Rotterdam Marathon 2013 - A View From The Back

[Fri 19th Apr] 


2 ½ years ago I had an epiphany and entered the world of running. Having never been ‘sporty’ in the least, I dragged my 18 stone frame down to the hotel gym whilst on business and went for a ‘run’. I say run, perhaps what I mean is plod or jog, you know, moving at a slightly higher pace than walking! That session was tough and slow, but it was the first step I took on the long journey to the starting line at Rotterdam Marathon.

Because I’m relatively new to the running club, let me share my inspiration for that first run in the hotel, it was quite simply, health and ensuring I’d be around for the family in the future. Five years ago, I was blue-lighted into Wansbeck Hospital for life saving surgery, which opened up the worst year of my life with follow-up operations/treatments until the end of 2008. I then recovered back to life ‘as normal’, but I didn’t really get my act together fitness wise until late 2010 and so the journey began.

I followed the fantastic ‘Couch to 5k’ programme initially, found the world of parkrun which allayed my fears of partaking in running events, and eventually crept up the distances entering numerous 10k’s and half marathons through 2011. The times weren’t (and still aren’t!) impressive, but the weight dropped, the confidence built and now running is baked into my DNA. I found a community that is inclusive, supportive and generally none-judgemental, not something another sport can rival I suspect.

So with the above said (and I won't repeat in the future, it’s just context for this first report), I looked to build upon this in 2012, where as well as entering the obvious 10k’s, HM’s etc, I upped the ante and entered Edinburgh Marathon, and also The Wall Ultra Run (69 miles) – my ability to enter races, I’m afraid doesn’t match my ability to do well in them! These challenges were tough but I completed both and wasn’t last in either of them…. just. I used to be in an on-line running club and wrote reports on them both for that, I will share one day, and you will see that it’s very different perspective from you lads and lasses who lead from the front. An emotional race as much as a physical one would summarise this.

Anyhow, the title of this report was Rotterdam Marathon wasn’t it, so let’s cut to the chase! Firstly, I picked up this race on a recommendation as I didn’t get a place for London (no surprise there) and after a bit of googling it seemed to have the right attributes; quite early in the mara season, not too many hills and supportive crowd (more of that later) – it was also simple to enter, no ballots, so I was sold.

Preparations for this event started just after Christmas, and I followed a runner's world 4.30 plan, but this was disrupted with injury for 3-4 weeks, so whilst I got my long runs up to 15/16 miles, it never really peaked as it should. The strategy simply became ‘get to the start line’, a combination of flights and hotels meant this would be a costly event to miss, and being tight I couldn’t have that! J The reason for those injuries was simple, despite my great start to running, my focus on health plateaued in 2012 and I was carrying an extra stone, which I really could have done without.

So race weekend came, I was in one piece and headed for NCL airport for the early flight. So early in fact, I arrived at Heathrow before 8am, with a connecting flight to Rotterdam at 1PM, so I ventured down to Bedfont Lakes parkrun – it would have been rude not to!  Great reception from the team at the parkrun, I ran it faster than I should, but couldn’t help feeling my 42 (now 43) year old body could beat a teenager in the last 100 yards, surprisingly I didn’t! Perhaps not good prep for a forthcoming mara, but hey ho.

Jumped on the 1PM to Rotterdam, flight as quick as the NCL leg, and arrived in the city mid-afternoon. De-camped to the Hilton Hotel, which couldn’t be closer to the start line if it tried, I could even see my starting pen for the following morning from my room, and that was the finishing line too - so perfect. My memory of Edinburgh was of long walks, bus transfers so this was a tremendous positive. The atmosphere in town was great as a number of running events were hosted that weekend.

I took the opportunity to look around Rotterdam as I really didn’t know what to expect. A very modern clean city, some iconic architecture and a very pleasant feel to it. What I did notice is that this city has more McDonalds branches than I’ve ever seen before, and I include the US in this comparison. That would be great for a recovery shake later tomorrow J

Sunday morning I prepared, mummifying my feet (my big toenails fell off last time, and needed to avoid a repeat!), and generally messing around as if I was a professional runner. Gels, check ;double-tied laces-check, number pinned-check, etc etc. I walked down to the pen, it took a whole two minutes, I was exhausted J

Proudly displaying my Blyth colours and the Union Flag on my vest I awaited the off alongside 8500 other people talking between themselves. I would have joined in, but it was all Dutch to me..

The cannon fired at 10.30, and 4 minutes later I was crossing the line and triggering the Garmin into life. A famous local singer, accompanied by 8500 backing singers, sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, great for the atmosphere but I wasn’t expecting that here.

Being in Holland, the course is principally flat, it kind of does a big figure of 8, the first loop south of the river, the second taking you back near to the start before looping around the north. Very well designed for those who may bail out, and with my fractured preparation that was a real possibility.

Mile one headed down the main Rotterdam drag, Coolsingel, crowd 3-4 deep on both sides. The pace was brisker given the atmosphere, and we head towards the Erasmus Bridge, which is the iconic pointy thing you see on the tourist board pictures. The bridge offered us our first incline of the day, then presented a descent into the very flat south side of town. The course weaved through fairly anonymous streets for several miles, adding credence to the song that you could be in Rotterdam or anywhere, it was all very samey – I likened it to Sim City for you PC gamer fans, or perhaps Lego City for those with kids J That’s not entirely fair on the city, but this part of town was quite bland. Mind you part of this for me is the mind-set when running distance. Post mile two I pondered life and it's contents and was effectively in a trance/meditative state until around mile 12. My progress was to plan, most miles under 11 mins to that point, and I felt strong and committed.

Occasionally during this first half of the event, I did break out of this lack of consciousness, noticing how Rotterdam was different. Cycle lanes used by mopeds as well as bikes, an amazing volume of supporters cheering the Brit on, such passion for the colour orange and impromptu refreshment stations set up between the official ones. Sometimes I had to fight back to get into my trance, but who knows how long I was lost in space? As a football fan I was looking forward to running past Feyenoord’s ground- I didn’t even see it, and it’s big enough – but that’s a positive to me – I don’t often get the feeling of being in ‘the zone’ but it was helping me along this morning.

From mile 13 the fatigue set in, consistent with the rising temperatures (it got to 22 degrees before the end). I walked through the half mara point, very close to the centre of town, just before 2 and a half hours, it was an extremely tempting proposition to quit at this point, but I didn’t. I filled my head with positive mantras, replayed supportive comments from friends and family, and resolved to finish this thing – it’s a long way to travel for failure!

The wheels well and truly came off after this point, slow running punctuated with walk breaks that got increasingly longer. Rotterdam has a time limit of 5.30, which for most people isn’t a problem, but my last mara in Edinburgh had been 5.48! I suddenly had a new mantra, ‘Beat the sweeper’. My A result of sub 5 had gone out the window, but my B result, sub 5.30 and PB, was in sight – not impressive by some people’s standards, but hey I’m not ‘some people’ J Because of those walk breaks, miles 13-17 slowed to 13mins+ per mile which decreased even more as I encroached mile 21. Add a dodgy stomach into this mix from gel consumption and you get the picture of the struggle.

Because of the layout of the course, we could see the 3.5 to 4.5 hour finishers streaming back to home in their masses, cheered on by the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve ever seen. I am told that over 900,000 people in Rotterdam come out to support the race, and I well believe it.

Those last miles were tough, shouts of ‘Come on Lee’ were numerous and I acknowledged them all. I even had a ‘Come on Blyth, that’s the spirit’ from a random Brit, everyone pulled me forward. From mile 22 the body was not willing, but the head had more resolve than ever before, the pace picked up. My inner thoughts equated the distance left to recent races I had been in and I repeated to myself ‘It’s just a parkrun and a bit’ and so forth, it worked. I still walked but the walks were shorter, postings 12’s/13’s again which is all my body could muster.

The course hit a park with very little support this made things harder, I gratefully grabbed some home grown drinks from some kids, I have no idea what it was I didn’t care – it’s all good energy.

As we hit mile 24, the finish was possible, the sweeper wasn’t here, the marshal’s declared my pace was good to finish this thing, and I held onto that. As the final miles ebbed away the crowd became huge 5/6 deep in some places, and they created a tight funnel of people chanting my name, patting me on the back, and instilling that will to finish in me.

As one crowd went, another came into sight, and the same again, ‘Lee,Lee,Lee’, ‘You Can Do It’ - Yes I could.

1 Mile to go, the end was in sight, you could hear the crowd on Coolingsel,  I couldn’t get there quick enough., and as I turned the 90 degrees into the last drag the most unbelievably supportive crowd greeted me, this atmosphere couldn’t have been any better when the winners crossed the line.

The ‘You Never Walk Alone’ singer was in the middle of the course, near the finish line, high fiving each of us stragglers. Finish time 5.27 and a bit, 20 minutes better than last time, nowhere near my potential but I’ve got the bug, and can only see improvement here.

Wonderful medal, nice tech-t (Bright orange, no surprise), and the most marvellous crowd you could ask for. Could this be Rotterdam or anywhere, no this marathon has a unique sprit that can only be delivered here and I commend this to anyone fast or slow.


Lee Simpson