Overall a very good, flat, fast course (5th fastest in the world), with amazing support but quite narrow on some crucial points. Would definitely recommend it as an international race.
This was the most spontaneous decision to run a race I have ever made. I made the decision to sign up for it over a coffee with a Dutch friend in Rotterdam while I was telling her that I was preparing for the Athens Authentic Marathon back in October. She said to me “Oh there is a big one here every April why don’t you sign up for it?” and I just did.
Despite this being my third marathon, training had not gone ideally since I had to do about two weeks’ worth of running (including two of my 16-mile long runs) on the treadmill on the very snowy days because (a) I’m Greek and I don’t function in snow and (b) I have no shoes or balance that could provide traction on it. However, I did feel stronger and all the indications from a club time trial and from a tempo run which broke my 5k PB were that I could bring down my Marathon PB of 3:49:15. So I was contemplating a sub 3:45 with the assistance of a pacer as I had told Jack Lee over countless lunch runs (by the way Jack, thank you for joining me for all of those, your help was much needed).
On Saturday I had to go to Rotterdam to pick up my bib number which is a bit of a hassle, especially if you reside away from the city. Nevertheless, the Expo was really nice, with lots of interesting stands. I got a bit too excited about all the other international marathon stands that I might have accidentally signed up for a ballot for a free marathon in Svalbard in the North Pole!
Later that day, the race organisers announced that because temperatures might rise to around 19 degrees, they would have water stops for the last 10 km for every 2.5 km instead of 5 and also wet sponge stops to cool you down.
Race day was on. Woke up around 5:45 with my girlfriend’s home being about 2 hours away. Changing trains at Schiphol Airport meant that we witnessed tourists looking curiously at the hundreds of people dressed in shorts and vests boarding the Rotterdam train.
We arrived there around 9:00 (race start was at 10:05 am). In terms of the bag drop, it is pretty straightforward and relatively fast, with the only exception that due to security measures you are not allowed to drop your own bag but a designated transparent one you receive at the Race Expo along with your finisher shirt.
The starting pens were easy to find, but my only complaint on this was that there were toilets inside the pens which meant people queued very disorderly to use them. Regardless, I was ready, gels packed (one every 4 miles), the temperature was meant to be nice (15-19 degrees) and sunny, I had planned my water stops and also had the 3:45 pacers in sight.
The race start was given under the sounds of “You’ll never walk alone” which was sung by runners and spectators and a Dutch singer on a microphone. However, with all the queues in the toilets, I realized I had lost the 3:45 pacer that I wanted to follow. Nevertheless, I decided to stick to running by feel and knew that I wanted around 8:30 min/miles in order to be happy. So the first thing you see after the first 500 metres in the run is this:
This is the famous Erasmus Bridge and is quite a spectacle to cross and also have the tugboats hosing water around it. This is also the only part of the race where there is an apparent elevation change.
The first 16 miles of the course, are on the southern part of the city, which has quite a few changes in order to keep you entertained.
In the first 2-3 miles, you cross the area around F.C. Feyenoord’s football stadium and there was quite a large group of people dressed in their colours cheering us up with brass bands and drums. Also, the race organisers had provided with a band every 3-4 km in order for the runners to remain entertained. In no time the first 10k were in, in a comfortable time of 52:53 with a pace of about 8:29 mins. At that point I gauged how I felt and I thought I could maybe cut off another 5 secs per mile up to the half marathon point.
Support at this point of the race was not ideal as there were parts where you were running through the banks of a canal on a narrow cycle road so people were not able to reach it in order to cheer. However, on every major intersection of public roads, there were huge crowds which made deafening noise and definitely pushed you on.
As I said before, in terms of city geography, the Rotterdam Marathon is a nice one as the first 26 km are basically done in the south part of the city, which is the relatively rougher area. This is because the old harbour was located there, so this led to seeing the what was considered a poor part of the city with the towering concrete blocks around miles 9-15. These areas are however now up and coming, as there is a lot of renovation occurring with the old storage houses being turned into food halls, cafes or restaurants. There are even hotels and student halls made out of old containers! However, me being a tourist while running also had another effect which was going quite faster at a pace around 8:15-8:20 having gotten my mind off the running. This meant my HM time was at 1:50:32!
At that point I realized that all I had to do was run the other half 64 seconds faster, and I would have broken the 3:40 barrier. So I geared up mentally for that and pushed onwards. I had only to do what I was doing so far and I was on track for it.
Now between mile 16 and mile 17 is the part where you cross back to the central part of the city again going through the Erasmus Bridge where I managed to get my first “feet off the ground photo”.
Another quite funny thing about that bridge is that, as I said before, it is the only part that has a noticeable elevation change in the race. It is about 60-70 feet over 500 metres of distance. For an average Strider, who runs in Durham daily, this is like a walk in the park, but it turns out that for most Dutch people, it isn’t. I noticed quite a few people stopping running while going up the “hill”. On the other side of the bridge, my girlfriend was waiting for me to cheer me up and she made me push on.
However, the race was far from over. Back to around 2 weeks ago and me sitting in my office looking at the race map and saying to Jack Lee that “miles 19 to 24 are around a park, so support will be significantly less and this is when I also hit the wall in Manchester”. And that was the case. Although you first go through miles 17-19 which are absolutely packed with supporters, you then have to run around the Kralingse Plas which is a big reservoir to the north of the city. There, support was much sparser, especially in the first two miles and as if that was not enough, the sun came out and the temperature went to around 22-24 degrees.
All of this, plus my mind telling me to quit, forced me to go through a “mini-wall” of 5 miles where I was averaging 8:28-8:30. Not enough of a slowing down to be called a proper bonking/walling but enough to put a dent in any chance of breaking 3:40. Still, when I realised I was approaching mile 25, I pushed myself as much as I could.
By then the route has gone back through the city so you cross areas with thousands of people making support amazing. Similarly to what I had seen in Manchester, people were bringing out jellybeans, oranges, bananas and water to hand to basically random strangers running past them. This, I think, is something that motivates me the most in such races. Seeing people who do not know you just scream out your name, as they can see you struggle, or offer you some food or even a thumbs up and a smile. Just because they at that moment respect what you are going through and want with their own way to push you forward.
Now by the end, I was again in the 8:10 min/mile region and was hoping for a chance in a good sprint in the last two km. However, in the last water stop, at km 40 because of the sheer volume of spectators, the course was narrowed down to a few metres width, resulting in not enough space to overtake having grabbed your water cup. And the guy in front of me stopped dead on his feet to drink water. And I had to stop.
Now if you’ve run a marathon, you know that stopping at mile 25 is practically game over for any pacing plan you had before. I might have stopped for about 5 seconds, but it was enough to make it hard sprinting again. As an example, in Athens, I managed to do 8:12, 7:57 and 6:38-minute miles for miles 25, 26 and the 0.2 finish. That was an 8:38 min/mile overall marathon. In Rotterdam, I did 8:15, 8:21 (water stop incident) and 7:37 and the final average pace was 8:22 mins/mile. I reckon it was at that moment that I realised I was not going to break 3:40. Still, it would be a PB in the region of 7-8 minutes so I should still be happy.
And so I did, I gathered my biggest smile and ran that last km. And then it hit me for some reason: I was finishing my third Marathon in a third different country, having brought my PB down by 25 minutes in a year, having lost 20 pounds of weight, running in a running club’s colours. I realised that this is definitely not a bucket list thing. This is a part of me, something that defines my everyday life, it has taught me things about myself I would have never known. All the miserable winter miles that I so hated doing were worth it just for those last moments in the famous Coolsingel road, where your ears literally hurt from the roar of the crowds. I tried really hard for the third marathon not to get shorter breathing (a.k.a. cry) because of all of those emotions coming to me (and to look suave in the finishing picture). The final time was 3:40:55 (turns out I did run the second half faster by 9 seconds).
I would definitely recommend this race to anyone. It was a bit unlucky that I got 23-degree heat which made things a bit harder, but overall it is a very fast course. Support can be a bit lonely in that last part, but if you plan for it I guess you can counter that. It takes you through a very nice tour of the city as well, crossing that wonderful bridge, seeing the historic building in the city centre and the rougher part of the harbour in the south as well. I would definitely consider re-doing it in a couple of years since it is well organised and very fun.