For the past several months, Jo has been training for the Ticino marathon, and this past weekend, I went along to the small town of Tenero on the edge of Lake Maggiore to support and help out. Just like grooming for a friend at a horse trials, or sort of. While waiting in the rain between catching glimpses of Jo as he passed by on course, I entertained myself by comparing marathons and horse trials, and figured it might make a good blog post. Overall, it is fun to cheer on someone you know, and impressive to see some of the top runners breeze by as they make running fast look easy. But bottomline, it is just not as exciting or as much fun as cross-country day at Badminton.
Just like eventing, a marathoner’s training schedule is very serious. It is also based on the date of the big event and designed to get the runner prepared for the distance, on that date. Marathoners have to be careful to get themselves fit enough but also can’t be too tired by the time the race day arrives. They also have to be careful to not get injured which can happen if you try to push your training too fast. Even though you don’t train the full marathon distance before the race day, you do all of the work so you are prepared.
Packing for horse trials means writing out a big list or you are sure to forget something for you or your horse. Marathon packing seems much easier, but compared to the way Johan normally goes about packing for a trip, it seemed like a big task. You still don’t want to forget anything, even if you are only participating in one activity.
Runners seem to really like gear. But with only 2 legs, 2 arms, and 2 feet, they don’t have to pack as much stuff as eventers do. With one phase to worry about, they make up for it by packing different options for different weather.
Supplements and special feeding requirements are not just for horses! Jo spent a lot of time organizing and packing an array of powders he uses to make special drinks to supplement his diet – one for before, one for after, one to get some extra protein… Then there are the special high tech supplement packs that marathoners rely on to get food/energy while they are out on course. If you forget your special stuff and you are at a big event with an expo and lots of vendors, it is probably not a big deal. But Jo still imports his special stuff from the US, so he would really be SOL if he forgot his potions.
As a side observation, marathoners also go through a lot of shoes as they put so many miles on them while they are training. Maybe not as frequently as every 6 weeks, and they are not custom made, but the state of a marathoner’s shoes on the date of the race is also something they need to factor in (yup, just like a horse shoeing schedule must be factored into planning!)
At the show (race)
No Course Walk – thankfully, since the course is 42.2 km (26 miles!), we didn’t have to walk the course! Maybe the pros do some kind of course preview, but the course is no mystery; it is always published, and runners can see the elevation change and probably even view it on Google earth if they want to. Runners are even able to view and even train on the course as much as they want if they live in the area (no schooling fees, and no surprises on the course the day of the big event)
Start times depend on the runner’s predicted finish time. They only have to remember one time and it is much easier to plan your morning so you get to the start line on time – you don’t have to factor in the myriad things that can interfere with a walk from the barn to the warm up. Some serious runners did have times written on their arms, like minute markers.
No braiding before dawn! From what I could tell, runners wear all sorts of outfits and it would be impossible to guess the weather based on what a random sample of them were wearing. Some looked like it was 90 degrees and sunny and others had hats, gloves, and jackets on. Compression sleeves and socks are definitely in, and apparently spandex is the way to go. Actually, the race started at a very reasonable time, 9:00 and we had about a 10 minute walk from our hotel to the start line. There was not much for me to do in the morning, except pack my bag with all of the stuff I needed to have on hand
Watching runners for 3+ hours, it is clear that marathon runners come in all shapes and sizes – sometimes you see someone who looks like she was born to be a long distance runner – you know the type. And other times you are blown away that someone with an awkward pace or form or surprising size and shape is running, voluntarily, 42 km. I personally can’t imagine choosing to do this.
The start box
The start box in marathon races is a start line and there is a gun involved. Everyone in a particular “wave” lines up together in a big mob and waits till the loud bang sounds. The whole pack starts together and runners all wear microchip sensors so their distance and pace is tracked in real time. At some marathons, there are ways that fans and supporters can sign up to receive text messages every time their runner passes another sensor, every few miles, for instance. Then the runners get detailed data about their split times, pace and placing at various stages of the race. This weekend, Jo maintained a very steady pace throughout the course, as he planned, but was higher up in the ranking during the second half than the first half.
Being in another country, added even more excitement to the start. The Ticino marathon is in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and all of the information about the event was available in 4 languages on the website, including English. Once we arrived, though, almost everything was in Italian, with some things translated to German. It was funny to see how nice it was to hear an announcement in German because we could not understand the Italian at all, and could at least partially figure out the German. As we were waiting at the start area, everyone was huddled under the covered area, out of the rain or inside. The marathon was all starting in one wave, at 9:10. There were also several half-marathon waves and a 10 k wave, which Jo thought started last. The Swiss are prompt, but we were in Ticino near Italy, so we weren’t actually sure how it would all go. Suddenly, shortly before 9, there were some announcements (in Italian) and a bunch of people started moving out into the street and lining up. Guessing they were lining up early, Jo got ready to brave the rain and I said good luck, see you around km 10 (our plan). I went down the row a bit to try take a picture of the start line before I headed over to my designated place in the middle of the course. As it got closer to 9:00, the announcements kept coming, sometimes in German. The sound was not good and with a hood on, it was hard to hear, but it did sound like they were saying ‘dieci’ and ‘zehn’ – and suddenly it was obvious, they marathon wasn’t starting EARLY, it was the 10k race that was lining up! Since I figured this out about a minute before the start gun went off, I assumed (hoped) that Jo also would realize he was lined up with the wrong pack! Of course, he eventually did as well – he noticed everyone else had different color numbers on, and found someone who spoke English, and jumped out of the pack just in time.
Be in the right spot, at the right time, with the right stuff: My job during the race was to have a power gel and some special electrolyte-enhanced drink ready to hand off when Jo reached 20k, 30k, and 40k. Luckily, this spot was basically the same place each time because the course had loops in it, but I did have to remember which side of the road to be on and to pay attention to what time it was so I could be ready when he came running by. As I waited to hand off a chocolate power gel with a shot of caffeine in it, I suddenly wondered if it was allowed for spectators to give runners stuff. But apparently, unlike eventers, runners can get assistance from their “grooms” without getting eliminated. I guess people who use illegal substances in running don’t do it in the middle of the race.
Missing the finish
Because I needed to hand off a drink around km 40, there was no way I could get to the end to see Jo come through the finish flags, but I did catch up with him a few minutes later. He, and most of the runners finishing around that time, was totally lame, but with some prodding, he kept walking to cool down. Eventually the legs needed some massaging but he seemed to avoid major cramping and recovered well. I kept thinking we should ice his legs, but seeing as it was raining and cold and nobody else was standing in an ice bucket, I figured it was not the right time to try it out.
Packing up, catching the train
It was much easier to pack up after the marathon and get home. No trailer to load or hay nets to fill. We just jumped on the next train, settled into the restaurant car and got a late lunch on the ride back to Zurich.
By the time we got back to the city and had to run a bit to catch a tram, Jo was already jogging up sound.