16th September 2017

By Aaron Chai

Straight off the back of the Brighton Marathon, and a trip stateside to support Louise’s dad, friends and 26,000 other runners in the Boston Marathon, I was determined to make next year’s Boston. I wanted to be a part of its amazing atmosphere and run a much better time than what I managed in 2014. To get in, a qualifying time of sub-3:10 was needed.

Over the past couple of years I’ve kind of let myself down on the running front due to other focuses. The consistency had disappeared, the race times got slower and I couldn’t hit the sort of times to be proud of. I needed to get back into running fast again and joining SHAEF Shifters at the start of this year had given me much needed impetus in my training.

To give myself a chance of hitting a sub-3:10 marathon (plus a few minutes more due to how Boston trims down an over-subscribed field), I had to revert to the same formula that gave me my first ever sub-3 hour marathon time —consistent high mileage mixed with plenty of quality. I also had to select a qualifying race as close as possible to the registration window to give me as many training days as possible. Once the registration window dates were known, I signed up for the Oslo Marathon, which was held while registrations were happening. There were 20 weeks in the training cycle… and the clock was ticking.

Training

Weeks 1–4 were relatively sedate just to ease back into training. In week 5, I went for a parkrun PB, ran 19:24, seized up a bit at the finish and found that I couldn’t run a cool down jog afterwards. I had pulled my left hamstring. Fortunately it was only a mild tear and the bruising eventually died down. but I had to avoid running for a few days and reduce the mileage in the coming weeks. Weeks 6–9 were pretty much written off.

Fortunately I managed to get through the rest of training without any major issues and weeks 10–18 gave me some of my best sustained high volume/quality training that I’ve managed in a long time. The last 2 weeks were very tough but I managed to get through in one piece. This gave me a degree of confidence that I would get close to my target, even though I didn’t really know what to aim for!

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Course

The marathon course was 2 loops of Oslo central and the surrounding areas. For those familiar with Oslo, the race starts and finishes outside Radhus (city hall), and takes in Frogner park, Aker Brygge waterfront, the main street of Karl Johans gate and some of the immediate surrounding areas of the city.

Of note were the 2 hills (run twice) and the positions of these hills on the course. Given the course had changed slightly from last year, and that I only learned about the course a few weeks prior to the race, this was turning out to be not as fast as I would’ve liked for a qualifying race! I just had to draw on the belief that I would be strong on the hills, especially the final one in the closing stages of the race.

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Pace

Running a sub-3:10 with a few seconds to spare would almost certainly not be enough to get into Boston. During the registration period, the organisers only accept the fastest qualifiers in their age category to fill the available spaces. Once all spaces are filled, the rest of the qualifiers miss out and a cut-off time is announced. The cut-off time changes every year — in 2016 it was 2 minutes, 28 seconds (the highest cutoff time as of race day in Oslo), and in 2017 it was 2 minutes, 9 seconds.

I assumed the cutoff time was going to be between 2:30–3:00, so that gave me a marathon time of 3:07:00 to shoot for. Of course, I also wanted to go as fast as I could to give me the best chance of entry, so in the end I settled on a nice round number of 4:25/km pace, giving me a 3:06:22 marathon time. On race morning, I wrote on my forearm as many km split times as I could for 4:25/km pace.

Race Day

Saturday 16th September, 9:25am, race morning. On the other side of town at 9:30am, Louise was starting Tøyen parkrun (event #4). Afterwards, she planned to see me twice as I ran through miles 11 and 24.

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There was a 3:00 and 3:15 pacing group. Unfortunately, I found myself starting behind the 3:15 pacer as I couldn’t get further forward in the starting pen. The start felt extremely busy as everyone was trying to stay with the 3:15 pacer, but I needed to get past her. The first km was done in 4:26, but the next few splits were a lot slower than 4:25/km. It wasn’t obvious at the time but it turned out my Garmin was registering my km splits longer than the km markers on the course, to the point where my final distance on the Garmin was less than 41 km!

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The first big hill came and I put in a bit of speed to break away from the big group and the 3:15 pacer. By 6 km, the field was well and truly strung out and I soon found myself running with a handful of people, or no one at all. It was also at this time that I realised that the Norwegians aren’t the most enthusiastic supporters, unlike London supporters who are very in-your-face. There would be the odd shout of “Heia” (come on), but the lack of vocal support or presence in the more isolated parts of the course, plus large gaps developing between runners, made things pretty challenging.

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Eventually between 10–15 km, I started catching up with small pockets of runners who had clearly started way too fast and some were paying for their fast starts by the second hill. I put in another surge to climb the hill fast, but strong. The downhill back into town was fast, but I was mindful that all the downhill pounding might be bad in the second half when I had to climb those hills again. I kept it swift without being stupid.

It was at the time that I was wondering where Louise was. Just when I thought that I had missed her (and it was difficult to miss her with the small numbers of people supporting), I saw a person in a familiar t-shirt running fast on the pavement, down the same hill as me. “Lou!”, I shouted. After around 2–3 seconds she quickly turned around. She spent a bit too long chatting after parkrun (as you do), meaning she had to run fast from Tøyen to Bislet to get to the 1st meeting point.

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The first half was ending in the centre of town, running down Karl Johans gate and a few twists and turns outside the city hall. The numbers of supporters were increasing, but they weren’t any more enthusiastic. Halfway in 1:31:14, well within target pace, but I had to do it all over again and that’s where things started getting more difficult.

22 km in, a runner from Wantage (of all places) caught up to me and noticed my green Reading Roadrunners vest (I still haven’t got a SHAEF one yet). “You from Reading?”, he asked. We got chatting, I asked him what he was aiming for and he said he wanted 3:10. I said that I wanted something close to 3:05 and he quickly mentioned wanting GFA for London. This spurred me on a bit — if we could work together to get 3:05 then that would be Mission Accomplished for us both. We got running together stride for stride.

Unfortunately we only stayed together for around 3 km as he left the course for the nearby bushes for a quick loo stop. I wasn’t going to wait! It was also around this point where I started to flag, shouting to myself, “come on Aaron”, with more than 10 miles to go. Very worrying thoughts were creeping in! The negative thoughts eventually disappeared though as I managed to weather the 3rd of the 4 hills, so I decided to throw caution into the wind, pass a few more runners and bank some extra time on the downhill, even if it did come back to bite me.

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By 30 km, the km splits on the Garmin (even if they were not getting measured accurately) were slipping over 4:25/km. The fatigue, lack of support and large gaps made things very difficult; the course at this stage was alongside a motorway heading back into town. All I could do was to maintain and hope that I still had time in the bank in the end. Suddenly I saw Louise in the distance. She had ran back to the hostel, filled up a water bottle with Zero Electrolyte tablets and ran over 5 km in the opposite direction of the course to meet me on the western side of town. I dropped my current bottle on the grassy verge and eagerly collected the new bottle from her outstretched hand, gasping a quick “thank you” as I ran past. What a star!

Back to the centre of town with around 8 km to go, I managed to pass the eventual 2nd female finisher, who was probably aiming for a sub-3 hour time, but had already slowed to my current pace. I was aware of the final challenge ahead and kept grinding until I reached the first bit of incline. It wasn’t just one hill, it was a series of uphills and small plateaus that were cleverly disguised in the course elevation profile. Still, I persevered.

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The final hill in these series of hills was by far the hardest, and probably the steepest. Doing a bit of maths on the run, I had only 30 seconds of cushion before I started slipping into time deficit. The stride got shorter, the cadence became slower, the arms were swinging hard and the breathing was a lot heavier, but I did what I had repeatedly done in training when climbing the huge hill in Richmond Park and eventually I made it to the top. No more hills to climb!

The big downhill back into the city was my only hope at staying on target, so I leaned forward and turned the legs over as fast as I could despite the tiredness and heart rate through the roof. But it worked, it felt like I was flying. The downhill must’ve lasted for over a mile and it was just the thing I needed to get back into the race and let the HR recover a bit. As soon as I reached the town centre, I was feeling mentally better that the hard work was over and it was all coming to an end… or so I thought.

Running through Karl Johans gate with less than 800m to go, my heart literally sank when I took a left turn and saw a gentle incline, which felt like a mountain. I had forgotten about this hill! Fortunately, Louise was in view near the top. She was able to meet me half way and shout a lot of encouragement. She continued to run at my pace for a couple of hundred metres, obviously chuffed that she was setting the pace with a rucksack on her back.

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She couldn’t run any further with me and with around 200m to the finish and less than a minute to go to get under 3:05, I let myself go on the downhill straight with a sprint to the end. There was no one in front of me and there was no one behind. The crowd support at this point was awesome compared to the rest of the course. But I managed to get 10 seconds under 3:05, which meant I had achieved my main goal and all I could do was to hope that it was fast enough for next year’s Boston. Stranger things have happened, but surely that time was enough!

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I almost seized up at the finish when coming to a complete stop and had to lean on one of the volunteers to avoid falling over. Then I helped myself to a bread roll, a banana, some water and lots and lots and lots of coke to rehydrate and get some sugar into me.

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After meeting Louise, the rest of the day was spent watching the half marathon and supporting one of our friends who was running. Then we had a bit of a long walk back to the hostel. Once I got cleaned up, we went back to the Aker Brygge waterfront for a celebration dinner; I must have covered more than 30 miles on foot!

Two days later in Amsterdam, I submitted my application for Boston. A week later I received my confirmation of acceptance. The announced cutoff time was 3 minutes and 23 seconds, the highest cutoff time to date. This shows that getting into Boston is extremely popular and the qualifying standard is likely to be more stringent in future.

This result wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the SHAEF crew who have encouraged me on over the training cycle, and also to Louise for her patience and understanding in going after a seemingly lofty goal.

From Amsterdam, where I ate my body weight in frites covered in mayonnaise, it was a 6.5 hour train journey to Berlin where it was Louise’s turn to run the Berlin Marathon. Hopefully a race report from her will be coming soon.

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