This past week, Deb and I went on a trip to the Netherlands, and I did the Amsterdam Marathon. Our last international trip together was to Norway in 2013. On our way home from that trip, we had an overnight stopover in Amsterdam. We had half a day for sightseeing and spent the night in a boutique hotel near the city center. That was enough to whet our appetites, but we both wanted to come back. Deb especially liked the canals, which reminded her of Venice.
Thursday, October 12
We were able to get a non-stop flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam. It was an overnight flight, which arrived Thursday morning.
We stayed at the Amsterdam Hilton. For those of you who are Beatles fans, that’s the same hotel where John Lennon and Yoko spent their honeymoon and had their “bed-in for peace” in 1969. When I made the reservation, the “John and Yoko Suite” was available, but it was a bit out of our price range. It’s about €1,200 per night! While we didn’t stay in the John and Yoko Suite, we did get a room with a canal view.
After checking in at the Hilton, we walked to a neighborhood between the western canals called Nine Streets. Along the way, we walked through the museum quarter and the southern canals. We got lots of canal views.
Amsterdam is a bike friendly city. Most of the streets and sidewalks have bike lanes. We quickly discovered that you have to be more careful crossing bike lanes than you do crossing the streets. In most places, the bicycle traffic outnumbers the automobile traffic. Throughout the city, we saw bikes parked everywhere.
Deb was a little disappointed with the shops in Nine Streets, but we found some interesting shops in another neighborhood as we walked back to the hotel.
We didn’t have any lunch, so when we got back to the hotel, we were hungry for an early dinner. That’s when we realized that the Hilton was well-located for the marathon, but not so much for dining. There weren’t many restaurants close to the hotel, and the hotel’s restaurant wasn’t open for dinner yet. We eventually found a pizzeria about half a mile from the hotel.
We managed to stay awake until nightfall, but then we went to sleep immediately.
Friday, October 13
The expo was held at a Sporthallen Zuid, which was near the Olympic Stadium. I walked over there as soon as it opened. On the way, I got my first glimpse of the stadium, where the marathon would start and finish.
At the hotel, we were able to buy two I Amsterdam cards. These gave us unlimited use of public transportation for 48 hours. They also gave us free or discounted entry to dozens of museums.
Our first stop was the Van Gogh Museum. Our I Amsterdam cards gave us free admission.
After the Van Gogh Museum, we walked over to a pancake restaurant called The Carousel. There was a small carousel inside the restaurant.
No visit to Amsterdam is complete without having Dutch pancakes. Mine had Nutella and bananas. Deb’s had pineapple.
After lunch, we took a tram to the western canal neighborhood to visit the Amsterdam Tulip Museum. Amsterdam has more than 50 museums. The cheese museum wouldn’t necessarily have been at the top of our list, but it happened to be two doors down from the tulip museum, so we went there next.
We were in a neighborhood that we had visited four years ago, so some of the shops looked familiar. For dinner, we were originally planning to go to another pancake restaurant called The Happy Pig. They close at 6:00, and we were still shopping, so we couldn’t get there in time. Instead, we took the tram back to The Carousel. This time, instead of sweet pancakes, we had savory pancakes. Deb’s had bacon and cheese. Mine had bacon, apples, and butter.
After we got back to the hotel, I walked over to the stadium and back. It was about a mile in each direction, and I already knew the way, so this became my daily walking route.
Saturday, October 14
After my morning walk to and from the stadium, we went to the Rijksmuseum. This is Amsterdam’s finest arm museum, with works from the 12th century through the 20th century.
After the Rijksmuseum, we took a one hour city canal cruise. The cruise was free with our I Amsterdam cards.
After the canal cruise, we took a tram into the city center, so we could have lunch at The Happy Pig. Then we explored the city center.
Finally, we went to the Albert marketplace in a neighborhood called the De Pijp.
The market was several blocks long and took about an hour to explore.
For pre-race dinner, I had pizza. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were told it would be an hour to get a table for two. Everyone wants to have pasta the night before a race, so Italian restaurants tend to be fully booked. They only had three small tables, and the larger ones were all reserved for larger parties. Then we got lucky. One of the couples left right after finishing their entrees, instead of staying to have coffee. We were able to get that table after waiting for just a few minutes.
Sunday, October 15
Sunday was race day. I got enough sleep the previous three nights, but pre-race nerves combined with jet lag made it difficult to sleep. I only managed to sleep for about two hours. Fortunately, I’ve done enough marathons to know that I’d be able to shake that off. I finally got up at 6:30, so I could have a light breakfast before getting ready for the race. The hotel started its breakfast service early that morning.
The race didn’t start until 9:30. I had to walk about a mile to get to the stadium, so I left about an hour early. That gave me plenty of time for a bathroom stop before finding my way to my start corral inside the stadium.
It was 55 degrees when I left the hotel, but it was forecast to get into the upper 60s later in the afternoon. Most runners probably thought it was too warm, but for me it was comfortable.
I wore a Tyvek jacket as I walked to the stadium. The race provided a gear check, but I didn’t want to bother with that. Instead, I tied my jacket around my waist before starting the race.
Three weeks ago, I set a race-walking PR at the Ely Marathon. That was a hilly course, and conditions less than ideal. I wanted to know how much faster I could go on a nice flat course with better weather. This was the best opportunity I could ask for, so I went for it.
I wanted to break 5:15. To do that, I needed an average pace just under 7:30 per kilometer. Ideally, I would do 7:30s for the first half and then speed up a little. If you’ve read any of my race reports, you know that’s not what happened.
I was lined up in corral D. Corral assignments were based on estimated finish times that we provided when we registered. When I registered for this race, I thought I would be running, so my estimate was under four hours. Corral D was for runners in the 3:30 to 4:00 range.
I knew I’d be starting much slower than the other people in my corral, but I thought I could ignore them and go at my own pace. Guess how that worked out.
We started on the track in the Olympic Stadium. That’s not a large enough start area for all the runners, so we were packed in like sardines. Runners who didn’t line up early enough were in staging areas next to the track. I’m not sure exactly how and when they got onto the track.
After the leaders started, it was still a few minutes before I noticed any movement in my corral. While we waited, we could watch coverage of the leaders on a big screen in the middle of the stadium. It took almost eight minutes before I crossed the line.
When I crossed what I thought was the starting line, I started my watch. It turns out that was the finish line. The starting line was still 75 meters away. It was a natural mistake. It was a balloon arch with chip mats underneath. It said, “Finish,” but I assumed we started and finished in the same place. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late to stop, reset, and restart my watch before crossing the starting line. Instead I made a mental note to subtract 21 seconds from the time on my watch whenever I read my splits.
After leaving the stadium, we turned onto a street that had tracks for a tram line. I was careful to stay to one side, so I wouldn’t accidentally trip on one of the tracks.
Next, we entered Vondelpark, a large city park. I knew we had gone about 1½ kilometers, which means I missed the first kilometer marker. I would have to wait for the next one to find out how fast I started.
Inside the park, we reached an aid station. The aid stations were generally spaced about five kilometers apart, but this section of the course was out-and-back. This aid station was meant for the return trip, but it gave me a chance to drink some water before the 5K aid station.
Just past the aid station, I reached the two kilometer mark. My watch read, “13:44.” Deducting 21 seconds, my time for the first two kilometers was actually 13:23. If I started at my intended pace, it would have been 15 minutes. I started WAY too fast. Suddenly the 21 seconds seemed inconsequential.
I eased up a little, but the next kilometer was still too fast. I walked it in less than seven minutes. I wasn’t making any effort to keep up with the runners around me. They were passing me left and right. Still, the fast crowd around me was influencing my sense of pace. It didn’t seem like I was going that fast.
Often when I try to walk fast, my stride is a bit awkward. This time, I felt nice and smooth. I knew my pace wasn’t sustainable, but it felt deceptively easy. I kept telling myself to ease up, but I knew it would take several kilometers to find the right pace.
I was passed by one of the pace leaders. She was carrying a stick with a yellow balloon that read, “4:00.” As the four hour pace group passed me, I wondered how many other pace groups I would see during this race. Over the next few kilometers, I was also passed by the 4:10 and 4:20 groups. For the first half of the race, I was surrounded by faster runners, so I was constantly drifting backwards through the pack.
After leaving Vondelpark, we turned right and headed toward the Rijksmuseum. I heard “Hi, Dave” from the crowd. I turned in time to see Deb. I didn’t know for sure what her plans were, but I told her this would be a good place to watch the race. It was only a few blocks from a neighborhood where she wanted to go shopping.
We turned again to run under the Rijksmuseum. Then we had another sharp turn, and the course briefly narrowed to one lane. As the course got congested, we briefly came to a halt. We got going quickly, but it was an opportunity for me to hit the reset button on my pace. It didn’t seem to help much. My pace stabilized at seven minutes per kilometer, which was still too fast.
Just past 5K, we reached another aid station. This one had water and an energy drink called Isostar. The volunteers handing out cups called it “eeso.” Some of the other aid stations also had energy bars and gels.
I saw spectators waving Finnish and Norwegian flags. I noticed the runner in front of me was from Poland. Then I was passed by a couple from Belgium. There were runners from all over the world, but European countries were particularly well represented.
Between 6K and 9K, we were on and out-and-back segment that took us by some tall office buildings. Like Paris, Amsterdam has a modern downtown area that’s a distance away from the historic city center.
Before the race, Deb asked me if we would be running on cobblestones. Some of the streets around our hotel were paved with bricks, which people often refer to as cobblestones. Except for the plaza right outside the stadium, we had been running on smooth pavement. In the modern downtown area, we encountered some bricks. That’s the last place I was expecting this.
At 7K, I finally recorded a kilometer that was slower than seven minutes. By 9K, however, I was again recording times under seven minutes. Being surrounded by faster runners was really affecting my pace, even though I wasn’t trying to keep up with them.
There were bands along the course, but I rarely noticed them. One that did catch my attention was a drum group from Brazil.
I started to ease up. My next few kilometers were in the 7:00 to 7:10 range. In the 12th kilometer, I eased up to the point where my pace felt lazy. That one was 7:45, which was too slow. I overcompensated. If I had slowed to 7:30, I would have been content to maintain that pace for the rest of the race. Slowing all the way to 7:45 scared me. I picked up my effort, but overcompensated again. The next one was 6:53.
At 14K, I was roughly one third done with the race, and I was on pace to easily break five hours. I didn’t actually expect to maintain that pace. I was still planning to slow down. I eventually settled into a pace between 7:10 and 7:15.
We were now on a long out-and back segment along the banks of the Amstel River. We were on a bike path that was paved with bricks. The bricks had a rough surface. I think that was to give bikes better traction, but it was uncomfortable walking on them. I started to notice painful blisters around my heels. I don’t know if the brick surface was a contributing factor, or if it was coincidental that I started to notice the blisters on this section.
The pavement alongside the river changed several times. We had an asphalt section, then some smooth bricks, then more asphalt. I felt relieved when we seemed to leave the bricks behind.
Along the river we had a different form of entertainment. There were guys above the river wearing boots that used jets of water to propel then 10-15 feet above the river. Maintaining their balance must take a lot of practice. I saw at least four of these guys.
I was eventually passed by the 4:30 pace group. I was still much too far forward in the pack. I noticed as they passed that they didn’t leave me behind as quickly as the other pace groups.
Between 19K and 20K, we crossed the river and started following the opposite bank back towards the city. By now, we were out in the countryside. The river was on my left. On my right, I saw cows grazing.
On this side of the river, I had to endure more uncomfortable bricks. Here, they were weathered, so the surface wasn’t as smooth.
At the halfway point, I was still on pace to break five hours. I still expected to slow down, but I was worried it wouldn’t be by choice. I was starting to feel fatigued from my fast early pace. I fully expected to crash and burn in the second half.
Around 22K, I started to notice that I was keeping pace with a few of the runners. Most of the runners were still passing me, but it felt encouraging to be able to keep up with a few of them. I had fewer kilometers remaining than the number I had already completed. I started feeling more confident. Could I actually sustain this pace?
I was getting hot, so I started to drink more at the aid stations. Near the river we had a nice breeze, but it was getting warmer, and the sun was now high in the sky. At one of the aid stations, they were handing out bananas. I wasn’t going to have one, but one of the volunteers called my name. He was in the middle of the street, backpedaling so I could grab the banana without slowing down. I took the banana.
As we got near the end of the section along the river, I noticed more of the rough brick. This section was longer than I expected. As much as I enjoyed running along the river, I could wait to get back onto smooth pavement.
Even the best city marathon has at least one section that’s less attractive. After leaving the river, we briefly passed through an industrial section of town. Between 25K and 35K, I didn’t have a good feel for where I was. I wasn’t familiar with the east side of the city.
In the second half of the race, some of the aid stations had sponges. I could see how those would be helpful on such a warm afternoon, but the streets got littered with hundreds of sponges. Some of the aid stations were like obstacle courses.
Just before 28K, I was passed by the 4:45 pace group. This was the last pace group I saw during the race. They were still in sight for a long time.
At 28K, I was roughly two thirds done. I was still on pace to break five hours, but only because I went so fast in the first third of the race. The middle third wasn’t as fast. To actually break five, I would need to speed up again. I never considered trying. At no point in this race did five hours seem like a realistic goal.
By now, I had reached an equilibrium point. I was now passing as many runners as were passing me.
I was gradually drifting into a slower pace. Now I was doing about 7:20 per kilometer. With every kilometer that was under 7:30, I became more confident that I would hold on to set a PR. The only question was by how much. At some point, I realized I would break 5:10. Could I break 5:05? It seemed possible.
The aid station just before 35K was congested. I wanted Isostar, but I kept having to go around runners who were coming to a stop. I missed those tables and went for water instead. More runners were coming to a stop. To get water, I had to come to a stop too. Then I had to avoid all the sponges on the ground. I lost several seconds navigating through that aid station.
When I got to 35K, I saw that I slowed to 7:33. I was discouraged, even though I knew it was only because of the time I lost at the aid station. I worked harder to get my pace back into the 7:20s.
After 35K, we came alongside one of the canals that form a ring around the city center. I didn’t recognize anything, but I had a better idea of where I was. I managed to pick up the pace, doing the next few kilometers between 7:22 and 7:25. I was now determined to break 5:05.
After crossing the Amstel River, I started to recognize my surroundings. I recognized a section of the canal that was lined with houseboats. This was near where we caught our canal cruise. Soon I reached the Heineken Brewery. Ahead, I could see the top of the Rijksmuseum.
After passing the Rijksmuseum, I entered Vondelpark again. From here, everything was familiar. As I walked through the park, two race officials on bicycles asked us to move to the sides of the path. They were escorting the lead runners of the half marathon. For the rest of the race, we were occasionally passed by fast half marathon runners.
About halfway through the park, a runner who was trying to keep up with me commented that I was picking up the pace. I was. At 39K, I knew I would break 5:04. I continued to light a fire under myself to go as fast as I could.
I did the 40th kilometer in 7:14. I had a shot at 5:03. As we left the park, I tried to maintain my pace, but it got more difficult. We were back on a street with tram tracks. I didn’t want to walk on the tracks, so I tried to either walk between them or stay to one side. Sometimes I had to change “lanes” to go around a slower runner. Sometimes a half marathon runner had to pass at the same time. That was awkward.
As we got closer to the stadium, the street was divided, so the half marathon runners had their own lane. My legs were getting stiff, and I felt like I was slowing down. Before entering the stadium, I had to cross the plaza again. It was slightly uphill and paved with bricks. I’m not sure which bothered me more.
I was relieved to finally get onto the track, but I was out of gas. I fought for every second. When I finally crossed the line, I was momentarily disappointed to see that I didn’t break 5:03. My official time was 5:03:07. There’s really no reason for disappointment though. I set a walking PR by 14 minutes!
I went out at a pace that was way faster than I planned. Usually when I do that, I pay for it later. I did slow down by five minutes in the second half, but even my second half was faster than my goal pace. Had I walked the whole race at my intended pace, I would have been 12 minutes slower overall. Sometimes it pays to be greedy. I really had no idea I could walk that fast. It makes me wonder if five hours is possible.
After crossing the finish line, I continued walking around the track and got my finisher medal. Then I exited the stadium to get to the refreshments. I was thirsty, so I quickly drank a whole bottle of Gatorade. They had bananas, but I didn’t have room for solid food.
Walking back to the hotel was slow. I had painful blisters on both heels. I wondered if I would be able to walk to a restaurant for dinner. The trams near our hotel weren’t running because the streets were all closed for the race.
We eventually walked to Carousel for dinner. I had to walk on the balls of my feet, so my heels wouldn’t touch the ground. It was slow and tiring, but we eventually got there. The first two times we ate there, we had Dutch pancakes. This time we had the poffertjes. We saw a street vendor making them when we were at the Albert marketplace on Saturday.
Monday, October 16
Today, we flew home. It was another non-stop flight, but it’s still a long time in the air. It helped a lot that we didn’t have to get up early. We were able to enjoy one last breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the airport.
Distance: 42.2 kilometers
Average Pace: 7:11 per kilometer (11:34 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 342
Total Countries: 27