Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Soweto Marathon Report: First Marathon Blues (Dancing With The Devil)

To be honest I had many drafts of this post penned in my head, the heroic first time marathon success, the heroic pulling it back from the brink first time effort and the safety first getting a feel of things first time effort. None of those scenarios panned out. Instead what I got was a hellish beating at the hands of a mammoth beast. I danced with the devil and I got burnt.

This is my pace chart from the race. This puts things into context.

The short story is that I ran well for 32km and when the race really got going I fell apart and was on the ropes from that point until I caught sight of the finish.

Looking at that pace chart it's fair to say I just didn't see it coming. I expected to struggle from 32km onward, I really did. What caught me off guard was how instantaneous it was. I remember checking my pace and seeing 31.83km on the Garmin and just thinking, 'I only have 10km to go, I'm home' and less than a minute later, I was walking and that was that. I have never experienced such a crippling lack of fortitude and self belief as I did from the moment I stopped running for the first. As you can see, I actually managed to run a fair amount, and in face when I was running I was hitting my oiverall average pace of 5:10, but every 2 or 3 minutes I had to walk and that conincided with a climb. I basically managed to run most of 32-35km and then the nature of Soweto unveiled itself.

The first half is deceptive. It's a downhill start for close on 8km before the first testing climb and from then on it's the rolling hills that I was told of, and as you enter Soweto itself it's twisty but I found this thoroughly enjoyable and almost exhilarating. The monotony of climbing is broken up by navigating some tight corners, while basking in some historic sites and astonishing crowd support. The nice thing about all these climbs is that they are tempered by an almost equivalent downhill. I believe I raced smart here. I was not stressed about losing time on the uphills and in fact ensured my pace fell below 5min/km and didn't force the issue on the downhills.

I had rhythm. I was dancing. I was in control.

I hit halfway in 1:36:20. My target for the race was 3:10 based simply on  taking my City2City half marathon of 1:25:28 which predicted a shade under 3 hours and adding 10 minutes for the hills and the debut. In hindsight that was aggressive and even from 10km which I got to in 46:30 I was never in with a shout.

The route climbed up to about 23km and then it was the final gentle part of the course down to 28km before climbing back up to Nasrec and the finish. By 28km I was actually only about 1 min off target time, getting there in just over 2:07. Then the climbing began gently to the moment of my demise. I still remember feeling good at 30km, again thinkng to myself, 2:18 on the clock, you've done well now coast home in an hour for the last 12km and get in a good 3:20.

So here is the route. That first 30km was testing, but in reality was easier than any of my three 30km plus runs. The difference of course was pace, ~5min/km versus at 30km 4:34/km, and mentality. In my long runs I ran short 9km loops where I was never more than 5km from home as the crow flies so in reality I could pull out when I wanted to. Here I was in the heat of battle. My legs were tired, my head was turned.

Did I hit the wall?

I don't know. I never saw spots, was never too weak to stand or keep moving, didn't cramp, my mind just simply disconnected from my body. My half marathon PB is at a pace of 4:03 so, ~4:34 pace was not too hot but of course these are novice legs. It was all in my head. Many guys around me were hurting. We were laughing with the locals. A local lass offered me her hand in marriage if I just ran. I laughed and carried on walking. A guy I was running with earlier came past me slowly, gritting and willed me on. I ran with him for about two minutes and waved him on. At no stage was I incapable of running, my head and my legs were having a personal battle and were deadlocked.

By the time we hit 40km I was fed up. I had taken 18 minutes to get there from 38km, walking the entirety of the 39th kilometer. I mean here I was walking at less than 10min/km. There was a little bit there, I just couldn't tap into it.The 41st kilometers was a 7:30 affair before I finally steadied myself and decided to jog the last kilometer home. In imperial terms it was just under 9 minute/mile pace. My legs were turning, they were going. I saw the start banner and actually accelerated a bit. By the time I turned into the Expo Centre complex, I was actually sub 5min/km running. I heard my father shouting out and I high fived him, turned onto the grass and crossed the line.


It was done. I had been through the wringer but I was a marathoner.


What a mind warp!

When I set myself goals a the start of the year, compared to where I am now they look conservative. My goals were to run sub 45 minute 10km, sub 1:40 half marathon and to finish a marathon. I achieved all three and with the first two, with my personal bests sitting at 39:04 and 1:25:28, completely smashed them. With the marathon, while never committed to a time back then I would have tentatively said 3:45-4:00. So to finish at 3:38:10, 941st and in the top 15% of the field, I am delighted.

But in reality I could finished a lot stronger with a more modest goal, but I guess one always looks at their current ability and says, I can run this now for X distance, I should aim for this for my marathon. With 3,4, or 5 marathons under my belt, I might have got my 3:10, but with these novice legs, I was always in a hiding to nothing. It has barely been 17 months since I took my first tentative steps and struggled to a 40 min 7km jog back in June last year. My total September mileage of 262 km is remarkably enough almost equal to the total I had totaled when I put together those targets for 2012. So despite a spectacular blow out, I am happy. I finished a marathon, something that looked terribly unlikely even in January.

In the aftermath I guess it's safe to say, as a fast marathon I should have aimed lower. A 3:30 pace target was the safer bet. I had dialed into this pace for hours on end in training more so than target marathon pace of 4:30/km. At the latter pace I was always borderline. Things had to go perfectly on the day, which they didn't. But that is the nature of the beast. Training prepares you to push beyond what you do day in day out thus turning a marathon that had been in preparation for 26 weeks including base building would go against my natural competitive spirit.

Would I have enjoyed it more. Probably, who knows. But much of training and racing is to be on the edge striving to get better, stronger, faster.

I'm taking two weeks off now before embarking on my next goal, which is not surprisingly an Autumn marathon next, most likely the Slow Mag Marathon in Benoni. Along the way I hope to finish the year in style by adding to the 8:56 that I have taken of my 10km this calendar year over two races in December so that on the week of 1st January marathon training can begin in earnest.

I did a lot of things right in my training as my intermediate results show but the plan just needs to be fine tuned to get me over that magical last 10km in one stable piece. Time on  legs, midweek longer, longer marathon pace runs. All of this will be thrown into the equation, and this time definitely more realistic goal setting.

Onward to better and faster marathon running!


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm going to run my first marathon begin november. Thanks to your post I'll be careful for these last 10km!!