Speed ≠ Everything

“How can you tell if someone has run a marathon? – Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Over the past month or so, whether they wanted to or not, my friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, the mailman, my dentist, etc. have all been subjected to the details of my marathon escapades in Rome. Their responses predictably fell into one of two categories. The non-runners tried to make polite conversation by asking how long this marathon was, all while backing away slowly, of course. That one just never gets old, does it?

The runners’ response was somewhat more inviting, albeit just as predictable: “Cool. What was your time?” This prompted me to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue of explanations as to why I had decided take it easy in Rome, before – much like a catholic schoolgirl on Sunday mornings – all but confessing my finishing time of 3:48.

I know I can run faster than that. My running buddies, of course, are well aware of this, too. However, the point is that in Rome I made a conscious decision not to run all out, mostly because the race didn’t fit into my training and racing schedule at all. I still loved every second of it, and it actually taught me a lot about finishing a marathon feeling strong. The whole thing has made me think – are we, as runners, too hung up on speed sometimes? What’s that all about?

Friends who take up running often tell me how far they have run and how long it took them. Of course, quantifiable improvements in running performance are very nice, but why don’t they tell me how they felt, how much (or little) fun they had, or where they went or what they saw on the run?

Please don’t get me wrong, I too find it really fun to run really fast sometimes. I like it as much as the next person and like many other runners, I include workouts in my training which are specifically designed to improve my speed. However, this is certainly not my only goal in training, or running in general. It’s not even the most important one, not by a long shot.

Many runs (and sometimes even races) have a very different purpose. A prime example of this is the long run, of course. Not only is speed not important on these runs, it can actually be counter-productive in training. Yet, being hung up about pace on the long run and going too fast has got to be one of the most common rookie running mistakes that I see time and time again.

My easy runs and recovery runs are for the pure joy and relaxation of the sport. I must say that over time, these runs have become more important than ever to me. Some call them “junk miles”, but I couldn’t disagree more. On these runs I just relax and enjoy the scenery and my hard-earned fitness. Having fun on these runs is paramount to everything, and they are so important to keep the passion alive. I never really remember how fast I ran anything, and apart from a few meaningful personal bests, I don’t even recall the finishing times of the races I have done. I do, however, remember the places where I have run, the sights I have seen and the people that I have met.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch: a place which I passed – slowly! – on a recent long run.)

As a long-time (and hopefully life-long) runner, I find that this constant focus on speed is just not sustainable. It’s not feasible to constantly hunt those personal bests, for my part, I’m certain that I’d get very, very frustrated before eventually burning out entirely. This is not to say that I don’t have goals in my running or racing, when I’m not focussing on speed and finishing times, I might work on my running form, make a conscious effort to improve my cadence, aim for a clean negative split, try to high-five at least 5 spectators per kilometre, or tweak my nutritional strategy in an effort to avoid those dreaded pit-stops (the seldom talked about arch nemesis of virtually every runner).

Running is so much more to me than simply moving fast. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d almost depreciate what running means to me in my life if I were to quantify it only in numbers. When a fellow runner comes to tell me about a recent run or race, I’m making a point to ask them: “Awesome – how was it?” They might still only tell me about their speed and times, but at least I am keeping the doors wide open.

Running Rome

Thou art in Rome! A thousand busy thoughts
Rush on my mind, a thousand images;
And I spring up as girt to run a race!

– Samuel Rogers, Rome.

There is one feeling that overrides all others now that I have returned from my long marathon weekend in Rome, and it is that I wish I had more time to spend in the eternal city. There isn’t a single word that can adequately describe the whole experience, but these two come pretty close: friggin’ awesome!

Everything in Rome is elegantly excessive and massively impressive: the sights were endless and phenomenal, the meals were plentiful and indulgent, the wine flowed freely and the people were friendly and generally seemed to have a lot to smile about.

I couldn’t help but get a little carried away by the grandiosity of it all, and prior to the marathon I found myself powerless against the temptations of the eternal city. Thus, I committed countless acts of marathon muppetry on the day before the race, and went to bed with feet that were tired from endless sightseeing and a stomach stuffed with Roman specialty pizza (i.e. carbs that were unfamiliar to my stomach).

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(This is what a sight-seeing marathon muppet looks like.)

In keeping with all things Roman, the Rome marathon was also an exceedingly grand affair. Despite my earlier transgressions, I’m delighted to be able to say that my own experience of running the Rome marathon was an overwhelmingly positive one.

As I have pointed out in an earlier post, my goal for Rome was to take it easy, in order to give my body a bit of a break from my recent races (as far as that’s possible while running a marathon!). It was my spring vacation, something to enjoy after a long winter. My goal for the marathon was to just enjoy the race and the amazing scenery it promised to pass. As such, I made a last-minute decision to ditch my watch, hoping that without it I’d spend more time looking at more interesting things than numbers.

At the start of the race, I lined up with thousands of other runners at the Colloseum and alongside the Roman Forum, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to enjoy these sights all that much at the time. Moments after I dropped off my bag and jacket, leaving my skin clad in nothing but shorts and a vest, the heavens opened and rained upon the horde of dismayed, and now increasingly cold, runners. In a desperate bid to stay warm, I bounced around on the spot for a little while, but soon realised that this was a pointless endeavour. All I could really do at this point was to go to that little happy place in my head and hope for the race to start soon so I could get moving and warmed up.

Thankfully, the start came soon enough, but unfortunately, it was all rather messy and confusing – so much so that I almost missed the start line entirely. Perhaps I had retreated a little too much to my happy place, but the fact remains I was only 20 yards from the start line when I recognised it for what it was. Somewhat worse was the fact that I was still surrounded by a mix of runners intended for literally all different start waves. Thus I may have started by journey around Rome feeling rather confused about where I was, but more importantly, I was incredibly happy to be moving.

Despite the huge crowd of runners, I was able to run the moment I crossed the start line. Well, let’s say I was able to plod, which suited me fine at the time, as the start of the race was in the historic centre of Rome and there was much to see.

However, I eventually got rather bored with the exceedingly slow pace, and thus I started passing people. Little did I know at the time that I’d be perfecting the art of passing people over the course of the next three hours or so. I found my own rhythm and danced around slower runners, always making sure that I didn’t get in their way as I did so. I had yet to spot a single pacer, and given that I hadn’t brought my watch, they were my only external indication of my approximate pace. It was time to start the hunt.

The route was rather boring as soon as we were out of the centre of the town, so the passing game kept me nicely entertained while the scenery was decidedly more ordinary. After about 4km I caught the first glimpse of balloons bobbling over the heads of some runners further ahead. Pacers! How very exciting! However, my heart sank when I got near enough to read the numbers that were printed in big, black letters on the merrily bouncing purple balloons: 5:00. How on earth did I get stuck so far behind the 5:00 pacer when I should have been in the 3:40 – 4:00 start wave?

And this was where the passing game began in earnest. I first passed the huge blob of runners clinging to the purple 5:00 balloons, and picked up the trail leading me to the 4:45 pacers. Then I chased down the 4:30 pacers. By the time I had caught up with the 4:15 pacers, we were nearing the 17th kilometre of the race and were crossing the Tiber for the second time. I kept my eyes open as I knew what lay in wait on the other side of the bridge: the Vatican.

This part of the route was an amazing highlight for me, despite the fact that I arrived at the Vatican just in time for the next big rain shower. Everyone knows the sight of St. Peters Basilica, but to run up to, past, and around it as part of a marathon was absolutely epic. The crowd support was wonderful on this part of the course as well, and it was lovely to see so many nuns and priests lining the road and cheering for the runners too!

I don’t know if it was the hype of running though the Vatican, but once I had left it behind and found myself running, once again, along the banks of the Tiber I experienced my first and only minor low point of the race. My body was feeling good, but my head hit the inevitable moment in any endurance race when it finally realises what I’ve gotten us into and reminds me that the distance I am running is really rather far. I find it highly entertaining.

In that moment I thought of something Emelie Forsberg said in an interview, about what she does when the going gets tough during a race. She said that she slows down until she enjoys it again, and then she finds that the pace naturally comes back to her. While I didn’t slow down as such (I didn’t need to because my body was feeling fine), I agree with Emelie on the point about enjoying the run. Running is a hobby, one that makes me happy and is healthy. What’s the point, then, in struggling with it? I made it a point to spend the next two kilometres smiling; at first it was a forced smile, but it soon turned into a delirious one. I smiled at everyone unfortunate enough to catch my eye, waved at the spectators, focussed on high-fiving the crowd supporters, giving thumbs up and winks at other runners and generally just bouncing along the tunes I was listening to.

The strategy worked well for me, as I was flying again with a genuine smile on my face by the time I reached the half-way point of the marathon. In fact, I felt so strong and happy that I decided to pass the 4:15 pacers as well and go look for the 4:00 pacers. Part of my plan was to run this marathon in over four hours, so I had set myself the explicit rule of not passing the next group of pacers. I was just getting a little bored again and felt good and comfortable enough to push the pace a little.

The next 10km or so of the course were rather common again, so my hunt and passing game kept me entertained once again. There was nothing unpleasant about it, but equally, there were no awesome landmarks or anything particularly Roman about it.

If I was flying in the 20 kilometre section of the marathon, I was positively soaring by the time I reached the 30 kilometre marker. Perhaps it’s due to my usual high mileage running, or the recent addition of serious speed work to my training, or the fact that my head is in ultramarathon mode. Perhaps it was just sheer good luck on the day, but somehow I actually felt better and stronger the further I got into the race. As with any marathon, at this point a lot of runners were visibly starting to struggle (and heaven knows I’ve been there too!), but not today! I had found the 4:00 pacers, and couldn’t help but notice that the four runners with pink 4:00 balloons tied to their backs were quite spread out. I told myself that as long as I don’t pass the first of these runners, I’d be running within my own rules.

After around 35 kilometres, the route took us back into the historic centre of Rome, and this is when things progressed from epic to legendary. The crowds were utterly amazing and the route kept on carrying us from one awesome sight to the next. I can’t count the number of times a stranger in the crowd shouted my name in support (it was printed on the bib number) and there were also countless moments when the sights drew an audible “oh, wow!” from my lips.

The moment we reached the 40km maker my resolve to run this marathon easy crumbled to oblivion. I had so much left in the tank and so little of the route left to blow it on, that I just had to let rip. I flew past the last 4:00 pacer and chucked everything I had left at the finish line. The final kilometre of the race was no doubt my fastest and was also the only one that was genuine hard work.

Just when I crossed the finish line, the heavens opened up yet again, which I wasn’t all that unhappy about, as I was busy stumbling towards the medals all while enjoying/suffering my usual euphoric/exhausted post-marathon blubber and if nothing else, rain is good at hiding the tears.

Having run without a watch, I had only a vague idea of my finish time. At the finish line, the gun time was still under 4 hours, which genuinely surprised me. Once the results were published, I was dumbfounded to learn that I had just run an “easy” marathon in 3:48 minutes.

Despite deliberately aiming to finish this race in over four hours, I categorically can’t consider this a fail. The most amazing part of it was to finish it feeling so strong. It’s a feeling I genuinely wish upon everyone and hope that all you other runners out there get to experience!

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(post marathon selfie: soaked in a mixture of sweat, rain, tears and spilled energy drinks, but still all smiles)

Some (hopefully) helpful tips for those who want to run the Rome Marathon:

With over 19,000 registered runners, it most certainly was a big city marathon with all the fun and games this entails. The expo was unsurprisingly busy, but had some great exhibits and was extremely well organised. One thing that I liked was that they handed out the numbers and race packs at the start, meaning that you didn’t have to be squeezed past the alleys of trade stands by a slow moving gooey mass of crowd if you didn’t feel like it.

The race itself prides itself with following a great route that passes countless historic sites and landmarks and is meant to impress. I found that this was true in parts – especially the start, the middle section (which passes though the Vatican) and the finish (which takes the course back into the historic centre of Rome) were incredibly impressive. However, in between this there were long sections where the route is also rather ordinary, so don’t bank on the sights to carry you around the course! Having said that, the crowd support was really lovely all the way around, but again, particularly awesome in the historic parts of town.

The course itself is overall flat and generally follows the course of the river. There are a few inclines, but nothing that ever made me feel as though I’m working to get up (or down) a hill. Many runners had warned me beforehand that much of the route is run on cobble stones, which is certainly the case. I’d say that roughly a quarter of it was run on cobbles, but this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t know if that’s because I do a lot of training on uneven surfaces, or down to the fact that my marathon shoes are well cushioned and have pretty good grip for a road shoe, but I just bounced over the cobbles without a care in the world.

With the sheer number of runners, the start of the race was naturally rather crowded. However, it was also incredibly disorganised. Although runners were supposed to be starting in different areas, these were not marked at all. There were starting tunnels, but they all funnelled back into the same area. There were no announcements, no fireworks, no balloons – nothing that told me that the race had started apart from the fact that the crowd eventually began to shift towards the start line. As far as I could tell, there were no starting waves – just a mass start with everyone rolling towards the start line. In fact, I almost missed the start entirely. All of a sudden there was this big arch ahead of me and I figured this must be it.

This mass start had repercussions all the way through the race. Although it was possible to run straight away, it was very crowded and the going was slow. Similarly, the aid stations (which were set up every 5km of the course and were excellent in principle), simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of runners coming through them all at the same time. It was simply impossible for the poor volunteers to keep up with the demand and the runners had to stop and wait for a drink to be poured for them.

The start and finish area is one and the same, and despite the messy start, the finish was really well organised. I immediately got my lovely medal and a space blanket, as well as a drinks and food to refuel. The bag drop system also worked really well, in the form of lorries parked along the start area. A final word of warning, perhaps, is that although there were toilets in the start/finish area, as well as along the route, these were nowhere near enough to cater for the volume of runners, so the queues were the longest I’ve ever seen at a race and all the toilet paper had disappeared long before the start area was even full of runners.

The bottom line is that this is a big city race, which brings many, many runners together to run together in an amazing city. The organisation was overall really good and I’d definitely take part in this event again. Despite the very flat course, I’d say that this is not a PB course – it’s simply too crowded and the fact that it’s not possible to run through the aid stations if you want a drink will slow you down significantly. However, for a running tourist who wants to take part in what must be one of the world’s grandest marathons, this race has an awful lot to offer. Given that I wasn’t at all bothered with finishing in a particular time, I can genuinely say that loved every moment of it!

From 21.2 to 42.2 to 88 to Insanity?

I suspect that I’ve really done it this time. I’ve relinquished whatever shreds of my sanity I still possessed prior to today. I’ve signed myself up for my first ultramarathon. Sort of.

Hey, you know, while I’m on this streak of new running experiences (midnight runs, parkruns, fell races…), I thought, hell, why not try running 88km (or 54 miles) in one day and see what happens?

That’s what I’ll be doing on the 28th of June on the stunning Cateran Trail with two fellow crazy runners. It’s not a race as such (hence I say it’s only sort of an ultramarathon); instead, it’s a charity challenge for a very good cause.

Most people walk the trail, but we’re going to run it. Due to the walkers, it’s got a generous time limit of 24 hours to finish the course. I think it’ll be as gentle an introduction to ultra running as is possible (if such a thing is possible at all!).

Right now, I’m just stupidly excited about the prospects of this new adventure. However, I suspect that my brain is still a little too shell-shocked to fully comprehend what I’ve signed us up for. Until it catches on, I’m just going to enjoy the hype. The fear will come, and I’ve got no doubts that I’m in for some very dark moments that will see me reduced to a shivering, twitching mess of trail trash. Really, I can’t wait!

At the moment, I’m still training for a – hopefully – very fast half-marathon in Inverness in March, followed by a jolly doddle around Rome for the marathon there at the end of March. After that, it looks like I’ll transition into unchartered running territory, by venturing into the land of crazy mileage.

Maspie_waterfall(I’ll be doing lots of this in the spring!)*

But for now, there are other things I must do. For a start, I’ll add my physiotherapist to my Christmas card list and save his number on speed dial. I have a hunch that we’ll become great friends over the next couple of months!

*I realise that this picture might give the misleading impression that I’m planning on standing around a lot under a waterfall in preparation for running an ultramarathon. Although it sounds like good fun too, I don’t think that this would adequately prepare me for running 55 miles. It just so happens that I’m not running (yet) in this picture, as I was walking my most awesome and most loyal friend, the lovely Myra. She’s 14 years old and sadly can’t join me on my runs anymore. I often take her for a little walk before I run, so she gets her exercise and doesn’t feel left out. Note to self: try to get a decent picture of trail running self, so people don’t think that all I do is stand around on the trails!