Sunday, April 10, 2011

Canberra Marathon April 2011

When I was looking around for my next marathon, all enthusiastic in the afterglow of my fantastic New York trip, there was nothing to be found online about Canberra's annual marathon. Canberra is our national capital and only 2.5 hours drive from our house (very convenient), but in 2010 there was some legal dispute about who owned the rights to stage the race, and at the end of the year this was still unresolved. There was some doubt about whether the 2011 race would actually go ahead.

Despite the lack of a suitable goal race, after my 5 week post-marathon Higdon plan I decided to embark on another marathon training plan anyway - never let it be said that I am not a goal-oriented sort of person! And then in January an email arrived in my in-box about "The Australian Running Festival" in April, and lo and behold it was the re-born Canberra Marathon, scheduled for April 10 and fitting in perfectly with the training plan I had already started. Hooray!

The training

Pfitzinger 18/55. For the uninitiated, Pete Pfitzinger is an American former Olympic marathoner whose marathon training plans are well-known amongst the marathoning community and renowned for difficulty but also spectacular results for those who make it through uninjured. This plan stretches over 18 weeks and peaks at 55 miles per week (88km) - I actually added some miles to max out at just under 65 miles, or 104km. It is comprised of speedwork, intervals and long runs, and yes, it is every bit as intense as it sounds.

I had no major problems with the plan, though, and felt well-prepared in the lead-up to Canberra. So well-prepared that I somehow thought it was a good idea to invite a whole bunch of experienced marathoners on Runners World Online (RWOL) to place bets on how much I could improve on my NY time. I can't account for why I felt the need for some extra pressure to achieve, but there it promptly was, in the form of a raft of seriously fast predicted times. Ooops.

Race day

During the night before the race I'm awake every hour from 1:30am onwards, thinking "Is it time yet??" At 4:30am I'm awake for good, but I feel well-rested, probably from going to bed at the insanely early hour of 9pm the evening before. I check the weather - there is apparently a 40% chance of rain, but outside the road is dry - and after a breakfast of chocolate milk and raisin toast I drive over and park near the starting area.

It's still dark but there are a few people around, so I go over and check out the starting line. The race office is in a school hall, so I go to use the bathrooms and I'm the only one in the whole block. Could this be any more different to New York?? I head back to the car to stay warm, even though it's currently overcast and about 14c/57F, so not cold, and there is no sign of the wind or rain I was expecting. I make the incredibly stupid mistake of posting on Facebook that it's not cold or raining, and five minutes later the heavens open and the temperature drops by at least 5 degrees. Duh. Next time someone needs to tell me to STFU about the weather, honestly.

When I head over to the start with 30 minutes to go, NO-ONE is lined up yet apart from one dude in a red shirt. Again, the incredible difference to NY strikes me. I loiter around under some trees for a while, staying out of the rain, and when I do go to line up a few other people eventually come over. I end up in the very front line, thinking "I do NOT belong at the very front, how did I get here?!", until some more people come over and I can fade back a few paces. Two fast-looking women show up, one with a half-marathon bib on, the other a full. Ms HM and I start talking, she introduces herself as Hannah and says she's shooting for 70 minutes. Whoa! What?!

There are no seeded runners or preferred runners at the race, but the city is home to the Australian Institute of Sport so it's actually not too surprising that amazingly fast runners like this have showed up. Sure enough, I find out later that Hannah was the female HM winner (in the somewhat slower time of 1:23:36), and her friend with the marathon bib on wins the ladies' marathon. I see her a few times during the race, waaaaaay out in front of any other female runner, and am not surprised that her time of 2:50:49 puts her almost 7 minutes ahead of her nearest rival.

With a minute or so to go I'm still only about 3 rows back from the very front, and when the gun goes off I'm over the line in seconds. And so it begins!

The race

The course is a multi-lap affair that winds around the parliamentary district before heading across the lake and along a major road (thankfully closed to traffic) to a turn-around point. The marathoners do 2 laps of this circuit, the half-marathoners only one. My Garmin is set to lap automatically every 1km so for brevity's sake these are the paces in min/mile, averaged out over each 3km, which is just short of 2 miles.

Miles 1-2: 6:58
This is mostly due to a 6:40 pace first 1km - I reel it in quickly when I realise how fast I'm going, and the rest is around 7:08. It's raining steadily but not too windy; I get a bit of a lift when a Scottish voice behind my shoulder says "That's the most efficient gait I've seen this morning" and yes, he's talking to me! I thank him and float onwards feeling great.

Miles 3-4: 7:09
Right on pace. I get the shock of my life as we run beside the lake - a dude in plastic flip-flops and a bucket hat goes tearing past with the loudest footfalls I've ever heard. Seriously, flip-flops?? I see him later much further on and he's still going, but on the second lap there is no sign of him.....

Miles 5-6: 7:02
Too fast again. Oops. Around mile 5 I realise my right shoe is squelching every time it hits the ground because the rain is really pouring down now. Niiiiice. For the first time, my running friend Ilana's words to me come into my head and it soon becomes my race mantra: Suck it up, Princess, and run!

Miles 7-8: 7:03
Still too fast - there are lots of people around me and I'm matching their pace. I concentrate on running MY OWN race and try to slow down, even if it means I'm getting passed.

Miles 9-10: 7:10
Back on the right pace, but the weather is miserable. There's a guy ahead of me running in a see-through singlet and Speedos. This cheers me up moderately and I think to myself "What is this, Mardi Gras??" Or maybe he just had a better idea than I did of what the weather was going to be like, who knows.

Miles 11-12: 7:12
We go past the HM turn-around and the crowd thins considerably. The leading marathoners are on their way back already and I count (slightly incorrectly) that there are a total of 8 women ahead of me. Hmmmm - I decide a top ten finish would be just the thing to help me forget this misery. It's still pouring with rain, by the way.

Miles 13-14: 7:10
Don't remember what this bit was like. Too busy telling self to suck it up, and trying to stay on pace.

Miles 15-16: 7:12
Out for lap 2. Now I'm lapping HM runners so at least I'm overtaking people, but it's getting harder to stay on pace. I remind myself that this bit isn't meant to feel easy, and to suck it up. I pass a female runner and now I'm in 8th.

Miles 17-18: 7:20
Past the HM turnaround again, I get passed by a girl who looks like she's just cruisin'. Rather than getting annoyed or despondent I think, ok, 9th is still top ten, and keep plugging away. Positive thinking!!

Miles 19-20: 7:25
Near the marathon turn I see someone coming out of a porta-loo ahead of me and lookit that, it's a female runner. She sets off at a fast pace and I think, ok, good for you, that's cool - but am secretly pleased when she slows down dramatically after the turn and I pass her with ease. Back into 8th spot.

Miles 21-22: 7:35
The rain, which had just eased off a bit, now picks up again and there's wind gusts as well as a small but significant incline - I start to lose focus and slow down. Back to chanting my mantra.

Miles 23-24: 7:22
The mantra appears to be working, but only just. All I can think is, when will this be over? By now I'm checking my watch and figuring out what time I'll do if I tank completely and slow down to 8:00 pace, and it's still faster than my NY time, but I'm trying not to succumb to the temptation to give up.

Miles 25-26.2: 7:47
Uh oh. I'm giving it all I've got, but the legs just won't turn over any faster. In a cruel irony, the rain chooses this moment to finally ease almost completely. I get passed by a female runner but whatever, I'm past caring. Just before the finish I hear my 4 year old yelling out "Go Mama! Go Mama!" and it's all I can do to muster a silly grin and wave to him, then THANK GOD it's all over.

The time on my Garmin is 3:12:25, my official time 3:12:27 - turns out I was 10th woman and managed to place 2nd in my age group.

On reflection, there was one person I saw who was coming back when I was suffering my way out on the second lap - by whom I was initially baffled but ultimately decided was male - who clearly was actually female. Whatever, 10th is still technically top ten, and enough to get my name in the local paper. Cool!

The analysis

I'm not sure I could have improved on the training that I did, but it's clear that I still lack somewhat in endurance. From mile 17 or so I definitely shifted down a gear, and by mile 21 I was finding it really hard going. The weather didn't help, but I can't blame it entirely - if I can run 16 miles in those conditions without slowing down, why couldn't I keep it going for the whole 26.2?

I've come away with a new respect for the marathon distance; in New York it was just fun and new and a bit like being in the Olympics, in Canberra it was something entirely other. Take away the 2 million cheering spectators, the perfect weather and, um, NEW YORK, and you've got 26.2 miles of tough slog through teeming rain. I'd say about 17 of those were pretty fun, 4 or 5 were pretty tough and the last 3 or 4 were bloody horrible. I'm proud of the way I approached it, though, and that I never threw in the mental towel.

I'm planning my next marathon now with a new determination and awareness of just how hard it can be......and 3:10, I'm coming for you.

Friday, April 1, 2011

New York Marathon November 2010

For a long time when my focus was on half-marathons, I said I would never be able to stay interested enough to keep running for a full marathon. The thought of a 3 hour training run held absolutely no appeal for me. But sometime during 2009 I think I realised that my HM times were never going to get back to where they were in 2001 or even maybe 2007. Perhaps it was time for a new challenge.....

And then in early 2010 a running friend who lives in New York state suddenly announced that she had signed up for the New York Marathon. I had no idea that it was possible to qualify for guaranteed entry to NYC; I thought it was just the lottery for everyone. In retrospect that sounds dumb, but the world of marathons was uncharted territory for me at that point.

An idea began to take hold: my HM time was fast enough to guarantee me entry for NYC....maybe Mum would come and mind the kids for a week or 10 days......maybe DH could be persuaded that a lightening trip to NY in November was a good (as opposed to insane, extravagant or just plain ridiculous) idea.....maybe I would sign up myself.

The day my status changed to "Accepted" was the day I realised this was serious - we were going to New York! I found myself a relatively simple training plan by Hal Higdon and marked the dates on my calendar. After the relative success of my May HM I started marathon training in late June.

The training

18 weeks, Hal Higdon's Advanced II plan.

I had no major problems with the training plan and the weekly mileage peaked at 53, which in retrospect was fairly modest, as marathon training plans go. The long runs increased slowly from 12 miles (19.2km) to the big one: 20 miles, a distance I completed 3 times during the cycle. After the first one I realised, maybe it would be a good idea to take some energy source along, and settled on GU Chomps. After the second one I realised, maybe I should be taking water too? IDIOT. Needless to say, my 3rd (and final) 20 miler was my favourite.

The travel

My experience of running overseas while living in the UK introduced me to the wonderful concept of running tourism. What better way to get to know a new city than to run a major race there? And what better justification for a trip to New York than to run my first marathon??

The trip to New York was utter luxury: for the first time in over 4 years no screaming baby or manic toddler to worry about, just me and my surprisingly roomy seat on an A380 Airbus, watching movies that did not involve Bob the Builder or the Wiggles. HEAVEN.

The atmosphere in New York was electric when I arrived there 4 days before the marathon. The city was filled with runners, all jumpy from tapering, and as the signs and seating went up in Central Park it really sunk in that I was about to actually DO this. I tried not to tire my legs out by walking too much in the days before the marathon, but it was impossible. The day before the race, DH and I went for a final, gentle jog in Central Park and got caught up in the finish of the International Friendship Race; of course I couldn't resist getting a cheesy picture with my national flag.

Race day

It's still dark and just 38F/1C at 6am when I take the ferry over to Staten Island, and not much warmer throughout the subsequent 3 hours I spend waiting for the 9:40am start. I'm all layered up in old sweats but still, I'm freezing. As the sun comes up it's a beautiful, clear fall day, perfect racing conditions in fact. Finally at 8:20am it's time to enter the corral - Blue Wave Corral 4 - and then at last we move down and onto the ramp approach to the Verrazano Bridge.

Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" is playing over loudspeakers as the gun goes off and after all that waiting we are suddenly off and running. It takes me less than 90 seconds to get over the actual start line - the dangerous congestion I was expecting thankfully does not eventuate - and so begins my first ever marathon.

Miles 1-2: 7:11 (average pace min/mile)
First mile is uphill with lots of people around, but second is downhill and well below 7:00. Whoa, slow down!

Miles 3-4: 7:02
Obviously not listening to myself at this point.

Miles 5-6: 7:08
Ok, by now I know I'm going quite a bit faster than my stated goal pace of 7:40, but I can't hear my Garmin beeping the splits (the crowd is deafening), so I give up worrying about it and just go with the flow. Hmm, possibly a mistake.

Miles 7-8: 7:11

Miles 9-10: 7:15

Miles 11-12: 7:23
Starting to calm down a bit and getting closer to the pace I said I'd run. No problems at this stage....

Miles 13-14: 7:10
I go through the halfway mark in around 1:36 and I'm feeling fine.

Miles 15-16: 7:24
The Queensboro bridge, first major obstacle of the course so far. It's a punishingly long uphill, not steep, but it just keeps going. I slow down somewhat and my Garmin freaks out when it loses the satellites on the lower deck of the bridge.

Miles 17-18: 7:01
Oops. The excitement of turning onto First Avenue, Manhattan and seeing my DH in the crowd is a little too much and suddenly I'm flying along again on the adrenaline rush.

Miles 19-20: 7:23
Still ahead of the pace I set as my "goal", but finally I'm slowing down. This is supposed to be where many people start hitting The Wall. I actually realise that this is getting harder now, and I lose focus for the first time.

Miles 21-22: 7:39
I'm struggling a bit and letting the pace slide now. I check my Garmin and uh-oh, not happy. All week my American friend Glenn has been goading me about how fast I can run this, though, and his words echo in my head I tell myself "You can do better than this", put my head down and pick it back up.

Miles 23-24: 7:30
DH spots me (I don't see him) and texts my other friends (including Glenn) that I'm not looking so happy now - but when I see Glenn jumping up and down I'm waving like a clown and not looking nearly as horrible as he expected. And I'm nearly there now! The crowds in Central Park are unbelievable, it's like running in the Olympics, and the adrenaline carries me on.

Mile 25-26.2: 7:22
I wave to some random people in the grandstands near Columbus Circle as I turn off Central Park South and head towards the finish. They go nuts and I start laughing - it's such a thrill - and with a big smile still on my face I cross the finish line in the official time of 3:17:02. Woohoo!

The aftermath

They say the best thing to do after a marathon is to keep moving, and it's unavoidable anyway as I have to walk past 59 other UPS trucks to get to the one holding my stuff. Then I have to walk back and out of the park, find my cheer squad and walk all the way back to our hotel near Columbus Circle. This means we cover close to 3 or even 4 miles by the time I get to sit down, but I feel pretty good. After I say goodbye to my American friends and take a luxurious shower, DH and I go and eat greasy pizza in a diner near our hotel, and damn if it doesn't taste just wonderful.

The next day, walking down stairs is not too pleasant and my quads are fairly trashed, but at least I can make it onto the plane back to Australia - unlike some other guy who they have to load in a wheelchair. I refrain from wearing my medal on the plane, though.

There's no doubt that I am hooked on marathons now. In terms of preparation and execution, I can only think of one or two things I would have changed. I'm thrilled I went so far under my official stated goal of 3:30, but aware of the fact that I ran a fairly large positive split (1:36 and 1:41 approximately) and that I can probably do a lot better next time.

Which leads us inevitably to the weekend of April 10th, 2011.