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My first marathon experience

I can now officially say that I have ran a marathon, all 42.2km of it.  On Sunday 21st October I undertook my first marathon in Amsterdam, finishing in 4 hours and 27 minutes, which I was thrilled with. It was a cold but clear day around 12 degrees and some 11,000 participants started the marathon in the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium from 1928.  Thankfully the start was staggered, which made for a much more enjoyable experience.  

The start of the marathon in the Olympic stadium
11,000 marathoners head off from the Olympic Stadium for 42.2kms of pain.

The race started at 10.30am, the atmosphere in the stadium was electric with loads of spectators cheering you on as you embarked on the next four and a half hour journey through the streets and along the canals of Amsterdam. The first 10km were pretty hard going as there a lot of runners everywhere, jostling for position and space - I like my space.  After the 12 - 14km mark everyone settled down and got into their rhythm - finally! Gibbo was running the race with me and providing the much needed support (this was his fourth marathon, so he knew what they were all about).  My times at the 5 and 10 km mark were all on track and consistent, so we were off to a good start.  My aim was to try and finish the race in under 4 hours 30mins, but my main priority was to run at a consistent pace and keep my insides (that's my stomach) feeling good.  That can be the most debilitating part of a marathon - your stomach. The 10 to 20km part of the race was along a large canal through a very nice part of Amsterdam. I quite enjoyed this section of the race and there were plenty of spectators along the way to cheer you on.  Again going through the 20km mark we were still on track and had maintained a consistent pace so far. I had my powergel and water intake down pat from all my training runs.  The plan was to do exactly what I had done in my last 10 long training runs - drink every 2.5km and take my gels at 14km, 22km, 30km and 38km. During the race I wore my own fuel belt as I didn't want to get stuck without water.  I knew the drink stations were about every 6km, which was too far apart for my liking.  

Nicki on the home stretchFrom 20 to 30km everything was still going fine and I was feeling good, usually my quads start to get very heavy, fatigued and sore around the 25km mark, however they were still feeling ok.  Again up to the 30km mark we were still on track and still extremely consistent, which I was thrilled about, because I usually slow down a lot after kilometer 22.  Of course the sore quads did come, but not until 32km.  I had experienced this pain before in training - the heavily, aching, stiffness feeling in my quads where you can barely lift your legs, but the good thing was that I knew I could push through because I had experienced that feeling many a time in my long runs.  If you stop to walk it was almost more painful, so you are best to to keep pushing on.  This is where the marathon becomes more of a mental game. Everyone had said that the last 7km is really tough and you are in agony. So I was preparing for worst to come, but to my surprise is never really became much harder,  the quads continued in their fatigued state but I  knew that I could keep going with those.  I had a scheduled 1 minute walk at the 30km mark and another at 38km to take my last gel and then it was only a short way to the finish from there (that's what I was saying to myself at that particularly point). The last part was through a lovely park, then down a straight and into the Olympic Stadium for the finish.
                                                                           On the way into the stadium with a big grin on my face

As I turned the corner and saw the stadium and the huge crowd, I got very emotional and started to well up in the eyes - I couldn't believe I was going to finish a marathon!  Then I ran towards the tunnel and entered the stadium, I really felt like I was running in the Olympics.  I have watched the Olympics for many years now and I love watching the marathon runners entering the stadium - it gives me goose bumps every time.  This time it was me, not quite at the Olympics, but who cares, it was an amazing feeling and I had the biggest grin on my face going around the track to finally cross the finish line - what a feeling!

Training - the long road to a marathon 
I started training for the the Amsterdam marathon back in April, since I hadn't  done any serious running for about four years, yes that is right, four years!!  In 2001, I ran the Melbourne Half Marathon and in 2003 I ran a 10km race in Dubai.  That had been the extent of my running, until I decided to do my first marathon in Amsterdam. Over the past few years I have been concentrating more on the bike and have been participating in some cycling events around  the 100km distance.  I've always wanted to do a marathon and thought the time and place were right.  I chose Amsterdam because it is only a 50 minute train ride for us, it is a flat course and the race starts and finishes in the Amsterdam Olympic stadium, which I thought would be pretty cool.

The fantastic spectator supportSo the plan was to do two months of base training before I started my official 16 week marathon training programme.  When I started back into the running it was hard, really difficult and my heart rate was sky rocketing, even though I wasn't going very fast.  That was the first thing that needed to be rectified.  I worked out (using various formula from lots of different websites) that my heart rate when running a steady pace should be around 153.  So for the next 4 to 8 weeks I went out for runs keeping my heart rate no higher than 153.  In order to do that I was going so slow, I was probably running around 8 to 9mins per kilometer - really slow.  It was extremely frustrating, but I knew that I had to just stick at it.  I found the running very easy and my recovery great and slowly built up my distances over these 8 weeks.  I also slowly started to see myself getting faster, but it was very slow to see any results. The first four weeks I didn't improve at all and questioned if I should stick at this particular training programme.  I did stick at it and it paid off - I was able to run faster and still keep my heart rate down.   So now with my heart rate more under control, I then embarked on my marathon training schedule. Gibbo's Aunty happened to be visiting when I was first starting my training (she has ran loads of marathons and is very good), and she gave my one piece of advice, that you won't find in any marathon training programme, and that was to run 10 long runs over three hours / 34 km before you do the marathon (thanks, Shirley!). Now in most training programmes they get you to run two or three runs around the 34 km mark, but certainly not 10! So after thinking about this for a bit, it made sense, the more runs you do at a certain distance, your body gets use to it.  

I rescheduled my programme to fit in 10 long runs around around the 34km mark.  The bonus of doing the base training, was when it came to start my marathon training programme I was already up to running 2 - 2.5 hours for my long runs.  During the week I would do some speed work, sprints, efforts etc - not much fun.  The first long run was 2.5 hours covering around 28km - it was hard, but even harder was the recovery, I was so sore in the quads. I decided then that I would always do my longs runs on a Sat morning, so I had a day to recovery before going back to work on Monday.  After a while I developed a recovery ritual.  After my long runs I would do some stretches, then have a quick shower - not too hot, followed by a cold bath for the legs.  I would sit in the cold bath for about 10mins and I found this really helped with my recovery.  By the way, a cold bath is also great for shaving the legs, you get a really close shave because you hairs are sticking that far up on their ends!!  After that, on the couch with the 'Skins' on and legs up.  I swear by my Skins, they certainly help in elevating the soreness.  
If you don't know what Skins are visit their website at www.skins.net and get yourself a pair straight away. They reduce the build-up of lactic acid immediately after periods of sustained exercise. You basically experience less fatigue, minimise soreness and recover faster - bonus I say!

The pros finishing in 2:06hrsAfter the first three longs runs, I really didn't think my legs were going to make it, I had developed a real soreness in both my inner knees and then one evening in the middle of the night I woke up with a throbbing pain in my upper right leg to the side - I immediately thought I had developed a blood clot.  It was then I decided to make an appointment with a sports doctor specialising in knees. Thankfully I got an appointment the next day, the doctor got me to do a few movements, pushed and prodded in a few places an told me I have two problems.  


I would follow the pros 2 hours and a half hours later into the stadium!

The first was ITB, a very common problem seen in runners and triathletes.  The ITB is the longest muscle in your body that runs from your hip to your knee along the outside of your leg.  In runners it gets tight and contracts.  The good thing was that with some stretches and exercises it would be back to normal, or at least manageable in no time. The second was a potential meniscus problem, however I had some x-rays and the doctor cleared me of any major problems and just told me to back off on my training for the next three weeks.  I gulped, three weeks! I took his advice for the following week and dropped my long run back to 2.5 hours (I was up to 3 hours at that point in time).  My knee was much better, then next week I went back up to 3 hours and my knee has been fine ever since.  It was just a case of my knees getting use to the constant pounding.  After I started to do I few runs over 3 hours my weight also just dropped off me and my appetite ran wild.  I would wake up in the middle of the night starving.  Overall I lost 8kg (16 pounds) and am now lighter than I was on my wedding day!  For the last four months I ran the same route, I got to know the characters along the way, I would be greeted  by the little old men fishing on the canal, I'd get two beeps from the old man on his scooter every Saturday morning at 10.30am where we would see each other at the same point,  and I knew I could rely on getting my drink bottles topped up by the man who would be out in his garden.  Without fail these people were there every weekend - just like me.  I never missed a long run and really enjoyed them in the end!

During my long runs I would take out my fuel belt loaded with six drink bottles (1.5 litres of water) and three Powergels.  It became a ritual, at 14km I would take the first gel, then at 17km I would reward myself with a 1 minute walk, which was also my half way turn around point, then at 22km I got another gel and a 1 minute walk, then another gel and a 1 minute walk at the 30km, then then I only had 4 - 5 km to go.  That was my training schedule.  

Five weeks before the marathon we went on a two week holiday to China (see the Asia section of this website for our trip notes).  I still had to do two long runs in China before I started my three week taper, I knew that was going to be interesting.  We were in Xi'an when I had to do a long run and it was stinking hot, so I found a gym and ran for 3 hours on the treadmill - never again.  I watched kung fu for three hours and nearly died of boredom, but I was determined to get the distance.  The second long was in Beijing and planned to do 2.5 hours out in the street and then finish the last hour off in the gym.  I couldn't bear to do it all on the treadmill again.  Off I went into the Beijing streets at 7am, it was pumping, but I managed to find a path along a river that went for miles. I ran the entire 3.5 hours along this river - it was fantastic.  The best thing was that I could get drinks long the way as there were local vendors set up (selling everything you can imagine, not just drinks) - it was perfect and meant that I didn't have to go on another treadmill.

Taper time
Our return from China meant taper mode, I was really looking forward to it, cutting my distances that I was covering each week, I thought would be a welcome relief, but in the end I actually found it really difficult and quite frustrating - it was only making me nervous.  I started to get niggles here and there because I had really backed off on my training.  Also the weather had changed and everyone at work was sick.  It was my worst fear in the lead up to the marathon that I was going to come down with the flu and that all my training, hard work and dedication would be lost.  The week of the marathon I had to travel to London for work to attend a conference. This was not ideal but had no choice.  Off I went being extra careful not to get injured in anyway.  The first morning in the hotel I slipped getting out of the shower and banged my knee quite badly, I quickly applied pressure with a cold face washer and hoped for the best!  Of course I ended up with a huge bruise of my knee, but I was certain that it wasn't going to effect me on the day.  You have to be so careful in the lead up, but looking back, I know I was being over paranoid - but hey, I was a first timer!

For a breakdown of detailed results, click HERE.

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