Amsterdam Diary & Race Report
As far as all round running/life experiences go, I’m not quite sure how I will top this.
Here is my race weekend diary from the TCS Amsterdam Marathon 2017.
David Wyeth – 3rd November 2017
It is truly amazing to think the places where not finishing a race as planned can take you. Back in June, a global events company based in London, reached out to Neal (as club chairman) to make me an invitation to travel to Amsterdam and race the city’s IAAF Gold Label Marathon. This was as a direct response to the London Marathon episode (why else?!) and their suggestion to their partners, Le Champion, the organisers of the race. Whatever the rationale and why, neither Matt Rees nor I could imagine passing up such an opportunity. We accepted and hung in there waiting and hoping it hadn’t all been a big clerical mix up.
Whether or not you go looking for it, when you a struck with 15 minutes of fame, truly the lesson learnt is to embrace it. In my case, you’d be forgiven for suggesting that I’ve unashamedly milked it.
As much as it was an offer you supposedly couldn’t refuse, I was initially quite daunted by the prospect to sign up for another marathon so soon. Before receiving the invite, I was planning to make half marathon distance my focus for the remainder of 2017 with the aim to achieve a championship time (sub-1:15) before the year was out. I came to realise that I might well stand a better chance to get the corresponding standard for the full marathon (sub-2:45).
Swansea Half Marathon, end of June, was my first port of call in the knowledge of an autumn marathon. After the race, I joined Matt Rees and his fellow Asics Frontrunners for some food. I had the good fortune to be sat with Martin Rush (Head of Coaching and Athlete Development at England Athletics). Made aware of my recent catastrophe, Martin was curious enough to listen to me prattle on about how I had trained for the last marathon.
He shared advice on how I might tackle Amsterdam differently, from which these were my take-away notes:
- Get into 10K PB shape; then execute an intense/high mileage block of training for 6 to 8 weeks, and allow for a 2 week taper.
- Get a copy of Renato Canova’s “Scientific Approach to Marathon Training” for direction to build the 6-8 week block
- As your feet are pendulums in the running action, use the lightest running shoe you can get away with to race in.
Renato Canova is a world renowned athletic coach from Italy, working in Kenya since 1998, primarily in Iten. He is responsible for training generations of Olympians and bringing through some of the finest elite marathon runners in recent years (including several winners of World Major Marathons). Canova’s book proved to be quite scientific (I was fairly warned by the title) but a fascinating read considering his credentials. Acquiring a copy of the book was all the more enigmatic for the fact it was beyond the clutches of Amazon.com (or online anywhere for that matter). It required a postal form sent to IAAF Headquarters in Monaco, along with an international bank surcharge. Surely if I read this, my training was as good as done?
A couple of key sessions gave me confidence as I looked to build specificity for the task ahead:
In summary I was incredibly pleased with how this approach to training worked. Despite the higher intensity it was much easier to withstand on the basis it was an 8 week block, rather than the epic 20 week slog for London. It was satisfying to be able to string together some 100 mile weeks, interspersed with weeks with slightly less miles but harder, higher quality sessions. It also didn’t feel like I’d spent my entire life building up to one event and left me fresh and itching to go during the taper.
Anyway, the weekend. Back to that.
We made it a family thing, so along with my wife Sarah and our two kids we flew out on the afternoon of Friday 13th. Our airport transfer was via a ‘gangster’ blacked out Mercedes SUV. Little in the life as a running widow has impressed Sarah, but I felt the tide turning. My main concern was to ensure we arrived early enough to be eating a proper meal at a decent time. We didn’t want to stray far considering the hassle carting the kids about town, so it was a little disappointing that at check-in the hotel warned they had a private reception in the main restaurant so we must settle for the lobby bar menu. No big deal we’ll make do. We settled down to eat whilst a trail of slimly built African gentlemen filtered past in either Adidas or Nike shell-suits, paired with flip-flops, headed towards the main restaurant. Once we were 80 euros deep into the bar menu, my sense of entitlement couldn’t resist the urge to check the entry standard. Sure enough, the four Wyeth’s were on the list for the private function. We slipped through the partition and entered the race weekend world of an elite athlete. I’d best make the most of this I thought, and learn what I can, so grabbed a plate and joined the queue for the extravagant buffet. So began the fraudulence of life as an elite: a second sitting for the carb-loader whilst the kids tucked into the pudding trolley.
The next morning at breakfast was an exercise of enlightenment for how much sugar could be added, with abandon, to pretty much anything on the plate or in the cup. I felt comforted by the direct line being drawn between the supreme elite and the ethos of my very own running club. Maybe there was a place for cake and running at the sharp end after all? Until I realised the catch: 120+ mile weeks to work it off.
I started to figure out who some of the runners in the room were and what they’d achieved. From the start list, I knew there were seven in the room who had gone sub 2:06 (for context, Steve Jones’ British marathon record has stood at 2:07 for 30 years). Never the less to the wider world those seven were yet to become household names. This weekend presented that chance – perhaps much like the previous year’s winner (Daniel Wanjiru scored a course record here in 2016 and went on to win London Marathon 2017). Amsterdam certainly seems to be the place where the emerging talent get their chance. It makes sense considering that the athlete management agency (Global Sports Communication and their newly furnished shop window, ‘NN Running Team’) is based here.
Confidence instilled by a comment from Ed Caesar on social media in the days before, I made my introduction to Valentijn Trouw. Valentijn is responsible for managing Eliud Kipchoge, the fastest marathoner on the planet (the star of Nike’s Breaking2 project and recent winner in Berlin), as well as manager to the abundance of NN team athletes present here in Amsterdam. Ed got to know Valentijn well during research for his fantastic book “Two Hours”. Unbelievably, Ed had gone to the trouble of mentioning me and enlightening him to a certain video clip that has been doing the rounds. Valentijn gave a great big hand slap of a greeting and put me at ease for the interruption. Very kindly he suggested we join the athlete briefing later that day. This is the meeting in which the elite pace squad are introduced and their agreed splits are announced, race bibs distributed and other details concerning the sharp end of the race are shared: yet another wonderful opportunity to experience first-hand the preparations of the elite.
The best bit was that Valentijn had offered that we could drop off our own custom drinks to be transported to the fuel station tables used by the elites. As I picked up mine and Matt’s numbers, I was also thrust a couple of sacks full of empty sports bottles. The sole British elite athlete at the event, Shaun Dixon, kindly took me under his wing and shared a master class in making use of the facilities. I had thankfully packed SIS energy powder mix (which although I had not fuelled a race with, I had been using as part of carb-loading, so knew my gut would hopefully tolerate.. certainly better than a cup of Isostar).
Shaun’s key advice was to use gaffer tape to strap the gel to the bottle along the gel pack’s tear line. Labelled up (for distribution to each interval of 5km markers) here was the result: the proverbial ducks in a row and maybe just the leg-up I needed to mitigate another energy crisis. Ed Caesar – I cannot thank you enough for opening the door that led to this remarkable good fortune.
In terms of Saturday, Matt suggested we get a shake-out run done and out the way early. Good idea. I normally pride myself on my navigation skills but made a right hash of getting us out towards the Olympic stadium and instead we took in the sights of an industrial business park pre-dawn following a wrong canal turn.There’s more than one waterway, apparently…
The early start helpfully allowed us to indulge family commitments: I had our daughter’s birthday to celebrate. We had booked a table at a distinguished restaurant ‘The Pancake Bakery’ for a birthday lunch. Emboldened by my new insights to elite fuelling, whilst the grown-ups went savoury, I joined the kids on the sweet stuff: banana, chocolate and cream laden pancakes. This hopefully made up for having black tea without 5 spoons of sugar at breakfast.
You know what they say about not trying anything new before an important race? I had to break this golden rule, but felt on balance there was merit: Ugali was on the evening menu. For those not familiar, this is the staple diet of the Kenyan based elite runners. Breakfast, Dinner and Tea. It is a fine grain that once cooked forms a bland stiff gloop. Two helpings of ugali seemed to be about the right way to go.
A terrible night’s sleep followed – the gold standard of anxiety a marathoner comes to expect – before an early start to drop off the bottles, get breakfast and make it down in time for the elite athlete shuttle coach to the stadium. The race starts and finishes within the stadium of the 1928 Olympic Games, 3km away from the hotel. On arrival we are escorted through to a large waiting room where the athletes can sit, relax and change. T-minus 2 hours, so there’s plenty of sitting. Besides Zane Robertson (59m PB for half distance, the New Zealander is making his marathon debut) and a couple other Europeans, Matt and I must really have stuck out as the two random muzungu in the room. At 8:22am, and seemingly without verbal initiation, everyone rises from their seat and files out of the room to warm up. We dutifully follow suit.
By now people are flooding into the stadium through the main entrance (an archway aligning to the centre of the back straight). We’re in a suite of rooms just to the right so I’m able to stick my head out and experience the noise and tension building inside the stadium. Back in the relative calm of the waiting room, the athletes are fully kitted and rubbing some kind of lotion into their legs. It’s not deep-heat – it smells better than that – but presumably some kind of muscle stimulant?
It is time!
We are escorted into the stadium. It is an amazing unforgettable atmosphere. It feels great to be able to stride back and forth to release nervous tension on the 200m bend in front of the start line. A world away from the usual pre-race penned in experience. Five minutes out, the elite runners serenely congregate in a small area flooded with a slice of morning sunlight 75 metres in front of the start line to keep warm (it isn’t exactly cold, certainly not to a visitor from Manchester). We ready for the gun.
Nestled at the back of the pack of elite runners, but with the mass start pressing from behind, I anticipate a quick start. Once around the track and out under the stand, I settle well into a tempo unconcerned by those rushing past. Nearly a mile in and the GPS suggests I am cooking it. I work hard in the first 5km to back-off into intended pace. These are good signs the taper hasn’t entirely eroded my fitness.
Around 6km, the lead pack of elites make their way back along the other side of the road from a switch-back section of the course. It is always a breath-taking sight, the majestic effortless speed at which they move, though today made all the more spine-tingling for the fact I was sat amongst them the previous couple of hours.
I had noticed from the online literature that my penchant for a measure of imperial standards was treated with total disregard by the organisers. However it had also been a lesson from London to avoid an over reliance on the watch. From swotting up, I knew there would be a race clock every 5km and therefore memorised my target splits accordingly, breaking partially from the shackles of min/mile pace.
The particular lesson from London had concerned the Isle of Dogs where GPS readings get erratic among the high rises and tunnels. I had become more and more disheartened by the watch beeping early for a mile when the next huge mile arch wasn’t even in sight.
I wanted to avoid that here so I planned to tick over from one 5km to the next, recalibrating my target time simply based on the next 5km stretch. Mentally, this proved a good strategy, and I took satisfaction reaching the 15km and 30km marks (mentally splitting the race into thirds). On long training runs, I take comfort from knowing I’m halfway and that every step further I’m on my way home. I had the same sensation passing the 21km mark in 1h18m16: though tempering the fact I hadn’t yet done half the work, I was at least on my way back.
Before halfway, there was a 6km stretch that meanders south alongside the Amstel river. This section was headlong into the wind. I latched onto the group and benefited from the pack dictating the pace (a glance over the shoulder had informed I’d otherwise be in no man’s land). It was a tough section of the race, but one from which I emerged intact and pressed on when the group splintered somewhere around the 25km mark.
The temperature rose during the second half. Thanks largely to the elite table service, I didn’t encounter anything resembling the “dark” spell I explored in London. I continued to focus on one 5km block at a time, and despite my awareness I was slightly off the pace set in the first half, I was passing my competitors. It was a comforting feeling that turned to dismay when I spotted Matt ahead as we neared 29km. We talked as our paths met. He was struggling with stomach cramps, his target had slipped, but he was determined to finish. I pleaded him to tag on in the hope our coming together would trigger a second wind (I’m ignorant to the experience of stomach cramps). His selfless manner was more focussed on urging me on: “Go smash it.”
The release from my nightmare: The watch recorded a 5’55” 19th mile. My pace was still smooth and steady, I hadn’t been pressing. I can’t explain the joy this brought and the sense of release from the fear of a repeat of London. I just needed to hang on in there. I believe I suffered for not having a specific goal at this stage but I don’t mind that, the priority was to finish the job. Through 35km I knew I had slipped a little further from the pace but not drastically and anyway I was still passing others without being passed myself. My head was together and despite my legs tiring I was in complete control.
By this point I was well past the point that I had begun to unravel in London. I knew also this passage to 40km would be hard but I had focus.
The Chorlton Four at 40km was a sight and sound to behold. I was dying on my feet at this point and struggling to keep it together. Watching back, the girl’s video from when I passed, I hugely regret that I didn’t show the sign of appreciation I felt inside, I was just so spent by this point. It was hugely uplifting: you can reliably trust CR support for knowing where you’ll need them most.
The Chorlton Four: Fiona Roberts, Hannah Coates and Becky Mather, with Vicky Thompson behind the lens. All four were taking part in the afternoon event, the Mizuno Half Marathon.
The final 2km was an almighty drag. My parents sprung into life and screamed at me (relieved probably more than any other emotion that I was at least this deep into the race and still standing).
It was exciting to anticipate the arrival back inside the arena and 500 metres to go I could muster a thumbs up to a photographer.
The stadium is electric. 200 metres of fist punching.
Through the security cordon, I stagger into the waiting room, with the awareness that my arrival back has broken the calm. The elites are all sat fully track-suited and relaxed and seemingly completely recovered from their 2 hour exertion. The odd bemused smile greeted me as I drag myself back to my stuff – I cared not. I had finished and was self-satisfied that I was at least dragging myself around unaided.
I got chatting in the buffet restaurant with Caroline whilst getting hot drinks on the first evening and next day walked around to the Athlete Briefing on the Saturday together (it was a bit like a speak-easy knowing where to go). After a brief chat I asked, “So what are you hoping for tomorrow, Caroline?” Dead straight response: “to break the course record”. For some, it is about winning, for others the bar is set higher!
We shook hands on the start line and Caroline was still managing to smile. The race didn’t go to plan but she still had time to talk and smile afterwards and let me fumble about with my camera phone. I looked her up when I got home.
Caroline happened to be Caroline Rotich, winner of Boston Marathon 2015
As we prepared to leave for home, there was one last person I had learnt was present and I hoped I’d have the honour to meet. The Nike athletes hovering in close proximity to an elderly guy sat at the only public computer on the mezzanine gave me cause to double take. I realised he’d been in the same seat much of the weekend as I passed by. I dashed back to the hotel room and grabbed the book that has never been too far from my person since it arrived. When I returned, Renato Canova took a moment to be distracted from his work and only truly affirmed his identity when I showed him the book. He obliged my request to sign it whilst I enthused at how enlightened I was by the concept of lipid consumption rates. He asked how I had got on in the race.
I was met with a look of dejection, mixed with commiseration, when I proudly declared I’ve been using his methods but only run 2 hours 38!
So there you have it.
I’ve upped my unaided finish ratio: 2 to 1. That’s a 66.6% success rate. Let’s hope I can make it 75% in London, and fitness willing attack the course to go quicker again.
As much as it would have been good to stick around in Amsterdam another night, we needed to have the kids back in school Monday. Schiphol Airport is huge and somewhat unforgiving on marathon feet. By this time I was paying for having gone with the extreme lightweight option of Brooks’ Hyperion, they might get you there quicker but boy they limit the cushioning of the ride! My heels were in agony.
I’m proud of how I’ve come through this. A marathon is a daunting prospect however well you have trained physically and mentally. I’ve allowed for a certain amount of expectation to build with those around me (rather than capitalising on an opportunity for a more covert venture to a foreign land to conquer my demons). When I’ve stopped and thought about it, I have imagined the potentially macabre curiosity of others: as in, whether I’d be repeating my antics or indeed jog it out of fear. Having said that, I’ve only ever been aware of supportive remarks. I’m endlessly grateful for that and couldn’t blame anyone for tiring of the circus (here on in, I won’t mention it unless you do).
This year has not been at all what I expected. I’m relieved to have come full cycle and not only identify the lessons to learn, but also implement them successfully. That is the part of the process that grabs me. I find it endlessly fascinating to discover what it takes to run that little bit faster, that little bit further.
It seems poetic that having experienced such privileged hospitality throughout the weekend that my next race fixture is the mud and filth of Boggart Hole Clough: Manchester Area Cross Country League (Match 2). Bring it on. I can’t wait. Hopefully see you there.
David Wyeth, Chorlton Runners
3rd November 2017