Well it all came down to one day, 3 months of quality training bagged and it was time to reap the rewards, so I thought. We woke around 7:30am, the atmosphere was tense but I was relaxed and quietly confident. In the hotel lobby, myself Rob and Bryan gathered for breakfast at 8am. I would have liked just a small bowl of porridge but there only cereals so I had a small bowl of that, some fruit salad and a coffee. I look back now and wonder why I did that when I was used to doing all my long runs on empty. At 9am we all gathered and took the ever efficient train into Rotterdam Central. I had arranged to meet a runner, Anthony, who posts on boards.ie, see his impressive training log here. He was aiming for a similar goal so we’d arranged to pace together along with my cousin Bryan. Unfortunately Anthony got delayed and we couldn’t wait around so at 10:05am we headed for the bag drop. Time suddenly crept up on us and it was after 10:20am, less than 10 minutes to get into our corals, way too late. The crowds were jam packed at this stage,we didn’t know where to go and panic set in, Rob finally got into coral D but we still had to find our way into C. With only 3-4 minutes to go we were told by a marshal that we had to enter coral C from the other side of the street and we’d have to use the underground metro tunnel to get there, christ almighty. It was important we got out in group C with similar paced runners as otherwise we’d have to spend the first few miles weaving through people and catching up, potential disaster. We found the metro tunnel and legged it as quick as we could, finally got to the other side and saw a gap in coral C where a steward sneaked us in and phew, we made it. This was not ideal preparation at all, no warm up done and in no way relaxed before the start. Finally the loud boom of the canon echoed the streets and it was time to get going.
Because we were quite far back in coral C, we had quite a lot of weaving to do in the first mile and I was surprised as some of the slow paces there, some looked like they had blagged their way into coral C in the hope of a quick start, never ceases to amaze. We hit 6:43 for the first mile which was just fine though all that weaving and dodging was energy sapping, my forehead was already gathering up a nice bunch of sweaty beads. The temperature was ok, 13/14 degrees but the sun was beaming right down on us and it never occurred to me that I’d need to take on extra water today, I’d barely taken on any that morning simply copying my approach to Barcelona. The first few miles seemed to just tick by, we found a good comfortable pace in the low to mid 6:20′s but alas that was to be the last time I felt comfortable that day. The plan was to hit halfway in 1:24 and it seemed that we were bang on course for that.
We hit the 10k mark in 40:07, basically on target and I took on some water on which immediately resulted in a stitch on the right hand side, maybe it was the awkward motion of trying to drink out of a cup at pace. It was uncomfortable but didn’t radically affect the pace and I felt I just needed to give it a few miles to settle down. The pace did fall off slightly over the next few miles suggesting we did go off a bit hard or the heat was starting to affect us. I didn’t take on water at the next water stop, just a swab of the sponge on my forehead and little did I realise this would come back and bite me hard. The next mental goal was the 10 mile mark, coach Jim had told me to break down the race into a comfortable 10 mile and then a 16 mile race but to be honest that 10 miles never felt comfortable, compared to the 5:51 pace I ran in Mallow 3 weeks earlier, this pace should have felt fine. Coming up to 10 miles I felt it was time to take the dioralyte sachet that I’d stashed in my pocket. I opened it coming up to the water station but when I went to throw it into my mouth, the sachet was bloody empty. Not a disaster but those sort of occurrences tend to compound any mental anguish you’re suffering, though physically the dioralyte probably would have made no difference. That was my only planned sustenance for the race and I’d either spilled it or it had dissolved in my shorts.
Though the stitch was hanging around still, the pace was satisfactory but still difficult, we were now leading a group of about 10 people. I was just waiting for that moment when it would all click and I would settle into the race and feel some control, the control I felt in Barcelona last year and only 3 weeks ago in the Mallow 10. I was nearly halfway and already knew deep in the back of my head that this was not to be, that was the time to reassess my goals and devise a new strategy but a lack of experience meant I was only fixated on a 2:47 result. We plodded on and finally hit the 13.1 halfway mark in 1:25:07. At the time that was not good enough but in hindsight it was a good half given the difficulties and I should have stuck with the 6:30 pace from then in and at the very least hit a PB. I tried to pick up the pace, aiming for low 6:20′s but already I felt the legs being sapped of energy. I hadn’t taken water in a while but because I was holding the pace I didn’t notice that, I was still waiting for everything to come together, that 2nd wind that I normally experience. Thoughts of a 2:50+ were consuming me, that was a bad result in my head and I was neglecting how I was feeling, my attitude was all wrong. I didn’t know it but I was just hanging in there and it was just a matter of time before the bubble burst. At this stage, I had gone ahead of Bryan, it was his 10th marathon and he had the experience to know not to make a move, he stuck around the 6:30-35 pace and that paid dividends for him. Looking back at these splits, they’re pretty decent but not reflective of how I felt and I was punching way above my weight.
Things were really feeling tough now and I knew I was struggling but defiant to give up my pace. We went over a bridge at 16 miles, I got a lot of cheers and people called my name but I was barely able to smile. I knew my form was getting bad, I was expending too much energy yet still sure I wouldn’t bonk, surely I couldn’t bonk, I’ve done the training! I had a jelly in my pocket for emergencies which I took and just chewed on it for a while, I had a stomach pain and still a stitch and didn’t want to swallow it so I just chewed on it for a while hoping the sensation of sugar would give my brain false hope, I heard it in a podcast during the week, great time to try it out Conor. By mile 18 I had thoughts of just stopping and pulling over, I still had so long to go and I felt the lowest ever I had felt in a race. The pace started noticeably slowing and form out the window, I knew at this stage even a sub 2:50 was gone. Running out of ideas, I turned off the pace on my watch as I knew it was consuming me. This might have worked wonders in the past but it was too little too late today. Mile 19 was a 6:44 and when I saw that popup I knew things were getting grim. Much of this patch was around the loneliest part of the course, through a forest road with little support and it was so so difficult, the legs felt like collapsing, I had no plan B and absolutely no positive thoughts remaining. I don’t know where that 6:33 came from in the 20th mile, perhaps one defiant last push to hold the pace, it was to be the last.
Somewhere around the 20mile mark, it’s hazy, I stopped to walk for water, first time I’d ever stopped in a race which felt strange, I walked for a few meters drinking the whole cup before grabbing another one and downing it. I didn’t feel like starting again, 6 miles to go, please don’t make me. The next mile was the slowest yet, 6:52 but that was just the beginning. Pace was rapidly diminishing, a 7:17 and an 8:03 followed, talk about blowing up. When I saw that 8 min mile pop up, it was a feeling I never want to experience again. Race well and truly over, the only goal now is to finish this race. Time is out the window, this is just me versus the distance now. This was the new lowest I’d ever felt, this was the wall and what an introduction to it. I never want to feel like that again, the finish line felt like years away to me. I looked at the grass on the side of the road and it looked so inviting to just curl up and lie down, I was so thirsty. At every water station from then in, I stopped to drink 2 cups of water and straight away I was thinking about the next station. Miles 23-26 felt like an eternity, I knew my pace was in the 8 min range but I couldn’t do anything about it, I was spent but desperate to keep going, I knew I could still benefit from finishing this race and I felt I’d be letting down people by not finishing. I don’t recall any of the course really from then in, my head was dropped and people were passing me left right and centre. Bryan passed me at some stage, maybe 3 or 4 miles to go, gave an encouraging pat but I could barely respond. The whole last 3 miles are a blur, the support was great but I could barely acknowledge the crowd except one I vividly remember, a lady on her own sitting in a wheelchair at the side of the road. “Keep going Conor” she shouted (name was on my bib in case you’re wondering), and I looked up and meekly smiled to her with a thumbs up, that was a nice moment and put my “suffering” in perspective. How lucky am I to be even running a marathon, there’s no way I’m not finishing I thought. If you’re going through hell, keep on going and that’s what I did, the finish line’s not moving so I just keep moving forward. I had a glance at my watch as it ticked onto the last mile, I’m probably on for a sub 3 hours I thought, completely by chance as I didn’t have the energy to push. It finally came into sight and how relieved I was to see it, so proud of myself to have persevered but barely able to think of anything else other than water. I crossed in 2:59:09, happy to go sub 3 but happier to be finished and vowed to never let that happen again, it was nice to meet you wall but on your bike. Bryan had crossed in 2:54:57, an excellent PB and a good reward for sensible tactics when he realised he wasn’t on target either. He was waiting for me and kindly had an energy drink waiting for me, perfect. I demolished it in about 2 seconds and went to lie down, he said I didn’t look well and went to get me a banana. I found the closest piece of concrete and collapsed on it, weirdest sensation as I kept feeling I was falling asleep and everything was spinning. A paramedic lady came over to see if I was ok, “uh yeah I’m just waiting on a banana” was my response which got a funny look and she stayed around to watch me. Bryan returned eventually and I devoured the banana before he pulled me to my feet, still dazed and confused.
We met Rob who was targeting a sub 3 and came in at 3:05:59, a great run, PB and an indicator that it was tough going for a lot of people out there today. We lumbered our way to the bag drop to pick up our stuff, none of us fancying an after race pint for good reason. I finally bumped into Anthony who we had planned to meet earlier, he had run a 2:50 and was disappointed, incredible result knocking 8 mins off his target and a seriously talented runner. We chatted for a bit but I was now starting to shiver with the cold and I needed to get inside so we said goodbye and headed to the bag drop. We rested for a while on the benches and made our way to the train, grabbed a coffee and some pastries and apparently I was still white as a ghost but gradually feeling life seep gradually back into my bones. I had some time to think on the train about what went wrong and finally started seeing some positives from the day, I dug deep and pulled through in the face of adversity and I was proud of that. We made it back to the hotel, spirits a bit higher and the colour back in our faces. We all made it through our training to make the start line and we made it to the finish, it’s an achievement regardless of the results. We ordered a round of Grolsh beers in the hotel and retreated to the room for a well earned celebration drink. After resting for a while we headed out for some fine dining, McDonalds, and another beer before I had to make my way to the airport and say goodbye.
They say everyone needs to fail to succeed and though this may appear like a step backwards in my marathon progression, I refuse to see it that way. This was a learning experience I badly needed and I learned the hard way. I felt I just needed to turn up today and it would be a repeat performance of Barcelona and I did not anticipate anything going wrong but anything can happen on the day, the marathon is a beast. I could go on and take apart all the possible variables but I’m not going to wreck my head doing that just yet, time to take a break from the intensity of training and reassess my goals for next time. Over the next few weeks I’ll discuss it with Jim and try pinpoint what we can do better next time. The biggest lesson for me was respecting the distance and having the sense to reassess your goals when it’s not going your way, that and hydration. I take away newfound pride from this race, where it would have been so easy to walk away at around mile 21-22 where I felt like giving up, I didn’t and I struggled through a demoralising pace and I finished. I’ll take that with me through the rest of my running days and I think I’ve gained more than I’ve lost. As someone already told me, the training is banked and Dublin beckons in October, I’ve hit a couple of good PB’s during training but one thing for sure is I’ll be taking nothing for granted going into the next marathon and every PB is well and truly earned. I’m surprisingly upbeat and positive today, I don’t feel I was cheated out of anything, I’m responsibly for my own races and my decisions during them and I know I have the ability to go far if I continue to put in the hard work. It’s been a great journey one of many highs and lows, lessons learned and just another chapter of many to come I hope. Stay tuned for more.
Result: 2:59:09 @ 6:48 min/mile avg / 450th of 10658 runners