Bowen Road Marathon 2020 (Hong Kong)
Background: Just over a year ago, I wrote about my marathon in Hanoi which was a late season choice to keep my (then 8 year) streak going. With Covid on the scene this year, I kept my half-ironman steak going with my own race in April, so was left with the task of getting myself in reasonable shape to run my own marathon late in the year. Since moving to Wan Chai in April, I'd finally got to know Bowen Road (Fitness Trail) well and this was an obvious choice for my marathon attempt - flat, shaded, traffic-free, two sets of public toilets, and close to home. My goal as always was to finish, but a sub-4 hour run would be nice end of year bonus too.
Training: I started running consistently well from April onwards, but after our trip to the UK in September, the 14-days home quarantine set me back a bit - not quite back to square one, but close to it. So I built up from there and gradually increased volume to put in some decent long runs of 21; 24; 26; 30 and 25km in the weeks before my attempt. I was probably slightly undercooked - perhaps needed an extra 1-2 weeks, but with the year running out, I gave myself a mini-taper of 4 days before giving it a shot. I tried to relax in the run up and told myself that I still had a couple of back-up days just in case it didn't work out. I put a lot of thought into the route and although Bowen Road was the obvious choice, I did dally with a few alternatives. My main alternative was to start at the Peak, do a few loops up there before working my way down Barker Road and Stubbs Road towards Bowen Road to finish it off. It's a lovely route to be honest, but after a few trial runs, the downhill sections took a little too much out of my knees, so the flat Bowen Road prevailed.
Logistics: No travel of course, just a 5 minute walk up the steps from home. I woke naturally at 5am, took my meds and waited 30 minutes before managing to scoff one Cliff Bar and one whole Pocari sachet before leaving the house at 6am. I'd managed a couple of 'evacuations' before leaving the house, but once up on Bowen Road, I felt another movement was needed, so walked 400m to the public toilet. This meant that I would start right at the middle of the trail - at the 2km marker. That would at least make my mental calculations easier, although I knew I needed 5 full rounds (there and backs) of the 8km trial, plus the little extra at each end to get me up to 42.2km.
Nutrition plan: As mentioned before, I'd been running with Pocari sachets for a while now - I like the taste and the nutrition values stack up so I've also used them for my Ironman races. I got one down before leaving the house, and took two full bottles with me, as well as an extra bottle of water with two gels. I didn't want to run with anything, so stashed them under a bush next to the trail. I wasn't too worried about anyone picking them up, as it's pretty gross in normal times, but especially so in Covid times. I hadn't been taking any gels during training, but these last-minute additions would come in handy later in the run - more of that later.
The run: As stated before, the trail is nicely laid out, free of traffic for the most part and although it can get busy with walkers, joggers and dog walkers, they are fairly easy to negotiate. I started out at 6:13am and tried to get into a steady rhythm. I'm never good at pacing, I just like to run on feel and I always build in a little buffer of time in the early stages to make sure I can keep ahead of the sub-4 hour target as the pace slows down.
I soon settled down and my only cause for concern in the first half was a rumble in the stomach around the 16km mark. It persisted for a while, but I resisted the temptation to visit the toilet as this would pretty much put an end to my attempt. It would mess the pace up for sure, but would likely affect me mentally - once the pace was no longer on track, I would likely call it a day well before 42.2km and try again another day. Fortunately, the rumbles went away, and I hit the halfway mark at around 1'48'48" according to my stats. Probably a little fast, but nothing was hurting too much at this stage.
The second half was going well until around the 23km mark when I noticed my HR was getting up to 180bpm. I don't usually run by HR, but I was happy to see it around the 155bpm mark for most of the first half, so this was a little concerning. I thought it was a blip, but my watch kept showing that high level for 2-3kms, before returning to 155bpm. A blip it was.
As I had reached 30km in training, my first goal was to get to that distance, when I knew I could then ease off and if needs be, shuffle to the finish time with a run/walk strategy. But as 30km approached, I felt ok and although my pace was slowing, I was still below the 6-min/km mark. Let's get to 32km I thought, a 10km shuffle would be easier than 12km. Once at 34km, I had just one loop to go, but kept on going until 35km, when my legs finally felt like they could go no further. That's when I grabbed my last water bottle and the two gels from the bush, and took a walk for 1km while one gel worked its magic. Magic it was, as I got myself running again for another 3km before taking another 1km walk and my final gel.
With 2km to go, I got back into my stride and even managed to get the pace back to sub 6-min/km as I coasted to the 'finish-line' which would be when my watch said 42.2km. I watched it tick over well before 4 hours had passed, so I'd done it. I had once again coaxed myself to pretty much the only major running goal I have - a sub 4-hour marathon. I continued running to my 'home-stairs' which got me to 43km so I could be sure I'd run the full distance. As I stopped the watch, it rewarded me with the numbers - a 3'59'39" marathon. No finish line experience this time, but a short cool down walk followed by a bit of a stretch and a trudge down the stairs home.
Post-race thoughts: One day later, I feel absolutely delighted with that effort, and the sub-4 hour time makes it all the more special. I'd trained pretty well and my previous 30km training run had me well below PB-pace, but those last 10-12km are the only KMs that really count. It's where the real physical and mental test starts, and although I did slow down to walking pace on two occasions, I see it now as more of a tactical choice - get a gel in, get your HR down, get your breath back and get ready to hit the ground running to squeeze the last drops of energy out of yourself.
Having said that, I can go faster. I'll take it fairly easy for a few weeks before using my current fitness and having another crack in the New Year. After all, we don't know when we can race again, so may as well tick off the 2021 box as early as I can!