Monday, March 17, 2014

Yarrawonga Foreshore 10K, March 2014

The idea for this 10K came from a flyer I was handed at the finish of the Wangaratta half-marathon - all revved-up and enthusiastic after my performance there, another race seemed like a great idea. Yarrawonga is a small town on the border between New South Wales and Victoria, which of course is defined by the mighty Murray River. The weekend is called the "Splash 'n Dash", with not only the fun runs on Sunday but also a state-to-state swim across the Murray on Saturday.

It's only a couple of hours' drive from Wagga and at the time, I thought this would fall on a weekend when my kids would be with their father. Visions of a leisurely, quiet drive down, a relaxing night in a hotel and the chance to run the 10K with a long cool-down to make it part of my weekly long run....they floated temptingly before my minds' eye. And the chance to do well and potentially win prize money too - I was quick to sign up.

At that point, of course, I had no idea what was actually going to transpire.

The Training
As ever, part of a greater scheme - deep in training for Boston, I averaged well over 90 miles per week in the preceding 3 weeks leading up to this race. The only concessions I made were to move my weekly long run to Friday morning and accept (grudgingly) a reduction in overall weekly mileage.

The lead-up
Unexpected work commitments on the part of my ex-husband lead to a very different scenario to that which I initially imagined: I end up driving to Yarrawonga with not only the kids but also my mother in tow. We all squeeze into the room I have booked for myself (there are no other rooms left - the town no doubt booked solid due to the weekends' events) and the kids do their best to make me want to sell them (or even give them away) with the most concerted display of psychotic, mess-creating behaviour they have ever produced.

Despite escalating threats of various punishments, they jump like amphetamine-addicted monkeys around the room until I banish one to the bathroom and the other to the bed, switching their positions every time one complains or bounces back out, until I cannot bear it any longer. Despite the sudden rain we head outside - where the children immediately calm down and behave like angels - to get takeaway fish and chips, which we devour with relish. Then it's down the slippery slope to bedtime, and we are all tucked in by 9pm.

Race Day
The hotel room is toasty and warm, so I'm rather surprised to find that it's just 13C/55F outside when I start hauling stuff down to the car. It's windy, too - there's a nasty cold breeze blowing off the strange, dilated part of the Murray River that forms Lake Mulawa, and we'll be running right along the foreshores there - this could be uncomfortable, particularly on the way back when it seems like it will become a headwind.

Lake Mulawa, aka "that creepy tree graveyard"

It's way too cold to strip down yet so I run my 2 mile warm-up in my sweatshirt, and am only just starting to feel a tiny bit too hot by the time I'm back at the start and ready to line up. I make my way close to the very front and wait, mulling over my race strategy. Benita has told me to start out around 6:05-6:15 min/mile pace, and see how I feel from there. In my typical, slacker-Rachel pre-race style I'm wondering if I should just run to place, and as such it seems like a good time to size up the competition.

There's a girl I've noticed who somehow strikes me as fast - not something I can explain, although she reminds me a little of Clare Geraghty, with very blonde hair in a high ponytail - I'm going to be watching her if we ever actually get moving here. There's a boy just in front of me with a similar shock of blond hair - actually he reminds me of a fairly new running friend in some old photos he posted on Facebook recently. I wonder if he's going to be as fast as his older dopplegänger, Kevin.

Nobody else looks terribly serious, then finally (5 minutes late) the race announcer is counting down, and off we go!

Mile 1: 6:03 (pace in min/mile)
Sure enough, the usual melee of young kids rushing off way too fast and fading equally fast starts happening around me. I feel slightly odd, disconnected from my body, and I can't tell if this is okay or perhaps a really bad sign. Quasi-Clare strides confidently out in front of me; Mini Kevin is out there in front too, and another woman I hadn't noticed. I'm wiser now and know not to let myself get phased by these early leaders - there's every chance they're going out too fast and I will catch them in good time. A glance at my watch confirms that I'm right: 5:50 pace, which is not something I want to try to sustain for the whole race. I kick back and settle into a rhythm as we head out along the foreshore path and around a small headland.

Mile 2: 6:14
This mile passes fairly uneventfully until I notice 2nd chick up ahead slowing down already. I ease past her and glance up to see that QC is still about 50m ahead. I thought she was further in front, actually, but whatever. The disconnected feeling has gone and I feel good - relaxed and confident. Not long after this thought I realise that sure enough, QC is starting to fade. The mile split beeps as I come up behind her - it's slower than I thought, but then I realise this is probably because I'm wondering if I should just hang behind her and let her do the work. This is a strategy I contemplated in the aftermath of the slightly disappointing Central Coast HM late last year, and this would be the perfect opportunity to put it into practice. Should I do it?

Mile 3: 6:09
Nope! My brain once again makes the decision without any further input from me, and I breeze past QC without a second thought. Her breathing as I cruise by confirms to me that she's not going to be a threat: she's puffing and wheezing in a manner that should really only be acceptable in the final stretches of a race like this. By comparison I'm hardly drawing breath, and this gives me a considerable boost in confidence (with a dash of schadenfreude thrown in for fun) as I pull further ahead and the course turns a sharp right into a rather swanky gold resort sort of area.

These houses are undoubtedly lovely, and on a sunny day it might seem like a good place to spend a holiday, but the combination of grey skies and nearby tree graveyard is way too creepy for me at this point. The atmosphere is decidedly macabre, but thankfully I'm too focused on this race to care much. I sneak a glance at my Garmin as I pass a 5K marker - it will turn out to be undoubtedly short, in post-race analysis - but for now I am astonished to see 18:40. The last thing Kevin told me before this race was that I should be looking to run in the 37s - admittedly though, since I have been running a lot of mileage, he would allow me to stretch to 38:00. At the time I laughed and ignored him -- but could it be that he was right??

Mile 4: 6:03
This mile becomes something entirely new when the paved golf cart path ends abruptly in the middle of nowhere and I suddenly find myself running across a fairway, on the grass. What on earth is this going to do to my pace? The grass is absolutely lovely, don't get me wrong - soft, smooth, springy, probably bloody wonderful for playing golf on - but running on it is a monumental pain in the butt. And it's a good thing there is a line of blokes ahead of me whom I can follow, or otherwise I'd end up in a bunker or a water trap or something of that sort. But no, I keep going over the grass, and am pleasantly surprised to find I haven't slowed down at all. Phew. And who is this up ahead that I am slowly catching? Why it's Mini Kevin in his flashy yellow singlet. I saunter past him and he doesn't take this well at all - he immediately surges and passes me back. Oh really, young man? We'll see about that.

Mile 5: 5:57
The fun of catching Mini Kevin and the idea of proving Big Kevin right does something magical to this mile: despite another decent stretch of fairway grass and a few interesting undulations as we get back into the housing development, it turns out to be my fastest so far. We pop back out onto the roads and another astonishing sight greets my eyes - it's Quasi-Clare, sitting by the roadside with her head in her hands.

What on earth happened to her?? From her location it looks like she dropped around half a mile after I passed her. There's a marshal right nearby who seems utterly unperturbed, so I have to assume that she is basically okay, but is she sick? Injured? Or was it just the psychological blow of watching someone old enough to be her mother running past her like she was standing still?

Whatever it was, that's one less thing I have to worry about, namely how close she might be behind me. It occurs to me that I could slow down considerably at this point and probably still win the race. But no way - that's not how I win races, and today is ALL IN.

Mile 6: 6:09
This mile sees us turning back onto the lakeside path where I ran my warmup, and as I predicted then, the wind off the lake suddenly smacks me in the face. Mini Kevin doesn't take this well at all - he slows down enough that I sail past him again and he doesn't pass me back this time. I'm focusing on keeping my form together, staying relaxed, not worrying about how I feel. This is the part of the race that I dread, where it starts to hurt and my brain just wants me to stop now, PLEASE. I can see the park where the finish line is waiting - my lungs are burning, but now I pass one guy and then another. Gotta keep it going.....

I start to count in my head, in the way I do when running very fast intervals: my roadrunner cadence is handy here, I know that 4 footfalls is roughly one seconds so I chant mindlessly to myself "One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one  thousand..." and so on. When I get to 60 I start again. I pass yet another male 10K runner, who doesn't like being chicked and immediately passes me back. My Garmin beeps the mile split and it's time to give chase.

Finish 0.2: 5:42 pace
I'm tearing towards the finish chute in hot pursuit when I hear the kids and Mum screaming at me - there are little children holding out their arms for a high-five (I don't dare, at this pace I'd likely take off a limb by accident) and then - as I've just about caught that bloody bloke - I hear it: the announcer says "First female home in the 10K......well done young lady....." It's all I can do not to fall down laughing - the young ladies are sitting by the road 2.5 miles in! Or at least they are all behind me. But now I'm finally across the line and OMG what does that clock say??

Finished and VERY pleased with myself, as well as my funky WCA singlet.

Finish time: 37:41 (official), 6:05 pace

Placement: 1st female, 1st AG (40+) and 8th OA.

Post-race schemozzle
New 10K PR!! But I barely have time to catch my breath before Jack is upon me, beside himself with excitement at the prospect of his longest running race ever (the 3K), yelling in my face that it's time for his race and MUMMA CAN I HAVE YOUR GARMIN??

Of course he can, so I reset it and strap it to his wrist and BAM he's gone, lining up in the very first row. Any wonder where he got that competitive spirit from? And Amelia and I are also lining up for the shorter, little kids' race, with much less enthusiasm but a whole lot more pink.

Awesome little fun runners.
Both run with style and pizazz, Jack powering home in 14:56 (a touch over 8 min/mile pace) and Amelia, well, being Amelia. She may have whinged incessantly but at least she didn't stop!

After an unacceptably long wait in the cold, finally it's time for the official presentation and despite having been told by a rather clueless volunteer that there are "only spot-prizes", I am soon the happy recipient of not one but two cheques that will do nicely for spending money at Boston. Hip hip hooray for regional racing!

10K category winners - yes that's Mini Kevin front and center, and YES I am freezing now!

The Analysis
It's plain to see that the addition of a knowledgeable coach, some judicious speed work and a fair bit more racing experience has made a world of difference to my performances this year. I have said that 2013 was the pinnacle of my running career to date, but 2014 looks very likely to knock it off its pedestal in no time at all. Boston is just 5 weeks away - bring it on!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Wangaratta HM, February 2014

I'm not sure why it never occurred to me before that I'm closer to many regional towns in the nearby state of Victoria then I am to many parts of NSW, but perhaps the Melbourne marathon last October was the turning point. After the disaster of my recent trip to Bendigo, a re-do was in order, and the Wangaratta running festival presented the perfect opportunity.

The Training
This is the awesome thing about having a coach, you just tell them you'd like to do this race, and if they approve then they just tell you what to run. And so it was that in training for this race I just kept doing my usual 90 miles a week with a couple of quality workouts, since we established late last year that less mileage is not good for my confidence or my legs.

The week of the race I found myself being unusually compliant with a planned reduction in training, and even feeling slightly antsy in the way I do when tapering for a marathon. One particularly frustrating chain of events on Friday made me desperate to run a double that evening, just for the stress relief, but I resisted. This had the slightly bipolar effect of making me feel virtuous and even more pissed-off at the same time, but at least I survived. Maybe this is proof positive that I'm becoming more able to see the big picture, and worry less over a few days of light running that would have usually had me all worked-up and tense. Or maybe I just really wanted to watch the Olympic curling competition. Now THERE'S a strange and pointless sport.

The lead-up
Considerably less drama than the Bendigo lead-up; Mum, kids and I drive down to Wangaratta and first we hit the pre-race pasta party, where I chat briefly to the Race Director and ascertain that this is the second year they've run a half-marathon. He can't remember the winning female's time from last year and I can't find it on my phone, which is rather frustrating. I ask as innocently as I can "So, maybe under 1:30? Or over?" He seems to think that under 1:30 is very impressive, which is slightly startling, but also possibly a good sign. There are no fast-looking chicks around, which is reassuring, although many of the race entrants are obviously not here tonight.

After dinner we drive over to nearby Beechworth, a picturesque town where I have booked a night's accommodation for us all in a quaint self-contained cottage. There are horses in the paddock next door and they come over to investigate our arrival; the owner tells us that their names are Chloe and Trumper. Chloe in particular is very keen on Amelia and the crabapples she and I have found on a nearby tree - we feed them to her until she notifies us she's had enough (by shaking her head and spitting half-chewed apple all over us, lovely) - at which point we retreat to get ready for bed.

"I am both thrilled and terrified by this horse"
Hopefully this means she will NEVER beg me to buy her one.

Race Day
I'm regretting not booking something early enough to be staying in Wangaratta (where everything is currently booked out due to some stupid AFL game) as I hit snooze when my alarm goes off at 5am. I lie there stubbornly until 5:30am when I finally manage to drag myself out to the kitchen; I ferret around in the fridge to find some chocolate milk and a piece of raisin bread that is my standard pre-race breakfast now. While some, more meticulous runners count calories and set alarms for 3am to consume a carefully-devised amount of carbs per kg of body weight, I drink milk and indulge my preference for carbs in the form of toast. So far it seems to work, and I'm just superstitious enough to keep up the habit.

Waking the kids is not as difficult as I'd anticipated and we set off on the 30 minute drive just shortly after 6am. I'd like enough time to do something of a warm-up before the race starts at 7, as well as get my head into some sort of race-ready zone - right now I'm in what I would describe as a strange, ambivalent state of mind. Going into Central Coast I felt sure that I could run a fast race and possible a new PR; that didn't work out as planned and the pace I was aiming for (6:15 min/mile) felt way too tough right from the start. Bendigo was, for obvious reasons, a total bust. And this time I'm not certain what to expect. 

I could conceivably just run to place - last night's discussion with the RD suggests that I am virtually assured of placing in the top 3 if I run even marathon pace today - or I could push myself to the limit. Do I want to do that? Benita has told me to aim for 6:10-6:20 pace for the first 10 miles and then see how I feel. And of course there's the old goal that I set myself after Central Coast - don't slow down at mile 9. So maybe I'll just aim to do my best for the first 10 miles, and then allow myself to slack off if it's all too hard? Hmmm.

Moderately tricky course map that I completely fail to study before the race
I end up with just enough time to run a single mile as warm-up, with some strides at the end. As I jog around the show grounds and away from the crowds, I notice that my legs feel great. Springy, fresh - ready to go. In fact I don't remember them feeling like this since the opening miles of the Boston marathon, last April. This is probably a really good omen and suddenly the thought of a new PR pops unbidden into my head.

Lining up right at the front behind the starting line, I look around to size up the competition. Just next to me there's a tall girl who looks very familiar. She's wearing a grey top and very short grey shorts - the kind of shorts that telegraph the message "I'm fast" to all around - and obviously she means business. Behind her is a woman who looks more like she'd be in my age group (although of course I personally do NOT look that old), wearing a red singlet and short black shorts; she's probably going to be competition for me too. Nobody else looks very serious - this is good news. And as the command "GO!" is issued, I'm still not decided as to how I'm going to run this race. Let's see what happens.

Start line, furtively sizing up the competition...she looks scary fast.....but what is that guy doing here...??

Miles 1-3: 6:14, 6:14, 6:04 (pace in min/mile)

We set off across gravel, grass and finally onto a sealed bike path by a small river. I'm stupidly close to the front of the pack, in 4th place or so, and as we pound across the gravel - the lead bike so close that someone yells to him "Speed up mate! They're catching you!" - I think to myself "Not a PR course!". Then Grey Girl goes flying past me and soon she's out in front of the whole pack, close behind an African man who is clearly going to win by a country mile.

After about half a mile she has opened up a 50m lead; I check my Garmin to see that my average pace so far is 5:55 - far too fast to be sustainable. As I ease back on the throttle, Grey moves even further ahead and it's obvious: she's in another league altogether from little old RoadRunner me. Later I discover that the reason she looks so familiar - she was in the Elites at Melbourne marathon, where she ran 2:42. It's very clear that I'm racing myself and my Garmin today, not her. The second mile ticks past and the third, and now I find myself entirely alone. So much for pacing off the boys, as B is fond of telling me to do. Today I'll be doing all the hard work myself.

Miles 4-6: 6:12, 6:13, 6:08

I'm settling in to the sub-6:15 pace fairly nicely now, as I continue along the bike path by the river. It dips quite steeply and often as the course navigates tunnels under the roads of Wangaratta; some of the tunnels are long enough to be rather dark and my fear of tripping in the dark is briefly ignited. Marathoners are coming back the other way now and someone calls "Rachel!" to me as they pass - it's right as I am heading into the darkness and there's no way I can identify them or respond at all. Who knows I am here? Hmm, a mystery that I have little time to contemplate, because we're coming up to a turnaround and I want to see what the gap is between myself and Grey Girl.

Grey comes back in the other direction, streaking along right behind the African chap, in outright 2nd position. She has about 3 minutes on me already - my god, she's fast - enough to put any idea of catching her well out of my head. The next question: how far am I ahead of the next woman? Around 2:40, it turns out - enough of a buffer that 2nd place is most likely mine unless I blow up or pass out. I've never done either in a race yet, and I'm not about to start.

During mile 6 there are more marathoners around and I now pass a few of the slower runners; then coming back on the second out-and-back I realise that the person who greeted me is none other than Wylie, whom I know from the Wagga Road Runners! He's a marathon maniac type and always fun to chat to. This time when I see him coming I wave and grin and call out his name - and remember that I told him about this race when we last ran together, on my birthday. A fellow Wagga runner, hooray!

Unlike last year's Christmas Twilight run (in 40C/108F temps), today he was not dressed like this.

Miles 7-9: 6:13, 6:05, 6:05

As I start mile 7, I realise that finally I'm catching someone ahead of me. He's wearing a blue and black stripy singlet and looks to be in his mid 50s at least. It was actually rather depressing when he and his grey hair shot so far ahead of me during mile 2 or so; now he looks to be tiring. There's another turnaround coming and immediately after it I ease past him without really meaning to.

I'm quite aware that this is likely to make him speed up and sure enough, I immediately hear him pick up his pace and he's right on my tail now. This is going to be helpful, actually! I used to HATE having someone right behind me, pushing me along, chiefly because I was worried about being goaded into going too fast and running out of steam. Now I have more confidence in my own fitness, and after all the miles running alone I actually welcome it. My pace picks up and I'm still feeling great. The mile 8-9 slump is not happening this time, no way.

This is also good timing because during mile 8 we come to, and pass, the 10K turnaround point. Oh. My. God. Suddenly there are hobby joggers ALL OVER the road. I watch in horror as a plump lady rips out her headphones and darts across the road directly in front of me to stop and greet a spectator. Some of them are keeping to the left, others not so much. And it's about to get worse...

Miles 10 & 11: 6:03, 6:04

It's incredible that I'm keeping such a good pace here. I'm actually having to yell at people to move over, and quite regularly. At one point there are two heavily-set blokes jogging along and completely blocking the way as we turn back off the road and onto the bike path. I bellow out "MOVE LEFT!!!" only to have the heftier of the two dodge directly to the RIGHT and straight into my path. I'm barely able to avoid a collision as I snap at him, "Left is the other way, idiot" --  he opens his mouth, no doubt to splutter out a sarcastic retort, but I'm already gone.

Mile 11 is even worse than mile 10. We've gone past the starting area - I wave wildly to the kids, who go ballistic with excitement - and down a slight hill towards the river again. And oh my god, there's a suspension bridge coming up?

The course looks roughly like this - only narrower - in the final 2 miles of the race.

By this point there are 10K joggers 3 abreast on the narrow path, and to make things worse the leading 10K runners are coming back the other way already, at top speed. This leaves precious little room for even a pocket rocket such as myself to overtake. Trying to get up onto the bridge I feel like I'm jogging in place for a few seconds, and it's infuriating. Yelling at them seems to make no difference so I resort to doing the jogger slalom, wending my way in between the people on the path around me like some kind of whirling dervish. Hmm, what is this going to do to my pace?

Miles 12 & 13, then finish chute: 6:12, 6:24, 5:43 pace to finish

My overtaking efforts earn me first a painful clash of elbows with a muscular triathlon-type coming the other way, and then a chubby girl right in front of me chooses the moment I come up behind her to attempt to high-five a friend who is approaching from the opposite direction. I collide with her right arm like it's a boom gate in the carpark of a bank I've just robbed: it goes swinging wildly back towards her face and I plough on without a word. Oops.

It's astonishing when the mile 12 split beeps and my pace is still vaguely in the ballpark that I'm aiming for. But what on earth is coming next? I can see another bridge, and runners going in all directions. The word "clusterf&*k" springs to mind, and the definition is unfolding before my eyes. Time to get this thing FINISHED! I cross the second bridge and then back over the first freaking one, again. It's even more crowded and slow than before, somehow. I don't even bother to check my pace during the final mile, and pay for it when I hear the beep and look down to see 6:24. BUGGER!

But it's too late for regrets - the finish is in sight and I just need to get there pronto. As I sprint like a maniac for the line, a clock by the path (but not the finish line itself) reads "1:20:34". Oh god, how long is it going to take me to get across?? I must be SO close to my PR from Bathurst last year! I bobble once slightly as I step in a slight pothole amongst the grass, and then finally I've done it. No fanfare or anything - people are finishing in their droves and although I'm sure I was second female, there's no announcement and I have no idea where I've placed in the HM overall - so I get my medal and head up to find the kids and Mum.

Finish time: 1:21:35 (6:13 min/mile) - Garmin reading 13.25 miles @ 6:08 pace

Placement: 2nd female (1st masters athlete age 40+), 5th OA.

Photo courtesy of Amelia.
There's not much time to sit around and relax - the kids' 2K race is coming up and there is a literal horde of entrants. Both of mine are in there, Jack now old enough to rush off on his own to start with the older kids (wearing my Garmin, no less, and he has even told me he really needs one of his own soon, please) but Amelia still needing me to run with her. She makes no bones about telling me that I must STAY BEHIND her, though, and once running I actually find it difficult to catch her a few times! Both kids make me very proud by running the whole way without once stopping - Jack finishing 18th in the 7-9yrs AG and Amelia 10th in the under-7s. Considering they are at the bottom of their age groups, this is a bloody amazing result!

We did it!

The Analysis
All in all, this race is a very welcome confirmation that my training - and in particular the changes that Benita has made - is progressing just as I would want it to. I'm in at least as good shape as I was in the immediate aftermath of Boston last year, but with 8 more weeks to train for the marathon. The lack of late-race fade is particularly pleasing; there was no hint of the fatigue to which I succumbed (in part at least) on the Central Coast in December. And when I made it back to the finish area after the 2K race, I was just in time to hear my name announced as winner of the women's 40+ category for the half-marathon. Recognition as a Masters athlete?? Yes please! And the pair of free Hoka shoes will come in very handy, thank you.

(this is without doubt the coolest trophy in my collection)
Up next? Possibly a 10K in an other Victorian town - that small state to the south is rapidly growing on me. And Boston is just 8 weeks away now. Eeek!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Oceania Masters Athletics HM, Bendigo Jan 2014

I mentioned in my last post that I was intending to run this HM in Bendigo as a Masters athlete, and until 2 days beforehand I was focused on running it as fast as I possibly could. In Australia there is little fanfare about Masters athletes - whereas I so often see my American running friends taking home some serious swag for Masters victories - but as time continues its inexorable march forwards, I have become increasingly aware that any future glory to be found in my future running career undoubtedly lies in exploiting my age and competing as a Masters athlete. Well, I might as well take advantage of being old, right?

Accordingly, last year I joined up with NSW Masters Athletics and in fact was happy to become the official State record holder for W40-44 in the half marathon after my Central Coast adventure in November. I was only somewhat put off by the realisation that the Bendigo race would comprise 4 laps of a 5.3km course - that sort of race is inevitably twisty and slower than an out-and-back or a point-to-point course, witness the Port Macquarie HM as evidence of this fact - but I remained resolute. I was going for a new PR, apart from an AG placing of course. But fate has a way of intervening with the best-laid of plans, as I was about to find out.

The Travel
Bendigo is an old gold mining town in the western part of Victoria, the next state to the south of where I live in New South Wales, and about 4 hours' drive away. I travel down fairly uneventfully with the kids on Thursday afternoon, planning to spend a few days checking out the sights and generally relaxing. It's boiling hot so we hit the hotel pool immediately upon arrival and then head out for some dinner at a rather swanky (Wagu kids' beef burger, anyone?) yet somehow also kid-friendly joint. What a great find!

Friday brings more oppressive heat and so after a bit of a late start, we make our way to the outskirts of Bendigo to visit Water World, which is basically a tiny little water park in the middle of the bush with a couple of small pools, a bunch of tropical-style umbrellas with tables underneath and one huge, twisty, slippery and totally awesome waterside.

It looks innocent enough.......

Predictably, the slide turns out to be amazing fun, and surprisingly there is no supervision at the top. People (ok, kids) are diving on there headfirst, feet first, on their bellies, whatever. It's chaos of the most ridiculously fun kind and the kids cannot get enough. I'm keeping up with them, almost, and considering letting them just go nuts on their own when it happens: sliding down in a chain with the two of them ahead of me, Jack hits the pool first and rather than moving away just stands there oblivious. Amelia, in the middle, has me by the hands and as she hits the pool feet first I get catapulted over the top of her and into the water. I'm sliding on my belly so my head is right back and my larynx exposed as I slam - throat-first - into the back of Jack's head.

the oblivious culprits - picture me sailing over the top of her feet

HOLY SHIT, that hurts! It's like getting winded, only more painful. My first thought is "Oh god, my larynx is fractured" and I'm clutching my throat and no doubt looking aghast as Jack bobs up and says casually, "Mama, you bumped my head!" I can't answer - I'm not sure I can breathe - and I instinctively race to get out of the water. The slack-jawed teenage lifesaver who is on duty at the plunge pool looks vaguely at me as I stumble past him with my hand around my throat, but doesn't seem to have noticed that anything might be wrong. I sit shakily at our table, trying not to panic, but wondering if I am about to obstruct my airway and die. Perhaps I should get that teenager to call an ambulance?

The kids come over and I find that I can speak, although my voice is gravelly and it's bloody agony to even try to swallow. They want to keep sliding and I don't appear to be dying yet, so they run off and I sit, gingerly feeling the swelling develop around the cartilage of my Adam's apple. It occurs to me that an ice pack might be an excellent idea at this point, and the teenager at the front desk obligingly digs one out of the bottom of the ice-cream freezer for me when I go and croak out my request.

Very unflattering photo, with large swelling around and to the right of my thyroid cartilage.
Thought bubble: "Am I about to swell up and die? Because that would suck."
As mothers around the world will know, when you're in charge of two young children, unless you're actually dying the show absolutely must go on. And so I spend the rest of the afternoon - after the ice pack has melted in the 39C/104F heat - actually back on the water slide and having a reasonably good time, although I tend to hit the plunge pool in a defensively curled-up state from now on. My throat is BLOODY sore - I feel like I'm trying to swallow a large cotton wool ball with broken glass embedded in it, with a terminal case of tonsillitis to boot - but at least I can still breathe, and the kids are having a ball.

We head home via the chemist, where I stock up on soluble paracetamol, aspirin and every variety of throat lozenge that has the word "anaesthetic" on the front. The kids have grasped the fact that Mama has a VERY sore throat; Amelia takes it upon herself to dispense the medicines and Jack places himself in charge of making sure I get a lozenge every two hours. Thank you, darlings, it's making absolutely no difference, but I love you for trying.

The more pressing thought in my head is, what about that small race I am supposed to be doing on Sunday?? Friday night passes in a sleepless, painful blur. Every time I need to swallow, I wake up in agony. A lozenge at 2am makes enough difference for me to sleep a few hours, but there's no way in hell I am going to be able to race on Sunday - I can hear my breathing (the medical term for this is "stridor", which implies that my airway is narrowed) on both inspiration and expiration. This is extremely bad.

Saturday morning I feel so rough that I email Coach B to tell her what's happened and that I'm down for the count, probably not even going to run the race. The kids get up and we go on a tour of the Central Deborah Gold Mine, which is dark and slightly scary in a thrilling sort of way. We have to wear headlamps and helmets and go down in a cage to a depth of 50m below ground - the kids are agog with delight and a tiny, delicious frisson of terror.

Learning what Fool's gold looks like....with their oddly silent mother behind them

Strangely enough, late Saturday afternoon and into the evening my throat starts to feel marginally better. Perhaps this is just a reflection on how terribly horrible it felt at first, or perhaps the pain receptors in the "throat" part of my cerebral cortex are just burned out? Whatever - I feel a tiny bit better. The embryo of an insane idea begins to form in my brain: well, we're here and all, I'm signed up and all, maybe I could do the race just as a fun run? I'm almost certain I won't precipitate fatal throat swelling by doing so....but there's no way I can race it. I guess we'll see how I feel in the morning.

Race Day
Make that fun-run day, but Sunday dawns and I realise I actually slept a lot better than the night before. Fun run here I come! I make sure to sabotage any attempt at serious racing by failing to eat before (not too difficult, since the pain associated with swallowing anything solid is still pretty impressive), I leave my Australia singlet behind and neglect even to drink adequately before the start. I consider tearing off the timing chips from my front-and-back bibs, but decide to leave them on when I realise this will destroy the bibs entirely. Sigh.

We arrive at the race start area in good time - enough for me to jog 2 easy miles and drum into my head that I am in no fit state to race - the kids settle in at the finish line at the table with the race officials and very shortly it's time to line up at the start. I purposely put myself at the back of the Masters Athletics group, muttering to myself "Not racing, not racing....." until the gun goes off and I determinedly set off to not race the guts out of this thing.

Not racing, nope, just out for a jog...

Lap 1, miles 1-3.4: 7:11, 6:55, 7:07 (pace in min/mile)
It's congested back here in the pack, and I'm NOT pushing the pace, so it's gratifying to see 7:11 on my Garmin when it beeps the first split. Not quite so gratifying is finding myself in amongst a bunch of 60-70 yr old male runners - the Masters bibs are cunningly numbered so one can identify one's competitors by the first two digits, the age group, and this is a bit depressing. I put on a burst of speed and then find myself struggling to back it off again. Thankfully, as we head around the small lake nearby the crowd thins out and I settle into a comfortable pace. My breathing sounds slightly reminiscent of Darth Vader - if he was asthmatic - and I'm not game to even try to swallow some water although there are plenty of drinks stations around, but so far, so good.

Lap 2, miles 4-7ish: 6:59, 6:58, 6:56
Apparently anything slower than 6:59 pace is unacceptable for my brain to process. Whatever, I'm still going a lot slower than I was planning to run, so it's fine, really. And I'm passing people left and right now as I come around for the second lap. There's a short hairpin that goes up a rather steep side street and then back down - this enables me to see that I'm actually in 3rd place overall, with only one Masters female in front of me - and she's in the faux-Masters AG 35-39. Grrrr! If I was in a position to race this thing, I'd be several minutes in front of her at this point. But whatever, at least I'm alive and not in hospital with a fractured larynx and a tracheostomy, right?

Look ahead, don't race. Look ahead, don't race. Repeat until brain goes numb.

Lap 3, miles 7 - 9.6ish: 6:50, 6:49, 6:40
Ooooops. Coach B has drilled into my brain that I MUST NOT slow down in the 3rd lap - a strategy designed to counteract the fade I experienced in this part of the Central Coast HM - and it seems my subconscious is determined to make her proud. I see on the hairpin hill that I'm catching the woman ahead of me (not a Masters competitor) and it's all I can do not to pull out all the stops to close the distance and overtake. Must. Resist. Luckily my breathing chooses this point to protest at the increase in pace, and I reluctantly fall back again.

Lap 4, miles 10 - 13.1: 6:55, 7:05, 6:06
The effort to slow down results in my first mile over 7:00 pace since the first lap, and as a reward I allow myself to put the pedal to the metal for the final mile - not enough to catch the 2nd female, but enough to satisfy me that I could have gone much faster, and also that I'm still not dead. I hit the finish line feeling like I've barely been for a jog; the kids are beyond excited to hear the announcer name me winner of my AG, and so ends the half-marathon that will forever be known as "The One with the Broken Throat".

Finish line, too relaxed by far

Finish time: 1:31:46

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

This champagne will soothe my throat nicely, thank you.

I get a medal and a bottle of bubbly for my AG win, and happily pose with the two other place-getters. Actually I feel like a bit of an imposter, having won so easily with a time that is a full 10 minutes off what I was aiming to run, but oh well. It's a novel injury and a good one for the story books, even if almost every single person I tell is going to react with the rhetorical questions "you did what to your throat?...and you STILL RAN??"

The Analysis
As regards the race, nothing to see here, move on.  Regarding the throat - on the Monday after the race I get myself in to see a local ENT surgeon, who sticks a fibreoptic laryngoscope down my nose (ugh, disgusting) and confirms that I have a massive bruise in the right side of my larynx, both cords are swollen and my right vocal cord is actually paralysed. He organises an urgent CT scan which thankfully shows that the cartilage itself is not fractured, and the important recurrent laryngeal nerve - the one that supplies the cords and causes them to move - appears to be intact and not severed.

Home I go on massive doses of oral steroids (to bring down the swelling) and some antibiotics for good measure. A week later my voice is improving and the pain all but gone, but the cord is still not working; he wants me to go to Sydney for a second opinion. Truly, all I care about is whether or not I'll be affected with my breathing when I need to run fast. When he tells me I won't have lasting stridor, I'm happy enough to leave it for now. I can't sing (not that this is much of a loss) but I'm recovered enough to run and also to bellow at the kids when the need arises, so for now that will definitely suffice.

Next up? Another HM in Victoria, hopefully with a great deal less drama and a lot more success.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Central Coast HM, November 2013

One of the first few half marathons I ever entered was this Central Coast race, which I ran in November 2001 and finished 2nd in 1:25:40. I recall feeling that was a pretty good time, but also knowing I could do better - I certainly had no idea it would stand as my half-marathon PR for over a decade. I was training for my next HM when fate intervened that afternoon in Nowra and left me smashed-up on the road - it would be a full 6 years until I could race that distance again. So it was kind of fitting that 2013, my best year of running - ever - should end at the same race where I set that long-standing PR.

The Training
As mentioned in my last post, I recently started getting some online coaching with someone I met through a mutual friend from Runners' World. We started with 2 speed workouts a week and pretty conservative mileage (in terms of my usual mileage over the past year, anyway) and I was very happy to find that I was able to manage the workload without too many problems. It seemed logical that the combination of lower mileage and faster workouts, with someone to make sure I did a proper mini-taper, would set me up for a good run at The Entrance.

The Travel
It's a long drive to the Central Coast, but thanks to a new motorway bypassing the worst of Sydney's traffic, and the inventions of Steve Jobs (nothing like an iPad mini to keep children from killing each other in the back seat), we arrive in good time and relatively unscathed on Friday afternoon. I step out of the car and the first thing I notice is wow, it's windy. In fact, when we head down the road to check out the beach, it's actually blowing a gale - this better not last another 36 hours or I'm in serious trouble!

Early Saturday I run an easy out-and-back 4 miles, taking in the first part of the race course. I remember it well from not only 2001, but also a family holiday to a nearby resort in late 2011 - t's a flat out-and-back course on a bike path quite near the lake - an ideal location for a PR attempt, in fact. I certainly won't have any hills to blame if I run a pathetic time!

Saturday's weather is less windy, but no less worrying: dark clouds intermittently spit rain at us all morning, with prolonged rumbles of thunder keeping us nervously watching for lightning from the relatively dangerous vantage point of the hotel pool. Finally we give up and head off to the movies - and 90 minutes later emerge to clear blue skies and warm sunshine. Yay!

Race Day
It's relatively easy to get up at 5am, and I make myself a piece of toast to go with the chocolate milk that has become my traditional pre-race breakfast. I've realised that I forgot to pack any gels - not that they are essential for races shorter than the marathon - and so I figure I need to have something in my stomach before I head out to run.

I spend the next hour aimlessly surfing the internet and finally head out around 6am. I walk down to the park where the race will finish, pick up and pin my bib, then head off to run a 2 mile warmup on the first part of the course. It's PERFECT running weather - probably around 17C/70F, too warm for many but great for me - with no wind and clear skies, just a few clouds around the horizon really.

Eventually it's time to gather near the starting line, and interestingly enough there is one of Australia's best runners lined up near me: Martin Dent, a 2:16 marathoner who represented Australia at the London Olympics. I recognise him from the elite room at Melbourne marathon - and there are another couple of guys around who are likely to run sub-70 minutes. More pressing is the question, are there any fast women here too??

I look surreptitiously around, trying to size up any possible competition, but nobody really takes my eye. Apart from one skinny bloke, that is - he's standing behind me nervously jumping up and down, wearing a fairly ridiculous combination of skin-tight 2XU compression gear (including a triathlon-type vest and calf sleeves), a visor and heavy black-rimmed glasses. Immediately the thought pops into my mind: European. In fact he reminds me strongly of the infamous Nils, a borderline crazy German (okay, that's not true,  there is nothing borderline about him except perhaps his personality disorder) from Runners World...but anyway, enough about him because it's time to run and I probably won't see him ever again. Or will I?

Miles 1-2: 6:12, 6:18 (pace in min/mile)
The gun goes off and we charge off down the street. The usual line of blokes opens up ahead of me, but then a girl in purple blows past me like I'm standing still. Wait, what?? She looks powerful and I can't quite believe she's running 6:00 min/mile (or perhaps a bit faster), but she is. Oh well, it's early days yet, so I concentrate on trying to lock down my goal pace (6:15) as we hit the lakeside path and things get considerably narrower. So far, so good. Then another girl - this one in blue shorts with a dark ponytail - pulls up beside and then ahead of me. Ugh! This is not okay!!

Miles 3-4: 6:07, 6:19
I'm getting a bit erratic here, speeding up too much and then slowing down too far. At the 5K mark I make the stupid mistake of looking at my watch to check the split - and almost run smack bang straight into a large bollard. Ooops! I dodge it at the last second and the guy behind me gasps out "Are you alright??" Yep, I'm fine, and the split was 19:38 or thereabouts, which is also fine. Onward, and pay better attention from now on please Rachel!

Yep, that's her right behind me...
Just after the 5K I pass Blue Shorts, and realise that Purple Chick is not far ahead now. By the time mile 4 is half over, I've passed her too and moved into the lead. Excellent! And what's more, I've somehow ended up right behind EuroGuy. His tight lycra shorts aren't the loveliest of views to be following so closely, but he's running the right pace and Coach B did tell me to find some boys to run with. So I tuck in and do my best to keep up.

Miles 5-6: 6:31, 6:12
In the lead now, I somehow suddenly lose concentration - for reasons known only to some of my Facebook sub-3 marathoners friends, I get distracted thinking about Marmite sandwiches (I know, I know) and also by the process of crossing a small but steepish wooden bridge. Coming off the bridge I look up and realise EuroGuy has opened a small gap. Then my watch beeps the mile split and I realise what has happened - bugger! I focus, put on a burst of speed, and catch him again. Concentrate, concentrate, keep it going.

During mile 6 we see Martin Dent approaching from the turnaround, and he's waaaay out in front, just as I would have expected. There's water on his side of the path and I'm mystified to see him just run straight through it when he could have easily dodged around it. The reason becomes clear a short distance later - here there is ankle-deep water all over the path and this time no way around it. Splash, splash, there go my pristine new Mizunos. I hate squelchy feet - grrr.

Miles 7-8: 6:14, 6:22
During mile 7 comes the turn-around, and I'm all set to check my watch and see how much room there is between me and that Purple Chick, who must be the next girl behind me, right? But whoa, no -- Blue Shorts is RIGHT on my tail!! No more than 20-30 seconds separates us, and Purple is another 30 seconds or so behind Blue. Crap!! I've got some work to do if I'm going to stay ahead.....

Heading back there's a steady stream of half-marathoners on the other side of the path, which is sufficiently narrow that I only just avoid a collision with a solid footballer type, who is barreling along overtaking people. A LOT of people are clapping and cheering and calling out "First lady! Wooot!" and such to me -- it's sweet but also making me rather stressed -- particularly when they yell stuff like "GO GIRLS!" or "YAY LADIES!" I can understand why they're not saying "girl" or "lady", but it also sort of implies that Blue Shorts is right on my tail. And I'm too scared to look around to see if she is!

Miles 9-10: 6:26, 6:20
Now I'm in deep trouble, because I'm realising gradually that EuroGuy is starting to tire. During mile 9 it becomes clear - he's not going to drag me all the way. I'm going to have to do the work now, and it's not going to be easy. After seeing the mile split, I grit my teeth and pull ahead of him. Quickly I realise how valuable it is to have someone pacing you - all you have to do is keep up, really, and you've always got that moving target ahead of you on which to focus.

So why not focus on this?
I look ahead for someone to catch. There's another half-marathoner who has been ahead of me the whole race, but he's clearly done and dusted, and I pass him quickly. He calls out something encouraging, which is nice, but it's not going to get me through the next 4.1 miles. Mental grit is what I need, and there's a war in my brain already: do I push harder and risk blowing up, or do I coast it in and count on whatever lead I still have over Blue Shorts? That may not be enough.

Miles 11-12: 6:27, 6:31
I'm wasting energy on arguing with myself at this point - without the magnetic pull of EuroGuy and his 6:15 pace, I'm starting to fade, and I know it. I'm trying to yell at myself to run harder, dammit, but I kinda like myself too and I don't want to land myself in the medical tent. Again.

By now we are past the 10K turnaround and there are even more people around, which should be sort of comforting but in fact is just distracting. Somehow I've decided to take it easy until the final mile, which is not a clever strategy at this point, but there we go. Mile 12 is my slowest since that bridge early on, and there's someone right behind my right shoulder. I think it's EuroGuy, but am I sure?

Mile 13, 0.1: 6:13, 5:38 pace to finish
Finally my subconscious takes off the brakes and I'm back on pace for mile 13. As we approach the bridge where the start line was located I know there's about 500m to go, and I hear screams of "Mummy! Mummy!" from the left hand side - I look over briefly and try to wave, but what's happening to my right? A runner pulls up alongside me, and OH MY GOD it's Blue Shorts!

My brain is shrieking "NO!", and now finally I'm putting everything I've got left into trying to surge back - but it's not to be. She zips past; a repeat of 2001 is about to ensue (when I led the whole race but was closely shadowed by a much younger girl, who surged and overtook me in the final mile) and there's nothing I can do about it. Bugger!

The course turns a bit technical - there's curbs and stuff to watch for - how far away is that bloody finish line?? Around the side of the carousel, past the water park.....and finally I'm dashing over the grass to finish. I hear my name being announced as the female winner (oops, nope) and I'm shaking my head vigorously as I hit the mats and throw myself under the arch.

Finished, not impressed.

Finish time: 1:22:40 (6:19 pace)

Placement: 2nd female, 18th OA, 1st in AG (F40-49).

Wow, that sucked. I stop, bend down and try to catch my breath. There's Blue Shorts doing the exact same thing - so I smile and congratulate her on out-kicking me for the win. Her name is Belinda, she's 27 years old, and I soon find out she has beaten me by 6 seconds! Using my old lady handicap system, I've actually won by 8 minutes, though, so that's okay. I wander over to get some water and EuroGuy waves at me - he opens his mouth to speak and it's all I can do not to die of laughter: he has a German accent! Later I find out his name is Fritz. Oh my god, that's perfect.

The kids and Mum arrive - we dash to the hotel to shower and pack up - then back down to the park for the presentation.
A little old lady and two fast young things

The Analysis

I'm a little baffled as to why the lower overall mileage and better taper hasn't gotten me a faster time. My fastest HM remains Bathurst from May 2013, just a few weeks after Boston - clearly I was coasting on the fitness from all those weeks of 100 miles/160km and more. There's also a possible mental thing going on, too; I should have pushed myself harder during miles 9-12. Maybe I need to practice staying BEHIND the competition, shadowing them and then zooming past right near the end -- but my personal style is far more one of taking the lead when I can and then trying to hang on, running the best I possibly can rather than letting another set the pace. 

Another thought is the nature of the course; although hilly courses are undoubtedly harder, I seem to lose less time on the uphills than most people, and my marathon endurance comes in handy when things get tough near the end. Maybe flat races aren't all they're cracked up to be?

I have a few months to consider all this as I approach my next goal: the Oceania Masters Athletics in January, where I'm already entered to run the HM. Watch this space!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Run Y'Ass Off HM, October 2012

A half-marathon just 2 weeks after a 2:50 marathon? Seems like a totally stupid idea. But the very name of this running festival just appealed to me on some level, and seeing as it is pretty rare to have events like this anywhere near Wagga - well how could I resist?

It must also be mentioned that Yass is the hometown of Fleur, the runner who narrowly beat me in our AG in Melbourne. I did ask her in Melbourne if she was planning to run the Yass HM and she didn't sound too enthused, but I figured she might yet show up for a rematch. After Melbourne I took 2 days off and was surprised to find myself feeling much less sore than after any of my races this year (except possibly Gold Coast, when the agony of my dying big toenails probably distracted me from my sore muscles), so after a nice 11 miler the next weekend, I pulled the trigger and booked accommodation in Yass for the night before the "Run Y'Ass Off" running festival.

The Training
See above. In other words, nope.

Race Day
The random motel we're staying at turns out to be lovely - clean, modern and very central. I wake up from a lovely night's sleep, check my phone and see that it's 0C/32F outside. And yep, there's a layer of frost on top of the car - suddenly I'm regretting not bringing gloves or a hat or something other than my usual racing shorts and singlet. Oh well, maybe it will warm up quickly. I prepare a lovely motel instant coffee and a mountain of raisin toast to share with the kids, then it's off to the Riverbank Park where it will all begin.

I've almost never left race registration until race day, but today we arrive at the start area just 5 minutes before it closes! I quickly sign up, jog a mile as a warm-up, and then wander over to look at the course map just as the announcer calls for a pre-race briefing. The thing that stands out is how many people are using the phrase "very hilly" when talking about the course. Then the announcer uses the word "up" far too many times when he's describing it - I'm reminded of the HM I ran in March in Orange (another NSW regional town) which was billed as "fast and flat", and was anything but that. Instantly my expectations change: I was thinking 1:25 might be a good goal time, but now the number 1:30 pops into my head. I guess we'll just see how it goes.

Elevation profile is from my Garmin, glad I didn't see this before the race....

And now we're walking over to the starting line, which turns out not to be a line so much as a random spot at the bottom of a massive hill. And there's no starting mat - so I position myself right at the very front. Next to me is a guy who looks like a fast runner (although I can't explain why my brain has made that snap assessment), and we chat briefly about what's ahead. His name turns out to be Jim, he's from a town not far away and confirms what I've already decided about the course profile: it's going to be tough. We wish each other luck and wait for the official start to be declared.

And they're off  -- me and Jim in front, on the far right side of the road

Miles 1-3: 7:10, 6:43, 6:46 (pace in min/mile)

Holy mother of god. We charge off virtually straight uphill into a gradient of at least 30 degrees, if not more, and as soon as it flattens out there's another. There's a girl with a long brown ponytail off to my left and she quickly takes the lead on the first hill. She has strong-looking legs - is she going to be my competition? Nope - she slows down considerably on the second hill and I surge past her. A line of men stretches ahead of me, but no other women. Let's see if she can catch me again.

Onward we go, the hills rolling continuously upwards until finally we hit a small downhill in the second part of mile 3. I hear thudding feet behind me and am filled with a sudden anxiety about Brown Ponytail girl - is she coming to get me already? But no. A guy in a red shirt surges up and zips past - I breathe out, check my Garmin and decide that as long as the pace is sub-7:00 I'm happy - and he opens up a small lead as we head to the first turn-off.

Miles 4-6: 7:42, 6:17, 6:50

The 14K runners turn left just after the 4th mile starts, and we half-marathoners turn right to start an out-and-back that will add just over 4 miles to the course. And it's straight up another ENORMOUS bloody hill! Ugh - I'm trying to maintain an even effort so as not to wear myself into the ground so early in the race, but it's seriously tough going for the whole of mile 4. I pass 2 guys near the top, one of them holding his side and in obvious agony from a stitch. They never pass me back.....

Red Shirt up ahead, the other two are about to eat my dust.
Finally cresting the hill makes me VERY happy, and the long downhill that follows is even better. I've been thinking about my gait a lot recently and instead of trying to deliberately lengthen my stride (which always slows me down) I embrace my inner RoadRunner and just let my legs spin, like you would the pedals on a bike when zooming downhill. It works surprisingly well and mile 5 is my fastest so far by a long way. Then it's uphill once more to the turn-around.....blimey, here's the male leader  on his way back already, waaaay out ahead of everyone else......and it's Jim, the guy I was talking to at the start! To my surprise at this point I catch another runner, a tall bloke in blue, and with the turn so close I can see now that I'm in 7th position overall.

There's a water stop at the turnaround and HOORAY, they have McDonalds cups that are only half-full and easy to pinch and drink from! Somebody who knows their stuff must have set this up. As I make the U-turn I check my watch quite deliberately - I want to see how far I am ahead of the women behind me. Although I'm feeling reasonably recovered since Melbourne, if there's enough of a cushion that I don't have to kill myself on this run to stay in front, then I will gladly back off a bit. And there probably is: I'm over 2 minutes ahead of the second place woman, and more than 3 minutes ahead of 3rd. Excellent!

Miles 7-9: 7:03, 6:35, 6:50

Back up to the summit of that awful hill, but it's not as nasty as the initial ascent. There's a steady stream of runners coming the other way and a surprising number of them clap, give me cheers or call out encouragement. How sweet! I'm dying a little on the relentless uphill, but the positive energy from the other side of the road is really great and keeps me smiling even when I'd much rather grimace.

For some reason I'm more cautious bombing down the other side, maybe because I'm not so scared now about getting caught by another girl. I see the final runner starting the ascent, a plump lady who is struggling along with a kid on a bike right behind her. She claps and calls out to me, and I do the same in return - I would have a very hard time starting a HM if I knew it was going to take close to 3 hours for me to finish, so I truly admire anyone with the guts to do something like that. As the course rejoins the 14K loop just after the 7 mile mark I grab some water and take the vanilla GU I've been carrying in my bra.

A lovely Sunday long run....race? What race?
The course now heads out along a dirt road not dissimilar to the routes I often run at home. The undulations continue, but not as extreme as in the first half of the race, and I tell myself just to think of it as a nice Sunday morning LR. As long as I don't completely tank, I've got this one in the bag -  Sunday LR pace will do just fine. Ok, maybe just a touch faster.

Miles 10-12: 6:57, 6:34, 6:19

More ups and downs, and now I'm catching 14K runners left right and centre. At the end of mile 10 we pop back out onto bitumen, which to an asphalt devotee like me is an absolute joy. My pace immediately picks up and the best part is that there's only 3.1 miles to go! Or so I think....

The road winds its way back towards town and the river, and it seems like we really must only have downhills left from here -- but no. Several short, sharp uphills ensue, and to my great surprise I am now clearly catching Red Shirt guy, who has been within my sight but 150m or so ahead ever since mile 4. He's really slowing down on the inclines, and the next time the road banks upwards again, suddenly I'm right behind him. I zip past into 6th place, and oh boy, now I need to hold onto it! But who knows if I can - the next corner leads into a sharp downhill, and I can hear his footfalls pounding along right behind. I'm not super-fast on downhills, with my shuffly little stride, what if he comes bombing past me?

Charging down the hill, throwing caution to the wind
That thought is motivation enough for me to pull out my 2nd fastest mile of the race during mile 12, which includes possibly the steepest downhill of all. At the top I almost slam straight into a 14K runner wearing a black tutu, who is zigzagging along whilst adjusting her headphones. I bellow at her "ON YOUR RIGHT!!" - she laughs good-naturedly and waves me through - and just so she doesn't think I'm completely rude, I manage to add "...oh, love your skirt..." before I'm out of earshot, barrelling wildly down the road in front of her.

Mile 13 - finish: 6:32, 6:24 (13.4 miles by Garmin)
The bottom of the hill brings mile 12 to a close, and I turn sharp right to see before me -- another 2 enormous hills. But rather than dismay, the thought that pops into my head is "Oh good, Red Shirt won't have a hope of catching me now!" The mental trick I use on hills is to remind myself that even though I'm slowing down, so is everybody else, and in fact I know that I'm quite strong on hills due to my short stride and high cadence. If it's killing me, it's likely murdering everybody else too, so there's no point in panicking. Upward!

Finally we're down the other side and we drop through a small park onto the riverside path again. Turning the corner beside the water confirms that Red is far behind. And already I can see the finish, but it is still almost half a mile away. Not much further along the path, my watch chirps 13 miles -- excuse me, what?? There's no way it's 0.1 to the line, the course has to be long. I'm not too keen to bother with a finishing kick but as I hit the grass I do put in a small effort, which sees me crossing the line to minimal fanfare (nobody even seems to care that I'm the first female finisher in the HM, I have to go ask an official later if I did in fact win) and a rather groovy medal.

Finish time: 1:30:38 (6:46 pace)

Placement: 1st female, 6th OA.

We chill on the banks of the small river whilst the rest of the racers straggle in, then I run the 2.5km dash with the kids as a cool-down. It's a small loop incorporating that last couple of hills - hills in a kids' run?? Are they insane? But both children acquit themselves admirably (although I do have to more or less drag Amelia up the hills) and finish 9th overall and 7th girl respectively. Here's hoping they've inherited Mummy's speed gene!

Little runners

Two days later when my legs are in worse shape than they were after Melbourne, I'm still glad I ran this race. My past experience with regional HMs has taught me to expect hills and other major obstacles, and Yass did not disappoint in that regard, but I was prepared for it this time and able to enjoy the experience without worrying about my time. It would have been nice if they would have made just a TINY bit more fuss of the winners, and I would have liked a chance to take on Fleur again, but it was not to be.

I will close with a quote from one of my fellow runners, who posted on the Run Y'Ass Off Facebook page: "Thanks for a fun day. Enjoyed the beautiful scenery, great weather, only problem was when I got to the end, looked down and my ass was still there : (" 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Melbourne marathon, October 2013

I must admit that as a born-and-bred Sydneysider, I've never had much interest in that smaller, colder, wetter city that lies 12 hours' drive to the south. I have been there a few times, never been that impressed, and had no particular reason to want to go back.

That was until late July when I found myself looking around for a spring marathon and realised....isn't Melbourne like really FLAT? Yes! Sign me up for that sucker! No, wait, see if I can get them to sign me up for free! And sign me up they did, to the elite athlete ranks no less. Suddenly my opinion of Melbourne was improving by the second, and the date October 13 was firmly marked down for a proper PR attempt.

The Training
Small but important detail here: for whatever reason, I never managed to commit myself to a proper training program for Melbourne. I have no idea why I thought this was even vaguely acceptable behaviour - elite start and everything, for God's sake, and I can't get my act together to print out something from Pfitzinger? But no, I couldn't, and thus the WTF Training Method was born. I've had several friends use WTF, with varying degrees of success and failure, so why not me as well? Wheeee!

Add to this insanity a week off to go skiing, a tough trail marathon and subsequent recovery, several weeks confined to the TM and a week of school holidays where doubles just didn't work out at all -- well, it wasn't looking pretty for Melbourne. I maxed out at 96 miles, which was one in a streak of 3 decent weeks (95-96-92) but for the rest it was a less-than stellar result. Again I set MP around 6:26 and for whatever reason this felt more realistic than ever before (maybe the reduced mileage? duh), but other than a HM in Sydney (1:23:08) and the local Lake to Lagoon 10K (38:48) I really didn't bother with speedwork at all this cycle. Again. Does anyone see a theme developing here? Anyone?

The Lead-up
Part of the elite treatment for this marathon means getting my bib mailed out, and 2 days before we're set to head to Melbourne it arrives:

With blue sticker for emphasis
This is the 3rd marathon I've raced with my name pinned to my singlet, but every time it's both exciting and intimidating.

Late Friday morning I drive down to Melbourne with my small daughter (and Mum in tow to help watch her), and the trip is surprisingly quick and easy. By mid-afternoon we're checked in to our (rather dodgy) B&B and have already made the short stroll down to the MCG, where the race will start and finish on Sunday. It's a beautiful day, and we take a random tram trip which happens to end in finding an amazing Italian restaurant, where I take the opportunity to start some serious carb-loading.

Saturday I run a 4 mile shake-out in the park around the stadium, finishing up with 3 minutes at top speed (the prescribed workout that starts the Aussie carb loading plan) and the rest of the day passes in a blur of Powerade and food. In there somewhere there's an elite athlete briefing, where I get to snap a shot of the developing finish area:

and a surreptitious one of Yuki Kawaguchi, although the look on his face suggests I might just have been caught out:

note Kenyans hanging out casually in the background
By 5pm I'm totally stuffed, so we find a Japanese restaurant (sushi has rice, so it's still carbs, ok?) and have a light meal before all hitting the sack early. The forecast is somewhat foreboding - possible rain and definitely a headwind at some point along the way - but at this point it is what it is, and there's nothing to be gained by whining about weather (or so I'm telling myself, and trying to believe it).

Race Day
I'm awake several times overnight, and then for good by 4am. I sneak to the bathroom to get dressed and try - mostly in vain - to make myself eat a poppyseed muffin. After yesterday's carb fiesta I just can't face it, so I drink some chocolate milk instead and sit on a pile of towels with my computer, mindlessly surfing the net. At 5:30 I clumsily attempt to sneak out but instead succeed in waking both my roommates, who groggily wish me luck as they collapse back onto their pillows. I set off in the crisp morning air towards the MCG.

The elite athlete's room is fairly easy to find, although the bowels of the MCG are something of a rabbit warren and at first all I can find are a line of rooms marked "Drug Testing". I eventually walk in to see Lisa Weightman (who will go on to win and break the female course record) sitting there dressed mostly in my lucky colour. I sit in the row in front of her, remark  "Love the pink!" and she responds by smiling and commenting on my Boston 2013 jacket - this gets the attention of a line of blokes sitting in the row behind, and we all briefly chat about the horrific aftermath of this year's race.

At this point Yuki Kawaguchi arrives and bows to everyone, which I find awesome considering he may well be today's race winner. He proceeds to stretch and wander around with headphones on, and I can't stand sitting still anymore myself so I head out the door in search of my running buddy Tony, who is in the pacers' room getting ready to steer a busload of lucky runners to a finish time of 3:20. We remark again on the crazy fact that there's someone pacing 2:50 - I joke that maybe I should just run with him (this will come back to bite me) - and then I'm off again to find some water.

All in all it's AMAZING to be hanging out in a room full of (mostly) Australian elites. And it's more pressure too: I'm no longer the token Aussie, plus there are people here I should be able to beat, or at least come close behind. I've met Jane Fardell before - that HM I ran right after Boston - so we chat for a while about Moscow and the horrible heat that forced her to DNF in the World Champs there in August. I've also met my main AG rival at the meeting yesterday - her name is Fleur and she lives about 90 minutes' drive from me - when she shows up we greet each other and briefly discuss strategy. She's aiming for 2:50 (her current PR is 2:54) and it does occur to me that I may end up running a lot of this race with her.

Eventually it's time to head up to the start, and this part is by far the least-organised of the whole elite experience to date. We get up there only to find we're not allowed in front of the starting line to warm up, and then the preferred runners all swarm in while the elites are standing around watching. Whatever, I manage to end up in the 4th row or so, which is fine by me. Finally the gun goes (crap, it's LOUD) and it's time to run. Let's see what the day will bring.

Miles 1-3: 6:24, 6:25, 6:23 (pace in min/mile)

This pace always feels a bit too tough during the first few miles, and by now I know it's nothing to worry about, but I can't help a small frisson of anxiety that goes through me when I check my pace and find it's not faster than it feels. Technically this is good - I'm aiming for a slightly slower first half than in my 2 road marathons this year so far - but psychologically it's a bit distressing. I try to brush it off, take my mile 2 gel, and note with interest that Fleur (who is distinctive in light blue shorts and shirt) and a large group of other women have rushed off and are at least 100m ahead of me already. I wonder if I'll catch them at some point?

Miles 4-6: 6:12, 6:28, 6:08

Yo-yoing back and forth, I just can't settle into the pace like I usually can: I'm over-compensating like a maniac. There's no 5K marker so I can't even be reassured by my split time. There are, as usual, heaps of guys around me - but as we make the turn to run alongside the small Albert Park Lake, I suddenly realise I can see Fleur and her gang, still about 100m ahead. I've been told there's inevitably a headwind at some point around this lake, and sure enough there's a small but noticeable breeze that makes me thankful for the blokes around me. I spend the next mile hopping from one to the next, tucking in as much as possible.

Miles 7-9: 6:18, 6:12, 6:15 -- 10K split: 40:08

The crowd thins out a bit as we curve around the lake and the path narrows; the wind drops, I have no idea where the pack ahead of me are, and for a while this doesn't bother me. I've picked up the pace a touch now, taken my second gel and am feeling more comfortable. But I know the stretch along the beach is coming up soon, and that's where we're going to feel the wind most of all. I need to catch that pack.

Miles 10-12:  6:10, 6:30, 6:21

As my Garmin beeps 9 miles, a bloke in bright orange shorts and yellow Newtons suddenly appears alongside me. Together we make a sharp right hand turn onto Beaconsfield Parade, right beside the water, and oh my god there's Fleur and that group of runners, still about 100m ahead. I point at the group and say tersely to Orange Shorts guy "We HAVE TO CATCH THEM....before the headwind hits...." To my surprise and delight he nods and grunts out "I'll go with you" - so together we accelerate in a way that I would never have done on my own. It seems like suicide, putting on such a spurt not even mid-way through a marathon, but I know that the headwind will surely sap my strength if I have to face it alone, just like it did in Honolulu and again the final 3 miles of Gold Coast.

We surge like a pair of maniacs, taking turns to lead the way. My Garmin is reading 5:58 pace when I briefly check it, and I wonder again if this is a mistake - but Orange is taking me with him, and within half a mile we are snugged up against the back of a pack that contains (to my surprise) 4 women and about 6-8 men.

The Rat Pack, just after the 20K arch
It's actually now quite easy to recover from the effort that it took to catch them, jogging in the wake of so many other runners. Their pace is actually a little slow - the next split is 6:30 - but whatever, I'm staying put for the rest of this long, coastal out-and-back. That big guy in the black and white singlet can do the work and I'm staying in his wake...right?

Miles 13-15: 6:26, 6:24, 6:28 -- 20K split 1:19:42

I've never run in such a large group before in a marathon - with the exception of CIM, where I spent a few miles in the company of the 3:10 pacer and his mob. Or the very short time at Gold Coast 2012 when I was running next to Steve Moneghetti with his sub-3 juggernaut in close pursuit. There's a reason for this; I really REALLY don't like running with a lot of people close on my heels. So within a mile or two I have gravitated naturally towards the front of the pack, and then we pass under an arch that marks 20K. I'm surprised there's no mats at the half, which we reach soon afterwards in 1:24:10 - so pretty much right on target, for now. Excellent!

There's a degree of concentration required to run at such close quarters: it's perilously easy to not only bump elbows but also trip on the heels of the person in front of you. People are jockeying for position, bumping and apologising, zigging and zagging a bit as we all try to run the best tangent. It's a bit surprising, too, the level of animosity that starts to emerge. Pink Singlet girl has a terse exchange with a bloke in a blue top, who seems to think he is the only one running straight and everyone else is in his way. I'm just trying to stay out of it and enjoy my lovely sticky vanilla gu......

Miles 16-18: 6:23, 6:30, 6:29

We turn back into the wind, and the group begins to split up a bit. It's starting to get really tough, and tempers are fraying. The last I hear of Pink Singlet is an expletive as she searches for her water bottle on one of the elite drinks tables, and now I'm in close formation with Fleur and a girl in bright yellow whose name is Johanna - I googled her last week and know she's a Mizuno ambassador. She's wearing cute yellow shoes that would go well with most of my Boston gear...I make a mental note to ask her which model they are...but not just now. Right now I'm just battling to stay on pace and talking about shoes is not going to help.

Then it happens. Rude Blue guy is just to my left, and although I'm slightly ahead of him he seems to think I'm following him, not the other way around. My left elbow bumps him and I hear a muttered expletive, followed by the words "Run straight, can't you?" For now I ignore him, but when it happens again and he again swears at me and tells me I'm not running straight, I snap and tell him in no uncertain terms to go have sex elsewhere, please. Only not quite that politely. What an idiot - I'm done with running in large groups.

But then something happens that completely turns my mood around. From the other side of the road - where a steady stream of runners is making its way in the other direction - I hear a familiar voice calling out "Alllll together"....and then a deafening chorus of male voices sings out, "GO RACHEL!!!!!!!"

It's Tony and his pace bus! If I had the breath to do so, I'd be laughing my head off. I'm running with a smile on my face again as finally we turn away from the beach and back onto St Kilda Rd towards the city.

Miles 19-21: 6:36, 6:29, 6:28 -- 30K split 1:59:49

My pace is slipping very slightly now - all race the pace has felt tougher than it probably should, and now it's getting annoying. The worst part, though, is that I'm getting sick of it all. I'm actually considering giving myself permission to give up. Fleur is still right on my tail, so an AG win isn't even assured, and I know for sure now that 2:48 is out of reach. But if I keep it together I can still get my 3rd sub-2:50 for the year. That's a good goal to have, and I want to achieve it, but how badly do I want it? We are about to find out.

During mile 20, I hear a noise approaching from behind, and when I realise what it is my heart sinks. It's the 2:50 pacer and his accompanying horde. CRAP! So I'm not even going to break 2:50?

The thought is a mental torpedo, and all of a sudden I'm sinking fast. I hate having the crowd on my heels - there are maybe 6-8 guys running with him - and I resent the pacer, lovely though he is, for trying to encourage me to stay with him. I have no intention of exerting myself more than I am right now, so after about a mile of running near him (holding my mile 20 gel, which for some peculiar reason I suddenly can't be bothered taking) I start to fade back.

Fleur now opens up a tiny gap, and this time I'm not interested in closing it. I've always been proud of the fact that I don't tend to back away from challenges, but today is different. Maybe it's the extremely tough year I've had to date (not just running but personally as well), but today I've decided to be kind to myself and let myself coast a bit. I know I may regret this decision later, but in my mind the die is cast: the 2:50 pacer gradually pulls ahead of me, and I let him go.

Still being chased by lots of boys though

Miles 22-24: 6:39, 6:35, 6:42 -- 40K split 2:41:08

We merge briefly with some half-marathoners and I see the 1:35 pacer - the half started an hour behind us and I'm trying to do the mental math to figure out what this means for my potential finish time - but then our courses diverge again and it becomes irrelevant. There are more people around now, so more to look at and more to run with, and since I've mentally kind of checked out, I'm enjoying this part of the race more than I should. A few sprinkles of rain appear at this stage, but nothing like what was predicted - I realise the weather has been just about perfect for a marathon, other than the wind by the coast - another reason that I should have been able to do better today than I have. Oh well....

Concentrating hard at 25+ miles, Flinders St Station in the background

We do a weird loop under a bridge - I wonder idly if my Garmin is going to freak out or not - and head along through some very pretty parklands. Fleur is still not too far ahead of me (the gap just 6 seconds at the 40K mark) and I see her husband run up and offer her a banana. A mile or so back he was there handing her a bottle of Coke, and it strikes me that this is an excellent display of supportive spousal behaviour that I am witnessing here! But is that an expletive I hear her yell at him?? I've already noticed that Fleur is extremely focussed (she didn't really greet me at all when I joined her group back at mile 9) - maybe she's suffering more than I realised at this point? Her husband scurries off and we soldier onwards.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:46, 6:47, 6:34 to the very end (pathetic non-kick)

Finally the MCG is within sight. I can still see the 2:50 pacer, and that there are less and less people left running with him. Fleur is very slightly further ahead now, Johanna a little further, but I have no intention of trying to catch up. In my mind I'm expecting a 2:51-2:52 finish and somehow I'm okay with that. At the turn into the stadium I see 2:50 guy actually STOP and start yelling at the guys straggling in his wake. I pass one or two of them as they stagger towards the tunnel, and I'm actually smiling and almost laughing as I head up into the light. It's almost over!


Running around the stadium is actually pretty cool. I don't bother with a finishing kick, I just look up and around and grin for the cameras. As I round the final turn I hear the finisher yelling about getting marathoners in under 2:50 -- hang on, what?? There's no way I'm anywhere near 2:50 flat, am I? But yes it seems I am, so I put on a tiny bit of a finishing sprint to get over the line, and thus ends the Melbourne marathon for me.

Finish time: 2:50:19, 6:29 pace.

Placement: 11th female, 102nd OA, 2nd AG (F40-44).

I'm really not feeling trashed at all - I immediately go in search of Fleur and give her a hug to congratulate her on what turns out to be a 4 minute PR - awesome! I chat briefly to the 2:50 pacer and apologise for not bothering to stick with him, then I head down towards the elite athlete area to potentially find a shower. Fleur's on her way down too so we pose happily for a photo:

Two speedy old chicks
and then there's the challenge of finding the showers. Again it seems all I am fated to do is end up in small rooms marked "Drug Testing", and eventually I give up, head back to the elite room and just put on my Boston jacket, which has made it safely back from the start in the hands of the helpful elite coordinators.

Steve Moneghetti is sitting there and he smiles at me, so I go over, re-introduce myself and ask after his Achilles (on which he had an operation at the start of the year). He's happy to report that it's doing much better - he just ran the 10K in 31:27, an unofficial world record for his age (51). I see Lisa Weightman and OMG her feet - they're a mass of blisters and she's in the process of being carried off for a massage. But she looks ecstatic, and when I hear her time I can understand why - 2:26??? Incredible!

The Analysis
Well, this whole training cycle was really something of a farce, even the taper (which was disorganised) - only the carb-loading was  relatively efficient. With everything else that was going on in August and September, I actually only averaged 76mpw for the 11 weeks between Gold Coast recovery and the Melbourne taper. Sounds like a lot, but for Boston I ran at least 20mpw more. And the difference was palpable - high mileage really works for me.

The mental side of things was quite a surprise - until now I've always thought of myself as a tough cookie, but I melted like butter when things got tough this time around. Perhaps I've just had enough and need a mental break - or perhaps I need to toughen the heck up.

Next up? Coaching. It's the one thing I've really never tried, and for once in my life I'm actually almost excited to have someone else tell me what to do!

Medal! Yay!