A Challenging Half at Oslo Marathon 2017

Oslo Maraton is the largest and most prestigious race organised in Norway. On September 16, 2017, I took part in the event and ran the half marathon (21.1 km). You can visit the race website for more information about the race, and if you want all the nitty, gritty details on how my half marathon unfolded you can view the Strava activity.

Training and background

I started the year with a goal of running a half marathon under 1 hours and 40 minutes. I had been running between one and three times per week, around 40 km/25 miles weekly, and wanted to motivate myself to keep that up. I was able to regularly hit 30 miles per week the first few months of the year, except the weeks where I prioritised cross-country skiing instead. When I managed a 1:06:40 10 miler back in May, I decided I should probably set a slightly more ambitious goal for the half, which was still a few months away back then.

After that, life took an unexpected turn for the worse. In June, my wife gave birth to our firstborn daughter, the most beautiful girl I ever saw. While our little girl was perfect, this world was never good enough for her. Just a week after she was born, our baby passed away, and our whole existence was turned upside down. As this is a race report I will try not to talk about this too much, but it is impossible for me to discuss this race without offering some context.

In the aftermath of losing our baby girl, I felt no desire to run anymore. I had been looking so much forward to my running becoming a daddy and daughter thing, bringing her along in the stroller, and as that dream broke, so did my motivation for running. But I decided I had to do something, anything, so I decided to run anyways. Well, run is probably inaccurate verbiage, as it was closer to a molasses-like dragging of feet because my body was absolutely ruined by the turmoil. The first couple of days, running did nothing, but I was doing something. So I kept doing it, and to my surprise, I found after a couple of weeks that running became something like recess amidst all the grieving. All the thoughts were still there, but like Murakami describes, they lost their weight while I ran, and became clouds soaring past for a little while.

So I kept running, every single day, for that moment of relief, and to some extent, I think it safe to say that running kinda, sorta saved me from drowning in grief. And all the while, I also had that thought in the back of my mind, that no way was I going to let my little girl become an excuse for not doing something. In the middle of July, my body started to respond to the training again, and I started to think that maybe 90 minutes was possible after all, and I decided to go all in. I increased mileage from week to week topping out at about 80 km/50 miles, all the while sticking religiously to two workouts and a long run. I devoted all my free time to running, reading about and thinking about running because it was the only thing I was able to focus on.

And after everything that had happened, a few of my friends suggested that we make the race weekend a weekend with the gang, and five of them decided to join me in running the half. This added an extra element of competition to the race. While none of them are active runners, they stay in shape through a variety of activities, and I knew at least four of them could probably post sub-90 times in the half with a couple of months’ dedicated training.

I tried to focus mainly on my own goal though and became a bit deflated when the race announced a new course profile with two 60 meters / 200 feet climb. There goes my goal, I thought, but still I ran, posted my miles, and for the most part, my workouts and long runs went reasonably well. A workout in my final week before tapering, where I did somewhat comparable hills over 13 km and held 1:30 half pace quite comfortably, gave me some hope as I began to bring down my miles, and lower the intensity during the final two weeks. And then, a week before the race to the day, I got struck by a cold, which still lingers, and my hopes deflated once more.

Pre-race

I met up with my friends on Friday, and we had rented an apartment for the weekend for all of us to stay in. Those of us who were running did a little shakeout in the evening, before we ordered pizza, ate and played cards and generally just had a great time. During the night my cold felt like it worsened, I was restless and had trouble sleeping. At 4 AM I had to get up and take some Ibuprofen for the lingering headaches. Not exactly an ideal night before a big run, but hey-ho.

The starting time of the race was 1:30 PM, which had me a bit nervous. Because I’ve had some stomach problems while running, every single long run I had ever done before the race had started early in the morning, fasted. The late start meant that I had to eat something after waking up, and I worried that it would mean my stomach acting up during the race. I had a few slices of bread with some chocolate spread and drank some OJ at around 9 AM, and hoped that my stomach wouldn’t object while I was running. I went to the toilet at least four times between waking up and the race, but I have to think that was down to the nerves.

Race

With the new course profile for the race, I divided the race into four parts while planning the race: The start and first climb (5km), the flat between the mountains (6-14km), mount doom (15-17km) and run for your life (18-21.1 km). I made meticulous pace plans for the differing parts, and like all good plans, they went straight out the window as soon as the race started. One thing did work well during the race, however, was writing down my estimated max times for a sub 90 minutes finish at various parts of the race. It was great to have those handy (He-he! Sorry, but I’m still a dad now, so I gotta point out those) when running such an unevenly paced course.

For all of you who operate with freedom units, I apologise in advance as I only share my KM splits here. But for some reference, a 4:00 min/km is equivalent to a 6:26 min/mile.

The start and first climb (Start to 5km)

The plan was to get warm during the first two kilometres, and then keep a comfortable pace during my first climb. I knew that the four of my friends also aiming for sub 90 would be going all out from the get-go, but I was determined to run my own race. Especially during the first climb, I was very wary of getting carried away. I knew running too hard there, would be costly later in the race.

Right after the countdown, and almost before passing the starting line, I noticed that my heart rate was already way above my planned race HR of around 175, sitting above 180. I thought the cold, which I obviously hadn’t shaken entirely, might be the cause, but I was comfortable and tried to focus more on perceived effort. Being that I was comfortable, I stuck to the relatively quick pace I settled on during the opening for the first two kilometres, with my friends in sight. As we reached the first climb, I slowed down and let my friends go, but I still clocked the first 5 kilometres quite a bit faster than expected with 20:22, and more than 2 minutes below the max 5 KM time in my hand. Still, I didn’t feel that I was struggling at any point during this part of the race, and felt I had gotten off to a promising start.

  • 1 km: 3:55
  • 2 km: 3:49
  • 3 km: 4:03
  • 4 km: 4:17
  • 5 km: 4:12

The flat between the mountains (6km to 14km)

The flat actually started with 3 kilometres of moderately downhill running, to make our way down from that first climb. I still felt fresh and managed to post splits below my target for the downhill portion. All was good until the 10th kilometre, where we went out into the open. With no buildings or trees offering any sort of shade, the sun really made its presence felt, and it instantly became harder. I did have one of my friends in sight at this point, however, and as I was reeling him in it was obvious that I was not the only one struggling. I passed him at around 11 kilometres, and he said in an exhausted manner that he was shot, and I told him to not think about the others and just find his own pace. Shortly after I saw another one of my friends, and I locked on to his back.

Mentally, this was, without doubt, the hardest part of the race for me. My pace was dropping towards the end of this stage, and my mind went all over the place. I started to think about my little girl, and all the runs we would never get, and, in a sort of runner’s delirium, for a moment it kinda felt like this one was with her, so I held on. The groups of cheerleaders around the course also cheered me up to no end at this point, as they would shout my name and cheer me just because I smiled at them, so I held on.

  • 6 km: 3:57
  • 7 km: 3:57
  • 8 km: 3:52
  • 9 km: 3:52
  • 10 km: 4:08
  • 11 km: 4:06
  • 12 km: 4:02
  • 13 km: 4:13
  • 14 km: 4:15

Mount Doom (15km to 17km)

As we started on the 15th kilometre, and the first hints of the final climb, I had gotten something of a second wind. I had more or less closed the gap to my second friend, whose back I’d held for a good while, and I felt ready to rumble. About halfway into the climb, I passed him, and I felt really good as I held my planned pace through the ascent, despite being three minutes ahead of my schedule for sub 90 when passing the 15 kilometres mark.

When one of my friends who were among the spectators shouted to me that another one of my running friends were just ahead, I got another boost. I passed lots of people, felt like a boss, and when I crested the summit of the final climb I started thinking about what my finish time could be if I managed to run just a little bit faster than my scheduled pace for the final 3.1 kilometres. I feel like this is a good point to excuse myself and remind everyone that this was my first ever half marathon.

  • 15 km: 4:23
  • 16 km: 4:41
  • 17 km: 4:42

Run for your life (18km to 21.1 km)

Like already mentioned, I felt good as I passed the final climb, and that feeling remained for the first two kilometres of the descent as well. While I would’ve like to increase the pace just a little bit more than I was able to, I essentially held my scheduled pace. Until I didn’t. I can’t tell you exactly when and where it happened, but I suddenly noticed that people were passing me. A lot of people were passing me. This happens sometimes while I run, I lose concentration and forget to increase the pace again after a small incline, or my mind just wanders off, so at first, when I see people passing me I think “Oh, gotta up the pace a bit!

It takes a couple of seconds before I realise that nothing is happening. People are still passing me, and my body is obviously in some kind of lockdown mode at this point, because I simply can’t up my pace, and the more I try, the more I start to feel absolutely terrible. I remember looking at my watch and seeing that there are less than 2 kilometres to go, telling myself I’ve got this, no need for panic, before a split second later realising that holy sh*t I have to throw up.

At this point it takes all the willpower I can muster to go on, even if I knew that quitting was never an option. Before reaching kilometre 20, which took forever, I kept repeating to myself that if only I got to 20 I would have almost less than 1 to go, and I can do that no matter what kind of condition I’m in. I felt myself slowing to what seemed a glacier-like pace, but all I could do was reassure myself that even if I had to stop to puke, I was still going to finish sub 90. Both of my friends that I’d passed earlier in the race flew by me at some point during the last kilometre, but there was absolutely no chance of me responding. I was so beat up at this point that the thought of being beaten by them made absolutely zero impact on how I felt. During the last few hundred meters, I literally felt myself groaning out loud in pain. Watching the TV broadcast this morning, I cringed upon seeing that they caught my finish on TV. I looked just as miserable as I felt “running” the last 100 meters up until the finish line. But I knew I would finish sub 90, and that was all I could think about at this point.

  • 18 km: 4:10
  • 19 km: 4:07
  • 20 km: 4:16
  • 21 km: 4:43
  • 0.1 km: 28 sec (4:40 pace)

Finish time: 1:28:13

Post-race

Immediately after crossing the finish line, I was overcome by emotion, and all I could do was sit down and let the tears out. Exactly why I was crying, I can’t really say, but it was clear that a lot of the grief I’ve been carrying these past few months had been tied into my running. I felt happy that I’d managed to reach a goal I’d set right before my life became my worst nightmare, but I also felt an intense sadness that it was over, an emptiness and a feeling of “what now?

After that initial burst of emotion, I wandered off totally exhausted, caught a subway and went back to the apartment for a hot shower and some rest. I forgot that I had agreed to meet the others. We were supposed to spend the evening out dining and then partying like we do when we travel together, but we ended up back home and in bed by midnight. Some top-notch adulting, that, on a Saturday night!

Now, having had some more time to reflect upon the events of the race, I’m obviously very pleased to have smashed my goal in a relatively demanding race. But I can’t help but wonder what the heck went wrong at the very end and feel a little bit disappointed for not being able to stay the distance and realise a 1:26:xx finish time. All the way until I bombed, I felt like I had run the race perfectly, and to the very best of my abilities. I’m an inexperienced runner, so I don’t have the knowledge to tell from feel what exactly happened. Tips welcome!

If you’ve read this far, thanks for taking an interest in this very mediocre runners’ escapades.

This race report was originally published over at r/artc, a great running community that has been invaluable to me as I’ve tried to progress as a runner.

Father’s Day Run

The ice is crushing and crunching under my feet, as my spiked winter running shoes keep me glued to the ground. They didn’t offer the most comfortable run but compared to the alternative of wearing a helmet to protect me from the inevitable outcome of running in slippery conditions like these; the spikes win out by a margin.

The calendar shows November 12th, 2017, and in Norway, it’s father’s day. The first since I became a father. The day also marks five months and a day since my little girl was born. Ice crunches under my feet still, and I slip a bit on account of the uneven surface. I keep my balance, no harm done, and I stride on, thinking about that day, five months and a day ago.

I ran that day, too. 21 097 and a half meters or so, and the run lasted a little over an hour and 38 minutes. It wasn’t a race, but it’s not something you quickly forget, what you ran the day your first child was born. Of lesser significance is the fact that it was the first time I ran the half marathon distance in under 1 hour and 40 minutes, which was the goal I set for myself at the start of the year. What times can I post in my race in September, I thought after completing the run on the day my daughter was born.

After that, I didn’t think about running for a week. My daughter was born on a Sunday, a month before we expected her arrival, and the next Saturday she left this world again while in the arms of her parents. The ice continues to crackle below my feet, and I feel tired. But not from running. It is father’s day, and I think about my little girl as I look towards the sun, high in the blue sky. It wasn’t supposed to end up like this, but what can you do? I don’t know, so I just run.

About halfway through the run, I stop to take a gel. While the temperature is hovering around the freezing point, the back of my jacket is wet from sweat below the vest I’m wearing to bring along my water, phone, and of course the gel. My stomach has been a challenge through many runs, but as I am going to complete a marathon at some point in the not too distant future, I need to practice consuming nutrition while running.

On the day the doctors informed us that there was nothing they could do for our little girl, my mother asked me if I thought I would continue to run after all this had reached an end. We were driving home from the hospital, for a quick shower and a change of clothes before going back to spend the night with the little one, and I remember that the question stumped me at first. At that point, I couldn’t imagine ever again having the energy to run, so after thinking about it for a little while, I only answered no.

The gel is supposed to taste like a combination of strawberry and banana, and to my surprise, it’s not too bad. I drink some water to wash down as much of the gel as possible, before putting my gloves back on and picking up the pace again. Here, the sun has melted away most of the ice from the sidewalk, and the feeling of spikes on asphalt sends shivers up through my feet and into the rest of my body. I try to stay just on the outside of the sidewalk, where it’s mostly dirt and gravel.

Icy winter roads

When the thought struck me at first, I felt guilty for the answer I had given my mom. How could I possibly even contemplate letting my little girl’s short life be an excuse for not accomplishing something I had said I would. Everything I did, and continue to do, from the day I first got to hold her, has been and will be for her. But this, this one thing that I had somehow thought I wouldn’t do because of her, became something I had to do for her. So now I train for the marathon because I have to do it. I have to do it for her.

These little hills are hard, and the combination of ice and spikes is getting to my legs. They feel heavy as I come up to the cemetery where we laid our baby to rest a few months back. “I’ll see you in a bit, little one” I whisper as I turn and run perpendicularly to the graveyard. It is my first father’s day, and I am going to spend it lighting a candle at my daughter’s grave. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, but what can you do? I don’t know, so I just run.

Just a couple of miles to go, and the sun has thoroughly imposed itself on the world now. I’m sweating, and try to stay hydrated by practising my ability to do two things at once by drinking and running at the same time. It goes moderately well, I think to myself as the little cap of my soft bottle slaps my cheek.

Some runs are hard, while others, like my night run two days back, are brutal. While all days are hard these days, it had been a particularly unsettling week. You get used to feeling down, sad and despondent, but this week everything felt a little crooked, a little out of place. Going for a medium long run in the pouring rain felt like the last thing I wanted to do, but what else was I going to do? So I ran, of course.

A short climb and downhill to go before I today’s session is over. The wind, cold and gentle, is blowing on my face, cooling my entire body, which is warm from the running. Ask me to describe the perfect day, and I will answer something like this: The world is bright white and covered in snow, the sun is shining on the blue sky, and I am outside right there in the middle of it. Running, skiing or sledging, it doesn’t matter, as long as my cheeks are red by the time I get inside to warm up again.

Before I passed two kilometres on the run two days back, a car had splashed me, and I was soaked through and cold to the bone. But as the rain turned to sleet, the temperature sunk and the wind picked up, it went from cold to freezing. Running is usually a break from feeling anything much at all, but here I found myself not just freezing, but feeling as broken and malfunctioning physically as I have done mentally for almost five months. I can’t take this, I thought, I can’t go on unless someone saves me.

On the final downhill, as I approach our house, I can see across the fields and the top of the church tower where my little girl rests. As I let my feet go, my shoes still keeping me glued to the road, I think about what a great day this was for a run. A layer of snow covers the world around me, and my cheeks are red as I’m in finishing up the final hundred meters or so. I needed saving, and someone gave me a perfect day. It’s father’s day, and it was never meant to be like this. But I know that someone’s looking out for me while I run for her.