“Half measures: Dec in the Dam” (Amsterdam or bust)

Clonliffe`s Declan Power (1st Irishman in Amsterdam) reports: “Since I took up running a few years ago, I’d always wanted to run one of the big city events with tens of thousands of entrants and spectators lining the streets. Myself and a few friends chose Amsterdam. It’s easy to get to, and a lot easier to get a place for, when you compare it to likes of London, NYC and Boston. The course is known to be flat and fast, and our own Olympian clubmate Mark Kenneally had stormed around the course this time last year. My original plan was to do the full marathon, but during the summer my training took a back-seat to other commitments, or “real-life” you could say! And then on top of that, on my first return to the track last month, I managed to tear a calf muscle which disrupted plans to say the least. Fortunately, the Amsterdam event includes a half-marathon option later in the day (as well as an 8k and a kids’ race). I opted for the half-marathon. In the lead-up to the event, I wasn’t sure how it would pan out. I had almost entirely missed out on track-work, with my speed training had been limited to fartleks and some tempo work. Long runs had been out of the question. But the injury had then healed and I felt healthy, so wanted to give it a good shot. If the wheels came off, then better to happen in a half-marathon than the full, especially if coming to a halt in the suburbs of an unfamiliar city!

We arrived in Amsterdam on the Saturday afternoon prior to race-day, and hired bicycles to get around between the hotel and Expo and the main city-sights. Anyone who has travelled to the “Low Countries” will know that there are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, making it a pleasant and relatively inexpensive means of getting from place to place. The fact that Amsterdam is flat makes it all the easier. Fortunately it stayed mostly dry for the weekend – except for during the races themselves (more of which later). Within minutes of getting on the bike, I discovered my place in the Dutch transport food chain…. Whereas cyclists appear to have right of way over pedestrians, I found that motorized scooters and buggys also have use of the bike lanes and don’t take any prisoners! Crossing major junctions involved navigating your way around buses, trams, metro and cars, all fighting for space in what is a dense and busy transport network! Perhaps most dangerous of all are other cyclists themselves, as most of them were taking or making calls on their mobiles, or checking out their i-phones or tablets as they pedalled along. In one case I nearly collided with a cyclist using one arm to clutch her baby to her chest – I’m not sure what would happen if her mobile phone rang! We covered a fair few miles of cycling on the Saturday, which is probably not ideal preparation before a race, but I was determined to see some of the city in the short time I would be there. This also extended to having a sneaky beer or two with the ubiquitous pre-race pasta dinner, but I convinced myself that this was ok, as the Dutch use “half-measures” when it comes to beer, at least compared to the Irish pint. I also felt in holiday mode, so looked forward to sampling the “real” locally-breed Heineken while I was there and it didn’t disappoint.

After the usual bad night’s sleep that I always have in a strange hotel bed, I woke on Sunday to see that it was raining and that the wind had picked up a fair bit. I had a lot of time to kill before making my way to the Half-marathon start area, as my race didn’t start until 1.30pm. The full marathon started at 9.30, so I calculated that I could go and watch the race leaders who would be coming through the city park at or near the 40km marker about 10 minutes stroll from my hotel. I arrived at the marker just in time to see Wilson Chebet, eventual race winner, come flying past. Conditions were damp underfoot and quite windy. Chebet said in a post-race interview that “It was a tough race. In some places I stood almost still due to the wind. Luckily I had good pacers around me.” Well, he didn’t look in too much distress when I saw him, and he posted the win in a course record of 2:05:41. Not too shabby! The women’s course record also fell as Meseret Hailu posted an impressive 2:21:09. After watching the leading runners for a while, I turned to make my way back to the hotel to make last preparations for my own race, but somehow managed to get lost in the maze of winding trails in the park, and ended up walking another 30 – 40 minutes on an unplanned mini-tour of the west side of the city! When I finally got back to the hotel, luckily I had the rental bike to make my way to the start area in plenty of time.

Predictably, the start area was a hive of activity, with around 13,000 people lining up in the various start pens for the Half-marathon. I managed to get myself in the first start-pen, and was more or less confined there for 30mins before the gun went off. It’s the down-side of such a big event where there is little to no space to warm-up properly, only to do a few stretches, although the handful of elite athletes were allowed to warm up in the area ahead of us which is fair enough. With my club singlet on display I lined up with fellow runners from all over the world. I think that well over half the field were from outside the Netherlands with over 60 countries represented. 66% of the field were male according to the MC announcer and he helpfully clarified that 34% were female, in case we were in any doubt! The early morning rain had stopped, the temperature had risen by a couple of degrees. Unfortunately the wind hadn’t died down but you can’t have everything. The gun went, and we were off. My rough plan was to post a time of 75mins or better. A bonus would be to break 73mins. I figured that I had missed too much training to seriously assault my PB of 71:XX and let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger. I was hoping to get into a group of runners for most of the race but it didn’t pan out that way. About 25 runners were ahead of me after the first 800 metres, and their pace was close to 3min/Km. It was also very windy and the course was quite exposed for the most part, so I made the decision not to go with them. Those clubmates that know me best will know that I’m never one to tear off at the start of a race, but prefer to work my way into a rhythm and pick up my pace later on. Let’s say that I would probably not make a good sprinter! Behind the leading pack the field got strung out pretty fast. I ended up running with just one other guy for almost 10 Km, until he gradually fell back, so after that, it was a solo run for the second half. Up ahead of me, I could see that the original large pack of runners had broken up a fair bit, with just clutches of one or two runners strung out on the course. I started focusing on catching one at a time. The 2nd half went by in a blur, in that I can’t remember too much of it, just that the crowds of spectators were getting deeper and noiser and that I was fairly motoring along. I covered some of the last km’s at 3:20/km pace and didn’t seem to show any negative effects from my impromptu sight-seeing tour of the park earlier that day. The race finishes in the old Olympic stadium, which is a nice touch. There’s something about a finish on a running track that makes you sprint harder at the end, and it was a great experience to come into a noisy stadium and see one-self gurning on the big screen TV by the finish line! I crossed the line in 12th place, 3rd Over40 , 1st Irishman (!) in a time of 1:12:55, without anyone passing me in the entire race. I couldn’t have asked for more really. I chatted to a few other runners after the race and all generally agreed that it was a great event, professionally organised and well supported. I would recommend it to anyone considering doing a big city Half- or Full-Marathon. Afterwards, I met up with my friends to conduct usual race post-mortems, and that night enjoyed considerably more than a ‘half-measure’ of beer in the pubs of Amsterdam.”