Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Race Report: Vienna City Marathon

Last summer, the idea first came to my mind to run the 2014 Vienna City Marathon. Originally, I was planning on running Boston again but along the way, the notion of running in my hometown grew more and more exciting. While I lived Vienna for most of my adult life, I never experienced it from the perspective of a runner, with exception of the last few winters that I've been back to visit. In fact, before coming to Baltimore for grad school in 2010 I did not run at all, save for an occasional, once-a-month interlude with my gym's treadmill that never had me coming back for more.

Choosing Vienna meant that I would miss this year's Boston Marathon, and I knew that 2014 would be a very special edition. I had run the race last year, finishing an hour before the bombs went off. And while I wasn't immediately affected, the tragedy that unfolded at the finish line and the fact that I had vastly underestimated the challenges of the course meant that my trip to Boston wasn't as memorable - at least not in a positive way - as some of my other marathon travels.

At the same time, I had very compelling reasons to run at Vienna. For one, my parents and my sister still live there, and my brother - currently in Germany - isn't too far away either. All of 2013 had gone by without me seeing them, and that's not nearly enough! Of course, I can only make the transatlantic voyage so many times, and thus the prospect of visiting my parents and running a marathon in my home town were too good to refuse. Come January, I had the plane tickets booked and the race registration to the 2014 running of the VCM in my pocket.

I landed in Austria a few days early, with plenty of time to get acclimatized. My final race day prep consisted of aggressive carbo-loading 72 and 48 hours prior to the Sunday race. On Saturday, I visited the expo at the "Messezentrum Wien" and was curious about how it would compare to expos at major US races. The trend towards fewer giveaways was apparent on this side of the Atlantic as well, and astonishingly, not even a race tee was included with the registration!

The final finish line approach.
Race morning was one of the most relaxed I can recall. After a light breakfast, my dad dropped me off at the closest metro station and 20 minutes later, I arrived at the start line. At US races, I usually try to show up 90 minutes in advance, but here at this time the place was empty! As such, I had all the time I needed to do an extensive warm-up routine, consisting of a 2 mile jog, strides, skips and hops. All the time I made sure to top-off my energy supplies with Hammer HEED, my preferred electrolyte and carbohydrate sports drink. When the time came to line-up the usual bustle among participants ensued, aggravated by a slurry of slower runners all the way up at the front, since nobody was policing corral assignments. Strangely, elite men (by invitation only) started a minute earlier then the general field and elite women. I cannot recall whether the Austrian anthem was played, but I do remember wholeheartedly missing the Star Spangled Banner, the playing of which I've come to love before a race!

Horns sounded and after a quarter mile struggle with angry runners (no doubt because of the congestion at the start line), I began to climb the gentle slope of the "Reichsbruecke", soon crossing beyond the Danube and running towards the heart of Vienna. The first major change of scenery came after a few kilometers with entry into the Prater, Vienna's equivalent of the NYC Central Park. This section, on which I would run again later in the race, proved to be one of the highlights of this race. The "Hauptalle", the main avenue through the park, is a nearly 10K flat straight surrounded by woods. It provided a calm backdrop in the second half of the race when intense focus on the task at hand became necessary.

Next, I was back on a trajectory aimed at the city center. A bit of background Vienna's layout: its central district, the "Innere Stadt", is surrounded by an avenue, the "Ring". This circular road passes alongside some of Vienna's most famous landmarks and attractions. On race day, the road is entirely closed to traffic as the race course travels along the "Ring" and finishes at the adjacent "Heldenplatz". Here, the crowds were thickest, though the forecast of rain and prevalent winds kept the turnout below average. I was on pace at 5:50-5:55 min/mi for the majority of the race, and I distinctly recall two sections facing strong headwinds in which doing so took considerable effort!

At the halfway point I ran by my dad, who handed me a fresh bottle of HEED. With fatigue setting in, the full bottled weighed my arms down heavily, and so I dropped it off at mile 20. Around this time, the course had made its way back to the "Hauptalle", and I was running at the limit of my abilities. It was good to see my friends and family cheering at the sidelines. Finally, with 2 miles left to go we were back on the "Ring", and though I kept passing competitors until the very end, I could not physically muster the surge my mind was beckoning. I held on to my goal pace, loosing less than 10s/mi over the last three miles, and was able to finish 21st male, 28th overall and with a new personal best of 2:35:40, more than 4 minutes off my previous PR at Philadelphia only a few months earlier! What's more, my name flashed across Austrian national television as the top results were broadcast! Upon analyzing the results, I noted that I finished second among the general (i.e. non-elite, non-invitational) field.

Screenshot of the live coverage of the VCM by ORF1, Austria's most popular TV network.

However, the best had yet to come! Once clearing the disappointing finish area (insufficient foods, large crowds, poor exit ways leading to backups), and after a grueling half mile trek to baggage pick-up, I located the "University Sports Institute" (USI) tent. This academic institution - part of the Austrian university system - was host to a championship titled the "Austrian Academic Championship". The latter was carried out as part of the Vienna City Marathon, and as a graduate of the Medical University of Vienna I was eligible. A few months prior, I had set myself the goal of winning this championship, and with last year's winning time in the lower 2:40s, I considered it a realistic one. After a 30 minute wait, which flew by as I feasted on the excellent buffet provided by USI, it was confirmed that I had won the championship, 2 minutes ahead of the next contender! An awards ceremony followed, and I was delighted to receive first prize from the attending dignitaries.

At the USI finisher's tent and awards ceremony.
In sum, I could not have hoped for a better performance at this race, and despite less-than-ideal conditions, was proud to achieve my longstanding goal of winning the Austrian Academic Championship and setting a new PR in the process!