Auckland Marathon

Today I ate humble pie. Determined to go sub 2:45, I could only manage 2:54:07 on the day. That’s a huge disparity! Let me explain…

The Auckland Marathon starts at 6am. Despite beginning at the crack of dawn, it was unusually warm this morning at 16C. By the time I finished my run it was 18C, making it the hottest marathon I have run. The air was also uncomfortably “sticky” and estimated to be 90% R.H!

Despite a significantly slower pace and easier course profile, my average heart during the first 10km of the marathon was similar to that of a typical 10km tempo!

Ten kilometres into the run and my heart rate is higher than usual. I’m travelling at 3:50 min/km pace and my heart rate is at 170 bpm – 5 bpm higher than I’d like. My bib is also drenched sweat, no doubt from the hot and humid weather! I reach half way at 1:21:34.

It’s now 26km into the race and I approach the first of two drink stations that I’ve left my own water bottle and energy gel. However, the people manning the station offer no help and I’m lost searching in a sea of nondescript water bottles for my own one! After stopping for a frustrating 10 seconds, I forgo a crucial hydration and energy stop.

Kilometre split comparison between 2016 and 2017 Auckland Marathons.

From this point on, I begin to slow down and start paying for going too hard in the first half. I persevere but the “wheels fall off” at 33km as I begin the slow and painful run back home.

It’s now 36km and I’ve arrived at the last special drink station. This time I yell out my bib number and the course volunteer swiftly finds my drink and energy gel and hands it to me. Much better!

It’s been a long slog but I’ve managed to cross the finish line after several agonizing 4:50 min/km kilometers. This is a pedestrian pace compared to the 3:53 min/km I averaged over the first 29 kilometers! The second half split was 1:32:33, giving me a 11 minute positive split. Ouch!

All was not lost. I’ve come away with some valuable lessons:

  1. Adjust expectations based on current conditions. Hot and especially humid conditions can completely change the course difficulty.
  2. When approaching a “special drink station”, yell out your race number well in advance to the course volunteer so they can fetch your drink for you!
  3. There’s a lot of techniques for breathing while running. In today’s high humidity, I would have been better off breathing “through the mouth”.
  4. Peanuts can give laxative-like effects! By the skin of my teeth I avoided a toilet stop during the race. Never again!
  5. I was happy that I achieved the much vaunted 180 steps per minute over the course of the marathon. A high leg turn over is more energy efficient and reduces the likelihood of over-striding / injury.

Some things to work on:

  • Try breathing “through the mouth” as it is apparently better for running. The only time I should be breathing through the nose is when the air is cold and/or dry.
  • More long runs at marathon pace on profiles similar to that of the course.
  • Consider reducing the number of interval sessions I do with tempo runs or long runs as these are more marathon-specific workouts. Trouble is I actually enjoy the interval sessions!
  • Find out how to “reset” the distance my GPS watch thinks I have run during the race. It always overestimates the distance!
An enjoyable 6x1200m interval session!

Notes to self: I was 77kg on the day and had three gels (8km, 17km, 23km). I missed one gel at 29km and did not feel like eating the one I picked up at 36km. I had either water or sports drink at each of the aid stations. I had flat soda for two of the stations following the mishap at station 29km.

Altitude. Heat. Humidity. Pollution!

Over the last three weeks I have been in China. Where in China you might wonder? How about Beijing, Dunhuang, Lanzhou, Xining, Xi’an and Shenzhen? And yes, it was frantic three week trip to visit all of those cities!

The first stop was the capital. Like every Westerner that visits China, I too saw The Great Wall, The Imperial Palace, The Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square! My hotel was in-fact very close to the Forbidden City and I found a nice 5 km loop to go for a run. Running three loops was a good start to the day. However, I tried this run next day after visiting attractions. Big mistake!

The temperature late in the day was almost 30C. The air was also heavily polluted. After my run I coughed and spluttered for 20 minutes… no wonder they call it the “Beijing Cough”! The pollution hit 194 AQI. That’s 21 times worse than what I’m used to!

Fortunately I recovered from the ordeal and went to Dunhuang, a city famous for the Mogao Grottos, Crescent Lake, and The Whistling Sand Dunes! I too saw these attractions. I also went for a run in Dunhuang. This was the first time that I had ran at altitude (1200m) and 25C+ heat! No problems.

We then travelled to Lanzhou to visit some of my father’s friends. Lanzhou is not known for attractions but infamously known for once being China’s most polluted city. Fortunately, Lanzhou has since changed and is no longer as polluted as it once was. Running along the walkway by the Yellow river ended up being a trip highlight! A lot of locals are there too, walking, whip cracking, playing with diablos or just dancing! Oh and Lanzhou is one mile above sea level!

The next two stops involved even greater heights. Although we were not there for long, I was dead set on running at Qinghai Lake. At 3200m above sea level, this is in high altitude training territory. Despite gradually building up to this altitude over several days, I had a slight headache while at Qinghai. But it was now or never! The first kilometer of the run felt odd. The air was noticeably thinner as was the cool temperature. However, each stride became harder and harder. Soon my legs were completely dead and called it quits after a mere 4km!

Humbled by the high altitude experience, we headed back to Xining. At 2200m above sea level, my run in Xining was fine albeit slower than my usual pace. I enjoyed the cool climate and the much cleaner air!

Next we headed to Xi’an, one of the great ancient capitals of China. And just like the other thousands of tourists, I too visited Xi’an to see the Terracotta Army! Another interesting relic of the past is the 15m high, 14km perimeter long city wall! A perfect place for a run? Although the air was not smelly like it was in Beijing it was visibly polluted. I ended up doing two laps of the city wall on a day that was warm (23C), hazy and heavily polluted (174 AQI). I think I also got Bronchitis from this run. Was it worth it? Ask me after I recover from it! Cough splutter cough…

Finally the last city we visited was Shenzhen. Known as the “Sillicon Valley of Hardware”, 90% of the world’s electronics are made in Shenzhen! There are literally five story buildings packed to the rafters that just sell USB cables for iPhones! In order to preserve my lungs from the polluted air I decided to run at night, where it is usually cooler (low 30C!) and less polluted (<100 AQI). One night it was 33C. Suffice to say when I got back from my run, my tshirt was drenched in sweat!

Altitude, heat, and humidity! Whether you are after altitude training (right up to crazy 2+ mile high runs!) or just curious to see if you can handle running in the mid thirties with high humidity, China has a city for all environments.

Runner be warned! Many cities in China are badly polluted, as I’m sure you already know. So caveat emptor, if you’re in one of China’s large, polluted cities, choose another sport!