Race Report: Seoul Marathon 2015

My formal preparation for this race started on 18th January. I had hoped to start earlier, but the last couple of marathons had left me with a high hamstring strain in my left thigh (you can actually isolate the tender bundle of muscle on deep palpation) and I spent the bulk of December waiting for it to go away through a combination of Nordic curls and gluteal exercises. Then I came down with a stomach virus on 11th Jan and the next few days were confined to light exercise.

I gradually built up the mileage over the next 4 weeks doing mainly endurance based work, and that went relatively ok; the hamstring was barely noticeable during this period. The next 2-3 weeks were the aerobic phase where I did more race pace efforts, the first of which was on 14th Feb with Andy at Bedok Reservoir. Andy was doing his final workout before Tokyo, and so we did 2x 8.6km at ~4:00 pace. I then did another 8.6km of fartleks alternating at 4:30/3:45 pace averaging 4:11 for lap 1 and 4:13 for lap 2. Most of the other key workouts went pretty well, averaging 3:50-3:55 for the aerobic long intervals. It was only in the 3rd aerobic week (2 weeks prior to Seoul) that I upped the aerobic volume to 50km and started to feel a little bit of tightness in the hamstring. At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the overall progression of the training cycle. The main thing I did differently for this cycle was towards the main aerobic segment of the cycle, instead of replacing my long run with long intervals of 6-10km, I opted to move the long intervals to a weekday and do shorter 4km intervals totalling about 20-22km, while retaining the long runs as an easy endurance run to maintain fitness.

Then it started to fall apart a little just as the taper started. On Thursday (5th March) I came down with a flu infection and my resting HR jumped to the 60s and stayed there for the next 3 days. I considered it a minor miracle that I was able to do a 38+min 10k on Sat, and was quite thankful that I was starting to feel normal by Sunday. I then came down with a second stomach virus on Monday (9th March). The fever hit the next day and I had to take a sick day on Wednesday (my first MC in nearly 1.5 years) Fortunately the fever subsided by Thursday, and I was fit to fly but the digestion never quite recovered and even today (Monday 16th March) as I write this report, I am still not quite myself. To make matters worse, my credit card payment for the marathon failed and the organizers emailed me that my registration was in limbo and I had to send a few frantic emails to them to rectify it. And even then, they could not guarantee me a Pen A start.

A little background on my taper here: usually during training, my morning resting HR is in the low 40s. During the taper phase my resting HR gradually drops to a low of ~35 (usually on Thursday before race day) and then slowly creeps back up to 38-40 by race day, probably because of nerves. Once I hit the 30s I know my body is fully rested. This taper cycle, my resting HR never dropped below 44, but internally I felt fine by Friday.

I was quite excited about this race, because it would be my first truly cold weather marathon. Historically Seoul has been a 10-15 deg marathon. This year it was a solid 0-7deg. In fact, Thow Wee saw that the official temp at the start line was 0.1 deg Celsius. Thow Wee had flown up on Thursday afternoon, while I elected to fly on Thursday night, arriving in the early morning. I promptly woke TW up way too early for a 40min jog around his apartment at 8am (he slept at about 2am) on Friday morning. After that we had a short breakfast and then made our way to the race office to collect our bibs. Fortunately despite the registration snafu, I was able to get a Pen A start after all. For lunch, I joined Thow Wee and his wife Eliz for their favourite Dakhanmari (chicken steamboat). This is definitely worth trying if you haven’t had it before. After lunch I checked into my hotel and promptly slept the rest of the day away, waking up at 10pm with a headache. I couldn’t quite shake this and took 2 panadols. Dinner was Korean shrimp porridge and a huge soft ice cream cone.

The next day, I woke up and the headache was back. Not wanting to take any chances, I popped another 2 panadols and it stayed away for the rest of the day. Having wasted most of Friday, I spent Saturday touring the Dongdaemun shopping district for a few hours and was back in the hotel by 5pm, ready to rest up for the day. For lunch, I had beef rib soup with 2 bowls of rice, and dinner consisted of 4 onigiri rice rolls, and a chicken wrap. I managed a decent night’s sleep, going to bed at 8:30pm and waking intermittently until my alarm went off at 5:50am.

The headache was back (again!) when I woke up so I took another 2 panadols. Fortunately I didn’t really notice the headache much after that. I managed to check out by 6:30am, and promptly made the short walk (~1km) to the start area at Gwanghwamun Square. Sadly I was grossly underprepared for near-zero temps before the race start and so after depositing my bag I was stranded in full race get-up at near freezing temps for about an hour. This was a budget race after all, and I wasn’t expecting, nor did I see any heat blankets being given out. I hung around intermittently in one of the heated change tents, but later found refuge in the corridor of a nearby building where other runners were likewise cowering from the cold. It was only our collective body heat that kept us warm. It was also around this time that I noticed by left hamstring being particularly tight, probably from the cold. It didn’t hurt, but I would probably have struggled with a 90degree straight leg raise. I focused on doing some leg swings to try to loosen up the muscles, hoping for the best.

At 7:40am, I made my way to the front of Pen A and managed to get to row 2. I didn’t want row 1, as it would have exposed me to the cold. After some preamble, and watching the elites flag off ~9minutes ahead of us, we were sent on our way. The opening pace was fast and I consciously slowed down my pace and watched my breathing to get into the zone. At 400m my lap pace was 3:33, then I finally managed to drag it back up to 3:48 by the 1KM marker. For this race I decided to go by feel and just keep controlled until half and see where things stood. The pace splits on my watch were all over the place anyway. The next few KM splits read: 4:04, 3:29.5, 3:53.5, 4:00.7, 3:52.5, 3:50.2 etc but I know the first 10k went through in roughly 38:30. Things were looking okay at this point, albeit a little slow. Sadly by the time I cleared halfway in ~1:22:30, I knew things were bad. I was breathing fine but I had to make up time. I tried to pick up the pace, but 3:48, and 3:49 for KM 22 and 23, I ran out of steam a little as we hit the biggest hill on this relatively flat course and the next 2 KM were covered in 4:00.6 and 4:03.1. Thereafter I started to fade a little. Things were still ok at 3:52-3:52 ave pace up until the 34km mark. Somehow I just ran out of steam, and the splits just creeped up: 4:09, 4:09, 4:12, 4:18… The last bit was supposed to be where things picked up, but it just seemed to be interminably long. I finally crossed the finish line feeling very indifferent at right around 2:50:00.

A few lessons I learnt that day. Firstly, always lube up sensitive spots. This is the first time I’ve bloodied areolae and left axilla (and I’ve done a lot of hot triathlons lasting more than twice as long). Secondly, I have got to learn to improvise on the gloves. I had quite a few mishaps with the water cups due to clumsy gloves. The water points are spaced at 5km intervals for this race, and they give out the tiniest cups (Thow Wee said the cups used to be much bigger). I averaged 1.5-2 mouthfuls of water per aid station (and only because I had to use 2 hands to grab one cup), which felt fine during the race but my body was caked in salt at the end. The very little amount of water also made the gels hard to swallow and who knows if it affected the speed of absorption. This is something I have to work on if I go back, and probably something to think about for Tokyo, which is equally cold. Thirdly, and this is something Grace picked up, I probably undercaloried during the last 2 days. My best marathons (gold coast, boston, macau) have all been after pretty heavy meals on Friday and Sat lunch. This is something I should probably pay more attention to at the next race. I might also have to tweak the long intervals for the next cycle, perhaps retaining VO2 sessions during the endurance phase to maintain speed, while doing both medium and long intervals in the final few weeks leading up to the race e.g. 4k intervals on Wed and 8k intervals on Sat. Finally, after Boston, I tried to focus on using a longer stride length and slower turnover at race pace in an effort to keep the legs fresher, but I think it inadvertently made the impact forces higher and conversely sped up the fatigue in the legs towards the last 10km of the marathon. I think I will have to revert to a higher turnover running style as it seems to be more efficient for me.

Apologies if the report feels long-winded. I tend to analyse my mistakes better when I write it all out. 3 illnesses in such a short span of time is a rarity for me, and probably a sign that I need to back off the heavy training and let the immune system recover a little. Looking back at the training cycle as a whole, I felt that I was in at least as good, if not better shape than I was prior to Boston, and it was more a combination of bad luck with illnesses and small miscalculations during the taper phase that did me in. In addition, I probably overemphasized the endurance phase and underemphasized the aerobic phase of the training. I think I have pretty decent endurance base now and so, hopefully with a 5-6 month build for my next race, I can devote 2-3 months to the aerobic phase to better condition my body for race pace efforts.


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