How hard is it to run a full marathon (42.195 km/ 26.2 miles) in 4 hours?

When I first started running longer than 10 kilometres, I wondered how hard was it to run the whole distance? With very little training and mileage, I ran my first half marathon (21.1 km) in under 2 hours with minutes to spare.

To run a full marathon in 4 hours, one has to maintain an average pace of 5:41 min/km. Worse, if one maintains 6:00 min/km, his/her marathon time will be 4 hours 13 minutes and 12 seconds.

So with a little more training and mileage, to run a full marathon in 4 hours is not as daunting as people fear, I thought.

Then, Kuching Marathon happened. I ran my first full marathon in disappointing 4 hours 17 minutes, with average pace of 6:05 min/km, well slower than 6:00 min/km. My simplistic thoughts and calculations did not add up. My ego, shattered. But I learnt my lesson. Full marathon is not as easy as multiplication and division. Physical strength and lung capacity alone are not enough. One also needs proper nutrition and hydration, and most important of all, a strong willpower.

So Kuala Lumpur Marathon was supposed to be the place to put lessons into practice and redeem myself. But it did not happen due to the haze. So, my final chance of redemption was destined to be at Penang Bridge International Marathon, which was also my last race of 2015.

Honestly, I was following a 3:45 Marathon training plan over 16 weeks after the Kuching disaster. Then, the plan got interrupted when I travelled for three weeks to United States where I did a lot of trekking, hiking and sightseeing, and very little running.

After coming back from United States, I realised that I was not as fit as I thought I was. My base was so bad. I followed two running enthusiasts on Strava who I admired who have very good aerobic bases. Both of them could run 5:00 min/km pace at their aerobic heart rate. To run that fast, my heart rate would be in 160-170 bpm region, which was below average.

Then I made a decision to abandon the 3:45 Marathon training plan. I told myself 3:45 was out of my reach and not achievable at Penang Bridge International Marathon. After some reading, I decided to improve my heart rate first. It was back to basic in preparation of Tokyo Marathon in February next year.

This put me in a dilemma.

To run Penang Bridge International Marathon or not?,

To run Penang Bridge International Marathon at my aerobic heart rate?,

or,

To cheat on base building and race at Penang Bridge International Marathon?

But race did not come often, and Penang Bridge International Marathon was my last race of the year. So I decided to cheat on my base building for a day, and try to run a sub-4 full marathon with a bad aerobic base.

After attending my cousin’s wedding reception in Seremban, I quickly boarded a plane to Penang. I was greeted with pouring rain once I was on the island. Thanks to Raqib who picked me up me at the airport and braved the torrential rain and heavy traffic to take me to the other side of the island. The journey took a little less than 2 hours. I arrived at the hotel 5 hours before the flag off.

At the hotel, I met Jubaque who laid out the plan for the race. He and Muz were planning to run the marathon in 3:45. I instantly told him to count me out.

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Which shoe to race in? New Balance 1400v2 or New Balance Zante? I only decided which one to race in when I woke up. I chose the 1400v2.

I was famished even though I had feasted on oily, spicy, fatty, unhealthy food at the wedding earlier. Fai was so kind to bring me out for dinner. We were spoilt with choices since we were in Penang but we settled for nasi kandar nearby. I had a plate of extra spicy extra oily nasi kandar with fried chicken. It was sinful, yet heavenly. Fai offered his room for me to crash in and I tried to squeeze in some rest and sleep. 1.5 hours later, I woke up at 11pm. Since it was not midnight yet, I was not feeling sleepy.

We, 7 full marathon starters and support crew from KyserunKrew, gathered downstairs before driving to the starting line. Muz and Jubaque were rehearsing their plan, and they told me they would try to run the first half marathon in 1:50-1:51. It was beyond my wildest imagination.

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7 of us, full marathon starters.

I was contemplating whether to join Jubaque and Muz’s pact or run my own race. I was assessing the situation in the car and during warm up. Only when we were at the starting line, I finally made my decision. Having friends to run with was never a bad idea and would only be enjoyable. So I decided to follow the pact as long as I felt comfortable, and drop off whenever it started to get hard.

We were treated with a spectacular firework show before the gun. It was a nice touch but it was set too close to the starting line. We were mesmerised for the first few seconds before ducking and covering our faces and eyes from the fallen ashes of the fireworks. My heart rate was shot off through the roof too.

The race was flagged off by Penang Chief Minister at 1:31am, a minute behind schedule, which by Malaysian standard, was good.

I stuck with the pact from the get go. Nothing interesting worth mentioning in the early stage of the race, except that I had already exceeded my aerobic heart rate from the start. I was comfortable with the pace set by Jubaque and Muz. I was surprised to see 4:00 pacers at 4 kilometres mark for two reasons. Firstly, I did not know there were pacers. Secondly, I thought they were going too fast for 4:00 marathon goal.

While most major running events have water station at every 3 or 4 kilometres, we encountered the first water station after 6 kilometres. After a disastrous organisation last year, I feared for another farce. Jubaque grabbed a bottle of water and shared it with Muz and I. It was still too early to consume energy gel and salt.

After 10 kilometres, we still had not seen the second water station. All three of us were getting uneasy as it was time to take our first energy gel. It kept me guessing where the second one would be. Finally, we reached the second water station at 12 kilometres mark. I took my first gel. As soon as I finished consuming it, my tummy started to growl. I was worried, but I soldiered on.

This was my first time running alongside friends in a race. It was quick, my heart was almost red-lining the entire time, but it was enjoyable and surprisingly comfortable. We covered kilometres after kilometres with relative ease. We ran past few more pacers, 3:50 pacers and 3:45 pacers, and Jubaque predicted we were only 1 kilometre behind 3:30 pacers, which by my own estimation, we were on 3:35-3:40 pace. I was certainly going too fast but distance passed quickly with the company, so I stuck on.

As we were approaching the second U-turn at 14.5 kilometres mark, we saw the 3:30 pacers on the other side heading the opposite direction towards the bridge. They must be on different pacing strategy as both of them were too far apart. The first 3:30 pacer that we saw did not have any runner following him.

Muz had some trouble so we lost him just before we reached the bridge. It was now down to the two of us. I was starting to feel the strain of the pace in my legs. I looked at Jubaque and hoped that we would continue to push each other.  Our split for the first half marathon was 1:49, which was a little quicker than our initial target of 1:50-1:51.

It was the first time I ran the old bridge. The road was actually sloping which required some effort to stay upright. It looks flat and feels flat when you are on a vehicle, but it is actually not. The toughest part of the bridge was definitely the middle arch of the bridge. It was a long, gradual, and arduous climb, which lasted for more than 1 kilometre. I managed to keep up with Jubaque on the climb, but probably spent a lot of energy in doing so.

When we passed the centre of the arch and the course went downhill, I lost speed and the gap between me and Jubaque started to open up. He did not seem to be affected by the strenuous climb at all. I tried to keep up but my legs betrayed me.

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Somewhere along the route. Photo by Rany Tan(?)

I was now by myself and worse, I lost the external push. The discomfort in my tummy and bladder was getting too much. I continued on for 3 more kilometres before stopping for a much-needed toilet break at the next porta potty. Jubaque was now about 100 metres ahead.

My race began to falter from that point onwards. I was not suffering from any cramp, but my self-motivation was low. I ran, jogged, and walked for the next 3 kilometres until the flyover for the final u-turn. Jubaque was now nowhere to be seen. My split for 30 kilometres was 2:44, so I had 1 hour and 16 minutes to run the final 12.2 kilometres. I needed to run at a minimum pace of 6:13 min/km for the remaining distance and I would still hit below 4-hour mark. I was in a comfort zone. Time was running out, fast.

I was dreading going up the arch one more time back to the island. I was still on my jog, run, walk routine. I told myself that I would continue doing this until I cleared the arch. The 3:45 and 3:50 pacers ran past me.

By the time I reached the top of the arch, the 6:13 min/km now became 6:00 min/km. I was convinced that I could summon inexistent strength from somewhere within to run the last 2 kilometres in 5:00 min/km. There was a very little margin of error.

The duration of the race took a toll on my body. I had few more energy gels in my pocket but I could not eat them. My tummy was a ticking bomb. I was beginning to have doubts. I looked back and a 4:00 pacer was just behind me.

In the face of adversity, I gave myself an ultimatum. If I did not finish the race within 4 hours, I would not run Tokyo Marathon. It was now, or never. The thoughts of not going to Tokyo toughened me up.

But the thoughts of my family that put me back on track. I asked myself why did I start running. Why did I choose to spend countless of hours pounding pavements on lonely mornings and nights over spending time with friends and family?

I started to think of my lovely wife and yet-to-be-born baby. They would definitely be disappointed with me if I could not pull this off. The thoughts of going back to my wife and sulking that I could have done better was unbearable. I did not want to put her in that situation, again. She already had enough of this.

I knew it was going to be flat if not downhill until the finish line. The urge to stop and walk was still strong, but I resisted. I was still crunching numbers in my head, and I was on track given that the course was not over-distance. I kept running until I saw ‘5 kilometres to go’ sign. It was probably the first distance marker that I saw entire race, which was bad.

Seeing the marker gave me assurance that it was within my grasp. I could afford few more short walks. I stopped for one last time at a water station. Luckily I did not fall victim to the false hope of running the last 2 kilometres in 5:00 min/km. Just before the ramp off the bridge, I was stuck in a massive traffic of half-marathon runners. Most of them were walking and jogging. I had to weave throught them, which quickly depleted whatever remaining in me.

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Final pit stop. A pacer could be seen by the road side. There was actually another one. Both cramped.

I could not feel my legs but I kept running. With less than 3 kilometres to go, I saw Safwan sitting on the divider looking at the other direction with his camera. I called his name. He was awoken from his slumber and started to run and snap pictures. It was not long before I saw the rest of KyserunKrew cheer squad. They were cheering and it lifted me up.

Few hundreds metres from the finishing line, I saw a familiar runner. A guy who wore MarathonBaker tee just ahead of me. He passed me just before the flyover at the final u-turn. Later, I learnt that he is Yim Heng Fatt, a marathoner and ultramarathoner who has completed more than 100 marathons in the past 5 years. The sight of him spurred me up to run faster.

I gave my all in the last few hundreds metres and crossed the line in official nett time of 03:57:04.

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It was a bit emotional. Photo by 7even chiam.

Remember that I did not feel anything when I crossed the finish line of TMBT100? This time, it was different. It was a bit more emotional since I gave my (almost) all and was rewarded with a sub-4 marathon, albeit barely.

It was not a fast marathon finish time by any standard, but now I know how hard it is. It takes a lot more than bravery and physical strength. Preparation and mileage are vital, but the utmost importance is the head. I was still defeated by my own self though. I indulged in self-pity for a long time. Fortunately, Jubaque and Muz were there during the early kilometres to make the run enjoyable so that I had plenty of time for self-pity.

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Kyserunkrew X RunMDN

PS. Thanks to beautiful wife for the endless support, Raqib who drove me to the hotel, Fai who brought me out for dinner, offered a place to crash in, and drove like crazy to get me to the airport on time after the race, Sara who drove me to the starting line, Jubaque and Muz for the company during the run, the tireless Kyserunkrew cheer squad, and the rest of Kyserunkrew who made my 18-hour trip to Penang enjoyable and memorable.

Strava link.

Tokyo Marathon 2016: T-81 days.

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