Somewhere in summer, I was looking for a fall goal to set. The girlfriend felt we should combine a city trip with a race. Making the effort of flying across Europe for something shorter than about 15 km felt like a bit of a waste. So, I decided my fall goal would be a half marathon. Sadly, I did not know my work schedule at the time yet, so that left us with very few options. Only the long weekend of 1 November to 4 November, I was sure to be able to travel without having to rush back and forth.
The girlfriend searched around and stumbled on the Teltowkanal Halbmarathon just south of Berlin on 4 November. Neither of us had been to Berlin, so that worked out nicely. The longest I had raced so far were editions of the Brussels 20 km, a hilly race in the warmer weather at the end of May. I was on board with finding out what I could do on a mostly flat course on a chilly day instead.
After making my intentions clear on ARTC, it turned out that one of the other people there, Johannes, had run this one last year and was planning on doing so again. Competition!
The Teltowkanal is the border between Berlin and the state of Brandenburg. The race is a 7 km loop you do three times. After the third time you run a bit further to the finish line. There is also a 7 km and a 14 km race at the same time. The course is pretty much flat, except for some minor bumps to cross bridges. You run out on the asphalted Brandenburg side and run back on the gravelly and traily Berlin side.
You start facing a bridge over the Teltowkanal from the Berlin side. You cross it to the Brandenburg side (~100m) and make a turn to the right. You run out 300 metre, turn left and up, come onto a street and run back to the bridge. You run a little bit onto the bridge again, but instead of crossing, you turn right onto a asphalt path along the canal. You are around 800 metre into the race at this point. The first of two water stands (per lap) is also around here. You follow this largely flat (there are maybe two little “peaks” of going up sharply going up a few metres followed by going down again) and largely straight path till you are a little over 3.5 km into the race. Then follows a brief little climb towards a bridge which you cross to reach the Berlin side of the canal again. Time to run back.
The ground on this side is less smooth. The first 800ish metre is alright, if a bit bumpier than the other side. You get stamped earth with rocks (the gravelly stuff you might find in park paths). The path is a bit narrower and there might be some rocks or roots sticking out here and there. All the things sticking out were marked with bright red paint. I do not know if the organisers did this or if this is standard on this path, but I appreciated that. Next you get 400-500 metre of an actual road (and thus a lot of space). They also parked the second water stand here. Things narrow again and the ground is a bit worse than before, more things sticking out, some sand patches. You get around 800 metre of this.
Over the next 100 metre you turn right and left while climbing on cobbles in order to reach a wooden planks bridge. Cross it (you are still on the same side of the canal), head back down and reach a sandy path. The narrow path from before still accommodated two people next to each other, now it becomes worse than that. Lots and lots of roots and edges too. You suffer through this for 700ish metre, climb some cobble stairs, turn left, and arrive back at where you started.
This loop is done three times for the half marathon. In the final lap, you run to the other side of the bridge where the finish lies.
I outlined my original plan in my planning of fall 2018 and looked back at parts of it in the reports of the races I did this cycle:
- Brickfields parkrun (5 km) (9 weeks out)
- Jogging ‘80 (10 km) (4 weeks out)
- Brussels Canal Run (9 km) (2 weeks out)
Each of those reports have a “Training” section that reflects on the training leading up to that race. I will give the general outline here, some highlights, and some more detail on ups and downs since the last race.
My main idea this cycle (and this year) has been to stay consistent and to not overestimate my body’s capabilities. I decided the “start” of this cycle was 11 weeks out from race week (so a 12 week plan, as many race plans are). Right before this cycle, I had bumped my weekly distance to 80 km, a new all time high for me. Most plans have you building up and peaking in distance during the plan. I was however not willing to artificially drop my distance to start a plan, nor was I willing to bump further than around that 80 km per week mark during the plan. So that immediately scratched distance peaking. Instead I decided to stick to 80 km weeks, with a rest week of 60 km every fourth week.
Intensity wise I will use Jack Daniels terms to explain. I did Threshold Cruise Intervals throughout the cycle. The first four weeks also had a week with a Repetition, a week with a Time Trial race, and a week with a race where no competition showed up, so that turned into an extra Threshold workout, tempo run style. Next four weeks had two weeks with an Interval session and another week with a race. The two weeks before the taper I dropped some workouts due to feeling tired and not wanting to risk it. I just did the one Threshold workout. Those two weeks ended with the Brussels Canal Run referred to before. I hope it goes without saying that throughout all of this, I am also doing weekly long runs and strides where I think it fits in.
Most of this cycle went pretty well. Five weeks out I put my body through a lot by also having to attend a conference while being on my third 80 km week in a row. This ended up getting me sick (throat, slight fever, super tired, that kind of stuff) on and off for about a week. Since then I have been paying more attention to drinking hot teas and taking some throat tablets when I think I feel anything similar coming up. Besides that I had usual bouts of tiredness and terrible sleep from time to time. My sleep has always been an iffy thing. Still, nothing major that sidelined me.
My taper started after the Brussels Canal Run by dropping the distance to what I run in recovery weeks (~60 km), but still keeping some workouts in. Specifically: a Threshold workout on Wednesday in week one, a slightly shorter long run on Sunday in week one, and a race pace workout on Tuesday in race week. Those last two especially gave me a great confidence boost and are two of the three workouts I think I want to highlight from this training cycle.
In chronological order.
- Interval / VO2max: 4×1000 @ 3:40 on 18 September 2018 (6 weeks out). Aimed for 3:40 / km pace. Splits were -4, 0, 0, and -4. I believe this may be my first such workout where I picked the right pace, or rather, where I did not pick a pace with which I completely blew up. It was a glorious feeling at the time. The only nagging doubt was whether I perhaps picked too slow a pace then. In retrospect, looking at what I have run since, I believe it was pretty correct.
- Long run: 16 km @ 4:21 on 28 October 2018 (7 days out). It it a bit cheating to take something from the more tapered body, but this run (and the next one) were such confidence boosters that I cannot exclude it. Unlike almost all of my runs, this was a flat run. The weather was also just great with a rainy start and about 10C. I did not aim for any particular pace during this run, with the hills in Brussels I have given up on that, and was just running by heart rate as always. I can tell you that clocking off these splits had me worried to the point that I thought my heart rate monitor might be broken, but really it was just a great feeling run.
- Race pace: 3 km @ 4:00 on 30 October 2018 (5 days out). After that great Sunday run, this was to be the final test and boy did it boost my confidence further. I split 3:57, 3:52, 3:57 and it just felt easy.
Goals and Strategy
Before the start of the cycle, the goal was just to get a better pace than what I ran at the 20 km door Brussel at the end of May. I ran that one in 1:27:59, which is 4:24 per km. The 20 km was a hot day on a hilly route, so I figured that is the least I should be able to do.
Shortly into the cycle, Johannes said we should go for sub 90. He had already beaten me handily several times in the ARTC Mooseleague races (track distances). Not to be outdone again, I agreed with the idea. Internally, however, I was wondering if that was not too fast. Sub 90 requires a 4:16 per km pace which is already a decent chunk faster than what I ran in the 20 km.
About three weeks out from race day, I started thinking more seriously about what pace I would be able to run. I did not have a proper recent race to go by, so I tried using my times from training to work back to a race pace. Usually the tables expect you to enter a recent race time and they will tell you what paces to train at. I figured if I manage some training runs on the flat, I could work back from that to a race time to aim for. Doing so said I should go sub 85 on the half. Record stopping scratchy noise. Wait, what?
Note: I did not realise this at the time, but Jack Daniels actually mentions using a Tempo as I described if you do not have a recent race to go by.
Completely fearful of that idea, I decided to just pretend I was ready for such a thing at my next tune-up race. I used the same method to arrive at a pace estimate and used that in the race. It went quite well. Shortly after followed two good workouts (highlighted above in the Training section) during my taper. These were the boosts I needed. My goal for the half marathon would be to go sub 85. Strategy to get there was to just do my own thing and aim for even splits throughout. 4:02 per km brings you there, so 4:00-4:02 range would be the sweet spot. If I blew up in the process, so be it.
Getting There in Pieces
I knew some travel would be required to take part in the race, but it ended up being a bit more than I bargained for. Maybe a month out, the girlfriend’s brother said he would be in Barcelona. We decided to meet up with him there since she had not seen him in a while. We would be there from Friday to the Tuesday before the race. Sadly, there were some strikes in Brussels Airport that forced us to use different airports. This extended the travel time from a few hours to almost an entire day and many uncomfortable bus hours added into the already uncomfortable trip. This happened both when going to and when returning from Barcelona.
Luckily, getting to Berlin Wednesday evening was smooth. However, I had trouble sleeping in the hotel’s bed: the mattress was old, hanging down too much in the middle and I could feel the springs pressing against me. Thursday night, I only slept five hours. Friday night, the same happened. A far cry from the nine or more that I prefer. While slightly worrying, I am also often in a not-enough-sleep situation, so I figured I could still make do. It helped that we changed to a hotel in Teltow the night before the race. The bed in this hotel was better and after napping in it in the afternoon, I slept about nine and a half hours during the night.
What did have me worried as all hell was something else. Friday morning after the first bites of breakfast (some “weltmeister” bread roll we had bought in a Lidl), I felt my stomach cramping. I do not know if it was that bread, if it was the pho from the night before, or something else. It hurt and it would hurt whenever I ate something for that entire day.
Saturday morning I went for a shakeout at the Hasenheide parkrun, Johannes’ local parkrun. After some jogging I let myself get a bit caught up in passing people, but no harm done. After the parkrun, Johannes introduced me to a friend of his who was also doing Teltow on Sunday. The friend has a better PR, but was feeling unsure about his current form. He stated he might run with me/pace me. Cannot complain about that!
After returning from the shakeout, my body’s healing process started. By this I mean that I had diarrhoea throughout the rest of the day. It sucked, but my stomach area felt a little bit better after the first round. I tried my best to drink enough water to not get dehydrated. Beside that I just let myself be miserable all day and hoped my body would fix itself by the time the race started.
Morning of the race, this did not quite seem to be the case. Stomach still felt so-so and there was still some bowel emptying. I had a banana and some “breakfast cookie” pack about three hours before the race and then just focused on getting everything out the body while putting enough water in. In-between we picked up the bibs from the start area. I made good use of our hotel near the start (~1 km away) by just preparing and using the toilet right there in our room. Eventually the girlfriend and I jogged over at about 10:15, 15 minutes before the start of the race. I did not see Johannes, or his friend that might pace me, and people were already moving to line up at the start. We walked in the same direction as the crowd, I took a quick pee in the bushes on the side, and squeezed in around the fifth row. With a minute or two before the race start, I heard my name. Johannes was another five rows or so back from me. I waved him good luck and got ready to race. I just hoped my bowels would leave me alone.
I had been warned by Johannes that the start can be a mess. You have got about 1000 people starting on a road two lanes wide that quickly turns onto a path barely one lane wide. Starting close to the front and on the outside of the first turn seems to have mostly mitigated any issues for me. I never felt trapped. Not everyone was as lucky. That first turn onto the smaller path has two bollards sticking out. Someone a metre or two in front of me did not see them in time and took a tumble after hitting one. At least the poles were packed in a soft material.
The start has a lot of people finding their pace. I pass some, I get passed by others. I briefly try sticking with a guy in a white shirt, but soon notice he is going a bit fast for me (~3:50). I let him go and after some readjusting fall in behind a short woman in black. She ends up falling in behind a guy with orange short and socks. It seems I have found a group. This group is working out nicely for me, keeping the pace up without too much thinking. The non asphalted side of the river path is a bit tricky, you cannot see the uneven ground until it is almost too late due to the person running in front of you. I try to keep a small gap, just enough to see by, not enough to feel like I am dropped.
Lap 1: ~27:30 (~4:00 / km)
(no official splits, just estimating both distance and pace from GPS after the fact)
VID: Running in my little group, shortly after starting lap two. My singlet has the white diagonal stripe. Note that I did not notice yellow socks (right behind me) at any time in the race and only realised he must have been in our group from watching this video.
It goes great until 8 to 9 km in. Around then a few metre gap appears between orange shorts and woman in black. My watch tells me she is going too slow. I move to close the gap, she tries to hold on. The pacing still does not feel quite right and the watch confirms this. I move up further to the front of our group and start setting my own pace. I do not know how long either of them stays on my tail, if at all. For the rest of the race I have to do my own pacing again.
Lap 2: ~27:45 (~4:01 / km)
Pacing myself goes well until the start of the third lap. I start feeling a bit tired and noticeably slow down some seconds per kilometre. My legs were starting to feel it, but I think a big part of it was mental too. I have trouble getting myself back to proper pace. After 2 km into that lap, someone in blue zooms past me. I briefly try to hold on, but see my watch jump up to 3:45ish pace. I quickly decide not to follow, but to try and use that speed up as the mental boost to get me back on track. It works somewhat, but I still definitely feel slower than I did earlier in.
It does not help that it gets noticeably more crowded on the path as I pass more and more people who are still on their second lap. On the Brandenburg side of the river this is still OK. The asphalted path is wide enough to easily overtake. Once on the Berlin side however, it gets narrow. The only word that came to mind in German felt a bit too long to bother with, so I just used the French “pardon” to try to get people’s attention in time for them to make some room for me. By and large that is enough, though beware the headphone users.
At the final water stand I grab a cup and empty it over my head. Nothing special, that is what I try to do at every one of them I pass. However, I notice a woman ensuring all the used cups are slid into one another in the garbage bags. I throw my cup at the bag and somehow it makes the perfect line, no tumbling around, and slides smoothly into the bag and into a pile. That got me elated for the first time this run. It’s the little things.
On the final stretch of trail the thing I fear most about trails happens. On of the holes or roots gets me. I twist my ankle slightly with less than one kilometre to go. I start swearing in Dutch and French while trying my best not to slow down too much. A guy on his second lap that I was about to pass says something to me in reply. I cannot properly make it out, but I think it was an encouragement. I just hope he does not think I was swearing at him. Either way, eager not to fuck this race up in the final stretch, I focus on keeping my form good. This makes the ankle feel alright and I continue on. I labour up the final stairs, squeeze out any sprint I still have left, and take it home.
Lap 3: ~28:10 (~4:05 / km)
The results peg me at 1:23:48, Strava is a second quicker. Note that the Strava activity is quite a bit shorter than 21.1 km. While my watch seems to lowball the distance often, the discrepancy seems a bit bigger than usual at ~340m. I do not know if the distance is in any way certified (and I doubt it). If you assume the GPS is exact (which I also do not), then extrapolating gives 1:25:11. More likely it will be somewhere between the 20.76 km from the GPS and the actual half distance. As long as the course is at least 20810 metre, it extrapolates to a sub 1:25 😉. Not 100% sure what to do with this now. Leaning to just say I am sub 85 now. Perhaps for a next half marathon I will have to look for a bigger race I know to be certified. Extra advantage that there might be more people to pace off of.
I finished 17th, 9:26 behind the winner and 2:54 away from the top 10. I was also beat by one female. Olympian Lisa Hahner showed up and took second overall in 1:16:22.
The woman in black from my little group went on to win the 14.1 km race in a time of 55:47. Orange short and socks was doing the half and finished 21st in 1:25:29. I found him in Strava’s Flyby and it turns out he managed to stay somewhat close to me after I took over. At the end of lap 2 he was 20 to 30 seconds behind. After my slight slacking, he brought it back to about 10 seconds. I regained composure and brought it back to 20 seconds. Then on a tiny incline around km 17 he seems to have straight up stopped or walked. The difference went up to 80s. Finally he lost another 20 seconds between there and the finish. I had some trouble finding white shirt, but I think it is because the front of his singlet is red instead of white. This would make him 15th in 1:23:04. Zooming blue shirt finished 14th in 1:22:59. Yellow socks from the video, who I guess was in my group, but did not notice during the race, finished 19th in 1:25:05.
I waited around a bit for Johannes, but sadly I had not seen him arrive yet at 1:30:00. Eventually he ended up 51st in 1:32:25. We took some pictures and had some water and tea. I also saw Johannes’ friend at that time. Apparently he felt good that day after all. While starting a few rows behind me, he apparently passed me in the hectic first two km and went on to run a PB in 1:20:51, good for a ninth spot overall. The girlfriend arrived another 8 minutes after Johannes in 1:40:51 (115 overall, 12th female). We did not stay long after the race since we still had to check out of our hotel (and I was getting really cold after standing around for 20 minutes).
In the near future I think I will use my current shape and have a go at improving my 10 km and 5 km PRs. Especially for the 10 km I think it is just a matter of finding a flat race of the right distance. Not always simple in my neck of the woods.
Training volume wise, I reckon the next 6 to 8 weeks will be base building of sorts. I will add some more 80 km weeks before thinking about moving further. I am not sure whether I will push it much further just yet. At my current paces, only three of my six runs per week are under the hour. One of them just barely, the other two are recovery runs. One hour is an arbitrary limit, but I am not sure how I feel about pushing it much further per non-workout run. I might be able to solve this by introducing doubles, but I would have to investigate further how I can fit that in my day-to-day planning. In terms of intensity I might stick to Repetition and Threshold work for now. I will peruse Jack Daniels and Pfitzinger some more to get better ideas.
Beyond that I will have to see about a spring goal. It will either be a 10 km or a (certified!) half marathon. Planning wise I will likely aim for the end of March or beginning of April, so I still have almost two months to decide exactly. Time to check out the options!
I am not sure I liked travelling for races. Being in a city you want to visit when you are trying to taper is… conflicting. Doing touristing afterwards might not solve everything either, who knows how dead your legs will be. Getting your food right can be tricky too, since there is no kitchen in a hotel to make “safe” things. Getting Airbnb or similar might solve that side of the issue. As I experienced here, bad luck with the bed can really fuck up the sleep preparation too. Having a place to stay right near the start is awesome though.