San Sebastian Marathon - 26 November 2017
I’d run a big personal best at London in 2.33.13, but knew I was capable of more. Whilst sat in Lanzarote in the days following the London Marathon one thought kept re-appearing in my head ‘where should I do my next marathon?’ Having not planned to do a second one in 2017 I’d missed the boat on Berlin, but there were still a few good ones out there. In Europe I had friends going to Chester, Abingdon, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Valencia but it was Mark Ryall’s recommendation of San Sebastian that I decided on.
I’d been to San Sebastian (the Basque name is Donostia) ten years ago on a family holiday and was immediately captivated by it. The city is located in the Basque region in the north east of Spain just 15km from the French border and is well known for its incredible city beaches and superb cuisine. The marathon takes place at the end of November and has been running 40 years. As with a lot of smaller marathons they put on a half and a 10km at the same time which brings in lot of extra runners, but personally I feel it takes a bit of a shine off the marathon. Although the surrounding area is very hilly, the marathon takes place on a two lap course close to the sea so is very flat indeed with a good road surface. Although all levels are welcome, it definitely has attracts a higher level of club runner; there were almost 3,000 entrants of which around 400 achieved a sub 3 hour time.
A big part of choosing San Sebastian was that it’s such a great city that I could encourage family and friends to join me. Sarah, Lexi and I flew out from Heathrow on Friday morning joined by our mate Padge. We were joined in San Sebastian over different points by Will and his wife Alice and an old uni mate Sean and his wife Gina.
In the build up to Sunday morning, the hardest part was avoiding the pintxos (Basque tapas) bars that were incredibly inviting! On Saturday Will, Lexi and I got the bus upto the expo which was small, but efficient. I’d been fortunate enough to qualify for free entry and was given number 98.
Once again I didn’t sleep particularly well the two nights before the race. I was concerned about Lexi not sleeping very well, but it was me that had the issue. It’s hard to describe, but I think the best term is nervous excitement! It definitely wasn’t worry, but I just had so much buzzing around in my head. I actually slept pretty well on Saturday night and got on with my usual routine of porridge about 2 hours before the start. I’d left my kit bag at the expo so all I had to do was walk/jog the 2km to the start line and I was good to go! I said goodbye to the family and stepped out the door, it was dark, very cold and raining quite hard. Not ideal!
The start was pretty well organised and I was able to jump into the front pen about 5 minutes before the gun, so far so good. We left bang on 9am and I wanted to be sure to take it easy at the start and work into the race. I wanted to go through halfway in just under 1.15, which would require doing each km in 3.33 (5.43 per mile). The start was very congested and I found it hard to get going, I’ve made the mistake of going off too fast before and tried to hold back. I knew space would be easier to find and gradually got into my stride. I passed 5km bang on 18 minutes, around 15 seconds over where I wanted to be, but I knew there was plenty of time to get it back. It was around now that I felt my calves start to tighten, the cold water was definitely having an effect.
I pulled up alongside two lads from Serpentine AC and had a chat, they were aiming for around 1.15 for the half so I stayed with their group. It was still raining, but being in a group everything suddenly felt easier, we caught the 2.30 pace group in no time and crossed 10km in 35.36, almost bang on 2.30 pace. We then paced my friends and family which gave me a nice boost and I also knew the nicest part of the course was ahead, the 1.5km stretch along the promenade; beautiful! We then cut in land and ran down a long straight, we quickly went from the best bit of the course to the worst! We were on a dual carriageway, that went under a roundabout, so we had a dip down and long drag up, but doing a 180 degree turn round a cone and heading back the way we’d come. Pacing is so hard for these events and suddenly our group had split, I was comfortable with where we are but one of the other lads said we’d just done a 5.50, I couldn’t afford to lose any more time so sped up to try and catch the group in front. I passed 15k in 53.27 as the pace cyclist shouted at me ‘7 seconds slower!’. The next part was one of the most enjoyable of the race as we were going back past the rest of the race, lots of shouts of encouragement and I loved seeing my mate Sean who looked like he was having a great time. We past my friend & family again on the promenade and headed back towards the start (or the finish for the half runners!).
The rain had stopped, but we had a new problem; bright sunshine! Not only were we running towards it, but it was reflecting off the standing water on the road; not idea.
Just after 20km almost everyone around me peeled off to the right to head for home leaving me and a handful of others to carry on. I clicked through halfway in 1.15.10 feeling pretty good. For the first time I could actually see who was in my race; I didn’t know it at the time, but out of 3,000 runners I was sitting in 16th(that included 5 guys at the front from Kenya). I tried to reset my focus and started thinking of having my first gel, at 23km it went down a treat. I caught a couple of lads and went straight past them, couldn’t help but feel like they were going to have a tough final 18km!
The rain and wind had died down which was good, but unlike on the first lap I felt pretty lonely, I still felt in control but marathons are just as much a mental game as a physical one! By 30km I was upto 10th place and went through in 1.45.56 now about 20 seconds off 2.30 pace as the cyclist kindly barked at me! I wanted to kick on, but 12km is a long way when you’ve already done 30! We past my family and friends again and I got a lovely buzz, but shouted that I would need my cap the next time I saw them; I wasn’t sure if I’d been clear enough so spent the next 10 minutes worrying about it!
I got to 32km (20 miles) just over 1.54, on any normal run a 36 minute 10km would be no problem but I knew I’d have to pull out something really special at the end of a marathon. I’d managed to get in a little group and we were working well together, the only tough bit was the dual carriageway underpass and then turn back, but it gave me a good boost when that was done and I felt like we were heading for home, even if we did have 7km still to go. We ran along the promenade for the final time and I did my best to enjoy it, my pace was slipping but only slightly, I think it was around now that I resigned myself to missing 2.30; but I sure as hell was going to get a PB.
I couldn’t see my crew where I expected them, but suddenly at about 39km Padge jumped out from the crowd and handed me my cap, very useful as we soon turned the corner and headed into the sun. The small group I was in suddenly broke up and I was trying desperately to stick with them, it just wasn’t happening. A lot like on the Embankment in April I knew I was now in survival ‘get to the finish’ mode. I dug in and got to the turning point, it wasn’t a quick finish. I felt like I was running in treacle and with 300m to go there was a sharp right (almost 180 degree) turn onto the athletics track and despite pumping my arms as furiously as I could I wasn’t speeding up!
I finished in 12th place in a new personal best of 2.32.34, 39 seconds quicker than at London and I’d broken my own LBAC record! It wasn’t quite the time that I wanted, but in life we can only do our best and I’d done mine. I staggered along and hugged the lad that finished before me. To show how much I’d slowed, the three lads I was with at 39km all ran 2.31, with the fastest beating me by 1.11. You really find out what you’re made of between 40 and 42km of a marathon!
I collected my medal and goody bag, but within 3 minutes I realised I was in trouble. My calves both seized up and I could barely walk. It was 10 degrees and I badly needed warm clothing, I looked around and couldn’t see the bag collection point. It was all very confusing, but someone pointed me in the right direction, it felt a long way. Fortunately, Padge and Will had run all the way from town to find me and were able to put an arm round me to get me there. Incredibly we had to go up a steep staircase and then down a very steep slope into the Velodrome and the same to get out, I’m not sure how I would have done it on my own! I’d averaged 3.36 per km for 42km during the marathon, but the walk from the baggage collection to the pub where we were meeting Sarah & Lexi took an eternity even with Padge and Will almost carrying me.
The rest of the weekend was superb, we ate so much incredible food and sampled many different beers.
I’d definitely recommend San Sebastian for a running weekend; it’s a very good race and a brilliant city to spend a few days. If you’re looking for a marathon, half or 10k PB this is a good option to choose.
That said, it isn’t a great marathon in my view, the course is flat and very beautiful in parts, but large parts are very dull and sharp turns weren’t a lot of fun. I personally thrive in the sheer scale of big events like London and I look forward to giving it another go in April followed by Berlin in September; I'm definitely capable of a 2.29 or better and I think I have a very good chance in both. After that I’ve promised my wife I’ll take a break from marathons so I better make the most of the opportunities!
Review of the San Sebastian Marathon 2017
Very flat course, only a few slight undulations.
Excellent smooth road surface.
Pacer bicycles every 15 minutes from 2.30.
Amazing city to enjoy afterwards.
Enthusiastic local support
Course quite boring, with 4 sharp 180 turns.
Uninspiring finish in local athletics stadium.
Website had very little information on, but in the final week info was sent out.
You obviously have to get there! For us that meant a 90 minute flight to Bilbao and a 75 minute bus, all worked perfectly though.
Large sections of the course there was no support, some people will like that though!