Four months of preparation and here I stand on the banks of the Danube River eager to start the 35thVienna Marathon. Surrounded by magnificent architecture, I take a deep breath and absorb this incredible moment. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to line up against a world class field and run through the streets of one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cities.
Let me just state up front, Vienna is beautiful. Incredibly beautiful. Vienna is Austria and Europe’s historical and cultural crossroads. People once travelled here to visit the cultural centre of Europe, to listen to opera, to dance in ballgowns and drink STRONG coffee. The city continues to draw cultural pilgrims today. Situated in the east of the country on the Danube River, it’s artistic and intellectual legacy was shaped by residents such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Sigmund Freud. Vienna houses the memory of these famous citizens in the many opera houses, art museums and Freud’s House. The city reflects on bygone eras through the incredible imperial palaces, including the Schönbrunn Palace – the Habsburgs’ summer residence. Vienna is a city where the past sits comfortably with the present.
A gunshot abruptly ends my dreaming and I am brought back to the purpose for my visit – to run 42.2km as quickly as I can. My first race as an IAAF Gold Status athlete. Crossing the popular Imperial Bridge as we start, I am as relaxed as can be. My strategy is to let the front group of East African runners targeting 2:25 make the early running. I resist the urge to start too fast and settle into a comfortable pace, and steady rhythm. I begin to search for groups so that I can fall in and have some company. During the first quarter of the race I focus on staying calm, observing my surroundings, taking in the crowds, and enjoying the scenery. By doing this I gave my brain a mental break. Something my coach and my sport psychologist have trained me to do. The intention is to preserve the brain early on in the race using it later when the body requires serious focus, support and attention. I am moving freely and loving the crowds who have gathered in their thousands to cheer loudly.
The Vienna City Marathon is the biggest event in Austria. With over 40 000 runners taking part in the event. What an experience just to see people come out in their numbers, filling the sidewalks from start to finish, and creating a lively atmosphere. ‘Hop-hop-hop’ are the chants coming from the crowds, and people are shouting words of encouragement as I pass, something which helps immensely as I focus my mind on the fact that I am still running alone. To feel alone in a such a big field and such a big city and so far from home is a surreal experience.
Suddenly I find myself stranded in no man’s land having to battle against a strong headwind and a gradual incline for around 3km. I remain calm and try to chase the runners ahead in the desperate hope that I can join a group. I surge, focus, and quicken my pace. As I reach the group they are slowing down from the fast pace they set earlier. I pass them and am once again on my own.
I reach 21.1km in 76:05. Sticking to my 3:37 split per km and on track for my targeted finish time of 2:34. I feel energized, as the crowds cheer me on. I spot an elite woman ahead and increase my pace to catch her. I lose focus desperate for a fellow runner to join. Instead of relaxing and keeping to my splits; I hit a series of 3:24’s kms (13 seconds faster than planned) from the 22km to the 34km mark. Oops.
Why? Well, I imagined my supporters along the side of the road- my coach, mentor, family, training partners, and friends. Just thinking of them motivated me and gave me more energy. I wanted to do well not only for myself but to thank them for believing in me.
With 7km to go my only prayer was for the finish line. I had drained every drop of energy from my body. I was a shell running on increasing gulps of oxygen alone. My legs felt like heavy weights. I could hardly pick my feet up and concentrated on putting one in front of the other. Suddenly I felt like I was standing still while other runners passed me in slow motion. I’d hit the wall – let’s rephrase that, I’d smashed headlong into THE WALL. It is the greatest dread and worst experience for any distance runner.
Somone once commented, “hitting the wall is a case of mind over matter – the mind doesn’t mind and the body doesn’t matter”. I was engaged in a monumental battle between mind and body. My body wanting to give up, but my mind stubbornly refusing to quit. This is when I realized what true grit is about. It is the moment you feel like you can’t go anymore, when your body is pushed to its limits, yet somehow you find the strength to carry on.
I begin to make deals between the mind and the body, earnest negotiations and trade-offs. Not everyone can travel alone into this deep dark place. Not everyone can push through this type of pain. But that I tell myself is why I am here and that I will not succumb. AND THAT IS THE TRUE BEAUTY OF THE MARATHON. Marathons are not for the faint hearted. A marathon demands that you respect it, that you treat it with caution and diligence. I came into this marathon in the best form of my life. This form included a series of wins and a half marathon personal best by 1 minute. I was quietly confident that I could run a good marathon. I’ve always believed that resilience is dealing with the difference between our expectations and the reality that is life. My expectations were a great race. My reality was very different – I now had to manage this. I keep driving forward, one agonizing stride at a time. I keep my form, hold my head up with purposeful pride, pull my shoulders back and drive for the finish. In the last 400m I am overtaken for 8thposition, it is the highest position I have finished in a Gold label race to date. Although I do not achieve my goal time, I am still proud to have recorded my second fastest time over the distance.
I am still new to the distance, with only 4 marathons completed I have no doubt that I will break through to run sub 2:32 soon. I was inspired by Des Linden’s win at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. What inspired me most about her performance was the fact that her breakthrough win in her first major marathon was on her 6thattempt. I learn from each and every marathon, and that is what keeps me coming back for more. One of the reasons I love running so much is for the challenge. I strive to be better and do better. To take lessons out of every experience and work on improving those mistakes so that it does not happen again.
Vienna taught me patience. Because the marathon is such a long race, patience is key to achieving a successful marathon. I also need to adhere to the plan and stick to the splits. I learned to control my emotions and not allow them to over-rule the head. I am also proud of this achievement because it was a brave effort. Every day is a school day, and every day I learn – this was a BIG learning experience, now watch this space…