Friday, May 20, 2016

SMH half marathon, May 2016

Ah, gorgeous Sydney. There's nothing quite like running the world's most beautiful city, where the almost-complete lack of straight or flat terrain is made up for (sort of) by the wonderful scenic views. I have always loved running this particular race but was quite surprised to realise that 2016 would be my 7th time - I guess I'm getting to the stage where I really have been around for a while. Long enough to know that the Sydney Morning Herald HM is most definitely NOT a fast or flat course, but long enough also to not really care. It's a great race despite its difficulty, and one that I will definitely continue to run as long as I am able.

It also happens to be held around 4 weeks after the Boston marathon, which is the perfect time frame in which to recover properly while still retaining the fitness benefit from intense marathon training. Case in point: my all-time PR from Bathurst in 2013. Plus of course, any reason to visit Sydney is a good one, and reasons that involve running are generally excellent. The course, naturally, is anything but.

Demented doodle aka course map

To recap my previous results:

2001 - 1:26:24, debut HM and 16th overall female

2010 - 1:29:48, first time back under 1:30 after the damage wrought by major injury and two babies (you guess which was worse)

2012 - 1:23:29, 14th female

2013 - 1:22:16, 12th female

2014 - 1:22:25, 9th female

2015 - 1:23:19, 14th female

Again it's obvious that I peaked in 2013/2014, in both years having just run a sub-2:50 marathon at Boston a few weeks earlier. Last year I had the incentive of chasing Joel, but for 2016 I had no major expectations other than to do my best on the day and see what happened.

That's a race strategy that is deliberately in equal parts undemanding and perfectionist; it allows me to stay casual ("I'm just going for a nice run, no expectations, la la laaaa") and yet focused, with no pressure to perform other than to do my best on the day, whatever that turns out to be. This sort of mental trickery keeps me calm - I'm not obsessing over hitting a particular time goal or pace - and intense all at once, and it has worked very well for me in the past few years of racing.

The Training

I think I might possibly be getting better at recovery - more sensible, or perhaps just older and lazier - because this year I certainly was much more able than I usually am to back things off and let my body bounce back from Boston. I took the day after the race entirely off (apart from a moderate amount of walking and rather too much backwards-stair-descending) and baulked at running in the rain on my final morning in New York (yeah, I'm getting soft too), which meant that with the travel home I had almost 72 solid hours off running: the longest I can remember since the last time I was injured.

As a result I found myself enjoying my return to the roads once home in Australia, but I deliberately kept my mileage lower than normal. My legs had more spring in them than usual - the 10K in Canberra certainly proved that - but still I took things easier than usual in the lead-up to our trip to Sydney. This would prove to be a decidedly sensible strategy and one I probably should use more.

Race Day

The weather in Sydney is nothing short of perfect when we arrive on Saturday, and it's going to be similar on Sunday morning: cool but not cold, no wind and maybe a bit of light cloud to block the sun's lingering heat. Rising at 5:15am is a bit much though for Joel - who will turn out to be brewing a nasty head cold - he declares he's staying in bed and I'm up, dressed and have decided to skip breakfast well before he has moved at all. We set off on our 2 mile warm-up shortly after 6am and are at the start line with plenty of time to spare.

Looking around at the elite and preferred runners warming up in front of the start, I realise suddenly I'm looking at a sizeable part of our Olympic distance running team: Lisa Weightman and Michael Shelley jog past looking very relaxed, Eloise Wellings dashes up at the last minute (she's pacing someone, or so I hear) and just about every other fast chick that I know of seems to be there as well. It's going to be a speedy race! I'd like to place in my AG (or even win it for once, dammit) but next to me as we wait at the start is a woman whom I'm sure I've seen at other races and yep, she's in my unfair 10-year age group for sure. We chat a bit about how everyone who is anyone in running is here today; turns out we have similar time goals (1:23, 1:22 if all goes well) but she warns me she always goes out too fast so I tell her "See you at 10K then" and we wait nervously for the gun to finally go off. Why is this taking so long??

Miles 1-4: 5:54, 6:29, 6:02, 6:14 (pace in min/mile)

The first mile of this race is like a red flag at a bull that loves to go out waaaaaay too fast: it's downhill all the way to Circular Quay and with the race day excitement and nerves it's impossible not to charge madly down Macquarie Street like it's Pamplona and the bulls are after us.  Some of my fastest race splits ever have been in this mile and that used to inspire a mild panic, but I've done this enough times now to know that it's fine - things will flatten out (briefly) and even out soon enough.

Everyone around me is still flooring it and I'm getting passed a lot during mile 2, but I'm not worried. That is, until a pacer appears at my right shoulder - it's Brendan Davies and I have a minor freak-out that he's pacing 1:25 and I'm in serious trouble already. But no, he is wearing a flag declaring "1:20" so it's the opposite scenario: there's no way I should be here and going this fast! I slow down deliberately then the uphill starts up Sussex St and I begin passing people back.

5K split: 18:58

I'm going too fast and I know it...<sheepish grin>

Miles 5-8: 6:02, 6:17, 6:10, 6:04

Onward into Pyrmont! The first nasty hill doesn't slow me down too much, thankfully,  and I'm still feeling good despite knowing I'm probably going a bit too fast. I'm also passing quite a few people who have been creamed by that hill - one of them is a bloke in a white shirt who was standing just in front of me at the start. He's about 2 feet out from the kerb and I'm plotting my trajectory past him and around the upcoming corner when it happens: he decides to cut over onto the pavement and veers sharply to the left. I've got nowhere to go and he slams hard into my right side. Oooof!

It's all I can do to stay upright and my shock quickly turns to fury. "You can't f$%^ing do that!" I snap, and he shoots back "Don't tell me what I can't do!" Oh, great, now he's probably going to trip me or something lovely like that. I consciously pick up the pace and push harder than I want to, just to get away from this twit, and thankfully he's fading badly already so I get away without further incident. Phew!

I should probably be rattled and put-off by this little altercation, but in fact I quickly forget all about it and focus instead on how I'm running. Pretty soon the lead cars appear on the other side of the road and there's Michael Shelley, all alone and miles ahead of the next bloke. I'm watching for the first woman as I round the corner and there's Lisa looking strong - but now the sharp hills demand my attention. Heading back I spot Joel on the other side, waving and looking fine, and soon I'm on my way back into town.

10K split: 37:48

At the halfway mark I check my watch and realise wow, that's a bit fast. But for whatever reason I'm not too worried - I know how to judge my pace fairly well now and I still feel okay. "Reasonably hard" is how it should feel at this stage, and it does. Back past Darling Harbour and into the concrete spaghetti jungle I run, just waiting for my Garmin to start freaking out.

Miles 9-12: 5:59, 6:39, 6:12, 6:02

But it never does, although the next mile split seems suspiciously quick and the one after unexpectedly slow. Mile 10 is mostly uphill, really, including the long rugged stretch up onto the Harbour Bridge and into the Cahill expressway, so it make sense that it has been one of the slowest miles every single time I've run this race.

15K split: 57:50

I happen to glance at my watch as I pass a flag marking 15km and my mental arithmetic is not great at times like this but wow, isn't that a bit fast? Warning bells start quietly chiming in my brain - I'm starting to feel like I'd rather not be doing this anymore, thank you - and the feeling intensifies as I contemplate what lies ahead. Hills, hills, and a final mile that is probably the most unpleasant final mile of any race I've ever run. My face is a study in grim anticipation as I approach Hyde Park again at last:

no no no no no I want to stop nooooowww

The only good thing about knowing that the final mile is all uphill, is that the second last mile is mostly downhill. I'm frankly amazed that I can still manage to pick up the pace the way I do for mile 12, but catching Julia (who beat me in Canberra last month) after probably 2-3 miles of chasing her is probably what does it. I've also been looking for Fiona - my sandbagging friend from the start line - for a really long time and it's only just now that I can finally see her ahead; I won't be able to catch her, so there goes the AG win. Oh well.

It crosses my mind now that I could glance at the total time on my Garmin and have a reasonable idea of what I'm likely to finish with, but the thought is gone as quickly as it came. All I can think of is the uphill that is coming next. That, and trying to look good for the cameras that are always present at the final turn, but I'm almost too far gone for that (alas).

gasping for air like a dying fish but at least I look really tan 

Mile 13.1:  6:29, 5:50 pace to finish

This. Hill. It's not really all that steep (except in one part) and it's not really all that long (although it seems to go for miles) but it's just plain wrong to have this as the final stretch of a race. Lisa Weightman was on her way back up - for the win - as I was coming down and her face looked every bit as agonised as I now feel. This fact gives me a small measure of comfort but by the time I reach the Art Gallery I've given up on thinking and instead am counting my steps in the manner I use for speed work: one/and/two/and/three/and etc. The cadence seems way too slow, I feel like I'm crawling instead of running, but at least it keeps me going and I'm still inching my way closer to the finish line.

I pop out the top of Art Gallery Road and once again feel enormous gratitude that the race directors took out that awful, tortuous out-and-back on College St right before the finish. It means I can head straight for Hyde Park and the final turn to the line - and it also means I get at least one photo where I actually look happy, even if it's only because I get to stop running very soon.

Nearly done, in more ways than one
I can see Fiona really really close now and this inspires me to put on a pointless burst of speed that carries me along the final 0.1 mile stretch and as I make the turn I have seriously no idea at all of how much time has elapsed since the gun went off. I look up to see the clock above the finish line: it reads....what???

1:21:30 has just turned over as I skid around the 90 degree turn and lift my eyes to the clock - that's just 6 seconds slower than my all-time HM PR - my brain springs into life and yells at my legs "GO!!!" And go is what I do: I throw myself at the line with all the energy I can muster. This will make for some very unattractive finish chute photos, but I'm totally past caring and even thinking now; and then, finally, I'm done.

Finish time: 1:21:43 (6:14 min/mile, 3:52 min/km)

Placement: 10th woman, 2nd in AG (F40-49)

No, really, this is my "I'm thrilled" face

Wow, my 3rd fastest half marathon of all time! And on this course? The other two were much, much flatter and were 2 and 3 years ago respectively; I'm in some serious shock here. Another piece of evidence to add to the "I'm not done yet" pile that is mounting up fast, and another reason to think seriously about giving Gold Coast a serious shot this year.

I loiter a while to talk to some of the fast chicks who have finished around me, and congratulate Fiona on what turns out to be a shiny new PR for her, then it's time to head back to the hotel via the Elite tent where my stuff and, after some searching, my tired husband await me.

Who would have thought I'd come away from today with my 3rd sub-1:22 half in the books? I wasn't expecting it but it seems like further proof that I'm rather fit at the moment, and it seems like a good idea to take advantage of that while it lasts. this space.

1 comment:

  1. You're in good form that's for sure. Go with it! I reckon the near perfect (sensible?) recovery from Boston made all the difference. BTW, I like the look of determination in those serious photos. Looking good for GC!