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The Shanghai Experiment

November 17, 2019

I went to Shanghai to run under 2:13 or faster and I only made it 25km on pace. Here’s the story on this wacky attempt.

The week after STWM I didn’t run at all and ate lots of desserts. My plan was a long recovery period followed by a long base and then build towards a Spring marathon. Pretty simple and typical.

And then Oct 25th I got an offer to start Nanjing marathon on Nov 10th. They wanted international athletes to start the race. I got an idea in my head that I would start the race and see how long I could last at 2:12:00 pace, nothing to lose if I couldn’t finish. 

I started running one week after STWM with the possibility of a marathon two weeks later. However, a week later Nanjing organizers realized they didn’t need me after-all and that plan fell through.

Because I got this plan in my head and had already started training I asked to see if I could run Shanghai marathon on Nov 17th (1 month after STWM).

The past two years I’ve run (not raced) Shanghai marathon because they needed me to fill their Gold Label athlete quota for their IAAF Gold Label status. I knew the course (it’s flat) and the weather had been nice and cool. The organizers would cover expenses, that sounded just fine to me. Game on!

STWM wasn’t fast enough to help me with my world ranking in terms of qualifying for the Olympics. I need two races around 2:12 and I have none.

[Edit: 70 men already have auto-standard (2:11:30). It seems as though you’ll need auto to go to Olympics. Thanks to @KittyJohne from Twitter for this link http://bluecattechnical.uk/RoadToTokyo/ ]

I toyed around with the idea of doing a January marathon and then an April marathon. But having 3 build-ups and 3 marathons over the course of 9 months seemed very daunting. Holding on for one more month and having another crack from the same build-up seemed like a better plan.

I have never tried to race another marathon one month, heck even 2 months, after a marathon. In the three weeks of running before Shanghai I had to find a balance between recovery from STWM and maintaining fitness. My workouts weren’t great but they weren’t bad. I didn’t press the pace like I normally would. If I usually operate at 80-90% in workouts I was going at about 70-80% for these sessions. I didn’t feel fully recovered but I also knew things could come around any day.

I didn’t announce that I was coming to Shanghai because I didn’t want any undue pressure. This was an experiment and I knew the likelihood of dropping out was higher than normal. I told some friends and the response was positive. Why not roll the dice, try something new. 

On Wednesday (Nov 13) I did an easy 10km run in the morning, it was -9C. A few hours later I was on a 14hr 45min flight and landed in Shanghai Thursday afternoon. I did a slow 4km jog when I arrived and then went to sleep. The following night I only got 2.5 hours of sleep. It’s normal for me to get interrupted sleep after travelling to Asia, but I was having a harder time than usual. Despite the lack of sleep by Saturday I felt pretty good on my run and I was excited about giving it a go on Sunday.

At the technical meeting I found out (to no surprise) that there would only be 1 pace group, going for the course record of 2:07:14, (3:00/km). There were a lot of Chinese athletes in attendance and I was hoping that some of them would be going for 2:11:30 to 2:13 and I could key off of them.

As per normal I was looking at the weather a few days out from the race. The race day forecast called for 18C in the morning and a high of 26C. On Monday (the day after the race) the forecast called for a high of 13C. I kept trying to will the cold front to come in earlier but day after day that forecast was not budging.

Race morning felt cooler than 18C and as I did my warmup run I didn’t feel hot, mainly because the sun was barely up. Maybe I was trying to trick myself that it was cooler knowing that there was only one way I was going to pace myself. (I since read the IAAF race report that said it was 15C at 7am start and almost 20C by 8am).

Normally in such conditions I should have tried to pace myself for 2:15-2:16. But I had already run 2:15 last month with a Canadian Championship fourth place bonus (that makes my 2:15:23 equivalent to 2:13:58 in the world rankings). I was going to go out at 2:12 pace, I didn’t see the point in running 2:15 again.

The race went out as fast as expected and everyone in the elite field went out at 3:00/km. By 2km there was at least a 10 second gap from the back of a massive pack to me. And it looked like an even bigger gap behind me.

But the carnage started really early and I was picking off guys before 3km. These guys put up a fight and usually stayed with me for a while. I stopped looking at my watch after 2km once I settled into a pace however, I would see the big clocks every 5km. At 5km I was 15:34 and then at 10km I was 30:58. Passing athletes was helping me run a quick pace. I caught a few Chinese guys around 11km who stayed with me and then a couple of Kenyans around 13km, one stayed with me. We had a nice pack of five rolling together and we switched up leads, which was especially helpful into the wind.

We went through halfway in 65:58 and the Kenyan dropped out right then. I was running with three Chinese athletes who seemed motivated to stay on pace. One dropped off and then we caught another Chinese athlete who latched on. I was starting to yo-yo off the back of the group around 24km and feeling the heat (it was 20C by this point). The sun was out and after 8am it was beating down pretty strong. I fell off the pack at 25km (1:19:02) and didn’t think a 2:13 was in the cards by how quickly I was melting.

I continued to run an honest pace and caught 2 of the guys who fell off the pack that had dropped me and I could tell the last one ahead of me was also slowing down. By 28km I knew I was done but decided to keep going until 30km, I guess I like round numbers.

If I drop out by 30km then I can recover pretty fast without much damage (less than 24 hours after the race my body seems fine other than my hips). If I race 42km then my recovery afterwards takes much longer.

At 30km on the course the 34km mark is on the other side of the road. So I took off my numbers and started to walk back to the finish.

Beyond the 40km mark I noticed it was going to be very tricky to get to the finish area because of all the barricades. So I pinned my number back on and jumped into the race with runners finishing around the 3-hour mark. I ran all the way to the stadium but instead of entering the stadium I scooted by some barricade. The course volunteers were urging me to continue to the finish, (which was less than 400m away). With the language barrier it was a challenge to explain to them that I had dropped out earlier and I just needed to get my bag. They gave up when I kept walking away.

***

I know the plan seemed ludicrous from the get-go. How was I going to run faster than I did at STWM where the conditions were perfect, there was a pacer and guys to run with? And yes, I didn’t have a 14-hour flight and 13-hour time change to contend with. On top of that I had three solid months of training that peaked for STWM. Surely running a 2:15 marathon, taking a week off, then two weeks of mediocre workouts and 1 week taper was not going to net me a better result.

But something went wrong at STWM and I really felt as though that day could have been a 2:13. I needed to take another shot.

Had the weather been 10C today who knows what would have happened. I felt just as good coming through halfway in 65:58 as I did in Toronto coming through half 50 seconds slower in 66:48. But I faded hard at STWM after 38km and that very well could have been the outcome again.

I am stoked that I ran 65:58 thinking that I still had 21.1km to run, that alone is a confidence boost moving forward.

Given the outcome I’m still happy I put myself out there and gave it a go. As long as my recovery goes well there wasn’t much drawback to this plan. I still have plenty of time to build a base and then get ready for a Spring marathon.

***

Next blog coming from Kenya! The whole family is going for December.

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