Tech failed me at the Hamburg marathon - but I still won

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

My trip to Hamburg was supposed to be an ‘easy’ marathon, celebrating a wonderful time at London Marathon last week. But the heat-fest of last week destroyed my race at mile 16 and I ended up walking for most of the second half. 

So suddenly I had a week to prepare, recover and get ready to go again - Hamburg had gone from reward to opportunity for redemption, but could I really be ready just a week later? Logic said no. The body needs a long time to recover from a marathon to get running at all, let alone another long race.

There was one argument for attempting it though: the fact I’d only run 16 miles meant I didn’t feel too bad the next day. A couple of mid-week runs showed me I was in OK shape, but I wasn’t going to assume all was fine.

So I decided my race strategy was simple: not make the same mistakes as last week, if I could help it. My rough target was 3:30, but if it fell hard from that I wouldn’t care too much. Just try and run it all evenly at whatever pace I could.

There was nothing I could do about the weather, but I could work harder on staying focused, relaxed and constant - if I could keep my heart rate down this time, I’d have a chance. If it flew up again, even with effort to run smartly, then I’d know that it was beyond my control.

I tried to keep calm in the build up, but I could feel the frustration turning into desire to redeem myself, burning hotter and hotter. I did nothing different last week, but somehow it all fell apart.

According to my weather app last week, Hamburg was supposed to be cool and drizzly - my ideal conditions. But then the predicted temperature rose… and rose… and rose. Suddenly it was around 18 degrees and sunny - this was approaching London territory.

I focused on what I could do to smooth any mistakes I might have made: put on the right clothing, tool up with the right tech and hope for the best. My ‘armor’ (AKA my Spiderman top) was back.  

There’s no way I could have known it, but this was a decision that almost ruined my race.

The right gels (two normal, two electrolyte, two caffeine) were purchased and locked. The water belt was gone in favor of a light gel belt and a FlipBelt to hold my phone (as I was still going to try out the Arion smart soles, and they need a phone connection).

And, of course, a running watch - and I decided to stick with the Garmin Forerunner 935, so I could bench myself against the week before and (hopefully) see myself soaring ahead of my London Marathon pace

Let's keep that jolly ol' heart rate down this time, eh?

Let's keep that jolly ol' heart rate down this time, eh?

There’s no way I could have known it, but this was a decision that almost ruined my race.

Come race morning, I was ready. I clipped everything into place, ate the usual mix of ‘everything that has a carb in within reach’ and headed to the start. I’d forgotten that I’d put quite an optimistic predicted time when signing up for the marathon and so was very close to the elite pen.

I started my usual technology boot up. I fired up GPS ahead of time so the watch could learn where it was. I clipped the Arion sensors into place and got the app ready - I started it with a couple of minutes to go so I wouldn’t have to worry about messing about with my phone at the start.

I made sure that the Forerunner 935 definitely had last week’s run loaded (I learned that the hard way at London) and was ready for the off. It was a wonderful atmosphere, and the hosts did a great job of getting everyone fired and ready. Before I knew it, the horn blared and we were going. I quickly moved to the left and just got into a slow rhythm, wanting more than anything to avoid the ‘quick mile mistake’ of the week before.

Despite the sun being out, things felt cool. I was able to keep my heart rate under control, and things felt a world away from London. I was smiling while running - everything was feeling cool and wonderful.

Before I knew it, the miles were ticking by. Two, three, four… and each time my heart rate started to rise, I was able to take a deep breath, focus on every muscle facing in the right direction and watch as my pulse dropped back down again.

Where having all the data last week was overwhelming, this week it was perfect. Every action I took showed a result and I felt calmer than ever.

I switched from heart rate to seeing how I was doing compared to last week. The great thing about racing a previous effort with a Garmin watch is that it’ll compare your pace step by step, so you get a real time idea of how far behind or ahead you are.

I knew I’d done a quick first mile in London, but then slowed. My miles in Hamburg were beautifully even: 7:43, 7:44, 7:40, 7:42. I watched as the lead ‘London Gareth’ had began to trickle away… and this time, I was far below my maximum heart rate.

I decided to switch back to my heart rate to see how I was getting on. I pressed the button to return to the previous screen… nothing happened. I pressed it again, but still nothing.

Frantically I began tapping everything I could, but nothing would bring the Garmin back to life. It was frozen.

I ran on for another mile, hoping that it would suddenly spring back to life, but the same screen stayed unmoving. I had to make a decision: should I restart it and lose my early race data, but record the rest? 

I had to. Nothing was happening by just waiting for it to suddenly become responsive, so I hit the key combination to force a restart, trotting along like I was practicing for running a marathon in a straight jacket.

But it didn’t work. The rebooting icon popped up, but stayed on screen for a few minutes. By this point I was already at 6 miles, and I’d missed a lot of data. What was I going to do?

I had to come to terms with the unavoidable fact: that I was going to run the majority of this race without technology to help me beyond a playlist from Spotify. So I opened Strava on my phone, set it to record (I still wanted to see my splits after the race) and shoved it away, not to be looked at again.

A new focus

So that was the new regime: no idea how fast I was going, no clue on my heart rate. The fact the first four miles had felt so strong gave me confidence though - if I could just mimic that feeling, I’d have a shot. I knew what good race pace and effort felt like today, and I needed to focus hard on maintaining that.

It turns out that concentrating in a marathon really stretches it out. It took an age to get to eight miles, the 10. The halfway point felt like it stretched further and further away, and suddenly I had a real respect for London Gareth reaching 16 miles in that heat.

At the 10 mile mark (well, 16KM, as I was racing in Europe and every mile marker was replaced by a kilometre one instead) I had my first worry: a flare of cramp shot across my calf, and my fear that I wasn’t rested enough took hold a little harder.

I just focused harder. I let the music fall into my head and thought of nothing else. I let people speed past me. I cared not for anything but just running forwards without expending much energy.

I eventually hit the halfway point, and I really struggled to work out how I was feeling. The mental drain of concentration was making the distance really weigh on me, but not in a destructive way: I still felt like I had some speed locked away, but I didn’t want to use it just yet.

I formulated a plan. At this rate I’d easily make 16 miles, and where last week I’d put an apologetic video on Facebook when I’d cracked and walked, I was going to post the opposite this time.

That gave me more focus again: keep that speed locked away until that point, where I could start letting it out over the final 10 miles. It sounds like a weird thing to get excited about, but anything to not think about running was welcome.

16 miles came, I posted the video and my race could begin. I wasn’t feeling fresh, but I was a long way from the edge and I even kept up my pace when posting the video to Facebook. 

(Side note: the Facebook mobile site isn’t video-upload friendly, even if you’re not running. Getting that live online was probably the hardest thing I’d done in the race up until that point).

Social media bragging done, it was time to get the hammer down. Or was it? Suddenly I wasn’t so sure… 10 miles is still a long way to go, and I could still ruin it all.

I kept remembering how I felt at 16, 17 and 18 miles the week before: utterly shot and struggling to run at all. So I decided to let go, but only a little. 

Let the music flow through the Aftershokz Trekz Air headphones into my skull (if you’re not familiar, these are bone conduction headphones, so you can hear the crowd and your music at the right points) and dictate the pace.

The course itself was pretty decent in Hamburg - nothing superbly picturesque, but even the parts around the residential areas had beautiful houses, and people seemed to be taking it easier there.

(One family had a table, chairs and elegantly set up teapot and cups… clearly they were feeling the adrenaline of the event).

My effort was pushing upwards and soon three miles until home crept into view. This was so exciting: I was having the strongest finish to a race yet, and while I didn’t know my exact pace or heart rate, the odd time screens I saw seemed to suggest I was on for a time well below 3:30.

The strength began to sap soon though, and I was struggling. This was totally expected, but was still tough to deal with still. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was not run, to pull back and wander home.

But a few mental calculations later I realised one thing: I could beat my London target of 3:23.47 (my worst ever marathon time before the five hour debacle of the week before). I now had a number emblazoned in my mind, a reason to hold on - and I needed to dig deep and keep the pace up.

I selected some targets running at a similar pace to me, and named them accordingly: the-girl-who-passed-me-at-mile-22 (AKA TGWPMAM22) and WolfMan, the guy with some wolves on the back of his top.

(OK, I wasn’t at my most creative. Give me a break, I was tired).

The running crew ahead of the start

The running crew ahead of the start

I kept them locked in sight and did all I could to reel them in. I overtook a couple of guys wearing white t-shirts with stripes, and that clearly spurred them on… they re-overtook me and suddenly I added The Double Stripers to my list of running enemies.

We were all holding a similar pace, and overtaking reams of people. I was really starting to struggle though, and WolfMan and the Double Stripers started to disappear. Only TGWPMAM22 was left, and I tried to watch as she weaved in and out of the other runners… but soon she began to move away from me.

The final mile rolled into view, but I was falling hard. Every step was painful and I really couldn’t remember why I was running any more. All my brain knew was that to slow down would wreck all I’d worked for, so I just desperately tried to distract myself, feeling sorry for the runner who had pulled to the side with cramp.

WAIT! IT WAS WOLFMAN! HE’D CRACKED! 

I quickly checked my glee - this race I’d created in my mind discarded through sympathy for a fellow runner, hoping he’d finish. 

I shouldn’t have worried though - literally twenty seconds later he came bounding past, possibly howling at me (it was hard to tell, I was quite tired and the music was loud) and pulling off into the distance.

This is never a good idea in a marathon. Any cramp or pain in your legs instantly gets ten times worse, and you can pull something badly.

I could hear the finish at this point, and realized I was going to make it. My heart utterly sank when I turned a corner and saw a large hill ahead, but I just got my head down, put all my energy into pumping the arms and got to the top as fast as I could (which, by this point, was not fast at all).

I was three rolling corners from the end - WolfMan was gone, TGWPMAM22 was out of sight, and… wait, who was that ahead? Was that the Double Stripers? It was! It was!

What a difference a week makes...

What a difference a week makes...

They were pretty far ahead, but it was all the motivation I needed. With a slightly-too-loud roar, I clawed all the energy I had left and moved through the gears. I closed. I closed. But not enough… I was going to need a final stretch sprint.

This is never a good idea in a marathon. Any cramp or pain in your legs instantly gets ten times worse, and you can pull something badly.

But screw that, I had arbitrary nemeses to vanquish. 

I crossed the line a couple of metres ahead, and nearly sank to the floor. I could barely breathe and I had no idea of my time, because I’d forgotten to look at the clock in the excitement.

I crawled into a corner and looked at my Garmin, hoping it had shaken itself awake (it hadn’t). I stopped my run on the Arion app, taking a look at the stats.

Wait, 0 miles? Two steps? What? Where was my race? For some reason, it hadn’t recorded a thing - so that was utterly pointless. I was pretty sure I’d started it right, so I’m still at a loss to know what happened there.

Pretty happy with the even pacing.

Pretty happy with the even pacing.

Suddenly, my phone buzzed. My chip time was in: 3:22 almost exactly! I couldn’t believe it. I’d held on at the end, and a quick look at the app confirmed it: no pace drop off for the first time in a marathon.

I was buzzing. I’d taken on the marathon again and - while it wasn’t my quickest time - it was by far my smartest race. I’d been in control nearly every step (even logging a negative split between the first and second half), and the lessons I’d learned in my failure from last week had given me the knowledge to nail it this week.

I’m going to need to do some digging into what happened to my watch and smart soles - I’ve never experienced this before from any Garmin watch, and the Arion app should have worked fine. 

The main thing was that this had failed me, and yet it hadn’t wrecked my race. The early data was enough to give me confidence, and that’s the key thing I took away: running tech isn’t your overlord, it’s your guide. The heat had even got up to 20 degrees and given me a touch of sunburn, but by mentally deciding the weather was OK at the start, I didn’t worry about it again thanks to monitoring my early heart rate.

All tech does is give you facts, and it’s up to you to absorb them and use them well. I know I’ll screw up my next marathon by trying to do something mad, but for now I’m as chirpy as can be… and I don’t need technology to tell me that.

Main image credit: Haspa Marathon Hamburg