Thursday, May 29, 2014

May Madness, 2014 - Mount Beauty HM

The fourth (and final) race: Mt Beauty HM, Saturday May 24

I can't even remember signing up for this race, or how it came to my attention, but Mt Beauty is a lovely spot in the Victorian Alpine region just to the south of Wagga, and I guess I felt a change of scenery would be nice.

It's also possible that I looked up the winning times from last year and figured I could easily run better than 1:29. But I signed up for Mt Beauty well before I added races to the 3 weekends immediately preceding it - so by the time this half marathon rolled around, I was already pretty much raced-out. But not quite entirely.

Race Day
Mum, the kids and I arrive after dark on the evening before the race, so we have not seen the scenery until we wake on Saturday. It's a crisp, cool morning and the mountains all around us are shrouded in mist - but once it lifts, wow! This place certainly lives up to its name.

It's a very short drive to the start area where lots of excited runners are milling around, and we pick up our bibs without much trouble at all. I head out for my now-traditional 2 mile warm-up and nope, my legs are not too interested in moving particularly fast. Benita and I have discussed strategy and figured that a solid time around 1:25 will do nicely, and if last year's results are anything to go by, should also be enough to make me the winning female. But it's also all about who shows up on the day - so my chickens are by no means counted at this early stage.

Lining up right at the front, I spot the blonde girl who charged out ahead of me at Yarrawonga and then faded; she has a 10K bib on, though, so I don't have to worry about her. But then I see a small, wiry-looking woman with a huge head of dreadlocks and a snappy all-black outfit that bares enough skin to show off some rather interesting ink. She looks like a contender.....but what is that on her feet??
Can it be? Oh my god. Yes, it is. It's a pair of these:

What is this, 1976?
She probably wasn't even born yet back then.

Okay then, maybe I don't need to worry about her after all. The starter calls out "One minute!" and stupidly I realise I haven't turned on my Garmin. Didn't I do this last week as well?? To my relief it finds the satellite signal exactly as the 10 second countdown starts, then the gun sounds and away we go!

Miles 1-3: 6:04, 6:26, 6:17

The start heads out across the damp grassy oval and onto a gravel path beside a small lake. In the first mile I'm initially in the lead, but then the girl with dreds saunters past me and opens up a tidy gap - hang on, what?? The dreadlocks and black attire bring to mind the word "Rastafarian", which a slight oxygen debt in my own brain transforms into "Rasta Fairy-Ann" - ok, it's cheesy, but it really fits her. She's flitting ahead of me at a disturbing rate, but my own pace is already too fast, so I resist the temptation to give chase. Jeez, she's quick though.

During mile 2 I'm slightly distracted by a bloke who comes up alongside me and starts chatting. When he tells me he ran this race last year, my instant response is to ask "So does it get hilly?" He replies emphatically that it does, and I look at my Garmin: it's reading 6:08 pace. Wow, too fast, even though we are yet to encounter a hill. I slow down deliberately and we chat on for a bit, then he drops back and I move ahead. During mile 3 it starts - a small roller and then a much bigger one - I'm still holding onto a good pace, but I have no idea what lies ahead.
5K split: 19:05 (approx)

See how it goes UP the whole bloody page? That right there should have been a red flag.

Miles 4-6: 6:36, 7:10, 6:49

Oh. My. God. The small sharp hill to the 5K mark leads the way to a much larger, much longer one that just keeps going and going and GOING. I'm gaining on Rasta Fairy, although not quickly, but any thoughts about her are rapidly replaced by ones that contain only 4 words: WHEN WILL THIS END? My pace slides promptly south, and I choose to focus not on the numbers but solely on the gap between Rasta and myself, because it's the only thing that is improving right now. There's a photographer on the side of the road so I exert myself to smile and flash a peace sign - god knows my race photos lately have been almost uniformly hideous, so it's the least I can do to try and change that. Although it's probably more a rictus of horror than a smile that I have on my face right now. Up, up and up I go.

(still waiting for photos from the race to put here, hopefully soon!)

Miles 7-9: 6:28, 6:07, 5:55
10K split: 39:50
Finally the turnaround is in sight - it amuses me briefly to see that the road beyond it is even steeper - and, what's more, I'm only about 10 seconds behind Rasta Fairy now. She looks surprised when she turns and sees how close I am; she immediately speeds off down the hill at a pace that doesn't surprise me. I have a decision to make: do I chase her, or let her go? 


It's an interesting dilemma; I didn't quite catch her going up (which is my strong suit, since my gait means I tend to slow down less than others going up hills) and she's definitely faster than me on the downhills and flat, so it may not be possible at all. My only hope is that she doesn't have my endurance - but it's a big hope and one that's worth pursuing. So I relax, let my Roadrunner legs spin free, and off I go in hot pursuit. I check my Garmin when mile 9 beeps and am amused to see 5:55 - that's not a number I see very often, even in shorter races! But it's about what I want, and again I'm catching Rasta Fairy - or at least I'm no further behind, she has about 100m on me - so all systems are go at this point.

Miles 10-12: 6:03, 6:05, 6:10

I'm thinking I want to check my time at the 10 mile mark, but suddenly something happens ahead of me that takes me completely by surprise: Rasta Fairy is running out of pixie dust. Abruptly she is within striking distance, and then before I know it I am pulling up right alongside her. Yet again the debate starts inside my head, should I pass her now or hang back and wait? I don't even know why I bother asking myself this anymore, since I already know the answer - I'm not going to hang back. 

Rasta Fairy holds on next to me for a good half mile, and I'm starting to wonder if she's going to find another gear and once again leave me in the dust, but finally during mile 11 she disappears from my side. Phew! Strangely enough, no part of my brain can form the thought "I'm going to win!" yet - all I can think is "Keep pushing, don't give up" - I have no idea if I'm going to be able to build or hold any kind of lead whatsoever.  It's comforting to know that she slowed down even when we were still going downhill, but I take nothing for granted, I just run. I'm not looking at my Garmin, I'm just running as hard as I can and figuring that if it's meant to be, it will be.

Mile 13.1: 6:10, 5:51 pace to the finish

Dashing across the grass towards the finish line, I'm still way too scared to look over my shoulder. I have visions of a dreadlocked runner in tennis shoes, powering past me at the last second to break the tape, and it's enough to make me finally panic just a tiny bit - with the finish line only 50m away I finally look. To my great surprise she is nowhere to be seen! And then I heard screams of "Mummy! Mummy!!" from the side as I throw myself over the finish mats and hit my Garmin all at once. I'm more out of breath than I've been at the end of any of my recent races, but it was totally worth it: I won!!

Finish time: 1:23:18 (6:20 pace)

Placement: 1st female, 8th OA. 1st in AG 40+

In retrospect I think this was possibly one of my best races ever - I raced smartly, conquered an enormous hill in the process, and ran essentially 10K pace on either end of the massive ascent. I outlasted a much younger (and probably inherently faster) rival, and finished with my second win for the month, 3rd podium finish -- but the only one with an actual podium! Yay!

Blurry photo (thanks, 7 yr old son) and I'm not even looking....but you get the idea!
That's Rasta Fairy on the left of the photo.

And now? Some well-deserved rest!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

May Madness, 2014 - SMH half-marathon

The third race: SMH half-marathon, Sunday May 18th

I have no idea why this race is still one of my favourites; it's competitive, relatively crowded, but worst of all it's an absolute bastard of a course. These days it's probably actually easier than it was in 2001 when I ran it as my first ever HM, but it's still as hilly as heck and the final mile (all uphill) is pure torture. Elevation profile, for the sadists:

Sure, there are downhills, but what about the final mile? Hmm?
Still, Sydney is without a doubt my favourite - not to mention the most beautiful - city in the world, and it's always wonderful to run by the harbour and enjoy its sights. Maybe that's why I keep returning to torture myself here - there's no other reason that comes to mind.

Race Day

Another Sunday, another race. We're staying just half a mile from the start and Dad has stayed over to take care of the kids while I run (the race starts at the not-very-kid-friendly hour of 6:45am) so I decide to just set off on my warmup directly from the apartment and not have to bother dropping off a gear bag. The weather has been unseasonably warm in Sydney lately, so I'm confident I'm not going to freeze while I wait around at the start. Also I'm in the preferred start group, which is reasonably large, but it means I get to simply jog up about 10 minutes before the gun goes off and once that happens it's only around 10 seconds before I cross the mats. Off we go!

Miles 1-3: 6:12, 6:08, 6:15

Ooh, crowded. The pace feels stupidly slow as we head towards the wild downhill charge that will take us to Circular Quay and then the historic area of The Rocks. I'm zigging and zagging in an effort to get past people who are dawdling all over the frigging road (how did they get into the preferred start??) around me. I glance at my watch and am surprised to see 6:08 pace on there - it feels a LOT slower. But then again, I think I ran this first mile in 5:49 one year, so I really *am* going kind of slow at this point. Kind of.

Tortuous, or should that be torturous? Whatever. Course map.
Anyway, the pace feels fine as I zoom along through the Rocks and under the Harbour Bridge. There seem to be a lot of women ahead of me, but as soon as we hit the first incline just before the 3 mile mark, I start to catch them - including a young girl with red hair and her name on her bib. Hey, why don't I ever get a name bib for this event? It's a question that occupies me briefly until mile 3 beeps and so I'm happy to see that I'm pretty much on pace (for now) that I forget to be annoyed.

Miles 4-6: 6:16, 6:12, 6:11  5K split 19:28

The rolling part of the course starts as we head out on the Western Distributor (read: big road) towards Darling Harbour and Pyrmont. Up, down, up down - so far it's not killing me too badly, but I'm very aware of the big hills that await right before the finish, so I'm not pushing it too hard just yet. Already the male leaders are coming back - Michael Shelley and Liam Adams are close together and pushing hard - I keep an eye out for the female lead and am not surprised to see Nikki Chapple streets ahead of any other woman.

Somewhere in the early miles, looking rather too focused.
Miles 7-9: 6:23, 6:18, 6:18

Around mile 7 I am pleasantly surprised to see my friend Polly - who, as it turns out, is running part of the race in a relay team with another friend - pop out from the crowd and call my name. My own personal cheerleader! I still have enough breath and brainpower to wave back and yell "HI POLLY!!" - so that's good. Not long afterwards we start weaving our way through some of the freeway spaghetti on our way back to the city, and my Garmin starts freaking out - still, my pace is okay. Particularly since miles 8 and 9 contain some nasty steep inclines as the course winds its way up onto the Harbour Bridge approaches again, before diving off down to the Cahill Expressway, ugh. Are we there yet?

Mile 10-12: 6:02, 6:11, 6:09

Okay, that first mile split has to be a glitch - there's no way I just sped up that much. Or did I? The downhill across the Cahill Expressway is a major relief and I relax into it, letting my legs spin as my breathing settles back down. I'm going to need the recovery now because the final 2 hills are coming up, and I'm not looking forward to this part at all.

Catch me if you can, boys.

On the other hand, hills are sort of my strong suit, and I tend to catch many people whilst running up them. By the time we hit the top of Macquarie Street and head down past the Art Gallery for the loop around Mrs Macquarie's Chair, I have passed at least 3 more girls and a small harem of boys is desperately trying to stay with me. By the time I get to the turn down by the harbour, they're nowhere to be seen. And it's time to start the final, painful mile to the finish.....

Alone now, and unimpressed.

Mile 13.1: 6:24 all the way
I continue to catch female runners in this final mile back up past the Art Gallery and through the parklands of the Domain - but it's torture and all I can think is, when will this be OVER? Rounding the corner at the top of the hill I see a familiar blue shirt go past on the other side of the road - oh my God, she has a named bib that reads "FLANERY" - it's Fleur, who beat me here last year by about a minute and in Melbourne by about 10 seconds, and something similar is about to happen again, dammit!! I put my head down and try to sprint but my legs are not having it, and I cross the line at the same 6:24 pace as the rest of the final mile.

Finish time: 1:22:25

Placement: 9th OA female, 3rd AG (F40-44)

9 seconds slower than last year, and somehow that's disappointing until I realise I placed better (9th vs 11th, 3rd vs 4th in AG) and suddenly I feel fine about it all. One more race on the calendar - oh dear, I'm beginning to feel like I need a break. Was this really such a good idea after all?

Monday, May 19, 2014

May Madness, 2014 - part 1

I've finally gotten to a point where I find racing pretty fun. I remember a time not so very long ago when I preferred to race infrequently, feeling I didn't need the pressure to perform and that I'd rather do my own thing than line up with a bunch of strangers and feel compelled to compete.

But now, oh how things have changed. Maybe it's the modest success I've had in placing well or winning swag (chiefly in small, regional races), maybe I'm more confident than I used to be, or maybe I just don't give a rat's ass anymore about how I perform. Whatever it is, I like racing now! And even before Boston I had already thrown my hat in the ring for no less than 4 races in the month of May. I did the same last year (and in fact this year I'm returning to 3 of the same races); it was more fun than I expected.

The first race: Bathurst HM, Sunday May 4th.
Boston was late this year, and the gap between the two races has narrowed to just over 12 days. Although my legs feel quite peppy again after a very easy first week post-marathon, I'm not sure what is going to happen as I drive to Bathurst with my enthusiastic cheer committee in tow. The night before the race it's VERY cold (it has snowed nearby that morning) and raining, with a forecast that calls for similar conditions in the morning. It's the weekend of the Bathurst show, though, and despite the cold the kids and I enjoy an impromptu fireworks display from the balcony of our hotel room. Then it's early to bed under multiple layers of blankets, to see what the next morning will bring.

Race Day
Well, it's cold but at least not raining. The race outfit I have packed is frighteningly skimpy, though, so I layer on lots of other clothes and we head for the Bathurst Rugby Club, where the race begins. As I pick up my bib I sneak a look at the list of entrants and nope, Jane Fardell is not on there. Hmmm, interesting. She might yet show up and register, though, so I keep a bit of an eye out before heading off on a 2 mile warm-up jog.

There's a stiff breeze blowing and by the time I've reached the end of the first mile and turned back, I know my legs aren't fully recovered from Boston yet. There's a strange achey feeling to them and the effortless springiness I felt in Wangaratta (before my 1:21:34 half in February) is absolutely not there. Never mind - Jane is definitely not racing today so there is still a chance I might win.

Lined up for the start I see last year's overall winner, Brendan Davies (a world-class ultra runner), so I introduce myself again and we chat briefly whilst shivering in the icy blast. The announcers finally call us over, we gather near the timing mats and whoosh, off we go, directly into the wind.

Yes, front and centre.

Miles 1-3: 6:18, 6:25, 6:24 (pace in min/mile) 5K split 19:50 approx
Benita has told me to go out in 6:15-6:25 pace and I actually have no intention of going that slow (ha) but it seems my legs have decided who's boss, and it is definitely not me. The first mile is a touch faster - there's a woman who powers out ahead of me at around 6:00 pace and so I exert myself to pull ahead of her in the first half mile to check her bib: aha, a 10K runner, so nothing to worry about. I let her pass me back and she stays ahead for a short while; then when she starts to slow I saunter by and her breathing reassures me that she won't be passing me again.

Miles 4-6: 6:21, 6:10, 6:31
The effort I'm putting in should be getting me low 6:00 pace, but it's not. That would be worrying except for one thing: this course has a LOT of hairpin turns that are somewhat annoying but also afford an excellent opportunity to check how far behind (or ahead) the competition is. So that's exactly what I do.

5 hairpin turns per lap!

At the first big hairpin (lower right of map, between miles 2 and 3) I note that the 10K girl is about 40 seconds behind me. Another 10 seconds back is the first HM female - 50 seconds is not a huge gap at this point, but I guess we will see what develops. My legs are toast but  I'm managing to hold 6:25ish pace without too much difficulty, so I figure if I can stick with that I'll be okay.

Now is the time when I start passing blokes who have gone out way too fast. This generally happens at some point in almost every race for me, and it's always fun to see their reactions. The first guy I approach from behind surges like a maniac when I pull up alongside, and I let him go before gently reeling him in again. He surges again but it doesn't last and I sail past once more, this time for good. The next guy is up for the fight as well. He's wearing a NSW State Titles jersey which I think is for boxing - it's probably not for running. The wind is at our backs as we race up the out-and-back that finishes mile 5 and starts mile 6, and he drags me along to complete my fastest mile of the race (6:10). When we turn back into the wind it's like being hit with a sack of bricks; I grit my teeth and battle on, but he fades fast. Next?

Miles 7-9: 6:25, 6:27, 6:26 10K split 39:30 approx
Back past the starting line and up the road for the add-on that completes the first lap of the HM, Brendan is waaaay out in front now. I note my time again at the turnaround and see with satisfaction that I now have 4 minutes on 2nd place female and almost 5 on 3rd. I'm barely holding onto my marathon pace from Boston, though, and whilst it would be nice to just slack off now and jog home, the winning time should be at least half worthy and I'm definitely not going to take it easy. I pass another 2 blokes as we again battle the headwind back past the Rugby Club and out for the second lap.

All alone....

Miles 10-12: 6:27, 6:29, 6:24
The wind is really taking a toll now; every time I turn into it, I feel it more. There's a guy ahead of me with a short, shuffly gait that reminds me of my own, and it takes me a while to catch him but I finally achieve it after yet another hairpin that puts the icy gale directly into our faces. I can hear the pitter-patter of his feet behind me for a while, but he's not catching me. I'm starting to lap the slowest of the half-marathoners as I finally take the turn back along the river and into the final mile.

Mile 13-finish: 6:26, 5:54 pace to finish
It's a small mercy that the wind is at my back for the final half mile; I sail down the road towards the finish and even manage to pull out a small finishing kick that gets me across the line as first female. I've set an alarm on my son's iPad to tell him when to come down to watch me finish, and as I cross the line I hear excited cries of "Mummy! You won, Mummy!" to my left. How fantastic!

My local fan club, membership: 2.
Finish time: 1:23:44 (6:23 pace)

Placement: 1st female, 5th overall.

I'm pretty happy with how I hung onto the pace, even if it wasn't very much faster than I ran the whole of Boston. Obviously I'm not fully recovered yet but I was still able to put in a solid effort, so that's great. And Jane not showing up played a large part in my ability to win!

We hang around to get our photo taken (see above) and for the presentation, where I get an envelope and a medal. Then it's off for brunch and an exciting museum full of fossils and dinosaur bones before the lazy drive home. My legs are sore already when I step out of the car back home; will I live to regret racing again so soon after Boston? Only time, and perhaps next weekend's race effort, will tell.

The second race: Canberra Mother's Day 10K, Sunday May 12.
The Mother's Day Classic is one I've run in Sydney many years ago (at least 2 or 3 times) and I've run Canberra the past 2 years, chiefly because it's a lot closer. Not to mention how lazy Wagga only has a 5K walk....really not my speed. Anyway, it's a great event, a good excuse to wear lots of pink, and I've had moderate success there - even with relatively slow times - with 3rd place finishes in both the 5K (2012) and 10K (2013). Why not go back and see what better training might get me this year?

The 10K is 2 laps of this deceptively simple-looking course.

Race Day
Somehow I manage to underprepare in almost every way for this race: I stay up late the night before drinking wine with my friend Sonia, and wake up very reluctantly at 6am with a slight hangover and a marked aversion to the thought of running fast. Eventually I drag myself out of bed, snag a banana and a kids' muesli (granola) bar from the kitchen, and venture forth in the direction of Lake Burley Griffin. The weather is nowhere near as wretched as I was expecting it to be - in fact it's a balmy 10C/50F and cloudy but not raining - so that's a good start.

I've forgotten to bring water with me, though, and on the drive over I realise I'm utterly busting for the bathroom. Thankfully I know where to park and also where to find a restroom, so I'm able to take care of that need fairly promptly after I arrive near the race start area. Then it's off for a warm-up lap of the course, which feels pretty uninspiring. At least the stiff headwind of 2012 has not reappeared, I guess.

Waiting for the start a woman starts talking to me; her name is Kelly-Ann and she recognises me from last year when she placed 4th to my 3rd. I tell her "I'm not in the mood to run fast today"; she laughs and then points out a woman nearby who is all in black. Apparently she is one to watch - she beats Kelly-Ann at half marathons regularly - but she might be injured. I guess we'll see what happens.

Start line, with Kelly-Ann and an Indian bloke who appears to be checking out her left knee.

Lap 1: 6:12, 6:17, 6:04
Immediately there are 3 women - Girl in Black among them - who shoot way out in front of me. As we go up and over the Kings Ave bridge for the first time I'm already thinking "Ok, fourth isn't bad, at least you won't have to hang around for the presentation", but of course it's too early to make that kind of prediction. Benita has told me to aim for 6:05-6:15 pace and not go too hard on the first lap, so I settle in and try (for once) to follow instruction. Surprisingly it seems to work, and the first mile split beeps as I head down off the bridge: spot on.

Pounding along the southern side of the lake is somehow never inspiring, and despite the lack of headwind I still slow down a little. There are kids at a water station about halfway along with a bubble machine, and it's kind of fun to see how many I can pop as I whizz through. Predictably, I've started to catch guys who went out too fast, and then towards the end of the second mile I realise that OMG, I seem to be catching two of those women as well!

Mile 3 starts with a sharp uphill onto the Commonwealth Ave bridge - that one is going to HURT the second time around, I know it - and although I slow down a bit, Girl in Black ahead of me slows down a LOT more. Before I know it we are over the peak of the bridge and then I'm bearing down on her like a B-double (read: enormous truck) with no brakes. I zoom past as we head back down towards the lake, and look up to see that a girl in a pink singlet and black capris is now also well within reach. I'm going to be in second!! It's all so exciting that mile 3 turns out to be my fastest so far. Grinning like a Cheshire Cat I pass by the start line to begin the second lap.

Lap 2: 6:13, 6:18, 6:06
I honestly have no idea now who is behind me or how far behind, and by "who" I specifically mean "other women". This lap is going to be all about hanging on and not fading, and to my surprise I find myself doing that with panache. Up and over the King's Ave bridge again, mile 4 beeps 6:13 and I'm feeling surprisingly good. Benita has told me that it will hurt from the start, that's how 10Ks are, and sure I'm hurting some - but it's not unbearable.

I continue to catch male runners along the pathway in front of the High Court and library, and one over-enthusiastic volunteer calls out "First lady!" to me as I pass. Hah, thanks, but I know there's a girl with a white singlet and long ponytail in front of me, although I can barely see her most of the time. Second is definitely good enough for me at this point.

The game of Assassin Mode continues up and over the Commonwealth Ave bridge - that steep uphill gets me another male scalp, and the bridge yet another - the incline is tough going but my pace actually holds up surprisingly well. I'm lapping the slower 10Kers now, and many are yelling encouragement or clapping, and this spurs me on as well.

When mile 6 beeps I look down to see 6:06, and am so surprised that I put on a bit of a  sprint to the finish. There are slower runners all over the place now and the path narrows considerably - I'm forced to bellow "COMING THROUGH!!" a few times - but I manage to hold onto 5:53 pace over the final part of the course. Two people are holding up a tape (for second? sure!) as I dash across the grass to cross the line: second female!! Yippee!

The spoils.

Finish time: 38:36 (6:13 pace)

Placement: 2nd female, 8th OA, 1st in AG (F40-44).

Well, that was actually fun! And possibly the best-executed race I've ever run. There's quite a difference now to how I feel about racing - I have a lot more confidence, I'm no longer as scared or worried about not being able to hold a certain pace and stay the distance. The speed work of the past 6 months has shown me that I'm capable of running closer to 6:00 pace than I ever imagined I could, although I'm still convinced that my shuffle means I'm speed-limited to some extent.

If you count Boston, I've raced 3 of the past 4 weekends, and quite frankly my legs don't know what has hit them. It's been a ton of fun, though, and there's more to come!