Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

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And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

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