Sunday, 16 December 2012

Pisa Cake!

(Posted 03/02/13)

I have finally pressed 'Publish' on 3rd February, well over a month after the Pisa Marathon on 16th December. Evidently it's taking me progressively longer to complete my event write-ups. At one point growing up I wanted to be a journalist but I don't think I'd have gotten very far missing deadlines by weeks instead of hours or minutes. Maybe I waffle too much as well. So I need to ask you to rewind back a couple of months. For me the weeks leading up to a marathon are very nerve-racking. I get into race preparation mode the minute I enter an event. Furiously creating a training schedule that is destined to be disrupted by injury, illness and other unplanned factors. You start thinking about your body a lot more. Giving more consideration to what you eat and drink (or don't drink!) and giving more TLC to your muscles and joints. With a few weeks to go there is still intense training to be done and with a couple of weeks to go it’s all about trying to get the taper right and ensuring you make it to the start line without injury or illness. I was especially apprehensive about Pisa because of the short time I’d had to train and the extra logistics and considerations involved in running a foreign marathon. I was beginning to wonder if running Pisa was perhaps one of my poorer life decisions. Everyone kept telling me that I had done all the work and would be fine. But I wasn't convinced that I’d put enough miles in and it felt I was trying to "wing it" a bit. Don’t get me wrong the training was constant and tough but I didn't think I’d there'd been a long enough period of it. The training aside, there also seemed to be so many uncertainties with it being a foreign race. Would our flight be cancelled? What would the hotel be like? Would I be able to eat the right food on the morning of the race? Would I make it to the start line? Did I need to learn the Italian for "start"? Fortunately I wasn't going to be experiencing it on my own as Sarah was joining me to support and try and make a weekend of it.


After a pretty hairy Ryanair flight complete with an aborted landing we were just glad to be on terra firma again and without too much delay. Conveniently the race expo where runners pick up their race numbers and timing chips was at the airport! I picked up my envelope and a goody bag which included the official race t shirt and a fetching bandana! Yes bandana, not banana. Soon after we checked into the lovely Hotel Bolgna I went for a 20 min jog up and down the river a few times. There were a few other runners out there with the same idea as me.  After clarifying the breakfast arrangements at the hotel we ambled up towards the famous leaning tower to have a quick look and find restaurant for dinner. It was surprisingly difficult to find somewhere suitable but we settled for an ‘Italian’ a few minutes’ walk from the tower. We had a plate of pasta and then headed back to the hotel for an early night. I was glad to have Sarah’s company to help the usual nerves the night before a big race. I was so nervous that I just wanted to get it over with and was working out in my head what times I would settle for. At that point I’d certainly have settled for a PB; qualification for London didn't seem to matter any more, despite being the whole reason I had entered this race. After a couple of pep talks from Sarah it was time to put head to pillow and I managed to get to sleep surprisingly early.  

Official Supporters t-shirt (Robert Burns and Irn-Bru on the sleeves)

Unfortunately we were woken by revellers coming back into the hotel at 4.30am. It could have been worse, at least that was only half an hour left before my breakfast! For breakfast I was inspired by an article I’d read in a recent edition of Runners World which suggested runners should be eating an 1000 calorie breakfast 3 or 4 (ideally 4) hours before a marathon. This should including a certain percentage of carbs. An 1000 calorie breakfast was a daunting prospect before 6am and significantly more than I've consumed before a race before. Fortunately the hotel allowed me to attack the buffet at 5.30am instead of the usual 7am. I opted for 2 boxes of cornflakes, a banana, a bag of raisins, a roll and a pot of yoghurt with some granola I’d brought from London and some orange juice. I was bursting at the seams, it was very uncomfortable. For the next couple of hours I supped on my PowerAde and gave my body a chance to digest all of that and then tackled one of my special energy carb bars which is an unpleasant experience at the best of times. But I would be glad for it after 20 miles of running and depleting energy stores. Between eating I tried to relax and stay awake. With the race start position being so close to the hotel and it being a fairly small race there was no rush for us to leave the hotel.

The start of the race was quite bizarre. Sarah and I made the short walk to the race start next to the Tower. There were a few people already running around the streets but I thought I’d be best conserving all my energy for the 26.2 miles to come. There were runners everywhere, some entering the marathon, some the half and some a Christmas fun run. There was a guy with a microphone making various announcements and we managed to work out where the start line was and the direction of the race! With about half an hour to go I gulped down my first energy gel and we snapped some pre-race photos as is now customary. I left Sarah and got into position close to the start line. I recognised a Serpentine club running vest and got talking the wearer who I was impressed to hear was aiming for around 2 and a half hours. I certainly wasn't going to be following him! The start was quite confusing, mainly because of the Italian announcements although in fairness some of it was being translated into English. However there was also a group of people with balloons right at the start line towards the left. There was then an announcement which sounded like they were telling us not to start just yet – and then the people with the balloons started running. Anyway, not much longer after that the starting pistol was fired and the race was off for real. Fortunately as I always try to get myself as close to the start as possible I don’t have the issues that many people have with taking a while to get across the start line. In the London Marathon if you’re in one of starting pens towards the back it can take as long as 20 minutes after the race start to reach the start line!  

Where's Irn-Bru?

I headed off a bit faster than my goal pace but not as stupidly fast as I normally do. The advice is generally to aim for your goal pace or slightly slower in your first mile and then try and get yourself into a rhythm in the next few miles. It was great to see Sarah waving the Saltire and shouting my name on the first mile and at that point I realised that the job had started. The first 10K pretty much passed without incident although there were a few annoying moments. There seemed to be a lot of ‘support cyclists’ cycling alongside their athlete, even passing them a drink when required. Not really sure how much good it did them judging by the number of them I passed with ease while they seemed to be panting with exhaustion after only a few miles. At one point I also had to sprint in front of a woman who seemed to be blowing here nose in my direction. Lovely stuff. Other than than it was turning out to be a very pleasant run in the Italian sun.

Through the city

After a few miles we came out of the city and into the Tuscan fields. It was nice to see some Italian countryside for the first time. It's not quite the Highlands but I'm sure it's lovely in the heat of Italian summer. My first real challenge was to come in a Tuscan field. At about 10 miles, I realised the race was splitting up into 2 for the half marathon and marathon - I hadn't really thought about this eventuality for some reason. Unfortunately for me I couldn't see any signs and the directions were shouted out only in Italian! The race flashed before my eyes. I frantically looked up and couldn't work out from any signage. I panicked big time but eventually I shouted out in my clearest voice, "which way for marathon", which translates into "which way should I ran for the marathon?". I was told to go left but I wasn't really convinced I’d gone the right way until I passed the 13.1 mile mark.

Thumbs up along the coast

Coming towards the halfway work we went along the Marina di Pisa. This provided for a pretty windy section of the race. I tried my best to run behind other runners or on the side of support cyclists in the hope that the wind resistance would affect me less. I overtook quite a few guys who seemed to be struggling at this point. After this the 2nd half of the race became very lonely as there was no one in sight behind me or in front of me. There were also very few Pisa residents around and most of those who were only showed indifference. I got a lot of stares and photographers snapping but not many shouts of encouragement. There was even a sign on a café Window which read “Marathon no grazie”. Clearly the Pisans don’t hold their marathon in the same regard as the likes of London and New York. It wasn't all bad though and one of my highlights was a brass band on the street who I assume were playing for us. I also experienced some more bizarre behaviour but this time from a couple of water station attendants. The guys giving out the bottles and cups of water hold the bottle out for you and as I went for one the guy pulled it back! This happened not once, but twice! I couldn't understand it but I just got on with it and picked something up at the next station.

With every mile I was amazed that I was maintaining my pace so well. I was just expecting at some point my legs would go and it’d be a gradual decline like previous marathons. But I even managed to pick up my pace at one point after 20 miles. I'm convinced that my carb loading, especially on the morning and during the race contributed to my endurance. I had another bizarre experience at water station at 20+ miles. A guy was holding out a cup of what I assumed was juice. I grabbed it was a little surprise to find that it was a hot brown coloured drink.  I'm not sure whether it was a really sugary cup of tea, a special energy drink, or something more sinister! Anyway, I had a sip and then chucked it. The third water station that I'd failed to get a drink!

Lapping it up

It was massive relief to see the Pisa sign with a few miles to. The closer to the finish I got the narrower and windier the streets seemed to become, back in the city. I knew by the 3 mile to go mark that I was actually going to do finish in under 2:45 never mind get a PB. But for some reason I had no idea of how much I was going to smash it. As I approached the last corner I saw Sarah who shouted “You’ve got 5 minutes!”. Then I saw the clock and it was still on 2:40! I did a sprint finish with my arms in the air and crossed the finish line with great emotion. I ripped my vest off and took the plaudits from the crowd. I cried with joy. I stumbled off the course and then tried to find Sarah on the grass next to the tower and we celebrated my PB and qualifying for London with joy and relief. Later that evening we learned my chip time was 2:40:45 and I’d finished 14th overall. I'd proved to myself that I still had it in me and I felt a massive sense of relief after 2 years of injury, effort, time and money.

Unbridled joy and relief

During the race I was thinking about what I was going to write in my blog. I was going to write what I’d learned from the race and the training I had completed. I suspected I’d be writing negative things such as "don’t sign up for a marathon only 2 months in advance" and make sure you do more training. Instead I've learnt that you should follow your instincts and take risks (at least sometimes). I ran Pisa to qualify for London and I did. To quote Darren Tanner, it’s belief and commitment that you need. It was brave decision to sign up for Pisa and I certainly applied myself in the weeks leading up to it, leaving as little to chance as possible.

I also improved as a marathon runner. I felt so much more comfortable during the race. I imagine this was at least partly down to Pisa lacking the heat of Edinburgh 2010 and the hills of Loch Ness. Nonetheless I was pretty consistent with my splits and it's given me the confidence to trust in my body I now have the confidence to run even splits and feel I've grown as a marathon runner. It’s also satisfying that my marathon times have improved each time. Let’s hope this continues in 2013, London here we come!

Happy days

Thanks again to all those who supported me and followed my updates on the blog and on facebook. It genuinely helps when you're in the middle of a marathon that seems like it's never going to end to be able to remember all the people you have rooting for you. Special thanks to Sarah for helping me so much in the weeks leading up to the race in practical and mental sense, putting up with my dirty running kit and for making the trip to Pisa to support me, and of course to my family who without their encouragement and support I wouldn't be running in the first place. I am also lucky to have a lot of running friends (they know who they are) whose advice is always invaluable and I hope it keeps coming.

Next stop London......

Time: 2:40:45 (PB)
Position: 14th/877

Click here for results


  1. It still amazes me how much effort you put into your running and what brilliant results you have achieved!!

    And how on earth you can run a marathon at a slightly quicker pace than my (fairly respectable) 1:22 Half-Marathon PB, I will never truly comprehend :-p

    Brilliant work fella... I look forward to cheering you on at London.

    D :>

  2. Very entertaining write-up Jamie. I enjoyed the details of your Pisa experience. I note the etiquette of the Italian water stations differs remarkably from that of other cities, a bit scary really. Your perseverance and determination have proved very worthwhile. Congratulations on your time and position achieved with the help of your personal support team, i.e. Sarah. I love the personalized t-shirt - definitely a collector's item. Looking forward to London 2013, lots of luck with your training!

  3. Fantastic write-up Jamie, I can only imagine the panic you would get when, after all that training, having to guess which way to go to stay (literally!) on track - "quale direcione per la maratona?". Next time you do a marathon in a foreign country I'm sure you'll know what few words you need to learn in advance!

    Did you ever find out what the funky brown drink was btw?