Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Blackmores Sydney HM, Sept 2013

I was moderately surprised to look back through this blog and discover that whilst I have run this race 5 times in the past, my course PR was in fact the 1:27:48 that I ran on my very first attempt, in 2007. It's a tough and twisty course but also very beautiful - taking in many of the tourist highlights of central Sydney - and for that reason alone I was keen to run it again in 2013. Also, I figured that I could quite easily run a course PR - if not an absolute PR - and be done in time for breakfast: the hideously early start time of 6:15am was a little off-putting (I do NOT remember it starting so early in the past!) but then again I get up stupidly early most of the time anyway.

Look at all those hairpin bends! Ugh.

The Training
After Gold Coast, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself thoroughly sick of training plans. Normally after a goal marathon I can't wait to stick the next plan to the spot on my fridge reserved for this purpose, but this time something was different. I kept thinking "I should print something out, or write something up", but then somehow I kept forgetting to actually do so. Even after I had secured an elite start for the Melbourne marathon in October, my brain stubbornly and inexplicably refused to get into gear.

In the meantime I was mostly just going out every day (or hitting the treadmill) and running by feel. Occasionally I sprinkled in some miles at marathon pace (6:25 min/mile, or approximately 3:59 min/km) when things got too boring, but otherwise it was just a bunch of fairly aimless jogging. The Wagga trail marathon in August became my first real long run of this "cycle", if the term can even be applied to such a haphazard state of affairs.

Thereafter I developed a degree of paranoia about my lack of structure, which I addressed by stringing together a row of weeks running 90+ miles, two of which culminated in a 20 mile long run. On a whim I decided that the second of these should include 12 miles at marathon pace, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to hit and hold MP with much less difficulty than in my last couple of training cycles: I averaged 6:24 for the whole MP segment and felt like I could have kept going. Slightly bemused but also pleased, the next weekend I headed off to Sydney for the Blackmores race.

Race Day
It's not as hard as I expected to get up at 4:30am, and pretty soon afterwards I'm jogging down the hill from my dad's place towards the city, where I'm intending to get the train over to Milsons Point where the race begins. I'm planning on running just 2 miles, but I get to Wynyard Station and my Garmin only shows 1.5 - I might as well keep going. By my estimate it's probably around 3 miles total if I jog most of the way across the Harbour Bridge, so I head through the Rocks and up onto the Bridge.

I've left my phone at home - I've decided to travel very light and am even planning to discard the old jacket I'm wearing at the starting line, so I'll put nothing on the baggage trucks - and I realise now that this is a dreadful pity, because the early dawn view out across the harbour is nothing short of breathtaking and I wish I could take a photo to post here. As ever, I am reminded of what a beautiful city Sydney is, and how much I miss living there.

Dawn over Sydney Harbour - only it looked better than this
My watch beeps 3 miles as I approach the steps down to Milson's Point, so I slow down and take the vanilla GU I've been carrying in my pocket. Vanilla GU is still my lucky racing charm, and this morning also my substitute breakfast. It goes down nicely and pretty soon I'm walking across the grass towards the starting area. There is exactly an hour to go until the race begins.

It's weird being without my phone, but in a good way: normally I'd be scrolling through Facebook, commenting, texting, snapping photos, or mindlessly playing Candy Crush Saga - oblivious to my surroundings, just wasting time. Instead, I stand quietly in the shadows of the Bridge above me, staring across the Harbour and watching the sun rise. It's somehow very Zen, and it strikes me that this is probably a much better way to prepare mentally for a race than distracting myself with my phone.

Around me, people are carrying out all sorts of strange pre-race rituals: many of them are stretching, one appears to be jogging on the spot (I wonder how long he'll keep that up?) and a group of Japanese runners behind me are eating sushi and taking selfies. All I care about is when will they let us into the corrals? I'm utterly FREEZING now, despite the jacket, and I desperately want to be wedged in amongst all the other runners in the corral, purely for the warmth that this will provide. Finally, with 15 minutes to go, they let us in. I have just heard people talking about the elite and preferred runners -  I didn't realise there was such a thing for this race, and I'm annoyed because I would definitely have applied had I known - so I make up for that omission by positioning myself in the very front row. Excellent.

Finally it's time - we inch forward, then inch forward again until we're hard up against the small group (maybe 20) of preferred/elite runners. Bang goes the gun and off we all sprint up the hill. Here goes nothing!

Miles 1-3: 6:41, 6:11, 6:03 (pace in min/mile)
The first mile of this race is a horrible one - it's inevitably crowded, uphill, and narrow. My Garmin beeps the first mile after we've made the first big turn under the expressway and onto the bridge, and when I look down I'm horrified to see it read 6:41. That's WAY too slow for the effort level I'm feeling - momentary panic overtakes me: if 6:41 feels this tough, there's no way I'm running a decent time today. But I quickly push this fear aside and try to focus on enjoying the run.

I'm halfway across the bridge now and I'm reminded of the first time I walked across the bridge proper - was it 1982? It must have been the 50th anniversary of its construction, but was that 1932, or maybe later? My brain is still happily occupied puzzling over this question when the second mile beeps 6:11. Ahhh, much better. I relax into the pace now, and with mile 3 mostly a gentle downhill, it's all good.

The obligatory peace sign, with bemused onlooker

Miles 4-6: 6:09, 6:15, 6:25
The course continues its undulations as we head across the expressway above Circular Quay and up Macquarie Street towards the Domain. This is the final stretch of the half-marathon I ran in May, but this race is only just getting started. As we turn down towards the harbour to start mile 5, at this point I realise there is a group of women not far ahead ahead of me. There weren't that many females in the elite/preferred group, only one of whom looked likely to be of my vintage - and that's her right there, running in step with 2 others.

She has this weird posture or running stance, leaning right forward like she's almost about to fall. I wonder idly if her name might be Eileen (totally unfunny), then tell myself to focus and JUST CATCH HER ALREADY. I manage this during the unpleasant uphill that takes us back past the Art Gallery, and just as I pull past her, one of her companions stops to tie her shoelace. Voila, two positions up in the field without trying too hard! The other woman, who is wearing pink Lululemon shorts, has pulled ahead by about 50 metres now and I'm not going to be catching her anytime soon. There's a challenge for the rest of the race, perhaps.

Miles 7-9: 6:31, 6:15, 6:23
With the first significant uphill finally behind me, I concentrate on keeping my footing as things get a bit technical heading through Circular Quay and the historic Rocks precinct. I realise I forgot to take my  second vanilla GU at mile 6, so I fish it out of my bra and suck it down. Things flatten out at last for real as the course takes us under the bridge - scene of my best running photo ever, taken in this race 2 years ago - but there's no photographer there this time, unfortunately. So I'll have to be content with the original:
September 2011 - best.photo.ever.
Heading around the corner, Pink Shorts is still about 50 metres in front of me and she stays there as the next mile ticks over and we head out towards Pyrmont. The rollers continue and I decide not to worry too much about pace - I seem to be keeping it around 6:25 without too much difficulty, and that's good enough for me. A guy now passes me and I note with interest that he has the same shuffly gait as I do. It occupies me nicely for a while to watch his cadence and compare it with mine (we're pretty much the same), then compare us both to the few runners around us. We are both out-shuffling everyone else at a rate of at least 3 steps to 2. At least I'm not the only person who does this!

The male leaders pass on their way back towards the finish, and there's a Japanese man way out in front of a familiar African runner, both looking strong. I wait for the ladies to appear behind them, but the course branches before any females are visible. Oh well - I know I'm probably in the top 15, maybe even top 10, but it doesn't really matter anyway at this point. I just want the race to be over!

Miles 10-12: 6:29, 6:24, 6:04
There's a horror turn-around to start mile 10, with a sharp hill where we run up, over, around and back. Ugh,  it's really steep, and I almost catch Pink Shorts. But she's a gazelle to my glider shuffle, and she out-strides me easily on the ensuing downhill. Then up we go again and onto the expressway for the last few miles of the race. She's maybe 75m ahead now.

I know that most of the rest of the course ahead is pretty flat, but of course it's easy to lose focus at this stage and slow down unintentionally. I'm not doing that yet, but neither am I speeding up. Then, as mile 12 starts I suddenly realise Pink Shorts is definitely slowing down - I seem to be catching up without really trying. A familiar dilemma starts in my head: should I exert myself to pass her, and risk then not having enough left in the tank to hold a lead right to the finish? Or should I hang where I am and pass her closer to the line? I debate this for at least half a mile as I gradually creep up behind her....

Then when I get within striking distance suddenly my subconscious takes over, and before I realise what's happening, I'm accelerating and burning past her (and the guy who is lumbering along beside her). I hear a muttered expletive that makes me inappropriately gleeful, and I know the chase is ON. Let's go!

Finally in front of her - can I stay there?

Mile 13, 0.1 to finish: 6:23, 5:09
The final mile of the race takes us back under the bridge and along the boardwalk right on the edge of the harbour.  Not only can I hear and almost feel Pink Shorts behind me, people are now calling out "Go ladies!!" in a way that reminds me I have NOT lost her yet. I'm speeding up as much as I can within the constraints of the course, but it's tough. Suddenly a guy in red absolutely blazes past us both - wow, what a finishing kick! - and then, as we approach the end of mile 13, someone yells out "6th lady, 7th lady!"

Oh.My.God. If there was need for motivation, there isn't anymore: I put my head down and SPRINT. This is going to make for some very, very ugly finish photos, but I just don't care. Sixth! It's a lot better than I had guessed, and I'm darned if I'm going to be pushed back into 7th at this point.

"She's right behind you!!" - bonus points for obviousness to the smartypants who yelled that at me here

I speed down the finish chute just as fast as my little Roadrunner legs will take me, and cross the line still in front of Pink Shorts just as the clock hits 1:23:08. Hooray, a course PR by almost 5 minutes!

Finish time: 1:23:08, 6:19 pace.

Placement: 6th female, 59th OA, 1st AG (40-44)

I grab a bottle of water, shake Pink Shorts by the hand and congratulate her on the race (she's fairly monosyllabic in response, and I can't say I blame her) before wandering around to sit on the Opera House steps. I spot the red shirted bloke who tore past me earlier, so I sit down next to him and remark "Some finishing kick you got there!" It turns out this was his first ever half marathon and he had no idea how to pace it - so we talk for a while about training and mileage, I encourage him to run more and check out the RunnersWorld forums, and then I go to claim my medal and start the cool-down jog home.

The Analysis
Well, that was kind of fun! I knew going into it that a fast time was going to be difficult, but around 1:23 seemed possible and I'm glad I got that part right. And 6th female is a great placement for such a big race - there were 3806 female finishers - how could I be anything other than happy with that?! Maybe the more unstructured training I've been engaging in lately is not such a bad idea after all. And maybe I'm actually in pretty darn good shape heading into Melbourne. I guess we'll find out in 3 weeks' time!


  1. Wow, what a nailbiter ending - and you got the photos for it, hee! Even though you're grimacing and not looking nearly as happy as in Best Race Photo Ever, I can see the effort - fantastic! Congratulations, well done!

  2. What a great race!! How do you look so cute when you are so speedy?? I look like death when I run fast (and even then, not as fast as you!).

  3. Great report Rachel. Think I like the desperate looking race photos showing you racing pink shorts better than the smiling scenic ones. You've got good leg muscles!

    Yes, you're in good shape. At least PB marathon shape. One great thing about unstructured 'run by feel' training is the low stress nature of it. You know the ball-park mileage you need to do and when you're feeling good can push out the MP running on a whim, as in the session you mentioned. Anyway, all the best for Melbourne -- I'm sure you'll have a great race.