Project 3 has been completed. I did the marathon on Sunday in less than three hours. The third try did finally give the result I've desired ever since I started running with a goal, and I won't have to tattoo onto my forehead the shameful words I pledged onto myself. After two painful attempts at the same place last year and two years ago, this time all went perfect and I crossed the line in 2:56:24, good enough for tenth place overall and second in my age group. For this, I was rewarded with a rose, a pair of socks for my feet and another sock for my upper body – that's how I interpreted it, anyway. It's a tight-fitting black garment made by the same company that weaved the socks. It came with all sorts of buzz words on the packaging but no explanation of what use it for or when to wear it. It has long sleeves but the word cool is printed all over the box. Would I wear it in hot weather? I haven't resolved this mystery yet.
The race went brilliantly. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny, exactly as I like it. Drawing on the successful 20-mile race I did four weeks ago, I attempted to get a negative split, trying to run the second half faster than the first. It didn't quite work out that way, but at least the first 15 kilometers went according to plan. I started slowly. I started slowly enough not to break a sweat or get out of breath for the first hour. I started so slowly, in fact, that I almost put myself to sleep. One third through the race, at the third water station, I was shocked to find myself slightly off course for a three-hour finish. This realization effectively ended the easy part, and the real race started. I accelerated hard, and for the next twenty kilometers, I was cruising in high gear. It was great fun. I kept passing other runners, steadily making my way from somewhere in the 30s to very near the top ten. My breath was going hard, but my legs were strong, and I was slowly convincing myself that I'd reach my goal. What a difference it was from last year's suffering or the pain in my legs of two years ago! I almost enjoyed it.
About nine kilometers from the end is when my difficulties started. My legs started dragging, and I noticed myself slowing down. But the distance to the finish shrank faster than the time remaining of the 180 minutes, and I never lost my good spirits. How could I with eleven hundred panting runners behind me and none of them catching up? Have I said that it was a brilliant day?
Brilliant it was, but a mystery (besides the black body sock) remains: How come the race went so much better than its two predecessors? Here's a list of the things I've changed from last years, and how they might have contributed.
- new shoes – I've worn different shoes in every marathon. This year's were less comfortable than the Adistars that I had to retire right before the race because they were completely worn out. The new shoes carried me well but also gave me the very unpleasant feeling of bleeding soles during the last five kilometers and enveloped my toes in enormous blisters. If I walk funny, it's because of them and not because my legs hurt.
- new socks – Just a few weeks ago, I bought black compression socks that rise all the way to the knee. They might not be the sexiest things you've ever set your eyes on but they give me calves and shins great support and keep my shin splints in check. They're the best things I've ever bought for running.
- carboloading – I ate like mad the three days before the race and made very sure to consume carbohydrates more than anything else. I basically had pasta twice a day. People say you need to overstock your carbohydrate stores before a long race if you want to avoid hitting the wall before the race is over. People might be right.
- training – I ran more than 500 kilometers in preparation of this year's marathon – nearly twice as much as last year. I did a lot of base miles but also quite a bit of speedwork later in the season. To get a feeling for longish distances at a fast clip, I ran a half marathon and a 20-mile race, and I could sense myself getting better. The 20-mile race in particular gave me a huge psychological boost because it showed I can run the distance without slowing down. But of course I still refuse to believe that training had anything to do with my good performance. This would go against long tradition and be too painful to live up to in the years to come.
Now that the three-hour barrier is toppled, I have no reason to ever do a marathon again. I have no desire either. Even after three attempts I still haven't found out why anyone would do such nonsense. If nothing else, I expected my effort to pay off with an automatic spot for the London marathon
Non-celebrity, non-elite and non-charity runners can enter the London marathon via a ballot system that raffles off about 20,000 start numbers. The ballot for next year's race begins on Tuesday and closes when 125,000 entries have been received, probably later during the same day. The chances of getting in are consequently slim.
However, there is another category, called Good for Age, that allocates places for runners having achieved a certain time in an earlier marathon. For my age group, this used to be three hours, and it was part of the rationale of shooting for that goal. Now that I've made it, after lots of hard work and salty sweat, I've just found out that the required times have changed and the challenge lowered. Still, I think I'd be foolish not to take my guaranteed spot. As much as I don't like running, the opportunity of being swept forward by tens off thousands is too good to pass on. It might even lead to a new personal best.