Monday, 8 March 2010

Days 305 - 308 Mad dogs and Englishmen

Type - race

Distance - 13.1 miles (half marathon)

Time - 1 hour 41 minutes 26 seconds

Malta is a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, almost as close to Africa as it is to the southern tip of Sicily. Its location provided both serendipitous fortune and undesired foreign attention through a long and tumultuous history. Invaders still come from across the water, but these days they have the peaceful intent of tourists, and eschew maritime approaches to arrive by plane. A group of us had come to the land of honey in search of sweet personal victories in the Malta Marathon and Half-Marathon.

Jarlath was running to beat a personal best he had set in his first marathon in Paris two years ago (of 3 hours, 19 minutes and 46 seconds). Mark was running to get a sub-three hour marathon. I was running the half-marathon because my training plan called for a half-marathon in race conditions, and it seemed a good idea to join in and run in the sun.

There were two elements to the run that would be surprisingly tough. The first was the temperature, and the second the topography.

The average high temperature for the island at the end of February is 16.7oC, with a mean temperature of 13.4oC. This would have been a perfect temperature to run, perhaps, if anything, touching on the high side of comfortable. The reports from the Met Office were that temperatures were first touching and then exceeding 20oC. Whilst not a scorcher, the warm African winds threatened a distinctly uncomfortable and sapping temperature.

And then the topography. This should have helped, as the run descended 250 metres from the Mdina starting line down to the Sliema waterfront. I was imagining a gentle descent, pretty flat and entirely conducive to a good time. It didn't turn out to be quite as benign as this tantalising promise. There were hills - several long inclines, a couple of sharper ascents and a selection of annoyingly avoidable overpasses as we passed near Valetta. Some of the descents were too sharp and short to make up for the sapping ascents, and overall it seemed like more of a slog than I had imagined.

We had Saturday to ourselves, having a wander around Sliema and buying some race-day food and ensuring we were properly hydrated and carb-loaded. Everyone was a touch on edge, lost in their own thoughts of tomorrow's race and going through their own mental motions to get ready. After much water, pasta and sleep, it was Sunday, and an early start for the marathon runners. I headed over later, the half marathon starting at 10am, two hours after the marathon runners.

So, to the start line. This was my first competitive run, and all of the starting line activity was unfamiliar. A big chunk of the activity was located on a row of constantly engaged portaloos. The rest was stretching, and waiting. Waiting and waiting.

And then we were off. A quick start. Too quick, in retrospect, but it felt alright. I was averaging just under 4 minutes 45 seconds per kilometre for the first half (coming in at the halfway point in about 48 minutes. If I could manage to maintain this pace then I would easily get under 1 hour 40 minutes, and smash my previous personal best of 1 hour 43 minutes. Then I slipped on a slick of Gatorade, and smashed down on my left hand and right knee. Scraped, and bleeding, I picked myself up and carried on, cursing the race organiser's decision to hand out the drink in spillable cups.

But by this point the sun had risen high above us, and was beating down merciless rays. The temperature headed over 20 degrees, peaking at 22oC and feeling hotter on the exposed black tarmac. There was no cover, as the race snaked over the treeless Mediterranean scrub. And then the hills started to have an impact, grinding down the energy and making the last half of the race more of a battle. By the last five kilometres I felt my energy slipping away, and my time slipping to over 5 minutes for each kilometre. By the end I had just about enough to get across the line, but finished in 1 hour 41 minutes as my pace slipped away.

So that was it. I had a medal. I had a personal best time. But I didn't slip below 1 hour 40 minutes. But, in the circumstances, it was a decent run. Everyone had suffered, even though Jarlath and Mark managed to hit their targets. When the official times came out it was clear that this year was a slower race, so I was pretty relaxed about the performance. Training is, after all, as much about experience and learning.

The race shook me out of the complacency around training for the marathon (in fact it did more than that - made me quite nervous about the big day!). It drummed in the importance of pacing, and the need to set off at a slower, manageable speed. It was useful preparation for the actual race conditions, even if London will be on a much bigger scale.

Had a tremendous time outside of the race in Malta. The clear blue skies and bright sun, cursed and reviled a few hours before, returned as a blessing when dipping sore legs in a cool rooftop pool overlooking the sea. A wander around Valetta, some good food and great company made this long weekend an excellent break.

Now time to knuckle down again and train for the main event.

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