Belfast on the Run

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My second marathon, one where you can wake up at 8:45 and make the start, and the best places to eat for preparation and recovery in the beautiful and not-too-distantly troubled city of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

When I finished the NYC marathon last November, I knew I could do better. Four hours of standing around before the start in freezing wind, too much tapering, and first marathon nerves meant I finished, but wasn’t very happy with the result. Our great friends in Belfast, who we incidentally met on a cruise to Alaska where we were the only people under 65, were having the christening for the second son the day before the Belfast marathon, so a visit for a little run and their little son was perfect. After our horrible East Coast winter and apparently delayed Spring, I was excited for some sun too.

Pre-Marathon Shakeout

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Clearly the first thing needed after landing was some liquid nourishment and run fuel. Everyone knows Guinness is famous for its nutritional and health improving properties, so this seemed the obvious choice.

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After arriving with far too little sleep on the plane as is quickly becoming normal for me, I decided to hit up the local park, the towpath along Belfast’s main river, the Lagan. The path continues for several miles through the city and beyond, but as a shake out run a few days before the main event, I opted to make a three mile loop around the river and some bridges.

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Along the way I discovered some historic old bridges, lots of bird life, the old canal and locks, now an inn and coffee shop, and Belfast’s friendly, active people. It looked like the whole town was out for dog walks, stroller strolls, or runs. 

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Once I had my legs back under me, we spent the next few days exploring the city and the culinary delights of it with good friends. There was also considerable relaxing both physically and mentally with our pals.

Marathon Day

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Unlike the New York City Marathon which had over 50,000 participants this year, and began with almost five hours of standing around in freezing cold temperatures and cold winds, Belfast had a field of 2,300 and started in the city center at 9:00am. This meant I could get dropped off a block away at 8:30, join the starting line, and start running without having time for muscles to tighten up.

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The race started at the beautiful City Hall, in the center of the city. There was a great pre-race atmosphere with the marathoners, fun runners, and relay racers joining together and getting ready.

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The race was held on May Fourth, or Star Wars Day, so some participants got into the spirit. I’m assuming they didn’t do the full marathon as I can only imagine the chaffing those outfits would cause. However, volunteers along the route did give out Vaseline, perhaps to help Luke and Leia here. 

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The start line was a bit cramped with all 2,300 marathoners cramming into line approximately where they thought they would finish. While this allowed a rapid start, I would have preferred a coral or staged approach similar to the NYC Marathon or Fred Lebow Half where runners were put into chutes based on estimated finish time and quickly released to the start line from there, eliminating the jockeying for position at the start. Though starting right after the same start gun that the winners began with was pretty cool.

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My free Dogfishhead brewery sweatband has seen quite a few runs now including both marathons. It is not pleasant to smell.

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The new Brooks Ghosts 7 I got from the headquarters in Seattle in March were my savors on the run. They didn’t really go with my color choices above the knee, but they kept my feet relatively fresh for at least the first 20 or so miles.

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The marathon route looped around many parts of the city from downtown out to the airport, docks, waterfront, and residential areas. For the first 4 or 5 miles, we ran out to the aiport and docks, past Belfast’s two most visible landmarks, the H&W ship cranes called Samson and Goliath at the dry docks near where the Titanic was built.These bad boys were visible for much of the route as they are from across the city. Here also is one of the dozen or so DeLoreans that passed us. DeLoreans were built in Northern Ireland by the “charismatic” John DeLorean who later went bankrupt and was charged with drug trafficking. The car was made famous by Back to the Future and now you can buy refurbished versions from Texas. 

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I only took pictures for the first few miles until I hit a level of exhaustion that prohibited me from pulling out my phone. However, the route was one of the most scenic and lovely ones I’ve done in a run, training, or race. It served as a great introduction to Belfast’s neighborhoods, landmarks, and especially warm and supportive people. Belfastians get a bad wrap for the troubled history but I found everyone to be extremely friendly and supportive. Every neighborhood had tons of residents outside their houses, lining the street, and giving out water, power-aide, oranges, bananas, and candy from their own supplies to help the insane runners make it through. I’m not totally sure what people were yelling at me all the time because of the accent, but it seemed supportive.

One of the highlights for me was this path along the waterfront. It reminded me of the trails in Seattle. Again in the distance you can see the cranes. This part was a little more difficult as the tight paths meant there were no spectators cheering us on here. I had to dig in a bit and keep pushing myself to going. But I was able to find the strength and push on.

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The course ran through the bordered off Republican neighborhood around mile 8 where flags, memorial murals, gathering halls, and even gates with fenced in towers greeted us. I was initially worried about this part because of the history, but found the people here just as supportive and enthusiastic about the runners. I think running really brings people together and not only did it bring them out to cheer us on, it tore down a boundary in my mind about this area and its people.

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One of the best parts of the route and the city compared to NYC is that driving and parking are far easier. The roads are not 100% closed, so there was a little traffic to deal with, but nothing like the car dodging at the Hamptons Half Marathon last fall. When you are exhausted and every step is an effort, moving an extra foot to dodge a car is not a fun game.

This meant that my support crew of my wife, our local friends, and their awesome son Henry could park, wait a few minutes to see me, run back to the car, drive a mile or two, park, and see me again. I think I saw them more times in this one race than all the times I saw my wife in all of my runs last year together. It really helped get me through the tough miles around 18, 22, and 24. Having this awesome little dude yelling “Yay Tyler!” at each place I saw them was a huge boost for me.

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In the NYC Marathon, the weather, long wait, and first marathon nerves meant I went out a bit fast, did great for the first 15 miles, and then hit a horrible wall at mile 20. I ended up half walking, half running the rest of the way while I experienced excruciating cramps up and down nearly every muscle group in each leg. My goal for this marathon was to finish and run the whole way, just like in my training. My training had taken me up to 22 miles twice. My last run wasn’t a great one though and I had to slow down considerably at mile 18, stop at mile 20 at a gas station for a gatorade, and resume run / walking the last two after a stomach cramp and strange nausea hit me. However, I knew my body would need some rest and repair so I left two weeks for tapering and recovery before the run. My last longish run was a quick 10-miler in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with a group training for the Brooklyn Half marathon. This went very well and reminded me that running doesn’t have to be solitary with headphones blocking out the world. 

This training schedule was evidently enough as I took over 15 minutes off my NYC time and ran the entire way. I had to keep telling myself that it wasn’t supposed to be easy, it was supposed to hurt, and that if it weren’t hard, everyone would do it. The pub sightings along the last two miles helped too. The last two miles were killer because you could see the finish line and hear the finishers across the river but had to complete a lengthy loop around, however once I got to mile 23, I knew I could do another 3. I’m not sure why that was the threshold for me, but it worked.

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During the training and especially during the race, I kept telling myself this would be the last marathon for me. But now that I know I can complete one while running the whole way, I want to see how much faster I can get. I can run a half at under 9:00 miles fairly consistently now, so I want to try to apply this to a marathon. Maybe in the fall?

Stay tuned for my next post on the amazing food that helped fuel me up and recover from the run.