In the 1st Nanjing International Marathon I was honored to start at the front of the pack competing as an elite runner. This was thanks to a special invite from my good friend Fred at Event Animals who ask me to join three other international runners to represent the AT3 triathlon team. Although I’m not normally a very fast marathon runner by most standards, I did manage a half decent time and found myself being interviewed by the local television, the newspaper and marathon organizers after the race. I also had the unique opportunity of experiencing the race build-up from the perspective of the proper fast elite athletes. A real privilege and a very nice experience.
Before I begin the race report I should point out that I’m no where near the level of a proper elite athlete. I’m very competitive but just not that fast. I’m very happy to say that I can usually place maybe in the top 5 or 10% of a bigger race and finish top 10 in a smaller race. But when the real professionals are running I don’t stand a chance.
The closest I’ve came to this sort of VIP treatment was a 10k race in Chinantla where I was given a free dinner along with the invited runners. I actually managed to pass one of the Kenyan runners in this race and finished close to 38 minutes, which is a surprisingly good time for the heat and altitude, but I was no where near the top places. This race had decent prize money for the top 10 or so places and the field was packed with top runners from Puebla and Mexico city as well as the usual fast African runners.
I’ve also felt a bit like a celebrity at some of the smaller races in Oaxaca where I’ve been the only foreign runner and been treated quite well most places I’ve ran. But this would be my first time seeing a proper big race from the perspective of an elite athlete. Although I couldn’t obviously run the race with the fast guys, I’d pretty much have the same experience before the race up until the gun fired for us to start. This was definitely something different and special.
I arrived at the hotel quite early for this race on Friday night. This gave me a good full day to relax and prepare. I helped myself to the buffet breakfast and attended the elite athlete briefing in the morning. I found out it’d be a flat course with pacers of 3 minutes 04 and 3 minutes 30 for the ladies. There was prize money for places and some of these were conditional, depending on the athlete finishing under a particular time. Surprisingly the winners would have to wait around six months before collecting their checks while they waited for the results of drug tests. Our numbers had our names on them. Mine had been printed late so I had to wait for it to be dropped of to my room. We also had a carton of water dropped off to our room. We were treated very well and made to feel like an important part of the race. A really nice experience.
After the briefing I met some of the other European guys for some sightseeing. First off we wend to the touristy Buddhist temple district. This reminded me or parts of Suzhou with the picturesque canals and shops selling ‘local delicacies’. In Nanjing the local delicacy seemed to be some sort of dried duck or chicken cooked in mud. We opted for a more conservative option and ate noodles for lunch.
After lunch I stayed out in Nanjing for some site-seeing visiting the historic gardens, the shopping district and finally going to see a movie, the Martian in 3D. I felt the Martian was a nice film but I’m not sure about the Science, growing potatoes in your own poo!? 8/10. When I got back to the hotel I had my race number delivered to the room. Number 38. My traveling partner had a good laugh at this telling me that the number 38 (san ba) means bitch in Chinese. I looked this up later and apparently its true, but I couldn’t find any reason why. I guess I’d have to run with it whatever.
The next day was an early start. The hotel was about 200 meters from the start-line but our coach could take us there at 7am. This meant getting up around 6 for our buffet breakfast. I wasn’t really that hungry. I’d had a good feed of pasta the night before in a weird small restaurant in a Nanjing subway station and this had filled me up nicely. I had a look at what the African guys were eating. Just bananas and bread. I guess these guys had filled up the night before too.
After breakfast we climbed on the bus and were ferried the 200 meters from the hotel to the Nanjing Olympic stadium. After warming up we were moved into the VIP tent then the starting line. There were masses of people behind us and nothing ahead but open road.
I began to feel a bit worried about the ankle injury I’d picked up the week before. I didn’t think I could set off too fast at the start and I’d look a bit silly if I dropped out of the race too early on. Especially with my san ba numbering. I also felt like I needed a pee. There were still twenty minutes until the start of the race.
A pretty Chinese girl in a short white skirt walked back and forth in front of the start line to announce the passing of each five minutes before the gun. Nice. The race commentator was getting more enthusiastic as the start drew nearer. A runner behind me knelt down to pray close to the ground. He had a flag and writing on his shirt with some sort of grass skirt on it seemed. There was a crazy atmosphere. This was ground zero, where it would all start. The atmosphere was palpable.
As the clock counted down the seconds to the start the runners around me bent their knees and shaped their arms as if they would be doing the hundred meter sprint. I wouldn’t be going for a fast start, I was worried that my ankle couldn’t take it. The earlier I dropped out the worse it would look, and I wasn’t even sure how I could get back to the hotel. Walking? No, i refused to entertain the thought. The ankle would have to make it. If I lent on my big toe it hurt badly but if I spread the weight across the front of my foot it was fine. So, I guessed that if I ran in a straight line and avoided any twisting or uneven surfaces it’d be fine, but forty-two kilometers would be some test.
When we started my ankle felt awful. Other runners streamed past me but I was determined to just hold steady and take my time to loosen up. I was hyper sensitive to all the feeling in the ankle and worried I might not make it. Luckily it didn’t get any worse and I was able to keep running. Each kilometer gave me a bit more confidence and I was eventually able to catch my stride. I could do it.
After about two kilometers my ankle was feeling good. But I still needed a pee. I’d have to stop but I wanted to hold it until the last possible moment so I wouldn’t need to go again before the end of the race. Just after about three kilometers I jumped into a vacant portaloo and relieved myself. Vital seconds lost, but I was able to pick up the pace and run with a bit more confidence on the way out.
Approaching kilometer eight I caught up with Santi. He’d sprinted off at the start and led the race for a hundred meters or so. It would look fantastic on the video he was recording with the go-pro camera fixed on the front of his hat. His strategy was to try and run a 4:30 pace for as long as he could before slowing down naturally for the second half of the marathon. This is pretty much what I’d be trying for myself. Negative splits are all well and good, but it can be hard to judge just how fast you can go in the second half of the race and if you run the first half too slow you might not be able to make it up at the end. Sometimes it’s better to reach for the stars, and if you fall short then at least land on the moon. Right?
We had one other white LaoWai (foreigner) in front of us. The guy with the Paris shirt from the start of the race. From 10 to 15 kilometers I picked up my pace a little but there were quite a few slow climbs to deal with so I slowed back down to my 4:30 pace soon enough. At 20 a steep bridge knocked the wind out of me and I held on for another 5k or so before my pace fell down to around 4:45. Initially, this meant that I lost a few places and felt myself slipping back. But I could hold this pace and was creeping back up as the rest of the field slowed down. By 30 I’d recovered and overtaken the guy in the Paris shirt. By 34 we’d turned and were heading back to the start and the Olympic stadium. Almost done.
At the turn my legs were killing me and I really wanted to walk for a bit. I allowed myself to slow right down to take water at the aid station but no more. The finish was surely close and this, I told myself, was were the real race started. If I could only take a little hurt now then all my efforts up to this point would be worth it.
I was staring down a long straight road focused on the buildings ahead trying my best to hold my pace. I was tuned-out and running in a world of my own. Another LaoWai floated effortlessly past me. Not the Paris shirt guy but a big guy with a shaven head. He must’ve taken the negative splits strategy. Whatever, I didn’t have a chance of catching him so I just concentrated on the road ahead. 2nd placed LaoWai is still pretty good going.
We turned off the long Yanshan Road for a short diversion. I had a final spurt of energy and was taking places and creeping up on the grass skirt guy from the start. I spoke to this guy after the race and found out he’d ran marathons in under 2 hours 50 and was in training to run part of the silk road. It’s always a pleasure to run with these guys who show so much dedication and enthusiasm for the sport.
Forty kilometers gone. By the time we turned back onto the Yanshan road grass skirt guy was away. He obviously had a lot more in the tank than me and was geed on by the screaming crowds. I could see the arches somewhere down the road but couldn’t allow myself to believe the end was near. I had to ask someone at the side of the road. It was. The end was in sight but still a good kilometer away.
I slowly ramped up my pace and took another couple of places before the finish. 3:16:35, not bad. And 2nd placed European. I was interviewed by the Nanjing television, the marathon organizers and the local newspaper. But I could hardly move.
When I stopped I found that my legs were swollen red and I felt like I’d been shot in the shoulder. This is what happens when you run with an injury. You cant help but run a bit off balance and find yourself injured somewhere else as you overcompensate for the injured part of your body. So, it was a long sore walk back to the hotel. I was happy that I’d given it my all and finished with a half-decent time. And surprisingly my ankle was good as gold, it was just the rest of me that hurt. The first edition Nanjing marathon successfully completed. Fantastic.
Next stop the UK for Christmas then the 20th anniversary Hong Kong marathon in January. Roll on 2016..