RACES: Copenhagen marathon

With legs very firmly “put up” on the coffee table here, Aoife and I have returned from our 4-day “holiday” in Copenhagen and I’m trying to recollect the sequence of events of my second marathon, Copenhagen, and what proved one of the oddest races I have ever run. A roller-coaster much like the many you can hear people screaming their heads off from in famous Tivoli gardens, running through a general cloud of negativity I let fall on me into satisfaction once I could reflect properly on the race.

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22nd of May and Denmark is hit by its hottest day of the year so far (Islandsbrygge, the site of the race start)

Arriving early

Aoife and I arrived at SAS Radisson hotel very late Thursday evening, my aim being to spend a few relaxing days in Copenhagen and catch up with old friends (Friday/Sunday) and family (Saturday). The Borgs (no relation to tennis-players or Star Trek villains) travelled over in force the day before the race but had either misunderstood what day I was racing or weren’t able to stay on for Sunday, so they all missed the race (although my mother swear she caught a glimpse of me on tv).

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In the metro with a cup of coffee before the race

Either way, going into the race I grew exceedingly tetchy as the preparations were not 100% what I wanted them to be. We spend too much time walking around both days and not enough just relaxing. Our first meal at La Vecchia on Thursday was fantastic and so was the amazing breakfast on Saturday at Laundromat Cafe, but otherwise the fare was not as healthy as I wanted it to be leading into the race.I tend to get irritated when things do not go exactly as I want it to and carried a bit of this tension into the race.

Pressure cooker

The smooth and streamlined organisation of the race was a great help on the day and it’s was quick for us to get to the start using the Copenhagen Metro. An area had been closed off for elite runners and participants in the Danish Marathon Championship (for which I tried to get an entry but the organisers did not manage to process my request before the race). I set myself up just behind the barrier so as to not lose too much time straight off getting caught out. I just did my natural movement drills with no jogging, and stayed in the shade, deciding that the key priority was to keep my core temperature as low as possible for as long as possible.

Apart from the temperatures, which rapidly rose up above 22 degrees with little wind, I knew I had put a fair bit of pressure on myself when setting my real target as high as 2:48. This was always meant to be a perfect performance on a perfect day and on a perfect course for my current fitness, but it still put me in the awkward mental position that if anything went even the slightest wrong, I might begin to get irritated and negative. Aoife told me: “you should just have written that you’d go to break 3-hours next time, that would make any result look much better.”

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Another cobble-stone section, later it could just as well have been glass shards…

I had to deal with this from almost the first step, while I had time to joke with a few chaps at the start line, this was the last bit of friendly banter or relaxation during the race. From the first few steps after the countdown finished, I did not feel comfortable in my own skin: I struggled to settle into a rhythm and my calves were sore. The soreness worried me the most, and stayed on my mind for the guts of 17km when it just suddenly seemed to disappear.

Executing “Plan B”

In case I did not feel “all that hot” from the beginning, I had planned to set off at 4:05min/km pace. This would allow me to reach half-way around 1:26 and still hit close to target if I suddenly felt better and could run home strongly, as I generally am able to do in races, in a 1:22. The first kilometre came in 4:06 before I ran a 3:59 just to see how it “felt like” on the day. I expected to run a lot of sub-4 kilometres but it would not pan out that way.

There was a lot of jostling for position at this stage and given we were on sub-2:50 pace at this stage, clearly a lot of runners were on a mission of self-destruction unless the amount of runners of that calibre had suddenly sky-rocketed. Last years race had about 60 runners faster than 2:50, but at this stage more than 200 pushed to that target. This would have dire consequences for many as the full effects of the midday heat became apparent later on.

Copenhagen showed its most glorious side, truly a capital to be proud of, yet during the race it felt like I barely noticed the surroundings. I ran in a bit of a haze, talking to no one, and feeling only the faintest surges of adrenaline when the crowds provided massive roars of excitement the three times we went through the city centre. I was a real grump at this point, a pity really, and the experience provided a stark contrast to Dublin where I had chatted to tons of fellow runners and the early stages had felt much like sightseeing, so pleasant it was. This race felt like an exercise in intense concentration. What frustrated me more than anything was that my legs seemed to lack spark, yet my breathing seemed like jogging-intensity and my fuel stores never felt like they ran close to empty.

My own support

Some of my old friends (Thanks Brian and Mathilde!) managed to cheer me on at two spots each on the route and the Danes gleefully shouted “Go Crusaders”, the name clearly rolling off the tongue, but no one was a more diligent supporter than Aoife who ran or metro-hopped to six spots (3km, 12km, 26km, 35km, 37km and the finish) to hand me gels, take pictures and shout support.

“You looked worse at 12km than at 26km”, she told me afterwards, and this was part of the strangeness of the race. At about 19km, I began to feel a bit more like myself, stronger and more confident and the calves finally eased out. A combination of thinking about Tony’s cues (“posture-rhythm-relaxation”, “floppy hands, floppy feet”) and the great fortitude of Japanese marathoner Toshihiko Seko, saw me through during these stages.

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A had tremendous problems with negative thinking at this stage, my mind constantly focusing onto how I’d be dissatisfied at the finish, so it was like a mental war in my mind, as I tried to conjure up positivity and fighting spirit to stave away the downbeat feeling. The other runners made it difficult as well, I had expected to gain ground throughout the race but for the first half it seemed like I went backwards and lost positions. Without an IPhone I cannot use the App but my friend Brian showed me how I lost some ground initially dropping as low as 233rd before working my way up to 94th in the later stages of the race.

The sun splits positive

The Danish water-stations were pretty good with a nice water shower leading into each which I initially ignored, to avoid the risk of chafing, but came to rely on later as part of helping me keep cool. Aoife was getting nervous at this stage as she know I do not normally cope well with heat. I found choosing the right fuel and hydration strategy testing, taking Orbana before the race, 5-6 Hi5 gels during the race and drinking and grabbing a cup of the water and Powerade handed out every ~4km. Often more than half splattered down my singlet, which still shows a distinct hint of blue from the Powerade, so I could not tell you if I was over or under-drinking. Some “inspection” later in the hotel suggested I was still quite dehydrated.

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A blue Danish sky spells trouble for the runners…

At the half-way point my confidence was at the highest point during the race and I finally began to push past a lot of people. I got the 20th, 22nd and 23rd down under 4 minutes but could not keep it going consistently, so abandoned a concerted push. I felt half the coward and half the wise man, but my legs began to feel strange, as if I could not feel the connection to all the muscles and was losing coordination, so I decided to just keep doing what I was doing. At least I had hit the halfway mark in just 1:26:58, keeping all options on the table.

The field was about to run into the midday sun and from here on people’s splits got ever more positive and more than 400 runners dropped out at the halfway point, something the organiser’s called “completely, completely unprecedented”.

Blister(ing)?

With 10 miles to go, I said to myself “if you can run a Ballycotton performance now, you can still make 2:48”. I knew it was a long shot, but hope sprung eternal. Even at 30km I thought to myself “a really fast 10km home from 32km and you can go sub-2:50”. But it just did not happen that way, I put in more effort now but it was maintenance work. The 32nd kilometre came in 4:12, the 33rd in 4:16 and my mind turned to a different arithmetic: how fast did I need to keep going to stay well under 3 hours even if I blew up on the last few kilometres.

My cause was hurt by a painful blister on my left forefoot, just behind the big toe, that began with 10 miles to go. At 33km, I stepped on a cobblestone and it felt like someone put a big needle up through my toe. I pictured a big blood-soaked sock in my sweltering shoes and for the next 30 or 40 steps I wondered if I would be able to go on. Then I turned my thoughts back to Seko and the Japanese spirit. These inspirational runners can take themselves through incredible barriers, so if I could not even run through what could not be anything else than a blister, I should be ashamed of myself. Jason had told me to “go to the well”, I had told Aoife that “I’ll make sure I’m in the medical tent after the race” (this would prove true!).

There is no pain?

I put Jason’s mantra into my head “there is no pain” now. Every bit of cobble-stone we hit felt like pure torture at this stage and the shoes were growing tight and my metatarsals in the right foot were squeezed to a point where pain on the side began to modify my gait a bit. Tony’s words came to me here “floppy feet” and I tried to relax every joint as much as i could and just kept lifting those ankles off the ground and continued to try and keep my posture strong. Once that feel apart, I knew the rest would follow shortly.

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A fit-looking African runner drifted back to me here, despite his coach doing his best to keep his protégé moving. Then I passed another runner, with a mohawk, at 37km. Aoife later told me that I would put 24 minutes into him during the next 5km showing the size of some of the implosions that occurred late in the race.

Two kilometres earlier I had whined to Aoife (she’s not one for sympathy) “I can’t feel my legs”. Never did Joss Naylor’s description of “the legs didn’t belong to us” feel more appropriate. They were strangely numb and humming with a weird buzz. I got anxious for a few hundred metres wondering if it meant over or under-hydration, but decided that since I was still able to intellectualise about it, it had to be neither.

5 minute kilometres, what if…

“If I drop to 5 minute kilometres, what will happen,” is a question I kept running against my current progress at this point. I was in a place were I felt like any minute now, the wheels could come off completely. Breathing was still strong, temperature felt ok, but the legs and blisters harangued my spirits here. At 2 hours and 35 minutes into the race I had 7km to go and realised I could break 3 hours even with 5-minute kilometres. I tried to construct it as a mental safety net at this point while still fighting for my resent target of sub-2:55.

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Suffering around 35km

Then came the final small climb back up the bridge to Islandsbrygge, the harbour front area in East Copenhagen hosting the start and finish. “I don’t need this,” I thought and kept moving, using gravity to come off the descent in 4:13. I was in real trouble on the 42nd with a 4:26. Time did not feature in my mind during this period until I saw the finish line 600m ahead. I passed a few runners, including one being treated on the side-line with bad cramps.

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Next I latched onto a guy in dark singlet who was still moving well. I pushed as we ran through a narrow stretch of supporters lining themselves up close to the action. He just slipped away and crossed the line ahead of me. Somehow I managed to drop down to 3:50min/km pace for the last 750m. The clock read more than 2:56, but my watch told me I had just made it under that mark.

Trying on a sprint finish and narrowly defeated!

I had avoided a major blow-up, running the second half in 1:28:58 after a first half in 1:26:58.

Deep furrows on tv

Watching myself cross the line on the video from the organiser’s was an interesting insight for myself in how I felt crossing the line. Quickly I glance at my watch, my face gives away no emotion except a stern line drawn across the lips and a furrowed brow. The video can be seen here.

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I struggle afterwards to describe how the feeling was. Had my target been sub-3, I would have been in wild jubilation a this point. But everything was different and the closest words I can put to it was “grim contentment” for having hung through an ordeal of a run. Then suddenly, all my thoughts went from the race as I saw the first aid tent and I went straight in and said: “Do you treat blisters”. The next twenty minutes were spend with two first aiders trying to first puncture the blister with a needle and then with a scalpel. My endorphin supplies must have run out because I felt like an awful baby squirming at the pain as they worked away at the skin below and behind my big toe. Mentally I felt no fatigue and had time to gobble down a yoghurt and a bottle of water while they worked.

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Grim contentment?

In the medic tent

Others had bigger problems. Several lay prone looking half-dead, many were carried in with legs hanging limb beneath them. Another dry-retched in the corner with distant eyes.

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Aoife and I enjoying the sunshine post race. She looked over my shoulder in this race alright…

All the while, the first aider gave me admirable levels of attention and I quizzed him on his training (50 hours for his Falck-first aid certificate) but they could not get all the fluid out. A more senior person was consulted and they explained I had old blisters, small pockets under three layers of dead skin and that cutting through it would not be advisable. So they left it at that and put on some blister plaster and told me to cancel my planned swim in the famous outdoor pools at the Copenhagen harbour.

“I knew you’d be here!”

Aoife had joined me in the meantime, much to my surprise. Later I asked her how she found me and she replied: “I knew you’d look for attention somewhere, besides you kept mentioning every few seconds that you’d end up here”.

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Using a tree to assist me with ankle squats after the race

At this point my “positive switch” finally flicked and she helped me see just how strong a performance it had really been on the day for me. We walked up to get the specially brewed beer, the hot chocolate and to find a tree so I could do some “assisted  squats”. My right foot was thumping and I feared a mild stress fracture between the outer metatarsals (it’s fine now) but once we sat down in the gorgeous sunshine on the grass and I could finally take in the buzz around me, satisfaction came pouring over me.

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Lounging on the grass, never too tired for some product placement!

I realised that while things could have been better in a perfect world, it was more important that I came face to face with all my worst qualities as a runner yet stayed the course, avoided a collapse and used my strength as a pacer. 2:55:56 is a time I can really work forward from. A total collapse and a time slower than 3 hours would have left me with a lot of uncertainty and questions to answer.

My race splits

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A tree and a beer, all the support a runner needs…

Barry’s take

That evening we had a few drinks with some friends of mine at “Den Blå Hund” (the Blue Dog). My walking was atrocious at this stage with the blister on one foot and a few sore metatarsals on the other. My right ankle also stiffened up, so it was taking forever to walk me anywhere. “The Blue Dog” suited us being not too far from the hotel.

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Post-race reflections with Jacobsen’s luxurious brews…

Barry joined us later and gave his take on the course saying it could not be considered fast despite the lack of climbs. He pointed out the constant turns, twists and bends as well as several stretches of cobble-stone and having to jump on and off curbs and traffic islands. “I reckon those features cost about 2 minutes compared to a course like Rotterdam with another 3 minutes for the heat”. We chewed on that while downing some of the high-class local beer.

I would still recommend the race simply for the strength of the organisation, Copenhagen’s impressing face and the massive support. You see almost all the major castles and landmarks during the race and pass some very scenic parks. It was all wasted on me today but for someone managing to focus more outward, and less inward, I imagine the race would be a real treat. From grim contentment to real hearty satisfaction. A race that was never enjoyable, until it was over, but that I’ll look back on with satisfaction of a job well done. Now I’m taking a few weeks off any type of serious activity but I think these experiences need to be poured into an Autumn marathon.

The online army

Finally, I should thank the heap of people who supported me with encouragement before the race through Facebook and email and those who used the marathon’s great live tracking facility to comment and cheer me on. It’s heartening to know that so many have followed “the story” and hopefully been able to take away something for their own marathon endeavours. In the next days I’ll write an article on the good, the bad and the ugly I learned in this training cycle which began, literally, on the beaches of Britta’s Bay in cold January and ended with one of the last races of Spring…

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Jason’s screen-grab from the online television stream. Thanks to the Copenhagen 2012 organisers from here.

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