Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A (somewhat delayed) Köln Marathon race report!

It’s been a while since I ran the Köln Marathon. Like, 5 and half weeks or something. So it’s fair to say that this post is a wee bit overdue. In my defense though, between now and then I have been to Hawaii and back to observe with a 10 metre telescope, moved from Germany to the US, started a new job, been slightly defrauded and a bunch of other stuff. So, you know, it’s not just laziness that has kept me from writing. Promise.

But, here at last is my report of my first ever marathon! My last post was written a week before the marathon, and I was not feeling super confident. I had a virus that kept me from running, and the humidity was back on the rise. I spent those last 6 days before the race obsessively checking the weather in Cologne, and bemoaning the promise of higher-than-ideal temperatures and humidity to basically anyone who had the misfortune of sitting close enough to hear me. Five days before, things were looking pretty terrible. The temperatures were predicted to be in the mid-twenties, and humidity somewhere just below 90%. But as the week went on, both numbers dropped a little, although it was clear that it was going to be warmer than I would like. Somewhere around Thursday, I think I accepted this, and got on with the stuff I could control, Like carbo loading and resting. And I must say, after months and months of going running and thinking about running, I very much enjoyed the resting :)

As Cologne is only a couple of hours away from Heidelberg, me, Luis and Melissa (Melissa was doing the half marathon) took the train there on the Saturday, arriving in the afternoon. We’d booked an AirBnB apartment that was only a few S-Bahn stops from the start and finish of the marathon, which was super convenient. The apartment was great! Quiet and comfortable, and with a kitchen, giving us complete control over pre-race meals. After dumping our stuff, we hopped on the S-Bahn and went to the marathon expo to pick up our numbers, buy me a new donut bottle (totally forgot mine) and meet my friend and fellow first-time marathon runner, Anne, who was coming over from the UK. The expo was ok, but not as exciting and filled with cheap deals as I had been hoping. So that was a bit of an anti-climax. But it was still fun to browse around, and there were a few tempting shoe and gear offers there. Plus Melissa and Luis found some natural nutrition stuff that looked quite tasty.

Once we were done with the expo, we went back to our apartment and made pasta with chicken, salad and garlic bread for dinner. The food was great, but this was when the nerves really started to hit me. I felt super jittery, and couldn’t believe that in just a few more hours, I’d be lining up to run a marathon. I was willing time to slow down, because once I went to bed, that was it! A bit of sleep, then don my running gear and head out to the start line. I think I spent most of dinner either being quiet or telling everyone how nervous I was. Fascinating conversation for my companions, I’m sure! But it was lovely having Melissa and Luis there. They were saying all the right things to keep me and Anne as calm as it was possible to be :) After we’d done a bit of cleaning (and then left Luis to do the rest), Anne and I headed for bed. We continued to chat nervously for a while, then read, before eventually trying to sleep. I never sleep that well before a race, and this night was no exception! However, because I always do this, it didn’t worry me. I knew so long as I was lying down and resting, I’d get some sleep and it wouldn’t affect my run the next day. Adrenaline is good like that!

By the time we woke up, I reckon I’d got somewhere around 4 hours of decent sleep, which I was happy with. Anne and I were up in time to see Melissa head out. Her half marathon started at the ungodly time of 8:30, which seemed odd to us, given the full wasn’t starting until 10:30! We wished her luck with her race (she was aiming for, and achieved, a new PB of under 1hr50min. I forget the exact time…) and then she and Luis left us to our nervous pre-race rituals.  Somehow, Anne and I managed to while away the significant amount of time we’d given ourselves, getting ready at such a slow rate that we were racing out of the door, late as usual, to catch the S-bahn. But, we made it to the start line in plenty of time, so everything worked out, despite our bad time keeping.

The start line seemed pretty well set up and organized. There were plenty of toilets, which was great, because both Anne and I are nervous, last minute pee-ers. Unfortunately, it seemed that no one had thought to restock the toilet paper between the half and full marathon starts. So that was unfortunate. Also, almost all of the toilets we used (we probably went at least 3 times each) seemed to have poop on the seat. This is not something I’ve experienced before with race toilets… that was most unpleasant and weird!!!



Nervously waiting for the start

 The start was staggered, and me and Anne were in 4th start, after the elites, the relay and the school races. Oddly, I felt much calmer once we had arrived at the start. I guess because at that point, the whole thing seems inevitable, so you just go and do it. And when our race started properly, I completely relaxed. Running is much better than nervously waiting to run in my opinion. Anne and I ran together for the first few km, which was nice. It was good to have someone to chat to as we warmed into our race paces. After a bit though, Anne set off after the 4:15 balloon, which she eventually over took. As she did the 4:00 balloon. Speedster J I continued on, sandwiched between the 4:15 and 4:30, as my best-case scenario was finishing somewhere around 4:30. And that’s when my race felt like it really began. Just me against the 42.2km course.

In terms of support out on the course, Cologne did great! In addition to people lining the streets in the busier areas, there were lots of people out on their balconies or hanging out of the windows, cheering us on and playing music to inspire us. Some of my highlights included hearing ‘Don’t stop Believing’ around 15km, and the one man washing up band at 17km, banging his pots and pans and singing to us from his window as he went about his chores for the day. I also was originally happy to hear a snippet of Gangnam style at 28km, until it got lodged in my head. Then, just as I’d shifted it, we came back past the same people at 34km, and it became clear they were just playing Gangnam style on a loop. How the people in the buildings nearby didn’t force them to stop, I don’t know! There were also plenty of kids to high five, and the usual drunk guys who try to keep up with you for a bit to show how easy running is. And of course, they always pull up pretty soon after starting, which is very rewarding. Especially around the 30km mark!

The water and nutrition stations around the course weren’t perfect. The first water station wasn’t until 5km in, and given how hot it was, I was pleased to have my own water early on. The gels didn’t arrive until much closer to half way, but again I had my own, so this wasn’t a problem for me, but I think some others were frustrated. Towards the end they also had bananas, Coca-Cola and some chocolate (at least I think I saw chocolate), so the variety was fun. And the people manning the stations were fantastic! I almost burst into tears when a nice man at 36km offered to refill my donut after seeing me trying to pour a water cup inside it. At the time, I was convinced it was the nicest thing any human had ever done, ever.

As for how I did… it was tough. Really tough. At halfway, I was going strong in a time of 2:11, well positioned to possibly hit that 4:30 time. It was at this point that I first thought that marathons weren’t for me. Not because I was suffering, but just because I wasn’t excited about carrying on. I pushed away the negative thoughts, and instead focused on finding positive things to think about, whether it was support from the crowd, or the idea of being able to say I’d run a marathon at the end of the race. Around 27km, my hips started to hurt, which I now pinpoint as the beginning of my downward spiral. It wasn’t too bad to start with, and I’m quite used to having problems with my hips. After 30km, they seemed to start getting progressively worse, and I could tell I was favouring one side over the other, and not running as neatly as I should be. I carried on, as things still weren’t too awful. I was still feeling positive at 33km, but then I started to unravel a little. I guess this was my wall. I valiantly struggled onwards until 36km, at which point, I made my first non-water-station walk break. My hips were sore, I was running funny and I was just exhausted. Between 36km and 40km, I engaged in some running and some walking, with my main focus being to just continuing moving forward, at whatever speed I could manage. Around 38km-ish, that 4:30 balloon I’d been keeping ahead of, caught up and overtook me. But I was ok with that. Coming in under that time was only ever my ‘absolute best case’ scenario, and at this point my only concern was finishing. Throughout those tricky 4km, I kept telling myself that, if I finished, I’d never have to run a marathon again. But if I didn’t, my foolish pride would definitely make me sign up for another one. I may not enjoy running a marathon, but I would be damned if it was going to beat me. So, the fear of potentially having to try running ANOTHER 42.2km in the future spurred me on, even as I felt at my worst.

Determined. To never run another one ;)


The change came for me just after 40km. The end seemed suddenly much closer, and I felt an extra reserve of energy and determination spur me on. We were also getting into the old town again, which meant the Cathedral couldn’t be far away. Hitting the cobbles at 41km was not ideal, but they weren’t too evil. The main problem I had here was getting shoulder barged by a woman who wanted to pass me. I had nothing but space on either side of me, so I was amazed that she felt the need to pass so close that there was contact. I stumbled, almost fell, and she didn’t even so much as turn and look apologetic. She ploughed ahead as if nothing had happened. I was FURIOUS. I was so close to finishing, but if I had fallen then, I probably would have done myself a mischief, and who knows if I would have finished? Suddenly, I was back on form. I chased that shoulder barger down, and overtook her with much glee. I was thinking of throwing a dirty look over my shoulder afterwards, but figured that my balance couldn’t be trusted to pull off such a maneuver without me falling down, undoing all my good work post-barging. So I carried on, and managed to blitz though the last 1.5km at a fairly respectable pace. As I came to the finish line, I spotted Melissa in the crowd, cheering me on, which was so lovely. I do love having support. And then I was there, crossing the line, where I stopped. Exhausted. My time was 4:40:56, and I was perfectly happy with that. I had finished! And I was never going to run another marathon. Ever again.

See that woman on the right in the light blue? That's shoulder-barger. Eating my DUST.
And don't I look happy about it :)

Marathon finisher! Michelle-botting across the line :)


After getting my medal, an excited Anne bounced up to me, banana in hand, congratulating me on finishing. She’d finished in just under 3:50, such a great time! She managed to help me stumble around, get some water, and then sat with me until I felt like walking could be attempted again. As we sat, she told me the hilarious story of how she she’d illegally re-entered the finishers area to find me. She hadn’t realized she was leaving, and when she tried to come back in, the race bouncers (as we called them) told her she wasn’t allowed back. Anne had argued for a while before eventually just running past them. One of them chased for a bit, but she lost them. It made leaving again a little tense, as she was worried they’d spot her and shout at her. But we snuck past, unnoticed. After that, we met up with Melissa and Luis, and gradually made our way back to our apartment, as fast as my weary legs were able to shuffle.

Champions!!!!


Once we’d recovered a little, and showered, the four of us drank prosecco on our little terrace, before heading out for dinner and a few drinks. It was a lovely end to the day. Now, 5.5 weeks later, I still (more or less) stand by my end of race pledge. I have no desire to do another marathon. But, it wasn’t all bad. I liked some of the long training runs (when the weather wasn’t trying to murder me). I loved how fit and strong I felt too. Knowing that I could run these long distances was really satisfying. So I imagine I’ll try to go above and beyond my half-marathon comfort zone from time to time. As for another marathon… I won’t say never, but it would have to be something special to pull me in again. Instead, I think I’ll focus on getting a new half PB. Maybe a 10k and a 5k one too. And, I’m really enjoying running for fun again, and not having to constantly think about training schedules, target paces, race nutrition, and so on and so on. Marathon training really does take up soooooo much time. Training for shorter races is much less all-consuming, and easier to fit around a busy postdoc’s schedule.

So I guess that’s it for my marathon adventure! I am now a marathon finisher, and super proud to be so. Next up: picking which half marathon to smash my PB in. Decisions, decisions :)



Sunday, 7 September 2014

The ups and downs of marathon training

 Well, the time is nigh. As I lie here, recovering from a run gone terribly awry, I am acutely aware of the fact that my marathon is now only a week away. Or, 6 days, 16 hours 12 minutes and 25 seconds according to my Runkeeper countdown. At this point, I’m in to the taper period, having done all I can to get me where I’m going. But has it been enough?

As a marathon newb, this is the question that plagues me before, during and after every run. And my answer to that question tends to vary frequently and wildly between ‘Hell yes! I’m ready!’ and ‘No! I’m never, ever, going to make it’. Today, it’s hovering somewhere between the two…

About a month ago, when I wrote my last post, I was much less positive than I am now. I’d been struggling with the intense heat and humidity to complete my long runs, having to duck out of two of them early, and running at a much slower clip than I would have planned on for those I did finish. While a part of me knew it was the conditions that were messing me up, it was really hard to ignore the nagging doubt that I just wasn’t cut out to run a marathon. Combine that with my irrational fear of the temperatures continuing to rise right up until race day, and I was something of a wreck! But, of course, that was never going to be the case. Just after that post, the weather started to break. And with the lower temperatures came a renewed ability to run, and to push myself to further distances, faster than I’d been running the shorter ones. And so, during the last few weeks before tapering, I managed to finally break the 30km barrier, knocking out a 32km and 33km run at roughly the 6 minute/km pace I was hoping to achieve on race day. Not only that, but I also managed to run a half-marathon distance training run in under 2 hours, which is only the second time in my whole life that I have managed that. And I felt good afterwards! Clearly, the training, even though not ideal, was raising my fitness way up.

These successes led me to a much more positive outlook for race day. Having done 33km, I felt that 42km is doable. Tough, sure, but doable. So as I entered my taper, I felt ready. Until I got sick. Which was on day 2 of my taper. Nothing serious, just a sore throat, virus-y type thing. All things considered, the taper was the perfect time to get sick, so I wasn’t worried. I skipped my midweek runs, waited to feel better, and by this morning, I thought I did! So I woke up, happy and ready to go out and tackle the 21km run I had scheduled.

Upon stepping out my door, I became less happy and more nervous. The temperature and humidity had spiked again. I started to sweat as I made my slow warm up jog to the river. I wasn’t feeling as high on energy as I usually did, and suspected that the virus wasn’t clear out of my system yet. Things were suddenly not looking so great…

By 3km I was already struggling. I paused to chug some of my water down. Then I persevered until the Zeigelhausen bridge at 4.5km, where I paused again, ready to break down. My heart rate was soaring, I couldn’t control my breathing, and I was fighting a battle with my pessimistic side, who was loudly declaring that my week off meant I had lost it, and that it was going to stay hot until race day, meaning I was never going to make it round. I steadied myself for a bit and decided to make a course change that would take me away from the direct sunshine, and up into the cooler, shady hills. This made me feel positive once more. I love hill runs, especially when I’m worried about failing. Walking up hills is tough enough, so stopping doesn’t make me feel bad the way it does on the flat. So I took off and started over.

2.5km later, I was done. Exhausted, upset, and on the verge of a meltdown. My breathing was shallow and my heart rate still soaring, even after walking for a few minutes. My run was over. All I could do was walk the 3km back to my house. I was back to the Michelle of a month ago. Defeated by the conditions (and the tail end of a virus), headed home much sooner than planned.

This time, however, I was determined not to sink into negativity. I don’t have time for that. I immediately emailed some of my support crew (as I was walking home, feeling sorry for myself), and they all rallied to confirm that I was ready, and this blip was just a result of the heat and the virus. I then showered, ate, and consigned myself to rest in bed, which I clearly needed. I’ve yet to extract myself from there for more than tea and water runs for the past 5 hours. And now, I feel better mentally, if not quite physically. I’ll continue to take things easy this week. Maybe head out for a couple of short, gentle runs to keep the legs ticking over, but nothing extreme. And I’ll eat healthily and keep an eye on this virus. I’m sure it’s mostly gone, but I’ll be taking no chances. Oh, and I'll also be obsessively weather stalking Cologne all week. Right now, no crazy hot weather is predicted. A high of 19C, which is drastically better than todays high of 26C. Phew!

So, I guess that’s it! Hopefully, in one weeks time, I’ll be kicking back in Cologne with Anne, Melissa and Luis, a beer in one hand, a burger (or similar) in the other and a medal round my neck. I’ll keep you posted ;)


Also: I’ll be raising money for Cancer Research UK with this run. If you’d like to sponsor me, visit my just giving page here. Thanks!!!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Struggling with humidity

If you interact with me in the real world, or haven’t yet hidden me on Facebook/Twitter, you probably already know how much I DETEST humidity. It’s so awful. SO AWFUL. In summers past, I have struggled with this terrible phenomenon. Trying to go about my running schedule, dripping with sweat and feeling the awful tingly, goose-pimpled feeling of dehydration as I try to complete a trifling 10km run at a pace barely beyond a walk. But usually, I am just running because I like to run. Or maybe I have a race waaaaay down the line in October, when I know it’ll be much cooler. So missing a run here and there, or cutting one short, or stumbling around at a pace well below my normal level is kind of fine. A mild irritation, but no big deal. But with marathon training??? Well, that’s another story.

The marathon is coming up fast. And I am now routinely running farther than I have ever run before on an almost weekly basis. I used to get excited when my Garmin informed me I’d set a new record. Now I just roll my eyes and shuffle home to a cold shower and a nap as fast as my weary legs will allow me. Adding 3-5km to my previous longest ever run every other week is hard enough. Factor in Heidelberg’s apparent obsession with an ever rising humidity this summer, and it’s just down right impossible. When I headed out for a 29km run two Sundays ago, it was 93% humidity and 21C when I left the house at 9am. It was 80% humidity and 24C when I threw in the towel, a broken, exhausted shell of a woman 23.7km later. I was so destroyed, I had to catch a tram back to my house rather than run-walk or even walk the last 5km. And logically, I know it’s the heat and humidity that is the cause of this melt down. I’d run 26km the week before. It’s not like I can’t run long distances. And sure, my pace is currently about 20 seconds/km below what I have planned for race day, but that’s to be expected in these conditions. Right?

WRONG! Well, wrong according to irrational, illogical Michelle, who is terrified that this is a sign that she can’t run a marathon. She is convinced that, because July and August (so far) has demonstrated a weekly increase in temperature and humidity that nicely matches my weekly increase in mileage, that this is something that will continue up until September. When I’ll have to run 42.2 km in 44C and 190% humidity. Which is clearly nonsense (I checked: Cologne’s record high in September is only 31.7C, so not 44C).

But, the fact remains that this constant heat and humidity is leaving me somewhat uncertain about exactly what I’ll be able to achieve on race day. My longest pre-race run is at the end of August, so it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the temperatures will still be high and the humidity will still be sucking the life force out of me with every step I take. So, how do I deal with that?

Several ways. Firstly, I complain on Facebook and RunKeeper, and my excellent support crew (including, but not limited to Anne, Sarah, Melissa, Jayne, Amy, Charly and Casey Deen, with Casey G chiming in on G-chat) quickly reassure me that I’m on track and doing well. Further to that, they offer up helpful articles that give you ways to train for marathons that don’t focus on the killer long run, thus alleviating some of the humidity pressure (thanks Charly!). Secondly, I do some googling to learn the facts about how humidity affects you so I know that SCIENCE backs up my feeling of terrible exhaustion and inadequacy, and I’m not just being a weeny. This little breakdown of the five ways humidity affects you as a runner was super enlightening to me. And the 7 ways of dealing with it (sent by Amy) was also a reassuring read.

So, I guess that is where I’m at. Still uncertain about how I’ll do on the day, still hating humidity, but trying not to freak out about it. Because my team and science are behind me. So really, what’s the worst that could happen?*

*the first person to mention hyponatremia gets a slap ;)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Testing, testing! My adventures in nutrition

At the moment, with less than 8 weeks to go (gulp) I am slowly working my way up the distance ladder towards my longest run, which will be about 21 miles. There are a great many things I could write about at this juncture, such as how much I hate humidity, chafing (related to humidity for me), strength training (horrible, and yet it works), the joys of eating like a Hobbit (second breakfast and elevenses are my favourite additional meals), but I’ll save them for a future post. Today I shall talk about my adventures with on-the-run nutrition.

This has been an aspect of running that I have avoided for quite some time. Ever since I ran my first half marathon, really, where I foolishly tried drinking sports drinks on race day, only to relive them in reverse upon finishing the race (my first half marathon was, for many reasons, simply awful). But, I do know that taking on some form of carbs would be helpful to me during longer runs. And salts, for I am a wimp in warm weather, and quickly feel the effects of sweating out all my salty goodness. So, as the temperatures and humidity have been rising along with my distances (last Sunday I ran 26km in 25C with 70% humidity), I have started testing out different gels and drinks to see what works for me. Here is what I have learned.

Isotonic drink – PowerBar 5 electrolytes tablets, Mango flavor


This stuff is great! Normally when I run in hot weather, I start feeling all tingly from the loss of electrolytes, making it very difficult for me to push through long runs. However, by adding one of these tablets to my 500 ml donut, this is no longer the case! And, the mango flavor is not too strong and quite delicious (not sweet, a little salty). I haven’t tried anything else because I am super happy with it. If you know of other delicious electrolyte drinks though, feel free to tell me all about them in the comments :)

Gels:


Ugh. Gels. GELS. This has not been a fun testing experience. Most of the things I have tried have been abominations taste-wise (with only one exception). However, all have helped me energy-wise, so technically, they are doing their job. I can see why people force them down. Here is how I have rated those I have tried.

PowerGel Iso –


Orange: Tastes like salty vomit, but not the worst flavor of gel I’ve tried. This is not high praise… BUT – you only need water to wash away the yucky taste, not to rehydrate, as it’s not all goopy and gross. The after-breath is, however, foul.

Cola+caffeine: Doesn’t taste like salty vomit, but tastes just… awful. Like cola that has gone bad. Really bad. So bad that I was concerned I purchased something out of date!

Ultra Gel –


Berry flavour: Tastes of the devil. THE ACTUAL DEVIL. Who died, and started to rot inside the gel packaging. Ugh. UGH. As long as I live, I shall never try another Ultra gel. NEVER. Made the orange PowerGel taste good, so I guess that was an upside...

High5 –


Orange and berry flavours: A gel that tastes like fruit juice??? Surely not. And yet, having tried both the berry and orange iso flavours, I have abandoned my quest to find new gels, and will be using these delicious givers of carbs forever. So much more palatable than salty vomity death when you’re at 10 miles. Or any distance for that matter. Again, as it’s an isogel so no need for tons of water to wash it down! And the after-breath is fine too :)


So, that’s it really. I guess I can summarise my testing experience by saying ‘Gels are helpful, and high5 taste the best in my experience. Electrolyte drinks are also good, and the PowerBar one has my stamp of approval’. In future, I shall only be testing products that friends/followers tell me are not disgusting. And on that note, thanks Luis for recommending and giving me high5 gels. I’ve now bulk ordered some online, as I can’t find a shop here that sells them.