The day of a race is a very special day indeed. Especially if you have trained for that specific race for a long time and prepared yourself both mentally and physically. Most more experienced runners have their routines set and follow them meticulously without compromise. These routines involve anything from when and what you eat to how and when you dispose yourself of that which is eaten. Some runners have set music they have to listen to and some just need to have their great cup of coffee in the morning.
This short piece of writing will give you an insight to my race day and what I do to prepare myself when it really matters. The race in question is the Gothenburg Half Marathon which I consider to be the most important race of the year. Furthermore, I will - from the fragments of my memory, although blurry at times - try to take you through the race from the perspective of a dedicated runner. Hopefully you will find it interesting - if not, glad you read it anyway.
To be honest, I have met few athletes talking more about their bowel movements than runners. And the more experienced of you know very well of what it speak. An upset stomach can end a race faster than any amount of lactate in your muscles. Since what you eat the evening before is what you will deal with the morning after this is of utter importance. For me this would be eating everything I can but ONLY things I am familiar with, such as a pizza or a burger - I am fairly confident I can process that in time before the race so I try to really eat as much as I can as food intake is a more delicate matter on the day of the race.
I arrived in Gothenburg in the afternoon making my way through the stream of runners heading for the expo to collect their bibs. Sun is shining and every forecast is projecting sunny skies come morning - which really isn’t a good thing if you are shooting for a new personal best. However, debating the weather will do about as much good as debating those previously mentioned bowel movements will - all you can do is prepare. Speaking of which, I really try to eat as much as I possibly can the evening before - in this case that would be spagetti bolognese with a substantial amount of ketchup and salt. Some water to go with that is really not a bad idea to prepare for the day to come.
The race starts at 1pm. This is a good thing. A late start means that there is no stress forcing yourself to sleep. Although, I would prefer falling asleep early to be able to get up early and assess my form in the morning. Falling asleep relatively early and sleeping all through the night, I would consider the evening-before-routine complete and a success - first stage completed!
Worst morning ever. Not necessarily this morning in particular - I just hate the hours before a race starts. Too many variables which need to be in balance in order for the race to become great. In fact, waking up at 9am on the sofa with the sun in my face, birds chirping and sound snoring from the upstairs bedroom this would objectively be considered to be a great morning.
Being a more experienced runner I know that it takes about 6 hours for me to process my regular food. This would mean that breakfast would be at 10am, three hours before the race is set to start to be on the safe side. Ideally, the breakfast would take place in close relation to the disposal of yesterday’s spagetti but that did not happen - which was worrisome at the time.
Two eggs, some sandwiches, water and enough coffee to raise the dead made for a pretty decent breakfast after a morning stroll around the neighbourhood in the morning sun. After taking in my last meal before the race I always become nervous. It probably has to do with the next thing on the agenda for the day is the starting signal. Which ironically is the end of that same nervousness.
I find it impossible to get a good assessment on your daily form before you come to the race area. This is where things become serious. Everything I have done and all the hours I have trained have been more or less directed towards this performance - this one race - that is how high the stakes are for me. It is an overwhelming feeling approaching the starting area of this huge event. 50.000 runners participating. I believe that forty years from now I will still remember as if it were yesterday heading over the last hill before being faced with the full view of the start - tents everywhere, the speaker interviewing people, music playing, runners preparing, discussing and warming up along with a green wall of trees surrounding the whole area. Clear blue skies above make this scene a mind blowing sight not justified in mere words.
The temperature is hot. Approaching 30 degrees in the sun, I overheard two crew members saying in passing. Crap. Having prepared better and trained harder all year this is the last thing you want. External factors making it difficult. However, fortune favours the bold. I am not going for any less than what I set out to accomplish.
Speaking of setting goals. I usually set a few goals for myself - usually two or three. One should be the least you expect of yourself - to be honest, if I were to fail that goal I might even consider trying my hand at a different sport. The second should be what you expect of yourself if you have a fairly good day and after accomplishment you should feel pretty satisfied.. The third one however. This is you exceeding your own expectations without being unrealistic about your capability. The feeling you are going for is basically being able to drop half dead at the finishing line with a smile on your face crying and laughing at the same time.
Finding a place in the shade, we patiently sit down. Well, patience is not my most prominent trait so I actually start to lightly warm up trying desperately to get my digestion to play along. As I warm up I feel my legs coming to life. Most training sessions they more often than not feel rather dead and exhausted. However, giving some confirmation to my preparations they feel rested and anxious to carry me around the course.
Feelings are mixed between nervousness, determination and anxiety as the clock passes twenty minutes to twelve. There are - I think - 25 grids and depending on your previous times or qualifying times you will be placed in one with runners with more or less the same capabilities as yourself. I found myself in the first grid since I qualified a few years back.
Making my way to the grid a sense of focus hits me. No matter what, I made it to the starting line - something that is not to be taken for granted given that my preparations have been going on for months. A long way from there to here I suppose. While in the grid I am not positioned ideally. Even though runners in each grid should be on roughly the same level I recognize a few familiar faces who are a few minutes behind my target time at least. This will be a gauntlet in order to get position. As the countdown clock is ticking, I feel the whole grid packing together. Everyone anxious do get a good start - too good in many cases. Here goes nothing…
The initial kilometres are treacherous. Starting off almost down hill for the first two kilometres many runners put on quite a good pace which they keep up when a 30m steep climb over 300m hits them. I tell you - keeping up that pace uphil, l more than the climb itself will hit you. I made my way through the pack of runners keeping a high pace in relation to my target min/km. Seemingly unwise maybe but as a trailrunner you want to make the most of the flats and downhills as my aim was to slow down as soon as I hit the uphill climb. A friend and sparring mate of mine was running as well and I honestly hoped not to have him around me during the race - but still - one kilometre in: “Hello Hannes” - crap, now I have to battle with him all the race through. He is a real pain to get rid of whilst he gets your back.
Moving uphill I am not passed by any runners and my legs feel stronger than ever - I even spotted my parents cheering me on upwards which was a boost. Now we go downhill. The thirty metre hill now turns downwards - this is an important part of the first 5k. As we go downhill I keep a very high pace. In my opinion, high pace uphill is expensive - high pace downhill is cheap.
Heading towards the 5k mark I have not yet paid much attention to my pace. My initial tactics were to set one pace time which was the highest acceptable and try to be as close to my lactate threshold all the race through no matter the pace. However, if I ever were to feel lactate levels rising, I would slow down and recover. I must trust that my many hours of training will take care of my legs and body.
The last kilometre is all uphill climbing around 40m to the 5k mark. As I am quite good at running uphill I use that strength to keep a relatively high pace without wasting too much energy. Still too early in the race to make any moves. We are now heading up a long a bridge, Älvsborgsbron. The first 5k are tough. Therefore, I did not pay much attention to my Suunto Ambit3 telling me I am slow. I am not slow, and there will be a time to speed up - but it is not now.
After passing the 5k mark at the foot of the bridge - which will continue to go about 20m more uphill over the next 600m before reaching the top - I am now leading a pack of four runners. My sparring partner not surprisingly among them. However, I do not care much about other runners this early. The race is still in its infancy and you do not want to be lured into anyone’s bad decisions. As we are going uphill, I still want to test the pack behind me so I decide to go for the next pack about 30m ahead of us. My suspicion is that those runners have gone too hard for too long and are tiring. It is important to be confident in your own capability. Too many runners are lured into taking the back of someone whose energy levels are already in sharp decline.
It did not take long for us to reach the backs of the group ahead of us. However, even though we had run at a relatively high pace uphill, I went straight passed them. Following the climb there is yet another steep downhill run towards the 6th and 7th kilometre. Downhill and a short time in the shade. This is a golden opportunity to pace up - really cheap.
After passing kilometre 7 there will be flat running for about 6k. I am now alone with just my sparring partner behind me. There are so many people watching it is almost ridiculous. On every corner, along every street - tons of people cheer you forward.
Feeling a bit rested from downhill running and a few sips of water in me I but on some proper pace between kilometres 8 and 10 - but at a cost. For the first time - some weariness in my legs. Not good, but the plan was always to slow down if I felt like that so I dropped a few seconds letting the runner in front of me slip away for a few meters. Yet, coming up on 10k you should feel a little bit weary. I am still nowhere near the wall. Furthermore, watching the time in which I passed 10k I - now paying more attention to the clock - felt like this race could actually exceed any expectations.
Having dropped pace for half a kilometre or so I feel relatively recovered and is starting to pick up pace again. Around kilometre mark 13 the other bridge will begin and I really want to have some time to spare taking on that climb as pacing uphill is expensive.
At the foot of the bridge we now find ourselves quite alone with only a few runners around us. Most of which having lowered their pace due to fatigue but some who have just not prepared well enough for the the target time they set out for - I actually feel for them. This is the worst place ever to feel exhausted as you will climb 30m over 500m. Reaching the top you have run 14 kilometres and now you know for sure if you have trained enough for this event.
I actually felt great - but rather surprisingly so did my sparring mate. I actually expected him to drop during the climb as he is less of a long distance runner. Interesting. Now I have two goals: beat my target time and beat my sparring partner. Neither of which will be done easily. So far I have gone my own way in terms of tactics. Only shortly resting behind a runner or two before putting them behind me.
Reaching the top of the bridge - Götaälvbron - after 14k the real test of character begins. Between kilometre 14 and 15 you have the last real downhill run. A twenty meter descent which needs to go quick - preferably really quick given the hell that is the conclusion to this race.
For three kilometres you are faced with a slight uphill battle - both with your inner demons and your fellow runners. However -being an experienced runner of this race - I feel like all you have done up to this point is giving yourself the chance to reach your goals. This part of the course will make or break you.
Firstly, you cannot afford to lower your pace, you need to go hard all the way to the top without slowing down as the course will not give you enough opportunities to make up for the time you lose. Hence the importance of your descent from the previous bridge. Secondly, you pretty much see the top from the bottom - this is psychologically frustrating as it never bloody ends. Lastly, you will find yourself passing the swaying corpses of broken runners who seemingly changes direction depending on the wind - sorry guys, you have 4k left, and it is going to be hell.
At this point my time is great. Everything points towards me reaching my target time. However, my target time is the one I am satisfied with. I am now going for the laughing and crying. Sometimes you have to ask yourself - do I really want to look back on this race tomorrow and feel as if I could have done more? Have mustered a little bit more strength? Pushed yourself a little bit further? - never - this is the chance you have to affect how you define yourself tomorrow.
17k into the race I reach the top of the hill rounding the great statue of Poseidon. I have been going hard, lactate levels are high but I cannot afford to care. My friend is still locked to my back refusing to fall behind - this is great, a challenge within the challenge. I will now make this my primary target for the last three kilometres - I will push myself to whatever level in order to break him or he will push me in order to break me. You must know, there is no hostility whatsoever between runners during a race - we all want to do our best. I use my fellow runners to hold myself to account in my performance. For the last parts of any race, I will let my performance be defined by the runners around me as long as it keeps my pace up..
A short run downhill before a sharp left into a 500m flat reaching the 18k mark. After the 18k mark the road turns upwards again. I am tired. So tired. But so is everyone else and I am not letting anyone pass me at this point. Now I chase after anyone who is in front of me until I cross the finish.
Just after the 19k mark there is a short flat before a steep climb. The climb is not long. Just about 50 metres in length but 10 meters in height. And to be honest, given the distance put behind you so far, this feels like the worst place on earth. Naturally, here is where I make my move. Just a hundred metres before the climb. Drooling and swaying right and left. I find that
my friend dropped just about 3 metres behind me - here is my chance. Worst place ever to
lose position and I know that anyone who is not mentally prepared to follow during this part
of the course will most likely give up straight away.
In passing I see people drinking beer while cheering - I remember feeling that for them ignorance is truly bliss. They have no idea what we have gone through.
He is gone. Not daring to turn my head around until I reach the top I see that I took about 30
metres almost instantly. That may have been the final nail but I will not stop until I cross that
Last kilometre. I will reach my dream target time and I will beat my running mate. This is the only time I really enjoy myself during the race. All the hard work and pain from the previous 20k have been put in to give me these few minutes of satisfaction. Hundreds of people still cheering you on as you approach the stadium where the finish is. I so long to fall down on the track after passing the very same.
As I reach the top of the hill - which I described in the beginning - looking over the whole area with thousands of people, you still feel the need to put on a show for any spectator. I do not know from where I got the energy but I start to sprint, chasing down every last runner I can. I see the finish. All the crew members spraying finishers with water and I throw myself down on that track seconds after passing it. I am completely and utterly finished - with everything it feels.
The aftermath of a race of these proportion feels like you are standing in the midst of a battlefield. People lying here and there cramping, crying, laughing, cheering and hugging. When I came to my senses I was lying on the track by the finish looking up at the sky letting the crew members spray me with their water bottles. They always tell you to “stand up, move on, its better for you” - well, that and asking you if you need medical attention usually.
I got up, found my running mate and we just started to laugh - what a race we did. Both exceeding our goals. In the end, it is unusual to be able to share such an experience with someone and doing so with a friend is great - I will not pretend I am not pleased beating him, it could have gone either way but I would feel differently if I had let him pass me in the end.
Being in the first starting group most runners will still be waiting to start when you have finished. This is the best feeling of this great event. You can enjoy the atmosphere and all the great things going on around you without thinking about having to perform. Now you have already performed - and a good performance at that. Feeling legs sporadically cramping, wandering around the area looking at runners finishing and waiting to start, picking up some free chocolate, bananas or coffee as you go.
What on earth will I have to endure to beat this time next year...