It isn’t easy for me to write about this experience and still keep you motivated. I was never one to sugar coat things, I’m a fan of honest and direct communication, because I think it’s more efficient and in the long run less hurtful.
But please keep reading to the end, because my first marathon was an overall great experience and it certainly makes me feel proud and accomplished. It wasn’t a wonderful experience for me, but that’s just my personal story – it will be different for you.
This is also a very long post, I’ve written it for you, if you also think about signing up for your first marathon and want to know all the details.
I started training for it on the 12th of July (the marathon was on the 21st of Oct.), when I was on a business trip in Lisbon and ran with a wonderful colleague of mine called Ceu. It was a beautiful beach run at Oeiras beach and Ceu told me she and a few of her running group were going to run the Amsterdam Marathon on the 21st of October and if I wanted to come with them.
I felt motivated by that and knew it would be exactly one year by then since I’ve started running from couch potato. What can I say, I really like to challenge myself…
My level at that time: I had just run my first half marathon on the 23rd of June with a pace of 7:55 and my fastest 5k was at 5:47 pace.
The training program
I decided to go with a virtual marathon training preparation program from the app Aaptiv.com. It included a full training plan for 13 weeks prior to the marathon and for each of the running sessions you can download an audio trail with kick-ass workout music tracks and the Aaptiv trainer Meg Tackacs telling you exactly what to do and when to do it.
I loved it! It had the right mix of long runs, fartleks, tempo runs and form runs in it and Meg calls out the times for different paces. In the first half of the training program I’ve upped my pace by one minute. Meg also motivates you and gives you tips for marathon prep overall during your run, it never gets boring and for me it was almost creepy how Meg always seemed to know exactly when I needed some motivation.
What’s more, all of those motivational philosophies can be applied 1:1 at work as well and I did carry the motivation and energy with me into my work day.
I followed the program diligently, even during business trips which wasn’t always easy and I had to get up very early to get my runs in before the day started, but I didn’t mind, because I saw the almost immediate effects on my performance and how my body changed… shedding fat pockets and transforming them into hard muscles so fast, I almost felt like I could watch it happening.
Nutrition & Health check
We’ve also changed our diet a bit and just tried to avoid added sugar. Instead I ate more fruit and nuts and I discovered my love for peanut butter, which together with banana is recommended from all sources for a post-run snack. I noticed that I was able to eat more food and digest it a lot faster and I was less cold. At the same time my resting pulse dropped steadily.
All seemed to be going according to plan, but to make extra sure I booked a full session with a sports doctor: a thorough exam including my lung volume, max. heart rate and blood pressure… everything. It took 3 hours and let me tell you, it’s very weird to run with a mask over your nose and mouth on a treadmill. I got half a book of exam results from him and a thorough counselling session.
He confirmed my heart was up to it, I was very healthy, had the body age of a 30 year old (Score!) and I could run the marathon with an average pace of 6:30 in his opinion. I was surprised by that. He also said my body fat % was a too low and I had to eat more and had to eat goo packs during the marathon after the first hour regularly – about 60 mg of carbs per hour – otherwise my body wouldn’t find the energy anymore to keep running.
That advice in itself was worth the whole session. And of course I didn’t mind being told to eat more! Maybe he should have kept his estimation about my race pace to himself. I think in hindsight it messed with my head a bit. Who am I to disappoint my sports doctor?
I then started searching for gel packs that I could eat during a run without feeling slightly sick and burping like there’s no tomorrow. I finally found them, from the company Maurten who specialises on that. Their goo packs are not so sticky sweet, they taste more like water gel and are super easy to digest during running – no burps at all.
What to wear?
I drove myself crazy with the question what to wear! The date of 21st of October in Amsterdam can have any kind of weather, still late summer heat or early winter, dry or rain. I hate running in rain so I invested a lot of time and money to find a light weight jacket and trousers that could potentially keep me dry. I’m willing to think it didn’t rain because I had it with me… it was close to raining a couple of times.
I changed my mind about the length of my trouser maybe 100 times, in the end I went with long, because I’m rather too warm than too cold. The best advice I can give is to be prepared for everything and decide on the day what to wear and of course never ever wear anything for the first time during your marathon. It could have an unwanted side-effect that you then have to endure for 42 km.
The big marathons have a limited edition running shoes usually, branded with the marathon name. I actually saw a few runners that bought them and wore them during the marathon! How daring. I had to get them too of course… but I admit to you that I’m wearing them only when they can’t get dirty and more like a trophy than running shoes. After all you can’t wear your finishers medal every day to work (although I sure felt the need for it!). The marathon shirt is usually part of the goody bag you get with your BIB number, but I’d recommend to get the shoes as well, especially when it’s your first marathon.
The next big question is what to take with you. I got ample information from the TCS Amsterdam Marathon about what would be supplied before, during and after the race. There were stations for water, isostar, goo packs, bananas & energy bars every 5 km. But first of all I wanted to have some liquid with me (it saves some time to be able to drink out of a bottle you know you can drink from while running instead of trying to drink from a cup without sloshing water over yourself and I was unwilling to stop for that) and I needed space for all the many goo packs my doctor told me to consume. So I took my simple one-bottle belt with me and put my smartphone into the pocket of my running trouser.
I took the smartphone primarily with me because of my playlist. I didn’t want to risk using my Garmin for it. The battery charge drops faster when it plays music via Bluetooth and I absolutely needed it to track the whole run! It was a wise decision, the battery was empty shortly after I had saved the marathon. It should have lasted longer, I think it’s because I’ve got it on using not only Garmin’s satellites but also the European GALILEO satellites for more accurate tracking. I also wanted to have it with me to be able to maybe call a taxi afterwards for my way back to the hotel, or for other emergencies. I also took 50 Euro bill with me and a credit card for the same reason.
The day before the race
I was awake way too early on Saturday and had to kill time until the Marathon Expo in the sport halls next to the Olympic stadium were to open at 9 am. I was one of the first to go in! There were three large sport halls stuffed with stands from all brands only remotely catering for runners.
I was also surprised to see that a few other marathons had a stand there as well to attract registrations. The Milan marathon for example and the one in Cologne and Hamburg. More than anything it made me realise that nowadays, a marathon is a business first and foremost. You are selling a unique experience and the better you do that, the more you can ask for your franchise articles. It works too, as I could see at myself and the amount of money I left there that morning.
Yes, there were a few things that I needed, and the choice of different products for running was never that big, with shop assistants trained on selling running gear… but I’m honest with myself, half of what I got was because I wanted to have it to remember my first marathon by. Especially and most of all the 2018 TCS Amsterdam Marathon shoes (Mizuno).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for saving money at the right places, but this is not one of them.
The main reason to go there was of course to get my BIB and goody bag. There was a whole hall dedicated to that! No wonder with 45000 runners. It still made me stop and stare for a second.
The rest of the day I spent with my dear colleague Ceu and her running group who had decided to make me one of them! The “Tartarugas Solidarias”, Portuguese for the solidarity turtles were now my running clan and I got the running shirt as a surprise present. That decided the question of which shirt I was going to wear. I felt very touched by it and had no problem whatsoever with the fact that I was now running for Portugal and not Germany.
I ate normally on that day, with a preference to anything with pasta. I had taken extra magnesium daily for 7 days prior (500 mg a day) and on Saturday I drank a special pre-run protein shake to make sure my body had all it needed. The magnesium did its job, I had no cramps at all and any soreness after the marathon was gone after only 2 days. Magnesium is really important. I went to bed early and tried to get as much sleep as possible.
The day of the race
I woke before the alarm, naturally and hurried to get breakfast as soon as possible, about 3 hours before the start. I had a light breakfast, nothing unusual and only stuff I knew my belly liked and digested easily. I had another protein&carb pre-run milk shake and some added magnesium and that was it.
I peeked out of the door to get a feel for the temperature and decided to definitely go with the long trouser. Then I got dressed in my running clothes and a fleece jacket I had bought for 9 Euros at KIK, because I knew I had to leave it behind. I took a simple bag with an old towl and a mini deodorant, because I wasn’t sure if I would see it again after the run. I shouldn’t have worried, they were extremely well organised, but you never know. I didn’t want to leave any valuables with them, in other marathons these bags are not guarded or anything. All the other things I had on me.
I met up with my fellow Tartarugas Solidarias and we went there by tram, walking the rest of the way because roads were already closed off and there were several traffic jams. This is something you have to consider. Go there really early, because if 45000 runners plus spectators go to one place which is already partially closed off, it will cause traffic jams!
The start and the finish was inside the Olympic Stadium of Amsterdam. That in itself was an amazing experience! Indeed after this experience I would recommend everyone to make their first marathon one of the big ones. Not only are they better organised, but everything around it is very special and amazing.
Once we were inside we had to stand there for a long time and couldn’t leave again. There were toilets inside, but I definitely made the right decision with using one already before we went in. They are high in demand and you inevitably have to queue as a woman! Men have a definite advantage here. There was a big screen that showed the start line and when the marathon started. It was funny because me and one other tartaruga, Carla, were standing at the tail end and saw on the screen how the marathon started…. how the leading group got to the 5 k mark…. the 8 k mark… and we were still standing there waiting for group after group to cross the start line.
Then finally I was able to shed my 9 Euro fleece jacket, which I had been extremely happy to have. It would go to charity, like so many other clothing the runners shed before the start.
And we were off. The stadium was almost full with a cheering crowd and the commentator announced the starting groups as we ran via the start line. It was absolutely amazing. I felt like a real athlete.
I had done all the preparation, followed all the advice, I felt fit and strong like a 20 year old, was fully healthy and excited like a kid. I had put a fast-alert into my garmin, warning me if I went too fast. Because there is one major rule with a marathon: Never go out too fast, save your strength for the second half!
I had run 10k many times before, it was my usual morning-run distance and I reached the 10k mark a bit slower than my usual time for it, at little over an hour. Every meter of the course in the city was flanked with a cheering crowd, yet I tried not to run faster than usual. Maybe I should have run considerably slower…
Never before had I felt any pain at all in my knees, never had any problems with them. And yet, shortly after the 10k mark suddenly my right knee started to hurt whenever I bent it.
At first I thought… oh well, Meg had warned you of this right? Pain will pop up, just grind your molars and run through it, it will go away again after some time. It did not go away, it got worse. At 16 k the pain was constant and I had to slow down from a 6:30 average pace to 7:15 average pace.
I found out if I changed my running style and put all my weight on my left knee and let my hip pull forward my right leg, I was able to maintain a good pace. It looked oddly wobbly but it did hurt less. Sadly it only worked until 20 k when I couldn’t bend my right knee anymore at all without feeling excruciating pain. That was the low point in my race. I was facing the possibility of having to finish the second half of the marathon with a stiff right leg. My pace dropped to 9:38 while I fought with myself against giving up.
The thing is, I still felt strong like a bull and my pulse was still aerobic and my left leg felt just normal. I had already come half way and only the finishers would get that darn medal that I wanted so bad.
So I thought, oh what the hell, so you speed-limp the rest without bending your knee, it will look silly, but who cares! So my goal shifted from finishing in under 5 hours to finishing before the sweeper vehicle would catch up with my speed-limp and disqualify me. The sweeper was coming at the 6 hour mark, so I had to finish without loosing more than an hour against my healthy pace. I managed to speed-limp at a pace of 8:20.
The next low point came at 34 km when my pace dropped to 10:45 because I had to stop regularly to recover from the pain a bit. By then my left leg was starting to complain about the heavy duty. At one point a guy from the red cross saw me and persuaded me to get into his makeshift first aid tent so he could give my knee a massage. I even agreed, he was offering me a way out… but after lying there for a few min he realised this would not go away with a short massage and I realised I was wasting precious time, so I thanked him, ground my teeth and speed-limped on.
There was a Spanish runner overtaking me, he clapped me on the shoulder and shouted “Forca!” at me. The Spanish word for “Strength”. I wish I could thank him, he’ll never know how much I needed that. I chanted it as a mantra to myself for the rest of the way.
The remaining km I did with an average pace of 9:25. I sped up a bit in the km before the finish to 8:38, by using my arms as added leverage, flaying them back and forth like a mad woman. The video confirms how silly that looked, but I made sure to force a grin on my lips whenever I saw a camera. I had lots of energy to spare, the speed-limp didn’t need a lot, at one point my pulse was down to 120 and I didn’t even sweat a lot in that second half.
The amazing crowd that was lining the course helped me a lot. Whenever they saw me limping along they shouted out my name and that I would make it. And I believed them. The course was very beautiful too, at one point it went through an old library building and along the Amstel river with boats on it that had spectators and bands on them, cheering us. That kind of motivation is worth gold. Another reason to run a big marathon first.
I also got a lot of cheers from Portuguese people in their language… which was weird until I remembered that I was running with a Portuguese shirt on me. So I just gave them all a smile and a thumbs up and said: “Si si.” Never wrong.
So my dear readers, you can imagine that there was only one feeling that dominated me the moment I crossed the finish line of the marathon inside the Olympic Stadium of Amsterdam: Immense relief that it was over.
Everything you read about the exhilarating feelings that you experience when finishing a marathon, the pride, the feeling of life-changing accomplishment, the personal strength boost – all that did come for me too… but just a little later when the pain killers started working and it all had time to sink in for me.
I’m weird in this respect because I’m rarely truly satisfied with myself, I know I could have been faster, I would have had the strength to be faster but – for some reason I still can’t quite figure out – my right knee denied its service. That just proves another big marathon rule true:
You can never be 100% prepared (and I sure tried), there will always be something unexpected happening during a marathon. And in the end it’s the way you decide to handle it that shows what you’re truly made of. Honestly, if the sweeper vehicle had not caught up with me, I’d also have crawled on two hands and one knee through the finish line if it had come to this.
In the end I will never know the true reason why my knee acted up like that for the first time. By now (3 weeks later and I managed my first hike again for 3 k in 1:15 hours) I think maybe I should be thankful to my knee. It showed me what I’m capable of if I really want something.
And the below-5-hour marathon won’t run away from me….. har har har
Life as a marathon finisher
It’s very cool I have to say. Ironically the month of October was the month with the fewest km run overall, because of the tapering before the marathon and the forced rest afterwards. I have to say I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had simply done my usual runs in the warm autumn air through the sunny, golden October landscape at home.
I’m not complaining though, I am a marathon finisher and everything you heard about it is true – it does give me an invisible boost of pride, self-accomplishment and strength. I carry the invisible twin of my medal with me every day…. and sometimes of course also my very visible Mizuno Amsterdam Marathon shoes or shirts.
I imagine running a marathon is a bit like birthing a baby. You prepare for it for a long time, you sweat a lot and your body changes, it’s painful and you swear to yourself never to do it again. Then a few weeks later you’ve miraculously forgotten about the pain and plan on the next one.
I do want to run another big one, but maybe not next year already. I’d prefer to run one in spring rather than autumn and next spring would be too soon. I don’t want to miss out on another October full of running joy with the perfect running weather. Luckily there are more goals than a marathon… a new fastest 5 or 10 k for example. Now that the slot for the “Fastest Marathon” time in my Strava and Garmin “All time Achievements” are no longer showing empty, I can focus on other things. Luckily there is never a lack of possible goals when you are running.
Here is the official video from my run that I bought, so you can get an impression of the vibes in such a big marathon… and see how speed-limping looks like 😉
The knee mystery
It’s now the 2nd of December and I finally ran a 6 k again that was fun and did not hurt. It was the first run I did NOT using the Addidas Solar Boost I had been wearing during the marathon. Maybe it’s the rest time since the marathon… but maybe it was the shoes? Who knows. When you gear up for your first, make sure to try out different shoes on long training runs before. I didn’t… maybe that was my mistake. Captain Hindsight is always right.