Sunday 21 April 2024

TCS London Marathon 2024 - The Big Fat Sub-4

There are races you want to run but you can't... and others you don't want to run but you have to!

I'm a trail runner. I like to climb mountains and explore forests. I like the smell of freshly-cut grass, of pine trees, the sound of chirping birds and climbing squirrels. I like to lose myself in Nature, without a goal or destination. But above all, I HATE running in the city.

What has been a passion 10 years ago, while training for my first marathon (Berlin), has become something I try to avoid everytime I can. I don't like city marathons: Too crowded, too loud, too messy. Runners feeling like elites and throwing plastic trash in the air, the crowd around you always too slow or too fast, having to triple check every time you want to change lane or overtake. For me, a city marathon is like a traffic jam. And I don't want to pay a fortune to spend 4-5 hours stuck in traffic breathing motorbikes exhaust gas, until someone trow a medal around me neck without even looking at me. I understand that all this can be a thrill to most, but it's definitely not my thing.

Nonetheless, in spite of all this, there are some city marathons that I just cannot decline. And London is one of these.

It's been a few years that the wife, the brother-in-run and I apply to the London Marathon ballot. My wife qualified two years ago and had an amazing time running it. So we all applied again, hoping to run together. And of course, while I surely was the least excited about it, I qualified this time. After postponing it for a year, hoping my wife would qualify too, I eventually had to take a decision: Run or decline the London Marathon. I chose to run it, because of the charity involvement and the low price, which is very enjoyable, when most major marathons are getting insanely expensive (160 euros for Berlin, over $200 for NYC or Boston).

It was the right decision and I had a great time running the London marathon. The atmosphere is unique and unlike anything I have seen before. The whole city is in the street, cheering you up, handing you candies, fruits, pop-corn or chocolate bars. The route takes you to beautiful corners, starting from Greenwhich Park on the outskirts and taking you to the vibrant heart of the city up to Buckingham Palace. Some sightseens are breathtaking, like crossing the London Bridge or circling around the the Cutty Shak ship. Most runners are supporting a charitable organisation and you feel like everyone is running for a good cause above self-interest. While the weather feld quite cold (to me!) and the wind was blowing when we started, the sun eventually made a pleasant entrance and stuck with us until the end.

But the reason why this has been an incredible experience, is because I smashed my PR, finishing under 4h (3.58.57 min). Since my very first marathon (Berlin, 4h 17min), I never came even close to beating my finish time, as I am solely running trail marathons now, which are much more demanding. It kind of was my only opportunity to try it and the sub-4 limit always appeared to me like a lifetime goal I wished I would achive one day. But I did not expect to succeed that day.

I kept an easy pace for the first 10 km. My brother- and sister-in-run ran along with me and cheered me up on the way everywhere they could, it was an amazing boost. After 10 km, I was feeling really good and started overtaking a lot of people. An abundant source of energy and motivation keept sustaining me for another 20km and I surprised myself holding a very intense pace. Of course, due to my lack of training, I hit the wall around the 30th kilometer. Some quick maths showed me that if I held a 5.20 min pace for the last 10km, I would barely make the sub-4. It was hard to believe, so close to me that I could almost touch it. But 10 painful kilometers were separating me from my dream.

I always take my time on trail events, I am just careful with time-limits but never run with a finish time in mind. Now what the opportunity to try it, the No-Pain-No-Gain everyone keeps telling about. When you push your body to the corner, empty it from it's last ounce of energy and achieve the impossible. I did not hesitate a second and held tight. It was tough, insanely tough. My heartbeat increased gradually, my body having a hard time holding the pace. I ran the last 10 km in pain, one eye on the road, the other on the watch, trying to save on any effort, any step, any unnecessary movement, to reach my goal. 

I realised that my watch was a bit optimistic. By overtaking a lot, I had run a little more than the actual distance. I kept doing the math in my head, converting miles in kilometers, crossing distance and time. It's gonna work, no wait it won't... It's gonna be 2min after 4h, no 1min before... It was as painful for my head as for my legs. But evething held on and I covered the last kilometers in an hypnotic state. I could not hear the people cheering around me, nor lift my head to see the city monuments. One last turn, one last look at the watch: 3h58, two minutes to go... And finally the finish line was in sight, I crossed it 1min before this insane goal that I still believed impossible 4 hours ago.

It took me about 1min to stop my legs from shaking. With a medal around my neck and a bottle in my hand I can't remember receiving, I started crying. This never happened to me before. I cried for a good 20 min, lying down in the grass looking at the sky, until my legs stopped shaking. Oh boy, tomorrow's gonna be painful, but right now I feel amazing. I changed this marathon that I did not really want to run into an amazing memory I will remember all my life.

"They did not know it was impossible, so they did it..." - Mark Twain

Friday 13 October 2023

XTerra O-See Ultra Trail 2023

It's not over until it's over! After an engaging running season and finishing the stunning 6D-Marathon, I couldn't call it a year yet. This Saturday, I put on my shoes for one last ride in the Zittau mountains. Located in a little enclave between the German, Czech and Polish border, the village of Oybin has been hosting for a few years now the XTerra O-See Trail Running event, with races ranging from 500m to 65km. The 25K and 50K ones are part of the XTerra Trail Run World Series and can help you qualify for more events. I'm in for the 50K / 2120 m+, which should be a realistic step after my recent training and the 6D-Marathon in July. I didnt have time to do a proper training/tapering this time, but my few hills repetitions should do the trick. I still feel quite in shape after the summer. 

The centerpiece of the O-See race surely is its locations, right at the heart of the Zittau mountains. Nothing compared to the Alps, but the hills can be quite steep and challenging. On top of that, the region's geography is very surprising, with huge polished rocks growing like mushrooms everywhere and transforming the forrest into a natural obstacle course. It's a unique experience to immerse and lose yourself, while following these endless trails snaking from one hill to another.

I had an amazing first part of the race, up to km 25, as the morning weather was just perfect. I grew up in Corsica and I spent long afternoons playing in the rocks behind my house, never tired of exploring and discovering hidden places. That's exacly how I felt today, while each new turn was bringing more awe and suprising challenges. 

The second part of the race, around 25-35km has been a little less interesting though. It started raining and we left the funny rocks for larger paths through the forrest. But the rain did not last long and the end of the race brought a new layer of challenges, with steep hills, painful stone stairs, slippery slopes and astonishing scenery. While I had been able to run all the way down during the 6D-marathon, it was really tricky this time and I had to alternate between fast walk and careful run all the time, using poles to stay in balance. But I didn't mind, with a 10h cut-off I had all the time in the world to enjoy the race one step at a time.

It took me a little more than 8 hours to cover the 51km and 2100m+. Quite a long time compared to my previous race, but I didn't have time to get bored. The route was pretty technical all the way and I had to stay focus to keep a decent pace and not get hurt. I am very happy with my finish time and I had a lot of fun, which is the most important thing after all! It was a unique experience "taming" those hills and finding my way through all these funny rocks. I am already considering attempting the big 65k next year, as it is quite close to Berlin. All in all, this was another wonderful stone in my little trail-running zen garden.

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