On Running a Marathon

A friend of mine has a novel approach to New Year Resolutions, and more specifically avoiding their inevitable failure: she reverses the concept. Instead of listing goals in advance, she waits until the end of the year and lists all the new things she’s done. For me in 2009, one of those new things was running my first (and perhaps only!) marathon. In case I forget the experience, or if I’m tempted to do it again, I thought it would be a good idea to write some notes on it.

How did the idea come about? My neighbour Aidan had decided to run the City to Surf, a trifling 14kms, so I thought I’d join in the fun, having not run it myself since the only two occasions in 1994-1995. Back then I was in a ridiculous gym phase and finished in around 58 minutes or so, so I was curious as to how much I’d slowed down since.

After a few practice runs with Aidan he wisely decided to go off at his own pace, given that he resembles the road runner in terms of land speed to my not-so-wily Coyote, but using Map My Run I still found I was improving every month or so. To qualify for the City to Surf “A” group we ran a Sydney Striders event, which was an introduction to the world of people who get to North Head at 7am on a Saturday morning to run 10kms, without anyone pointing a gun at their head. 42 minutes or so later I was in the game, and not long after freezing my backside off waiting for the gun to go off at the Start Line in College Street.

Having not run amongst a mass of people for 10-15 years, the City to Surf was strange. I ran at what I thought was a fair clip for the first couple of kms, getting away from the crowds pretty early – with my ideal running music the Silversun Pickups nearly drowning out “Eye of the Tiger” as I ran past the Golden Sheaf in Double Bay. At this point I felt pretty comfortable, and as I hit “Heartbreak Hill” – a 2km monstrosity which could just as easily be renamed “Heart Attack Hill” – I was wondering if I was running slowly, until I saw a clock at 7kms hitting 30 minutes flat, quicker than I had run in training. Encouraged, as well as motivated by the knowledge that Aidan would already be over the hill and possibly even close to the finish, I kept up the pace and finished in a pretty decent net 57:33, inside the top thousand finishers. Admittedly, I’d had the additional motivation of chasing a guy wearing a Commonwealth Bank singlet, who I didn’t quite catch, but the corporate envy was more than made up by the free massage they put on at the end.

So having performed pretty well, I somehow got the idea that seeing as how I was fit, I may as well do a half … no stuff it, make that a full marathon. Sydney seemed a bit close for the step up in distance, but I figured Melbourne, whilst still idiotic – going from 14kms to 42kms in about 8 weeks – might be doable. I was probably somewhat deluded at the time reading the brilliant Born to Run (nothing to do with Bruce Springsteen) by Christopher McDougall, as well as What I talk about when I talk about running, by my favourite (well, only) Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, both of which extolled running about being a lifestyle as much as a hobby, making you a better person. Apparently.

So immediately I stepped up the distance to just under 20kms, and ran the Sydney Half Marathon as practice. This was definitely tougher in terms of distance, but a lot flatter, aided by the fun of starting across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at 6.20am and finishing at the Sydney Opera House, with just the small matter of running to Rozelle and back in between, finishing in 90:28 – JUST missed the 90 minute barrier, although this wasn’t actually a goal to start with. One of the best memories was being part of a group of runners cheering and clapping Mina Nomura just after the halfway mark, as she sped past on the way to first female and 11th overall. She was quick.

So “practice” over, I tried a couple of 28km runs, dying by the end, but figured adrenaline and determination would see me get the extra … gulp … 14kms done. Somewhat nervous, I flew down to Melbourne the day before and holed up in a city hotel having to avoid the usual coffee and fine wine gluttony before I tortured my body the next day.

Finding my way to Rod Laver Arena before first light, I ran into a couple of friendly veterans, one a Novacastrian trail runner, who assured me I’d be fine. Not convinced. But soon enough I was amongst 4,000 other hardy souls, all looking like they’d renounced body fat as a religious vow, listening to “Deeks” (famed Australian Marathon Runner Robert de Castella) scream at us, followed by an unnecessary warbling of the national anthem. Yes, it’s hard enough doing this ourselves thanks, let’s not overload us with some vague idea that we might be serving the country by doing so. Most of them are still asleep, anyway.

Bang! The gun went off and we crossed the start line … at which point I managed to drop my iPod, having to stop, pick it up and start again – not the most auspicious of starts. But away I went, through the city, down St Kilda Road past the Melbourne Arts Centre and the Shrine of Remembrance. Part of my preparation involved getting friends to suggest music to run to, the idea being that I could pretend they were sharing the pain … so on that score, thanks to Devin, Mariellen, Jake, Jordan, Urs, Aisling and Manuella for the track selections, not to mention the most amusing being between my big sister Chrissy (Holding out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler) and Nix (Chariots of Fire) …

Into Albert Park, 10-15kms down and apart from a rest stop, I wasn’t feeling too bad, enjoying the sights of the lake and having other runners around me in a positive frame of mind. Then ah … my leg is starting to hurt as we get onto Beaconsfield Parade, just as it had in the Half Marathon. Cue 5kms of pain as I successfully run it off, the pain however being replaced with growing fatigue as the sun starts to fry us all running along Port Phillip Bay, although at this stage my pace was still between 3:10 and 3:20, faster than I could maintain as it turned out.

At around 25kms I hit that lovely state which runners refer to as “The Wall”, or more accurately, “feck this I want to stop running and catch the ambulance back to the CBD so I can die quietly.” The running started to fade back towards a jog, and those slower runners I’d seen at various turnarounds all of a sudden started to go past me. At this point it started to be less about being competitive however, and working out how the hell I was going to finish, given my legs felt like Dr Sadism had directly injected some sort of lead and tar cocktail into them.

bananasI kept on going though, back from Brighton and up Fitzroy Street – yes, thank God, we are heading back toward Melbourne. At around the 30km mark, we joined up with the Half Marathon, which was when I realised how much I’d slowed, as I was now running at the same pace as the Bananas in Pajamas.

The worst was yet to reveal itself, in the sadistic nature of the course. As everyone staggered to the 35km mark, the finish line of the Melbourne Cricket Ground was in sight, and yet they turned us around to run another 7km around The Tan, normally an enjoyable light run, but today something like the furnace of hell. At this point I was cramping and walking through the drinks stations, eyes silently pleading for someone to put me out of my misery, but otherwise jogging along desperately looking out for every marker that told me another kilometre has been conquered – I use the term lightly. No-one around me looked happy either …

On and on and on we went, until out of the blue sky comes a sign with 41KM written on it! NOW comes the adrenaline and I’m running again – still painful but back to following my normal matra of “the quicker you run, the faster you finish” – and before I know it I’m the past the 500m to go sign, and then into the stadium, around the MCG and OVER THE FINISH LINE IN 3:35:40. Delirious, I leapt in the air like a maniac and then stopped to take a breath, or rather, multiple gasps for air. But I was FINISHED, with the most exhilarating part of all being when I took my shoes off outside and put my bare feet in the grass … ahhh.

Pretty soon my legs seized up, carrying a weird limp for the next few days as did many other people I saw through the city, such as the three guys lowering themselves down stairs at the Supper Club at 11.30pm that night. Tough as it was however, now that I’ve recovered feeling and movement it feels like an awesome achievement just to have completed it. Which isn’t the same thing as saying I’ll run another one, but hopefully I’ll keep running next year and let’s see if my times can get better …


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