Marathon #25 in San Sebastian

Five years ago, had you told me that I would be running my 25th marathon by the end of 2018 I would have laughed in your face. Even three years ago, when I was in the post-race glow from my first marathon, going through the experience another 24 times would have sounded bizarre. And yet, that’s where I am today – finisher of 25 marathons, and so close to the end of this insane challenge I concocted.

For my 10th and final marathon of 2018 I headed down to San Sebastian for a whirlwind weekend. My alarm went off at 4:30am to get the first flight to Biarritz, where I then had 1.5hours to explore before taking the bus an hour south to San Sebastian. Unfortunately you can’t fly direct, but I loved my few hours sightseeing in Biarritz and it was worth the early wake-up call. Did mean that I was incredibly tired by the end of the day, having also explored San Sebastian in the afternoon, picked up my race bib, been yelled at in Spanish by a guy in a churros shop because I sat at the wrong table, and then struggled to find any restaurants open for dinner before 8pm. One way or another it all worked out though, and with pasta in my belly I fell deep asleep, ready to tackle the marathon the next morning.

I was staying on the west side of the city, and had been told there would be a free bus in the morning to take runners to the start area. In broken English, the lady at the expo told me it would arrive at the race for 8:25am, which seemed quite late given that we were due to start running at 9am! However, with only 5000 people running the marathon, half and 10km (which left at 8:45am), I hoped the time would be sufficient. Managed to squeeze myself onto the second bus (squished up against a whole lot of other nervous runners and their unknowing spouses) and fast-walk to the bag drop area, while slightly concerned at the volume of runners coming the other direction. “It’s ok”, I calmed myself, “they’re probably doing the 10km”. Of course, everything was fine and for a small event ~30mins is plenty. Although that could have been because I didn’t pee – I’d been warned that last year there were not many portaloos and I didn’t have time to seek them out anyway. Best to be pre-organised for this event 😉

On my walk to the start pens I spotted a guy in a London Serpentine vest and had a chat. He turned out to be a remarkable fella – he would be running Valencia the following week, and planned on racing both with a goal of 2:50. On further questioning, San Sebastian was going to be his 115th-ish marathon… how can you run that many and still be so fast! It gave me hope for my own speedy ambitions. I met some other people too in the start pens, so that by the time we were ready to go I was in a very happy, chatty mood.

There were no expectations going into this race. Or rather, I went in with a rough aim to see if I could run sub-3:45 on no specific training since Chicago at the start of October. It was a ‘goal’ per se, but also an experiment. If it didn’t work out – fine. If it did – brilliant! In the past when I’ve run off-the-cuff marathons like this (eg. Florence 2016, Amsterdam or Nice-Cannes 2017) I’ve tended to come in at around 3:50-4:00. Actually, I’ve still only run a handful of marathons sub-3:45, so being able to knock one out at that pace would show me that I’ve really improved in my marathoning this year. And that’s all I wanted from this race – to try.

I was in the 3:45 pen and when the gun went off, everyone surged forwards – then stopped abruptly when there was no more space to run. This happened again. People! Why run extra metres when you don’t need to?! It did mean that when I finally did cross the finish line, the 3:45 pacer had escaped up the road. OK, that’s fine. Plan one: catch the 3:45 pacer in 10-15km, stick with him until 35km, then pick it up a bit to the end.

The San Sebastian course is two laps through the city, remarkably missing most of the hills by following a series of out-and-backs. People had been telling me it was ‘totally flat’ except for a little loop you do in the first 3km (and again at 21-24km); but ‘totally flat’ doesn’t ever mean ‘totally flat’. There are a few lumps and bumps, however they’re infrequent and largely insignificant, so sure, it’s ‘flat-ish’.

The half and full marathons start at the same time which means there are a lot more people on the first lap than the second, but I didn’t find this to be too much of a problem. There was some confusion about pacers though – as I got closer to the 3:45 guy I heard someone behind me say ‘the pacers are for the half’ which of course made me panic that I’d been chasing 1:45/3:30 and had gone out too fast, when in reality there were no half-marathon pacers.

I’d kept my eye on the pacer for the first few kilometres, trying to slowly slowly reel him in, but by 6km I found myself just behind his little pack, and was in the thick of it a kilometre later. I haven’t tried running with a pace-group since Copenhagen and figured that this could be a good opportunity to give it a try. After all, this race was all about experimentation. However, I quickly found myself running next to the uber-cool pacer complete with buff, sunglasses and loping stride that suggested he was more comfortable on trails than tarmac – and then ‘pop’, I was out the other side. Clearly they were going too slowly for me, but kudos to the pacer – the few kilometres I did stick with him came out as bang on 5:19/km (3:45) pace ✌

Shortly after I left him I spotted a lady in a Tunbridge Wells vest, and started to have a little chat with her. It’s a good trick I’ve learned – pick someone in a UK club vest, because inevitably they’ll speak English! This lady’s name was Amanda, who was running the half-marathon. We ended up sticking together for some 5km together along an out-and-back section of the course. We spoke about her past marathons, her speedy family, about how the course definitely wasn’t flat. We ran together as it started raining and the temperature felt like it dropped a few degrees. We ran, both feeling like we were pushing the other’s pace a little, but still comfortable enough to converse. That section with Amanda was the highlight of my whole race, and I was very happy to later find her on Strava!

My pace started to pick up after we split ways at 15km, partly because I got infected by the happy energy of the half-marathoners who were nearing the end of their race. I also spotted the race leaders coming past in the opposite direction at ~31km when I was at ~18km. I love seeing how fast they move with that effortless gliding style. There was a lot of supporters for those final few kilometres before the finish-line split, which was really nice too. Interestingly, we ran through the start funnel, where the sides of the path were still littered with bin bags and throwaway clothing leftover from the start of the race. It honestly looked like carnage.

The second lap was much quieter now that the half-marathoners had finished, but knowing what was coming up ahead made everything pass quite quickly. Having covered the first half in 1:50, I was now running strong, and clocked up my quickest kilometres of the race. I was constantly overtaking people, and used them as ‘target practice’ – lock on to one, overtake, onto the next. It made me feel like I was flying along, and very quickly I reached 28km. Normally the second third of a marathon feels like it takes much longer than the first third, but thanks to my increase in speed and the two-lap course, it zoomed past.

I’d felt a few stitches in the earlier kilometres of the race, but at 31km I got a really bad one which hurt enough to slow me dramatically. I stopped to walk for a bit to try and ease it out, then ran to the next aid station where I again walked it off and drank some water. Things got better after that, and overall I probably only lost 30sec to walking, but it helped so dramatically. Interestingly that was my only walk-break of the entire race – normally I need a few in the second half when it starts feeling long, but not this time.

A note on nutrition and the aid stations: I fuelled considerably less on this marathon than usual. I had been so busy chatting to Amanda that I forgot to take my first gel at 12km, and instead waited until 15-16km for it. I took a second at 28km, and then a final one at 36-37km – although I was trying out the new GU ‘Birthday Cake’ flavour and it was so sickly sweet that I could only manage half of it. Other than that, I drank water maybe every 5km or less frequently (plus when taking a gel), and occasionally had electrolyte drink instead. Every aid station had both available, and there was a GU stop at 30km. It was surprisingly enough nutrition, and I even avoided the sloshy stomach syndrome. Good learnings.

Once the stitch had cleared at 32km, I just needed to get myself through to the end, and took my foot off the pedal a little because it was threatening to get tough. We were covering the same kilometres where I’d been chatting with Amanda, so I used that memory plus a bunch of kilometre-counting to whittle away the distance. A strategy I often use is “OK, 8km to go. Where were you 8km ago? 26km. That doesn’t feel like very long ago! OK, so you can get through these next 8km” (repeat for each km). The best thing was that unlike Oslo and Chicago, my legs were not fatiguing. Thanks to Body Pump they have grown strong enough to carry me the entire 42.2km.

At the 35km turnaround I sent a little reward message to Sye, and then kept my eye out for the 3:45 pacer coming back the other way. I estimated I was a kilometre or so (~5mins) ahead, so was still on track to break 3:40. In the back of my mind I even thought that potentially I could be close to 3:36, but as I clicked off the last miles I shifted my thinking. Because I hadn’t looked at my watch once the whole time (and resisted doing so until I’d crossed the finish line) I was best to assume that I’d come in at 3:44ish, and then let myself be surprised by the result. I knew I was going to beat my 3:45 goal, so that’s what mattered most.

The benefit of two laps is knowing what’s ahead, so I could look forward to each turn that brought me closer to the finish. Through the plastic-bag-lined start funnel again and now it was finally my go to turn left towards the stadium and half a lap around the track. With 100m to go I set off in a sprint (making sure that there wasn’t anyone around me, for prime photographs 😄).

Only when I stepped across the finish line did I stop my watch and see the time I’d run. 3:37:40!!! I all but burst out crying and had to call Sye straight away because I was so overwhelmed with my performance. I had not expected that at all – my 4th fastest marathon ever, three of which had now been run in the second half of this year. Madness! Most of all, it made me feel validated as a faster marathoner, that I can run a ‘base’ marathon in a time I could only dream of 1.5 years ago.

I collected my medal, big bag of goodies (powerade, water, fruit, biscuits) and collapsed on the floor for a while. 25th marathon done, 10th marathon and final race for 2018. Now there’s only one race left in the 26.2 challenge and I can’t want to train hard and give it my all. Boston, baby!

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