Sunday, 10 July 2016

St Petersburg White Nights Marathon Race Review

On the 3 July 3016 I embarked on my first marathon abroad as I ran the St Petersburg White Nights marathon. The aim of this post is to share my experiences of this race and my experience of running a marathon abroad without turning into the running equivalent of Karl Pilkington's an idiot abroad.

First things first why was I taking part in this race? My visit to St Petersburg was part of a trip to Russia to visit my brother in law and some time running buddy Tom who is currently working in Russia. Several potential dates for the trip had been muted but when Tom suggested the opportunity to run the marathon as part of a trip that sealed things.

The White Nights marathon is so called as it takes place during the White Nights summer period in St Petersburg where as the name suggests the nights are white and light with the night not turning dark until around 11pm with the sun reappearing again at around 2 or 3am. However despite the white nights title the marathon was very much the usual day time affair with the race starting at 9am. 

We arrived in Moscow on the Wednesday with the marathon taking place on the Sunday. Thursday and Friday provided the chance to do plenty of sightseeing in Moscow before we boarded a sleeper train at midnight on Friday night which would take us the several hundred miles overnight north to St Petersburg.

Having a marathon as part of a holiday did take a bit of focus away from the race. I knew I was running on the Sunday and although I kept to my usual pre race schedule of a run on Thursday and a mile or two on Saturday I don't think my mind fully appreciated I wasn't just running on Sunday but running an actual marathon!

My build up to the race had been OK with my main focus being on enjoying this unique opportunity rather than taking the race super seriously. Having ran Halstead marathon at the beginning of May some two months previously I kind of believed that I would carry my fitness over and therefore I didn't focus as much of my training on 'marathon training' as perhaps I should have. Needless to say I felt this during the marathon and struggled with a bit of stamina and definitely felt I was at least one long slow run short of where I would have liked to have been. 

The more immediate build up to the race was probably far from ideal. Travelling naturally tires you out and we had hit the sightseeing pretty hard packing a lot in and racking up plenty of walking miles in the process. Coupled with a few nights of not sleeping that well due to being in a new bed, the nights being so light and rather hot and humid I wasn't in perfect condition but didn't dwell on these things and just tried to focus on running as best I could and enjoying the race experience. 

The actual race

The day of the race was expected to be hot, and I mean hot, 30degrees hot! I knew this race was going to be a warm one and after my bad experience of hot and humid running at Halstead I was somewhat apprehensive of running in the heat. I felt pretty prepared though as the UK had been pretty warm in the few weeks before the race and I had tried to get out to run in the hotter middle part of the day as well this in addition to the the several hours a day walking around sightseeing which I felt had helped acclimatise me somewhat. Nothing can prepare you for running in the heat though! I think the race temperature varied from around 28 degrees up to highs of around 30 degrees and was the hottest race in over ten years! 

My first observations of the differences between this race and UK races were apparent at the start line. Half an hour before the race start and there was already a lot of running going on, people running in circles near the start area and people running up and down adjacent roads. There was a 10K happening as well as the marathon but the amount of pre race warm up running was definitely more than I can ever remember seeing at a UK race.

One thing that remains constant at races everywhere is the pre race queue for the toilets! Our apartment was only a 20 minute walk from the start area but we arrived with the aim of giving us enough time for a toilet stop before taking our places at the start. The queues were enormous though, under estimating demand for toilets seems to be an international problem. Luckily we spied what can only be described as a 'toilet bus' a large bus decked out with toilet cubicles. There was a charge for this 'premium' service and there was only a line of half a dozen people waiting so we handed over our rubels and joined the line. The facilities were not any better than the portaloos but we were happy to not have to endure a lengthy wait.

The time soon came to line up for the race start and Tom and I both managed to squeeze into the cramped starting pen somewhere between the 3.30 and 4.00 pacers as we both felt we had the potential for a 4 hour marathon in us if things went our way. 

I was expecting a prompt and efficient race start but the start was delayed by several minutes and so we waited in the cramped pens with temperatures already hitting 28C.

The race was soon underway and I had planned to take things easy for the first few miles, this decision was taking out of my hands though as the course was so congested with both 10K and marathon runners sharing the route for the first 7K. 

I happily set into a rhythm and tried to take in the sights of St Petersburg and all the beautiful buildings. 

The first noteworthy point came at the 5K water station, there were no signs to say it was approaching and this caused a near stampede as runners swarmed the first set of marshals handing out water. It was the scariest running experience I have ever had, a gentle paced run suddenly turned into a shouting frenzy of runners sprinting to get their hands on some water. I wisely swerved the masses and grabbed some water towards the back of the station. 

The 7K point soon came and the 10K runners departed which made the course far less congested. 

With the heat increasing and the sun blazing runners unsurprisingly headed for the side of the road offering the most shade. This along with the roads being so wide led to the majority of runners often being so far away from the racing line which was marked with a blue dotted line. I generally tried to stick to the racing line where practical and often found myself running 10 or 20m away from any other runner, almost like running in my own race, which I enjoyed! The disparity in runners racing lines must have led to some very long and very short marathons! 

My first problem during the race came at around 17K (at this point I was still going along at around 4 hour pace) when the uncontrollable urge to empty my bowels started to appear. 

I had seen some portaloos for the race earlier so consoled myself with the thought that there would be more along the route shortly. Several hundred metres passed and no toilets, I asked the Marshall at 18K, she didn't seem to understand English and her reply started with a harsh sounding word beginning with a 'N' which I took as a negative answer to there being any nearby toilets. I had to take some walking brakes to help control the urge and this obviously slowed my pace. We passed through some parkland areas and I scanned the area as I ran for any sign of suitable facilities but nothing, at 19K I again asked the marshall, he looked around and shrugged his shoulders, not a good sign. Things were getting desperate, I was confident there would be a toilet at either the 20K drink station or near the 21/22K point where the race crossed past the starting area but could I hang on till then? 

It's OK I managed to make it to 20K where I found relief in a foul smelling portaloo by the side of the course. Now I felt like the race could begin again after a difficult few miles. I cracked open an energy gel and started to assess my objectives which I summarised as follows: 
  • The heat was starting to get too much and I knew it would only get worse, finishing in one piece was the real aim now.
  • A four hour finish time was off the agenda 
  • My gold standard objective was a sub 4.10, but that was dependent on an awesome second half of the race. My silver objective was a 4.15 with my bronze target being to beat my debut marathon time of 4.26. Additionally I tried to motivate myself further by convincing myself I had to finish in under 4.30 in order to have a respectable time.
All these objectives were set without me having any real idea of my actual race pace as I was running completely naked from all timing technology, my only barometer was that I knew that the 4 hour pacer was still behind me, how far though I didn't know!  

I passed the half way mark in 2.05 but knew this was gun time and I wasn't sure how far behind gun time I had started. 

On I pressed through the 20-22K mark which provided a brilliant carnival atmosphere with lots of support as the course passed by the race start area. After that the course went through some quiet back streets and the battle began as the heat intensified.

The next mile or so were difficult until I decided to unleash my trump card by taking on a caffeine energy gel. Once this kicked in I started to find running a bit easier and was moving at a decent pace. 

The course took us back through the more central parts of St Petersburg and with it shaded streets which made things feel easier. At some point after the half way mark the 4 hour pacer had passed me but I still felt I was only 5 to 10 minutes behind 4 hour pace with some faster splits following my caffeine injection. 

The caffeine was starting to wear off as I approached 30K which coincided with leaving the shaded streets and heading out onto a soulless dual carriageway which would eventually bring us back towards the finish. 

I had been warned of this difficult stretch of the race on twitter by @pawsonkeyboard who had previously ran the event. A big thank you for all you advice and support it was really helpful! 

Despite knowing about this challenging stretch of road it didn't make it any easier and the fact that it was accompanied by heading back into the blazing sun was just a double whammy I couldn't cope with. A lot of walking followed before I pulled myself together to adopt a walk/run strategy which comprised of walk to a lamp post run to the next one, walk one lamp post, run two lamp posts, walk one lamp posts, run three lamp posts then trying to keep a 3:1 run/walk lamp post ratio going for as long as possible before an extended walking period and repeating the sequence again. 

The section of 30K to around 38K dragged big time but eventually I was in the final stages. It was during this section that the 4.15 and 4.30 pacers passed me which provided a depressing mental equivalent to a kick in the balls. The race was now all about keeping it together to finish in one piece with the most respectable time I could muster. I think in these kind of situations I have found your body gives you two options, one is to stop and call it a day, two is to keep going at whatever pace you are able to squeeze out of you weary body.

The finish

Luckily I managed to squeeze enough out of my achy tired legs and dehydrated heat affected body to get to the closing mile or two where I was greeted by so many cheering supporters. I obviously didn't understand any of their support or encouragement but they provided the required adrenaline boost to spur me.

I had prepared myself for a final assault on the last two kilometers where I was going to squeeze everything out of my legs to finish as strongly as possible but as I tried to increase my pace a debilitating sensation shot through my back. It didn't feel good so I was reduced to a walk, every time I tried to run faster than a hobble the pain returned so I just did what I could to keep moving until the adrenaline over powered me in the last few hundred metres and I ran through the finish. 

I crossed the finish line with a official time of 4.42.44 coming 1496th of 2311 male finishers. I was pleased I was around 40 minutes faster than Halstead in May but somewhat disappointed it represented my slowest city marathon. However it was a PB for marathons abroad as well as being a PB for me for marathons ran in Russia! You have to find the positive somewhere! 

In summary I feel privileged to have ran the event in a spectacular city in a race that not many runners from Western Europe take part in. There were not too many differences with a UK race and there were no real criticisms with the race organisation although there are places where this could be improved but then there are in most races. 

Overall I was blown away away with the friendliness and support from the Russian people, runners and supporters a like. I don't think I have exchanged high fives with as many spectators during a marathon as I did during this race. There were several occasions during the race where members of the public had gone out of their way to provide water to runners which was happily appreciated by runners. There were also two or three instances during the race where I was struggling where fellow runners gave me a tap on the back, a thumbs up and a smile and/or words of encouragement. In any race it is always great to experience support and camaraderie from other runners but in this instance it felt even more special that people were supporting me even though I was unable understand them. Despite the language barrier the sense of friendship and support for a fellow competitor was clear to see and this is probably the overriding memory I will take away from this experience.

Here's my Russian tourist board bit, I would recommend anyone to visit Moscow and St Petersburg if you get the chance they are amazing vibrant cities. The White Nights marathon I would similarly urge anyone to take part in if you get the opportunity, its a super flat course with strong PB potential if the temperatures stay down and is a great alternative to the usual European circuit. 

So with that challenge done and dusted I am turning my attentions to marathon number 10 in September which will be Bacchus and hopefully a new 10K PB over the summer.