Reykjavik Marathon: the perfect race

What an incredible weekend! I decided to run the Reykjavik Marathon simply because I’d heard that Iceland is a beautiful place, and I wanted to see it for myself. The race takes place on Saturday morning, so I flew over to Iceland by myself the day before for a long weekend away. I was hoping for an incredible few days in a spectacular new destination, and it did not disappoint at all.

I didn’t have a plan for the marathon. With it being 9-weeks out from Amsterdam Marathon (my target), the idea was that it should act as a long run to get used to running the long distance again. Originally I wanted to try out using Jeff Galloway’s Run/Walk Method, where you alternate running and walking according to a strict schedule. I thought this would work well for me as I always find myself refreshed by walk breaks, but when I tried a 9min run/1min walk session a few days beforehand it just didn’t feel right. So with that idea scrapped, there was no longer a plan for running the marathon. I vaguely told some people beforehand I would like to run 3:45-3:50, as I felt this would put me in a good place for targeting sub-3:40 in two months time.

As it was though, the universe had different plans for me. Everything came together in one neat little package, and I will proudly call this the perfect race. From weather to course to pacing and metal game: everything was perfect and nothing went wrong. It was the sort of thing that you only read about online without expecting it will ever occur. In a way, the beauty of the marathon is in its unpredictability, in that you don’t know what’s going to happen from 28km onwards. But on this day, I somehow innately knew from very early on that it would all go smoothly. Which is exactly how it did.

I was at the start far too early for such a small marathon (~1200 for the full, ~2600 for the half) and spent the first hour huddled in a school gym changing room trying to stay warm. Despite it being ‘summer’, it was a chilly 9 degrees and many of the competitors were walking around wearing beanies and gloves! Thankfully over the course of the morning and in the sunshine it warmed up to more comfortable temperatures and ended up as quite a glorious day. It never got hot enough to cause a problem, and stayed relatively wind-free (at least from memory). Perfect race conditions!

With no real goal-time in mind I lined up with the 5:31-5:45 pace marker in the start pen. The half and full marathons started together, and would then proceed to run 18km before splitting apart. The confusing part about this arrangement was that there were pacers wearing balloons for 1:55 standing near me, and yet I couldn’t see any pacers for the full distance. I thought I had heard the announcer say something about the 2:00 pacers being the same as the 4:00 pacers, so assumed that one of the pacers for 1:55 would split off and do the full distance.

We walked over the line (no space to jog!) and were off. My first few kilometres were very pedestrian, which was the perfect way to settle into a race. Instead of being focussed on a time and trying to start slow (but actually going out too fast as always), my first kilometre was my slowest split of the race. Perfect! (That word is going to get used a lot in this post).

After ~3km I heard someone call my name – it was Christy from Advent Running, whom I had met on a long run a few weeks earlier. We got chatting and she stated her goal to run 3:45, so I decided just to run with her for as long as possible, and drop off if I couldn’t keep up. Once again, this was perfect for me, because I didn’t have to think about paces or speed but could let her do all the work (sorry!) and just try and keep up. She did a beautiful job at pacing a slightly-faster-than-3:45-pace which was instrumental in me getting comfortable at my eventual average pace. For instance, my splits for kilometres 8-12 went 5:11, 5:11, 5:11, 5:10, 5:10. How much more perfect can you get?!

The scenery was stunning and at ~13km I couldn’t help but pull out my camera to take some photos. I tried to turn it around and take a selfie with Christy but she was having none of it and indicated that she just needed to focus on running. At that point I realised that I should probably let her get on with running her own race, so left her and got on with mine.

We had overtaken the 1:55 pacers at ~7km, and ever since I had seen the balloons of the 1:50 team bobbing not too far ahead. They were close enough that if I kept up the pace I was currently running, I would probably catch up with them by 25km or so. I think that’s when I started to realise that this race could go entirely in my favour – and land me with a PB. I know that’s way too early in a marathon to decide that everything will just work out, but in my mind I had it all sorted. I would catch up to the 1:50 pacers (assuming one went on to do the full) at 25-28km, run with them for the next 10-12km, and then pick up the pace in the last 5km to come home strong. Couldn’t be easier (right?).

I was ~80m behind the 1:50 pacers when they split off with the half-marathon runners and I realised that I was going to have to pace the rest of this all by myself. As we turned a guy said to me “this is when the race really starts” and I had to agree. We had lost over half the field, and were no longer running on main roads with lots of spectators cheering us on (often by banging on pots and tins with spoons!).

At the same time though, this is when the Reykjavik Marathon came into its own. We were now running along paths through green spaces, past waterfalls and through secluded areas which would have been impossible for a larger group of runners. There was just the right amount of participants that you could always see 8-10 in front, but also had enough room for yourself. It felt almost more like a very-long parkrun than a city marathon, and that’s what gave it its charm. I could even forgive the rolling hills because they added interest along the course. The supporters we saw were families out for a stroll or cyclists passing in the opposite direction who would say some friendly words in Icelandic as they rode past.

I came through halfway in 1:50:40, and knew that due to my first slow kilometre and intended fast last five, I would run a negative split. The kilometres after this did start to drag out a bit: despite the nice and varying landscape a marathon is a very long way to run. I knew I just needed to get to ~35km by ticking off the kilometres one by one, and then could kick it for the final straight. Every time I thought about those last few kilometres I got a bit excited and would speed up: it took some stern talking to myself to ensure that I maintained pace throughout that middle section.

My nutrition was also going well. I alternated water and Powerade to prevent having too much sweetness, and took a gel per hour (at 11.5km, 23km, 31km and 38km). At the aid stations I stopped to walk as needed, without stressing that it was adding precious seconds to my splits. All in all I was in control and stayed calm throughout, even in the later stages of the run.

The last 9km of the course takes you along most of the same streets as you run in the first 10km, and you can feel that you are nearing the end. In my head I had decided to pick up in the last 5km, but with 7km to go I couldn’t resist anymore and felt myself naturally getting faster. I started overtaking those who were flagging in front of me, and pushing and pushing towards the finish line. It was tough – the toughest part of the race – but I was still in control. It was tough because I wanted it to be, not because the race had got the better of me. I could have finished the race at the same pace as I had maintained for the previous 38km and still made sub-3:40, but I wanted to finish strong and get as far under that number as I could. That I could pick up to a 4:50/km pace after all that running beforehand still astounds me, but it felt right.

There was an aid station at 40km where I wanted to have some water, but unfortunately they only had Powerade. I had no excuse but to keep running until the finish line (including a nasty hill with 1.2km to go where I did finally slow, but picked up again at the top). With 500m to go I felt like I was nearing the end of my tank, but just kept swinging my arms and pushing. We rounded the corner to see the finish line as I saw that I still had 30 seconds to make it under 3:38. From nowhere my legs found another gear and I sprinted with all my might to the end: barely able to pump my arms in the air before stumbling into a volunteer.

3:37:51 – a new PB by 3:23, a negative split, and the perfect race!

I had the best time at Reykjavik Marathon, but not only because I broke through 3:40 barrier (which I thought I’d need another 2 months to do). The race had such a friendly atmosphere, and I really enjoyed the scenic course. Most of the race was spent running through green parks or along the waters edge (or through green parks on the waters edge), which meant that I was constantly finding something else to marvel at. I loved the size of the field, and the spectators (when I saw some) were great. What’s more: I had no idea that the marathon took place on the same day as the Reykjavik Culture Night! This meant that the excitement of the race rolled into more excitement in the form of street parties, free concerts and fireworks! It was a brilliant ending to the most wonderful day. Highly recommended!

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