Wednesday, December 10, 2014

AIRIA One shoes: test run and review.

Shortly after I published my most recent blog post about the New York marathon, I was contacted by a representative from Airia shoes. They offered me a free pair to try out, asking in return only that I report back and post a review on my blog once I have run in them.

Never one to pass up a freebie, I readily accepted the challenge. When the shoes arrived this morning, I decided to take them for an easy evening double (just 5 miles/8km) and write the whole thing up in my usual race report manner.

The Background
Airia are a Swedish company that have apparently been around since 1992. That's news to me - prior to being contacted I had never heard of Airia shoes and I doubt I had even seen a pair on anyone, anywhere. But according to the box that the shoe came in, they've been around for more than 20 years now, developing this exact shoe. What on earth took them so long?

Ah, this must be it. The first thing that jumps out when I look on their website is the somewhat audacious-sounding claim that Airia One shoes can make you run up to 7% faster. If my math is correct (which it often is not), that would turn a 2:47 marathon into a 2:35 - something that hardly seems plausible. Such an improvement for me (and my current marathon PR is indeed 2:47:57) would catapult me straight into the Australian Olympic team for 2016 and have me winning the female Masters division at Boston by at least 4-5 minutes. All this, just from switching shoe brands? I'd almost certainly have a lot of explaining to do, not to mention "random" drug tests, if such a thing was to suddenly happen.

The email from the company quotes two reviews that I might be interested to read; it's a little disquieting to read and subsequently realise that neither of these reviewers has anything very positive to say about the shoes.  I have to wonder if the people marketing the shoes have actually read the reviews - it makes little sense to be linking to negative reviews, but it seems they are anyway.

The other thing that bothers me is the disclaimer that I read on the website and again when I open the box:

So what you're saying is...they're weird and I am not allowed to walk in them? Okay then.

I'm almost scared to venture out the door - for a while I contemplate running on the TM, but I really don't want to do that unless I have to, and the kids are with their father so it's the perfect opportunity to head outside. But what if I get halfway to the lake and am in sudden agony? Something like that happened to me in early 2004, when I was in Adelaide and decided to forsake my usual ASICS for a pair of Nikes, in the misguided belief that new shoes would somehow heal or compensate for the still-held-together-with-titanium right leg that I was dealing with at that point.

After limp-running about 3km along the River Torrens I was struck down by a sharp, severe pain in my right calf, entirely different to the usual leg-still-broken pain that by now I was used to enduring. Forced to walk back to where I had started, I came away with the firm belief that changing shoe brands was a sure-fire path to injury (conveniently forgetting that colliding with cars at 35mph/60kph is also a good way to damage oneself) and an ever-increasing superstition about the Wrong Pair of Shoes.

So it is with great trepidation that I stand at the counter considering my first run wearing Airia One. The name conjures up mental images of aliens and spaceships - I think of Roswell and the X-Files and Area 51 - and the shoes themselves actually look so weird that the whole thing suddenly makes perfect sense. Alien shoes! From Area One! Let's try them on and see just how bizarre things can get.

<mysterious music plays>

The Shoes
Once on, the shoes feel light but also kind of lumpy in the soles. I'm expecting this and it's not as bad as I anticipated - the upward pointing toes also feel slightly odd, but I find I can walk in them without too much difficulty. The soles are softly spongy and really quite comfortable; I don't feel like my gait is being forced into an unnatural pattern, which is good. They do seem a bit more like a prototype rather than a finished running shoe, though - the uppers are quite flimsy and I have to wonder how they would stand up to my usual training mileage.

I grab a spare pair of shoes to drop in my driveway, figuring that if it all goes to pot I can just turn around at the end of the street and come home to change, strap on my Garmin and it's go time.

my regular easy run route

Mile 1: 8:26 pace
Ok, these shoes are not making me run any faster, that's one thing for sure. I set off down the road and the first thing I notice is that the 2nd toe on my right foot is hurting. Despite having quite orderly-looking feet with 2nd toes that are actually shorter than my big toes, I do tend to mangle my 2nd and 3rd toenails regularly during races and they're generally in a dreadful state either purple and hanging in there or purple and hanging off. That said, they've been fine lately so I have no idea why my toe is suddenly protesting - it must be the shoes.

I realise that my toes feel like they're being jammed directly into the ground - the upward tilt of the shoes is putting more pressure than normal on my toes and this makes me very concerned for what would become of my poor abused toenails if I was to subject them to a whole marathon wearing the Airia Ones. Even a half marathon might be a bit risky - let's see how they feel after just 5 miles.

Mile 2: 8:00
By now I'm down by the lake and ooh, there's a rather strong tailwind! It does nothing to speed me up, sadly, but I've run many many miles in the past 7 days and my lack of zip is definitely not the fault of these shoes. The good news is that nothing is really feeling odd or hurting at this point - save for the 2nd toe on my right foot, which is moaning away still - and in fact the shoes are turning out to be quite nice.

One of the reviewers described how their footfalls became very loud, like they were slapping their feet on the ground as they ran, but I'm settling rather quickly into the "silent stride with a rolling feel to it" that is supposed to be the desired effect. Also, my fast cadence actually feels like it is supported by the way the toes of the Airias turn upwards; it's like I'm spending less time or effort toeing off, in fact. Nice!

Mile 3: 8:08
Ugh, the headwind comes into play as I turn around the northern end of the lake and run along the far side. The good news is that my post-NYC phobia about running into a headwind seem to be lessening; the bad news, I'm still running pretty slow. As I plod up the sharp hill behind the Boat Club, I find myself trying to run on my toes and ooh, it feels very unsafe. I can't imagine how these shoes would work for a toe runner (someone who lands on their forefoot and whose heels stay pretty much off the ground when they run) - something tells me they'd be in danger of overbalancing with the upward-tilted toes of the Airias constantly pitching them forwards.

Just a bit further on the path becomes rougher and ooh, ouch, I step on a rock and realise how little padding there is between my forefoot and the ground. My toes are sort of being held up (with the exception of that 2nd one, which is stubbornly headbutting the ground still) but the ball of my foot isn't and I realise quickly that this means the Airia shoes are NOT going to be very suitable for most of the gravelly country roads where I usually train. They seem like a great racing shoe, sure - although I doubt my toes would survive a full marathon in them, or even a half - but not a good trail or even gravel-running shoe.

Mile 4: 8:05
Still not speeding up, oh well. The rolling feel of my gait in these shoes is coming along nicely though - they feel light, and fast, and springy. Lately I've done a fair bit of running in a pair of Hokas that I won earlier in the year and the difference is noticeable: in the Hokas I feel clunky and slow; in the Airias I feel springy and quick (even though I'm running just as slow in them).

Mile 5: 7:53
I try to put in some effort for the final mile home, but my legs are not very interested and I don't manage to speed up very much. That's disappointing but not too surprising; the good thing is that none of my muscles feel like they've been put through anything much different to a normal easy evening run.

I notice the strangeness of the shoes almost as soon as I stop running in them and start walking; I'm not tempted to leave them on at all, really. Despite the zippy feel it's been a slow run overall for me, but none of the expected weirdness has surfaced so I declare the run a success and add the Airias to my pile of running shoes in the corner reserved for "racing".

The Verdict

* light shoes with a zippy feel
* less effort required at toe-off
* minimalist feel but enough cushioning around heels to be comfortable
* gait pattern seemed quite natural and I didn't think my usual gait was altered by the shoes
* free!

* not much cushioning around forefoot, very minimal for toe area
* curved toe-box maximises impact on toes - very likely to be a problem for longer distances
* probably not good for the heavier runner (over 160lb/75kg might find them not cushioned enough)
* probably not good for anyone who needs a motion control shoe
* expensive ($190US according the website).

My overall impression is that these shoes have real potential as a shorter-distance racing shoe, but they are quite gimmicky and would be likely to have a limited runner type to whom they would appeal. 

This kind of person would probably be a lot like me and have the following charateristics:
- light (I am 5'3" and weigh 103lbs, which is around 46-47kg)
- neutral (not for over- or under-pronators; these shoes would likely have a negative effect on gait patterns and feel quite unnatural for those used to stability or motion control shoes)
- midfoot or heel strikers (toe runners would probably feel quite unstable)
- accustomed to running in racing flats with little to no cushioning.

My plan is to take the shoes out a couple more times for runs up to 10mi (16km) and provided there are no issues, try them out at the Australian Masters HM Champs in Hobart in January. Who knows, if I can take 7% off my usual HM time (currently around 1:22) and these shoes enable me to run 1:16, I may just buy the company! Or their entire supply of women's size 6.5, whichever works out cheapest.

In early January I ran 12 miles in the Airia shoes. I finished with a blister on my 2nd toe (the same one that was complaining on the 5 mile run) and subsequently lost the toenail on that toe also. I decided not to wear the Airia One shoes for my HM and haven't run in them again.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New York City Marathon, November 2014

Any excuse to visit New York is a good one, really, and the marathon is the best of all. My very first marathon was New York in 2010 and somehow it made sense to return there at this point in my running career - if for no other reason than to see how much I might be able to improve on the 3:17 I posted on that cold, sunny day.

The Training
My original intention was to run New York more as a fun, destination marathon than a time-goal one, given that it is a notoriously slow/difficult course and that I was also signed up (once again as an elite) to run Melbourne marathon just 3 weeks earlier. But as I have mentioned before, my plans for Melbourne went completely askew when I managed to injure myself for the whole of August, and the very short amount of time left once I was back training somewhat decently meant that New York took on more significance.

And as I have also already mentioned, I was hopeful of a sub-elite start for NYC but instead found myself placed squarely in the professional women's race (oh my god) - and so it came to pass that I headed for New York with a far-from-decent prep but ever-ambitious dreams of actually doing reasonably well (or at least not finishing as the very last female elite) there.

My weekly training mileage in the 2 months leading up to NYC:

39 miles, all easy
62 miles including a 39:08 10K (1st female, 6:18 pace)
77 miles with a 1:24:55 HM (13th female, 6:24 pace)
95 miles, including a marathon-specific 21 mile LR
81 miles, all easy
80 miles including Melbourne marathon in 2:53:35 (10th female, 6:36 pace)
52 miles, all easy
71 miles with a 14 mile LR including 4x2 mile MP intervals.

If you're thinking that there is a dangerous combination of not enough mileage and far too much racing in there, for such an abbreviated training period -- you're probably not alone.

Travel and pre-race festivities
I'm fairly good at the process of international travel now, and the only real hitch is the amount of time it takes me to get from JFK airport to my hotel (close to 3 hours, somehow, I have no idea why), but in any case I manage to arrive unscathed and with all possessions intact. The Hilton is abuzz with runners and many wheelchair athletes as well; after a refreshing night's sleep my first priority on Friday is to head up to the Professional Athletes hospitality suites on the top floor of the hotel.

Here's where NYC totally out-does Boston when it comes to the way it treats professional athletes (like me, ahem) - well, maybe the way it treats also-rans like me, actually. I get a credential declaring me an official professional athlete, a bag full of goodies that cannot be bought at the expo, and access to all the coffee, bagels, Gatorade and Power bars I can handle. Which, come Saturday, will be a LOT.

Credentials and exclusive Elite athlete vest, oh yeah!

While we are there, we manage to find out that a bus is leaving in half an hour to take people to the Expo  - yes! It's cold and grey out, possibly about to rain, and the last thing I want to do is try to figure out how to ride the subway downtown to the Jacob Javitz convention centre where the Expo is held. It's very luxurious to be ushered from our hotel onto a plush bus and then led straight in (bypassing the huge queues) and up to the media conference.

Quickly I realise I don't belong here - it's for the biggest fish in the pond and I am a tiny, baby piece of krill by comparison - but before we leave I take advantage of the opportunity to get a photo with one of my all-time idols, before leaving in total awe of the whole situation:

Paula Radcliffe, female marathon World Record holder!
And so nice as well.

The expo is crowded beyond belief with excited runners and their friends; the line to buy ASICS official merchandise is incredibly long but that doesn't deter me from picking up a few items that I'll be able to wear running at home in, oh, 6 months or so. Wrong season = no problem, for the dedicated runner/shopper at least.

Later on Friday I get an email that is somewhat worrying. It seems I will now be racing my 2nd World Marathon Major where I've received a weather alert in the days leading up to the event: Boston in 2012, when a sudden heatwave struck and prompted organisers to send out an email instructing everyone to give up time goals and just "fun run" it, and now New York 2014. The forecast is ominous - headwinds of 26mph (over 40kph) with gusts up to 40mph (66kph) - and it really has to be bad because this is what I read:

Oh, great.

And the horrible thing is that this forecast - which everyone is hoping will change - remains steadfastly the same for the whole of the next 36 hours. I'm sure there are 50,000 other people out there also checking it obsessively in the way that I am, but none of this can convince the weather gods to change their minds. I didn't let the heat of Boston 2012 sway me from my ambitions - I was one of the very few of my running acquaintance who actually met their goal that day - but Sunday's goal is far loftier, and a strong headwind is something I've never really trained for. Ugh.

I wake on Saturday to find that it's raining - oh well, what better way to fit in a final pre-race workout than to run the Dash to the Finish Line 5K? I do mean run, not race, although it's a perfect example of a progression run that incorporates the 3 minutes of hard running called for with the Aussie carbo loading plan: the mile splits are 7:54, 7:22, 6:36 and 6:15 pace to the finish. Despite the rain it's a lot of fun and after finishing we jog happily home to attack the breakfast buffet with gusto.

Wet but happy.

Later, on my way up to drop off my water bottles I bump into a woman who is wearing the same credentials as me - she tells me she's not sure if she will drop off her bottles, because she is considering dropping back to the general start due to the wind forecast; she's worried about not being able to keep up with the rest of the field.

It turns out she is Canadian and also the other family physician in the professional women's race; her PR (and her age) is very similar to mine and her name is Paula. Wonderful! I tell her most emphatically that she MUST stay in the elite race, because she is likely to run my sort of pace and I desperately need company. We can run together!! And so I leave the hospitality suites with my tinsel-decorated bottles secured and a running companion for the race also locked in - this is a very big deal.

My name is on my bib!! For New York!!

The pre-race briefing and bib pick-up on Saturday afternoon is quite surreal; race director Mary Wittenberg welcomes everyone warmly and I stand in line to get my bib, wedged in between at least 2 or 3 Olympic medalists. Deena Kastor is right ahead of me so I take the opportunity to introduce myself and congratulate her on her recent Masters' World Record in the half-marathon; she's lovely and we chat briefly before it's time to think about going to the pre-race dinner. Across the room Meb Keflezighi is hugging Paula Radcliffe, and they're both at a table with Kara Goucher and Deena. A bunch of Kenyans which contains at least 2 former world record holders (Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai) is at another.....and again I'm wondering, how on earth did I get in here??

Race Day
I'm up and getting dressed by 5am and we head downstairs to the elite athletes' breakfast on level 3; all the superstars are there and we land at a table with Desi Linden (who was 2nd in Boston 2011 and will go on to be the fastest American woman today) and her coaches. Everyone is understandably jittery; I'm stressing out somewhat over the way my digestive system seems to respond to jet lag (by seizing up) and so every bite of my bagel and sip of coffee is filled with the anxiety of wondering, will I have to stop during the race because I'm eating this now?

Too much information I know, but I'm still fretting pointlessly over my lack of bathroom action when we walk out to board the bus that will take us to the start. We cross the street and even with the tall buildings all around, it's painfully clear that the wind is positively howling. Plus it's COLD - the temperature is probably around 4C/37F but the windchill is driving it much lower. It's a small consolation that at least Saturday's rain seems to have stopped, but I will later realise that rain would have been preferable to the hurricane that will greet me on the course....

Similar to Boston, we get a police escort that accompanies us on the long drive out to the start, but the traffic is a lot worse than it ever was in Boston. There are extended periods of time where we come to a complete standstill and wait; this isn't such a concern because the last I heard about the elite waiting area on Staten Island is that the tents had to be taken down overnight, lest they blow away in the gale-force winds. So we may be spending a whole lot MORE time on this bus, and it doesn't really matter how soon we get to the official start village.

It's a pleasant surprise, then to arrive and see that the tent is actually standing - they're even putting the walls on it to keep out the howling wind. Inside there are tables with bottles of water, bagels, gatorade, fruit.....I'm pretty stunned to see that a lot of people are still eating. The general race start is 90 minutes away and mine is just an hour off - my stomach certainly wouldn't be able to keep its act together if I was to fill it up now and try to run a tough marathon so soon afterwards.

A quick (and thankfully successful) bathroom visit ensues and pretty soon it's time for the professional women to start making their way up to the starting line. We're allowed to wear extra clothes up there so I keep my sweater and long tights on; it's surreal to be jogging around in the company of some of the world's best marathoners. I see that Deena is wearing the same shoes as me so I dance over to her and say "Hey, we're shoe twins!" - then we're off and walking towards the start area. Up on the bridge it is incredibly cold; I join in with some short strides up and down in front of the starting line, just for the sake of keeping warm.

A large bunch of scantily-clad, freezing-cold athletes.

Miles 1-3: 6:54, 6:24, 6:42 (pace in min/mile)

After all the build-up,the start itself happens with surprisingly little fanfare. We are herded back behind the starting mats, over the loudspeaker Mary says "Ladies take your marks", and then suddenly we are off. I'm on the far left and actually stay with the main pack for about the first 400m - the pace feels reasonable, but the super-elites all accelerate away from me fairly soon and I know better than to try to keep up.

As we head up onto the bridge the true force of the wind makes itself known and my god, it's like nothing I have ever had to deal with before. My bib is whipping in the crosswind, my beanie feels like it's going to blow straight off my head and a few times I get caught by a gust that almost throws me off my feet. Running a decent marathon in this sort of thing is going to be as good as impossible - but I'm here and I have to at least try.

Keeping up, but not for long....

By the end of the first mile - all uphill - I've formed a small pack with Paula and another woman, Josephine - who looks African (although her bio says she's from Italy) and is very tall. As we finally crest the bridge and start bombing down the other side, she says "We run together?", and Paula and I agree. It makes sense to stay together, but to be honest it's going to be difficult. Paula surges ahead to take the lead and when I fall in behind her, I accelerate so quickly that I almost slam straight into her back.

The difference that this drafting makes to my pace is remarkable, but I have to stay super-close or the effect is lost. The last thing I want to do is to keep bumping into her or, worse still, somehow trip her up. If I stay as close as I need to in order to draft, that's almost guaranteed to happen, and it seems pretty unfair to make another runner do most of the work on my behalf.

As I'm considering this I realise that one of the safety pins holding my bib to my chest has blown away, and the whole thing is flapping around even worse than before. Thankfully the gusts settle down a little as we come down from the bridge and now the headwind is blowing it snugly back against me, but I won't be impressed if the whole thing blows off - which is entirely possible.

Miles 4-6: 6:33, 6:39, 6:28

Josephine has disappeared behind us now but Paula and I are still running close together. We're taking it in turns to go ahead and forge a path through the relentless headwind, and already I know that the for the effort I'm putting in, I should be going at least 10-15 seconds per mile faster. Very quickly it is becoming apparent that today's time goals are heading straight out the window - there is just no way I can keep up this level of exertion for another 20+ miles. Check out how hard I'm working in the video below, taken by a spectator in Brooklyn.....

Miles 7-9: 6:39, 6:39, 6:41

Paula now moves ahead and opens up a small gap on me; somehow, somewhat surprisingly, I find myself unwilling to follow. She's not very far ahead, maybe 10 seconds, but she stays there for the next 3 miles as we continue to battle the wind. And really it's getting rather boring now - not only am I dealing with a constant headwind, I'm all alone and the gusts are still coming frequent and strong. Gah, this is awful.

On the other hand, having my name on my bib is turning out to be rather awesome. The crowd is much smaller than I remember it being in 2010 (probably due to the icy blast, perhaps a lot of spectators have actually been blown away) but no less vocal and they are all calling to me by name: cheers of "Rachel! GO Rachel!" and the like are coming thick and fast. I realise this means that anyone whom I actually DO know will have no way of identifying themselves to me, since everyone knows my name now, but still it is very cool. It's making up in some small way for the horror of running headlong into a hurricane, which is essentially what I am trying to do now.

Miles 10-12: 6:41, 6:48, 6:36

I've pretty much decided that 6:40ish is a reasonable pace to aim for; if I can maintain this then I'll still get in well under 3 hours, which is my C goal for the day. The course winds onwards through Brooklyn and into the neighbourhood populated by Hasidic Jews. With so few runners on the course, they are feeling very free to just walk right out and cross the road whenever they like. I almost slam straight into a bloke with the most impressive monobrow that I've ever seen -- I'm sure I look EXTREMELY surprised as I shoot past, thankfully without a collision.

The personal fluid stations have been a huge success so far and because it's so cold, I haven't been bothering to drink at any other water stops. I've managed to take my gels at miles 2 and 8 without any issues, and all I have had to concentrate on is making sure I use both hands to grab my bottle - due to the wind they've been sticky taped to the tables and it does take a bit of effort to get them free. But the water stop at mile 11 is a lot of fun as I pass through; the entire crowd of volunteers, all revved-up but with very little to do at this stage, is chanting as one: "RA-CHEL! RA-CHEL!! RA-CHEL!!"

Despite the relentless battering of the wind, this sort of thing makes me laugh and realise that I'm having fun after all. Up ahead Paula has now moved quite a way ahead of me, but it's interesting to note that she is catching up to not one but TWO other female runners. I wonder if I will be able to do the same?

Miles 13-15: 6:52, 6:50, 7:08

I go through half-way in just on 1:28:00 and realise that sub-3 may yet be slipping away from me: I'm struggling to hold onto a reasonable pace as I fight the wind to get up the second of the bridges, and the notorious Queensboro bridge still lies ahead. For the first time I feel rather annoyed - it's completely unfair that this weather should show up and take away any possible advantage that being in the professional race might have given me. What I wouldn't give to have someone to run behind right now!

These 15 miles have worn me out more than I could have anticipated, and the only consolation is the thought that by mile 21 or so the wind *should* be coming from behind. I just need to get there....focus, don't give up. I'm reminded of my meeting at the expo with Kathrine Switzer, one of the pioneers of women's running, and how she hugged me and told me "Be fearless!". Those words go around in my head and I find new resolve as I make the turn up onto the bridge.

Two marathon women!

Miles 16-18: 7:16, 6:52, 6:52

The steady uphill of the bridge is eerily silent and unpleasantly tough. Despite being on the lower deck of the bridge, the headwind continues unabated; besides the whipping of my half-off bib as the wind again tears at it, all I can hear is the slap-slap of my feet as I make my way ever-upward. There's a water station around half-way; I grab my bottle and quickly take a few sips, then discard it amongst the pile of others. My Garmin loses the satellites and completely freaks out. I can't say I blame it - I've just about had enough of this myself!

But coming down onto First Avenue is just as thrilling as it was 4 years ago. The crowd is large and loud, and they roar even louder when I raise my arms and wave at them. Again I'm grinning and enjoying myself, despite everything, and the vibe carries me onwards. At some point along here is my photographer friend Jason, who takes some photos that he later posts on Facebook for me; I will discover to my amazement that professional athletes apparently don't get official photos from the race, so these ones will turn out to be even more precious. Many thanks to Jason for sharing his photography skills with me once again.

Too exhausted to even look up, sorry folks.

Somewhere between my Garmin going weird at mile 16 and the upcoming events of mile 18/19, I have now completely stopped checking my pace. I don't even look when a mile split beeps; I know I'm going a lot slower than I'd like, but I'm deep in survival mode and there's no real point looking, since there won't be anything I can do about it anyway.

I've been running a long time now but I'm not feeling remotely warm; the best I can say is that with my arm warmers, gloves and a beanie, I'm not actually cold. And the INKnBURN outfit, as always, is attracting a lot of attention - besides my name, the thing I'm hearing most of is "Nice outfit!", "Best outfit of the day!" and similar sentiments. Being dressed in funky gear definitely goes a long way towards making up for the sufferfest that the rest of the day has turned into.

Miles 19-21: 7:02, 7:04, 7:23

As mile 19 starts, finally it happens: the stream of lead vehicles and police motorcycles that precede the male leaders starts to roar past me. Unlike Boston there is no personal bicycle spotter to warn me and keep me safe - and as result I almost get flattened by the photographers' vehicle as it passes by ridiculously close - but whatever, it's still pretty thrilling. Not so thrilling that it has any great effect on my pace, unfortunately.

As they pass me I count 9 in the pack, and Meb is amongst them! I try to yell out to him but the wind is so strong that it drowns me out - well, that and the screaming from the crowd. What a difference to the moment when he passed me during Boston, when he was out in front all by himself.....and if only I had a pack like that to hide in. Sigh.

Me leaving the elite men in the dust. Keep up, boys! Ha ha.

But look at this: the first of the females that I've been chasing for miles now is fast coming into my frame of reference. I know I am slowing down but she must be slowing down more, because come mile 20 I suddenly find myself shooting past her. Good, good, that's 2 female elites that are now behind me! And there is at least one more in sight - perhaps a tiny game of Assassin Mode is on the cards after all. In a schadenfreude sort of way I'm glad to know that others are fading worse than I am; clearly I wasn't the only one badly affected by the headwind.

And hopefully there's some relief now in sight: actually since mile 17 I've been telling myself "Just get to 21 and then it will be a tailwind! It will be EASY!" But I find myself in the Bronx at mile 21 and the wind is most definitely still blowing straight into my face. Onto 5th Avenue at last.....and it's still blowing right at me. Or it swirls around to blow me sideways; there are short periods now where it's behind me but this never lasts for more than 20 or 30 seconds. Ye gods, this is so, SO unfair!!

Miles 22-24: 7:01, 7:07, 7:26

Onward I struggle along 5th Avenue, trying not to count how many blocks I have to pass before I hit Central Park South, trying to keep it going. It's gratifying to know that I have at least one friend with the brains to figure out how to get my attention: around mile 22 I hear "Rachel GLASSON!!!" from the left and look over to see Pam waving and smiling. Probably somewhere in the same mile my friend Ron is yelling and screaming and even running along beside me, all to no avail; should have used my surname, Ron, or perhaps a loudhailer?

The only other good thing about this stretch is that I somehow manage to catch and pass another 2 female elite runners. A few more male elites are passing me, though - Lee Troop burns past me on his way to an impressive 2:25 - still, there's not really anybody around and definitely not anybody to run with. I guess I'm used to it by now.

Then, somewhere just before the sharp right-hand turn into Central Park - and right as I'm practically being blown sideways straight into the Park -  I hear an almighty roar from my right and look over to see 3 of my friends bellowing their lungs out at me: Jim, Yvonne and Tara. Yvonne takes a photo at the exact second that I make a goofy face and wave excitedly; she posts it to Facebook and people enthuse about how I look like I'm still having fun (despite having run 24 miles in gale-force headwinds) but nobody stops to consider that maybe I'm just completely delirious at this point? Because that's definitely another possibility.

My brain cells have all been blown away! Gaaaahhh!!

Miles 25-26.2: 7:03, 6:58, then 6:28 pace to finish

Grinding along through Central Park, the crowds are much smaller than I remember from 2010, but I barely care at this point. All I want is to get to the finish. The lack of support does feel strange, though; as I hit the corner where we turn onto Central Park South, there is abruptly a huge crowd straining at the barriers but they are eerily silent. Suddenly I think to myself, well, this isn't right! I haven't run 25+ miles in a roaring headwind for people to just stare blankly at me - so I look left and right, raise my arms above my head and yell "COME ON!!" They respond with a deafening roar and I'm laughing like a madwoman as I turn and head towards Columbus Circle. I may be losing it here, but that was kind of fun! Next thought: god, that statue is just too far away.

There's a bloke ahead of me though who looks to be in big trouble. He's wearing a bib on his back so he's one of the male elites - he must have passed me earlier. I zip past him, thankful not to be in the same position, and eventually I'm turning back into the park and the finish stretch. I can summon up something of a kick but it's not much to speak of, and finally I'm over the line where I practically fall into Mary Wittenberg's arms. "How was it??" she asks and I gasp out "Bloody windy!!" but I'm okay really, just annoyed that when I looked up at the arch just beyond the finish, it read "Professional Women" with a clock near it that had just ticked over 3:00.

Finish time: 3:00:45, 6:54 pace

Placement: 52nd OA female (25th in professional race), 9th AG.

The elite and sub-elite tents are up on a small hill quite near the finish - I refuse the offer of a space blanket and instead allow myself to be escorted up there straightaway so I can get my hands on my warm clothes; they are easily located and someone even brings me a medal. In the professional women's tent I find Paula, who has pushed through to a very impressive 2:56, and we commiserate about the wind as we both strip off and replace sweaty race outfits with warm dry clothing - ahhh.

Two fast doctor chicks. Awesome.

Back at the hotel after showers and a rest, it's time to start the celebrations. I won't go into detail but it involves a great deal of food, alcohol and very little sleep, many old and new friends and a fantastic dinner with some of the other "working elites", including the incredible Yuki Kawauchi - Japan's "citizen runner" who runs sub-2:10 marathons like they're a walk in the park....such a cool and humble dude.

The working runners' table!

The analysis
It's not too hard to figure out what went wrong here; there were 4 contributing factors that are, in no particular order:
- that ridiculous headwind
- running mostly totally alone against that ridiculous headwind
- low average mileage in the 12 weeks beforehand (including 4 weeks completely off)
- that 2:53 marathon in Melbourne that in retrospect was probably not a great idea, but lots of fun

From my 5K splits the story appears: I was going reasonably well until around 20K, after which time I gracefully faded (yet without totally giving up the ghost) to my first non-sub-3 marathon since late 2011.

It's disappointing not to have even broken 3 hours but on the other hand, I hit my goal of not being last - I was 25th of 30 in the professional women's race despite having the lowest seeding going into it. And the vast majority of others in the race lost 7-8 minutes (or more) off their goal: for example, both Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher went though half-way in 1:14 yet finished in 2:33 and 2:37 respectively. 

It was just a rough day and the headwind took a lot out of everyone -- starting in the main race would likely have made things a fair bit easier for me, but I'll never regret taking the opportunity to run New York Marathon as an elite athlete: it will remain forever in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences in my running career.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Melbourne marathon, October 2014

After Boston in April I had ideas of taking another shot at Melbourne and hopefully running the sub-2:50 that I narrowly missed there last year, but life had other things in store. As I wrote in my last post, an ankle injury took me out for the whole of August and by the time I was back in training, there really wasn't enough time left to train properly for that goal.

My coach Benita talks to me a lot about the mental aspect of marathoning, and I've learned through experience that confidence is crucial for marathon success. I just didn't have the confidence that after 4 weeks off I'd have the endurance to pull off 2:49 or better, so my previous idea of running Melbourne for time and NYC for fun was suddenly in reverse; this was further solidified when my friend Tara convinced me to ask for a sub-elite (preferred) start at NYC. In fact I was down for this in 2012 when the marathon was cancelled, so I did email and ask again -- and was amazed to get a reply that was not only in the affirmative, but actually invited me to participate in the elite women's race! What, me? Up there with the Africans and such??

It seemed fairly ridiculous, but definitely not something to be refused - at this point in my life I am very unlikely to earn such an honour again - so I accepted, and the idea of Melbourne as a training run was fixed on the calendar. I have never run a marathon as training for another, but I guess there's a first time for everything.....

The Training

Thankfully I made a fairly smooth return to running after my ankle injury, assisted by my awesome physiotherapist, Marcus, and was able to put in a couple of solid weeks' mileage before the necessary mini-taper the week leading up to Melbourne. I only had one decent long run in the whole of August/September, however, so some doubt did remain in my mind as to whether my endurance would be at its usual level.

Exactly how much effort to put into the race was a question that vexed me for a while - I had ideas of just looking to run sub-3:00, but knowing I'd have my name on my bib (since I was already entered once again as an elite runner) meant that didn't seem quite enough. Thankfully a solution appeared, in the form of an online running friend who was going to be running his second marathon there and was aiming to take 4-5 minutes off his 2:59 PR.  I offered to pace him and he accepted; suddenly I had a both a goal and a purpose for this "training run". Excellent!

The Lead-up

I've wisely booked a nicer apartment for this year - far in advance - and we settle in without too much drama after an easy drive down on Friday afternoon. Ramen noodles for dinner marks the start of my official carb-loading regime, and I'm taking it fairly seriously even though the marathon is no longer to be what I would call an all-out racing effort. I confer briefly with Benita and also with Andrew, my RWOL friend who also happens to be a Kiwi, and decide on a pacing strategy for Sunday.

Saturday morning dawns cool and cloudy; Andrew and I meet up for an easy 4 miler during which we talk non-stop and miraculously manage to avoid getting lost - we even find a place for coffee afterwards. After some confusion I've managed to help secure a preferred start for him in the marathon, so we part with a plan to meet at the start line.

Smaller but somehow much scarier than the Sydney version

Other than the standard Elite Athlete briefing the rest of the day - as usual before a marathon - passes with as little activity and as many carbohydrate intake as possible. Pastries for breakfast, sushi for the time dinner rolls around I'm half-heartedly munching on a doughy slice of pizza and wistfully gazing at the salad. After this race I swear I'm not eating for a week.

Race Day
I wake to realise there's light streaming into the room - OMIGOD have I somehow slept in?? But no, it's coming from the elevator lobby windows that are opposite mine; a glance at the clock confirms it's only 3:30am. Phew! I doze off but wake again for good at 4:30am - might as well take advantage and try to have some breakfast. I can manage a glass of iced coffee but food leaves me cold; really the only reason that I'm having anything at all is to get the digestive system working, and when that effect has been achieved I give up on consuming anything more until the race is underway.

It's cold out, around 10C/50F, so I put on tights and my Boston jacket over my race outfit and at 5:30am I set off at a brisk pace towards the MCG. There are many other runners streaming in that direction; I find my way easily to the Elite Athlete room down in the bowels of the stadium and hang around there chatting to various other runners until it's time to head up to the start. Australian marathoning legend Steve Moneghetti  strolls in and is accosted by the Elite Co-ordinator, Tim: "Who let YOU in here??" - Monas laughs and I take the opportunity to go over and say hi. He probably only vaguely remembers me - it's been a couple of years since we met a few times in quick succession - and in any case it's time to go, so I wish him luck (he's running the HM) and head out with the others.

Let's do this.

I find Andrew without much difficulty and soon we're let out onto the road - he seems to want to hang modestly back but I drag him forwards with me and we end up about 8 rows back from the very front. That's good because we're not trying to go out too fast....are we? The remaining time passes very quickly and then a loud cannon sounds: it's time to run!

Miles 1-3: 6:33, 6:33, 6:33 (pace in min/mile)

It's more difficult than usual to settle in to the correct pace - I'm used to just going hell-for-leather the first half mile or so and then seeing where I stand. Today is going to be different, though, and already I know I'm going to be checking my watch a lot more than usual. A strange slapping sound distracts me as we head up the slight incline to Flinders Street - then a guy with long hair and BARE FEET speeds past. Andrew and I exchange looks of amazement, then the first mile split sounds and I am very pleased to see we are pretty much exactly on track.

At mile 2 I slurp down my first gel, then completely fail to get hold of a cup of water with which to wash it down. As we zoom through the water station I try several times to grab one - they're nasty, overfull plastic cups with a rim that absolutely cannot be bent into a spout - but only succeed in drenching myself. And possibly several of the volunteers, oops. Little do I know that this will become something of a theme for the day.

We head down towards St Kilda with the usual crowd of blokes around us; I have no idea how many women are ahead of me, and I'm honestly trying not to think about it too much anyway, because today is not about racing. Nope, it's not. As if to confirm this fact, the next 2 miles click past in metronome-like fashion: today is all about consistency, self-control and pacing.

Miles 4-6: 6:25, 6:31, 6:26

Speeding up slightly as we turn the corner and head around Albert Park Lake, things are still going very smoothly - Andrew is slightly behind me over my shoulder and both of us are breathing easily and feeling good. We are now catching the inevitable hot-heads who set off at 5K pace and are already starting to fade; one of them is quite tiny (probably under 5' tall) and has an enormous bushy beard that is bouncing in a comical fashion on either side of his head.

I point him out to Andrew as subtly as I can - we're approaching from behind at a rapid rate - but then as I pull just ahead of him, there's an audible grunt and whoops, he's surging past me like a maniac. I guess little guys with big beards don't like getting chicked! I hear Andrew laughing behind me; within another mile we will have caught Little Bearded One and left him in the dust. Another water station comes up and I once again spill water everywhere but in my mouth - it's a good thing I'm not a heavy sweater, or I'd be facing dehydration by now. Andrew offers me his cup but there's not a lot left in there - at least it's something.

There are a few out-and-back stretches in this part of the course that afford us a view of the leaders, as well as the enormous sub-2:50 pace group - I know from last year that very few of them will still be with the pacer by the end of the race - and I see my nemesis from last year, Fleur, slightly in front of them. Right next to her is Mr Barefoot! She's clearly going for a new PR after last year's 2:50, and she's looking relaxed enough that I am confident she'll get it.

Miles 7-9: 6:30, 6:27, 6:36

We go through an inflatable arch that marks the 10K; Andrew has a Kiwi pace band on (see below) and a glance at it confirms that we are dead on pace - our split is 40:58.

A Kiwi pace band. Cheap, convenient and re-usable!
The rest of this 3 mile stretch wanders back and forth near Albert Park Lake and the number of runners around us thins out considerably. We're still catching people; one of them gestures to the sub-2:50 pace group on the other side of the road and comments that he was supposed to stay with them. Um, I'm not sure why you're telling me that, but okay? All I care about is not getting caught by the sub-3:00 group, and there's little chance of that, thank god.

Time for another gel; I grab for a cup at the water stop and hooray, I get one first try! But YUCK it's filled with hydralyte, or whatever the disgusting electrolyte mix is that the race sponsors have forced on us. It's low-calorie, which makes NO sense for something that is supposed to be a fuel source for runners, and it tastes like lemon cordial made with sea water. I chuck the cup away in disgust and note that one of the guys running near us is doing the same. This stuff is gross!

Miles 10-12: 6:24, 6:40, 6:26

We turn back onto Fitzroy St and head down towards the coastline now - I remember this part from last year and the headwind that had already picked up. Thankfully today there is no wind at all, and so the long out-and-back stretches ahead of us might not be too tough. We have no real pack of runners around us, in sharp contrast to the situation I was in last year, although we do seem to have picked up a couple of guys in blue singlets. One of them recognises me from somewhere - maybe the HM I ran a few weeks ago in Sydney? - and when Andrew says that I'm his personal elite pacer, this guy laughs and says "And now mine too!" Really? Alright then! Off we go.

These guys just signed up to get chicked.

It's a little hard to judge pace here - we're going a bit too fast, so we compensate and end up right at the slower end of our pace range. Whoops, back the other way, now too fast again. There's a big blow-up arch down the road that last year marked 20K (which is still written on it very clearly) but it's somehow way too far away. Perhaps it's the half?

Miles 13-15: 6:37, 6:44, 6:35

We go through the arch - which as predicted is indeed the halfway mark - in 1:26:15, which is slightly ahead of the planned 1:27:00, but that's fine by me. Andrew comments at this point "I don't feel as strong as I probably should" and I'm strongly reminded of my own mental state last year at this exact point: I too was worrying about feeling too tired already, and it really had an effect on what happened later on when the sub-2:50 pace group caught me and I essentially gave up.

So I turn to him and say "That's fine, it's not meant to feel easy, you're fine" - and I go on to explain my own personal theory of running at "the pointy end" of one's abilities, which is that the pace will inevitably feel tough from very early in the race. It's important to understand this, to be ready for it and also to know that the pace - if it's what you've trained for - will be sustainable. Doubting yourself is not going to help; there's a saying among marathoners "Trust the training", and nowhere is it more applicable than right here.

Clearly my words have the desired effect on Andrew's struggling psyche, and the photo below is proof:

If you look very closely you can see me rolling my eyes

Since we're ahead and in order to further quell his anxiety about how he's feeling, I deliberately make Andrew slow down over the next few miles. We need to save whatever kick we have left for the nasty uphill that I know is ahead at the 35-37km mark; there is no point wasting it now.

I cautiously take my 3rd gel - the second one was salted caramel flavour and somehow burned the back of my throat, a very unpleasant sensation indeed -  at the next water stop I manage to get some water, albeit on my second or third attempt. I'm regretting somewhat the decision NOT to use personal water bottles (a privilege afforded the elite runners and one I should have taken up) but thankfully the lack of water so far doesn't seem to be negatively affecting me.

Miles 16-18: 6:31, 6:31, 6:44

We're still running down parallel to the coast now; the final out-and back stretch before heading back towards the city and - eventually - the finish. Andrew announces that he's feeling better, so we speed up a touch and watch the leaders as they streak along on the other side of the road. There's a pack of Africans running close together, a Japanese man all alone on his own and then a tight group of Aussies. The leading woman, Nikki Chapple, is not too far behind them and looking comfortable; she will go on to run 2:31. I'm predicting she will be running the marathon for Australia at Rio 2016, she's just so strong.

Myself? I'm starting to feel rather fatigued at this point (although I choose not to share this fact with Andrew) - running this pace feels tougher than it should, considering that I'm running quite a bit slower than I did this year in Boston. Time to suck it up, princess, and just run. I distract myself as best I can, and it helps that we catch another female Elite in this stretch: the lone African female who is a good deal less muscular (and more plump) than I would have expected. I'm still not really considering what overall place I will end up in amongst the women running this race, but whatever it is, it just improved by one. Yay!

Miles 19-21: 6:37, 6:34, 6:36

The turn back onto Fitzroy Street sees us mingle briefly with the runners who are doing the half-marathon; suddenly there are people all over the road and I'm forced to duck and weave to get around them. I take the initiative and forge ahead, hoping that Andrew will just tuck in behind me, and somehow we get through the crowds still together. Finally the road splits into two; we take the right side and the HMers go left. Phew, that sucked.

But nevertheless we are still pacing this race just about perfectly, and I take the opportunity to share this fact with Andrew. I tell him the truth, which is that he's running really strongly and the "20 mile blow-up" he jokingly predicted yesterday is certainly not on the cards. He's grateful to be reassured and asks me "So you're feeling good too?" to which I automatically reply "ah, yep" - but the truth is somewhat different. Around mile 20 I have started thinking that I would really, REALLY like to stop running right about now. I'm remembering what happened here last year when the sub-2:50 pace group caught up with me - it contained all of maybe 6 runners, most of whom were struggling - and I decided not to flog myself to stay with them.

It is SO tempting to want to do the same at this point again - it even flashes through my mind to tell Andrew "You know what, you just keep going, I'm going to jog the rest of the way." But of course there's no way I could ever let him down like that, so I just have to keep running. And suddenly I see another female runner ahead - passing her gives me the push that I need to face what's ahead.

Miles 22-24: 6:32, 6:41, 6:49

We turn down around the Arts Centre and whilst the short downhill stretch is lovely, we've merged again with the HM runners and at this point it's really quite annoying to have to keep zigging and zagging around them all. Andrew drops slightly back and I glance behind a couple of times before deciding it's too crowded for that; I'm just going to hope that he stays with me. The course winds around and takes us into the Botanic Gardens - ugh, this is the part I've been dreading.

Some sadistic course director has decided that mile 23 would be a good place to take the marathon up a hill that whilst not steep, is definitely way too long. The gradual uphill starts during mile 23 and just keeps coming - ugh, it's horrible, and a glance at my watch during mile 24 shows 7:10 pace. Come on Rachel! I yell inwardly, and finally - thankfully - the hill ends. My pace improves on the downhill but there's a flat mile coming up and all I can think is, get me out to the finish so I can stop! I've given up on water stations now - these poor volunteers deserve to stay dry and I don't seem to be able to stop chucking water on them in my attempts to grab a cup - so there's nothing slowing me down from getting there as fast as my legs can carry me.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:52, 6:48, 6:21 pace to finish

But my legs are toast after that stupid hill. All I can do is keep them moving, and that's just what I do. We zoom down along St Kilda Rd again - Andrew doesn't seem to be right behind me anymore and I briefly debate slowing down or waiting for him before deciding no, let him do his own thing now - and then I'm running past the train station, always a good photo op.

All on my lonesome ownsome at the 40K mark
Halfway through mile 26 I look up and to my EXTREME surprise I see a distinctly female figure running up ahead; could it be, could it looks like Fleur! Last time I saw her she was running just ahead of the sub-2:50 group, so what on earth has happened that I have somehow almost caught her? The next question of course is, can I actually catch her??

There's probably not enough time, I probably can't be bothered, and maybe it would be really demoralising for her if I caught her -- nope, I'm not going to catch her. But I come ridiculously close as I put on a final "sprint" to cover the final 0.25 miles at 6:21 min/mile, which is just under 4 min/km pace. I hear her being announced as the first finisher in her age group, then I'm finally over the line and yay, I get to stop running now!!

Ahhhh, what a relief!

Finish time: 2:53:38

Placement: 10th female, 1st AG (F40-44)

To my delight I've managed to run a bit faster than I was expecting - I spend a very short time looking (in vain) for Fleur, but she has disappeared and in any case I hear the finish line announcer yelling about more people finishing under 2:55 - I turn and squint at the men now rushing towards the finish line: yes, one of them is wearing a blue singlet!

Andrew charges across the line in 2:54:17 - more than 5 minutes faster than his first marathon - to the pleasant accompanying sound of me screaming "RUN! RUN!!GO!!!!!" at him as loudly as I can. We both hit our target time, in fact a little better - how exciting!!

We spend a few minutes congratulating ourselves on our achievement, but I have to get changed and find Mum and Amelia, so I head off pretty quickly to the elite room to get my stuff. Thankfully, on our way back to the hotel we bump into Andrew and his wife, and finally we get the photo we've been meaning to get all weekend:

We did it!
The Analysis

Pacing is a tough gig! I probably would find pacing sub-3 a lot easier; 2:53 is rather too close to my own PR of 2:47:57 for comfort. I was a little surprised at how hard it felt even quite early on - then again I barely tapered from the two weeks prior to race week when I ran 95 and 81 miles respectively.

On the other hand, pacing is also awesome! Running with Andrew gave me a purpose and drive for this race that otherwise would have been sorely missing. I have no idea what I might have tried to do if not for the need to stay steady and run that certain pace; I might have tried to stick with Fleur or even decided to run with the 2:50 group, who knows. I'm almost certain that my chances at New York are going to be better for having run Melbourne in the way that I did - so I'm very grateful to Andrew for letting me pace him to a really well-deserved, shiny new marathon PR.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blackmore's Sydney HM, Sept 2014

I have quite the history with this race; I first ran it in 2007, shortly after returning from a year in Scotland, and since then I've run it 6 times. It's one of the most beautiful and scenic courses that I've ever run on, but it's also a tough, twisty, hilly course and for a variety of reasons I've only really raced it once or twice. My finish times and notes tell an interesting story:

2007 - 1:27:48; return to Australia and my 3rd 1:27:xx HM of the year, despite truly haphazard training and nothing over 10 miles.

2009 - 1:30:39; return to racing after weaning my daughter, rather disappointed with the result; this inspired my foray into "proper" training.

2010 - 1:32:16; training run for first marathon (NYC November 2010), deliberately not racing (although I have no idea why not).

2011 - 1:32:53; returning after injury-plagued winter, not racing, therefore feeling particularly photogenic:
Not racing! But somehow still winning!
2012: 1:45:xx; pacing, not racing.

2013: 1:23:08; racing for once! And quite successfully so - 6th female, 1st in AG. Massive course PR.

The Training
I seem to get injured now once every 2-3 years, and typically in July/August. Sure enough, I did it again this year and only really had 2 weeks back at training before this HM. With a preferred start for the first time ever for this race - darn it - I was pretty miffed at not being in top shape to race it. But the bigger focus is now Melbourne, no, actually beyond it to New York. So when Benita suggested that I aim to run a solid but not all-out effort, around the 1:24-1:25 mark, I agreed. Secretly I probably though I'd be able to run faster than that, but in any case it took some of the pressure off and allowed me to head into the race without too much anxiety, which was naturally a good thing.

Race Day
I'm awake at 3am and then again at 3:30, which is not very helpful, and do manage to go back to sleep before the scheduled wake-up time of 5:00am.  But I spend the time dreaming that I'm running a half-marathon that inexplicably diverts to run through a farmhouse (which somehow belongs to my friends) and then fields of corn. In the house I've lost my shoes, so a stranger offers me some beetroot to rub on my feet instead. Surprisingly I accept, and am busy doing that when I awake somewhat bewildered to the sound of my alarm.

I'm staying right by the starting line and my intention is to get up and run my customary 2 mile warm-up straight from the door, but when I get outside there are so many people making their way to the starting area that running seems pretty much impossible. So instead I make a beeline for the elite/preferred runner area and just stand there trying to keep warm, and trying not to stress about the lack of warm-up. The weather forecast called for sunny skies and about 10C/50F temps, but the skies are surprisingly grey and threatening - a far cry from the warmth of a couple of years ago.

The elite area is a bit more crowded than I'd imagined: state championships seem to be on and there are a lot of people in various state uniforms. I'm chatting to some of them when one of my fast RunCamp buddies, Neil, shows up. Awesome! Soon Vlad - the head of RunLab - also appears and it's little reunion of sorts. Both of them are aiming for finish times that will put them miles ahead of me; again I wish that I was in better racing form today, but oh well.

The time comes to head up to the starting line so I reluctantly strip off my throwaway top - I haven't put anything on the trucks, an omission that I will come to regret later - and manage to at least get some strides done before taking my place towards the back of the preferred runners. Neil and Vlad are right up the front so I don't get a chance to say goodbye or good luck, but this won't be the last time I see them today.

Miles 1-3: 6:44, 6:11, 6:10 (pace in min/mile)
As usual, the first mile is mostly uphill, but at least it's not as crowded as usual. There seems to be a LOT of women ahead of me at this point, which I guess is fine, but the competitive part of my brain is not impressed. I'm trying to remind myself that I am NOT supposed to be running this all-out, but I'm happier when the second and third mile splits beep and are closer to what my half-marathon pace is supposed to be.

Heading across the bridge - that's me 5 people from the left.
Take note of the guy in stripes, more about him below.

Heading down for the first short turn-around on the Western Distributor (read: big spaghetti-type freeway that leads off the bridge) I see the leaders on the other side of the road: Vlad is in 4th place and Neil is in the chase pack in 6th or 7th. Go guys! I'd love to yell at them but I'm too busy trying not to fall over - the heavens have started spitting rain and the road is scarily slippery. The 5K split comes along and is around 19:38 - so far, so good, but the hilly parts are mostly still ahead of me.

Miles 4-6: 6:28, 6:28, 6:36
We zoom across the top of Circular Quay and head up Macquarie St towards the Domain. Ugh, uphill, this is really not my idea of fun. As I turn down to Mrs Macquarie's chair the rain has intensified and I'm too busy worrying about whether it is going to rain on the kids' race (which starts at 7:45am, and will have both my kids running in it) to focus on my pace. Which is either too slow or WAY too slow, depending on your viewpoint, but right now I'm too distracted to care.

I suddenly notice this guy who is running near me wearing a shirt with vertical red and white stripes - we've been running quite close together for a while now. As we grind back up the hill past the Art Gallery a remarkable number of people running the other way are now calling out to him, and very quickly I figure out that his name is Chris. Rapidly it becomes quite amazing - the calls of "Hey Chris!" "Great going, mate!" and the more basic "Chriiiiiiiisssss!" are coming thick and fast - so much so that I'm very tempted at one point to ask him "Do you know every single person in this race? Or just most of them??"

I have a shadow and his name is CHRIIIIIISSSSSS

I pass him on the uphill but he passes me back on the flat; his stride is similar to mine and for a short time I amuse myself comparing our cadence, which at least takes my mind off the constant chorus of "Chris! Chris! Chriiiiiissss!" At the top there's a short out-and-back on College St, I'm in front now and we run very close together for a while, then I guess I lose him (and the course veers away so there are no longer slower runners, aka people yelling "Chriiiis!!", coming the other way) as we zig and zag our slippery way down to Circular Quay again.

Miles 7-9: 6:10, 6:15, 6:22
The mile down to the Quay is mostly downhill and I'm flying along again at a more acceptable pace, thank god. I can hold it together even along the very slippery boardwalk through the Rocks - I idly notice a couple of banners advertising Headspace, which is pretty weird - and out along Hickson Rd, but in mile 9 the small rollers start again. A brief distraction comes along in the form of a guy wearing orange, who sidles up behind me and suddenly asks "Why are you carrying a walkie-talkie?"  I guess it is a rather weird running accessory - I laugh and explain as quickly as I can - he wishes me luck and then the hills start and nobody's talking anymore.

The first significant uphill is made better by the fact that here I catch a female runner - that's one less in front of me, and hopefully I won't get passed back - I'm slowing down again, but I feel good and I'm too scared of fading later on to push any harder. The lack of training has me doubting my endurance a bit, and the last thing I need is to blow up and fall in a heap.

As I head out once again on the freeway, the leaders are coming the other way - there's Vlad still in 4th and here comes Neil in 7th place! Inspired perhaps by the chorus of Chris, and in part by the fact that I'd rather conserve my breath, I manage to yell out "VLAAAAD!" and "NEEEIILLLL!!" as they pass; both are understandably too focused to acknowledge me, but that doesn't matter one bit. It has gone very quiet around me - I wonder where Chris is?

Miles 10-12: 6:47, 6:28, 6:13
Right, mile 10 is the horror mile of this race and has always been so - it does a loop around a block and then hits two short but very sharp uphills that I remember from every year I have run them, entirely due to their sheer awfulness. Seriously, WHY? I slog my way up and over, back up and down, and am only partly mollified by the realisation that there are now TWO more female runners within striking distance head of me. Mile 11 begins with me closing in on the first of them, who is wearing a pink top. I realise suddenly that I don't feel that bad, really, so I surge and pass her without a second thought. I'm definitely picking up the pace now.

Flying along, bonus famous landmark in the background

Zooming back along towards the finish line, I catch female #2 right at the spot where I caught another rival last year. The memory of that has me grinning, and my grin widens when I round the corner under the Harbour Bridge and realise there is yet another woman not far ahead! She's wearing a blue Athletics NSW uniform and looks to be fading. Can I get her??

Mile 13.1: 6:25, 5:55 pace to finish
Funnily enough, I actually slow down again during this mile, but almost everyone around me is fading out too, and probably because of my marathoning background I seem to be fading the least. I catch and pass Blue Uniform girl right on the boardwalk by the water (same place again as last year), and now all I have to do is hold it together and I'll be home. Holy crap, though, it's slippery going!

Left foot, right foot, don't fall down.
But I manage not to slip, and even to negotiate the wet cobblestones of the Opera House forecourt at 5:51 pace. As always it's a pleasure to see the finish line at last, and the announcer is shouting something about sub-1:25.....hold on, what?? Somehow I was thinking I had run faster than that, but whatever, sub-1:25 will do fine.

Finish time:  1:24:52  (6:28 min/mile, 4:01 min/km)

Placement: 13th female, 2nd AG (40-44)

I'm walking around drinking water and trying to stay warm when another runner in the same singlet as Chris turns up - it's Robyn from NSW Masters Athletics, who greeted me in the start area - and then Chris himself shows up! He's yelling at me for being too strong, she's warning me to stay away from him (something about him being Irish, lol) and I finally get to spit out my line about every other runner seeming to know his name. Awesome!!

This is  a pretty huge race - 7799 finishers, of whom 3971 were female - so I'm still happy with this result, although I *was* 6th last year and almost 2 minutes faster. Vlad has finished in 5th and Neil 9th position overall; but neither of them is anywhere to be seen and in any case I need to find the finish line for the kids' race pretty quickly, so I hot-foot it up the hill to the Conservatorium and before long I am amazed to see Jack finish the 3.5km race in just 18:38. That's faster than I expected - what a champ!

Unfortunately we then wait another full 25 minutes for his leisurely, strolling sister to finish - during which time I develop a mild case of hypothermia. I'm on the walkie-talking yelling "Where ARE you??" to which she calmly and repeatedly replies, with her knack for the obvious "I'm not there yet". I implore her to please go a bit faster, but nope, she's not having it. The subsequent trek back to the hotel is frigid and does nothing to improve my core temperature, although at least it's no longer raining.

The Analysis
Upon reflection, this is my second fastest time on this course by quite a long way, so I guess all is not lost. And for once I have actually followed Benita's instructions to a tee - I definitely wasn't going all-out, although I'm not sure I really could have gone a lot faster. It was pleasing to find that my endurance hasn't suffered too much from the time off in August, and that's probably a good sign for what lies ahead.

Next up: Melbourne!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lake to Lagoon 10K, September 2014

The Lake to Lagoon is Wagga's most popular running event and there's a good recap of its history - as well as my own history running it - in my post from last year; it now seems to have become a permanent 10K that starts and finishes at Lake Albert. This year I was hoping to avenge my second-place finish from last year when I was felled by a freak accident in early August, leading to my longest stretch off from running since the end of 2005: a whole 4 weeks of cross-training, uncertainty and frustration.

For any runner, being injured is bad enough. When it's the result of a silly decision to ignore one's advancing age and pretend one is a teenager complete with snowboard and baseball hat on backwards - much, much worse. The uneasy feeling that accompanies a running-related injury was replaced by one of chagrin and regret when I found that despite not having done anything resembling running for almost a week after the high-speed crash, my right ankle would not under any circumstances allow me to run. How ironic that I can run 100 miles a week and never get injured but two afternoons on a snowboard and I'm toast? WTF was I thinking to go snowboarding anyway? I will be advertising that stupid thing on eBay any day now.

Never again.

After another week - having missed the local trail marathon and noting only the very slightest of improvement in my ankle -  I arranged an MRI scan that to my admittedly amateurish eye looked to show bone oedema and a possible fracture at the tip of my lower tibia. A fracture, yes, that would explain why this thing is still so bloody painful!! But no - the official report finally came through 4 days later and was insistent that there was no fracture or ligament damage, just a sprain and a bit of inflammation in the joint itself.

I was so amazed that I called the radiologist who had reported it, just to confirm that what I'd taken for swelling and fluid was actually signal artefact (now I really don't understand MRIs at all), and after that I promptly put myself on a course of medication to treat the inflammation. Within 24 hours almost all the pain I had felt on walking was gone, and 4 days later I embarked on my first, cautious test jog. Success! And only 2 weeks until the Lake to Lagoon! Did I just hear someone say "comeback"?

The Training
Ah, see above. That is to say, not much.

Training log for August - alarmingly empty.

Race Day
The course may be different but the start time for this race is just as ridiculous as ever: 10:30am, which at least means that I can stay in bed a lot later than normal. In a repeat performance of last year's pre-race ritual (I am nothing if not a creature of habit) I get up finally at 7:30am and eat a piece of raisin toast with coffee for breakfast, then keep myself busy with chores until it's time to head out. The weather prediction of 12C/53F has not held up - it is much warmer when I walk outside and any worries about feeling cold in the singlet/short shorts combo I have chosen are quickly dispelled.

I jog down my street and head for the lake, completing 4km (I've switched my Garmin to metric, just for kicks) with some race-pace strides in the final kilometre. My ankle is not talking to me, which is great, but my legs don't feel normal, which is expected but still not too great. I seriously have no idea what is going to happen today; I might win, I might collapse, who knows? It also depends in large part on who else has shown up; I met one of my likely competitors yesterday randomly in town, but other than her, I'm not sure who is here. Since there's really no point worrying about it, I resolve to enjoy just being able to run again and take part in the fun of the day.

There are lots of people around that I know so it's quite fun to chat to them and enjoy the buzz of people all getting ready for the run - both my kids have set off in the cycle wave (at 10am) and now there are just runners milling about in the park and by the lake.

Two of Wagga's faster runners. Yes, really.
I've just noticed Spiderman lurking in the shade with a group of others from the Wagga Wagga Road Runners and am about to go over to say hi when the call comes to line up at the start. From experience I know that if I don't position myself RIGHT at the front, I'll end up running smack into the backs of all the kids who will charge out from the start like a pack of wild animals before stopping dead in the middle of the road around 200m later. So I head for the pink line on the road instead and hold my ground amidst a sea of tweens.

Me front and centre, kids all around.

The usual dorky warm-up routine takes place; I participate half-heartedly for about a minute and then give up, instead just focusing on keeping myself calm and relaxed. There's a skinny little girl right next to me who looks like she's going to make a very fast runner someday - I take the opportunity to chat with her briefly and find out that she ran 44:00 last year and placed 10th female. She seems set to take a fair chunk of time off this year; I tell her "Just don't go out too fast" and then it's time for the countdown. In the same style as last year it is bone-crunchingly slow, almost enough to make me get nervous, then finally - we're off!

1 - 2km: 3:43, 3:53 (pace in min/km) -- min/mile 6:00, 6:17
Sure enough, Hannah (the little girl in pink) shoots out ahead of me like a rocket. I feel obliged to chase her and geez, I wasn't ready to run this fast! I'm happy though that for once I don't have kids slowing down or stopping dead right in front of me this year - the road ahead is fairly clear. I'm briefly distracted by Spiderman dashing past me yelling "Rachel's going to get beaten by Spidey!!" - who the heck is that behind the mask, anyway?? - then the first kilometre split beeps and holy crap, that's too fast to be sustainable!

Thankfully I have just caught Hannah, who has slowed down considerably - but she remains just over my shoulder and I'm pretty sure there's another chick on the other side behind me. The second km is also flat, but the uphill is fast approaching. I'm in the lead now, but I'm not counting my chickens yet - it's time to dig in and hold on.

3 - 4km: 4:06, 4:02 -- 6:38, 6:31
Ugh, this uphill stuff sucks. It's not horrendously steep but it goes on and on without respite, all the way to the turn-around. The leaders are on their way back down as I grind onwards to the top, and I really can't be bothered counting what place I'm in overall -- but I am VERY interested to know how much of a lead I have on Hannah and the other woman who was hot on my tail earlier in the race.

I check my watch as I turn and am pleased to note that I have approximately 45 seconds on both Hannah and the girl I met on Saturday - Lizzie - hopefully I can at least hold that, if not increase it.

5 - 6km: 3:48, 3:44 -- 6:09, 6:03
Heading back down towards the lake there are lots of people yelling my name from the stream of runners on the other side of the road - the great thing about being known as a runner in a relatively small city - but I am way too focused to acknowledge any of them with more than a brief wave. I haven't forgotten my embarrassing near-collapse at the end of the 2011 race and a part of my brain is very worried about a repeat performance. So far I feel okay, though.

I speed down towards the lake and hit the path that runs around the western side; this next bit is going to be hot and exposed, I know from past experience. I've managed to get back up to speed and the last 2K were much closer to 10K race pace than the uphill ones, which is gratifying. But I'm starting to feel tired - let's see what I've got left.

7 - 8km: 3:56, 3:55 -- 6:22, 6:20
Up ahead there's a very small cyclist and a man in black running next to her: it's my daughter with her father! She stops to let the runners ahead of me pass, and I start yelling her name. She's desperate to show me her skinned elbow and knee - it looks like she's fallen off at least once, whoops - but all I have time to do is yell that I'm so proud of her, blow her a kiss and keep running. Hopefully she will make it to the end without more scrapes!

Snacks in basket in case of hunger emergency
9 - 10km: 4:02, 3:51 -- 6:32, 6:13

I lose my focus temporarily during the 9th kilometre; the short, steep uphill behind the Boat Club is every bit as nasty as I remember it, and I'm annoyed to see that I've slowed down beyond my normal marathon race pace. That's enough impetus to get me speeding up again as I cover the final 1000m to the finish line at Apex Park. For the very first time my Garmin agrees almost completely with the course distance, but there's enough extra distance to know that I did manage to hit 5:51 min/mile over the final stretch.


It's official, though: I have managed to win! Coming after my longest stretch off running since late 2005, there's a lot of confidence to be gained from today's performance. That, and a bloody big trophy.

Finish time: 39:06 (6:18 min/mile)

Placement: 13th OA, 1st female and 1st in AG (40-49)

Behind me by less than 2 minutes, Hannah has just finished in 2nd place! So impressive for an 11 year old - I make sure to go congratulate her and chat briefly to her mum. She's outsprinted Lizzie who has finished 3rd by just 3 seconds - a great day for everyone, really!

My name is on this one 3 times now! 

The Analysis
Not much to say here - I was the fastest on the day, and managed to win with a time 20 seconds slower than last year's effort for 2nd place. I'm happy that I managed to hold onto my pace, though, and perhaps all my fitness hasn't gone south with the enforced 4 weeks off.

It's very clear now that Melbourne marathon - just 4 weeks away - is going to be a training run and not a real race. The challenge will be to remember that when I'm lined up amongst all the elites and everyone charges off on pace for a 2:47 finish! But the bigger prize is New York Marathon in November, where again I'll be in the professional all-women race like I was in Boston; I need to keep my eyes on that and control my speedster urges. I think I can, I think I this space.