Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Part 2: The Malta Half Marathon (or, the Running Gods laugh some more)

Right.  So.  The last post saw me feeling a bit better and ready to take on 13.1 miles.  Any strategies that I had planned - and that includes pacing, refueling, and attitude - now had to be completely revised.  Because I no longer had a time goal, and the refueling would depend on how my stomach and bowels felt, all that was left was to adjust my attitude.  I spent some time telling myself that all that I could do was see how it went, that at least I was at the start line, that it was a beautiful day, that I could finish.  That would have to be enough.

The start gate seems to be just for appearance.
The race was meant to start at 9:20 but at 9:10, there was an announcement saying that it was starting in three minutes.  Cue a mad dash by lots of people to find a place in the starting area, which was just a car park and didn't have pens or even indicators of where the different pacing groups should position themselves.  This meant that the people doing the walkathon (half-marathon distance) were interspersed with the people doing the running version.  It also meant that, within a couple of minutes of setting off, several walkathoners were knocked over by half-marathoners trying to get by them.  It was interesting to see that Maltese runners run like they drive - elbows flying, pushing, and cutting in as though they are the only people on the road.

My SENSIBLE pacing strategy was to run whatever felt comfortable, even if that meant walking.  However, my feverish, dehydrated, ILL pacing strategy was to run as though I hadn't just spent hours purging my system of toxins.  I know, what was I thinking???  Anyway, that's how I started out.  And the first four miles felt fine.  My breathing was controlled, my legs felt fresh, and I thought, 'I really might be able to do this!'  My splits for the first four miles were 10:08, 9:45, 10:12, and 10:04, and I was pleased with this.  I had a bit of water at mile 3 and a couple of sips of Powerade at Mile 4 to test out my tummy - no immediate issues were apparent.

Towards the end of mile 4, we came around a bend and there was the first of what turned out to be many hills on this 'almost flat' course.  (FFS, could race organisers PLEASE stop advertising their courses as almost flat when they blatantly ARE NOT???  I don't mind hills; I just like to know what to expect.)  I slowed my pace but kept running and made it three-quarters of the way up before my body very clearly said, 'Enough.'  This wasn't exactly Hitting the Wall but, all of a sudden, as though a switch had been turned off, I had absolutely no more energy left.  Zero.  So I walked.  And as soon as I slowed down, I felt sick.  As in, really sick.  As in, 'looking around to find some bushes to empty my guts into if necessary' sick.  The urge passed with some deep breathing and focusing on the scenery rather than on my roiling innards, and I was able to run again, although the time spent running decreased and the time spent walking increased for the rest of the race. 

I had a bit more water at mile 6 with no ill effects and decided to chance my luck with an energy gel as well.  At approximately mile 6.5, and for the next mile or so, the route went through an industrial estate.  The narrow corridors acted like a wind tunnel (for yes, there was definitely a stiff breeze blowing, as I had feared might be the case) and the lack of any spectators aside from some bemused-looking mechanics made this a difficult section.  I got through it with what felt like lots of walking but which, looking at my splits for miles 5 through 8 (10:29, 11:44, 11:24, and 11:23), probably was less than I thought at the time.

I puked.  Damn.  I could have stopped.

We came out of the industrial estate onto one of the main motorways.  There were huge queues of traffic on the other side of the motorway with a corresponding miasma of petrol and diesel fumes.  Not good for my dodgy tummy at all.  Unfortunately, the unbreathable air made me feel sicker and sicker until, at mile 8.5, I had to dash to the dividing barrier between the lanes of the motorway to do a spectacular, multi-coloured spew into the small decorative bushes that were planted there.  I hadn't realised that a stomach could hold that much liquid.  In other circumstances, I might have been quite impressed with myself.

And that was kind of the end of the race for me.  Although I felt much better for having emptied my system, I simply did not have anything left in my legs and no way of reliably getting any hydration or nutrition into myself.  I was hot, thirsty, dizzy, queasy, and crampy.  I briefly thought about quitting but, when I saw one of the marathon runners limping along in front of me - obviously in pain, unable to run - and saw him hobble on past one of the support ambulances without even slowing down...well, if he wasn't quitting, I wasn't either.

About 1 mile from the end.
From mile 9 onwards, I walked up every hill and, even on the flat and on the downhills, only was able to manage running for what felt like a couple of minutes at a time.  From mile 10 onwards, the course turned so that it was heading into the wind and stayed that way until the end.  If I had had any moisture left in my body, I would have cried.  But I didn't.  I kept on with my little run/longer walk sequences and finally, finally I saw the Finish Line around the next bend.

I might have puked into the bushes in front of hundreds of strangers but I still have some pride.  I WAS going to run the last half-mile.  And I did.  My head was spinning and my guts were rumbling, but I averaged an 8:41 pace for the last quarter-mile.  In your face, gastroenteritis! 

And then it was over.  Bassman found me, got me back to the flat, bought me some icy cold Coke (which I promptly threw up but it was worth it), and I slept for 15 hours.  We're back home now and I'm still recovering but at least I'm keeping liquids down again...and I'm pleased to report that my legs don't hurt at all.

My stats?  I finished in 2:32:18.  I was 652nd out of 1246 women, and 43rd out of 108 women in my age group.  Definitely not last, and very solidly middle of the pack.

I will never be a fast runner.  I will never be a Good for Age runner.  Even at my best, I'm still middle of the pack, so I try not to judge whether or not I've had a successful race by my time or by where I fall in the rankings.  To me, if I finish a race feeling that I have given it my all and that I have run to the absolute best of my ability on that day, then that's enough.

And for this race, on this particular day, I couldn't have done any more.

Everyone gets the same medal.  Very egalitarian.


  1. You're one tough lady! I'd I've just laid down and died. Congratulations on finishing the run at a very respectable time all things considered. Of course your escapade leads me to think that runners are completely barmy! ;-)

  2. An escapade! What a lovely way of framing this - makes me sound like a madcap 1930s heiress rather than someone who got struck down by a stomach bug and puked in some bushes. Thanks!