Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Going the Distance

A couple of years back a local surf club identity, Steve, tried to talk me into entering the race he organises each year, the Royal Challenge. It involved a 22km trail run with an 11km ski paddle either side of it, and my reaction to his invitation was, 'I'd do the paddle bit, but I'm not a runner, never have been, never will'.

Thinking on it later in the day I thought about what a rubbish answer that was, that it was a cop out, decided it might be worth a go, how hard can running be anyway, and set in motion a path that my goal-oriented personality would ensure had only one logical conclusion. 

Now I've never been a runner, even in my rugby days I was more inclined to run into someone than try to run around them. I had no inclination whatsoever to run. Three seasons of club time trials & swims with the big hearted & encouraging people at the Brighton Athletic Club, a bunch of fun runs & more committing half marathons, the slightly silly Tough Mudder with my mate Tony, the very demanding Royal Challenge itself (where I was dead last out of 100 runners over the 22km), all fed a growing desire for more. Time, people, to join the exulted pantheon of Polynesian marathon runners!
Finishing the run leg of the Royal Challenge
I'd often heard people talk about marathons & figured it was just something to do, 'sounds like a nice challenge' etc etc, but not really anything like braving the wild seas with the wind in your hair. Like most people who've never given it much thought, I hadn't even considered the sheer brutality of the training you need to do, just to get yourself in a position to consider running 42.2km. My training regime built from what at the time seemed like an awful lot of running, about 25km a week, to an unthinkable 60-70km a week at it's peak, as I slowly built up the muscle endurance to weather the punishment of long distance.

I've never dedicated this kind of time to a paddling endeavour, with only the North Reef Expedition in 2011 generating the same motivation to make sure I'd prepared well. The real motivator...? Fear of course. For North Reef, it was the fear of putting my paddling mates under pressure, and potentially in danger, by tanking on a long crossing. For the marathon, it was a genuine fear that I'd bitten off more than I could chew, and just wouldn't be able to do it. The fear wasn't quelled any by a series of attempts to run longer and longer, which invariably ended with a geriatric shuffle after 20km. More than a few of my kind mates pointed out that there aren't many 95kg marathoners at the Olympics.... 

I had a breakthrough a couple of months ago when I employed my long distance paddling-fuel strategy to a 25km training run, and finished it strongly. It was a humble eureka moment, where I went from not really believing I could do it, to a 'strong glimmer' of hope that I could. People who know me know that I don't generally lack, umm, confidence, but this was realistic confidence (for once). I found a training partner in my mate Glenn, who not that long ago was lying busted under a semi trailer which had squashed his commercial van, with leg injuries serious enough to demand over a year of full-on rehab, so inspiration to dig in was never far away (Glenn ran a fantastic 3 hour 54 minute marathon).

With all the training done & the dreaded tapering fortnight over, a tormented couple of weeks hand washing like a surgeon, dodging the contagious bugs swirling around my family like an East Coast Low, hacking coughs from one bedroom replaced by projectile vomits from another, the day finally arrived.
Completely freaked out before the start.
They say the hardest part of a marathon is getting to the start. Avoiding injuries, scrimping the time to train & train well enough to approach it with confidence, none of them things to be underestimated. Lining up with the thousands of people attempting the distance was something of an honour.  Knowing that they'd all most likely been out there in the early mornings, like me doing their 30km long runs, planning, obsessing, basically consumed by the whole thing, felt very reassuring. I didn't feel like the mad bastard anymore.
The rev-up over, the gun fired & we were off. I'd heeded warnings about going out hard, and settled into a very conservative pace, being dragged along in the throng of humanity across the Harbour Bridge, over the Cahill Expressway & up Macquarie St towards Hyde Park. I'd mentally rehearsed the route many times, it became my bedtime video, playing in mind as I plodded along the city streets.

As I cleared the city and made my way up Oxford St, I started to see significance in the course. It was a strange thing to drift into, and lets face it you have to have something to distract you from how much it hurts, but I got lost for at least an hour in the memories of the places I was passing. 

Halfway up Oxford St I passed the legendary nightclub. Rogues, where as a 17 year old I spent my Friday nights picking up glasses and observing the rich & famous downing Stolichnaya shots & trashing themselves. Down Moore Park Rd & past the footy stadium, which was once the Sports Ground, where I've seen Jonah Lomu rampage and the Roosters play from the days of Horrie Hastings right up to the days of his son, then along past the SCG where I watched heroes like Viv Richards & Dennis Lillee. A cutback took me past my old school, Sydney High, where I was surrounded in equal measures by beach-suburb larrikins who remain my great mates to this day, & very, very bright kids (yes they're mutually exclusive qualities). Approaching Centennial Park I passed the unit block where Mum & I had our first flat in Sydney, & I remembered staring out as an eight year old at the expanse of a huge city from the positively stratospheric 6th floor, quite a change from our modest little farm in NZ. Into Centennial Park where I spent most of my youth playing sport or playing in the mud, and then out onto Anzac Parade where the trip down memory lane was replaced with a wildly premature revelation that at 28km, I was on the way home.
Chariots of Fire down Oxford St.
I'd been mentally rehearsing striding the long downhill back down Oxford St, crowds cheering, fist raised in a victory salute as I powered the final third of the course, but the reality of the marathon for me was that by this stage the downhill allowed me only a slightly faster shuffle than the flat bits. Running through the trees of Hyde Park again & then down the hill back to Circular Quay I got a big lift from my Mum, standing on the curb cheering like mad and urging me on. '10km to go, you can do it', she hollered. I felt great, only 10km to go.

My mate Knighty had warned me that the marathon only really starts at 35km, everything up to that point is the cruisy bit to get you into a position to withstand the rigours of the last few miles. The Sydney course quite obscenely sends you up onto the Darling Harbour flyover, and as you hit the mythical distance where runners speak in hushed tomes about 'the wall' there is a dirty great hill. I was secretly pleased that the 50 runners within shouting distance of me also decided it was a dirty great hill, as basically every one of them slowed to a walk for the 40m required to get to the top. People around me were starting to look very shabby, the chirp had gone, the smiles were replaced by gritted teeth. To my paddling mates, imagine an event like the 47km Myall Classic, where at the 35km mark people literally started dropping their paddles, and falling out of their boats with exhaustion. And swearing....
42.2km is a VERY long way.....
This part is very hard mentally, sure you're hurting, but you expect to be hurting. What you don't expect is the overwhelming urge to stop & walk. The mistaken urge that walking will make it easier, even down to calculating when you'll finish if you walked the last 5km. At the top I forced myself to run again, enjoyed the slight downhill to the Powerhouse Museum, and just as I was starting to feel very sorry for myself on the final big incline a guy who had bounded past me stopped with what looked like a cramp. As I shouted a word of encouragement I looked down & realised it wasn't a cramp; he was adjusting his prosthetic leg. Suffice to say I drank a pint of concrete and decided that my wall was only a little wall.
Running the last couple of kilometres to the finish was like taking Ibuprofen via the cloud,  the pain in my feet & legs dulled by the sight of the harbour, the bridge, then the Opera House, and finally the long chute lined by a cheering crowd which you traverse to the finish line on the Opera House steps. In my mind I was running like Richie McCaw, striding on to the finish line with power & purpose. It's only when I saw the finish video that I realised how buggered I looked, more like Lionel Richie! Crossing the line is one of the great things you can experience.

My time was 4.45, which was to-the-minute what I figured I was capable of based on all my training. It was a good feeling indeed to have done it in the style I'd hoped for, without the teary war story, and with a brilliant minds-eye memory of running a marathon, a tremendous, positive experience. There is a lot to be said for preparing properly for serious things, and there is nothing as committing as commitment.
Glenn & I with our medals
As for Steve, he now directs the very successful swim/paddle/run Hydrothon franchise, and moaned to me the other day that it would be great if he could get more runners, like me, to cross over! Cheeky bugger.

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