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, Eisenbahnbrücke (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!