This is me finishing the Valencia Marathon last weekend (in white on the left).
I’m very proud of finishing in that way (excuse the sound effects), but don’t be fooled into thinking it was easy. An hour earlier, I “hit the wall” and was having serious doubts about whether I could even get to the end. Fortunately, I was able to recover and enjoy one of the best marathon finishes in the world. This is my race.
For a lot of people who run a marathon, it’s a once in a lifetime achievement. Something to tick off their bucket list. That was true for me when I did the London Marathon in 2012.
But then 2018 came along and I found myself promising to run 1,068.68km in the calendar year due to my fundraising for CAMFED. So when some friends told me they had signed up for a marathon in December, it seemed like the perfect way to cap off my year of running.
Leading up to the race, I set myself two targets:
- To enjoy it;
- To break 4 hours.
The first one sounds cliché, but I don’t look back on London with fond memories (I barely even remember the last 10km), so this was important for me. The second one is a realistic goal and a nice round number, so that’s what I based my race plan on.
A 4 hour marathon is 5:41 per kilometre or 9:09 per mile. To put that into context, that’s 10.5kmph on a treadmill (6.5mph) or 28:26 for a 5km Parkrun. Running is a very individual thing, but lets just say I tend to run faster and I can chat normally at that pace, so it should be an achievable goal for me. Of course I don’t normally run for 4 hours though…
Like many marathon rookies, my training could have been better, but I was strangely optimistic ahead of the race. I arrived in Valencia on Thursday night and had a couple of days to relax. I stayed in a hostel that was 90% full of marathon runners, so I was getting plenty of advice from their collective experience.
I learned that Valencia is the self-proclaimed “City of Running” and it seems to have the credentials to back it up. It’s the only city in the world with 5 IAAF-certified races. Both men’s and women’s half-marathon world records have been set there recently and the marathon boasts the second most sub-2:30 runners in a race.
I picked up my race number at the Marathon Expo, where I also met cycling legend and five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Induráin. I saw the finish line – at the end of a walkway in the middle of water, flanked by a grandstand and surrounded by the futuristic “City of Arts and Sciences” that would be filled with cheering supporters, music and sunshine – and imagined how it would feel to finish on Sunday.
I lined up with the 4-hour pacers with the aim of staying with them until at least halfway and then seeing how I felt. By which mean I would go ahead of them if I was feeling good; slowing down was not part of the plan.
Alfredo and David helped me to settle into a rhythm without getting swept up in the excitement. There were lots of others following the same pacers, so although the pace was comfortable we had to be wary of swinging arms and legs.
10km was the first milestone and it was uneventful to this point. It was tempting to go ahead of the 4-hour group, but I stuck with the plan. At around 16km (10 miles) I began to realise that I wouldn’t be moving ahead at all.
Just after 21km, my phone said we’d crossed the halfway point in 1:59:21. Right on schedule. It didn’t matter that the elite runners had already finished, but the rising temperatures were not ideal. Until this point, people were taking tight corners and straight lines to minimise the distance, but in the second half we were doing what we could to find the shade.
Passing 26km was a big moment for me as that’s when I crashed in London. I was feeling ok but I didn’t know how I would cope with the last 10km. The temperature had risen to 24o and the aid stations were becoming more and more important. At 30k we got bananas as well as drinks, so I took as much as I could carry. Alfredo gave the group a time check: dos cincuenta en punto. Still on track for 4 hours, but with no time to spare.
I ate my banana and drank my water and Powerade. When I looked up, I realised that I’d drifted back from the 4-hour pack. I thought about catching up but my body didn’t respond. As the minutes ticked by, the gap continued to grow.
By 31km, I realised that I was on my own until the end. This was a big psychological blow as it meant I was conceding my 4 hour goal wasn’t going to happen. It was much less crowded than running in a tightly packed group, but it became a much more mental exercise.
A moment later, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was my friend and training partner Paula, my saviour! I knew Paula would be 4 hours or thereabouts, so she could get me to the finish on time! We hardly said a word to each other; “I’m struggling” was about all I could manage. We ran together for a while, but it wasn’t long before I couldn’t maintain the modest pace any longer.
“Hitting the wall refers to depleting your stored glycogen and the feelings of fatigue and negativity that typically accompany it. When you run low on glycogen, even your brain wants to shut down activity as a preservation method, which leads to the negative thinking that comes along with hitting the wall.”
The first time I stopped running, my legs were so happy. It was supposed to be just a few strides, but it turned into more like 20-30 seconds. Once I resumed running, I decided not to stop a second time as it might get harder and harder to get going. But a couple of minutes later I had to walk again. I tried to negotiate with myself. “Get to the next Km marker, then you can walk a bit.” But it was no use and I found myself walking more and more.
I shouted. People looked. I started to consider why I was doing this in the first place, trying to draw inspiration from CAMFED and CAMA. I was getting emotional. I was letting people down. Letting myself down. I was losing sense of time. It felt like I’d been struggling for ages and the remaining distance was so daunting.
I finally got some respite at the 35km drinks station. I drank water, an energy gel, a Powerade, another water, another Powerade, another energy gel. Everything I could get my hands on. Deep heat for my legs and more water to cool down.
Some minutes later, the mental fog started to lift and I started to think more clearly. I was able to focus on the relatively short distance I had to go. I realised that despite my struggle, I hadn’t seen the 4:15 pacers.
My leg muscles started to cramp. The left hamstrings went first. Then the right. As I stopped to stretch, my right quad went, twice as bad as the others. My head was clear now and the pain was strangely gratifying. I hobbled on. The last 2km were almost a straight line to the end. The towering hemisféric showed us where we needed to go. The pain started to disappear. The crowds were cheering, “Vamos! Ánimo! Venga!” I started to find a steady rhythm. I was back in the race.
I started to picture the finish line again. My natural sprinting tendencies desperately wanted to finish in style. I tentatively increased the pace as I approached the final kilometre. I felt my energy reserves coming back. I was gaining strength from the crowd, from 120,000 inspirational CAMA members across Africa. But I didn’t know if my legs would let me enjoy it.
I realised that I was passing the other runners. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was downhill. There were two quick turns and then there it was, 200 metres to the finish line. I started to go faster. I saw the cameras and realised I wanted to be seen. I was going faster than everyone else. I found some space to run into and went faster still. I raised my arms. I crossed the finish line. That was it.
4 hours 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
I immediately felt dizzy and lay down. My legs rejoiced. After a moment to compose myself, I turned to see the runners coming in behind me; each of them having overcome their own challenges to get to the line. I was close to tears again, but this time I was happy. Happy it was over, but also for what I’d done.
Reflections and learnings
Did I achieve my two goals? Not exactly. I obviously didn’t finish in under 4 hours, but overall I can say that I enjoyed it – of course it’s more complicated than that, but the highs outweighed the lows!
I finished in the bottom 21% of the field, but with a 27 minute PB. I wonder if I had gone slightly faster, would I have hit the wall earlier? Or if I had gone slightly slower, could I have avoided it? Presumably better nutrition and hydration are the answer. And more training, it’s all about the training.
For another perspective on the race from an experienced runner and writer, check out The Allrounder’s blog here: https://www.theallrounder.co.uk/valencia-marathon-2018-spain-running-review-race-report/
If anyone would still like to sponsor me, CAMFED would still welcome donations here: https://camfed.org/donate/personal-fundraising/489-michael-keeps-running-for-camfed/
And why not finish by watching my sprint finish again!
“Mara-ton mara-ton mara-ton-ton-ton,
Mara-ton mara-ton mara-ton-ton-ton,
Mara-ton mara-ton mara-ton-ton-ton”