Before the start of a first marathon everyone is apprehensive. No matter how much preparation you have done, other races you have run or naturally optimistic outlook you have there is always that thought “Can I actually run/walk and complete 42.2k. Even Grant Schmidlechner who I met in Tromso last week after he had finished second felt this way before the start; but it was his first marathon.
With every subsequent marathon the nervousness might recede somewhat but it always there, 42.2k is a big distance! So 17 months after running my first marathon in Athens, and 12 subsequent ones, you would be forgiven for thinking number 14 would just be routine run without too many pre-race jitters. But that certainly was not the case. On Saturday evening I was ready to embark on a marathon that I wouldn’t have considered was possible for me to undertake at any time since Athens. It is one I had to do, the only sensible N marathon that fits into my project, but it is only one week since The Midnight Sun in Tromso. Two marathons just seven days apart and starting at times when most people of my age are finishing their hot chocolate as Casualty ends before retiring for a long night’s sleep. Or of course they might be down the pub.
So I had all day to try to put the concerns I had out of my mind. When I picked up my starters pack at the ‘expo’ I was greeting by name, I had been in contact with the race director and others previously and I was wearing my Midnight Sun race top.
As I waited at the start, obviously surrounded mainly Serbs (maybe 95% of the runners), I certainly wasn’t aware of any other Brits, I had two aims. Obviously just finishing was the first imperative, but also after Athens I added an extra target to my 26-in-alphabetic-order-in-different-countries; not to run slower than in this first marathon. That aim was intact even after the fun of getting lost in Hageland and running extra kilometres.
The race (I’m actually not sure most of us think of marathons as races, I think of them more as very long parkruns where we are really competing against ourselves) started on the University race track and then embarked on a course Traviss Willcox might have designed., six 7k dead flat loops besides the Danube. At the end of each loop we did return to the running track where the finishing line was situated with the time clearly visible for all to see, unless you chose to ignore it as I did.
I haven’t run a multi-lap marathon before and had thought it would be incredibly tedious going over the same ground time and time again. Actually I didn’t feel that to be the case. I found it very useful to identify key features that we went past (the start of the river path, the athletics track, the fitness park, the rowing club, the large derelict building, the bridge and the turn around point) then look and ‘aim’ for them in the distance.
As at Tromso last week there was also a half marathon, with at ten times as many runners, but unlike last week we all started together. This did cause some congestion for the masses, which of course included me, particularly through a gate near the start. And it did mean we were all overtaken by much faster half and full marathon runners particularly during laps 2 and 3; I was unceremoniously barged out of the way once.
I had a revelation at 22k as I was about to take my first gel; I realised what had caused the toothache I suffered after last week’s run. The dentist had x-rayed and couldn’t see a problem (but he did find two other fillings to do), all he could suggest was that I might be grinding my teeth at night which would cause pressure on the bone and the pain. His suggested cause was wrong but the effect correct. The problem tooth was the one I used to grip the top of the gel before tearing it open. After this revelation it is surprising how difficult it was to learn and remember do that on the other side of the mouth.
I was comfortable enough for the first four and a bit laps but then it became more and more taxing. By the time I was back on the river path with 6k to go I dared to look at my watch to see if I was anywhere achieving the Athens time; I was pleasantly surprised to see 3:42. I could walk it if I wanted. But I kept (very) slowly trudging along, no one coming past me, and after the final turn around I knew everyone I could see on the opposite track was behind me so I started counting. Then, with 3k to go I did something stupid, I stopped for just a couple of seconds. Instantly my right calf and thigh cramped and my leg wouldn’t function. All I could do force the leg straight, increasing the pain considerably, and stretch it. I wasn’t moving forward for 5 minutes and it was another 5 minutes of hobbling before I was back to my pre brain-freeze pace. And you would think I’d have learnt the lesson, but oh no. As I approached the running track at the end, I passed the stage where the presentation to the winners was just occurring you might guess what I did. Einstein suggested that “insanity doing that same thing over and over again and expecting different results” so this was my moment of insanity. As I stopped to applaud the winners the same leg cramped again and I almost fell over. Certainly the most embarrassing moment in my short running career. Fortunately my leg started working more quickly than before and I ran to the end, comfortably inside my Athens time, with 4:39:04. It might have been my second slowest marathon but I was one of the most satisfying.
The reward was a bright yellow technical top with the race clearly identified on both sides and great double-sided medal, uniquely shaped (maybe the shape of the Novi Sad district) with the clock tower of the fort (where Exit is held, what a shame the two events didn’t happen on the same weekend) on one side and on the other the of emblem of Ark ‘Fruska Gora’, the running club that started the marathon 6 the years ago and an inscription telling us how long the Danube is (2860 km). For only €12, amazing value.
All that remained was for me to thank the organisers, collect my bag and walk the 3k back to my apartment at nearly 3.00am on a warm Saturday evening. I managed a couple of days in Novi Sad then Belgrade before returning to the prospect of a strange ten weeks without a marathon after four in the previous eleven.