Race Report: Leslie Sexton at the 2019 Prague Marathon

On May 5th I raced the Volkswagen Prague Marathon, finishing 8th in a personal best of 2:31:51. If you want to read a bit about my training leading up to this race, check out my “How They Train” feature, where I posted five weeks of my training and then my coach and I answered questions about it on the community forum. Overall the training block went well and Steve and I thought I was definitely in shape to run a personal best (my PB still stood at 2:33:23 from the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2015). I had been in similar shape in previous marathon builds over the past few years, but the reality of the marathon is that a lot has to come together on race day to make a fast time happen. I needed a fast course, favourable weather, and of course I had to be physically and mentally on leading up to and during a two-and-a-half hour race.

On April 28th I left for Prague early to give myself enough time to recover after an overseas flight and a six hour time difference. I chose the Prague Marathon as my goal race for the spring for a few reasons. The course, the competition, and the expected weather on race day all figured into this. I also wanted a race around the end of April or early May to give myself enough time training in better weather in southwestern Ontario that I could get some specific pace sessions in and feel confident in my fitness heading into the race. I looked into Prague, Hamburg, and London. Prague offered me an elite entry plus three nights accommodations, Hamburg didn’t get back to me, and London (which I knew was a long shot) offered me a free bib, but not in the elite field. So Prague it was. As a Canadian with a 2:33 personal best going in (and 2:35 and 2:36 as my more recent times), I had to take what I could get. Prague as a trip was ideal; I studied history in university and I like beer. Prague and the Czech Republic have a very interesting history, and the Czech people drink the most beer per capita in the world. So Prague ended up being a pretty great choice.

I arrived in Prague the next morning, feeling pretty rough from only getting two or three hours of sleep the previous night on the flight. For my early stay I chose a spot outside the city, only a minute’s run away from Ladronka Park. The park was a great running spot; it had a 4.2k paved loop with kilometer markers with a gravel path running beside it that was nice for easy runs. I enjoyed a quiet stay there (other than on April 30th, when Ladronka Park hosts one of the biggest Witches’ Night events in the country) until Friday. It took me a while to get my body feeling like I was in the right time zone; the first few mornings I felt like I was dragging myself out of bed, exhausted. But gradually the mornings got easier and my legs felt better. On Friday I made my way to the city center and checked in to the Hilton Prague where the elite runners were staying.

Saturday was spent either trying to relax or dealing with the usual pre-race logistics. I filled up my bottles with GU Roctane drink and attached gels (I planned on taking three Endurance Taps, but I attached a few extras in case I missed any bottles). At the technical meeting I found out that the official pacers weren’t going to be very helpful to me. The two closest groups were either sub-2:29 pace or 2:35. Steve and I figured I was in 2:31-2:32 shape, so the faster group was too fast and the slower group was too slow. We had a good talk and established a range of halfway splits that would be reasonable. If the opportunity to go with a group of sub-elite men presented itself, I would tuck in with them as long as they were running within that pace range. But we were also prepared for the possibility that I would have to go at it alone. Two weeks earlier I had done 28k at marathon pace as a workout (in a solo effort), so we were confident that I could get that far on my own feeling pretty good.

I had an ok sleep, waking up on race morning at 4:45am before my alarm went off. I ate breakfast and had a quick chat with Steve (who was still in Ontario, but stayed up late so that he was there if I needed him because he’s awesome), then it was time to board the bus. The marathon starts in Old Town Square, which is beautiful, but also covered in cobblestones. I warmed up with a 12-minute jog, changed my shoes, took a gel, then lined up for the start. Weather conditions overall were pretty good. Temperatures started in the mid-single digits any only climbed to about 10 degrees or so. There was a bit of wind, but I wasn’t overly worried because the course looked decently sheltered and there were enough turns that there wouldn’t be any long stretch into a headwind.

At 9am the gun went off and the race got underway. Right away I could see the 2:29 pace group forming ahead of me, but I let them go and settled into to my pace. Early on I had a bit of company from some guys in the relay, but with exchanges every 4k and mixed-gender teams their pacing was going to be very erratic. Over the first 5k I could see one or two men with ahead of me, but each of us were running alone. I realized very quickly that this race was going to be a solo effort, but I knew I was prepared for that possibility.

The marathon can be a long grind and one’s mental game is important. I had told Steve the night before that I wanted to race hard, but also stay positive and enjoy the event as much as I could. This was not only because I genuinely love the marathon and running long distances; there was also a practical, performance-based benefit to this. By staying positive, I could potentially run my goal pace at a lower perceived effort, ward off any negative thoughts, and keep myself focused during a long race. So I practiced a bit of what I call “forced positivity.” If there was a kid spectating on the course with their hand out, I gave them a five-five. I fed off the energy of the crowds, and when someone called out my name I appreciated their support (seriously, whoever came up with the idea of putting names on bib is the real hero, I love it when random strangers call my name out there!) I thought about being strong, yet relaxed. I reminded myself of all the workouts I had done on my own leading up to this. If I thought about how I was running on my own, I told myself: “yeah, you’re gonna run a PB completely solo because you’re that badass!” I thought about the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman. I thought about all of my family and friends and how I wanted to make them proud and make the most of this opportunity. And I appreciated how lucky I was to get to race through the streets of Prague. I love the marathon and getting to run in an amazing city was the icing on the cake.

Official 5k splits with some quick comments:
5k – 17:58  It took a few kilometers to find the pace here so my first couple kilometers might have been a bit erratic. I settled in at the right effort and pace eventually.

10k – 35:51 (17:53 5k) This was a nice easy stretch where I just cruised and got my nutrition in.

15k – 53:59 (18:08 5k) Around 12 or 13k we ran back through Old Town Square where the start/finish is. There was a good stretch where we ran on some rougher cobblestones, so I tried to run as smoothly as possible and keep up the same effort, knowing I would slow down slightly here (and hoping the footing wouldn’t beat up my legs too much).

20k – 1:12:18 (18:19 5k) My sense of effort was climbing here and I was reluctant to press too hard this early in the race. I was maybe running into a headwind for a few kilometers, but it was never too strong or too long of a stretch in one direction, so I can’t make any excuses here.

25k – 1:13:17 (17:59 5k) After splitting halfway in over 1:16-flat I wanted to bring the pace back closer to 18 minutes per 5k. Getting into the second half of the race meant that mentally I was willing to push harder and handle a higher sense of effort. This, plus the fact that I could see I was gaining on a woman and a man ahead of me got me rolling a bit faster. I saw that the woman’s bib number was F7, so it gave me a nice boost to have passed someone seeded ahead of me (I was F12).

30k – 1:48:29 (18:12 5k) – We had our longest stretch going north into the wind here and I still wanted to feel like I was holding back before 30k, so again I lost some time. I focused on the positives: I was feeling good and I had taken in all of my nutrition thus far (taking my final gel between 27 and 28k meant that I had one less marathon-logistic thing to worry about). I also counted the women ahead of me on the out and back and learned I was in 10th (the prize money goes ten deep). Most of the other nine women were way ahead, but the 2:29 pack had shattered and I stood a chance of moving up if someone from that group was hurting late in the race.

35k – 2:06:24 (17:55 5k) Once I passed 30k, the gloves came off (figuratively speaking, I actually threw my gloves away at 4k, I probably could have started without them). The fatigue was mounting and I could feel both calf muscles getting progressively tighter, but I was able to make a noticeable change of pace and I still felt like I was moving well. When I hit the lap button on my watch I was happy to see that I had gone under 18. I didn’t see my exact 30k cumulative time while I was running, but I knew I was around 1:48:30. Goal pace would have been to split 30k in under 1:48-flat, but if I could chip another 5 seconds away in the next 5k I knew it would get me closer to 2:32-low instead of 2:32-mid. So I was thinking a lot about numbers at the time, but it all made sense in my head and I always tried to frame it as something positive (so I wasn’t 30s slow, I got to see how much of that 30s I could chip away in the final 12.2k.)

40k – 2:24:08 (17:44 5k) I was going as hard as I could at this point and my calves were tired and beat up as hell so honestly the pace surprised me here. I caught a glimpse of Diane Nukuri ahead of me and pushed to pass her. Shortly after that I saw another woman at the side of the road so I knew I had moved up into 8th place.

Finish – 2:31:51 (7:43 2.2k) The last 2.2k of a marathon sucks no matter what, so I just told myself to hold it together to hang on to that PB. The last kilometer of the Prague Marathon is on the cobblestones again, so staying on my feet was a bit of a challenge. At that point in the race I don’t care about my legs getting beat up, they felt terrible and the only way to make it stop was to get to the finish line as fast as possible. I caught a small group of men here, though I didn’t pass all of them. I ran hard through the line while doing my best to enjoy what I knew was going to be a sub-2:32. 
First half 1:16:09, Second half 1:15:42

In retrospect I think I should have pushed the pace a bit more on some of those 5k stretches between 10 and 30k to keep the splits under 18 minutes. This race was by far the best I have ever felt at 30k, and that 35-40k split probably shows I left slightly too much in the tank! Of course it is easy to say that now, knowing that I felt strong and ran my fastest splits in the final 12k. It’s a long race and I only do it once or twice a year. With each marathon I gain knowledge and experience, particularly in terms of how my body should feel and where my effort level should be at different stages of the race. On this occasion, knowing I would be on my own for most of the race, I didn’t want to push so hard (especially before halfway) that I risked redlining too early and blowing up. If you’ve been there before, you know how much it sucks and how bad that last 10k can be. But going forward I can take away the lesson that I need to keep those middle kilometers more honest. Overall I was very happy with my race execution on the day and how I handled the race from a mental standpoint.

If you ever get a chance to run the Prague Marathon, do it because it’s an awesome experience. The course does a great job of showing off the city while being fast and flat. The only inclines were bridges (nothing steep or long) and while it seemed as if there were quite a few turns, these kept the course interesting and didn’t slow the course down. I’ve heard the estimate that about 4k of the course is on cobblestones and that seems about right. They slowed me down somewhat and my calf muscles were pretty beat up after the race, but it overall I think it was only a minor negative to the course. It’s a course with a lot of history and character (much like Prague itself), and getting to run through the usually tourist-crowded areas like Old Town and the Charles Bridge was a cool experience, even if it required negotiating the cobblestones. Thanks to the folks at Run Czech for putting on an amazing event, as well as Jana and the rest of the elite athlete crew for having me!

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