Rotterdam 2016: My First Marathon

Kop van Zuid Rotterdam night before the Marathon

It’s 10 to 10 in the morning of this April Sunday 11th and I’m about to take part in the Rotterdam Marathon. I have been training for a bit more of 4 months, 4 times a week with some ups and downs but with the firm intention to complete my first marathon. It’s hot outside with the sun shining on the thousands of participants of the fourth and last wave of the race. All this time I have been training alone and I’m now surrounded with a crowd so dense I can barely stretch and warm-up. I’m so stressed I probably wouldn’t be able to do much even if I was alone anyway.

Everyone around looks frozen. At some point the spell is broken by some laughters: a woman is flashing at the window of one of the buildings surrounding Rotterdam’s Coolsingel. At 10 the race starts but only for the first wave. I look at my watch and see that my heartbeat is flirting with 90 beats per minute. How can I be so nervous? Is that because I slept only 3 hours last night, forever turning in bed and waking up my fiancee to share my anxiety? A man passes through the crowd and stops to point his finger at an Ajax Amsterdam sticker on the pole next to me: “Did you do that? Be careful, they will kick you out of the race”. He laughs and continues his way through. The awkwardness goes on for a while until at last the crowd moves towards the start line. 10:28 this is it! Before I can even realize what’s going on I’m already running, drown in a sea of runners. I came to the race with a friend but we run at different paces and are quickly separated.

I’m running, the weather is beautiful, the crowd of runners moves at different speed like an ever rolling wave. I have been struggling with insertional achilles tendonitis for some time now and one post I read on reddit struck me. It was by a guy who just went for surgery on his achilles and wouldn’t be able to run again for a few months at least. His only message was just: enjoy every moment running, short or long run, race or training as usual, just suck everything in because it’s so precious. This is exactly what I’m thinking at the start of this race as I run on the stunning Erasmus bridge full of supporters cheering at the top of their lungs.

My plan is simple: my longest training run was 32 km at 5:11 / km so I want to run the marathon at 5:20 / km. I know things can get tough so I aim to run at 5:10 for the first half and 5:15 for the second. This way if something goes wrong I still have some buffer to accomplish my goal. After the first kilometers I realize that the crowd of runners is actually not getting thinner. Quite the contrary: at some points where the road narrows down 4 runners can barely fit side by side and I have to focus each instant not to trip or trip someone. I only trained alone so not being able to slow down or speed up without being cautious of my surroundings is totally new to me.

The first 10 kilometers are almost in and my fragile left achilles is holding up so far. I’m running with no pain but I’m still conscious of a certain stiffness that really worries me. When my achilles flared up again about 3 weeks ago I was unequivocal: no way I wouldn’t run the Rotterdam Marathon. I would go to a massage therapist, do the eccentric calf exercises religiously, ice it as much as possible but no way I would drop out. How stupid of course. A life of running ahead of me and everything. But I have been training so assiduously so far that I couldn’t back down. Worst case, I told myself, I would just stop during the race if the pain is too much. Amazing how we can lie to ourselves and look the other way to get what we long for, no matter the risks.

Around kilometer 17 I start to freak out: my left foot, the one that lies below my injured achilles, feels numb with a weird cottony sensation. Is it because of my achilles? Is it about to break down? Should I stop? My head is bursting with alarms. There’s no pain as such so I decide to ignore it and just be careful with my pace. I read that most tendon ruptures occur with sudden sprints so I try to cruise as steadily as possible. The half-marathon is in and I just continue to go at it, trying to enjoy the race without thinking about my foot. Somehow I keep repeating to myself this Large Professor’s verse like some kind of mantra: ‘I got this, like a locksmith’. So funny how our brain picks up random stuff and bounce it all over the place.

Before the race I thought that after 30 kilometers the hardest would be behind but, of course, that’s so wrong. I start having cold sweats, like at the end of my early long training runs when I ran too fast and didn’t drink and eat enough. Is that the dreaded wall? I really don’t want to find out and eat the gel I was saving for later and drink plenty of water, probably more than I should I’m thinking as I gulp it down. The rest of the race is pure torture with each new stride even more painful than the previous one. My quadriceps are burning so much that I totally forget about my numb left foot and its injured achilles. Everything can break down for all I care, I won’t stop until I can’t move anymore. That’s final. I see people stopping to stretch or pee and I would like to do the same but I can’t. I’m just not sure I would be able to start again.

The end is nowhere near as glamorous as what I was dreaming of all these long months of training before the race. Around 41k my fiancee is shouting my name. It takes a few seconds for my brain to get the information and respond. I wave hoping I don’t look as haggard as I feel. The finish line is so near yet so far. I’m almost embarrassed for myself for wanting to stop even so close to the end but I can’t help it. Finally I’m almost there. I make a point to raise my arms in victory as I pass the finish line and it’s over. I stumble around and drink as much water as I can. Someone hands me a bottle of gatorade and I also down that. I grab my medal and get my picture taken. Everything around me looks surreal, I can’t believe I’m done. 3:54. I’m very happy. I was expecting to do a bit better but what I realize immediately is that my training never simulated those last 10k of hell so, all things considered, I’m glad to have made it sub 4. My fiancee is with me now and everything is perfect. My achilles is painful but not as bad as I imagined. My quadriceps are hurting badly, but the good kind of pain. The pain where you laugh because you can’t even climb down the stairs or pick up something you dropped on the floor. One week later the pain is gone and I only long for one thing: running the Amsterdam Marathon in October 2016.

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