Race Report: TCS Amsterdam Marathon 2014

Chasing the elusive 3hr marathon

Although I live in the mountains and spend most of my time running up and down trails, I surprised myself in March 2013 by running the Paris Marathon in 3:08. Being a spring marathon, my training was heavily interrupted by the Alpine snows, and I spent as much time on skis as I did getting quality runs in, so I figured if I picked the right race, had a whole summer to train and put some quality mileage in, I would have the potential for a sub-3hr time in me, while I’m still the right side of 40!

The start of the 2014 TCS Amsterdam Marathon in the Olympic Stadium

Training

My first choice was Berlin, but I was unable to get a place, so I plumped for the TCS Amsterdam Marathon on 19th October. The idea being that a fast, flat course at the end of autumn would mean that I could spend the entire summer getting some proper training in.

I based my training loosely on Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 Marathon plan. The idea being that the early part of the week would be fairly straight forward, with a quality Tuesday run sandwiched by a couple of easy sessions, followed by some intense speed work, hill repeats or tempo run on a Thursday. Friday would be the only rest day, ready for a decent pace run on the Saturday, and the long, slow run on a Sunday.

I found that I quickly adapted to this – 6 days a week is more than I was used to but I managed to start ramping up the volume, peaking at around 90km per week, leading into a 3 week taper for the marathon. I definitely felt faster (and may pace times validate that) after putting in the Thursday speed sessions.

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

My training volume on Strava over the last year. I struggled with an ankle injury in the summer but managed to get a decent block of mileage in from July onwards

Getting There

I had a good taper and started my carb load as normal, then flew out to Amsterdam on the Friday. Unfortunately a minor emergency at home meant my wife couldn’t come with me, but it meant that I didn’t feel the need to tire myself out being a tourist in Amsterdam, I could just rest and eat in the apartment. My apartment was next door to one of the best areas in the city for running (Vondelpark) and so I spent Saturday morning going for a shakeout run.

I picked up my bib number and race t-shirt from the Expo and headed back to rest and eat. Everything seemed good

Race Post-Mortem

The combination of excitement/anticipation, being fully rested and full of carbs always makes sleeping difficult the night before a marathon, but managed to get some decent sleep. Getting to the start was easy as the city had laid on regular trams going in one direction – to the Olympic Stadium where the event started and finished.

This was the third big city marathon I’ve done (after London and Paris) and was definitely much lower key. Despite 12,000 runners (as opposed to 35,000-40,000 in the others), it was large enough to be a big event, but small enough not to be utterly daunting.

The stadium start gave a good atmosphere with a sizeable crowd giving an enthusiastic sendoff as we all left according to our start pens. Unfortunately, the streets immediately out of the stadium were quite narrow and the initial couple of KMs were quite slow and below my target pace of 4:15min/KM. This meant when I got free I felt the need to speed up to make up time and was soon putting in KMs in 3:59-4:07 range, a bit too fast to be sustainable. This would come and bite me in the arse towards the end.


All was reasonably good until around KM 30. I became aware of how warm it actually was, and quite humid and pretty soon I could see the 3hr pacing group with their white helium balloon slowly disappearing into the distance with no hope of me catching up. The last few KMs I started to get cramps in my inner thighs and pinging twinges in my calves – something I aways experience in marathons and thought I might have banished by finally increasing my training volume.

Reflections

I was very disappointed to hobble in at 3:07:23, although this was a new PB by almost a minute, so I can take some solace in that. However considering the level of extra training effort I added, it represents a substantially diminishing return.

Since I still have plenty of miles in the legs I’ve decided to be pragmatic and go for one last shot at sub 3 hours. The Turin Marathon takes place in the middle of November, so if I can maintain my form, get another 20 miler in and a bit of speed work, I will try again but this time try to keep my pace under control and see if it helps.

Race Report: 2013 Paris Marathon

Its been a while since I’ve run a marathon on tarmac. 3 years in fact. London 2010 was my first and only road marathon which I managed in a respectably 3:35. I was a bit of a wreck at the end, but the crowd were amazing and the time was decent enough to encourage me that I had room for improvement.

But then I fell in love with trail running. I turned my back on road races and headed for the hills. The Greensand Marathon, Pilgrim Challenge, Ultra Trail du Vercors, Midsummer Munro, The Beast – all of these  were much more to my liking – hundreds, not thousands of runners, stunning locations, and lots of hills. The closest I came was a marathon in Richmond Park.

However as time went on, and my running in the hills improved, I was curious to see how this might affect my road running. Common running folklore says that ultra running, trail running, mountain running – all the offroad stuff – is not conducive to fast marathon times on the flats. So I got the itch to test myself again, and picked Paris.

Tapering

Pre-marathon preparation is always difficult. As running lore and common sense dictates, there’s not much you can do in your final week to improve your race performance, but there’s a hell of a lot you can do to mess it up. With that in mind, during the week of the race I went out on the Tuesday evening to run a fast pace with full marathon kit, complete with carrying gels and running in the gear I would race in. I probably went  a little too hard but luckily had enough time to recover the sore quads in time for the race.

Marathon Expo

A quick run round the village on Saturday morning with the dog, and then it was on the TGV up to Paris. Our hotel was in the SW of the city which was quite convenient for the Marathon Expo at Porte de Versailles, where I went to pick up my race number and goody bag. Once I’d emptied all the flyers and other crap from my good bag, the only items of any discernible usefulness were a bar towel, and a bag of pistachios. Note to organisers: For 65 euros and upwards – could do better.
Running Expo

Anyway, I made my way through the expo as quickly as possible – it was full of people trying to sell running gear or get you to sign up to other marathons. There was a rice party for last minute carb-loaders but I’d brought my own pasta (taking no chances with restaurants and food poisoning) so I headed back to the hotel to stuff my face.

Race Day

I managed to get a reasonable sleep despite the rumble of the RER trains and trams right past the hotel, and was up at 6 to wolf down some porridge and get the Metro to the start line. When I surfaced at Place de Charles de Gaulle, the sun was up and the place was swarming around the Arc de Triomphe. It was damn cold though, so left it until the last minute to drop off my bag so that I could keep my tracksuit on for as long as possible.
The marathon route is basically a squashed loop, heading out from the Champs Elysee, down to the Louvre and heading east to the Bois de Vincennes park. It loops round before heading back west along the Seine, to the Bois de Bolougne, and then finishing on the Avenue Foch leading back to the Arc de Triomphe. This meant that logistically, our bag drop was at the finish (unlike say, London, where they transport your bags to the end).
Worst version of “Where’s Wally?” ever…
I was in with a predicted time of 3:15 so had to get to one of the start pens at the front. The Champs Elysee is a pretty wide avenue, and all of the road was penned for runners, with the side pavements used to get to the start gate. However it soon became a huge crush, as 50,000 runners tried to find their place. I managed to get into my start pen with seconds to spare, so no real time for a warm up and feeling pretty stressed. I really shouldn’t have left it so long until I dropped my bags.
The pace kicked off pretty quickly as usual, but the first 10km were pretty crowded. The weather was perfect, clear and cold with little wind and we soon warmed up. I chatted to ‘Richard from Portsmouth’ who was aiming for a 3 hour time so we made conversation as we passed our way alongside the Louvre, the Rue de Rivoli and out east.

Park Life

The course really was quite flat and fast, and being so straight we soon made it out to the Bois de Vincennes, a huge park just outside the Peripherique on the eastern side of Paris. The course looped through there from about KMs 12 to 19, and being so far out, the crowd support dropped a bit with a few gaps, but there were plenty of people around the KM markers, and lots of casual support from people out walking their dogs on a  Sunday morning.

Tunnel Vision

After the Bois de Vincennes, the route snaked back towards the centre of Paris, along the river Seine. We passed the halfway point and I was still feeling strong, averaging around 4.17min/km which I knew was a pace of just over 3 hours for the whole race – however I was aware that keeping that up for another half marathon was not going to be easy. My time at the halfway point was 1hr 29m 55sec – my first ever sub-90 minute half marathon – I was pleased, but a bit worried I was going too fast.
Coming back into town and the crowd support really increased. A beautiful, sunny day on the banks of the Seine, with the Eiffel tower in the background made it an amazing experience. But then came the tunnels. There were about 3 or 4 tunnels of varying length, each of which dipped very sharply, plunging us into a humid and bizarre dark world, before forcing an uphill run out back into daylight.

I really started to flag at the end, after the 35km mark I was getting the usual cramps pinging into my calf muscles whenever I ran too fast so my pace dropped.

Conclusion

40,108 runners left the Champs Elysee at the start, and 38,690 crossed the finishing line. I came 1,926th in total, with an official time of 03h08’12”. My best marathon to date, and tantalisingly close enough to the magic 3 hour mark that I’m tempted to have another go.
If you’re thinking of a marathon, you could do a lot worse than Paris. The organisation was pretty spot on considering the huge field of runners. The route was magnificent, crowd support was good and the fact that the start and end is pretty much in the same place is a big plus. Its much easier to get a place, not being as heavily subscribed as London, and also gives you a great excuse to visit Paris.
Finished

Long Run – Then Tapering

With just a few weeks to go until the Paris Marathon, I needed to do my ‘long run’, the traditional 20 miler that is the bedrock of all marathon training plans.

I considered running it in Milan, where I was on business and the terrain was flat, as I also had a few hours spare one morning before meetings. However I thought that after 20 miles I might not be in much of a state to work for the rest of the day, so I left it until the Sunday when I was back home.

Sticking to the roads – but still a stunning view

This meant that I was rewarded with a beautiful, crisp sunny day in the mountains in which to run. I stuck to the roads to minimise the hills, and ran round the local villages and hamlets, but several long climbs meant that my time was slow, and the going was tough. I kept the pace slow, but the effort was still high because of the gradient.

Hilly

I took the opportunity to try out a new pair of running shoes – Brooks Adrenaline GTS 13 – I’ve been road running in various models of these for the last few years so ordered them online without trying any on. They seem fine, and it was great to have that spring ‘new shoe’ feel which I hope will still be there by the time I get to do the marathon. Apart from a blister after 17km, which I hope is just a case of wearing them in, the were fine.

Now its time to taper down, drop the mileage but keep the pace.