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.....
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!
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 lunch...by 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.
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!|
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|
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!|
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.