A Zurich Marathon 2022 Experience by Derek Li
One of our Elite Ambassadors, Derek Li, ran the Zurich Marathon on 10 Apr 2022, his first since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He shares lessons he learnt on trusting your training, adapting to cold weather and a gripping race report.
I’m not sure I have ever had such a long build up before. At the beginning of 2021, I was coming off a hamstring injury and quite low on fitness. It all culminated in a DNF at the Shufflers half marathon time trial in Feb 2021. Thereafter I just put my head down and started training for a SEA Games marathon trial that was scheduled for June 2021. This trial would be postponed multiple times and ultimately didn’t happen until Jan 2022. I had gotten myself into decent marathon shape by the end of July and so while the race didn’t happen, I managed to carry the fitness over to some shorter distance focus in the second half of the year, culminating in a 16:42 5000m in Sep 2021.
After that, I turned my attention to doing another 5000m at the Singapore Open, which would ultimately be cancelled by inclement weather. By then, I could feel that my form was starting to tip past my peak and was ready to go back and do a bit of low intensity mileage at the end of the year.
Around early Dec 2021, the new SEA Games marathon trial date had been announced for Jan 2022 but I had already had my eyes set on the Zurich Marathon in April 2022. Nils, a fellow Road Trail Run contributor from Germany, had posted on Instagram about doing the Zurich Marathon. I checked out the course and decided i wanted to run it too. I even roped in a couple of fellow Singaporeans to come along. (Spoiler alert - they ran 2:48, 2:49, 2:53, 2:53 including an Age Group 3rd in 2:53 for our local 52yo super vet; 2:53 is a PB for him by the way) Unfortunately, Nils got hurt earlier in the year and had to scratch from Zurich. I went into December more worried about overtraining and overcooking myself than anything else.
My coach Dave Ross (@rossrunning16) did a great job with the training plans for the past couple of months. I ended up doing some fairly intense workouts and long runs in Dec 2021 but somehow always managed to stay on the right side of burnout. Jan-Mar 2022 saw some crazy good workouts and long runs, and I think I only averaged 4:30/km once for a long run (waterlogged and running in heavy Adidas Boston 10’s); every other long run was significantly faster yet controlled at the same time. Training was very consistent with maybe only 3 bad days between 1st Dec and 31 Mar. I didn’t always time it right between the mileage and the intensity but I can safely say I’ve never run faster in training. All this while, we managed to walk the fine line between peaking at the right time, and overcooking it too early. Again I have to say coach Dave did a superb job here of nursing me to peak in April rather than January.
Injury risks are always lurking in the background, although I consider myself a fairly durable runner with relatively few issues with high mileage training. I developed some right heel soreness from around the new year and it still persists to this day, though fortunately it was never bad enough that it prevented me from running. The presumptive diagnosis is fat pad syndrome. Well at least it’s not plantar fasciitis. The hamstring issue that bothered me at the end of 2020 still rears its head every now and then, and I still do regular unweighted squats before and after my runs to activate my glutes.
Taper week was a mixed bag for me. It coincided with some incredibly warm weather in Singapore, and I ended up having relatively high heart rate during the easy runs and even the taper workouts. It messes with your mind a bit and I had to consciously shrug it off and just focus on the body of training I had done in the weeks prior. I arrived in Zurich on Friday morning, two days before the race, and managed to get in a short jog in the afternoon to shake off the heaviness from the 12-hour flight (and 17 hours wearing an N95 mask!). The pace was decidedly easy in the frosty weather but the heart rate was still a little higher than what I would expect for cold conditions. Not much left to focus on except hydration and carbs.
After the disastrous wardrobe choices at the wet and cold 2019 Tokyo Marathon, this time I was well prepared for cold conditions. I would suppress the inner weight weenie and focus on comfort and maybe something more insulated. I went with the rabbit Champ Lite singlet, which is a slightly thicker but breathable material, and sports a very generous racerback cutout design which I prefer. I wore tights for this race, and it’s the first time I’ve ever gone with tights in a competitive marathon, having always favoured the traditional split shorts regardless of weather. I capped it off with a fleece headband (generously gifted to me during the 2019 Tokyo Marathon pre-race dinner at the American embassy), Lycra arm sleeves (a legacy from my 2016 Tokyo Marathon) and surgical gloves tucked with chemical heat packs.
Race day weather could not have been better. Clear skies with low wind, and temps around 5degC. The ground was still a little wet from overnight precipitation, but things would dry up nicely during the race. The one thing I didn’t plan for was the dulling of my internal pacer from not having run a cold race since March 2019. The gun went off and I clicked through the first KM in 3:24 min/km pace. Way too fast. I just focused on telling myself to settle in and settle in, but this part was tricky. Knowing how windy it could get along the lake, I felt it was important to settle into a group rather than risk running the entire race solo. It took a good 10km of back and forth for a group of us to form.
5km – 18:07.4
10km – 18:14.4
From the 10km mark it was a straight out and back to the U-turn point at 24km. I was conscious that I really should have started conservatively with 18:30-18:50 but I looked behind and there was absolutely nobody behind my little group of about 7 guys. And we were a well-oiled machine clicking off 3:37-3:39/km in single file. It just feels so much easier following a paceline compared to running alone. I know, because there were times when this train chose NOT to run the tangents, and I was running way left of them to cover the shortest line before they eventually merged back with me from the right. To this day, I still don’t quite understand why people choose not to run tangents in a race. It was not like there was a big imperative to keep to the right. There was plenty of daylight in front of us to the next group.
15km – 18:12.5
20km – 18:30.5
It was around the 18th or 19th km that I had decided the pace was just too hot to sustain and decided to back off and run the rest of the way on my own. I settled into my own rhythm and tried to stay loose and smooth.
I went through halfway in a GPS timed 1:17:10 and an official time of 1:17:50 (the above 5km splits are from my watch by the way and not the official splits as they didn’t have timing mats at exactly 5km intervals during the race). The U-turn finally arrived after rounding multiple gradual corners along the lake, and while I was expecting a cone of sorts to turn round, I was surprised to find that there was a short and steep hill to climb there. It was quite miserable as it really broke the momentum of my run, but coming down the hill, I could feel renewed energy to anticipate the finish.
25km – 18:48.7 including the big hill at the 24km U-turn
After that I found myself starting to tire, but decided not to worry too much about pace, but to focus on keeping smooth and efficient. There was always the possibility of picking up the pace at the end. KMs 24-38 were essentially a backtrace of the route back towards the city centre and it has relatively scarce support, which is fine. I focused on keeping the miles ticking on and running tall.
30km – 18:37.3
35km – 18:54.6
Sadly, around the 37-38km mark, I really started to tire and could feel the pace beginning to slip and it became more a matter of survival. I went through the math multiple times in my head. Sub-2:40 was pretty much in the bag barring a massive implosion, but it was more a matter of whether I could still salvage a 2:38. Incidentally, I managed to pass two people from the earlier group that I had lost contact with, along the way. A couple of runners also passed me, and I could not help wondering if maybe if I had decided to go out more conservatively in 1:19, things might have turned out differently.
40km – 19:38.4
42.5km – 9:59.8
The last couple 30 minutes were really tough, and eased only by the chill weather and my completely numb feet. There was a very annoying sharp U-turn we have to do 400m from the finish, (which again destroyed all momentum), and even with a last ditch surge of adrenaline, the clock just managed to tick past 2:39 as I crossed the line. After crossing the line I found an empty spot on the ground and just sat there, waiting for the next Singaporean to come through. 2:39:01 was a 2-minute PB for me, yet I can’t help but feel like it’s a B- type of performance. The big takeaway for me and re-learning how to pace in cold conditions, remembering how to be patient, and knowing that there’s still a lot of potential left to uncork. We have a few more big races on the calendar. And every one of them is going to be a PB.
About Derek Li
Derek Li is a family physician with Raffles Medical Group. He started running marathons in 2013. He has since done numerous overseas marathons like the Boston, Berlin And New York marathons. He writes shoe reviews for roadtrailrun.com (@roadtrailrun).
Follow him on Instagram at @dereksli.