I’d like to say that the morning of the Prague Marathon started with me rising from my bed, refreshed and ready to take on the day, but that’s not at all what happened. In reality, I spent the night desperately willing myself to fall asleep and trying everything in my power to make that happen sometime before our 6 am wake-up call. Despite my best efforts, I finally nodded off around 3:30 am and spent the next few hours waking up off and on. Not exactly the ideal start to the morning, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’ve run marathons on no sleep before. When I got up, my back was not in ideal condition, but I pushed it out of my mind and told myself to just see what happened.
Bobbi and I headed down to the hotel breakfast, which we had somehow missed on our first two mornings in Prague. We’re kicking ourselves for that now because the Hilton Prague has the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen, including a gluten free section. It was magic. We then boarded the 7:45 bus from our hotel – with tons of elite athletes, who were all staying there – and headed to the race. One of the RunCzech team members then took us to the area where we were to drop off our bags, and we hit the bathrooms for one last stop. Soon enough, it was time to head to our corrals for the 9 am start! We were in the last corral, which seemed to be where everyone with an estimated finish time of 4:30 or higher would be.
Our South Carolina state flag tank tops and American flag hats were a big hit, with lots of people commenting on them. One guy came up to me and asked “Are you from South Carolina?” in a European accent. I said yes, and he said that he used to live in Greenville and recently moved. I told him that I live in Greenville, he asked which part…and long story short, he literally LIVED ON MY STREET. We talked about our neighbors and it was honestly the most surreal thing ever. What a small world, right? I felt like that meant good things for the day ahead.
The race starts in the middle of Prague’s Old Town, and it is every bit as magical as you could possibly imagine. Bobbi and I just kept looking at each other and saying “Oh my gosh!” as we made our way to the line. Classical music was playing loudly as we moved through the corrals, and it just felt so very…European. As we crossed the cobblestone (about 10 percent of the course is on cobblestone) start line, tons of people were cheering and we just said “We’re running the PRAGUE MARATHON!” It was definitely a “pinch me” moment and I felt like no matter what the race brought, I was going to remember the experience forever.
The early part of the race winds through Old Town before crossing the first of many bridges across the river. As we crossed the first bridge, we looked on both sides and saw runners crossing the bridges on either side of us, too! I think it was somewhere on this bridge that I tripped and nearly bit it on the cobblestone – yeah, like mile 2. Not a great sign because at that point, I still had my wits about me! On that note, the Prague Marathon is the fastest May marathon in the world, so extremely competitive athletes come here from all over the world (88 countries, in fact!) to run their best, despite the cobblestone hazard. We had studied the course map and generally had a pretty good idea of the locations of the water stops and the various turnaround points. The first few miles of the race flew by, since we high fived at every kilometer marker (which is about every 0.7 miles). The atmosphere was contagious and we were running among the most incredible buildings.
I had decided not to look at my watch at all during the race and trust that Bobbi would keep us on pace. Our plan was to walk through the water stops, which ended up being about every 2.5-k. We ran a long out and back along the river that we would also run at the end of the race and then headed back into Old Town Prague around mile 8 (13k). I was feeling good and in amazing spirits as we ran through the center of the city. By this time, the crowds were even bigger and we could hear the announcers say that the elite men were on pace for a 2:08 finish and the women were on pace for a 2:21, which would be a course record. Running back through Old Town, I once again could not believe I was running this race. It wasn’t very long ago that I thought I’d never run a marathon again, let alone in someplace as beautiful as Prague, and here it was, happening. I was doing it!
The second half of the course features a few out and back portions. Out and backs can be great or they can be kind of miserable. On the one hand, we knew where each turnaround was, and I think that really helped with the “is this ever going to end?” feeling. On the other, the sun was out in full force on these sections and there was no breeze. I was definitely hotter than I wanted to be and I felt like I was slowing down, although my Garmin later told me that wasn’t true. I told Bobbi I was feeling a little discouraged, but she told me I was doing amazing and not to worry about it. Fortunately, once we headed back towards the city, a nice cool breeze picked up and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
At mile 15.5, I was no longer breathing a sigh of relief. I was starting to lose feeling in my right leg – the same thing that happened at the Flying Pig Marathon five years ago almost to the day. My foot and leg were going numb, and I couldn’t feel where I was putting my foot down. This was an absolute worst case scenario for me, and I immediately started to panic. Literally – I started having a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, my throat was closing, my heart was beating out of my chest, and I felt like the world was closing in around me. I tried to collect myself and run until my leg loosened up, but eventually, I calmed myself as best I could and said to Bobbi while choking back tears, “I need to walk for a second.” She asked if everything was ok and I said no, but asked her to give me a second. I finally was able to tell her what was going on while trying not to hyperventilate. Not dramatic at all.
I told her that this was the worst case scenario. I had not prepared for this outcome at all. In every scenario I had envisioned for the race – the good, the bad, and the ugly – I had prepared to push through pain. I was willing and able to do that. But there is a difference between pushing through pain and losing feeling in your leg and therefore not knowing where you are putting your foot, making falling (especially on cobblestone) a real danger. While this does occasionally happen to me, it has happened very rarely since my back surgery, and it didn’t happen at all during any of my training. For it to happen so early in the race (I ran more than 15.5 miles in training multiple times) was very concerning to me because at that point, I still had nearly 11 miles to go. It was hard not to think about how miserable that last 11 miles was going to be, and that is what had me so panicked.
Bobbi was great and encouraged me to take a long walk break to collect myself, try and stretch, and then start running again if I felt like I could. The pinching on my nerves relented a bit while I walked and stretched, so I decided to try running again, making it my goal to run 1 kilometer. After I made it to the kilometer sign, I made it my goal to make it to the next water station. By the time I reached the water station, the numbness and tingling was back, so we walked and stretched through the station. That’s basically how the entire rest of the race went – running between water stations and taking decent walking and stretch breaks while getting water.
I experienced a huge moment of clarity during those tough miles. I realized why it has been so difficult for me to talk about my goals for the race. Setting a time goal didn’t feel right, but saying I was running for fun also didn’t describe what I was doing. At that moment, knowing my time goals were probably out the window, I realized what my goal really was – I just didn’t want to give up on myself. I wanted to put forth my best effort, whatever that looked like. While I knew I was probably in shape to run under 4:30, I realized that I didn’t care if that actually happened, as long as I didn’t mentally quit. That’s not really the same thing as running for fun, but it’s not exactly setting a time goal, either. This whole training cycle, I’ve been working on building my mental toughness. What I most wanted to prove to myself during this race was that I really had gotten better.
As is the case in any marathon, my mood went through highs and lows. I had given Bobbi advice on what works to motivate me and what doesn’t, and I told her that sometimes, I do better if someone just runs a few steps right in front of me and I can just zone out and follow their legs. She did everything I had suggested without even mentioning it, and it really worked. My legs seemed to have a little over a mile in them before I would lose feeling again in my right leg, so I would fight for that last quarter mile to make it to the water stop. I never, ever quit, but boy, was I happy to have those walk and stretch breaks when they arrived! Some miles they were a little longer than others, but I always forced myself to pick it right back up. I didn’t care what my pace was, but I was not about to walk the rest of this race until I was absolutely forced to. That’s when I realized how much tougher I am this cycle than previously.
We repeated part of the course over the last 5 or 6 miles, which I found helped immensely. Even though it wasn’t the most exciting part of the course, it was a relief to know exactly what was coming and about where each water station was. I was fighting like hell to make it all the way to the stop because normally, I lost feeling in my leg about a mile before they appeared. I let out a few choice curse words from time to time and once considered telling Bobbi to tell me AS SOON as she saw even a hint of the next stop, but the signs always appeared just when I was about to give up.
On the topic of water stops, let’s talk about water. Remember how I told you that one of my favorite parts of running international races is tasting the different electrolyte drinks they have in other countries? Well, the Prague Marathon used Gatorade, so that was not very exciting. However, they use Mattoni mineral water as the water on the course. If you’ve traveled to countries outside the US and Canada, you probably know that you need to specify whether you want “still water” or “water with gas” when you go to a restaurant. I abhor “water with gas”’ and find nothing in the world more disgusting and less refreshing. The water on the course tasted (to me) like it was carbonated, and it wasn’t refreshing at all. That was fine early on in the race, but as the day wore on, Bobbi and I were so thirsty. At around mile 18, I literally found a mostly full “still water” bottle on the side of the road and literally grabbed it out of the street. Bobbi and I rationed that water for the next 8 miles and we have no apologies for how gross that is. It could have given me dysentery and I would still tell you it is the best water I have ever tasted. Like I always say, there is no dignity in marathoning. On a related note, we later talked to the race directors at the press dinner that evening and they assured us that Mattoni is still water, it’s just mineral water, so it tastes different. They looked at us like we were nuts when we suggested that it was carbonated, but we stand by it. Either way, if you don’t like mineral water, bring your own.
Ok, so back to the race. I basically had assumed that there was no way I was going to hit any of my time goals. I thought we would probably come in somewhere around 5:15, but I truly had no idea. Sometimes, like with 10k left to go, finishing the race felt possible. At mile 22 or so, I felt another panic attack coming on because another 4-plus miles just seemed totally out of the question. I steeled myself and kept putting one put in front of the other. At 38k (a little before mile 24, I think) my leg was losing feeling faster and faster after each walk and stretch break, and I felt so discouraged. I was still pushing myself to run between each water stop but was rapidly losing the will to do so. I had not looked at my watch to that point, so I had no idea what our pace was. I decided to sneak a peek and, if a time goal or finishing within 5 hours was remotely within reach, then I would keep going. If not, I wanted to slow down. I looked down at my watch and saw 4:13 and I think my eyes almost bulged out of my head. I could not believe it! I was both happy that we were doing so well (a post surgery PR was definitely in the bag) and also kind of mad that I had to keep pushing, haha!
At that point, I knew finishing under 4:40 was within reach if I gave it absolutely everything I had. While that’s a totally arbitrary number that doesn’t mean anything, it gave me something to aim for. I did not tell Bobbi that I had looked at my watch, but I knew she was thinking exactly what I was. I decided to trust her pacing and just follow and not let up if I could help it. We passed through a long, dark, quiet tunnel, and Bobbi said, “While I have your full attention, I just want you to know how proud I am of you. You should be so proud of yourself. You never quit today and you are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for.” I just gasped out a quiet “thank you” and said “I’m proud of myself, too.” I meant it.
We had one more very quick water stop and I told her I would run it in from there (a little over 2k to go). That seemed like a good idea at the time, but with 1k to go (about 7 minutes at a 10 minute per mile pace), I felt like I could not possibly continue at that pace. “If there is any way we can go even a little bit slower and still hit whatever goal you’re aiming for, that would be great,” I grunted. We backed off just enough that I was able to breathe again and eventually rounded the final stretch.
With 500 meters left, I started to pick up the pace. As long as my leg connected with the ground, I had energy, and we ended up running 8:45 pace during the last part of the race. The crowds were roaring and we crossed the line in 4:39:28. I could barely believe my eyes. I would have been thrilled with that time even without back problems, but with them? It seemed like an actual miracle. Embarrassing though it may be, that’s my 5th fastest marathon ever!
Of course, as is my finish line tradition, I immediately sat down about 5 feet from the finish. I didn’t even go get my medal at first. When I regained feeling in my leg, we got up and walked to get our medals and some more mineral water (hoorayyyy), then eventually to pick up our bags.
We had a long walk back to our hotel since we had missed the media bus (the majority of the press team was not running the marathon), but although it took quite a while, it was probably a good thing and helped us loosen our legs. I wish I could tell you anything about the post-race finisher’s area, but I really can’t. We pretty much made a beeline for the hotel and never got any food or anything. It looked pretty cool, though – the finisher’s area is the entire main square in Old Town Prague.
Overall, the Prague Marathon vastly exceeded my expectations – both in terms of the race itself and my own personal experience and result! While I’m proud of my time, I’m even more proud of my mindset. I never gave up. That’s not something I’ve been able to say very often when it comes to running. I know this training cycle paid off, and I can’t wait to see what the next one will bring!
LEAVE A COMMENT: What surprises have you encountered during a race?