Friday, November 18, 2016

Ned Kelly Chase 50K, October 2016

It's not unexpected that after my sub-par performance at the Centennial Park Ultra in August, I'd eventually find an excuse to have another go at the 50K distance (despite having long vowed I'd never be interested in running further than a marathon). An ad for the Ned Kelly Chase popped up somewhere - possibly Facebook or an email in my inbox - fairly soon after the CP Ultra and I quickly realised it would be the ideal candidate for my second attempt: a flat, paved course on a rail trail near Wangaratta in Victoria, far enough removed from my recent racing insanity to allow proper recovery, and timed just right to make the most of crisp spring mornings without needing to freeze half to death in the process.

There are a few other things about the event that piqued my interest - the start is staggered in order to have everyone finishing as close to 12 noon as possible, and bicycle "troopers" are dispatched at some point with wristbands matching each runner, aiming to catch up to and "arrest" the runners in the manner that the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly so long ago was chased through northwest Victoria. There are options for all distances from 100km down to 10km and since I know the area from having raced there a few times now (most notably when I won the Wangaratta marathon earlier this year) it seemed like the perfect opportunity to better my time from August.

The Training

After I decided to race at Ned Kelly, Benita and I hatched a plan whereby I would do back-to-back long runs on the weekend and in my own head I had the notion that a few weeks of 90-100mpw (145-160km) would ideally fill up September and early October before my now-standard 2 week taper. I'm FB friends with Camille Herron, who is the current 100km AND 50km World Champion, and I saw her post recently about running 40-50 miles in a weekend, so a scaled-down version of that certainly seemed like a great idea to me.

Life, however, had other ideas. In the end I did average 86 miles (138km) per week over the 6 weeks leading up to the taper, but only managed to complete the double properly on one occasion:

Lots of double digits but only one double long run

Perhaps the main improvement of this mini-cycle over my preparation for the Centennial Park race took place in the final week, when I finally managed to restrain myself from running too much (being pretty much sick of running after that single 40-mile weekend) and from spending too much time on my feet in the 48 hours preceding the actual race. The mantra "less is more" is a useful one when taper madness threatens; that and the memory of my dead legs in the early stages of CP combined to make this the most effective taper I can remember.

Race Weekend

It's an easy drive to Wangaratta, just over 2 hours in fact, and we arrive in plenty of time to pick up Joel's bib (he's running the half marathon) and spend the rest of the day lounging about and eating. Carb-loading is sort of fun but by the afternoon (as usual) I'm thoroughly sick of food, eager to stop stuffing my face and focus on getting a good night's sleep. We're both starting fairly late - 8am for me and 10am for him - so Sunday morning is a relaxed one although I'm awake at 6am to choke down a Clif bar and some iced coffee.

The weather is absolutely perfect: the howling wind of last evening has died down completely (although it is forecast to return, slightly diminished, later) and the air is crisp enough that I'm shivering a bit waiting around for the pre-start briefing. The group starting with me is fairly small - and most seem to have half bibs on - but there are a couple of 50Kers in there to keep me company, perhaps.

"We are all about to run for hours! Wheee!"

Miles 1-5: 6:42, 6:55, 6:43, 6:58, ?? (pace in min/mile)

First over the starting mat, I take the lead as we zig and zag and weave our way under the main road and up onto a sort of levee bank that leads out of town in the direction from whence Joel and I came yesterday. The Ovens River runs through Wangaratta and it has been in flood lately (like every other river in this part of Australia) so there are puddles of mud and water on both sides but thankfully none on  the actual path.

I'm trying to find the right gear in which to spend the next 3 hours and 35 minutes (or thereabouts, if all goes to plan) so I'm gratified to see the first mile split slightly too fast - this means I can back off a bit and relax. Phew. A bloke on an elliptigo-type machine goes whizzing past wearing a race number, which is slightly bizarre, and then suddenly I realise I have company.

It's the bloke in the red singlet in the photo above, also running the 50K, so I ask him his goal finish time and he replies "Four hours". Wait, what? The second mile split has just appeared on my watch and it's still right on target for me, but means he's going WAY too fast at this point. I inform him of this fact as pleasantly as I can manage, but he sticks with me for the next mile as well and in fact manages to save me from making a wrong turn. How helpful! I'm sort of disappointed when he pulls over at the first aid station and I have to continue on all alone, but it's undoubtedly better for him at this point to choose a more suitable and less suicidal pace.

Thankfully the course isn't too complex from here out - there's a short tunnel to negotiate and then a sharp turn onto the rail trail - and from there it's going to be straight and  flat the whole way to the turn-around. I make it there without any issues other than that I suddenly realise my Garmin hasn't beeped for a while: one look tells me that yes, it has once again frozen up in the middle of a long race. Grrr! I hit stop and start and it immediately comes back to life and starts recording distance again - now all I have to do is figure out how much distance I've missed. On a course this sparsely marked, that is going to be something of a challenge.

Miles 6-10: ??, 6:58, 6:58, 6:53, 6:48

Once my Garmin is cooperating again I'm pleased to note that I'm still right on target pace. I've brought a hand-held water bottle which is just as well, because the water stations aren't all that frequent. And at the one where I did want a cup of water there were people standing right in front the table, blocking me from helping myself but inexplicably not handing out water themselves. This seems rather unhelpful, to be honest, but I won't dwell on it because I'm feeling way too good really. The contrast to how my legs felt back in August is remarkable; I can only hope it lasts.

The half marathon turning point is marked by a bloke sitting in a car and a chalk arrow on the ground - he calls out encouragement as I pass and I note the time on my watch: 45 minutes, meaning I'm on track or even slightly ahead of where I want to be at this point. Excellent!

2 x 25km out-and-back legs - we are on the top one

From here on out things start to get fairly boring; due to flooding all of the 100K, 50K, marathon and half entrants are on this half of the course rather than being strung out over two segments, so there are many more people around than there otherwise would be, but still it's pretty lonely. The rail trail is smooth, flat and straight, so essentially perfect to run on but about as interesting as watching paint dry. I do get to overtake people every now and then - mostly they gasp in amazement at my pace as I zoom past - but for the majority of the time I'm on my own. Snooore. My friend Amelia from last year's Canberra Summer Marathon goes by on her way to the finish of the 100K - the excitement of waving to and greeting her wakes me up for a bit - then it's back to the grindstone, alas.

Miles 11-15: 6:57, 6:52, 6:51, 6:59, 6:57

There's a slight but perceptible uphill component now to the course and it slows me down a little, but I'm too busy waiting for the marathon turning point to worry or even notice too much. When I finally arrive at the marathon turn it's at a water station and a glance at my watch shows 1:30:30. Right on target pace, still! And I feel pretty good. My small hand-held water bottle is almost empty now but the clouds are keeping things cool and I'm not sweating much at all.

Best of all, the 50K turn is not far away now! There's a bit of a downhill to a major sort of a road - a volunteer is standing guard but I manage to arrive at exactly the right moment to cross between cars - and then a segment that slopes upward to what appears to be a bunch of people standing in the way. Surely that's the turning point?

But there's no official signage and I'm coming up behind a runner who has her own bike escort: that's nice for her, but he's weaving erratically all over the path and I'm worried I'm about to be flattened. I open my mouth to remark casually on my imminent arrival, but suddenly he zigs towards me. I gasp and bark out "COMING THROUGH!!" in an embarrassingly loud, abrupt and somewhat snappy tone. Oops! Better keep going just to put some space between us, I think.

Miles 16-20: 6:49, 6:42, 6:52, 6:53, 6:55

I charge up looking for a traffic cone or something to turn around but there's nothing visible. I yell at a random woman "Where do I turn??" She replies "Here!" so I turn on my heel, grab a cup from the water table and tear off back down the hill. My watch reads 1:47:13. Wheeee! I'm over halfway home and still on track for my goal.

I'm enjoying this downhill much more than I should be when I realise there's a bicycle trooper pulled over just ahead of me and it looks like she's pulling a wristband off her handlebars in preparation to arrest me. Wait, what?? I've got to be 20 minutes ahead of the nearest 50K runner; I haven't seen anyone from my starting group and we were the last ones to depart. As I approach I make eye contact and call out "Seriously??" The cycle trooper checks my bib number and grins sheepishly: she's looking for 218, not 213. I've evaded arrest!

At mile 20 things are still going well; I'm catching a fair few slower runners again and a few of my fellow 50Kers have gone past on their way out to the turn. My legs are starting to feel the mileage, though, and this is when I know I really need to focus. I can't afford to let my mind wander or even think about anything in particular at this point - just focus on keeping the effort level going and suppressing the thoughts of slowing down, which are starting to creep up.

Miles 21-25: 6:58, 7:02, 7:00, 7:00, 7:04

Yep, things are starting to get tough. The last 6 miles of any marathon are always the biggest challenge, and I'm trying hard not to think about the 5 more that I will still have to run after that point. For a while I go with the "counting in my head" trick that works quite well as a sort of mental white noise - it blocks out any other thoughts and also helps me keep my feet turning over at the proper-but-ridiculous Roadrunner sort of cadence that works best for me.

This is basically me in any kind of road race

This is me at the finish

Around mile 23 something crazy happens as I pull up behind another runner who is wearing a bandanna and a bright yellow Comrades shirt. I've got my name on both front and back bibs, as do all the 50K and 100K entrants, but he doesn't have a back bib so he must be doing the marathon or perhaps even the half. I go to pass him and he does a huge double-take, exclaiming "Rachel? Wow, you're doing great!"

Um, do I know you? At this point even if I'd had lunch with him yesterday I probably wouldn't recognise him; my brain is in that late-marathon-scrambled state where figuring stuff out is just not within its capabilities, so I grunt back "Hi" and go to pass him by. But he surges and accelerates out in front of me, so I guess I have company - for as long as it lasts.

Sven (his bib bears the name "Svengali" but I won't see this until after the race) is in the mood to chat and what's more he also seems to be in the mood to run 7:00 pace, which is great as far as I'm concerned. The pacing, I mean, not the chatting - I don't really have breath to spare just now and in any case I'm struggling to understand his accent. He's asking something about my time and I can't figure out if it's how long have I been running or what time am I expecting to run. I mumble something about 3:35 and he tells me he is running the marathon distance, then when I fail to respond he surges ahead again and drags me with him.

Miles 26-30: 6:54, 7:00, 7:10, 7:13, 7:22

Sven is acting like a tow rope - he's the only thing keeping me going at this pace and although I'm extremely grateful, I'm having difficulty expressing this right now. He drops back to chat some more and asks me where I am from, and I know that if I talk I'll slow down so I shake my head and mutter "Can't talk", hoping that he knows the feeling and won't hold it against me.

On we plough in silence for another 2 miles and we reach the point where the rail trail ends, once again running through the tunnel underpass where my Garmin lost its mind on the way out. I'm hurting now, my legs feel like jelly and I really want to stop. I'm even more tempted when, inexplicably, Sven abruptly slows down. In fact he doesn't just do that, he pulls right off to the side and cheerfully tells me I'm on my own for the final 5km. Wait, what???

Well this just sucks. Immediately my pace falls off the edge of a cliff, or perhaps only a small ledge really, but in any case I haven't got it in my legs to keep 7:00 pace anymore. Thankfully there's not far to go, because the wind has come up now to the point that it's noticeable and guess what, it's blowing directly into my face. How lovely!

I struggle along in this fashion, counting in my head and telling myself to just keep it together, hold on, hold on, the end is coming. There's a golden opportunity to get lost when the course veers left despite a clear path straight ahead - thankfully there's another runner ahead who makes the turn and prevents what would be a major disaster for me at this point.

The final mile: 7:26

I'm ready to be done now, thank you very much. I'm trying to keep the effort level up there but mentally I've had it and I just want to get to the finish. Everything looks different coming in the opposite direction and so it's a bit of a surprise when I realise I'm not far at all from the underpass that will spit me out right by the finish line. A photographer is lying in wait but I don't have the presence of mind to smile, wave, or even get the frown of determination off my face. Oh well, another grumpy race photo to add to the collection.

<incoherent angry noise>

Under the bridge, zig and then zag - I'm concentrating quite hard on not falling over here, but I do have the brains to look up and see the finish clock ticking fast towards 3:36:00. OMG, so close! I accelerate as much as my legs will allow and can only hope it's enough....

Finish time: 3:35:58 (pace 6:57 min/mile, 4:19 min/km)

Placement: 1st overall and 1st female

Only runners will understand how important those 2 seconds really are. My Garmin reads 3:36:00 but my official time is 2 seconds faster and it's the one I'll be reporting. I said I wanted to get as close as I could to 3:35 and I did it - a PR of 7 minutes and an unofficial Australian AG record to boot!

I throw myself at Joel (who has placed 2nd in the half marathon!) and he holds me up as I catch my breath: my legs have gone to jelly. But it was worth it - I'm so happy to have run the race I planned to run and to have limited the late-race fade to just the final few miles. My nemesis Sven arrives and - as I expected - apologises profusely for "annoying" me in the later stages of the race. I explain myself and in return thank him profusely for dragging me along like he did; he played a major role in keeping me from slowing down a lot sooner than I otherwise would have.

Turns out he is a marathonaholic who is planning to run several marathons in the next few weeks, including New York! Staying with me would have made those races more difficult and now I understand completely why he chose to back off.

Amelia is also there and has come 2nd in her race; it's congratulations all around and off for a much-deserved shower and rest before dinner and presentations later on.

Looks like Ned caught us all!

I've nothing much more to say about this race other than it was HARD and I think I really respect the distance now more than ever before. I'm not sure how much further I can improve on my time - more double long run weekends would no doubt be useful, but life is not always conducive to that sort of thing - but given the opportunity I'll be sure to have a try. And, come to think of it, an Australian AG record is probably my best achievement to date - so perhaps the 50K is a good distance for me after all!