Friday, March 3, 2017

Orange Running Festival Marathon, February 2017

I ran the Orange Running Festival half marathon in 2013 and it remains, to this day, one of only two races I never got around to writing about on this blog. I'm not sure why; I actually quite like Orange, after spending the first 6 months of 2005 living and working there, but for some reason my write-up of that experience stalled.

It might have had something to do with the cold, rainy 2K that I jogged the day before with my then-small son. It might have been my expectation of a fast, flat HM course, which was appropriately crushed by the hilly dirt roads up which I found myself running, or at least trying to run.  It might have been a relatively sub-par time: 1:26 for a third place finish and my slowest half for a few years at least.

Whatever the reason, and in spite of the memory of many hills, I decided to venture back to Orange this year to try my hand at the full marathon. A friend had put me in touch with a babysitter to mind the kids while I was running and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was rather more prize money on offer this year than I remembered from 2013 - plus of course a good solid run would be beneficial for both fitness and confidence in the lead-up to Boston - so off we went on Saturday afternoon to the Colour City for another go.

The Training

For the past year or three I've been pretty much in a perpetual state of marathon training, but since October 2016 (when I ran the Ned Kelly 50K) things have been a little different. In January I took a break to go skiing in Japan and found myself feeling uncharacteristically serene about not running for several days in a row - this is not normal behaviour for me, not at all. I skiied all day and jogged up to 5 miles most afternoons on the treadmill but had no desire to do anything more.

Towards the end of January I started to think that maybe I should start training for Boston, perhaps? So I put together a few higher-volume weeks and threw in a bit of speedwork, but it was all still pretty much whatever I could manage on the day. With Boston still 6 weeks off the marathon in Orange would be a solid long run, not a full-on race: an endurance-building effort both mental and physical. I never had any ideas really about having to race it, nor any intention.

Race Day

I'm easily awake at 5am and have put most of my things out in preparation for a stealthy departure, but somehow it turns out I've mislaid my Garmin. I fumble around trying to locate it by the light of my phone and in the process wake Amelia. Bugger! Any plans for a relaxing pre-race lead-up are trashed at this point anyway; the babysitter is coming at 6am, the race starts at 6:30am and I haven't picked up my bib yet.

It's a short drive to the starting area, thankfully, but I'm sort of freaking out about how fine I'm cutting things this morning. I run from the parking lot to the hall where I remember picking up my bib last time, and with about 10 minutes to spare I'm outside ready to go. There are plenty of people I know around and I'm kept busy enough chatting with all of them that I don't have much chance to get nervous - not that I really would, because rather arrogantly I'm expecting to win quite easily today.

This is because the female winners over the past few years have run 3:17, 3:26, 3:14 - times that I am reasonably confident of being able to beat. Sub-3 would be nice, but if I don't feel great then I'm expecting to run around 3:05-3:10 and win without any problems. They say pride comes before a fall, but I've already had my fall this week (and taken most of the skin off both palms and my left knee) and a bit of pride doesn't seem unreasonable at this point. So I head to the starting line quite unconcerned, feeling both relaxed and confident.

A woman dressed in triathlon gear loiters around close to me - I'm in the very first row because why not, right? - and she's clearly the most likely contender for today's title; I will later discover that she won in 2016. There's nobody else around that looks particularly keen, so when the start gun goes off I set off feeling assured of a pleasant, not-too-taxing morning's work.

Miles 1-5: 6:41, 6:51, 6:59, 6:56,  6:39 (pace in min/mile)

I'm running comfortably and feeling great really when the first mile split beeps; there are a pair of guys not far ahead of me and I can sense another one just over my right shoulder too. I look at my watch, think "that's a touch too fast" and consider asking the runner right behind me what his goal time is - if he says "sub-3" then we might be running together for a while - but when I look over to the right I am both amazed and slightly horrified to discover that my companion is female. Wait, what?!?

The course veers abruptly out onto a road and my companion is momentarily confused, almost bumping into me as she figures out which direction to take: I say "no, the road, we go down the road" because I remember this course actually from 2013, and if I remember correctly the rolling hills are about to start any second now. She's profusely apologetic, we run side-by-side for a minute or two, and then to my further amazement she starts to pull ahead of me.

Well, this is not what I was expecting! I need to decide fairly quickly what to do about this - should I smash myself trying to keep up, or hold back and hope that she will fade? So many runners do, but this one has the look of a hard-core ultrarunner: brown hair in a French plait down her back and legs that are tanned and very muscular. Uh oh.

To your average ultrarunner, these mountains are mere molehills

I decide to hang back and watch for a couple of miles - the course is as hilly as I remember it, and we both slow down a touch - but she's running strongly and consistently at a pace that will lead to a sub-3 if she keeps it up. I look at my watch as she passes a sign by the road and estimate that she's about 15-20 seconds ahead. That's still catchable in a race as long as this one, so there's no need to panic just yet.

Then during mile 6 she gradually catches a male runner who has clearly gone out way too fast, but in doing so also slows down enough that - ever so gradually - I pass him too and shortly afterwards pull up alongside her. Ooh, how is she going to react to this??

Miles 6-10: 6:47, 6:46, 6:35, 6:54, 6:45

Not well, as it turns out! Immediately she speeds up again and I'm tempted to try to stay with her. A couple of faster miles ensue (during which I see, much to my amusement, a strange-looking brown mound in the paddock by the road which turns out to be a camel, of all things) but then we make a sharpish left-hand turn onto a gravel road which is strewn with threateningly big chunks of rock. Oh, no.

This surface is an ankle-turning nightmare and after Wednesday's close encounter with the asphalt I'm immediately intimidated into slowing down some more. Brown Plait is made of stronger stuff and continues steadily like a mountain goat up the gravelly road into what I have now noticed is a fresh headwind.

Pretty soon she's at least 45 seconds ahead and I am rehearsing second-place acceptance speeches in my head: "Yeah, second place, I know...she was just too strong and I wasn't expecting to have to run sub-3...." I'm imagining myself telling Joel (who has stayed behind in Wagga) "I lost!" in dramatic tones, demanding sympathy that someone faster dared to show up. But another voice in the back of my brain reminds me that I have caught plenty of chicks in the later stages of marathons, so perhaps all is not lost quite yet, and that's enough motivation to keep me plugging away because really, what other choice do I have?

Out and up to the top of Spring Hill and then allll the way back again

Miles 11-15: 6:55, 7:03, 6:45, 6:49, 6:52

Well, I could just jog the rest, that's what I could do. A short stretch of ridiculously steep and rocky hill almost does me in - the wind is firmly in my face and I really don't like this at all, thanks - but then mercifully it turns into a sealed road for the final, rather protracted out-and-back stretch. It's long enough that I find out I'm in 6th place overall, as 3 blokes I hadn't seen before appear well out in front of the rest of us. They're on their way back as Brown Plait and another guy are ahead of me towards the turn-around. Let's see how things stand, shall we?

I check my watch as she turns and then resist the temptation to look at it before I get there myself. When I do, the difference is 50 seconds - so she's 1:40 ahead of me and showing no signs of slowing down yet either. God, I hate ultrarunners! Even though technically I'm sort of one myself now.

Half split: 1:29:30

On the way back down there are increasing numbers of runners coming the other way and plenty of them say encouraging things to me as we pass each other by. I'm trying to reply to them all but I'm also trying to stay focused, and that 1 minute 40 second gap is annoying me greatly. Thankfully the wind is now at my back and the gradient more down than up; even the rocky surface of the road doesn't seem quite as bad this time around. And could it be that Brown Plait is slightly closer than she was before? Hmmm.

Miles 16-20: 6:53, 7:12, 6:53, 6:54, 6:47

What goes down must eventually go up again, and any time I've gained on the downhill-with-a-tailwind part is lost during mile 17, which is more up than down and will be my slowest mile of the entire day. But surprisingly enough the gap between myself and Brown Plait looks about the same. Up ahead she is slowly catching another male marathoner, and, believe it or not, I seem to be inching ever-so-gradually closer to them both.

So I don't give up, and I don't slow down - not yet, anyway, and hopefully not at any point in the near future. I know I can run sub-3, so it all comes down to this: can my competitor? It sure looks that way for now, but I've heard it said that in a marathon the race doesn't start until mile 20, and today at least I'm feeling ready to race.

Miles 21-25: 6:51, 6:56, 6:42, 6:49, 6:25

The final 6 miles of a marathon can conveniently be broken down into segments of 2, I've discovered, and it's a strange sort of mental arithmetic that I always find comforting in the final stages of a race. I tell myself "Only 2 miles to go", whether it's 2 miles til I have 2 miles left, or 2 miles til I have 2 lots of 2 miles to go, or what. It's difficult to explain coherently now but when my brain has been addled by long hours of effortful racing and concentration,  somehow it makes perfect sense.

So right now I'm thinking in terms of 2s. Because the woman I've been chasing all race is still ahead of me, but at mile 22 the gap is noticeably smaller. Should I go nuts now, or should I wait? The course turns back onto gravel roads towards Bloomfield Hospital where it all began and I crank up the pace a notch or so. Let's see what the next 2 miles bring.

Mile 23 has some nasty undulations that definitely weren't there on the way out, although of course I know that they were. I feel like I'm struggling and slowing down but I'm still gaining on her, and as mile 24 beeps the moment of truth has arrived: I'm RIGHT ON HER TAIL. There are only 2 miles to go! Oh my gosh, what to do??

I could hang here for another mile or even until the last hundred meters, then throw it all down in a wild sprint to the finish -- but we all know what sort of sprinter I am, and if you don't, then the best word for my sprinting skills is "non-existent".  My daughter can out-sprint me and she is only 8, so that probably won't work.

If I'm going to pass her now, I'll need to run the final 2 miles as fast as I can. What if she surges again and crushes me? What if I panic, what if I hit the wall?? So much anxiety and so many things that could go wrong! I realise in an instant that my best chance is going to be to not only pass her, but to do it emphatically: to crush her mental defences by steaming past to glorious victory.

So without even really thinking twice about it, as the mile 24 beep sounds I slam on the accelerator and sprint past as fast as I can. I don't bother checking my pace or looking at my watch; every fibre of my being is focused on running as hard as I can manage. Speeding up significantly in the late stages of a marathon is extremely difficult and I'm not sure how long this will last, so I need to just go and hope that it works.

As I tear along the road I can hear a flapping noise that I'm fairly sure is coming from my own bib, but it could also be footsteps behind me, and a couple of times I'm tempted to panic. "She's right behind you!" I tell myself. But maybe she's not - either way it makes no difference. I just need to keep running.

Mile 26, 0.2 to finish: 6:38, 6:34 pace

We are back very close to the hospital now and approaching it from the opposite side to where we left. I *think* I know where to go but there's no-one ahead within sight and any wrong turn at this stage will be fatal. I end up yelling "Which way??" a couple of times at the volunteers who are watching calmly from the sidelines - they have no idea that I'm in a state of near-panic, or why - and thankfully they're able to point me in the right direction.

Mile 26 beeps, I think I can almost see the finish area now.....just need to keep my legs turning over. Reflexively I start counting in my one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand...and then the finish arch is finally in sight. I've won this race after all!

Finish time: 2:59:04 (6:49 min/mile, 4:14 min/km)

Placement:  1st female, 4th overall.

With my 2 biggest fans

In retrospect, today's race was not only a great physical workout,  it was a really important mental one too. It turns out I won by just over 2 minutes, all of which I gained in the final 2.2 miles. My tactic worked - or she was just plain done at that point, who knows - and I'm very surprised (and pleased) to realise that a sprint finish isn't impossible after all. My endurance hasn't suffered too much from the summer hiatus - I've got 6 weeks to pull my act together for what will almost certainly be my final Elite start at Boston - and today was quite an inspiring way to start!