Saturday, June 3, 2017

SMH half marathon, May 2017

Of all the races I've run in my life, this one is the one I've kept returning to year after year. It was my first half - way back in 2001 - and despite being a horribly hilly and difficult course, there's something about this race that I really enjoy. 

I'm not sure what that is, though. The course? Nope - it's full of twists, turns and short, steep hills: almost 400m of vertical elevation gain over 21.1km (for the unaware, that's quite a lot). The field? Not really - it's extremely competitive and the best I've ever managed is 9th overall (in 2014) and 2nd in my age group.

Whoever designed this course deserves a slow and painful death

It must be the location, then. Because there's no doubt that Sydney is my favourite city in the world, any excuse to be there for a weekend is a excellent one as far as I'm concerned, and a weekend of running is even better. The timing is good - enough time after Boston to recover but not so long that the benefit of all that marathon training is lost - and this means in general I don't have to do any special preparation for this race. So naturally I keep signing up, getting a seeded bib, and therefore having to try my best to conquer it once again.

Last year I ran a very surprising course PR of 1:21:43, just 19 seconds off my all-time PR (from a much flatter course in Bathurst in May 2013), but this year I'm not so sure what to expect. Boston was a tough day and I ran a far slower time there this year than last; I haven't done any speedwork whatsoever for longer than I care to admit. But whatever! It's Sydney and it's May - the details will have to figure themselves out.

The Training

Ah, no, not really. See above.

In fact, I did manage to ramp up my weekly mileage fairly quickly again after Boston. All of it was easy running and a lot through shorter daily doubles rather than single longer runs - but it was enough to top 80 miles (124 km) per week for the 2 weeks preceding race week. I can't recall (and am too lazy to look up) how much I ran last year before this half, but something tells me it wasn't this much.

Race Day

Fortified by a delicious dinner of ramen noodles the night before - in the company of our running buddy Nigel and his sister Michelle, who tomorrow will be running her 2nd-ever half - we are up bright and early on race morning. In fact, courtesy of some very hot chicken ramen that he consumed at lunch in Chinatown on Saturday, Joel has been up most of the night. He's still lying in bed moaning when I'm fully dressed and ready to rumble, but gallantly decides to come with me despite the very real possibility of significant GI distress during the race.

We head off, therefore, for Hyde Park right on 6am with some trepidation about what lies ahead. The weather at least seems right on target, the rain that was forecast has stayed well away and it's perfect running weather, really: about 12C with light cloud cover and no wind at all.

The start

There's an elite tent this year again (hooray!) and an enthusiastic Keith Hong in charge of it (double hooray!) so we have no problems depositing our stuff and then heading our separate ways: me to warm up a bit and him, predictably, to find a bathroom. I jog my 2 miles and return to stow my jacket in the tent; somehow there's no time left for strides or anything so I head for the elite corral at the front and hang around randomly chatting to people I know. Fiona from last year is there, so there goes an AG win for sure (bloody 10 year age groups are so unfair), but I'm not terribly fussed really. Honest, I'm not.

Pat Carroll - the very enthusiastic race MC - is bellowing out all kinds of announcements as usual and one of them is about how the new start procedure is guaranteed to reduce congestion. There definitely seems to be less people in the elite/preferred corral today than in previous years, so that bodes well I suppose. In no time at all there's a 10 second countdown and then BOOM! The usual manic stampede towards Circular Quay takes off.

Miles 1-4: 6:12, 6:17, 6:04, 6:03 (pace in min/mile)

Almost immediately the "less congestion" claim is thoroughly quashed as a runner from behind literally climbs over the top of my right shoulder in his fervour to get ahead. At the first corner onto Macquarie St there's a guy on the ground already; he picks himself up and starts running again but man, that had to hurt. Less congestion? I'm totally not convinced.

The pace is predictably wild for the first half mile but then things settle as we turn left and back up away from Circular Quay. I'm expecting to turn right again back down towards the Rocks but instead we continue on Bridge St and I find myself facing a sizeable incline that definitely wasn't there last year. My brain is in shock: THEY ADDED ANOTHER HILL? To what is likely already the world's hilliest road half marathon?! It's unbelievable.

That's an awful lot of hills to fit into a 21.1km course

Threading my way along Harrington St there's finally the turn I was expecting, right and back towards the water, but another close encounter of a blokey kind hits me from the left and once again the claim of reduced congestion seems laughable. "Sorry!" he exclaims as I flail my arms to stay upright. As if this race wasn't hard enough already...and off we go on the more familiar part of the course around under the bridge.

The 5K mark comes and goes in around 19:40, which is not that fast but will have to do for today. Turning onto the Eastern Distributor there's a guy ahead of me with shorts that read "Triathlon Attitude". I'm amusing myself wondering exactly what that might mean when I realise suddenly that right now it means "Running too slow in front of others." I accelerate to pull past him and wonder idly if I'll see him again today at all.

Miles 5-8: 6:05, 6:05, 6:24, 6:26

I'm managing to hold things together through the flatter parts of Pyrmont but when the hills start I'm really starting to wonder why I keep on doing this bloody race. The male leader has gone past WAY ahead of the chase pack and I've seen Cassie Fien go past well ahead of the next female as I make my way to the turnaround point. On the way back I spot - and wave enthusiastically to - first Nigel and then, surprisingly close behind him, Joel. I know Nigel is gunning for sub-1:30 and it seems amazing but very possible that despite lack of sleep and (more importantly) serious training, Joel will be right on his heels. Hooray!

Heading back towards the city I find myself going through the halfway point in 40:47, which means I'm on track for a similar time to last year. Well, I am if I can avoid a significant second-half fade, but that's an awfully big IF. I'd rather not think about what is coming up, because the second half of this race is even hillier than the first. Sigh.

Gritting my teeth just a little bit

Adding further to my woes, Triathlon Attitude chooses this moment to sail past. Wait, what? I'm inspired somewhat to pick up the pace and stay with him, of course, and that keeps me going as we head into the concrete jungle and my Garmin - predictably - loses its mind and starts recording bizarre splits that make no sense. 5:26 minutes for a mile? I don't think so. Not even downhill with a tailwind, and neither of those elements are in attendance today, unfortunately.

Miles 9-12: 6:26, 6:34, 6:13, 5:59

The course zigs and zags its way through Observatory Point and the uphill towards the Harbour Bridge is, as ever, enough to make me think about stopping. When finally I find myself spat out onto the Cahill Expressway that runs above the ferry and train terminals at Circular Quay, I'm definitely starting to feel fatigued. Triathlon Attitude is opening a gap on me and it's giving me a fair dose of Annoyed Runner Attitude, but my legs couldn't give a toss.

Just keep running, don't think about the two massive hills that lie still ahead, goes the refrain in my head. The incline back up past the Conservatorium onto Macquarie Street isn't all that bad, in actual fact, or perhaps I just feel that way because I've let myself slow down considerably. Bah.

I haven't seen or passed any females for a long time but there's suddenly one up ahead; she looks to be barely jogging so SURELY I can get her, can't I? That thought is enough to inspire a faster mile 11 and then a blisteringly fast mile 12, courtesy of a dash past the finish line (Liam Adams has just won by over 2 minutes) and the long downhill past the Art Gallery.

<glares menacingly at opponent ahead>

As always I'm trying my best not to consider what lies ahead - the final, mostly uphill mile of torture - and, as I go around the turn at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, I'm trying my best to look photogenic for the photographers who inevitably lie in wait there. But it's not much good: I know what I'm about to have to do, and I just can't find any way of looking forward to it.

wait for it, wait for it................................. ugh, NOPE

Mile 13, 0.1: 6:26, 6:42 pace to finish

I round the turn and there she is, completely unsuspecting. Right! I pounce on the chance and blaze past her, although a glance tells me clearly that she's definitely not in my age group and really, says the part of my brain that is still getting enough oxygen, there's no need to take on the young chicks as well as the old ones, is there? But whatever, I'm ahead of her now and I have bigger fish to fry, namely the final hill that is coming right up.

It hits me like a ton of bricks and I completely forget my ambitions of staying ahead of Young Chick; it's all I can do to keep my legs going now. It feels like I'm crawling as I make my way up, up, up back towards Hyde Park. And of course towards the top of the hill she appears suddenly beside me before powering ahead again, and even this isn't enough to really get me going. Automatically I give chase, but in a half-hearted fashion without any real hope of passing her again.

I see her, but can I be bothered catching her? Yes, maybe I can after all --- wait, nope.

The final stretch of this race is always very enjoyable - probably mostly because the rest of it is so awful - and I'm almost smiling as I charge across the intersection towards the finish inside the park. Young Chick is not having a bar of being caught again and as I make the sharp left into the finish chute right behind her, I look up and see the clock reading 1:22 already. Bugger, slower than last year!

Finish time: 1:23:07 (6:20 min/mile, 3:56 min/km)

Placement: 13th overall female, 2nd in AG (F40-49)

Young Chick has beaten me by only one second - easily accounted for by the at-least-20-year age gap, really - and I don't have long to wait until Nigel appears (having crushed his goal with a 1:29:42) and shortly afterwards so does Joel. Excellent results all round!

There's not a lot more to say about this race; my time is probably an accurate reflection of my current fitness, and I'm still not sure why I keep coming back. It's a trial by fire and I've only once really come through relatively unscathed: last year, and for reasons that remain unclear. But no doubt I'll be fronting up to the starting line again next year for another dose of punishment, so I guess I'll report back then!

So relieved to be done that I'm actually asleep

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Boston Marathon, April 2017

What can I say to introduce the Boston marathon? I wasn't even aware of its existence until somewhere around 2011, but since then I've run it 6 times and every single one has been memorable in its own way. 2013 was the scene of great tragedy, 2014 one of triumph (and my own personal best of 2:47:57), 2015 a freezing weather disaster that provided a counterpoint to 2012's freakish heatwave.

In 2016 I found myself placed second in my age group with a 2:51 that I knew was going to be close to getting me back in to the Elite Women's Start - a privilege I had in 2013-2015 but missed the subsequent year.

I should explain that the elite start is a somewhat surreal experience that manages to be at once both utterly fantastic and completely intimidating. For a sub-elite sort of runner like me, the pressure that comes with it can be overwhelming - and in particular the desire to NOT be the slowest of the 40-something women that start together at 9:32am precisely - and can lead one to do silly things. Like going out way too fast, for example.

Not that I've never done that myself of course (cough cough), but Boston is a dangerous place to take risks. And sometimes, being all alone (or at best in a small pack) can be a distinct disadvantage: witness the debacles of NYC 2014 and Boston 2015, where I battled alone into a savage headwind for virutally the entire race. But all in all it's a privilege and an honour to start with some of the world's best runners, so when I managed to run 2:49 last July in the Gold Coast, I knew I was going to accept the offer to run in the EWS (if it came) for what would most likely be my final Boston.

The Training

12 weeks
Average mileage:  83 mi/ 133km per week
Speedwork: no, not really
Races: 1 marathon, 1 half-hearted half

After taking some time off in January, I thought I'd be back into the swing of marathon training with gusto. The truth, however, was something less enthusiastic. I knew what I needed to do but lacked the motivation to do it with precision, and my good intentions ended up somewhat hit-and-miss in their execution. Point in case: in late February I planned to run the marathon in Orange as a supported long run, yet ended up racing it for the win (2:59:04 with a nice finishing kick) and probably wearing myself out more than I should have at that point. Oops.

Two weeks later I ran a strange 20 miler in Melbourne that ended with a somewhat baffling slow-down in the final miles, and left me with worse DOMS than I've had after many marathons. And then with 2 weeks left until race week, my left ankle decided to scare me half to death by swelling up and developing a distinct crunchiness to its Achilles tendon. Ready, set, PANIC!

I was very relieved that it seemed to be under control fairly quickly with eccentric heel drops and reduced mileage, but the combination of all of the above meant I headed off to Boston feeling slightly under-trained and ever-so-slightly over-optimistic. My usual approach of "do your best on the day" means exactly that and no more, but I usually have a much better idea of what that might actually be than I did this year when I set off on the long journey to Beantown.

Pre-race: Boston

I arrive a day later than usual; I had been looking forward to staying at a fairly new hotel just a stone's throw from Boston Common, but for reasons that make me too angry to elaborate, we have been rebooked to stay at The Charles out in Cambridge. In some ways it's sort of cool to see a new part of Boston - the Charles is a very swanky hotel and it sits right on Harvard Square, with easy access to the T - but having to commute everywhere is a distinct pain. There's nothing to do but suck it up, though, and hopefully we're going to be too busy most of the time to notice.

Peaceful Harvard Square: "Marathon, what marathon?"

The BAA 5K is a Saturday morning tradition now for Joel and me, so we head out to run it without a second thought. Despite the Common being packed with thousands of runners we manage to bump into our friend Chris with her family - what a great way to start the morning! In the past I've run this race WAY too fast (in particular in 2015) so I joke about pace for a bit but really, I'm planning to run as sensibly as I can. These days it takes me a few miles to warm up, anyway, so I'll barely be hitting my stride and the race will be over already. Did I just call it a race? Oops.

Definitely not racing, nope.

For once I follow through on my stated intentions and we tick the miles off in 7:59, 7:31, 6:54 minutes and then sprint down Charles St to the finish at 6:10 pace (3:49 min/km). Wheeee! Time to seek out carbs and then the expo. Although first we have to spend 2 hours getting to and from the hotel to get showered and changed, grrrr.

Just stood in the world's biggest queue to get these

The queues to get into the expo are ridiculous - the lines stretch out the doors and all the way down the block. Once we navigate all of that and pick up bibs, it's time to get crazy! Or at least spend way too much money on running gear we don't really need, but really really want.

Mindful of the toe problems I have had over the past few marathons, I've brought with me an almost-new pair of ASICS Hyperspeed 7 racing shoes that are half a size bigger than the ones that took out both my big toes at Gold Coast last year, but what I really want is a new pair of Adidas adizero adios. So when I see them on sale at the expo, the idea of wearing brand new shoes for a major marathon seems like a really good one. What could possibly go wrong?

The weather, that's what: on Sunday morning we wake to a forecast high temperature of 87F/30C - a major contrast to the usual average high of 55F/13C! I have to go out and buy some casual shorts from the local Gap store; it doesn't look like the long tights and warm jackets that I packed are going to make it out of my suitcase at all. At least the forecast for Monday is slightly less alarming, but it's definitely going to be another warm one. I've said - rather smugly - many times how heat doesn't bother me as much as it does most other runners, but I'd really prefer not to have to test that out once again on Patriots' Day. Sigh.

The rest of the weekend passes in a blur of socialising, carbs (both solid and liquid) and sleep, and before my body clock really knows what to make of it all, it's time to set out my outfit and get ready to wake at 4:30am for my 6th Boston marathon. For once jetlag comes in handy and we are both awake before our alarms have even thought about going off: plenty of time to saddle up and get to our respective buses. The one nice payoff from our hotel overbooking debacle is that we both get personally chauffeured directly to these locations, a service which will do nicely today thank you.

Lucky green INKnBURN singlet to counter the lunacy of brand-new orange shoes

I know a fair few others in the elite start now, so the bus ride out to Hopkinton and the ensuing wait in the Korean church by the starting line pass relatively quickly with lots of running talk and laughter. Outside the weather is a mixed bag: for the first time since 2011 there's a strong tailwind blowing, which is great, but already it's feeling warm and the lack of cloud cover is rather worrying.

I spend most of my time in the church in a small room upstairs with a bunch of other women, many of whom seem to also be in the Masters category. Apart from my Canadian triathlete friend Lisa, there's one more who is in my age group and then to my amazement I learn that my main AG rival has been sick with pneumonia and then shingles - she isn't even here today. Ooh! My main goal for the day is to place in my age group, and the chances of that actually happening just rose considerably.

Another nice thing is that I'm definitely not nervous this year: knowing that the chances of being back here again are slim at best, I'm focusing on taking it all in and just enjoying myself. Once up at the start line I take care to start my Garmin early (for a change) before doing a few strides and again just soaking in the atmosphere. Kathrine Switzer appears up on the gantry and is announced as our official starter - we all wave enthusiastically to her and I'm grinning like crazy as the final preparations are made for the race to start.

Waiting to start our race; I met her in New York in 2014

Grinning like a lurking maniac

Miles 1-4: 6:19, 6:22, 6:23, 6:20 (pace in min/mile)

Off we go! To my surprise the pace is relatively sedate to start with and I remain at the tail end of the pack for at least half a mile. The combination of fresh legs and the downhill start mean it all feels way too easy and of course I don't want to be dead last, but at some point I'm going to have to put on the brakes or risk nasty things happening later in the race. 

There doesn't seem to be any wind at all, but a quick look at the many flags lining the route confirms that in fact there is a strong breeze blowing at our backs; as a result there's no cooling effect and the temperatures are more uncomfortable than I remember from last year. By mile 2 already I'm thirsty and eagerly looking for the first water stop - this is not a good sign. At mile 3 I come up behind and then pass Lisa - a positive step for my age group ambitions, but there's a long race ahead of us still of course.

5K split: 19:42

Miles 5-8: 6:35, 6:30, 6:29, 6:36

By mile 5 it's clear today isn't going to be a fast race; I've already stopped checking the mile splits and am focusing on staying comfortable and also on dumping water on my head at every opportunity. I've been running pretty much all on my own ever since I fell off the back of the pack late in the first mile, but the lack of headwind means I'm not too bothered by being alone. The lack of shade in this stretch is more of a worry; with the air not really moving around me, already I'm uncomfortably hot. The water I've been throwing on myself at every water station since they started is not helping much at all: it's making my singlet very wet but the tailwind is just sticking it to my back and I'm not feeling any cooler as a result. Ugh.

10K split: 39:50

Just as I pass through the 10K mark, I become aware of a siren behind me and then a bicycle spotter appears on my left: "You've got about a minute, so stay right, the men are coming through" he says.  Wait, WHAT?

"Really??" I reply - I mean, I heard and saw the jets doing the flyover that marks the start of the general race, but that was only 10 minutes ago! Are the men riding Segways or something? Because that's what it would take for them to catch me up already - I've done this a few times before, after all, and I know the men won't catch me for at least another 10 miles - but this bike dude seems pretty convinced. Not wanting to waste breath arguing, I let it go and just stay to the right.

Pretty soon a police bike and then a single vehicle pass on my left, and then -- nothing, followed by more nothing. And no men, of course. Just an overexcited bike spotter without enough to do.

Miles 9-12: 6:31, 6:38, 6:35, 6:31

I'm trundling along at a fairly steady pace - as comfortable as I can be in this stifling heat - when mile 10 heralds the approach of another enthusiastic bike spotter. This one has grey hair and it appears that he wants to give me running advice. Lovely!

"Keep to the tangents, don't just follow the road" he tells me sagely; I glance in his direction and nod "Yep", but refrain from further comment. A mile or so later he approaches again from the other direction, executes a U-turn and informs me that the tailwind is "really blowing - it should give you at least a minute or two" before riding off again to places unknown.

This is sort of puzzling, I mean I have never really had much input from the bike spotters in the past other than during mile 18-19 when the lead cars and then eventually the elite men have been coming up behind me. Perhaps this year they have been instructed to randomly hand out advice and encouragement during the entire race? Or have I just been lucky enough to encounter 2 rogue running coaches on bikes already? The race isn't even half over yet.

Looking overheated and rather confused at all the attention from dudes on bikes
photo credit: K. Kelley

Miles 13-16: 6:38, 6;35, 6:46, 6:37

The Wellesley scream tunnel hasn't left me deaf in my right ear (hooray) and I'm not feeling too bad actually as I approach the left-hand turn and the final stretch to the halfway mats. I'm far too hot and I'm definitely running slower than I'd like, but my thoughts are surprisingly Zen: it is what it is, and I'm going to make the most of today since this might be my final time running here.

My Zen lasts as I veer over to the left side of the road, cutting the tangents (as I've been instructed), but is then abruptly destroyed as I glance down and suddenly realise there's a bike wheel about to slam into the back of my left ankle. WTF?!? Oh my god, it's my nemesis the bicycle coach again. In his fervour to get close and give me helpful advice he has almost ridden straight into me.

I gasp, straighten up and am astounded to hear him repeat his advice about running the tangents. I've had more than I can take of this stupidity: I bark out in reply "I LEAVE ME ALONE!!"

Halfway split: 1:25:27

My rudeness has the desired effect: thankfully that's the last I will see of this particular gentleman, and pretty soon afterwards I cross the mats in a half split that is on the slower side of what I had anticipated. In this weather the second half of this race is going to be positively dangerous; I need to run smart now. As for AG placement, I'm not really sure where the other woman from the church is, and of course there may be a speedy interloper starting from the general start, as I myself did last year in fact. But hopefully I'll be able to hang in there well enough to earn another nice crystal vase - we will see what happens.

The first of the hills goes by with far less fanfare than it has in past years - and only a slight slowing of pace - but the worst lie still ahead. Gulp.

Miles 17-20: 6:55, 6:58, 6:41, 6:59

I don't remember checking my splits during this part of the race; all I know is that I'm slowing down but at least I'm still moving. During mile 18 the usual procession of lead vehicles is preceded by another bicycle spotter, who briefly advises me to keep right and then (to my relief) rides off without another word. The cars that pass have the usual assortment of police, photographers and officials peering backwards out of them and then, just as I'm approaching a corner, the men catch me.

A grainy screengrab but you can identify me from the weird thing I'm doing with my left hand
(as well as the fact that both feet are on the ground - shuffle shuffle)

This year there's a big group of them and I'm looking ahead at the corner, wondering if I should slow down or move over more, when the group briefly envelops me - passing on both left and right - before closing ranks again in front of me and moving on. There are about 10 of them and I see Galen Rupp (the American favourite) in the mix as well as another non-African dude with a moustache. Meb is nowhere to be seen - it's quite a while til he finally grinds past as we both make our way up the first part of Heartbreak Hill. I'm too focused this year to do any fangirling but I did get most of that out of the way before the race, anyway (see below).

American running royalty, L-R: Meb, Jared (after race) and Galen. Oh, and me and Joel of course.

Miles 21-24: 7:23, 659, 6:51, 6:54

The final part of Heartbreak Hill is an absolute shocker this year - my slowest-ever mile in the Boston marathon. Thankfully I won't realise this until much later, and in fact right now I'm actually surprised that I don't feel worse as I crest the hill and start the long downhill towards Highline and eventually Boylston Street. In retrospect my body went into survival mode at some point quite early in this race, and it simply wouldn't let me run any faster. The exertion level seems appropriate: tough, yet manageable, and to my surprise also I haven't really had any negative thoughts at all today.

Usually at some point I start thinking things along the lines of "I hate this" or "I want to stop now" or the classic "Why the bleep do I do this sort of thing anyway?", but today I'm fine with whatever's happening. Maybe it's the knowledge that I probably won't be back - or maybe it's the appropriately slower pace I'm running - but in any case, I'm having fun despite the uncomfortable conditions. Now I just need to step it up as much as I can and get to the finish without collapsing. I can do that, right?

A few unseeded male runners have passed me already but to my glee I've also caught a few more female elites; one, although I won't realise it until later, is my AG rival F108. I'm in that brain space now where I'm seeing things but not really taking them in, and the crowd is awesome but I can't really hear them; all I can do is run. There's a thick blue line on the road just begging me to follow it - and so I put my head down and that's exactly what I do.

Ignore the pain, follow the blue line, just keep going

Miles 25, 26, 0.2: 6:57, 7:06, 6:30 pace to finish

The Citgo sign appears after what seems like an eternity; the overpass right before it seems to stretch up almost to the sky. I'm surviving from mile marker to mile marker, thinking of no more than the fact that I'm almost there, almost there, almost there. Dragging myself along towards Cannoli Corner at mile 25.5 (where my spectating RunnersWorld friends congregate to hand out pastries and scream encouragement to members of the group), once again I hear my name being called but am too far gone to respond. The sun has gone behind some clouds now but the humidity is just as bad as it ever was and I'm way too hot, period.

But then something awesome happens: the lanky figure of Michael Wardian appears beside me and before I know it he's loping past, waving cheerily as he goes. If you don't know who Mike is, click here to find out more, but in short he is one of America's most prolific and successful marathoner and ultramarathoners. I spent much of the weekend of Big Sur marathon in 2015 hanging out with him (he and I were the winners of the Boston2BigSur Challenge that year) and much of the morning before today's race also in his company at the Fairmont Copley Hotel while waiting for our bus, and he's one awesome, humble, friendly guy.

This morning and back in 2015 - always smiling

Seeing Mike pass by makes me happy because we don't have far to go and so that means he must be on track to run under 2:30 (since I'm pretty sure that I'll still break 3 hours today) which is an AWESOME time. I'm impressed actually also that my brain has enough composure left to make those calculations - I'm clearly not as fried as I thought I was - and that I'm now about to make the famous turns: right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The race is almost over! Thank goodness for that.

Turning onto Boylston St I'm trying to remember to smile - there is always a photographer right at the corner and I have some awesome shots from over the years at this point - but it doesn't really work all that well. Despite the surprising ongoing absence of frank negativity, my face is betraying how tough today's race really has been and it just does NOT want to look happy.

2013, very nice  -- 2014, looking fast-- 2016, looking determined -- 2017....NOPE

But somehow I dredge up the ability to pump up the pace again as I run down Boylston; somehow the finish doesn't look as far away as it usually does, and I even have the presence of mind to stay left so I can get a decent finish line picture (although my addled brain then decides to hit stop on my watch while crossing, despite knowing how dorky that always looks). But oh what sweet relief! I can stop now!

Finish time: 2:56:32 (6:44 min/mile, 4:11 min/km)

Placement: 59th overall female, 1st in AG (F45-49), 7th masters female (40+)


I've done it: 6 Boston marathon finishes, all of them sub-3!

My time isn't as fast as I'd hoped, but I've hit my ultimate goal of running once again under 3 hours, and within an hour or so I'll know where that puts me in my age group. For now I can enjoy the luxury of wandering straight over to the elite tent to change, get a massage, chat to my friends and wait for Joel. Also I get to eat Cheez Doodles (my son will die when he finds out these actually exist outside of his Big Nate books) and drink as much iced tea and Gatorade as I can handle. Bliss!

So happy to be done!

Shortly after Joel arrives - having run a fantastic 3:22 on spotty training and lots of sandbagging - we have a dilemma on our hands: I've managed to win my age group and have just received an email inviting me to the official presentation at 5pm! But right now, normally we'd head to the downstairs bar at Loew's, a nearby hotel, to rehydrate (aka drink beer) with all our RunnersWorld friends. And there's no way we can fit that in plus the long commute to and from our blasted hotel. But I'm not going up on stage in my current sweaty, messy state, that's for sure. So off we go trekking to the hotel to shower and change, in lieu of beers with mates. Such is life when your hotel overbooks itself and bumps those with the cheapest rates, I guess. Grrrr.

The presentation is thrilling and fun, just like last year, with added bonus of my own cheer squad (courtesy of our friends Alice and Steve who meet us in the bar beforehand and sneak in to the ceremony with Joel) and my friend Paula - with whom I ran NYC in 2014 and Boston in 2015 in the elite starts as well - who has, not surprisingly, placed in her AG too. Seeing her again, even briefly, is awesome and I think I can say that this year's Boston will go down in history as my favourite one ever. Apart from the hotel, grrr.

Fast doctor runners, unite!

Summing it all up

Looking purely at the numbers, this was a pretty crappy performance from me. It was my second slowest finish time, my slowest from the EWS by almost a minute and my worst ever second-half fade. Crunching the data, it simply doesn't look good at all:

But given the circumstances it seems my body and some deep, instinctive part of my brain colluded to once again bring me the best possible result for the day: an age group win and a solid race without need of the medical tent (always a bonus) and, as it turns out, not even a blister or single destroyed toe. In sports physiology there's a lot of talk about a "central governor" that ultimately controls how we perceive fatigue, and it looks like mine sized up the conditions and decided that running for place would be a wise choice rather than allowing me to develop hyperthermia trying to hit an ambitious time goal.

And looking at the rest of the weekend, I'd have to say that 2017 was my absolute favourite of all years in Boston. Because although it's one of the biggest running events in the world, the Boston marathon, for me, is all about friends. Through running I have been so fortunate to make many good friends from all around the globe, friends who share my passion for our sport and spending time with them in Boston is always one of the highlights of my year.

The whole marathon thing is just an excuse for runners to get together and party

That said, I'm ready to take a break from Boston - for once I'd like to spend the April school holidays in Australia with my kids and perhaps run a different marathon in the first part of the year - at least until I have a new age group to conquer. Then, like Nellie Melba I might be back for yet another farewell, you just never know.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Orange Running Festival Marathon, February 2017

I ran the Orange Running Festival half marathon in 2013 and it remains, to this day, one of only two races I never got around to writing about on this blog. I'm not sure why; I actually quite like Orange, after spending the first 6 months of 2005 living and working there, but for some reason my write-up of that experience stalled.

It might have had something to do with the cold, rainy 2K that I jogged the day before with my then-small son. It might have been my expectation of a fast, flat HM course, which was appropriately crushed by the hilly dirt roads up which I found myself running, or at least trying to run.  It might have been a relatively sub-par time: 1:26 for a third place finish and my slowest half for a few years at least.

Whatever the reason, and in spite of the memory of many hills, I decided to venture back to Orange this year to try my hand at the full marathon. A friend had put me in touch with a babysitter to mind the kids while I was running and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was rather more prize money on offer this year than I remembered from 2013 - plus of course a good solid run would be beneficial for both fitness and confidence in the lead-up to Boston - so off we went on Saturday afternoon to the Colour City for another go.

The Training

For the past year or three I've been pretty much in a perpetual state of marathon training, but since October 2016 (when I ran the Ned Kelly 50K) things have been a little different. In January I took a break to go skiing in Japan and found myself feeling uncharacteristically serene about not running for several days in a row - this is not normal behaviour for me, not at all. I skiied all day and jogged up to 5 miles most afternoons on the treadmill but had no desire to do anything more.

Towards the end of January I started to think that maybe I should start training for Boston, perhaps? So I put together a few higher-volume weeks and threw in a bit of speedwork, but it was all still pretty much whatever I could manage on the day. With Boston still 6 weeks off the marathon in Orange would be a solid long run, not a full-on race: an endurance-building effort both mental and physical. I never had any ideas really about having to race it, nor any intention.

Race Day

I'm easily awake at 5am and have put most of my things out in preparation for a stealthy departure, but somehow it turns out I've mislaid my Garmin. I fumble around trying to locate it by the light of my phone and in the process wake Amelia. Bugger! Any plans for a relaxing pre-race lead-up are trashed at this point anyway; the babysitter is coming at 6am, the race starts at 6:30am and I haven't picked up my bib yet.

It's a short drive to the starting area, thankfully, but I'm sort of freaking out about how fine I'm cutting things this morning. I run from the parking lot to the hall where I remember picking up my bib last time, and with about 10 minutes to spare I'm outside ready to go. There are plenty of people I know around and I'm kept busy enough chatting with all of them that I don't have much chance to get nervous - not that I really would, because rather arrogantly I'm expecting to win quite easily today.

This is because the female winners over the past few years have run 3:17, 3:26, 3:14 - times that I am reasonably confident of being able to beat. Sub-3 would be nice, but if I don't feel great then I'm expecting to run around 3:05-3:10 and win without any problems. They say pride comes before a fall, but I've already had my fall this week (and taken most of the skin off both palms and my left knee) and a bit of pride doesn't seem unreasonable at this point. So I head to the starting line quite unconcerned, feeling both relaxed and confident.

A woman dressed in triathlon gear loiters around close to me - I'm in the very first row because why not, right? - and she's clearly the most likely contender for today's title; I will later discover that she won in 2016. There's nobody else around that looks particularly keen, so when the start gun goes off I set off feeling assured of a pleasant, not-too-taxing morning's work.

Miles 1-5: 6:41, 6:51, 6:59, 6:56,  6:39 (pace in min/mile)

I'm running comfortably and feeling great really when the first mile split beeps; there are a pair of guys not far ahead of me and I can sense another one just over my right shoulder too. I look at my watch, think "that's a touch too fast" and consider asking the runner right behind me what his goal time is - if he says "sub-3" then we might be running together for a while - but when I look over to the right I am both amazed and slightly horrified to discover that my companion is female. Wait, what?!?

The course veers abruptly out onto a road and my companion is momentarily confused, almost bumping into me as she figures out which direction to take: I say "no, the road, we go down the road" because I remember this course actually from 2013, and if I remember correctly the rolling hills are about to start any second now. She's profusely apologetic, we run side-by-side for a minute or two, and then to my further amazement she starts to pull ahead of me.

Well, this is not what I was expecting! I need to decide fairly quickly what to do about this - should I smash myself trying to keep up, or hold back and hope that she will fade? So many runners do, but this one has the look of a hard-core ultrarunner: brown hair in a French plait down her back and legs that are tanned and very muscular. Uh oh.

To your average ultrarunner, these mountains are mere molehills

I decide to hang back and watch for a couple of miles - the course is as hilly as I remember it, and we both slow down a touch - but she's running strongly and consistently at a pace that will lead to a sub-3 if she keeps it up. I look at my watch as she passes a sign by the road and estimate that she's about 15-20 seconds ahead. That's still catchable in a race as long as this one, so there's no need to panic just yet.

Then during mile 6 she gradually catches a male runner who has clearly gone out way too fast, but in doing so also slows down enough that - ever so gradually - I pass him too and shortly afterwards pull up alongside her. Ooh, how is she going to react to this??

Miles 6-10: 6:47, 6:46, 6:35, 6:54, 6:45

Not well, as it turns out! Immediately she speeds up again and I'm tempted to try to stay with her. A couple of faster miles ensue (during which I see, much to my amusement, a strange-looking brown mound in the paddock by the road which turns out to be a camel, of all things) but then we make a sharpish left-hand turn onto a gravel road which is strewn with threateningly big chunks of rock. Oh, no.

This surface is an ankle-turning nightmare and after Wednesday's close encounter with the asphalt I'm immediately intimidated into slowing down some more. Brown Plait is made of stronger stuff and continues steadily like a mountain goat up the gravelly road into what I have now noticed is a fresh headwind.

Pretty soon she's at least 45 seconds ahead and I am rehearsing second-place acceptance speeches in my head: "Yeah, second place, I know...she was just too strong and I wasn't expecting to have to run sub-3...." I'm imagining myself telling Joel (who has stayed behind in Wagga) "I lost!" in dramatic tones, demanding sympathy that someone faster dared to show up. But another voice in the back of my brain reminds me that I have caught plenty of chicks in the later stages of marathons, so perhaps all is not lost quite yet, and that's enough motivation to keep me plugging away because really, what other choice do I have?

Out and up to the top of Spring Hill and then allll the way back again

Miles 11-15: 6:55, 7:03, 6:45, 6:49, 6:52

Well, I could just jog the rest, that's what I could do. A short stretch of ridiculously steep and rocky hill almost does me in - the wind is firmly in my face and I really don't like this at all, thanks - but then mercifully it turns into a sealed road for the final, rather protracted out-and-back stretch. It's long enough that I find out I'm in 6th place overall, as 3 blokes I hadn't seen before appear well out in front of the rest of us. They're on their way back as Brown Plait and another guy are ahead of me towards the turn-around. Let's see how things stand, shall we?

I check my watch as she turns and then resist the temptation to look at it before I get there myself. When I do, the difference is 50 seconds - so she's 1:40 ahead of me and showing no signs of slowing down yet either. God, I hate ultrarunners! Even though technically I'm sort of one myself now.

Half split: 1:29:30

On the way back down there are increasing numbers of runners coming the other way and plenty of them say encouraging things to me as we pass each other by. I'm trying to reply to them all but I'm also trying to stay focused, and that 1 minute 40 second gap is annoying me greatly. Thankfully the wind is now at my back and the gradient more down than up; even the rocky surface of the road doesn't seem quite as bad this time around. And could it be that Brown Plait is slightly closer than she was before? Hmmm.

Miles 16-20: 6:53, 7:12, 6:53, 6:54, 6:47

What goes down must eventually go up again, and any time I've gained on the downhill-with-a-tailwind part is lost during mile 17, which is more up than down and will be my slowest mile of the entire day. But surprisingly enough the gap between myself and Brown Plait looks about the same. Up ahead she is slowly catching another male marathoner, and, believe it or not, I seem to be inching ever-so-gradually closer to them both.

So I don't give up, and I don't slow down - not yet, anyway, and hopefully not at any point in the near future. I know I can run sub-3, so it all comes down to this: can my competitor? It sure looks that way for now, but I've heard it said that in a marathon the race doesn't start until mile 20, and today at least I'm feeling ready to race.

Miles 21-25: 6:51, 6:56, 6:42, 6:49, 6:25

The final 6 miles of a marathon can conveniently be broken down into segments of 2, I've discovered, and it's a strange sort of mental arithmetic that I always find comforting in the final stages of a race. I tell myself "Only 2 miles to go", whether it's 2 miles til I have 2 miles left, or 2 miles til I have 2 lots of 2 miles to go, or what. It's difficult to explain coherently now but when my brain has been addled by long hours of effortful racing and concentration,  somehow it makes perfect sense.

So right now I'm thinking in terms of 2s. Because the woman I've been chasing all race is still ahead of me, but at mile 22 the gap is noticeably smaller. Should I go nuts now, or should I wait? The course turns back onto gravel roads towards Bloomfield Hospital where it all began and I crank up the pace a notch or so. Let's see what the next 2 miles bring.

Mile 23 has some nasty undulations that definitely weren't there on the way out, although of course I know that they were. I feel like I'm struggling and slowing down but I'm still gaining on her, and as mile 24 beeps the moment of truth has arrived: I'm RIGHT ON HER TAIL. There are only 2 miles to go! Oh my gosh, what to do??

I could hang here for another mile or even until the last hundred meters, then throw it all down in a wild sprint to the finish -- but we all know what sort of sprinter I am, and if you don't, then the best word for my sprinting skills is "non-existent".  My daughter can out-sprint me and she is only 8, so that probably won't work.

If I'm going to pass her now, I'll need to run the final 2 miles as fast as I can. What if she surges again and crushes me? What if I panic, what if I hit the wall?? So much anxiety and so many things that could go wrong! I realise in an instant that my best chance is going to be to not only pass her, but to do it emphatically: to crush her mental defences by steaming past to glorious victory.

So without even really thinking twice about it, as the mile 24 beep sounds I slam on the accelerator and sprint past as fast as I can. I don't bother checking my pace or looking at my watch; every fibre of my being is focused on running as hard as I can manage. Speeding up significantly in the late stages of a marathon is extremely difficult and I'm not sure how long this will last, so I need to just go and hope that it works.

As I tear along the road I can hear a flapping noise that I'm fairly sure is coming from my own bib, but it could also be footsteps behind me, and a couple of times I'm tempted to panic. "She's right behind you!" I tell myself. But maybe she's not - either way it makes no difference. I just need to keep running.

Mile 26, 0.2 to finish: 6:38, 6:34 pace

We are back very close to the hospital now and approaching it from the opposite side to where we left. I *think* I know where to go but there's no-one ahead within sight and any wrong turn at this stage will be fatal. I end up yelling "Which way??" a couple of times at the volunteers who are watching calmly from the sidelines - they have no idea that I'm in a state of near-panic, or why - and thankfully they're able to point me in the right direction.

Mile 26 beeps, I think I can almost see the finish area now.....just need to keep my legs turning over. Reflexively I start counting in my one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand...and then the finish arch is finally in sight. I've won this race after all!

Finish time: 2:59:04 (6:49 min/mile, 4:14 min/km)

Placement:  1st female, 4th overall.

With my 2 biggest fans

In retrospect, today's race was not only a great physical workout,  it was a really important mental one too. It turns out I won by just over 2 minutes, all of which I gained in the final 2.2 miles. My tactic worked - or she was just plain done at that point, who knows - and I'm very surprised (and pleased) to realise that a sprint finish isn't impossible after all. My endurance hasn't suffered too much from the summer hiatus - I've got 6 weeks to pull my act together for what will almost certainly be my final Elite start at Boston - and today was quite an inspiring way to start!