Marathoning into the new year

When I first heard of the Neujahrsmarathon in Zürich, I thought it was an amazing idea. Kicking off at midnight, it means that the first thing you do in a new year is run a marathon. How cool is that! Plus, because the marathon rankings reset with each year, you end up with a world-leading time ? With Sye’s agreement to spend NYE apart, I signed up for the race. I knew it would be late, dark and cold, but I figured that I’d get some late-night running training in beforehand. Of course, the specific nighttime training never happened, so I was just going to have to wing it and see what happened.

Somehow in amongst the excitement of signing up, I completely forgot that I don’t do well staying up late. I’m the sort of person that once it’s past 10:30pm, I want to be in bed. Preferably asleep. Why I was therefore going to start running a marathon when it was already past my bedtime, I don’t know.

I spent NYE travelling from London to Zürich on the train (via Paris), which meant a lot of hours sitting and travelling or just waiting around. I also had no idea how to fuel before a midnight marathon, and ended up eating a lot of bread, chocolate and lollies throughout the day. It wasn’t my smartest idea. Plus, when I arrived at the sports hall at 9pm, I chose to order another bowl of pasta, some more coffee and later, a beer. That beer and pasta came back to haunt me later, when I kept burping it up, again and again…

The race started in a sports hall in Schlieren, a short train journey outside Zürich. On the way I met some other runners; an Israeli couple and a man from Lille, and it was nice to get to chat to them over the few hours before the race started. The hall was warm and had everything you needed from food to bib pick-up to lounge chairs for waiting. I picked up my race tshirt before the run started and was very disappointed to discover that it was pale pink! Only the marathon women got this colour, and they wouldn’t let me swap it for blue (marathon men) or green (other distances). Quite disappointed with that.

At 10pm there was a kids run: 750m out of the hall and back again. That was fun entertainment, but of course was all done within ~5 minutes. I got changed and then continued sitting around: by 11pm I really just wanted to get the race underway. It was too late to be waiting around, my yawns were increasing steadily.

Finally we were told to line up for the start. Given that the race started with the new year, I was expecting the standard countdown from 10, but it didn’t happen! (Or perhaps I was too far back to hear it). It took me a minute or two to cross the starting line, after which there was such a pile up that I didn’t actually start running until we were out of the hall. Once we got outside though, it was incredible. There were fireworks going off all around us in different parts of Zürich, and that combined with the stream of headlamps stretching ahead as we ran along a river made it a magical experience.

The course for the Neujahrsmarathon is four laps along a trail path next to a river. Simultaneously to the marathon there is a half-marathon and quarter-marathon, which are 2 laps and 1 lap respectively, plus a relay marathon and the kids event. All up, some 1000 people take part, but only 200 of those are for the full marathon. What this means is that over the four laps, there are less and less people out on the course.

Lap One (10.55km)

I had started quite far back in the pack, and found that I had to overtake a lot of people to get to running the speed I wanted. This marathon was not about time or anything other than finishing, so the idea was just to run at whatever speed felt right for the kilometre I was in. It took me a few kilometres to find my place in the pack, at which point we crossed over the river to start running back towards the sports hall. Along the way I’d passed a guy holding a light-up stick/ball-thing and been overtaken by a lady wearing an illuminated jellyfish skirt. It was great fun!

The course up to this point had been a bit rocky underfoot, but quite open and flat. Occasionally we ran under a bridge which added some elevation difference. Once over the other side though it became more trail-y, with proper mud patches and tree-roots to dodge. At around 7km a lady jogged up next to me and asked me about the 26.2 marathons challenge. Turned out that she was from Tübingen, very close to where my mother grew up. It’s a small world! To finish the lap the course ran over a bridge up the other end and back into the sports hall.

Lap Two (21.1km)

Just outside the sports hall was a water station where I stopped to have my first drink, as I’d skipped the one at the other end of the loop. The lady handed me a cup of iso-sports drink and I took a drink and almost immediately spat it back out – it was hot! I kept asking for a cold drink, but even the water they had was heated. It was a little surreal and not what I felt like drinking at all. I can imagine that it may have helped if it was below freezing, but the night was quite mild and I was starting to think that I should take my gloves off.

I started to feel the tiredness setting in from ~12km. I had a plan for the race: (hopefully) cold drink halfway through lap 2, gel at halfway, music from halfway on lap 3, then just one lap to go after that. Seemed straight forward enough but I still had to get myself to each of those checkpoints. From my splits afterwards I can see that I was still running well in the first half of lap 2, but mentally I was questioning everything. Why do I run marathons? What’s the point to doing so many of them? Should I just quit the challenge? Thankfully though I had a small rational part of my brain which would respond “you’re just tired”, so I left trying to answer those questions for another, less sleep-deprived day.

My running slowed down on the second half of this lap. Not on purpose, it just sort of happened. Unlike the first lap, this time there were no party-goers heading home to give us a cheer, and the fireworks had finally died down after blasting for an hour. I found myself chatting to a Kiwi (who I mistakenly called an Aussie) about something or another, that passed the time a little. It must have started raining by now as well because we crossed a short bridge illuminated by fire, or rather, smoking furiously. I didn’t like breathing that in.

Lap Three (31.65km)

Heading out for lap three knowing that the majority of people had finished their races and I still had to run the same distance all over again sucked. I should have chosen the half-marathon option: but then again I know that I would never have travelled this far to run 21.1km. My mantra became “not finishing is not an option”. I had to continue because there was simply no choice to stop. However, there was no reason why I couldn’t do it ‘my way’, like it was a long run rather than a race. For the first time in a marathon, I stopped for a loo-break. At the aid stations, I stopped completely, took my time drinking and eating little pieces of banana. After the halfway aid station I walked for a few hundred metres while putting in headphones and turning on my music. This was how I was going to finish this race.

The rain was a bit cold but not too bad until the late stages of this lap, where I was getting pelted in the face by sharp drops. It was not pleasant. The bigger thing was that the rain (I think) had washed some of the dirt covering away from the first half of the lap, which made it very rocky and uncomfortable under my feet. It definitely didn’t help that my trail shoes don’t have much padding, or that I’d just been pounding my feet for 2+ hours.

This was by far my worst lap. Mentally it was taking everything I had, I was dreaming up how I was going to curl up on the floor at the finish and have a nap. It didn’t help that there were people finishing their marathons as I was coming into the hall still with one lap to go. But at least I only had one lap to go.

Lap Four (42.2km)

I don’t often listen to music during a marathon, but in this race I needed it. By lap four the other runners had spread out so far that most of the time I was running entirely alone with no-one within view up ahead. The music made running tired and alone at 4am more bearable, even if some of the shuffled songs were slow and made me even more raw and emotional. I needed something to break the silence.

This was the last lap, and I was so glad to never have to see this stretch of path ever again. For every kilometre marker that I passed I stuck two middle fingers up in a giant F-you to this race. I was conquering it, kilometre by kilometre and damn it was starting to feel good. My pace even picked up a little and I found myself passing all the people who popped up in front of me. I was still running incredibly slowly (for me), but my mood had lifted and the world was going to be OK. Plus, soon I’d be finished and could sleep!

I had saved myself a little treat for this last lap. At ~8.5km the course passes through a little village where they still had all their Christmas lights strung up and switched on. I’d loved running through this part on each lap, but for the final one I slowed to a walk and savoured each house. One had lights projecting onto the floor so that when you walked through it, they danced across your body. Another had light-up statues of penguins and other sea creatures. It was a magical moment.

The hall had started to empty by the time I came in to finish, but I’d taken my headphones out and was ready to make whoever was there cheer hard for me. I ran through the finish line for the last time and finally, finally I was done. It took me 4:22:37 and every piece of willpower I had, but I did it. I ran a marathon at midnight on NYE and kicked off 2018 in an unforgettable way.

Every marathon teaches you something about yourself. This one taught me that no matter what the circumstances, you can always keep going. It taught me that there are some questions which can’t be answered while running. And it taught me never to run a marathon at night ever again!

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