Race 51: San Sebastian Marathon, San Sebastian, Spain, 26 November 2017

Ah, the Spanish seaside. The sun, the sand … the freezing rain, the stormy clouds…

The San Sebastian Marathon, to throw a spoiler out there up front, was excellent. The weather in San Sebastian in late November: not so much!

Not San Sebastian but the cool Guggenheim in Bilbao a few days before (and an hour away from San Sebastian)
San Sebastian Crest, or maybe a homage to the Crusaders or something

Only 24 hours earlier, the elements were just as bad and my confidence was plummeting along with the temperatures. Having surfed a wave of jamminess and caution over the previous few years, I have rarely been injured. That’s not to say I haven’t used a megaphone every time I get a little niggle as Pippa and everyone unfortunate enough to be near enough knows.

This time, however, the pain, akin to having a nail hammered into the side of my foot, was genuine and persistent. It’d been 4 days since I’d even put my running shoes on, I genuinely had no clue whether I’d be able to make it the whole way round, and the withdrawal symptoms from the lack of endorphins made me a delight to be around. Thankfully, the course, being 2 laps, offered me an escape route after 21km but, as the lady at the Expo informed me, I may get a medal if I stopped then but I’d also get a DNF. And that would look terrible on Power of 10.

On race day, we woke up to the lullaby of torrential frozen rain hammering the tiles on our roof. By the time we got to the start line, it was still positively reminiscent of a day out in Edinburgh, not Spain. The total lack of toilets (like, none) at the start led to some mad scrambling though there were a few buildings nearby you seemed to be able to get in. Years of fine-tuning my routine meant all potential problems were avoided and, despite them trying their best, I could start the race 100% poop and fart free. You’re welcome.

118 118 – I’d like a commission please (this is a reference only UK people will get…)

Randomly, for the second time in the last 18 months, I’d been given the number 118: a commission would soon be appreciated.

After a very non-descript and barely any audible countdown, the start of the race was extremely congested. After the first few hundred meters at barely 4.30min/km, I had to leap onto the pavement to make up for lost time and get nearer my target race pace. My general plans were to run at 4 minute kilometres (6.15min/mile) for the first 30km, then 4.10minutes/km for 5km and something not too much slower for the last 7km. This was slightly slower than what I’d have aimed for if I’d raced with full confidence but, as a total novelty, it also meant that I was able to run with very little self-imposed pressure.

San Sebastian Bay

By the time we’d passed the first kilometre, we’d already completed 50% of the course’s “hills”: a staggering 6 metre climb. Though there were a few U-turns which, for those really chasing PBs, would have added 20 or so seconds to the whole race, the course is as flat as a Basque beret and ideal for good times. One good side of the course too is that you often run back along similar segments you ran out on: normally, I’d say this is dead boring.

However, the views were often stunning (it’s hard to complain about running along one of the nicest bays in Spain) and it meant that, in my case, Pippa and I were able to give each other a thumbs up every half hour or so when we crossed each other.

The in-race fuel stations were superb – every 3km, you could grab a water bottle or, not that I wanted to, an energy drink. While clearly environmentally unfriendly, it is such a relief to have bottles as plastic cups are so frustrating to drink out of while running, hardly better for the environment and just slow you down.

Having said that, for all the water they were handing out, they could have saved themselves a lot of hassle by just telling us to open our lower jaw like a pelican and stick our face upwards for most the first half of the morning: the rain was ‘persistent’ shall we say and, after 8km and a particularly bad downpour, my sunglasses (which, incidentally, I was only wearing as a windscreen before someone makes a sarcastic comment) steamed up so much I had to remove them to be able to see even a metre ahead.

My foot, reassuringly, wasn’t flaring up and, despite their km markers being a little off, I managed to stick to my target splits. I reached 5km in 19.59, 10km in 40.00 and 15km in 1:00.15: metronomic! For now.

It was around then that the 2h45 pacer overtook me. Incredibly, there was even a 2h30 pacer which seems scarcely believable. However, this was all feasible thanks to a clever trick: the pacers were on bikes. By now, we were heading back past crashing waves along the self-declared best beach in Europe – the dark clouds remained ominous in the distance and my gels were giving me frothy burps which felt equally problematic.

In Bilbao, not in San Sebastian, but quite cool!

I reached the halfway point in 1h25. I thought I’d have to make a big call at this point over carrying on or stopping but my feet felt fine and, having taken it a little easier than planned, my entire lower body did too and there was absolutely no question of me not going the whole way.

The second half was, apart from a 200 metre extra loop around the start, identical to the first half of the race. On the plus side, you knew exactly what was to come. On the down side, you knew exactly what was to come. Despite my Garmin inaccurately registering 329m of elevation change, 32.9m was more realistic and there was very little difficulty to fear. On top of this, the cross-overs’ value – whether intentional or not, was getting clearer at this point: whereas you often end up running alone in the second half of marathons and your mind can drift, the constant stream of other runners going in the opposite direction kept you sharp and feeling like you were part of a major event. The crowds were thick too as there were half as many viewing points to pick from.

After 25 or so kilometres, I ran past Pippa one last time – while my running has plateau’ed this year, hers has jumped a few gears and she was on her way to knocking another couple of minutes of her half marathon PB from 3 weeks earlier: 1h48 and 9 minutes better than 7 months ago! Only 2 more minutes and she’s faster than her Dad, which should be motivation enough to train hard!

Unusually, and despite my pace incrementally dropping at each new segment, I was also starting to overtake a lot of the runners who probably set off slightly too quickly. The corner cutting I’d witnessed in the first half was just as rife in the later stages too – maybe it’s a cultural thing but you get caught up in the momentum and end up following the flow sometimes too though, on one occasion, I almost ended up taking a road down to an underground car park. Lesson learnt: stick to the blue line. That flaw aside, the runners’ race etiquette was the best I think I’ve experienced with everyone clearly looking, shouting and pointing before swapping running lanes.

The race ends next to the Real Sociedad stadium on the local race track. I would normally have sprinted the last 200 meters but my legs were finally knackered. In the end, I was only 2 minutes off my PB, which I would have bitten an arm and a leg off for before. It just goes to show that there was no point in stressing over my lack of running in the previous 4 days and that the previous 4 months were far more important. My foot, miraculously, was still pain free (for now).

After a quick shake-down and a trip into the velodrome to collect my bag (making runners climb 50 steps and go down 50 steps twice after a marathon is, incidentally, an evil way to end the day!), I got to make the most of the freebies: hot tea, yes please. Oranges, yes please. Isotonic alcohol-free beer … let’s just say it tastes as disgusting as it sounds.

Somewhat gammy side-foot. Yes, it looks like a hobbit’s foot…

A week later, with my left foot the size of a (very small) watermelon, it was obvious in hindsight that running a marathon on what seemed to be a stress fracture (or something less dramatic than what I self-diagnosed but equally painful) was – what would a doctor say?, stupid.

However, a runner’s mind doesn’t work that way and, rather than bemoaning the endless hours spent trotting around the backstreets of London to come away without a PB, I was delighted that I could be so close to PB-shape despite a gammy foot!

Common sense, eh.

Time: 2h54.51 (249th/2,711)





Difficulty Zilch. Very easy.

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