Sick & hilly but surprisingly fast at the Oslo Marathon

Sometimes, I can really psych myself out before a race. Even if it’s not a main/big race, I can get it in my head that something big is going to happen, and then I start stressing out and forget that, well, it’s just a run. The night before Oslo Marathon, I definitely did that. Despite having discussed using this race as a marathon-pace workout, I knew that this was going to be a fast race. That’s fine in itself, but I barely slept the night before, as I freaked out and put more and more pressure on myself.

So when I woke up in the morning with a sore throat, blocked nose and blocked ears, it was a blessing in disguise. Sure, I felt awful and if this weren’t a race, I probably wouldn’t have got out of bed, but the pressure was gone. I was sick, so even just finishing the race was going to be an achievement. The weight lifted from my shoulders, and with that, I opened myself up to whatever was going to happen on that day.

We lucked out with our AirBnB and were staying a short walk away from the start, but I was still too early for this ~3000-person event. That meant plenty of time to line up for the portaloos several times (highly necessary pre-marathon!) and study the route once more. I had stupidly not looked up anything about the race before flying to Oslo, and only at the bib pick-up did I realise that it was a two-lap course, with two significant-looking hills at 5km and 18km / 26km and 39km (!). Whoops! Oh well, another reason to chill out about the outcome and just take the race as it comes.

I dropped off my bag (read: tying it to a fence along with hundreds of identical bags – very difficult to locate mine afterwards!), took some cold-and-flu meds and headed to the start pens with 15min to go. The original plan for the race was to run the middle ~20km at marathon pace, with and easy start and finish, but not to get too worried about pace – just run ‘strong’ from kilometre 10. I lined myself up behind the 3:45 pacers, knowing that staying behind them would ensure that I kept the pace easy for the first section.

We set off and immediately this hills started. I thought the hill only came at 5km? Once again I’d failed to notice on the course profile that it was a steady climb for the first few kilometres, but surprisingly I was having no troubles. You know how when you run uphills, you can feel that your having to work hard? Not this time. I stayed ~100m back from the pacers but had caught up with them by the time we got to the top of the hill. It all felt easy so far and I tried to maintain the same level of effort as we descended again, however inevitably picked up some speed. I clocked 51:41 crossing the 10km mat, which was a good chunk faster than the 55mins I had anticipated. Was that a whoops, or was I just having a good day?

A few hundred metres before the 10km mark I’d found myself running next to a guy with ‘Australia’ written on his tshirt, so had a quick chat with him about where he came from (Melbourne), what he was doing in Oslo (born there, visiting family), and how he’d run Tallinn Marathon the weekend before, and had Warsaw coming up in a few weeks to round out a month of travelling through Europe. He was really interesting and I wanted to stay chatting for longer, but I needed to get my marathon pace section started, so said farewell and good luck.

Bang, from the 10km mat I was off like a rocket, overtaking people with ease. I knew the pace was fast, but we were on a flat section of the route and I decided to just go with it and see how long I could hold on for. We were running through some very pretty wharf area, with sailing boats moored on my left-hand side: I enjoyed that section. Thanks to my increase in pace, the kilometres were passing really quickly, and almost before I knew it we had crossed 15km. A bit of mental arithmetic told me I’d covered those 5km in ~23:20. Wait… what?

Sye had come with me to Oslo, and before the race we’d discussed him coming to cheer me at this one point where the course loops back on itself at 15km/20km and then 36km/40km. However, we hadn’t made any concrete plans other than ‘see you at some of those points’, so it was a nice surprise when I heard him calling just after 15km. He had his phone out to take pictures but I was more preoccupied with yelling ‘this is fast!’ and then grabbing a high-five as I continued with the momentum. That boy is a legend: traipsing after me for just a few seconds of interaction – much appreciated ❤

From my poor research of the course, I did at least know that the second set of hills was sharper than the first. They started from ~16km, and my progress did slow as I worked up the inclines. I learned a valuable lesson at the QBRC trail 20km a few weeks ago though, to ‘go with your energies’, so I kept pushing as much as I could without stressing about splits. That was also helped by having my watch set to clock-mode, and only allowing myself to check it every 5km. In any case, whatever time I lost on the uphills I gained back by bombing down the other side: kilometres 18-21 averaged 4:33/km pace, with the fastest (also of the race) at 4:29/km!

I’ve never run a two-lap course before, but it was nice to know what was ahead, especially as I could break it up into smaller chunks. First ~5km: uphill. Next ~5km: downhill. Then a flat stretch to an aid station at 34km, after which it gets a little bit hilly, and then a lot hilly from 37-39km. Last 3km: downhill. The initial plan was to run 20km at marathon pace, but given the course profile I knew that I would try and stretch that out to the 34km aid station, and possibly even keep it going until the end because damn – this felt good!

On lap one I’d been running behind the 3:45 pacers, and starting on lap two I could see the 3:30 pacers a similar distance in front. It only took a kilometre to catch up with them, but damn they were difficult to get through! There were so many people running close together, desperately sticking with their flagged men that they hardly left space for me to run in. Eventually I popped out the other side like a cork from a champagne bottle, and it felt like freedom again. That was the most congested that the course ever became: the beauty of a small field is that there is always plenty of space to run!

I could feel that I was starting to have to work harder to maintain my speed, which wasn’t helped by this next section of hills. I missed checking my time at 25km, but knew that I was looking at a PB if I could continue on this path. I really wanted to try and go for it, knowing that if I ran a personal best today then tick, that would be 2018 sorted and I wouldn’t need to put in this amount of effort into a marathon again – that sounded pretty good! It was getting harder though, and I had decided that whatever happened I would walk through the 34km aid station to have a little break.

Sye popped up again at ~30km (trooper) and I yelled ‘the PB is on!’. My watch read 2:26, so if I could just keep running 5:00/km for 12km, I would improve my best by over 2mins. And yet shortly after I saw him I started flagging. I was on the section of course where I had switched into marathon-pace gear on lap one, and I remembered flying along the course. Now though I didn’t have that same pizzazz and the kilometres were dragging – it took forever for the 32km sign to appear. I held on for another kilometre but then let myself slow: after all, 23km was already more than I had planned to run for this middle section of the race.

At my walk-break aid station I texted Sye ‘Pb off but that’s ok!‘ and was immediately fine with it. The 3:30 pace-group overtook me at this point as I drank some electrolyte drink and gathered myself for the last section. Yes, it might be a shame to let the PB opportunity go like that, but I’d put in a great effort with the MP section that this race was totally worth it already. I haven’t done a lot of MP work in training, so it would be better to have a few more weeks of solid training and then run a really great time in Chicago, rather than settle for a few minutes improvement in Oslo and have blown my legs.

Bye bye 3:30s 👋

With the hills, it was a good choice. I hadn’t realised just how steep that final section was the first time around, particularly because any sort of incline at 37-39km is already bad. When my legs felt too heavy I walked (with a guy next to me also walking who said a few sentences in Norwegian, probably complaining about the hill – but I have no idea! Sorry 😞), and then slow-shuffled my way up. Gravity then pulled out some speed on the way back down, and although not quite the 4:29/km from lap one, I’m happy I could post a few last sub-5min kms.

I ended up crossing the finish line in 3:31:22, less than 3minutes off from my personal best – and my second fastest marathon time ever! Honestly I had no idea I was capable of running that: I’d only ever run sub-3:45 three times in the past, and so that’s my benchmark for a good marathon result. I’m over-the-moon happy with how it went despite my sickness, the 500m of elevation gain (!!!) and the lack of specific marathon-pace training. Even cooler, I ended up placing pretty well overall, coming in as 50th female. All of it points to a really great outcome in Chicago, and yes I’ve checked – it’s a flat course!

As for Oslo Marathon itself, I really enjoyed the event. The city is very small, and so I can forgive the two-lap course because it meant that you stayed within the more scenic, populated areas rather than getting taken far out of the city to a boring/industrial section. Yes, the hills were unexpected, and having a big one in the last 5km is cruel, but I have to bear part of the responsibility for not having looked at the course profile beforehand. The bag drop was a bit confusing, but there was a good quanity/quality of aid stations (water, electrolytes, some with cola & bananas, once a cola + cold coffee station, and a red bull station at 18/39km), and most importantly it gets a big tick for having well-designed and sized t-shirts for both men and women – YES!  Recommended if you want a smaller race, like laps, and don’t mind spending lots of money on celebratory food & drinks afterwards 😜

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