(This article was published in the magazine "Runner Triathlete News", Vol. 25, No. 2, 2009).
In this article I will describe my experience competing in the 2009 IAAF World Athletics Marathon Championships in Berlin. The article will be divided in the following sections: brief history of the IAAF World Champs, the hotel and Berlin, highlights of the competition and my experience of competing in the marathon. But first I will introduce myself.
I am a professional long-distance runner. I individually compete in national and international races. I also have represented my country, New Zealand, in international events including World Championships in Athletics and Cross-country. I am 27 years old and I started running with the age of 20. Previously, I played competitive field-hockey, representing the under 21 New Zealand team. I came to the USA in 2004 on an athletic scholarship at Oklahoma State University. There I competed for the track team in the 10,000 m, 5,000 m and 3,000 m steeplechase and for the cross-country team. My best season was in 2006 when I won three Big 12 championships in Waco, TX (10,000 m, 5,000 m and 3,000 m steeplechase) and came third in the NCAA (10,000 m). Currently, I live in Houston with my husband Gabriel O. Sawakuchi, who works at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Brief history: IAAF World Championships in Athletics started in 1983. Currently, it is the third largest sporting event after the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. Tens of millions of viewers worldwide follow 9 days of competitions. This year in Berlin 1984 athletes from 201 countries competed. Before 1991 the IAAF World Championships were organized every four years. Since then it has been organized every other year. The next competition will be held in South Korea.
The hotel and Berlin: The atmosphere in the hotel was unique. Particularly, it was interesting seeing all the different nationalities/cultures, shapes and sizes of the athletes, concentrated in one hotel.
Media, press and crowds of fans were always waiting outside the hotel in hope of getting an interview or spotting athletes like Usain Bolt. Therefore, the hotel security was very high and we had to wear our accreditation everywhere we went.
The restaurant was open 24 hours a day. The food was healthy and well balanced to meet the nutritional needs of the athletes. Each day there was a buffet with so much variety – fresh warm bread, German, French and Belgian cheeses, smoked salmon, prosciutto, yogurt, pasta, rice, potatoes, a salad bar, grilled chicken and beef, homemade sauces and a wide assortment of fruits. For sure, that was one of the highlights of the event.
I tried to take full advantage of being in Berlin, a city so full of history. The architecture in Berlin is very interesting where the old and new stand side by side. Some highlights that I especially found distinguished were the remains of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Parliament Building, Jewish Memorial, and the Holocaust Museum. The marathon course passed in front of most of these historic sites, not only once, but four times.
Highlights of the competition: I went to the stadium on days 5 and 6 of the competition to watch some of the events. The blue track was stunning and watching the events live was very inspirational. I especially liked watching the high jump competition between Blanka Vlašic from Croatia and the Germans’ favorite athlete Ariane Friedrich. I was thrilled at how both athletes could control the crowd - to clap at a certain rhythm or, in Friedrich’s case, to make the entire stadium silent just by placing her finger to her lips. Also watching Bolt set two new world records in the 100 m and 200 m was outstanding – very good encouragement for the marathon. After watching the events I was so excited to compete that I could not wait until the race day.
Marathon Experience: My preparation and taper for the race had gone well and I felt confident as the race came closer. I stayed calm, relaxed and focused as suggested by my coach, John Bowden. I had done the hard work, I was in great shape and therefore I needed to trust in my training and ability.
In the morning of the race I woke up at 7 am as the race did not start until 11:15 am. I had breakfast three hours before the race, consisting of two bananas, a cup of coffee and a bagel. Then, I met the other two New Zealand marathon members, Fiona Docherty and Shireen Crumpton, at 10 am. We were then transported to the race start and escorted to the first warm-up area. I did a 10 minutes jog, some drills and stretches. Next, 30 minutes before the race, I moved to the call room, where the IAAF officials checked the athletes’ bib numbers and chips. Once there, it was a waiting game until we were called to the start line. My adrenaline level felt high and I was pretty nervous.
Because of the hot weather most of the athletes, including myself, had ice bags and cold towels to keep our bodies cool. My aim was to make the hot temperature an advantage. From training in the extreme heat and humidity that the Houston summer brings (as you all know) a temperature of 85 degrees was nothing.
The course consisted of four 10 km/6.2 miles loops with the last loop having an extra 2.2 km/1.4 miles. I had my race nutrition stationed at the refreshment stops. Each country had a table with the country’s name and designated people to hand out our drinks, energy gels and water. Throughout the race I made sure I properly hydrated myself. I was lucky enough to have the New Zealander Valerie Ville – the shot-put Olympic and World Champion, handing me my liquids.
Just before the start I could notice that the atmosphere was tense and all the athletes were focused on their goals for the very beginning of the race (not falling down, first mile pace, etc). What an experience just at the start line! When the gun went off I got out strongly. My goal pace was 3:40 min/km or 5:55 min/mile. I ran the first part of the race with the leading group. At about 15 km/9.3 miles I realized that the pace was a little fast so I slowed down to my pace. I ran by myself for about 9 km/5.6 miles until the group with two of the USA runners, Tera Moody, Paige Higgins and a German runner, caught me. This allowed me to get back on pace and re-focus.
I felt good and strong, passing through the half marathon in 1:17:11 and on pace. The atmosphere was exciting, with cheering crowds lining the streets, helicopters buzzing overhead and motorbikes driving alongside us with television cameras.
After passing the 35 km/21.7 mile mark my legs started to feel the buildup of lactic acid – a burning feeling. I tried to keep on pace and stay with the group I was running with. But they had a finishing kick which I could not follow. I ran by myself from the 38 km/23.6 mile mark to the finish line. This last 4.2 km/2.6 miles felt very long. Having sight of the group I was previously running with helped me to keep strong.
My splits for the marathon were: 5 km 17:50; 10 km 35:54; 15 km 54:20; 20 km 1:13:10; Half-marathon 1:17:11; 25 km 1:31:35; 30 km 1:50:44; 35 km 2:10:00; and 40 km 2:30:11. I finished in 2:38:48 a 4 minute PR, placing in 35th individually. The New Zealand team placed 8th in the women’s marathon World Cup.
My goal time before the race was 2:35:00. Therefore I was disappointed with my time as I felt I was in better shape. One of the mistakes I made was that I started too fast with the leading group. The consequence was that I ran by myself for a long period of time. The right tactic for me would be to stay with the chasing group. This was only my second marathon and I should admit that the mistakes I made were in part because of lack of experience. Thus, I still have a lot of room for improving my race tactics and endurance.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in the World Championships Marathon and to compete with such great athletes. What a great experience and great motivation to keep improving.
My next year’s goal is to run under 2:30:00 for the marathon and under 1:12:00 for the half-marathon. My overall goal is to compete in the 2012 Olympics Marathon in London. Two of the races I have planned for 2010 are the Houston Half-marathon and the Chicago Marathon. At the Chicago Marathon my goal is to meet the qualifying standard for the 2012 Olympics.
My training comprises seven days of a full-time schedule. I average about 100-115 miles (160-185 km) per week. My next step is to find good sponsors so that I can excel further in my training and achieve my goals. Oddly enough, I had to pay my own way to Berlin just race in the World Championships as the New Zealand federation would only pay to send what they deemed to be their very best athletes. But the opportunity to represent my country and gain the experience of running against the world's best was too much to pass up.
As I write this, I am trying to enjoy a couple of weeks off but as every runner knows it’s hard to take time off when running is such a passion. By the time you read this, I will be back at it - hard at work as I prepare for the Aramco Houston half-marathon!
These pictures were from the 2009 World Marathon Champs in Berlin. The first picture is the New Zealand Women's Team: Fiona Docherty, Shireen Crumpton and I. The second picture is of me after the marathon. The third picture is me with Usain Bolt. The fourth picture is of Shireen Crumpton and I watching the final day of competition at the stadium.