Well, it’s been almost two weeks since I posted something here, but I had a good reason for that. Last Sunday I finished my second marathon, in Vienna. It was a very rich experience, with many unexpected situations and some serendipituos encounters too. It was my first international competition (outside my country, that is) and, if I counted well, my fourth official competition.
What follows is a relatively thorough description of the entire event. The post is aiming to contend as much information as possible, giving you enough hints to make your way around to a similar event, wether you’re a seasoned runner and you want to attend to Vienna marathon – which, I found out, it’s a major running competition in Europe – or you’re just curious to see how these things are happening.
Preparation And Logistics
Almost immediately after running my first marathon, I signed up for my second one, the 30th Vienna International Marathon, which took place, you guessed, in Vienna, on April 14th.
I signed up at the end of October, 2012 and, after a short recovery, I started to train immediately. November and December were relatively good, managed to run around 50-60 km each month, but January and February were slow to inexistent. I got injured and it was also extremely cold. So, I started to train seriously only in March. The longest run before the marathon was a half-marathon of 21km, finished in just a little under 2 hours. I was optimistic enough to aim for a 4 hours finishing time, but, a week before the event, I decided to change it, and aim for 4 and a half hours instead. Looked more manageable.
I do love to run but I don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I’ve been injured a good number of times because of my own recklessness and I know how frustrating it is to stay on the side and not being able to run. So, nowadays, although I do stretch my limits as far as I can, I try to avoid unnecessary risks any time I can. So, my aim for this second marathon was 4 and a half hours.
I took a flight to Vienna on the Friday before the event. Being my first international marathon, I had no idea whatsoever what it takes to actually get in the race. After I checked in at a small hotel on Mariahiler Strasse, I went to the marathon logistic center – which happened to be in the middle of a sport exhibition in Messe Wien – to take my race documents. For those of you unaware, these documents are containing:
- my competition number
- voucher for the official competition shirt
- voucher for the international friendship party (also known as pasta party)
- voucher for the clothes transportation during the race
- voucher for the so-called “goodie bag”
Let’s take them one at a time. The competition number is the most important thing. It gets attached to your running shirt (or to a stripe, as we will see a little bit later) and it’s also related to a number of other interesting things, like official photos of the event. There are a few partners of the event who are taking pictures and your picture is tied up to your identity via your competition number. Not to mention that you get your ranking and final time based on that number too.
The voucher for the official competition shirt gave me, you guessed, the official competition shirt. Otherwise, I would have had to buy it. Please note that some competitions are putting the shirt in the same price you pay for race access. I saw quite a few people surprised they didn’t get the shirt “for free” once they paid the admission fee.
The “goodie bag” was just a small purse with a small box of corn flakes and some advertisements, nothing to be sorry if you didn’t get it.
The international friendship party, well, that was something interesting. The voucher itself gave me 3 tickets: one for a pasta dish, one for a pancake dish and one for a drink. More on the pasta party a bit later.
And, finally, the voucher for the clothes transportation was used during the race to take my “civilian” clothes from the start point to the finish, in a big truck. Again, more on that later.
After I took my documents, I wandered around the boots in the expo. I changed my shirt from size “L” to size “M” (yes, since I signed up in October I lost like 8-9 kilos and an “L”-sized shirt would have looked kinda funny on me). I bought a bandana, 3 energizing gels and a gel strip. I liked the fact that you could also attach the competition number to the strip, avoiding any unnecessary pinning on the shirt. The strip had 8 elastic placeholders, 4 on each side, which could accommodate up to 8 gels packages.
The ones that I bought at the expo were barely fitting, being too big, so I had to really squeeze them in. I also had 3 smaller gels from home, and I was happy to see they were fitting in quite nicely. Alas, I was soon to regret this.
After this intermezzo I went back to the hotel. It was time to end the day.
The next day, the Saturday before the race, I decided to do a bit of field recognition. In the afternoon there was also the pasta party.
So, I went back to the expo in Messe Wien to take my time measurement chip. I forgot to get it the other day. Again, in some competitions, the chip is provided for free. Not this time. I had to pay 10 EUR to get it and then, at the end of the race, I had to return it and get 7 EUR back. I also had the option to keep the chip and to use it in other races, in which case I didn’t get those 7 EUR back. Weird, I know.
From the expo, I went to the start point. I wanted to measure the time needed from my hotel to the starting point. Looked like I was on a good connection, turned out it would take around 25 minutes, including change of the trains. A bit more about the trains, now, since we got here.
Vienna has a very very efficient subway network. There are a few lines, all prefixed with “U” (from “U-bahn”, I suppose). My hotel was on U3, and the starting race was on U1, so that implied changing the trains. I didn’t know what to expect (although, being on a German speaking country, I should suspect some stuff) so that’s what I did all those transportation tests the day before the race. I couldn’t imagine a worse outcome of this entire thing than missing the start because of some stupid orientation problem.
Now, after identifying the location – which seemed suspiciously empty, just one day before the race – the only thing left on the list was the pasta party. Which was, of course, in another place of Vienna, on another line, namely, U2. I was starting to get a bit overwhelmed of all these logistical details, but I decided it’s ok to take advantage of those vouchers. After all, there was free pasta, free pancakes and a free drink. I was kinda curious if I could get a beer and not some sport beverage for that voucher.
Once arrived at the pasta party location, I was very pleasantly surprised.
The space was elegant, the hall was huge, people were socializing in a relaxed way, an, above all this, there was some live violin performance. Nice.
I took my pasta, which wasn’t something to blow my mind, but not something bad either. Immediately after that, I went for the pancakes. As you will see in the picture below, they were hardly resembling to usual pancakes, being chopped off in big chunks. They looked more like omelet, or something. The lady also added some prunes jam and here I was, with a huge dish of chopped Austrian pancakes in front of me.
Now it’s the moment to make a confession. I’m probably subject of something that many of you experienced to some degree: namely, the childhood trauma of “you have to eat everything on your plate”. I’m sure you’ve been there and I surely remember being there a lot. Not always, mind you, but this time, being in such a nice place, in such a nice company, with my all my protections down, I think I instinctually fell for that. Because, like in 2-3 minutes, the plate was almost empty, and my stomach started to hurt. Big time. You know, just one day before the marathon. Yeap, I ate too many pancakes and I was suddenly fighting a small indigestion.
Not the best thing to experience just before a major race, so I thought I should take some immediate measures to stop this. So I decided to check out on that beverage. To my surprise, it turned out that I could actually have a glass of beer for it. Which I instantly took, of course. Alas, beer after pancakes, not a very good idea also. My stomach was really upset this time. I remained a few more minutes, slowly balancing myself at a table, then I went to the hotel.
I was planning to check the surroundings more (one of my friends suggested to attend to a milonga, which was in the neighborhood) but I just couldn’t. I spent the rest of the day resting and preparing my equipment.
Before The Race
The next day I woke up at 6:30, did my regular morning exercise (it’s a bit of yoga and mediation), put my equipment in a bag, then headed to the train station. I was dressed “civilian”, with all my race equipment in the clothes bag.
Once at the train station, I had a small deja-vu. People dressed for running were silently popping out from all entrances. No words, just smiling and some sort of complicity in the way they looked at each other. It was Sunday morning, and all the people in the subway were going in the same direction. Then I realized the “deja-vu” feeling was from the Michael Jackson clip Thriller. Do you remember the zombies popping out of graves? Well, it was something similar, only this time it was about people very much alive, popping out from all entrances in a subway station, heading for a big race.
I got to the starting point in 25 minutes, as planned. The area looked completely changed. On one side of the street there were big trucks aligned, with number intervals written on big pieces of paper and attached on them, something like 1000 – 1499, 5000 – 5499. I found the one that contained my race number, (5375, that is), and asked nicely the lady sitting there where can I change my clothes. She looked a bit puzzled, raised her hands and pointed vaguely around. Pretty much, anywhere, I translated to myself.
Huh? I was dressed “civilian”. With my hat, and all. Whoa, that was something I didn’t expect. So, I went on a side alley until I found a deserted place between the blocks, and took my clothes off. Of course, once I got to the underwear, a young lady passed my by, from the other direction. And there was some curtain activity on some windows too. Whatever. Once I got into my racing equipment, I felt better.
I attached the number and fixed all my 6 gels. The big ones, those that were barely fitting in were the most difficult to squeeze, while the other ones, the one I took from home, were fitting in almost loosely. Went back to the truck and gave the lady my clothes bag.
All of a sudden, I was there. I felt like there was nothing more to do, just the actual running. It was a very, very good feeling, something mixing expectation, pure pleasure and the tension generated by all those people around. It was already 8:30 and people were starting to group around starting blocks.
More than 40.000 people were set to start the race, so the start area was dividing into colored areas. You had to match the area of your starting block with a small dot on your race number. Mine was black, meaning I was going to start in the last block. I walked ahead until to the beginning of the black block and started to stretch.
In about 20 minutes the entire street was full. It was actually crowded, so I congratulated myself for being in the first line of the starting block.
And, at this moment, I realized the the guy on my left, who got there at the same time with me, was Romanian. He had something written in Romanian on his shirt. We started to talk. Turned out he was at his second marathon too, the first one being the same with mine, the one in Bucharest. We exchanged some impressions about the city and and the race and then, 2 meters in front of me, I spotted a girl friend of me. From Romania too. A friend with whom I actually ran during the winter until she moved with her job in Prague. I was puzzled. We hugged and started to talk, 3 Romanians in the first line of the black starting block. I mean, what were the odds of meeting a friend in a 40.000 people crowd, just minutes before the start of the race? Serendipitous.
The music in the huge speakers arranged along the street became louder and louder and a guy started to speak in German. All 3 of us deducted that we are about to start. And so we did. We couldn’t start all at the same time, we had to do a few short strolls ahead until we finally got the clearance. We greeted each other briefly, wishing a lot of luck to each other, then it started.
I didn’t have any time measurement gadget with me. I had to rely only on the public clocks from now on. And on my internal clock. When we started, a public clock on some nice building on the left was showing 9:15.
I made a short mental recap of my race plan: I wanted to use a gel every 5 km, starting with kilometer 12. That would create the following “gel stops”: 12km, 17km, 23km, 28km, 32km, 37km. I was pretty sure of the first half, as I said, I already did a half-marathon during the training, but what was over 21km was pretty much “uncharted territory” (if we don’t take into account the first marathon).
As I was continuing to run I realized the crowd was moving relatively fast. Faster than in Bucharest, anyway. Every marathon has a fast start, that I knew, but I was around km 5 and the speed was pretty much constant. I even thought I could make it under 4h, if I could keep the pace, but it was way too early to tell that.
Around km5 I hit the first water station and, with that, the first noise of plastic glasses being walked by the runners. A weird, but somehow very pleasant noise. You just run and hear something like a drum, from the foot of the runners walking over the plastic glasses. Then, in around 100-200 meters, silence again. Just the whisper of the steps following each other in a perfect rhythm.
I took my first gel at km 12, as planned and it went all well. Drank a lot of water, as usual, because these gels can accelerate the dehydration process. I decided to use first the big ones, the ones that I bought in Vienna. I didn’t feel the need for more, so I delayed the second one until the km 18. This one went nice too, so I thought I shouldn’t get another one until km 25. After the half-marathon, that is.
If you ever ran a marathon, you know that the race is usually changing after the first 21 km. Many runners are there only for the half-marathon. So, the first thing is that there are less runners on the street. But, usually, they also organize a relay marathon, with 10km relays. So, on one side, there’s less runners that started the race at the same time with you, but, every 10km you get to run with fresh runners, that are in the relay race.
At km 25 I took my third gel and it went very well. On the streets there were people cheering up, every few kilometers there were huge speakers playing some recent hits. The atmosphere was very nice, but it started to get hot.
Until km 25 I managed to follow my plan and approach: when I’m in a race, I try to never respond to stimuli, I just observe. When I run for a really long distance, I just take a “step back” inside myself and I just observe. I call this “running meditation”. Sometimes, when I can maintain this for several minutes in a row, I enter into some sort of a trance. I am detached from my body – which is still observed and monitored, mind you – but I’m free from it. It’s hard to explain, it really feels like a trance, with the time and space suspended, with a floating feeling and it’s probably the best thing I got from running so far.
After the gel at km 25 I started to feel the first signs of fatigue. Breathing was ok, but I felt the energy level was low. So, when I got to kilometer 28, I looked for my fourth gel in the strip, planning to get back to my initial race plan. Ups! no more gels in the strip. They were gone. I almost stopped to look closer at my trip. Being attached so loosely, they must’ve been fallen down at some point. That wasn’t a very good news. Not at all.
I tried not to panic and to keep the pace. Ok, so I don’t have gels for the last 14 kilometers, not a big deal. I’ve done 14 kilometers a lot during the training. So, no worries. I would eat some extra bananas, I thought to myself. But, as I remembered, there were only 2 banana refreshments before the finish. Well, that’s it, I’ll do whatever I can with what I already have. Which was pretty much water and the Powerade drinks at the refreshment stations.
But, as the race progressed, I started to feel some other signs, most of them related to the pressure on my body. The most important was a bit of numbness in my lips and chin. It started around km 32. I think that’s were I hit the wall. Probably, that was the moment I ran out of glycogen and my body started to function on survival mode. At km 32 I walked for the first time, trying to see if I can alleviate the numbness. I walked around 50 meters, fast, then ran for 3-400 meters. I went like this until km 38, I guess, when I realized that now my entire face was pretty much numb. So, this walking and running thing wasn’t helping much, I said to myself.
At that moment, I didn’t have any idea what time I was making. All I was having in mind was to finish the race. It was really hot and it got really difficult to breathe, for the first time since the start. I asked a lady near me about the time and she told me something like 4 hours, that’s my time. I still had 4 kilometers to run and 4 hours behind me. I suddenly realized I could make it into my target. Well, maybe I didn’t realize it so suddenly, because I wasn’t thinking very clear, it must’ve taken a few dozens of seconds to make the calculations in my head. But, after that, I realized that even if I run really slow I can make it into the 4:30 target. So, I decided to skip walking and keep running. As slow as I could, but keep running.
At some point, I saw the sign with km 40, then the sign with 41 then a huge sign telling 500 meters. At that moment I think my body wasn’t functioning anymore and all I remember is that I was making each step like pushing a boat on the street. Sometimes I even thought I could hear the scratching. Then it came the 400 meters sign, then the 300 meters, then I entered the red carped (which was actually yellow for this edition) and I saw the official timer above the finish line. It said 4h:43min. Then a lady gave me the finisher medal. The only feeling I had was happiness because I was only 15 minutes over my target.
After I crossed the line, I realized how crashed I was. Dizzy, barely keeping my balance, with my face still numb and my feet walking by themselves. I walked by at lest 2-3 runners that were vomiting. Somehow, I felt lucky that I didn’t do that. I was thinking very slow. Somebody handed me a bottle of water. It was mineral water, and it felt good. Then, at some place, somebody gave me a bag with something in it. I looked over and it was a banana. And an apple. I ate the banana and tried the apple, but proved to be rotten. I threw the bag into a bin and tried to remove my chip from my shoe laces. It took me half a minute, probably, and when I got up, I got really dizzy. Somehow, I managed not to fall and headed toward the chip returning booths.
There was a line, of course, so I sat in line trying to control my body. When I returned the chip, 3-4 minutes later, I was even able to smile, even if I didn’t feel my face. Must’ve look like a grimace or something.
I followed the signs for the clothes trucks and got there like in 2 minutes. I found my truck, got my bag and sat down on the side of the road, pondering if I should change into my civilian clothes or not. I decided not to, although a lot of runners were doing that (some of them not being bothered to get completely naked) and I headed to the subway.
Inside the subway I noticed a lot of runners, and all of them were proudly wearing their medals. So did I, of course.
And it was only when I got to the hotel that I realized what was with all the face numbness: I remembered I didn’t have breakfast that morning. Yes, as stupid as it sounds, I didn’t eat before running a race of 42 kilometers.
After resting an hour or so, I decided it’s time to stop that numbness once and for all and went out and had a huge pizza. And drank a can of beer. Man, it tasted so fresh and good.
I also took a stroll on the shopping street, which was 3 minutes from my hotel. All the shops were closed, which means the street was also desert, but I really enjoyed it like this. At the end of the street it was a park, so I sat on a bench for a few minutes, then went back to the hotel. All in all, the walk was around 4 kilometers. From my previous experience I knew that I shouldn’t go to sleep immediately, otherwise my muscles will be numb the next morning.
Once at the hotel, I checked the marathon website and saw my time. It wasn’t 4:43, that was the time since the first starting signal, but, since we, from our starting block, didn’t cross the starting line at the same time, there was a slight delay. My real time was 4:33 minutes. So, basically, I hit my target. I was, again, very happy.
Next day I took a plane to Bucharest, and that was it.
I started to work immediately after I got home. I usually walk 3.5 km to my favorite Starbucks each day, and 3.5 km back home from it. So, I have at least 7 km to walk each day. I did this immediately after I got home and had no trouble at all. Also, my feet nails were (and still are) in good shape. After the first marathon I had 4 nails with some troubles, one of them felt down.
I decided not to run for a week, which means only tomorrow I’ll have my first run after the marathon, but, from what I see and experience right now, recovery was much better than the first time.
Post Achievement Depression
Now, that’s something that I didn’t even know it exists. But, believe it or not, it exists. Every time you reach some big goal, something that you waited for months or years, you get into a mild (or, sometimes, violent) depression. I remember I experienced this depression after I sold my company, 5 years ago, and I had this again, after this marathon, but in a much easier form.
Basically, it translates into a higher degree of irritability. I don’t get into fights, but I feel much more sensitive and I kinda need more space and time for me. I also get suspicious in close relationships, thinking way too much. It only took 2-3 days, I’m well over it right now, but it’s worth mentioning here too.
The Next Race
I decided to run a semi-marathon for the first time, and for that I picked a race in Bucharest, it will be a month from now, on May 19th. The aim is to do it under 1:50. Let’s see what I can do about that. 🙂
Running For My Life - from zero to ultramarathoner
The spooky thing about depression is that it sneaks in. There aren’t really trumpets and loud voices announcing: “Hail, hail, this is depression entering the room, all rise!” Nope. It’s slow, silent, creepy. It doesn’t even look like depression. It starts with small isolation thoughts like: “Maybe I shouldn’t get out today, I just don’t feel like going out”. And then it does the same next day. And then the day after that and so on. And then it starts to whisper louder and louder in your ears: “Why would you go outside, you loser? Didn’t have enough yet? Want more people to make fun of how much of a big, fat loser you are?”
And then you start to breath in guilt and shame, instead of air. Every breathe you take is putting more dark thoughts into your body.
Until you get stuck. You can’t move anymore. At all.
If you want to know how I got out of this space, eventually, check out my latest book on Amazon and Kindle.