After Action Report Sofia Marathon 2023

After Action Report from marathon Nr.4 The good, the bad & the ugly

On October 8, 2023, I embarked on my fourth standalone marathon adventure. In this blog post, I aim to take you through the journey of how the marathon itself unfolded, along with the preparation that led up to this event.

Let’s first dive into the backstory. The pursuit of achieving the „magical“ 3-hour mark for a marathon had been brewing in my mind for quite some time. Initially, I had planned to tackle this challenge in June, opting for a flat course. However, after speaking with last year’s participants I realized that the temperatures would be too hot and not optimal for a fast split. Then I signed up to do a full-distance triathlon on Gandia on 22.10, but with family obligations coming I had to cancel that one as well. I finally decided to give a standalone marathon under 3 hours a shot and prepare properly.

Initially, my target was to go just slightly under 3 hours – a 2:58h time would have been fine. With a solid 10-week window to prepare, this race would mark the grand finale of my 2023 season. With my sole focus channeled toward running, I diligently crafted a training plan and set the wheels in motion.

My training regimen was designed to align with my target race pace of 4:11 min/km for the sub-three-hour marathon quest. Those were lots of long runs, some intensities, and now and then a steady run at race pace. Another thing that I wanted to have finally figured out was nutrition (keep reading to see how that went)…

As my training unfolded, I gained a growing sense of assurance that I was on the right path to meet my goal. About 20 days prior to the big race, I executed a rigorous 10km all-out run test to gauge my peak form. My race pace was roughly determined using a simple formula:

  • 4,66 * 10km time = marathon time prediction
    OR you can also use
  • 2,11 * 21,1km time = marathon time prediction

Although not universally precise, this formula provided a ballpark estimate of what I could achieve under favorable conditions. Given my previous personal best of 37:45min for the 10km distance, and with a friend ready to pace me on a bike, I initially anticipated a time around 36:50 minutes. To my surprise, I managed to clock in at 36:06 minutes on a flat track, even without the assistance of carbon-soled shoes. Using the formula from above this meant 2:48h for a marathon!

The progression of my training and tapering remained on track. Just two weeks before the marathon, I found myself in Berlin, supporting an athlete of mine, running at the Berlin Marathon. However, on the return journey, I began to experience mild flu-like symptoms. As a result, I decided to skip the last demanding training session scheduled for the Sunday prior to the race. The tapering week was a blend of easy, relaxed jogs, with a primary focus on restoring my health in preparation for the grand event.

During that week, I made a conscious effort to fine-tune my carbohydrate intake, choosing meals that packed a hearty carb punch – dishes with potatoes, rice, pasta, and  pizza. It was all part of the carb-loading ritual before a race. The evening before the starting gun, I found myself in a cozy pizza and pasta restaurant – the ideal pre-race setting. I ordered a modest-sized pizza and enjoyed every bite. Come race day, I rose around 6:30 a.m. (the starting time was set for 9:30 a.m.), took a quick trip to the restroom, and enjoyed a tried-and-tested combination: toast with honey – my personal favorite. Everything seemed to be falling into place as I stood on the starting line, my spirits high and my body in harmony with the moment.

Gunshot. Showtime!

I knew what my desired pace was (3:56min/km) and knew not to go out too fast, as this is going to cost me in the end. However… Knowing is one thing, executing it is another. I was brimming with energy, the weather was perfect at around 16°C, the route was flat, and traffic was minimal. The first lap (21.1km) I did with 3:49 min/km pace and in 1:21h time. This would have been awesome if I hadn’t had another lap. Such a tempo was simply unsustainable for the second half of my marathon.

Discipline in training is important. But discipline in racing is even more important.

In the latter stages, the euphoria gave way to a subtle discomfort. At the 24-kilometer mark, I began to sense the onset of mild fatigue and a twinge of discomfort in my right hip. It was becoming increasingly evident that this pace was not meant to last. Additionally, a bothersome blister on my left toe had started to make its presence known. With little to be done in the midst of the race, I resolved to address it once the finish line had been crossed, but for the moment, it served as a nagging reminder of its existence.

In the last 10 kilometers of the marathon, I had to pause a few times, take short walks, and slow down my pace. My calf muscles were really tight, and I had to stop to stretch them. At this point, I lost my focus on the race and was mostly just trying to make it to the finish line. It’s not the way you want to finish any race.

To sum it up, here are the key lessons I’m taking away and plan to work on for my upcoming races:

  • Pacing – This is a big one. Even though I felt great at the start and for the first 30 kilometers, I went out too fast, creating a deficit that I couldn’t sustain over the entire distance. I need to trust my training and have the discipline to stick to my race plan.

  • Nutrition – Over-pacing made it difficult to follow my nutrition strategy. In the end, I only consumed about 73 grams of carbs (roughly 25 grams per hour) and 750ml of water, most of it in the first half. This was way below what I had planned and trained for. Feeling hungry after the finish is a sign of undernutrition, not just in marathons. I definitely was feeling hungry afterward.

    I also need to rethink my fueling strategy. Using plain table sugar dissolved in water required me to drink more water than I wanted. To avoid this, I could experiment with different options. Looking back, I realize I should have gone with just two bottles (instead of 4), each with 120 grams of carbs, and relied on aid stations for the rest of my hydration.

  • Chafing – I made a rookie mistake by not protecting my nipples in low temperatures, which became uncomfortable in the last 30 minutes. Running without underwear combined with the constant up-and-down movement added another distraction.

  • Hydration – Over-pacing also led to low hydration. If you find yourself craving water immediately after finishing as if you’ve just crossed a desert, it’s a sign of poor hydration. This was further confirmed when I finally visited the bathroom an hour later, and my urine was very dark yellow.

  • Blister – Despite having run many miles in these shoes with no issues, I seem to get blisters after most longer races, regardless of shoes, socks, or weather conditions. I need to investigate this further, possibly with the help of an orthopedic specialist.

  • Calf Tightness – It’s a bit peculiar that both of my calves were not cramping but weren’t comfortable either in the last 30 minutes. During my short breaks, I had to stretch them to alleviate some of the discomfort. This highlights the need for more calf-specific training.

  • Concentration – With so many distractions, I have to admit that I lost my focus toward the end. I was just thinking about getting to the finish line and let form, nutrition, and pacing take care of themselves. In endurance racing, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that physiological factors and concentration play a bigger role than physical preparedness.

But I don’t want to forget the things that went well during this training period:

  • Consistency – This is probably the biggest reason for my progress. I made a plan for 10 weeks and almost always stuck to it, even when I didn’t feel like going out, felt tired (but not injured), or had other things to do. I found a way to get my training in.
  • Training Discipline – This is super important. When my plan said to run easy for 1 hour in Zone 2, that’s what I did. Even if I felt like running faster, I knew that not following the plan is a big mistake many athletes make. Keeping the easy runs easy makes the hard ones count.
  • Being Flexible – the other side of consistency. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. I couldn’t finish a workout due to lack of time or needed an extra rest day because I was tired. But I made sure these days were few and far between.
  • Preparation – My training plan was good, with a gradual increase in volume, lots of easy running, and some speed training. I also got a massage at least once a month and used a foam roller almost every day.
  • Nutrition – While I didn’t get it quite right on race day, I think I did well in training. I kept testing and refining my nutrition strategy. I believe I’m on the right path, with some tweaks to make it even better. Everyday nutrition was important too, with mostly whole foods, plenty of fruits and veggies, and staying hydrated throughout the day.
  • Tapering – I had to reduce my training a bit because I got a little sick the weekend before the race. Nevertheless, I was not feeling fatigued at all on race day and did an overall good race.

I hope this gives you a good idea of my training and racing mindset. Writing this report helps me become a better athlete and coach in the future as I learn from my mistakes.

To wrap things up, even though I think I could have done a bit better, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out. I still have some areas where I can get better, but I’m sure that with more training and being really focused on race day, I can go faster than 2:50h for the marathon distance.

P.S.: After I did the tests and calculations mentioned earlier, it seemed like running around 2 hours and 50 minutes was possible. But I thought to myself, why not leave some room for next year and aim for „just“ 2 hours and 58 minutes? But one week before the race, I changed my mind and decided to go for it. After all, who can promise that I’ll have another chance? Life is unpredictable, and I don’t want to wonder „What if?“ So, I go all-in every time.