Monday, February 24, 2014

Wangaratta HM, February 2014

I'm not sure why it never occurred to me before that I'm closer to many regional towns in the nearby state of Victoria then I am to many parts of NSW, but perhaps the Melbourne marathon last October was the turning point. After the disaster of my recent trip to Bendigo, a re-do was in order, and the Wangaratta running festival presented the perfect opportunity.

The Training
This is the awesome thing about having a coach, you just tell them you'd like to do this race, and if they approve then they just tell you what to run. And so it was that in training for this race I just kept doing my usual 90 miles a week with a couple of quality workouts, since we established late last year that less mileage is not good for my confidence or my legs.

The week of the race I found myself being unusually compliant with a planned reduction in training, and even feeling slightly antsy in the way I do when tapering for a marathon. One particularly frustrating chain of events on Friday made me desperate to run a double that evening, just for the stress relief, but I resisted. This had the slightly bipolar effect of making me feel virtuous and even more pissed-off at the same time, but at least I survived. Maybe this is proof positive that I'm becoming more able to see the big picture, and worry less over a few days of light running that would have usually had me all worked-up and tense. Or maybe I just really wanted to watch the Olympic curling competition. Now THERE'S a strange and pointless sport.

The lead-up
Considerably less drama than the Bendigo lead-up; Mum, kids and I drive down to Wangaratta and first we hit the pre-race pasta party, where I chat briefly to the Race Director and ascertain that this is the second year they've run a half-marathon. He can't remember the winning female's time from last year and I can't find it on my phone, which is rather frustrating. I ask as innocently as I can "So, maybe under 1:30? Or over?" He seems to think that under 1:30 is very impressive, which is slightly startling, but also possibly a good sign. There are no fast-looking chicks around, which is reassuring, although many of the race entrants are obviously not here tonight.

After dinner we drive over to nearby Beechworth, a picturesque town where I have booked a night's accommodation for us all in a quaint self-contained cottage. There are horses in the paddock next door and they come over to investigate our arrival; the owner tells us that their names are Chloe and Trumper. Chloe in particular is very keen on Amelia and the crabapples she and I have found on a nearby tree - we feed them to her until she notifies us she's had enough (by shaking her head and spitting half-chewed apple all over us, lovely) - at which point we retreat to get ready for bed.

"I am both thrilled and terrified by this horse"
Hopefully this means she will NEVER beg me to buy her one.

Race Day
I'm regretting not booking something early enough to be staying in Wangaratta (where everything is currently booked out due to some stupid AFL game) as I hit snooze when my alarm goes off at 5am. I lie there stubbornly until 5:30am when I finally manage to drag myself out to the kitchen; I ferret around in the fridge to find some chocolate milk and a piece of raisin bread that is my standard pre-race breakfast now. While some, more meticulous runners count calories and set alarms for 3am to consume a carefully-devised amount of carbs per kg of body weight, I drink milk and indulge my preference for carbs in the form of toast. So far it seems to work, and I'm just superstitious enough to keep up the habit.

Waking the kids is not as difficult as I'd anticipated and we set off on the 30 minute drive just shortly after 6am. I'd like enough time to do something of a warm-up before the race starts at 7, as well as get my head into some sort of race-ready zone - right now I'm in what I would describe as a strange, ambivalent state of mind. Going into Central Coast I felt sure that I could run a fast race and possible a new PR; that didn't work out as planned and the pace I was aiming for (6:15 min/mile) felt way too tough right from the start. Bendigo was, for obvious reasons, a total bust. And this time I'm not certain what to expect. 

I could conceivably just run to place - last night's discussion with the RD suggests that I am virtually assured of placing in the top 3 if I run even marathon pace today - or I could push myself to the limit. Do I want to do that? Benita has told me to aim for 6:10-6:20 pace for the first 10 miles and then see how I feel. And of course there's the old goal that I set myself after Central Coast - don't slow down at mile 9. So maybe I'll just aim to do my best for the first 10 miles, and then allow myself to slack off if it's all too hard? Hmmm.

Moderately tricky course map that I completely fail to study before the race
I end up with just enough time to run a single mile as warm-up, with some strides at the end. As I jog around the show grounds and away from the crowds, I notice that my legs feel great. Springy, fresh - ready to go. In fact I don't remember them feeling like this since the opening miles of the Boston marathon, last April. This is probably a really good omen and suddenly the thought of a new PR pops unbidden into my head.

Lining up right at the front behind the starting line, I look around to size up the competition. Just next to me there's a tall girl who looks very familiar. She's wearing a grey top and very short grey shorts - the kind of shorts that telegraph the message "I'm fast" to all around - and obviously she means business. Behind her is a woman who looks more like she'd be in my age group (although of course I personally do NOT look that old), wearing a red singlet and short black shorts; she's probably going to be competition for me too. Nobody else looks very serious - this is good news. And as the command "GO!" is issued, I'm still not decided as to how I'm going to run this race. Let's see what happens.

Start line, furtively sizing up the competition...she looks scary fast.....but what is that guy doing here...??

Miles 1-3: 6:14, 6:14, 6:04 (pace in min/mile)

We set off across gravel, grass and finally onto a sealed bike path by a small river. I'm stupidly close to the front of the pack, in 4th place or so, and as we pound across the gravel - the lead bike so close that someone yells to him "Speed up mate! They're catching you!" - I think to myself "Not a PR course!". Then Grey Girl goes flying past me and soon she's out in front of the whole pack, close behind an African man who is clearly going to win by a country mile.

After about half a mile she has opened up a 50m lead; I check my Garmin to see that my average pace so far is 5:55 - far too fast to be sustainable. As I ease back on the throttle, Grey moves even further ahead and it's obvious: she's in another league altogether from little old RoadRunner me. Later I discover that the reason she looks so familiar - she was in the Elites at Melbourne marathon, where she ran 2:42. It's very clear that I'm racing myself and my Garmin today, not her. The second mile ticks past and the third, and now I find myself entirely alone. So much for pacing off the boys, as B is fond of telling me to do. Today I'll be doing all the hard work myself.

Miles 4-6: 6:12, 6:13, 6:08

I'm settling in to the sub-6:15 pace fairly nicely now, as I continue along the bike path by the river. It dips quite steeply and often as the course navigates tunnels under the roads of Wangaratta; some of the tunnels are long enough to be rather dark and my fear of tripping in the dark is briefly ignited. Marathoners are coming back the other way now and someone calls "Rachel!" to me as they pass - it's right as I am heading into the darkness and there's no way I can identify them or respond at all. Who knows I am here? Hmm, a mystery that I have little time to contemplate, because we're coming up to a turnaround and I want to see what the gap is between myself and Grey Girl.

Grey comes back in the other direction, streaking along right behind the African chap, in outright 2nd position. She has about 3 minutes on me already - my god, she's fast - enough to put any idea of catching her well out of my head. The next question: how far am I ahead of the next woman? Around 2:40, it turns out - enough of a buffer that 2nd place is most likely mine unless I blow up or pass out. I've never done either in a race yet, and I'm not about to start.

During mile 6 there are more marathoners around and I now pass a few of the slower runners; then coming back on the second out-and-back I realise that the person who greeted me is none other than Wylie, whom I know from the Wagga Road Runners! He's a marathon maniac type and always fun to chat to. This time when I see him coming I wave and grin and call out his name - and remember that I told him about this race when we last ran together, on my birthday. A fellow Wagga runner, hooray!

Unlike last year's Christmas Twilight run (in 40C/108F temps), today he was not dressed like this.

Miles 7-9: 6:13, 6:05, 6:05

As I start mile 7, I realise that finally I'm catching someone ahead of me. He's wearing a blue and black stripy singlet and looks to be in his mid 50s at least. It was actually rather depressing when he and his grey hair shot so far ahead of me during mile 2 or so; now he looks to be tiring. There's another turnaround coming and immediately after it I ease past him without really meaning to.

I'm quite aware that this is likely to make him speed up and sure enough, I immediately hear him pick up his pace and he's right on my tail now. This is going to be helpful, actually! I used to HATE having someone right behind me, pushing me along, chiefly because I was worried about being goaded into going too fast and running out of steam. Now I have more confidence in my own fitness, and after all the miles running alone I actually welcome it. My pace picks up and I'm still feeling great. The mile 8-9 slump is not happening this time, no way.

This is also good timing because during mile 8 we come to, and pass, the 10K turnaround point. Oh. My. God. Suddenly there are hobby joggers ALL OVER the road. I watch in horror as a plump lady rips out her headphones and darts across the road directly in front of me to stop and greet a spectator. Some of them are keeping to the left, others not so much. And it's about to get worse...

Miles 10 & 11: 6:03, 6:04

It's incredible that I'm keeping such a good pace here. I'm actually having to yell at people to move over, and quite regularly. At one point there are two heavily-set blokes jogging along and completely blocking the way as we turn back off the road and onto the bike path. I bellow out "MOVE LEFT!!!" only to have the heftier of the two dodge directly to the RIGHT and straight into my path. I'm barely able to avoid a collision as I snap at him, "Left is the other way, idiot" --  he opens his mouth, no doubt to splutter out a sarcastic retort, but I'm already gone.

Mile 11 is even worse than mile 10. We've gone past the starting area - I wave wildly to the kids, who go ballistic with excitement - and down a slight hill towards the river again. And oh my god, there's a suspension bridge coming up?

The course looks roughly like this - only narrower - in the final 2 miles of the race.

By this point there are 10K joggers 3 abreast on the narrow path, and to make things worse the leading 10K runners are coming back the other way already, at top speed. This leaves precious little room for even a pocket rocket such as myself to overtake. Trying to get up onto the bridge I feel like I'm jogging in place for a few seconds, and it's infuriating. Yelling at them seems to make no difference so I resort to doing the jogger slalom, wending my way in between the people on the path around me like some kind of whirling dervish. Hmm, what is this going to do to my pace?

Miles 12 & 13, then finish chute: 6:12, 6:24, 5:43 pace to finish

My overtaking efforts earn me first a painful clash of elbows with a muscular triathlon-type coming the other way, and then a chubby girl right in front of me chooses the moment I come up behind her to attempt to high-five a friend who is approaching from the opposite direction. I collide with her right arm like it's a boom gate in the carpark of a bank I've just robbed: it goes swinging wildly back towards her face and I plough on without a word. Oops.

It's astonishing when the mile 12 split beeps and my pace is still vaguely in the ballpark that I'm aiming for. But what on earth is coming next? I can see another bridge, and runners going in all directions. The word "clusterf&*k" springs to mind, and the definition is unfolding before my eyes. Time to get this thing FINISHED! I cross the second bridge and then back over the first freaking one, again. It's even more crowded and slow than before, somehow. I don't even bother to check my pace during the final mile, and pay for it when I hear the beep and look down to see 6:24. BUGGER!

But it's too late for regrets - the finish is in sight and I just need to get there pronto. As I sprint like a maniac for the line, a clock by the path (but not the finish line itself) reads "1:20:34". Oh god, how long is it going to take me to get across?? I must be SO close to my PR from Bathurst last year! I bobble once slightly as I step in a slight pothole amongst the grass, and then finally I've done it. No fanfare or anything - people are finishing in their droves and although I'm sure I was second female, there's no announcement and I have no idea where I've placed in the HM overall - so I get my medal and head up to find the kids and Mum.

Finish time: 1:21:35 (6:13 min/mile) - Garmin reading 13.25 miles @ 6:08 pace

Placement: 2nd female (1st masters athlete age 40+), 5th OA.

Photo courtesy of Amelia.
There's not much time to sit around and relax - the kids' 2K race is coming up and there is a literal horde of entrants. Both of mine are in there, Jack now old enough to rush off on his own to start with the older kids (wearing my Garmin, no less, and he has even told me he really needs one of his own soon, please) but Amelia still needing me to run with her. She makes no bones about telling me that I must STAY BEHIND her, though, and once running I actually find it difficult to catch her a few times! Both kids make me very proud by running the whole way without once stopping - Jack finishing 18th in the 7-9yrs AG and Amelia 10th in the under-7s. Considering they are at the bottom of their age groups, this is a bloody amazing result!

We did it!

The Analysis
All in all, this race is a very welcome confirmation that my training - and in particular the changes that Benita has made - is progressing just as I would want it to. I'm in at least as good shape as I was in the immediate aftermath of Boston last year, but with 8 more weeks to train for the marathon. The lack of late-race fade is particularly pleasing; there was no hint of the fatigue to which I succumbed (in part at least) on the Central Coast in December. And when I made it back to the finish area after the 2K race, I was just in time to hear my name announced as winner of the women's 40+ category for the half-marathon. Recognition as a Masters athlete?? Yes please! And the pair of free Hoka shoes will come in very handy, thank you.

(this is without doubt the coolest trophy in my collection)
Up next? Possibly a 10K in an other Victorian town - that small state to the south is rapidly growing on me. And Boston is just 8 weeks away now. Eeek!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Oceania Masters Athletics HM, Bendigo Jan 2014

I mentioned in my last post that I was intending to run this HM in Bendigo as a Masters athlete, and until 2 days beforehand I was focused on running it as fast as I possibly could. In Australia there is little fanfare about Masters athletes - whereas I so often see my American running friends taking home some serious swag for Masters victories - but as time continues its inexorable march forwards, I have become increasingly aware that any future glory to be found in my future running career undoubtedly lies in exploiting my age and competing as a Masters athlete. Well, I might as well take advantage of being old, right?

Accordingly, last year I joined up with NSW Masters Athletics and in fact was happy to become the official State record holder for W40-44 in the half marathon after my Central Coast adventure in November. I was only somewhat put off by the realisation that the Bendigo race would comprise 4 laps of a 5.3km course - that sort of race is inevitably twisty and slower than an out-and-back or a point-to-point course, witness the Port Macquarie HM as evidence of this fact - but I remained resolute. I was going for a new PR, apart from an AG placing of course. But fate has a way of intervening with the best-laid of plans, as I was about to find out.

The Travel
Bendigo is an old gold mining town in the western part of Victoria, the next state to the south of where I live in New South Wales, and about 4 hours' drive away. I travel down fairly uneventfully with the kids on Thursday afternoon, planning to spend a few days checking out the sights and generally relaxing. It's boiling hot so we hit the hotel pool immediately upon arrival and then head out for some dinner at a rather swanky (Wagu kids' beef burger, anyone?) yet somehow also kid-friendly joint. What a great find!

Friday brings more oppressive heat and so after a bit of a late start, we make our way to the outskirts of Bendigo to visit Water World, which is basically a tiny little water park in the middle of the bush with a couple of small pools, a bunch of tropical-style umbrellas with tables underneath and one huge, twisty, slippery and totally awesome waterside.

It looks innocent enough.......

Predictably, the slide turns out to be amazing fun, and surprisingly there is no supervision at the top. People (ok, kids) are diving on there headfirst, feet first, on their bellies, whatever. It's chaos of the most ridiculously fun kind and the kids cannot get enough. I'm keeping up with them, almost, and considering letting them just go nuts on their own when it happens: sliding down in a chain with the two of them ahead of me, Jack hits the pool first and rather than moving away just stands there oblivious. Amelia, in the middle, has me by the hands and as she hits the pool feet first I get catapulted over the top of her and into the water. I'm sliding on my belly so my head is right back and my larynx exposed as I slam - throat-first - into the back of Jack's head.

the oblivious culprits - picture me sailing over the top of her feet

HOLY SHIT, that hurts! It's like getting winded, only more painful. My first thought is "Oh god, my larynx is fractured" and I'm clutching my throat and no doubt looking aghast as Jack bobs up and says casually, "Mama, you bumped my head!" I can't answer - I'm not sure I can breathe - and I instinctively race to get out of the water. The slack-jawed teenage lifesaver who is on duty at the plunge pool looks vaguely at me as I stumble past him with my hand around my throat, but doesn't seem to have noticed that anything might be wrong. I sit shakily at our table, trying not to panic, but wondering if I am about to obstruct my airway and die. Perhaps I should get that teenager to call an ambulance?

The kids come over and I find that I can speak, although my voice is gravelly and it's bloody agony to even try to swallow. They want to keep sliding and I don't appear to be dying yet, so they run off and I sit, gingerly feeling the swelling develop around the cartilage of my Adam's apple. It occurs to me that an ice pack might be an excellent idea at this point, and the teenager at the front desk obligingly digs one out of the bottom of the ice-cream freezer for me when I go and croak out my request.

Very unflattering photo, with large swelling around and to the right of my thyroid cartilage.
Thought bubble: "Am I about to swell up and die? Because that would suck."
As mothers around the world will know, when you're in charge of two young children, unless you're actually dying the show absolutely must go on. And so I spend the rest of the afternoon - after the ice pack has melted in the 39C/104F heat - actually back on the water slide and having a reasonably good time, although I tend to hit the plunge pool in a defensively curled-up state from now on. My throat is BLOODY sore - I feel like I'm trying to swallow a large cotton wool ball with broken glass embedded in it, with a terminal case of tonsillitis to boot - but at least I can still breathe, and the kids are having a ball.

We head home via the chemist, where I stock up on soluble paracetamol, aspirin and every variety of throat lozenge that has the word "anaesthetic" on the front. The kids have grasped the fact that Mama has a VERY sore throat; Amelia takes it upon herself to dispense the medicines and Jack places himself in charge of making sure I get a lozenge every two hours. Thank you, darlings, it's making absolutely no difference, but I love you for trying.

The more pressing thought in my head is, what about that small race I am supposed to be doing on Sunday?? Friday night passes in a sleepless, painful blur. Every time I need to swallow, I wake up in agony. A lozenge at 2am makes enough difference for me to sleep a few hours, but there's no way in hell I am going to be able to race on Sunday - I can hear my breathing (the medical term for this is "stridor", which implies that my airway is narrowed) on both inspiration and expiration. This is extremely bad.

Saturday morning I feel so rough that I email Coach B to tell her what's happened and that I'm down for the count, probably not even going to run the race. The kids get up and we go on a tour of the Central Deborah Gold Mine, which is dark and slightly scary in a thrilling sort of way. We have to wear headlamps and helmets and go down in a cage to a depth of 50m below ground - the kids are agog with delight and a tiny, delicious frisson of terror.

Learning what Fool's gold looks like....with their oddly silent mother behind them

Strangely enough, late Saturday afternoon and into the evening my throat starts to feel marginally better. Perhaps this is just a reflection on how terribly horrible it felt at first, or perhaps the pain receptors in the "throat" part of my cerebral cortex are just burned out? Whatever - I feel a tiny bit better. The embryo of an insane idea begins to form in my brain: well, we're here and all, I'm signed up and all, maybe I could do the race just as a fun run? I'm almost certain I won't precipitate fatal throat swelling by doing so....but there's no way I can race it. I guess we'll see how I feel in the morning.

Race Day
Make that fun-run day, but Sunday dawns and I realise I actually slept a lot better than the night before. Fun run here I come! I make sure to sabotage any attempt at serious racing by failing to eat before (not too difficult, since the pain associated with swallowing anything solid is still pretty impressive), I leave my Australia singlet behind and neglect even to drink adequately before the start. I consider tearing off the timing chips from my front-and-back bibs, but decide to leave them on when I realise this will destroy the bibs entirely. Sigh.

We arrive at the race start area in good time - enough for me to jog 2 easy miles and drum into my head that I am in no fit state to race - the kids settle in at the finish line at the table with the babysitter and very shortly it's time to line up at the start. I purposely put myself at the back of the Masters Athletics group, muttering to myself "Not racing, not racing....." until the gun goes off and I determinedly set off to not race the guts out of this thing.

Not racing, nope, just out for a jog...

Lap 1, miles 1-3.4: 7:11, 6:55, 7:07 (pace in min/mile)
It's congested back here in the pack, and I'm NOT pushing the pace, so it's gratifying to see 7:11 on my Garmin when it beeps the first split. Not quite so gratifying is finding myself in amongst a bunch of 60-70 yr old male runners - the Masters bibs are cunningly numbered so one can identify one's competitors by the first two digits, the age group, and this is a bit depressing. I put on a burst of speed and then find myself struggling to back it off again. Thankfully, as we head around the small lake nearby the crowd thins out and I settle into a comfortable pace. My breathing sounds slightly reminiscent of Darth Vader - if he was asthmatic - and I'm not game to even try to swallow some water although there are plenty of drinks stations around, but so far, so good.

Lap 2, miles 4-7ish: 6:59, 6:58, 6:56
Apparently anything slower than 6:59 pace is unacceptable for my brain to process. Whatever, I'm still going a lot slower than I was planning to run, so it's fine, really. And I'm passing people left and right now as I come around for the second lap. There's a short hairpin that goes up a rather steep side street and then back down - this enables me to see that I'm actually in 3rd place overall, with only one Masters female in front of me - and she's in the faux-Masters AG 35-39. Grrrr! If I was in a position to race this thing, I'd be several minutes in front of her at this point. But whatever, at least I'm alive and not in hospital with a fractured larynx and a tracheostomy, right?

Look ahead, don't race. Look ahead, don't race. Repeat until brain goes numb.

Lap 3, miles 7 - 9.6ish: 6:50, 6:49, 6:40
Ooooops. Coach B has drilled into my brain that I MUST NOT slow down in the 3rd lap - a strategy designed to counteract the fade I experienced in this part of the Central Coast HM - and it seems my subconscious is determined to make her proud. I see on the hairpin hill that I'm catching the woman ahead of me (not a Masters competitor) and it's all I can do not to pull out all the stops to close the distance and overtake. Must. Resist. Luckily my breathing chooses this point to protest at the increase in pace, and I reluctantly fall back again.

Lap 4, miles 10 - 13.1: 6:55, 7:05, 6:06
The effort to slow down results in my first mile over 7:00 pace since the first lap, and as a reward I allow myself to put the pedal to the metal for the final mile - not enough to catch the 2nd female, but enough to satisfy me that I could have gone much faster, and also that I'm still not dead. I hit the finish line feeling like I've barely been for a jog; the kids are beyond excited to hear the announcer name me winner of my AG, and so ends the half-marathon that will forever be known as "The One with the Broken Throat".

Finish line, too relaxed by far

Finish time: 1:31:46

Placement: 1st AG (40-44), 3rd female overall

This champagne will soothe my throat nicely, thank you.

I get a medal and a bottle of bubbly for my AG win, and happily pose with the two other place-getters. Actually I feel like a bit of an imposter, having won so easily with a time that is a full 10 minutes off what I was aiming to run, but oh well. It's a novel injury and a good one for the story books, even if almost every single person I tell is going to react with the rhetorical questions "you did what to your throat?...and you STILL RAN??"

The Analysis
As regards the race, nothing to see here, move on.  Regarding the throat - on the Monday after the race I get myself in to see a local ENT surgeon, who sticks a fibreoptic laryngoscope down my nose (ugh, disgusting) and confirms that I have a massive bruise in the right side of my larynx, both cords are swollen and my right vocal cord is actually paralysed. He organises an urgent CT scan which thankfully shows that the cartilage itself is not fractured, and the important recurrent laryngeal nerve - the one that supplies the cords and causes them to move - appears to be intact and not severed.

Home I go on massive doses of oral steroids (to bring down the swelling) and some antibiotics for good measure. A week later my voice is improving and the pain all but gone, but the cord is still not working; he wants me to go to Sydney for a second opinion. Truly, all I care about is whether or not I'll be affected with my breathing when I need to run fast. When he tells me I won't have lasting stridor, I'm happy enough to leave it for now. I can't sing (not that this is much of a loss) but I'm recovered enough to run and also to bellow at the kids when the need arises, so for now that will definitely suffice.

Next up? Another HM in Victoria, hopefully with a great deal less drama and a lot more success.