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A timeless marathon by Nick Wall

“Remmo, where’s my watch?”…

“It’s on your wrist.”…

“No, my running watch.”…

“Ah…. I’ll call Yvonne.”… “She says it’s on the bedside cabinet…”

Tricky, given that I wanted a PB, the Amsterdam Marathon was due to start in an hour-and-a-half and Remmo’s house was at least 40 minutes each way depending on traffic. Soooo…? Fortunately the Expo was next door to the Olympic Stadium (1928 Olympics), no problem, nip over there and buy one of the second-hand ones I’d seen on sale, and a spare would always come in handy…

“Yes sir, no problem, €70; would you like it wrapped (the Dutch are always so polite)?”… “No thanks, I’ll wear it for the race, just show me how to set it for a 30-second average pace.”… “I’m sorry but it needs charging, maybe two hours…”

Doubly tricky… Plan B, get in my starting position on the track, find someone planning to run at my pace and piggyback off them; someone (weirdly also named Nick, what are the odds on that?) asked me the same question a few years back and I was very happy to pace him. Dave and Paul, from a club in Lincolnshire, seemed pretty competent and were planning 3.50-3.59 and happy for us to do it together (aren’t people great in races). Job done.

Well, it was — until we hit the roadworks a couple of kilometres after the start (yes, right before a marathon with some 15,000 people filling the street…) and ground to a halt for a couple of minutes. Unsurprisingly, we became separated in the melee (and the same thing a little further along, too). Plan C, hmmmm….

My normal watch was useless (well, ok, I’m useless) because I didn’t look at it as I crossed the start so I had no idea of the elapsed time, and those who know me will undoubtedly agree that maths isn’t one of my strongpoints anyway. Then the words of Sgt Major Bob ricochetted around my head from when I first joined the club: “Yew have to get to know the different paces in your legs without looking at a watch.” That goes with: “You can’t win a marathon in the first mile, but you can lose it…”, ie, don’t start too fast.

He’s quite right of course (he usually is), that’s one reason why we do the prediction runs in the summer; it makes a huge difference to really know your 5k, 10k, half and full marathon paces without using a watch; I know some swear by running to their watch, but staring at your wrist every few seconds is for many not the ideal way to produce the best form — on a long run I generally only look as each mile buzzes its average to check I’m on target.

So… I was aiming for around 8.50-min mile pace I’d trained for it and knew pretty much how it should feel (see Bob, I did listen…) which was okay. Every now and then I’d do a reality check and ask others what pace they were running — over 9-min mile and I’d speed up a little, faster than 8.3-min mile and I’d ease up a bit — not the ideal way to do it but it seemed to work and the legs felt as if they were ticking over about right most of the time (one runner turned out to be a smiling German who said “Ya, good race”; I’m not sure he quite understood the question…).

I won’t bore you with every pip and squeak of the run, suffice to say that everyone was very helpful but I couldn’t settle down with anyone because I didn’t look at the over-the-line start time; too used to simply pressing a button, I guess. The route is beautiful, though, especially where it heads out along the River Amstel (think beer) for a few miles, over a bridge and back down the other side. Amsterdam itself, as I’m sure you’ll know, is a lovely city and very pleasant to run through (apart from roadworks…).

Eventually (don’t ask me, I didn’t have a clue) the stadium revealed itself again (if you ever run it, and I hope you do) look up when you know you’re near and you’ll see the tower that held the Olympic flame well before the stadium itself, producing a useful extra bit of adrenaline for the last half-mile or so before you run the final few hundred yards (metres) on the track. Unlike some other marathons there are no crowds on the road in the last few miles to support you, but when you enter the stadium it’s rammed and the atmosphere is electric, so no need for someone to shout “keep going”.

Oh, yes, well… the ‘gun’ clock said 4.10 but not having a clue what time I started it was a bit meaningless if rather ominous. Someone recovering next to me asked how I got on, “Haven’t got a clue,” I answered “forgot my watch”. A couple of minutes later he leaned across and said “3.58, just looked you up on my phone”.

Will I do a race without a watch again — I hope not, but I will continue to practise knowing the various race paces in my legs just in case…

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