So it's probably not a common strategy, pacing a marathon just 2 weeks after racing a 50K in far-from-ideal conditions. But way back in July it seemed like a fine idea, since my sandbagger husband was claiming he "just wanted to BQ". For those unaware, a BQ is a Boston Qualifier, a time that allows a runner to register for the prestigious Boston Marathon which has been held in April every year since 1897.
Joel's BQ time is 3:25 - like a fine wine, one's chances of qualifying are improved with advancing age - and he was muttering something about trying for sub-3:20, so I figured that if I took things pretty easy after the 50K, I'd be totally fine to run with him the whole way. Things, however, took a different turn.
By early September the Wagga version of Parkrun had started up and from the way he was running it was blindingly obvious (at least to me) that sub-3:20 was going to be a very soft goal. The numbers drifted inexorably down towards 3 hours (despite some serious last-minute sandbagging) until I knew that I was going to have some very serious recovering to do after China if I wanted any chance of keeping up at all.
So I ran very very little, really, in the two weeks between races, and we set off for Melbourne with my legs feeling sort of ok, or at the very least not completely dead. And not injured, which probably counts for a lot. Sure, what remained of my left big toenail was being held on by a large Bandaid and my right foot was sporting several nails in various states of disengagement from the underlying tissues. What could possibly go wrong?
Ah, Melbourne. We love this city - I've been living out of Sydney for long enough now that I've gotten over my inbred prejudice against our southern rival city - and Joel has lots of stuff to show me from his trip in June with his kids. Most of it involves walking, however, which is not so good, and Asian food, which is fine although I am still sick of food after how much I've had to eat recently and how little I've been able to run. We do get the chance to meet up with our running friend Amelia, which is awesome, although even with her enthusiasm for ultras I am STILL not keen on further extending my racing ambitions. Oh well.
The race expo is moderately underwhelming and it's sort of weird not to be going to the elite athlete briefing on Saturday, but whatever. I don't need that sort of pressure and anyway, I'm here to "pace" Joel. Note the quotation marks because seriously? It's going to be more about keeping up than setting any sort of pace. I know that already, no matter what King Sandbagger may be proclaiming at the moment (although to his credit he has now admitted to a rough, but much more appropriate, goal of 3:07). Perhaps my main job is going to be providing an appealing back view to chase? In that vein I open my race outfit choice up to the fans of INKnBURN (my awesome clothing sponsor) and the outcome is shown below:
|Left wins, 70 votes to 60, in a victory for cute over bad-ass|
We’re staying in a very convenient location with lots of top-notch restaurants nearby (not to mention AC/DC Lane, which to a serious music nut like Joel is some sort of mecca, one that I naturally have never heard of before) so we pop out at 6pm for an early dinner. You’d think that a place called “Meatball” might not be a great option for carb-loading, but it’s absolutely delicious and we both come away feeling satisfied but not overloaded. Yum!
|Acca dacca, yo dude|
We’ve decided to skip the baggage drop-off and just head straight for the starting area, which is less than 1km from our hotel front door. It’s a bracing 7C/45F outside and all I have is an old long-sleeved tshirt for throw-away warmth, but somehow I’m never seriously cold and so missing out on the luxury of the elite room doesn’t cross my mind more than once. OK, maybe twice.
At 6:30am when we arrive there’s pretty much nobody lined up yet so we bag a position right behind the barriers and settle in to wait. My friend Kelly-Ann shows up, she's pacing a friend, and I see my speedy friend Fiona lining up with the elites. Time passes pretty quickly, really, and then suddenly we’re moving forward to crowd up behind them. There’s no time to think much more about it – time to see what happens! (sub-3, cough cough)
1 - 5km: 22:02 ( 7:05 min/mile, 4:24 min/km)
Off we go at a pace that seems perfectly reasonable; ok, no, it seems too easy really. Quite a lot of people, including the 3:00 pace group, pass us in the first couple of miles. My legs want to join them but Joel’s not having it: every time I pull ahead a bit I have to slow back down because he is so determined not to go too fast.
Inside my head there’s a brief debate about whether I should push my luck and see if I can make him speed up – I’m sure he’s got it in him to run 2:59 today – but then if it all blows up later on (unlikely but possible) it will be completely my fault and I’d rather not have to hear about that all the way home tomorrow.
No, I tell myself; keep your mouth shut, Rachel and just focus on letting him run his own race. To that end I now offer to carry the water bottle he has with him, and onward we press at a fairly steady rate.
|Staying behind, mouth (and eyes) staying shut|
5 - 10km: 22:06 (7:06, 4:25)
The slight uphill turn towards Albert Park lake inspires me to speed up a bit; “6:46” comments Joel sharply as the mile split beeps on his Garmin, but mine doesn’t quite agree. As if to prove the point he falls back further than before and I slow down appropriately, commenting “7:03” when the next mile beeps a more acceptable split.
This part of the course by the lake is so pretty and the sky is lightening up beautifully now, I’m really enjoying just being out here running. It seems ridiculous that it has only been 2 weeks since my 50K, and a flash of panic goes through my mind – I’m probably feeling more fatigue in my legs than I realised and what if everything is about to go pear-shaped??
No, you’re fine, I tell myself sternly, there’s nothing to worry about (even though perhaps there will be later) so just keep running and don’t think about it yet. The water stations have been fine so far, the course isn't too crowded, and being behind the 3:00 horde is no doubt also helping in that regard. It's time for gels and between us we finish off the water before pitching the bottle as we pass through a water stop.
10 - 15km: 21:51 ( 7:01, 4:22)
Ooh, what’s this? The first mile beeps and a slight acceleration appears to be happening! I look over at Joel, then down at my Garmin, then back at him. Sometimes when we run together we end up in this vicious cycle of each accelerating to keep up with the other, each feeling that they're the one lagging behind, til the pace gets so fast that someone cracks it. The next mile ticks over, again faster than the previous one.
"This speeding up thing IS NOT MY DOING," I announce firmly, mindful of my supportive role. Ominously, Joel immediately replies "I accept full responsibility!" Oh my god, this is going to get ugly. He's speeding up and who knows where it will end? More doubts flash through my brain but I keep them to myself; so far I'm fine and secretly I decide I'm going to at least keep up until mile 20 (32km). No matter what that entails. Gulp.
15 - 20km: 21:35 (6:56, 4:19)
By now we are on the long stretch that will take us up and down along the bay. The weather is perfect, there's no wind at all really, and we get to see the race leaders as the pass by on the other side of the road - two Africans who are miles ahead of everybody else. I'm watching for the 2:50 pacer but to my surprise there isn't one; I still haven't forgotten how they passed me at 40K in 2013, inspiring a mental meltdown (I finished in 2:50:19, so it wasn't a nuclear-grade one, but still).
As we complete the U-turn at the northern end and head off in the other direction, my Garmin beeps the split and I can see that we are now under 3:00 pace (6:51 min/mile, we're doing 6:49 just now). For the metric heads that's 4:14 min/km vs 4:16; at this rate we might well catch that enormous pace group. I didn't take the opportunity to check how far behind we are right now, but I'll be able to do it at the other end of the beachfront stretch. Hmmm.
|Him: "Are you doing ok?"|
Her: "Perfect, fine, never better!" <grits teeth>
20 - 25km: 20:53 (6:40, 4:08)
The acceleration continues; I'm starting to feel it for sure but trying hard not to betray this fact to Joel. There's a small uphill segment as we approach Luna Park, and he takes the opportunity to remark on how much "all the hill training" (aka our weekly runs with the Wagga RoadRunners, who ironically seem to run on almost every surface other than actual roads) has helped him - "This feels like nothing!" he says enthusiastically. Um, not to me it doesn't!
More and more I'm thinking that we are definitely going to be parting ways later on. Perhaps mile 20, or maybe 22? Hopefully I can make it that far! This part of the course goes on and on forever and the only thing that distracts me from my increasingly fatigued-feeling legs is that suddenly there are people coming the wrong way: some of the men, not the outright leaders but a few of the guys not far behind them, seem to have been misdirected at a set of traffic lights and have stayed left when they should have gone right. Oops.
Finally the turn comes and I watch for the 3 hour pace group: they're just on 3 minutes ahead of us now. I'm fairly sure I won't be able to make up that much time, although I suppose there's a fair bit of race left. Can Joel do it? I think I might be about to find out.
25 - 30km: 21:15 (6:50, 4:14)
But for now it's a bit of an unexpected hiccup and Joel is freaking out in a low-key, single-expletive sort of a way. "It won't last long" I assure him, and we stick to the far right side of the road where the crowd is a little thinner. I start yelling "MARATHONERS COMING THROUGH!" but lots of them have headphones in and they just can't hear me. It's using up precious energy to be dodging and weaving, not to mention bellowing at and occasionally shoulder-blocking them, (ok, maybe not that last part) but whatever. I just need this part to be over quickly so I take the lead and Joel follows me through the crush until the courses split again. Phew!
|We made it through alive!|
30 - 35km: 20:58 (6:45, 4:12)
With that shemozzle behind us, we're free to speed up again, sigh. I'd much rather not, and when I fall behind a little, Joel slows and asks if I'm okay. There's no way I'm letting him slow down on my account, so I reply that I'm fine and speed up again, but add that if I do slow down he should just take off. At this point I'm thinking that 35K is going to be my goal: stay with him that far and then let myself relax a bit.
As if by telepathy, Joel turns to me and says "Just stay with me til 22 miles, then I'm gonna take off." Phew! 35km = 22 miles so if I can just make it that far, my work will be done. There's no doubt that the work of muscling through the crowd (while simultaneously speeding up even more) has taken more out of my legs, and ahead unfortunately I can see we are about to merge again. WTF??
Joel is furious and the crowd is no thinner at this point; we repeat our performance of yelling and weaving and the course veers left then right around a corner and into a tunnel where Joel starts to pull ahead. He looks around for me and I struggle to accelerate, but my legs are not interested. "We just raced a 50K," they whisper bitterly, "why do you hate us so?"
Finally we're in the Botanic Gardens again and the two races separate once more. 35km is coming up - not to mention the uphill section that wiped the floor with me 2 years ago - and a mental switch marked "I'M DONE NOW" flips itself in my brain. Ahead of me Joel turns and waves, I wave back and then I slow down. Just like that.
36 - 40km: 22:17 (7:10, 4:27)
The mile split up the hill is my slowest of the race but whatever, I don't care. I'm passing people and that's good enough for me - although I'm inspired to speed up a bit again when the course turns downhill once again. Maybe I should be trying for sub-3, or at least to keep up with Joel (this may turn out to be the same thing), but I just can't. And surprisingly enough I'm fine with that!
I'm actually very impressed that I've made it this far without blowing up, and I'm quite thrilled that Joel has enough left in the tank that he has been able to take off like he has. All week he's been pooh-poohing my suggestions that he is fit for sub-3, or very close, but it looks like perhaps I was right. And who doesn't love being right, hmm?
40 - 42.2km: 9:03 (6:44, 4:11)
We're both passing people left, right and centre at this stage of the race, which is always so much fun. With less than a mile left there's a woman in my sights: she's walking! As I approach she breaks into a jog but within 30 seconds is walking again. That must feel so bad - clearly she went out for sub-3, but it's not going to happen - and I feel even more grateful that despite the proximity of my recent 50K, I haven't slammed into the wall during this race.
I have no idea how far ahead Joel is by now but he's definitely out of sight. All this assassin-mode stuff inspires me to speed up again, and before I know it I'm on Batman Avenue again (I love that name) heading for the entrance to the MCG. In the tunnel I have to dodge a few slow half marathoners yet again, but then finally I'm on the mats and grass on my way to the finish arch. Mission accomplished!
Rachel 3:02:02 (6:56 min/mile, 4:19 min/km)
Joel 300:19 (6:52, 4:16)
We find each other easily in the crowd of finishers; Joel looks at me, eyebrow cocked all Maxwell Smart and says "Missed it by THIS much, 99!" So close - if only I'd been more insistent about running faster in the early miles - but it is what it is, and that's 7 whole minutes faster than his predicted finish time.
In fact, both of us have run negative splits, which is a rare and difficult thing to do. Clearly Joel is still capable of sub-3, and I'm chuffed to have backed up as well as I have after China. The rest of the day is a blur of food and yeasty beverages, as we end up in Southbank in the rather dangerous company of post-race Kelly and all her mates. An afternoon drink turns into a pub/restaurant crawl that lasts late into the night - it's so much fun hanging out with other runners after a big race! - until eventually we all crawl home exhausted.
|Cheese! And pizza, and beer, and wine|
Later, on checking the official results, we discover that I've won my age group. What a fantastic weekend!