TOM MIDDLETON RAN A HUGE PB AT DAEGU- read his race report:
The Daegu Marathon in South Korea is held on the same course used for the 2011 IAAF World Championships marathon and it involves three laps of a 14km loop. A 200m hairpin loop is added down a side-street towards the end of the final lap to get the course to 42.2km. The marathon is elite/invitational only. It had ~25 international runners, which was basically 23 professional runners (mostly from Kenya) and two Aussies (myself, and Greg Watson from Sean’s Melbourne squad). We were definitely “The Other Guys”. The rest of the marathon field was made up of about 30 local South Korean runners, whose marathon PBs ranged from, I’m guessing, ~2.15 to ~2.50. So there were only 50-60 runners (male + female) in the race.
The international runners all stayed at a hotel about 1km from the start line. At 4:30am on race-day we were awoken by an unwelcome knock on the door – it was staff from the race organisers reminding us to get up! After having breakfast and getting ready we all met in the hotel lobby at 6:45am and were then escorted to the start area by a fleet of security guards. We were instructed to walk as a group in pairs in a line – very regimented and orderly, which we came to realise was part and parcel with Korean culture. So it was quite an experience well before the race even started.
The start/finish line in the middle of Daegu city is adjacent a relatively small park, and since it was an elite only marathon, they had all the international runners warm-up in the ~400m of closed street behind the start line (and they had the Korean runners warm-up in a side street). This was also quite a spectacle, as Greg and I were going through our drills and strides as Kenyans were flying past either side of us doing well under 3min pace. The weather prior to the race felt great – cool but not cold – but I knew it would be better to be cooler given we would still be running a couple of hours later in the morning.
At breakfast at the hotel the day before I had met one of the guys who was there as a pacer for the lead women – a Chicago-based Latvian guy with a 2.23 marathon PB who goes all over the world pacing women’s marathons. He told me how it had been agreed with the female African athletes’ managers and the race organisers that the lead womens’ pacers would need to target a 2:26:20 time (3.28 pace). My ears pricked up at this, given this was only ~2min faster than the target time I had discussed with Sean, and mixed thoughts went through my head of slight excitement but also hey this could be suicide if I try to go with them. I gave Sean a call and we agreed that, weighing everything up, I should change my strategy to running with the lead women and sit on the back of their pack for as long as possible (for all the obvious reasons – steady pace, constant wind block etc.).
So the race got underway at 8.10am local time, and two things happened within the first kilometre as expected – the real elite men disappeared into the distance, and the elite women and their pacers quickly settled into 3.28 pace and a group of about 18 runners formed. This included about 8 women, 2 pacers, 7 South Korean men and me. I spent the first half hour of the race sitting pretty close to the back of the group, just trying to settle into a good rhythm and watch the other runners. Things felt very good – I was hardly exerting and I was keeping completely out of the wind. It was also a good opportunity to just enjoy being there and take a look around – Daegu is surrounded by mountains on one side which we could see in front of us for one of the long sides of the course, and the short side at the bottom of the course is along a street lined with cherry blossom trees.
It really was more of the same right up to the 30km mark, so there isn’t much else to say about it, except that that is probably the key to the successful result – I spent the first 30km of the race very much conserving and always knowing I had a plenty of gas left in the tank to use in the back end of the race. I would describe it as feeling just like one of my many Sunday long runs prior to doing the marathon pace pick-up towards the end, although this was actually at marathon pace! One key difference though was the race element – I was constantly focusing on hiding from the wind, taking in drinks and gels at the right times (and getting them on-board as early as sensibly possible), positioning well in the group for the corners (as wind direction would change), and using the sponges that were on tables every ~7kms. I went through halfway in 73.15 and felt great. The group might have been about 12 at this stage as some had already been dropping off the back, and we had started to overtake some of the Korean men who had gone out at suicide pace whose days were over already.
I felt pretty much the same all the way up to about 32km, while the group just kept dropping in numbers. The women were clearly working too hard, even the strongest ones. The eventual winner – Janet Rono of Kenya – crossed the line in 2.28.01, so the pace was too fast from the very start. It was interesting how focussed the event organisers were on the winners breaking the course record, hence the aggressive pacer instructions – they see it as the way to attract better and more pros next year. At 32km there were only about 6 left in the group – the Latvian pacer, a South Korean guy, 2 Kenyan women, a Korean woman and me. The Korean woman was Ahn Seul-ki – she ran the marathon for SK at Rio. I started to feel a bit of fatigue setting in at this point, but I still felt confident/strong. In terms of race nutrition, I had gels at 11km, 20km, 25km and 30km, and revvies caffeine strips at 23km and 32km. Just before the 35km mark there were 4 of us – the pacer, Rono and Seul-ki (she was seriously battling – lots of very heavy breathing and yo-yoing off the back).
At the 35km mark the Latvian pacer’s duties were over and he pulled off to the side of the road. So it was just me and Rono, but she was noticeably struggling so I made a pretty quick decision at that point to just put my foot down slightly and run the rest of the race by myself. This was where my race against myself started. It was mentally quite manageable as I knew it was only 7.2km and that I had done a good job of conserving up until this point. When I hit the 37.2km mark I pretended I was starting the Rhodes parkrun and doing it at 3.25 pace, which is a relatively comfortable pace compared to racing a parkrun at 3.10/3.12 pace. This approach worked well, and I just kept up that rhythm for the next couple of KMs. I knew Alli would be at the corner at the 39km mark, so that was helpful, and then I knew the last 2km of the course was a fun part of the course (the road narrows with some paved sections, tall CBD buildings and lots of spectators) so I remained in a pretty good place mentally. From about 39.5-41kms I was careful not to overdo it – I knew I had a great time in the bag and I didn’t want to cramp up or, worse, have some horror situation like collapsing as you hear some people do right near the end of a marathon. As I took the last corner with 1km to go the waves of emotion started to rush through me and there were quite a lot of people on the sidelines here too. The last 1km was quite fun, but I didn’t completely let myself take it all in as I wanted to get as good a time as possible. My friends from Adelaide who live in SK were cheering from the sidelines with 100m to go, but I didn’t even hear them as I was so focused on the finish line – they told me that after!
As the finish line banner clock was within sight I could see numbers in the low 2.26s. Realising that I would come through in sub-2.27, I started to really enjoy things. When I crossed the line in 2.26.40 (18th place) it felt pretty amazing – someone wrapped a towel around me and I stopped for a moment to take things in, and then just walked slowly towards the elite runners tent area and the Adelaide guys came across to see me. Alli got lost on the way back from the 39km mark so missed the finish unfortunately! It was great when she arrived a couple of minutes later though – we cherished the moment and then gave Sean a call a few minutes later.