Saturday, June 3, 2017

SMH half marathon, May 2017

Of all the races I've run in my life, this one is the one I've kept returning to year after year. It was my first half - way back in 2001 - and despite being a horribly hilly and difficult course, there's something about this race that I really enjoy. 

I'm not sure what that is, though. The course? Nope - it's full of twists, turns and short, steep hills: almost 400m of vertical elevation gain over 21.1km (for the unaware, that's quite a lot). The field? Not really - it's extremely competitive and the best I've ever managed is 9th overall (in 2014) and 2nd in my age group.

Whoever designed this course deserves a slow and painful death

It must be the location, then. Because there's no doubt that Sydney is my favourite city in the world, any excuse to be there for a weekend is a excellent one as far as I'm concerned, and a weekend of running is even better. The timing is good - enough time after Boston to recover but not so long that the benefit of all that marathon training is lost - and this means in general I don't have to do any special preparation for this race. So naturally I keep signing up, getting a seeded bib, and therefore having to try my best to conquer it once again.

Last year I ran a very surprising course PR of 1:21:43, just 19 seconds off my all-time PR (from a much flatter course in Bathurst in May 2013), but this year I'm not so sure what to expect. Boston was a tough day and I ran a far slower time there this year than last; I haven't done any speedwork whatsoever for longer than I care to admit. But whatever! It's Sydney and it's May - the details will have to figure themselves out.

The Training

Ah, no, not really. See above.

In fact, I did manage to ramp up my weekly mileage fairly quickly again after Boston. All of it was easy running and a lot through shorter daily doubles rather than single longer runs - but it was enough to top 80 miles (124 km) per week for the 2 weeks preceding race week. I can't recall (and am too lazy to look up) how much I ran last year before this half, but something tells me it wasn't this much.

Race Day

Fortified by a delicious dinner of ramen noodles the night before - in the company of our running buddy Nigel and his sister Michelle, who tomorrow will be running her 2nd-ever half - we are up bright and early on race morning. In fact, courtesy of some very hot chicken ramen that he consumed at lunch in Chinatown on Saturday, Joel has been up most of the night. He's still lying in bed moaning when I'm fully dressed and ready to rumble, but gallantly decides to come with me despite the very real possibility of significant GI distress during the race.

We head off, therefore, for Hyde Park right on 6am with some trepidation about what lies ahead. The weather at least seems right on target, the rain that was forecast has stayed well away and it's perfect running weather, really: about 12C with light cloud cover and no wind at all.

The start

There's an elite tent this year again (hooray!) and an enthusiastic Keith Hong in charge of it (double hooray!) so we have no problems depositing our stuff and then heading our separate ways: me to warm up a bit and him, predictably, to find a bathroom. I jog my 2 miles and return to stow my jacket in the tent; somehow there's no time left for strides or anything so I head for the elite corral at the front and hang around randomly chatting to people I know. Fiona from last year is there, so there goes an AG win for sure (bloody 10 year age groups are so unfair), but I'm not terribly fussed really. Honest, I'm not.

Pat Carroll - the very enthusiastic race MC - is bellowing out all kinds of announcements as usual and one of them is about how the new start procedure is guaranteed to reduce congestion. There definitely seems to be less people in the elite/preferred corral today than in previous years, so that bodes well I suppose. In no time at all there's a 10 second countdown and then BOOM! The usual manic stampede towards Circular Quay takes off.

Miles 1-4: 6:12, 6:17, 6:04, 6:03 (pace in min/mile)

Almost immediately the "less congestion" claim is thoroughly quashed as a runner from behind literally climbs over the top of my right shoulder in his fervour to get ahead. At the first corner onto Macquarie St there's a guy on the ground already; he picks himself up and starts running again but man, that had to hurt. Less congestion? I'm totally not convinced.

The pace is predictably wild for the first half mile but then things settle as we turn left and back up away from Circular Quay. I'm expecting to turn right again back down towards the Rocks but instead we continue on Bridge St and I find myself facing a sizeable incline that definitely wasn't there last year. My brain is in shock: THEY ADDED ANOTHER HILL? To what is likely already the world's hilliest road half marathon?! It's unbelievable.

That's an awful lot of hills to fit into a 21.1km course

Threading my way along Harrington St there's finally the turn I was expecting, right and back towards the water, but another close encounter of a blokey kind hits me from the left and once again the claim of reduced congestion seems laughable. "Sorry!" he exclaims as I flail my arms to stay upright. As if this race wasn't hard enough already...and off we go on the more familiar part of the course around under the bridge.

The 5K mark comes and goes in around 19:40, which is not that fast but will have to do for today. Turning onto the Eastern Distributor there's a guy ahead of me with shorts that read "Triathlon Attitude". I'm amusing myself wondering exactly what that might mean when I realise suddenly that right now it means "Running too slow in front of others." I accelerate to pull past him and wonder idly if I'll see him again today at all.

Miles 5-8: 6:05, 6:05, 6:24, 6:26

I'm managing to hold things together through the flatter parts of Pyrmont but when the hills start I'm really starting to wonder why I keep on doing this bloody race. The male leader has gone past WAY ahead of the chase pack and I've seen Cassie Fien go past well ahead of the next female as I make my way to the turnaround point. On the way back I spot - and wave enthusiastically to - first Nigel and then, surprisingly close behind him, Joel. I know Nigel is gunning for sub-1:30 and it seems amazing but very possible that despite lack of sleep and (more importantly) serious training, Joel will be right on his heels. Hooray!

Heading back towards the city I find myself going through the halfway point in 40:47, which means I'm on track for a similar time to last year. Well, I am if I can avoid a significant second-half fade, but that's an awfully big IF. I'd rather not think about what is coming up, because the second half of this race is even hillier than the first. Sigh.

Gritting my teeth just a little bit

Adding further to my woes, Triathlon Attitude chooses this moment to sail past. Wait, what? I'm inspired somewhat to pick up the pace and stay with him, of course, and that keeps me going as we head into the concrete jungle and my Garmin - predictably - loses its mind and starts recording bizarre splits that make no sense. 5:26 minutes for a mile? I don't think so. Not even downhill with a tailwind, and neither of those elements are in attendance today, unfortunately.

Miles 9-12: 6:26, 6:34, 6:13, 5:59

The course zigs and zags its way through Observatory Point and the uphill towards the Harbour Bridge is, as ever, enough to make me think about stopping. When finally I find myself spat out onto the Cahill Expressway that runs above the ferry and train terminals at Circular Quay, I'm definitely starting to feel fatigued. Triathlon Attitude is opening a gap on me and it's giving me a fair dose of Annoyed Runner Attitude, but my legs couldn't give a toss.

Just keep running, don't think about the two massive hills that lie still ahead, goes the refrain in my head. The incline back up past the Conservatorium onto Macquarie Street isn't all that bad, in actual fact, or perhaps I just feel that way because I've let myself slow down considerably. Bah.

I haven't seen or passed any females for a long time but there's suddenly one up ahead; she looks to be barely jogging so SURELY I can get her, can't I? That thought is enough to inspire a faster mile 11 and then a blisteringly fast mile 12, courtesy of a dash past the finish line (Liam Adams has just won by over 2 minutes) and the long downhill past the Art Gallery.

<glares menacingly at opponent ahead>

As always I'm trying my best not to consider what lies ahead - the final, mostly uphill mile of torture - and, as I go around the turn at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, I'm trying my best to look photogenic for the photographers who inevitably lie in wait there. But it's not much good: I know what I'm about to have to do, and I just can't find any way of looking forward to it.

wait for it, wait for it................................. ugh, NOPE

Mile 13, 0.1: 6:26, 6:42 pace to finish

I round the turn and there she is, completely unsuspecting. Right! I pounce on the chance and blaze past her, although a glance tells me clearly that she's definitely not in my age group and really, says the part of my brain that is still getting enough oxygen, there's no need to take on the young chicks as well as the old ones, is there? But whatever, I'm ahead of her now and I have bigger fish to fry, namely the final hill that is coming right up.

It hits me like a ton of bricks and I completely forget my ambitions of staying ahead of Young Chick; it's all I can do to keep my legs going now. It feels like I'm crawling as I make my way up, up, up back towards Hyde Park. And of course towards the top of the hill she appears suddenly beside me before powering ahead again, and even this isn't enough to really get me going. Automatically I give chase, but in a half-hearted fashion without any real hope of passing her again.

I see her, but can I be bothered catching her? Yes, maybe I can after all --- wait, nope.

The final stretch of this race is always very enjoyable - probably mostly because the rest of it is so awful - and I'm almost smiling as I charge across the intersection towards the finish inside the park. Young Chick is not having a bar of being caught again and as I make the sharp left into the finish chute right behind her, I look up and see the clock reading 1:22 already. Bugger, slower than last year!

Finish time: 1:23:07 (6:20 min/mile, 3:56 min/km)

Placement: 13th overall female, 2nd in AG (F40-49)

Young Chick has beaten me by only one second - easily accounted for by the at-least-20-year age gap, really - and I don't have long to wait until Nigel appears (having crushed his goal with a 1:29:42) and shortly afterwards so does Joel. Excellent results all round!

There's not a lot more to say about this race; my time is probably an accurate reflection of my current fitness, and I'm still not sure why I keep coming back. It's a trial by fire and I've only once really come through relatively unscathed: last year, and for reasons that remain unclear. But no doubt I'll be fronting up to the starting line again next year for another dose of punishment, so I guess I'll report back then!

So relieved to be done that I'm actually asleep