Saturday, March 14, 2015

Riverina Rush HM, Narrandera March 2015

It's a rare thing indeed to find a half-marathon within coo-ee of where I live in beautiful Wagga Wagga, so when this race appeared on the radar I was instantly keen to attend. Adding to my enthusiasm was the fact that the timing was also very good: exactly 5 weeks out from my next big race, the Boston marathon in April. I was a little concerned about the start time of 9:30am, which would likely make things rather uncomfortably hot by the finish, but on the bright side this also meant there would be plenty of time to drive over the the morning rather than having to stay somewhere overnight.

The Training
Ah yes, the training. To be very honest, life had gotten somewhat in the way of running for me in the 2 months leading up to this race, and I found myself with a much less consistent background of decent training than I'd usually have at this point in the Boston lead-up. Instead of multiple weeks over 100 miles I'd had exactly one of those since the beginning of January; surprisingly however I was pretty unconcerned at this state of affairs.

My goal, therefore, for the race at Narrandera was to run a decent workout at or slightly faster than goal pace for Boston (6:30 min/mile or 4:02 min/km), and not really worry about trying to run a PR or anything of that sort. Coach B provided me with this plan and it seemed like a good one; there's also the matter of advancing age on my part, although we might just not mention that too often if that's alright with you.

Race Day
It's an easy and relaxing drive to Narrandera, just over an hour to the west - if we were to keep on driving we'd eventually end up in Adelaide, although probably 9 or 10 hours later. Mum and I get up early to eat a modest breakfast of raisin toast and coffee, then we set off. We arrive at the Lake Talbot swimming complex with almost an hour to spare, which is enough time for me to get changed, get my "bib" number (see below) and run a nice gentle 2 mile warm-up.

A portion of the pool complex, complete with gnarly slide - how steep is that thing?!?
Oops, did I just accidentally enter a triathlon?
I'm deliberately back by 9:15am but Mum tells me the pre-race briefing has already finished, so unfortunately I have missed hearing any specific advice about the course. Down at the start line, though, I hear one guy briefing another on where to turn, so I listen in and end up chatting to them both while we wait for the start. One looks fast - his name is Sam - and he imparts the unexpected news that we'll be running entirely on trails..... and in some places that will mean on sand.

Wow, time for an attitude adjustment! I really really need to stop expecting to be racing on the roads in these regional areas, and start expecting gnarly trails every single time. The RD makes an announcement that mentions mud, fences and electrocution (he's joking, although I do wonder briefly if this is Tough Mudder in disguise) and everyone laughs, but the HM has us doing 2 laps of the course and there's a good chance my sleek ASICS racing flats are not going to like any of it very much. Sam and I joke about getting lost out there: he has no sense of direction and apparently gets lost on the way to work, which sends a prescient pang of anxiety through me. I can only hope that there are enough runners around me that I can follow someone, although I did look at the course map briefly after we arrived, so hopefully my photographic memory will keep me on track.

Miles 1-3: 6:28, 6:34, 6:27
Off we go! A number of young boys take off like a pack of rabbits and I know well enough by now to steer clear of them, anticipating the inevitable slow-down-suddenly-block-entire-path manoeuvre that I've seen more times than I'd like in past races. Sam is cruising along at a good clip so I tuck in right behind him, but as we cross a small bridge and turn left, there's a sandy patch and whoops, he almost goes down. As he recovers I look at my watch: 5:37 min/mile pace so far, WAY too fast for me, so I pull it back and let him go.

We head into the bush on a well-defined but by turns sandy and rocky path. My usual half-marathon pace is going to be impossible, but if I can keep it close to marathon pace for Boston - and keep the effort level appropriate - today will be a good marathon-specific workout. The first few miles splits are promising (despite the terrain) and ahead of me now are only 5 people, all male and 3 of them quite young.

Then at the first water table all the young ones peel off to the right to follow the 5K course, leaving Sam perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead, and beyond him a guy in a "Feral Joggers Griffith" singlet; the lead bike is just in front of him. I know both of them are running the HM - can it possibly be that there are no 10K competitors at all ahead of me? That really makes no sense, but it looks to be true.

Miles 4-6: 6:45, 6:32, 6:31
I'm far too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots to notice my 5K split. During mile 4 there's another drink station and fork in the path just where a fence line appears; from what I overheard at the start I know to turn left and follow the fence as the course loops back towards Narrandera. I'm starting to feel the effects of the terrain, plus there's a bit of a headwind and the lovely shade of the koala reserve we have just run through (no I didn't see any) is gone. It's full sun and probably around 27C/80F now, ugh, and the surface is full of big cracks too. Strangely enough I can't see Sam's blue singlet ahead of me anymore - I wonder vaguely if he's put on a big burst of speed and opened a huge gap on me - but the course demands my full attention and the thought quickly leaves my mind.

The path dips steeply down into what appears to be a dry creek bed, then back up onto a levee bank where there's yet another water table. Taken aback by the sudden incline, I decide abruptly to stop and drink a cup rather than try to keep running full-tilt and end up either wearing or choking on it. I lose maybe 10 seconds in the process, but I'm fairly sure there is nobody at all behind me for quite a long way, so whatever.

The view across Lake Talbot to the levee bank where I'm now running

Refreshed, I set off along the bank again - there is a channel and part of Lake Talbot to my right (see image above), and it's quite picturesque. Up ahead I see Feral Guy's white singlet, somewhat closer than before, but where oh where is Sam?? He's definitely disappeared.

At this point I'm beginning to lose mental focus, so I start playing the game that I invented to keep my (ridiculously fast) cadence up when I'm running speedwork: I count my footfalls in batches of four and work my way up to 60. At top speed that would equal roughly a minute, since I can easily clock 240 in that time. I know if I start daydreaming now or singing to myself (the Pet Shop Boys song "Pandemonium" is stuck in my head and liable to pop up at moments like this) then I'll instantly slow down. No, I need to stay focused. So I count and I count and I count -- as the distant umbrellas of the pool complex draw closer and closer and closer.

Miles 7-9: 6:36, 6:43, 6:42
The course loops back to the bridge, does a little out-and-back and then it's off for the second lap. The turn is hilarious: instead of a traffic cone there's an enormous bloke standing there and clearly I'm supposed to run around him......but he sees me coming and starts to get out of the way! I give him a stern look that is meant to convey the message that he needs to STOP RIGHT THERE, and apparently it works (I've been practicing it for years on my kids, after all) because he freezes and I go around - being careful not to slip in the loose gravel - and look up again to see Sam approaching. Phew, he's not lost forever!

The bad news is that he's obviously lost a fair bit of time: he's at least 2 minutes behind me now. I yell at him "Wrong turn??" and he replies "Yeah, massive" - poor guy! He looks strong but really pissed off; my goal for the next lap is going to be NOT getting caught by Sam, although he totally deserves to come 2nd. Heck, he probably should have been in the lead by now, because Feral Guy is not that far ahead.

Running alone through the bush it's harder than the first lap to stay on pace. I take another drink at a station deep in the reserve; the old bloke there exclaims "You're only 300m behind the first guy!" and I'm sufficiently distracted by this knowledge that I almost do a Sam and turn right instead of left at the fence. Oops, nope, I backtrack quickly and hit the stretch with full sun again. The headwind is stronger - I attempt to reframe this as a good thing, because at least it's cooling me down - but nope, I cannot convince myself, sorry. All the mental gymnastics in the world are not going to appease the sensible part of my brain that is yelling "Just slow down already!!" so I give up and again start to count, whereupon the OCD part of my brain rubs its hands together and chuckles insanely. Sigh.

Miles 10-12: 6:50, 6:40, 6:37
I stop again after the creek for a cup of water, and lose another 10 seconds. By now I'm hot, dusty and getting fed up. Can I really be bothered with this? I remind myself that keeping focus while running alone is very important training for Boston, and after the mile 10 split (my slowest of the race) I give myself a shake and again zero in on my cadence. Speed it up, keep it there -- it works to some extent and again I'm back down closer to goal pace. The sun is beating down relentlessly and I think with some disbelief of the very real possibility of snow still being on the ground in 5 weeks' time in Boston - could this race be any more different?

Back at the bridge we now have to do another short out-and-back, and Feral Guy is fading fast, but possibly not enough for me to catch him. At the turnaround (this time a traffic cone rather than a tubby bystander) I estimate there's maybe 60-70 seconds separating us, and it's very unlikely I can make that up. But I charge on regardless.....

Mile 13 - final 0.1: 6:27, 6:25 pace to finish
I'm giving it everything I have now and finally I pass through the gates of the Lake Talbot Swimming Complex once again. The entry way where we started is totally empty, and I have no idea where the finish line is. I debate briefly whether to take the high road on the left or the lower one on the right before deciding just to stay left and head up to the place where registration took place - until about 10 seconds later, when I hear people yelling at me from near the fence: I'm going the wrong way!

Frustrated, I stop dead, mutter something unprintable and then bellow "WHERE DO I GO??" In reply they're yelling sort of incoherently, but I get the idea I should be on the other side where they are, even though there's still no finish line that I can see. Oh -- they are motioning that I should run through a narrow gate that seems to lead into the pool complex itself. How completely freaking obscure! And why isn't there someone here to show the way, or a sign at least? Aware that I've lost at least 30 seconds in this mix-up, I leg it back down the hill and through the gate. I see Sam coming along the road as I turn, then I'm barrelling towards the finish at last.

Finish line, complete with rather-too-relaxed race officials

Finish time: 1:26:48 (6:36 min/mile pace, 4:06 min/km)

Placement: 2nd overall, 1st female

This has to be the least crowded finish area ever! I grab a bottle of water, complain to anyone who's listening about the lack of directions to the finish line, then sit down in the shade next to Mum. After a while I wonder whether a swim might be nice, but then a small child emerges from the pool wailing "It's freeeeeezing in there!!" and I decide that just getting changed out of my sweaty INKnBURN gear will be enough for me.

A proper podium is just the thing to make up for all the drama

Post-race analysis
I spend some time commiserating with Sam, who turns out to be capable of a 35 minute 10K and therefore should have handily beaten me today. Overall, I'm quite happy with how I managed to perform: I stayed focused and most of the time was only about 10 seconds off the pace I'd been targeting, which seems pretty acceptable in light of the trail surface, which after all is vastly different to running on asphalt. As predicted, the race has turned out to be a good marathon-specific workout in more than one way, and a nice medal and envelope of cash are the icing on the cupcake of a very nice day trip to Narrandera. Bring on Boston, please!


  1. Bit of an adventure race that one! Suits what the DA calls a 'trail running expert' ;-) Yes, Boston will be totally different - no danger of getting lost for a start. The snow is starting to melt, so hopefully you'll be left with a cool tailwind all the way. Good luck with your final preparation - you'll run well.

  2. Just saw you finish Boston - well done! Flags were getting blown around a bit!