Monday, 12 March 2012

Schevening-Zandvoort Strandmarathon

Everything was perfect for this race.  Except me.

The location was the beautiful coastline of the Netherlands between Den Haag and Amsterdam.  The weather was sunny, cool and with a gentle side wind from the sea.  Race organisation (the event is in its fifth year) was excellent throughout.

The day began well when (miraculously) I got up in good time to drive to the Park and Ride.  The race is a point-to-point along the beach at low-tide so the organisers laid on a coach to the start and a shuttle back from the finish.  It was an extremely friendly atmosphere with people chatting and no one left to stand on their own as we waited.  After a very chatty hour on the coach, we arrived at the start and the good organisation  began to shine through.  Race numbers quickly issued, space to change, trailers to take bags to the finish and (best of all) short queues for the loo.  That last is a big plus at any race.

At the start, we were all clearly told about what lay ahead, when to expect refreshment stations and some minor changes to the course.  There was also an introduction to the SOS Kinderdorpen charity (English website) which the event was supporting.  And then we were off.

The sands remained pretty firm across the whole event and, except for a few unavoidable streams, pretty dry.  Even so, it's a draining surface to run on as the sand gives with every impact draining a little extra energy with every step.  The first 15k passed exactly to plan at a steady, sustainable pace, well below the efforts of the week before.  Fatigue began to set in and, although the 21.1 point time was decent, my pace was falling and there was nothing I could do about it.

Another psychological factor was the visibility.  When we started, I could see a large building in the distance.  And it seemed never to get any closer.  In the end, it turned out to be 20k away, almost at the mid-point of the race.  Once past that, there was another.  Yes, it was at the finish.  On every other course I've done, there are twists and turns, each giving short-term goals. On this straight coast, it wasn't like that at all.

That said, it was a beautiful place.  The sea to one side and the steep dunes to the other, holding captive the sandy beach between them.  Even the remains of the Atlantic Wall dotted here and there didn't seem out of place.

And then, at about kilometre 27, I hit "the wall."  Or I would have except that apparently it's now called "bonking."  I'm not going to elaborate here, perhaps another post when it's all a bit less fresh in the mind.  Suffice it to say that I struggled to walk then next 3k and thus passed one of the least pleasant half-hours I ever had.  If there had been a refreshment point in that period, I am sure I would have quit.  No question in my mind.

As it was, I managed to get back to an alternating jog/walk.  There was no "run" left in me at all.  When I reached the next refreshments, I stopped for a minute to get myself together and reached for cola drink and wine gums.  The worst of the pain passed over the next 6k as the sugars made their way to my muscles but the energy never cam back.  I crashed again at 38k but not so hard this time.

It's worth saying that everyone was enormously supportive.  The back markers (whom I replaced), the volunteers, the divers of the safety cars, random passers-by and their dogs:  Everyone urged me on and made encouraging remarks.  I might have been able to do it without them but I'm not sure.  They really did keep me going.

The last 4k was an exercise in carrying on.  I remember my thoughts were on a loop.  I was trying to count my steps but couldn't get to twenty before losing track and starting again.  I'd spotted the finish (one of those large, inflatable arches) about 5k off and it was murderously slow coming closer.  The last 200 metres were amongst the hardest as the sand there was very fine and loose and the line itself was up a small incline.

A boy was waiting to give me a medal and I stood there waiting for about 30 seconds before I realised he was half my height and I would need to bend down.  I felt nothing at all at this point, not even relief at not moving any more but more cake and cola soon worked magic.  The volunteers were brilliant to the very last (yes, that was me) and gave me time to recover.  I never felt they were waiting for me to go so they could pack up, even though I suspect that was the case.

On the coach to the car, I got to talking with the penultimate finisher; A German lady who helped me to realise that I could still communicate in broken German as she had not a word of Dutch or English.

So, why did it all go so badly?  Three reasons, I think.  Firstly, as I suspected at the time, I made too great an effort the week before, lopping several minutes off my previous best half marathon.  Secondly, even the light training I did during the week was too much.  And finally, I reckon I just didn't get the nutrition right on the day.  Too little, too late.  I need to learn from all of this as I plan to do two marathons a week apart at the end of next month.

One last thing:  Lest all the self-pity above distract from it:  The race was organised to benefit a very worthwhile charity.  And it was organised well.  I know they hope to expand the number of runners and wish them every success.  If circumstances permit, I would love to return here and, perhaps, run as well as the race deserves.

Additional thanks are due to Eric and Carolyn who let me sully their bathroom and fed me before the drive back to Brussels.