Friday, March 3, 2017

Orange Running Festival Marathon, February 2017

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

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

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

The Training

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

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

Race Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To your average ultrarunner, these mountains are mere molehills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half split: 1:29:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Placement:  1st female, 4th overall.

With my 2 biggest fans

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Pub2Pub Albury 9.1km, November 2016

I'm currently in a sort of hiatus from training, which means I'm not really doing long runs at all, which in turn means that this is the perfect opportunity to run some shorter races. Um, well it makes perfect sense to me, at least.

My top end speed is fairly hopeless but it's slightly less hopeless when my legs aren't dead from pumping out 90 miles a week, and Albury is just over an hour's drive from our house so when I heard about this run, it seemed like a good excuse for a road trip. There was also the somewhat unexpected lure of significant prize money for the top 3 finishers; as we all know, it only takes one speedy young thing to ruin my day, but sometimes they just don't show up. In any case, this is a brand new race and I did think that it might not attract an enormous crowd, so perhaps I might get lucky. And who could turn down a chance to run from one pub to another (even first thing in the morning)?

The Training

In keeping with my current casual attitude, I did absolutely nothing particular in the way of training for this race, other than a short easy run the day beforehand. This includes speed work (nope), long runs (none) and specific race-pace training (nada). Just 10 or so miles per day, whatever I could fit in, at whatever pace I felt like running at the time. The Whatever Training Plan - you read about it here first.

Race Day

It's a perfect day but alarmingly warm already when we set out from home for the easy, back-roads drive to Lavington where the race begins. Pulling up in the carpark behind the Springdale Tavern I am slightly dismayed to see a small red car pulling out and no other than my fast young friend Claire waving cheerfully at me from the front seat. Well, there goes first place, not that I seriously though I could win this race anyway. Sigh.

We jog a 3 mile warm-up and arrive back to the carpark where quite a lot of people are now milling around and taking shelter from the sun under the awning of the building next door (a discount chemist). Joel is busy freaking me out by pointing out fit-looking 20-somethings who might be capable of beating me: what about her? Or her? Or her?? Oooh, she looks fast! We count at least 4 of them and yep, it's official: I'm screwed.

The course is point-to-point (or pub-to-pub more accurately) so in theory we could just treat it as a Sunday long run: jog there and then back to the start once we're done. I raise this as a possibility and Joel falls over laughing - ok, scratch that idea. I'm too lazy right now and in any case by that time the temperature will be around 35C, and neither of us feels like melting to death today.

Before long we're called out and lining up on the road in front of the tavern - there's no actual starting mat so getting up the front is going to be important - I end up in the second row just behind Claire and with all the other fast-looking young things close by. The sun is beating down and it's time to do this: I'll just think of it as a tempo run and hope it doesn't suck too much.

Miles 1-3: 6:07, 6:05, 6:09 (pace in min/mile)

Immediately all 4 of the women I figure are likely to beat me go streaking out in front. I expected this so I focus on my own effort level and try not to worry about pace just yet. I'm assisted in this endeavour by a distracting bloke in a red singlet bearing the words "Riverina Podiatry" who is somehow managing to goof around while running seriously fast; he's taking photos and running backwards, all the time chatting happily with at least 3 others around us (or at least talking at them - none are doing much in the way of replying) who are wearing the same top. That's him closest to the curb below, with his fast-chick teammate beside him:

The female lead pack about 500m into the race

Fairly quickly I leave the girl in pink behind me, but Claire is well ahead with the two others - numbers 80 and 87, henceforth to be known as the one in Black and the one in Red. As the first mile progresses a gap opens, with Claire and Red at the front and the other girl closer to me. I'm feeling reasonably good and maintaining what for me is a pretty decent pace as well. I won't speed up - mostly because I can't, but also because I know that most people in these shorter races do tend to go out too fast - and patience pays off as we pass through a large intersection right at the end of mile 1 and head up a long, slight uphill stretch. The One in Black slows down markedly and I catch her (as well as another male runner just near her) with ease. Excellent, 3rd place is now mine!

Her boyfriend is by the road in at least 2 spots over the next mile, though, waiting to cheer her on and take photos, and I'm trying to gauge from his reactions how far back she is. Probably not too close - in any case I need to forget her and focus on what's ahead. We pass under the highway via a couple of short tunnels; I'm checking my Garmin to make sure it hasn't freaked out yet again and then I pop out onto a long, straight bike path. I can see far enough ahead to figure out that I'm in 7th spot overall and the One in Red is, quite incredibly, only just behind the male leader. Wow, she's way out of my league. Perhaps 3rd is really the best I can hope for in terms of placement, but at least I'll still be in the money, and that's good enough for me.

During mile 3, however, I'm surprised to find myself gradually inching closer and closer to Claire. She has been injured this year and although she definitely has more natural speed than me, I'm not at all certain how fit she is right now or how much she has been training. I've caught her in the past couple of races we have both been in, despite having trailed for at least the first 5km - endurance has always been my strong suit and today it's my only hope.

Miles 4, 5 and 0.7 to finish: 6:13, 6:08, 6:35

Pounding along this open, exposed bike track next to the Hume highway is starting to get rather uncomfortable; it's seriously hot now and I hate running this fast, really I do. In mile 4 I lose focus and a few seconds but even so, I'm closing on Claire for sure now. Finally as mile 4 ends I find myself within striking distance, so I surge forward and officially move into second place. Hooray!

I'm inspired by this turn of events to turn up the effort level ever so slightly, and there's a young guy not far ahead who becomes my next target.

If there was a prize for worst facial expression I'd probably win it

I reel him in gradually during mile 5 and manage to pass him just as we go by a sign that is directing "disabled and people with strollers" to the right. I'm vaguely wondering why this is necessary when Young Guy - clearly miffed at being passed by a chick, not to mention an old one - powers past me again.

And then I see why: we're directed now to the right as well, and rather than going under the highway as we did earlier in the race, this time we are going OVER it. Yes, over. I find myself gazing at two steep flights of stairs that lead to a bridge like this:

Up, up and over

This was not in the course description! I'm not keen but I guess I have no choice - up and over I go. Mental images of tripping on the way down and breaking multiple teeth or perhaps bones flash through my head as I cross the bridge; as a result I slow down significantly on the descent and my final mile split definitely reflects it.

As I complete the final, slightly convoluted part of the course I'm counting mindlessly in my head because I'm seriously overheating - I've been running at top speed for over half an hour in full sun now - and completely ready to stop. Crossing under the finish arch is such a relief! I remember now why I hate short races so much, but at least the pain doesn't last as long.

Finish time: 35:07 (6:12 min/mile, 3:54 min/km)

Placement: 2nd female, 6th overall.

I grab a cup of water from a helpful volunteer and take shelter in the shade of the drive through bottle shop where the male winner and 3rd place are also standing. We chat briefly and then Joel appears -- he has finished 10th overall and definitely fastest in his age group!

Later at the "presentations" it's a bit disappointing to find that other than a cash prize I get nothing, but cash is more than enough and there is beer and chips to go with it, so who can complain, really?

There's not much more to say about this race; I still don't like shorter races and although I seem to perform well in the heat, there's nothing much fun about running fast when you feel like you're about to melt. There's nothing else on the racing calendar for me in the immediate future, and for once that's just the way I like it. Aahhhh.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ned Kelly Chase 50K, October 2016

It's not unexpected that after my sub-par performance at the Centennial Park Ultra in August, I'd eventually find an excuse to have another go at the 50K distance (despite having long vowed I'd never be interested in running further than a marathon). An ad for the Ned Kelly Chase popped up somewhere - possibly Facebook or an email in my inbox - fairly soon after the CP Ultra and I quickly realised it would be the ideal candidate for my second attempt: a flat, paved course on a rail trail near Wangaratta in Victoria, far enough removed from my recent racing insanity to allow proper recovery, and timed just right to make the most of crisp spring mornings without needing to freeze half to death in the process.

There are a few other things about the event that piqued my interest - the start is staggered in order to have everyone finishing as close to 12 noon as possible, and bicycle "troopers" are dispatched at some point with wristbands matching each runner, aiming to catch up to and "arrest" the runners in the manner that the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly so long ago was chased through northwest Victoria. There are options for all distances from 100km down to 10km and since I know the area from having raced there a few times now (most notably when I won the Wangaratta marathon earlier this year) it seemed like the perfect opportunity to better my time from August.

The Training

After I decided to race at Ned Kelly, Benita and I hatched a plan whereby I would do back-to-back long runs on the weekend and in my own head I had the notion that a few weeks of 90-100mpw (145-160km) would ideally fill up September and early October before my now-standard 2 week taper. I'm FB friends with Camille Herron, who is the current 100km AND 50km World Champion, and I saw her post recently about running 40-50 miles in a weekend, so a scaled-down version of that certainly seemed like a great idea to me.

Life, however, had other ideas. In the end I did average 86 miles (138km) per week over the 6 weeks leading up to the taper, but only managed to complete the double properly on one occasion:

Lots of double digits but only one double long run

Perhaps the main improvement of this mini-cycle over my preparation for the Centennial Park race took place in the final week, when I finally managed to restrain myself from running too much (being pretty much sick of running after that single 40-mile weekend) and from spending too much time on my feet in the 48 hours preceding the actual race. The mantra "less is more" is a useful one when taper madness threatens; that and the memory of my dead legs in the early stages of CP combined to make this the most effective taper I can remember.

Race Weekend

It's an easy drive to Wangaratta, just over 2 hours in fact, and we arrive in plenty of time to pick up Joel's bib (he's running the half marathon) and spend the rest of the day lounging about and eating. Carb-loading is sort of fun but by the afternoon (as usual) I'm thoroughly sick of food, eager to stop stuffing my face and focus on getting a good night's sleep. We're both starting fairly late - 8am for me and 10am for him - so Sunday morning is a relaxed one although I'm awake at 6am to choke down a Clif bar and some iced coffee.

The weather is absolutely perfect: the howling wind of last evening has died down completely (although it is forecast to return, slightly diminished, later) and the air is crisp enough that I'm shivering a bit waiting around for the pre-start briefing. The group starting with me is fairly small - and most seem to have half bibs on - but there are a couple of 50Kers in there to keep me company, perhaps.

"We are all about to run for hours! Wheee!"

Miles 1-5: 6:42, 6:55, 6:43, 6:58, ?? (pace in min/mile)

First over the starting mat, I take the lead as we zig and zag and weave our way under the main road and up onto a sort of levee bank that leads out of town in the direction from whence Joel and I came yesterday. The Ovens River runs through Wangaratta and it has been in flood lately (like every other river in this part of Australia) so there are puddles of mud and water on both sides but thankfully none on  the actual path.

I'm trying to find the right gear in which to spend the next 3 hours and 35 minutes (or thereabouts, if all goes to plan) so I'm gratified to see the first mile split slightly too fast - this means I can back off a bit and relax. Phew. A bloke on an elliptigo-type machine goes whizzing past wearing a race number, which is slightly bizarre, and then suddenly I realise I have company.

It's the bloke in the red singlet in the photo above, also running the 50K, so I ask him his goal finish time and he replies "Four hours". Wait, what? The second mile split has just appeared on my watch and it's still right on target for me, but means he's going WAY too fast at this point. I inform him of this fact as pleasantly as I can manage, but he sticks with me for the next mile as well and in fact manages to save me from making a wrong turn. How helpful! I'm sort of disappointed when he pulls over at the first aid station and I have to continue on all alone, but it's undoubtedly better for him at this point to choose a more suitable and less suicidal pace.

Thankfully the course isn't too complex from here out - there's a short tunnel to negotiate and then a sharp turn onto the rail trail - and from there it's going to be straight and  flat the whole way to the turn-around. I make it there without any issues other than that I suddenly realise my Garmin hasn't beeped for a while: one look tells me that yes, it has once again frozen up in the middle of a long race. Grrr! I hit stop and start and it immediately comes back to life and starts recording distance again - now all I have to do is figure out how much distance I've missed. On a course this sparsely marked, that is going to be something of a challenge.

Miles 6-10: ??, 6:58, 6:58, 6:53, 6:48

Once my Garmin is cooperating again I'm pleased to note that I'm still right on target pace. I've brought a hand-held water bottle which is just as well, because the water stations aren't all that frequent. And at the one where I did want a cup of water there were people standing right in front the table, blocking me from helping myself but inexplicably not handing out water themselves. This seems rather unhelpful, to be honest, but I won't dwell on it because I'm feeling way too good really. The contrast to how my legs felt back in August is remarkable; I can only hope it lasts.

The half marathon turning point is marked by a bloke sitting in a car and a chalk arrow on the ground - he calls out encouragement as I pass and I note the time on my watch: 45 minutes, meaning I'm on track or even slightly ahead of where I want to be at this point. Excellent!

2 x 25km out-and-back legs - we are on the top one

From here on out things start to get fairly boring; due to flooding all of the 100K, 50K, marathon and half entrants are on this half of the course rather than being strung out over two segments, so there are many more people around than there otherwise would be, but still it's pretty lonely. The rail trail is smooth, flat and straight, so essentially perfect to run on but about as interesting as watching paint dry. I do get to overtake people every now and then - mostly they gasp in amazement at my pace as I zoom past - but for the majority of the time I'm on my own. Snooore. My friend Amelia from last year's Canberra Summer Marathon goes by on her way to the finish of the 100K - the excitement of waving to and greeting her wakes me up for a bit - then it's back to the grindstone, alas.

Miles 11-15: 6:57, 6:52, 6:51, 6:59, 6:57

There's a slight but perceptible uphill component now to the course and it slows me down a little, but I'm too busy waiting for the marathon turning point to worry or even notice too much. When I finally arrive at the marathon turn it's at a water station and a glance at my watch shows 1:30:30. Right on target pace, still! And I feel pretty good. My small hand-held water bottle is almost empty now but the clouds are keeping things cool and I'm not sweating much at all.

Best of all, the 50K turn is not far away now! There's a bit of a downhill to a major sort of a road - a volunteer is standing guard but I manage to arrive at exactly the right moment to cross between cars - and then a segment that slopes upward to what appears to be a bunch of people standing in the way. Surely that's the turning point?

But there's no official signage and I'm coming up behind a runner who has her own bike escort: that's nice for her, but he's weaving erratically all over the path and I'm worried I'm about to be flattened. I open my mouth to remark casually on my imminent arrival, but suddenly he zigs towards me. I gasp and bark out "COMING THROUGH!!" in an embarrassingly loud, abrupt and somewhat snappy tone. Oops! Better keep going just to put some space between us, I think.

Miles 16-20: 6:49, 6:42, 6:52, 6:53, 6:55

I charge up looking for a traffic cone or something to turn around but there's nothing visible. I yell at a random woman "Where do I turn??" She replies "Here!" so I turn on my heel, grab a cup from the water table and tear off back down the hill. My watch reads 1:47:13. Wheeee! I'm over halfway home and still on track for my goal.

I'm enjoying this downhill much more than I should be when I realise there's a bicycle trooper pulled over just ahead of me and it looks like she's pulling a wristband off her handlebars in preparation to arrest me. Wait, what?? I've got to be 20 minutes ahead of the nearest 50K runner; I haven't seen anyone from my starting group and we were the last ones to depart. As I approach I make eye contact and call out "Seriously??" The cycle trooper checks my bib number and grins sheepishly: she's looking for 218, not 213. I've evaded arrest!

At mile 20 things are still going well; I'm catching a fair few slower runners again and a few of my fellow 50Kers have gone past on their way out to the turn. My legs are starting to feel the mileage, though, and this is when I know I really need to focus. I can't afford to let my mind wander or even think about anything in particular at this point - just focus on keeping the effort level going and suppressing the thoughts of slowing down, which are starting to creep up.

Miles 21-25: 6:58, 7:02, 7:00, 7:00, 7:04

Yep, things are starting to get tough. The last 6 miles of any marathon are always the biggest challenge, and I'm trying hard not to think about the 5 more that I will still have to run after that point. For a while I go with the "counting in my head" trick that works quite well as a sort of mental white noise - it blocks out any other thoughts and also helps me keep my feet turning over at the proper-but-ridiculous Roadrunner sort of cadence that works best for me.

This is basically me in any kind of road race

This is me at the finish

Around mile 23 something crazy happens as I pull up behind another runner who is wearing a bandanna and a bright yellow Comrades shirt. I've got my name on both front and back bibs, as do all the 50K and 100K entrants, but he doesn't have a back bib so he must be doing the marathon or perhaps even the half. I go to pass him and he does a huge double-take, exclaiming "Rachel? Wow, you're doing great!"

Um, do I know you? At this point even if I'd had lunch with him yesterday I probably wouldn't recognise him; my brain is in that late-marathon-scrambled state where figuring stuff out is just not within its capabilities, so I grunt back "Hi" and go to pass him by. But he surges and accelerates out in front of me, so I guess I have company - for as long as it lasts.

Sven (his bib bears the name "Svengali" but I won't see this until after the race) is in the mood to chat and what's more he also seems to be in the mood to run 7:00 pace, which is great as far as I'm concerned. The pacing, I mean, not the chatting - I don't really have breath to spare just now and in any case I'm struggling to understand his accent. He's asking something about my time and I can't figure out if it's how long have I been running or what time am I expecting to run. I mumble something about 3:35 and he tells me he is running the marathon distance, then when I fail to respond he surges ahead again and drags me with him.

Miles 26-30: 6:54, 7:00, 7:10, 7:13, 7:22

Sven is acting like a tow rope - he's the only thing keeping me going at this pace and although I'm extremely grateful, I'm having difficulty expressing this right now. He drops back to chat some more and asks me where I am from, and I know that if I talk I'll slow down so I shake my head and mutter "Can't talk", hoping that he knows the feeling and won't hold it against me.

On we plough in silence for another 2 miles and we reach the point where the rail trail ends, once again running through the tunnel underpass where my Garmin lost its mind on the way out. I'm hurting now, my legs feel like jelly and I really want to stop. I'm even more tempted when, inexplicably, Sven abruptly slows down. In fact he doesn't just do that, he pulls right off to the side and cheerfully tells me I'm on my own for the final 5km. Wait, what???

Well this just sucks. Immediately my pace falls off the edge of a cliff, or perhaps only a small ledge really, but in any case I haven't got it in my legs to keep 7:00 pace anymore. Thankfully there's not far to go, because the wind has come up now to the point that it's noticeable and guess what, it's blowing directly into my face. How lovely!

I struggle along in this fashion, counting in my head and telling myself to just keep it together, hold on, hold on, the end is coming. There's a golden opportunity to get lost when the course veers left despite a clear path straight ahead - thankfully there's another runner ahead who makes the turn and prevents what would be a major disaster for me at this point.

The final mile: 7:26

I'm ready to be done now, thank you very much. I'm trying to keep the effort level up there but mentally I've had it and I just want to get to the finish. Everything looks different coming in the opposite direction and so it's a bit of a surprise when I realise I'm not far at all from the underpass that will spit me out right by the finish line. A photographer is lying in wait but I don't have the presence of mind to smile, wave, or even get the frown of determination off my face. Oh well, another grumpy race photo to add to the collection.

<incoherent angry noise>

Under the bridge, zig and then zag - I'm concentrating quite hard on not falling over here, but I do have the brains to look up and see the finish clock ticking fast towards 3:36:00. OMG, so close! I accelerate as much as my legs will allow and can only hope it's enough....

Finish time: 3:35:58 (pace 6:57 min/mile, 4:19 min/km)

Placement: 1st overall and 1st female

Only runners will understand how important those 2 seconds really are. My Garmin reads 3:36:00 but my official time is 2 seconds faster and it's the one I'll be reporting. I said I wanted to get as close as I could to 3:35 and I did it - a PR of 7 minutes and an unofficial Australian AG record to boot!

I throw myself at Joel (who has placed 2nd in the half marathon!) and he holds me up as I catch my breath: my legs have gone to jelly. But it was worth it - I'm so happy to have run the race I planned to run and to have limited the late-race fade to just the final few miles. My nemesis Sven arrives and - as I expected - apologises profusely for "annoying" me in the later stages of the race. I explain myself and in return thank him profusely for dragging me along like he did; he played a major role in keeping me from slowing down a lot sooner than I otherwise would have.

Turns out he is a marathonaholic who is planning to run several marathons in the next few weeks, including New York! Staying with me would have made those races more difficult and now I understand completely why he chose to back off.

Amelia is also there and has come 2nd in her race; it's congratulations all around and off for a much-deserved shower and rest before dinner and presentations later on.

Looks like Ned caught us all!

I've nothing much more to say about this race other than it was HARD and I think I really respect the distance now more than ever before. I'm not sure how much further I can improve on my time - more double long run weekends would no doubt be useful, but life is not always conducive to that sort of thing - but given the opportunity I'll be sure to have a try. And, come to think of it, an Australian AG record is probably my best achievement to date - so perhaps the 50K is a good distance for me after all!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wagga Lake 10K, September 2016

Clockwise from top left: 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2013

The reborn Lake to Lagoon! One of my favourite races - I've run it every year since 2011 and won it 3 of those times - it's a bit of a nasty course with a rather long hill in the first half, but I love it just the same. Originally when I moved to Wagga it started at Lake Albert and finished in the centre of town by the Lagoon (hence the name, very original) but a couple of years ago it was rerouted and now finishes back by the lake at Apex Park. For me this is extremely convenient - I can jog to the start as part of my warm-up, and then home again afterwards (more of a crawl really) if I have to.

The Training

I will freely admit that the only reason I am including this sub-heading in this particular post is because I have put it in every other post on the blog, not because I did any actual 10K-type training in the lead-up to this race. As I had done the previous week, in the 7 days preceding this race I ran my long run on Friday (this time mercifully without any faceplants into the asphalt) and due to a combination of laziness and an Act of God (see below) I ended up running a paltry 5km on Saturday. Because on Saturday morning when I finally made it out of bed, my plans to hit the treadmill were derailed by the sight of this in our street:

I'd still go for my run but I can't find my snorkel

I was far too busy figuring out what was going to potentially float away (mercifully, nothing much) to worry about running, and in this way the flash flood actually came in sort of handy as a mini-taper. It would have other implications for the race itself, however.

Race Day

The late start (10:30am for the runners) means I'm able to spend a lazy morning getting ready and at 9:30am I set off with Jack - who is participating in the event as a bike rider - to jog to the start line. The sun is out and it's a gorgeous day; you'd never know that just 24 hours ago most of the suburb was underwater. Jack sets off and I go for my warm-up towards the northern end of the lake; before long it's already time to line up.

Remembering previous years and the usual horde of sprinters who will fade within minutes, I make sure to secure myself a spot right in the first row  - and looking around on the starting line there are a few coltish young girls who will surely be in that group; otherwise there doesn't seem to be much in the way of competition around. Yet. Hmmm.

I'm reminding myself not to count my chickens before they're hatched - I see Amanda, who was 2nd behind me in Canberra last weekend, and go over to say hi - and sure enough at the last minute I look to my right and hmm, there's a woman there who looks like she might be a contender. This is about to get interesting! I spent the dorky warm-up routine sneakily trying to size her up and decide that my only hope is that she doesn't have endurance because I'm fairly sure she's going to have speed.

My assumption about her abilities comes mostly from the fact that she has the powerful, strong-looking build of your typical shorter distance (5K, 10K) speedster whereas by contrast (and partly also due to my gait) I am very much built for endurance, not speed. My natural build is somewhere between mesomorph and ectomorph but unless I start lifting weights - which I haven't done for at least 3 years now - I tend to sit more on the endomorph side of the spectrum.

This is great for marathons (and ultras) but also means my 8 year old daughter can already beat me at a 100m sprint, meaning I have zero short-distance speed. So if this chick is as fast as she looks, my only hope is my endurance - and that she can't match it - because there's no other way I'll be winning again today.

Most casual start line ever

Miles 1-3: 6:08, 6:36, 6:14

Zoom! Off we all go in a mad rush and at least 3 of the teenage girls are instantly ahead of me - I can wait for them to tire but what's this to my right? Sure enough the chick in the white singlet (later I will discover that her name is Erin) is already pulling out in front and looks very comfortable when you consider the pace we're running.

Already by the end of the first mile the teens and tweens are all slowing right down but Erin is maintaining a gap of around 10-15 seconds ahead of me; a couple of times I think she's slowing down too but nope, even as we start the long uphill section on Lake Albert Road she just keeps on going.

Part of me is rather annoyed - I really wasn't planning on having to try this hard! But finally during th,e final part of the climb my persistance starts paying off: I realise that I'm slowly reeling her in, and as she reaches the top I'm probably only 10 seconds behind. At the turn of course she sees me and, of course takes off down the hill back towards the lake at top speed.

I'm not done yet, though, and there's a steady stream of runners yelling my name from the other side of the road which is having two effects: it's pumping me up (although I'm a bit too focused to reply much) and I'm fairly sure it's intimidating the heck out of Erin. If this is my home-town advantage than why not use it? Heh heh.

This year's course, pretty much an out-and-back one with the usual unpleasant hill in the middle

Miles 4-6.2: 5:56, 6;14, 6:20, then 6:16 pace to the finish

It's not often that you see a mile as fast as this from me in a race - 5:56 min/mile is 3:41 min/km and a LOT faster than my usual top speed - but it's downhill and I'm trying to win, so there we go. Erin is ahead for the first part of mile 4 but then there's a water station and to my surprise she slows down to grab a drink; I see my opening and jump right through it, into the lead. Wheeee!

The course plummets back down towards the lake and I'm basically giving it all I've got right now; as I approach the roundabout where things level out I'm therefore horrified to hear footsteps pounding up behind me. Crap! If this is Erin coming to get me then I'm toast - there's no way I can speed up beyond what I'm doing right now, or at least not without risking total meltdown sometime in the 2 miles that remain.

But no! It's a guy in a green singlet! I've never been so happy to be overtaken in all my life. I let him drag me along a bit faster as we head now to the path beside the lake - the opposite side to the usual course, which at this point is partially underwater due to the recent floods - and back towards Apex Park. This side of the lake is shorter so there will be a short out-and-back around the southern end; this will let me see exactly how close behind me Erin is, and hopefully that won't freak me out too badly.

There are more people shouting encouragement at me as I speed past the park, and at least they're not saying "Go girls!" which would suggest she's breathing down my neck. The 1km out part seems to take forever but finally I'm on the way back and by my estimate she's at least 40 seconds adrift. Phew! I'd like to relax now but there's no point tempting fate, so I just keep plugging until at last I'm in the finish area and yay! I cross the line for my 4th win in this event. James Davy has won overall and this is the 3rd time he and I have been victorious together: that's him in the top two photos of the collage at the top of this post.

Finish time: 38:40 (6:14 min/mile, 3:52 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 8th overall

My son Jack is there to greet me - I told him I'd most likely finish around 38-39 minutes and so he's pretty impressed that I hit my target exactly - he rushes up to hug me and since he's mostly too cool to give me big hugs these days, I make the most of it and hang onto him long enough that the moment gets captured forever by a nearby photographer. Excellent!

Soon afterwards it's time for a surprisingly unorganised presentation - the medals are missing, there doesn't seem to be any sort of take-home trophy anymore and I have to leave before the AG presentations (at least I'm apparently not missing out on a medal since there are none) - but I do get to hold that mother of a trophy one more time and will have the satisfaction of seeing my name on there for another year. Not bad for a morning's work!

Cutest post-race photo EVER;                            This is one heavy trophy, believe me

All in all, although today's time wasn't my best it certainly was a good effort and I'm proud of myself for persevering and outlasting yet another fit young chick. 10K is not at all my favourite distance so it's gratifying to see that I can still run one a fair bit faster than I could 10 years ago, too. Next up? How about some rest? It's been a long, long couple of months, after all. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Canberra Times Fun Run 14K, September 2016

It seems like Fairfax Events have now set up the City Run Series: a whole set of races in the major cities of Australia, although the first (and still by far the most popular) was the City2Surf in Sydney - my very first race, in fact, after taking up regular running at age 29.

14km/8.7 miles is an odd distance, and in fact there are 10K and 5K options as well on the day, but as we all know I do much better with longer races, so there's never any question as to which race I will enter. Plus, I won a free entry by finishing 3rd last year! Who cares that it's only 2 weeks removed from the notoriously vicious Wagga Trail marathon? What could possibly go wrong?

Training? Please?

In classic Rachel-raceaholic style, I've also managed to schedule this race for the end of my first week of official training for the Ned Kelly 50K in October. There has been so much tapering and recovering going on lately that I'm thoroughly sick of it and determined to just train right through. I'm sure this will mean a less-than-satisfactory result in the 14K but whatever, I don't care.

Last year I ran 8 miles (12km) as a warm-up because I was doing the race as part of my long run, but this year I'm trying a different approach: I'm doing my weekly long run on Friday morning instead. That will give me a full 48 hours to recover before the race in Canberra and hopefully that will be enough.

Friday comes and it's all going perfectly well until mile 11 of my planned 21, when apropos of nothing I catch my left toe on the asphalt and BAM - a millisecond later I'm on the ground with blood pouring from both palms and several fingertips which have been suddenly stripped of their skin. Oh, god, this is just what I need. I stand gasping by the side of the road for a few minutes, trying without success to stem the bleeding, deciding what to do.


It's only my hands - if my knees were the main areas of injury then the effect on Sunday's race would probably be far greater - but the shock and dismay, not to mention the time that it will take to clean up and bandage all these abrasions, is considerable. I'm supposed to run a few miles around 50K pace during this long run, but I'm too shaken to do that just now; on the other hand I'm determined to get something out of this run so I jog/bleed my way onwards to a total of 20 miles (32km) for the morning. What a debacle.

Race Weekend

The weather is perfect - yesterday's wind and rain has completely disappeared - when I arrive at the start area with my friends Scotty and Claire; Claire and her friend Madi are running in costume today and raising funds for the Butterfly Foundation, which is pretty darn cool.

This year there's an elite tent to which we all have access, but it's barely set up, the water for coffee etc is not even warm and the space heater they have at the entrance isn't working. Initially I feel fine and not too cold, but after a few minutes in the tent I'm freezing so I decide to set off for a warm-up jog - wearing basically all the clothing I've brought with me, including my puffy jacket. After 2 miles I'm by no means overheated, but I've worked up enough warmth to see me through to the start, thank goodness.

I spot Nigel in the starting corral and wander over to say hi; he has a modest goal of sub-60 minutes which I am fairly certain he will crush. For myself I'm really not sure - not too much slower than last year is probably the best I can hope for. Pretty soon it's time to get in position and I clown around with Claire and the others, posing for the cameras and generally trying to top last year's starting line photo (see top of this post), although that's a pretty big ask since it's one of my all-time favourites.

Right there when at last the announcer is counting down from 15 seconds, the inflatable arch chooses this moment to lose interest and abruptly starts to sag right above my head! I reach up and prop it up with my finger; somehow someone saves it from complete collapse but it does make for a funny scene as we all dash away from the drooping arch:

The arch is collapsing! Run for your lives!!

Miles 1-3: 6:17, 6:27, 6:38

We streak out of the starting corral like a bunch of maniacs and Claire, in full Superwoman regalia, is very quickly in front of me. Another girl wearing black and pink is between us and okay, so it looks like today might not be quite the slam-dunk I imagined it might. The first mile is flat but then the gradual rise towards the city and, eventually, Parliament House starts to bite.

My legs are not yet fully recovered from the Trail marathon and whoops, I ran 20 miles just 48 hours ago. Did I mention that? So although I'm trying my best, my legs just don't have the power to maintain the same pace on any sort of incline, and as a result I've lost my usual uphill advantage. Although I've managed to catch the pink/black-wearing chick by the start of mile 2, Claire is still ahead and despite having been injured a lot this year (poor thing) in fact she's looking strong. Well, maybe it's partly the outfit. But she's still up there and I need to keep pushing to make sure I stay in touch.

Finally just around the 5K mark the events of the year start catching up to her and I ease up alongside her, then past. Okay, I'm in the lead now, but my chickens are not even close to being counted yet - there's still quite a way to go. And how embarrassing would it be to win in a pathetic time? No matter how much I'd like to cruise this race, I'm not going to. Onward.

Miles 4-6: 6:23, 6:29, 6:47

Mile 4 sees the crest of the hill finally reached and the course swings left and on a swooping downhill around the side of Capital Hill. Wheee! Without the upward gradient I feel much better and soon my legs are spinning comfortably and I've caught up to a group of blokes, some of whom seem to be struggling a bit. I'm vaguely considering this for a while but then one of them does something rather inexcusable: just a few meters ahead of me and slightly to my right, he turns his head to the left and blows out a massive snot rocket. Ugh!

The actual rocket doesn't hit me but the fine mist of nasal secretions that accompanies it does - it spreads itself disgustingly over my bare knees and I let out an involuntary yelp "HEY!" He better not do that again while I am still within range. Perhaps he's mortified (I hope so) because he accelerates now and I never catch up again.

That hill, seen from the opposite direction

Mile 6 is the nasty one I've been waiting for - it takes me up to and around the perimeter of Parliament House. I've run this loop so many times but it never seems easy, and this time with my beaten-up legs it's even worse than usual. I'm trying to figure out the geometry of how it can be uphill the entire way around (certainly that should not be possible) and this mental exercise at least keeps me occupied until I'm almost all the way around. I glance at my watch as I pass the 10K banner at the final corner of the building - 39:xx, which is not as fast as it should be but whatever, I'm winning so who cares.

Miles 7-8.6: 6:22, 6:19, 6:28 pace to finish

It's lovely to finally be heading downhill again! What's even better is that the finish line is not that far away now - the beauty of these shorter races, although they do hurt marginally more than the longer ones - and I've run this particular course back to the lake so often now that it's comfortingly familiar. As I make my way across the Kings Avenue bridge and onwards around the north side of Lake Burley Griffin it really does seem like I'm about to win this thing; proving once again that it's all about who shows up on the day!

I'd like to be able to say that I speed along the lake in a blaze of glory but in fact I slow down a bit, not out of complacency but more because my legs are insisting on it; still it's enough and in stark contrast to the minimalist finishes I'm used to enduring in this location, I see as I approach that a pair of volunteers are holding up a finishing tape that I am going to take great pleasure in breaking. Hooray, finally a bit of recognition!

I'm not about to keel over sideways, truly I'm not, it's the angle, I swear it is
Note cunningly inconspicuous bandages on both hands

Finish time: 55:50 (6:27 min/mile, 3:59 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 14th overall

The excitement of breaking the tape and subsequently being interviewed on camera has completely made up for the discomfort of racing 14km on rather tired legs; the sun is shining on the lake, the sky is blue and very soon I'm feeling very pleased with how this day is turning out. Claire takes 3rd female and then I spot Nigel, who has smashed out a 58:04 to completely crush his goal - all very impressive!

First and only time I'll ever beat Superwoman

Well, that was sort of fun, in a masochistic sort of a way. If training for ultras means getting used to running fast on tired legs, then today was an excellent training session. I'm not entirely impressed with my time but in light of Friday's mileage and events, it will certainly do. And just in case you thought I was going to give my legs a chance to catch up, I've got another short race planned next weekend. Let's call it ultra training and leave it at that!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Wagga Trail Marathon, August 2016

In the 9 years I've lived in Wagga I've run every event in this running festival - the 10K in 2009, the half in 2010, and the marathon finally for the first time in 2012 - until last year of course, when I stepped things up to do the 5K/marathon double. It made sense to do the same this year (well, as much sense as anything does when it comes to me and my running) so after once again surviving the annual family ski trip without injury I signed myself up, and Jack for the 5K.

Training? What?

Nothing to speak of, actually. I seem to have spent most of the past 7 weeks tapering or recovering from one thing or another, so to call it "training" would be a misnomer. It was more like a reverse taper, to be honest. I followed up the CP 50K with a week of light jogging and then 4 days of skiing that I told myself would be enough cross-training (aka enforced rest) to let the legs recover properly, but it seems I was kidding myself completely. And rest of any sort tends to make me itchy, of course, so I couldn't resist compensating with a little too much running in the few days I was back in town before race weekend. Ooops.

Race Weekend

The forecast is - unfortunately - entirely in keeping with the general tone of this winter: rain, rain, and possibly a bit more rain. The wet stuff continues to fall from the sky all of Thursday and Friday, until I'm seriously wondering if the river will be so high that the final 10km of the marathon will have to be a swim leg instead. Not so long ago I was down at Wagga Beach - the start and finish area of the marathon - and noticed that the water was up to the grass, which is not a great sign.

An image from the 2012 Wagga floods. Ok, so maybe it's not quite that bad just now

Even if the riverside trail isn't actually underwater it is very likely to be muddy, and if other parts of the course are as affected (particularly the treacherous trails of Pomingalarna) then it's going to turn an already-tough marathon course into a seriously dangerous endeavour. I certainly haven't forgotten the lovely mouthful of dirt - not to mention the skin off my nose and chin - from last year when I tripped over at mile 16, and I have no intentions of repeating that particular experience. So it really doesn't matter that much if I'm not in peak shape for Sunday: it's not like I'm going to be able to run a super-fast time anyway.

Saturday: the 5K

I ran (and won) this race last year but there was a fast young girl there who made me work for it; this year, somewhat to my relief, she is nowhere to be seen. The gun goes and my legs are not very happy about the first half a mile but then they somehow relax and I can start to enjoy myself. This path along the river levee bank is very familiar from my afternoon doubles during Amelia's ballet class and the first mile goes by quickly in 6:32 which is a little slower than maybe I'm capable of running today, but still reasonably fast.

Just before the turn, not sure why I look so unimpressed but Jack looks about the same

Heading back to the start area I see Jack and then Ewen in quick succession, but first there are a couple of females who in fact are not too far behind me. This knowledge speeds me up somewhat and mile 2 goes by in 6:22. The final mile is going to be slower, I know this already; it's half along the levee and half down by the water. The turn down to the river happens at a different spot this year, though, which makes no sense - I've just overtaken two of the blokes ahead of me and it's sort of annoying that I have to slow down and in fact ask a volunteer where I'm supposed to turn - but then finally I'm down on the narrow path and on my way back to the beach.

It's muddy in places and there are some unpleasantly spiky weeds that prompt me to decide I'm wearing long socks tomorrow - I don't particularly fancy getting my legs scratched up in the final miles, thanks - but overall it's not too bad really. I pick my way steadily along the bank and mile 3 beeps as I'm approaching the finish line: 6:39.

Both the guys just behind me choose this moment to charge past me again and I really should rise to the challenge but sadly I can't be bothered. Instead of chasing them I just run steadily to the finish line and that's enough to finish as the first woman, which is certainly good enough for me today!

Finish time: 21:03 (a minute slower than last year, probably due to that inexplicable add-on)

Placement: 1st female, 6th overall

Jack rolls in a little under 8 minutes later (29:00), which is a very impressive time given the terrain! We grab our medals and this year I remember to stay around for the presentation - another cool crow trophy to add to the collection.

Sunday: the Marathon

It's perfect running weather when I arrive back at the Beach on Sunday morning: around 10C and slightly cloudy, although this is predicted to clear during the day. The mountain bikers are preparing to start their race - once again it's a hilarious Le Mans start where they all have to hobble/run on their cleats to reach their bikes - and it's great to see that numbers are well up on last year.

My Sydney friends Elkie and Tony show up, along with the usual cast of Wagga runners, but it seems there are no fast young things raring to beat me today. Well, as far as I can tell. I'm certainly not making any assumptions and also not feeling like running fast either; we will see how things play out over the next few hours.

I actually look happy about the 3+ hours of pain coming right up

Before I know it it's time to line up, and Tony - who I am expecting to run a similar time to me - inexplicably is hanging out way in back. I stomp over and drag him up closer to the front with me, and then boom it's time to go!

Miles 1-5: 6:54, 6:46,  6:54, 6:47, 6:56

Off we go along the levee bank, and to my slight surprise Tony is almost immediately well ahead of me and soon he's out of sight. Ok then! Perhaps I'll catch him when the hills start, but my legs don't feel amazing, in fact they feel pretty awful considering how early it is in the race.

I usually run the first 10km of this course a little faster than goal pace (although having said this, I haven't actually bothered to figure out a goal pace and all I can really say is that I'd like to keep most miles under 8 minutes) because it's flat and familiar, but today it's a bit of a struggle. As far as females go I'm in the lead, but I don't really know who is lurking behind...

Heading towards the start of the hills - aptly this happens on Red Hill Road - there's an opportunity to look back and see who is within a few hundred metres, so I take it and oh boy, there's someone with long blonde hair about 100m back. That's closer than I would like - and for all I know they may be a relay runner - but hopefully it doesn't matter: the horrible hills are about to start and there's a good chance I won't slow down as much as they will in the next 20km. I hope.

Absolutely evil elevation map

Miles 6-10: 7:29, 7:43, 7:20, 7:28, 8:04

Up, up, up I go - this hill never seems to end and the infuriating sign that I noticed last year is still there, right near the top (it reads "It's a hill. Get over it" and you can imagine how furious that makes me as I'm climbing the first incline in the graphic above) - but finally I'm there. I'd quite like a drink but the person handing out cups is too busy looking at other runners to notice me, and my grab for a cup of water misses altogether. Too late, and I'm not about to stop (I might never get moving again) so I'll just have to suck it up and keep going. Grrrr.

I'm running pretty much alone and have been for the majority of the race so far; I don't really mind of course, although it would be nice to have company. There are quite a lot of people at the 15km mark, for no apparent reason, and this time I grab a cup of water from the table and slow right down to drink it. As a result I feel pretty good as I set off again into the hills.

For every agonising up, thank goodness there's also a thrilling down

I'm managing to keep a decent pace going, somehow, and of course I've started catching some of the early starters. The climbs are increasingly agonising - my legs haven't lost that "dead wood" feeling they always have in the aftermath of a race - so even though I can keep a decent pace on the flat or downhill stretches, I'm dying on the uphill stretches. Mile 10 is one I remember from past years and this time it gets me - my first mile slower than 8 minutes. Oh well - at least it's mostly downhill to the halfway point now. Isn't it?

Miles 11-15: 7:29, 7:04, 7:23, 7:46, ??

The downhill turns into a pleasant flat stretch and I'm making my way mindlessly through the bush on my way to the Silvalite reserve when suddenly I hear a voice behind me yelling something that sounds strangely like "WRONG WAY!!" What, really?? So far the course has been reasonably well-marked with a combination of chalk arrows and small pink flags, but the past mile or so they have been far less obvious. In fact, I was just reminiscing about the year another runner popped out in front of me in this area and complained how he kept getting lost, and then of course there's the memory of how getting lost cost me a victory in the trail half marathon of 2010. Could I be about to suffer the same fate today?

There's a group of runners up ahead - more early starters? - and they greet me by name as I zoom past, but then suddenly there's a fork in the trail, no markers and I have no clue which way to go. I could easily squander whatever lead I have over the next female marathoner if I get myself properly lost, and the thought makes me momentarily quite cross. I'll just have to keep heading in what I hope is the right general direction and hope for the best; I usually have an uncanny sense of direction (Joel refers to it as my internal GPS) and right now that's all I have going for me.

Sure enough, eventually I find myself in sight of the halfway point and I'm on the wrong side of the fence. There's a gate though, so I pop through onto the correct path and help myself to a cup or two of water before trudging off to tackle the gnarly hills of Pomingalarna Reserve. Ooh, I can't wait.

Halfway split: 1:35

I'm making my way as enthusiastically as I can manage (read: not very) along the steep and muddy trails of Pomi when I become aware of two small issues: firstly, this course seems sort of different to the last few years, and secondly, my blasted Garmin watch has once again seized up. I stop it and start it again but I've missed around 2 miles (I think) and I'm rather annoyed that this has now messed up two races in a row. Grrr, Garmin are going to be hearing from me rather soon.

Miles 16-20: ??, ??,  9:00?, 9:29?, 8:08

Even when it starts up again, the pace seems off and it seems I really can't trust the Garmin now. When it beeps a 9:00 and then a 9:29 mile, I give up and decide to just concentrate on running. I'm passing a fair few half marathoners and one cyclist (who looks well and truly fed-up); it's taking all my concentration to get past them without falling. I'm also wondering where I fell last year and trying to spot the spot, so to speak, but before I know it I'm coming to the top of the hill already. Time to grab some water and start bombing the long downhill to the golf course!

Except somehow my legs aren't all that into bombing. Or anything much at all, really; I've suddenly realised that my left iliotibial band and the outside point of my knee where it inserts are both seriously unhappy. It is hurting to plant my left foot on the ground and that's happening in spades just now because of the descent - ouch, ouch, ouch. When this day is done I'm going to need to reacquaint myself with my foam roller and the world of pain it loves to inflict. Oh, what fun.

So many ways to torture, so little time

The final part of the golf course is pure mud but I'm too tired to bother detouring around the small shed where it's the deepest: I plow/splash straight through, stop at the gate for a cup of water and then pop out onto the road to face the final 10km of the race with thoroughly wet and filthy shoes. How pleasant!

Miles 21-25: 7:51, 7:30, 7:37, 7:37, 7:59

My Garmin appears to have gotten over its latest brain-fart and is once again showing acceptable paces, although they're probably a fair bit slower than I managed over this stretch last year. My legs are toast, the muscles an unimpressed mass of jelly, and all I want to do is stop. Of course I won't, but it would be so nice.

I occupy myself instead by considering the marvellous fact that this year I won't have to spend my evening looking at sore throats and funny rashes at the after-hours GP clinic (which was my unfortunate fate last year) and instead will be able to stay on at the after-party at the Thirsty Crow. Chips (French Fries to the rest of you) and beer are my two favourite refuelling choices after a marathon and both should be available in abundance there. Mmm, yum. Just keep running.

Typical late-race frown; internal mantra: "Chips. Beer. Chips. Beer"

The stiles begin and in my exhausted state it's even less enjoyable than usual to have to haul myself over them, but I manage it and despite the mud also manage to stay on my feet, which is a miracle. The sun has been out for a while and I'm sort of warm - I could probably take off my arm warmers if I had the energy to do so, but I don't - then again I'm close enough to the finish that I should just keep going like I am.

I'm passing a steady stream of half marathoners now, all of whom are very courteous and conscientious about stepping aside to let me through, and finally with only a few kms to go I catch Elkie who is running the half. I remark on how Tony has left me in the dust long ago, she agrees that he's doing an amazing job of showing me up today, and onwards I plod. It's a beautiful day to be out running and even though I'm not doing nearly as well as last year time-wise, it's great to just be here. Or so I keep telling myself.

Miles 26 and 0.2: 7:47, 7:23

I'm just waiting to be done, at this point. There are half marathoners all over the place and as I finally approach the finish line I'm right behind a guy; part of my brain wants to speed up and charge past him like a glorious victor but my legs are not having it. I arrive in his wake to the finish in a personal worst time, but gladder than ever before to finally be done.

Finish time: 3:19:42 (7:37 min/mile,  4:43 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 9th overall

I've trashed my favourite shoes but have the most awesome trophy in the world to make up for it

I'm muddy and exhausted, although thankfully not bloodied as well like I was last year; I chat briefly to a couple of people, confirm that I've finished this race slower than even my debut race here in 2012, and then flop onto the grass next to Tony. He has run a sensational 3:07 to finish 3rd and is very pleased with himself indeed. And of course I'm extremely, extremely impressed!

Elkie appears not long after I've finished and it seems everyone (well, other than me) has done a great job today. I've managed to win but the fatigue of the Centennial Park Ultra just 2 weeks ago has done a number on my legs - I guess I never should have expected anything different, but somehow I sort of did. Will I ever learn?

After a sausage sandwich and the presentations it's a great pleasure to spend the afternoon and evening relaxing at the Crow with so many other crazy runners, and perhaps because they never really let me work them too hard, my legs aren't even all that sore. My opinion of the Wagga Trail Marathon as one of the toughest, gnarliest courses on the planet has not changed, but I seem to love it nonetheless. Will I be returning next year to defend my title - of course I will!