Monday, 15 May 2017

A Christmas Present with a difference....

What do you give your parents for Christmas when they tell you that they have everything they need? That's right....a race entry!!!

I've done the Wings for Life World Run for the past 3 years and have always thought that it is a great concept (with the finish line "chasing you") and for a good cause (all the entry fee goes to charity - spinal cord research - rather than to the organisers). I spotted that the Polish one was in Poznan, which is where a couple of my father's cousins live, and so I entered them into that event (and entered myself to run with them if they wanted). I have to say that I didn't just do this out of the blue - I did discuss it with them first, as they've been doing parkruns fairly regularly (in fact until we went to Poland, I was the only member of the extended family that hadn't run a parkrun this year), and unlike myself, keep setting PBs (I can't remember when I last managed one of those!!!).

I've described WFLWR before, but basically it's a global event (thousands of runners in 11 different countries) where everyone starts running at exactly the same time. "Catcher cars" (driver by well known drivers, eg David Coulthard in the UK event) start precisely 30 minutes after the runners in every location. They drive a set speed which increases every 30 minutes. When the car passes a runner their chip is deactivated and that is the end of their run, with an accurate measured distance. In this way, the event is suitable for all ages and abilities, as the faster you run, the further you go, but everyone has at least 30 minutes before the vehicle starts closing them down.

"Happily" registered
My parents had supported me at the Kraków marathon the week before so I was happy to do whatever they wished on the day in Poznán. We registered as soon as registrations opened on the Friday afternoon (unheard of for me to be that organised 2 days prior to the race) and checked out the start area. It was interesting to see it all through different eyes, as although they do park run and my mum did a couple of ladies' 10Ks several years ago, this was the first time they'd had to go to mass registration to pick up numbers, meal vouchers, tshirts and goodie bags. 

I had thought that I wouldn't really be able to run (or feel like running) much after the marathon, but I enjoyed Saturday's parkrun, and so when my parents were more keen for me to run my own pace rather than with them, I decided to take them up on the suggestion. We took the tram out to the race venue for about midday (and I introduced them to pre-race cake) and checked our bags into bag drop. The queues for this were huge and we wondered if everyone would get into the starting pens in time (the Poznán event was sold out with 7000 participants).

Team Zakrzewscy
I heard something over a loudspeaker mentioning my name, and when I asked somebody what it was, they told me to get to the front, as I was one of the "country favourite". I tried not to feel pressurised (as I never start at the front if I can help it.....being a slow starter who is understandably scared or being trampled) as I hoped to manage about 20-30k and I knew that winning distances were usually over 50k. They also mentioned a lady who was meant to be in the field, having won the Brazilian event with about 52k the previous year.....and as they only follow the lead runner from either sex, I hoped it meant I could just enjoy the day and stop before the car got me if I felt like it.

I didn't exactly understand the pre-run commentary build up but it seemed to involved lots of crouching down and standing up in a type of Mexican wave, but all too soon there was a brief countdown and we were underway. I was a decent number of rows back from the front, right over at one side, so luckily there were no trampling issues. After about 50m we headed up a short sharp slope  away from the water, so this slowed everyone down so I could start weaving my way up the field. My parents spotted a dry ski slope as they ran past, but I missed it as I was looking out for my feet, trying to avoid tripping on the speed bumps. 

Pre-race predictions...
Another couple of turns and a few undulations and we were heading into town. The first 10k was a loop around the centre of town, and I recognised some of the places we'd walked past in the past couple of days. After the first kilometre I appeared to be the leading lady, which was rather a surprise to me....and actually became rather frustrating as a cameraman on a motorbike latched onto me. Red Bull were the race sponsor.....and they have something called Red Bull TV. This meant that they might show clips of the leading male/female runners in each country at any time so the cameras had to keep rolling.

This meant that many men wanted to run with me.....I don't flatter myself that it was for my scintillating chat/company or to perve on my legs/backside....but because they wanted to be seen on a TV somewhere. I hate it when this happens as it stops me from running freely, taking the line I want and going the pace I want while being able to look ahead. At about the 10K mark, I passed a man running topless (it certainly didn't feel warm enough for that to me), but he said that he'd gone out hard and was about to drop out so was hoping the oncourse interviewers would speak to him. It seemed rather strange to be interviewing people as they were running, but then again, I'm no journalist.

Stunning countryside (though I doubt I took in much of it!)
Over the next 10K the field thinned out a great deal and I found myself running more or less alone (though with my trusty film motorbike just ahead, and 2 cyclists marking the "leading lady"). Occasionally I would catch someone up and they'd try to stick with the camera for a bit and I'd have to weave around across the road to try to get my own running space back.

I tried to speak to the cyclists a bit, but my Polish is rather limited...I managed to say "I can't speak much Polish - do you speak English or French?" and thankfully one of them replied in English. They couldn't tell me where any other ladies were, but only how far back the catcher car was and the speed that it was travelling. I said that I'd hoped to run somewhere between 20 and 30K and they laughed, saying I'd have to go much further as the car was at least 7k away and I was approaching the 30K mark. The roads were empty but pretty as we meandered around the countryside past fields, windmills, carved statues and undulated through forests. It was lovely to see people out supporting at road junctions, and when I passed a fire station, they set off their sirens in a salute!

Amazing wooden scultures on the "old historical route"
My cyclist told me that I was high up in the worldwide rankings, but I knew that it would only go downhill as I was fading with every step. When the camera is constantly trained on you, it's rather depressing to know that people will probably be able to see your declining form (though it was more worrying to think thyey might see if you popped off the road for a quick comfort break!!). I managed a wave and a smile as I passed the mark of the Polish female winner in 2016 but on the uphill afterwards I developed a stitch. I treid to "run" through it slowing down, holding my side and bending over, and it did eventually settle. Little did I know that this was reported back to the start/finish area (where my parents had gone after being caught) as me "suffering medical problems" but that I "should be able to fix them myself as I was a doctor"!!

The marathon distance came and went in about 2:53 and then it became a struggle to just keep moving until the car caught me. I felt like I was dragging myself along through mud - in fact it was just a cold headwind - and I was begging the driver Adam Malysz to speed up. I started giving the cyclists "grief" (jokingly) as they were trying to encourage me by saying the car was 1.5K away (when I could understand enough of their Polish chat to hear that it was actually 2/5K away)! They told me how amazingly the worldwide leaders were doing but couldn't tell me about other ladies in the Polish run as they "presumed they'd all been caught a long time ago"!

I could hear the overhead helicopter for a long time before the car approached, and I was hardly lifting one foot up in front of the other, but suddenly there was a lot of noise around me. Malysz was about 100m behind me and so I was about to relax and move to the side of the road....but a lady surrounded by 4 men shot past. It turns out that as I'd been slowing and slowing, these guys had helped her close down the gap as they'd been able to see the flags on the bikes and cameraman. Suddenly I was being told to sprint....and I did the best that I could. We were well beyond the 51K sign now, and I really didn't want to be overtaken having led for 50K. I'm not sure I'd win any sprint race, but I cuaght the lady back up and powered past. I shouted to the cyclist to tell me if she was caught and he just told me to keep going. It seemed to go on forever, but finally the car passed me and I could stop......52.26K after crossing the start line!

Slightly "dead" at the side of the road!
I was over the moon as I'd totally unexpectedly run my farthest distance at one of these events (though with the worst pacing ever - don't look at my garmin trace!!!) and won the national event after coming 2nd in the previous 2 years. It must have been one of the closest finishes anywhere, coming down to just a few metres (initally I thought it was a mere 10m, but it turned out to be 110m). Everyone wanted to give me a hug, shake my hand, put a banner on me etc, but all I wanted to do was congratulate the other lady, as she'd run brilliantly, and come so close to sneaking a victory!
Back at the start/finish area

We then had to follow behind the few remaining men - which took a very long time as the Polish winner was something like 3rd in the world, before finally going back to the start area.

Male and Female Poland winners
I was reunited with my parents (who'd been up on stage for interviews in my absence), and discovered that they were the real champions of the family - having both run further than they'd anticipated, finishing as the leading male and female in their age groups in Poland (which was one of the biggest events of them all worldwide)!!!

3 happy finishers!!
So proud of them (and Happy Christmas!!)!!!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Going Krazy in Krakow

I had been invited to take part in the Krakow marathon, but I found it hard to get my head around running another marathon when I felt that the Limassol marathon had gone badly for me. It would be difficult enough to recover, train and taper again in the space of 6 weeks, but my mental focus had also deserted me. Add into that a bad cold, a productive cough, and extra work....and all of a sudden I was on my way to Poland without knowing exactly what had hit me!

The "Elite" myself and Paulina!!
I was sharing a room with Paulina Lipska, the previous year's top Polish female finisher, who was aiming for a time of 2:48 in this year's race, but we felt like frauds in the elite technical meeting, presentation and "photoshoot". She and I were the only non-Africans, and the "pacemaker for the women" was going to go through halfway in sub 2:30 pace (sub 2:10 pace for the men). Then again, we were probably the only 2 who nipped out to the cornershop and bought a couple of beers to enjoy in our room before going to sleep the night before the race.
Room 115 preparing for the marathon

When I woke up on race morning, I still didn't really feel "up for it" (even less so when I saw the weather - it was 3 degrees and drizzling, though didn't start raining properly until warm-up time!!), but as I'd been invited there and my parents/cousins were going to be around to watch the race, I figured I'd just better get on with it, as it would only be me that I would disappoint if I ran slower than I'd like.

Not again!!!
I was a couple of rows back from the very front (the Africans and top Poles were presented at the start), but unfortunately this still didn't save me. Somehow I still managed to get pushed from behind while having my feet taken out from under me. I had visions of Seville happening all over again and wondered if it really was a sign that I should give up racing. The saving grace of this happening so early on, was that there was still a blue carpet covering the cobbles and so I didn't not hurt myself (just my pride!) as I hit the deck, and managed to avoid getting trodden on in the 10 seconds that I was down.

A soggy first 5K
I picked myself up, tried not compose myself/my face, and started running. I hadn't realised that the start was slightly downhill (all I noted prior to the race was the wet cobbles) but I managed to get into the stream of runners and weave my way through them catching up with Paulina at about the 1km mark where we turned sharply right, almost back on ourselves.

There were quite a lot of runners around early on, but by the time I first saw my family on the roadside (I was impressed that they'd braved the weather) I was moving into a space of my own....and spent the rest of the race running solo. I know some people say that they are more motivated when running in groups, but I wonder how I'd actually find such a situation as I seem to spend so much time running alone, both in training and racing. It certainly had a few advantages in Krakow as I could pick my line across the cobblestones, avoid some of the worst puddles, leapfrog a couple of kerbstones, and actually avoided tripping on the tramlines (as we crossed them a fair few times over the course of the race).

The flooded route a day earlier
It was a 2-lap race (though the route was only finalised the evening before as the race organisers had to check that the river flood water had receded enough for it to happen), and with a number of sharp corners and a turn in the road at about the 15K mark. This meant that I was able to see the leaders making their brisk pace look so easy (well, I saw them on the first lap anyway).

Going solo...
I realise that am lucky to be able to avoid running in a crowd during a marathon, so I can generally run my chosen "line" but when the long water stations are on the inside on bends and the volunteers move further and further out into the road away from the curb, you do feel as if you are having to run a long way round to avoid collisions. I also really appreciated the support from runners going the other way as I headed towards the end of the lap, but there were so many of them that they spilled across the central cones in the road, which at times became like a game of dodgems. 

Lap 2 - the rain had stopped
We'd been warned not to "push" into the start of the second lap, and I soon realised why. Not only is there a cheeky (though mericfully short) climb up to the old town (by the Wawel castle) away from the river, but then there was a tight 180 degree bend on a downhill cobbled slope to start the last lap. I was still feeling good at this point, the rain had eased off, and my parents encouraged me as I ran round them on the lap change.

Going into the last 10K or so
Clearly I'd run this first lap slightly too fast (going through halfway in about 1:21:20), as the next lap didn't feel quite so good!!! My feet were wet and soggy and I kept asking myself exactly what I was doing there. Still, others were finding it just as tough as me, as although a couple of people passed me (1 man said that he "wanted to help me" as he coasted past, but his speed was a sprint relative to mine!), I passed about the same number of people finishing the lap in the same position that I started it.

Finally spotting the finish gantry
Everyone had their first name written on their number, and so people could cheer you on by name (and for a change, people could pronounce "Joasia", though obviously I got a few "Asias" along the way). It reminded me of the Barcelona Marathon as I could understand that some of the bystanders were shouting "first white lady", and the best scalp I took on that (very long) lap was passing the third Ethiopian lady with 4 miles to go. This put me into 4th place, but unfortunately the cyclist meant to accompany the 4th lady (for some reason there were cyclists for the top 4 positions) stayed with her, so I had no way of asking anyone if I was moving away and I didn't want to turn round.

Phew....crossing the line
The final climb up from the river was definitely steeper on the second lap and although I hadn't realised that the first mile was downhill, I certainly felt it as I tried to keep running back up it. I'd forgotten how long the run in was, as I kept thinking that every sharp turn, every tram line and every cobble would be the final one, but eventually I made it....4th lady ("1st European is a more-PC way of putting it) and 30th overall.

A well-earned medal!
Better late than never - the sun came
out as I walked back to the hotel that afternoon!
Seeing the results (after I'd staggered a further kilometre over cobbles and down 2 flights of stairs to drug testing) later, I realised that I should be proud of my 2:45, as it wasn't a day for fast times - (2:13, 2:15 and 2:16 for the top 3 men - all Kenyan, and 2:33, 2:41, 2:42 for the ladies - Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ethiopian)!! I also checked the time of the man who knocked me over....he finished 3 minutes after me, so I guess he didn't need to rush quite so much at the start!!