Second Bite of the Cherry
It was supposed to be the Hangzhou marathon on 7 November, but that got postponed. It was then going to be the Shanghai marathon on 28 November, but that got postponed. I was then going to run, just me on my lonesome, along Suzhou Creek (and back, and out, and back again), still on the 28th, but the flu and a week’s worth of overtime put paid to that.
Finally, on 4 December, after a much disrupted training block (one that was initially truncated, then restored, then extended), I completed my second ever marathon, accompanied almost the whole way round by my wonderful wife on her spangly brand new bicycle.
My goal on the day was 3:30. I failed to achieve it, coming in at 3:37:17. Nevertheless, considering this is my first year of serious running, having only run 20 or more kilometres maybe four or five times prior to 2021, I am more than happy with my time.
I shaved roughly 35 minutes off my previous best from May. While not being quite the time I wanted—or the time I’m certain I could have got if I’d have run this race a few weeks earlier—it was still very much the running redemption I was desperate for following the mistakes I made during my first go around.
Speaking of that first attempt, I’ve dug up some telling data from both that earlier race and my attempt this month, as I feel like comparing the two directly is the best way to highlight what went right, and what still went wrong, this time around.
Interestingly enough, despite having completed an additional training block and being in better shape overall than back in May, I set off at pretty much exactly the same pace. Unlike 7 months ago, however, I managed to maintain that pace, or something close to it, deep into the race: until at least the 33rd kilometre.
In Haining, my pace started declining fairly early on before I began to outright crash around halfway through. Back home in Changning, despite a drop in pace towards the end, I never really crashed at all. Yes, the slowdown was significant, but it was also a conscious decision I made when I saw my heart rate starting to creep up towards my lactate threshold.
I slowed down towards the end because I had learnt my lessons from last time around.
In retrospect I don’t think I needed to slow down anywhere near as much, or for as long, as I did, but after my failure last time, my number one goal was to get to the end without stopping to walk. I decided to err on the side of caution to make 100% sure I achieved that.
Could I have pushed and made it to the end in under 3:30? Maybe. I believe if I’d have gone for it then it would have been very close. But I was in uncharted territory and I made the choice to hold back and see how good I felt by the end if I didn’t push. Especially as I’ve just started out on my running journey and have a lot of improvement left in me at this level of training.
My ultimate thinking on the day was why risk burning out again chasing a PB that I’ll just break once more in 6 months to a year anyway? It seemed more worthwhile to relax a bit and add another data point to my experience: how it feels to come home with a little something left in the tank.
If anything, the heart data from the two races tells a clearer story than the pace with regards to what happened in both cases. I know a lot of people don’t like or trust heart rate data, a stance that I can’t really get my head around. I for one find it far more useful, and consistently reliable, than pace.
My heart rate for the first half of the Haining marathon was through the roof. 175 bpm is way above my regular threshold effort. While I have to assume that part of that is due to the heat, which was more than 10 degrees higher than when I ran my second marathon this month, it’s still clear that I went out too hard and was always destined to crash and burn.
Since then, not only have I gained an improved understanding of my heart rate zones and where I should be for a given intensity, I’ve also developed far more self-control and a heightened ability to reign my instincts in when I feel the urge to speed up (as shown by the relative stability of the green line in the graph above).
Around the halfway stage my heart rate started to creep up towards the higher end of my aerobic zone and started crossing over into lower end of my threshold zone at about kilometre 18. This was probably due to good ol’ heart rate creep and potentially the rising temperature as we got towards midday.
At this point I should probably have taken my foot off the gas a little bit and just accepted the slight loss of time, as it would have put me in a better place for a mini-surge towards the end. If I’d have done so then maybe I’d have ended up closer to that 3:30 target than I eventually did.
Despite the dip at the end, I’m still incredibly pleased with how I did. I finished a marathon for the first time without having to stop and walk, and got some valuable experience of just how hard those final 8–10 km are (struggling and run-walk-running for a third or more of my last marathon meant I didn’t really have this reference before).
By slowing down and playing it safe — and not feeling all that bad at the end or in the hours and days afterwards — I also learnt that I probably do have it in me to push and maintain my pace at that stage of a race. Finally, I got some good, steady feedback regarding my intensity, and cemented that 158–162 bpm range as my current marathon target heart rate.
*As an update/aside, between me writing my first draft and finally posting this “reflection”, the Hangzhou marathon organising committee sent out a message informing all participants that they plan to reschedule the race for March 2022. I’m not sure if the shortened training block that necessitates will allow me to go for under 3:30, I’m just going to see how things go in the weeks to come.