Marathon morning began bright and warm, with it forecast to be the warmest day of the year so far – not ideal conditions for running, let alone for chasing a sub-3 hour marathon. But then you can’t change the weather, only adapt to it. So, we made the short journey on the Metro from our hotel to the start area outside Rotterdam’s Stadhuis (town hall) with plenty of fluids and sun-cream. The start area was well organised and relaxed, giving us plenty of time to get ready, go to the toilet, reflect on the challenge ahead, toilet again, before heading to the starting pens.
As I stood on the start line I had just a few minutes to think about how far my training had brought me over the last three months. The hours of running. The early and dark mornings. The track sessions. The painful physiotherapy. The 5k, 10 mile, half-marathon and 20 mile PBs I’d run. And now it came down to a simple formula: run 26.2 miles (or 42.2 km as we’re in the Netherlands) at 6:45 mile pace. As the gun went, and I shot off with the faster starters, that was the only thought in my mind. Hit the mark…6:45…each and every mile.
In 2016, I ran in some of the world’s most iconic marathons, taking in the sights and sounds as I ran. This was very different. I was only focused on my running: pace, form and breathing. Hit the mark…6:45. And looking back I have to admit that large portions of the race/course are a bit of a blur. There is a spectacular opening couple of miles as you race out of the central district and cross the stunning Erasmus Bridge into south Rotterdam. Soon after, the course takes you past De Kuip, the home of Feyenoord football club, before a pleasant, if long and narrow, stretch alongside a small stream. Hit the mark…6:45.
By the time I reached the 15km point (and the welcome sight of our ‘support crew’) I was starting to feel the heat and was taking on more fluids than I would usually. Had I left enough time for a toilet stop, I suddenly worried. Hit the mark…6:45. On I continued, knowing that around halfway I would run past my hotel, and then back across the Erasmus Bridge into central Rotterdam. I’d settled into a comfortable rhythm and was shadowing another runner (Flavio #4675) who seemed to be running at the magic 6:45 and looked like he’d done this a few times before. Once over the bridge (a cheeky 6:24 and my fastest mile) we weaved our way through the city centre and past the Markthal, watching the leaders coming back the other way for their last 2 miles. Hit the mark…6:45.
The course then takes you out for a circuit of the Kralingse Plas, a beautiful area of wooded parkland and lakes. It’s also where the crowds start to thin out and the pace, the heat and the effort started to take their toll. Miles 22 to 24 were pretty lonely and amongst the toughest I’ve ever run in a marathon. I even stopped for a couple of short walks and missed seeing Liz for some much needed support (only by a couple of minutes it turns out). By now I’d even lost the comforting sight of Flavio’s white vest. Miss the mark…7:00…7:06…7:21.
Self-doubt started to creep in and I was aware that my mind was starting to justify a PB of 3:02 as ‘pretty good in the circumstances’. By the time I hit mile 24 I knew it was crunch time. Focus on getting the job done, or give up and jog home. And immediately I knew I was never going to have a better chance of running that sub-3 hour marathon. It was now or never. This is what all that training was about. This last 15 minutes.
The last two miles were still tough and my pace didn’t improve much. But, more importantly, my head was back in the game. Not long to go…just keep going…run it home. And encouraged by the sight of familiar landmarks, and cheered on by the fantastic crowds, I made the final turn onto the Coolsingel and sprinted (ok, lengthened my stride a little) the final 500 metres to the finish. I looked up. 2:57:55. I had done it. I was a sub-3 hour marathon runner. In the end my last 5 miles had cost me 2 minutes. But, I’d actually managed to beat my 6:45 mark up to mile 21 and so ended up with an average pace of exactly 6:45! Hit the mark…6:45.
The rest of the day and the ferry journey home was spent celebrating and reliving the race mile-by-mile. All this was done with an enormous grin on my face that just wasn’t going to be shifted. It’s a grin that has returned as I sit and write this blog. I’ve no doubt that in time the memories will fade and I will set myself new goals and challenges. Not least, I’ve 10 marathons in 10 days to run in just over four weeks’ time. But one thing is never going to change. In Rotterdam, on 9 April 2017, I achieved my goal. I ran my sub-3 hour marathon. My PB will always start with a 2!
And so, it’s time to reward myself with a few days’ rest, allowing my body to recover and my mind to reset itself towards the very different challenge of the Brathay 10in10. It’s going to be another step into the unknown.
Thank you all for your great support, and I’ll see you at the start…