Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sun Run 10K, February 2018

I really don't like shorter races. I have no idea why I signed up for this one, really, other than that I've been spending quite a bit of time in Manly (where it finishes) lately, and have gotten to know the area a bit from running to and taking part in Curl Curl Parkfun a fair few times. And I guess I sort of thought it might be fun. But while I've never run this particular race before, I knew in advance that it would be hilly and definitely not a fast course. And it made no sense in terms of my preparation for Tokyo marathon - I really don't know why I signed up.

But anyway, sign up I did, with no real idea of actually racing the course, and only vague expectations of a time possibly close to 40 minutes. All the ingredients for an interesting experience, at any rate.

Manly, race morning

The forecast rain hasn't showed up when I set off from Manly; my plan is to drive to Harbord and leave the car in the carpark adjacent to the finish of Curl Curl Parkrun. It will be about 3km from there to the start in Dee Why, the perfect warm-up distance, and when I'm parking in fact there are already people jogging past wearing bibs. I'm not the only one who had this idea, then.

I know how to get to Dee Why but I end up following a pair of guys anyway, and 15 minutes later we're part of a fairly large crowd that is making its way towards the beach. I peel off and head up a side street just to get out of the congestion, then at the beach I do a few loops around the surf club and along the road where the starting arch is set up. I've made it to 2.5 miles when suddenly the heavens open and BOOM, within seconds it's teeming with rain.

I dive for shelter beneath a shop awning and - with the exception of one very determined bloke who stays in the starting corral - everyone else does something similar. For the next 5 minutes the rain intensifies and the announcer who has been chatting happily over the loudspeaker grows steadily more alarmed. Five minutes to the start; wow, it's still coming down. The gutters are torrents of water and my goodness, it looks like we'll all be doing the aquathon option today!

That is definitely not me.

But, miraculously ,the rain stops abruptly with about 3 minutes left - everyone charges out to line up and I end up about 20 meters back, which is fine - and we're good to go! To my surprise there's a pair of 40 minute pacers in front of me, one of whom is female (this is rare); I can't decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Good, because I might be inspired to stay ahead of them (and sneak under 40:00, which I am totally not expecting), or bad, because I might find myself behind them and use this as an excuse to give up. I'm reminded of one such incident in Melbourne in 2013, where I was going for 2:49 only to have the 2:50 pacers catch me with about 3km to go; I stayed with them for a while but was mentally doomed by this turn of events and allowed myself to fall behind. I ended up missing my goal by only seconds and have had a bit of a fear of pacers ever since, but whatever, I need to stop thinking and start running now.

Miles 1 & 2: 6:35, 6:23 min/mile (4:05, 3:58 min/km)

Bang goes the gun and off we all rush, up the hill that Nigel has already warned me about. It's really not too bad and the pacer pair are not that far ahead of me when I crest the hill and see another, much larger, one ahead. As usual at the start of a shorter race, people are flying past me like there's no tomorrow. There would have to be at least 20 women further up the road than me already; it's all a bit disheartening and a voice inside my head is telling me to give up now and just jog.

But coming down the hill is much more fun - I'm catching back up to people again - and I hear my cousin Ruth yelling "Go Rachel!" as I speed past her house. Whee! The course turns right and we're on familiar ground now, it's part of where Curl Curl Parkrun goes and I have great memories of this area, not to mention the respectable times I've managed to run there. The rain is holding off and so really, why not just enjoy it?

The course narrows as we follow the Curly Parkrun route around the lagoon; I take the opportunity to speed my way past a couple of female runners. Yes!

Miles 3 & 4: 6:29, 6:25 (4:02, 3:59)

The third mile takes me out of the lagoon parklands and back onto the road near Curl Curl beach. The lagoon area is flat but this bit is most definitely NOT; it winds and dips and finally summits a decent-sized hill where there is a photographer taking pictures with the beach as a backdrop. This promises an excellent photo opportunity but unfortunately the heavens choose this moment to open again and suddenly the rain is pouring briefly down. So, no beachside photo for me from this event. Insert grumpy face here.

My 5km split is around 20:25 and I'm sort of amazed at this because the 40 minute pacers are certainly nowhere to be seen up ahead. When the road straightens out far enough for me to see them, they're at least a minute in front and I'm trying to figure out how I could have that split but still be so far back? It's too much for my brain cells to process and the hills are rolling at me thick and fast, so I shut this train of thought down and just focus on not losing too much time.

Miles 5 & 6: 6:41, 6:11 (4:09, 3:50)

OOF! The whole of mile 5 is one big, long uphill slog and there's a lovely little out-and-back along a side street in there as well. I hate U turns: having to slow down, turn (on a slippery wet road, no less) and speed up again is an unpleasant process that costs both time and momentum. This mile takes a bit of a mental toll that is only slightly alleviated by passing several people (one of them a woman) who are clearly having even less fun than me just now.

Mile 5 shaded darker, like my frame of mind at that point

The pacers are gone and after that mile split, I'm thinking anything under 42 minutes will be a miracle. Mental arithmetic isn't my strong suit even when my brain isn't being fried by the experience of running over large hills in the rain (which is trying valiantly to stop but somehow unable), but they're so far ahead of me that I can't see how I won't be running a PW this morning. Grrr.

The final mile starts with a very welcome downhill stretch and I know that beyond this it will be all dead flat from North Steyne to the finish line at the other end of the beach. There's a person with a red shirt and ponytail about 50 metres ahead of me; could it be another chick for me to catch? In this era of hipsters with manbuns it can be hard to tell, and nope, it's a guy. At least the rain has stopped, so I might try to catch him anyway.

No more hills is definitely a reason to smile

To my enormous surprise, almost as soon as I make it to the flat part I can suddenly see one, no, both of the 40 minute pacers. One is actually stopped and is waving another runner ahead of them; could it be possible that they went out too fast?? This would not be the first time such a thing has happened - for me it's a bit of a final boost to morale and enough to get me sprinting towards the finish line with every bit of energy I have left.

Final 0.2: 5:55 (3:40)

The effort I manage to put in for this final stretch is rewarded with a race photo in which I actually look like I'm running! I have almost no back leg kick in most of my photos, but then it's very rare for me to be actually sprinting, which I'm definitely doing now. 

Booking it past the Corso

As I pass the Corso I can hear the announcer yelling at people to get under 40 minutes - I look up to see the clock approaching 40, which is an utter surprise - I'm fairly sure I'm not going to make it but I'm also not going to miss by much. I hear my friend Nigel yelling from the sidelines as I throw myself at the finish (and Red Manbun Hipster Person, who is highly unimpressed somehow) and finally it's over. Did I make it??

Trying to casually slip in under 40; Nigel in yellow behind and Distraught Red Person in front

Finish time: 40:03 (6:26 = 4:00)

Placement: 11th female, 2nd in AG (F40-49)


No, I did not make it under 40 minutes. But I came a whole lot closer than I thought I would, and on a course like this (with a mindset like mine today) that's something to be pleased about. The placement reflects a fast field - last year only 3 women ran faster than 40:00 - and we all know my feelings about 10 year age groups, so yeah. A solid day's running at any rate.

Nigel joins me for the jog back to the car - we pass and wave wildly at my friend Keith, who is also running Tokyo marathon and has wisely taken on the role of bike marshal today, instead of running like my silly self - and I reward myself once back in Manly with a scrumptious breakfast. Tokyo is only 3 weeks away; I've got some serious tapering to do. Watch this space.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Cadbury Marathon Hobart, January 2018

Summer is usually a quiet season for me; there are precious few races held in the heat, so it usually means a relative down-time and a rare chance to rest. The exception is Tasmania, the southern-most state of Australia, where the Cadbury Marathon (and associated shorter races) is held in Hobart in the middle of January. 

I ran the half there in 2015 and came away with a large haul of chocolate, and although I’m not sure if that was my only motivation for signing myself and Joel up for the marathon in 2018, sign us up I did. He's never been to Hobart and we all know how much I love a bit of running tourism, so there you go.

The Training

Right, well. My intentions for the early part of 2018 were initially to train exclusively for Tokyo marathon, which I’ll be running at the end of February. A January marathon could therefore really only be justified as a training run, which would usually mean running it all at an easy pace, or at best perhaps running up to half at goal marathon pace.

But it’s REALLY HARD to intentionally slow down during a marathon, or at least for me it is. And while I'm not as fast as I was, say, 4 years ago - I'm still in reasonably good shape to run a fast marathon. Looking through past years' results it was clear that a time below 3:10 would have sometimes even been enough to win - definitely to place - and a place means a box of chocolate, so running to place became my definite goal. If you need to understand better, here's a picture of what I got for placing in the half in 2015, and winning the Australian Masters half marathon title in the process:


Hobart, race weekend

The advent in our lives of Parkrun means we’re able to continue the tradition of running a 5K the day before a marathon! I’ve become something of a Parkrun tourist this summer and waste no time in locating one (the only one, in fact) in Hobart. It starts at the very civilised time of 9am so it’s no trouble to be out there in plenty of time, and while we’re standing around waiting I am quite amazed to see a person I recognise – it’s one of the British team of ultra runners I met in Fuxian Lake last September. What a bizarre place to meet again!

A cosmopolitan Hobart Parkrun, with Scotland........ then America........and a plain old Aussie bringing up the rear

We have a nice chat before the run starts and while she’s out of my league it seems she has been injured the past couple of months; still I’m unsurprised to see her streak past me shortly after the gun goes off. The course turns out to be devilishly hilly and it's an out-and-back which means I get to enjoy it twice - fabulous - and the result is probably a Parkrun PW (personal worst) but whatever. It's time to carb load and try to get off our feet, and we succeed moderately well for the rest of the day, although it's extremely boring. Then an early bedtime and the joys of another 4:30am alarm are upon us, and already it's time to head out to the chocolate factory for the race.

The weather is remarkably perfect for marathoning: about 12C/54F and lightly overcast with almost no wind at all. This is quite a departure from recent temperatures (it was 26C the day we arrived) but whatever, we'll take it! If I had more time to think about it I'd probably be complaining about the cold, but there's no time for that so we just suck it up and line up at the start. Here goes nothing.

Miles 1-5: 6:57, 6:37, 6:26, 6:33, 6:44 (pace in min/mile)

The gun goes off and there’s the usual civilised stampede over the timing mats; as in previous years the first few kilometres of the course wind through the streets adjacent to the chocolate factory, so I’m surprised to see that the traffic cones marking the course seem to indicate we should go straight on down the hill.  And in fact that’s exactly what the leaders – including Dion Finocchiaro, a very fast runner whom I’ve met a quite a few races in the past– do, before being hastily called back onto the correct path. Oops!

I’m not sure of my pace but I’m right with Joel, who has decided to see how sub-3 pace feels, at least for the first few miles. The first split beeps and wow, it's WAY too slow and in fact there are FAR too many females ahead of me (at least 6, one of them my British friend Jo, of course) right now. The competitive part of my brain pouts and promptly stamps its foot on the accelerator, and before I really know what's happening, BOOM I'm gone.

"Bye!" I hear from Joel behind me, and by the time I’ve descended the hill and started to make my way out along the road towards Hobart I’ve caught all but 3 of the women ahead, which is gratifying. The leading woman is called Gemma and I’ve heard enough about her from various quarters that I know she’s way faster than me, then not far behind her is Jo, so the only way I’m definitely going to place (and win chocolate) today is if I can put the third one behind me now.

She has a long brown ponytail and is wearing a blue singlet, and wow, she looks lean and seriously fit. “Probably young too” says Joel’s voice in my head, helpfully. “Everyone is these days,” I snap back, and go to make my move to pass her anyway.

Trying hard to get into 3rd place


I'm rather surprised then, to find that as I surge past she accelerates and stays right with me. The mile split is now really way too fast (6:26 = 4:00min/km and is the right pace for a sub-2:50, which I certainly won't be running today) so I slow down and she opens a small gap on me. Wow, this isn't going to be as easy as I thought!

I've got an idea about 2:55 as a goal finishing time - faster than I was expecting to run, but whatever - and in most of the past 5 years this most definitely would have been fast enough to win. But today I'm in 4th and from what I know (or can surmise) about the women ahead of me, it may be the best I can hope for. This seems utterly unfair! But there's nothing to do about it other than settle in for the chase, so I stick to my pace and try not to think to much about the injustice of it all. La la la la laaaaaaa.

Miles 6-10: 6:37, 6:42, 6:46, 6:37, 6:38

I remember the course from 2015 when I ran the half, and this part is fairly boring really as we head along the highway and then out around some parkland by the river. We're heading towards a middling size bridge which we'll cross and then the turnaround will be not too far beyond that. I can still see Jo ahead in 2nd and Gemma about a minute ahead of her in the lead; both seem out of reach, and this person in the blue singlet just isn't slowing down, but I guess there's still quite a long way to go.

As we head up onto the bridge, to my surprise the overall leader is already on his way back from the turn. Wow, he's MILES ahead of the chase pack - which consists of Dion and a guy in a red singlet, both looking very relaxed - it looks like he might win easily. The bridge is rather unpleasantly uphill somehow, I don't quite remember this part from last time, but at least there's not a lot of wind at this stage. 

I hit the turn, the gradient turns downward at last and finally I am able to put in a bit of speed that sees me pull level with my blue-singleted nemesis again. "Right!" says my brain, "time to show her who's boss!" One of my favourite things to do in a race is to throw in a few bursts of speed - generally during the earlier parts, because in the final stages of a marathon, or even a half for that matter, it can be pretty tough to do anything more than just put one foot in front of the other and not fall over - and my legs feel good enough right now to do it, so here goes.

Once back on the bridge I start whizzing past but nope, she speeds up and stays right with me. I slow down very briefly then it's RoadRunner impersonation time again: I pump my arms and do the speed-shuffle with all of my might, but nope, again she accelerates and it's clear I'm not going to win this particular battle.

You've got to hand it to a worthy opponent like this - she's just not going to give up - so I burst out laughing and remark "Ok, let's slow down again, I won't mind!" She laughs too and pretty soon we've having a lovely mid-race chat. Her name is Mel and she's been injured for a really long time; this is her comeback race and - this always surprises the heck out of me - she knows who I am from reading this blog! Well, there goes the element of surprise, I guess.

The quest for chocolate continues

I enquire as casually as I can about her time goal and she replies "Sub-3", to which I can only answer "Wow" because we are quite a long way ahead of that right now. And showing no sign of slowing down either, but I feel fine so I guess we'll just keep running and see what happens.

Miles 11-15: 6:33, 6:50, 6:46, 6:40

Before too long I've told her how I met Jo in China (and that she took 2nd in the brutal 100K race that day, displaying truly formidable speed and endurance) and now I'm having a bit of a whinge about how unfair it is that we're running so fast yet coming 3rd/4th but Mel's not having a bar of it. "We'll just work together and maybe we'll both get chocolate" she tells me firmly - and perhaps Jo is just the tiniest bit closer to us than she was before? - so I nod my agreement and we press ahead.

Half split: 1:27:30 approx (on pace for 2:55)

I'm worried about having to run up the hill to the chocolate factory again but Mel is better-informed than me (did I mention that she's younger, too?) and says we'll be turning before the hill, which is a great relief. Here comes the leader again, still a reasonable way ahead, although Dion and his mate are closer than they were before. "Catch him!" I yell at Dion and laugh as we pass in opposite directions.

Dion (in black) and his chase pack, including Dane (red singlet)

I take care to note the time on my watch as Gemma and then Jo both pass us before we make the second U-turn ourselves, and it seems Gemma is about 4 and Jo about 2 minutes ahead of us at this point. Hmm, this could be about to get interesting. Joel appears and yells "3:15!" with a wave and a large grin; I have no clue what this might mean, is that how far we are behind the leaders or is it the time he thinks he's going to run? Or perhaps bingo numbers? Keno?

We debate this briefly before another shout comes from the side of the road, something about second place: a couple of minutes ago someone told us (wrongly) we're coming 2nd, so I snort and exclaim "No we are not!" but whoops, it's actually Mel's husband and he's letting us know that we're reeling in Jo at last. Wait, what? Really??

Sure enough, look at that: suddenly she's a lot closer as we head along the big road again for our second lap.  Obviously she's pretty much jogging now and a flash of worry goes through my head - hopefully her healing injury hasn't flared up again? Uh oh, this might be bad.

Miles 16-20: 6:36, 6:35, 6:39, 6:55, 6:49

But thankfully she seems okay and waves cheerily as we finally put on a burst of renewed speed to catch her during mile 16. I have absolutely no doubt that injury-free Jo would be miles ahead of us all at this point, but her injury misfortune has had a silver lining for Mel and myself: we've just moved into podium, and therefore chocolate, positions. Hooray!

Heading back out on the boring part of the second lap, this turn of events gives us a burst of speed, or at least we don't slow down much, not until we're on our way past the racecourse again and approaching the bridge.

Mile 19 in blue: the beginning of the end?

At this point I become aware of a strange discomfort under the ball of my left foot, and to my dismay realise that I seem to be developing a blister in that crucial spot, the part of my foot on which my whole gait relies for push-off. I guess I didn't pay enough attention to which socks I was putting on this morning and they are my cheap & nasty general training sort rather than the cushy, $25-a-pair kind that I packed and really should be wearing right now. Ugh.

It hurts with every step and I know that trying to alter my foot strike to protect it is just going to cause issues elsewhere, so really there's nothing to do but keep running. I wonder briefly about complaining about it to Mel, then decide that although I'm already pretty sure she is going to out-sprint me at the end of the race (and I'm fine with that, mainly because I still get chocolate for 3rd, but also because she's younger than me - like everyone - and fitter of course as well), I don't want to be seen to be making excuses. Suck it up, Princess, I tell myself, and just run.

Mile 20, the official point of a marathon where it gets serious, sees us cross the bridge again and I'm moderately annoyed to realise that there's now something of a cross-wind blowing, one that will be in our faces in the final miles on the way back to the finish line. Bugger! I'm almost allergic to headwinds after surviving NYC 2014 and Boston 2015, and Mel certainly isn't big enough to draft behind, although neither am I. We'll just have to cope with it and try to hold on. Dion and Dane rocket past on the other side of the road, in hot pursuit of the leader whose lead is now in fact a LOT smaller than it was. Go guys!

Miles 21-25: 6:44, 6:45, 6:49, 6:58, 6:59

The inevitable late-race slow-down seems to have arrived. All Mel wants to know is if we are still on pace for sub-3, and I'm certain that we are, with enough of a buffer that a few miles slower than sub-3 pace won't make any difference. There are lots of people coming the other way shouting encouragement at us now, which is awesome, and she's much better at responding to them that I am, which is an excellent spin-off too. Having company has been a life-saver for this race: I've run enough races utterly alone to know that it's neither fun nor easy.

So together Mel and I make our way back to the chocolate factory, secure in the knowledge that there's quite a lot of chocolate waiting for us when we finally get there, and trying our best to hold onto the pace despite the ongoing undulations that are now really REALLY making me want to slow down.

Late-race chicken-wing action from my left arm = I'm TIRED

Mile 26 and 0.1: 6:46, 6:36 pace to finish

Right as the final mile starts I hear loud footsteps pounding up behind me, along with breathing that sounds distinctly masculine. Oh my god, is it Joel?? He has form when it comes to showing up and casually jogging past me in the dying stages of a race but no, it's a bloke in a bright blue shirt. He moves ahead of us and, somewhat to my surprise, Mel moves with him.

I haven't put any thought into making a move to secure 2nd place as opposed to 3rd; I guess I've just assumed all along that she'd take 2nd and so now it barely crosses my mind to give chase. At the bottom of the dreaded hill that leads back up to the chocolate factory, a spectator is yelling at me "Catch her! She's not far ahead, catch her!" but my mind is entirely devoted to getting up this hill without losing too much time, and I really don't care that Mel and Blue Shirt guy have disappeared ahead of me around the bend.

Why is there always a photographer right at the top of that bloody hill? WHY?

Finally, thank god, the hill is over and there's just the finish chute to deal with. I'm trying to dredge up any speed I might have left but nope, I've got nothing - a good sign that I've given today's race all that I had to give.

Finish time: 2:57:20 (4:12 min/km, 6:44 min/mile)

Placement: 3rd female, 11th overall, 1st in AG (F45-49)

Mel has gotten me by around 15 seconds and she's stoked; we give each other a sweaty congratulatory hug and chat a bit to Gemma who has won with a handy 2:51. Dion and his red-singleted companion have caught the early leader, Sammy, as it turns out - and in an echo of my race with Mel, Dane (2:24:54) has gapped Dion (2:25:02) on the final hill to take the win by just 8 seconds. Amazing! Jo comes through in 3:02 and Joel shows up well under his predicted time, clocking 3:09 for 3rd in his age group. What a day!

It's chocolate all round when the presentations finally take place, and then off to the hotel for a much-needed shower and perhaps just a tiny bit of chocolate. Mmmm.

Not only am I older, I'm also shorter. Did I mention that?


I could be disappointed with 2:57 - it's far from my own personal best and yet I felt that I gave the race the best effort I could - but on the other hand, chocolate. And Hobart isn't the easiest course so in any case there will hopefully be a training benefit looking forwards to Tokyo.

And when I looked at the Strava data, I realised that we actually ran a pretty solid race. The 5K splits tell the tale: we only lost just under 2 minutes in the final 12km of the race but were otherwise very consistently around 20:45 per 5km.

We end the day drinking beer in a pub with a random South African couple who have also run the marathon today; they're adamant that we must run Comrades someday (the legendary race that seems more like a religion, turning its participants into evangelical devotees the world over) and it's a lot of fun chatting about all the places we've run and all the races we have yet to do.

So even considering the less-than-stellar finish time, any race that leads to chocolate and new running friends is one to be celebrated, indeed!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Stromlo Lightning Strike 50K, November 2017

The story of Stromlo Running Festival has its roots in the devastating bushfires that struck Canberra back in 2003, claiming 4 lives, destroying over 500 homes and razing hundreds of acres of native forest. One of the people who lost their house and everything in it was Australia's fastest-ever marathon runner, Rob de Castella. In the 80s and 90s Deek and many of Australia's other top runners had done much of their training around Mount Stromlo ,and so in 2009 he was instrumental in the development of the new Stromlo Forest Park, which has become Australia's best off-road running and cycling venue.

So Deek remains an important part of the Stromlo Running Festival; you can read more about it here. My own connection to Stromlo began in 2015 when I signed up for the 50K but (for reasons I can no longer recall) was not able to actually run it. This year I seem to have developed a bit of an appetite for sadomasochistic running feats - see my post about the Fuxian Lake 50K as a reference - and so Stromlo made perfect sense. I signed myself and Joel up for the 30K because I knew the course would be super-hilly and honestly, I'm not THAT much of a masochist.

The Lead-Up

After China I ran Melbourne marathon with Joel and then attempted to take some downtime, which for me means running 70-80 miles per week (around 120km) without speedwork or particularly long runs. But since I was only planning to do the 30K option at Stromlo, I didn't bother with any sort of taper; 30K isn't even a particularly long long run when marathon training. In fact, the three weeks before looked more like a peak than a taper:

So it was off we went to Canberra without a second thought, really, for a nice long run and (just in the back of my mind, really) the idea that I might be able to place or even - dare I say it? - win. No big deal.


We find our way to Stromlo Forest Park and only get lost once on the way (for Canberra this is a big achievement), and we've got the new tent that came with Joel's Jeep as well as all the sorts of things that make camping bearable: air mattresses, a machine to blow them up (no more hyperventilating), a big quilt and many pillows, plus comfy chairs on which to sit under the awning. It's only $10 to camp onsite the night before the race and it will save a lot of pre-dawn driving too.

Should camping be this comfortable?

In the process of picking up our bibs, however, an unexpected glitch appears - in the form of an extremely young, fit-looking female who is chatting with the race director. He's been told, by one of Australia's fastest distance runners in fact, that she's going to win tomorrow. Uh oh! I strike up a conversation with her as we check out the dinner options and yep, she's doing the 30K.

Suddenly I'm filled with an inexplicable desire to switch distances.

I'm not exactly trained for 50K, but on the other hand I'd rather do a longer run if I'm not going to win. 30km is not exactly long in terms of weekly long runs - although the elevation profile will more than make up for that - so a longer run would be preferable, and yeah, knowing that the best I can do is second place is definitely a factor in my decision.

Original course profile - we'll be doing the middle part twice - the hills are so big they have their own names

Joel is immediately on board with the decision to almost double the distance (now you know why I married him) and it seems we'll need to come back to effect the official transfer at 5am because the 50K starts at 6am. Another early morning, sigh, but at least we'll hopefully sleep well on our comfy air mattresses! Deek comes around for a chat (awesome) and we happily settle in early in anticipation of the big run ahead.

Race Day

The weather is significantly improved on last night's tempest and I head over to change our bibs and pick up a coffee just after 5am. The wind has dropped but there's still a bit of cloud cover - this will be useful later on if things start to warm up - and all in all, I'm sort of inappropriately excited to take on what is undoubtedly going to be a tough day's running. Perhaps there's a touch of denial there as well, who knows, but in any case we're feeling ready.

Milling around at the start we are a little concerned to note that we're almost the only runners NOT wearing complicated-looking hydration vests; this speaks volumes about our general lack of experience with this sort of mad trail ultrarunning. Joel informs me that we're supposed to be carrying a minimum of 600ml of fluid with us - this is per the race guidelines which I seem to have neglected to read - so we decide he'll refill and bring the Gatorade bottle he's holding.

There are *supposed* to be water tables at least every 5km so I'm sure I'll be ok, but extra water won't hurt either of us. Due to the late change I only have 4 gels with me - everyone around me has significantly more, of course - but whatever, I'll be fine! Denial: not just a river in Egypt, it's a lovely place to hang out before a murderously tough trail race.

Loop 1: 10K
50:16 - pace 8:05 min/mile, 5:01 min/km (hmm)

I look resigned, Kelly looks determined and Joel has disappeared altogether

Off we go, directly into the rising sun. The first loop takes us at first around the flat asphalt of the cycling track where we've all been camped overnight, before heading off onto the fire trails around the side of Mt Stromlo. It undulates quite a bit but all in all, I spend the first few miles thinking this isn't really too bad. In retrospect this is probably due to my legs being still fairly fresh - let's see how I feel about it all in a couple of hours, hmm?

The field has strung out fairly fast and I'm pretty certain I'm the female leader already. Joel and I are running comfortably together, occasionally chatting with other runners but mostly just pacing along together at a conversational pace. The second lap is going to have some unpleasantly large hills and due to the late course change we'll be doing them TWICE, so there's no need to exhaust ourselves now.

A few kms in there's a guy running close with us and so we strike up a conversation; it turns out he's planning to run Boston next year and so we of course have LOTS to say about that, being veteran participants and everything. The conversation is slightly interrupted by the onset of some rather nasty steep uphills - and the first water station, near the top of the hill - but as we turn left and head back down towards the start precinct, he catches us up again and we resume our reminiscences about Beantown.

Pace-wise we're ranging between 7:10 - 8:04 minutes per mile depending on the up/down, and that's perfectly fine by me. But by the time the end of the first loop is approaching it has become clear that it's longer than 10km; this does not bode well for the rest of the race, but perhaps it's Garmin error or something? The water stations have been, well, almost non-existent, so we stop right after the finish/start/end of lap archway to get a drink.

Joel is still carrying our water bottle and our Boston-bound friend (whose name it will turn out is Warwick) is still right with us as we set out on lap number 2, and as we exit the criterium track there's Kelly-Ann with her entourage, about 3 minutes behind. Here goes loop 2!

Loop 2: 10-30K
20km in 1:52:57 - 9:05 min/mile, 5:39 min/km (slowing down hmmm)

The first part of this loop is the same ground we've already covered and we plough onwards with Warwick towards the 5km water station, where this time we turn right instead off left and head off into the hills. The incline up to the water table was a little more unpleasant this time but overall, things aren't so bad for me right now. Joel, though, is moaning faintly about how he's feeling and at one point tells me he'll see me later before falling about 50m behind. Hmm - it's very early still in a looooong race - who knows what will happen? And I'd much rather have company that not, so I keep trundling along and am very pleased when he suddenly catches up again before too long.

At the half-marathon mark things still aren't too bad really - a few sharp hills so far but nothing prolonged - and we're still holding a pace around 8:00 min/mile (5:00 min/km). But mile 14 is a massive reality-check; Warwick has disappeared behind us and for the first time our mile split is over 9 minutes. "That had to be the Mother, right?" asks Joel - that's the name of the biggest hill we'll have to face today - but no, I'm pretty sure it's not. There's another water stop which is also offering lollies, Coke and sports drink, so we stop briefly to refill the water bottle and off we go again.

A long uphill begins at the start of mile 16, and it just keeps on going...and going. It's still not the Mother, though! When she finally does arrive during mile 17, the incline is enough to almost stop us dead in our tracks: ranging from 12-18%, it's a battle not to walk, because honestly it probably would not be much slower. The mile split beeps 10:41 (6:27 min/km) and I just want to laugh - that's probably the slowest mile I've "run" in my life! Joel is ahead but I catch him at the top; together again we struggle through the Kicker (ugh) and then the extremely welcome downhill that follows.

We're still alive! Major thumbs-up

There's one more significant uphill to conquer on our way back to the start but there are 10K runners all over the place and this keeps us moving nicely (pace back around 8:00/5:00) - we pass our friend Ewen, who bellows encouragement - until finally, FINALLY, we are closing on the 30K mark.

Except that we're now closer to 32km by my Garmin, and Joel's Garmin agrees. In fact, 20 miles (32km) has come and gone by the time we turn back into the cycling track and make our way once again to the water stop just past the finish line. Uh, I don't want to think about how far this 50K race might turn out to be in the end. It's looking more like 54km, which is just ridiculous! I'd rather believe that there will be some sort of miraculous short-cut that will bring us in right on 50km, so with this delusional thought off we go on lap 3. Wheee?

Loop 3: 30-50K
20km in 2:00:49 - 9:43 min/mile, 6:02 min/km 

The small undulations that seemed so insignificant on lap 1 are now serious obstacles. It's hard to think about the fact that we have to summit the Mother again this lap, and in fact I really would rather not think about anything just now. We trudge onwards to the first water stop and hang a right turn once more. This time it's my turn to whinge and fall behind - my legs are NOT HAPPY - but Joel (still carrying his magic water bottle) very kindly slows down and so pretty soon I'm able to toughen up and stick with him. Phew!

The thought of the massive hills still ahead is daunting and the only time our pace is faster than 8:00 min/km (in my mind this is the threshold between running and jogging, somehow) is when there's a considerable elevation loss going on. Every incline gets us around 9:00 or slower (5:35 min/km) and it's just a slog, period. Thankfully the sun has gone behind the clouds, but it's getting pretty warm - the Gatorade bottle is doing double duty as a source of water to dump on our heads - and I'm out of gels. Ugh, I might have to pick something up at the next aid station, if it ever comes along.

Finally we're approaching the one that we know heralds the start of the Mother; when we stop I take the opportunity to grab a cup of Coke and to my surprise it goes down very well!  I don't feel thirsty but the extra sugar will hopefully help me deal with what lies ahead, even if only from a mental perspective.

The second lap up the Mother (and that a-hole hill the Kicker) somehow isn't quite as bad as I was expecting: the two miles of torture record splits of 9:00 and 10:38, with no walking (ok maybe just a few paces) and only minimal profanity running through my head, along the lines of "Why the bleep am I doing this, again?" Finally we're done with the major hills and are heading steeply downwards; at this point with quads that feel like jelly, going down is just as dicey as going up and not a lot faster.

31 miles comes and goes, and we're not at the start/finish area, not even close. The much-desired shortcut has failed to materialise! My watch reads 4:20 and that's a personal worst for the distance, but what's really worst is that I'm still running. There are quite a lot of 30K runners on the course and as we pass I hear some of them moaning about the distance, too; it's clearly not a Garmin malfunction, the course really is significantly long. SIGH.

32 miles, then 33 and STILL we're not near the finish line. I'm starting to get really pissed off about this situation: I was mentally prepared to run 50 difficult kilometers but this extension was not in the contract! Even on the flat and downhill stretches it's a struggle to do more than shuffle/jog sullenly along. Joel is still running quite strongly in the final, mercifully flat mile (7:55 pace, which right now feels ridiculously fast) and I deeply resent having to keep up. "Can we please stop SPRINTING??" I snap, and he wisely has nothing to say in reply.

Me: <incoherent yelling>
Him: 😂

At last! We're on the criterium track and the finishing arch is in sight. There are a few people yelling my name - this will turn out to be runners I know from our post-Melbourne celebrations - but I'm too hosed to respond properly, I just want to stop running. Sorry!

photo credit: Cath Tompos

Finish time: 4:44:02 (9:08 min/mile or 5:40 min/km but for the actual distance, more like 8:23/5:12)

Placement: 1st woman, tied with Joel for 5th overall

The total distance run adds up to 33.8 miles or 54.5km, a error that is quite astonishing to contemplate. Fit fast young chick has indeed won the 30K and she's in the shower room complaining that it was more like 32km when I head in there to clean up: I'm caked in salt as well as a liberal helping of dust and dirt up both legs. Ok, so loop 1 was over by just under 1km and the loop 2 that we ran twice was probably over by about 1.5km. Amazing!

It's an exquisite relief to be finished, although my legs don't feel nearly as beaten-up as I would have expected - perhaps that's due to how much slower the pace was than in the other 50K races I've run before this. Back at the tent Ewen and Joel are enjoying a beer, so I stagger around a bit gathering food and then it's time for the presentations; I've won both overall female and my age group, and Joel has won his too! Deek's on the microphone and he apologises for the length of the course, promising it will be fixed for next year - "Good," I tell him "because otherwise I don't think I'd like to come back!"

Cheese! And some alcohol to go nicely with it!


So this was a personal worst by almost an hour (after Fuxian Lake's 3:55:04), although if you allow for the extra distance it was only 25 minutes slower, or thereabouts. The elevation profile is frankly hideous and explains the whole disaster - but further analysis over breakfast and on the ride home shows that we only lost around 8 minutes on the final loop, compared to our first trip up and over the Mother. Almost all the other runners lost a fair bit more; this is proof of our endurance and something to be pleased about for sure!

If this was an ECG I'd be applying the defibrillator paddles, stat

In retrospect this was a pretty fun thing to do, despite the over-the-top difficulty rating. The last-minute switch plus the extra distance made this our longest run ever as well as our first major trail race, the camping was awesome and of course it was a lot of fun to run the whole thing perhaps we will be back next year after all.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Melbourne Marathon, October 2017

So it's probably not a common strategy, pacing a marathon just 2 weeks after racing a 50K in far-from-ideal conditions. But way back in July it seemed like a fine idea, since my sandbagger husband was claiming he "just wanted to BQ". For those unaware, a BQ is a Boston Qualifier, a time that allows a runner to register for the prestigious Boston Marathon which has been held in April every year since 1897.

Joel's BQ time is 3:25 - like a fine wine, one's chances of qualifying are improved with advancing age - and he was muttering something about trying for sub-3:20, so I figured that if I took things pretty easy after the 50K, I'd be totally fine to run with him the whole way. Things, however, took a different turn.

By early September the Wagga version of Parkrun had started up and from the way he was running it was blindingly obvious (at least to me) that sub-3:20 was going to be a very soft goal. The numbers drifted inexorably down towards 3 hours (despite some serious last-minute sandbagging) until I knew that I was going to have some very serious recovering to do after China if I wanted any chance of keeping up at all.

So I ran very very little, really, in the two weeks between races, and we set off for Melbourne with my legs feeling sort of ok, or at the very least not completely dead. And not injured, which probably counts for a lot. Sure, what remained of my left big toenail was being held on by a large Bandaid and my right foot was sporting several nails in various states of disengagement from the underlying tissues. What could possibly go wrong?

Race Weekend

Ah, Melbourne. We love this city - I've been living out of Sydney for long enough now that I've gotten over my inbred prejudice against our southern rival city - and Joel has lots of stuff to show me from his trip in June with his kids. Most of it involves walking, however, which is not so good, and Asian food, which is fine although I am still sick of food after how much I've had to eat recently and how little I've been able to run. We do get the chance to meet up with our running friend Amelia, which is awesome, although even with her enthusiasm for ultras I am STILL not keen on further extending my racing ambitions. Oh well.

Hello Melbourne!

The race expo is moderately underwhelming and it's sort of weird not to be going to the elite athlete briefing on Saturday, but whatever. I don't need that sort of pressure and anyway, I'm here to "pace" Joel. Note the quotation marks because seriously? It's going to be more about keeping up than setting any sort of pace. I know that already, no matter what King Sandbagger may be proclaiming at the moment (although to his credit he has now admitted to a rough, but much more appropriate, goal of 3:07). Perhaps my main job is going to be providing an appealing back view to chase? In that vein I open my race outfit choice up to the fans of INKnBURN (my awesome clothing sponsor) and the outcome is shown below:

Left wins, 70 votes to 60, in a victory for cute over bad-ass

We’re staying in a very convenient location with lots of top-notch restaurants nearby (not to mention AC/DC Lane, which to a serious music nut like Joel is some sort of mecca, one that I naturally have never heard of before) so we pop out at 6pm for an early dinner. You’d think that a place called “Meatball” might not be a great option for carb-loading, but it’s absolutely delicious and we both come away feeling satisfied but not overloaded. Yum!

Acca dacca, yo dude

Race Day

We’ve decided to skip the baggage drop-off and just head straight for the starting area, which is less than 1km from our hotel front door. It’s a bracing 7C/45F outside and all I have is an old long-sleeved tshirt for throw-away warmth, but somehow I’m never seriously cold and so missing out on the luxury of the elite room doesn’t cross my mind more than once. OK, maybe twice.

At 6:30am when we arrive there’s pretty much nobody lined up yet so we bag a position right behind the barriers and settle in to wait. My friend Kelly-Ann shows up, she's pacing a friend, and I see my speedy friend Fiona lining up with the elites. Time passes pretty quickly, really, and then suddenly we’re moving forward to crowd up behind them. There’s no time to think much more about it – time to see what happens! (sub-3, cough cough)

1 - 5km: 22:02 ( 7:05 min/mile, 4:24 min/km)

Off we go at a pace that seems perfectly reasonable; ok, no, it seems too easy really. Quite a lot of people, including the 3:00 pace group, pass us in the first couple of miles. My legs want to join them but Joel’s not having it: every time I pull ahead a bit I have to slow back down because he is so determined not to go too fast.

Inside my head there’s a brief debate about whether I should push my luck and see if I can make him speed up – I’m sure he’s got it in him to run 2:59 today – but then if it all blows up later on (unlikely but possible) it will be completely my fault and I’d rather not have to hear about that all the way home tomorrow.

No, I tell myself; keep your mouth shut, Rachel and just focus on letting him run his own race. To that end I now offer to carry the water bottle he has with him, and onward we press at a fairly steady rate.

Staying behind, mouth (and eyes) staying shut

5 - 10km: 22:06 (7:06, 4:25)

The slight uphill turn towards Albert Park lake inspires me to speed up a bit; “6:46” comments Joel sharply as the mile split beeps on his Garmin, but mine doesn’t quite agree. As if to prove the point he falls back further than before and I slow down appropriately, commenting “7:03” when the next mile beeps a more acceptable split.

This part of the course by the lake is so pretty and the sky is lightening up beautifully now, I’m really enjoying just being out here running. It seems ridiculous that it has only been 2 weeks since my 50K, and a flash of panic goes through my mind – I’m probably feeling more fatigue in my legs than I realised and what if everything is about to go pear-shaped?? 

No, you’re fine, I tell myself sternly, there’s nothing to worry about (even though perhaps there will be later) so just keep running and don’t think about it yet. The water stations have been fine so far, the course isn't too crowded, and being behind the 3:00 horde is no doubt also helping in that regard. It's time for gels and between us we finish off the water before pitching the bottle as we pass through a water stop.

10 - 15km: 21:51 ( 7:01, 4:22)

Ooh, what’s this? The first mile beeps and a slight acceleration appears to be happening! I look over at Joel, then down at my Garmin, then back at him. Sometimes when we run together we end up in this vicious cycle of each accelerating to keep up with the other, each feeling that they're the one lagging behind, til the pace gets so fast that someone cracks it. The next mile ticks over, again faster than the previous one.

"This speeding up thing IS NOT MY DOING," I announce firmly, mindful of my supportive role. Ominously, Joel immediately replies "I accept full responsibility!" Oh my god, this is going to get ugly. He's speeding up and who knows where it will end? More doubts flash through my brain but I keep them to myself; so far I'm fine and secretly I decide I'm going to at least keep up until mile 20 (32km). No matter what that entails. Gulp.

15 - 20km: 21:35 (6:56, 4:19)

By now we are on the long stretch that will take us up and down along the bay. The weather is perfect, there's no wind at all really, and we get to see the race leaders as the pass by on the other side of the road - two Africans who are miles ahead of everybody else. I'm watching for the 2:50 pacer but to my surprise there isn't one; I still haven't forgotten how they passed me at 40K in 2013, inspiring a mental meltdown (I finished in 2:50:19, so it wasn't a nuclear-grade one, but still). 

As we complete the U-turn at the northern end and head off in the other direction, my Garmin beeps the split and I can see that we are now under 3:00 pace (6:51 min/mile, we're doing 6:49 just now). For the metric heads that's 4:14 min/km vs 4:16; at this rate we might well catch that enormous pace group. I didn't take the opportunity to check how far behind we are right now, but I'll be able to do it at the other end of the beachfront stretch. Hmmm.

Him: "Are you doing ok?"
Her: "Perfect, fine, never better!" <grits teeth> 

20 - 25km: 20:53 (6:40, 4:08)

The acceleration continues; I'm starting to feel it for sure but trying hard not to betray this fact to Joel. There's a small uphill segment as we approach Luna Park, and he takes the opportunity to remark on how much "all the hill training" (aka our weekly runs with the Wagga RoadRunners, who ironically seem to run on almost every surface other than actual roads) has helped him - "This feels like nothing!" he says enthusiastically. Um, not to me it doesn't! 

More and more I'm thinking that we are definitely going to be parting ways later on. Perhaps mile 20, or maybe 22? Hopefully I can make it that far! This part of the course goes on and on forever and the only thing that distracts me from my increasingly fatigued-feeling legs is that suddenly there are people coming the wrong way: some of the men, not the outright leaders but a few of the guys not far behind them, seem to have been misdirected at a set of traffic lights and have stayed left when they should have gone right. Oops.

Finally the turn comes and I watch for the 3 hour pace group: they're just on 3 minutes ahead of us now. I'm fairly sure I won't be able to make up that much time, although I suppose there's a fair bit of race left. Can Joel do it? I think I might be about to find out.

25 - 30km: 21:15 (6:50, 4:14)

Kelly passes on the other side of the road and I get an enthusiastic high-five. Back past Luna Park we go - a bit of an uphill here, and thankfully we slow down just enough to keep me from hitting the panic button already - and through some sharp turns back towards St Kilda Road. So far, so good, but what's this up ahead? The road is full of half marathoners: I remember this part, and from memory it doesn't last too long.

But for now it's a bit of an unexpected hiccup and Joel is freaking out in a low-key, single-expletive sort of a way. "It won't last long" I assure him, and we stick to the far right side of the road where the crowd is a little thinner. I start yelling "MARATHONERS COMING THROUGH!" but lots of them have headphones in and they just can't hear me. It's using up precious energy to be dodging and weaving, not to mention bellowing at and occasionally shoulder-blocking them, (ok, maybe not that last part) but whatever. I just need this part to be over quickly so I take the lead and Joel follows me through the crush until the courses split again. Phew!

We made it through alive!

30 - 35km: 20:58 (6:45, 4:12)

With that shemozzle behind us, we're free to speed up again, sigh. I'd much rather not, and when I fall behind a little, Joel slows and asks if I'm okay. There's no way I'm letting him slow down on my account, so I reply that I'm fine and speed up again, but add that if I do slow down he should just take off. At this point I'm thinking that 35K is going to be my goal: stay with him that far and then let myself relax a bit.

As if by telepathy, Joel turns to me and says "Just stay with me til 22 miles, then I'm gonna take off." Phew! 35km = 22 miles so if I can just make it that far, my work will be done. There's no doubt that the work of muscling through the crowd (while simultaneously speeding up even more) has taken more out of my legs, and ahead unfortunately I can see we are about to merge again. WTF??

Joel is furious and the crowd is no thinner at this point; we repeat our performance of yelling and weaving and the course veers left then right around a corner and into a tunnel where Joel starts to pull ahead. He looks around for me and I struggle to accelerate, but my legs are not interested. "We just raced a 50K," they whisper bitterly, "why do you hate us so?"

Finally we're in the Botanic Gardens again and the two races separate once more. 35km is coming up - not to mention the uphill section that wiped the floor with me 2 years ago - and a mental switch marked "I'M DONE NOW" flips itself in my brain. Ahead of me Joel turns and waves, I wave back and then I slow down. Just like that.

36 - 40km: 22:17 (7:10, 4:27)

The mile split up the hill is my slowest of the race but whatever, I don't care. I'm passing people and that's good enough for me - although I'm inspired to speed up a bit again when the course turns downhill once again. Maybe I should be trying for sub-3, or at least to keep up with Joel (this may turn out to be the same thing), but I just can't. And surprisingly enough I'm fine with that!

I'm actually very impressed that I've made it this far without blowing up, and I'm quite thrilled that Joel has enough left in the tank that he has been able to take off like he has. All week he's been pooh-poohing my suggestions that he is fit for sub-3, or very close, but it looks like perhaps I was right. And who doesn't love being right, hmm?

Late-race shenanigans

40 - 42.2km: 9:03  (6:44, 4:11)

We're both passing people left, right and centre at this stage of the race, which is always so much fun. With less than a mile left there's a woman in my sights: she's walking! As I approach she breaks into a jog but within 30 seconds is walking again. That must feel so bad - clearly she went out for sub-3, but it's not going to happen - and I feel even more grateful that despite the proximity of my recent 50K, I haven't slammed into the wall during this race.

I have no idea how far ahead Joel is by now but he's definitely out of sight. All this assassin-mode stuff inspires me to speed up again, and before I know it I'm on Batman Avenue again (I love that name) heading for the entrance to the MCG. In the tunnel I have to dodge a few slow half marathoners yet again, but then finally I'm on the mats and grass on my way to the finish arch. Mission accomplished!


Finish times: 
Rachel  3:02:02 (6:56 min/mile, 4:19 min/km)
Joel  300:19 (6:52, 4:16)

We find each other easily in the crowd of finishers; Joel looks at me, eyebrow cocked all Maxwell Smart and says "Missed it by THIS much, 99!" So close - if only I'd been more insistent about running faster in the early miles  - but it is what it is, and that's 7 whole minutes faster than his predicted finish time.

In fact, both of us have run negative splits, which is a rare and difficult thing to do. Clearly Joel is still capable of sub-3, and I'm chuffed to have backed up as well as I have after China. The rest of the day is a blur of food and yeasty beverages, as we end up in Southbank in the rather dangerous company of post-race Kelly and all her mates. An afternoon drink turns into a pub/restaurant crawl that lasts late into the night - it's so much fun hanging out with other runners after a big race! - until eventually we all crawl home exhausted.

Cheese! And pizza, and beer, and wine

Later, on checking the official results, we discover that I've won my age group. What a fantastic weekend!