If you ever want to run a truly fast, flat marathon in perfect conditions (not to mention one of the most beautiful parts of the planet), Gold Coast is the one for you. I've run it twice before, in 2012 and 2013, and can vouch for its flatness. As for fast - absolutely, it is. The course does have two small issues, though: a small but badly-placed hill at mile 20 and right after that a factor that will test your mental fortitude to the limit. Because during mile 20-21 you will run right past the turn-off to the finish chute, but on the other side of the road.
It's the ultimate teaser - you can see the finish area RIGHT THERE (and likely some faster runners already on their way to the finish line), but you're not allowed to turn because you still have 6 miles left to run. I remember going past it in 2012 and wanting nothing more than to just jump the median strip and be allowed to stop running (I didn't) and in 2013 I made it all the way to the turn at 35km/23 miles before losing my mind when the course turned directly into a strong headwind. Man, the memory of that moment still really smarts.
Anyway, my better-than-expected result at this year's Boston marathon, coupled with the other stuff that I've managed to achieve this year, prompted me to email the elite coordinator of Gold Coast and talk him into giving me an elite bib for this year. I'm no longer fast enough to qualify for all the bells and whistles, but a free entry and a bib with my name on it is good enough for me.
|Beaches like this don't hurt either|
Somehow this year I seem to have hit my sweet spot as far as training goes. Looking back on 2015 there was something slightly amiss - whether I was not running enough (doubtful) or whether I was actually slightly overtrained (entirely likely) - somehow it just didn't come together in the way that it all has this year. I'm at a stage now where my coach Benita and I have a really good, relaxed working relationship; quite often I need to adjust my schedule to fit in with work and the demands of family life, but she lets me figure it out and supplies me with a steady stream of workout suggestions without getting too bothered if I change things around.
So we agreed upon a plan of at least 2-3 weeks of peak training for Gold Coast that would allow enough time for recovery from Boston, some room for a few races and a sensible taper (this time definitely without the craziness of a fast half marathon the week before the big race, ha ha).
I've already posted the details of the 3 big weeks, which in fact culminated in an unexpectedly strong 10K race at the Mini Mosmarathon (not a marathon at all), but to recap briefly they were fairly high mileage - 88 miles (141km), 90 miles (145km) and 104 miles (167km) - and included some speed work, generally mid-week intervals and some tempo/MP running within a long run. After all that I dropped back to 77 miles per week for 2 weeks (123km) before a proper taper leading up to race weekend.
In the past I've struggled with tapering - as do many runners, so much so that the phrase "taper madness" and irritable Facebook posts including photos of strange animals (see below) are extremely common in both spring and autumn if you have as many running friends as me.
But this time around something was different. I was barely bothered by the fact that I was running less than half of my usual daily mileage. For once I seemed to be content with the justification that "less is more" during race week - could it be that I'm finally mastering the mental side of this racing thing? Perhaps I'm just getting better at existing in a state of denial, perhaps I'm getting lazier and actually like running less (gasp!) or perhaps I have been spending so much time acting calm and collected for the benefit of my anxious patients that I have actually become calm and collected myself? Whatever the reason, taper week was no biggie this time around. I found myself heading up to the Gold Coast in a state of happy anticipation, which is probably the best state to be in (other than Queensland).
Gold Coast has become my Australian version of Boston - gradually I've collected a growing number of running friends over here and so my social calendar is rather full for the entire weekend. I spend the early hours of Saturday morning freezing half to death while watching the 10K race, before taking a gentle 5km jog with Steve and his running partner Shiloh - during which I demonstrate my marathon shuffle and they both die laughing - and then heading to the expo and finally lunch.
Saturday's highlight is the Legends Lunch, a gorge-on-pasta carb loading sort of event that features a very funny Steve Moneghetti as MC along with Pat Carroll, Rob de Castella and of course my coach (and arguably Australia's greatest ever long distance runner) Benita Willis.
It turns out to be one of the most enjoyable events I've ever been to on a marathon weekend; there are plenty of friendly runners with whom I can talk endlessly about running, Benita and Steve tell some awesome stories about racing at world-class level, Deek wants us all to "embrace the pain" of the marathon and explains the psychology of doing so in such a convincing manner that it actually sounds perfectly reasonable.
|"Yeah I'm going to eat this!"|
Robbo, me, my carbs and Keith
I'm also having a great time sitting next to the inimitable Keith Hong, who seems to know everybody who is anybody, and who also somehow talks me into signing myself up for the Centennial Park Ultra in August. Umm, what?? And finally Steve starts dancing with the Commonwealth Games 2018 Mascot - a rather strange blue, surfing koala by the name of Borobi - and my day is officially made.
I'm staying in Surfers Paradise with my friend Laurence who is running the half - she has a bad habit of still being in line for the portaloos when the gun goes off - so, since her race starts at 6am we are already on our way at 5am in high hopes of avoiding another such incident. It's cold but not as bad as yesterday when I walk into the Aquatic Centre where the elite athlete area is set up; I'm reminded of Boston as I spread my stuff out and slowly get ready for the race.
There are African and Japanese super-elites lying with their legs up against the wall, but a good few familiar faces as well. I chat to Kirsten about New York marathon, Clare and I head out to run a few warm-up laps around the pool, and eventually we all get herded up to the start area. Lined up at the front of the crowd I'm maybe 5 rows back - there's no time to get nervous, or even really get cold - it's time to do this!
|Can you spot me?|
Miles 1-4: 6:22, 6:31, 6:17, 6:20 (pace in min/mile)
I'm over the line in seconds after the gun goes off and am pleased to find that the crowding is nowhere near as bad as I expected, and the pace doesn't feel too bad either. Usually it takes me a few miles to warm up properly but even during mile 1 I feel okay today; thinking back, this is probably due to having been more sensible than usual in the taper. Go me!
I have a few friends who are chasing 2:45 or faster today; one of them (Clare) has already disappeared in front of me as I'm approaching the Southport Bridge, and now one of the others - the amazing John Shaw whom I beat 18 months ago in the Cadbury Hobart HM (he's in 2 photos running behind me) - eases past and greets me as he goes. Did I mention that John is 63 years old and has just run a sub-1:20 half?? Before long and as expected he has disappeared ahead.
The first 5K pass fairly uneventfully; I'm a bit surprised to see mile 2 come in rather slower than expected, and predictably overcompensate in the other direction for mile 3, but I know better than to stress about this now. I'll find my groove soon and for now it's just great to be running again after a week of not enough miles and way too many carbs (although I never thought there was such a thing as too many carbs). The 5K mark passes in 19:40 and I'm more than happy with the pace just now.
Miles 5-8: 6:12, 6:22, 6:27, 6:21
We go whizzing down through Surfers Paradise and although it's still cold, the sun is shining off the water and there's barely a breath of wind. What a beautiful day, and perfect running weather! There's a small but vocal crowd yelling support - and it's early enough in the race that I can recognise and greet people I know - the result being what will turn out to be one of the happiest race photos of the whole day, thanks to the fan club of a fellow Wagga runner, Troy:
|at 8km - hi Prue, Todd and Alex!|
It's not just people who know me, though. It's so cool having my first name on my bib: spectators all over are calling out "Go Rachel! Go Rach!" and at least I don't have to wonder who they are and how they know my name - I just wave or give them the thumbs-up and it's all good!
Through 10K in another perfect split, I notice a guy running just ahead of me wearing all black and a backwards baseball cap. He's been looking around a few times when people have yelled my name, and now there's a kid by the road holding a sign with a mushroom drawn on it that says "Tap Here to Power Up."
|Now I know where that kid got the idea|
I'm suddenly feeling a bit wiped out - I have no idea why - so I dart over to tap the sign. I'd like to suddenly and effortlessly zoom off into the distance like Mario would, but of course it doesn't happen. The guy behind me asks "Did it work?" - "Not really" I reply - we all laugh and the guy in black takes this moment to turn and say "Hi Rachel!" It's Xavier, the guy who won the strange, underwhelming Canberra Summer Marathon ahead of me last year!
He ran 2:45 there and on a much tougher course, but he's not been training much lately and that explains why he's not miles ahead of me at this point. We chat a bit and decide we might as well run together for as long as it lasts; I'm hoping that will be a while because this pace is definitely ambitious and I'll need all the help and support I can get.
Miles 9-12: 6:18, 6:23, 6:15, 6:19
With Xavier next to me suddenly I feel better and we make a little bit of small talk while simultaneously speeding up a touch. We hit the 15K mats and it's another perfectly paced split, which is extremely encouraging, and there's another boost when we see the lead pack come past in the other direction. Yuki is up there with all the Africans! I know they are all chasing the course record (2:08:42) and it's going to be very exciting to find out what happens - but for now I have my own fish to fry.
Up ahead I can see a girl wearing a yellow singlet and pink shorts; it's Liz whom I met at RunCamp. I had no idea she was shooting for such a fast time - we are on pace for 2:47 at the moment - and she unwittingly provides me with an incentive to keep pushing on. Because even though she must be 20 years younger than me I cannot suppress my competitive self that is somehow insisting "You're faster than her!" So I keep going even though I know this pace is quite a risk and that there's a good chance things may come badly unstuck before the end.
During mile 11 we make the turn to head back towards Surfers and eventually the start/finish area in Southport. There's a long way to go still and Xavier keeps surging, dragging me with him and making me nervous, because really I should probably slow down now and yet I know that I actually won't. But we are making ground on Liz, slowly but surely, and that's enough reason not to back down.
Miles 13-16: 6:22, 6:23, 6:20, 6:26
The 20K split is right on target as we head back up the coast - in fact it's a little faster than the previous few, which is very pleasing - but as we pass by my hotel I daydream briefly about stopping off for a rest. Running marathons at top speed is not necessarily fun and requires constant vigilance; let your mind drift and you'll lose precious seconds that will be hard to gain back later. I'd love to just go and sit on the balcony right now in the sun, but that will have to wait.
Halfway hits (split: 1:23:38) right as I finally pull alongside Liz - I've got enough breath left to say hi and remark that I didn't realise she was going for sub-2:50! - she greets me in return and says she's just hoping to hang on. As I gradually pull ahead I can still hear people calling encouragement to her for quite some time; hopefully she will do exactly that.
For some reason this next 5km/ 3 miles I start feeling like it's all too hard, and I'd like to stop running now please. Rather than panic about this negative turn of events, I think back to lunch yesterday and what Benita, Steve and Deek were all saying about the ups and downs of the marathon. For sure you won't feel great all race - it's like a rollercoaster really - and Deek's words about embracing the pain echo now inside my head. Time to embrace it and ride the coaster, waiting for the next upswing which hopefully isn't too far away. We pass by Prue and the Wagga cheer squad again at 23km; I hear them yelling but I'm far too focused on keeping my legs going to wave or smile this time. Ugh, that was rude, please let me feel better soon.
|Still with a gaggle of blokes but looking far less pleased about it all|
While I've been deep in my own personal struggles, Xavier has gradually fallen behind and I come out of my funk as I approach the 25km mats and realise he's not with me anymore. That's too bad, but on the other hand I'm not terribly entertaining company right now and that aspect of things is only going to get worse from here. No spare breath to talk and no spare brain cells to think of anything to talk about: from here on every ounce of energy is going into the process of keeping my legs turning over. The 25K split once again is right on target and I'm trying very hard not to dwell on the fact that there are 3.5 more of these 5K segments left to run.
Miles 17-20: 6:27, 6:27, 6:25, 6:33
Back up to the end of the coastal path I go, and it hasn't escaped my notice that I am now overtaking people quite steadily. The occasional one is a woman and suddenly I realise I feel pretty good! I have no idea what position I am in and honestly I don't really care; all that matters is getting to the next 5K split.
The next bit is going to be tricky: the course veers sharply left and then right onto the highway where we will climb back over the Southport Bridge and head up towards the start/finish area. This is where things are going to start to get hairy, but the 30K split is reassuring and somehow I am still on pace. It strikes me that if I can keep this up I may yet run an all-time PR (by only a narrow margin, but still) - but I know that is not particularly likely. Put the thought aside and just keep running!
|Speed and photogenicity do not mix, at least not for me|
I get an unexpected boost heading up the hill - it's a small hill but at this point in the race anything larger than a speed hump might as well be a mountain - in the form of some extremely loud yelling from the left side of the road. Later I will find out that this was my new running friend Nigel (who has also taken a video, see below); his enthusiasm is contagious and it carries me up and over the hill. And as I run past the infamous finish chute on my right, I'm pleased to realise I don't feel quite as bad as I thought I would at this point. But I still have 10km left to run.....
Miles 21-24: 6:32, 6:36, 6:38, 6:36
The 35K split comes and yep, it's my first over 20 minutes. A pang of dread goes through me - what if I'm about to hit the wall? But then something awesome happens that distracts me nicely from this negativity: I see the lead cars on the other side of the road. And running close together, perhaps a second or two apart, are two runners, one African and one Japanese - it's Yuki!
Immediately all I can think about is how exciting the live stream must be for Joel who I know is watching at home in the USA - we met Yuki 18 months ago in New York and he won Melbourne the first year I ran it. I need to get to the finish so I can find out who won! Only 7km to go - I can do this.
For some ridiculous reason the majority of official race photos seem to be taken in the final 10km of this race. As a result, 90% of my photos will turn out to show me in various states of distress: grimacing, eyes closed in pain, looking like I want to punch someone, throw up or perhaps burst into hysterical tears. These final 10km are the true test of the marathon, and it's taking every ounce of willpower that I have not to just pack it in and give up.
|ohhhhh the pain|
The final turn comes and I'm bracing myself for the headwind, but remarkably enough it just isn't there today. Usually in the final stages of a marathon I'll stop checking my mile splits, not wanting to be dismayed or discouraged by seeing them deteriorate, but this time I've been glancing at them much more than normal and so far I'm pleasantly surprised that they haven't been too offensive. I've slowed down some but I'm hanging in there a lot better than I expected to. Sub-2:50 is still within reach!
Miles 25- 26.2: 6:37, 6:37, 6:24 final approach
I don't remember very much of these final 2 miles, other than wishing them to be over as soon as possible. I pass a female runner just as I turn onto the highway towards the finish area - Steve, Shiloh and I jogged back along this route yesterday morning and it's comfortingly familiar as a result - I still have no idea what overall place I'm in and I don't waste any time thinking about it now. The crowd is large and vocal; they're cheering as I head for the finish chute but I can't hear them because I have resorted to counting in my head - the final refuge of the mind that wants to block out the several million pain receptors that are all bellowing at it to STOP DOING THIS! NOW!!
|la la la la I can't hear you|
The final 250m snakes left and right and I'm working the tangents like a Formula 1 driver, trying to shorten the distance between myself and the finish line. Finally it appears and I hear my name being announced - I look up to the clock and see the final seconds of 2:48 ticking away. Darn it!! I throw myself at the line in the most ungainly fashion possible, ensuring more hideous images that Marathon-Photo will subsequently sell to me at exorbitant prices, and finally I am there.
Finish time: 2:49:13 (6:27 min/mile, 4:00 min/km)
Placement: 14th female, 93rd overall, 1st in AG (F45-49)
Half splits: 1:23:38, 1:25:35 (1:57 positive split)
I weave my way slightly unsteadily through the volunteers holding barf bags and suddenly am aware of a strange, painful floating sensation in both big toes - it feels like my toenails are lifting up and I'm quite surprised I never noticed this before now. There's no visible blood on my shoes but a throbbing pain intensifies in the next few seconds and I'm starting to get worried about what I'll find when I take my shoes off. I look up in surprise to see Steve Moneghetti crossing the finish line not too far behind me - wasn't he pacing sub-3?? - he comes over, gives me an approving pat on the head and we stagger off together to talk to Clare.
photo credit: Dave Robertson
She has run a PR of 2:46 and is beaming from ear to ear, but it turns out her feet are also in bad shape. Eventually we try to head for the elite room but halfway there have to stop to take off our shoes - holding each other steady so we don't fall over in the process - and I'm greeted by a sock full of blood. Awesome! Not. Underneath my socks both big toenails are blistered and looking dreadful; it strikes me that this exact same thing happened in 2013 at this race, and still I have no idea why. But running 26.3 miles at suicide pace is probably to blame.
It's often hard to eat after a tough, long race, but most of the rest of the day will be spent in pursuit of food and beverages, and I find myself lucky enough to have some awesome company in which to do this. First it's coffee with Laurence and her friend Sonia, both of whom have run nice PRs in the half and are kind enough to wait patiently for me to hobble around and get cleaned up after my race.
Then eventually I make my way to Surfer's Paradise to meet up with the group I have affectionately nicknamed "The Old Blokes": Steve (whom we met in Boston), John (who has run a single-age world record of 2:45, which age-graded is 96% i.e. world class) and the rest of their running group as well as Nigel, whose ear I am happy to talk off about all things running. Beer and deep fried food are two of my favourite food groups directly after a marathon, and both are procured in abundance as we all sit and enjoy the late afternoon sun. What an awesome way to spend a weekend!
|Proving age is just a number....Team Geezer|
I'm still not really sure what single factor is responsible for my great form this year, but long may it last! Going into this race I was a little apprehensive - although I know I trained well and that I have been racing well, it was a little daunting to be admitting to my goal of sub-2:50 - and a crash-and-burn sort of scenario would have been soul-crushing, to say the least. But thankfully it all fell into place and the result was a fantastic weekend of all things running.
Next up... there's always something coming next. And after that foolhardy lunchtime conversation I do believe it's my very first ultra! Gulp.