***very long report. Get a coffee, pay your bills, turn off your phone, and walk your dog first if you plan to read through it 🙂
I think it was back in 2013 when I wrote down my goal of running a 2:50 marathon. This came after running my first sub-3 at the2012 Chicago race, my fourth consecutive PB race and I was feeling a bit full of myself. Fast forward to almost 5 years later and here I am, still unable to call myself a 2:4+ runner; it’s been both long and humbling.
Coming into Prague, I had my strongest training season to date. Fresh from a new PB of 2:53:34 at the Berlin Marathon, I felt strong and confident going into this race. Prior to that, I had a bit of a breakthrough at the Edinburgh marathon with an unexpected 2:59. This is due to a pretty bad 2016 where I couldn’t break the 3 hour barrier. It seems like I had reached a limit of sorts so I chose to find a coach in hopes of learning some new workouts and ways to improve.
Enter Kara Lubiniecki of Hudson Elite (yes, the Brad Hudson whose books I follow religiously). And change the way I trained, she did. Now, as a coach myself, I tell my runners that there will be workouts where they will want to gouge their eyes out…but they will get through it and they will become the better for it.
Well, Kara’s workouts not only involve the eyes but also the gut, heart, and lungs. She gave seemingly impossible paces to hit and, especially in the first session, I couldn’t hit most of them. By the summertime, I knew what to expect so I was able to meet some of her paces…which sees me doubled over, usually along Lakeshore somewhere dry-heaving on to the patch of grass in front of the Starbucks.
After meeting success in Berlin, I decided to tackle Prague for two reasons: I have always wanted to visit the city because of its reputation as being one of the most beautiful in the world and that it’s a flat course with usually great weather.
This time, I re-used Coach Kara’s plan and concentrated on meeting the once-impossible paces. Except this time, I was carving up the road with them. 3:35 km repeats? No problem. 3 x 10km progressions? Sure. 6:00 mile repeats? Yup (well majority of them anyway).
By the time I went through the program, I felt that a 2:50 was inevitable. My only concern was that I reduced a bit of the overall mileage because I have gotten injured in the past when I get too high up.
We flew into Prague on Thursday afternoon. I did a similar schedule for Berlin so I wasn’t too worried about adjusting to the time difference. Unlike Berlin however, I struggled sleeping through the night on this trip. To be honest, part of this is because I am long-suffering fan of the Raptors and if you follow NBA basketball, you would know that they are, once again, in the brink of elimination courtesy of LeBron and the Cavaliers and trying to sleep while knowing that they are playing is next to impossible.
We spent the next few days touring the city and I really have to say that it is a truly beautiful city, very well-deserving of its reputation. It’s clean, the people are lovely, and the architecture is striking. I compare it to Quebec City on ‘roids while Abby said that if you take all the best parts of Paris and condense it into one city, it becomes Prague. Not only is it pretty, it is also quite reasonable. Food is cheap and beer is even cheaper…soda and water, on the hand…..
I typically follow the same script the week of the race…carb loading starts on Thursday with normal meals but with emphasis on carbs that culminates in a carb feast on Saturday. Walking and running activities are normal until Saturday where I try to keep off my feet when I can. It’s a good thing too because Prague is an eminently walkable city so we ended up walking a lot on Thursday and Friday.
I wake up on Saturday to a new kind of pain. I’ve had it before but that’s usually after someone Charley-Horse’s me in soccer or basketball. The pain feels deep in my left leg closer to inner part of my thigh, a couple of inches above the knee. When pressing on it, the pain radiates up three or four inches to the mid-thigh. It was worrisome because I don’t know where it came from. I can honestly say that almost every marathoner goes into a race with some sort of niggle so I had to console myself with that fact rather than stress out over it.
After my morning run (which felt OK), I hit the buffet hard like always. Here’s the thing, the first plate is always wonderful because after months of controlled eating, it’s nice to let go. The second plate isn’t as good and the third and fourth? eating simply becomes mechanical really.
After a light walk, we retired to the hotel and I pretty much read the entire afternoon (The Redeemer by Mark Dawson…if you are a fan of action/adventure books a la Mitch Rapp or Jack Reacher, I highly suggest this series. John Milton is a badass).
I got up at my usual 4 hours+ before the race and wolfed down a sammy and 500 ml of Maurten while watching the Raptors almost win Game 3 (ARRGGGHHHH). My leg doesn’t feel better but the pain went away after I took some Tylenol. Back to sleep I go and got a decent 2 hours in. The start and finish lines are the same in this race and our hotel is 500 meters away so I could afford moving slowly.
I woke up again around 7:15 and started my preparations. I pop in my ear buds and fired off my epic playlist called, well, “EPIC”. It contains four songs right now: The theme from Wong Fei Hong, Protectors of the Earth and Victory (both by Two Steps from Hell) and The World’s Greatest by R. Kelly. If these four songs don’t get my blood up, nothing will.
At around 8 am, I make my way to the start line and warmed up for about a km or two. The leg felt fine although the warmup felt harder than it should. The temp was around 15 already and not a cloud in site. A slight breeze made it feel really comfortable and the shaded boulevard flanked by high-end stores and people milling about made it a really pleasant experience. In the background, the hosts were telling everybody (in four or five different languages) that we have about 10,000 runners from 85 different countries participating.
I find corral B easily and slip in. I found a real nice shady spot to sit and people-watch. 20 minutes to race, I sucked my gel down. 15 minutes to race, I drank some Hotshot, an anti-cramping formula that my friend Camille swears by. The elixir is made of a mixture of lemon juice, sugar, and cayenne. It left a trail of sour fire down my throat and into my stomach. I’ve tested this before and while the initial sensation isn’t great, I know that my stomach can take it.
As I sit and watch my corral mates warm up, the inevitable misplaced runners roam freely. I see bibs from Corrals C to H! This is such a pet peeve of mine. I really don’t understand what these people are thinking. They crowd up right to the front and inevitably, when the gun goes off, they become instant bottlenecks causing all sorts of traffic and mayhem, especially in a race where cobblestones are abundant.
Not long afterwards, the elites are announced…the most famous is Galen Rupp of the US who had signed up for Prague because he DNFed in Boston, claiming hypothermia. Well, he doesn’t need to worry about that because the sun is out in full force and beating down on us. The temperature has risen to 18 at this point and the announcers were saying that it would go up to 23 at some point.
The gun goes off shortly after that without much ceremony.
Off we go into the cobblestones right away. As expected, there is a surge as the excitement takes over and runners are flying through the corrals. I feel a push, an elbow, and a jab somewhere and it’s something that I noticed in all my races in Europe (four and counting). They don’t give a shit here…if you are in the way, you get pushed aside. I try my best to avoid twisting my ankle, getting pushed, and pushing other people by dashing though gaps. After 800 meters or so, the excitement settles down a bit and we start seeing separation.
The route takes us past our hotel and over the bridge to the north side of the river where we loop around and run on a lot of cobblestones before heading back into old town.
The first 5 km went by and I was a touch behind due to the mass start. I had made up my mind to stick to 4:01/km for as long as I can. I have been running faster than that in training and have had very little difficulty maintaining it so it’s not that big of reach.
Around 8 km, I noticed that I was breathing harder than I should. My legs felt fine and the pace didn’t feel all that difficult. I chalked it up to the heat and while I am very strong in the heat, it’s tough to adjust when your entire training season took place in sub-zero temperature.
At 12 km, I was really laboring and though I was keeping up my pace (and even gained a bit), it felt like I was at 30 already. This is the first time that a DNF crossed my mind in any race (and I ran Boston with a swollen foot that started at 25 km). It was tempting to veer to the left and quit as the hotel was to my immediate right and call it a day (the route runs by the hotel a total of three times). The only explanation I had for this happening is my left leg. Steve Magness wrote in his book “Endure” that when the body starts protecting itself, the brain ratchets up the effort level and forces you to slow down to avoid injury. There’s only so much you can from a mental standpoint to push yourself through this process (Chapter 11: Training the Brain).
I had a choice to make: swallow my pride and make it stop hurting or push through and see how far I can stretch my threshold. In the end, it wasn’t really a choice. All I had to think of was Chicago 2014 where at 34ish km, I quit and took the easy way out. That day, I finished a few seconds over 3 hours. It wasn’t so much the time that bothered me but the fact that I gave up when I had more to give. That race still haunts me up to this day.
Now, at this point, I’ve had enough cobblestones to last me a lifetime. They are really pretty to look but are so hard to run on. The stones in Rome (2015 – 2:58:00) were easily much worse than these but the difference is there are so much more of these things here. Regardless, I made the choice to continue and as soon as I did, the effort felt easier. I felt some sweet relief for about 5 km when at 18, the exhaustion started draping over me again.
It would accompany me until the halfway point as I hit the timing pad at 1:25:3x. Not bad, I said to myself. From here, we go out to the farthest point south of the course. I don’t really study course maps so I had no idea where the turns are…I just follow whoever is in front of me.
The sun beat down relentlessly on my head and shoulders. Every chance I got, I poured water over my head. Sponges were handed out in every station as well. Fuel-wise, I stuck to my schedule. I brought 7 gels and I will consume all 7 by the time 32km rolls around. I also now have a brand new appreciation for the Tutti-Frutti and Choco-Coconut flavours of GU Roctane. Yummy!
The tug-of-war between keeping pace and quitting raged on. I was getting more and more tired and the bouts of relief were decreasing. I tried everything: mentally cussing myself (worked wonders in Berlin), speeding up, slowing down, smiling that fake smile, repeating my mantras, chasing the next runner in front of me, closing my eyes, selling my soul to the devil.
Then it happened, between 28 and 29, I took a walk break. I had to…I was a bit wobbly so I needed to make sure that I get a good drink in with some gel. Then I did it again at 31, 33.5, 36, and 38.5. By that time, all hopes of a PB were gone (sub 2:50 went out the window before half time).
Interestingly enough, despite the struggles, I kept passing other runners. Picking them off provided energy, each one a little spark that kept me going. I wanted to keep feeding.
But at 39, even their life force couldn’t overcome the Blerch (credit to the Oatmeal: The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances) I simply said to myself…it’s OK. Let it go. Just run as fast as you can maintain it. Don’t quit but also don’t kill yourself. Finish it for dad for I am sure he is watching me right now. I looked up into the sky and gave him a nod and a kiss.
And then I smiled; a real one this time. I looked at my watch and was steadily clocking 4:14 to 4:18s and it felt comfortable. And the more I smiled, the more the people cheered. I wasn’t running for time anymore. I wasn’t running to prove something. I was just…running. My legs were stiff and the pain was ever so real. I haven’t felt this since 2017 in Bermuda when I suffered a total cramp at km 41. But I refused to stop. Even the Blerch couldn’t withstand the power of my dad and a smile.
Before I knew it, I made that last turn towards the finish. My hotel once again on my left and this time, there would be no debate whether to turn left or go straight. I tried to speed up but I couldn’t so I held pace. My feet hit the cobblestones one last time as I crossed the finish line. Hands on my shorts, bent over with my eyes closed, I gave the thumbs up to the EMT to sign.
It’s finally over. I came in at 2:56:22; good for 136th, picking off almost 50 runners along the way. I’ve ran 2 races faster than this but none as hard-fought.
Beer in Prague costs half the price of soda or water. Food is cheap compared to Toronto, even in the touristy areas. It’s a wonderful city and now, I can add wonderful memories to it. I didn’t get the time I wanted. 2:50 continues to stare me down and defeat me the same way that cursed LeBron James does to my Raptors.
As for the race:
- Cobblestones are really tough to run on
- The relentless sun is unforgiving
- Don’t believe the hype; it’s hardly a flat course
- Volunteers and spectators are wonderful
- Getting the opportunity to finish a marathon in one of the most magnificent cities in the world is a privilege
- I don’t need a PB to truly enjoy a race; but I also know that I can’t go too long without getting another one
If you have lasted this long, thanks so much for staying and reading, you must be a marathoner J