Sunday, August 23, 2015

Wagga Trail Running Festival, August 2015: Marathon

The second weekend in August is Wagga's annual big running event with multiple races spread out over two days, and I have participated in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013. Although the full marathon is a gruelling course it is also somehow thoroughly satisfying, and the whole weekend is so well-organised that I never thought twice about signing up for it again this year.

The first year I ran the marathon I could barely walk for at least 2 days afterwards - I do recover more quickly now but I'm also 3 years older, and it would make more sense to just run the half and not interrupt my training for Melbourne for nearly as long. But as we all know I've never been one to shirk away from a challenge, and the Wagga Trail Marathon is nothing if not a challenge.

Race Day

I wake early and lying in bed I stretch my legs, testing for muscle soreness in the wake of yesterday's slightly unhinged 5K win. Nothing feels TOO terrible, thankfully, but I'm still a little apprehensive about the torture that I'll be putting myself through today. To distract myself I get up and make a coffee and some raisin toast, then retreat back to bed to eat and surf the web until it's time to dress and leave.

Driving to the start area at Wagga Beach, it's a crisp winter's day and moderately foggy but I'm fairly sure things are going to warm up nicely for the start at 8:30am. Watching the start of the Mountain Bike marathon is very amusing - they end up having to run to their bikes, Le Mans-style, and bike cleats don't make for easy running. Snigger, snigger, cyclists.

The first 50m of the race and the river beyond.

We runners all mill around a bit after the bike riders leave, and I spot the girl whom I yesterday identified as my main competition for the event. My other friend Sonia tells me "Ooh, she's FAST" and I'm tempted to ask "Exactly how fast?" but then it's time to line up for our own race briefing; I strip down and decide to forget about the gloves I've brought, but leave my arm warmers on just in case.

Miles 1-4: 7:06, 6:43, 6:52, 6:48 (pace in min/mile)

As predicted, the fast chick (whose name turns out to be Sarah) is in front of me from the very outset, and over the first kilometre or so she stays there, even pulls a bit further ahead as I resign myself - prematurely, perhaps? - to another 2nd place finish like 2013.

I've decided that I can afford to go a bit faster over the first, flat 10K of this course, so I'm aiming for 7:00 pace or so and am pleased to see the first mile tick past right on target. But then I see something even more interesting up ahead of me: Sarah, with a group of 4 or 5 blokes running alongside her, is slowing down! I am caught on the horns of a dilemma - do I speed up to stay with her, pass her even, or just stay where I am?

As usual, what a silly question. Within a few hundred yards more I'm sneaking up beside her and before the 2nd mile is over I've passed her, even opened up a small gap. The pace is undoubtedly too fast now - sub-7:00, for god's sake - but I feel reasonably good and I might as well see if I can win today. Or die trying.

Miles 5-8: 6:45, 7:03, 7:33, 7:13

I manage to keep things ticking over nicely as the now quite spread-out field makes its way towards the first (but by no means last) nasty incline which will take us all the way up Red Hill. A quick glance sideways after the sharp left hand turn towards the base of the hill confirms my suspicions: Sarah is right on my tail, maybe 10 seconds back at most.

And then it begins - I have run hill repeats up Red Hill Rd many times but somehow today it is much steeper. The top section slows me almost to a walk and I feel like kicking the small sign that someone has planted next to the track, which reads "It's a hill. Get over it." I bet the person who put that there isn't racing today.

Cresting the top of the hill - finally - I ignore the water station and find to my relief that I'm able to start actually running again. Some spectators are on horses, which is slightly alarming, but they're well off to the side and one of the riders calls out "Go Rachel!" - I have no idea who it could be, but thanks! And I head off into the hills that lie ahead. One good thing about having run this race twice before is that I know pretty much exactly what to expect; the only downside is that this is, in a word, HILLS.

What goes down must also go up again

Miles 9-12:  7:03, 7:59, 7:12, 6:58
And here come the hills, indeed. I have always thought that the rocky, narrow, winding MTB paths of Pomingalarna are the toughest part of this course, but my 3rd experience has convinced me otherwise: the first half is worse by far. Pomi is hideously technical but the constant stream of hills that attack me during miles 9-11 are punishing in the extreme; I am reduced to almost (note: almost, not actually) walking by the time I reach the summit of each one.

It's very very tough work, but I manage to keep my average pace under 8:00 (only just) and then finally I'm on the big descent towards the half-way point at Silvalite Reserve. I haven't thought much about Sarah behind me while I've been struggling my way uphill, but I'm still more or less expecting her to charge past me in a repeat of what I did to Singlet Girl in 2012. This is mostly what keeps me going and gets my pace under 7:00 again as I continue towards the next challenge: Pomingalarna Reserve.

Look at how my pace crashes with each grey peak, admire the horrible symmetry.

Miles 13-16: 6:57, 7:21, 8:02, 7:33

Through halfway in 1:33:00 exactly (around 5 minutes faster than coach instructed me to, sorry B) I again ignore the water stop - although I've been taking my gels I haven't taken much water so far this race - but I'm not a big sweater and routinely race a half without drinking at all, so I'm not concerned. The weather is getting rather warm though so I pull off my left arm warmer, fold the right one down as far as I can and shove left one in my bra.

Heading up the first long, gradual incline towards Pomingalarna, I'm rather surprised to see quite a few of the slower half-marathoners just ahead. I guess the starting time might have changed, or perhaps I should just pay more attention, but there are more runners around than I was expecting. I'm still too chicken to look around and check for Sarah, so I put my head down and concentrate on what's coming up. Which, of course, is another goddamn bloody hill.

Mile 15 gets tricky and as expected my pace dips below 8:00 for the first time in the race; also I have to slow down to pass quite a few slower runners. I'm ready for this, though, and I know that I only have a few miles of this sort of terrain with which to contend. Let's see if I can get through it unscathed for the 3rd year running......

Miles 17-20: 8:09, 8:20, 8:16, 7:04

And then, halfway through mile 17, it happens. Right at the spot where I almost fell 3 years ago, a short uphill stretch of narrow, root-filled track, I catch my right toe and BAM: down I go.

"Pete's Precipice" - or Rachel's Ruin perhaps?
photo credit: snucklepuff

I'm not moving very fast but I'm hunched right over, there's not far to fall and I have no time whatsoever to restore my balance or even put my hands in front of me. In a split second I find myself lying right in the middle of the track, landing squarely on my chest and, yes, my face. I feel my nose and lower teeth grinding themselves gently into the dirt, and the taste of it is on my tongue as I slide gracefully to a halt.

Wow. Well, that was unexpected. Quite to my own surprise, I immediately jump up and start running again, not in the slightest bit discouraged or upset. I spit out as much of the dirt as I can manage and then I fish out my arm warmer, spit some more and use it to wipe my face. There's a fair bit of blood on it when I'm done and it seems my nose is bleeding - I pinch it firmly and count to 60, but not even this can stop me running. I'm still waiting for Sarah to catch me, which at this point wouldn't be a disaster (winning with my face looking like this is going to be embarrassing), but I'm not giving up yet.

At the drinks table that signals the end of the punishing uphill of Pomingalarna, the guy manning it is quite alarmed at the sight of me and gasps "Are you alright??" but I'm too busy dumping water on my face and my improvised hankerchief to do much more than chirp out "Yep!" and keep moving.

Finally the path opens up and the course heads downhill towards the City Golf course. I feel confident enough to let my legs go once more and am rewarded with a return to my pre-hills pace. Phew! Both knees are scraped and bleeding but they're not slowing me down and I can ignore them quite easily.

Miles 21-24: 6:57, 7:25, 7:05, 7:36

Zoom! I'm overtaking half-marathoners in droves now, zipping past before they can get a look at my beaten-up face. My legs feel surprisingly fresh and I still haven't looked behind me but I suspect Sarah may be a bit further back than I realised. Could I be on track to win this thing after all?? To my great surprise I now catch and pass two of the guys running the marathon who streaked out ahead of me early on; one of them is Marcus, IronMan champion and also my physiotherapist. As I pass I turn to face him and ask "How bad is it??" - he winces and I know the news isn't good.

But still, I'm winning, and that thought is enough to bring a smile to my face - which in turn sort of makes my lip and chin hurt - and keeps me going as the final miles progress. Even the stretch of sand that as good as murdered me in 2012 seems to be much less onerous this time around, and then finally there are only 2 miles to go. Phew!

Miles 25, 26, 0.2: 7:19, 7:14, 6:36 pace to the finish

I'm finally feeling like I want to stop soon, but the beach isn't that far off now. I've stopped checking pace and am just running by feel - I have no idea what sort of finish time I'll be ending up with and somehow I'm not even thinking about that sort of thing. Not much of anything is going through my mind as I bound down the same stairs that I did in the 5K, other than that it's half a mile to the finish and I'll be there very soon. And finally there it is! I'm tempted to look back for Sarah in the same way I did for Singlet Girl in 2012 but I don't - although I do replicate my wild dash for the line, this time it's with a big grin rather than an agonised grimace - and then I'm done at last!

Finish time: 3:11:39 (7:19 pace)

Placement: 1st female, 5th overall, 1st in AG (F40-49)

"Don't try putting those bandaids on my face. I'm serious."
photo credit: Ewen Thompson

Without much delay the St John's Ambulance guy drags me into the medical tent to examine my wounds. I humour him for a bit but then get fairly bossy when he looks like he wants to put dressings on my knees and face. That is NOT happening - I do let him wipe off most of the dirt and then I set off in search of dry clothes.

I'm fairly stunned at my finish time, actually - it's a 5 minute course PR and almost 10 minutes faster than I expected to run! I must be fitter than I realised, and that's quite a gratifying thought. I change quickly before it's time for the awards ceremony, where I am the happy recipient of a truly amazing trophy and also a nice envelope of cash.

Fast chicks unite! Oldest and shortest in the middle, thanks.


What an absolute surprise, a win and a big course PR to boot! I'm quite amazed at myself on several counts today: not only for running so well on such a tough course, but also for being so utterly unfazed by what can only be described as a total faceplant with almost 10 miles left to run. I could so easily have been discouraged or upset at falling but somehow I brushed it off with barely a second thought. Maybe I'm tougher than I realised - this is good news for the rest of the year. Next up? Melbourne marathon with an elite bib! Another course PR there would be lovely -- stay tuned.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wagga Trail Running Festival, August 2015: 5K race

The Saturday 5K/ Sunday marathon combo has been so much fun for me over the past 12 months - in New York last November and in Boston this April - that I couldn't resist continuing it back here at home in Wagga. The trail marathon is a seriously tough race so I'm actually not really sure what I was thinking, but it might have had something to do with Benita telling me that we'd use the trail marathon as a "specific training run for Melbourne" - my next road marathon planned for October.

A training run? Those are easy, right? So once I managed to survive our annual family ski trip without injury (yes!), I signed myself up for both the marathon and the 5K in one slightly foolhardy swoop. Wheee?

The Training

It's increasingly difficult to comment on training when I seem to be perpetually stuck in the peak part of a marathon training cycle; I guess by now I'm just used to weekly long runs and mileage around 80-85 miles per week. Nothing was different in the weeks leading up to the trail running festival here in Wagga, other than that I found myself inexplicably tired after the week of skiing. Any day when I don't run is by definition a rest day, but I guess 6-7 hours of skiing doesn't qualify as rest. In any case, I was surprised and displeased to find my legs feeling quite leaden in the week leading up to the trail running weekend, although the 2 day mini-taper certainly did help. Until I did something a little foolish, but more about that below. Ahem.

Race Weekend

Perfect weather greets us - the kids and me - when we arrive on Saturday to pick up our bibs and prepare for the first, shorter races of the weekend.

Wagga Beach, aka the Murrumbidgee River, where all races start and finish

We pin on our bibs and install Mum at a table near the playground, where the kids will happily occupy themselves while I run the 5K. It's a casual affair for sure - everyone lines up at a seemingly random point on the path, I insert myself near the front (hoping to thus avoid getting creamed by the inevitable flood of primary school kids who I know will sprint like maniacs for the first 100m then stop dead in their tracks right in front of me), someone says "GO!" and everyone dashes off.

Mile 1: 6:24 (pace in min/mile)
We all race like maniacs down the path towards the river bank and to my relief the short uphill that comes after about 50 metres seems to sort out a good few of the kids, although I'm still going way faster than planned at this point. It's tempting to slow down but rather suddenly I find myself in 3rd place overall - and the 2 people ahead of me are both about 11 years old. There's a boy who is WAY ahead and a girl about 50m in front who keeps looking over her shoulder. Hmm, I wonder if I can catch her?

The competitive part of my personality steps right up, says firmly "Of course you bloody can!", and without thinking further on it I surge until I pull up to and then sail right past her. When the first mile chirps on my Garmin I look at the pace and wonder what on earth I'm doing, but I can't really slow down now, can I?

"Take that, pre-teens"
photo credit: Ewen Thompson

Mile 2: 6:21
We turn on the levee bank and head back towards the beach; I really should slow down but I don't, and I can only hope it won't destroy me for tomorrow. Past the finish and out along the levee bank on the other side of the beach, the Wiradjuri bridge looms ahead as the second mile beeps but I don't even check my pace, I just bounce down the stairs to the narrow track beside the river and head back to the finish.

Mile 3, 0.1: 6:38, 6:11 pace to finish
This mile is going to be slower but looking up at the levee bank I can't even see my little nemesis, the little girl who has tempted me into racing this 5K almost all-out. I could jog it in but that's so not my style - to a smattering of applause and the great surprise of my waiting children I cross the finish line as first female.

Time: 20:03

Placement: 2nd OA, 1st female.

"Nice one Mum!"

Turns out I've been beaten by an 11 year old, and my 10 year old friend (whose name is Maya) finishes in around 21:30, which her Dad informs me is a 1 minute PB for her. Splendid! But it's time for the kids' 1.5K race and I have 2 very excited runners to organise. Thankfully Amelia excuses me from running with her (I only have to beg and whine a little bit) so I am able to watch from the sidelines as everyone departs in a flurry of squeals and flying feet.

It's very soon that Maya appears again in the lead - she wins by a handy margin but wow, here comes Jack in 4th place! I'm yelling at him to overtake the little girl who is in the finish chute ahead of him but no matter, he's done and in his own words, "That was EPIC!" Amelia appears surprisingly soon afterwards, probably in 8th or 9th place overall, declaring "I'm not even puffed!" - there are high-fives all-round and we conclude they are both running the 5K with me next year, no question about it.

My little running champions!

1. Running a 5K race in a nice tapered state the very day before a marathon is fun!

2. It's utterly impossible to hold back when you are in a position to win a race outright.

3. We will know VERY soon how badly marathon performance is affected by racing a 5K less than 24 hours earlier.