Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What NOT to do before running a marathon... (Cologne Marathon Race Report)

Quote of the Race: TallGuySurfing yelling "WASSER BITTE!" and slamming his fist upon the bar. Two Germans on each of his sides back away slowly. The bar tender hands over a tiny glass of sparkling water. He hands the bartender 5 Euros, slams the water and yells, "Zwei!" The bartender hands over a second and in English he says as he limps away, "I'm taking your pussy sized glass with me!"

- Cologne, Germany
Cost - Variable. It cost 90 Euros for me and that included timing chip rental. See website here.
Year of Running - Unknown, possibly since 1997 or before.
Sponsor/Race Directors - BMW, Puma, PCU, KVB and other various European sponsors.
Charity - Unknown
Number of Participants - 7,310 (Marathon), 12,571 (Half Marathon) 89 (Ultra - Half & Full), 1,691 (Inline-Skate Marathon), 397 (Marathon Relay Teams), 361 (School Relay teams), 77 (Hand Cycle Marathon).
Available Races - Marathon, Half Marathon, Marathon plus Half Marathon Ultra, Inline Skate Marathon, Hand Cycle Marathon, Marathon Relay & Kid's Mini Marathon.
Course Condition - Flat and fast. Mostly asphalt pavement, except for a few small stretches of ancient cobble stone streets (ouch!) near the last few miles.
Pace Groups - We couldn't find any information about pacers at the expo or on the website, but there were pace groups visible during the race in 15 minute increments.
Expo - Held at the convention center near the start/finish line. Average for a race of this size. It was interesting to see so much inline skating gear being sold.

ORGANIZATION, SUPPORT & SPECTATORS: - I'm not going to write a lot here because I feel that we probably missed a lot of the "real picture" of what was going on simply because we don't know how to speak or write German. We were able to figure out most of what was going on by relating it to our experiences at large races in the United States. Things were very similar, but also very different. I felt that the race was organized with typical German precision (that's a compliment). The support was probably excellent by European standards. Aid stations were well stocked with supplies although I was not used to "tea" as a beverage during races. It was the little things that were the big differences. The spectators were awesome. I think the only place in the race lacking any spectators was in the tunnel. Everywhere else spectators lined the streets with signs, nose makers and some even handed out their own refreshments (although I couldn't communicate with them).

Excellent. The website and emails regarding transportation to the expo and on race day were very well timed and informative despite being poorly translated to English. We used the local train system to take us to within a half mile of the start line. Cologne also has an International Airport. The city is also a 50 minute ICE fast train ride from Frankfurt (bigger airport).

The goodie bag included a beer glass with race logo on it, the usual miscellaneous propaganda and a personalized bib number. Race tech T-shirts by Puma were available for an extra charge.

If I was German I probably would have loved it. The finish line was overflowing with German sausages and beer. I did not see any awards ceremony so I can't commit on it. There was a serious lack of water or sports drinks at the finish line. I found soda, tea and beer. There was no ice to be found anywhere so if you want to ice a knee or hamstring make other plans. When I finally did find water it was carbonated and I had to buy it.

Here's my story of WHAT NOT TO DO before running a marathon. Let me be the first to say that I know better and I can only blame myself for what happened to me. We have a saying in aviation. The 50 hour rookie that just got his pilot's license is safer than the 300 hour guy that's just building time. The reason is you get a little bit of experience under your belt and it's human nature to "think" you know a lot more than you really do and the result is overestimating your capabilities. I feel like I'm at that point with this running thing. A handful of marathon medals and even a 50k hanging on my wall and I think to myself, "run a marathon after 10-days of vacation an ocean away from home? No problem man, you've got this... piece of cake!"
Lesson learned? If you're going to make your next marathon also your vacation make sure you run the race at the beginning of your vacation. Not the end. Here's why:
Jenny and I planned a 12-day vacation to Europe. In the several months of planning we learned that the Cologne Marathon coincided perfectly with our trip, which was to include visited to Barcelona, Spain; Cologne, Germany; and Toulouse, France. The initial thought would be that the end of vacation race is better because we would be fully adjusted to the time change. In retrospect, the beginning of vacation race would have worked out better. I'm used to a little sleep deprivation before a race anyhow!
What happened and where we went wrong was simple having a good time. Barcelona was an overload of the senses. Different food, different drinks and crazy walking walking walking! We walked everywhere. I'm guessing we walked at least a marathon during our time in Barcelona. We took trains too, but there's so much to see and the best way is to walk. We managed an 8-mile tapper run along the beaches. It was amazing and felt great. By the time we made it to visit our friend, Peter, in Germany we were walked out and our nutrition was out of control. It was impossible to find the same foods we eat at home.
By the time race day came I was feeling good, but what I didn't know was my body was tired. I tried to eat right and get plenty of sleep. In fact, I think I got the best sleep in months leading up to the race, but when you're not used to walking as much as we were doing it takes a toll on you.
Pre-race was a little bit of a clusterf*ck. Everything was so well organized by the Germans, except a small little thing called a bottleneck. Getting to the start corrals was insane. There was simply too many people and not enough space. I found myself wedged against a temporary barrier fence for about 20 minutes waiting for the start gun. All my new best friends, some of whom smelled funny, spoke no English and I can honestly say I've never been so crowded, yet so lonely at the same time. Some things translate like body language, smiles, laughter, but so much doesn't and that's where I felt left out. Jenny and I had to separate and get into different corrals. She was in corral A and I was in B.
When we finally started it thinned out after a ways and the course widened once we made it to the bridge going over the Rhine River and into the city of Cologne. The first 10 miles were awesome. The weather was in the upper 60s, but quickly rising. The start time was 11 a.m., which was another factor that lead to both of our demises. How do you eat before a marathon when it starts at 11 a.m.??? It's a lot different than the normal early morning start.
At mile 10 I was feeling really strong and my time was excellent. I was averaging about an 8:40ish pace. I was lured into an irrational thought that perhaps all the walking and odd nutrition actually helped prepare me for this race. I did the math for the finish time at 8:40 and that seemed like a fantasy, but I liked it so I kept going like a fool. Around mile 11 I started feeling a tightness around my ribs and screwed up my breathing pattern. It was a little concerning because it was a completely new feeling. I've never felt it before or since, but it went away by mile 13 and I noticed my pace was beginning to slow.
By now it's afternoon and the sun is high in the sky. It's a lot hotter now; probably mid-to-high 70s (the official high for the day was 78). I push onward.
A little after mile 15, probably closer to 16, I felt a cramp in one of my calf muscles. I tried to run through it and it just got worse. It was like reality yelling at me, "you're not worthy!" It soon forced me to stop completely and try and stretch and massage it into submission. A few minutes later I pushed onward.
Around mile 18 my legs really started to hurt. My feet were heavy and seemed to stick to the ground. I stared down at them to make sure I hadn't stepped in gum or maybe super glue. Now all those spectators cheering everyone on where just getting annoying to me. I'd rather be on a trail in the woods! Then the real muscle cramps arrived. The kind of cramps that leave you with two options -- fall square on your face after having complete leg failure, or stop completely to avoid such a fall. I stopped each time as the cramping seemed to systematically work its way through each muscle in both of my legs. Fix one cramp and another one pops up and says, "Hello there mutherf*cker!"
I start thinking about the finish line and realize that my irrational imaginary finish time will not happen. I start to think about how awesome it would be if I could just make sub-4 hours. Soon that possibility slips away and I quickly start thinking, "OK, well, maybe I can beat my marathon PR of 4:18:00?" Then I realize that is not going to happen. It's just my luck that for the first time in my life I'm running a marathon without being injured or partially recovered from injury and here I am plagued with cramps!
Somewhere around mile 22 or 23 I lose it. I curse aloud at myself. Hell, half these people don't know English anyways. I look around and people are drinking beers on the side of the road having a jolly time. I almost decide to go into a pub and get properly pissed, but I'm in too much pain to even try and think about forming German words with my mouth. I limp along and accept my situation. No more denial. This IS happening. I form a strategy. I will pick a spot that I can see ahead and run to it without walking no matter what happens. When I reach it I'll allow myself a short walk before picking another spot to run to further down the course. This strategy gets me through the race. It's not pretty, but it works and I hobble across the finish line for a very uneventful finish.
At this point I'm nearly a walking zombie. The only thing on my mind is drinking water and finding Jenny. Somehow I've allowed myself to become severely dehydrated or perhaps it's an electrolyte imbalance. It's difficult to think rationally. I'm going on prior experience at this point, but this race isn't like so many others...
I somehow remember to get my medal. I look around desperately hoping to find some water or ice. There's nothing! There is a long tunnel like overpass we must walk through to get back near the expo building where the bag drop is and this "chute" separates race finishers from the general crowd. Unlike other finisher chutes I've walked there is a good quarter mile of nothing. No water, no ice, no food. WTF? I see some paramedics and almost head that way, but the thought of trying to communicate with them scares the hell out of me. "Shake it off Sylvan," I yell at myself and pull it together.
I finally reach the other side of the overpass and I see tables and booths and people standing in lines. YES! Finally! But, my excitement is short lived as I get closer and realize the first thing these Germans are getting after finishing a marathon is apparently wieners and beer. Yup, I'm now confronted with free sausages, hotdogs and beer. This is perhaps the only situation imaginable where I am NOT stoked to make this discovery. I reach another table further down and see hundreds of cups full of different liquids. One of these has to be water, right? Nope. They have cola and tea. Now I'm ready to kill someone, but instead I find a wall and collapse against it and fall to the ground.
The ground is almost peaceful, but almost instantly my legs decide to start cramping up again and this time it's with vengeance. "Mother of God," I scream as I grab my left hamstring. As soon as I thrust my body one way the other hamstring joins in and I'm left thrashing about on the concrete looking like an imbecile. After a few minutes my brain and body negotiate on a position that limits cramping and my only option for the time being is to people watch and try not to move. What's amazing is nobody even asked me if I was OK and I'm surrounded by thousands of people. After about 15 minutes I managed to get up and continue my quest for water. I make it all the way back into the expo building. The Germans are NOT fans of water fountains so no luck here. I go to the back drop and pick up my bag. Inside it is money and at this point I'll pay anything for some water. Jenny is nowhere to be seen and our plan was to meet at bag drop if we didn't see each other after the race. I look around, hang out for a few minutes and then make the decision to get water and come back. Neither of us have cell phones, but we both have money and we both know the way home.
Outside the expo building there are event bars set up for the general public to buy food and drinks. I see one bar serving beer. It's popular and crowded so I opt for another bar that is serving coffee. I ask the German girl if she has any water and she says no. I ask where water might be and she seems confused so I head to the bar serving beer. This is where I'm ignored again and again until I slam my fist on the bar and yell with a deep voice "water" in German. Other Germans near by back away and one of them even tells the bartender something and points to me. I get my water, but it's carbonated. I don't care. I slam the first one and then demand a second. I pay for it. You're supposed to return the glass and I think they keep a small deposit, but at this point I don't care. In my mind I'm saying, "I'm taking your stupid little beer glass with me," and I walk away with my carbonated water.
I head back to the bag drop and this time Jenny is there waiting for me. We hug and I tell her that I bonked. She had been so worried about me she was going around to all the paramedics and asking if they had seen me. Of course, they didn't know much English so she wasn't getting anywhere with them. She ended up having a terrible race as well. Not as bad as me, but not pretty at all. Bottom line: It was hotter than we expected weather wise and we did everything wrong leading up to the race.
But you know what? While I'll never do another marathon in Germany or a similar situation like this one, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I'm glad I did it. Having a bad race is just part of running. It's going to happen. And for every bad race there are many many more "good" races. I'm looking forward to the next good race, hopefully the Savannah Rock 'n' Roll Marathon this Saturday!

My official stats:
3,666th out of 7,310 marathon finishers
421st in my age division (30-34)
Chip Time: 4:47:06
Average pace: 10:57 miles (6:48 kilometers)
10k - 55:08
15k - 1:22:51
Half - 1:58:31
25k - 2:24:04
30k - 3:02:03
35k - 3:43:18
Total Participants - 21,738 and that's not including another 758 relay teams. It's a big race weekend in Germany.
The Cologne (Koln) Marathon TallGuySurfing grade = B-