After running up a storm over the Christmas holidays, I was searching around for a HM to race as a tune-up race before the Boston Marathon in mid-April. Early autumn is apparently not a popular time of year to race in NSW, as the only one I could find online was the Port Macquarie Running Festival, a new event incorporating a bunch of shorter races and a HM.
Spurred on in part by the fact that I would have to travel alone to run this one (without the kids? Oh no!), I signed up and booked a room at the sponsor hotel, just adjacent to the start/finish area.
My training for Boston had been going along very well in the weeks preceding this race. I was logging very high mileage compared to my previous training cycles - up to 92 miles per week (148km) - and hitting all my paces in tempo and MP runs, so I began to feel like this could be a chance to finally break my old HM personal best (PR or PB) from way back in 2001. I spent a stupidly long time trying to find old results until I realised what "inaugural" actually means - oh yeah, it hasn't been run before.
I was encouraged by the fact that the course was supposedly flat, but the precise description was that it "avoids hills", which I was to learn does not mean the same thing as "flat". I was moderately alarmed to see the course map when it came online, and read that it was a 3 lap out-and-back run; and damn if it didn't look bloody twisty and intricate too....
But there was never any doubt in my mind that I'd run this race - injury or disaster notwithstanding - and more so when flooding stopped us from travelling to the other HM I was planning to run 2 weeks earlier.
Lining up to board the plane in Sydney, I'm surprised to recognise Steve Moneghetti in the queue in front of me, although I guess I shouldn't be. I already know he's been invited to run the race and also that he's speaking at the pasta dinner that night, for which I have a ticket in my bag. Although I normally would never presume to make conversation with a famous person - and as one of Australia's greatest ever marathoners, Steve is definitely famous - when he looks around I smile and ask him "Running the race tomorrow?" He says yes and comments that we'll need better weather - it's currently pouring rain - I comment that the course looks pretty twisty - and then we're off to board the plane, and that's that.
Everything goes smoothly from there - the peace of a hotel room with no small children in it is almost intoxicating - yet walking to dinner that night I'm suddenly wondering if I should just head back to the hotel and order pizza instead. I don't know anyone at this dinner and what if the food is disgusting? But in I go, and I'm lucky enough to encounter another woman who is there alone - her name is Corinna, and she's running the HM, her 2nd ever - pretty soon we're seated with another couple (Andrew, running his 2nd HM, and his wife Pauline) and suddenly I'm having a good time.
After his speech I decide to go up and ask Steve what time he thinks he'll run, mainly to know how far in front of me he will be. I remember running a HM in 2001 where he was also present, and seeing him once on the home stretch while I was still at least 5km out (and I came 3rd in that one, so I wasn't exactly slow), and also I'm curious what he thinks of this course.
There's an entire table of 50-something ladies (age not numbers) competing for his attention - one of them is even clutching a copy of his book - but when I do get a chance to ask, he tells me quite honestly that he thinks the course will be slow. He's run the second turn-around this afternoon, and he remembers it was me who pointed out the twisting course to him when we spoke at the airport. I say I'm shooting for sub-3:00 at Boston in 4 weeks and he tells me if I can run under 1:30 tomorrow it will be a good indicator.
As I walk home I reflect on this and decide to forget about running a PR, and just give it my best shot. I'm a little disappointed, but there's nothing I can do now to change the course, so I might as well have fun anyway.
I wake up early and lie in bed eating a banana and enjoying the peace. The race starts at 7:30am so at 6:45 I get dressed and head out for a warm-up jog. I'm curious about the second turn-around point now, so I run down the breakwater and realise that if the run turns out badly at least I can enjoy the scenery: it's beautiful and as if to drive home the point, a pair of dolphins choose that moment to jump out of the waters of the inlet.
However two other things now become clear: it's much too hot to wear the shirt I put out, and this headland loop is horrible. It's narrow, slippery wooden boardwalk followed by narrow, steep paths with numerous short switchbacks. I'm going to lose time here for sure.
Back home I ditch my shirt, re-pin my number to my running top, suck down a pouch of vanilla GU and head back out to the start. I see Andrew warming up and give him a wave, then realise the start is over a section of grass. No timing mats, just an inflatable arch reading "NAB".
Clearly there are going to be no chip start times today - so I head right for the front row and end up bang next to Steve Moneghetti. He asks my name again and wishes me luck, then the RD sounds some kind of clown horn and off we go!
Trying to keep up with Moneghetti (me in pink, him in blue wearing sunglasses), it works for all of maybe 100m...
Miles 1-2: 6:25, 6:24 (pace in min/mile)
Perfectly paced despite the fact that we take off over grass and segue straight into a carpark where I'm almost taken out by a wooden bollard. This leads around a corner to another carpark - but with potholes to dodge! Then up over a curb, some dirt and grass, over a narrow bridge and into more similar stretches - finally we skirt the side of a road, reach a hairpin turn and head back the same way. Same obstacles but now there are slower runners coming the other way! Awesome!
Quite quickly there are 2 women WAY out ahead, and another 3 in front of me in the first mile. I catch 2 of them easily but the 3rd is clearly going for broke. She's tall, much taller than me, and running 6:24 pace (4:00 min/km) easily, although I note on the few times I pull alongside her that her breathing is nowhere near as comfortable as mine is at this point. Every time she slows, I catch her, and then she surges ahead again. I decide to settle in and wait for her to tire.
Miles 3-4: 6:37, 6:25
Mile 3 finishes just past the hairpin turnaround just beyond the monster headland and I know I've lost time there. Never mind, I get back on pace and realise 3rd woman seems to have lost more than me. We head along the breakwater together and back again towards the start/finish area, and passing through there she says to an onlooker (probably her husband) "This course is CRAP! It's too narrow!"
In that second I know I will pass and beat her. There has been a lot of discussion lately amongst some of my online running friends about mental toughness, and I know 3rd woman has lost it mentally now: she is slipping into a negative mindset, something I was tempted with early on but consciously decided to avoid.
Something evil goes through my mind at this point: I could easily say something that will make it worse for her. But I don't want to be seen to be openly sledging her - so when she snaps at me for accidentally nudging her, I sweetly say back "Two more laps to go!"
And it works a treat: in the next mile I drop her and she never passes me again.
Miles 5-6: 6:18, 6:30
The price I pay for moving into 3rd place is that I no longer have someone to pace me and I go first slightly too fast, then slightly too slow. Never mind - the second lap is half over and I head back through the start/finish yet again and out to the breakwater. In passing I see Pauline who cheers me on, then Corinna goes past on her first lap, and then as I turn down towards Town Beach something REALLY cool happens. Steve Moneghetti passes me on his way back from the headland (he's in the lead with a young guy right behind) and he waves and says "Nice running, Rachel".
It's almost enough to make me forget that it's time to take another GU, but I come to my senses and suck it down only to realise I have misremembered where the water station is. So I get to run half a mile with the taste of sickly-sweet vanilla all through my mouth - mmm, yum.
Miles 7-8: 6:20, 6:44
The GU effect speeds me right up but then that hideous headland slows me down again. On the way back along Town Beach the total lack of crowd control in this race suddenly becomes very much of a problem: an enormously muscly surfer dude steps out in front of me and it's all I can do to bounce off his tattooed bicep and remain upright. I lose more time getting back into a rhythm, but at least I didn't bite the dust entirely.
Full sun, people all over - not even the magic of pink can fix it now...
Then on the breakwater there is a guy walking his dogs, and their leashes are stretching ALL the way across the path. My option to avoid them is to either hurdle the leashes or throw myself into the sea - instead I choose to yell at the top of my lungs "HEY!!! MOVE YOUR DOGS!!", and I have to repeat it before he complies.
As I run past I say "Mate, there's a race on" and his reply? "Yeah so WHAT?" Well, isn't that lovely. I am pretty annoyed by now - and the yelling has cost me precious breath - but I brush it off and tell myself to keep going.
Miles 9-10: 6:23, 6:29
Back on pace, which is good, and now I'm through the 3rd turnaround in the carpark. Back for the final part of the course - and in passing I realise that I just ran a 10 mile PR of 1:04:34, which is kind of nice. I've only run 2 10 mile races, both in the UK in 2007, and I'm pretty sure the faster one was 1:07 something. Cool!
Miles 11-12: 6:19, 6:40
I see Corinna again on this lap and the outbound part goes well. Steve passes me again and this time says "Pretty fast, Rachel, great", which makes me grin and probably explains the 6:19. I see the 2nd woman is noticeably closer now, although the female leader is still streets ahead of me. And up I go over the headland for the final time, by far the worst - by now there are random tourists meandering around on the narrow paths, in addition to the runners going the other way - but at least it's almost over.
Mile 13.1: 6:33, 6:04 to finish
This includes the second part of the headland and I see my pace is slower, but I feel okay and good enough to give it some juice through the finish chute. As I approach, the crew at the finish hold up a Brooks banner and I'm so surprised that I stick my arms in the air and bust right through it. Oh yeah - I just came third!
Wait, wait, what's this??
My official finish time is 1:25:17, a 23 second improvement over my 2001 PR. For my efforts I get a very nice trophy - presented to me by Steve Moneghetti, whom I thank for his encouraging words to me during the race - and a cheque for $200! And then after some very pleasant refuelling and relaxation, it's off back home again.
I was targeting an average pace of under 6:30 min/mile for this race, so the final figure of 6:28 was bang on where I wanted it to be. The female winner clocked a very impressive 1:20:12, but 2nd place was only 57 seconds ahead of me - and they're both at least 15 years younger than me, so that makes me feel really great about what I achieved in the race. On a flatter, wider course I could undoubtedly have run even faster, but given the course I feel happy that I did my best on the day.
If you put 1:25:17 into a pace calculator, it spits out 2:59:52 for a full marathon - so that's a good sign for Boston I hope, although I'd prefer a slightly larger margin than a mere 8 seconds for my sub-3:00 attempt!
A very nice trophy that almost makes up for the wild crazy nature of the course. Almost.