My intention when I revived this blog at the beginning of the year was to write more about the world of software development and delivery. Yet I find myself writing about my relatively recently discovered pastime of running for the third consecutive post.
I’m not one for applying labels to people (that’s another blog post in itself) however were I to label myself, “runner” would be one of the last labels I would think of. At the beginning of last year, I couldn’t run to catch a train without getting out of breath. I completed a couch 2 5k programme in the interests of improving my fitness and keeping my body weight under control, there was certainly no intention of running further than 5km. Why would I want to do that?
And then I discovered parkrun. One of the things I really like about parkrun is its inclusiveness. At any given parkrun event, you’ll find athletes who run the course in under 18 minutes and they start alongside the casual walker who’s happy to wander around the course in an hour, taking in the scenery and enjoying a social chat with the tail-runner. And there is everybody in between.
At my former home parkrun at Westerfolds Park, I met a lot of social runners who were always pushing the limits of their achievements: working hard to beat their own 5km personal bests and setting goals to run further than ever before and always encouraging others to join them. Most weeks, after our run, there’d be talk of the next big run on the local running calendar and all distances were in the mix from 5km to ultra marathons! It was easy to get caught up in the wave of enthusiasm for these events and this was a part of the reason I ended up pushing my own limits and running longer distances last year, culminating in a half marathon – a distance I never imagined I would run!
“Half marathon” is a terrible name for running 21.1km. I hear runners who’ve worked so hard to get themselves fit enough to complete this distance say things like, “I only did the half”. I am sure I used a similar phrase last year. I don’t know many people who’ve run a half-marathon but it’s no mean feat, I can tell you. When I got home from the event last October, I was so tired I struggled to undo my shoelaces. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into training for a half marathon and anybody who runs the distance has achieved a whole lot just by lining up at the start line.
The “half” part was bothering me at the beginning of the year, though. If I’d run a half, would I be capable of running a “full”? Shortly after I crossed the line last year, I bumped into my Engineering Director and one of the first things he said to me, after “congratulations”, was, “can you imagine feeling this tired and realising that you were only half-way?”. I couldn’t imagine running another kilometre at that juncture. However two of my friends who had run marathons assured me that if I could run 21.1km, with enough training, I could run 42.2! My friend Gary had planted the seed of a thought that I might be able to tackle a marathon as we stood chatting at the start of October’s half but I can’t remember the moment I decided I would give it a shot. When the day came that the entries opened for the 2015 Melbourne Marathon, I signed up and committed myself to taking on the biggest physical challenge I ever imagined putting myself through.
I sat down with my friend Adrian one lunchtime and he put together a training plan for me: 23 weeks of running 45-60km per week. I was averaging about 20km per week at the beginning of the year, so I clearly needed to step it up but the increases were incremental and seemed utterly achievable. It’s good to break goals down into manageable chunks!
A number of decisions along the way to the marathon seemed like taking the obvious option at the time although they’re not obvious to me now (such as the decision to enter the thing in the first place). When the time came for me to do my first long training run, a half-marathon, I decided to run four (and a bit) laps of Westerfolds Park, a course that I knew well (and know even better now), and a course that has a whacking great hill! Each hill climb was harder than the last and by the fourth time I wasn’t sure I would be able to run to the top. I went home with a huge sense of achievement that morning but 42.2km seemed a long, long way to go!
A week later, I did the same course in reverse. There are two shorter but perhaps more intensive hill climbs in that direction but I thought a change of direction would keep things more interesting. There was an unexpected benefit of running laps, though. My friend Olivier joined me for two laps. His company (and perhaps a little friendly rivalry) provided good motivation for me and I ended up completing the distance nearly fifteen minutes quicker than I had the previous week. Perhaps I was on to something.
The long runs became the focus of my training and each week I’d return to Westerfolds Park, alternating between clockwise and anticlockwise laps. Each week I’d find myself with great company for a large portion of my run. I had always understood long distance running to be a lonely activity but I could turn up to a car park at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning, before the sun had crept over the horizon, and find that I had friends waiting for me ready to run a few 5km laps before breakfast. Over the next five months I continued to take my long runs around Westerfolds at 7 o’clock on Sunday morning and friends I’d met through parkrun joined me, kept me company and kept me going. Thank you to Alison, Barney (who coined the terms “Lapsterfolds” and “Lapsterfoldians”), Chris, Dougall, Elisa, Gary, Kerryn, Lee, Martin, Matt, Narelle (who also went on to run the marathon), Nicole, Olivier, Rohan, Simon, Scott S, Scott T, Tim and Wendy (and anyone I’ve inadvertently missed).
Aside from my Lapsterfoldian endeavours, I would regularly run before work with Adrian (until he got himself injured), Natalia, Ronja and Peter. These people, too, rock! Indeed, I ran very few of my training kilometres solo.
My running buddies really helped me complete my training and I’m very grateful to each of them.
I ran my last couple of long runs away from Westerfolds, since the Melbourne Marathon course is predominantly a flat one. The first I ran on my own along Merri Creek and the Yarra River down to the City and then around Albert Park Lake down to St Kilda Beach, where I met Kirsty and our kids for breakfast. It was great to see them after a three hour solo run, I can tell you! The other I ran with Scott T out on the Marathon course.
Twenty three weeks seemed like an eternity at the start of the training programme, but it came around quickly and before I knew it I was on my bike heading down to Melbourne Olympic Park for my first marathon (public transport isn’t at its best at that time on a Sunday morning). I bumped into Barney and Simon near the start line and chatting with them really helped me relax. I also managed to find Narelle in the heaving crowd at the start to wish her good luck. Somebody sang the national anthem over the public address system before the starting gun sounded. The atmosphere was sensational. It took a little while to get moving, as large crowds tend to. I crossed the starting line about two minutes after the first starters and kept my eye on the bouncing yellow balloons attached to one of the four-hour pacers: it was my aim to finish in front of these balloons! It took me about 2.5km to catch the pacers and I ran with them for about 5km. As we headed up through Albert Park I became conscious that I wasn’t comfortable with my rhythm and I started to speed up a little, leaving the pacers behind. Soon after I’d broken away from that pack and found some space on a still very crowded course one of my shoelaces came undone. I’d run hundreds of kilometres in training and never had my doubly-tied shoelaces come undone; I had to stop!
I hopped over the low chain fence to the left of Lakeside Drive and tied my shoelace securely before getting back up to speed and hopping back across the chain. Just as I landed back on the road I heard an almighty bang behind me. I turned around to see a pair of sunglasses on the tarmac. The runner who picked them up said that they’d been knocked off his head by a stray golf ball!
As I exited Albert Park, I saw the lead athletes from the 21.1km race entering: these folks had started an hour after me and were only 5km behind. I couldn’t sprint as fast as their half-marathon velocity!
There was a very mild breeze as we ran the coastal section of the course, I’d been warned that the wind along there would make it tough, but I got lucky and it was pleasant and cooling. I checked my watch as I passed the 21.1km mark: 1:55, which was quicker than last year’s time but crucially I didn’t feel anywhere near as I had twelve months previously. The training was paying off!
Around 30km in I was heading back up Fitzroy St in St Kilda. As we headed down the street earlier I’d heard another runner comment how hard it was to climb back up the street. I’d not really noticed that it was downhill on the way out but his words echoed in my ears on the way back and I tried to ignore the fact that it was a gentle climb. The next thing, I spotted Kirsty in the crowd with Eamonn and Dara. The sight of them gave me a very welcome boost, as would the drink and the jelly beans they handed me. Shortly afterwards I was heading north back up St Kilda Rd full of energy. I smiled as I saw the 17km flag for the half-marathon event… I recalled how exhausted I felt the last time I saw that. I saw follow Lapsterfoldian Martin spectating (having blitzed the 10km event); seeing familiar faces along the way was surprisingly refreshing for the spirits!
The next familiar face I would see was Scott T. He was entered into the race (which happened to be on his birthday) but had to pull out last minute due to sickness, I later learned. He was out cheering on his wife Iwona, who was running in the 21.1km event, as well as any parkrunner or Westerfoldian he saw along the way. I wished him a happy birthday and continued on my way.
As I ran around the Arts Centre, 35km in, I felt my pace really start to drop. I’d be taking on honey as a DIY energy gel every half-an-hour but 3 hours and 15 minutes into the run, I was really flagging. This was the furthest I had ever run (my longest training run was 34km and at a much slower pace) and I was now into the unknown zone. I reached for the bag of jelly beans Kirsty had handed me earlier, ripped the corner off with my teeth and popped a couple into my mouth. I imagined that they gave me an immediate energy boost and pushed hard to regain my pace. The last seven kilometres of the course are tough physically and mentally as you come so close to the finish line only to be guided back down around to Royal Botanic Gardens and to cover the top section of St Kilda Rd. Again. It was along this section I saw quite a number of runners fall by the wayside to be treated by medics. This was a sorry sight and made it hard to focus.
I’d covered this section in my reconnaissance mission with Scott a couple of weeks earlier and was prepared for last few kilometres. There’s a bit of a gradient as you head around “The Tan” and somebody was holding a sign saying, “you own this hill”. “This isn’t a hill”, I thought; having climbed to The Manor House in Westerfolds Park up to seven times in my training runs, going up steeper hills even when tired was manageable. I was starting to pass people once again!
I bumped into Scott again along Birdwood Avenue and he ran with me for a little while. He confirmed that I was nearly there, that I was still ahead of the four-hour pacer group and that it was mostly downhill to The ‘G. This gave me another boost and I managed to pick up the pace a little more. The Sun had started to break through and after three-and-a-half hours of running, I was getting quite thirsty. I’d been sipping water along the way but now I was gulping down the supplies I’d carried with me all the way. I stopped at a water station on the final section up St Kilda Rd to guzzle down a cup of the sports drink they were handing out and then I was ready to push hard for the finish. The crowds at Federation Square were cheering loudly and that made me smile, just in time for a photographer to get a shot of me opposite Flinders St Station.
The last kilometre down Batman Avenue is downhill, and my legs felt like they were on autopilot, a stark contrast to the last kilometre of pretty much all of my training runs. The MCG is in sight. I was going to finish a marathon! As we entered through a tunnel and there was an almighty roar… another energy boost! I looked out for my friends and family in the crowd but there was this strange void on the lap inside the stadium between the mouth of the tunnel and the finish line where most of the spectators had gathered. The first person I spotted was Narelle’s husband, there with his camera (a familiar sight to my parkrunning friends)! I gave him a wave and then I saw the clock above the finish line, it started with “3:57” and I knew if I kept going, not only would I have run 42.2km, I would have done so in under four hours and that would be the icing on the cake. There is a video of me crossing the line and in it you can see just how overjoyed I was with this.
Two weeks have passed since then and I’ve been letting my legs recover. There was some muscle soreness for the first couple of days but it wasn’t anywhere near as severe as I expected. I felt really fit for the first week and went for a swim and cycled lots. The second week I felt really lethargic and did next to nothing. I jogged around parkrun both weekends with Dara in the pram, just to keep the legs moving, but it’ll be another week or so before I risk going for a run. Going from 60+km per week to nothing is very strange. I’ve found myself feeling grumpy (more so than usual) and lazy but still as hungry! I imagine Kirsty will be kicking me out of the house with my running gear before long to get the endorphins flowing again!
I’ve been asked a lot when the next marathon will be. I don’t know. 23 weeks, 3 hours, 57 minutes and 48 seconds is a lot of time out of family life and I don’t really want to invest that kind of time in another marathon. Kirsty breathed an audible sigh of relief when I got the rejection email from the London Marathon for 2016 (it would have been absolutely great to run alongside my “little” brother, but it wasn’t to be this year). Having actually enjoyed the experience this year, I’m sure there’s another marathon in me but just not yet! I’m very happy to stick to some shorter runs and spending more time with the three very special people who supported me through this wonderful experience. Thank you, Kirsty, Eamonn and Dara; I love you and I could not have done it without you.