Running, Travel

Spring 2015 Race #3: Marathon de Marseille

Hello, world! This weekend, the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin are checking in from not-so-sunny Marseille! This trip is not over yet, but they are already prepared to file it into the “one of life’s many ironies” folder for old age. A few weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle decided to sign up for the Marathon de Marseille on a whim (OK fine, she and GodzillaPin received a nice angpao for Chinese New Year from the very generous Mother Turtle. Given their fast-advancing years, they no longer have to “save up for college”, so they decided to invest into another lesson in Life’s Classroom a.k.a their euphemistic excuse for travel.) Of course, this means it wasn’t her A race for the season, but she figured, why not do a test run for the real thing? After all, the Marathon de Marseille corresponded well with her training plan, so she might as well seek some sunshine down south, right?

The train ride from Metz to Marseille took almost 7 hours – which is about a flight from Melbourne to Singapore, but nowhere near as fun, despite their discounted First Class tickets. The seats were enormous, but there was no entertainment on board. Sadly, the trains in France don’t offer internet either. They woke at 5am to catch the 6.02am train, and arrived in time for a late lunch and it was off to the exposition.

Another race by ASO Challenges, which manages the big city races like the Marathon de Paris and Marathon de Lyon.

Another race by ASO Challenges, which manages the big city races like the Marathon de Paris and Marathon de Lyon.

A Haribo van! For those who are unfamiliar with the name, it is a candy brand.

A Haribo van! For those who are unfamiliar with the name, it is a candy brand.

The route map for the race. It loops, and loops, and loops...

The route map for the race. It loops, and loops, and loops…

And a name board with all the names of racers.

And a name board with all the names of racers.

Despite waking early, they didn’t get to bed till 11pm, thanks to dinner reservations that commenced at 8pm. The Ninja Turtle may or may not have flirted with disaster when they ordered pulled pork burgers, pork belly with deep fried polenta, a squid and feve salad, and a local dish called a brandade, best described as a mash of sweet potato and cod (yes, the cod mashed in), and dessert of Lebanese pastries. It wasn’t carb-loading, it was sheer gluttony. Photos to come.

The next day, the Ninja Turtle was up at 5am once more.

GodzillaPin refused to get out of bed, but thought it funny to take a candid photo.

GodzillaPin refused to get out of bed, because who wants to be up at 5am two days in a row?

He did however, leave a cute little message of encouragement on the bib to remind the Ninja Turtle what was most important.

He did however, leave a cute little message of encouragement on the bib to remind the Ninja Turtle what was most important.

They agreed to give the Turtle 5 hours from the starting time of the marathon, to meet her at the finish line. Then, throwing back her coffee quickly, the Turtle was out the door. The marathon started out in the Calanques, and racers could only access it by the race shuttle bus, that ran between 6am and 7am. Why so early, when the race was meant to begin at 8am, was beyond everyone. Even more baffling was the number of racers for the marathon category – 499! Seriously?!

The runners spent an hour in this bar, where they were served coffee, tea or hot chocolate, little cakes and I-kid-you-not sardines.

The runners spent an hour in this bar, where they were served coffee, tea or hot chocolate, little cakes and I-kid-you-not sardines. Love the name of the bar, by the way.

So, recall how they chose to come to Marseille because of the sun? Well, this goes down as one of the most miserable races the Ninja Turtle has ever signed up for. Running along the coast with the rain beating down on them, and gusts of wind buffeting from all directions, the runners at least had moral support from the locals who came out to cheer them on. Sure, they were only a handful of spectators, but the number of competitors for a big-city marathon was also shockingly pitiful so it was just a bunch of madmen hanging out on an early Sunday morning in bad weather, no biggie.

Arriving at the starting line at 6.45am for an 8am race. WHY?!?!?!

Arriving at the starting line at 6.45am for an 8am race. WHY?!?!?!

Les Goudes, a little village in Marseille with spectacular views of the Calanques and the sea.

Running through Les Goudes, a little village in Marseille with spectacular views of the Calanques and the sea.

At any rate, the Ninja Turtle is just so thankful this was not her first time running a marathon; had it been the case, she would never run a marathon again. Within 2km, her shoes were soaked, and by the 10th km, she had to stop to squeeze water out her technical socks. The good – there were plenty of water and refreshment points, the bad – the sugar cubes were melting in the rain, the ridiculous – the organisers must have thought it funny to insist on sponge stations. When things are looking bad, just think of how bad others have it. The only people more pitiful at this race than the marathoners were the volunteers manning the sponge stations. They were literally begging the runners to have a sponge.

The race route took the runners into the city centre twice. The first time they approached Vieux Port, GodzillaPin was standing at the window of their hotel room, armed and ready to shoot.

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The Ninja Turtle looked up afterwards, but they were busy waving to each other, so no better photo than that.

It was just before this picture was taken when the first of the marathoners blew right past the Ninja Turtle, closely followed by the second and the third. At least there is one advantage of running a looping course – you get to run alongside the elites, even if it’s for half a split second, and pretend, imagine, fantasize, just for a moment…

The semi-marathon runners who’d joined the marathoners a while back, were fast approaching their relief, and picked up their pace. This may have thrown some marathoners off their intended pace, being swept along by the energy and the spirit of the crowd, for the semi-marathoners easily outnumbered them. Not long after, the marathon route split off and headed towards La Canabière, where the Ninja Turtle caught up with 5 marathoners who were clearly pacing with the semi-marathoners, for she overtook them without really speeding up at all.

The next 10km were slightly lonely and confusing. By now, the few marathoners were scattered throughout the route, and there were stretches where the Ninja Turtle saw no other marathoner. This was bad news, because the route passed the starting point for the 10km race, and for a while, she was beginning to wonder if she’d taken a wrong turn and gone off-course (which was grounds for disqualification, surely?) The signage was non-existent, and when she finally found some volunteers who were managing the traffic for the race, she had to politely wait almost a whole minute for the gentleman to finish his joke before anyone paid her attention, and waved her along in the right direction. Oh well.

Since the Ninja Turtle was not in any particular hurry, the delay hardly mattered. (The course entertainment was amazing, and she danced along to the music or drumbeats with each and every band.) That was her third stop on the race, the second being to pee behind a bush in the park. Hey, if the men can do it, there’s no reason why women should be discriminated against. 26.2 miles is a damn long way to run, especially when the volunteers at the water stops insist you drink up, and drink often. That turned out to be a lesson to the Turtle in and of itself – drink according to thirst. Not only did she have to make a pee stop, there were consequences to come.

In the meantime, she happily slowed down to chat with any marathoner who looked like they were struggling. It was raining, it was windy and cold, and all the good runners were far ahead or long done with the race, so a bit of shared humanity was very much necessary for everyone. There was an old bearded man who looked like Santa Claus after a diet, struggling with his knee; they chatted for a few minutes before he shooed her along, insisting he was fine. There was a young man with the most incredibly springy afro, who was doing so well in the earlier stages, but had slowed right down to a walk due to digestion problems. There was another man who looked most annoyed when the Ninja Turtle asked if he was OK, answering “obviously not!” in the grumpiest possible manner. When she asked if she should seek first aid for him, he looked chastened and replied “no no, don’t worry, I’m not going to die thank you”.

By the 32nd kilometre, the Ninja Turtle was forced to make 2 more stops. She hadn’t been keeping an eye on her pacing at all, just running according to her feel i.e. – knees OK, feet OK, lower back OK, shoulders not hunched, arms relaxed, breathing is fine, chest is not tight, still smiling… all good. However, something didn’t feel quite right, for her vision was starting to blur.

Yes, double vision. Whether it was that alone, or confusion and dizziness setting in as well to compound her misery, the Ninja Turtle looked at her GPS watch for the first time to note her pace. She realised that she was running faster than her usual LSD pace, and it was probably time to take some mid-run fuel. Sure, some people may freak out at the idea of only re-fuelling from the 29th kilometre onwards, but the Ninja Turtle’s been doing such slow shuffles for her last 22- 24- and 26- mile training runs that she never had to eat during any of those. She ran according to the logic that slowing her overall pace saved her the time, in comparison to having to dig around with gloves in her running pack for food in the middle of an open field. Food was always there, but only as a just-in-case-she-had-to-wait-a-few-hours-for-someone-to-find-her.

So, back to the marathon. She took a dried fig, which tasted delicious, and then a morsel of banana. Another couple of kilometres on, she took another piece of banana, and was starting to be thankful of how many refreshment stops there were. She wasn’t hungry, and to be perfectly honest, her energy systems seemed really good, and she had no need or desire to slow down. No wall approaching at all. Still, the double vision persisted, and in fact, worsened after every few sips of water. It slowly dawned on the Turtle that it may not be a sugar level thing at all, but quite possibly, overhydration! After all, she’s been accepting every single bottle of water offered to her, which was far more than what she’s used to drinking on her runs.

At the next medical tent, the Ninja Turtle approached three very bored-looking medics playing on their mobile phones. When she asked for salt, they looked around in shame and said they had none. Ah balls. Luckily, there was a cluster of restaurants a few hundred yards up, so the Turtle jumped into Quick (a French fast food chain a bit like Burger King), and was given 2 packets of salt. She diluted a packet in some water at the next two hydration stations, and immediately felt much better.

By that stage, the 10km runners were also sharing the route, so once again, the pacing was determined by the majority. There were thousands of 10km runners to the few marathon stragglers! With 7km left for both groups, the Ninja Turtle had to frequently repeat to herself “slow down!” as she overtook them on the uphill by the dozens. As she passed them, she overheard many complain about the wind, and thought to herself “you have no idea, folks, just how bad it is for the marathoners… you’re only doing 10km and besides, it’s not raining at the moment so what are you whinging about?” Frankly speaking, she was in a hurry to finish by that stage, because she’d had enough of exposure to bad weather, and the negativity all around her was just energy-sapping.

As she passed the hotel where the duo were staying in a second time, a thought struck the Turtle. She’d told GodzillaPin to meet her at around 1pm, and when she looked at the watch, it was 12:15pm. Whoops. So she took out her phone and gave him a ring.

Turtle: Hey babe, where are you?

GodzillaPin: I’m still in the hotel room. I’m just having breakfast.

Turtle: I’m about to finish. I’m on my last kilometre actually.

GodzillaPin: What?! Already?!

Turtle: Yeah, I’ll ring you again when I cross the finish line, OK?

Meanwhile, back on the race course…

Woman running in the 10km (in French): Oh my God! Look at that woman! She’s running the marathon, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time, and she’s running faster than we are! She’s incredible!

The crowds raised a cheer. The Ninja Turtle looked around, and realised it was her they were talking about and cheering on! Seriously, it was the closest the Ninja Turtle will EVER come to feeling like a star. As the finish line approached, and she overtook another handful of runners, the path laid bare before her and with a final kick, she “sprinted” across the finish line with a giant smile and thumbs up for the cameras (not GodzillaPin’s, cos he was still drinking his hot chocolate at that moment, but never mind, he promises to make up for it).

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Hooray!

 

Some lessons learnt:

#1: Proper nutrition is important of course, but one can overload on too much information on the internet, and ultimately, do what suits your body best. Conventional wisdom says to carb-load and avoid too much fats and fibre the night before, but the Ninja Turtle had no digestive problems after the super-greasy calorie-bomb of a meal.

#2: Attitude is everything. The grey skies, the wind and the rain in the “sunniest ville in France” on marathon race day can easily depress anyone. That’s why you should toss all competitiveness to the wind, talk to your fellow runners, thank the volunteers at the refreshment stops, dance with the bands, give high fives to as many little children and thumbs up to cameras along the way. If you’re not an elite runner, it may be the only way you’ll ever make it to the finish line.

#3: Listen to your body. Conventional wisdom says to not try anything new on race day, which is well-intentioned advice but runs the risk of being misconstrued. The Ninja Turtle takes no fuel during her training, but had no qualms digging in to dried and fresh fruit and salt during the race. Some people worry about digestive problems etc if they deviate from their habits in the slightest – know what? If your body can handle running a marathon, it can probably deal with tweaks in mid-run fuelling.

#4: The wall… it’s possible to run a marathon without hitting it. Or even coming anywhere close to it.

That’s 3 races in the bag for Spring 2015, and the Ninja Turtle is pretty pleased to say that with stops and all, she finished in 4h 21m 55s, taking off 28 minutes 36 seconds from her previous marathon time.

Marseille... your weather was awful and your marathon race route made little sense, but you brought sweet memories in the end.

Marseille… your weather was awful and your frequently-looping marathon race route made little sense, but you brought sweet memories in the end.

GodzillaPin finally showing up, with a sports drink and a windbreaker.

GodzillaPin finally showing up, with a sports drink and a windbreaker. One day they will look back and laugh, saying “remember that time you stupidly ran under the rain for 4 hours in the sunniest ville in France?”

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