I ran my Personal Record on the marathon in the 2023 edition of the Two Rivers marathon. As an older-than-50 runner I finished third overall in 2h38. The finishers shirt says ‘Jij sal daar kom’. That is South-African for ‘You will finish’. And that is exactly what happened in Zaltbommel on Sunday 26 March.
My increasingly elusive sharp time on the marathon I ran there. ‘Ek het daar aangekom’ – in English: ‘I have finished’. In the weeks between the finish and writing this blog, I have come to realize that this is one of the most special achievements in my sports career. Until recently, I thought it was over with racing at a high level.
In part one of this three-part blog how I ran a PR on the marathon. Including four tips that can help you to also run a top time at the marathon.
Tip 1 Go All-in
You will have to go all-in if you want to run a sharp personal best in the marathon. Running on the edge. You are guaranteed to be confronted with yourself. If I include the years in which I have run marathons, including those in whole triathlons, then I have had a thirty-year journey until the finish of the Two Rivers marathon in Zaltbommel.
Until 2006 I never ran a ‘pure’ marathon. That is how I coin a marathon without swimming and biking in advance. My focus was on the triathlons. My passion was (and is) the entire triathlon: 3.8 kilometers of swimming, 180 kilometers of running and then the marathon. In 1992 I made my debut in Almere. I was 19 years old and as green as grass. I had agreed with trainer Herman Vrijhof that I would get out after a maximum of one hour running. For safety. I kept to that appointment. Even though I was on a sub-9h schedule.
In the seven next attempts, every time something went wrong. Back problems due to sitting too deep on my bike, nutritional problems, cramping, making a detour during the marathon course – the list goes on and on. Year after year I experienced the bitter disappointment after having trained for months that fuelled my hopes of a good race. But – I just kept pushing the edge in training and in racing.
For eight tries, I never got below that bloody 9-hour mark I’ve known I had in me since 1992. Until Almere 2000. All the lessons I had learned paid out in that edition. Fourth overall, Dutch Champion and a PR of 8h28. And I knew: this is how I want to race, this is how I want to live. Go all in. With the risk of going over the edge, tumbling right into the canyon.
Jordan Peterson explains it like this way. If you want to live life to the fullest, you must first of all organize your life. You create order in your life by setting goals and following routines that help you achieve those goals. That provides stability and security. From that stable base, you step into the unknown. By pushing your limits. That’s the place where you feel alive. Where things can explode right into your face – and where beauty is to be found. In Holland, we have a saying. ‘Aan het rand van het ravijn groeien de mooiste bloemen’: The most beautiful flowers grow on the edge of the cliff. By exploring the border between order and chaos, as Peterson calls it, you can push that line further and further. Step by step, you get more control over what once was chaos and unattainable.
In 2006 I made my first attempt at a fast ‘pure’ marathon. As a triathlete, that’s what I call a marathon where you don’t swim and cycle before running. I weighed 83 kilos at the time. After a half marathon in Oostvoorne in 1h10, I wanted to run the Utrecht marathon. The goal was to run under 2h30, but I never made it to the start line. In the preparation I got injured because I couldn’t handle the kilometers. I didn’t want to risk injuring anything because my focus was then on the triathlon season. I still ran a PR on the marathon that year. In Almere, on the Ironman-distance triathlon. The time was 2h53. That also landed me on the overall podium in second place, my best classification in Almere.
In corona-year 2020 I started to train for a Personal Best on a solo marathon. The goal was to run sub-2h45. I had to quit that attempt two months before the scheduled date. An injury to my left hamstring had again raised its ugly head. I pulled it in 2019, in preparation for the Rotterdam marathon. Another prematurely aborted marathon attempt.
At that time, I lived in Ethiopia at an altitude of 1900 meters. Ideal for training for a marathon. Again, I overreached in the preparation phase. On a long tempo-run I injury my hamstring and could not run the last three weeks in advance of the marathon. Instead, I cycled, got treatment from a physiotherapist and found my hamstring just fit enough to start in Rotterdam. After passing the 25 k-mark on a sub-2h40 schedule, I was brought to a sudden standstill. At the foot of the Erasmus bridge. I had cramps in my calves, thighs and hamstrings. Left and right, front and back. After 17 kilometers of walking I finished in 4h30. Like an Icarus with melted wings because it’s risen too high. I finished that marathon one illusion poorer and one experience richer.
After that failed attempt in the 2019 Rotterdam marathon, I received heartfelt advice. Several persons told me I had risked too much. ‘You’d better first run a marathon on the safe side’. I’ve been seriously thinking over that advice. Only to find out that, the more I contemplated running a marathon in something like three hours, the less inspired I became. As wise as this advice may be to run a controlled marathon for a debute race, it simply does not suit my character. Once I made the decision to run the Two Rivers, I knew that I would go all-in. At the risk of not reaching my goal of running a seriously good time. Also because my not-so-impressive marathon resume has taught me you can never lose in a marathon attempt. To quote Nelson Mandela: I never lose. I either win or learn.
Tip 2: Become trainable and staying injury-free
To run a personal best in the marathon you must become trainable. After that 2020 attempt at running a Personal Best, I let go of the marathon. In January 2022, at the end of the lockdown period, I started the 3in1Sports Bootcamp. Four times a week the groups gather in front of De Munt in Utrecht. For one hour, we do combination of cardio, core exercises, stability and functional strength. Standard ingredient is a set of exercises for hip stability, cooked up by Jorin Kamps of Running Solutions. And oh, how strong and stable those get from these exercises. So much so that I regularly introduce this set of exercises with the words ‘Your hips become as strong as the hinge of the door of the safe at de Munt’. If you have seen this door, you know what I am talking about. As stable and strong as my hips gradually became 2022, as sore and weak my lower back felt. Especially while cycling. I rode my bike on average twice a week for the past year. One interval indoors on the Tacx and a longer endurance ride outdoors. Just because I enjoy biking. At least ten years I denied that I rode around with pain in my lower back. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, I realized that I had to do something about it.
I contacted Jeannette Hoftijzer of Jera. Her diagnosis was that my ‘strength muscles’ dominate my motor skills. She also told I lost flexibility in the connective tissue of my back. That explained why riding in the bent position on the bike became more and more painful over the years.
She told me that by doing the Bootcamp sessions four times a week, I had prevented my back from hurting even more. There was nothing wrong with my core strength and stability, but the connection between my brain and ‘small muscles’ in my back was not optimal. By faithfully doing specific exercises for twenty minutes a day, six times a week for four months, my back function recovered. It was such a blessing to have my back again functioning the way it was designed. And how simple it had actually been to ‘get my back back’: a good movement analysis and doing targeted exercises. I should have done that much sooner.
During the last session, I told Jeannette that I felt the iliopsoas on both legs. This large muscle is responsible for lifting your leg. Not on the bike, but when I was running. “That is because they are asked anew to do their job,” she answered. “You used your back for running. Your hip lifters are again learning what to do. That’s what you feel’. This is how I became more and more trainable. Without planning for it.
You simply have to show up injury-free at the start to have the chance to run a personal best. I know I’m kicking in an open door now, but my series of failed marathon preparations shows that I hadn’t mastered that yet. Maybe you recognize yourself – I know I am not alone in this.
Tip 3: Volume and consistency
Whether you like it or not, the reality is that a marathon is a very long run. To run a personal best, you have to be able to race it. This simply demands to make a lot of volume. Logging the miles. From my coaching experience I have learned that athletes differ in how much running volume they need to run as a minimum to execute a ‘good’ marathon. (I define a good marathon as a marathon in which one runs a time of twice the half-marathon time + 10 to a maximum of 15 minutes, with a maximum of three minutes of decay).
Some athletes can already run a good marathon with weeks of maximum 50 to 60 kilometers. Others need more kilometers. I belong to the category that needs to structurally run between 70 to 100 kilometers a week. Only then I have a chance to properly run the last 10 kilometers. When I had achieved sufficient trainability in the first half of 2022 to be able to handle that, I started training more and more consistently. In the blog ‘consistency is the champion’s secret’ you can read more about the importance of consistency.
During a run around September 2022, Jan Klein Poelhuis told me about the Pacer podcast. Pim Bijl proudly said that he had had a week of over 120 kilometers. To which Guido Hartensveld replied that one such week was nice, but that it is much more important to consistently run weeks of one hundred plus kilometers. That comment planted a seed in my head. I did mental arithmetic to know how many kilometers I ran per week in the last month.
Having to do mental arithmetic deserves explanation. When I was young, I used to log everything. I knew exactly how many kilometers and hours I had swam, cycled and walked in a week. I don’t do that anymore. On purpose. I don’t necessarily have to reach a mileage target anymore, or to achieve something else coûte que coûte. The result of my mental calculation surprised me. The Bootcamps banked between 30 to 40 kilometers per week. Those were slow kilometers: between 6.30/km and 5.00/km. With two to three other running sessions a week, I discovered that I was structurally running between 70 and 80 kilometers a week. Without any pain. If I ran that mileage twenty years ago for weeks in a row, I got injured. Not anymore. Because I have become trainable. Gradually and steadily I increased the number of kilometers per week. Up to 103 kilometers. Another prerequisite for running a personal best on the marathon was in place.
Tip 4 Preparation races
I know from experience that I need to run races to have a shot at a Personal Best on the marathon. Nothing is as specific – and as honest – as racing to know where you are in the Grand Schema of Marathon Racing. It also helps to train your body – and mind – what it is like to run fast for a long time. You just don’t get to that in training. Jan (indeed the same Jan who planted the seed about running volume) texted me in November if I wanted to race the Bruggenloop. Someone in his circle of acquaintances had a bib number on offer. And so it happened that, for the first time after the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon, I pinned a bib number on my racing shirt. Wearing a race number that said ‘Rosanne’ I ran 53min53. It got me compliments of the men with whom I was running – only to be pushed out of the first spot in the women’s race in the final kilometer. Afterwards I was completely to the pennants. (The literal translation of the Dutch saying ‘Naar de vaantjes zijn’). My legs hurt so bad that I just managed to get up the stairs at De Kuip. That race was exactly what I needed to teach my body what it is to run fast long.
The Bruggenloop was on Sunday 10 December. I still had not made the commitment to run a marathon. This race however did start me to drafting the route leading up to it. Firstly, I decided I needed another two races. The first was a 10 kilometer. I ran it without wearing a race number, on a Friday morning. Start and finish were on the Leidscheweg in Utrecht. With Jan Klein Poelhuis as my pacer-on-the-bike. The goal was to run under 35 minutes – indeed a lot faster than the 53min53 in the Bruggenloop. That ten K went really well, in 34min20. This time without the muscle pain hangover I had after the Bruggenloop. Major progress indeed. My last 10 kilometers was in 2018. That was in the Molenweiloop in Heerjansdam, in exactly 35.00. I then came back from altitude in Ethiopia and was in a fine shape. Until recently, I thought that would actually remain my best 10k time as an 40-plus veteran.
Now that my running train was on the move, I signed up for the Two Rivers Marathon. That is a local, well-organized marathon, without all the hustle and bustle that a city marathon like Rotterdam offers.
On February 23rd I did another training race. Jan again volunteered to pace on the bike. The start was on de Gele Brug in Utrecht, two laps Maximapark, and back to the finish on the Yellow Bridge. Given the time on the 10 kilometers, my goal was to run sub-1h16. To my great surprise, it went a lot faster than that: 1h13. For Trikipedia I wrote the blog ‘Soli Deo gloria’ about that race. I went back to October 2019, the month in which I was so ill in Ethiopia that I seriously considered never being able to run again. The closing sentence: Every step of this half marathon was pure grace. Soli Deo gloria. Glory to the One God.
To be continued