Saturday, March 14, 2015

Riverina Rush HM, Narrandera March 2015

It's a rare thing indeed to find a half-marathon within coo-ee of where I live in beautiful Wagga Wagga, so when this race appeared on the radar I was instantly keen to attend. Adding to my enthusiasm was the fact that the timing was also very good: exactly 5 weeks out from my next big race, the Boston marathon in April. I was a little concerned about the start time of 9:30am, which would likely make things rather uncomfortably hot by the finish, but on the bright side this also meant there would be plenty of time to drive over the the morning rather than having to stay somewhere overnight.

The Training
Ah yes, the training. To be very honest, life had gotten somewhat in the way of running for me in the 2 months leading up to this race, and I found myself with a much less consistent background of decent training than I'd usually have at this point in the Boston lead-up. Instead of multiple weeks over 100 miles I'd had exactly one of those since the beginning of January; surprisingly however I was pretty unconcerned at this state of affairs.

My goal, therefore, for the race at Narrandera was to run a decent workout at or slightly faster than goal pace for Boston (6:30 min/mile or 4:02 min/km), and not really worry about trying to run a PR or anything of that sort. Coach B provided me with this plan and it seemed like a good one; there's also the matter of advancing age on my part, although we might just not mention that too often if that's alright with you.

Race Day
It's an easy and relaxing drive to Narrandera, just over an hour to the west - if we were to keep on driving we'd eventually end up in Adelaide, although probably 9 or 10 hours later. Mum and I get up early to eat a modest breakfast of raisin toast and coffee, then we set off. We arrive at the Lake Talbot swimming complex with almost an hour to spare, which is enough time for me to get changed, get my "bib" number (see below) and run a nice gentle 2 mile warm-up.

A portion of the pool complex, complete with gnarly slide - how steep is that thing?!?
Oops, did I just accidentally enter a triathlon?
I'm deliberately back by 9:15am but Mum tells me the pre-race briefing has already finished, so unfortunately I have missed hearing any specific advice about the course. Down at the start line, though, I hear one guy briefing another on where to turn, so I listen in and end up chatting to them both while we wait for the start. One looks fast - his name is Sam - and he imparts the unexpected news that we'll be running entirely on trails..... and in some places that will mean on sand.

Wow, time for an attitude adjustment! I really really need to stop expecting to be racing on the roads in these regional areas, and start expecting gnarly trails every single time. The RD makes an announcement that mentions mud, fences and electrocution (he's joking, although I do wonder briefly if this is Tough Mudder in disguise) and everyone laughs, but the HM has us doing 2 laps of the course and there's a good chance my sleek ASICS racing flats are not going to like any of it very much. Sam and I joke about getting lost out there: he has no sense of direction and apparently gets lost on the way to work, which sends a prescient pang of anxiety through me. I can only hope that there are enough runners around me that I can follow someone, although I did look at the course map briefly after we arrived, so hopefully my photographic memory will keep me on track.

Miles 1-3: 6:28, 6:34, 6:27
Off we go! A number of young boys take off like a pack of rabbits and I know well enough by now to steer clear of them, anticipating the inevitable slow-down-suddenly-block-entire-path manoeuvre that I've seen more times than I'd like in past races. Sam is cruising along at a good clip so I tuck in right behind him, but as we cross a small bridge and turn left, there's a sandy patch and whoops, he almost goes down. As he recovers I look at my watch: 5:37 min/mile pace so far, WAY too fast for me, so I pull it back and let him go.

We head into the bush on a well-defined but by turns sandy and rocky path. My usual half-marathon pace is going to be impossible, but if I can keep it close to marathon pace for Boston - and keep the effort level appropriate - today will be a good marathon-specific workout. The first few miles splits are promising (despite the terrain) and ahead of me now are only 5 people, all male and 3 of them quite young.

Then at the first water table all the young ones peel off to the right to follow the 5K course, leaving Sam perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead, and beyond him a guy in a "Feral Joggers Griffith" singlet; the lead bike is just in front of him. I know both of them are running the HM - can it possibly be that there are no 10K competitors at all ahead of me? That really makes no sense, but it looks to be true.

Miles 4-6: 6:45, 6:32, 6:31
I'm far too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots to notice my 5K split. During mile 4 there's another drink station and fork in the path just where a fence line appears; from what I overheard at the start I know to turn left and follow the fence as the course loops back towards Narrandera. I'm starting to feel the effects of the terrain, plus there's a bit of a headwind and the lovely shade of the koala reserve we have just run through (no I didn't see any) is gone. It's full sun and probably around 27C/80F now, ugh, and the surface is full of big cracks too. Strangely enough I can't see Sam's blue singlet ahead of me anymore - I wonder vaguely if he's put on a big burst of speed and opened a huge gap on me - but the course demands my full attention and the thought quickly leaves my mind.

The path dips steeply down into what appears to be a dry creek bed, then back up onto a levee bank where there's yet another water table. Taken aback by the sudden incline, I decide abruptly to stop and drink a cup rather than try to keep running full-tilt and end up either wearing or choking on it. I lose maybe 10 seconds in the process, but I'm fairly sure there is nobody at all behind me for quite a long way, so whatever.

The view across Lake Talbot to the levee bank where I'm now running

Refreshed, I set off along the bank again - there is a channel and part of Lake Talbot to my right (see image above), and it's quite picturesque. Up ahead I see Feral Guy's white singlet, somewhat closer than before, but where oh where is Sam?? He's definitely disappeared.

At this point I'm beginning to lose mental focus, so I start playing the game that I invented to keep my (ridiculously fast) cadence up when I'm running speedwork: I count my footfalls in batches of four and work my way up to 60. At top speed that would equal roughly a minute, since I can easily clock 240 in that time. I know if I start daydreaming now or singing to myself (the Pet Shop Boys song "Pandemonium" is stuck in my head and liable to pop up at moments like this) then I'll instantly slow down. No, I need to stay focused. So I count and I count and I count -- as the distant umbrellas of the pool complex draw closer and closer and closer.


Miles 7-9: 6:36, 6:43, 6:42
The course loops back to the bridge, does a little out-and-back and then it's off for the second lap. The turn is hilarious: instead of a traffic cone there's an enormous bloke standing there and clearly I'm supposed to run around him......but he sees me coming and starts to get out of the way! I give him a stern look that is meant to convey the message that he needs to STOP RIGHT THERE, and apparently it works (I've been practicing it for years on my kids, after all) because he freezes and I go around - being careful not to slip in the loose gravel - and look up again to see Sam approaching. Phew, he's not lost forever!

The bad news is that he's obviously lost a fair bit of time: he's at least 2 minutes behind me now. I yell at him "Wrong turn??" and he replies "Yeah, massive" - poor guy! He looks strong but really pissed off; my goal for the next lap is going to be NOT getting caught by Sam, although he totally deserves to come 2nd. Heck, he probably should have been in the lead by now, because Feral Guy is not that far ahead.

Running alone through the bush it's harder than the first lap to stay on pace. I take another drink at a station deep in the reserve; the old bloke there exclaims "You're only 300m behind the first guy!" and I'm sufficiently distracted by this knowledge that I almost do a Sam and turn right instead of left at the fence. Oops, nope, I backtrack quickly and hit the stretch with full sun again. The headwind is stronger - I attempt to reframe this as a good thing, because at least it's cooling me down - but nope, I cannot convince myself, sorry. All the mental gymnastics in the world are not going to appease the sensible part of my brain that is yelling "Just slow down already!!" so I give up and again start to count, whereupon the OCD part of my brain rubs its hands together and chuckles insanely. Sigh.

Miles 10-12: 6:50, 6:40, 6:37
I stop again after the creek for a cup of water, and lose another 10 seconds. By now I'm hot, dusty and getting fed up. Can I really be bothered with this? I remind myself that keeping focus while running alone is very important training for Boston, and after the mile 10 split (my slowest of the race) I give myself a shake and again zero in on my cadence. Speed it up, keep it there -- it works to some extent and again I'm back down closer to goal pace. The sun is beating down relentlessly and I think with some disbelief of the very real possibility of snow still being on the ground in 5 weeks' time in Boston - could this race be any more different?

Back at the bridge we now have to do another short out-and-back, and Feral Guy is fading fast, but possibly not enough for me to catch him. At the turnaround (this time a traffic cone rather than a tubby bystander) I estimate there's maybe 60-70 seconds separating us, and it's very unlikely I can make that up. But I charge on regardless.....

Mile 13 - final 0.1: 6:27, 6:25 pace to finish
I'm giving it everything I have now and finally I pass through the gates of the Lake Talbot Swimming Complex once again. The entry way where we started is totally empty, and I have no idea where the finish line is. I debate briefly whether to take the high road on the left or the lower one on the right before deciding just to stay left and head up to the place where registration took place - until about 10 seconds later, when I hear people yelling at me from near the fence: I'm going the wrong way!

Frustrated, I stop dead, mutter something unprintable and then bellow "WHERE DO I GO??" In reply they're yelling sort of incoherently, but I get the idea I should be on the other side where they are, even though there's still no finish line that I can see. Oh -- they are motioning that I should run through a narrow gate that seems to lead into the pool complex itself. How completely freaking obscure! And why isn't there someone here to show the way, or a sign at least? Aware that I've lost at least 30 seconds in this mix-up, I leg it back down the hill and through the gate. I see Sam coming along the road as I turn, then I'm barrelling towards the finish at last.

Finish line, complete with rather-too-relaxed race officials

Finish time: 1:26:48 (6:36 min/mile pace, 4:06 min/km)

Placement: 2nd overall, 1st female

This has to be the least crowded finish area ever! I grab a bottle of water, complain to anyone who's listening about the lack of directions to the finish line, then sit down in the shade next to Mum. After a while I wonder whether a swim might be nice, but then a small child emerges from the pool wailing "It's freeeeeezing in there!!" and I decide that just getting changed out of my sweaty INKnBURN gear will be enough for me.

A proper podium is just the thing to make up for all the drama

Post-race analysis
I spend some time commiserating with Sam, who turns out to be capable of a 35 minute 10K and therefore should have handily beaten me today. Overall, I'm quite happy with how I managed to perform: I stayed focused and most of the time was only about 10 seconds off the pace I'd been targeting, which seems pretty acceptable in light of the trail surface, which after all is vastly different to running on asphalt. As predicted, the race has turned out to be a good marathon-specific workout in more than one way, and a nice medal and envelope of cash are the icing on the cupcake of a very nice day trip to Narrandera. Bring on Boston, please!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cadbury Hobart Half-Marathon, January 2015

The cooler climate of Hobart - the capital city of Tasmania, that smallish island to the south of the mainland, the one that is often left off maps of Australia - is probably the only place on the continent that could host a major running event in January (at the height of summer) and get away with it. After the fairly disappointing racing experience in New York, I laid low and sulked for a while before eventually deciding to snap out of it and find a way to redeem myself. The opportunity presented itself quite promptly in the form of the Australian Masters Half-Marathon Championships, to be held in conjunction with the Cadbury Hobart HM.

Note the sponsor: Cadbury, makers of all manner of yummy chocolate and other sweet treats. I'd never really considered a trip to Hobart (too cold) but suddenly it all made sense (chocolate) and I decided to sign up.

mmmm, chocolate

The Training
After NYC I found myself feeling draggy, tired and sore in a few spots; no doubt the mental toil of 26.2 miles in a hurricane-strength headwind also had taken its toll. I refused to even consider doing any speedwork when Benita started trying to work it back into my plan towards the end of November; fortunately she was very understanding  of my reluctance (thanks, B) and so it was mid-December when I finally started putting some effort in. I was also keen to build back my overall weekly mileage once I felt recovered from NYC, managing to clock up 110 miles in the week prior to race week in Hobart. I can't imagine that this made for the most ideal half-marathon prep, but it was certainly adequate.

The Travel
Travelling to Hobart from Wagga is somewhat tricky, but on a solo trip I have no particular reasons to worry about layovers or keeping maniac kids occupied, so it's going to be smooth sailing no matter what, really. I set off very early on Saturday morning and find myself in Tasmania just after lunch - my hilariously quaint accommodations are relatively easy to find (although I have no idea how anybody ever found anything in the era before Google maps) - and there is plenty of time to pick up race bibs, find a nice cafe for lunch, and even to relax and wander about the city centre a bit before it's time to pick up my fast friend Neil (whom I know from RunCamp in June) and head to the Best Western hotel for the official pre-race pasta dinner.

Hobart, heritage-style

At the dinner we don't officially know anybody but we land at a table with a bloke who looks very familiar. Turns out I've met him a couple of times at Gold Coast and Melbourne in the elite field - he is looking to run a blisteringly fast time in the HM tomorrow - we chat and scoff pasta before eventually wandering off in search of beer. Again, possibly not the best pre-race preparation, but it's not like I'm going to win tomorrow; Masters, maybe, but overall there is no chance. So beer, because, why not?

Race Day
I should be used to getting up at 4:30am by this point, but it's still just too darn early. Somehow, though,  I'm up and downstairs - where Neil is already waiting - when it's time to leave at 5:10am, and we make the drive to the Cadbury factory without any trouble. The roads are to be closed at 5:45am but we make it there in good time and in fact snag a great parking spot just before a massive influx sees the carpark fill to capacity.

The good news is that it's around 13C/55F out and cloudy, which is essentially perfect running weather. It definitely doesn't feel like the middle of summer, but whatever, it's all about the running today. The marathon starts at 6am, so rather than warm up we hang around and watch the marathoners get started. I usually run 2 miles with some strides before a HM, but somehow we are almost out of time and I'm not sure where to run anyway because the marathoners are busily doing loops on the only available roads.

Eventually we decide to jog on the oval near the carpark, but the grass is wet, my shoes are getting damp and it's all too much bother really. After 1 measly lap we both give up and focus on getting ready for the race. There are almost 700 starters but it's relatively easy to insert ourselves at the very front of the pack - and with very little fanfare other than a mis-firing gun, we are off!

Front row is where it's at...for Clare, me and Neil at least.

Miles 1-3: 6:35, 6:25, 6:26 (pace in min/mile)
The first mile involves a loop around the houses near the Cadbury factory, and it's mostly flat so I'm not surprised that the first 1km sign appears and I glance at my watch to see 3:52 - that's 6:13 min/mile, which is an appropriate HM pace for me. I feel good but Benita told me to take it easy the first 5-10km and I sort of intend to try to live up to that (how's that for commitment?) so I deliberately ease back on the pace and am rewarded with a first mile split that is my slowest of the whole race.

We head down a nastily steep hill next; coming back up that right at the very end of the race is going to be potentially quite unpleasant. There are two women only ahead of me - Brisbane-based pocket rocket Clare Geraghty, who is most certainly going to win today, and another girl who looks similarly young - but now a 3rd with a blonde ponytail and pink singlet goes charging past me. What?? This will not do!

The next 2 miles undulate more than I was expecting, but I catch Pink Ponytail without too much effort and focus on moving ahead of her. The sun has come out and is unexpectedly bright, but otherwise it's a perfect day and pace-wise I'm even doing what I was told for once. Excellent!

Grinning widely, probably because Pink Ponytail is behind me again

Miles 4-6: 6:16, 6:19, 6:29
Wow, already I am catching the slower marathoners and the course is gradually getting more crowded. Without realising I speed up a touch - I'm not checking my Garmin, deliberately, and am running mostly by feel. My goal for the day was to win the Masters championship, and success in that regard is virtually assured, but I still want to run a good race. That hill we just came down is on my mind, but I need to forget about it for a few miles at least.

A small group of guys powers past me at this point; among them are 2 men who are clearly in the Masters race. I wonder briefly if I'll see them again. The course turns off the main highway and winds its way through parklands right by the Derwent river - I'm distracted by the beauty of it all - and then suddenly there is a rather sizeable hill looming in front of me. Isn't this course supposed to be "fast and flat"?? Not for the first time I'm reminded that a course promoter's idea of fast and flat may not correspond entirely with my own.

I'm distracted also by the sight of the lead marathoners already powering down the other side of the road on their way back for a second lap of the course. This adds a degree of complexity to the race: not only do I have to make my way round an increasing number of slow marathoners on the left, I have to avoid an increasing stream of marathoners, and soon also there will be half-marathoners, coming back the other way. Passing through a water station is sheer chaos with people dodging all over the road; I'm certainly thankful I don't need to drink at this point.

Remarkably symmetrical out-and-back course

Miles 7-9: 6:22, 6:16, 6:06
Getting up onto the bridge is not really much fun, but things flatten out once I'm up there and it's actually not too bad. I catch back up to the group of men that passed me before, and almost at the same time Neil zooms past on the other side of the bridge. One of my goals for today is to finish within 10 minutes of his time but right now it's not looking all that good. I yell and wave - he's in 4th overall - but he's gone in an instant and I go back to concentrating on the race at hand.

Now I'm watching the other side of the road for the 2nd female (who has her name on her bib - it's Ruth) and am quite surprised that I haven't seen her yet - Clare has already gone past. Finally I see her, and glance at my watch in an effort to gauge just how big the gap is between us. To my surprise it will turn out to be less than a minute. It's unlikely that I'll be able to speed up enough to catch her....but perhaps if she really slows down I might?

Somewhat enthused, I zoom around the turning point and head back to the bridge. But what is going on now behind me?? Over the past half mile I've gradually become aware of a loud huffing, puffing noise - sort of like a walrus having an asthma attack - and several people have yelled at me "Go Andrew!" which is kind of strange, since I'm pretty sure I don't look like an Andrew. Of course: it's the bloke behind me, who was part of that group of guys but seems to have abandoned them in order to give chase to me.

My 2 fastest miles of the race come courtesy of Andrew - his breathing is really worrying me so I check over my shoulder to see that he's not actually about to collapse - he gasps out "You're setting a good pace!!" to which I reply "Thanks!" and then speed up more. One of my pet hates is being relentlessly tailed by someone making this much noise; I need to get away, and a small incline finally does the job, but only after another full mile of gasping. Phew!

That's not Andrew, it's his much quieter mate

Miles 10-13: 6:26, 6:22, 6:27, 6:24
Mile 10 has some undulations that take the wind out of my sails a little; I could push harder, but that final monster hill is still ahead and really, what's the point? Well, actually there possibly is a point: I've realised I can now see Ruth, the girl who is in 2nd place, ahead of me at last. She inches a little closer over the next mile but I'm under no delusion that I can catch her, nor do I really fancy potentially blowing myself up trying. I've got both my main objectives for the race already tied up: overall placement and the Masters win. Why risk it now?

So I don't really speed up again, but I don't slow down much either. The hill comes and is not quite as bad as I was expecting, although there is a photographer at the very top to capture the moment - and so later I find out EXACTLY how unimpressed I looked whilst grinding up that incline, and it's not at all pretty (no you may NOT see the photo!).

Finally the finish line is in sight, so I put my head down and run as fast as I can: my Garmin later shows that I managed to dredge up 6:04 pace for the final stretch, which shows I wasn't completely out of gas. And I've managed to get myself on the podium for both the overall AND the Masters race! Hooray!

Finish time: 1:24:08 (6:22 min/mile)

Placement: 3rd female overall, 1st AG (40-44).

For once a proper podium!!
Two of my dinner companions - John and Neil - are standing on the curb stretching as I walk through the finish chute in search of water. They have placed 2nd and 4th overall, respectively, and Neil has not only won the Masters division but has done so in a course record for his age group. Impressive!

We all get enormous baskets of chocolate for our achievements, and I actually get two; this is going to make for an interesting flight home and also two very happy children, who immediately call me on FaceTime to verify the photo I have just sent through of the spoils.

Best. Race. Swag. EVER!

The Analysis 
I may have won a mountain of chocolate, but today was certainly not my fastest half marathon ever. In fact, it was more than 3 minutes slower than my actual PR. Maybe I'm getting old and slow, or just maybe I did what I was told for once and ran a tactically clever race? I did in fact pretty much follow Benita's advice, although not by pure design, I must admit.

In any case, my time was good enough for what I wanted to achieve, so there's no point moaning. And on the bright side, I probably won't have to buy chocolate for a year or possibly more. What's not to love about that?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

AIRIA One shoes: test run and review.

Shortly after I published my most recent blog post about the New York marathon, I was contacted by a representative from Airia shoes. They offered me a free pair to try out, asking in return only that I report back and post a review on my blog once I have run in them.

Never one to pass up a freebie, I readily accepted the challenge. When the shoes arrived this morning, I decided to take them for an easy evening double (just 5 miles/8km) and write the whole thing up in my usual race report manner.

The Background
Airia are a Swedish company that have apparently been around since 1992. That's news to me - prior to being contacted I had never heard of Airia shoes and I doubt I had even seen a pair on anyone, anywhere. But according to the box that the shoe came in, they've been around for more than 20 years now, developing this exact shoe. What on earth took them so long?

Ah, this must be it. The first thing that jumps out when I look on their website is the somewhat audacious-sounding claim that Airia One shoes can make you run up to 7% faster. If my math is correct (which it often is not), that would turn a 2:47 marathon into a 2:35 - something that hardly seems plausible. Such an improvement for me (and my current marathon PR is indeed 2:47:57) would catapult me straight into the Australian Olympic team for 2016 and have me winning the female Masters division at Boston by at least 4-5 minutes. All this, just from switching shoe brands? I'd almost certainly have a lot of explaining to do, not to mention "random" drug tests, if such a thing was to suddenly happen.

The email from the company quotes two reviews that I might be interested to read; it's a little disquieting to read and subsequently realise that neither of these reviewers has anything very positive to say about the shoes.  I have to wonder if the people marketing the shoes have actually read the reviews - it makes little sense to be linking to negative reviews, but it seems they are anyway.

The other thing that bothers me is the disclaimer that I read on the website and again when I open the box:

So what you're saying is...they're weird and I am not allowed to walk in them? Okay then.

I'm almost scared to venture out the door - for a while I contemplate running on the TM, but I really don't want to do that unless I have to, and the kids are with their father so it's the perfect opportunity to head outside. But what if I get halfway to the lake and am in sudden agony? Something like that happened to me in early 2004, when I was in Adelaide and decided to forsake my usual ASICS for a pair of Nikes, in the misguided belief that new shoes would somehow heal or compensate for the still-held-together-with-titanium right leg that I was dealing with at that point.

After limp-running about 3km along the River Torrens I was struck down by a sharp, severe pain in my right calf, entirely different to the usual leg-still-broken pain that by now I was used to enduring. Forced to walk back to where I had started, I came away with the firm belief that changing shoe brands was a sure-fire path to injury (conveniently forgetting that colliding with cars at 35mph/60kph is also a good way to damage oneself) and an ever-increasing superstition about the Wrong Pair of Shoes.

So it is with great trepidation that I stand at the counter considering my first run wearing Airia One. The name conjures up mental images of aliens and spaceships - I think of Roswell and the X-Files and Area 51 - and the shoes themselves actually look so weird that the whole thing suddenly makes perfect sense. Alien shoes! From Area One! Let's try them on and see just how bizarre things can get.

<mysterious music plays>

The Shoes
Once on, the shoes feel light but also kind of lumpy in the soles. I'm expecting this and it's not as bad as I anticipated - the upward pointing toes also feel slightly odd, but I find I can walk in them without too much difficulty. The soles are softly spongy and really quite comfortable; I don't feel like my gait is being forced into an unnatural pattern, which is good. They do seem a bit more like a prototype rather than a finished running shoe, though - the uppers are quite flimsy and I have to wonder how they would stand up to my usual training mileage.

I grab a spare pair of shoes to drop in my driveway, figuring that if it all goes to pot I can just turn around at the end of the street and come home to change, strap on my Garmin and it's go time.

my regular easy run route

Mile 1: 8:26 pace
Ok, these shoes are not making me run any faster, that's one thing for sure. I set off down the road and the first thing I notice is that the 2nd toe on my right foot is hurting. Despite having quite orderly-looking feet with 2nd toes that are actually shorter than my big toes, I do tend to mangle my 2nd and 3rd toenails regularly during races and they're generally in a dreadful state either purple and hanging in there or purple and hanging off. That said, they've been fine lately so I have no idea why my toe is suddenly protesting - it must be the shoes.

I realise that my toes feel like they're being jammed directly into the ground - the upward tilt of the shoes is putting more pressure than normal on my toes and this makes me very concerned for what would become of my poor abused toenails if I was to subject them to a whole marathon wearing the Airia Ones. Even a half marathon might be a bit risky - let's see how they feel after just 5 miles.

Mile 2: 8:00
By now I'm down by the lake and ooh, there's a rather strong tailwind! It does nothing to speed me up, sadly, but I've run many many miles in the past 7 days and my lack of zip is definitely not the fault of these shoes. The good news is that nothing is really feeling odd or hurting at this point - save for the 2nd toe on my right foot, which is moaning away still - and in fact the shoes are turning out to be quite nice.

One of the reviewers described how their footfalls became very loud, like they were slapping their feet on the ground as they ran, but I'm settling rather quickly into the "silent stride with a rolling feel to it" that is supposed to be the desired effect. Also, my fast cadence actually feels like it is supported by the way the toes of the Airias turn upwards; it's like I'm spending less time or effort toeing off, in fact. Nice!

Mile 3: 8:08
Ugh, the headwind comes into play as I turn around the northern end of the lake and run along the far side. The good news is that my post-NYC phobia about running into a headwind seem to be lessening; the bad news, I'm still running pretty slow. As I plod up the sharp hill behind the Boat Club, I find myself trying to run on my toes and ooh, it feels very unsafe. I can't imagine how these shoes would work for a toe runner (someone who lands on their forefoot and whose heels stay pretty much off the ground when they run) - something tells me they'd be in danger of overbalancing with the upward-tilted toes of the Airias constantly pitching them forwards.

Just a bit further on the path becomes rougher and ooh, ouch, I step on a rock and realise how little padding there is between my forefoot and the ground. My toes are sort of being held up (with the exception of that 2nd one, which is stubbornly headbutting the ground still) but the ball of my foot isn't and I realise quickly that this means the Airia shoes are NOT going to be very suitable for most of the gravelly country roads where I usually train. They seem like a great racing shoe, sure - although I doubt my toes would survive a full marathon in them, or even a half - but not a good trail or even gravel-running shoe.

Mile 4: 8:05
Still not speeding up, oh well. The rolling feel of my gait in these shoes is coming along nicely though - they feel light, and fast, and springy. Lately I've done a fair bit of running in a pair of Hokas that I won earlier in the year and the difference is noticeable: in the Hokas I feel clunky and slow; in the Airias I feel springy and quick (even though I'm running just as slow in them).

Mile 5: 7:53
I try to put in some effort for the final mile home, but my legs are not very interested and I don't manage to speed up very much. That's disappointing but not too surprising; the good thing is that none of my muscles feel like they've been put through anything much different to a normal easy evening run.

I notice the strangeness of the shoes almost as soon as I stop running in them and start walking; I'm not tempted to leave them on at all, really. Despite the zippy feel it's been a slow run overall for me, but none of the expected weirdness has surfaced so I declare the run a success and add the Airias to my pile of running shoes in the corner reserved for "racing".

The Verdict

* light shoes with a zippy feel
* less effort required at toe-off
* minimalist feel but enough cushioning around heels to be comfortable
* gait pattern seemed quite natural and I didn't think my usual gait was altered by the shoes
* free!

* not much cushioning around forefoot, very minimal for toe area
* curved toe-box maximises impact on toes - very likely to be a problem for longer distances
* probably not good for the heavier runner (over 160lb/75kg might find them not cushioned enough)
* probably not good for anyone who needs a motion control shoe
* expensive ($190US according the website).

My overall impression is that these shoes have real potential as a shorter-distance racing shoe, but they are quite gimmicky and would be likely to have a limited runner type to whom they would appeal. 

This kind of person would probably be a lot like me and have the following charateristics:
- light (I am 5'3" and weigh 103lbs, which is around 46-47kg)
- neutral (not for over- or under-pronators; these shoes would likely have a negative effect on gait patterns and feel quite unnatural for those used to stability or motion control shoes)
- midfoot or heel strikers (toe runners would probably feel quite unstable)
- accustomed to running in racing flats with little to no cushioning.

My plan is to take the shoes out a couple more times for runs up to 10mi (16km) and provided there are no issues, try them out at the Australian Masters HM Champs in Hobart in January. Who knows, if I can take 7% off my usual HM time (currently around 1:22) and these shoes enable me to run 1:16, I may just buy the company! Or their entire supply of women's size 6.5, whichever works out cheapest.

In early January I ran 12 miles in the Airia shoes. I finished with a blister on my 2nd toe (the same one that was complaining on the 5 mile run) and subsequently lost the toenail on that toe also. I decided not to wear the Airia One shoes for my HM and haven't run in them again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New York City Marathon, November 2014

Any excuse to visit New York is a good one, really, and the marathon is the best of all. My very first marathon was New York in 2010 and somehow it made sense to return there at this point in my running career - if for no other reason than to see how much I might be able to improve on the 3:17 I posted on that cold, sunny day.

The Training
My original intention was to run New York more as a fun, destination marathon than a time-goal one, given that it is a notoriously slow/difficult course and that I was also signed up (once again as an elite) to run Melbourne marathon just 3 weeks earlier. But as I have mentioned before, my plans for Melbourne went completely askew when I managed to injure myself for the whole of August, and the very short amount of time left once I was back training somewhat decently meant that New York took on more significance.

And as I have also already mentioned, I was hopeful of a sub-elite start for NYC but instead found myself placed squarely in the professional women's race (oh my god) - and so it came to pass that I headed for New York with a far-from-decent prep but ever-ambitious dreams of actually doing reasonably well (or at least not finishing as the very last female elite) there.

My weekly training mileage in the 2 months leading up to NYC:

39 miles, all easy
62 miles including a 39:08 10K (1st female, 6:18 pace)
77 miles with a 1:24:55 HM (13th female, 6:24 pace)
95 miles, including a marathon-specific 21 mile LR
81 miles, all easy
80 miles including Melbourne marathon in 2:53:35 (10th female, 6:36 pace)
52 miles, all easy
71 miles with a 14 mile LR including 4x2 mile MP intervals.

If you're thinking that there is a dangerous combination of not enough mileage and far too much racing in there, for such an abbreviated training period -- you're probably not alone.

Travel and pre-race festivities
I'm fairly good at the process of international travel now, and the only real hitch is the amount of time it takes me to get from JFK airport to my hotel (close to 3 hours, somehow, I have no idea why), but in any case I manage to arrive unscathed and with all possessions intact. The Hilton is abuzz with runners and many wheelchair athletes as well; after a refreshing night's sleep my first priority on Friday is to head up to the Professional Athletes hospitality suites on the top floor of the hotel.

Here's where NYC totally out-does Boston when it comes to the way it treats professional athletes (like me, ahem) - well, maybe the way it treats also-rans like me, actually. I get a credential declaring me an official professional athlete, a bag full of goodies that cannot be bought at the expo, and access to all the coffee, bagels, Gatorade and Power bars I can handle. Which, come Saturday, will be a LOT.

Credentials and exclusive Elite athlete vest, oh yeah!

While we are there, we manage to find out that a bus is leaving in half an hour to take people to the Expo  - yes! It's cold and grey out, possibly about to rain, and the last thing I want to do is try to figure out how to ride the subway downtown to the Jacob Javitz convention centre where the Expo is held. It's very luxurious to be ushered from our hotel onto a plush bus and then led straight in (bypassing the huge queues) and up to the media conference.

Quickly I realise I don't belong here - it's for the biggest fish in the pond and I am a tiny, baby piece of krill by comparison - but before we leave I take advantage of the opportunity to get a photo with one of my all-time idols, before leaving in total awe of the whole situation:

Paula Radcliffe, female marathon World Record holder!
And so nice as well.

The expo is crowded beyond belief with excited runners and their friends; the line to buy ASICS official merchandise is incredibly long but that doesn't deter me from picking up a few items that I'll be able to wear running at home in, oh, 6 months or so. Wrong season = no problem, for the dedicated runner/shopper at least.

Later on Friday I get an email that is somewhat worrying. It seems I will now be racing my 2nd World Marathon Major where I've received a weather alert in the days leading up to the event: Boston in 2012, when a sudden heatwave struck and prompted organisers to send out an email instructing everyone to give up time goals and just "fun run" it, and now New York 2014. The forecast is ominous - headwinds of 26mph (over 40kph) with gusts up to 40mph (66kph) - and it really has to be bad because this is what I read:

Oh, great.

And the horrible thing is that this forecast - which everyone is hoping will change - remains steadfastly the same for the whole of the next 36 hours. I'm sure there are 50,000 other people out there also checking it obsessively in the way that I am, but none of this can convince the weather gods to change their minds. I didn't let the heat of Boston 2012 sway me from my ambitions - I was one of the very few of my running acquaintance who actually met their goal that day - but Sunday's goal is far loftier, and a strong headwind is something I've never really trained for. Ugh.

I wake on Saturday to find that it's raining - oh well, what better way to fit in a final pre-race workout than to run the Dash to the Finish Line 5K? I do mean run, not race, although it's a perfect example of a progression run that incorporates the 3 minutes of hard running called for with the Aussie carbo loading plan: the mile splits are 7:54, 7:22, 6:36 and 6:15 pace to the finish. Despite the rain it's a lot of fun and after finishing we jog happily home to attack the breakfast buffet with gusto.

Wet but happy.

Later, on my way up to drop off my water bottles I bump into a woman who is wearing the same credentials as me - she tells me she's not sure if she will drop off her bottles, because she is considering dropping back to the general start due to the wind forecast; she's worried about not being able to keep up with the rest of the field.

It turns out she is Canadian and also the other family physician in the professional women's race; her PR (and her age) is very similar to mine and her name is Paula. Wonderful! I tell her most emphatically that she MUST stay in the elite race, because she is likely to run my sort of pace and I desperately need company. We can run together!! And so I leave the hospitality suites with my tinsel-decorated bottles secured and a running companion for the race also locked in - this is a very big deal.

My name is on my bib!! For New York!!

The pre-race briefing and bib pick-up on Saturday afternoon is quite surreal; race director Mary Wittenberg welcomes everyone warmly and I stand in line to get my bib, wedged in between at least 2 or 3 Olympic medalists. Deena Kastor is right ahead of me so I take the opportunity to introduce myself and congratulate her on her recent Masters' World Record in the half-marathon; she's lovely and we chat briefly before it's time to think about going to the pre-race dinner. Across the room Meb Keflezighi is hugging Paula Radcliffe, and they're both at a table with Kara Goucher and Deena. A bunch of Kenyans which contains at least 2 former world record holders (Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai) is at another.....and again I'm wondering, how on earth did I get in here??

Race Day
I'm up and getting dressed by 5am and we head downstairs to the elite athletes' breakfast on level 3; all the superstars are there and we land at a table with Desi Linden (who was 2nd in Boston 2011 and will go on to be the fastest American woman today) and her coaches. Everyone is understandably jittery; I'm stressing out somewhat over the way my digestive system seems to respond to jet lag (by seizing up) and so every bite of my bagel and sip of coffee is filled with the anxiety of wondering, will I have to stop during the race because I'm eating this now?

Too much information I know, but I'm still fretting pointlessly over my lack of bathroom action when we walk out to board the bus that will take us to the start. We cross the street and even with the tall buildings all around, it's painfully clear that the wind is positively howling. Plus it's COLD - the temperature is probably around 4C/37F but the windchill is driving it much lower. It's a small consolation that at least Saturday's rain seems to have stopped, but I will later realise that rain would have been preferable to the hurricane that will greet me on the course....

Similar to Boston, we get a police escort that accompanies us on the long drive out to the start, but the traffic is a lot worse than it ever was in Boston. There are extended periods of time where we come to a complete standstill and wait; this isn't such a concern because the last I heard about the elite waiting area on Staten Island is that the tents had to be taken down overnight, lest they blow away in the gale-force winds. So we may be spending a whole lot MORE time on this bus, and it doesn't really matter how soon we get to the official start village.

It's a pleasant surprise, then to arrive and see that the tent is actually standing - they're even putting the walls on it to keep out the howling wind. Inside there are tables with bottles of water, bagels, gatorade, fruit.....I'm pretty stunned to see that a lot of people are still eating. The general race start is 90 minutes away and mine is just an hour off - my stomach certainly wouldn't be able to keep its act together if I was to fill it up now and try to run a tough marathon so soon afterwards.

A quick (and thankfully successful) bathroom visit ensues and pretty soon it's time for the professional women to start making their way up to the starting line. We're allowed to wear extra clothes up there so I keep my sweater and long tights on; it's surreal to be jogging around in the company of some of the world's best marathoners. I see that Deena is wearing the same shoes as me so I dance over to her and say "Hey, we're shoe twins!" - then we're off and walking towards the start area. Up on the bridge it is incredibly cold; I join in with some short strides up and down in front of the starting line, just for the sake of keeping warm.

A large bunch of scantily-clad, freezing-cold athletes.

Miles 1-3: 6:54, 6:24, 6:42 (pace in min/mile)

After all the build-up,the start itself happens with surprisingly little fanfare. We are herded back behind the starting mats, over the loudspeaker Mary says "Ladies take your marks", and then suddenly we are off. I'm on the far left and actually stay with the main pack for about the first 400m - the pace feels reasonable, but the super-elites all accelerate away from me fairly soon and I know better than to try to keep up.

As we head up onto the bridge the true force of the wind makes itself known and my god, it's like nothing I have ever had to deal with before. My bib is whipping in the crosswind, my beanie feels like it's going to blow straight off my head and a few times I get caught by a gust that almost throws me off my feet. Running a decent marathon in this sort of thing is going to be as good as impossible - but I'm here and I have to at least try.

Keeping up, but not for long....

By the end of the first mile - all uphill - I've formed a small pack with Paula and another woman, Josephine - who looks African (although her bio says she's from Italy) and is very tall. As we finally crest the bridge and start bombing down the other side, she says "We run together?", and Paula and I agree. It makes sense to stay together, but to be honest it's going to be difficult. Paula surges ahead to take the lead and when I fall in behind her, I accelerate so quickly that I almost slam straight into her back.

The difference that this drafting makes to my pace is remarkable, but I have to stay super-close or the effect is lost. The last thing I want to do is to keep bumping into her or, worse still, somehow trip her up. If I stay as close as I need to in order to draft, that's almost guaranteed to happen, and it seems pretty unfair to make another runner do most of the work on my behalf.

As I'm considering this I realise that one of the safety pins holding my bib to my chest has blown away, and the whole thing is flapping around even worse than before. Thankfully the gusts settle down a little as we come down from the bridge and now the headwind is blowing it snugly back against me, but I won't be impressed if the whole thing blows off - which is entirely possible.

Miles 4-6: 6:33, 6:39, 6:28

Josephine has disappeared behind us now but Paula and I are still running close together. We're taking it in turns to go ahead and forge a path through the relentless headwind, and already I know that the for the effort I'm putting in, I should be going at least 10-15 seconds per mile faster. Very quickly it is becoming apparent that today's time goals are heading straight out the window - there is just no way I can keep up this level of exertion for another 20+ miles. Check out how hard I'm working in the video below, taken by a spectator in Brooklyn.....


Miles 7-9: 6:39, 6:39, 6:41

Paula now moves ahead and opens up a small gap on me; somehow, somewhat surprisingly, I find myself unwilling to follow. She's not very far ahead, maybe 10 seconds, but she stays there for the next 3 miles as we continue to battle the wind. And really it's getting rather boring now - not only am I dealing with a constant headwind, I'm all alone and the gusts are still coming frequent and strong. Gah, this is awful.

On the other hand, having my name on my bib is turning out to be rather awesome. The crowd is much smaller than I remember it being in 2010 (probably due to the icy blast, perhaps a lot of spectators have actually been blown away) but no less vocal and they are all calling to me by name: cheers of "Rachel! GO Rachel!" and the like are coming thick and fast. I realise this means that anyone whom I actually DO know will have no way of identifying themselves to me, since everyone knows my name now, but still it is very cool. It's making up in some small way for the horror of running headlong into a hurricane, which is essentially what I am trying to do now.

Miles 10-12: 6:41, 6:48, 6:36

I've pretty much decided that 6:40ish is a reasonable pace to aim for; if I can maintain this then I'll still get in well under 3 hours, which is my C goal for the day. The course winds onwards through Brooklyn and into the neighbourhood populated by Hasidic Jews. With so few runners on the course, they are feeling very free to just walk right out and cross the road whenever they like. I almost slam straight into a bloke with the most impressive monobrow that I've ever seen -- I'm sure I look EXTREMELY surprised as I shoot past, thankfully without a collision.

The personal fluid stations have been a huge success so far and because it's so cold, I haven't been bothering to drink at any other water stops. I've managed to take my gels at miles 2 and 8 without any issues, and all I have had to concentrate on is making sure I use both hands to grab my bottle - due to the wind they've been sticky taped to the tables and it does take a bit of effort to get them free. But the water stop at mile 11 is a lot of fun as I pass through; the entire crowd of volunteers, all revved-up but with very little to do at this stage, is chanting as one: "RA-CHEL! RA-CHEL!! RA-CHEL!!"

Despite the relentless battering of the wind, this sort of thing makes me laugh and realise that I'm having fun after all. Up ahead Paula has now moved quite a way ahead of me, but it's interesting to note that she is catching up to not one but TWO other female runners. I wonder if I will be able to do the same?

Miles 13-15: 6:52, 6:50, 7:08

I go through half-way in just on 1:28:00 and realise that sub-3 may yet be slipping away from me: I'm struggling to hold onto a reasonable pace as I fight the wind to get up the second of the bridges, and the notorious Queensboro bridge still lies ahead. For the first time I feel rather annoyed - it's completely unfair that this weather should show up and take away any possible advantage that being in the professional race might have given me. What I wouldn't give to have someone to run behind right now!

These 15 miles have worn me out more than I could have anticipated, and the only consolation is the thought that by mile 21 or so the wind *should* be coming from behind. I just need to get there....focus, don't give up. I'm reminded of my meeting at the expo with Kathrine Switzer, one of the pioneers of women's running, and how she hugged me and told me "Be fearless!". Those words go around in my head and I find new resolve as I make the turn up onto the bridge.

Two marathon women!

Miles 16-18: 7:16, 6:52, 6:52

The steady uphill of the bridge is eerily silent and unpleasantly tough. Despite being on the lower deck of the bridge, the headwind continues unabated; besides the whipping of my half-off bib as the wind again tears at it, all I can hear is the slap-slap of my feet as I make my way ever-upward. There's a water station around half-way; I grab my bottle and quickly take a few sips, then discard it amongst the pile of others. My Garmin loses the satellites and completely freaks out. I can't say I blame it - I've just about had enough of this myself!

But coming down onto First Avenue is just as thrilling as it was 4 years ago. The crowd is large and loud, and they roar even louder when I raise my arms and wave at them. Again I'm grinning and enjoying myself, despite everything, and the vibe carries me onwards. At some point along here is my photographer friend Jason, who takes some photos that he later posts on Facebook for me; I will discover to my amazement that professional athletes apparently don't get official photos from the race, so these ones will turn out to be even more precious. Many thanks to Jason for sharing his photography skills with me once again.

Too exhausted to even look up, sorry folks.

Somewhere between my Garmin going weird at mile 16 and the upcoming events of mile 18/19, I have now completely stopped checking my pace. I don't even look when a mile split beeps; I know I'm going a lot slower than I'd like, but I'm deep in survival mode and there's no real point looking, since there won't be anything I can do about it anyway.

I've been running a long time now but I'm not feeling remotely warm; the best I can say is that with my arm warmers, gloves and a beanie, I'm not actually cold. And the INKnBURN outfit, as always, is attracting a lot of attention - besides my name, the thing I'm hearing most of is "Nice outfit!", "Best outfit of the day!" and similar sentiments. Being dressed in funky gear definitely goes a long way towards making up for the sufferfest that the rest of the day has turned into.

Miles 19-21: 7:02, 7:04, 7:23

As mile 19 starts, finally it happens: the stream of lead vehicles and police motorcycles that precede the male leaders starts to roar past me. Unlike Boston there is no personal bicycle spotter to warn me and keep me safe - and as result I almost get flattened by the photographers' vehicle as it passes by ridiculously close - but whatever, it's still pretty thrilling. Not so thrilling that it has any great effect on my pace, unfortunately.


As they pass me I count 9 in the pack, and Meb is amongst them! I try to yell out to him but the wind is so strong that it drowns me out - well, that and the screaming from the crowd. What a difference to the moment when he passed me during Boston, when he was out in front all by himself.....and if only I had a pack like that to hide in. Sigh.

Me leaving the elite men in the dust. Keep up, boys! Ha ha.

But look at this: the first of the females that I've been chasing for miles now is fast coming into my frame of reference. I know I am slowing down but she must be slowing down more, because come mile 20 I suddenly find myself shooting past her. Good, good, that's 2 female elites that are now behind me! And there is at least one more in sight - perhaps a tiny game of Assassin Mode is on the cards after all. In a schadenfreude sort of way I'm glad to know that others are fading worse than I am; clearly I wasn't the only one badly affected by the headwind.

And hopefully there's some relief now in sight: actually since mile 17 I've been telling myself "Just get to 21 and then it will be a tailwind! It will be EASY!" But I find myself in the Bronx at mile 21 and the wind is most definitely still blowing straight into my face. Onto 5th Avenue at last.....and it's still blowing right at me. Or it swirls around to blow me sideways; there are short periods now where it's behind me but this never lasts for more than 20 or 30 seconds. Ye gods, this is so, SO unfair!!

Miles 22-24: 7:01, 7:07, 7:26

Onward I struggle along 5th Avenue, trying not to count how many blocks I have to pass before I hit Central Park South, trying to keep it going. It's gratifying to know that I have at least one friend with the brains to figure out how to get my attention: around mile 22 I hear "Rachel GLASSON!!!" from the left and look over to see Pam waving and smiling. Probably somewhere in the same mile my friend Ron is yelling and screaming and even running along beside me, all to no avail; should have used my surname, Ron, or perhaps a loudhailer?

The only other good thing about this stretch is that I somehow manage to catch and pass another 2 female elite runners. A few more male elites are passing me, though - Lee Troop burns past me on his way to an impressive 2:25 - still, there's not really anybody around and definitely not anybody to run with. I guess I'm used to it by now.

Then, somewhere just before the sharp right-hand turn into Central Park - and right as I'm practically being blown sideways straight into the Park -  I hear an almighty roar from my right and look over to see 3 of my friends bellowing their lungs out at me: Jim, Yvonne and Tara. Yvonne takes a photo at the exact second that I make a goofy face and wave excitedly; she posts it to Facebook and people enthuse about how I look like I'm still having fun (despite having run 24 miles in gale-force headwinds) but nobody stops to consider that maybe I'm just completely delirious at this point? Because that's definitely another possibility.

My brain cells have all been blown away! Gaaaahhh!!

Miles 25-26.2: 7:03, 6:58, then 6:28 pace to finish

Grinding along through Central Park, the crowds are much smaller than I remember from 2010, but I barely care at this point. All I want is to get to the finish. The lack of support does feel strange, though; as I hit the corner where we turn onto Central Park South, there is abruptly a huge crowd straining at the barriers but they are eerily silent. Suddenly I think to myself, well, this isn't right! I haven't run 25+ miles in a roaring headwind for people to just stare blankly at me - so I look left and right, raise my arms above my head and yell "COME ON!!" They respond with a deafening roar and I'm laughing like a madwoman as I turn and head towards Columbus Circle. I may be losing it here, but that was kind of fun! Next thought: god, that statue is just too far away.

There's a bloke ahead of me though who looks to be in big trouble. He's wearing a bib on his back so he's one of the male elites - he must have passed me earlier. I zip past him, thankful not to be in the same position, and eventually I'm turning back into the park and the finish stretch. I can summon up something of a kick but it's not much to speak of, and finally I'm over the line where I practically fall into Mary Wittenberg's arms. "How was it??" she asks and I gasp out "Bloody windy!!" but I'm okay really, just annoyed that when I looked up at the arch just beyond the finish, it read "Professional Women" with a clock near it that had just ticked over 3:00.

Finish time: 3:00:45, 6:54 pace

Placement: 52nd OA female (25th in professional race), 9th AG.

The elite and sub-elite tents are up on a small hill quite near the finish - I refuse the offer of a space blanket and instead allow myself to be escorted up there straightaway so I can get my hands on my warm clothes; they are easily located and someone even brings me a medal. In the professional women's tent I find Paula, who has pushed through to a very impressive 2:56, and we commiserate about the wind as we both strip off and replace sweaty race outfits with warm dry clothing - ahhh.

Two fast doctor chicks. Awesome.

Back at the hotel after showers and a rest, it's time to start the celebrations. I won't go into detail but it involves a great deal of food, alcohol and very little sleep, many old and new friends and a fantastic dinner with some of the other "working elites", including the incredible Yuki Kawauchi - Japan's "citizen runner" who runs sub-2:10 marathons like they're a walk in the park....such a cool and humble dude.

The working runners' table!

The analysis
It's not too hard to figure out what went wrong here; there were 4 contributing factors that are, in no particular order:
- that ridiculous headwind
- running mostly totally alone against that ridiculous headwind
- low average mileage in the 12 weeks beforehand (including 4 weeks completely off)
- that 2:53 marathon in Melbourne that in retrospect was probably not a great idea, but lots of fun

From my 5K splits the story appears: I was going reasonably well until around 20K, after which time I gracefully faded (yet without totally giving up the ghost) to my first non-sub-3 marathon since late 2011.

It's disappointing not to have even broken 3 hours but on the other hand, I hit my goal of not being last - I was 25th of 30 in the professional women's race despite having the lowest seeding going into it. And the vast majority of others in the race lost 7-8 minutes (or more) off their goal: for example, both Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher went though half-way in 1:14 yet finished in 2:33 and 2:37 respectively. 

It was just a rough day and the headwind took a lot out of everyone -- starting in the main race would likely have made things a fair bit easier for me, but I'll never regret taking the opportunity to run New York Marathon as an elite athlete: it will remain forever in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences in my running career.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Melbourne marathon, October 2014

After Boston in April I had ideas of taking another shot at Melbourne and hopefully running the sub-2:50 that I narrowly missed there last year, but life had other things in store. As I wrote in my last post, an ankle injury took me out for the whole of August and by the time I was back in training, there really wasn't enough time left to train properly for that goal.

My coach Benita talks to me a lot about the mental aspect of marathoning, and I've learned through experience that confidence is crucial for marathon success. I just didn't have the confidence that after 4 weeks off I'd have the endurance to pull off 2:49 or better, so my previous idea of running Melbourne for time and NYC for fun was suddenly in reverse; this was further solidified when my friend Tara convinced me to ask for a sub-elite (preferred) start at NYC. In fact I was down for this in 2012 when the marathon was cancelled, so I did email and ask again -- and was amazed to get a reply that was not only in the affirmative, but actually invited me to participate in the elite women's race! What, me? Up there with the Africans and such??

It seemed fairly ridiculous, but definitely not something to be refused - at this point in my life I am very unlikely to earn such an honour again - so I accepted, and the idea of Melbourne as a training run was fixed on the calendar. I have never run a marathon as training for another, but I guess there's a first time for everything.....

The Training

Thankfully I made a fairly smooth return to running after my ankle injury, assisted by my awesome physiotherapist, Marcus, and was able to put in a couple of solid weeks' mileage before the necessary mini-taper the week leading up to Melbourne. I only had one decent long run in the whole of August/September, however, so some doubt did remain in my mind as to whether my endurance would be at its usual level.

Exactly how much effort to put into the race was a question that vexed me for a while - I had ideas of just looking to run sub-3:00, but knowing I'd have my name on my bib (since I was already entered once again as an elite runner) meant that didn't seem quite enough. Thankfully a solution appeared, in the form of an online running friend who was going to be running his second marathon there and was aiming to take 4-5 minutes off his 2:59 PR.  I offered to pace him and he accepted; suddenly I had a both a goal and a purpose for this "training run". Excellent!

The Lead-up

I've wisely booked a nicer apartment for this year - far in advance - and we settle in without too much drama after an easy drive down on Friday afternoon. Ramen noodles for dinner marks the start of my official carb-loading regime, and I'm taking it fairly seriously even though the marathon is no longer to be what I would call an all-out racing effort. I confer briefly with Benita and also with Andrew, my RWOL friend who also happens to be a Kiwi, and decide on a pacing strategy for Sunday.

Saturday morning dawns cool and cloudy; Andrew and I meet up for an easy 4 miler during which we talk non-stop and miraculously manage to avoid getting lost - we even find a place for coffee afterwards. After some confusion I've managed to help secure a preferred start for him in the marathon, so we part with a plan to meet at the start line.

Smaller but somehow much scarier than the Sydney version

Other than the standard Elite Athlete briefing the rest of the day - as usual before a marathon - passes with as little activity and as many carbohydrate intake as possible. Pastries for breakfast, sushi for the time dinner rolls around I'm half-heartedly munching on a doughy slice of pizza and wistfully gazing at the salad. After this race I swear I'm not eating for a week.

Race Day
I wake to realise there's light streaming into the room - OMIGOD have I somehow slept in?? But no, it's coming from the elevator lobby windows that are opposite mine; a glance at the clock confirms it's only 3:30am. Phew! I doze off but wake again for good at 4:30am - might as well take advantage and try to have some breakfast. I can manage a glass of iced coffee but food leaves me cold; really the only reason that I'm having anything at all is to get the digestive system working, and when that effect has been achieved I give up on consuming anything more until the race is underway.

It's cold out, around 10C/50F, so I put on tights and my Boston jacket over my race outfit and at 5:30am I set off at a brisk pace towards the MCG. There are many other runners streaming in that direction; I find my way easily to the Elite Athlete room down in the bowels of the stadium and hang around there chatting to various other runners until it's time to head up to the start. Australian marathoning legend Steve Moneghetti  strolls in and is accosted by the Elite Co-ordinator, Tim: "Who let YOU in here??" - Monas laughs and I take the opportunity to go over and say hi. He probably only vaguely remembers me - it's been a couple of years since we met a few times in quick succession - and in any case it's time to go, so I wish him luck (he's running the HM) and head out with the others.

Let's do this.

I find Andrew without much difficulty and soon we're let out onto the road - he seems to want to hang modestly back but I drag him forwards with me and we end up about 8 rows back from the very front. That's good because we're not trying to go out too fast....are we? The remaining time passes very quickly and then a loud cannon sounds: it's time to run!

Miles 1-3: 6:33, 6:33, 6:33 (pace in min/mile)

It's more difficult than usual to settle in to the correct pace - I'm used to just going hell-for-leather the first half mile or so and then seeing where I stand. Today is going to be different, though, and already I know I'm going to be checking my watch a lot more than usual. A strange slapping sound distracts me as we head up the slight incline to Flinders Street - then a guy with long hair and BARE FEET speeds past. Andrew and I exchange looks of amazement, then the first mile split sounds and I am very pleased to see we are pretty much exactly on track.

At mile 2 I slurp down my first gel, then completely fail to get hold of a cup of water with which to wash it down. As we zoom through the water station I try several times to grab one - they're nasty, overfull plastic cups with a rim that absolutely cannot be bent into a spout - but only succeed in drenching myself. And possibly several of the volunteers, oops. Little do I know that this will become something of a theme for the day.

We head down towards St Kilda with the usual crowd of blokes around us; I have no idea how many women are ahead of me, and I'm honestly trying not to think about it too much anyway, because today is not about racing. Nope, it's not. As if to confirm this fact, the next 2 miles click past in metronome-like fashion: today is all about consistency, self-control and pacing.

Miles 4-6: 6:25, 6:31, 6:26

Speeding up slightly as we turn the corner and head around Albert Park Lake, things are still going very smoothly - Andrew is slightly behind me over my shoulder and both of us are breathing easily and feeling good. We are now catching the inevitable hot-heads who set off at 5K pace and are already starting to fade; one of them is quite tiny (probably under 5' tall) and has an enormous bushy beard that is bouncing in a comical fashion on either side of his head.

I point him out to Andrew as subtly as I can - we're approaching from behind at a rapid rate - but then as I pull just ahead of him, there's an audible grunt and whoops, he's surging past me like a maniac. I guess little guys with big beards don't like getting chicked! I hear Andrew laughing behind me; within another mile we will have caught Little Bearded One and left him in the dust. Another water station comes up and I once again spill water everywhere but in my mouth - it's a good thing I'm not a heavy sweater, or I'd be facing dehydration by now. Andrew offers me his cup but there's not a lot left in there - at least it's something.

There are a few out-and-back stretches in this part of the course that afford us a view of the leaders, as well as the enormous sub-2:50 pace group - I know from last year that very few of them will still be with the pacer by the end of the race - and I see my nemesis from last year, Fleur, slightly in front of them. Right next to her is Mr Barefoot! She's clearly going for a new PR after last year's 2:50, and she's looking relaxed enough that I am confident she'll get it.

Miles 7-9: 6:30, 6:27, 6:36

We go through an inflatable arch that marks the 10K; Andrew has a Kiwi pace band on (see below) and a glance at it confirms that we are dead on pace - our split is 40:58.

A Kiwi pace band. Cheap, convenient and re-usable!
The rest of this 3 mile stretch wanders back and forth near Albert Park Lake and the number of runners around us thins out considerably. We're still catching people; one of them gestures to the sub-2:50 pace group on the other side of the road and comments that he was supposed to stay with them. Um, I'm not sure why you're telling me that, but okay? All I care about is not getting caught by the sub-3:00 group, and there's little chance of that, thank god.

Time for another gel; I grab for a cup at the water stop and hooray, I get one first try! But YUCK it's filled with hydralyte, or whatever the disgusting electrolyte mix is that the race sponsors have forced on us. It's low-calorie, which makes NO sense for something that is supposed to be a fuel source for runners, and it tastes like lemon cordial made with sea water. I chuck the cup away in disgust and note that one of the guys running near us is doing the same. This stuff is gross!

Miles 10-12: 6:24, 6:40, 6:26

We turn back onto Fitzroy St and head down towards the coastline now - I remember this part from last year and the headwind that had already picked up. Thankfully today there is no wind at all, and so the long out-and-back stretches ahead of us might not be too tough. We have no real pack of runners around us, in sharp contrast to the situation I was in last year, although we do seem to have picked up a couple of guys in blue singlets. One of them recognises me from somewhere - maybe the HM I ran a few weeks ago in Sydney? - and when Andrew says that I'm his personal elite pacer, this guy laughs and says "And now mine too!" Really? Alright then! Off we go.

These guys just signed up to get chicked.

It's a little hard to judge pace here - we're going a bit too fast, so we compensate and end up right at the slower end of our pace range. Whoops, back the other way, now too fast again. There's a big blow-up arch down the road that last year marked 20K (which is still written on it very clearly) but it's somehow way too far away. Perhaps it's the half?

Miles 13-15: 6:37, 6:44, 6:35

We go through the arch - which as predicted is indeed the halfway mark - in 1:26:15, which is slightly ahead of the planned 1:27:00, but that's fine by me. Andrew comments at this point "I don't feel as strong as I probably should" and I'm strongly reminded of my own mental state last year at this exact point: I too was worrying about feeling too tired already, and it really had an effect on what happened later on when the sub-2:50 pace group caught me and I essentially gave up.

So I turn to him and say "That's fine, it's not meant to feel easy, you're fine" - and I go on to explain my own personal theory of running at "the pointy end" of one's abilities, which is that the pace will inevitably feel tough from very early in the race. It's important to understand this, to be ready for it and also to know that the pace - if it's what you've trained for - will be sustainable. Doubting yourself is not going to help; there's a saying among marathoners "Trust the training", and nowhere is it more applicable than right here.

Clearly my words have the desired effect on Andrew's struggling psyche, and the photo below is proof:

If you look very closely you can see me rolling my eyes

Since we're ahead and in order to further quell his anxiety about how he's feeling, I deliberately make Andrew slow down over the next few miles. We need to save whatever kick we have left for the nasty uphill that I know is ahead at the 35-37km mark; there is no point wasting it now.

I cautiously take my 3rd gel - the second one was salted caramel flavour and somehow burned the back of my throat, a very unpleasant sensation indeed -  at the next water stop I manage to get some water, albeit on my second or third attempt. I'm regretting somewhat the decision NOT to use personal water bottles (a privilege afforded the elite runners and one I should have taken up) but thankfully the lack of water so far doesn't seem to be negatively affecting me.

Miles 16-18: 6:31, 6:31, 6:44

We're still running down parallel to the coast now; the final out-and back stretch before heading back towards the city and - eventually - the finish. Andrew announces that he's feeling better, so we speed up a touch and watch the leaders as they streak along on the other side of the road. There's a pack of Africans running close together, a Japanese man all alone on his own and then a tight group of Aussies. The leading woman, Nikki Chapple, is not too far behind them and looking comfortable; she will go on to run 2:31. I'm predicting she will be running the marathon for Australia at Rio 2016, she's just so strong.

Myself? I'm starting to feel rather fatigued at this point (although I choose not to share this fact with Andrew) - running this pace feels tougher than it should, considering that I'm running quite a bit slower than I did this year in Boston. Time to suck it up, princess, and just run. I distract myself as best I can, and it helps that we catch another female Elite in this stretch: the lone African female who is a good deal less muscular (and more plump) than I would have expected. I'm still not really considering what overall place I will end up in amongst the women running this race, but whatever it is, it just improved by one. Yay!

Miles 19-21: 6:37, 6:34, 6:36

The turn back onto Fitzroy Street sees us mingle briefly with the runners who are doing the half-marathon; suddenly there are people all over the road and I'm forced to duck and weave to get around them. I take the initiative and forge ahead, hoping that Andrew will just tuck in behind me, and somehow we get through the crowds still together. Finally the road splits into two; we take the right side and the HMers go left. Phew, that sucked.

But nevertheless we are still pacing this race just about perfectly, and I take the opportunity to share this fact with Andrew. I tell him the truth, which is that he's running really strongly and the "20 mile blow-up" he jokingly predicted yesterday is certainly not on the cards. He's grateful to be reassured and asks me "So you're feeling good too?" to which I automatically reply "ah, yep" - but the truth is somewhat different. Around mile 20 I have started thinking that I would really, REALLY like to stop running right about now. I'm remembering what happened here last year when the sub-2:50 pace group caught up with me - it contained all of maybe 6 runners, most of whom were struggling - and I decided not to flog myself to stay with them.

It is SO tempting to want to do the same at this point again - it even flashes through my mind to tell Andrew "You know what, you just keep going, I'm going to jog the rest of the way." But of course there's no way I could ever let him down like that, so I just have to keep running. And suddenly I see another female runner ahead - passing her gives me the push that I need to face what's ahead.

Miles 22-24: 6:32, 6:41, 6:49

We turn down around the Arts Centre and whilst the short downhill stretch is lovely, we've merged again with the HM runners and at this point it's really quite annoying to have to keep zigging and zagging around them all. Andrew drops slightly back and I glance behind a couple of times before deciding it's too crowded for that; I'm just going to hope that he stays with me. The course winds around and takes us into the Botanic Gardens - ugh, this is the part I've been dreading.

Some sadistic course director has decided that mile 23 would be a good place to take the marathon up a hill that whilst not steep, is definitely way too long. The gradual uphill starts during mile 23 and just keeps coming - ugh, it's horrible, and a glance at my watch during mile 24 shows 7:10 pace. Come on Rachel! I yell inwardly, and finally - thankfully - the hill ends. My pace improves on the downhill but there's a flat mile coming up and all I can think is, get me out to the finish so I can stop! I've given up on water stations now - these poor volunteers deserve to stay dry and I don't seem to be able to stop chucking water on them in my attempts to grab a cup - so there's nothing slowing me down from getting there as fast as my legs can carry me.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:52, 6:48, 6:21 pace to finish

But my legs are toast after that stupid hill. All I can do is keep them moving, and that's just what I do. We zoom down along St Kilda Rd again - Andrew doesn't seem to be right behind me anymore and I briefly debate slowing down or waiting for him before deciding no, let him do his own thing now - and then I'm running past the train station, always a good photo op.

All on my lonesome ownsome at the 40K mark
Halfway through mile 26 I look up and to my EXTREME surprise I see a distinctly female figure running up ahead; could it be, could it looks like Fleur! Last time I saw her she was running just ahead of the sub-2:50 group, so what on earth has happened that I have somehow almost caught her? The next question of course is, can I actually catch her??

There's probably not enough time, I probably can't be bothered, and maybe it would be really demoralising for her if I caught her -- nope, I'm not going to catch her. But I come ridiculously close as I put on a final "sprint" to cover the final 0.25 miles at 6:21 min/mile, which is just under 4 min/km pace. I hear her being announced as the first finisher in her age group, then I'm finally over the line and yay, I get to stop running now!!

Ahhhh, what a relief!

Finish time: 2:53:38

Placement: 10th female, 1st AG (F40-44)

To my delight I've managed to run a bit faster than I was expecting - I spend a very short time looking (in vain) for Fleur, but she has disappeared and in any case I hear the finish line announcer yelling about more people finishing under 2:55 - I turn and squint at the men now rushing towards the finish line: yes, one of them is wearing a blue singlet!

Andrew charges across the line in 2:54:17 - more than 5 minutes faster than his first marathon - to the pleasant accompanying sound of me screaming "RUN! RUN!!GO!!!!!" at him as loudly as I can. We both hit our target time, in fact a little better - how exciting!!

We spend a few minutes congratulating ourselves on our achievement, but I have to get changed and find Mum and Amelia, so I head off pretty quickly to the elite room to get my stuff. Thankfully, on our way back to the hotel we bump into Andrew and his wife, and finally we get the photo we've been meaning to get all weekend:

We did it!
The Analysis

Pacing is a tough gig! I probably would find pacing sub-3 a lot easier; 2:53 is rather too close to my own PR of 2:47:57 for comfort. I was a little surprised at how hard it felt even quite early on - then again I barely tapered from the two weeks prior to race week when I ran 95 and 81 miles respectively.

On the other hand, pacing is also awesome! Running with Andrew gave me a purpose and drive for this race that otherwise would have been sorely missing. I have no idea what I might have tried to do if not for the need to stay steady and run that certain pace; I might have tried to stick with Fleur or even decided to run with the 2:50 group, who knows. I'm almost certain that my chances at New York are going to be better for having run Melbourne in the way that I did - so I'm very grateful to Andrew for letting me pace him to a really well-deserved, shiny new marathon PR.