Frankfurt Marathon: Trying for a new Personal Best

9th of November

I have done 59 full marathon or ultramarathon races so far. Not for a single one of them have I ever properly trained. Until now. 

You might have read one of my recent posts about my first ever coordinated training effort, following the Peter Greif method, “Countdown: 8 Weeks to Your Personal Best”. The bug had bitten me, I finally wanted to be faster in a marathon. My previous personal best, which happened by accident, was a solid 3:26 hours at Hamburg Marathon 2017. The goal I chose and thought to be realistic for this try, is 3:15 hours.

After these eight weeks, which in general went considerably well, the grand finale is this post about my chosen race, Frankfurt Marathon 2019. 

Frankfurt is a city I’ve inexplicably liked for a long time, arriving at central station in an ICE train is not the worst as well
Frankfurt is a city I’ve inexplicably liked for a long time, arriving at central station in an ICE train is not the worst as well

I went down south on my own again, as the kids’ curriculums wouldn’t allow for a trip with the whole family. This has the big advantage that I can relax on the day before the race and gather strength during a rare night of uninterrupted sleep. 

Before this weekend in late October of 2019, I had never participated in this particular race. I chose it, because it’s supposed to be a flat and easy one with good weather conditions and well done organization. If I try for a really fast marathon, I might as well choose one that makes this a bit easier, I figured. 

Frankfurt’s marathon expo definitely gave me the impression that I made the correct decision. It’s a huge event with around 30,000 runners total, so the expo filled up a big hall of the congress center and had all the big company names in the running scene represented.

I was happy about that, because when I arrived at my hotel right before going to the expo, I realized my GPS watch’s charger had given up. I hoped for a replacement at the Garmin booth. Unfortunately, no luck there. So the remaining charge of 67% would have to get me through the 42.195 kilometers tomorrow. The nice lady at the booth almost successfully talked me into an upgrade, the shiny new fenix 6X watch priced at 700 Euros upwards, but I stayed sane – for now. Even though my current watch, a three year old fenix 3, had recently let me down more and more often, making weird GPS tracking mistakes which would basically make it just as useful as a basic 1980s Casio stopwatch. (Foreshadowing!)

But first, the essentials. Bib number and swag bag collection.

Did you know I recently also have taken up holding an imaginary Professor title in addition to my longtime invented PhD / Doctor title? Moving up in the ranks! Still waiting for the signup form that has the “His Royal Majesty” checkbox option.
Did you know I recently also have taken up holding an imaginary Professor title in addition to my longtime invented PhD / Doctor title? Moving up in the ranks! Still waiting for the signup form that has the “His Royal Majesty” checkbox option.
A goodie bag to brag about
A goodie bag to brag about

My mate Rasmus and his entourage were also here at the expo and we met up for a chat. His plan was to break the 3 hours barrier after two nearly successful tries, but he got a bit injured so he would go for a slower pace tomorrow.

An afternoon stroll through Frankfurt to get the legs moving
An afternoon stroll through Frankfurt to get the legs moving
The ticket to the marathon also included a free pasta party in the awesome Festhalle, which would double as the finish line tomorrow
The ticket to the marathon also included a free pasta party in the awesome Festhalle, which would double as the finish line tomorrow

More points for Frankfurt. At other marathons, the pasta parties can be quite over-priced. I used the chance and was happily surprised again when presented with the pasta choices of Vegan Pasta or Vegan Pasta, Spicy. Good job, Frankfurt! There was a bowl of real parmesan cheese next to it, probably for the people who just couldn’t go a meal without any animal products. 

For the evening, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend from school whom I met by accident three weeks ago in the middle of Frankfurt. He was just standing there with his family as I was on a holiday trip stopover with mine and we couldn’t believe it. Jan and I finished school together and both played guitars in a band at the time. We lost contact, but now, 14 years later, there was a lot to talk about. I had a great time talking to him for hours at an Italian restaurant – what a life he’s had, for example spending 4 years in Morocco on a project called “Green Mosques”, putting solar panels on them. 

A bit too late I got back to the hotel, but very happy about the way this day went. A good night of sleep and then it’s game time. 

Day of the Race

First things first, writing down some split times
First things first, writing down some split times

For the race strategy, I also followed Peter Greif’s advice, which is roughly like this: 

  1. Kilometers 0 to 15: Average marathon pace plus 5 seconds.
  2. Kilometers 15 to 25: Average marathon pace minus 5 seconds.
  3. Kilometers 25 to 42.195: Average marathon pace.

For tomorrow, that’s 4:40 minutes per kilometer, 4:30 minutes per kilometer, and 4:35 minutes per kilometer. (It’s not exactly correct, as theoretically, 4:37 would get me to a straight 3:15 hours, and also here I changed the plan a little to get to a 3:14:00 finish, but who can ever fulfil a plan like this perfectly to the second anyways.)

The hotel had a solid breakfast to offer, easily digestible, healthy and delicious stuff. A bit of coffee to get me going, and a short 2 km walk over to the start. At the expo I handed over my bag with fresh clothes and shower stuff because the hotel wanted 40 bucks extra for a late checkout to shower. So I just left my backpack at the hotel and opted for the facilities of the marathon event instead. Right there at the bag drop I ran into more friendly faces from Hamburg.

My mate Angel (center) was here to pace his buddy Xavi (left) to a sub 3:15 as well
My mate Angel (center) was here to pace his buddy Xavi (left) to a sub 3:15 as well

For some reason, the Spaniard and the Venezuelan didn’t mind the cold as much as this Hamburger, if you look at our choices of clothing. It was supposed to be between 5 and 10 degrees but I felt it was more like 3 degrees. Might have been the coughing cold I still had in me. 

In the huge starting block
In the huge starting block
Nervous but excited
Nervous but excited

Will This Work Out?

I wasn’t sure. The weeks of training went really well and I noticed a clear improvement to my fitness, fulfilling the plan nearly 100%. Faster longer runs became a lot easier. I was very confident that my legs would have the pace in them. Also, I definitely have the necessary experience with the marathon distance. On the other hand, I still have the last breaths of an annoying cold in me and cough a lot at the moment. Sleep and regeneration was far from optimal in the recent months due to our smallest, Ida, teething. The general load of having four small kids at home to take care of while running a business as well, doesn’t leave much room for necessary rest.

Before today, marathons were my rest. My regeneration. My peace and quiet for a few hours. But today, I wanted to give it my best effort to reach a result I have never reached before. Giving all I have after weeks of giving all I have.

Just one thing left to do, run.

I was aware that the first few kilometers will be tough due to the sheer number of people blocking the way. How to get up to 4:40 minutes per kilometer when there’s no space? No other way than to wait for the space to clear up a bit and waste a few seconds. Although I knew this was going to happen, it annoyed me. When you do the first kilometer in 5:00 minutes, therefore losing 20 seconds, you’d have to do the following 4 kilometers in 4:35 instead of the planned 4:40, just to make up for the loss. This would immediately jeopardize the whole plan.

Nothing I can do. So I just adjusted to the situation, making the most out of it. 

And there’s Rasmus!
And there’s Rasmus!

His plan is to run about 3:30 hours in the end. A rather slow and easy one for him. We chatted for a few seconds in these early race crowds and then I had to take off to try and reach my goal. 

The first quarter of the race is spent near the city’s center, circling it a few times
The first quarter of the race is spent near the city’s center, circling it a few times
Crowds clearing up, also a nice contrast of Frankfurt’s old a new buildings
Crowds clearing up, also a nice contrast of Frankfurt’s old a new buildings

Right from the start I knew I couldn’t count on the GPS watch today. The “Live” GPS pace was useless. It might be due to the watch just having seen too many kilometers and being worn down after the last years, or maybe due to the skyscrapers of the city and the cloudy grey sky obscuring the satellites, who knows. 

So I developed a backup strategy, which is to push the “Lap” button every time I pass by a kilometer sign. Fortunately, this marathon has a sign for every single kilometer, which isn’t always the case at other races. This way, I could immediately see how fast I ran on the previous kilometer, and if this lined up with my plan. It varied a lot and didn’t look good. 4:53, 4:52, 4:44, 4:45, 4:44. After 5 kilometers, I had already lost 38 seconds on the plan. Getting those back would be a challenge, I realized right then. That’s 8 kilometers of running 5 seconds faster than planned. At which point will I do that? 

14 kilometers in, first Main river crossing
14 kilometers in, first Main river crossing

The GPS signal didn’t improve. So my kilometers were all over the place. 4:52, then 4:23 suddenly. In my mind I wasn’t doing too bad, though. Still, there was regular coughing and a sore throat. The little drizzly rain and headwinds in the southern Frankfurt area weren’t improving my motivation by much. Looking at the splits on my hand which I all failed straight from the beginning wasn’t a great feeling, but on the other hand, I had never been faster before. So why a bad mood? Exactly, there’s no reason. Just keep going and do your best, is what I figured.

At 15, the pace switch from 4:40 to 4:30 minutes per kilometer was supposed to happen. So I tried to make it happen. On those 10 kilometers from 15 to 25 I got real close, a few of the kilometers were 4:30 on the second. But not a single one was faster, which meant that I again lost a few seconds on the goal time. 

Doesn’t matter. There’s still a chance! Go go go!

After 25, the plan said to fall back to a 4:35 pace, thus getting slightly slower. Given the circumstances I thought I might rather try and keep the 4:30 pace up to make up for a few seconds. Theoretically, I could still make it. 17 remaining kilometers run in 4:30 would earn me 85 won seconds. That’s about the amount I was behind schedule. 

Quick drinking stops at the aid stations. Gel at 25. 4:33, 4:37, 4:29, 4:33, 4:35 from kilometers 26 to 30. So much for the plan to keep the 4:30 pace. That’s another 17 seconds gone. And that’s about the time I realized that the 3:15 wouldn’t be happening today. I knew I still had the power to keep this pace until the finish line, but that wouldn’t be enough. 

My kilometer times now got a bit slower, more comparable to the slower first few kilometers. Starting at 35, I ran at around 4:50 minutes per kilometer. At 37, Rasmus’ fiancée, Gesine, recognized me and got me fired up again – very helpful of her! That definitely was good for a few seconds. I’m still enjoying it here, I realized. A marathon is a marathon no matter what happens. 

Nearing the unusual finish line in the lit up Festhalle, I noticed someone screaming my name from the crowds. Looking to my left, it’s Michael Mankus – the man, the legend himself! You might remember him from being the other insane dude next to me who organized that Hamburg Everest event back in August. I knew he was here on a quest to finally break 3 hours. He came very close twice before, but seeing him in his jacket here, not on the course, could have just meant one thing: he had to break off the attempt today. Not you too, Mankus! 

Anyways, a few hundred meters left. 3:15 is gone. But I’m happy.

Entering warm and dry Festhalle
Entering warm and dry Festhalle
New personal best!
New personal best!

3:17:40

Bittersweet. As I like to say, as we all have the option to perceive reality the way we wish to, I’d rather take the sweet than the bitter. Today I beat my personal best by about 7 minutes. That’s a lot at this stage. Also, I’ve set a new family record.

Clearly, that’s a win. 

Medal earned
Medal earned
The splits
The splits
It all doesn’t look so bad – I’m proud of the result
It all doesn’t look so bad – I’m proud of the result

Here’s the Strava tracking.

Why Didn’t it Work Out?

I’m convinced it was the combination of my coughing cold, the drizzly rain, winds, and cold weather. What might have helped, too, would have been a few more nights of solid sleep before race day. That additional ultramarathon I did three weeks before this race might have been one too many, not sure about it. Other than that, I’m quite sure I had the power in me. I had no real problems with the training plan by Peter Greif and would recommend it for others to try. In my opinion, it’s very effective and it didn’t have anything to do with me not reaching the goal time today.

What Will I Do Next?

I’ve learned from this that I might have chosen the wrong race, too late in the calendar year, for a fast race. The chance is quite high for the weather to be cold and ugly and for me to have a cold during that time. 

I’ve also learned that training is fun and putting that effort to a test after a few weeks of concentrated running, even more so. Almost right after that race, I thought about when to do this again. Follow Peter Greif’s 8 Week Plan, that is. Right now, I’m thinking I’ll try to do this twice per year. For 2020 I’ll go for a new personal best at Hamburg Marathon on April 19th. I signed up for Freiburg Marathon on March 29th, exactly 3 weeks before that marathon race, as the recommended training race. My new goal is to go for 3:09 hours in Hamburg. I’ll somehow try to get better sleep, but all the other factors, like the weather and me not getting sick before, are out of my hands. Then, in fall of 2020, I’ll do it again. Maybe I’ll get a ticket for Berlin, and if not, I will try to defend my title at Rauchwart Marathon. Somewhere on the horizon I’m seeing a Sub-3 marathon. It might take a while, though. Good things often do.

Medal and bib
Medal and bib

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