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  • The Umbrella Mom

42.2km: San Sebastian Marathon 2019

Updated: Dec 8, 2019

24th November 2019 – Flying into Bilbao on Saturday 23rd, there were glimpses of home (Ireland): it was raining heavily, the landscape was very green and on the bus from the airport, we could see the wild Atlantic in the Bay of Biscay. I had been super excited as I drove to Barcelona airport that morning, singing to the radio at the top of my lungs: this was really it. I had trained solidly for 6 months, 4 days per week running. I had rested well the prior week. I had learnt about nutrition recently, helping me understand more about why my best running days were training days and why I may be crashing out on race days.


After my nutrition consultation a few weeks earlier, I knew I had to eat sufficiently the day before the marathon. So where normally I may come off a flight, jump on a bus and not eat for 4-6 hours, I picked up a sandwich in the airport at 11am and also headed out for lunch in San Sebastian at 2pm. This was the first race I can safely say I was adequately fueled for.

Being blown sideways as I walked the paseo on Saturday, with 45km/hr north westerly winds, memories of the cancelled attempt at Marathon #3 in Empuries the previous May came to mind. Now, finally getting back to that marathon #3, I was glad that this weather landed on the day before the marathon, with a relatively ok forecast for the next day.


As I sat for lunch, I started planning my race. First step always the morning schedule: wakeup time, breakfast, what time to leave the hotel. Then planning the race itself. I would run by Heart Rate (HR), just as my training had been based. However, something always goes wrong for me on race day: my HR jumps high in the first 1km and doesn´t come back down. Its extremely distracting, especially when I know I am not pushing myself. Maybe its accurate, and race day causes me to have a higher HR, but its not an option for me to walk to get the rate in the right zone. So I remembered the advice of my coach – to run an evenly paced marathon – and made out my plan B of pace just in case. Every extra 10 seconds on average pace per km means +7 mins to your marathon finishing time, so I decided on a 6 min 10 sec avg pace to target a dream finish of 4 hrs 19, but starting out around 6 min 30 / km for the first 3km.


Living in Spain, you would think I knew it was a lost cause looking for dinner early, but I ventured out anyway at 5:30pm, as my race prep experience has thought me to eat well before 7pm. Of course there was no issue to get food, with San Sebastian being world famous for serving pintxos, but nowhere was serving dinner until at least 7.30pm. So I ended up (wait for it!) getting pasta from the local Telepizza, scraping off all the cheese, eating a feed of garlic bread as the pasta was small (hmmm…delicious but it was so like pizza, I wasn´t sure if that had been a wise move!) but happily done and dusted with dinner by 6.30pm. Messaging back and over with friends and family, I was excited and felt super loved by their support as I closed my eyes at 9.30pm that night.


Waking naturally at 6am, pre alarm, to the rain lashing down outside, I got up and began to get ready for the race. Compression socks, shorts + t-shirt, copious amounts of Vaseline (everywhere!), jacket and running vest. I threw on a large poncho over my gear, and headed out to the rain at 7.30am. The marathon had organized free buses to the start line from all their affiliated hotels. As we left the street, I reminded myself I would see my hotel 4 times during the race (as it was on the race loop), so I was mentally prepared (and not thinking of the hot shower and bed in my room!).


Arriving at Anoeta stadium, the facilities were perfect. One benefit of being a woman at running races over longer distances, is there aren´t many women. So while there was a massive queue for the men´s toilets, there was almost all empty cubicles in the womens. I didn´t use bag drop as had the late checkout in my hotel, but there were also showers there if needed.


Meanwhile, the rain kept coming down. Most people were wearing ponchos and staying dry under buildings. With 3 races running that morning, the 10km left around 8.40am, leaving the half marathoners and marathoners to go at 9am. And then, like manna from heaven, the rain stopped at 9am on the dot. And NEVER returned! It was warm – I had to strip myself of my jacket after 1km – humidity was high, at 60-90%, but it was otherwise perfect running conditions.


While a well known and popular marathon, San Sebastian does not have the race numbers like Barcelona, Paris, etc. Checking the post race stats, there were circa 2,385 finishers for the full marathon, and as the marathon Is part of the Spanish Championships, it is known to be fast. I was immediately in the bottom 100 or so runners – with all my half marathon practice, I am well used to this, so it doesn´t phase me (all that race experience is valuable when the big days come!) I stayed steady and slow, but my HR was going crazy. I took my watch off 3 times, cleaned it, but even holding by the strap ends with my fingers, it was erratically changing. Taking my coach´s advise, I ignored it for the first 3km, but then I couldn´t ignore it any longer. I quickly moved to Plan B - target to hit a 6 min 10 sec /km avg pace in the 2nd half of the race.


At 14km, my recurring injury in my left foot appeared – so I changed my gait, lifting my foot differently for a few hundred metres. It resolved itself – and I was thankful for the 2 physio sessions I had done the prior weeks, no doubt assuring that injury was only momentary.


Meanwhile, the winner lapped me at 19km and I was happy – for a split second – to run side by side with the elites (it was a narrow street!)


I began to work on slowly bringing my pace down to 6 10 and then maintain it: second by second, I watched the avg pace come down as the kms passed by. But as I have learned about marathons, you learn a lot about yourself and there will always be “that moment”: where it becomes a mental game, not a physical one. I had failed the mental game before – in my first marathon in Barcelona earlier this year, I didn´t expect it to happen, and I never recovered from it, walking the final 20km. And sure enough, in San Sebastian, it came at 24km.


Picture the scene: the half marathoners were no longer on the route, the sweeper bus was visible (San Sebastian has a strict 5 hour cut off time…if you don´t make a part of the course at a certain time, they will remove you) and I spotted the race organisers on trucks clearing the other side of the road. My legs felt heavy. The HR tracking hadn´t worked. I was using a Plan B that I hadn´t used before and the doubtful thoughts creep in. But then the Cranberries “ I miss you when you are gone” came on my headphones. I thought of my friend Melanie, who passed away suddenly in July 2016, aged 37. And then Mel was with me. Using strong words telling me to keep running (anyone who knew Mel can imagine those choice words when she would be telling someone to go for it – whatever it was), that I needed to keep going. It lifted me from the doubt, inspired me to keep moving and I began to refocus on that average pace. I then thought of my son and daughter, that being away from them meant I needed to make this count, and I got back in the game.


Around 28km, I had the pace steady at 6min10s/km. I was running strong, but kept remembering something I had read earlier in the week “A marathon does not start until 32km”, so I kept telling myself “you haven´t started the race yet….you need to get to 32km first”. Around 32km, I started to pass people out. At 35km, I got a momentary stitch (blame the quarter of a banana I took at the aid station 500 metres earlier, followed by a steep uphill) that thankfully went once I walked 2 or 3 strides. At 37km my right calf started to strain. Looking around, the REFLEX (ice) rollerbladers weren´t around, so I kept going and it thankfully sorted itself out. At 40km, I remember punching the air to whatever music I was listening to, knowing I was almost there.


The supporters were superb. Still many of them standing on the streets, cheering. I hit the 42.2km as anticipated at 4 hrs 19 mins, but as I hadn´t ran by pace before, I hadn´t qualified the extra distance on the Garmin Fenix 5 (everyone seemed to gain a couple of hundred metres under the tunnel between Playa Ondarreta and La Concha which we ran under 4 times), but still knew I had achieved what I set out to achieve. I was so excited to see the 900m sign, followed by 800m, followed by 700m. I was pushing to that finish line, encouraged by the supporters and race marshalls lining the final 500 metres. Amazingly, after running 42km, probably the last 500 metres felt like the longest – the lyrics of the Smiths song were coming to my mind "why is the last mile, the hardest mile" - so close but oh so far. And then I was there. Officially 42.195km, ran in 4 hrs 25 mins 15 seconds, a 10 minute personal best, with a strong finish.


WIth retrospect, I realise I ran a very conservative race - I had a 4 hr 19 in my grasp if I worked a bit harder. But I also appreciate its not an every day occurrence to comfortably run 42.195km - it was one of the most enjoyable races of the year, with the Penedes Trail Half Marathon in September, which in itself for a marathon, is something to be celebrated. After the Empuries half marathon experience in May 2019, in 65km/hr winds and walking portions thinking "I will never run again. What am I doing out here?" I started working with my coach (Matt Bidwell of FitnessAnalytics, Ireland). I wanted to start enjoying running, not have a "love hate relationship". And without doubt, under his guidance over the past 6 months, I certainly did enjoy San Sebastian! Now, our next challenge, is enjoy it and bring that personal best time down even more!


Race Tips:

  • Refreshments: perfect on the first loop. However, on the second loop, there was no water remaining at numerous aid stations (28km, 30km, 35km, 37km at min) - one of the downsides of bring in the final few hundred in a race. Neither were there cups, so runners were sharing Aquarius from bottles. If you are racing a 4hr or more, bring your own water bottle and make sure it is filled for the second loop

  • Elevation: is minimal. I have known no race that is published as "flat and fast" to actually be flat, but provided you did hill training, San Sebastian is no issue. But don´t expect zero inclines

  • Facilities: at Anoeta stadium before the race start, all stadium facilities were available. I also saw people parking onsite (I think you could book that in advance). There were the stadium toilets, a portaloo truck out front and throughout the course, ample portaloos also. The marathon map showed all toilets and refreshment stations on route so you could plan a stop in advance if needed (unlike the Paris marathon!).


General Tips:

  • From Barcelona, the flight to San Sebastian on the Saturday morning was 6.40am In comparison, the flight to Bilbao was 9.50am, so conscious of getting good rest on the Friday night, I flew to Bilbao. Biarritz (France) is also a nearby airport. I was still in my hotel room, with my bib, by 1.30pm

  • Bus from Bilbao Airport to San Sebastian, direct, is €17. You can buy tickets online here: https://www.pesa.net/pesa/en/compra or buy them in Bilbao airport from the machine. I don´t think its possible to purchase them on board the bus

  • The local bus service is very good, and I jumped on a local bus around the corner from the bus station to reach my hotel (local bus routes and timetables on dbus.eus. All local routes €1.75 per trip)

  • I had booked a hotel room through the marathon agency (Hotel Codina, €102) , so no requirement to go to the marathon expo - my bib was waiting for me in reception. Extra bonus was hotel checkout was 3pm for marathoners, so I didn´t have to bring my overnight bag to the race and could return after the race to shower

  • As I was staying in an affiliated hotel, the "marathon special" buses came by the hotel at 7.45am. The buses were packed – standing room like sardines – so key to be on time for the bus. I was 15 minutes early and there was already 40 or so people at the bus stop

  • All local buses were free on marathon day, for the general public until 1:30pm, and for all marathon runners until 2:30pm

  • I flew home to Barcelona from San Sebastian. Again, bus service from town direct to the airport. Something like €2.50.


My Strava record of the final 10km of the race

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