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!


  1. great job rachel - and fantastic race report!

  2. All things considered, you did well. So, is Dick going to be your coach? He does a good job with Fleur, also young Hannah. Lisa is pretty handy too -- 2:26 on Australian soil -- wow!