Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Canberra Summer Marathon, December 2015

Normally I wouldn't pay too much attention to races that are held as part of a triathlon weekend - I've run (and won) one in Wagga a couple of years ago and found that the running events were largely ignored - but somehow while perusing a running race calendar I found this "extreme weekend" of racing and signed myself up for the marathon. It's entirely possible that I have raced so much this year that another marathon seems like the logical thing to do. Or perhaps I just wanted something to distract me from Joel's departure for a month in the USA. And perhaps I did think that with my fast friend Kelly still in recovery mode after the 50K World Champs I might just be able to win the race. Did I mention Christmas shopping in a place with actual real shops? No?

The Training

As time goes on and races pile up it seems I have less and less to say about training. I did get in a really good specific long run about 8 days out from this marathon, with 2 segments of 5 miles each that were supposed to be around marathon pace. The first 5 averaged 6:40 min/mile and the second 6:31 with a final mile of 6:24 min/mile (3:58 min/km), which let me feel confident that I'm still capable of a low-2:50s marathon, and my stretch goal for Canberra was therefore set at sub-3. Because it would also be my 6th marathon of the year and I'm TIRED.

The Travel

The marathon is set for a 6am start on Saturday morning, so I need to drive over to Canberra on Friday after work. Seems like a plan until something pops up that requires my presence in Sydney on Friday, meaning  that I have to get up at 4am to run 4 dark, reluctant miles before the early flight at 6:20am. 8 hours later I'm back at Wagga Airport and driving home to pick up Mum - we finally reach Canberra at 8pm and I'm starving (despite having at least tried to carb-load all day with copious quantities of Gatorade) so we head out and end up at Guzman and Gomez. Mexican food for a late dinner the night before a marathon? What could possibly go wrong?

During dinner I realise I have not bothered to figure out how or when I am supposed to pick up my bib, and this leads to the realisation that I haven't really paid attention to ANYTHING about the race tomorrow. In fact I've forgotten to bring GU gels and it's a miracle I even have running shoes in my bag. I pop over to Rebel to remedy the fuelling problem and text my friend Tony to remedy the bib one. He's far more organised than me, thank god, (even though he's not running tomorrow due to an injury) and soon all is sorted and I'm heading for an early bedtime. Might as well try to get that part right I suppose.

Race Day

My alarm goes off at 5am and I lie there ignoring it, which is not standard practice for the morning of a marathon. But it IS in keeping with the ridiculously casual approach that I seem to have adopted for today's race -- so I wait until 5:30 before I drag myself out of bed, then quickly dress, decide against breakfast and start jogging gently towards the lake.

Perfect race weather = me freezing my butt off at the start line next to Claire

It's a gorgeous day and completely still (a big change from my last race here in gale-force winds), not to mention quite chilly when I take my place at the traffic cones marking the start "line". There's clearly only a small field today and apart from Claire, whom I know from the Canberra Times 14K (and who is doing the half), there are no fast-looking chicks other than one wearing a marathon bib and a shoulder hydration belt that screams "ultra runner". A quick briefing is followed by somebody saying "Go" in a voice so soft that I only realise it's time to run because everyone suddenly sprints off. Whoops - I suppose I'd better get moving myself.

Miles 1-4: 7:02, 7:08, 7:24, 7:40 (pace in min/mile)

Off we go along the lake to the east but we don't stay on the path for long - we dodge over the grass and kerb into the carpark and then up and around a roundabout, down and up to another turn and then down Kings Avenue towards the bridge. So, fast and flat isn't going to be the order of the day, clearly - this will become even more obvious in a few miles' time. Claire is out ahead of me but there are only 2 other marathoners (both blokes) moving faster than I am; being the female winner today doesn't seem like it is going to be in question. What is my goal for the morning, then? I decide I want to be as consistent as possible and run a pace that I can maintain for the entire race - in my mind I settle on 7:00-7:05 as a rough goal.

The first 2 miles go well but then wow, we head up the hill to Parliament House. It's as steep as I remember from the 14K, and it is not lost on me that I'm going to have to run this 3 more times - but at least I'm expecting a nice recovery as we run around the back of the building on the wide, flat road that surrounds it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I'm not only directed onto the grass but then onto a sandy dirt track that winds around through the bush before dipping back out onto the grass, then back into the bush, for the best part of 2 miles.

The dirt track isn't too technical but the grass is not your typical, firm grass - it's fat-cat-politician grass: plush and deep, soft and squishy - it's like running in sand and my pace plummets appropriately. Thankfully it's all well-marked and there are plenty of volunteers around making sure nobody goes off-course; before I know it I'm on my way back to the front of the building and then down the hill to finish off the first lap.

4 laps, each 6.5 miles with a finish chute of 0.2.
The wiggly bit at far left on Capital Hill is the unexpected fitness track detour.

Miles 5-6.5: 7:00, 6:59, 6:54

Wheeeee! This downhill is marvellous after the trails and grass: I bomb along with my legs whirring, thoroughly enjoying myself again. The course flattens out again as I head towards the Kings Avenue bridge and back to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin - I pass a half-marathoner whose breathing sounds way too laboured for this stage of the race - but I'm feeling fine and looking forward to lap 2 as I approach the turn-around point.

The faster half-marathoners are heading back already with Claire firmly in the women's lead; one of the male marathoners is looking strong but the other is clearly tanking already. After the hairpin turn that finishes the first lap I take the opportunity to check how far behind the next marathoner is: it turns out to be the ultra girl (whose name is Amelia) and she's a lot closer than I would have thought. Uh oh.

Miles 6.5-11: 6:54, 7:01, 7:20, 7:16

At the turn towards the top of Kings Ave I deliberately check my watch as I pass one of the traffic cones and find that Amelia is about 90 seconds behind me - wow, that's not really much. A momentary stab of fear hits me but I shake it off and refocus on the task ahead. All I have to do is NOT fade and that may be enough to pull off the win today. As if to drive home the point, I now catch and pass the bloke in front of me: I'm 2nd overall in the marathon. Hooray!

<cue singing: "I'm all aloooone, there's no-one here beside meeee">
photo credit: Tony Collie (thanks mate)
Heading back over the bridge it's time to take a gel so I grab a bottle of water from one of the friendly volunteers - these triathlon people sure know about fuel and hydration it seems - and slug it down. The weather remains crisp and there's no wind to speak of so I really don't need to drink very much today, but the taste of caramel macchiato GU is not something I need to experience for the whole of the next 6 miles until another one is due.

Miles 12-13: 6:51, 6:55

Once again I find myself powering along next to the lake and there's noticeably more traffic this time around; lots of pedestrians, cyclists and people with dogs. It's not too hard to avoid them all, though - once again the enthusiastic marshals at the turning point cheer me onwards and I glance at my watch at what I guess must be the halfway point: 1:33:30. So a sub-3:10 finish is entirely possible, then, and this knowledge is enough to spur me on as I head off on my third lap.

Miles 14-17: 6:50, 6:46, 7:13, 7:28

I'm trying again to clock how far back Amelia is now, but the course diverges across the grass before I see her and all I'm able to do is estimate how long it has taken me to this point from the turn; I'm not running flat-out so my brain's ability to do mental arithmetic is better than it usually would be at this point. I calculate that she must be at least 5 minutes behind now - so in theory there's no need for me to keep pushing the pace. In reality, though, I have never actually slowed down intentionally during a race, and I'm not about to start either.

I'm fully expecting this lap to suck, so it's very surprising to realise later when looking at the splits that it will turn out to be my fastest. I've entirely stopped checking my watch and am running by feel, relying on my perceived effort level to keep things steady - this is a valuable skill for the marathon and today is the perfect opportunity to practice it. The 10K race has started at 7:30am and I manage to overtake a few of these runners before I hit the hill up to Parliament for the 3rd time.

Up and around onto the fitness track yet again - the marshal at the turn-off point says simply "Same way as last time" and it sets me laughing, although to be fair at least he's not entirely engrossed in his phone like a few of the others are by now. I make my way through the bush, up and onto the grass, etc etc and pass a few more of the slower 10K runners. I'm also starting to lap the slowest half-marathoners now as I make my way once more back to the lake.

Miles 18-20: 6:55, 6:55, 6:59

The hardest part of a 4-lap race is finding interesting things to say about it for a blog post, I think. Less than a week later I barely remember anything about this course other than that it really wasn't as bleak as I was expecting. There are runners from all the various events on either side of the road now so I'm never entirely alone, but I'm certainly not running with anyone at all.

However the obvious benefit of the multiple laps is that I now recognise a few of the more vocal supporters who line the course (there are precious few of them!) and can wave and greet them each individually as I pass by yet again, which is quite fun. As I approach the turn-around point there are people swimming in the lake - some tri event must have started, yawn - and the fastest ones are clambering like salamanders out of the water already.

I wonder where he got that cool race kit from?

There's a gaggle of people watching and a few are on the course between me and the turn; this could get ugly, and I'm gearing up to start yelling at them, but the marshals very efficiently shoo them away and I make the hairpin turn for the final time.

Miles 21-24: 7:01, 7:03, 7:25, 7:19

There's not much to say about this final lap; I'm making a conscious effort to keep my pace steady and so far it seems to be working. I'm catching the slower marathoners now - one thing that has stood out about this race is how friendly and encouraging everyone is, and the runners I'm passing are no exception. The water station volunteers on Kings Avenue have very little to do now so they all cheer as I approach, and I head up for the final lap around Parliament House with a grin on my face.

The leader of the marathon is so far ahead of me that he's on his way back down already when I make the turn onto the grass - my rough calculations have him at least 15 minutes in front, probably more. As I thread my way through the bush for the final time I'm starting to feel weary but manageably so, and as I head back along the side of the road it's comforting to know that there are only just over 2 miles to go.

Miles 25-26.2: 6:38, 6:41, 6:30 pace to finish

Mile 25 of every marathon should be downhill, seriously - it's the perfect way to finish things off! I throw caution to the wind and open the throttle a bit at last: it's time to see how much I have left in the tank. Things flatten out but I keep up the effort level and to my amusement just before the water station I catch a group of slow 10k runners, jogging along 4-abreast. I could slow down I suppose but I might never speed up again so I bellow "COMING THROUGH!!" and barrel right on past. The volunteers thunder their approval and I wave them goodbye for the final time as I charge up the approach to the bridge.

I just need to keep things going for the final mile - I'm not sure I can speed up much but I can certainly try not to slow down.  There is a lot of pedestrian and cyclist traffic by the lake now and in fact a few triathletes are coming the other way during the final leg of their own race, so I'm paying close attention to avoid a collision and this keeps my brain occupied until suddenly I'm on the red gravel of the starting area again. I approach the turn-around with every intention of heading right into the finish chute, but what's this? The marshals are shouting at me and frantically motioning me to the turning point  - good grief, they are trying to send me out for another lap!

I've just run 26 miles and I really don't have the energy to argue, but there's no freaking way I am running another 10.5km right now. So I shake my head vigorously, yell "NO! NO! I am DONE!" several times and point decisively to the finish chute. The penny drops - I'm not on my 3rd lap like the others - and finally they relent and direct me to the finish chute. I'm about to win! But what's this?

The finish chute - save for the loyal Tony and his girlfriend Elkie who has just run the 10K - is pretty much deserted. They cheer me on regardless and I blaze my way across the grass but there's no tape, no crowd, and the announcer is talking vigorously about the triathlon race currently in progress: he obviously has no clue that the female winner of the marathon is anywhere near the finish line. This is the most underwhelming victory of all time!

Finish time: 3:05:05 (7:04 average pace)

Placement: 1st female, 2nd OA, 1st in AG.

A few officials come up and seem surprised to see me; the announcer is still loudly talking about bikes and swimming and it's clear he has not noticed me coming in. I give my name to the lady who is asking and wander over to congratulate Xavier, the winner who has clocked an extremely impressive 2:45. I feel pretty good, not too tired really, and I stand around sipping water and chatting until Amelia appears and crosses the line with a similar almost-total lack of recognition. She has run 3:14 and yes, once we start talking I learn she's mostly an ultra runner whose impressive credentials include an overall win in the Ned Kelly Chase 100K this year. Amazing!

Skinny fast chicks unite!

There's an official presentation so I show up not sure what to expect; Claire is there and has won both the half and the 10K events, but once again there's basically nobody around and the announcer is still elsewhere and we each get a medal with "marathon" instead of "finisher" on it, and that's that. When it comes to triathlon festivals, races that don't involve biking and swimming are clearly just not on anyone's radar! So I head back to the hotel to get cleaned up and then out for a delicious brunch and coffee at my favourite Canberra cafe. Might as well refuel in style, right?

Doubleshot Deakin, best brunch ever.

The Analysis

This race doubled as a really good workout for endurance and pacing - while I faded a little in the final lap, I was still able to pick up the pace in the final miles and finish strong. I achieved my goal for the day and had a lot of fun, which was a great bonus. With endurance clearly my strong suit at this point in my running career I should probably start running ultras, but with competition like Amelia I'd have to work pretty hard at it!

For now I'm content to just enjoy what I'm doing and the next big focus race will no doubt be Boston in April 2016, although I did make plans to catch up with Amelia at the Wangaratta Marathon in February. Cough, cough, did someone say raceaholic?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Central Coast HM, November 2015

I missed this race last year for some reason - probably because it was too soon after running New York - but having run it twice for two close 2nd place finishes (in 2001 and then more recently in 2013), it was impossible not to want to have another try when the email advertising the race hit my inbox earlier this year.

Central Coast is a fast, flat out-and-back course that runs along next to the water at The Entrance, a quaint coastal town in NSW about an hour's drive from Sydney. The trip from Wagga is considerably longer, but the rare absence of moaning children makes it so much more relaxing, almost like a holiday! So I signed both myself and my husband up to run it and was even more pleased with myself when I managed to get a reasonably-priced room at a very nice hotel right by the start/finish area. The perfect set-up for an awesome weekend of racing.....or so it would seem.

The Training

Ah yes. Well, I will admit to taking things rather casually after the struggle that was Melbourne 2015, and so it came about that I only put in two decent weeks of training for this half. I'm always a bit tired towards the end of the year and this year has been quite an eventful one - I have run in no less than 13 races (and 3 of them marathons) since the beginning of July. So I went in with no major expectations other than to have fun and hopefully run a decent enough time to put me on the podium in some capacity, even if only as my age group winner (a modest enough goal in my opinion).

The Travel and Pre-race Shenanigans

We head up on Friday afternoon and arrive in The Entrance after dark - the hotel is right by the water and I can't wait to show Joel the sights in the morning when it's light. But Saturday dawns cloudy and foreboding, and it threatens to rain throughout our whole easy 5 mile run that takes in the first part of tomorrow's course. The weather forecast is shaping up to be easily the worst I have ever had for any race - and given what I went through in New York last year and Boston this year, that's really saying something - not only warm but also wet and potentially electrifying! How wonderful.

We spend a low-key Saturday doing touristy stuff and end up in a bar drinking beer and watching cricket, which is absolutely what one should be doing on the coast in summer, just perhaps not the night before a race. At least it's not a marathon this time.

Race morning dawns and I swear I can hear torrential rain outside the window, but no - it's just the air-conditioning, and outside the pavement is dry. Hmm, maybe we'll be racing after all. We head outside and ugh, the humidity is instantly stifling: 85% at least and the temperature is warmer than predicted, too. I've already emailed Benita and told her about the humidity and we have agreed that I'll be running for place rather than time, so there's nothing to do but front up and get ready to suffer.

Can't say that any of these runners look particularly excited to be here today. 
Milling around at the start line I meet up with Alex and Phil, both of whom were in my RunCamp group, and see one chick who looks like serious competition: she's about my size and build, with blonde hair and a bright red hat. She also looks like she might be over 40 (although of course I myself look not a day older than 27) - I'll be keeping a close eye on her once this sweat-fest of a race gets underway.

Miles 1-3: 6:12, 6:33, 6:20 (pace in min/mile; 6:24 = 4:00 min/km)

Sure enough, the starter yells "GO" and the woman in the red cap shoots off ahead of me at an impressive pace. I'm fully expecting to run the first mile rather too fast and it's no surprise that the first mile clicks off in just 6:12 - what's surprising is that she's at least 15 seconds ahead of me already.

During the drive up I spent some time researching goal paces and times, and I know that 6:12 is the average pace that got me my half-marathon PR of 1:21:24. Red Cap is way ahead of that pace and if she keeps it up she'll most likely run sub-1:20 - it's entirely possible that I'm a long out of my league here. Oh well, another 2nd place wouldn't be too bad really. I focus on easing back on the pace - there's no point killing myself if I'm not going to win anything, right?

During a much more sedate mile 2 Joel pulls up alongside me, grinning as usual, and informs me that there are 2 more females about 100m behind us. I'm digesting this news when oops, these same 2 women suddenly appear and then pass us quite effortlessly. Wait, what??  "So much for that," I remark wryly to Joel beside me - it seems I've eased up way too much without realising it. I renew my efforts somewhat and the 3rd mile passes with the both of us eyeing the backs of the women ahead, and me trying not to feel too depressed at the prospect of finishing 4th.

Joel, all chipper at mile 3 - I am nowhere to be seen, probably sulking

Miles 4-6: 6:26, 6:24, 6:32

Red Cap - who, incidentally, is almost certainly in my age group - is far out of sight now but the pair ahead are still probably within reach. One has a "Woodstock Runners" singlet on and is running close together with a man in similar attire; she looks to be the stronger of the two females and sure enough, during mile 4 the other girl (wearing black) drops gradually off the pace. My brain registers this and automatically switches on Assassin Mode - I can get this chick, I know I can. Before we know it she's within striking distance and then wheeee, we sail gleefully past. I'm back in contention, hooray!

Mile 5 starts and Joel remarks how hard the going is in this remarkable humidity: in fact we both feel like we're putting in much more effort than our pace reflects. He looks back and tells me that the girl we just passed is already 100m behind - I'm paranoid about being caught, though, and promptly accuse him of exaggerating. He assures me that he's not, and tells me again that I'm doing great, but he's done and will be dropping back. I don't really believe this either, but his footfalls fade quickly behind me so I focus my sights on the Woodstock runners ahead.

They're still going strongly but the girl is intermittently losing touch with the guy who I am almost certain now is pacing her. "You can get her too, you know you can..." whispers Assassin Mode in my ear, and I don't disagree. Male runners start coming back the other way - I see my RunCamp friend Alex in 6th place - but where oh where is Red Cap? Could it be that she is starting to fade?? Somewhat to my surprise I now catch a couple of guys (both looking spent and absolutely drenched in sweat) as I edge ever closer to my quarry.

Miles 7-9: 6:19, 6:22, 6:25

Finally the turn is coming up - I check my watch and to my great surprise, Red Cap is only 50 seconds ahead. My competitive nature takes charge and before long I find myself cruising past Woodstock Girl - yes! second place! - and not long afterwards I'm right next to her companion.

Woodstock Guy looks around and does a bit of a double take (it's the wrong girl!!) but then tells me confidently "Go get her, she's tiring up in front" and for the next 2 miles he pushes me along as I draw very gradually closer to Red Cap. I still don't believe that I'm actually going to catch her, but he's not letting me slack off and part of me (the part that is not cursing the humidity) is feeling confident: I know that endurance is my strong suit and it will probably also help that I didn't go out like a bat out of hell. Ahem.

Miles 10-12: 6:34, 6:31, 6:33

Midway through mile 10 we join with the 10K runners as they make their turn and start heading back. I'm about 10 seconds behind Red Cap now and wondering what to do; in my head I try out how it's going to feel telling Joel after the race "I just couldn't catch her" - actually, that doesn't feel good at all and suddenly I realise I really want to win today. The path is more congested and she has slowed down enough that I'm actually right on her tail now, which presents another dilemma: should I go for the lead now or hang back? Wait too long and I might not have time to build an unassailable lead, but pass too soon and I might not be able to hang on all the way home.

I've been in this situation a few times and as yet never been able to hold myself back from passing, but this time I manage it for almost a mile. Then, for no particular reason at all, suddenly I decide it's time to make my move. It's important to look strong and decisive when you pass a competitor - to have the maximally demoralising effect on them, of course - and so I put my head up, lengthen my stride a touch (who am I kidding) and off I go. There's approximately 2km to go and OMG OMG, I'm in the lead. Can I stay there??

I'm almost too scared to check splits anymore; I just put my head down and GO. I'm passing 10K blokes left and right - one looks at me and says "Rachel??" but I'm too focused to respond - and pretty soon I'm on the heels of my fast mate Phil, who told me on the starting line he was shooting for 1:22. I see he's carrying a full bottle of water (where did that come from?) and as I pass he gasps "I'm haemorrhaging!" - what, really? it seems more like choking or vomiting, actually - and then something about the humidity. For someone who barely sweats during races I'm incredibly drenched today, and I can't imagine how bad it must be for your average heavy sweater.

Mile 13, 0.1: 6:30, 6:10 pace to finish

I'm running scared this whole final mile: in my mind there are female runners galore right behind me, all just waiting to cruise past. Coming along the foreshore where I got passed in 2013 I have a moment of fear and almost look over my shoulder, but I resist and put the effort into getting myself to the finish line as quickly as possible. The humidity has made me wilt and I feel like I'm putting in a ridiculous amount of effort for the pace my legs are generating: I've run whole marathons faster than this!

But all that matters is getting to the park before any of the other female competitors do, so hopefully it will suffice. Heading into the finish chute I'm basically sprinting, and too focussed to even try to smile, but there's no way I'm being beaten today - I've run one of my slowest half-marathons in the past 5 years, but it turns out to be enough for the win. What a surprise!

Crushing it in the finish chute

Finish time: 1:24:50 (6:26 min/mile, 4:01 min/km)

Placement: 1st OA female, 1st in AG (F40-49)

Wow, that was a lot tougher than I expected. I wait for Joel, who arrives looking like he took a detour into the water, and we head back to the hotel to get cleaned up. Later at the presentation I chat a bit to the other place-getters and discover that Red Cap (Fiona) is indeed over 40 although the Woodstock Girl (Bronwyn) is not. I get a medallion the same as the one from 2013 and a nice envelope of cash, then it's off for an indulgent brunch and the long drive home.

Woodstock Girl, me, Red Cap. Winners are grinners!

The takeaway message from today is that humidity is a killer - I'm not used to racing or training in it and it appears to have made a huge difference to everybody's times - and that for someone of my age and racing experience, running this sort of race is like an episode of the reality show Survivor. The motto is Outwit, Outplay, Outlast and it fits: today I was smarter (didn't go out at 5K pace), I waited patiently (to make my move) and eventually was the only one who didn't slow down significantly in the second half. What I lack in top-end speed, I make up for in cunning wiles - and today's victory was all the sweeter for having been narrowly defeated there twice before. Plus, spending money! A good day's toil, all in all.