race day: dublin marathon

They say you should never meet your heroes: expectation always falls short of reality. The same is true of running – more often than not. You train hard, to build capability and confidence. Without it, you could never toe a start line with any purpose. While chasing the dream of “personal best” times, we forget that we cannot simply run them on command. We can also lose sight of what a personal best means. I waited a few days after the Dublin Marathon to gather my thoughts before writing this post. I sensed I needed a little perspective first.

morning: awakening

I awoke in my hotel room on the morning of the 40th Dublin Marathon. Feeling fresh after a good night’s sleep. Eaten sensibly for weeks and rested well for the entire week leading to the race. Brimming with confidence after a truly bizarre year of experimental training. My overnight oats soaked in unsweetened almond milk went down easy. Hydration for the previous 72 hours was precise and controlled. There was nothing that I could have nor should have done differently.

My hotel was only 15 minutes from the start line. The walk to the baggage drop was pleasant in the crisp, early morning air. Dublin had both a sense of calm and tremendous expectation about it, as it always does on race day. I togged off and handed in my bag to the stewards. It felt fresh, warm sunlight but a noticeable chill in the air. I was glad I chose to wear my arm sleeves for a little extra protection. Met the guys of the #BVSC at the entry to Wave 1 and the fun began.

they’re off: steady, steady, easy tiger

The race plan cemented in my mind. A training-confirmed strategy (3, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 4, 1, 3.2 – 4-mile sub-pace sets and short recs). I lost a couple of seconds on the first warm-up mile as expected with the crowds. We made it up on the second mile, and ran steady for the third. Locked onto pace for the first working set and executed it perfectly. The first recovery mile was too hot. Run below marathon pace albeit while mostly going downhill. Possibly the first error of the day.

clockwork: like a well-oiled machine

First mile: 8mins target, two seconds over. Second mile: 12 seconds under. Third mile: 11 seconds under. A little spicy perhaps? “Time to go gents.” First mile of the set was at the faster end of the zone, no problem. Next 3 miles, bang, bang, bang. “Cool it! Rest mile.” A 7:35 rest mile – far too quick but it felt easy, going downhill. “Time to go!” Four-mile set: bang, bang, bang, bang. Perfect. “Cool it!” A 7:47 rest mile – still too quick…

Only in retrospect do I now wonder if I thwarted my own plan between the first two sets? I’ll never really know if it did take a toll, there are too many variables – I did stray from the plan though. Still, the memories of executing the first 3 sets of 4-mile intervals are good ones. On the command, like running short intervals on the track and driving consistent splits. Training had delivered this experience.

dublin marathon: it’s a beast

I won’t hear a bad word about the Dublin Marathon. A fantastic event, run by an incredible collection of people, volunteers and race organisers alike. It is truly the best race event in Ireland. The only bone I will pick, is how they advertise the course. The famous route video that sends tingles down my spine in anticipation, very loosely uses the phrase “the incline is favourable to runners”. Dublin is not a flat course – not even remotely. Twelve miles of the course are calculable, net elevation gains. These don’t include miles of long drags which are suddenly eclipsed by a short, sharp drop. It’s a great course but it’s not an easy one.

Something happened to me during the race this year and I need to learn more to make sense of it. That’s not an excuse for having a bad day at the office. Relatively speaking I didn’t have a bad day at the office; I took 4mins and 55seconds off my previous PB. Training indicated much more was possible though. When I crossed the finish line, I was a mess. It wasn’t just how I felt either. A couple of people asked me if I needed a medic. That is a scary thing to hear when you think it’s only in your own head. I was wobbling, my head felt woozy. There was a pain at the back of my neck and cramps in my right arm. My legs, completely shot. Then I started to shake out.

Luckily I met the #BVSC crew at baggage collection long after I meandered past the finish line. I took several stops before then to sit and rest on the ground. Gents one and all, they ensured I was wrapped up warm again. They then shepherded me to my wife and daughter at the meeting point. I have never been in such a state after a race. Truth be told, I was actually a little worried because I couldn’t make sense of it all. It took me 20 mins to break the news that I had finished a good while back and grabbed a PB too!

analysis

Where to start with analysis? An emotional rollercoaster of a race. Let’s just keep it to facts and stats perhaps. Looking at the mile splits below, you can see exactly when the problems started. I lost a few seconds over the hills between 14 and 17 but I banked time from earlier to cover that. That wasn’t the problem zone. Mile 18 should have been a ‘cool’ split but I ran it 12 seconds too hot. A slow split at mile 19 was followed by another at mile 20. This was despite being on one of the easiest sections of the course. This was the start of the end.

Mile 21 was the first 8+ min/mile of the race outside of the congestion at the startline – that was it. At this point I knew the goal was gone. I could battle it out, try to sustain close to target pace for a couple more miles at most. However, it would have been for the sake of ego alone. Instead, I reasoned with myself as sanely as I could. Running the numbers quickly in my head, I realised that maintaining a 9-min/mile average to the end would secure the sub-3:30 consolation prize. I swallowed my pride and dropped the effort, not that it reduced the suffering in any way. However, there was nothing else I could give and I have no doubts about it.

dublin marathon 2019 splits – planned 'hot' miles in red, 8-min/miles in blue
dublin marathon 2019 splits – planned ‘hot’ miles in red, 8-min/miles in blue

Turning to the charts shows another side to the story. I was moving very well for the first half of the race. It felt easy, I felt relaxed. Heart rate was ideal until it climbed over the hills/drags between 13 and 16. It dropped back a little after that stage but not nearly enough, despite not working as hard. It’s the peaks and not the averages that are important here. My ‘Performance Condition’ scores show another dynamic. From early on, my levels were equivalent to when I raced steady 7:15/mile pace in Danesfort last month. I was not putting in that kind of effort at the Dublin Marathon, something was up.

heart rate spikes and performance condition scores were indicating a problem before the pace chart shows the death
heart rate spikes and performance condition scores were indicating a problem before the pace chart shows the death

Finally turning to time in zones. Had I grabbed the sub-3:20 I was chasing, I could have shown this chart in isolation and passed it off as a perfect race. I’m actually very happy with how it looks. Take this as a valuable lesson that time in zones means absolutely nothing if viewed alone.

two thirds of the race in Zone 3 & 4 and only one third in Zone 5 – that's a proper race chart!
two thirds of the race in Zone 3 & 4 and only one third in Zone 5 – that’s a proper race chart!

reflection

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… We can never go forward dwelling on the negatives and I’m not going to do that. There is still more work to do this year. Then the Oregano Project goes into full review mode for 2020. However, in reflection, the good times far outweigh the negatives of the year by a significant ratio. That’s not a bad way to be at this stage.

What happened to me at the Dublin Marathon will require some investigation. I need to see if it was indeed just the cold that crippled me. It does appear to be a likely explanation as hydration, electrolytes, carbs were all perfect for normal business. Rest wasn’t working for me at the finish. The only thing that made me come around again was heat. Until I began to heat up again I was a distressed, disorientated mess. I never responded to cold in that way before. However, research that I’ve read since Sunday suggests there are many things I didn’t know about in this respect. Things that I should have factored – “fail to prepare…”. That can be the subject of another post should I gain understanding of it but not now.

This was my farewell lap of Dublin – my last Dublin Marathon. I have run the race 6 times in total since my first in 2007, when I carried all fifteen stone of my unfit self around the course in 4hrs 56mins. To have taken 90mins from that over the years makes me even prouder to tell that tale of a different me, lumbering around the streets of the city. I leave Dublin not with the run I wanted but perspective. The perspective that I trained, experimented, broke myself, learned countless things about my body under stress, was hospitalised, lost 4 weeks of training, and rebuilt myself for my first ever sub-3:30 marathon. A 3:27 that took almost 5 minutes off my previous PB.

There will be more marathons but Dublin has become too expensive to enjoy it now. The lottery system being introduced for 2020 is another blow to be honest. I predicted this about 3 years ago when there were obvious, and aggressive, changes in how the marathon was promoted. Sad to see but such is life. I find it a little baffling in the same year that such PR surrounded the 13 incredible people who have run each of the 40 Dublin Marathons to date. It was disclosed that these athletes were guaranteed entry since the 25th event. However, it’s sad to think that nobody will follow their streak because of the “offers all runners the same opportunity” lottery.

I’ve said it before, you don’t get to finish a marathon and be unhappy – don’t be that guy, many would kill to do what you just achieved. Doubly so, you don’t get to seize a huge PB and be unhappy – don’t be an absolute runhole! I’m taking this and will be proud of it. It’s the #BVSC way and we have a lot more work to do before we put 2019 to rest. In one year, I’ve secured big PBs in both the half-marathon and marathon. Also, I was able to run a half-marathon at a pace that would have been a PB last year, just to prove to myself that I could keep it steady without racing at full tilt. It sure has been exciting so far and I’m still learning, even at the tender age of 41!

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