Sunday, April 29, 2018

When It All Goes Terribly Wrong - Canberra 50K, April 2018

Canberra is our national capital and a very confusing city indeed. When I was a child we used to drive through it on our way to the snowfields every year, usually becoming lost as a result, and the tradition continued when I started driving there myself as a young adult. It was only after spending 6 months living and working in Canberra in 2005 that I managed to develop enough of a feel for the city that I wasn't constantly finding myself going in circles or hopelessly lost. And considering my excellent sense of direction, that's really significant.

In 2011 I ran the Canberra marathon for my second attempt at the distance, but since it is generally held on the same weekend as Boston, I haven't been back since. This year, having decided to take a break from Beantown, it made sense to return to Canberra. Back 7 years ago they already had the 50K event but it wasn't terribly popular: you had to run the marathon, cross the finish line and then continue for another 8 kilometers.

At the time all I could think was, seriously? Who would make the decision to keep going after they'd just finished?? It's bad enough in races like Gold Coast where you have to go past the finish chute with another 10km to run, I couldn't imagine how psychologically tough it would be run to that far and cross a finish line but not be done.

Clearly the organisers figured this out at some point, and changed the arrangements so the 50K would start before and then merge with the marathon. Even though the announcement was made prior to race day that there would not be a World Championship event for the 50K distance in 2018, I figured I'd still run the longer event; my main motivation was the chance of winning the National Championship title, although if I'd bothered to look at the prize money for the marathon I probably would have dropped down.

In any case, I hadn't done a lot of running since Tokyo but I figured my endurance would still be pretty good, so I wasn't worried about major mishaps when I set off after working Saturday morning in Wagga. I managed to arrive in time to pick up my bib (amidst a squally, rainy Canberra afternoon), had a lovely catch-up for coffee with my friend Catherine, and then settled in to my very reasonable Queanbeyan accommodation for pizza and an early night. I didn't bother studying the rather-complicated course map in detail, because why would I? In a major city road race, a National Championship race no less, what could possibly go wrong?

There are a lot of numbers on there and the order appears somewhat random, but I'm sure it will make sense on the day

Race Day

4am isn't the most pleasant of times to wake up, and it's probably closer to 4:30 when I make it out of bed to get dressed, but it's a short, easy 10-15 minute drive to the start area and I sort of know already where I'm going to park. The rain has stopped but wind is still howling outside - this is a potential problem, although at least it's not going to be in my face the whole way as in Boston 2015 or New York 2014 - and it's chilly enough that I decide to wear a t-shirt rather than my usual singlet for racing.

I make it to the Elite tent shortly after 5:15am and time flies by, to the extent that suddenly there are only 5 minutes to go and I have to rush out in a panic to the start line. I realise halfway there that I've forgotten one of my gels, and in any case I only had enough for a marathon rather than a 50K (I have no idea why), but whatever: I need to get to the start! There's time enough there to wave to a few friends who are waiting to start the marathon, shed my jacket into the hands of a helpful volunteer, bounce up and down for a bit and then wheeee! Off I go on my 5th attempt at the 50K distance.

The First Part, aka Ignorance is Bliss.

It's still sort of a bit dark as we zoom off around the corner and pretty much directly up the only major hill and around the back of Parliament House. The lead pack of 3 (Vlad Shatrov, Brendan Davies and Barry Keem) quickly gaps the rest of us and by the second mile they and their bike escort are out of sight. I still have about 4-5 male runners visible ahead of me at this point, and am settling into a steady pace that is right around my goal of maybe-just-a-bit-slower-than-3-hour-marathon-pace, roughly 6:55 min/mile or 4:18 min/km. It feels comfortable and perhaps I'm going just a bit faster as we come down the hill again, but I know I'll find my sweet spot soon and so I'm not too worried.

About 1 mile in, blissfully unaware of what is about to happen

In fact, my brain is more occupied trying to figure out if the person 2 places ahead of me is a man (which I suspect) or a woman (doubtful but it's keeping my mind busy) - I'm just churning my legs and paying precious little attention to what's happening around me. We're following the usual circuitous path that road races seem to take in Canberra; it's familiar territory from all the times I've run in this area and I'm just happy to be out in what has turned out to be decent (if very windy) running weather today.

The Strava map above shows mile 3 in blue; we curl around under the bridge, the guys ahead of me peel one by one off to the left and I follow like the lemming that I am. Up and around we go towards the bridge across Lake Burley-Griffin. There's a red 5K banner right at the correct spot - I check my watch and it reads 21:30, which is reasonable I suppose. Heading across the bridge there are traffic guys putting out orange cones, which seems a bit late, and my friend Kelly jogging across in the opposite direction. We wave and greet each other enthusiastically, then she's gone. I refocus on the boys ahead and we zip down past a few race officials off the bridge and through the tunnel on Parkes Way.

I remember this part from late in the marathon when I ran it in 2011, and also from late in the half when I ran it in 2016 (foolishly), and it seems weird that we're headed out this way already but I know they've changed the course so whatever, it must be right. The guys ahead of me are still going so I just keep running, but after another 5 minutes, what's this? Men are running back the other way and they're not the lead pack: they're the chase pack. Huh?

It All Goes Horribly Wrong

Suddenly a car appears, driving at speed past me on the other side of the road, with lights flashing and people waving out the windows. The guys who were heading back have passed me, the rest who were out in front of me have turned around; someone yells "Turn! We're going the wrong way!"

Every brain cell I possess jumps to attention and screams "WHAT??" This cannot be happening! The wrong way?? But it is. I turn on my heel and give chase to the guys who are now only just ahead of me: one of them is wearing a strange red singlet with holes in it (purpose: ventilation? or perhaps to avoid chafing?) and stripey tights, another has a bright blue shirt.

"But I was in the lead!" I yell at the driver of the car, which has just done a U-turn and come up behind us. I was, but clearly I won't be by the time I make it back to wherever we have gone wrong.

Back we go across the bridge, fuming and complaining and trying to figure out how on earth this could possibly be put right; one of the people who turned us around was insisting that it would be corrected later somehow, but realistically I know how unlikely this is. By the time Stripey Holey Guy and I have made it back to where we diverged from the correct course, my watch reads over 6 miles, or 10km. Checking with him confirms it: we seem to have added at least 5-6km to the course.

Comically, at this point there's a red flag that says "10km" and I have a moment of disbelieving hope: perhaps this really is going to be fixed somehow? But as we run onwards, runners are now appearing, heading in the other direction on the other side of the road and I watch the two women who were behind me at the start make their way onwards, well ahead of me.

In fact, I'm now at the VERY BACK of the 50K field, it seems. As the course turns I am passing the slowest runners - all of whom are very encouraging, which is lovely but does little to settle my churning mind. Here I am at the very tail end of the pack when I SHOULD BE IN THE LEAD! Grrrrrr. The guy in the blue shirt pats me on the back and says "Calm down, just run your race", and of course I know he's right. Freaking out won't help, but come on, how could this have happened? In a national championship race!?

Making my feelings quite clear

It has happened before

So what happens when runners go off-course in a race? It has all happened before, of course, and what I remember from those instances doesn't give me much reassurance.

In the Venice marathon last October, a relative unknown won the entire thing after the course leaders were taken off-course by one of the motorcycle guides. Not long before that, the top 5 runners in the Kassel marathon in Germany were led astray by the timing car, which resulted in their disqualification from the race. And way back in 1994 at the New York marathon, a Mexican runner in contention for the win took a wrong turn in Central Park and looked sure to have lost the race, only to claw his way back to victory in a thrilling sprint finish.

So what does this all mean for me? I'm fairly certain that no matter what happens, the overall win is out of reach. I could - and do intend to - make an official protest about the lack of signage and direction that led to this debacle. Several of the guys who were ahead of me have now more or less given up and I've caught them, and we've chatted a bit as we've run together. All of them say they'll support me and testify to the fact that I ran all of the extra distance that they did.

These thoughts give me a degree of comfort, but nothing will change the fact that, barring something bizarre happening, another woman is going to be breaking the finish line tape today instead of me. Disbelief is giving way to dismay: I need to stop thinking about yelling at race officials at the finish and consider what on earth I'm going to do RIGHT NOW.

The Options

1. Give up and jog.
Yeah, that's not going to happen. I didn't come all this way just for an extra-extra-long training run, and I'm not interested in spending any more time running today than I actually have to.

2. Run hard to the 50km mark then stop.
Tempting, but no. I will end up with my first DNF if I fail to cross the actual finish line, no matter what my justification.

3. Cut the course to make it correct, or as near as I can manage.
Wow, also tempting, but again, against the rules. I hadn't even thought about timing mats or whether there will be any out here today (yes there will) but being caught cutting the course will mean an automatic DQ. And people will probably see me, and that will be really bad because they'll think I am cheating - nobody other than me, the guys I ran off-course with and a few people I have yelled at about it, knows that I have run so much further than I should have; they'll just think I'm cheating - so this option is also a definite NO.

4. Suck it up and just run the 56km already.
Sigh. Ok, I guess I really don't have a choice in the matter now.

What's more, my best chance of convincing the officials that I really *should* have won will be to run the entire way just as fast as I possibly can. I could run hard to 50K and then jog, but that will just look like a massive late-race bonk, so I guess that's not going to happen either.

My challenge now is to pick a pace that I think I can sustain not just to the 50km mark, but 6km beyond it. Actually, that's the easy part; the bigger challenge is what's going on inside my head.

Change your thinking

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm a GP and possibly also that I do a lot of work in mental health. I spend a significant amount of time every week trying to teach patients to calm down and learn to manage their negative emotions when these (inevitably) occur. That may sound boring and trite, but the big positive benefit for me has been that I've pretty much had to learn to practice what I preach.

In Tokyo recently I struggled the whole way through the marathon with an inexplicably negative mindset, and today goodness knows I've got an excellent excuse for feeling really, really PISSED OFF, but somehow it doesn't matter. I want to enjoy my run today - even if I'm not going to win - and I want to prove to myself that I can cope in difficult circumstances, so I set about doing so in no uncertain terms. I'm still really annoyed at what has happened, but I'm able to put that feeling to the side and focus on holding my pace. Negative thoughts are swirling around in my head but I pay no attention and eventually they evaporate, and it feels really, really good to be able to do this.

Might as well enjoy myself a bit

A Very Long Race

I spend the next 3+ hours basically overtaking people.

First there's the tail end of the 50K field, then I realise that I'm coming up on the back of the marathon field. I catch the 5:30 pace group, then the 5:00, the 4:45 and the 4:30 groups. It becomes an incentive, drawing me forwards - how many will I catch? Can I figure out which one I should be finishing closest to? (Short answer: no, my mental arithmetic sucks during races, so I can't. But I think it might be the 3:45 pace group. Maybe.)

There are quite a few Wagga runners in the marathon and I get to greet a number of them as I plough past at a decent clip. I hit what my Garmin tells me is the half marathon mark: 1:30:34. That's a bit faster than I should be going, although not at all far off what I had hoped for.

Eventually I'm back on the infamous part of the course where it all came unstuck before; this time I've run almost 24 miles, not just 3. My legs are not very happy. The wind is howling from the left hand side and the long out-and-back where I got turned around earlier is going to be hideous; it's a full-on gale headwind that almost stops me in my tracks.

The marathon mark comes as I'm having flashbacks to NYC 20143:03:15. 
Ok, I'm slowing down, and what's more, I really don't care. Not in an angry, screw-this-crap sort of a way, it just doesn't bother me. So much has already gone wrong with this race that I'm not about to let a mere headwind upset me, although I'm certainly not about to enjoy it either.

Whose idea was this anyway? Mine?  I hate myself.

The wind is ridiculous and miles 26-29 are my slowest of the race so far. I'm sort of trying to figure out in my head how far the marathoners have run already - I've just seen Luke, who is running his first marathon and seems to be ahead of the 3:30 pace group - while also trying not to think of anything at all. Finally the turn comes and at least there's a decent tailwind now; it pushes me along and I manage to pick up a bit of speed again.

Trudging back along towards the Kings Avenue bridge, I'd sort of like to be done now, thanks, but I know I still have quite a long way to run. I'm surprisingly not too upset about this - perhaps my entire brain has just gone numb, who knows? - so I put my head down and keep going. Eventually we're back over the bridge and heading out on yet another long out-and-back. As I circle back and pass beneath the bridge my Garmin hits 50km, or 31 miles, and I note the time: 3:39:45. That's about what I was expecting and aiming for, so that's great! Next challenge: not hitting the wall somewhere in the next 6km. Game on.

Another out and back affords me the opportunity to see Larissa, whom I know vaguely from other races and who is in the lead, which is sort of what I expected. It's sort of depressing to see her sailing along and know that things have gone so horribly wrong for me, but it's close enough to the finish now that I just want to be done. And finally I am: the finish line appears and, amidst a throng of marathoners and slower half marathoners, I cross the line to very little fanfare.

Wait, where's the tape? <grimaces>

Finish time: 4:09:09

Distance on watch: 34.99 miles / 56.31km

Placement: 3rd female, 12th overall.

Someone comes up to put a lanyard and medal around my neck - I've still managed to place, but 3rd instead of 1st - and I urgently blurt out "We went off-course! I should have won!"

The official person knows about this and reassures me it is being looked into, and someone will come to the elite tent to talk to me soon. So I head back there and find Larissa and Karen, the two women who were behind and then in front of me. It turns out they went across the bridge too, but were corrected much sooner than I was: they only ran an extra 3km to my extra 6.3km. Lucky them!

They're both very generous and kind about it all, and the officials from ARF and AURA are both in agreement that I should have won, but nothing can be decided right now. Therefore, the unpleasant result for the three of us is that the presentation has to be cancelled while the whole thing is reviewed. So I head off for a delicious, very late breakfast in a bit of a grumpy mood, wondering why I don't seem to be able to get race distances right in the ACT (see also Stromlo, 2017).

The unofficial results on the ARF app show splits from the timing mats, and they prove what I already know: although it took me just on an hour to reach the first one, after I finally got back on course, I ran from that one to the finish line faster than any other woman in the race. I took 3 hours and 4 minutes to cover the distance; Larissa took 3:08 and Karen took 3:12. I definitely showed that I was capable of winning, but rules are rules, and I'm fairly certain I won't be judged the winner once all is said and done.

The Final Outcome

The Australian Running Festival and AURA both contacted me on Thursday after the race, and I have to say I was impressed with their responsiveness and desire to help. Although I was undoubtedly one of the worst-affected (none of the men who went off course were in a position to place overall but I certainly was), many others had been hoping to use the race as a qualifier - particular for Comrades - and so a great deal of effort was put into making sure these runners were not adversely impacted.

For myself, there's no 50K Worlds this year so I don't really need a qualifier, but I was humbled and gratified that both organisations chose to recognise my effort appropriately, and Larissa and I were co-awarded the title of 50km National Champion.

Looking at the results, there is a gap of just under 36 minutes between the 3rd and 4th finishers, in contrast to previous years when it would have been more like maybe 8-10 minutes. The pointy end of the field in this race got decimated by the unfortunate lack of clear course markings. One of the positive things to come out of all this is that next year's female leader in the ultramarathon will have her own bike escort - I'm just not sure yet if I'll be trying to be that person again.

Later, when I get to look at my data from the race, it's actually pretty gratifying. Rather than giving up, I ran fairly consistently, slowing down a bit in the second half but by no means crashing into the wall. Considering that I knew so early on - around 10km - that I was going to have to run at least 5km more than I had bargained for, this made me feel really good about the way that I handled the situation, both physically and mentally.

Breaking it down into quarters (roughly 14km each);
First: 1:01:05, pace 6:59 min/mile, 4:20 min/km
Second: 1:01:21, pace 7:00/4:21
Third: 1:03:15, pace 7:14/4:29
Fourth: 1:03:30, pace 7:15/4:30

Predictably, I'm now being told by all sorts of people (including the current 100km female World Champion!) that I should try the 100km distance. In much the same way that I once said a marathon was twice as far as I wanted to run, I pooh-poohed that notion to start with. But now that I've had time to think about it......well, still no. I think.

1 comment:

  1. 100k? I think you will! A sprint compared to the 100 mile trail races. Great that you were awarded joint 50k champion status. My shift at that corner started at 8, so well after the stuff-up. 50k runners were supposed to be on the right side of the road, not the left like the marathoners and half runners. It was a confusing intersection. Maybe they'll change it for next year, as well as providing the female lead bike.