Haruki Murakami concludes his emblematic book about running saying that, if he can pick what his gravestone should say, it would be this: “At least he never walked”. I love this book for its sincerity and for how well it captures the thoughts, motivations, and the not always so glorious moments of the life of the hobby athlete. I also often felt identified with this particular quote in races that did not go well. But now I am about to confess how it would no longer be all so honest on my part to opt for the same engraving.
After running the Berlin Marathon last autumn, I set myself the goal of preparing for and running two marathons this year. The spring marathon being Vienna, and the autumn marathon – after hopefully having submitted my dissertation – being Budapest. I even had some time goals – which I’ll choose to omit here.
Of course, us hobby athletes always have a good array of excuses ready to justify when something does not turn out as planned or hoped. We are just that after all, hobby athletes. We do not have to earn our bread running – which is probably for the best. For me, just my lust for running has slowly started to dwindle this year (this you could already conclude from my account of the Bear Trail). Could be because of the stress caused by three consecutive winters, having to finish my thesis and the substantial changes in my life. Or because I am not confident enough to follow through with a more demanding training program. In any case, I would repeatedly shy away from a speed training, a tempo, or a long run – finding excuses as good as having to format the bibliography of my thesis, for instance.
Still, Budapest was to be important in that I hadn’t run a single road event in Hungary for more than 10 years – that is, pretty much in my whole adult life – and because my dad had also registered despite his general reservations about marathon running. I envisioned how much fun it would be to run past all the familiar landmarks in blazing sunshine. Well, nothing turned out quite as well.
The week prior to the marathon I had a Skype call with my dad, where he announced his withdrawal due to an injury, and hinted that in case I decided not to participate either, I was still in time to contact the organizers and save my entry for next year. But, what the hell, I was going to Budapest with Chan and our friend Arturo to spend a few days sightseeing in the capital – in addition to running. The hopes of blazing sunshine were blown away by the screenshot of the weather forecast sent over by Arturo the night prior to our journey. Cold (9 ºC), wind (30 km/h gusts) and heavy rains (some 26mm through the morning) were expected for race day.
It was indeed cold and raining when we arrived in Budapest. We had Thursday evening and the whole of Friday to do some sightseeing. On Saturday morning we exercised our, by now somewhat customary, pre-marathon day routine, which is going for a brief run to check out the start/finish area. So we jogged from our accommodation along Andrássy Avenue to the Heroes’ Square, next to which was the start and the finish area. We took our obligatory photos and posed with the “only 100 metres left” sign. After a shower and a hearty breakfast we headed back to the race centre – now on the metro – to pick up our numbers. Despite the cold and the light drizzle we encountered quite a bit of cheerful atmosphere.
Although the Budapest Marathon is only starting to become a more prominent event in the international marathon runners’ calendar, it’s been the biggest running event in Hungary for years. With accompanying races such as a short distance event for handicapped athletes, a 600m family run/walk, a 3x2k relay or a 2.7k event on Saturday, and a 10k as well as a 32k race in addition to the marathon distance – also offered as a relay – on Sunday, the so called Budapest Marathon Festival has something to offer to runners of all skills and age groups. The Saturday morning and midday scene was a mixture of enthusiastic school kids, happy toddlers, anxious marathoners clutching their race numbers, and more confident athletes who did’t mind stretching their legs in a family relay prior to the big day. A huge tent was inviting the participants for the pasta party.
The pasta party was originally advertised for a modest price, but – due to public demand – was eventually made free for those running the 30k or the 42k distances. Armed with our numbers and race T-shirts, we dived into the big white tent, where on entrance we were given a pack of whole grain pasta each – which, we figured, would be useful for an emergency lunch/dinner. The meal consisted of a choice of beverage between water and beer and a typically Hungarian pasta dish, which could be either túrós-tejfölös tészta (pasta with quark and sour cream) or the sweet grízes tészta (with pasta with semolina) served with jam. Both of these tend to bring back school canteen memories for most Hungarians. As dessert we were offered to choose between a bar of chocolate (Tibi, if I remember correctly) or a piece of Stümmer dessert – the second being infinitely superior in my opinion.
After this peculiar but pleasant display of Hungarian specialties we went on to do our race preparations – which included an unexpected shopping tour to get a running jacket for Arturo, who didn’t feel prepared enough to brave the cold. The afternoon-evening was spent looking up the weather forecast every 10 minutes or so in hopes of some change, and else, listening to the rain through our roof window. And pizza for dinner.
On race day morning, I suddenly felt unusually calm. I think the prospects of bad weather somehow in my mind got transformed into the perfect excuse for not running a good race, hence the pressure disappeared. Being aware of marathon logistics I had booked accommodation for us close enough to the Heroes’ Square, just off the Andrássy Avenue, thinking to take the M1 metro to the start and back from the finish. With the metros crammed with marathoners, we were eventually forced to walk the two stops to the start under the light rain – it took only about 10 mins though, so all fine. Once there, to our surprise, we had to conclude that for whatever reason this must be the first ever race with enough toilets – or less anxious runners – as the usual queues in front of the plastic Portaloos were virtually inexistent. We quickly shed our superfluous layers deciding that it was not that cold after all, and pulled on our rubbish bags with holes cut according to the latest fashion trends. And off we went towards the start area.
Up until now, it seemed like everything was going smoothly. We had made it to the start with perfect timing, having enough time to spare to do all things necessary, but not too much to wait. The weather did not feel as cold (eventually I had left my windbreaker in my pack), it was not windy at all and it was almost not raining. We wished good luck to each other as Arturo headed back to the third corral while we were to start from the first one, from behind the participants of the Hungarian marathon champs. I was still uncertain though about what I was going to or should do. How fast should I run? What would be a realistic pace considering the training or non-training I had done over the last few months? And most importantly, was Chan going to take off right at the start, or would he run with me at least for a while? Most concerning was that he didn’t seem to know either. In three consecutive sentences he pretty much outlined three completely different targets, which made me eventually half yell at him in demand of at least telling me if I should aim to keep with him for the first bit. Finally, I figured whatever… just run a comfortable pace and get it done.
And the race started. I felt certain calmness as we pounded and splashed our way around the Heroes’ Square and along Andrássy Avenue eventually together with Chan. The pace seemed ok, I was comfy (as one can be knowing they have 42k of running ahead). It wasn’t raining, but there was a bite of tension in the air, as one could tell nobody knew what to expect. Near the Opera House we were greeted by a friend of Chan’s who came to run from the UK. They ran chatting up until the first aid station, where I let them know I would stop to grab some water. I was expecting Chan to run through, but all of a sudden I saw him jump into the toilet. This took me completely by surprise and I got somewhat annoyed, thinking that if he’d told me in advance I would have stopped as well, but at this point I had no choice but run on with the crowd and without him. I approached the Margaret Bridge and was already cruising halfway through the Margaret Island when he caught up. The ramp up to the Árpád Bridge had more inclination than I’d expected, we saw a hand biker struggling to go uphill. As we were running back towards the Chain Bridge, we passed the 12k mark slightly after and saw the 30k runners still preparing for their start which would be exactly an hour after the marathon had gone off.
Things were going fine as we crossed the Chain Bridge and started running on the other bank of the Danube. I could feel though that I was not focusing on the race all the much I should have been, as I constantly had to remind myself to keep eating my energy chomps. On approaching the aid station at around the 15k mark, I decided to have one of my gels and also made a pit stop, with Chan jumping in the neighbouring Portaloo. We did the small loop that led us back through the tunnel just in front of the Chain Bridge and the famous 0 km mark, and started running in the direction of the Elisabeth and the Liberty Bridges. Now I started feeling the something was not going right. My tummy was feeling heavy all of a sudden and I got really hot. Good thing I was wearing layers. I peeled off my Lululemon long sleeves and was feeling again OKish in my singlet. From the Petofi Bridge turning point we had the wind against us, and it was getting chilly again. Chan was slowing down somewhat, and I could feel this would not be such an easy ride… oh and little did I know.
Back on the Pest side Chan was forced to make yet another emergency stop at around 26 kms. I knew I had no choice but go on, so I trotted back to the Margaret Bridge yet again, following the crowd. But I was slowing down, and considerably, I felt week but didn’t feel like eating… it felt like my tummy wouldn’t hold anything. I pulled the long sleeves back on, because it was cold now and decided to pick up a piece of banana at the next aid station. I didn’t quite understand how Chan hadn’t caught up as I was now jogging at an easy 5:30, then it struck me that maybe it’s something we ate/drank and his tummy had given up too… maybe he had stopped? By now I was past the 30 km mark, so it was a difficult decision. Would I be able to go on like this for 12 kms more? My legs were perfectly fine, just my stomach was pulling into more and more of an angry fist and hurting considerably. But with all the people cheering, you could not possibly stop. This is not why we came to Budapest. I managed to jog all the way to the mid Margaret Island aid station – this was about 35 kms – and now I knew there was no turning back. There was almost no much shorter way back to the finish than to actually finish the race. Only… I felt like all the contents of my stomach wanted to come out now…
I stuffed another piece of banana in my mouth, then I thought I might as well try stop and stick my fingers down my throat, maybe that would help. How miserable, suddenly everybody was passing me. First marathoners, all smiling and happy; they were going to finish and faster than me. At this point I couldn’t do anything more but stop with my back to a tree and watch all the runners passing by. Where was Chan? Did he stop? Was he ok? Could he manage to get back to the start/finish area if he had stopped? Would he show up if I waited a little more? I saw the 3:30 pacer group cruise by… Oh, maybe if I waited a little I could join Arturo? He didn’t come either, so I decided to drag myself along. Walk a little, jog a little, walk a little, jog a little. Now this was better. If I jogged cautiously enough, I thought I could manage what was left. My legs were now tightening up in the cold – obviously because I had stopped. 36, 37, 38…oh this was really slow. Just before the 40k mark I had yet another breakdown. How was this possible I thought? Come on, 2k, even if you have to go jumping on one foot, you can do that distance.. but I couldn’t. My tummy was twisting like some angry ferret and I started panicking. A friendly guy petted me on the back “I’m with you, come on, run”. “Would that I could” – I thought. Man, I was freezing.
After another few meters a blond girl with a lovely long braid took pity of me and said almost imploringly “come, run with me”. Suddenly I felt like we had been best friends since forever. It was almost nice to jog along at her place, now I wasn’t alone anymore, and I knew I could make it. As we ran past the Vajdahunyad Castle it seemed like every fifteen meters somebody told us there were only 300 m left. And just like that, we arrived at the “only 100 m left” sign! Unfortunately, at this point I had to say goodbye to my guardian angel, since it turned out she was running the marathon relay (why wasn’t I?) and had to enter a different area of the finish. In case you read this, thank you thank you thank you, you saved my life!
Marathon finishes are supposed to be glorified moments. In this spirit I tried to pretend it was all fine – for about 10 seconds. Then after getting my medal, I could all but look around in search of the closest green patch where no runner happened to be sitting on the ground to release all the load from my stomach… water, bananas, gels, everything. No wonder it had been so hard, my body simply hadn’t absorbed almost any food during the race.
As I approached the tent where we left our packs, I saw to my surprise that our three bags were still neatly hanging next to each other. Ah, “at least I still beat the guys” I thought. And then panic… “where is Chan??!!!” Luckily he arrived by the time I put all my warm clothes on. Apparently, he had had an equally adventurous race (note the euphemism) as I did.
Eventually, from the three of us it was Arturo who had had the best time, and managed to do even better than he had planned. From his telling he enjoyed plainly the wonderful marathon course, which indeed is worth a while. Just check out the course preview to see how we ran past many of the main sights of Budapest and crossed several bridges over the Danube. And did I mention it hadn’t rained a bit? Not a drop!
Some optimistic thoughts
So what conclusions should be drawn from such a disastrous race? I could ponder about what had gone wrong. Was it the lack of training? The lack of proper planning? Was it the gels? Or the cold? The combination of all? It is important to ask these questions to learn the lesson. But I think the most important thing to take away is that we all finished… in a more or less dignified manner, but we did. Even though it was tough, really tough. I have to make an effort to keep this in mind, since being a bit of a perfectionist, I tend to take failure badly. Also, in my brief running career, there had not been a place for relapses. Each of my other marathons and half marathons had been faster than the previous one. But it cannot always be like that. Despite all, it’s hard to take it, especially when you know you have one or two shots a year at running a marathon. But I guess you have to learn to appreciate the value of the mere accomplishment – crossing the finish line. It’s not all about PBs and competition.
Quite suitably, the October number of the Hungarian RW ran the translation of this article, which I happened to read over dinner after the marathon. This is how I learnt that the slowest ever women’s marathon time measured at the Olympics was 3:48:42…. So my performance of 3:46:34 was not all so terrible either, I guess.
A short video to give you an idea of the race atmosphere:
The course preview: