Sunday, April 10, 2011

Canberra Marathon April 2011

When I was looking around for my next marathon, all enthusiastic in the afterglow of my fantastic New York trip, there was nothing to be found online about Canberra's annual marathon. Canberra is our national capital and only 2.5 hours drive from our house (very convenient), but in 2010 there was some legal dispute about who owned the rights to stage the race, and at the end of the year this was still unresolved. There was some doubt about whether the 2011 race would actually go ahead.

Despite the lack of a suitable goal race, after my 5 week post-marathon Higdon plan I decided to embark on another marathon training plan anyway - never let it be said that I am not a goal-oriented sort of person! And then in January an email arrived in my in-box about "The Australian Running Festival" in April, and lo and behold it was the re-born Canberra Marathon, scheduled for April 10 and fitting in perfectly with the training plan I had already started. Hooray!

The training

Pfitzinger 18/55. For the uninitiated, Pete Pfitzinger is an American former Olympic marathoner whose marathon training plans are well-known amongst the marathoning community and renowned for difficulty but also spectacular results for those who make it through uninjured. This plan stretches over 18 weeks and peaks at 55 miles per week (88km) - I actually added some miles to max out at just under 65 miles, or 104km. It is comprised of speedwork, intervals and long runs, and yes, it is every bit as intense as it sounds.

I had no major problems with the plan, though, and felt well-prepared in the lead-up to Canberra. So well-prepared that I somehow thought it was a good idea to invite a whole bunch of experienced marathoners on Runners World Online (RWOL) to place bets on how much I could improve on my NY time. I can't account for why I felt the need for some extra pressure to achieve, but there it promptly was, in the form of a raft of seriously fast predicted times. Ooops.

Race day

During the night before the race I'm awake every hour from 1:30am onwards, thinking "Is it time yet??" At 4:30am I'm awake for good, but I feel well-rested, probably from going to bed at the insanely early hour of 9pm the evening before. I check the weather - there is apparently a 40% chance of rain, but outside the road is dry - and after a breakfast of chocolate milk and raisin toast I drive over and park near the starting area.

It's still dark but there are a few people around, so I go over and check out the starting line. The race office is in a school hall, so I go to use the bathrooms and I'm the only one in the whole block. Could this be any more different to New York?? I head back to the car to stay warm, even though it's currently overcast and about 14c/57F, so not cold, and there is no sign of the wind or rain I was expecting. I make the incredibly stupid mistake of posting on Facebook that it's not cold or raining, and five minutes later the heavens open and the temperature drops by at least 5 degrees. Duh. Next time someone needs to tell me to STFU about the weather, honestly.

When I head over to the start with 30 minutes to go, NO-ONE is lined up yet apart from one dude in a red shirt. Again, the incredible difference to NY strikes me. I loiter around under some trees for a while, staying out of the rain, and when I do go to line up a few other people eventually come over. I end up in the very front line, thinking "I do NOT belong at the very front, how did I get here?!", until some more people come over and I can fade back a few paces. Two fast-looking women show up, one with a half-marathon bib on, the other a full. Ms HM and I start talking, she introduces herself as Hannah and says she's shooting for 70 minutes. Whoa! What?!

There are no seeded runners or preferred runners at the race, but the city is home to the Australian Institute of Sport so it's actually not too surprising that amazingly fast runners like this have showed up. Sure enough, I find out later that Hannah was the female HM winner (in the somewhat slower time of 1:23:36), and her friend with the marathon bib on wins the ladies' marathon. I see her a few times during the race, waaaaaay out in front of any other female runner, and am not surprised that her time of 2:50:49 puts her almost 7 minutes ahead of her nearest rival.

With a minute or so to go I'm still only about 3 rows back from the very front, and when the gun goes off I'm over the line in seconds. And so it begins!

The race

The course is a multi-lap affair that winds around the parliamentary district before heading across the lake and along a major road (thankfully closed to traffic) to a turn-around point. The marathoners do 2 laps of this circuit, the half-marathoners only one. My Garmin is set to lap automatically every 1km so for brevity's sake these are the paces in min/mile, averaged out over each 3km, which is just short of 2 miles.

Miles 1-2: 6:58
This is mostly due to a 6:40 pace first 1km - I reel it in quickly when I realise how fast I'm going, and the rest is around 7:08. It's raining steadily but not too windy; I get a bit of a lift when a Scottish voice behind my shoulder says "That's the most efficient gait I've seen this morning" and yes, he's talking to me! I thank him and float onwards feeling great.

Miles 3-4: 7:09
Right on pace. I get the shock of my life as we run beside the lake - a dude in plastic flip-flops and a bucket hat goes tearing past with the loudest footfalls I've ever heard. Seriously, flip-flops?? I see him later much further on and he's still going, but on the second lap there is no sign of him.....

Miles 5-6: 7:02
Too fast again. Oops. Around mile 5 I realise my right shoe is squelching every time it hits the ground because the rain is really pouring down now. Niiiiice. For the first time, my running friend Ilana's words to me come into my head and it soon becomes my race mantra: Suck it up, Princess, and run!

Miles 7-8: 7:03
Still too fast - there are lots of people around me and I'm matching their pace. I concentrate on running MY OWN race and try to slow down, even if it means I'm getting passed.

Miles 9-10: 7:10
Back on the right pace, but the weather is miserable. There's a guy ahead of me running in a see-through singlet and Speedos. This cheers me up moderately and I think to myself "What is this, Mardi Gras??" Or maybe he just had a better idea than I did of what the weather was going to be like, who knows.

Miles 11-12: 7:12
We go past the HM turn-around and the crowd thins considerably. The leading marathoners are on their way back already and I count (slightly incorrectly) that there are a total of 8 women ahead of me. Hmmmm - I decide a top ten finish would be just the thing to help me forget this misery. It's still pouring with rain, by the way.

Miles 13-14: 7:10
Don't remember what this bit was like. Too busy telling self to suck it up, and trying to stay on pace.

Miles 15-16: 7:12
Out for lap 2. Now I'm lapping HM runners so at least I'm overtaking people, but it's getting harder to stay on pace. I remind myself that this bit isn't meant to feel easy, and to suck it up. I pass a female runner and now I'm in 8th.

Miles 17-18: 7:20
Past the HM turnaround again, I get passed by a girl who looks like she's just cruisin'. Rather than getting annoyed or despondent I think, ok, 9th is still top ten, and keep plugging away. Positive thinking!!

Miles 19-20: 7:25
Near the marathon turn I see someone coming out of a porta-loo ahead of me and lookit that, it's a female runner. She sets off at a fast pace and I think, ok, good for you, that's cool - but am secretly pleased when she slows down dramatically after the turn and I pass her with ease. Back into 8th spot.

Miles 21-22: 7:35
The rain, which had just eased off a bit, now picks up again and there's wind gusts as well as a small but significant incline - I start to lose focus and slow down. Back to chanting my mantra.

Miles 23-24: 7:22
The mantra appears to be working, but only just. All I can think is, when will this be over? By now I'm checking my watch and figuring out what time I'll do if I tank completely and slow down to 8:00 pace, and it's still faster than my NY time, but I'm trying not to succumb to the temptation to give up.

Miles 25-26.2: 7:47
Uh oh. I'm giving it all I've got, but the legs just won't turn over any faster. In a cruel irony, the rain chooses this moment to finally ease almost completely. I get passed by a female runner but whatever, I'm past caring. Just before the finish I hear my 4 year old yelling out "Go Mama! Go Mama!" and it's all I can do to muster a silly grin and wave to him, then THANK GOD it's all over.

The time on my Garmin is 3:12:25, my official time 3:12:27 - turns out I was 10th woman and managed to place 2nd in my age group.

On reflection, there was one person I saw who was coming back when I was suffering my way out on the second lap - by whom I was initially baffled but ultimately decided was male - who clearly was actually female. Whatever, 10th is still technically top ten, and enough to get my name in the local paper. Cool!

The analysis

I'm not sure I could have improved on the training that I did, but it's clear that I still lack somewhat in endurance. From mile 17 or so I definitely shifted down a gear, and by mile 21 I was finding it really hard going. The weather didn't help, but I can't blame it entirely - if I can run 16 miles in those conditions without slowing down, why couldn't I keep it going for the whole 26.2?

I've come away with a new respect for the marathon distance; in New York it was just fun and new and a bit like being in the Olympics, in Canberra it was something entirely other. Take away the 2 million cheering spectators, the perfect weather and, um, NEW YORK, and you've got 26.2 miles of tough slog through teeming rain. I'd say about 17 of those were pretty fun, 4 or 5 were pretty tough and the last 3 or 4 were bloody horrible. I'm proud of the way I approached it, though, and that I never threw in the mental towel.

I'm planning my next marathon now with a new determination and awareness of just how hard it can be......and 3:10, I'm coming for you.


  1. Rachel, awesome report! You did a fantastic job, I can't wait to hear how you do in good weather!

  2. Really loved this report Rachel, great photos too. Congratulations on a fast race in crap conditions. More mileage and good weather and you'll be off the charts.

  3. Rachel - Awesome very cool! LOL about the woman coming out of the "porta-loo." Weather must've been something if the 70 minute person came in at 83 minutes...

  4. Yay! So glad I could help if only psychologically - you were the one who did the hard part, though. Congratulations! And I love the photos - cute outfit and your pose in the first one makes me grin.