My fourth marathon and the third in six months completed. Sadly it wasn't the result I had wished for - a personal record SLOW of 4 hours 23 minutes. What happened? Lots of things went wrong. Right now I am still processing and commiserating. It felt like the hardest, the most draining and the crappiest run that refused to end. As I hit the wall, the thought of another hour or two of running made my stomach churn. Somehow I managed to turn the corner, I gave up fighting for time and settled into a run-walk to the finish. I spinned it the most positive way I possibly could, even stopped for some selfies pretending to have fun. The photos turned out pretty well, so maybe I did have a great time?
Race day temperature was around 19C but humidity was a dewy high of 90%. At least it wasn’t hot like 24C the day before, otherwise it could have been a lot worse. I felt pretty nervous at the start because I couldn’t stop thinking how my lack of training (20-25 weekly miles) could unravel in a few hours. Because I was physically unprepared, I felt insecure and my mental game was not on. My breakfast of bread with almond butter and banana didn't get a chance to settle because it was such an early race start at 6:35am. I had recently tried running fasted which was ok. Maybe I should have gone without breakfast. Maybe I should have got up even earlier to allow time for digestion. Right now my stomach wasn’t happy with the early-hours forced-feeding and drinking. Hopefully this bloating would subside soon. I could only hope my fitness would hold up given I've done a couple of marathons (Chicago in October and Nara in December) over the last 6 months. I knew intellectually I could stretch to the finish, but it was going to hurt.
Congestion Off The Start
The start was anything but smooth because of congestion. I had to stop and walk twice in the first ten minutes as a result of the crowded bottlenecks on Nathan Road. I couldn’t see pass the crowd so I had zero idea what caused the stop. Hong Kong has always been a congested city, and judging by the level of crowding at the marathon bib collection, why should I be surprised by the bottlenecks in the race? Joking aside, I should have anticipated and prepared for it. I remembered several experienced runners had warned me about the congestion at the HK marathon. But how could this happen so early on? Would it get worse later in the race? Oh, of course! I shouldn't have expected any less. I should have looked up on some reviews and pacing strategy for this race. Why didn’t I do that? Especially I hadn’t done enough training, any bit of reading up and mental preparation would have helped.
Bridges and Tunnels
10-25 km was probably my favourite part of the race, the course opened up and there was enough room for all the marathoners. There were some beautiful open views over the Stonecutters Bridge and it was fun rolling up and down over tunnels, ramps to highways and flyovers. Because we were running on highways with limited access, there were hardly any spectators in this section, except for little groups of volunteers and medics. The atmosphere was pretty lively and upbeat as there were so many runners and most of us were still pretty fresh at this stage. I was definitely missing some cheering from the crowds, crazy costumes, hilarious signs and street music.
Hitting the Wall
At around the 18 mile/ 29 km mark, I started to have stomach issues. I tried running and breathing through it but my stomach would hurt more and I tensed up even more. The nausea was feeding right back to my nerves. I was stuck in this vicious circle of mental and physical pain. I realised I couldn’t run faster so I might as well slow down, focus on getting over the stomach pain and complete the race. I knew the best option was to run-walk. So for the remaining 13 km, I took one minute walking breaks for every five to six minutes of jogging. The good news was that I felt much more together. The pain never left me but it was manageable.
The Human Wall of the SCHK Marathon
After exiting the Western Harbour Tunnel at 36km, the course narrowed from multiple lanes into one and it became very crowded. The congestion was made worse because the full and the half marathon runners shared the same route for the last 11km. There were rows after rows of “runners” walking four or five abreast - this was what I have named as 'The Human Wall of the SCHK Marathon'. Imagine trying to pass this human wall as you are also hitting the wall (the commonly seen in a marathon kind of wall). By then I was already run-walking so it didn't make a huge difference to my race anyway.
Mind The Half Marathoners
In case you wanted to run a four-hour race at the HK marathon, please read this carefully and be ready for some bottlenecks in the last stretch of the race. Assume you start with Marathon Group 1 at 6:35am, this means you aim to cross the finish line around 10:30am. You will likely reach the last 11km at around 9:30am, this is where you will meet some half-marathoners who share the same race course. Some of these half-marathon participants will have started at 8:00am or 8:30am, which means they take between 1 hour and 1h30 minutes to run their first 10km. (Do you see where I am getting at?) Some of the half marathoners are serious runners so will probably be running similar paces as you. But there are also plenty of people jogging and walking leisurely. No judgement here, I absolutely understand everyone is just there to enjoy a fun race and events like this should totally be inclusive. However if you have a marathon time goal of about four hours, please think about your start time, pacing strategy and adjust your expectations with the race conditions, and avoid 郊遊人士 (leisure walkers) bottlenecks as much as possible.
Was It A Tough Race Or Was It Just Me?
It was definitely both. Quite a few Hong Kong runners I knew agreed that the Hong Kong Marathon was a tough race and a friend agreed that it was harder than the NYC marathon. The conditions (the congestion, the elevation, the lack of cheering crowds, the temperature and humidity) were tough on the body and mind. I wished I hadn’t missed a few miles here and a few strength exercises there in my marathon training. Then on race days I made dozens of tactical mistakes and forgot to listen to my body until it was too late. I had underestimated how challenging the course was and I was humbled by it. Every single thing had contributed to the overall performance, but I am still happy with my finish and have learned so much from the experience.
This marathon has taught me so much, probably more than the last three races combined. Sometimes the hard races are the best ones to learn from. The SCHK Marathon 2019 was a humbling experience, hopefully it will help me become a better runner in the longer term. I have come round to think more positively. I am happy that 1) I have “pulled off’ my third marathon race in six months without injury. 2) I sprinted to the finish with some great photos. 3) I could run down the stairs the next day without pain (yay!). 4) I have the confidence that I will be able to run another PR marathon when all the stars are aligned. I just need to really work on my mental toughness and not forget how much I love running!