The Long Road: My Sub-4-Hour Victory in the Dalian Marathon

April 13, 2024

In 2016, I made the bold move of relocating to a more obscure part of China, where I found myself teaching at a weekend training school for young children. This environment was far removed from the hamlet of Kilmacow in South Kilkenny, Ireland. Amidst the bustling streets and the allure of this coastal city, an idea sparked within me after a chance encounter with a local runner, and I decided to run the Dalian marathon.

Amidst the bustling streets of Dalian, a chance encounter with a local runner sparked an idea within me - to embark on the Dalian marathon, an opportunity for a truly unique experience. In a city often overshadowed by its northern counterpart Beijing, the prospect of traversing its streets amidst the cheers of locals and fellow runners ignited a sense of excitement within me.

However, as I started my marathon training, I encountered a challenge I hadn't anticipated. Dalian's air pollution, a byproduct of its coal-powered central heating system, posed a significant obstacle to my ability to train outdoors. This made it difficult to walk around at times, let alone run long distances! As a result, the majority of my training took place on a treadmill in a local gym that had an air filtration system installed. Despite my efforts to schedule my long runs for days when the air quality index was forecasted to be favorable, I often found myself canceling them last minute too. It was becoming a frustrating experience.

Despite these setbacks, I persevered, carefully monitoring the air quality index and seizing every opportunity to train outdoors when conditions were favorable. The month prior to the marathon brought a welcome reprieve as the central heating was switched off, dissipating much of the air pollution. In the month prior to the marathon, I was finally able to run long distances outdoors, pushing myself hard along the famed Binhai Road on Dalian's coast.

As race day drew near, a mix of excitement and anticipation filled the air. Despite the irregularities in my training patterns, I stood ready to take on the Dalian marathon, armed with months of preparation and a spirit of resilience forged in the face of adversity.

The morning of the Dalian marathon dawned with a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. Getting to the start line was an interesting experience. As all the roads were closed, we had no option but to reach the start line by subway. The start line was beside the Dalian Conference Centre, adjacent to a bizarre faux Venice, complete with canals and a fake St Mark's Square. It was certainly a surreal experience warming up in this setting!

Don't feed the gondolas

As the race began, I felt a surge of adrenaline coursing through my veins. The first few miles passed in a blur as I settled into a steady pace. Along the route, the sights and sounds of Dalian unfolded before me - we passed through Zhongshan Square, built by the Russians in the early 20th century, and I was awed by the architecture. I passed through Xinghai Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and also through former Japanese neighborhoods. Each mile revealed a different historical facet of this vibrant city.

Yet, amidst the excitement, challenges lurked around every corner. The morning temperatures had progressed into the mid-20s Celsius, and the sweltering heat threatened to sap my energy. Much of the second half of the marathon was built on newly constructed tarmacdam roads in undeveloped areas with absolutely no shade. However, I pressed on, drawing strength from the ubiquitous presence of Chinese "aunties" (elderly Chinese women), chanting "Jiayou!" at every opportunity. They really pushed me on in hindsight.

And then, finally, it was there or at least it should have been there, the finish line? I had paced myself correctly for a sub 4-hour marathon so where was it? Then it dawned on me. The course was longer than the 42.2k standard, oh dear. However, I remained steadfast in my determination to achieve my goal and pushed even harder for the last mile.

And then, finally, it was there - the moment I had been working towards for months. As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at my Garmin watch and hit the stop button. 3 hours 58 minutes! A wave of emotion washed over me. I felt exhausted yet exhilarated that I had finally achieved a sub 4-hour marathon after quite a few attempts.

In the evening after the marathon, I had a few pints of Dalian Dry and found myself reflecting on the journey I had just completed. The experience taught me the importance of being resilient and adaptable. I had to learn to listen to my body and adjust my plans accordingly. The Dalian marathon not only tested my physical endurance but also strengthened my mental fortitude, leaving me with a sense of accomplishment and a renewed confidence in my ability to overcome obstacles.

Running the Dalian marathon was an unforgettable experience, ultimately leaving me with a great sense of accomplishment and a personal best that has not been bested to this day. I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in such an iconic event and to have explored the historic city of Dalian on foot. To those considering their own marathon journey, I offer this advice: embrace the journey, stay resilient in the face of adversity, and celebrate every step forward, no matter how small. Good luck, and may your marathon dreams become a reality!

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