This past weekend I travelled solo to Helsinki to run the marathon there. I have done three marathons previously (Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago) and they have always been tough. Something about a marathon makes it different to any other kind of race. I can take on a half marathon any given Tuesday, 30km’s on a Sunday pass without grave concern, but a marathon, now that's a challenge!
I signed up for the Helsinki marathon not because I am some kind of Finnophile, but because it was my intention to achieve my best marathon time yet, 3:10, thereby securing guaranteed entrance into the London marathon in the Good For Age category (GFA). I decided this all a bit late however, leaving only 5 weeks to train, which mostly went well, up until 2 weeks before race day when all kinds of aches and pains started to materialize. I knew there would be no running in the last 2 weeks, I just had to rest-up, give my injuries a chance to heal and hope that was enough come race day.
And so, with only 3 weeks of actual training, I set out after work on Friday August 13th (not at all portentous) to run the 33rd Helsinki marathon. The race went as follows:
Km 0: I'm standing on the start line, the pre-race music is blaring, my heart is already pounding and I love it. The gun goes and we start running.
Km 2: The injuries are flaring up. My right ankle is making all kinds of complaints, but I know they are all phantom, they will subside. Strangely, the more I think about what to do when my foot meets the asphalt, the more the injuries complain. I am reminded of Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) and the fact that my subconscious can calculate what to do with my foot when it collides with the road many times more quickly than my conscious brain can manage and when I don't think about it, there is no pain. The more I try not to think about it, the more I think about it. It's difficult to remove the focus. If I say "don't think of a red balloon" what's the first thing that pops into your mind? So, I apply the idea in reverse, "don't think about the road ahead, do NOT think about the road ahead!".
Km 10: I'm rockin' along. I feel invincible, like I can lick this thing and keep on going, maybe the caffeine gels are kicking in.
Km 14: I realize I'm 1/3 of the way through and feeling great. Surely I can manage another 2 of these.
Km 21.1: This is half way, and psychologically one of the toughest parts of the race. I've made it in the time I wanted (1:30 on the dot) and starting to feel a little rough, but still confident I can achieve the 3:10 target time. One foot in front of the other, easy.
Km 30: this is as far as I have ever run in training, unchartered territory, "there be dragons here"... and there were, lots of 'em as it turned out. It is at this point where the marathon earns its reputation. I feel rough, but I'm still running, forcing the notion into my mind that there are only 12km's to go, a mere lap of the 3 parks which I have done 100 times, just not after 30 other brutal kilometers.
Km 33: I'm broken, everything hurts and my mind is saying "walk you fool, walk!". I give in, but only because I think the brief respite will actually help. It does, I have a stretch, walk about 100m and start running again, invigorated, a 2nd wind overtakes and I go with it, running the next 2km confidently and focused on the prize, but it's at this point the dream fades, I can’t go faster than I’m going and I realize I can't make 3:10. It's bitterly disappointing. By now my legs are numb, I have to look down to make sure they're not flailing all over the place, I’m glad to see they are still moving forward and true. I press on, it hurts, a lot.
Km 36: even though it's a mere 6km to go, it seems impossible. You might as well ask a 100m sprinter to shave 0.2 of a second off their best, I am destroyed and it's pure mind keeping me going. I know that later on, this half hour of pain will be forgotten, and all that will remain is the result, but I just don't have anything left, I plod on to the end.
Km 42: It's true, the supporters do add a couple of miles. Somehow I've made it all the way home and it's great. This is why I do it... the sense of completion, the achievement, the elation, it's excellent. In that moment, I can actually even contemplate another marathon… another time.