So far this year, I’ve been smashing personal bests (PBs) running. I am training hard, and it shows. One kilometre, five, ten, half marathon, all those distances have been crushed. But the Big One remained. The marathon. And so I signed up for Amsterdam marathon, knowing that it was flat and that I’d have a good chance of improving my PB of 3:46 from Barcelona.
42k is a long distance tho. Anything can happen that will throw a spanner in the works. And it seemed everything that could, would.
The railway decided this weekend would be a good time to do maintenance, meaning I wasn’t even sure I’d get to Amsterdam. In the end I managed to puzzle together a route that is best called scenic, as it took in most of the Low Lands, criss-crossing this corner of Europe the way Moses “led” his people through the desert – it shouldn’t be possible to take so long to cover such a short distance, but six hours later I finally stepped off a train in A’dam.
As for lodgings, the Airbnb host I had picked out cancelled with less than a week to go, leaving me homeless. I had a couple of panicky days – even considering online dating to find a place to stay – but in the end a colleague came through for me; he had a friend who lives in A’dam who was likely going to run the marathon as well, and if I were willing to sleep on a mattress I’d probably be more than welcome. Yay!
I wrote the guy, Tobias, and he offered to take me on. It turns out we have another friend in common, namely my sister’s running coach, the reigning 100k world champion runner. This made me pause, and after a little digging it turns out my host-to-be was fresh back from having run his third spartathlon (that’s 268k under the Greek sun), so he “wasn’t expecting to win the Amsterdam marathon this year either”. Yeah, you and me both, brother…!
So when we finally met up for dinner the night before, it was a great dollop of humble pie for me with a side dish of sushi, but he was just as pleasant as can be, and we got on fine, with me trying to (politely) pick his brain on how on earth he manages to do those races. Another mate of Tobias was visiting from Spain, and it turned out Johan and I had a more similar level of ambition; I figured anything between 3:30 and 3:45 is possible, and he wanted to beat his wife, who had done 3:37, so we decided to go together.
The race day starts out well enough: we bike through the deserted streets to the Olympic stadium, where the start and finish will be. A nice surprise is that Tobias works for TCS, the company sponsoring the marathon, so we get into the VIP tent in the middle of the stadium rather than having to stand in line for toilets and clothes storage with the hoi polloi. The weather is beautiful, too. Crisp autumnal air, not a cloud in sight, perfect temperature. 3:30 here I come! Or so I thought.
And so at 0930 we set off, with me leading through the outskirts of the city centre, sticking to between 04:50 and 05:05 per k – easy as anything. Right? Wrong. It worked well enough for the first 26 kilometres, running along the canals and then out along the Amstel river and back for a tour of the affluent countryside, with barges being used as floating DJ booths, and hoverboarders cheering us on from on high above the water. I even knocked a minute off my PB on the half marathon distance. But by then it’s getting warm, and the decision not to bring any water doesn’t seem so great any more.
Best made plans of mice, men and marathoners… Before long, calves and quads are protesting, and threatening to cramp up. By thirty k I can no longer keep my 5min/k speed up. Johan has long since disappeared. Around me, more and more people stop and grimace as muscles seize up. The only thing preventing me from suffering the same fate is the little baggie of salt my ultra marathon-running sister has taught me to bring along on longer runs. Dipping a finger tip in the bag and licking it off is all that’s required, and it works fine, but it’s not a miracle cure – it can’t do anything to prevent armpits and nipples and even more private parts from being rubbed raw against sodden, sweat-drenched clothes.
And so I trudge on. I try to do maths in my head, to see what it will take to get me to the finish in this or that time, but it’s no good. The kilometres take longer and longer, and it’s only bloody mindedness and sullen determination that enable me to continue. The crowds are good, quite supportive and enthusiastic, or at least I think they are; I hardly notice them beyond one point where the smell of ganja is particularly heavy in the air.
It’s funny, though. When the stadium finally comes into view. I straighten up and find untapped resources, enough to overtake quite a few runners and finish strong. That’s how long it lasts though. I hobble into the VIP tent and get a massage – the only thing standing between me and a full body cramp – or so it feels.
Tobias ran the marathon in 2:58 – two weeks after Spartathlon! – Johan fell prey to the heat (in spite of living in southern Spain!) and couldn’t beat his wife, and I, well, I didn’t get anywhere near 3:30, but I still improved upon my old PB with five minutes. It certainly felt good after the DNF at the X-trail! And of course, once reunited, we immediately said we’d do it all again next year. I’ll be Amsterdamned!