The Colombo Marathon, 2011

First of all, here’s a film of the event, it’ll give you an idea of what to expect from the route.

This is the 3rd time I’ve run the Colombo Marathon. I’m not very experienced at distance running, having run most of my races at 10km level, but I’m ready to say that if there were an award for the World’s Friendliest Marathon, it would surely find it’s way very quickly to Colombo, in Sri Lanka, where every guest is genuinely welcomed as if they were the first, and every race celebrated as if it were the last.

I arrived a week before the event. The local conditions are very different that those I’m used to in Northern Europe so I like to arrive a few days early in order to acclimatise. It’s not the heat, which hovers at around 30c in October, that causes the problems for me, but rather the humidity, and perhaps one could say, the type of heat. It’s a close, weighty, wet heat, that makes itself felt as soon as you leave the airport, and is quite unlike the summer heat we have at home. I’ve discovered that for me it’s best to get used to it whilst sitting on the beach, rather than find out about it as you stand, wilting, at the marathon start line…

I flew with Sri Lankan Airlines, the only carrier to offer a direct service between London and Colombo, and upon arrival rested up a few days at the Taj Samudra Hotel in central Colombo, which afforded me a great view of the Indian Ocean and is positioned right in front of Galle Face Green, a large open space where the city folk come to relax at dusk. There are not many places in Colombo where a jogger can feel happy due to the heavy traffic but Galle Face Green at dawn is one of them. I took a couple of acclimatisation runs there at 6am, and found myself running alongside hundreds of locals, with the city on one side and the ocean waves breaking over the beach on the other. It was a great way to wake up!

I’d arranged with LSR, the company who organises the marathon, to have a car come for me at midday the day before the race, so that I might register and take my medical, which every runner has to do before they are allowed to compete. My blood pressure was high as usual, I guess it’s the heat that does it, but apart from that I was fit and ready to go. The best part of the registration was meeting up with old friends – the staff at LSR who always treat me as though I was part of their family – and also making new friends, in the shape of the other runners who would be competing. There’s something about this race that brings out the best in people, and everybody is really happy to talk and laugh before, during and after. It’s the only event I’ve ever attended where amateurs like me can socialise with elite athletes, learning as they laugh. I reckon I’ve learnt more about running from a few hours of chatting to the Kenyans I’ve met here than from any textbook or running club at home; it’s a real education…

A group of us were transported from our hotels at 5am on race day to the start line. Hundreds were already there, warming up. There looked to be more people here than last time and it was indeed so; entrants were up 30% on last year, with around 2500 runners of all ages taking part in the 4 events that were going to occur alongside each other (5km, 10km, Half and Full Marathons). There was also a marked increase in foreigners present, with nearly 100 people representing 28 countries from 5 continents.

I should say at this point that there are a few things a runner should know about this marathon. Do not expect it to be like many of the races in Europe. There are no toilets at the start line, so be prepared to go behind a tree, and also, more importantly, the feeding stations have only water. This is fine for me, I took some dates, raisens and energy gels with me, and some money just in case I wanted to buy bananas, but some people didn’t do any of this, as they expected there to be food at the stations, and consequently I was to pass them later in the race as they walked slowly to the finish line. Come prepared and you will have a great time, but expect the race to be like those at home, and you might come unstuck…

The start gun fired just after 6am. The temperature was ok at this point, about 28c. We had about an hour before the sun began to appear from behind early clouds, so I kept up a steady pace, not too fast as to tire myself but fast enough to get some miles under my belt before the heat really began to hit us. There was a great atmosphere as we ran. Hundreds of kids, all signed up to do the 5km, wove barefoot between the older, slower distance runners, carrrying balloons at first, and always ready with a smile and energetic wave.

The route was mostly flat, and for the first 9km we followed the main road, with heavy traffic around us. There were plenty of marshals to help direct us and let bystanders know what was going on, and when we got to major junctions the local Police were on hand to halt traffic and let us through, so although it was noisy with buses and tuk tuks overtaking us, it was never dangerous.

Look at the teenagers faces in the photo above. Mostly full of joy and smiles, right? What a nice change that is to the too-cool-to-smile teenagers that I’m used to here in England. Or course, people are pretty much the same the world over, it’s just that people in Sri Lanka have ‘being nice’ as their default setting, which is a little different to the sullen default setting of the majority of people in my own country…

Every 5km there was a water station, and every 2.5km inbetween there was a sponge station, where we could pick up a cold wet sponge to wipe off sweat and cool overheated necks. This might seem very basic to some, but for me it is more than enough. Science has proved that Western-style sports drinks offer very little advantage, if any, over water, and half a litre of water every half hour is just about all I can stomach.

After the 10km race had ended the road veered right and began to follow a very pretty canal. Palm trees flanked the side of the water, which was full of bright fishing boats and rural scenes.

At the registration event, the day before, I had met a jolly Indian guy, and at about the 17km mark I came across him again. He was in a little pain thanks to a problem with his right foot, but was eager to show me his handstand flip. It was a great effort; I definately couldn’t do such a thing!

There were about 190 runners competing in the full marathon, and the field was very strung out. But not as much as last year. I never once found myself on my own on the road, there was always other runners either in front of behind me. We left the canal after about 18km and headed towards the Half Marathon finish line, after which a stretch of unspoilt beach came into view. It was very hot by now (it was about 8.30am and my watch told me it was 33c) so the sea breeze was incredibly welcome!

Every single person that I passed gave a smile, a wave or a few kind words. It’s great to experience such positive human contact in any situation, but when you are tired and hot and just wanting to go back to your hotel for a cold shower and a rest, then the kindness is even more welcome than usual.

I passed a few runners who were walking, one local guy had collapsed due to the heat, but I kept on plodding away. Slowly slowly, drinking lots even when I didn’t feel thirsty, eating dates even though I didn’t feel hungry.

The traffic was very light all the way, until we entered Negombo town centre with about 3km to go. The market was busy there, and the road threw up heat. A motorbike rider, working for LSR, rode very slowly in front of me alerting the traffic to take care, for the last few kms. I was really thankful for this, as I was getting too tired at this point to watch out for myself.

That last few kms was a real struggle for me, but eventually I turned a corner and there was the finish line, with the beach and sea behind it. I collapsed under a palm tree, glugged as much water as I could, and lay in the sand. Some kind soul handed me a bag of fresh pineapple which made recover extra quickly, what a star! Within 20 minutes I felt great again, and could walk around, and enjoy the atmosphere and greet old and new friends alike. I had finished in 4 hours and 34 minutes, which is slower than my best marathon time (3.54) but half an hour faster than my time here last year, so I was very happy with that.

Kitumai Kenedy, a Kenyan lad whom I met last year when he won this race, came second this time round. He’s a friendly young guy, and always ready with a smile. He finished in about 2 hours 28 minutes, which was way off his personal best time, but he said the race had started slowly and it was also much hotter than last year, which had made for a slower time.

There was an awards ceremony, when every foreign runner received a silver square medal, a certificate and a t-shirt, and then the live band began, as did the dancing, both in front of the stage and on the beach. I was a little too tired to dance, but I enjoyed everybody else’s efforts!

What a fantastic day it had been. A tough, challenging race, among genuinely friendly people and very interesting roadside scenery, ending with a fun party on a white sand beach.

A few tips for if you are taking part in the Colombo Sri Lankan Marathon next year;

1/ Arrive several days before the race, to acclimatise, and to enjoy the island! It’s a wonderful place to explore, and you’ll perform better if you’re used to the heat. And then you’ll finish the race sooner. Which means you don’t have to be out on the road for as long, which means that you won’t get as hot…

2/ Don’t forget there are no toilets at the start line. Plan accordingly.

3/ Take your own gels, or dates, as I did, as the Aid Stations carry only water.

4/ Wear a hat if you expect to finish in more than 3 hours. It’s gets very hot after about 8am. And wear good running sunglasses as well.

5/ Drink often, even when you don’t feel thirsty.

The Colombo Marathon never lets me down, it’s always a unique, ultra friendly event. As I said at the beginning of this report there’ll be more coming from me about Sri Lanka on this website soon – there’s lots to write, it’s a fantastic country with so many opportunities for outdoor activities – but for now I’ll finish by saying that I sincerely hope that I’ll return somebody, as soon as it’s possible, to take part in this great event once again. And when I do, I really hope to see you there alongside me.

To find out more about the Sri Lankan Marathon, and how to enter the race, go to www.srilankamarathon.org

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