Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fuxian Lake Highland 50K, China, September 2017

I might as well come clean right now; I only really started doing 50K events in order to qualify to represent Australia at the World Championships, hoping to do so in 2017. My 3:35 at Ned Kelly in October last year was a solid ‘B’ qualifier but due to various issues, the planned 2017 event  - scheduled to take place in November in Dohar, Qatar – was cancelled during the first half of the year.

“Right, that’s me done with ultras” I thought at the time. But of course, when the opportunity arose in July to apply for selection to run a 50K in China in late September, I jumped right on it. I was pretty excited when I was chosen to run in what would be a trial World Championships event, and it seemed fateful that this year I wasn’t able to compete at the Gold Coast marathon, because that meant my last marathon was way back in April – so at least I’d be very well-rested. And hopefully well-trained!

The Training

Ah, well, yes. I did manage to put together a decent sort of a build-up, eventually: my training mileage topped out at 104 miles per week (162km) but in terms of average miles I was somewhat derailed, first by a week of skiing and then by a small hamstring niggle that surfaced after I raced the City2Surf in Sydney directly after the ski trip.

Stupid, yes, running 14 hilly kilometres at top speed after a week of using different muscles, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I also had foolish intentions of doing the Wagga Trail marathon as a training run, but the niggle made me temporarily sane enough to realise that this would be a supremely bad idea, so I sat it out and spent the weekend volunteering instead.

As it happened, the race was won in 3:14 by a local runner whom I beat in 2015; I’m certain I would have absolutely thrashed myself trying to keep up with her (and likely failed anyway) so my threatened injury was indeed a blessing in disguise. And a short consult during that day with my superhero physio Marcus meant that the niggle was history just a few days later, so I was able to resume training with gusto. Hooray!

The Travel

It’s much further to China than you’d think, given that the time difference is fairly minimal (they're only 2 hours behind), but the trip goes smoothly and without much fanfare Joel and I find ourselves on the official shuttle to the Hilton Fuxian Lake, the official race hotel/resort. On the bus also is Jodie, our Aussie team captain who is the vice-president of AURA. The trip is around 90 minutes and it passes quickly as we chat about running and rubberneck at the scenery, which is stunning.

The view approaching the Hilton; the actual hotel itself. Massive!

And very mountainous, which could be a problem. The word “highland” in the title of the event is a bit of a clue: the whole event is going to take place at over 1700m of elevation, maxing at out 1911m at around the half-way point. I live at sea level and surprisingly enough I haven’t had any opportunity to do any altitude training, although plenty of people have asked me whether I have. Am I the only one who can’t just quit their job and abandon their family to move to Colorado for a few months for the sake of running? Really?

But whatever, I’ll worry about that later. The Hilton is palatial, the food a never-ending buffet of delicious, different and sometimes utterly bizarre Asian cuisine, the pool is stunning and our room spacious with an amazing view. There’s nothing much to do, however, other than rest and eat, which at this point in time is perfect. 

Meat floss buns? Chicken gizzards???
I'm fine sticking with cute piggie dumplings and my usual all-carb favourites, truly I am.

Eat, rest, sleep, repeat.

And it’s super-cool to have the opportunity to hang out for a few days in the company of a large group of world-class ultra-runners. However, everyone looks way fitter (“and younger” adds my helpful husband) than me and I’m pretty much completely intimidated, even though we have met a lot of new people and all of them seem really nice. Joel returns from running on the treadmill in the basement gym to report that “a fast young-looking Polish chick" is in there pounding out intervals at a seriously fast pace. I’ve seen her walking around and heard that she’s a 2:38 marathoner who is running the 50K; ok, well, there’s our winner right there.

There's a rather large contingent of Aussies and Jodie of course knows EVERYBODY so pretty soon we have assembled a fantastic group of friendly people to talk to while we eat and rest, with lots of countries represented. And what's even better is that I can wear sandals without having to worry about the state of my toenails, because everyone is in the same situation. How awesome!

In our time-honoured tradition of not resting enough on the day before a big race, Joel and I somehow decide to rent a tandem bike on Friday and cycle into the nearby town in search of a store to buy strange unknown Chinese foodstuffs. The road is populated with speeding trucks, ridiculously overloaded 3-wheeled utes and a lot of vehicles that look like eggbeaters on wheels - what could possibly go wrong?

"I'm not sure what this is that I'm drinking, but it tastes pretty good!"

Thankfully we survive the trip and although pedalling back up the hill to the hotel is much harder than it should be - this really should make me think more carefully about tomorrow's course, but it doesn't - I head off to bed that evening in a state of blissful denial, ready to attempt my 3rd-ever 50K race.

Race Day

The time difference means I’m easily awake at 5:45am; I dress quickly in the clothes laid out the night before and head down to the breakfast buffet. After all the food I’ve eaten over the past couple of days, I’m really not at all hungry but for the sake of fuelling (not to mention the need to stimulate some pre-race bathroom activity) I grab a coffee and half a waffle, and sit at a table to pick unenthusiastically at it.

I've even remembered to put on sunscreen for once

By 6:30am I’m up in the lobby again where I easily find Jodie and Tia. Jodie has an Australian flag and to my surprise a steady stream of Chinese runners starts finding its way over to take a photo of, or selfie with, one or all of us. We’re celebrities! Then suddenly I realise I don’t have my timing chip – it’s the old-school sort that you have to thread your laces through – and this inspires a short warm-up panic and sprint back to the room to get it. Phew, that was close!

The bus ride to the start line is a short and easy one, but once there the facilities are somewhat lacking. There’s no elite area and the race doesn’t start for more than an hour – we’ve been bussed in early especially for the starting ceremony – so we end up perched on a kerb just killing time. More selfies and photos ensue: my image is now stored on an impressive number of Chinese mobile phones, although why anyone would want it is still beyond my understanding. It’s a fun way to pass the time, though, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

The Aussie contingent: Tia (behind the flag), Michelle, Georgie and Gary
On the left: a person I'll get a closer look at in about 30km (British runner Jo Meek) and our adopted American, Meghan

After a while the invited runners are herded onto the road behind the starting archway, pretty soon we’re all sprawled on the asphalt and I’m actually sort of cold, although that’s not likely to last for long. There are elaborately-dressed drummers and dancers performing on the other side of the line, as well as cheerleaders doing cheering and someone making a long and earnest speech in Chinese, but the line of volunteers between them and us (not to mention the large start/finish arcade) means I can’t really see what they are doing. I’m just sitting here getting impressions from the road surface in my skin. Bring on race time!

Really wish I could see past all those people and that big arch thingy
Team AU with bonus speedy American!
photo credit: some Chinese person with Gary's camera

Start - 5km: 21:35 (6:55 min/mile, 4:18 min/km)

Off we go! I’m expecting the 5K runners to tear past me at top speed – there are over 3000 of them, after all – but nothing much happens, really, as everyone starts running at an appropriately sedate ultra-style pace. Eventually one sort of jogs past at about the 2km mark, followed by another who is wearing a full tracksuit and appears to be mostly running backwards while taking selfies. Evidently the winning time is not going to be particularly fast and I now regret 1. Not knowing about it sooner and 2. Not entering Joel, as he would most definitely have been able to win easily.  Oh well.

Choosing my own pace now is a slightly interesting exercise; I know it’s going to be hot today (although the clouds are doing an impressive job so far of keeping the temperature down) and it’s already extremely humid, but the unknown variable is how much the altitude is going to affect me.

Anyway, for the moment my body has decided to attempt an approximation of my usual 50K race pace, which is around 7 min/mile. It feels okay, well, actually in fact it feels a bit too difficult. But I’m going to ignore that for now and just see what happens. There’s much more of a crowd that I expected, spectating and clapping and yelling out a phrase that I will come to know well during the next 50km. Lots of them are very excited but more appear slightly bemused, like they can't figure out what all these mad people are doing, but are too polite to look away.

A representative mix of Chinese spectators: fairly puzzled, vaguely interested, SUPER excited
photo credit: Edit Berces

The lake is to my left and now the course turns right: there’s an out-and-back that eventually will give me my only chance to see how far ahead/behind the other women in the race are. I don’t know how relevant that’s going to be, since I have absolutely no expectation of placing in this race (ok well maybe only a tiny one, cough cough). Yeah, right. Anyway.

5 – 10km: 22:17 (7:10, 4:27)

I’ve been able to figure out that I’m in 4th place, with Dominika the Polish speedster way out in front, a tiny Chinese woman in 2nd and a Czech in 3rd (running with a German bloke with a long ponytail). This isn’t a bad situation, but after the turn I can see that there are many others – including Michelle and Ella of the Aussie contingent – not at all far behind me.

The key is going to be holding on to a decent pace; I’m acutely aware that there’s a massive hill coming up, starting around the 23km mark, so who knows what might happen? For now it’s enough to be running and enjoying the experience, so I focus on trying to do just that. I’ve slowed down a tiny bit but the effort level feels the same, so whatever.

10-15km: 22:24 (7:12, 4:28)

So far, so good, well almost. The crowd is still out in force and I’m surprised – not in a negative way – about how stringent the crowd control seems to be. There’s barely been a minute when I haven’t been able to see at least one volunteer, vigilantly watching the road for runners, and in many areas the road is taped off.

At one point a couple of kids dash out onto the road as I approach around a sweeping turn: an angry policeman instantly materialises and rushes at them, waving his arm and shouting loudly. They scurry back under the tape and I whizz by unmolested. Better than I can say for even major marathons – a friend of Joel’s was clotheslined by a child at Chicago, of all places – so that in itself is impressive.

I’m still hearing this repeated phrase that in fact will continue for the entire race: “Jai-yo!” and it’s being yelled at me by everyone from small kids to grown men to groups of giggling teenagers. It must mean “let’s go!” although might possibly also translate as “you’re mad!” I spend a minute trying to memorise it so I can ask someone later on.

15-20km: 22:48 (7:20/4:33)

The course moves away from the lake now and I figure we must be approaching the start of the hills soon, but nothing much happens. The aid stations have so far been pretty decent – every 5km there’s a series of tables with anything and everything a runner could want, including white bread, bananas and gels (even on the very first one) – and my decision not to bother with personal drinks has been vindicated, as I’ve been able to grab at least one cup and a water bottle at each. At one, the volunteers were practically falling over the tables trying to hand me stuff, and when I went to unscrew the lid of my water bottle it was already off! The splat of water I got in my face was quite nice, really, although a bit unexpected.

An aid station, complete with enthusiastic volunteers
photo credit: Edit Berces

The weather so far is not too bad; it’s warm and humid (and I’m definitely sweating considerably more than I usually do in races) but the sun is behind the clouds still and really, it could be much worse. It hasn’t escaped my notice that my overall pace is starting to slide just the tiniest bit, which I suppose might be due to the altitude. And the small incline that has just begun….so far it’s not too bad. As they say in the classics, “famous last words”.

20 – 25km: 23:54 (7:42, 4:47)

What’s coming up is foreshadowed by the fact that as I pass the medical tent at 20km, a male Chinese runner is flat out on his back in there with a nurse in a snappy uniform fussing over him. How can he be in such bad shape so early in the race? Then I look up to see not one, but two, more runners suddenly in my sights. Wait, where did they come from? 

The road is suddenly going upwards at an alarming rate; I catch and pass the men rather quickly. Is this the big hill? It’s steep but short – I pump my arms, keep my legs turning over – and already I’m heading back down again. For about half a mile I feel smugly confident, but I’m counting my chickens before they’ve hatched: at almost exactly the 24km mark, things change again, and much for the worse. We’re going up again, the sun has just come out, and the biggest challenge of the race is upon me.

Seriously, look at that hill.

25 – 30km: 23:35 (7:35, 4:43)

The next 2 miles/3km are a relentless upward slog to the course’s maximal elevation of 1911m above sea level (just under 6400ft), at a gradient that I will later find is around 4-7%, but at the time feels like about twice that. And I seriously cannot breathe; it's the altitude and it's come to get me NOW.

My pace slows to a crawl; Gary (who is running the 100km, for goodness’ sake) appears over my right shoulder and passes me rapidly by. I gasp out “Survival mode”, to which he responds grimly “Yep” and then he’s gone.

There are more male runners ahead and both Gary and I catch another 2 of them in short order; I feel like I’m dying, honestly, but they are going even more slowly than me. A mile split beeps so I stupidly look at my Garmin and see the slowest mile I have ever run in any race anywhere: 8:43 min/mile, which is the pace I usually jog half-asleep down my street in the mornings. Wow, that went bad pretty quickly.

I decide to start trying to run the tangents, but that promptly takes me out into the middle of the road. The sun’s beating down, the humidity is still awful, and out on the concrete road surface it’s sort of like being in an oven. Better to stay in the shadows on the shoulder and just wear the extra mileage that might bring.

Finally around 27km I crest the hill and an equally steep downhill 3km stretch ensues. Gary is still within sight but he gaps me now quite quickly. I’m having to brake with my quads to control my descent – it’s too steep to just let go – and I sort of suck at downhill running anyway with my short, shuffly gait. But at least I don’t have to keep going upwards. At least there’s that.

But now a female runner in black and yellow - it's the unidentified British runner who was talking to Meghan at the start! - comes whizzing past like I’m standing still. Ok, I sort of wasn’t expecting that, and now I’m in 5th place. I need to pick it up again, but my legs aren’t interested. The best I can hope for now is not to tank completely; time goals flash through my head and I decide that under 4 hours is probably still achievable. Just get this thing over with, please.

30-35km:  24:43 (7:57, 4:56)

But the hills aren’t done with me yet. The woman in yellow and black disappears over the horizon (ok, maybe not quite that far, but at least from my sight), the road bottoms out and almost immediately we’re climbing again. Oh god, this is totally unfair. It’s way too early in the race to give up – although I’d really, really like to at this point – and also way too early to be feeling as trashed as I do. But there’s nothing to be done other than dig in and keep going.

We’re back down close to the lake now and spectators are once again out in force and yelling “JAI –YO!” Later I will learn that it means, literally, “add petrol!” and right now some rocket fuel would sure be nice. At least I’ve been able to take my gels and swallow enough water to wash them down without gagging or upsetting my stomach – that’s got to count for something. That and the 10,000 grams of carbohydrate I ate yesterday.

Sane locals, watching crazy people run
photo credit: Edit Berces

35 – 40km: 24:17 (7:48, 4:52)

This 5km stretch is mostly memorable for the fact that it’s where another female runner passes me; she’s a tall woman wearing that intimidating briefs/bra combination favoured by the super-elites. Now I’m 6th and not happy about it – she pulls ahead far slower than the other woman did though (they will turn out to be teammates from Great Britain, and both very distinguished runners indeed) so I can still see her for a long, long time – I’m waiting to feel inspired to give some sort of chase but it never happens. I just keep running.

40 – 45km: 24:22 (7:50, 4:53)

At 40km the course veers onto a smaller road to the left and things quieten down considerably. I grab a water bottle from the aid tables and decide to keep it with me for a while. During the pre-race briefing we were warned not to litter - in fact, the absence of litter of any sort by the side of the road has been quite remarkable - so I don't want to just pitch it anywhere. I've got my empty gel packets shoved down the side of my bra but there's not enough room in there for a water bottle, ha ha.

The next interesting thing that happens is suddenly I can see another female runner ahead - it's the Chinese woman whom I saw in 2nd place so long ago - and wow, she's pretty much walking! Back into 5th position I go, and past a sign that marks 42.2km; my watch says 3:16, wow, that's awful.

The scenery, however, is amazing. The road passes by a proper summer resort called "Sunshine Coast" and there are paddleboats and umbrellas on a tidy little beach. I catch a glimpse of an island off the coast; it looks amazing but I can't look for long, for fear of tripping and landing on my face. At least I seem to be holding my current pace, like being stuck in 2nd gear really, but it could be worse. Right?

Solitary Island, so picturesque

45 – 50km: 25:03 (8:03, 5:00)

Finally it's the last 5km of the toughest race of my life. I just want to be done, but the race organisers seem to have decided to torture me by putting enormous markers every kilometre from 45 onwards. I try all the tricks I can come up with to distract myself, but all I can think about is how many kilometres I have left to go. I can still see 4th place ahead of me but during this section she pulls gradually away as I struggle to keep my pace steady.

I can feel a couple of my toenails now and they're not impressed with me; I can only imagine how they'd feel if I still had over 50km to run. I've passed quite a few male 100K runners by now - many of them walking - and I can't imagine that many of those will finish.

Finally the end is in sight, but I can't even dredge up much of a kick to get there. My Garmin beeps mile 31: 7:48 min/mile, which has been pretty much my average pace since the big downhill ended. Oh well, at least I didn't end up walking. I round the final corner and gratefully break a finish tape that is being held up for me, then a volunteer grabs me, wraps me in a towel and asks "You need lie down?" No, thanks, I just need to stop running, that's all!

Finish time: 3:55:04 (7:32 min/mile, 4:41 min/km) - a personal worst by 13 minutes!!

Placement: 5th female

I didn't give up!

The finish area is perched on the side of quite a narrow road - the tents hang over the side of a small cliff, actually - and there's precious little room to do much of anything. I'm soaking wet so after I've sat down for a bit and had some water, I set off in search of my gear bag and a place to change clothes. This takes a lot more effort than I was expecting, in no small part because many of the lovely volunteers have absolutely no English and can't understand my attempts at sign language.

Finally they get it, find my bag and then empty out one of the minibuses so I can contort myself painfully out of my sodden race gear and into my clothes. Wow, that feels better! By the time I get back to the finish area, all the Aussies bar Jodie are there, and there's really nowhere to sit. And the only appealing food on offer is bananas, although if I wanted a cheese stick or a whole cucumber I'd totally be in luck right now.

So we take the opportunity to get the first bus back to the hotel, even though the process involves an unpleasantly long walk, a terrifying trip on the wrong side of the road with ONCOMING TRAFFIC (our driver seems completely unconcerned; every single non-Chinese passenger, however, is freaking out) and then a bus change at the start/finish area.

The finish line tents, partially in the lake; most of team AU post-50K on the way home

The general consensus back at the hotel - many hours later, after everyone has returned, some have graced the medical tent with their presence, some have placed (Tia 4th woman in the 100K!) and all are utterly exhausted - is that this was THE TOUGHEST RACE EVER. Every single person is saying the same thing, albeit in different languages; most memorably, loudly in Swedish, from the 3rd placed woman in the 100K, as we sit in the lobby bar chatting to another Swedish runner whom we've just met.

Some much-needed post-race rehydration; with Johanna, who finished in the 50K right after me

The combination of heat, humidity, sun (in the second half particularly), concrete and altitude has done a major number on many of us; most of the 50K runners have finished around 30 minutes slower than their PR times and for the 100K people it's more like an hour. Like me, our new friend Meghan found she just couldn't pick her pace up again after that monster hill - unlike me, she still had 70km left at that point. Gary tells of collapsing at 75km, but with nobody coming past for 15 minutes as he lay by the road, eventually he just got up and kept going, finally passing out over the finish line and getting carted off for oxygen and several litres of IV fluids.

So I don't feel too bad about my result, actually I feel pretty good, although I am reconsidering my goal of running in next year's World Championships if they are going to be in Fuxian Lake! All in all it was a fantastic experience, however, and so much fun to make new running friends from all around the globe. And by next year I'll probably have forgotten all the bad parts so maybe I'll be back after all. You just never know.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Bay to Bay HM, June 2017

It was a very sad day for our family when my daughter's best friend (since preschool!) moved 6 hours' drive away to the Central Coast at the end of last year. Amelia had been pining for her friend Amara and pestering me to take her to visit ever since, until I finally caved in at the start of June. There was only one weekend that it would work for us to travel up there so I started looking for things to keep the rest of us amused while she was hanging out with her BFF.

To my amazement I found the Bay to Bay Running Festival, with a half marathon for me and a kids' 3K run for Jack on that very Sunday morning! So I signed us up, found accommodation right near the finish area (inside the Central Coast stadium, a fact that had sports-mad Jack very enthused) and told Amelia the happy news.

It wasn't until after I had that all arranged that I bothered to check the website about prize money and past results - only to find that the female winner in 2016 had run 1:23:xx and that she had won no less than $1000 for her trouble. Wow! So a win would actually set me up to make a profit on the weekend, even after petrol, food, accommodation and entertainment costs? Mind = blown.

The Training

Since Boston I haven't really been running as much as I used to, but I've found myself surprisingly Zen about this fact. After my 1:23:07 in Sydney in May I knew I was fit enough to run something similar - or hopefully faster - on a flatter course. But of course it only takes one fast young chick to turn up on race day and my hopes of winning could all be dashed.

So I settled for the goal of placing in the top 3, and since there wasn't actually any time left to train, really, did no specific preparation at all other than the week preceding race week itself (see below)

That week I managed to bang out a single interval workout (that was only slightly hampered by my Garmin conking out with one interval left to run) consisting of 8 x 0.5 miles averaging 6:21 pace (3:57 min/km) and then an unexpectedly long and hilly long run on Saturday. This is by no means standard HM prep; I probably should have run less and the intervals were of questionable benefit - being run not even at goal half marathon pace.

Still, I did sort of manage to taper a bit in the days before the actual race, so I suppose that counts for something.

Race Weekend

The trip up to Gosford is a smooth one; we arrive in good time and everyone settles in for a nice sleep. All except me, that is: I have to share a bed with Amelia and she manages to whack me over the head or knee me in the back every hour or so and it all makes for a far-from-optimal sleep. She makes up for it, however, by turning to me when she wakes on Saturday with a blissful smile and saying "I love you so much, Mumma, you are the best Mummy in the world, thank you for bringing me to see Amara!"

Best Friends Forever

Once she is happily deposited with BFF and BFF's family, I have the rare pleasure of enjoying the company of just one child for the whole day. Bliss! And I have the bed to myself tonight, so in theory I should sleep wonderfully well - especially seeing how exhausted I am.

But it's not to be: after a unexpected, midnight "I'm homesick, come and get me" phone call (I don't go, is she serious??) I toss and turn and wake every hour on the hour until 5:45am, when somehow all of us in the room are suddenly awake at once.

I need to take the 6:11am train to Woy Woy, where the course will take us on a short out-and-back before heading all the way back to Gosford and the finish line inside the stadium, so I'm dressed and out the door running to the station just before 6am. Jack will head off to his own start line (in the stadium, he is very excited) a bit later in the company of his grandmother, and we agree that they will then wait the 40 or so minutes until I finish.

It's an easy ride with many other runners, and I have time to jog an easy mile before it's time to line up underneath the inflatable arch that marks the start line. The weather is promising: cold with very little wind and light cloud cover. To Gosford from here is only about 12km so we're heading south first for an out-and-back stretch to cover the additional distance required, and will be passing back through the start area on our way up to Gosford. There are plenty of 12km runners around also - they'll just be running straight to the stadium.

I'm not sure how I feel, not particularly zippy is probably the honest truth, so as we're waiting for the starter's gun I'm sizing up the the women close to me quite carefully. A couple look like contenders but there's noone I recognise, so I'll have to wait and see what happens when the starting gun goes off. Any second now!

Start line going up, lights along the coast line

Miles 1-3: 6:09, 6:27, 6:23 (pace in min/mile)

Whoosh! Off we all sprint like mad things. The course is initially nice and wide, so there's plenty of room for many runners to zip out in front of me in no time at all. Mostly they are blokes, of course, but among them are several women; well, this is an interesting start to the morning. I'm always bemused at how people seem to want to run the first 5km of a half marathon at their top 5km race pace; don't they realise it's a fair bit further than that to the finish?

We zig and zag a bit and then head straight along a narrow path right next to the water. The closest of the females ahead of me is spent fairly quickly and I can pull past her without any problem. Mile 3 takes us all out over some grass and a quick U-turn sees the course head back towards the start; it also gives me an opportunity to estimate that the leading female is about a minute ahead of me and between us there are still 2 others, both of whom are much closer.

I know better than to kill myself trying to catch any of them at this point, though. All I need to do is keep things steady, not give up, and wait to see if they fall back.

Miles 4-6: 6:11, 6:21, 6:21

As I was suspecting, after the turn the 2 females closer to me both start to slow down. Given a target to chase I pull off another significantly faster mile and by the time we are pass back through the start area (filled now with runners waiting to start the 12K) there's only one woman ahead of me. The sky is starting to fill with light and it's really a beautiful area - as well as perfect weather for running. Ahh. Time to chase!

The next 2 miles pass in a steady fashion; the girl ahead of me has long blonde hair, looks to be about 20 years younger than me (isn't everyone these days) and she's running quite strongly. I'm fairly sure I've gained a little on her by the time the 10km mark is approaching, but not a whole lot, and if things continue in this vein then I'll be placing 2nd today for sure.

But hang on, what's this? The path along the bay ducks and winds back and forth a bit in places, but suddenly I see her darting off to the left. I'm expecting just another turn in the course, but no, it goes straight ahead - there are several male runners between her and me, and none of them have veered left either. A thought strikes me, I look left again and yes, she's ducked into a toilet block. And I've just taken the lead!!

Miles 7-9: 6:25, 6:21, 6:17

This unexpected event gives me something of a rocket boost that lasts for the next few miles. The course is decidedly less flat through this section but I manage to maintain and even quicken my pace; I have no idea if she's about to come tearing up behind me or not, so I need to put as much daylight between us now as I possibly can. My pace wasn't any slower than hers before the bathroom pitstop, so if I can speed up just a fraction, there's a chance I may yet be victorious today! But there's no need to count my chickens quite at this point, of course. Just keep running....

In the process of speeding up a touch I now catch two other male runners who have been ahead of me until now. My usual strategy of even pacing is paying off in spades - I seem to be the only one who isn't starting to fade, actually.

Miles 10-12: 6:19, 6:13, 6:24

Finally we seem to be approaching civilisation again, or at least the outskirts of Gosford, which I suppose is the same thing. More male runners are struggling ahead of me, I can count at least 3, and what's more exciting is that I still haven't been passed by my rival, she of the toilet break. The sun is out in force now and I'm actually a bit warm, but there's not that far to go so I just have to suck it up and keep running.

Mile 11 and wait, I know this part from my run yesterday morning! We're much closer to the finish area than we should be at this point - but it looks like we're taking the scenic route, as I find myself zooming off through a carpark and around 3 sides of a playing field. To my great surprise I am catching the blokes ahead of me quite quickly now; in rapid succession I pass one and then another. I've no real idea of how many runners are ahead of me still, but all that matters is that none of them are females, and a nice payday awaits me in around 3km if I can just hold onto a decent pace.

The course goes up and over the bridge by our hotel; the stadium is in sight but ugh, there's a final out-and-back by the water still to be conquered. And at this point there are a fair few people out for a nice morning stroll by the water, so that means it's more of an obstacle course than I'd prefer at this stage. Better speed up and just get it over with!

Mile 13 and finish: 6:09, 5:29

Even though I thought I was running as fast as possible for most of this race, somehow I have more in the tank and can dredge up my fastest mile as the final one; now that the stadium is in sight I have far more inspiration to put in the effort. In retrospect, running pretty much alone for the majority of the race meant I didn't give it everything I had, but that's not an unusual outcome and I was never running for a particular time - just the win, insert cheeky grin here.

I pop up in the stadium and the final stretch is on lovely cushy grass. I can see Jack over the other side, right by the fence, and he sees me too and starts yelling "Mum!!" Without thinking about it I put my head down and SPRINT for the finish line.


Finish time: 1:22:24 (6:19 min/mile, 3:54 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 13th overall finisher

The finish time surprises me - I really thought I was running quite a bit slower than that - but whatever, I'm happy! The second woman, she of the toilet break, is 3 minutes behind; without the pitstop she might well have held the lead, but I guess we'll never know.

Jack has completed his run and is proudly wearing his medal; we grab reward icecreams and pose happily for a picture together.

photo credit: Keith Hong

There's a nice payday and a surprise hamper of MasterFoods goods for me at the presentation (during which the heavens open and the temperature plummets, meaning it finishes in quite a hurry), then it's off to enjoy the rest of the weekend before the long drive back to Wagga. A long trip, but most definitely worth the trouble!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

SMH half marathon, May 2017

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

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

Whoever designed this course deserves a slow and painful death

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

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

The Training

Ah, no, not really. See above.

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

Race Day

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

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

The start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 5-8: 6:05, 6:05, 6:24, 6:26

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

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

Gritting my teeth just a little bit

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

Miles 9-12: 6:26, 6:34, 6:13, 5:59

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

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

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

<glares menacingly at opponent ahead>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So relieved to be done that I'm actually asleep

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Boston Marathon, April 2017

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

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

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

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

The Training

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

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

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

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

Pre-race: Boston

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

Peaceful Harvard Square: "Marathon, what marathon?"

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

Definitely not racing, nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grinning like a lurking maniac

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

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

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

5K split: 19:42

Miles 5-8: 6:35, 6:30, 6:29, 6:36

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

10K split: 39:50

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

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

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

Miles 9-12: 6:31, 6:38, 6:35, 6:31

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

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

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

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

Miles 13-16: 6:38, 6;35, 6:46, 6:37

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

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

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

Halfway split: 1:25:27

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

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

Miles 17-20: 6:55, 6:58, 6:41, 6:59

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

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

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

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

Miles 21-24: 7:23, 659, 6:51, 6:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This morning and back in 2015 - always smiling

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So happy to be done!

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

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

Fast doctor runners, unite!

Summing it all up

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

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

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

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

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