On October 18, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Lisbon Marathon in Lisbon, Portugal. When I planned my race schedule, I originally left this weekend open, with the thought that I might run the Amsterdam Marathon. When I priced flights to Amsterdam, they were a bit expensive. Then I noticed that there was a marathon in Lisbon on the same day, and the airfare was much more affordable.
In one of those quirks of airline pricing, I discovered it was less expensive to fly to Lisbon, even if I flew there by way of Amsterdam. I could actually take the same flights to and from Amsterdam, but save $400.00 by adding flight segments between Amsterdam and Lisbon. For roughly the same airfare, I could also make connections in Paris. That gave me a more comfortable connection on my outbound leg.
I’ve wanted to visit Portugal, but I had never seriously considered this race before. I’ve done several Rock ‘n’ Roll races in the U.S., and I was worried this race wouldn’t have as much of an international flavor. I put that concern aside after discovering that hotel rates in Lisbon were roughly half as much as hotels in Amsterdam. It was still an opportunity to see Portugal, and most of the other runners would be from Europe.
I left Wednesday night on an overnight flight to Paris. After a long layover in Paris, I left for Lisbon Thursday afternoon.
When I arrived in Lisbon, I bought a Lisboa Card at the tourist office in the airport. This card gave me unlimited access to all public transportation in Lisbon, plus free or discounted admission to many of the attractions. There’s a subway station in the airport terminal, so I was able to take a train to my hotel.
I stayed at Hotel Olissippo Oriente. This was one of the hotels with a discounted rate for the marathon. It was outside the city center, but it was within walking distance of the expo and the finish line. It was also close to a train station. I’ve come to expect a few differences between European hotels and American hotels, but this one had some features I had never seen. To summon an elevator, you punch in the floor. When the elevator arrives, it’s already programmed to take you to your floor, so there are no floor buttons inside the elevator. The hallways lights are also unusual. They’re activated by motion sensors, so the hallways don’t light up until you walk into them.
After checking in, I walked over to the expo at the Atlantic Pavilion of Parque das Nações (Park of the Nations). By picking up my race packet on Thursday, I kept the next two days open for sightseeing. The streets and sidewalks around the pavilion were cobblestone. They were slightly uncomfortable for walking, so I was glad I didn’t have to run on them. I momentarily forgot the race was going to finish there. After the expo, I saw barricades where they were setting up the finish area. I was indeed going to run on those cobblestones.
There are cable cars that run along the waterfront. After dropping off my race packet at the hotel, I rode a cable car to get views of Parque das Nações from the air.
At the north end is Torre Vasco da Gama. This sail-shaped tower is Lisbon’s tallest building. Just beyond it, I could see the Vasco da Gama Bridge.
After riding the cable car one way, I started walking back. On the way, I saw a restaurant with Portuguese and Italian cuisine. I noticed they had a Portuguese pizza. I’m used to eating at 6:00 and sometimes earlier. In Lisbon, dinners tend to be on the late side. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7:00 or later. I asked when they opened for dinner and they said 7:00. It was only 6:20, so I started walking away. I was planning to stroll through the nearby gardens and come back at 7:00. Then the server motioned me to come in. Apparently dinner hours were flexible. Portuguese pizza includes onions, peppers, and some type of sausage, which I had never tried. I think it was the sausage that made it Portuguese.
After dinner, it was getting dark, so I saw how the neighborhood gets lit up at night. This is the Oriente train station.
Although I was exhausted, I still had trouble getting to sleep because of the time difference. I eventually got to sleep around midnight. Then I slept late Friday morning.
Friday was a nice day, but there was rain in the forecast for Saturday, so I did most of my outdoor sightseeing on Friday. After eating breakfast at the hotel, I took a bus to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. This is a 16th century monastery, which has a distinctive Portuguese architectural style.
From there, I was able to walk to Torre de Belém. This is a defensive tower built in 1514, which used to guard the approach to Lisbon.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Torre de Belém are both on the west side of Lisbon. To get back into the city, I took a train to Cais do Sodré. This is the same train station where I would later need to catch a train to get to the start of the marathon. It was nice to see the train station ahead of time. From there, I took the subway to Rossio Square.
From Rossio, I began a self-guided walking tour of central Lisbon. I started with a stroll through the Baixa neighborhood, which has narrow streets with shops, restaurants and street vendors.
Next, I worked my way up the hill to Castelo de São Jorge. This Moorish castle was built on the site of the earliest settlement in Lisbon.
While touring the castle grounds, I was able to sip on a glass of port. They serve it in an unbreakable glass, which you can keep as a souvenir.
Since the castle is on a hilltop, it’s the best place to get views of all the surrounding neighborhoods.
From the castle, it was a short walk to Sé Catedral, Lisbon’s cathedral, which was built after the city was captured from the Moors in 1147.
After that, I strolled through the Alfama neighborhood, where I saw some colorful architecture. Many of these buildings are decorated with tile. Tile is an art form in Portugal, and you see it throughout the city.
I still had some time before dinner, so I visited the National Tile Museum to learn more. Unfortunately, they don’t allow pictures. I saw tile with intricate patterns, 3D textures and hand-painted designs. There were several large murals, including one that depicted the entire city. It was detailed enough that I could recognize all the landmarks I had seen earlier in the day.
There’s no shortage of restaurants in Parque das Nações, but most of them didn’t open for dinner until 7:30. One of the restaurants that was open early was an Irish pub. That seemed appropriate since I was wearing my Dublin Marathon shirt.
Friday night I had an easier time sleeping. I was still behind on sleep, so I allowed myself to sleep in. I knew I’d have to get up early the next two days, to I took the extra sleep while I could get it.
Saturday’s forecast included a thunderstorm with up to two inches of rain. That dictated the type of sightseeing I could do. I didn’t want to get caught outside in a storm, so I stuck to indoor attractions. I started with Oceanário de Lisboa, which was only a few blocks from my hotel. The rain started as I was walking there, and I noticed how slippery the cobblestones get when they’re wet.
Oceanário de Lisboa is the world’s second largest aquarium. It has sections representing the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic Oceans. They’re connected by a large central aquarium.
By the time I left the museum, the sun was out, but my legs were tired. Even though I was indoors, I was still on my feet all day. I called it a day and took a train back to the hotel, so I could relax and get organized for the race.
I had dinner at a steak house that was open early. I ordered something they referred to as a Portuguese style hamburger, which came with fried potatoes. There was no bun. The beef patty was buried under the potatoes. It was served in a sauce with garlic, vinegar and bay leaves.
I went to bed early that night, knowing I would have to get up early to leave for the race. I had no trouble getting to sleep, but woke up an hour later and struggled to get back to sleep. Pre-race nerves got the best of me, and I only got two hours of sleep that night.
The marathon course was point-to-point. It started in the coastal city of Cascais and finished at Parque das Nações. To get to Cascais, I had to take a train, but the closest place to board a train to Cascais was Cais do Sodré in central Lisbon. That’s about six miles from my hotel. I couldn’t get there by Metro, because the trains weren’t running that early on a Sunday morning. Instead, I took a cab to Cais do Sodré.
I left the hotel before their breakfast service started, but I had time to get a light breakfast at a small café in the train station. It was an opportunity to try Pastéis de Nata, a small custard tart that’s common in Lisbon.
Cais do Sodré is the beginning of the line, so we were able to board about 15 minutes before the train left. It’s a 45 minute ride, so I was on the train for about an hour. I relaxed and closed my eyes. If it wasn’t for people talking, I probably would have fallen asleep on the train.
I didn’t know how to get to the start from the train station in Cascais, but I didn’t need to. I just followed the other runners. It was a surprisingly long walk. I noticed the streets and sidewalks were all cobblestones, just like near my hotel. I worried that we would be running on cobblestones for the whole race. It rained during the night, and it had been raining off and on since I got up. The streets were wet, and the cobblestones were slippery. Running on them would be interesting.
When we got to the start area, I saw that we’d be starting on a street with nice smooth pavement. I didn’t know how much of the course would be cobblestone, but I was happy to see we’d have good footing as we got started.
After a bathroom stop, I started looking around for people I knew. There were a few other Marathon Globetrotters, and there were also a few Marathon Maniacs. I met May and Emmitt, two runners from the UK.
The forecast called for showers and a heavy thunderstorm. According to the hourly forecast, the thunderstorm was supposed to arrive around 10:00. Since it wasn’t likely to rain for the whole race, I was reluctant to wear my rain poncho. Once you put it on, it’s tough to take it off and carry it with you. Instead, I wore clothes that would keep me warm enough during periods of intermittent rain. I wore tights, arm warmers and gloves. I also wore my Marathon Globetrotters singlet. Portugal was my 20th country, so I had a new badge on the back of my singlet.
About 30 minutes before the start, I removed my warm-ups and dropped off my gear bag. No sooner did I check my bag than it started raining. It was only a light rain, and it only lasted a few minutes. By the time the race started, it was dry again.
I started the race with May and Emmitt, who expected to finish somewhere in the 5:00 to 5:30 range. I didn’t have a time goal for the race. I just wanted to finish. The time limit was six hours, but I didn’t want to cut it too close. 5:30 sounded safer.
We started slow, but after about a kilometer, we sped up. I was following Emmitt’s pacemaking. I wasn’t checking my splits, but the pace seemed fast to me. I had to work to keep up.
In the early kilometers, we encountered a couple patches of cobblestones. Those proved to be the exception. Most of the course was paved. As we left Cascais, we followed the coast. For most of the race, we had nice views of the ocean.
Within a few kilometers, the sun came out, and I got hot. The temperature was in the low 60s. I wasn’t dressed for sunshine. I was dressed for rain. I quickly realized I was going to overheat if it didn’t rain.
Although we were running along the coast, the terrain in the early miles was gently rolling hills. On one hill, Emmitt noticed May was falling behind, so he waited for her. I slowed down and assumed they would both catch up to me.
At 5K, I reached an aid station. Like other European races, they handed out water in half liter bottles. Not knowing how far apart the aid stations would be, I slowed to a walk and drank an entire bottle. Then I turned around to look for May and Emmitt. I never saw them. Either they fell way behind or they passed me without my noticing. I ran the rest of the race on my own, but let my pace gradually moderate.
Most of the aid stations only had water, but every 10K they had Powerade, and a few aid stations had gels. I took in calories wherever I could get them.
There was a nice breeze off the coast. I often saw waves crashing on the beaches. The cooling effect of the wind was the only thing keeping me from overheating badly.
At 14K, I saw a suspension bridge in the distance. Looking to my right I could see the opposite side of the channel for the first time. I eventually realized this bridge was one I saw during my sightseeing in Lisbon. It was still far off in the distance, but it was a visible sign we making progress toward Lisbon. Over the next several kilometers, I watched the bridge in the distance. It didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
Although I think of the “Rock N Roll” races as an American brand, this was definitely an international race. The majority of the runners were Portuguese, but I saw runners from several other countries. There was a large contingent of Brazilian runners. I also saw several runners from Italy, Belgium and Canada.
At 18K, we briefly left the road for a sidewalk that was close to the water’s edge. On our right, there were large rocks. On our left were train tracks. These are the same tracks used by the train I took to get to Cascais. Along this section of the course there were dozens of young men and women holding flags from different countries.
At 20K, we turned to run under the tracks. We briefly had the wind at our backs, and I immediately felt hot. Fortunately, it was only for a few blocks. Then we had the cooling cross wind again.
Because I was overdressed, I was drinking aggressively. I started to feel slightly overhydrated. Shortly after 20K, I had to make a bathroom stop. When I resumed running, my legs felt stiff. I worked hard to get back into my previous pace. I tried to force myself to keep up with the runners around me. For a while, I could do it. Eventually, I started to fall behind.
I reached the halfway mark in 2:25:44. That was considerably slower than the halfway split in my previous two races. I suspected I would also be slower in the second half. I was already struggling. That raised the prospect that I might be slower than 5:30. Most of my remaining races have time limits of six hours or more, but one has a time limit of 5:30. If I couldn’t break 5:30 today, it would be a cause for concern.
When I run a course that’s marked in miles, I start counting down the remaining miles as soon as I reach 14. As I reached 22K, having 20K to go still didn’t sound encouraging.
I spectator yelled, “You’re almost there.” In English no less. One of my pet peeves is people saying you’re almost there when you still have a long way to go. I was past halfway, but I would still be running for at least two and a half hours.
Since noticing the bridge in the distance, I started looking for other landmarks I could recognize. At 24K, I saw the top of Torre de Belém over the treetops to my right. A short time later, I could see Mosteiro dos Jerónimos on my left. I also noticed that the bridge was definitely getting closer.
It was getting cloudy, and the wind was picking up. It still didn’t seem like rain was imminent. According to the hourly forecast, there was supposed to be a 100% chance of rain by 10:00. It was now after 11:00. “100% chance of rain” must mean something different in Portugal than it does where I live. I wasn’t complaining. With cloud cover and more wind, I no longer felt so hot.
At 27K, we finally passed under the bridge. The roadway was several stories above us. After I passed the bridge, I saw the huge hill in central Lisbon. There were several rows of buildings climbing the hillside. At the top, I could barely make out the walls of the castle.
Unlike the bridge, the hill was clearly getting closer. Within another kilometer, it disappeared behind some tall building to my left.
At 30K, I saw a building on my right that looked familiar. I was almost past it when I realized it was the Cais do Sodré train station. The remaining distance seemed much more manageable now.
For most of the race, I wasn’t looking at my watch. With 12K to go, I needed to average nine minutes per kilometer to break 5:30. I started checking my pace at every kilometer marker. My next kilometer took just under eight minutes. I gradually slowed down, but the next several were still under nine minutes.
It wasn’t all good news. After passing Cais do Sodré, we started running on cobblestones. It was uncomfortable, but at least they were mostly dry.
At 31K, we made a sharp left turn. We were no longer following the coast. Now we ran straight into the heart of Lisbon. What started as a scenic run along the coast now included a tour of central Lisbon. We got good crowd support here. I’m not sure how many were spectators and how many were tourists, but they all cheered for us.
I didn’t realize at first where we were. Then we ran past Rossio Square, and I realized we had been running through the Baixa district. After Rossio Square, we turned around. Above the buildings, I could see the top of the hill. I could see some of the towers of Castelo de São Jorge. Thankfully, we didn’t have to climb that huge hill. We ran back through Baixa to return to the coast.
At 35K, there was an aid station with gels and Powerade. I slowed to a walk while eating a gel and noticed my shoes were sticking to the pavement. It was sticky from all the gels and Powerade spilled by other runners. Trying to walk through the sticky section took something out of me. As I resumed running, I felt sluggish.
Next we left the road to run on a sidewalk that took us past a huge storage facility for cargo containers. This was the only part of the course that was unattractive, but it was brief. When we returned to the road, we had smooth pavement again.
I started to feel raindrops. I didn’t know if it would be a light rain or turn into a downpour. We were long overdue for a thunderstorm. I only had 7K to go, but it would take me the better part of an hour. Thankfully, the rain remained light and only lasted for a few minutes.
By now, we were seeing signs for both the marathon and half marathon. I forgot to check my watch at 37K, but 100 meters later I reached the 16K sign for the half marathon. My time over the previous 1.1K was slower than 10 minutes. I was no longer keeping up the pace, and I felt like I would keep getting slower. I made the decision to start walking. I wasn’t giving up on 5:30. I just thought I could walk as fast as I was currently running.
Ever since injuring my left leg in June, I’ve found the transition from running to walking to be painful. This time it wasn’t. I comfortably switched to a power walk and did my best to keep up the pace. With 5.1K to go, I had just over 52 minutes left to break 5:30. I needed to average 10 minutes per kilometer. Could I do that walking?
I reached 38K, but waited for the corresponding 17K sign to check my watch. I walked that kilometer in 9:06. That put a smile on my face. Not only was I going fast enough to break 5:30, but I was walking faster than I had previously been running. I walked the rest of the race. I slowed a little at times, but not much.
At 39K, I started to encounter brief sections of cobblestones. They were a little bit uncomfortable, but not as bad as when I was running.
At 40K, I started to recognize some of the buildings of Parque das Nações. To my right, I could see the top of Oceanário de Lisboa. I realized the straight line distance to the finish was much shorter than our remaining two kilometers. We took a circuitous route.
After turning at a roundabout, we went up a hill. Then we ran past my hotel and between the Vasco da Gama Mall and the Oriente train station. Finally, we turned right and ran down another hill. I was tempted to run down the hill, but I kept walking. I wanted to see how fast I could finish by power walking the last 5.1K.
We made one more sharp turn. Now we were on the cobblestone street that I knew we would encounter near the finish. It was the most uncomfortable part of the course, but I could see the finish. Now I really was “almost there.”
As I got close enough to see the clock, I could see that I would easily break 5:30. Even my “gun time” would be under 5:30. I crossed the line with a chip time of 5:24:08. As recently as six months ago, I still considered 3:30 to be the dividing line between a good race and a disappointing race. Now I'm overjoyed to break 5:30.
After finishing, I was handed a tote bag filled with post-race food. It was heavy, because it included a bottle of water and a bottle of Powerade. There was one extra snack that we received separately. The ice cream bars had to be kept in freezers.
I had to ask for directions to find the gear bag trucks. That turned out to be more complicated than I thought. I was asking other runners who already had their bags, but most of them didn’t speak English.
On my way to the bags I bumped into Pierre and Dani, two fellow Marathon Globetrotters. On my way back, I saw May and Emmitt. They went through a bad patch in the first half of the race, but had a strong finish. They ended up finishing about a minute behind me. I could never have matched their pace in the late miles, so it’s just as well that we got separated.
I usually celebrate a race by having pizza for dinner. My choice of restaurants, however, was limited. I could barely walk, so I wanted to stay close to the hotel. Also, I wanted to eat an early dinner, and most of the restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 7:30. That ruled out all the nearby pizza places. I ended up going to Hippopotamus Grill, where I had a burger, fries, and ratatouille. I noticed on my way to dinner that the streets were wet. The rain eventually came, but it held off until after the race.
It’s distressing that I now have to fight to break 5:30. I handicapped myself by starting too fast again. I also handicapped myself by dressing too warm. That was a calculated risk. I’d still rather be too warm than too cold. On the bright side, it’s reassuring to know that I no longer have difficulty switching from running to walking. In my next race, I’ll probably experiment with a run/walk strategy.
Flying home from Europe is difficult if you have to make connections. I couldn’t get a workable connection flying home through Paris. To make connections in Amsterdam, I had to take a 5:00 AM flight out of Amsterdam. That meant leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM. That meant getting up at 1:30 AM. Thankfully, I was able to get to sleep early, and I slept well until my alarm went off. I started my day with a three hour flight to Amsterdam and a four hour layover. By the time I went to the gate for my overseas flight, I had already been up for 10 hours. Then my day suddenly got easier.
When I arrived at my gate, there was a message on the status board. There was a long list of passengers who needed to check in at the desk. My name was on the list. When I went to the desk, the gate agent told me they probably just needed to see my passport. Having already been through Amsterdam’s lengthy document check, I knew that couldn’t be the case. Then she came back with a new boarding pass. I was upgraded to first class. I often get upgrades on domestic flights, but overseas flights aren’t “upgrade eligible.” They only do automatic upgrades if the economy cabin is overbooked. Two people got lucky. I got an upgrade, and somebody who was on the standby list got my seat in the economy cabin. The best part: the wine list for the first class cabin included a port wine. During my stay in Lisbon, I developed a taste for a glass of port after dinner. I got one last taste of Portugal on my flight home.