Involuntarily so, I guess. The use of official transportation to the start provided by the event not only meant having to get up earlier than usual for a marathon, it also implied arriving at Fort Wadsworth around 3-4 hours before the gun (so I've been told). Quite some time to kill. For one, you could use it to have a carbohydrate-rich breakfast (plenty of food and beverages were provided), something you probably missed to make the trip to Staten Island.
When I read about the long waiting period resulting from transportation logistics, I searched for alternatives and decided to stay right on Staten Island - there's basically only one hotel on the island, the Staten Island Hotel - to be able to work around that issue in favor of my standard pre-race routine. Some might say that's something you have to go through, that it's part of the New York experience. I don't know, I simply couldn't picture myself waiting for 3 hours or more while being exposed to potentially miserable pre-race weather conditions. Just in case somebody might feel tempted to follow my lead, please bear in mind that, while undoubtedly being more efficient for race day, getting from Staten Island to Manhattan and back (for the days leading up to the marathon and those following) takes quite some time as a consequence, around 1:20h in the best case for a one-way trip comprised of a bus from the hotel to the Staten Island Ferry, the actual ferry ride and the subway from South Ferry to Times Square or most other points of interest except for the financial district including Wall Street and Ground Zero. On the plus-side, this slightly more complex route does not incur additional cost. Once you got a MetroCard for the subway, the bus fare is included, the ferry is free-of-charge anyway. Personally, despite that obvious downside, I would probably go for Staten Island again - the advantages for race day as well as the cost savings for the trip as a whole - I arrived one week early - more than outweigh the disadvantages. As an added bonus, you get so see the most exciting places of all: the glamorous Staten Island. Okay, maybe not most exciting...

Things were moving slowly in the sea of runners on Staten Island. Considering the scale, however, it wasn't as dramatic as it could have been - I expected worse. Some guys were relaxing in the green while waiting for their wave start to open. Others rushed from A to B, seemingly confused by logistics: wave, corral, orange, green, blue. My initial endeavor was to deposit my baggage for the day that could later be reclaimed in the finisher area. Getting around wasn't much of an issue. With short lines in front of UPS trucks, that was done within minutes. Nevertheless, time went by. One hour to the start. Loudspeaker announcements in multiple languages including German and Japanese indicated that corrals for wave #2 - my wave - were open now. That was it, time to get moving! So, I followed the signs to find my corral, corral B. Up until corral E, there was essentially no line - enough space for everyone to proceed to their corrals. Things went downhill from there. An alley that was less than two meters wide turned out to be the answer on how to get from E to D and above. Needless to say, a major bottleneck in a major marathon in its 40th installment.

9:40am. While waiting in line, shoulder to shoulder with fellow #2 wavers, #1 started. First, and most important for events in the United States, the national anthem was performed live and honored with raging applause. Shortly thereafter, the gun was fired to start the race for the first 14,000 participants, including elite runners. Frank Sinatra's New York, New York was sounding throughout the area - an NYC marathon tradition. It goes without saying that all waves were sent on the 26.2 mile journey with the very same ceremony.

The second wave was about to start but I still hadn't reached my designated corral yet. My calm slowly but surely turned into anxiety. The line was blocked, not moving anymore. "What's going on? I need to get into my corral!", I said to myself. Speculation started, rumor had it that the wave was closed already. Did we have to fall back to the last wave? Strange, even one of the official pacemakers of wave #2 didn't make it and was standing in the same line, right next to me, as eager to get in there as we all were.

9:55am. The wave began to move forward, towards the bridge. Some of the runners who had been stuck in our line climbed across the fences, supposedly out of "panic". Tempting, yet too drastic of a way to get through. Minutes later, the line was moving again and we were finally able to join the crowd that was already on the way to the start. I took the opportunity to make one hopefully last visit to one of the thousands of porta-potties (even in the corrals, the whole right side was filled with them) to avoid unpleasant surprises during the next 3-4 hours. "Should I wait for wave #3 instead?", I was asking myself for a way to make the best of it. Sure enough, I was in the last corral now that most of the starters had passed us already. So, waiting for the next wave might have allowed me and others to start in the front. While it seemed like an excellent idea and workaround, I still went ahead with #2 - I was just glad to have gotten to the point of racing. The crowd was moving. Actually, the wave had started already. I don't know about the others, but orange corral access was suboptimal. Judging from various other postings, several others faced the same problem. Even though the bottleneck was by design, it probably could have been avoided by arriving 30-60 minutes earlier.

I crossed the starting line and enabled my clock. Now, it's only the 26.2 and me - and at least 14,000 others who could easily interfere with my plans. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge is enormous. Twelve lanes that normally lead cars from A to B on two decks. I had an orange bib, meaning that I crossed the bridge on the top deck. Before arriving in the US, I had been toying with the idea of doing a test run across Verrazano-Narrows as part of one of the last training runs. At that point I didn't know, however, that there was simply no way because the bridge doesn't allow pedestrian access. What a shame. The incline felt easy. The bridge itself was quite long with around two miles total, the climb was hardly noticeable. It's the beginning of a long trip, a strange feeling. You make your first strides knowing that you have three to four hours of running ahead of you. I tried not to bother with that thought, it wouldn't have made sense to worry about the distance at that point. As we made our way to the top, the New York skyline became visible in the distance - that was quite an impressive view. The weather was perfect. No rain (not at the time of the start and thereafter anyway), comfortable temperatures and, last but not least, clear views. Runners pulled out their cameras to conserve memories on film. Way before the race, I was wondering about the crowd and how it might become a factor in me approaching and maintaining my goal pace. It's one of the biggest crowds out there, so that certainly was to be expected. Plus, with me starting in the back, that was almost guaranteed. Consequently, I did what I thought I had to do. I settled for a moderate pace for the first two miles and tried to make my way through the crowd by struggling through holes that opened and closed as people were moving. Moving up to 4:30min/k wouldn't work, I concluded with disappointment.

There was no improvement in sight. My Garmin Forerunner indicated a pace of 5:40min/k. "Oh my!". I lurked for every opening that developed, slowing down and speeding up to make sure that I wouldn't be totally off my plan. Surely, nobody is coming to New York to run an earth-shattering personal best because the difficulty of the course usually does not allow for that and New York is more about the experience anyway. Still, I had no intention to run at a pace that was way below what would've been possible. I definitely didn't want it to be yet another long run. I did plenty of them in training, I wanted a race.

Two streams of runners moved forward and finally came off the bridge and entered the streets of Brooklyn. Spectators started to appear, more and more of them were there to drag us forward. It was clear right there that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced before in marathoning. The Dubai marathon had a fair amount of very involved spectators. The Linz marathon was very disappointing in this respect, a few people her and there, most of them overly passive. New York is in a whole different category, so were the spectators! Hundreds and thousands of them applauding and screaming to support the marathoners as they made their way through the streets of New York City boroughs. Quite an experience indeed! That combined with the excellent scenery of New York you're sent through during the 26.2, that's undoubtedly one experience of a lifetime. People cheered for runners they didn't even know, most had their names on their shirts to make that easier. Words of encouragement like "You're almost there" a mere two miles after the start. A fun ride was about to begin...

The miles flew by. I was amazed how fast they actually did. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. Almost made it to the halfway point. The massive number of runners was still an issue, though. As the two streams coming off the bridge were only separated by some kind of plastic tape, I attempted to run next to the tape to overtake others. As you can imagine, that did not always work and often required slowing down to avoid collisions. The situation changed for the better in the later stages of the marathon but it never really cleared up to a level I felt comfortable with. At the halfway point, I knew that I had already lost around 7 minutes (1:41h) and, quite possibly, had wasted more energy than I could afford.

As we moved from mile to mile, it became apparent that the course essentially only consisted of uphill and downhill sections, the route was never what I'd describe as flat. I began to understand what it meant to run New York and what the buzz was all about. One touch course! It's not only the bridges and maybe some inclines and hills like those you're confronted with in Central Park. They were virtually everywhere. So were the spectators, just about everywhere. Live bands, quite a number of them, motivated us to keep moving. I think I even ran by a Gospel chorus but I was a little too distracted to know for sure...

At around mile 14, it was time to enter Manhattan via the Queensboro bridge. A steep climb followed that was very demanding at that stage in the race. As we ran towards Manhattan, a loud roar approached us that came from the streets that lay ahead. It was the cheering and enthusiasm of hundreds of people waiting for the runners to enter first avenue. I guess you could compare it to hearing the audience backstage and then moving on stage only to be overwhelmed by the response - absolutely amazing! As a software engineer, that'll be as close as I'll ever get to that ;)

What followed was a long stretch of ups and downs leading to the Bronx. The marathon hadn't actually started, after all we hadn't reached mile 20 yet. Still, I had to fight with deep fatigue already that wanted me to stop and throw it all away. "Why the heck are you running 26.2 miles? Use the subway! You're on vacation. Stop and rest immediately, it'll feel fantastic!", my mind attempted to trick me. You would think that the declines help to conserve energy and regain control of yourself. From my experience, they usually do. At that point in the race, however, even downhills turned out to be painful, there was nothing left that could even be remotely associated with the concept of comfort. I was encouraged by the masses, who, just like me, continued to pull and move through these rough patches that you are bound to experience in events like this one. I welcomed every single aid station with open arms, consumed sports drinks and water to save what's left. My heart rate reached an uncomfortable level already. As we came closer to the Bronx, my pace was declining steadily. I didn't have anything to conquer my mind that tried just about anything to succeed in achieving my surrender - noble intentions but not at all helpful. If only I could have used that creativity to turn it all around.

Finally! The Bronx, and with it: the 20 mile mark. Only 12 kilometers and some change left - "only". The segment in the Bronx was short, yet filled with energetic spectators. Judging from my pace, I knew that I was locked into survival mode now, merely trying to make it to the finish line. I calculated the projected finish time over and over again to distract myself, it was all other than comforting. We reached mile 21 as we left the Bronx over the Madison Avenue bridge and were heading towards Central Park, the final stage of the race. Well, actually, Central Park was still a few miles away. At some point, you thought you were there already because trees started to appear next to the course, but that only turned out to be yet another park along the course. At around mile 22, we actually entered fifth avenue again. Central Park was indeed ahead this time - it was far from over, though. Central Park translates to inclines, many of them. I was eagerly awaiting the turn into the park because I knew that once we did, we were actually "almost there".

24 miles. Eventually, the barrier led into the park. Quite a number of people left and right along the road. "Almost there!". I attempted to pick up the pace but there simply was no way! I couldn't repeat the fantastic finish of my half-marathon test race, where I had run the last 4 kilometers near 4:10min/k and had finished with a sprint up to 3:00min/k to get below 1:35h. In the last 400 meters, I had been encouraged by the words of a couple that had run next to me. The guy had realized that 1:35 had still been within reach if only they had picked up the pace. "Kum. Des geht si nu aus. Ziag durch!", he had exclaimed in Austrian dialect ("Come on. We can make it. Pull through!"). Unfortunately, she hadn't been able to respond but I had taken advantage of my higher pace and had initiated the final sprint. Sure enough, I was running a marathon in New York, a whole different category of race. I was on the other side this time and couldn't respond to my own request. So I tried to fall back to maintaining my pace, the very least I could do in the light of my 21 weeks of training.

25 miles. "You got the loudest shoes in the race!", a guy shouted at me, referring to my Adidas adiZero Adios racing flats in luminous yellow. One of those amusing comments that'd have cheered me up if I didn't happen to have one more mile to kill. Two kilometers, to make things worse. Every single step took a great deal of effort at that point. My inner voice still attempted to convince me to give it up and rest. It did not stand a change though, not with around one kilometer remaining as we left the park to turn right onto Central Park South by the Plaza Hotel. Huge crowds pushed us along the uphill stretch that lead into the park and towards the long-awaited conclusion of the race. They were everywhere now. I visualized the last kilometer of practically all my training runs, a kilometer that did not actually seem all that long, a kilometer that I knew very well and usually honored with an effortless fast finish.

26 miles. Only one last hill. There it was: the blue gate I visited the day before, the final waypoint I have been longing for, the finish line I have been envisioning to cross during countless hours of training in celebration of a victory alongside 43,000 birds of a feather, finally emerged in front of me in its full glory. I crossed the line with an attempt to transfer my enthusiasm to the finish line photo. The moment I have been looking forward to, the moment that ended another thrilling adventure - coming to a halt after 42.195 kilometers, transitioning from continuous running to the relieving sensation of a victory walk after 3:37:29.

I joined the stream of finishers, waiting to be awarded my NYC medal, have a finisher photo taken, and receive some post-race nutrition for easing recovery. I sat on the sidewalk for some minutes while resting and refueling. Volunteers constantly monitored finishers' conditions to rule out medical issues for each and every one of us. Wrapped in a space blanket, I continued my way through the finisher area to pick up the baggage I handed in back on Staten Island. I've been warned that this was going to take a long time, after all thousands of satisfied yet tired NYC conquerors were eager to do the same and leave. The single line of UPS trucks was long, people moved slowly. I'm not sure how much time I actually spent in there to get to my stuff and out of the park, but it might have very well been more than 45 minutes. A breeze compared to the last 3 some hours.

Getting hold of a taxi was practically impossible at the time. All of them were busy. So, I decided to opt for the less convenient route instead, walked to the next subway station to get to South Ferry, hop on the ferry and take the bus to my hotel on Staten Island. While the long way ahead of me didn't exactly brighten my day (I would arrive almost four hours after the finish), I was astonished by the number of New Yorkers who acknowledged my participation with a "Congrats!" here and "Congratulations!" there, just like that. On my way, I had several nice conversations that resulted from the enthusiasm locals showed for the event and their runners. I can't say I've experienced anything like this before, the whole city participated in one way or another - it really was their event, too.

In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I entered the race with an unrealistic goal, a goal that was out-of-reach. The fact that I missed my corral and had to make my way through the running crowd during the race certainly did not help. As expected, the course was tough, I was preparing for it in training by adding hill running and inclines to workouts and long runs. My training lasted for five and a half months, mileage peaked at 94 km per week. In the last month, it became increasingly difficult to follow the plan and keep the mileage up.
For one, I think that my mileage was way too high in the weeks before that, leading to overtraining. I had never experienced the state of "overtraining" before, but it definitely felt like it. Additionally, I had to fight with a serious cold (including a period of elevated temperature) throughout the last four weeks, I never fully recovered up until the last week before the race. Ironically, I ran my best half-marathon race during that time period, 1:34:26. I guess I lost most of my shape during the last month as the mileage declined dramatically, not according to plans.
Despite other factors and potential overtraining, it seems that a 6 month preparation is too long for me to maintain my fitness and full motivation, 12 weeks seem to have worked much better in the past. My goal was beyond what prediction results from test races allowed for. The half-marathon test seemed very easy, consequently I adjusted my goal with confidence. In any case, it would have been better to start with the more conservative goal in mind or to lower my expectations ealier in the race when it became apparent that I wouldn't be able to maintain the pace anyway because of the blocking crowd.
During the last 12k, I was not as strong as I had been weeks before the race. The pace declined rapidly. With an even pace throughout the first and second half (including a stronger finish), something in the area of 3:23-3:26 should have been possible. If you cannot execute your plan to the full extent, there's always the felling of disappointment. Without a doubt and despite all of these considerations, 3:37 means progress - a significant improvement over my previous two attempts. The last 6 months have been quite a learning experience. I added a number of new training elements, some of which turned out to be very beneficial. Now, it is time to rest, draw conclusions, and start a new attempt based on the lessons learned from New York when it feels right to do so.

Running New York was quite an experience, I'm glad I had the opportunity to be part of it! Unsurprisingly, it was not the ideal race and course for the best possible outcome. Being impatient at heart, I can't wait for the next opportunity in a more favorable setting, which might just be on the horizon...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Slices of Big Apple

The moment of truth is on the horizon. I was fortunate enough to be selected in the race lottery drawing. Now, The New York City Marathon is only three weeks away. Not exactly plenty of time. To be frank, I have mixed emotions. It's definitely going to be a thrilling experience, like Dubai was. I haven't been to NYC in more than seven years, so I'm in for a treat as I return to this extraordinary metropolis, the busiest "beehive" of all. The other side of the coin is the uncertainty that is lingering until then. You can never be sure if your preparation was good enough until you're actually taken to the test, you have to be in it to know it - plain and simple.

When I sign up for a marathon - this one being number three - I have a specific goal in mind. I have a competitive personality. For some people, it's enough to be part of it, to enjoy the experience. Undoubtedly, New York is the perfect choice for an experience of a lifetime. Others, including me, go for it with a time goal, with the intention to set a new personal record. That doesn't mean it's going to be less of a great ride. I enjoy the challenge, challenging myself. I find it interesting to see how far I can go in the marathon, what can a software engineer who hadn't been involved in any kind of sports before 2007 accomplish with determination and the right level of training?

Throughout the last three weeks, I had a chance to taste two slices of Big Apple. The Wachau Marathon 10k race represented one of the two test races that are part of my marathon build-up. Test races allow you to objectively determine your current status in training. Is the marathon goal realistic or does it have to be adjusted based on the test race outcome?
I'm not a particular fan of 10k's, race pace is usually only slightly slower than your 1k interval pace. You're in a constant struggle to maintain the target pace if you go for the maximum. As you move up to the half-marathon and marathon, the pace becomes more moderate, relatively "comfortable" for most of the race. I felt great in the last interval session before the race (3:54/3:46/3:53/3:52/3:55min/k). While I still have respect for anything near 4:00min/k, I find it much more manageable now.

With around 3 kilometers of warmup, including short sprints at race pace, I entered the race. My goal was to stay as close to 4:00min/k as possible. Unsurprisingly, that was relatively easy througout the first 2k but became considerable harder thereafter. In contrast to the Linz marathon build-up, the comfort faded with the 2k mark and never returned except for some short periods during the race. In that race (00:45:03 in April), the race pace of 4:30min/k was comfortable for around 8k, I even had enough reserves to accelerate during the last kilometer. Three week ago, the race was much more difficult. I completed the 10k in 00:41:59, which is a new personal record. The absolute maximum, I could not have gone further. A fast finish was impossible, I was glad to have completed the race. In retrospect, I think that I started out too fast and therefore suffered quite early and throughout the race. I had a goal in mind that was too ambitious, a goal that was beyond the required time for my marathon target. The race relentlessly reminded me of my current capabilities and, most importantly, provided me with a pretty accurate indicator for other distances. With an average pace of 4:11min/k, I'm still satisfied with the outcome. It's roughly in line with my marathon goal and, after all, a considerable improvement (00:03:04) over the last PR after only 6 months.

Last week was even more crucial. I particiated in the Bad Ischl Kaiserlauf, a half-marathon. Unfortunately, I was not up to my game due to a cold I had developed some days before the event. It was a difficult decision, but I eventually decided to take part while not pushing for the maximum. The higher than usual heart rate indicated that there was no way to go for the required goal pace. Instead, I settled for running solely pulse-guided, without monitoring the pace. Despite my handicap, I felt surprisingly good all the way to the finish line, I even managed to accelerate in the last 4 kilometers and sprint to the finish to complete the half in less than 1:35, the result was 1:34:26, a new PR (01:40:50 in April; -00:06:24). I many ways, this was the best and worst race of my life. I was forced to hold back to be on the safe side, yet I've never experienced a more comfortable half-marathon race. So, all I take away from Bad Ischl is confidence. A half has never been that easy and enjoyable for me. Plus, I learned that running pulse-guided can lead to unexpectedly good results because you never exceed heart rate thresholds while trying to maintain a specific pace - instead, you account for the course and your current condition and automatically run at optimal pace for the current cardiovascular effort. In perfect condition, 1:32 should have been possible, I guess. Of course, I won't repeat the test race to find out. I walk away knowing that I would have had the capacity to finish faster and run a longer distance.

In any case, this is not the time to rest - yet. NYC is coming, a mere three weeks remain! With 1,032k worth of training in the pocket, I will now head out for the last major long run before entering long run taper mode and reducing the mileage total after next week. I am not yet where I need to be but I'm confident that the final sharpening period will enable me to aim for a precision landing on November 1st.

Friday, May 29, 2009

From Dubai to Linz in 2:40

2 minutes and 40 seconds. That's what the Linz Marathon 2009 had in store for me. In every race I participate in, I am determined to "travel" as far as possible, I cross the start line with the intention to shorten the distance. This time around - the second one, to be exact - I was lucky enough to keep moving in the right direction, towards a new personal best. 3 hours, 56 minutes and 7 seconds after the gun, I beat my Dubai performance by 160 seconds. While that certainly means I'm getting closer, I was left wanting more, going even further than that. However, it was not meant to be on May 17, it just wasn't.

There are tons of things that can go wrong when it comes to a marathon. First, there's the training. Injury, illness, plenty of reasons come to mind. My training was fine. While I missed some sessions due to a brief cold and my work hours, I completed around 600k worth of long runs, tempos, intervals, and recovery runs. Significantly more than Dubai, a solid foundation for a good outcome. To make sure I could do better the second time around, I incorporated more intense speedwork. I've never been a particularly fast runner but I did notice that the Dubai training helped in this regard. The 3:29 plan I based my training on suggested a relatively moderate interval pace that was very manageable at the time, so I borrowed most of the intervals from a 3:15 plan. I'm quite sure that this move enabled me to complete two test races that were part of Linz Marathon training in time. The results: a new 10k PR of 00:45:03 as well as a new 21.0975k PR of 01:40:50. Before Dubai (00:47:23 and 01:53:10), these would never have been possible. Consequently, I walked away from these test races with confidence for race day. The last long run of 34k with 10k at race pace was also going as planned although the course was a little more challenging than I anticipated - I was in Redmond, WA at that time and decided to run around Lake Sammamish. Nice landscape, unusually warm and friendly weather for the pacific northwest, and an all other than flat course. I could only gain confidence from that one, it was a successful marathon simulation. I wonder if it was the unknown territory that helped making it an easier and more enjoyable run. The new scenery definitely made things more interesting, it definitely was a refreshing variety...

A good training experience. In fact, the test race times translated to a theoretical maximum of around 3:30 for the marathon. Nothing more to ask for. Reducing the training volume is where you could go wrong next. Fortunately, I had a good plan that included an adequate tapering phase. After the last 24k run, I was slightly worried because recovery was progressing at a lower than usual rate. My legs did not feel fresh at all, not even after two days of rest. Whenever that happens (typically right after a hard run), an ice bath comes to rescue. Exposing your legs to ice-cold water (the coldest possible water a bathtub can offer, no extra ice required) for around 15 to 20 minutes can be an easy fix, even if not applied directly after a workout. The first few times, it was quite a struggle - I'm certainly not a fan of cold. Several sessions and highly uncomfortable minutes involving swear words, it's only the initial psychological hurdle that you have to overcome to get through the ice bath experience.
The last few days, it was all about an appropriate diet. Counting on the tried and tested Dubai carboloading routine, that was nothing to worry about.

Race day. For a marathon in May, there's a good chance of warm temperatures and a clear sky. The day before race day, things were looking good: partly cloudy, mild rain, perfect conditions overall. On Sunday, however, the weather completely turned around. At 8:00am, 30 minutes before the start, it was quite warm already. The sun was strong, not a single cloud was there to block it. My goal was 3:29. Even before the start, that was melting to a more reasonable 3:40 in my mind. Would that be enough to compensate for these conditions? I wasn't sure, my intention was to decide on the go.

The gun sounded and the masses slowly started to move towards and across the start line. As always, many of them started way too fast. I tried to maintain a pace of around 5:10min/km, not a real challenge. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was for me to stay there, all the tapering, carboloading, and rest make a huge difference. 4:57min/km would have been impossible though, it was too hot. The Linz Marathon course turned out to be harder than I imagined. It is said to be a fast course, it might actually be compared to other city marathons - the course record is 2:07:33 - but compared to Dubai, every other marathon course loses, plain and simple. I mean, there's no way to make a dead-flat course that essentially directs runners from A to B and back in a straight line any easier. Hence, the switch from a course that was optimized for a world record attempt to an "ordinary" marathon course did take its toll - I suspected that already.

My new fueling strategy was to consume 1/3 of a gel pack every 5 kilometers with around 100ml of water (tested during my marathon simulation in Redmond). It did take some effort to handle the gels while running (opening them, putting them back) but it seemed to work energy-wise. The first half was rather uneventful, I was feeling fine. I even thought that the warmth was not much of an issue. 1:48:42, a 5:09min/km average, right on time for 3:40. Status green.
Throughout the next few kilometers, maintaining the pace became more and more difficult. When I checked my heart rate, it hit me. 199 bpm. What an unpleasant surprise, I certainly was not feeling the full extent of that load. At that point, I knew that I had to slow down immediately to avoid a disaster. My max HR was 204 based on available data, I had to take action to avoid a breakdown - the last thing I wanted was dropping out. No, not a DNF, that can't happen. Not today! Beginning from 23k, my pace average was around 5:25min/km. The biggest issue was direct sunlight, it was relentless. Whenever I exited a shady and cool passage, the rays hit me with full force. Continuing started to require hard work, thoughts of stopping came through my mind. "Stop!". I tried to fight them but that day, I was not entirely successful. Eventually, I was forced to give in and resort to walking for short periods, several times during the last 10k. I was seriously disappointed. Looking at the heart rate data though, it was clear that it was what it took to make it to the finish line. The pulse did not go down, slightly slower paces did not really affect it anymore. A more radical approach was required. Walking. Even walking was hard under these circumstances. My survival strategy was to take walking breaks for aid stations and consume more than planned.

At some point during the last 5k, the 3:45 pacemaker passed by. I managed to leave the 3:45 group behind throughout the last 3 hours. I had to let them go. "Maximum effort for the last 5k, hang on to them!", I thought. I desperately wanted to follow their lead, I simply could not. I was unable to act, couldn't go beyond jogging. A fact that was hard to accept.

The last kilometers weren't any easier, I struggled all the way to the finish line. I knew that I had lost too much time with my lower than 5:10min/km pace and walking breaks, all I wanted at that point was finishing in a time below my debut. I did not want to run a marathon without setting a PR. No performance regression, please! For the last two kilometers, more and more spectators appeared. As we approached the finish, I did what I had to do, what I did in Dubai. I accelerated!

Only 500 meters. The pain didn't matter anymore, I didn't feel the pace, speeding up was easy all of a sudden. Hauptplatz Linz was approaching. Running towards the finish at Hauptplatz was fantastic, people left and right, cheering and screaming names. There it was. I did it again! I actually crossed the finish line, after 3:56:07, with a pulse of 208 bpm. It was all over... I didn't care about the time, did not stop the clock on my watch, all I wanted was to get out the sun and rest for some minutes. I received my hard-earned medal, grabbed a sports drink and proceeded to the finish area for marathoners. Rest in the shadow, finally.

It certainly was an extreme experience! Dubai was hard, extraordinarily difficult. Not because of the weather - not an issue - but the marathon challenge in itself. In Dubai, I managed to maintain my goal pace all the way to the finish line. In Linz, I had to give in, the warm weather and direct sunlight practically destroyed me, ending the second half in a mere 2:07:25 (6:02min/km average). Despite all that, I still finished 2:40min ahead of Dubai. Recovery was fast, I kicked it off with an ice bath right after the event. The next day, my legs were fine. I could even take the stairs without problems. Besides the ice bath routine, my theory is that the considerably slower second half helped quite a bit.

The positive? The valuable experience of a hot weather marathon and a new 42.195k PR. Still, I'm not entirely satisfied. I didn't get a chance to go for 3:29, which should have been possible based on my current 10k and half PRs, had the conditions been different. I'm left wanting more, what I need is another chance! Sure enough, I already have a NYCe plan...

Friday, May 22, 2009

To Free or not to Free

That's the question I'm trying to find an answer for. I've been running in Nike Free running shoes ever since my first run in early 2007. The Free's are special, the sole is divided into small segments to increase flexibility to a maximum. If you're used to wearing "standard" running shoes, that particular model will certainly surprise you the first time you wear them - it's probably unlike anything you've worn before when it comes to running equipment or even shoes in general. It's almost like you're not wearing any - almost. Switching from a normal running shoe to the Free is like taking off concrete blocks, it was an eye-opening experience for me.
Lots of different opinions are floating around when it comes to Nike's unusual offering. "It doesn't even come close to running barefoot", they say. "It's only for training, 5-10k runs". "You can't run a marathon in it without injury". "It can't be your primary running shoe", some proclaim. Nike doesn't help by labeling the shoe a training instrument, not a regular running shoe. Whatever your opinion might be, fact is that the shoe can be your one and only running shoe, I know from experience. Up until February 2009, I had not worn anything else. In January, I ran the Dubai marathon in them. Shoe-wise, it was a pleasant experience. No issues whatsoever. None! So, you can indeed run a marathon in Nike Free's. The critical thing is though that you need to get used to the Free experience before doing so. Slowly increase distances to make sure that your feet can catch up without injury. As long as you keep that in mind, the Free works for just about anything...

Right after Dubai, I thought about replacing my worn-out Free 5.0 V3 with a new pair. That's when I stumbled across the Adidas Adizero line of running shoes. These are similar to the Free in that they represent a minimalist design. The sole, however, is more traditional and not as flexible as the Free's. On my first run, the Adidas Adizero Adios felt great. Running fast seemed to require considerably less effort. Several runs later, I still felt that fast paces were easier to handle in my new shoe of choice. I must say that it took quite some time until I felt truly comfortable in the Adizero Adios during long runs. Now, more than 600k and a marathon later, the Adios feels as good during runs and races as the Free.

The Adidas Adizero Adios still seems to be better suited for higher paces than the Nike Free I had which is why I'm going to keep the Adios for now. It's all subjective of course. Maybe a lighter version of the Free might feel the same. I tried the 3.0 back in 2007 and switched back due to knee problems - maybe it was just too early, the results might be different now. In any case, it's good to know that Nike is not the only one to offer lightweight running shoes. For those of you who're looking for alternatives, the Adidas Adizero Adios might be the perfect choice.

What's your take on the Free? Can the Adizero match up?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The third one's the charm

That's the old saying. If so, what about the second? Now, I don't know what you associate with that, I'm thinking of the most challenging event there is for a runner who's not in the ultra category: the king of the distance, the marathon - what else.

As a newbie who successfully completed his marathon debut in Dubai in late January, I was asking myself: What's next? When is the next one going to be? The marathon was a painful experience for sure, painful in the sense that I had to fight against myself to keep going during the last 10k. It was not some sort of strong physical pain that I was going through but my mind signaled quite convincingly that it was high time to stop by broadcasting the feeling of fatigue. While it was hard, I knew all along that Dubai certainly wasn't going to be my last one - no surprises there - I even registered for Berlin 2009 while I was still in the UAE. That's a different story though...

I wanted my next challenge to happen as rapidly as possible. I finally had the proof that a marathon was not out of reach for me. The Linz Marathon in May turned out to be a good opportunity for a follow-up, the next mission to complete. Soon enough to satisfy my desire to go again, yet plenty of weeks away to allow for improving my running shape. The gun will go off on May 17, in around one week. I've been in training for quite some time now, mileage already exceeded that of my debut - 567k vs. 416k. Things are looking good, but I still find myself asking what to expect from marathon #2. As you go beyond that, #3, #10, #20, things are most likely getting easier... Not the marathon in itself, but the journey. You know you can handle the distance, you have more "data" to optimize your preparation and your race day performance. You can learn from experience. What about #2, where you only have a single event to derive experience from?

The second certainly has the potential to get you back on earth, set your goals straight. After #1, I was full of confidence, ready to go for a PR in the next race. 3:45. No question. 3:30. Sure. 3:15. Hey, why the hell not! Could that confirm my hypothesis right there? My claim that the second might actually be considerably more difficult than the first one, even though you don't have to race through the same road of darkness again? You might think you know it all as you've done it once before and could therefore be tempted to set a very, ridiculously unrealistic goal. In most cases, training should take care of that by having you fail in test races or hard and long workouts, giving you a chance to adjust your goals for the actual race. I actually lowered my expectations from an unrealistic 3:15 to a sane 3:29 after having completed my 10k and 21k test races in a time that's in line with the new target. Looking back, that's an excellent improvement already that should translate to a high level of confidence for Sunday. Still, some degree of uncertainty remains that I find very discomforting...

Monday, January 26, 2009

I hereby pronounce you marathoner

What an exciting 4 months! First, 6 weeks of training for a half-marathon I eventually couldn't compete in due to scheduling conflicts. Second, 10 weeks of marathon training following my decision to make my debut in the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2009.
I took a bold risk because I didn't - couldn't know all the facts about the event and the circumstances I was going to be confronted with before and especially on race day. The textbook says: "Choose a race in your area, nearby - a race you know and have the most control over". The safest route - yes - but it's not for me. I was looking for something special, excitement beyond the distance challenge, something that's more on the extreme side of things. As it turned out, Dubai was the perfect debut choice for me, I'm glad to have skipped the safe route.

Friday, January 16th was the day of uncertainty, the day I've been preparing for in Austria by means of dozens of training sessions in sub-zero temperatures. I got up early, 2:30am, and started with breakfast. Four hours before the gun to avoid uncomfortable and impeding surprises in the competition.
The local newspaper has been covering the marathon for several days, the most highlighted aspect was the potential new world record, no surprises there. Undoubtedly, the organizers have gone the extra mile to make everything within their control perfect for the day of truth. Probably the only remaining uncontrollable variable, except for the elite runners themselves, was the weather. The forecast hinted it might be raining on Friday morning - bad news for all runners. Part two of my preparation mainly consisted of drinking water, sports drinks, and doing simple warmup exercises. As far as my level of hydration and carbohydrates was concerned, I had a good feeling. Throughout the last three days before Friday, I'd been keeping my water-consumption at 2 liters or more and had been taking carbo-loading very seriously: tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, white mushrooms, and pasta - daily. It worked last year, for the Linz Marathon (a half-marathon) and I was confident it would do the trick this time around too.

Around one hour before the start, 5:30am, I left the hotel to get to the event. Taxi or shuttle weren't necessary, the event area was a mere 500m away from the Dubai Marina, where my hotel was located. Quite a number of people there, spectators and runners. Still, in comparison to the big city marathons like New York, Boston, or Berlin, and certainly in contrast to Dubai's quest for superlatives, the Dubai marathon is a relatively small event with less than 1000 marathon participants. When I arrived, the elite was busy with warming up for the action to come. Among them: Haile Gebrselassie, who attempted to break his own world record that day. The crowd left no doubt about it: Haile has rockstar status in the running community and even more so in Ethiopia. Screaming and cheering whenever the man in yellow was in sight, it was crazy! In any case, seeing Haile at the start with his trademark smile and positive attitude was motivating indeed - you clearly cannot give anything but your best if you compete in the very same race, right?

The start was slightly chaotic as it was all other than crystal-clear how runners would actually get to the start. Eventually, however, the confusion cleared up and the starter's gun sounded. There I was making my first few strides in the 42.195km course. What a great feeling, running in the event I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Weather conditions were fantastic, at least for the most part. 16-18°C, a very comfortable temperature range all around, neither the temperature nor direct sunlight have been an issue throughout the whole race.

The marathon started out in the dark, the sun was rising slowly while all these small groups of runners were moving forward along the coast. It was a nice sunrise, but obviously not the best time to relax and enjoy. You have to focus. You have to set a goal. Doesn't have to be an ambitious goal but you have to know what you expect from yourself that day, for practical reasons. Besides the obligatory goal of finishing the marathon - I guess I shared that one with all of them - it was my secondary goal to finish my debut in less than 4 hours. I intended to skip the years and months of 4's, 5's and 6's. Consequently, my strategy was to start off at 6:00min/km and gradually increase the pace to the 5:30-5:40min/km required for reaching set goal. The single biggest mistake you can make is running too fast in the beginning, we all know that but do not always manage to follow that basic principle during the race. There's the crowd cheering you on, other runners starting too fast or having a different, incompatible set of goals. All that may load to you running too fast without even noticing it, feeling it. Undoubtedly, I would have started way too fast too (5:10min/km) if I hadn't tampered my pace immediately based on the info I got from the Forerunner. Yes, I use the Forerunner in races, it provides invaluable feedback you can use to alter your running dynamically and thereby correct an unplanned pace as rapidly as possible. So, my pace was fine. Quite frankly, I was a little worried about targeting 5:30min/km. At last, running around 40k at that pace was new ground for me. I managed to run 21.0975k at that pace in 2008, ran the last 8k of a 32k training run at 5:30min/km. Nevertheless, I knew that 5:30-5:40min/km was what it took to make up for the slow start and, most likely, slower last 10k or finish.

Except for a short section only minutes after the start that demanded for a change of direction, the course was essentially a straight line, a dead-flat one too. Dubai Marina (The Westin), Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah mosque, Union House, and back. While you might be tempted to expect a painfully boring race, a "treadmill experience", it certainly wasn't so! Especially if it's your first time in Dubai, that is a great way to explore the city :)
The course featured aid stations every 5 kilometers with intermediate stations in between. In order to avoid
drinking too much, I basically ignored the intermediate stations and picked up water and energy drinks every 5k in an alternating manner. The spectators in Dubai were great. Only a hand full of people were watching the action every once in a while but they pushed every single runner forward, not only the ones they knew. "3-6-7, looking good! Keep it up!", one of them shouted. "Good job, don't stop now guys!", another one proclaimed. In comparison to the Linz Marathon, the crowd was much more supportive and involved. Most of them didn't just stand there and watch the show, they actually participated. They were helpful and certainly made the race more interesting and enjoyable.

Although I did not plan to, I started with the last bunch of runners. That turned out to be a huge advantage because all I needed to do was maintain my race pace and, without additional effort, I took over quite a few runners every once in a while. If your pace is not too aggressive, that's reassuring and helps to keep motivation up for the real marathon to come.

In training, I usually run with music. For me, that's one of the ways to make training more interesting, it even makes hard or long workouts more bearable. It's funny how you connect particular songs with specific runs and experiences. Certain songs I hear immediately take me back to a specific training run. On my first race (a half-marathon), I was running with my iPod but I found it to be greatly annoying as soon as you start to fight against yourself to maintain the pace and finish without breaking down - in that case, to the point that I took off the head phones during the race. At least for me, it does not work out as a motivational instrument during actual races. So, I've been competing without music ever since and I haven't looked back. A race is entertaining on its own and you might want to prefer hearing and experience your surroundings, the people communicating with you, those who are cheering you on, those who keep you motivated and fresh for the remainder of the race.

Kilometer 8. Near the Burj Al Arab, a couple of guys in tail coats - essentially a group of butlers, most likely from the Jumeirah Beach Hotel or even the Burj Al Arab (I can't really say, I was a little distracted by traveling at 11km/h) - served bottled water on silver platters to runners passing by. While tempting, I passed. The thought of running with a big glass bottle of water in my hand settled that. Nice idea, though :)
On my way, I still took over fellow runners although I didn't speed up. Obviously, I have not reached my pace group yet. Encouraging. Self-check said I was doing fine, plenty of energy remained for the real challenge. As we all knew, that was just the beginning.

Kilometer 14. The marathon lead group passed by already again, Haile being part of the pack of course. I was looking forward to that! He looked as concentrated as ever. Seeing these guys rush through the course definitely gave me a boost, being a witness was exciting... Too early into the race though, nowhere near the finish - but - what can you do, they are fast... I can't remember when exactly it started, but it must have happened during the first half of the race. It actually started to rain. Light rain, more or less, but significant enough to become annoying for runners, for me at least. Fortunately, it did not last for long, so it wasn't too much of an issue overall. Only hours later, I found out that it was an issue for the lead. The high-pace runners faced difficult circumstances for maintaining their speed, let alone setting a world record.

Shortly before kilometer 21, the actual halfway point of the Dubai adventure, there was a U-turn - the Puma turn - leading to the second half of the race. Who would be better suited to cheer runners on than actual cheerleaders? Right at the U-turn, they made sure that all of us managed to enter the return path leading to the white arch of achievement, the final destination. I was still feeling fine but decided to consume carbohydrate gel number one to make sure that I wasn't going to run out of power too early into the game, there's still a lot to come. I didn't know what to expect from a marathon. You read about it, you consume written experiences from those lucky few known as marathoners, take all advice you can get. My longest run was 32k, a good experience overall. I knew I could manage 32k without being totally exhausted. In fact, the last training run was relatively easy to complete without being overly tired after training. I was confident. Positive, with a thought of uncertainty in the back of my head: "Will I be able to keep the pace?". One fundamental difference to training is exactly that - the pace: 6:10min/km in training, 5:30-5:40km/h in the race. That's a notable change in intensity which left enough room for the unknown to raise some doubts.

Throughout the first half, the number of runners stopping for a walk increased gradually. While that might work for others to regain energy, I had a different experience in training and my first race. Whenever I had to surrender and walk, it was practically impossible to start running for more than a kilometer or so again. It depends on why you resort to walking, I guess. If that's included in your race plan, a walk every once in a while might actually be a good thing and you should be able to get going again with minimal effort. I assume, however, that most participants start walking because they cannot keep their pace anymore - it's starting to become uncomfortable or even unbearable - so they walk. I tried to stay true to the approach I practiced in training: maintain your pace unless there's evidence that there's absolutely no way you can continue. Do not walk to attempt to regain energy for finishing. It worked for me, the most challenging execution had yet to come.

The half was relatively easy to complete. I was breathing normally, my pulse was probably okay (I didn't monitor it directly but I was still feeling good). I remember watching the press conference of the New York City Half Marathon Haile participated in, where he was asked about the difference between a half-marathon and a marathon. Haile explained that this wasn't a valid comparison because a half-marathon is so much easier that a marathon, there's no way to compare them. I was a proud half-marathoner at that time and actually found that a little offensive as he sort of undermined my half-marathon results (silly, I know). Only now, I realize that only a marathoner could really understand the essence of his statement. In contrast to a marathon, a half-marathon truly is a piece of cake - that is somewhat clear now. Most importantly, that doesn't mean that finishing a half-marathing is anything but a fantastic achievement.
To increase my confidence, I divided the race into two parts: The 32k I knew by heart from training and the last 10k, the dark road I've never had a chance to enter before. Whenever I reached a kilometer mark, I imagined where I would be on my training course at that point.

Kilometer 32. It was a blessing to have reached the dreaded 32k, it was definitely harder than it was in training. I never ran 32k at 5:30-5:40min/km before. The one run that came closest to the race was a 32k with the last 8k being run at race pace. I do think that very training session helped me to maintain the pace without hopelessly losing control, energy, and motivation.
Whenever somebody's talking about the marathon, they say that a marathon only really starts at the 32k mark. Before, I understood the message but I wasn't totally convinced that it was a law of nature... I'm a strong believer now!

"It's only 10k", I thought. The problem is that 10 kilometers can still become your personal Mount Everest. The last 10 kilometers have been the hardest 10k of my life, a challenge I've never had to go through before. I weight a challenge by the subjective number of times you have to resist following your inner voice and slow down, start walking, or even take the worst route of all - drop out. Take my marathon training, for example. The most challenging training sessions were the test runs, a 10k and 21k race at a pace faster than race pace. In numbers, that meant 4:45min/km for the 10k and 5:00min/km for the 21k. In both cases though, I had to fight quite aggressively to avoid giving up. After finishing either of them, I was pleasantly surprised as to how long and persistently I managed to show my inner voice the cold shoulder and keep running to complete the test runs. Besides the long runs which are essential for marathon training, I'm positive that two of the most reassuring training sessions I was looking back to during the race were these two test runs. I kept running at a fast pace for a duration I wouldn't have thought was possible. In some way, you can also translate that to the following: To some extent, it's a show hosted by your mind and you have to ignore it to a point where your energy depot is actually empty or a serious issue arises. How else would I have been able to pull the last 10k in the Dubai marathon off? I hated the kilometer marks because they more or less forced you to count down the kilometers. A seemingly infinite road I was running on, it felt as if I was on a treadmill - making no forward progress despite maximum efforts. Every remaining kilometer took ages to complete.

Kilometer 35. I could see the Burj Al Arab again, a good sign! The finish had to be close now. Fantastic! More and more walkers appeared as I made my way through the last segment. While you might think that this would cheer you up, it didn't have that effect on me - it only reminded me of how freaking fantastic it would be to just stop right there and forget about the whole thing - nobody had to know! It would still have been a great trip to Dubai either way, right? All sorts of weird stuff was going on in my head at that point. I kept reminding myself that I certainly did not train 10 weeks in negative degrees to stop now, at 35k. All the overcoming it took to get out into the cold to complete the training mission for the day. All of that, shredded in an instant?

Kilometer 37. Almost there. Trouble was, 37k still meant 5.195 kilometers remained - not exactly a walk in the park. To make things worse, I didn't want to just finish, I intended to make a debut in less than 4 hours so I had to constantly keep an eye on my pace. Whenever it dropped below 5:40, I had to motivate myself to keep it up. "Doesn't have to be below 4 hours, a 4-hour time is good enough", I attempted to fool myself. I tried to ignore these destructive thoughts and replaced them with positive ones, however hard that was. Did I run the whole previous kilometers at optimal pace to give in now?

Kilometer 39. I could actually see the finish now, right ahead, relief was on the horizon! Still, 3.195 kilometers to go. At that point, I wanted to throw it all away. Up until the last kilometer, I seriously intended to walk - "Just a short walk to make it more bearable" - the closest I came to that was a short slow-down to a point where I almost stopped but I was determined enough to reaccelerate again. I knew it'd have been crazy to walk or drop out at that point, so close to the finish line!

Kilometer 41. People screamed: "Great job. Don't stop now!". "You can see the finish already". I started to determine how slow I could be without missing the goal of sub-4h. The Forerunner showed 03:53. With one kilometer to go, I could have finished with a pace of 7:00min/km and still reach it - with the risk of being too slow. I waited for the often-cited runners high that literally carried you to the finish. Nothing. Focus! I remembered the finish of my long runs in Linz, Eisenbahnbr├╝cke (railway bridge) to Lentos Kunstmuseum (Lentos Museum of Art). It's a one-kilometer path which certainly feels shorter than that. I imagined the finish to be Lentos and continued to make my way to the end of the journey. More and more people were watching, more and cheered runners forward! "Go, go, go!". I noticed on my Forerunner that it's the last 500 meters. My legs suddenly started to feel light, sort of numb - I accelerated. Tons of people watching and screaming. I knew it was still possible to complete in time. I left the Forerunner alone, didn't care about the pace and simply ran as fast as my "dreamy" legs and feet could take me through the finish. The last few meters...
I threw my arms up in the air and crossed the heavenly finish line. Relief washed over me as I slowed down. Everything fell of, I finished, not a worry in the world. There it was: 03:58:47.

I actually did it! I ran 42.195 kilometers in less than 4 hours, for the first time in my life, in the United Arab Emirates. All the struggle was over. Helpers handed finishers the medal, sports drinks, sandwiches, and a finisher shirt. What a worthy medal it was, huge and heavy, of simple elegance. I kept moving, collected one of each and tried to find a spot on the lawn behind the finish, where fellow finishers have come to rest to recover. I just sat there, refilling energy, observing others, and looked at the medal with admiration. My legs did not feel bad at first. Shortly thereafter, I was walking like an old man, the single-most revealing fact to identify a marathon runner after the competition. I grabbed my deposited cloths and headed home, back to the hotel. Oh my, I wished I had put some money in for a taxi, even though it was only 500 meters or so. "What about Haile?", I thought. "Do we have a new world record?".

I probably haven't fully realized yet what I actually accomplished on January 16th. It'll probably take some time to sink in. Word has it that a marathon is a life-changing experience. Whether or not that's true, fact is that what I've done was undoubtedly the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life so far. It made me realize that it's practically impossible to describe what it means and takes to complete a challenge of that kind, it can only be passed to others by first-hand experience. The most satisfying of all is the victory over my inner voice that wanted to stop me whenever possible but it didn't stand a chance this time. Putting it all together, the 16th might indeed be heading my life in a new direction, and I'm not thinking about sports. Even though that was a sports event, these kinds of challenges are much more than that, they go way beyond managing to run a specific number of kilometers. That at least is what I will take with me from the experience. I'm glad I chose to take the risk to debut in Dubai despite all available advice pointing in the other direction. That certainly made it more exciting than it could have been otherwise!

What about Haile? He did not manage to break his record again but he clocked in at 02:05:29, an excellent time. Rain and wind thwarted his plans. That does not make Haile any less of an exceptional athlete, it only underlines what an achievement it was to finish in a time of 02:03:59 four months ago, even for somebody who's broken the record before and has the highest potential to do so again.

I'm a marathoner now. If you're not, you should give it a try!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Haile and I will rock Dubai

Up until high school, I liked sports. I really did. I was actually looking forward to physical education at school, played soccer with other kids in my spare time - I genuinely enjoyed it. Later, the aforementioned largely positive attitude slowly but surely turned into the exact opposite, I began to hate sports. I'm not entirely sure why but I guess a major part of it had to do with team sports and the aggressive attitude of some class mates in respect to wanting to win, as if an individual match or game was ultimately important in the grande scheme of things. My motivation for sports in general vanished throughout the years. Of course, a second big factor surely was my ever-growing interest in the digital world, which occupied most of my spare time.

So, my personal sports activity effectively came to a halt at the age of 10 and dropped to zero expect for mandatory PE, which hardly counts. Almost 20 years later, it all changed - I have become a runner. Why? Frankly, I can't say at all. Well, definitely not for obvious reasons - becoming fit and healthy - that much I know. Looking back to April 2007, the first month of serious running, I can't really tell. It's absurd, but that sort of reminds me of Forest, who at some point simply started to run. He didn't know why he did it, where he was heading, for how long he'd be running...

I started off slow. The first run was over after around 500 meters, out of energy. I already sensed that 20 years of zero physical training beyond walking from point A to point B and (being a geek at my core) operating the keyboard would take its toll but that was an eye-opener. I didn't lose interest though and have since worked on reducing my 20-year deficit, with good results thus far. I managed to gradually reach set goals, expand my range and speed. To date, I participated in two half-marathon races (Linz, 2007/2008) and one 10k race (Munich, 2008) so far, with around 2,000 kilometers burned. Certainly, that's nothing in comparison to other, more experienced runners, but it's a start. In fact, the most recent mileage delta should paint a whole different picture, more along the lines of an active runner taking his hobby seriously. A new phase of training for a special challenge to come.

Earlier this year, I intended to compete in a half-marathon again (to improve my PB of 1:57:35), that used to be my distance of choice to conquer. For that, I strictly followed a 6-week training plan and competed in a 10k test race (Munich Marathon 2008) with a good result of 47:21, meaning I can now maintain a pace of 4:44min/km over 10 kilometers. As mentioned, my intention was to race in a half-marathon. I never came to compete though, a trip to Los Angeles (mentioned in a previous posting) thwarted my plans...
Knowing that I wouldn't be able to do the the half, I started searching for viable alternatives. Maybe do a half later that year or early next year, I thought. One realization I had though is that the delta of the half-marathon training was immense - at least subjectively, based on experience. It worked wonders in respect to pace, 4:45min/km is officially not impossible to sustain for longer periods of time anymore. Progress across multiple dimensions. Now, what to do with new potential? What to do?

You certainly don't want improvements from hard workouts to fade through winter, until the next opportunity to put the new abilities to work in spring or summer - possibly months later. No way! Part of me enjoys going for the extreme every now and then, thinking and acting outside the box. In respect to running, that surely has to translate to taking on the undisputed king of the distance, the infamous 42.195km. Not in spring or summer 2009, that clearly had to happen within the next months to reap the benefits of previous training sessions. Problem was, there's no marathon in sight in this part of the world, meaning it almost certainly had to be a race in a milder climate. Last but not least, I wanted the race have some relevance in the marathon world to make things even more exciting. Putting it all together, there was only one admittedly extreme answer that matched the profile: Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2009!

I hesitated and dismissed the idea of doing Dubai several times until I finally registered and applied for guaranteed entry. Actually, I had registered before I even committed myself to following the lead. Clearly, life is way too short to not seize every single and sufficiently sane opportunity in sight. It's official: I'll actually run alongside Haile Gebrselassie, the current marathon world record holder with a time of 02:03:59 and, from what I've seen, an admirable personality as a whole. Alright, not literally "alongside", I can't say I'll run near Mr. G. either because he'll be almost two hours ahead. Fact is though that I'll compete in the very same race, nobody can dispute that :) With a mere 800 participants (based on last year's stats), you could almost consider this to be personal training. It might even be an historic race should Haile actually manage to break his own world record and hit the jackpot of 1 million USD, I'll do my best to interfere though ;)

Building on my 6-week half-marathon preparation, I kicked off marathon training on 2008-11-10, based on Herbert Steffny's 10-week plan for 03:44:59, slightly modified to make up for the fact that the Dubai marathon takes place on a Friday rather than the usual Sunday (apparently, weekend falls on Friday and Saturday in the United Arab Emirates). The last thing you want to do is going for a long run (thinking 3+ hours) on a work day, simply doesn't work (for me at least). 11 days and 5-6 training sessions remain until race day. To avoid surprises (jet lag, climate, food, ...) and have some more time to enjoy Dubai's amenities, I will leave early, around a week before the actual event. Last Saturday, I completed my final major long run, 32k in around 3 hours. Based on that experience and my training as a whole, I feel confident that I'll actually be able to pull this off on January 16th. If people talk about marathon debuts, they say: "Finishing the marathon has to be the only goal". They're so right, that's rational and sane thinking. Some part of me, however, intends to finish the 42.2k in less than 4 hours. Hey, I didn't prepare for 4 months to not set a secondary goal, right?

Dozens of factors will influence the outcome on Friday the 16th in the unofficial United Arab Emirates capitol. One thing I'm certain of, however, is that - no matter what - Haile and I, really just two geeks of different kind, will indeed rock Dubai!