(DISCLAIMER! All text, views and opinions in this blog post are entirely my own and not representative of Allianz or its employees)

Saturday July 21st, 2018. 5:15am

Munich, Germany

I managed it. Up at 5:15am, I got dressed, went downstairs, and asked the receptionist at the hotel for a mug of boiling water, and a spoon, as I wanted to make a cup of tea but I didn’t want to wake up my roommate with the expresso machine. Sure enough, the receptionist went to the kitchen, and brought back a tall, wide glass, two thirds full with boiling water, no handle, and a long spoon. Not ideal, but I’ll take it. Up I went, back to my room, draining some of the water carefully down the sink, and mixing my porridge sachet into the remaining water. Yes. My half marathon breakfast ritual was preserved. One banana later, I got kitted up, got my stuff that I needed together and went downstairs to the hotel dining area, being sure as much as possible to not be akin to a baby elephant in a potting shed as my roommate remained asleep from whatever jollies they had got up to while still at the Hofbräuhaus the previous night.

Ladies and gentlemen, today was the day. Allianz Sports 2018 had opened on Thursday, over four months since I learned I had been selected by Team GB’s captain as one of the athletes to run in the half marathon category. I’d done the training, got my kit, brushed up on German for the first time since year 9 of high school, and had watched amazing athletes over the weekend push themselves to glory, superb displays of fair play, and support their team mates in numerous disciplines, including track and field, swimming, golf, table tennis, beach volleyball, chess, and many more sports besides. There was barely any negativity to see. The mood in the Team GB camp was positive, and we were all supporting one another as we prepared for our second full day of action, with big races, finals and more medals to potentially win after an exciting first full day of action on the Friday.

I joined one of my teammates running the half, and soon there were about six or seven of us commandeering two tables. I only had a green tea, others were taking on their breakfast just now. At 7:15am, with almost the whole team assembled, aside from one who had to drop out, something I only realised after the race.

The weather predictions had come slightly true, as we walked through somewhat rainy weather back into the Olympiapark, where the runners were beginning to assemble at the Coubertinplatz. The start/finish gantry had been erected, a clock in place, while parts of the course were now lined with a mix of blue and white tape, flags in the ground or red and white cones. Registration was easy. Some runners were already registered to reuse their number if they had taken part in track and field events the previous day, and for those, like myself, who hadn’t, it was a case of showing your pass and receiving your race number according to your alloted athlete number. They already had punched holes in too! Although the paper clips were the flimsiest I’d ever seen. I managed to bend two of them trying to thread the race number to my vest!

Pre race selfie, down in the bowels of the Olympiastadion

I left my belongings in the bowels of the Olympiastadion, in the men’s changing rooms. It was then back up to Coubertinplatz to get ready for the start, going through my warm up routine, a few circles jogged around a small radius (having already jogged a bit to leave my belongings and return), and taking part in Team GB group photos.

The runners were assembled at the start. Mentally, I was calm. I had shut out any presumptions of winning a medal, knowing full well having seen yesterday’s action that the level amongst the athletes was as competitive, at least, as any organised race I’ve been a part of in the UK. I’d even fielded one jokey question from a teammate if I knew if I was going to win, because if so, he wouldn’t have to get out of bed! If only it were that easy…

The starting gun went, and we were promptly away. I went with the early pace and was quickly established in the lead pack of four runners, along with a Swiss, a Pole and a German. The course moved up from the start and turned right to go downhill, at one point passing the memorial for victims of the bombing at the 1972 Olympics. It then took another right down towards where the Dino World exhibition was on. Its not every day you can say you ran past a giant fake dinosaur egg, but here, you could. We moved on to run by the Olympic Lake (Olympiasee), running down one side of it and then over a bridge to come back the other way. It was then when the course became hilly, passing a cultural festival called Tollwood in the south section of the park, featuring a steep hill which I took steadily. Down a big straight section, Rudolf-Hartig Weg, taking a right and steadily rising uphill towards the start/finish at Coubertinplatz.

I actually briefly led at about the 4 km point, before being overtaken by the Swiss runner again as we went up the hill towards the start/finish. As we crossed for the 2nd lap, almost side by side, the clock showed that we had gone through the 5.2km course in about 19 minutes flat. The pack behind was close. I decided tactically to just ease a tiny bit, so to slot in to the pack and just hanging on to them. I’d probably dropped from about 2nd to 9th or 10th overall at this point. Then, as we got to the bottom of the course for the second time, they started to pull away. I wasn’t struggling per se, but the pace at the front was red hot and I knew it. Any medal chances appeared to be fading fast, so I just relaxed and focused on maintaining my own effort. I was then passed a little later by a Spaniard and a Colombian runner. I took a gel and kept the gap to them for a bit, but then they headed off into the distance just a little more. The long straight section meant I could see the lead pack right up ahead. But they were a good minute or so ahead. The two men behind myself and the lead pack were now also starting to get away. Nonetheless, I kept plugging away, and the gel I took had injected a bit of life back into my hard effort.

I was quickly beginning to actually enjoy the race, to an extent. The marshals around the course were very supportive. Despite the rain there were pockets of support of various nationalities around the course. One German marshal even tried to prank me by shouting ‘link hander!‘, I believe, which I twigged from my knowledge of Rammstein songs that ‘links’ is left. And I was negotiating a right hand bend, as the marshal chucked to himself. Further up the final hill, I was giving thumbs up and the ‘Dio’ horns to a photographer, which got me a few cheers from a group of French fans, and the Germans and Italians were out in force as well. I was seriously impressed with how well this event was put together, and buoyed on by the fans defying the rain as it began to come down again.

I had gone through the second lap in around 39 minutes. I knew I’d slowed a little but I was still on personal best pace. Fuelled on by my gel, it seemed, I pushed on, trying to close the gap to the Colombian up ahead. I knew now I would need to start closing the gap to those guys immediately ahead and hope to start picking off athletes that might have gone out too hard ahead. But that was never going to happen in such a significant way, and it soon emerged I wasn’t really closing the gap. I was then overtaken by an Austrian runner, losing a further place. I took another another gel at the 13km mark. Unusual for myself, given I don’t necessarily feel the need to take on board extra carbs for a half, but given what was at stake I’d determined I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance if I started to flag. Although I had anticipated prior to travel that I might be at the top end based on previous results. It was never a given.

One of my teammates then passed me for my place, becoming the lead Team GB runner in the process and running even stronger than I was, judging his effort perfectly. He encouraged me to keep going and I kept up to him for a bit, but he was a little stronger, gaining on and eventually overtaking the Austrian runner in front of me, to whom I was maintaining a not too distant gap to. We started to lap a few runners at this point.

The end of the third lap arrived and the clock at the start line had appeared to fail. At least, from our side. I shouted out to ask if anyone had a split, as I had no idea now if I was still on PB pace. I don’t think it would have changed my mind in anyway. I began the final lap with a charge downhill and began to close in on the man in front of me. However, by midway I wasn’t making any more gains and the gap began to increase again. I got some encouragement though when I overtook a Polish athlete who had appeared, perhaps, to have misjudged their effort. One more time up Tollwood hill, the finish was arriving. My pace was steady but I knew I needed a strong finish.

I have a propensity in these situations to fire myself up, either by shouting something to myself, or even, yes, hitting myself in the chest or slapping myself across the face. I find it gives me an adrenaline surge. I knew I needed something for sure. As I began to run up the final hilly section, at a point where the hill levelled out, I remembered a simple phrase I’d learned on Memrise, and roared ‘lass uns gehen! Come on!‘, (meaning ‘let’s go!’).

And with that, I found that extra, suddenly finding a bit of extra spring in my step. I maintained it, and as the finish line came into view, I sprinted, knees up, driving for the line, and crossed to cheers from both sides of the crowd, the second GB athlete home, saving my fastest effort for last.

Immediately, I shook hands with the Austrian, who finished 21 seconds ahead. He had sensed I was catching him briefly, early in the fourth lap, but he was definitely the better of us on this day.

I turned around to see the clock running on the opposite side, and it was showing ‘1:21…’ as it ticked over. I began to speculate if I had a PB, but I had to wait for information to come through on the Allianz Sports app. More GB runners began to cross the line. An American I’d walked up to the hotel with on Thursday night, after the opening ceremony and dinner, crossed a few minutes behind me and we got talking again at the finish. We’d got on well that night and it was great to see him at the finish, happy with his time.

About 15-20 minutes later, the time came through on the app, and I had run a PB after all. 1:20:43, taking 7 seconds off my previous best . Placing myself 8th in the M18 category, and 15th in the overall standings (medals were given out for each age category, M/F18, 35, 45 and 55+). I was absolutely delighted with my time, completely satisfied.

Team GB, celebrating our collective achievements (I’m in the centre)

For I knew that as long as I gave my best, whatever the outcome, then I could have no regrets. Had I chased after the lead pack on lap 2, I’d have surely been a broken man. The winning time was 1:15:50, and to get into the medals I would have had to go sub-1:17. In the last two games, my time would have achieved a silver medal. That’s how much the standard at these games had increased this year. There’s no way I can influence anyone’s race, other than my own. I said to myself beforehand, as long as I race my best effort, that’s all I can do. Having realised I wasn’t going to win a medal, I allowed myself to actually enjoy the race and indeed, this had been a fine race to run.

After taking time for celebrations with others and various photos, yet to emerge, I took myself to grab my belongings and head back to the hotel for a shower in my hotel room. I, like many others, was absolutely soaked with rain, and needed to get out of my wet clothes into something drier.

I mean, it’s the Olympiapark. The home of the 1972 Olympics, a place given back to the German public after the Games had finished. The course was wonderful – not too challenging, but with enough sting in those hills to test everyone, taking in a number of sights, including the poignant (aforementioned) memorial, the Olympic Lake, the Olympiaberg (aka Olympic Hill), and occasionally the quirky – the race went past the Dino World exhibition – its not every day you get to run past a large fake dinosaur egg! – and the Tollwood festival, which looked like some sort of outlaw fairground at first glance (it’s actually a cultural and environmental festival). It’s unbelievable that Munich doesn’t yet have its own parkrun, given the vast facilities, a potential one lap course, and the large number of runners who frequented the park during the entirety of my stay, whether it be raining or under the gaze of the hot, burning sun. I could run in this place again and again and again, and never tire of its charm, its people, and its history.

Despite a few concerns about the race, given that course information didn’t arrive until the afternoon before the race, these proved to be unfounded. A biker lead the front runners around the course, there were marshals and volunteers positioned at every turn, and the two food/water stations were ideally placed, one near the start/finish and one around 3km into the lap. Plus points as well for using recycled paper (or card? I don’t remember) cups, a suitable alternative to plastic. The only slight downside was where to leave my bag – any valuables had to go in a locker, apparently in either the athletics hall or the stadium. I found lockers in either, choosing to leave my baggage unattended in the changing rooms along with that of several other European runners. I got all my stuff back – to that end security and volunteer staff were very diligent, and in any event, you had to have accreditation – which all athletes were given – to gain access. Some athletes had also used a nearby restaurant, but I can’t vouch for that was in there so far as changing rooms or locker service.

This was just one event in two full days of action, and it quantifies as one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as a runner. I never imagined it would take me to a place like this – I’m lucky enough to work for an affiliated firm that was granted this opportunity – but I still had to be selected, and to that end I’m so grateful for an unbelievable opportunity. This event won’t happen again for another four years, just like the real Olympics, but it will be in Barcelona. Assuming my employment status remains the same by then, I’d find it hard pressed to turn down another potential opportunity to take in this event again, and visit a marvellous city.

To this end, I need to thank several people and organisations for making this event possible, for myself and for the 900+ athletes who took part:

– My wife, whose birthday I missed for this event, but who was so understanding and supportive of my initial (& successful) application.

– Allianz for extending an invite to my firm and its employees to apply for Allianz Sports 2018; their team captain for selecting me as one of the three out of all those who applied; and again, Allianz, for putting on such an incredible event that was competitive, entertaining and enjoyable. This is as close to the Olympics as anything I’ll ever find. It was such a privilege to run in such a historic venue as the Munich Olympiapark, home of the 1972 Olympics.

– Everyone I came across in the Team GB squad. You made me feel welcome and as one of your own employees, indeed, part of the team, not just someone you’d just met at the airport. I had such a blast representing Team GB, from wearing the colours to running the race, cheering everybody on and getting in the team spirit, the conversations and good times had with so many of you, as you excelled yourselves to personal bests, fair play and medals you truly deserved for your performances.

– All the nations who took part, in particular runners from the Netherlands, Austria, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and many more. It was awesome to meet some of you, watch your astounding performances regardless of age and for the support I got from your compatriots around the half marathon course. I made a few friends out there and it’s truly great how sport brought us all together.

– to the volunteers, the event staff, marshals, the medical teams, and kitchen staff in the various venues. You ensure this event could happen just by giving up your time. Without you, such an event could never happen safely and efficiently.

And finally, thank you Munich, and Germany, for your hospitality, friendliness and for persevering with my attempts to order and pay for things in German. I hope I didn’t offend you if I got any of my grammar wrong, but I kept it simple and you were patient to allow me to converse, albeit mostly interspersed with English! Danke für ihre gastfreundschaft.

I leave Munich not with a medal, but a new half marathon personal best, and a huge bunch of amazing memories to take away. And indeed, lots to consider going forward…