Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Rotterdam Marathon DNF Race Report

Short version:

I DNFed. Before the start I thought I might, after 20km I resigned myself that I would, and now afterwards I feel somewhat annoyed but also realise it was probably the right thing to do. So my marathon goals and dreams will have to live to see another day, and more importantly, I've learned a thing or two about how to run one properly for next time.

Long version:

Jim and I were in Holland over the weekend to run the Rotterdam Marathon. We originally signed up for it last Christmas because we hadn't gotten into London and I wanted a spring marathon in the calendar to keep me running steadily throughout the winter. I'd done Rotterdam once before and while it's a fairly boring course, the support is good and it's flat and fast, good for a PB. Plus it meant a trip back to Holland to visit friends and go shopping.

Through sickness and other distractions Jim hadn't done enough training to run the marathon, so he ended up switching to the 10k when we picked up our race packets. (In fact, he did rather well at that distance, shattering all previous PBs and slaying the 40 minute dragon.) So that left me alone in the marathon, trying to make a decision that I'd been mulling over for the past few weeks: run the whole distance (for which I really hadn't trained enough, either) or try for a new PB in the half and drop out after that. In the end I picked the least attractive and more common third option: start out like you're running the whole thing, be on pace and target through the half for the full, but drop out a few kms later and call it a day with nothing really to show for it.

Note to self: drinking copious amounts of beer two nights before the race, and then eating a giant steak dinner the night before the race probably weren't the smartest things to do. The morning of the race, I woke up feeling less than 100%. After not sleeping well all week and then flying to Holland and sleeping even worse in the hotel, I had my doubts that Sunday would be my day. Nevertheless, we got our stuff together and took the train to Rotterdam. The weather at 9am was chilly and foggy, about 6 degrees. I hemmed and hawed in the changerooms near the start of the race about what to wear, finally going with a short-sleeved t-shirt and 3/4 length tights along with my calf guards, and lightweight gloves to take the chill off. We did a little warmup jog, then I left Jim to enter the sub-3:30 corral that I'd managed to get myself registered for. Somewhere between 10:45 and 11am, the sun came out and suddenly everything heated up, and I stood around in the corral and realised I should have used the portapotty one last time... sigh. One of these days I'll get that right!

The gun went at 11am and one minute 14 seconds later I had crossed the start line and was running down the wide Coolsingel. The first 2km passed with me anxiously looking for somewhere, anywhere, to stop and have a pee, but no such luck; the crowds were lining the streets and while I was desperate and this was Holland (where wildplassen is a national pastime), I wasn't about to completely embarrass myself. Thankfully just before the 3km marker there was an aid station and a single glorious, virgin portapotty. A minute later, I was out and running again with much relief.

The next 22kms passed pretty easily. I was clipping along at 4:50min/km pace, more or less on target for my sub-3:30, and feeling all right. Not pushing it but not dragging either, but completely and utterly... uninspired. Just blah. Thanks to the crowds and my little pit stop, the first 3km took me 16:30, but I gradually and mind-numbingly clawed all that lost time back: 5km went by in 26:14, 10km in 50:13, 15km in 1:14:56, 20km in 1:39:21 and 25km in 2:04:55. The mind games that had started before the gun even went off -- finish or no finish? -- were creeping into focus at 15km, niggling me relentlessly by 20km, and full on by 25km.

By then the sun had come out and I was getting more than warm. My shoulders and upper back were in knots. My legs felt all right but they were already warning that while finishing was possible, the next 17km and in particular the final 7km would be rough. Then I saw Jim, standing alongside the road having finished his own race more than an hour earlier, and I stopped running. With 25km on my Garmin and a 4:58min/km pace on the go, I just gave up and dropped out.

And at that I came to understand with painful clarity a vital part of marathon running (for me, anyway) that I'd previously missed: you need to go into the race with your bargaining power already harnessed and ready to go, or your body and mind will just talk you out of finishing it, and no comeback or argument you make up on the spot will be enough to overcome that. If you don't start the race with your motivation for finishing clear in your mind, you just won't finish it, period. The marathon is just too tough a distance to get through on mild interest and a distracted sense of obligation alone.

So with that, my third marathon attempt ended in a DNF. As the course was a figure eight in shape, the start/finish line was a mere 2km from where I dropped out, which made it pretty easy. Knowing that 25km was just enough to give me sore legs but not enough to keep me from training for the rest of the week made it even easier. Thinking that while I was on pace for sub-3:30, I might hit the 40km mark and crash and burn, making all that effort for nothing, was just the icing on the cake of reason. In fact, only three positive things came out of this whole experience:
- I got in a reasonable 25km run on Sunday
- I realised that I'm just too logical to run marathons without a heart-and-soul goal
- I'm not so mentally and physically spent that I don't want to even look at my running shoes for a month (as was the case after the last marathon)

Monday I was back on my bike and I'll go for a run probably tomorrow. And I've ordered myself a rubber bracelet with HTFU on it. While I think my goals for Ironman UK are pretty solid, I could use a reminder now and then to quit rationalising why I shouldn't do something and just get on and do it. Lesson learned.

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