Hanoi Marathon 2019
Background: My streak of running at least one marathon per year (since 2012) was on the line after I decided to DNS (Did Not Start) the Hong Kong Marathon earlier this year. With Challenge Roth scheduled for July, I looked towards the year-end to find new race and Hanoi fit the bill. I'd raced in Da Nang 2-3 times over the years but had never been to Hanoi before, so this smaller, 'more local' race looked like a good option. I planned a steady 12 weeks training which was unfortunately interrupted by thyroid surgery and my longest run was just under 15km. I did have the all-clear to run from my doctor, but needless to say, I wasn't feeling over-confident going into the race. I'd even looked at the 7-hour cut-off as a realistic target if I decided to walk the whole thing.
Travel: I flew in from Hong Kong on the Friday afternoon before the Sunday morning race - a fairly easy and stress-free 1.5 hours from HK. Hanoi airport was pretty well laid-out and I was through immigration (visa-free for Brits) and outside in no time. Turn left outside the terminal and grab the comfortable AC #86 bus to the city centre - a snip at VND35,000 as opposed to around VND300k for a taxi. Pretty chaotic once downtown, but it was only a 10 minute walk to my hotel in the French Quarter - the King Ly - which I chose due to its proximity to the race start and finish. In hindsight, it was a pretty good location - just outside the Old Quarter and very close to the Hoan Kiem Lake which proved to be a lovely part of town - much more amenable than staying in the Old Quarter itself.
Hanoi: Packet Pick-Up was open until 9pm on the first night, so that was my first port of call once I'd checked into my hotel. It was a ten minute walk and was smooth although I imagine it would get a lot busier as the weekend drew on. There were only 700 running the full marathon, but a lot more running the 5, 10 and 21km races. Afterwards, I grabbed some dinner - despite recently converting from pescetarian to vegetarian, there were many options around - and took a walk around the lake. It was a lovely time of day as they closed the roads all round the lake, which seemed to bring out half of Hanoi - everyone getting into the weekend spirit. The Saturday before a race is generally a rest day for me, so I took it easy in the morning before popping out for lunch and a walk to St. Joseph's Cathedral. I'm not one to stay too long in churches, but it was good to see this 'mini-Notre Dame' in the middle of a big Asian city. The afternoon was devoted to the Rugby World Cup, before an early dinner and early to bed. I never sleep too well before races, and this was no exception with only around 4-5 hours.
The Race: This race was the first since my thyroid surgery, meaning I had to take my thyroxine a full hour before I could eat. So, I was up at 3:30am to take my meds, and left the hotel at 4:15am before sneaking in a (caffeine-free) gel just before the off at 4:30am. Not the best preparation as I would normally have had 1-2 bonk breakers to get something into my stomach. As I said, I had no goals for the race, but felt I could run a decent 10km then settle down to walk at some point before the 20km mark. As we lined up I saw that they had pacers, so once we started I took it very easy before latching on to the 4-hour guys. The pace was comfortable and I started to feel confident of hanging with them until we got to Ho Tay Lake around 16km. It was cool at 4:30am, but the humidity was definitely high and I saw many around me sweating a lot.
Know the course!: Given my lack of training and possible race strategies, I did look at the course layout a lot, but as you could see from my Strava map, it was complicated. At around the 15km mark, we came to an intersection and merged with the 21km runners. We ran with them for around 0.5km before someone in our group thought we were running the wrong way. The pacers had no idea, so we all turned round and ran back past the intersection and back down a road we had already run down. Someone else then shouted that this could not be right, so the group split again - the pacers and a few others carried on, while I and a several others went back to our original route. So I was on my own now, no more pacers and by the time I saw the 16km marker, my watch was reading 17.65km. I was a little annoyed but at least I was (probably) on the right track. As it happens, I was passed by the 'other group' around the 28km mark and although I didn't know it at the time, it turns out that they ran an extra 4-5km. In hindsight, that would have probably finished me off - my 1.65km extra was manageable, but 4-5km would have been too much.
Mid-race: So I was on my own, but felt okay and kept up the 4-hour pace, and hit the 21km mark in 1'58. I was very happy with that, but knew my legs wouldn't hold out too much longer, and indeed I started my run/walk strategy at 22.7km. I settled into a 0.5km/1.0km walk/run cycle, which I kept up to around 35.8km, as per my garmin. I didn't have much left after that and pretty much walked it home from then on, with a few spurts here and there. I picked up the pace for the final 2.5km, and felt pretty good as I crossed the line in 4'48, although I'm claiming my garmin marathon time of 4'36! A party atmosphere at the end with the 5,10 and 21km runners all around with their families. I spoke to a few other 42km runners and felt that great camaraderie that only comes after spending so long on the road together.
The rest of the day was a general hobble, but I made it to the New York Bar and Grill for a late lunch and a couple of beers with the rugby. The hobbling continued into the evening with dinner and an early night before my morning flight. I was back on the #86 bus by 7:00am, at the gate by 8:15am and in HK at 1:30pm. All pretty smooth.
The course: As anyone who knows Hanoi well, it's pretty chaotic on the roads and this race was definitely not immune to this chaos. After the off at 4:30am, we ran through the streets for 15-16km until we got to the big lake. This first part was pretty good - we had our own section of road and of course there was less traffic around at this time. The lake section - another 15km - was okay too - traffic was picking up, but less around this part of town. Once we left the park for the last 12k is when things got a bit hairy. This would have been around 8am for me and although most of the roads still had a small section for us, there was widespread abuse of this and we were often battling cars and motorbikes. None were too aggressive so although I never felt in danger, we were in busy traffic and surrounded by fumes all the way home. At 35km, we crossed the river onto the pathway next to the railway tracks which gave us some respite, although it wasn't particularly idyllic. The last 2.5km were back on the crowded roads, but at least we were closer to home which gave us a bit of a kick to get through to the end.
Post-race thoughts: Definitely some negatives in the race, but it's worth doing once. I'm glad I got through as I wouldn't want to run another full marathon on that course and in those conditions. A 21km might be a better option given that you'd start at 5am and should be back home well before 7am. It was well-organized with plenty of police and marshals at almost every junction. Obviously the one marshaling issue detailed above, but in hindsight, we actually took the correct route and it was only because of the doubts of other runners that we made the wrong turns. It's a smaller race, so if you prefer having a bit of road space to yourself, then this is a good option. Aid stations were regular and well-stocked - no gels, but plenty of water and local electrolyte with bananas and water-melon in there too. Swag was pretty decent - a pre-race t-shirt and tote-bag, with a decent medal and finisher t-shirt at the end. No regrets for me - certainly not a great time, but probably one of my best marathon efforts.