Marathon

Not the Berlin Marathon: Virtual Gothenburg Marathon 2021

Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. And sometimes that’s okay.

Last weekend I should have been running the Berlin Marathon, alongside Bekele.   I mean, not literally alongside.  On my best day I couldn’t even enjoy the breeze he leaves in his wake.  Instead, I spent it enjoying the uncharacteristically warm and dry weather in Gothenburg: probably summer’s last stand before the rain and snow flow relentlessly until spring.

Training for Berlin

After training for two cancelled marathons in 2020: London and Berlin, I had to give up my London place because my Good For Age qualifying marathon had been too far in the past to count for 2021 entry.   I guess we all leave our age in the past, but as you get older it happens quicker and quicker.  That still left me with a deferred entry to Berlin 2021 along with zero full-participant races against which to test my form in the interim. How do you race a marathon when you’ve not had as much as a proper 10km race in over 18 months?  Some people might think ‘You don’t’ and settle down to watch television instead. In retrospect, that’s probably some intelligent reasoning right there.

I had built up my running mileage and form over autumn, then lost it all during a colder-than-expected January and February. I spent March to May building back up to a consistent 50km per week, and began marathon training on 26th May. At this point, I was rather sceptical as to whether the Berlin Marathon would go ahead – the only race that was definitely happening was the race to get everyone vaccinated.  I decided it was better to be prepared than not, and I wanted to see what I was capable of in training.

Lilla Delsjön
Lilla Delsjön. It’s amazing to have a place like this within the city limits.

I do a lot of my running in and around Delsjöområdet – a beautiful nature reserve in the east of the city. Whilst beautiful, it is also hilly, and the gravel and dirt paths are not as fast a running surface as asphalt.  Although to be honest, both asphalt and dirt run at the same speed so it depends on how you compare them.  I decided this year that I needed to do my long runs on flat roads or cycle paths. The first one with a long marathon-paced section (8 miles) was not as bad as I had feared. I managed to keep half of those miles under 8:20 per mile pace. But three of them were between 8:30 – 8:40 pace. Maybe I was going to have to fight just to get under 4 hours.

I stuck to the training plan like glue, despite an unprecedented heatwave in June.  That meant early morning runs when it was already well over 20 degrees celsius.  I could barely see my Garmin through the steam coming off my limbs.  I moved a few things around on the schedule to enable fitting in a couple of Sunday social cycle runs, but only a couple. It’s hard to fit in 50km bike rides when you are running an average of 75 or 80 km per week.

Saying No to Berlin

I was missing those Sunday cycle trips, especially as I wasn’t convinced my training was paying off, or that there would be a chance to test myself at an actual mass participation marathon. My stamina was increasing nicely, and I managed a few 20-mile training runs. But I was struggling to increase my speed at all during the speed sessions, and the marathon-pace sections on long runs kept unwinding to 8:30 per mile (5:15/km) pace before reaching 10 miles, so I wasn’t even confident of a 3:50 marathon. I also had a time-consuming and costly house move, and was still unemployed (though I did have an interview scheduled for the day before getting the keys to our new apartment). Michael couldn’t take a long weekend to join me in Berlin as September and October are his busiest teaching months.  Plus, he just didn’t want to spend a potentially cold weekend pretending like he cared what time I actually accomplished.

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate with nobody around.
The Brandenburg Gate. An iconic landmark for the Berlin Marathon. It was probably as quiet as this during lockdown.

As a final straw, the new Terms and Conditions from SCC Events sent out in early August seemed to be putting all the risk onto participants: no refund if you couldn’t get into Germany; no refund if you tested positive for covid-19; no refund if they had to cancel the event after you had travelled to Germany; they reserved the right to hold a raffle for places if they needed to cut numbers…

Having still not been refunded for last year’s flights, I was not keen to book flights and hotels for something I was not sure would happen. SCC Events gave us until 17th August to decide whether or not to accept the new conditions. I decided that the continued uncertainty and sheer hassle just didn’t seem worth it. It meant arranging to travel by myself to a country where I couldn’t speak the language. I would then have to run by myself, in order to accomplish my personal worst marathon time. Or, worse, travel there only to have to quarantine in a hotel if someone on my flight tested positive for covid. It just didn’t seem worth it.

It took a friend asking me though to finally made up my mind.  He asked, ‘Are you running Berlin’, and I said ‘Nein’.  ‘Nine??’, he asked.  ‘I thought doing it once was mad enough’.

On the other hand, Göteborgsvarvet Marathon was a possible alternative. Gothenburg has a huge half marathon every year, usually in April. There are around 60,000 runners, making it of a similar size to the Great North Run. I missed it in 2019 as we didn’t move here until the November, and of course it was cancelled in 2020 due to covid. There isn’t usually a marathon, but there was to be one as part of Gothenburg’s 400th birthday celebrations, postponed from 2020. It was a week before the Berlin marathon, so I would have to adjust the training plan slightly. But it was in my local city, 3 friends were signed up for it, and Michael had even agreed to come and spectate. Decision made, on 16th August I rejected the new Terms and Conditions for Berlin.

Cancellation of Gothenburg Marathon

One week later, the Gothenburg Marathon and Half Marathon were cancelled and switched to virtual runs due to increasing rates of covid. Luckily I hadn’t paid my 1100 kr (a little over £90) entry fee. With the house move, I hadn’t got around to registering. So now I had 3 friends needing to do a virtual marathon (two as their first marathon attempts) and no official marathon myself to run.  It turned out that not buying into the Gothenburg Marathon was a stroke of good fortune – the organizers decided they wouldn’t refund anyone even though they cancelled the event.   It’s a flavour of race organization indistinguishable from mugging.   It’s hard to be sure if the race is organized by the Athletic Association or the Cosa Nostra.

Härlanda tjärn
Harlanda tjärn. A nicer location to hang around that next to the sports pitches.

Running a marathon by yourself must be so tough. I was so lucky to have Charlotte run with me the whole way during my first marathon at Loch Ness, and I struggled somewhat in Chicago, despite the 45,000 other runners and 1.5 million spectators.  To be fair, sometimes I struggled because they were just in the way.  A virtual marathon means no water and nutrition stations, no portaloos, no crowds cheering you on, and no first aiders. I didn’t have any marathon to run but I thought it would be nice to run with my friends anyway. That way, I could take the pressure off myself to run a particular time, and check that I had trained well enough to at least handle the distance. I was also hoping it might be possible not to hit the wall if we ran at a comfortable pace.

Nobody could tell me what that pace should be, though. When people are telling you “It’s my first marathon, so I just want to complete it without worrying about a time goal.” that leaves you second-guessing, based on what you know of their pace over shorter distances, and how their training seems to have gone.

We also had to pick a route. Brian and I considered piecing together the Gothenburg Half Marathon route followed by the Solvikingarna half marathon route: the first taking in Slottskogen and the Hisingen waterfront, plus the city centre, and the latter following the cycle path down the coast to Askim and back. But that would be harder logistically as it may require stopping at traffic lights in the first half, and would make it harder for our support crew (of one – thank you Angela!) to get water and nutrition to us at regular intervals. Another friend who was planning to run it with us also wanted a softer surface underfoot. In the end, we agreed to use the grusåttan (gravel eight) – the 8km loop at Skatås/ Delsjön which is the flattest of the signposted loops, with an elevation gain of only around 60 metres per loop. It is also the widest path, most similar to a road surface rather than trail, and there are 3 potential toilet stops en route. And it would mean that we could pass Angela every 8km for much needed water refills, swapping out clothes, or just for a bit of encouragement.

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