Moving out to Wagga Wagga (5hrs drive to the southwest of Sydney) at the end of 2007 had some immediate and direct benefits for my running. Firstly, we moved to a house conveniently located next to a lake with a smooth gravel trail the whole way around it - the perfect running route, flat and traffic-free!
Second, I became something of a big fish in a small pond, since the running community in these parts is fairly small. Being pregnant for most of 2008 meant racing was out, but I didn't miss much: there are unfortunately only two major running events in this area, namely the Wagga Wagga Trail Marathon in August and the Lake to Lagoon in September.
By August 2009 I was raring to go, though, so I entered the 10K race associated with the Trail Marathon. It was a rainy day so the course was a very muddy and slippery out-and-back along the Murrumbidgee River - I ran it in 46:03 which to me seemed very slow but was enough to get 3rd female finisher. I think I won a pair of socks - thrilling - but really all I wanted to do was to get home and get dry!
In September that year I ran my first Lake to Lagoon, a 9.5km race from the lake near our place to the lagoon in central Wagga. Did I mention how much I hate late starts? The race began at 10:30am on an unseasonably warm September day - by the time the gun went off it was already almost 30C (86F). Worse still, the whole first half of the course was uphill.......and when I finally reached the crest of Lake Albert Road - the rest of the course being mostly downhill - I realised there was now a rather strong headwind to contend with. Aaaaargh!!
I finished in 40:52 as the 4th female - clearly I was not the only one struggling with the conditions, as there were several people actually passed out on the river-side path towards the end - and was moderately chuffed to find I was the fastest local woman. Not chuffed enough to feel inclined to enter again in 2010, though!
In August 2010 I did however feel that the Trail Marathon and its associated races were worth another try. This time I entered the half-marathon and was looking forward to the relatively flat trails where it is usually held.
But the weather, it seemed, had something else in mind for me. Four days before the race, an enormous downpour dumped 2 inches of rain on Wagga in the space of 10 minutes, which when added to the already soaked ground (we were in the midst of our wettest year on record) created flooding over many parts of the intended marathon/half-marathon course. A sudden course change was in order!
A punishing out-and-back course was laid, starting by the Lake at the Boat Club and climbing to the top of Red Hill (ouch!) before snaking along the top of Willans Hill (double ouch!) and out towards the Olympic Highway, somewhere I had never yet ventured. But all that was about to change.
On the morning of the race I jogged the 1.5 miles over to the start in nice cool weather and arrived to find a small crowd of runners waiting by the lake. I quickly spotted my main competitor in the half-marathon field - she was the only person there wearing compression socks - and chatted with her until we were ready to line up at the start.
The gun went off and I was quickly out in front, somewhat to my surprise. I was planning to run the race as a long run, since I was now in training for the real thing: my first marathon some 3 months away. But perhaps I could be persuaded to race after all, particularly if I had a chance of winning!
The course at first was flat and fairly fast - but then we turned up Red Hill Road. I had run over this hill many times before and found it hard but not impossible; I did not realise that a fair chunk has actually been cut out of the hill to allow the road through, and that the running path would continue steeply upwards long after the road had levelled out. Yikes - by the top I was still running but only just. My Garmin tells the story of how hilly the course proved to be:
The huge hills - and their accompanying downhills - made for a wildly swinging race pace. The graph at the bottom shows the course's elevation profile - and for those used to miles per minute, I started out around 7:00 but between 4 and 5km dived to 8:30 before speeding up again to around 7:00 pace, then back down to 8:40ish, and so on. You will see that in the final stretches I even sped up to 6:50 at one stage, but that's another story, and it comes back to my friendly rival in compression socks.
As the first half of the race progressed I knew I was in the lead and I possibly got a bit cocky, thinking I had put a fair distance between myself and the other women in the race. At the turn-around I got a nasty shock: Ms Compression Socks was only 40 seconds behind. Oooops. It was time for a rethink - but the hills were killing me and after a short downhill we were once again climbing and climbing as we came back up the side of Willans Hill. I tried to pick it up but wasn't succeeding too well.......and then something really dumb happened.
I mentioned before that the course had been hastily re-laid on the two days beforehand, due to flooding. A consequence of this was that in some places - where the bush was thick and the track unclear - it was pretty hard to know which way to go. Being out the front did not help in this regard, and around the 16km (10 mile) mark I briefly lost my way. I found myself heading down towards a road, and thought "I don't remember this from the outward leg...."
By the time I realised and headed back up the hill, it was too late: I spotted a runner and lo, it was Ms Socks, now in front of me. All together now: BUGGER!
I now put the pedal to the metal and sure enough managed to catch and pass her on the steep uphill to the crest of Red Hill - but the effort spent meant that I could not hold onto my lead for very long. Within a kilometer - the one run in 4:13 - she was on my tail, and with around 2.5km left she passed me at last. I crossed the finish line just 30 seconds behind, in a time of 1:39:20, for second place. Who knows if those 30 seconds might have been mine, had I not taken the wrong turn when I did?
It was slightly galling that she won a swag of cool stuff (gift vouchers and such) when all I got was this mingy little trophy, but I had learned two important lessons:
1) Never, ever underestimate the competition;
2) Compression socks make you look like you mean business.
I would remember both these points for my first full marathon experience later that year.