Never one to prolong the agony of suspense I can tell you right now that I finished the Seville Marathon on Sunday 23rd February in 5 hours and 35 minutes.  Just 5 minutes outside of my ‘goal’ time but with enough reasons to be sublimely happy with the result.

If I’d been offered 5.35 on the morning of the run, I would have thrown myself at it, clutching it to my chest, regarding it as a paragon of recent dedication and perseverance.  As it was, I was vaguely disinclined to anything other than exhaustion and how much stuff hurt at the time of crossing the line.

Reflection and two very strong cocktails warmed my heart to a performance that was actually brave and strong.

Alan and I would be accompanied by our good friends Pete and Jess and Trevor and Gill.  Pete is an ultra-marathoner with several Grand Union Canal Ultra finishes to his name.  Jess is a multi-finish Ironman and Trevor has over sixty marathon finishes.  We were in very prestigious company.  Pete and Jess have completed Seville before, and it was actually their idea to visit again.  Alan and I, both very fond of ‘marathon tourism’ didn’t take long to say yes (we did have wine in a glass in our hands at the time – a consistent lubricant).

We flew out to Seville on Friday.  Desperate for sunshine and warmth, we’d been googling the weather in Seville for a few weeks.  It showed definite promise of delivering on both plus with added comedy tan for free!  But although the weather had been in our thoughts for some time, the marathon had been less consuming.  It was a definite B race.  As stated, a time of around 5.30 would be nice but the real purpose was to form a bench mark for the Loch Ness Marathon in September where I intend to target under 5 hours for the first time.

I know 5.30 is not a particularly fast time to some of you.  I have a husband who runs around 3.15 so I’m doomed to forever compare my performance to his.  But the truth is, even a time around 5.30 would be challenging.  Over the last few years, I’ve seen my weight rise and my fitness level reduce at almost the same rate.  I ran two marathons last year, in which I recorded personal worst times in both of them.  London in April, a dismal 6 hours 56 minutes and 30 seconds and Beachy Head in September, 7 hours 47 minutes and 42 seconds.  It has been more than four years since I’d last broken the 5.30 barrier with a 5.22 in Barcelona.  But as they say, times they are a changing and with the recent weight loss and increase in training I was confident at least of being under the 6 hour limit imposed by the race.

It’s the first time Alan and I have been to Seville.  It’s a very beautiful city in parts and we were grateful to Pete and Jess, for their gentle guidance around the more aesthetically pleasing parts of it.

Buried deep in Andalucia, the city is a lively mass of social culture.  Locals throng in the many tapas bars and the narrow streets surrounding the old town.  History also screams out from those streets, reflected in the street names.  Toro, derived from Bull, is a repeated street name that tells you all you need to know about its past and the streets are lined with shops devoted to the traditional flamenco dress.

Actually, despite the proximity to the coast and Africa not too far away, I was still struck by how much of an influence Africa has in the architecture of the city.

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As most marathon organisers are desperate to show you the highlights of the city they love, running a marathon in a strange city is often the best way to be a tourist.   Enthused with what we had already see, I was really excited to see more and poured over the route the night before while getting ready for the race.

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I then tried to figure out my race strategy which was essentially, get to half way in a good condition and then revert to run/walk if needed, but most of all, be flexible.

Start at the back and start slowly featured prominently.  I would have to sustain roughly 12 minute mile pace throughout the race to get anywhere near my A target of under 5.30.  My back up targets involved a B target between 5.30 hours and 5.45 hours and the C target would be a finish under the 6 hour cut off.

The Spanish really like to exude energy before an event.  Seville had a field of around 6000 entrants.  About 90% of them were Spanish and about 5000 of them were screaming at each other like banshees on a killing field about 15 minutes before the race start.  I prefer a calmer reflection of a race prior to it, so looked on amused before making my way to the start via the toilet queue with Jess.

Positioning myself at the very back of the field meant I could focus on my mental preparation.  I have been working with a hypnotherapist/NLP Practitioner to help with a relaxed mental state.  A couple of deep breathes then as I mentally played ‘Two Tribes’ (when two tribes go to war/a point is all you can score/switch off your shield/switch off an feel) in my head as the field moving steadily forward toward the start line.

Soon ‘Highway to Hell’ replaced ‘Two Tribes as the speaker system blasted it out at the stragglers crossing the start line.  I started the Garmin and with another deep breath, re-inforcing a feeling of calmness, crossed the start line and upped pace to a gentle trot.  Almost instantly the field ahead moved away from me, an immediate gap growing at an alarming rate, flustering the peace I’d generated to protect my head through the first nervous miles.  My initial manta of ‘Stay Calm’ was replaced by ‘Don’t Panic’ as the rear of the field stretched further away leaving me not only on my own but Stone. Bonker. Last.

The sweep bus, hovered just behind like the grim reaper, looking for an opportunity to bump me off.  And even though I never threatened the cut off time, it never left my side until about 12 miles in when it took the opportunity to attempt to sweep up another individual after he had the temerity to walk for a few yards.  I was judging from his intonation and body language he told it firmly to get stuffed and then the driver accelerated away, never to be seen again.

The first few miles passed expediently in relative comfort.  Always staying under the 12mm target pace I was always conscious on the inability to bank time in a marathon but was running comfortably and never out of breath.  Taking the opportunity to nod and shout ‘Gracias’ at the many supporters, police and marshals who offered vocal and encouraging ‘Bravo’s in my direction.

After a couple of kilometres running well within myself and the cut off time, but completely devoid of company, I finally caught up with Trevor, my companion at the Beachy Head Marathon last year.  He was clearly struggling after going into the race under prepared and then setting off a little too fast.  He would pull out at 10k and into the arms of his wife waiting to cheer him on there.

I stopped for a sweaty hug with Gill too (I’m sure she appreciated it) before heading on, a lonely figure.  European marathons are like that though.  I’ve experienced similar in Barcelona a few years ago.  Alan pulled out at 10 miles with a thigh strain but said that prior to that, the space around him was absolutely rammed (he was running at 7.15mm pace).  By contrast, I had all the space in the world but no one to follow.  So often the route was unclear and all I had to guide me was the detritus of discarded gel wrappers and sponges.  Evidence of a race I was barely in.

I’d been worried about the temperature of the sun as we got closer to the midday but actually during the whole race I never got too hot.  Others would complain of the increasing heat in the race post mortem.  My Vitamin D, English winter gloom fed body lapped up the sunshine like my life depended on it and never complained once.  Normally the first one to moan about the heat, it was the first time this had ever happened.   I was extremely grateful and relished every second of the sunshine although I was left with a splendid comedy tan on my arms and legs and shiny red face, post-race.

Pretty much from the off I had felt a tugging in my leg IT Band that got tighter with every step.  We were always ushered to the right hand side of the road and the subsequent camber and soon the tugging developed into a pain through my left calf and right leg.  It got to a point where it was painful but not unbearable and I sang songs to myself to try and distract from the discomfort.  From about 16 miles the pain in my calf spread to both and then exploded making each step almost unbearable.  Up to this point I’d been running for a mile and then when the Garmin beeped walking for a count of 100 before starting again.  It had been working really well but the pain was so bad, I decided to switch to my back up of run 2 minutes then walk for 1 minute.  I followed this pattern for the rest of the race.

We passed palace after splendid palace followed by castle after imposing castle.   The first few miles inevitably followed the long straight dual carriageways around the city but each step pushing us closer to the narrow streets of the old town.  The old town, the source splendour and bonhomie, of friends bonded through laughter and alcohol and of energy, energy of goodwill and support, generously directed towards those of us who needed to lap up and store for later.

The symbol of the marathon is the infinity sign.  At first I couldn’t work out why, but as we weaved and wheeled our way around the city it began to make more sense.

Finally we made our way back over the river and towards the old Olympic stadium, looking imposing and slightly forlorn, in the distance.  With 5k left and the impending pull of the finish line I started to relax.

By now everything hurt, my feet, my calves, my back and both IT bands but I could walk it from here and still make the cut off.  Pete (already finished) was stood outside the hotel and I stopped for a hug and words of encouragement.  And then carried on to what felt like the longest kilometre of my life as we weaved our way around the car park and toward the entry in to the stadium via the tunnel.

Then finally, deliciously, the sight of Alan stood at the side of the road.  Another stop, another huge hug, words of consolation from me and encouragement from him.  A group of British men stood next to Alan quipped one to the other, ‘You’re not getting that off me at London mate’.  Quite right too, these hugs are sacred and empowering, enough to give me the energy to complete the 600 yards left.  As I felt the last of the latent energy drain out of my legs.  My head was just strong enough to get me to the finish line and then no more.

5.35.  A twinge of disappointment mingled with immense fatigue as I wobbled my way out of the stadium and towards the steadying, supportive hands of my husband.  But this morning that was replaced by the relief and excitement of a job well done.  And the potential of things to come.

Route: 4/5 billed as the flattest marathon in Europe (although Berlin might disagree).  The route is on mostly closed roads around the city with some cobbled/uneven pavement areas.
Organisation: 4/5 impeccable, although the majority of the information is in Spanish so make friends with a Spanish speaking person or get to know Babelfish
Expo:  2/5 not a patch on the bigger city marathons, take everything you need with you
Value for Money: 5/5 Fabulous, entry was 30 euros and included a bling finishers medal, technical vest and shorts, blister plasters and other edible goodies
Other Notes: The cut off is 6 hours, if you are any slower than 5 hours be prepared to spend lots of time on your own.

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Nicky Donbavand runs Events to Live and Run to Live – Surrey’s premiere running events company and specialist running shop

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