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...