My preparation had gone pretty well, apart from a bout of food poisoning which hit me 2.5 weeks before the race. It meant I didn’t get my 36k run in. But in my last 30k run, I had managed a 4:54/km pace quite easily which got me dreaming of a 3:30 finish.
I set myself 4 goals and would be happy to achieve 2 out of 4.
- Beat Amsterdam (4:34)
- Go sub 4:00
- Beat Amsterdam by an hour
- Go sub 3:30
Of course on race day, it never goes the way you plan it. In the week leading up to the race, we realised we would be facing the warmest Antwerp marathon on record. Not only did temperatures reach 25-26°C, it was humid with some thunderstorms around. Absolutely ideal conditions to run a marathon..
We got to the start with only about 15mins to spare so not a lot of time to get nervous or overthink things. I could already tell however that my heart rate was about 30-40 beats higher than it would be before a normal run, not a great sign. But my colleagues/friends and I were ready to tackle our second marathon.
0km – 10km
After about 500m I immediately reviewed my goals. I knew it would have to be ideal conditions for me to run sub 3:30 and my heart rate was too high already from the start. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as in Amsterdam. That day, I set off at a decent pace but with my heart rate going too high. I eventually ended hitting the wall at 26km and suffering the last 16km. I wanted to finish this one with a smile.
At 3km, you go through the Waaslandtunnel in Antwerp. It’s 1800m long, so 900m downhill, 900m uphill. A nice way to start a long race. Eventually I found my pace around 5:15/km and maintained it the first half of the race. The first 10km were done before I knew it, although I was nervous to see whether I would be able to sustain the pace. I’d lost sight of anyone I knew, the next 4ish hours would be spent alone.
But it’s always such a boost when you see people along the way cheering you on. There were a few people that I hadn’t seen in years who spotted me just as we left the tunnel. They would pop up around 20 and 30km too. A great support and it puts a smile on your face.
10km – 20km
This is when the temperatures really started to hit. We had a few raindrops but not enough to cool us down. It was so hot and humid, and the concrete in the city did nothing to reduce it. It was hard to find shade too. I tried to make the most of every opportunity but it didn’t really help. I was keeping up the pace and was still on for a sub 3:45 at this point. There’s a few long straights in this part of the race that seem to take forever.
I always look forward to getting past that 20km mark so that you can start counting down. It’s after the 20km that the marathon starts really. But at 18km, I felt some irritation around my right nipple. Lo and behold, it had already given up on me. I saw a nice and red stain where that bleeder was. It was too early for this sh*t.
20km – 30km
The 3:45 pacers ran past me just as we crossed the half marathon mark. But my average pace was still within the pace needed for that finish. But as they were running past me, I realised that I was only going for 2 of my 4 goals. And that was fine. A fellow runner had told me beforehand to link my goals to external factors (weather, energy levels, good/bad legs,…) which I did. No records were going to be broken today.
At 24km I started to slow down. I had to. I was getting to dangerous zones HR-wise and it was too early for that. My pace dropped to 5:30-5:40/km for the next 6km.
I remembered reading about smiling along the way. Force your mind to believe you’re having fun. So I did. Amazingly it actually worked. By looking like a prat, smiling along the way, I actually started thinking about nice things which brought an actual smile on my face. My son taking his first steps, knowing my wife would be waiting at the finish,… It all helped kill the time in an enjoyable way.
The sugars were starting to take its toll too. I’d had 4 gels by this point and had Isostar in my backpack. Every sip I took of that drink made me feel sick but I knew I needed to fight through it to stay hydrated. I was sweating like an absolute pig.
At 28km the pain really started. I could feel a big blister forming (see the pic) on my big toe and the legs were getting heavier. But I knew from experience that slowing down further now, and even walking, were very bad ideas. It would just prolong it.
30km – 40km
From 30km, I decided to walk at each refueling station. Only 50-100m max, but long enough to be able to drink water and pour some on my head to cool off. Even a small walk makes you realise it’s better to just keep on running, as the restart is a right b*tch.
You run through the Rivierenhof, which is a park, between 31-35km. It’s quite a long stretch but you know once you’ve left the park, you’re so close to the finish.
My pace was decreasing further though, km 36 and 37 were my two slowest ones at 6:16/km. But that’s when I knew there were only 5km to go. Now I could start pushing again with a lot less risk. I still had a little left in the tank and really wanted to be able to finish the run with a small sprint. My splits went back towards 5:50/km and I knew I was on for a sub 4:00 finish. By the time we got past the 30km mark though, it was 12.00 and temperatures were soaring in glorious sunshine. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen at this point. It made it so tough.
40km – 42.195km
Once you get past 40km, you just start dreaming of the finish line. You know it’s only 10mins away. Come to me baby. In the second last straight along the Schelde river, there were two arches. You turn left at the second arch to hit the last 200m but when you see the arches in the distance, you start to think “oh it’s there already!” only to be disappointed.
Luckily my wife, son and dad were there to cheer me on! I even managed a little smile. I was reaching the end of my energy levels but managed to squeeze out the quickest km since km 25.
As I crossed the finish line, my legs went all wobbly and I only just made it to a bench before collapsing in a heap. After about a minute, I had regained some composure and got a couple of bottles of water. One for the head, one for drinking. I knew I had gone sub 4:00 but didn’t know yet what the exact time was. It ended up being 3:56:02. I’m very happy with that, there’s no way I could’ve done more today.
I walked towards some shade, lay down and put my legs in the air and called the wife. She came to meet me and helped me up again. I was happy with what I had achieved. I had managed to pace myself, I hadn’t hit a massive wall, I had smiled along the way and had fought through probably the toughest conditions that I will ever run a marathon in.
This one will live on in my memories for quite some time.
We made our way back to the company tent at the start of the marathon. The main event of the day is actually the 10 mile run. The marathon had over 3.000 participants this year, which made it the biggest one in Belgium and it was a record. The 10 mile run had nearly 30.000 participants! My wife was running it, her first ever race and it would be her longest ever run too. However, before she finished, the organisation spread the message that time registrations would no longer be done out of health concerns. Hundreds of people had needed medical attention due to the heat and the ambulance services were beyond stretched.
She crossed the finish line in just over 2 hours which was a great achievement. I’m proud of us both and am already looking forward to our next races!