My first abroad race: TCS Amsterdam Marathon

There was that time (earlier this year, in April) when I went to San Francisco and didn’t know there a marathon was taking place that very weekend. Darn! I could have taken care of (in my quest to check off provinces and states) all of the state of California in one shot and it now has to wait until “the next time”. So, once we booked tickets for a flight into London and out of Paris (two weeks apart), I searched “london marathon” (which is a really big one), “paris marathon” and “amsterdam marathon”… and found “de grootste marathon van Nederland”. How fast did I register for that? And then it sold out. Just 12,50 Euros!

Ahead of the race, while still in Vancouver, I got really excited about the race. I read the course description and it sounded idyllic. Running through Vondelpark – “dearly loved by every resident of the city” – and past stately Rijksmuseum. The real kicker was that the race finish would be in Olympic Stadium. Like really? Ohhhh, this is so exciting! “The course leads the participants through Amsterdam’s city centre and passes many highlights, which would also be worth a separate sightseeing tour.”

We arrived in Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon, the day before the race and didn’t budge from the hotel on account of its distance from anything (we were at an airport hotel) and it was pouring rain. The next morning, we missed one shuttle that might have made all the difference then scratched our heads while at Schipol waiting for one of their national rail trains going to Amsterdam Zuid. One the would have been fine and good to take came through the station “Niet instappen” and the next one, as far as our novices eyes could glean from the scheduling board, just ceased to exist and we were popping up and down from the train platform level and the arrivals level of the airport to check the board and then go wait at another platform. The one we did get on was at 9:37 and bib pick-up was supposed to close half an hour before the 10:10 race, at 9:40! (The next day, a Monday, we had similar problems with national rail also destined for Amsterdam Zuid where our train was “delayed” then suddenly cancelled. It was eternally frustrating because we were transiting between hotels and saddled with luggage.)

Our commute woes were not over when we got onto the first GVB train at Zuid and it was the wrong line/direction. No real harm done as we came back to Zuid, tail between our legs, and hadn’t missed the right train yet. (Leaving the marathon area was also a comedy of errors with the area being closed to traffic and our mapped route involved a bus that was diverted and NPY learned the necessity of tapping in and out at these sorts of new-fangled fare gates.) In the midst of the transit mess, it was almost unfathomable to have to run after I had finally arrived!

So, I ran towards the bib pick-up and they were packed up, ready to dispense bibs for the next race but I picked up mine and it was one minute until the start! My wave (pink) was the last to go so I had a few minutes but I was the last runner and weaved through the barriers that were coming up to close off the start area corrals as the waves went through them. As could be expected, the wave was only then walking towards the starting arch.

We’re off! I haven’t run a lick since September 14, you know when I pulled off that 10K without running since last fall. The people in my wave were generally so leisurely so I kept an easy pace but slowly overtook people. There were timing mats at the first and second mile but intriguingly no more after that. I had not committed the course route to memory and we entered Vondelpark earlier than I thought we would. It is a people’s park and not overly picturesque after a drippy evening and drizzle in the morning. I merely noticed that we were often running downhill, which we’d have to make up but I didn’t really notice that happening. We ran through the Rijksmuseum where the high arched ceilings provided different acoustics and a wave of cheers erupted as runners ran through it. We ran by the I Amsterdam sign outside the museum.

There were two water stations, at 3 and 5K, and only then did I take short walking breaks. At the second one, I picked up a cup that appeared to be water but was instead lemon-lime flavoured AA, a race sponsor. Volunteers all had trays with wells to hold the water cups steady.

I was kind of shattered to see the 6K and 7K signs twice each – which one was real?! The one saying TCS 8K above it, but sometimes I didn’t notice when the 8K was absent. It was a challenge not to throw in the towel and walk although I expected no more water stations. So I just had to convince myself to go until the next turn then re-assess. I wasn’t tired, merely getting a smidge bored despite the all-new environment and the unique opportunity to race in Amsterdam and run alongside the canals. Mind you, since we hid out at the airport upon arrival, it was my first Amsterdam hour. Without a watch, I had no idea of my exact progress and time.

Here is a conversation I had with myself at one point —
“Why was this residential street selected for the marathon route?”
“Oh… because it is called Marathonweg! Cooool…”
“Cute! Every store has the word Marathon in it!… because we are on Marathonweg”
“This cross street is… Olympicweg! Olympicweg and Marathonweg! No wonder!!!!”
I was instantly impressed that we are possibly treading on the 1928 Olympics marathon route.

Sometime after/between the two 7K signs, I could convince myself not to walk because I think I was on the brink of a decent time and I had run the entire distance thus far – why walk now?

Advertisers had purchased arches with their branding and I had seen one close to the start which I thought was the finish. I thought that running into the stadium was too much of a good thing and a course change had occurred, that I had misread. And then we rounded the corner and we were running through the main entrance of the stadium, with the Olympic cauldron and motto – Citius Altius Fortius – overhead.

This is where it gets good.

The announcer was speaking in Dutch, which may as well be pure cacophony to me I understand so little, excited to call out the names of people finishing their 8Ks (but what would I know he was saying?) and then turning his attention to the giant screen which showed – with professional production values – a video of the marathon front runner who had still to finish. A banner just outside the stadium stated there was 500 m remaining and that was distance enough to make half a lap on the Olympic track. On this special occasion, spectators were allowed access to the grandstand and it was fairly packed. To the enthusiastic and constantly chattering announcement sounds, we ran on the new and springy track, tons of cameras trained on us, urged on by the palpable magical Olympic feel to finish strong. Small banners counted down the last 200 meters in 25 meter intervals and there was no way anyone could slow to a walk on that Olympic track!

After we crossed the finish line, we could walk the rest of the lap and revel in the high feeling, take group pictures on the track with fellow running friends, etc. We were medalled outside the stadium.

Other observations en route:

  • I saw a beautiful jersey/technical t-shirt worn by someone who works for my company but at a different (Amsterdam?) office. The colours of the jersey were spot-on and the details and the tailoring were a compliment to the brand. He was a wiry runner-looking person so I only saw him as he was passing my location and I never saw him again.
  • We came to Amsterdam and – gasp! – did not ride on a bicycle. I don’t know how to ride a bicycle and thus I am not very sympathetic. Like, they have no “right” to cross the race course where there is no break in runners. Yet some did and I was satisfied when runners shamed the rider. One cyclist crossed the wrong woman and she threw her sponge at his retreating head!
  • Three street organs (maybe I saw the same once twice and it was only two) playing ragtime hits.

I had some difficulty calculating my time enroute since I didn’t know when I actually crossed the start line (10:20?) and I only knew that I had crossed 5K a little while before when I saw an a public analogue clock 10:55. The doubled-up 6K and 7K signs made me have to recalculate. Was I going to make a personal best? Was I going to finish respectably if I just keep plugging at it? Or could I throw in the towel?

I’ve only done one 8K before, over three years ago, and I was not significantly slower. I was slower but see the sixth paragraph above (I don’t run regularly any longer). I was emailed my results the same day and they are …

Gun time: 1:01:28
Chip time: 51:22 (personal best was 49:24.6)
Overall place: 2,619/4,332
Category (Female) place: 1,297


On this day..