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6-Week Marathon Journey (Part 3)

Final installment! Here are Part 1 and Part 2.


Race Day


The NN Rotterdam marathon 2024 started at 10:00 AM for elite runners, and at 10:15 AM for people like me with an expected finishing time 4:00-4:30 hrs. I took the train from Amsterdam to Rotterdam and arrived two hours early to collect my bib (tracker) and store my luggage at the designated facility. It was chilly, so over my race shirt and Lycra shorts I wore thick sweatpants and a sweater—a set of clothes I was willing to part with. As soon as the race started I took the extra layer off and draped them over a fence where many other people ditched their clothes as well.


The Rotterdam marathon is quite a spectacle. There were around 50,000 runners in total, of which 17,000 signed up for the full marathon. To motivate the runners, dignitaries and artists gave speeches and performances. Along the course were countless choirs, marching bands and DJs. Thousands of loudly cheering supporters with funny signs flanked the roads (“Your worst Tinder date is behind you, run faster!”). The route was also really pretty; Rotterdam’s marathon is nicknamed “de mooiste” (the most beautiful).


Starting slowly


I was mildly annoyed at the start of the race because the line to the bathroom had taken 45 minutes and I’d missed my start time. The pacers I was hoping to run with in the beginning of the race (4:20 finishing time) were long gone. So I set off alone at the pace I’d decided on, which was only slightly faster than their pace, hoping to close in on them within a few kilometers time. I wasn’t worried though—trying to spot them in the crowd kept me entertained along with reading as many signs as possible with sayings like “toenails are overrated” and “hurry up, your beer is getting warm.”


Suddenly, I passed the 7K marker. I was surprised because I felt like I’d only just started! There were still no pacers in sight, but I didn’t mind. I knew they’d left several minutes ahead of me and I wasn’t going to run faster just to find them quicker. My pace was around 6 minutes per kilometer, exactly as planned, and it felt just right. The next time I blinked I was at 10K. I drank a cup of water and chewed on some gummies to keep my energy level up.


Halfway point


At 21K, after finishing another cup of water and my second pack of gummies, I was still feeling good. To change things up, I turned on some music. I loved hearing my favorite songs while my body continued to move forward effortlessly. Whenever I passed a marching band or a large crowd I paused the music to soak up the enthusiasm. Sometimes people called my name, which was on my chest bib. I knew my mom was waiting for me at the finish but I wasn’t thinking about her. I wasn’t thinking about anything, really.


I continued to feel strong but I kept telling myself not to speed up. I still had a long way to go! I imagined the finish as some place far, far away, in another world.


When I saw the 26K marker, my heart skipped a beat. I’d only trained up to 28K and I’d had some really annoying pains during those long training runs. But now I was feeling just fine! The contrast with what I’d expected was so stark that I became a little emotional. I’d looked forward to—and worried about—this race for six weeks and here I was: and everything was going fine!


The next time I looked up I saw the 34K marker. I could hardly believe it. There were four large screens showing 6-second video messages made by friends and family. My husband and daughter appeared on one of the screens, calling my name and waving one of my running trophies in front of the camera. It was a sweet moment.


Race to the finish


At this point I made an honest assessment. I was feeling as fit as if I’d just started! I had only 8K to go, which would almost be too easy at this pace. So, I allowed myself to speed up, if only slightly. It would be too ridiculous to finish the marathon and not even be tired, right?! I’d thought this race would be a character building moment full of adversity and a test of my perseverance. Instead, I felt like I could go on forever! Then again, I didn’t want to go nuts. It’s dangerous to exceed your training limits, particularly at a moment like this. I ran the final stretch in 5:30 and in 5:10 during the final kilometer.


I finished in 4:10 hours: an accomplishment that came totally out of the blue. Beating my PR from ten years ago by a full 9 minutes hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility until it happened. It was a little anticlimactic but also one of the best feelings in the world. I couldn’t hold back a few tears after I crossed the finish. “It’s okay to let it all out!” someone from the organization called at me encouragingly, which was nice.


Lessons learned


Training


For running, India is the school of hard knocks. It was so challenging to train there that it had left me feeling underprepared and a little fragile. Sure: I’d completed four half marathons within the three months leading op to the full ‘thon, but every proper training schedule includes at least five runs even longer than that (I did only two) plus weekly mileage numbers that I did not reach by a loooong stretch. Still, it apparently prepared me for the Rotterdam marathon just fine!


Nutrition & hydration


I don’t need much when I run long distances, but I definitely need water and a few carbs. I drank one cup of water every 5K and ate one (half) package of gummies every 10K. Last time, I ran a full marathon without nutrition and much less water and I ended up feeling terribly depleted, although that was partially because it was significantly hotter that day. I’ll never run a long distance again without at least basic food and drink to keep me strong—it’s too risky, and too miserable.


Pace


I enjoyed running with pacers during my first marathon but that was probably because the pacers were two female ultrarunning champions with cool stories. They were extremely upbeat and relaxed, but not all pacers have that kind of charisma. This time I was happy just running by myself using my intuition (and my tracker). I regulated my breathing by running slowly and steadily. It felt great not to pressure myself into going faster or keeping up with a group, and it turned out I wasn’t running slow—just efficient! I paced myself so well (helped by the fact that there was a thick mass of runners that was hard to overtake) that I had energy left to speed up during the final quarter of the race.


Thoughts


This was the first time ever that I was able to run a long distance without having almost any real thoughts. I can’t really explain how I did it. The only conscious decisions I made were keeping a steady pace, saving my music for the second half of the race, and appreciating my surroundings as much as possible. The race was really enjoyable, though sometimes it was annoying to have so many people in front of me who were slower. I particularly hated people running in “wall formation.”


Don’t sprint


It’s highly discouraged to sprint towards the finish at a marathon. It’s likely your body simply can’t handle it (something about glycogen levels). I saw multiple people passing out during the final stretch of the race, which was extremely disturbing. It was so bad the announcer started pleading with the runners to cross the finish at their normal speed.


The Rotterdam marathon


I overheard a lot of runners talking about the race. Honestly, there were too many runners for the width of the roads. I couldn’t have run faster if I’d wanted to. If I’d known I could easily finish in 4:10 perhaps I should have signed up for a different start wave so I wouldn’t have had to overtake hundreds of runners and almost bump into them at the end where most runners slowed down. However, the organization and especially the supporters were phenomenal. I heard several people say how much better the Rotterdam marathon is than the one in Amsterdam, because in Amsterdam there aren’t nearly as many supporters and a lot more people there are annoyed that the roads are blocked.


Recovery


As an amateur runner, recovery isn’t something I pay much attention to because I  usually recover fine from runs without doing anything besides resting. Though lately I’ve been feeling so cold and exhausted after long runs that I‘be been taking it more seriously.


One major help is icing my knees if they are sore. It makes a huge difference to keep the swelling down. Another thing is immediately replenishing calories, nutrients and electrolytes. It’s tempting to just curl up on the couch. My body can feel too shaken up or tired to have a big meal. But it really helps to eat and drink a variety of things, including fat and fiber and lots of carbs.


My most immediate concern after a long run is post-run shivers. I get really cold really fast—even in tropical weather. At some race events you get an aluminum blanket but I always bring a sweater, too. Though there is an alternative: post-run dynamic stretching! So, with my last energy, I sometimes stretch or dance Zumba with the crowd to stay warm. Though even if I won a trophy I usually just go home—to me it’s not worth waiting around for an hour to receive a plastic trophy for being second runner up or something.


Aftermath


Now that the marathon is behind me it doesn’t feel like such a big deal anymore, even though I thought of little else for six weeks! The most important thing perhaps wasn’t completing the marathon but that it altered how I looked at myself as a runner, or athlete—though that word still sounds much too fanciful.


What changed in me? I got more serious about running and fitness in general; I ran twice as much as before and incorporated helpful exercises. I went deep; instead of avoiding the running industrial complex, I dipped my toes into running literature, nutrition, and some of the gear. I got tougher; I used to shy away from discomfort during workouts, but now I accept it’s just part of building strength and getting better. I became more committed; I decided running is my favorite sport and suspect it will always be.


Physically, I recovered surprisingly well. Some are a little purple but mostly my toe nails survived—I’d taped the one that was still growing back after disappearing from a previous run. I really felt fine! Perhaps the worst physical setback was how I looked—especially my face looked fatigued. Training did wonders for my figure but the drawback is that my face looks five years older..!!


Mentally, I also recovered well from this experience. You can fall into a black hole after a major running event is over, but I don’t think that’s happening because I already decided that this is going to be more of a long term thing now. I have many running goals for this year along with plans to change up my training. My immediate challenge is to stay motivated and fit during the upcoming hot and monsoon months in India.



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