6 March 2016 19 min read
For this marathon run I wanted to try something new: train.
I have never really followed a training plan for a marathon so far. Also, I’ve never really done any specific exercises like intervals, tempo runs, or regenerative runs. I basically always ran at the speed that felt okay to me. Time for experiments now!
From my friend Holger I had the recommendation to try the “Countdown to Marathon” (German) plan by German running coach Peter Greif. Holger had no history of running before, then discovered the plan and exercised according to it before finishing his first ever marathon race in 3 hours and 23 minutes. That’s an incredible achievement in my opinion. So I took a look at the Peter Greif plan, and it’s definitely hardcore. The plan is made for the 8 weeks leading up to the marathon race you want to do, and it wants you to run 7 times per week! There is an option for rookies or people with little time which allows you to do as little as 4 sessions per week. But you can hear Peter Greif grumbling about the people who want to do this with less than 7 runs per week.
Okay, so that’s obviously not going to happen. After my most recent marathon in Tallinn back in September 2015, which is about 6 months ago now, my training has not been consistent. Trying to get to my usual goal of 30 kilometers per week didn’t even happen a few times. Starting with the new year though, I made a couple decisions and set some goals for 2016. First, I set the goal to eat vegetarian for a year and see how that goes (pretty well so far), and second, I want to do at least 100 runs with at least 1,500 kms in total. A related goal would be to get to a new personal best marathon time. And I still need to beat my friend Maddin’s Olympic Distance triathlon best, which I missed by just 2 minutes and 13 seconds last year!
So, I decided to welcome the new year with a 21.1 km training run on January 1st. Was I out of shape! We had just spent a great three weeks in New Zealand during which I had too many Eggs Benedict followed by the usual holiday food adventures around Christmas, so it took me 2:07 hours and I felt quite exhausted compared to what I remember a half-marathon to feel like. There is some work left to do apparently. The consequence is: running at least every other day. And that worked. We spent some time of January in the US and I kept my promise. Two Central Park loops in NYC, a long 23k run through Manhattan, two Lake Michigan coast exploration runs in Chicago. I found my Mojo again. In January I got to 224 kilometers in total and felt a lot fitter. So February was to be the month to try out this new Peter Greif method, I’m ready now.
Peter Greif Is Insane
Not only does Peter Greif make you do at least 4 runs per week, they are really demanding as well. Intervals go like this: run 3 kilometers to warm up, then 6 times 1,000 meters as fast as possible, each time followed by 1,000 meters of slower running, with 3 kilometers of relaxed running in the end. That’s 18 kilometers of hard work. Next day he wants you to do 20 slow kilometers. The day after that, 10 kilometers as fast as possible. And every Saturday, it’s 35 kilometers! Followed by 20 on Sunday.
I thought marathon training doesn’t allow for runs longer then 30. But I had the feeling that I should try all of this, so I did. The first 35k run was actually quite good. The week after that worked well, too, and I really felt my fitness improving. I managed to do the 10k in 44:39 minutes that week, which is my new personal best! The second 35k had a twist, according to the plan: the last 3 kilometers should be run as fast as possible. Imagine, after 32 kilometers already. But I tried hard and it worked. Up until about 33.5, at which point I hit my foot on some stone and fell down, at full speed, into the dirt in the dark night.
As if I’d had some sort of reflex, I got up immediately and finished the 35k as fast as possible, screaming curse-words into the lonely cold night to battle the pain.
This got me thinking. It probably wasn’t just a random accident. Maybe the training is too much for me. I did a 4 day break from running after that to reassess. I caught a little cold as well and my family was a bit sick, so there was no time anyways. I still made it to a record-breaking 265 kilometers in February and felt fit, but I decided to give up the hardcore training plan for now and listen to my body again — as I always used to do.
With that in mind, the journey to Cyprus starts. The last week before the race was without any kind of training, because my schedule just didn’t allow it. This always makes me feel a bit uneasy about a marathon race.
As with Tallinn I had to go on this trip on my own, because we’re expecting a third daughter in a few weeks and it’s too late now for the stress of flying for Sophie, she insisted. So I used some of the saved money to treat myself to a very nice hotel in Paphos. The flights were difficult to get because it’s not yet the right season, but of course it worked out in the end.
I was a bit sad about the location at first. As you know, my goal is to run a marathon in every EU capital. In Cyprus, that’s the city of Nicosia. Up until 2012 they held marathons there but then got problems with the citizens. They didn’t want their roads to be closed that one day per year. I closely watched the race’s Facebook, wrote the former organizers a few times during the last years to ask what the future might bring, and when I met Alashiya from Cyprus in Rome 2014, she was very kind and asked around at home to find out what could be done. No success on all of these tries, though.
In the end, I looked for alternatives. As a justification, Malta’s capital, Valletta, also didn’t actually hold the marathon race I did last year, it was more like the whole country of Malta. So it should be fine to run a different marathon race in Cyprus, because they have a couple more. Anyways, I promised myself that I will travel to Nicosia and run there as soon as they resurrect the race in Cyprus’ capital city.
(Update: just as I made this post public, I checked the Nicosia marathon website again, just for fun. They had changed nothing, except one detail: there’s a big 2016 in the upper right corner now! It’s always been 2012 during the last years, but now it’s changed. Does that mean I’m going to Cyprus twice this year? I wouldn’t object!)
For now, I chose Paphos. Billed as the “Logicom Cyprus Marathon” and located right at what looked like a beautiful beach scenery, I was hooked. Close enough. Who can say no to some sun in early March!
Cyprus is a very interesting country. A sovereign country, which Greeks tried to annex in the 70s because of historical ties between the two nations. Turkey, which also felt connected to the country and therefore entitled to a piece of the pie, decided to stop the Greeks and besiege the northern part of the country. The resulting battle unnecessarily cost thousands of lives. And no good result was reached: the country is still divided. The northern half is Turkish, the southern half Greek, but in total a sovereign country.
Another weird fact: Cyprus is geographically counted as an Asian country, even being in the Asian countries group of the UN, but was still accepted into the EU in 2004. Which part of Cyprus? The whole island, for some reason! The northern part is a country which is only recognized as a country by Turkey, of course, and the southern part is seen as real Cyprus from the perspective of the rest of the world.
The last external effort to reunify the country was made by Kofi Annan in 2004 but didn’t succeed. I’ve read the reunification movements are growing, though. I hope it will happen soon, those borders are unnecessary. All borders are, for that matter.
So Cyprus is a very exotic country in my list. And furthest away of all EU runs! 2,727 kilometers are between Hamburg and Paphos. In second place, by the way, is Lisbon with 2,200 and Athens is third with 2,026 kilometers.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are just 200 kilometers of sea between my destination airport and the coast of Syria, where a terrible civil war is still happening at the moment. That always seems to be so far away. The world really is connected and these bad things are not, in fact, far away. It’s good to realize that from time to time, I think.
Arriving at Larnaca
So, after a week of time consuming amounts of work and other obligations, getting up at 4 in the morning to catch a flight into the sunny south was no problem at all. A bit of a holiday for me.
On the walk to my rental car I came across an Olive tree, which intensified that feeling. What a nice change of pace!
Stepping into the car on the wrong side of the car, because of the British Empire. Oh yes, those guys were here, too. Still are! Two military basis named Akrotiri and Dhekelia are under British reign in Cyprus, for historic and strategic reasons. What an unusual island, right?
The drive to my hotel across the island took just one and a half hours. Sun, wind, and rain alternated during it. The hotel was amazing, I was greeted with an ice-cold fruit cocktail and treated very well in general.
… and ordered room service in the evening, before taking care of some left over work from last week. I was done at midnight. Successful day.
A Mini Vacation on Saturday
I can’t not mention it: the hotel breakfast was amazing. They offered everything. I saw four different types of bacon, which made it difficult to stay vegetarian. But I was able to resist the temptation. Cyprus is rich in fruits and spices, which was very obvious here. Especially the Cyprus grown oranges tasted great. They were everywhere I went.
One day to spend totally according to my own preference. I had the rental car, so I opted for a road trip. This island is also known for being the birthplace of Aphrodite, according to Greek mythology. If the authors had been aware of what a marketing effect this story had, they must have been geniuses. This ancient Greek goddess of beauty and love was absolutely everywhere. I drove an hour up north to the place where she took a bath in a grotto next to the beach. Yes. Really.
According to the story, she then walked up a hill to rest underneath a tree. I hiked there. Nice view!
Of course, these are tourist hotspots, and I came across many fellow Germans, some Brits and a couple Russians. Everyone enjoys some sun in March. Around noon I went back to Paphos and had a nice avocado sandwich. A short trip to the mall, some pasta and a huge Greek salad followed. Carbo-loading is still a thing!
My app said I did 14,000 steps today, which is quite a lot. I wondered if that activated my legs for the run tomorrow or tired them out. I’ll find out!
Getting up Early Again
The day of the race. At 4:40 in the morning, my alarm goes off. As always with important events, I’m awake immediately. Get marathon dressed, clean up the mess in the room, then down to the lobby to hopefully enjoy the special early-bird breakfast I asked the hotel to provide. They did, but unfortunately, it sucked. Funny thing was, another person had ordered it, because she was probably also going to run today. She sat down next to me, but barely talked, just looked at the food and took it upstairs with the words “I think I might have some porridge in my room” — haha! I would have liked to talk to her, because not only was she apparently also doing the marathon, but wearing a 100 Marathon Club UK jersey. Very interesting! I later found out her name is Gina Little and she is a very well traveled marathoner, totaling more than 500 finished full marathons. Incredible! I would have been great to hear some stories from her.
So I sat there all by myself in the empty lobby, staring at the food. A ham and cheese sandwich, a couple of plastic-wrapped muffin type of things, hot water, and a fresh orange juice which was delicious, to be fair. I was glad I brought my own muesli. The nice waiter got some milk and I had 4 tea-cups full of muesli, because there was no bowl. Weird, but it did the trick!
Off I go, the shuttle buses leave next to Paphos Castle, which is just a 10 minute walk from my hotel.
How tiny is this race? I never really checked how many runners had entered the race. I estimated around a thousand at first. When I arrived at the marathon expo yesterday, I thought maybe 500. But now… three bus loads of runners, how much is that? I’m quite sure this is going to be the smallest marathon I’ve ever done. Interesting!
The bus is quickly full and leaves on time at 6:20. Lots of different languages are floating around. People coming together. It feels a bit like the Athens marathon two years ago, using a bus to get to the start somewhere far away in the early morning hours. While we drive for about 30 minutes, the sun rises slowly. Beautiful views outside.
Our Goddess of Beauty and Love
The bus stops at a place named “Petra tou Romiou”, which is said to be the birthplace of, you guessed it: none other than Aphrodite! Everyone is walking down to the beach to take a picture of this beautiful scenery.
I looked up the story of Aphrodite’s birth, and it makes you think there were definitely drugs involved while writing it: Cronus, Greek Leader of the Titans (cool job description), castrated his own father Uranus (Greek god of the sky), and threw Uranus’ genitals into the sea. You read that correctly. Right here in Petra tou Romiou. That combination of severed godly genitals and the Mediterranean sea has the power to create life, so Aphrodite arose from the foam of the water.
She might also have been the daughter of Zeus and Dione, who knows. I find it difficult to stop browsing through all the weird stories, especially since they’re intertwined with some real events, for example the Trojan War. Said to have been started by a disagreement between goddesses Athena, Hera and our beloved Aphrodite. Historians long thought the whole war to be just a made-up story like the rest is, but German Herr Heinrich Schliemann and Briton Mister Frank Calvert, in true European collaboration, found archaeological evidence. You can never know where fiction ends and historical events and reality starts.
Is This the Real Life?
A couple people arrived by car, but in total there are just about 200 runners. It is very small indeed. Compared to the huge events I took part in (Berlin, London, Rome) this seems almost cute. But I like it, it’s a nice change of pace. Two guys build up a banner that says “Start”. This thing is not new, the date on it has been printed over a couple of times. There is a time measuring chip attached to our bib numbers, but no mats and technology to use it for accurate timing. I guess they do not need to take the exact starting time of everyone. There isn’t even a need for netto/brutto division.
A pickup truck arrives, which is used to display the time and also transport the bags back to the city, where the finish is located. This is the first time ever that I used that kind of service. It was quite cold this morning and I took a sweater with me which I definitely did not want to wear during the race, because it was likely to hit over 20 degrees today.
But then our race marshall starts to talk! He is a confident guy in his 60s, carrying a megaphone and welcoming everyone briefly but warmly. He then says: “Could you please all move over to the rocks so that we can take a nice group picture of everyone?” — people start giggling, as this is very unfamiliar to us all. Imagine taking a group photo of 40,000 Berlin marathon runners. But in Cyprus it’s possible, so why not.
A bit of walking around, a couple minutes pass. At 7:20, the race marshall explains: “10 minutes to go, everyone!” — about ten minutes of silence later he says: “Ok people, come here, stand next to the start banner please. Aaaand ready? GO!”
We Run the World
This is by far the most unusual start of a marathon I’ve ever experienced! A couple of people laugh surprisedly, me too. Still it’s very nice and I enjoy this relaxed, laid back atmosphere and look forward to the next few hours as we all start to move. Perfect weather, no wind, some sun, not too hot. The first kilometers are uphill, but it’s alright.
I can feel my legs hurt immediately, unfortunately. They are still a bit sore from the intensive training of the last weeks and the mountain hike yesterday is also noticeable. But it’s alright, the pain usually goes away soon. The body adapts.
It feels really good to run a marathon again. I can’t believe it’s been six months since last time. I need to run more marathons!
Despite the small size of this event it’s really well organized. They’re providing water every 3 kilometers, additional iso-drinks every 6, and near the end there’s even bananas, oranges and Power Gels. Well done.
After the first hill is done and the leading runners out of sight at kilometer 5, I start to roll like a car. Autopilot, as a Tesla. The legs do their work, the pace is good, I’m feeling fine. The field of runners stretches itself apart fairly soon, because we’re not many people. Soon, I rarely see the others. This feels more like a training run, but I like it a lot. To add to the positive effect, my fellow runners were mostly pacing themselves incorrectly again, which led to me overtaking dozens of people without being passed by myself just once. Makes me feel like I’m on fire!
I do notice that there are no disguised runners, or even runners running for a charitable cause, and no funny shirts, no one running barefoot. Maybe because there is no one watching. After 12 kilometers there is a street café in a small village we get through and three people sit in front of it, clapping as I pass by. That’s the moment I notice that nobody was here to cheer so far! My rhythm seems to be stable at around 5:20 minutes per kilometer, which feels comfortable but still quite fast to me. There are a few hills to climb up and run down again, which makes it interesting.
Somewhere around kilometer 15 I get greeted by the two front runners.
They are coming towards me because there is a 180 degree turn a few kilometers ahead, which means I am now going to see all the runners in front of me, one after the other. I like that! The course leads to Paphos airport, located next to the coast, has its turn right there and then leads back up the hill towards the main road back to the café I passed. At the turning point, a volunteer writes down my bib number to make sure no one is cheating. Analog methods for the win!
The half-marathon is reached, no mark. No mats. No beeping sounds. Silence. Relaxing.
Kilometer 27, I get hungry. I guess the carbs are used up by now, understandably. I am a bit disappointed because I had the plan to get through it without any Power Gels for the first time. My 35k training runs worked without packing food, half a liter of apple juice was enough. Why am I hungry now? Just in case I brought two gels with me, of course. Why fight it, I’ll have one now. As always, it works immediately and I feel great again.
Although this run is going great for me, not so much for many others that I pass by. Somewhere here at 28 some people are running towards me again: it’s not just marathon runners who are in front of me at this loop from 28 to 36, but also some half-marathon runners! I almost forgot about them. Today they hosted a marathon, a half-marathon, a 10k, and a 5k fun run. All the races share a part of the course, but the half-marathon obviously the largest part. It started later than our run, but still these runners look beat up. They are probably the slowest, less trained ones. I feel for them. Walking, beaten. Fortunately, they just have to do about 7 more kilometers now.
I do some calculations to figure out how far I might be in contrast to the other runners. The front runners have already completed the loop here, I don’t see them. I think I might be able to get into the Top 100. How cool would that be?!
The Safety Net
Being almost alone on this mostly unsupervised course also has some downsides. Imagine I collapse here in the middle of nowhere. It would take a few minutes for another runner to pass me and alert someone, and that would take quite a while as well. No ambulances everywhere, as at the other marathons. I don’t do Runtastic live tracking anymore because the app annoyed me more and more. I’ve since switched to Strava, a far better app, except it doesn’t do live tracking, so no one at home can see me fall. Lately I have just used my Polar V800 wrist watch to track, so no internet connection at all. I still carry the phone, just in case. And so I decided to send a text to Sophie every 5 kilometers starting at 25. Just to let her know I’m still alive.
After roughly 37 kilometers, the loop here is done. A few more people writing down my bib number and showing me the correct exit towards the finish. Just five k’s left! And now we’re heading towards the sea again. Sun and sea are a terrific combination.
My stomach is notifying me again: more nutrition please. Another gel, this time with some integrated caffeine for additional energy. Yes!
As we reach the sea I can see the finish at Paphos Castle popping up on the horizon! That means there’s just around 4,854 meters left, if the height of my eyes is at 1.85 meters and the average earth’s radius is not too far off at this point on earth.
Finally there is something going on as I enter the city of Paphos. More and more people roam the streets. Then I suddenly pass by my hotel!
A few hundred meters later there’s another hotel, the five star Almyra. In front of it, this lonely techno DJ.
He was having a good time, and so did I. The streets were full of cars and I had to circle around a few until I got to the promenade.
After a short loop around an archaeological site near the castle, I get some marathon fever from the crowds here.
20 countries down, 8 left. That’s quite a milestone. A look at the Polar V800 reveals 3:47:12, very good! No personal best, but considering the circumstances with all the over-training this early in the season, eating no meat and no fish for two months now, I’d say I can be proud of this. I feel really good.
I also got a great tasting orange and the chance for a massage, but I opted out. Not enough time to stand here waiting. I enjoy a few minutes in the area and collect my sweater from the office. They put up a printed out result list right then, which already had my name on it. With an official time of 3:47:08, I came in 47th! What a funny result.
After that shock moment, I start walking back to the hotel. It’s been a really good event, well organized, perfect weather, beautiful scenery. Good job, Cyprus!
The Race Back Home
After a couple minutes I reach my hotel again and remember the old people’s pool on the beach side of it. It’s made for feet and it’s ice cold.
It’s almost noon by now. A quick shower, new clothes, packing the stuff, checking out of the hotel, into the car.
Seriously, Red Bull should sponsor me. Tell them! I need some more energy right now, because driving a car for 150 kilometers right after a marathon race is not easy. The Red Bull helps a lot and I make it to Larnaca in one piece.
At the airport I had a bit of time to kill as you do, and flicked through the New Zealand Triathlon magazine I brought with me. I stumbled across an interesting article about training efficiency: there’s a kiwi named Andrew Magness, who developed a training method to be able to run ultra-marathons and Ironmans with just 2-3 hours of exercise per week. My reaction: yes, please! So my new thing regarding training is going to be efficiency. No more Peter Greif. Sorry, dude.
How to Run a Marathon
This training effort and the race itself made me realize I need to finish the guide I’m currently writing called “How to Run a Marathon”. There is a lot of experience I can share, and many of those people could utilize that. When I remember all the struggling runners at the race today I just wish to have met them a couple months prior to the race and gave them the link to said upcoming guide.
If you’re planning to run your first marathon soon, tweet or mail me now to send you the draft! It’s going to be a 45 minute read which will answer a lot of your questions and can help you avoid many mistakes.
With that being said, I look forward to how that new style will affect my next run in Paris. That one will be quite the contrast: it’s the biggest race in Europe (38,575 finishers in 2014) with more marathon runners than London or Berlin. In one of the most popular cities of the world. It will be great.
As always, thanks for reading and all the best to you all!