Monday, October 26, 2015

Melbourne Marathon, October 2015

Fast and flat, Melbourne is one of Australia's premier marathons and I have been lucky enough to run it in both 2013 and 2014. Both years it was a great experience, even though in 2013 I fell just a little short of my goal of 2:49, and in 2014 I ran pacing a friend as I was just coming back from injury. I felt quite confident of running a decent time this year when I emailed the elite coordinator about getting in again for 2015, and was very happy when he promptly replied that it would be possible.

Melbourne is indeed quite flat - bar a rather nasty long slow rise through the Botanic Gardens that makes up the whole of mile 23 - and although it seems my running style is better suited to undulating courses (Boston is a prime example), it made sense that Melbourne should be my goal race for the year. Plus, Joel has never been there so it would be yet another opportunity for some lovely running tourism.

The Training
My training, of course, has been quite affected by the events of this year, most particularly by getting married to Joel in late February. It turns out that I'm not quite so keen to rise at 5am to run 15 miles before dawn when the other side of the bed is no longer empty, nor is a dinner of toast at 10pm after an evening treadmill run an appealing option at this point. Life, as it does, sometimes gets in the way and to be honest, I wouldn't change a thing.

And so it happened that rather than averaging my customary 90-95 miles (145-155km) per week before a big race, I only managed to average 76 mpw (122km) over the 12 weeks leading up to Melbourne. This might not seem like a major change but my past successes have come about largely due to high mileage, by which I mean consistently running 90-100 mpw, building the endurance that helps me to maintain my marathon pace for much longer during a race. I hadn't run as little as this in preparation for a goal race since early 2012, but ignorance is bliss and I never bothered to figure this out before the marathon.

Also, I managed to race no less than 7 times during that period, including 2 marathons - Wagga Trail in 3:11 (a 5 minute course PR and 1st overall female) and Sydney Marathon in 3:08 (a progression run-gone-wild sort of scenario for 14th overall female and 3rd in AG) - hardly the ideal preparation for a major marathon. I'm sure Benita had no idea what to make of all the fun I was having, but she patiently stuck by me and let me do my thing, even if much of it seemed ill-advised.

The Lead-Up
Joel and I head down to Melbourne on Friday afternoon, and on the way we come up with the idea to reprise some fun we had in New York after Boston 2014, when we went out dancing at an 80's nightclub and stayed out til 2am. Note that I said "after Boston", not 2 nights before, but we have overlooked this tiny detail because the place we want to go isn't open Sunday night so it will have to be Friday. Right? Right.

On arrival in Melbourne we google the best ramen restaurant (also a personal tradition of ours) where we slurp down some delicious noodles and google-maps our path to the nightclub, aptly named "Retro". On the way we manage to meet up with my fast friend Kelly, who is not running on Sunday and so is very happy to join us in our foolish endeavour. Much beer is drunk, many dodgy dance moves are performed, and we fall into bed at midnight exhaustedly happy.

Some last-minute cross-training. What could go wrong?

Sunday morning starts very slowly indeed with the first hangover I can remember in some time; we eventually head out for a jog and put in 4 miles exploring the banks of the Yarra River and the Botanic Gardens. We see and wave to Kelly along the way - she looks much more chipper than we both feel - and after finishing with a few fast strides, it's time to start loading up the carbs. This is the part of marathon prep that I both love and despise; it's fun at first to have a licence to gorge on pancakes and gatorade, but I know that by the end of the day I will feel so gross and bloated that I won't want to ever eat again.

Got my name on my bib again....what could possibly go wrong?

After the elite briefing we spend the afternoon walking rather too far into town to meet up with Neil (who is running the half), Lenka (one of my RunCamp roomies) and Laurence, both of whom are running the marathon. After some aimless meandering we end up at a little Italian restaurant where I force myself to eat some fries, and eventually everyone retires for an early night. Will the surfeit of carbs make up for the excesses of not only last night (alcohol and dancing) but the excess of racing and deficit of training about which I am currently firmly in denial? We will find out very soon.

Race Day
The proximity of our hotel to the MCG is marvellous - we can rise at 5am and be walking into the elite room at 5:40 without feeling the least bit rushed. I'm worrying stupidly about my lack of bathroom action (TMI but hey, we're runners, we get it) and although I've had my usual breakfast of iced coffee, nothing much is going on. Fleur shows up and both Rob de Castella and Steve Moneghetti appear in the elite room briefly (Aussie running legends, amazing!), and before too long it's time to head up to the start.

Maybe a light warmup jog will get things moving? Yes, maybe, but we arrive at the preferred/elite start area and there's a MASSIVE queue for the 3 portaloos - there's no way I'll make it to the front in time. We stand in line regardless, until I see one of the elite coordinators pulling rank to get an African elite in at the front of the queue; I've got an elite bib too and the start is just 5 minutes away. So I grab her to ask for help, and she takes me straight up the front as well.

The people waiting at the head of the queue are VERY unhappy with this and start basically abusing me but I don't care, and once in I finally manage to go, hooray, problem sorted! As I dash to the start line the coordinator is still arguing and has in fact discovered that a few of these runners are not even in the elite or preferred group: they are summarily sent far away to find their own bathrooms, which are suitably far away. Hah!

Miles 1-4: 6:12, 6:22, 6:28, 6:19 (pace in min/mile)
Off we go with everyone predictably sprinting, and I'm waiting for the pace to feel too hard, but it doesn't. Fleur is with me at first - then after a few miles she tells me "I'm easing back, my first half is going to be slower than my second." Ok, well maybe I should be doing the same?? But somehow a decision has been firmly made: today I'm going all in. I've argued many times about this sort of race strategy with the fastest (and most stubborn) runner I know, who always goes out for a PR and accepts the chance of blowing up or gracefully fading, because my own approach has generally been much more conservative. However as of right now, in this race I'll be doing a Neil!

The 2:50 pacer and his group are behind me but not far, I'm sure of it. Staying in front of them is going to be an important mental boost, although if they catch me I'll be equally happy to just keep them in sight. The first 5K passes in 19:54 - things are going well.

Miles 5-8: 6:28, 6:15, 6:26, 6:26
Mile 5 takes us into one of the fastest parts of the course, winding along beside Albert Park Lake. There's a tiny headwind and I'm reminded of 2013 when I spent this mile catching a group to shelter behind on the St Kilda foreshore. This year things are much more strung-out but there seem to be a fair few guys running my pace - and there's always the sub-2:50 horde not far behind. If the headwind out there is bad, I can always let them catch me. So I relax into things and am pleased to find the pace still doesn't feel too arduous. The 10K mark passes: 40:08. Still on track, woo hoo!

After the 10K mats I'm running next to a guy in a yellow singlet; we bump arms and apologise to each other a few times before I tell him "Next time let's just assume we are both sorry and save our breath, ok?" He laughs and I ask him if he has a time goal - I want to cry when he tells me "Just sub-3!" Um, how many marathons has he run? I can probably guess - yep, this is his second.

"You do realise right now you're on pace for 2:49?" I ask as kindly as I can. He shrugs and says "But I feel good!" Of course you do, sunshine, you've only run 10K! As diplomatically as I can, and prefacing my comments by telling him this is my 19th marathon, I tell him to slow the heck down NOW or regret it later. It's somewhat surprising when he actually does - I only wish I'd noted his bib number to look up his time later.

Miles 9-12: 6:32, 6:22, 6:35, 6:26
The turn as we head to the coast takes in a slight uphill and I clock my slowest mile of the race - it's still within the range I had in mind so that's fine and I let it go. I can hear the 2:50 pacer behind me, which inspires me to speed up a bit as we start making our way north up to St Kilda, but there's definitely a wind coming off the bay and I slow back down again in mile 11 purely because headwinds give me flashbacks now and I don't care if it means running slower, I'm staying put behind whoever is around.

A rare pic from mile 11 where I'm not shamelessly drafting

The headwind picks up as we turn to run south and I make another conscious choice - I'm going to let the 2:50 group swallow me. Fleur is among the pack and the shelter is definitely better with some people around me; this was a good decision.

Miles 13-16: 6:32, 6:25, 6:28, 6:26
We go through halfway in 1:24:55 and I'm just behind Fleur and the 2:50 guy. The pace is starting to feel tougher but I expect that at this point and it's nice to continue to see the miles click off without much time being lost. The leaders run past going the other way and I see Jess Trengove in the midst of a big group and clearly leading the womens' race. Fantastic!

I'm still with the 2:50 group when we make the turn and head north again. This part of the course is known as one of the slower stretches and I'm won't be too surprised to lose a bit of time here.....but I'm quite surprised to see Joel on the other side of the road just ahead of the 3:00 pace group. Last I saw he was not far behind me, maybe a minute or two - so what on earth has happened? It doesn't cross my mind that he has had to take a bathroom break, but I'll hear about it all in graphic detail later, and it turns out he's had an epic one. But back to the race!

Looking rather amused for no particular reason

Miles 17-20: 6:33, 6:34, 6:48, 6:35
I'm still part of the 2:50 pace group for the first 2 miles of this section, but then we go through a water station together and to put it bluntly, it's a total cluster*#ck. People are snatching water left and right and I can't find a volunteer who still has a cup to offer. At the final table one of them sees my dilemma, turns to grab a cup and pretty much flings it directly at me: my hand closes around the plastic cup but the momentum of the gesture keeps the water moving in an arc that puts most of it directly into my face. I look in the now-almost-empty cup - there's still a mouthful in there, which I guess is enough - enough, in fact, for me to choke on. Lovely. Screw this group running thing, I'm over it......and I let the 2:50 horde leave me slightly behind.

The course turns back away from the coastline and the next mile does me in. We climb up to meet the half-marathoners and my legs are not happy. It's a huge relief to get back onto St Kilda Rd and be on the other side of the road to the slow half runners.

Miles 21-24: 6:47, 6:42, 7:24, 7:00
The wheels are finally beginning to come off; my pace is slowing now despite my efforts to keep it steady. I can still see the 2:50 group up ahead, although Fleur seems to have also fallen off the back; if I can just hold on to even sub-7:00 pace I'll be okay, I decide. Struggling back towards the city I manage to keep my legs turning over as we again merge with and disentangle ourselves from the half. Things could be worse - I pass a guy who is clearly cramping badly - and then up ahead I see someone lying passed out in the gutter. Uh oh.

There are bystanders leaning over him - oh my god, is that one doing CPR?? If so I am going to have to stop, and I'm not sure I'll ever get going again. The man on the ground is wearing a blue shirt and no, although his face is ashen his eyes are open, so no CPR will be required and I can keep running. Bugger.

On the Tan track marathon diverges again from the half and here we go, the long gradual climb I've been dreading all day.  The 2:50 group is too far ahead to see now, and to make things worse, I get passed by a couple of blokes as I struggle up the hill - I'm sure I've slowed down but by how much? My Garmin beeps and I glance down: holy shit, I've lost a whole minute! Mile 24 starts - I pass a couple of guys now and the hill finally ends - time to see how much I can regain. But suddenly a female runner swoops past me, muttering "Great job" as she goes, and my heart sinks. Where on earth did she come from??

Slowly it's dawning on me - I've hit the wall. So this is how it feels! My legs just won't go any faster than 7:00 pace so I stop checking my watch and focus on just getting to the MCG alive.

just past 40K, slightly delirious, but doing "the plane" for the photographers

Miles 25, 26 & 0.2: 7:04, 7:17, 6:37 to finish
Passing Flinders St Station is fun this year because I know there will be a good photo opportunity and I have a new move to try out: the plane. One of my running friends, Alice, moonlights as a race photographer and she posted a pic on Facebook recently of herself doing it during a 5K. Apparently it is a popular pose over there but I've never ever seen anyone do it here - what better time than during the dying miles of a marathon than to try it out? So as I come around the corner I go into full-on plane mode and ham it up for the cameras - and the result is pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.

I think I lost an engine somewhere around the 35K mark

Not much to say about the final miles; it seems a lot further to the stadium entrance that I recall from last year, and once there I get stuck in amongst a group of slow half-marathoners once again and it takes forever before I pop up from the tunnel onto the green grass of the MCG. The mats for the full marathon are empty so I head straight for them and as I round the corner I can hear the announcer. He just said something about...wait, what? 2:55??

No bloody way, did I really crash so badly that I'm not even going to break 2:55? The disgust is written plain across my face as I drag myself towards the finish - it's a big relief to realise that the clocks are set to the HM time or god knows what and when I hit my watch it's not as bad as I thought.

Wait, what?

Finish time: 2:54:28 (6:39 pace)

Placement: 10th OA female, 2nd in AG (F45-49)

Half splits: 1:24:55, 1:29:33

Wow, that sucked - a 4:38 positive split, probably my worst for a road marathon since Canberra 2011. But there's not much time to feel sorry for myself - there are too many people to talk to! I see Fleur and Jo and then before I know it here comes Joel, who has epic bathroom stop stories to relate. We mooch around a bit, go get our medals, head back upstairs and bump into Clare who has run the half and despite racing probably more than us recently has still managed a fantastic time. This is shaping up to be my most social marathon ever on Australian soil, which more than makes up for the slightly disappointing time. There's nothing to regret: I went for it and came up short. At least I tried!

Jo, me and Fleur - fast chicks unite!

After a shower and some time off our feet we head into town in search of chips and beer. Neil has bonked a bit in the half (1:12:35), Lenka has run an awesome PR (3:34:24) and Laurence needs some medical coaxing to join us after gutting out a courageous finish in the full marathon, but she eventually relents and we spend a very enjoyable afternoon/evening with some marvellous running buddies.

Neil, Laurence, Brent, Mariana, Joel and me....with hipster photobomber behind, how perfect

The Analysis
Now I know how it feels to go for a stretch goal, and miss. I'm glad I tried, though, and in retrospect it's pretty obvious that I just wasn't fit to run that sort of time on the mileage I had put into training. Numerous other factors could have been also to blame: too many races, too much partying, my ever-busier career. At this point in life I should be just happy to be able to run a sub-3 marathon, right? That's what I'm trying to tell myself lately - but it may or may not have sunk in just yet. Next up? Some rest, some aimless running, then we'll see if the competitive fires are ready to be re-stoked or not. Watch this space.


  1. YES- you should just be happy to run sub-3:00. That's so extremely amazing!!! I think what you did is admirable. You tried something out. You went for it. And you learned. That's really what running is about. Taking a step back, it's awesome that you have Joel in your life now and I'm sure you wouldn't trade that for anything!

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! Here's to awesome running husbands who get it!

  2. As always another great read Rachel. By far the best race reports I have ever read.