March 21, 2013

Vanessa Fulfils Sub-3 Marathon Dream

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A little less than a year ago, Vanessa Gosselink was preparing for the Utrecht marathon in the Netherlands where her goal was to finish before the clock reached 3:00:00.

In October 2011, she had targeted Sub-3 at the Amsterdam marathon, but had to settle for 3:02:42, a stellar time that was not only a personal best but also fast enough to earn her the Dutch national masters championship.

Utrecht proved a disaster—rain, wind, and a wrong turn resulted in a 3:07:50 finish instead. It was a sharp time given the circumstances, but not at all what she had in mind.

Vanessa, a former pro cyclist, originally began running to recover from a leg fracture that ended her Olympic dreams. As a road cyclist, she had made the Dutch national team in 1988 and earned two stage wins in the Tour de France Feminin.

After missing out on a spot for the 1992 Olympic team, Gosselink swapped her road bike for a mountain one and excelled once again; she earned three Dutch national titles, two Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg) championships, and was ranked in the world's Top-10 for three years, from 1993 until 1996.

She was selected for the Dutch mountain bike team heading for the 1996 Olympic Games but it wasn't meant to be. A broken leg three weeks before the Games shattered that dream (read more here). Once recovered, however, she found solace and joy in running. And a fresh goal.

By 2009 she ran her first marathon in 3:47, finishing a second one six weeks later in 3:31. She knew she could go faster, and proved that by running a 3:08 and then a 3:06 in 2010. The following year, she went faster again, crossing the line in 3:05, before speeding up to 3:02:42.

Utrecht, held in April 2012, was the first marathon where she did not improve her time. She realized weather, organization, and plain bad luck had played a key role in that result. Still, doubt is never far away.

But the confidence she was capable of Sub-3 won out.

Six months later, she proved herself right when she smashed her personal best by a whopping eight minutes, flying across the Amsterdam marathon finish line in 2:54:09.

Another two months later she improved her half marathon time to 82:48, speeding up from her previous PB of 86:41.

To top it off, she ran the Apeldoorn marathon in February 2013, finishing in 2:53:57.

To what do you credit the breakthrough successes you have experienced in the past six months?
First of all, I have not been injured (knock wood), so I have been training consistently, day in and out, just taking a break once a week (mostly Saturday) and an easy run on the Mondays. I think this is the most important factor.

Second, I started to do some short-interval training seriously on the road, where every 100 meter is marked, which makes it easy to do short intervals. For example, 3 sets of 3x300metre and 1x 400metre at 100 percent. Really hard, but very effective.

Third, I lost some weight… I am not big in the first place, but losing some muscles in my upper body and thereby another 2-3 kilograms makes me just that little lighter. So all energy and oxygen can flow into my legs, and no "useless muscles" in my upper body are using any of the precious energy during the race.

Though I must admit that I have gained them again after the last marathon, because my body just needs a break. Getting into my next goal, I will have to cut back again on all the delightful chocolate.

Which result are you most proud of, or have you enjoyed most, and why?
The marathon in Apeldoorn was a big surprise. A hilly course and I never expected to run a personal best and almost winning the race. Finishing second feels great. And in the last 10K I made up almost 2 minutes, racing the last kilometers in 3:44, 3:52 and 3:48. I continuously felt like running in the flow….but maybe the memory is most fresh and therefore mentioned here.

Did you change your training since Utrecht?
Yes, I started doing more short intervals, continued running 6 times per week.

How did and do you silence your doubts, in training and racing?
I do have doubts of course, like everybody else. Not so often in training, because I just love to run. But whenever I am about to start a hard workout and motivation is lacking, I think about the last race where I had that ‘perfect feeling’ and try to get back into that flow. And make myself remember that I will only improve when training is hard and you keep pushing beyond the comfort zone.

And when race day comes, especially when it is my big goal, like a marathon or half marathon, I know that I should feel a little stiff and ‘not so good’. I have learned that feeling that way is a good sign for me—it means that my body is fully loaded with energy, and that it is just a little lack of endorphin that is making me feel that way….

What, in your opinion, were the key sessions that helped you improve over the marathon distance?
Short intervals as earlier mentioned and pyramid training at 95 percent, e.g. 4/5/6/5/4 minutes at (almost) full speed. Recovery is jogging half the time of the interval in between. It makes my technique better and forces me to be very relaxed in the upper body in order to be able to fulfill the training.

In addition, I build up the amount of running at marathon speed, starting with 40 minutes about 2 months before the marathon and finally running 70 minutes at marathon speed once a week. This makes my body get used to that speed, so that when running that pace in the marathon it feels good, familiar.

And are those the same that helped you speed up your half marathon time?
Yes, I do think so!

Did you change anything in your marathon race-day strategy that helped you go faster?
My race day preparation is the same.
In the week before the race, I keep running 6 times a week, but do short sessions, where I used to run only 3 times. I feel that I do need some tension in my body to feel good.

And what about your half marathon race-strategy?
Exactly the same!

Have you noticed a change in your mental approach to training and/or racing? If so, did you consciously seek or work on those changes?
I am just a little more confident right now. And after running a Sub-3, the pressure is off. I have reached my goal, and though I would love to improve even more, I am very, very satisfied with my current PB and just love to run and hope that I can keep doing it for a long, long time!

What are the most important lessons you have learned in the past year:
-    in training
Listening to my body is extremely important. Always feel how your body is recovering, and if I do not have the motivation to do a training session on a certain day, because I feel tired, then I know I have to give myself a break and adjust my training.

-    in tapering
Take a 2-week taper period and taper once in training a few weeks before the race. So build a mini-tapering period into a preparation race. This will tell you how good you feel. Then a 3- week training period, 1 week ‘rest’, 1 week preparation into the race, and….a PB might follow!

-    in racing
Never take off too fast! Let all the others go, take your time to get into your rhythm and speed up in the second half of the race.

-    in recovery
The hardest part for me….after a marathon, I always promise myself to take it easy, but always end up running on a daily basis. No training, just run-by-heart and do whatever I like. Not running feels like not breathing. Though I know it is good to take a break, I never succeed in doing so.

What is your key advice to other runners gunning for the Sub-3 marathon?
See all the above! And start running on a personal schedule, do not follow other runners blindly. A standard schedule is a schedule that will fit nobody; it’s in the name already!

Buy lightweight shoes, lose some more fat (if you have too much), lose some upper-body muscles and go for it. And always remember to just have fun training!

Now that you have more than accomplished your goals, what are the new ones? Are you setting your sights on Sub-2:50, Sub- 2:45 for the marathon and Sub-80 for the half? How fast do you believe you can go?
Tough question….I might crawl a little further to 2:50, but think that will be absolutely the maximum. My stride is pretty short, so I will have to move up the rate. It would be nice to hit a 2:49:59, but I honestly think that this will be a little too ambitious for me.

Which races do you have planned for 2013?
This weekend a 10-mile race [she ran 1:0:39, finishing first female], and I might run a small marathon just for fun in May.

I will seriously build up again into the Eindhoven marathon in October, which is also the Dutch Championships, and hope to improve myself again.

I would also like to run a very low 38 on the 10K, probably in the next few weeks somewhere. In order to become a little faster again.

Anything else I should be asking you?
The most important thing of all: enjoy every mile that you are running!!

(Read the 2012 Q&A about Vanessa's marathon training here)

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