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!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fuxian Lake Highland 50K, China, September 2017

I might as well come clean right now; I only really started doing 50K events in order to qualify to represent Australia at the World Championships, hoping to do so in 2017. My 3:35 at Ned Kelly in October last year was a solid ‘B’ qualifier but due to various issues, the planned 2017 event  - scheduled to take place in November in Dohar, Qatar – was cancelled during the first half of the year.

“Right, that’s me done with ultras” I thought at the time. But of course, when the opportunity arose in July to apply for selection to run a 50K in China in late September, I jumped right on it. I was pretty excited when I was chosen to run in what would be a trial World Championships event, and it seemed fateful that this year I wasn’t able to compete at the Gold Coast marathon, because that meant my last marathon was way back in April – so at least I’d be very well-rested. And hopefully well-trained!

The Training

Ah, well, yes. I did manage to put together a decent sort of a build-up, eventually: my training mileage topped out at 104 miles per week (162km) but in terms of average miles I was somewhat derailed, first by a week of skiing and then by a small hamstring niggle that surfaced after I raced the City2Surf in Sydney directly after the ski trip.

Stupid, yes, running 14 hilly kilometres at top speed after a week of using different muscles, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I also had foolish intentions of doing the Wagga Trail marathon as a training run, but the niggle made me temporarily sane enough to realise that this would be a supremely bad idea, so I sat it out and spent the weekend volunteering instead.

As it happened, the race was won in 3:14 by a local runner whom I beat in 2015; I’m certain I would have absolutely thrashed myself trying to keep up with her (and likely failed anyway) so my threatened injury was indeed a blessing in disguise. And a short consult during that day with my superhero physio Marcus meant that the niggle was history just a few days later, so I was able to resume training with gusto. Hooray!

The Travel

It’s much further to China than you’d think, given that the time difference is fairly minimal (they're only 2 hours behind), but the trip goes smoothly and without much fanfare Joel and I find ourselves on the official shuttle to the Hilton Fuxian Lake, the official race hotel/resort. On the bus also is Jodie, our Aussie team captain who is the vice-president of AURA. The trip is around 90 minutes and it passes quickly as we chat about running and rubberneck at the scenery, which is stunning.

The view approaching the Hilton; the actual hotel itself. Massive!

And very mountainous, which could be a problem. The word “highland” in the title of the event is a bit of a clue: the whole event is going to take place at over 1700m of elevation, maxing at out 1911m at around the half-way point. I live at sea level and surprisingly enough I haven’t had any opportunity to do any altitude training, although plenty of people have asked me whether I have. Am I the only one who can’t just quit their job and abandon their family to move to Colorado for a few months for the sake of running? Really?

But whatever, I’ll worry about that later. The Hilton is palatial, the food a never-ending buffet of delicious, different and sometimes utterly bizarre Asian cuisine, the pool is stunning and our room spacious with an amazing view. There’s nothing much to do, however, other than rest and eat, which at this point in time is perfect. 

Meat floss buns? Chicken gizzards???
I'm fine sticking with cute piggie dumplings and my usual all-carb favourites, truly I am.

Eat, rest, sleep, repeat.

And it’s super-cool to have the opportunity to hang out for a few days in the company of a large group of world-class ultra-runners. However, everyone looks way fitter (“and younger” adds my helpful husband) than me and I’m pretty much completely intimidated, even though we have met a lot of new people and all of them seem really nice. Joel returns from running on the treadmill in the basement gym to report that “a fast young-looking Polish chick" is in there pounding out intervals at a seriously fast pace. I’ve seen her walking around and heard that she’s a 2:38 marathoner who is running the 50K; ok, well, there’s our winner right there.

There's a rather large contingent of Aussies and Jodie of course knows EVERYBODY so pretty soon we have assembled a fantastic group of friendly people to talk to while we eat and rest, with lots of countries represented. And what's even better is that I can wear sandals without having to worry about the state of my toenails, because everyone is in the same situation. How awesome!

In our time-honoured tradition of not resting enough on the day before a big race, Joel and I somehow decide to rent a tandem bike on Friday and cycle into the nearby town in search of a store to buy strange unknown Chinese foodstuffs. The road is populated with speeding trucks, ridiculously overloaded 3-wheeled utes and a lot of vehicles that look like eggbeaters on wheels - what could possibly go wrong?

"I'm not sure what this is that I'm drinking, but it tastes pretty good!"

Thankfully we survive the trip and although pedalling back up the hill to the hotel is much harder than it should be - this really should make me think more carefully about tomorrow's course, but it doesn't - I head off to bed that evening in a state of blissful denial, ready to attempt my 3rd-ever 50K race.

Race Day

The time difference means I’m easily awake at 5:45am; I dress quickly in the clothes laid out the night before and head down to the breakfast buffet. After all the food I’ve eaten over the past couple of days, I’m really not at all hungry but for the sake of fuelling (not to mention the need to stimulate some pre-race bathroom activity) I grab a coffee and half a waffle, and sit at a table to pick unenthusiastically at it.

I've even remembered to put on sunscreen for once

By 6:30am I’m up in the lobby again where I easily find Jodie and Tia. Jodie has an Australian flag and to my surprise a steady stream of Chinese runners starts finding its way over to take a photo of, or selfie with, one or all of us. We’re celebrities! Then suddenly I realise I don’t have my timing chip – it’s the old-school sort that you have to thread your laces through – and this inspires a short warm-up panic and sprint back to the room to get it. Phew, that was close!

The bus ride to the start line is a short and easy one, but once there the facilities are somewhat lacking. There’s no elite area and the race doesn’t start for more than an hour – we’ve been bussed in early especially for the starting ceremony – so we end up perched on a kerb just killing time. More selfies and photos ensue: my image is now stored on an impressive number of Chinese mobile phones, although why anyone would want it is still beyond my understanding. It’s a fun way to pass the time, though, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

The Aussie contingent: Tia (behind the flag), Michelle, Georgie and Gary
On the left: a person I'll get a closer look at in about 30km (British runner Jo Meek) and our adopted American, Meghan

After a while the invited runners are herded onto the road behind the starting archway, pretty soon we’re all sprawled on the asphalt and I’m actually sort of cold, although that’s not likely to last for long. There are elaborately-dressed drummers and dancers performing on the other side of the line, as well as cheerleaders doing cheering and someone making a long and earnest speech in Chinese, but the line of volunteers between them and us (not to mention the large start/finish arcade) means I can’t really see what they are doing. I’m just sitting here getting impressions from the road surface in my skin. Bring on race time!

Really wish I could see past all those people and that big arch thingy
Team AU with bonus speedy American!
photo credit: some Chinese person with Gary's camera

Start - 5km: 21:35 (6:55 min/mile, 4:18 min/km)

Off we go! I’m expecting the 5K runners to tear past me at top speed – there are over 3000 of them, after all – but nothing much happens, really, as everyone starts running at an appropriately sedate ultra-style pace. Eventually one sort of jogs past at about the 2km mark, followed by another who is wearing a full tracksuit and appears to be mostly running backwards while taking selfies. Evidently the winning time is not going to be particularly fast and I now regret 1. Not knowing about it sooner and 2. Not entering Joel, as he would most definitely have been able to win easily.  Oh well.

Choosing my own pace now is a slightly interesting exercise; I know it’s going to be hot today (although the clouds are doing an impressive job so far of keeping the temperature down) and it’s already extremely humid, but the unknown variable is how much the altitude is going to affect me.

Anyway, for the moment my body has decided to attempt an approximation of my usual 50K race pace, which is around 7 min/mile. It feels okay, well, actually in fact it feels a bit too difficult. But I’m going to ignore that for now and just see what happens. There’s much more of a crowd that I expected, spectating and clapping and yelling out a phrase that I will come to know well during the next 50km. Lots of them are very excited but more appear slightly bemused, like they can't figure out what all these mad people are doing, but are too polite to look away.

A representative mix of Chinese spectators: fairly puzzled, vaguely interested, SUPER excited
photo credit: Edit Berces

The lake is to my left and now the course turns right: there’s an out-and-back that eventually will give me my only chance to see how far ahead/behind the other women in the race are. I don’t know how relevant that’s going to be, since I have absolutely no expectation of placing in this race (ok well maybe only a tiny one, cough cough). Yeah, right. Anyway.

5 – 10km: 22:17 (7:10, 4:27)

I’ve been able to figure out that I’m in 4th place, with Dominika the Polish speedster way out in front, a tiny Chinese woman in 2nd and a Czech in 3rd (running with a German bloke with a long ponytail). This isn’t a bad situation, but after the turn I can see that there are many others – including Michelle and Ella of the Aussie contingent – not at all far behind me.

The key is going to be holding on to a decent pace; I’m acutely aware that there’s a massive hill coming up, starting around the 23km mark, so who knows what might happen? For now it’s enough to be running and enjoying the experience, so I focus on trying to do just that. I’ve slowed down a tiny bit but the effort level feels the same, so whatever.

10-15km: 22:24 (7:12, 4:28)

So far, so good, well almost. The crowd is still out in force and I’m surprised – not in a negative way – about how stringent the crowd control seems to be. There’s barely been a minute when I haven’t been able to see at least one volunteer, vigilantly watching the road for runners, and in many areas the road is taped off.

At one point a couple of kids dash out onto the road as I approach around a sweeping turn: an angry policeman instantly materialises and rushes at them, waving his arm and shouting loudly. They scurry back under the tape and I whizz by unmolested. Better than I can say for even major marathons – a friend of Joel’s was clotheslined by a child at Chicago, of all places – so that in itself is impressive.

I’m still hearing this repeated phrase that in fact will continue for the entire race: “Jai-yo!” and it’s being yelled at me by everyone from small kids to grown men to groups of giggling teenagers. It must mean “let’s go!” although might possibly also translate as “you’re mad!” I spend a minute trying to memorise it so I can ask someone later on.

15-20km: 22:48 (7:20/4:33)

The course moves away from the lake now and I figure we must be approaching the start of the hills soon, but nothing much happens. The aid stations have so far been pretty decent – every 5km there’s a series of tables with anything and everything a runner could want, including white bread, bananas and gels (even on the very first one) – and my decision not to bother with personal drinks has been vindicated, as I’ve been able to grab at least one cup and a water bottle at each. At one, the volunteers were practically falling over the tables trying to hand me stuff, and when I went to unscrew the lid of my water bottle it was already off! The splat of water I got in my face was quite nice, really, although a bit unexpected.

An aid station, complete with enthusiastic volunteers
photo credit: Edit Berces

The weather so far is not too bad; it’s warm and humid (and I’m definitely sweating considerably more than I usually do in races) but the sun is behind the clouds still and really, it could be much worse. It hasn’t escaped my notice that my overall pace is starting to slide just the tiniest bit, which I suppose might be due to the altitude. And the small incline that has just begun….so far it’s not too bad. As they say in the classics, “famous last words”.

20 – 25km: 23:54 (7:42, 4:47)

What’s coming up is foreshadowed by the fact that as I pass the medical tent at 20km, a male Chinese runner is flat out on his back in there with a nurse in a snappy uniform fussing over him. How can he be in such bad shape so early in the race? Then I look up to see not one, but two, more runners suddenly in my sights. Wait, where did they come from? 

The road is suddenly going upwards at an alarming rate; I catch and pass the men rather quickly. Is this the big hill? It’s steep but short – I pump my arms, keep my legs turning over – and already I’m heading back down again. For about half a mile I feel smugly confident, but I’m counting my chickens before they’ve hatched: at almost exactly the 24km mark, things change again, and much for the worse. We’re going up again, the sun has just come out, and the biggest challenge of the race is upon me.

Seriously, look at that hill.

25 – 30km: 23:35 (7:35, 4:43)

The next 2 miles/3km are a relentless upward slog to the course’s maximal elevation of 1911m above sea level (just under 6400ft), at a gradient that I will later find is around 4-7%, but at the time feels like about twice that. And I seriously cannot breathe; it's the altitude and it's come to get me NOW.

My pace slows to a crawl; Gary (who is running the 100km, for goodness’ sake) appears over my right shoulder and passes me rapidly by. I gasp out “Survival mode”, to which he responds grimly “Yep” and then he’s gone.

There are more male runners ahead and both Gary and I catch another 2 of them in short order; I feel like I’m dying, honestly, but they are going even more slowly than me. A mile split beeps so I stupidly look at my Garmin and see the slowest mile I have ever run in any race anywhere: 8:43 min/mile, which is the pace I usually jog half-asleep down my street in the mornings. Wow, that went bad pretty quickly.

I decide to start trying to run the tangents, but that promptly takes me out into the middle of the road. The sun’s beating down, the humidity is still awful, and out on the concrete road surface it’s sort of like being in an oven. Better to stay in the shadows on the shoulder and just wear the extra mileage that might bring.

Finally around 27km I crest the hill and an equally steep downhill 3km stretch ensues. Gary is still within sight but he gaps me now quite quickly. I’m having to brake with my quads to control my descent – it’s too steep to just let go – and I sort of suck at downhill running anyway with my short, shuffly gait. But at least I don’t have to keep going upwards. At least there’s that.

But now a female runner in black and yellow - it's the unidentified British runner who was talking to Meghan at the start! - comes whizzing past like I’m standing still. Ok, I sort of wasn’t expecting that, and now I’m in 5th place. I need to pick it up again, but my legs aren’t interested. The best I can hope for now is not to tank completely; time goals flash through my head and I decide that under 4 hours is probably still achievable. Just get this thing over with, please.

30-35km:  24:43 (7:57, 4:56)

But the hills aren’t done with me yet. The woman in yellow and black disappears over the horizon (ok, maybe not quite that far, but at least from my sight), the road bottoms out and almost immediately we’re climbing again. Oh god, this is totally unfair. It’s way too early in the race to give up – although I’d really, really like to at this point – and also way too early to be feeling as trashed as I do. But there’s nothing to be done other than dig in and keep going.

We’re back down close to the lake now and spectators are once again out in force and yelling “JAI –YO!” Later I will learn that it means, literally, “add petrol!” and right now some rocket fuel would sure be nice. At least I’ve been able to take my gels and swallow enough water to wash them down without gagging or upsetting my stomach – that’s got to count for something. That and the 10,000 grams of carbohydrate I ate yesterday.

Sane locals, watching crazy people run
photo credit: Edit Berces

35 – 40km: 24:17 (7:48, 4:52)

This 5km stretch is mostly memorable for the fact that it’s where another female runner passes me; she’s a tall woman wearing that intimidating briefs/bra combination favoured by the super-elites. Now I’m 6th and not happy about it – she pulls ahead far slower than the other woman did though (they will turn out to be teammates from Great Britain, and both very distinguished runners indeed) so I can still see her for a long, long time – I’m waiting to feel inspired to give some sort of chase but it never happens. I just keep running.

40 – 45km: 24:22 (7:50, 4:53)

At 40km the course veers onto a smaller road to the left and things quieten down considerably. I grab a water bottle from the aid tables and decide to keep it with me for a while. During the pre-race briefing we were warned not to litter - in fact, the absence of litter of any sort by the side of the road has been quite remarkable - so I don't want to just pitch it anywhere. I've got my empty gel packets shoved down the side of my bra but there's not enough room in there for a water bottle, ha ha.

The next interesting thing that happens is suddenly I can see another female runner ahead - it's the Chinese woman whom I saw in 2nd place so long ago - and wow, she's pretty much walking! Back into 5th position I go, and past a sign that marks 42.2km; my watch says 3:16, wow, that's awful.

The scenery, however, is amazing. The road passes by a proper summer resort called "Sunshine Coast" and there are paddleboats and umbrellas on a tidy little beach. I catch a glimpse of an island off the coast; it looks amazing but I can't look for long, for fear of tripping and landing on my face. At least I seem to be holding my current pace, like being stuck in 2nd gear really, but it could be worse. Right?

Solitary Island, so picturesque

45 – 50km: 25:03 (8:03, 5:00)

Finally it's the last 5km of the toughest race of my life. I just want to be done, but the race organisers seem to have decided to torture me by putting enormous markers every kilometre from 45 onwards. I try all the tricks I can come up with to distract myself, but all I can think about is how many kilometres I have left to go. I can still see 4th place ahead of me but during this section she pulls gradually away as I struggle to keep my pace steady.

I can feel a couple of my toenails now and they're not impressed with me; I can only imagine how they'd feel if I still had over 50km to run. I've passed quite a few male 100K runners by now - many of them walking - and I can't imagine that many of those will finish.

Finally the end is in sight, but I can't even dredge up much of a kick to get there. My Garmin beeps mile 31: 7:48 min/mile, which has been pretty much my average pace since the big downhill ended. Oh well, at least I didn't end up walking. I round the final corner and gratefully break a finish tape that is being held up for me, then a volunteer grabs me, wraps me in a towel and asks "You need lie down?" No, thanks, I just need to stop running, that's all!

Finish time: 3:55:04 (7:32 min/mile, 4:41 min/km) - a personal worst by 13 minutes!!

Placement: 5th female

I didn't give up!

The finish area is perched on the side of quite a narrow road - the tents hang over the side of a small cliff, actually - and there's precious little room to do much of anything. I'm soaking wet so after I've sat down for a bit and had some water, I set off in search of my gear bag and a place to change clothes. This takes a lot more effort than I was expecting, in no small part because many of the lovely volunteers have absolutely no English and can't understand my attempts at sign language.

Finally they get it, find my bag and then empty out one of the minibuses so I can contort myself painfully out of my sodden race gear and into my clothes. Wow, that feels better! By the time I get back to the finish area, all the Aussies bar Jodie are there, and there's really nowhere to sit. And the only appealing food on offer is bananas, although if I wanted a cheese stick or a whole cucumber I'd totally be in luck right now.

So we take the opportunity to get the first bus back to the hotel, even though the process involves an unpleasantly long walk, a terrifying trip on the wrong side of the road with ONCOMING TRAFFIC (our driver seems completely unconcerned; every single non-Chinese passenger, however, is freaking out) and then a bus change at the start/finish area.

The finish line tents, partially in the lake; most of team AU post-50K on the way home

The general consensus back at the hotel - many hours later, after everyone has returned, some have graced the medical tent with their presence, some have placed (Tia 4th woman in the 100K!) and all are utterly exhausted - is that this was THE TOUGHEST RACE EVER. Every single person is saying the same thing, albeit in different languages; most memorably, loudly in Swedish, from the 3rd placed woman in the 100K, as we sit in the lobby bar chatting to another Swedish runner whom we've just met.

Some much-needed post-race rehydration; with Johanna, who finished in the 50K right after me

The combination of heat, humidity, sun (in the second half particularly), concrete and altitude has done a major number on many of us; most of the 50K runners have finished around 30 minutes slower than their PR times and for the 100K people it's more like an hour. Like me, our new friend Meghan found she just couldn't pick her pace up again after that monster hill - unlike me, she still had 70km left at that point. Gary tells of collapsing at 75km, but with nobody coming past for 15 minutes as he lay by the road, eventually he just got up and kept going, finally passing out over the finish line and getting carted off for oxygen and several litres of IV fluids.

So I don't feel too bad about my result, actually I feel pretty good, although I am reconsidering my goal of running in next year's World Championships if they are going to be in Fuxian Lake! All in all it was a fantastic experience, however, and so much fun to make new running friends from all around the globe. And by next year I'll probably have forgotten all the bad parts so maybe I'll be back after all. You just never know.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Bay to Bay HM, June 2017

It was a very sad day for our family when my daughter's best friend (since preschool!) moved 6 hours' drive away to the Central Coast at the end of last year. Amelia had been pining for her friend Amara and pestering me to take her to visit ever since, until I finally caved in at the start of June. There was only one weekend that it would work for us to travel up there so I started looking for things to keep the rest of us amused while she was hanging out with her BFF.

To my amazement I found the Bay to Bay Running Festival, with a half marathon for me and a kids' 3K run for Jack on that very Sunday morning! So I signed us up, found accommodation right near the finish area (inside the Central Coast stadium, a fact that had sports-mad Jack very enthused) and told Amelia the happy news.

It wasn't until after I had that all arranged that I bothered to check the website about prize money and past results - only to find that the female winner in 2016 had run 1:23:xx and that she had won no less than $1000 for her trouble. Wow! So a win would actually set me up to make a profit on the weekend, even after petrol, food, accommodation and entertainment costs? Mind = blown.

The Training

Since Boston I haven't really been running as much as I used to, but I've found myself surprisingly Zen about this fact. After my 1:23:07 in Sydney in May I knew I was fit enough to run something similar - or hopefully faster - on a flatter course. But of course it only takes one fast young chick to turn up on race day and my hopes of winning could all be dashed.

So I settled for the goal of placing in the top 3, and since there wasn't actually any time left to train, really, did no specific preparation at all other than the week preceding race week itself (see below)

That week I managed to bang out a single interval workout (that was only slightly hampered by my Garmin conking out with one interval left to run) consisting of 8 x 0.5 miles averaging 6:21 pace (3:57 min/km) and then an unexpectedly long and hilly long run on Saturday. This is by no means standard HM prep; I probably should have run less and the intervals were of questionable benefit - being run not even at goal half marathon pace.

Still, I did sort of manage to taper a bit in the days before the actual race, so I suppose that counts for something.

Race Weekend

The trip up to Gosford is a smooth one; we arrive in good time and everyone settles in for a nice sleep. All except me, that is: I have to share a bed with Amelia and she manages to whack me over the head or knee me in the back every hour or so and it all makes for a far-from-optimal sleep. She makes up for it, however, by turning to me when she wakes on Saturday with a blissful smile and saying "I love you so much, Mumma, you are the best Mummy in the world, thank you for bringing me to see Amara!"

Best Friends Forever

Once she is happily deposited with BFF and BFF's family, I have the rare pleasure of enjoying the company of just one child for the whole day. Bliss! And I have the bed to myself tonight, so in theory I should sleep wonderfully well - especially seeing how exhausted I am.

But it's not to be: after a unexpected, midnight "I'm homesick, come and get me" phone call (I don't go, is she serious??) I toss and turn and wake every hour on the hour until 5:45am, when somehow all of us in the room are suddenly awake at once.

I need to take the 6:11am train to Woy Woy, where the course will take us on a short out-and-back before heading all the way back to Gosford and the finish line inside the stadium, so I'm dressed and out the door running to the station just before 6am. Jack will head off to his own start line (in the stadium, he is very excited) a bit later in the company of his grandmother, and we agree that they will then wait the 40 or so minutes until I finish.

It's an easy ride with many other runners, and I have time to jog an easy mile before it's time to line up underneath the inflatable arch that marks the start line. The weather is promising: cold with very little wind and light cloud cover. To Gosford from here is only about 12km so we're heading south first for an out-and-back stretch to cover the additional distance required, and will be passing back through the start area on our way up to Gosford. There are plenty of 12km runners around also - they'll just be running straight to the stadium.

I'm not sure how I feel, not particularly zippy is probably the honest truth, so as we're waiting for the starter's gun I'm sizing up the the women close to me quite carefully. A couple look like contenders but there's noone I recognise, so I'll have to wait and see what happens when the starting gun goes off. Any second now!

Start line going up, lights along the coast line

Miles 1-3: 6:09, 6:27, 6:23 (pace in min/mile)

Whoosh! Off we all sprint like mad things. The course is initially nice and wide, so there's plenty of room for many runners to zip out in front of me in no time at all. Mostly they are blokes, of course, but among them are several women; well, this is an interesting start to the morning. I'm always bemused at how people seem to want to run the first 5km of a half marathon at their top 5km race pace; don't they realise it's a fair bit further than that to the finish?

We zig and zag a bit and then head straight along a narrow path right next to the water. The closest of the females ahead of me is spent fairly quickly and I can pull past her without any problem. Mile 3 takes us all out over some grass and a quick U-turn sees the course head back towards the start; it also gives me an opportunity to estimate that the leading female is about a minute ahead of me and between us there are still 2 others, both of whom are much closer.

I know better than to kill myself trying to catch any of them at this point, though. All I need to do is keep things steady, not give up, and wait to see if they fall back.

Miles 4-6: 6:11, 6:21, 6:21

As I was suspecting, after the turn the 2 females closer to me both start to slow down. Given a target to chase I pull off another significantly faster mile and by the time we are pass back through the start area (filled now with runners waiting to start the 12K) there's only one woman ahead of me. The sky is starting to fill with light and it's really a beautiful area - as well as perfect weather for running. Ahh. Time to chase!

The next 2 miles pass in a steady fashion; the girl ahead of me has long blonde hair, looks to be about 20 years younger than me (isn't everyone these days) and she's running quite strongly. I'm fairly sure I've gained a little on her by the time the 10km mark is approaching, but not a whole lot, and if things continue in this vein then I'll be placing 2nd today for sure.

But hang on, what's this? The path along the bay ducks and winds back and forth a bit in places, but suddenly I see her darting off to the left. I'm expecting just another turn in the course, but no, it goes straight ahead - there are several male runners between her and me, and none of them have veered left either. A thought strikes me, I look left again and yes, she's ducked into a toilet block. And I've just taken the lead!!

Miles 7-9: 6:25, 6:21, 6:17

This unexpected event gives me something of a rocket boost that lasts for the next few miles. The course is decidedly less flat through this section but I manage to maintain and even quicken my pace; I have no idea if she's about to come tearing up behind me or not, so I need to put as much daylight between us now as I possibly can. My pace wasn't any slower than hers before the bathroom pitstop, so if I can speed up just a fraction, there's a chance I may yet be victorious today! But there's no need to count my chickens quite at this point, of course. Just keep running....

In the process of speeding up a touch I now catch two other male runners who have been ahead of me until now. My usual strategy of even pacing is paying off in spades - I seem to be the only one who isn't starting to fade, actually.

Miles 10-12: 6:19, 6:13, 6:24

Finally we seem to be approaching civilisation again, or at least the outskirts of Gosford, which I suppose is the same thing. More male runners are struggling ahead of me, I can count at least 3, and what's more exciting is that I still haven't been passed by my rival, she of the toilet break. The sun is out in force now and I'm actually a bit warm, but there's not that far to go so I just have to suck it up and keep running.

Mile 11 and wait, I know this part from my run yesterday morning! We're much closer to the finish area than we should be at this point - but it looks like we're taking the scenic route, as I find myself zooming off through a carpark and around 3 sides of a playing field. To my great surprise I am catching the blokes ahead of me quite quickly now; in rapid succession I pass one and then another. I've no real idea of how many runners are ahead of me still, but all that matters is that none of them are females, and a nice payday awaits me in around 3km if I can just hold onto a decent pace.

The course goes up and over the bridge by our hotel; the stadium is in sight but ugh, there's a final out-and-back by the water still to be conquered. And at this point there are a fair few people out for a nice morning stroll by the water, so that means it's more of an obstacle course than I'd prefer at this stage. Better speed up and just get it over with!

Mile 13 and finish: 6:09, 5:29

Even though I thought I was running as fast as possible for most of this race, somehow I have more in the tank and can dredge up my fastest mile as the final one; now that the stadium is in sight I have far more inspiration to put in the effort. In retrospect, running pretty much alone for the majority of the race meant I didn't give it everything I had, but that's not an unusual outcome and I was never running for a particular time - just the win, insert cheeky grin here.

I pop up in the stadium and the final stretch is on lovely cushy grass. I can see Jack over the other side, right by the fence, and he sees me too and starts yelling "Mum!!" Without thinking about it I put my head down and SPRINT for the finish line.


Finish time: 1:22:24 (6:19 min/mile, 3:54 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 13th overall finisher

The finish time surprises me - I really thought I was running quite a bit slower than that - but whatever, I'm happy! The second woman, she of the toilet break, is 3 minutes behind; without the pitstop she might well have held the lead, but I guess we'll never know.

Jack has completed his run and is proudly wearing his medal; we grab reward icecreams and pose happily for a picture together.

photo credit: Keith Hong

There's a nice payday and a surprise hamper of MasterFoods goods for me at the presentation (during which the heavens open and the temperature plummets, meaning it finishes in quite a hurry), then it's off to enjoy the rest of the weekend before the long drive back to Wagga. A long trip, but most definitely worth the trouble!