Nice-Cannes Marathon: A lesson in perseverance

That was not what I wanted from that marathon. After Amsterdam, I knew that I wanted to run my last marathon for 2017 in sub-3:45. That was an achievable time that would make me feel satisfied. But it didn’t happen – everything seemed to just go wrong, all at once. Given all that happened, my finishing time isn’t actually too bad, but it doesn’t reflect what I’m capable of. My mind and body shut down and it was all I could do to finish the race.

I didn’t sleep well the night before the race. I kept having nightmares of things going wrong – probably an omen I should have paid attention to. I woke up grumpy despite 8 hours of sleep. With the race starting at 8am my alarm went off at 5:40am, which certainly didn’t help with the morning cheer. It was still dark as I walked to the start area, and then it started drizzling…

First thing first: queueing for the toilet. There were only 8 in the baggage area and two long queues had already formed. I got in one and a short while later the old man behind me asked if I wanted the second bin bag he was wearing to protect me from the rain. That was so kind of him! It was a bit broken, but I put it on and we started to have a chat in a strange French-English combination. It then started pissing down and Paul (the man) pulled me under his poncho to keep my head dry. Here I was, almost snuggled up to a 60-year-old random French guy I had just met – it was all quite hilarious.

After 25min of queueing I got to a toilet (despite a runner trying to jump the queue and get in frnt of me!). That meant though that there wasn’t much time to drop my bag and get to the start line. Thankfully Nice is quite small and everything was close together!

When I signed up for this race a year ago I had put down an estimated 4:00 finish time (another omen). With no-one checking the pens though I got myself into the 3:45 area with the intention of starting behind the pacer and finishing in front of them. It was a staggered start on two sides of the road & I ended up on the wrong side and in front of the pacer, so had to duck out and walk backwards. Because of the way the crowd split, the 4:00 pacer actually crossed the start line before the 3:45 pacer, so that was a bit strange.

The concept behind the Nice-Cannes marathon is pretty cool, in that you run along the coast of the French Riviera between two cities. I liked the idea of running to a different city, but what I hadn’t realised was what this course was like.

Straight. Straight straight straight. We set off with me cautiously some 100m behind the pacer, trying not to overtake too quickly. By 4km I was in front (oops) and it had started to hit me: we hadn’t turned. After 5km we passed the airport (smelly fumes) but it still continued straight on. You couldn’t see all the people stretching ahead but kilometre after kilometre we continued in one line. And then I remembered: I love corners!

By 12km I thought I was going mad. I’d passed the checkpoints so far in good time (5km in 26:11, 10km in 51:54) but was it worth it? If it continued like this, could I mentally hang on? Did I care what the result was?

AND THEN WE TURNED. Oh glorious corner, I love thee! Within a few hundred metres I was feeling less insane and made the decision that yes, I did care. I had felt disappointed with my Amsterdam race because I gave up too easily, but this time would be different. I would hang on, I would keep pushing. I would make myself proud.

After no corners for the first 12km the next few were a whole lot of switchbacks purely to make up extra distance. But I didn’t care. Corners! We exited that section and continued our way along the coast. I’d come through 14km in 1:12 and was at halfway at 1:49. It all looked pretty promising for a solid result in the 3:30s (as some friends on Instagram had predicted for me).

Shortly after halfway though, disaster struck. It all went horribly wrong in the blink of an eye: one moment I felt fine and the next my brain snapped and it was all too much. My emotions took over and I felt the ugly-crying tears well up. I periodically get this feeling in training, usually during a speed session and it’s incredibly difficult to recover from. It was my wall. I slammed into the wall at 22km of a marathon – that’s never happened before.

I stopped to walk and immediately a spectator offered me some ‘de l’eau’. I knew water wasn’t the problem though, I’d been drinking plenty at the aid stations. During my walk I sent a quick message to Sye to tell him what the situation was. I didn’t get a reply though and so had to keep moving. I managed to get back into a shuffle and took a gel in the hope that would help. I’d lost quite a bit of speed and time though, and shortly afterwards the 3:45 group came powering past me.

Then, at 26km, disaster number two. I started getting a stitch in my stomach, which was soon joined by a second one on the other side. They were quite painful when I ran too fast, so had to moderate my speed. I think that I’d actually drunk too much – I was using the aid stations as walk-breaks and drank a cup of water every 5km. I couldn’t feel it sloshing in my stomach as you sometimes do when you’ve drunk too much, but it was the best reason I could think of for why I was getting the stitches. Of course – this didn’t mean I drank any less going forward, because those aid station breaks were still my lifeline.

I’m not sure who, but someone had told me that the Nice-Cannes marathon is flat. Possibly I assumed that myself, given that we were running along the coast. But whoever it was was wrong. Pariticularly at 28km when we started to climb a kilometre-long hill… it even had a marked out Strava segment especially for the race (I came 524/564 LOL). I walked most of it.

After passing some huge mansions and enjoying some stunning views from the top of the hill, it was time to descend the other side. At first I kept up my shuffle and then thought “damnit Julia, here’s your opportunity to build up some natural speed”. I started to bomb it down, but my stitches had other ideas. By the time I made it to sea-level I was in total agony from my stomach muscles, and was freaking out and hyperventilating on top of that. It was getting ridiculous as I tried to run, and so I had to force myself to walk, breathe deeply and just calm the eff down.

I still hadn’t heard from Sye, so sent another message to say that I really needed his support. Where we now were on the coast was so beautiful that I stopped for some snaps, and by the time I got to the next aid station I had a reply. The quick conversation we texted each other helped me a lot. It’s great to have people who can lift you up when things are going badly. It was also nice to share some pictures of the view with him (and make him jealous!).

That’s the thing – even though I was hurting and feeling broken and it seemed like there was still so far to go – in a way none of it should have been a concern because the view was so stunning. Here I was running along the French Riviera, with the Mediterranean Sea stretching on my left as far as I could see. It had turned into a glorious sunny day, and the view was to die for. I am so lucky to get to travel to and run in places like this. Without running, I would never have this opportunity.

With 10km to go I was starting to feel that maybe I would be able to finish this race after all. Of course, a few kilometres later the 4:00 pacers passed me, and although I tried to go with them my stitches quickly flared up. I had to go back to my slowplod pace and just watch them disappear into the distance. That was incredibly frustrating.

And then came the rolling hills, stretching far ahead. Up, down, up, down, are we nearly there yet? The last few kilometres of a marathon always drag: it feels like an insurmountable distance. But the thing I have learned is that if you just keep moving, eventually you get to the end.

I found a renewed spurt of energy when I saw the 38km sign, and my stitches didn’t even cause me a problem when I increased the speed a little! Seems like the many previous kilometres of plodding had done their trick. We soon passed under a banner signifying that we were in Cannes (!) and a quick phone check showed messages from Sye and my parents (who had somehow found a tracker) both saying ‘nearly there’. Yes – nearly there!

Looking at my watch I knew that I didn’t have quite enough time to make it in under 4 hours (without running 4:30/km – unlikely!) but that it wouldn’t be much over the 4:00 mark. This seemed strange given that the pacers had long passed me, until I remembered that they had been ahead in the start funnel. This marathon was not going to be a total 4:30 disaster (as my brain had told me multiple times that it would be). There was some comfort to be had in that.

For some stupid reason I decided to stop at the 40.5km aid station for some Coke – and then instantly berated myself for it. Never stop when the finish line is basically in sight! Argh! Only a mile to go – don’t need sustenance to run that far.

The streets of Cannes were rather quiet until we reached the last 800m of the race when the crowds materialised. I found some speed to get myself down the finish chute, and overtook a few people along the line. I may have also been trying to find a gap in the runners so that I could get a good finish photo…

Crossed the line with 4:01:54 on my watch (4:01:50 official). Not what I had set out for, and certainly not a reflection on what I could achieve. It didn’t feel like how I wanted to feel after the last marathon for 2017. I wanted to run sub-3:45, and I didn’t even run sub-4. That was my 5th slowest marathon, when at halfway it was on track for being one of my fastest.

But you know what – I didn’t give up. Not really. There were so many things that went wrong the whole day, and yet I still finished. I may have walked a few lot of times, and I may have slowed down considerably, but I still covered the 42.2km. Having written it all out now too I realised that it was an achievement in its own merit. I persevered. That’s a big deal.

Oh and I ran 10 marathons in a year – hardly something to forget!

Post-race treat!

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