Friday, August 19, 2016

Centennial Park 50K, August 2016

I never thought the day would come that I'd think it a great idea to run further than 42.2km/26.2 miles, but that day arrived surreptitiously last month while I was on the Gold Coast, getting all excited about the marathon and talking to the very persuasive Keith Hong. He is also coached by Benita, knows everyone who is anyone in running and happens to be the organiser of the CP Ultra. Before I could say "I don't do ultras" he very kindly extended an invitation to come and run the 50K event, and somehow I enthusiastically agreed to do so. And I wasn't even drunk!

In my defence, I was under the influence of multiple running legends at the Legends Lunch

This sort of thing always seems like a good idea at the time, when you're all enthused about running and the actual pain of racing the marathon (or further) is the last thing on your mind - it was in this manner that I ended up entering the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge in 2015, after all - and it keeps seeming like that until reality sets in, usually about 5km into the actual event, but sometimes sooner.

Pre-race laissez-faire, aka "The Training"

In the lead-up to this race I find myself overwhelmingly casual and unconcerned, despite a glaring problem that I will only recognise far too late: the circumstances under which I had already planned to be in Sydney for the weekend of the race, namely to spend a lot of time decluttering a junk-filled first-floor apartment and a garage.

It will become clear later why this is such a big deal, but for the time being I am utterly unworried, and in fact am spending a lot of time considering some rather lofty goals for the distance. I'm not bothered about how little I have run since Gold Coast - only one week above 60 miles and nothing further than 16 miles for a long run - and I'm in blissful denial about the fact that I will have to run for at least 35 minutes more (and possibly quite a bit more) than I'm used to doing.

The "reverse taper" tends to have a rather different effect on race performance, compared with a traditional taper

Race Weekend

As mentioned above, I'm in Sydney with a gargantuan task to perform, and I realise quite belatedly that there's no way I'm going to be doing what I should be doing on Saturday, namely resting and eating. It begins with the arrival of a large rubbish skip at 8am, and I forgo my run - as well as the Aussie carb load that usually follows it - in favour of throwing junk madly into said skip. My brother arrives to help and the rest of the day proceeds in this fashion, with not nearly enough carbohydrates and far too many trips up and down stairs carrying boxes of stuff.

Merely the tip of the iceberg

When I finally finish at 8:30pm I've been on my feet for more than 12 hours and in fact they sort of hurt. This is NOT a good sign. As for carb loading, I probably haven't done a very good job of that either. Tomorrow is going to be very interesting.

On Sunday morning I'm awake around 6am and don't bother trying to eat (another potential mistake), I just gulp down some Powerade and head out to Centennial Park. I've never run on the track inside the horse fence before (a huge mistake, as I will soon find out) despite having logged hundreds of miles in the Park itself; pretty soon I am realising that it *might* be a bit more "trail" than I was assuming.

The start line. No I'm not kidding

Suddenly my goal pace of 7:00 min/mile (4:20 min/km) doesn't seem nearly as conservative and easy as I imagined it would be. There's no time to worry about this because we have to walk 400m down the path for the start - this addition will make up the 50km that will be otherwise covered in 14 laps of the dirt track - and I'm busy chatting to Nigel (whom I met at Gold Coast) and his wife Angela, who have very kindly offered to be my pit crew. We settle on a vague plan involving water and gels (just one extra on top of what I usually use for a marathon), then off I head with the rest of the runners to shiver under a tree awaiting the official start.

The facial expressions are due mostly to the fact that Keith is briefing us from halfway up a tree

Miles 1-6: 6:58, 6:57, 6:57, 7:00, 6:57, 6:54 (pace in min/mile)

Off we go on the first of many laps to come; almost immediately I know that I won't be able to hold this pace the whole way. It feels much too hard for so early in the piece - I'm having to put in a lot more effort than I expected - and this is in large part due to the terrain. We're 2/3 of the way through the wettest winter I've ever known in Wagga, and Sydney has had similar rainfall in recent weeks. As a result the dirt path is covered in mud and even water in many spots, in others it's uneven and partially washed-away, and on top of that there are rocks, tree roots and so many other trip hazards that all my brain wants to do is apply the brakes, hard.

Clearly, the challenge today is going to be keeping up the pace for as long as I can before the inevitable slow-down starts. So far it's going okay - let's see how long this lasts. Each lap is roughly 3.5km or just over 2 miles, and the first goes by fairly easily. During the second, however, I start catching people and I become aware of another issue that is not going away anytime soon: the narrow dirt path is way more congested than I was expecting.

Detouring around slower runners is normally not such a big problem, but when those detours potentially involve running through ankle-deep water and mud, well that's another story. As well as other runners there are also random pedestrians, runners going in the other direction and even the occasional horse crossing to content with. Energy wasted dodging left and right over uneven ground is energy that won't be left for the finish; with my wretchedly inadequate prep for this race, this is another factor I don't need. But there's nothing to be done, really, other than to suck it up and run. So I do just that.

Thought bubble: "I can't believe I actually agreed to do this"

Miles 7-12: 6:58, 6:58, 6:53,  7:03, 6:56, 6:58

So far things are going pretty darn well, if I do say so myself. I'm exactly on pace and my pit crew is doing an awesome job of offering me things that for the most part I'm taking, although I usually don't need too much water during a marathon and the weather is cool enough that I'm not even thirsty, really. There are more than a few random runners in the park whom I know, many of them from RunLab in fact, and they all shout encouragement as I run by, which is pretty awesome! I'm trying to respond but I'm also hyperaware of the need to keep my eyes on my feet as much as possible: the last thing I need on top of the mounting challenges of the day is a face-plant into the mud.

At this point I know I'm not likely to hit most of the goals I had going into today, and negative thoughts are definitely circling my brain but so far I'm not indulging them. So round and round I go, face mostly in a frown of concentration, focusing on keeping the pace. I probably don't look like I'm having fun, but I'm definitely not hating anything about today: it's a new adventure and a less-than-stellar time today will just give me more incentive to do better next time. Did I just say "next time"? God, I must be delirious. Anyway - onward.

Approaching the end of the 6th lap I'm astonished to see a familiar figure popping under the fence to my left: it's Tony, who mumbled something earlier in the week about coming over to run with me a bit, but we hadn't made any sort of plans around this and I'd sort of forgotten about it almost. He is a very welcome sight, although I'm by no means struggling yet - and I've already checked with Keith who confirms that it's fine for others to run a few laps with me - so I briefly explain the situation ("I'm screwed") and the goal pace, and we set off together for the 7th lap.

My water-bottle-passing skills vs Angela's catching skills; Tony is in awe

Miles 13-18: 7:03, 7:01, 7:00, 7:02, 7:04, 7:06

Having Tony with me is actually bloody awesome. I spend a lot of time running - and racing, for that matter - alone and although I'm cool with that, I realise suddenly that I'd totally forgotten how nice it is to run with a mate. We don't talk all that much but he keeps me on pace and clears the path of slower runners a few times so that I don't have to dodge off into the mud and grass. I've made it to halfway on pace but I'm acutely aware of the fact that it's not going to last; having Tony along for the ride makes it easier to keep hanging on, and I'm very thankful for his presence.

On our first time running through the start/finish area I have enough presence of mind to introduce him to Nigel - who looks a little concerned to see this bandit belting along next to me - and then on the second pass something truly hilarious happens. Nigel and Angela are deep in conversation and they don't notice me approaching; this would be fine except I need a gel and I need it before the end of the next lap. "NIGEL!!!" I bellow, "GEL! RUN!!!!"

Nigel bounces to his feet and chases us as we whiz by, managing to hand me my gel easily,  and Tony takes the opportunity to tease us both by yelling "NOT GOOD ENOUGH NIGEL!!!" I do feel awful for raising my voice and probably I could have been much less direct, but I guess I'm a stickler for routine and I really didn't want to mess up my usual fueling schedule. Anyway, we are all laughing about it as Tony and I head up yet again through the leaves and grass to start lap # 9, which will be his last with me.

Miles 19-25: 7:10, 7:16, 7:22, 7:35, ???, ???, ???

After Tony peels off and heads out of the park, my pace immediately starts to slide. I've known for a long time now that this slow-down was coming, and the only issue now is, how bad will it get? Lap 9 isn't too bad, but during lap 10 things get nasty. I *feel* like I'm putting in the same amount of effort but the numbers on the watch aren't agreeing: I've slowed down considerably.

I'm reminded of the final part of Canberra marathon back in 2011, when I was desperately trying to make my legs go faster and they were flat-out refusing. Or the final miles of the Wagga Trail marathon in 2012 - both times I later concluded this was due to running out of glycogen, and it would make absolute sense for this to be the case today as well.

Thankfully as I come through to start the 11th lap, Nigel is standing ready in running gear: he's going to run a couple of laps with me, and I'm extremely thankful for the company at this stage in the race. The sudden slow-down is not making me very happy and I need distraction badly.

Can't talk, focusing.

At first Nigel's full of beans and keen to drag me along at my stated goal pace, but I quickly explain the destroyed state of my legs (and hence the absolute impossibility of that task) and he relents. Together we decide to aim for 4:30 min/km, which is considerably slower than my goal and yet probably still fairly unlikely.

During miles 20 and 21 we're doing reasonably well but then gradually it dawns on me that my watch is not beeping splits anymore. In fact the stupid thing has evidently been stuck at 22.99 miles for quite a while now - ironic, since Nigel has just been telling the tale of his own Garmin doing funky things lately - and I have no actual clue what my pace has been like these past few miles. On his advice I press the stop/start button twice and it immediately goes back to normal, but I'm now actually past the point of caring about pace - it's time to just get this torture over with.

Garmin weirdness adds a surreal touch to this map, with water crossings aplenty

Miles 26-31: 7:37, 7:36, 7:48, 7:31, 7:51, 7:32

But it's not actually torture: with Nigel's company my mood stays good and I'm able to enjoy just running rather than fret over how badly I've fallen off-pace. The numbers on the Garmin aren't great but they aren't a complete disaster either; and I'm far from walking so that at least is a plus. And now that my legs refuse to run faster than 7:30 pace, I actually have plenty of breath spare and can make conversation! Not a lot of it, but I'm definitely chattier now than at any other point in the race.

We trudge doggedly through the miles and laps; I had it in my mind that I'd run the final lap or two solo but instead I decide I'd much rather not have to suffer alone unless I have to. So Nigel valiantly agrees to stick with me through the final lap, and we approach the finish at long, long last.

Finish time: 3:42:04, 7:09 min/mile (4:27 min/km)

Placement: 1st female, 3rd overall

What a day.

In retrospect it's absolutely crystal-clear what the problem was: lack of rest, lack of fuel, end of story. I was probably lucky to hang on as long as I did, and to not blow up much worse. My endurance has always been my strong suit, and it saved my skin today but wasn't enough to get me to the line in the style I had hoped for. I've learned a valuable lesson about what not to do on the day before a big race, although given the circumstances I really had no choice. And I've also confirmed my slight aversion to trail racing, although the next race on my calendar is going to be far worse and still a lot of fun.

The final result is far from pleasing, but at least it's a C qualifier for the Australian 50K team - this was the only part of my goals that I met, actually. The rest will have to wait for another time; in fact I already have the next race in my sights. Me, hooked on ultras? I think I just saw a pig go flying by.

One of the best parts of the day: my amazing support team.



    1. Too close to Boston (1 week before). Ned Kelly Chase is the goal, late October.

  2. I think the garage cleaning day would have had more effect than the 'reverse taper' or fueling. I'd be knackered if I'd spent that much time on my feet. The slow-down wasn't too bad - no miles over 8 mins! Gives you plenty of space to smash the 50k PB next time.