Aches and Analysis – Ultras in Numbers

So, the title of this blog is The Running Pharmacologist. The ‘running’ bit is fairly obvious, but the ‘pharmacologist’ bit might be less so. Essentially I study the interaction of drugs with their target proteins, how they function and what impact they subsequently have. Before I stray too far here (I really could go on for hours), it involves a lot of data analysis. I very much enjoy running, so imagine my delight when I realised that there were data to be analysed…

This short blog was inspired by a lie. Not a full-blown lie, but more me being ‘economical with the actualité’, as the late Alan Clark would have put it. Anyway, in my blog for Tarawera, I claimed that I was very happy to finish the ultra in 9.36. In truth, I had hoped to go faster and was a little frustrated that it was my conditioning, rather than  lungs or endurance that gave out on me.

It led me to think about how I had done compared to others. So I downloaded the results for all of the 60 km finishers to see what was the range of times. As you can see, whilst there were some super quick runners (and some super slow), most people finished between 8 and 10 hours:

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Frequency of runners’  finish times for Tarawera 60km

So, perhaps my time was more ‘average’ than I thought. How did it compare with other, similar races like Two Bays or Duncan’s where I had also run (albeit the shorter distances, but there were ultra distances). This was where the fun really started – downloading the results from the respective websites and plotting the % of finishers versus time:

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% of race finishers versus time for Tarawera 60, Two Bays 56 and Duncan’s 50 km races

It should be said that there were a lot fewer runners for Duncan’s, so the dataset is very small. Furthermore at Two Bays there is a cut-off, prevent the very slowest runners from recording a time, although the numbers affected are again quite small.

Even so, the results were really quite surprising. The median finish time (i.e. the time for the runner in the middle of the pack) was 9.07 for Tarawera and only 6.27 for Two Bays and 6.12 for Duncan’s. This comparison could be a bit misleading – after all, the distances are all different and this makes the comparison a little unfair. However, the running community has long been ahead of the game on this. For all its faults, we have long had a formula to predict race times for a given distance courtesy of an American researcher, Peter Riegel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Riegel). This is the formula that we all use when trying to extrapolate our 5km time to imagine what we potentially could do for the marathon, should we be willing to put in the time and effort.

So, although the formula has been much debated and adapted, it’s a simple way to work out what would have been everyone’s time had Two Bays or Duncan’s actually been run over 60km, rather than 56 or 50km. Using these predicted data, we get the following:

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% of race finishers versus time for Tarawera 60, Two Bays ’60’ and Duncan’s ’60’ km races

So, it seems that overall the field was still much slower for Tarawera than either Two Bays or Duncan’s ’60’ km races – their median finish times were 6.56 and 7.31, respectively. What to make of this? Well, perhaps the Tarawera course was much harder than I gave it credit for; it was certainly more technical than I had imagined and helps put my time into context. It could also be that the field was stronger for Duncan’s and Two Bays. This is also pretty feasible – after all, the former was only in its second year and perhaps attracted more ‘hardcore’ ultra runners. Two Bays, whilst super friendly and welcoming, has a very clear cut-off and qualifying time – which may have skewed the field towards stronger runners.

The take home message? All ultras are hard and take a long time to run! Perhaps I didn’t need to analyse data to work that out…

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Tarawera Ultramarathon – Aches and Aid Stations

Tarawera Ultramarathon. Ever since I had come across this event last year, ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ and finally entered on the basis that I would regret not doing it, it has been the major focus of my running. Well, I say that, but the organisation of my running is somewhat reflected in my updates of my blog – disorganised at best. Post Melbourne marathon, my training has been haphazard and driven largely by what can be fitted around crazy work and travel. “I’ve got plenty of time” soon became “is it Christmas already? Sh*t, there’s only 6 weeks to go”. There was no structured plan as there had been (mostly) for the marathon – it was more a case of try to get some longer runs in as I knew that long distance endurance is my weakest discipline. In the run up to Christmas I had managed several 25-30km runs and I hoped to get up to 35-40km over the Christmas break. Sadly, a virus put pay to these aspirations – by the time I was properly recovered there was only 4 weeks to go…. not the time to try to squeeze in a cheeky marathon.

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Race HQ in Rotorua

So, I would do the 60km having only run some 30km training runs – other runners do this, right? Let’s ignore the fact that they are seasoned ultra runners, I have never run an ultra and my longest run has been a flat road marathon. However, unlike a road marathon I had no specific goals, other than to ensure that I enjoyed and completed the event. The words of Nick Cimdins, passed on from Kevin Tory rang in my ears – “Ask yourself, am I absolutely loving this? If not, then slow down”.

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The night before – a walk to Lake Rotorua

Time was very much a secondary consideration (as luck would later have it). So, despite some pre-race fretting (“Which shoes?” “Would my recently tweaked ankle hold up?”), the lead up wasn’t too bad considering the event I was undertaking.

Lorraine and I had decided to make a major holiday around this run and my sister’s wedding celebration near Auckland. Our journey was smooth and on race day eve we found ourselves settled in the B&B less than 1km from the start line. No pre-race worries about getting to the start on time for me. Before I even knew it, my alarm was going off at 4.50am and I was getting my kit together. Our accommodation was only 10 mins walk from the Redwoods Visitor centre and Lorraine very kindly came down to dark and chilly start area with me to wish me luck and see me off; I was very grateful, not least as it kept last-minute nerves at bay. The start area was a sight to behold – pitch dark under the redwood trees, but illuminated by a thousand head torches bobbing around with nervous tension.

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Race briefing – no ibuprofen!

Thankfully the tension was short-lived as the minutes ticked over to 6am and we were off. Well, sort of. The huge popularity of the race meant that a thousand runners were trying to negotiate tracks that really aren’t designed for that number. Had it been a shorter race I would have been kicking myself for getting stuck and not starting further forward, but on this occasion I was quite happy to stick towards the back of the pack and take stock, using the maxim that if it feels too slow then it’s probably about right. The day started to dawn and the head torches were unceremoniously dumped at 4km, and the run settled into more of a flow.

There was the odd conversation (I heard much talk of Ironman races and other enormous feats), but it was mainly about settling into a rhythm. I fell into conversation with a fellow runner, Rachelle – one of those conversations you get into once you finally find your right pace. We hit a good rhythm, drank and ate at the first aid station and then made our way along some of the beautiful single tracks around the lakes in the area. Despite a plethora of tree roots (the trail runners nemesis), the good news was that my ankle, the source of so much worry in the week leading up to the event, was holding up. My amateur rock taping following expert instruction on YouTube might not get me a job as a physio with Ross and Caleb at FSM, but it was holding out well enough.

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Around 15km in… first lake of the day

Slowly we made it to the 20 km mark; now the sun was up and the temperature was rising. Nothing too uncomfortable, but it was only going to get warmer. It was going to be a beautiful day. It was around this point that I found out just how wonderful are the volunteers at the aid stations in Tarawera – a young girl grabbed my soft bottle off me at the aid station as I made my way to the water and electrolyte and filled it up while I had some lollies and crisps. Every second counts, eh? This was the last aid station for around 17km, and we set off into the woodland. Despite some soreness in my hip, I felt pretty good – I wasn’t going fast, but I had plenty in the tank and that’s what I wanted. With my relative lack of endurance training, I needed to delay the inevitable point where really started to struggle for as long as possible.

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Sweet single track

I actually pulled away from the group I was running with, but the pace still felt right and I was going OK. I really wasn’t aiming for a time, but at 25km I was on track for an 8h finish if I ran an even split. I knew that this was unlikely, but felt happy that I wasn’t doing as badly as I might have feared. Positive vibes, this may hurt later, but you are doing OK. Even at 30km all was well, though my hip was starting to feel more than just sore and the discomfort was spreading to my knee. I stopped stretched, kneaded by hips and glutes, but I couldn’t really shake it. I slowed down and in order to avoid worsening it I subconsciously started to drive more with my left leg. “OK, you’re slowing down, but you will finish this in 8.30ish. All good.”. By the time I had reached Lake Okataina at around 38km, my left knee and hip were also hurting. I sat down (was there a better feeling?) and drank and ate. After a minute or two I pulled myself up and pushed on… after all, there was only 22km to go, right? A half-marathon. I do that all the time in training – no sweat. However, by now the pain in my knees was getting bad. Anything downhill was starting to really hurt. Even running/jogging started to become very uncomfortable, so I settled into a quick power walk. This didn’t hurt nearly as much and I started to re-do those mental calculations. “You can still get this done in just over 9 hours – this bit was always going to be tough. Stay strong.” I texted Lorraine with an update and pushed on.

What I didn’t really appreciate was how much more technical is the second half of the course… the hills were no problem (a legacy of training on the likes of Dodd’s, Glasgow, Channel 10 and Ridge Tracks), the lungs were no problem, but the technical undulating track was starting to really hurt my knees. Despite only power walking (though trying to get as close to 9 min / km pace as possible), relatively few people overtook me. Even then I managed to make up some ground on others… but even when people passed there was always a kind word of encouragement. I even met someone who recognised the DTR top and asked if I knew Cheryl… is there a runner that she doesn’t know?

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Beautiful lake views in the final 20km

Even just a short conversation stays with you for a few hundred metres… and that’s another few hundred metres that you are closer to your destination. By now, the field had really emptied out and the kms were being ticked off very slowly. I tried to resist the temptation to check Strava on my phone (my Garmin had decided only to be waterproof once it had rain on the inside a week before), but succumbed occasionally only to despair at my slow progress. I was going through such a beautiful section, along the shore of the lake, but was struggling to enjoy it as much as I would have liked. “Why didn’t you sign up for a 50km for your first ultra? Then you’d be nearly done by now. You’ve still got ages to go. Your knees really hurt. This is going to take ages…”

The thought did cross my mind… what if my legs really get bad? Will it make me stop? Thankfully the pain was bad, but not unbearable. I just needed to keep power walking and I would get there. It would hurt, yes. But I could do it. I just needed to push through this hard bit and tick the kms down… 48, 50, 52, 54…. only around an hour to go at this pace, you can do that. I make it into the final aid station and am so elated at hitting the final mark, getting a drink and some food that I completely forget to ask them for paracetamol for the pain. “Damn, I’ll just have to suck it up.” (Belle, you can probably guess what the real words I used were…).

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Nearly there…

My estimated finish time has gone completely out of the window, it was going to be 9.30 or thereabouts, but now it’s just about finishing. Like all good courses, there are killer bits at the end. This race didn’t have a monster hill – no, my nemesis today would be the rocks and steps to climb down. The anticipation was almost as bad as the pain as I winced tackling technical bits that would be chicken feed on normal training runs. I run past someone who tells me that there’s about 500m to go… and then a friend corrected them, saying it was over 1km! Not to worry, it doesn’t really matter now… nearly there! There’s a beautiful stretch of single track by the river and suddenly a photographer who forced me into a run (first rule of trail running!). I hear a loudspeaker announcing finishers and suddenly around the corner I’m there!

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Job done!

It’s a great feeling, but the area is a little strange as it’s a finish only for the 60km… the 85 and 100 km runners have a way to go yet. I pull out my phone and finally stop my Strava; if there’s ever a race I want to #stravaproveit then it’s this one. Good job that I didn’t go any slower, I had 2% battery remaining! My time is 9h36, but I’m really not bothered about that… it’s the same as the first time I did the marathon, the feeling of achievement is immense.

Nonetheless, I sit down, have a banana and just take stock. Well, I’m bloody tired for a start, but ever the practical I head off to find my drop bag. By the drop bag area there’s a small lake with runners cooling their aching bodies. If there’s ever a time I could have done with an ice bath, it was after my first ultra, so I lose the shoes and back pack and head in. The water is cold, but soothes the legs… After relaxing in the sun I’m out and changed. The only challenge about being a 60km finisher at Tarawera is the need to find a lift to the ‘real’ finish line in Kawerau; thankfully there is a kind of system and after a few minutes I grab a lift with the cameraman who has been working on the TV show for the race (see it here – it’s awesome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAdidMT1owc) and with two American guys who have run the 60km.

I try to call Lorraine and realise that my phone has died; so my last contact has been me telling her that I was struggling and in pain and would be running for over 9 hours… I hope that she’s not too worried! We arrived at the main finish line and as much as I wanted to enjoy the atmosphere and celebrate the other runners, I was suddenly very tired and very sore. I grab a drink and make for one of the buses back to Rotorua, at least 45 min away. I started to stiffen up badly and feel dehydrated; I persuaded the driver to drop me at the entrance to Redwoods Forest, just 50 m from my B&B – nonetheless the short distance is a very painful hobble. Still, I get to see my lovely wife who has supported me through wanting to do this crazy stuff… and that made the day complete. Job done.

Melbourne Marathon: Part The First

Nearly two weeks have passed since, along with nearly 7000 others, I ran the Melbourne Marathon. This was my second crack at the race; whilst last year had been about winning over the trepidation I felt about running 42.2 km, this year was about seeing how well my training had paid off. I had religiously followed a sub-3.45 plan for a number of weeks, till it rather fell away through a combination of races that didn’t fit the schedule (e.g. Surf Coast), niggling injuries and DOMS. Nonetheless, the fear that I felt last year when I was stood on the start line was largely absent. I knew I could do this… the question was how quickly. However, I didn’t want to kill myself chasing an extra few seconds here and there… after all, this is a leisure pursuit. I work hard during the week and this was supposed to be fun.

I was lucky that this year I was running with fellow DTR runners Chris Pip, Narelle and Belle. We had agreed a couple of weeks before the marathon that we would all meet and run together – nerves as the day drew closer were dissipated by several hilarious Facebook chats (Mwangangi?), particularly on the Friday evening. Nerves re-surfaced as I panicked about what to eat (or not) on the morning… this always plays on my mind as I’m not the sort of person who can just eat and run… as it turned out, a slice of toast and nutella and a pint of Gatorade was just fine.

My hugely supportive wife dropped me down to the MCG and we all met up at 6am as the sun was starting to make its presence known. Despite having an hour to spare, bag drop, toilet stops and bumping into other runners meant that time sped by and before we knew it, we were headed to the start line. It was already packed and there was no prospect of getting to the right pace group… we’d just have to do that en route. Thankfully, a few lost seconds here and there make less difference in a marathon compared to a shorter distance.

A hurried conference agreed that Narelle and Pip would run together and Belle and I would do likewise. The targets were nominally 3.30 and 3.45 respectively… though much would depend on feel and the weather. All week we had watched as the temperature prediction rose from the perfect 19’C high to 29’C! It was going to get warm in the final hour.

The temperature was perfect as we set off, but we Belle and I exchanged glances and astonished comments as we passed runners who appeared kitted out for a sub-zero day (long shirt, short shirt, plastic bag, shorts and skins – perhaps overkill my friend…). We hit a nice rhythm, despite getting boxed in around the 4h pacers in Albert Park. We were running well, trying to stick to 5.30-ish pace and see what happened. We bumped into Vanessa (one of my running inspirations) who was treating this as yet another training run for her miler in November and had run 25km in the hills the day before. I never fail to be impressed.

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Early days on St Kilda Road

We Beaconsfield Parade as Belle confessed her hatred for this part of the course… luckily we had started running alongside ‘The Ultra King and Queen’ in Tegyn Angel and Kellie Emmerson as they paced Matt Bell. The kms ticked by and there was fun and laughter. We all agreed how totally awesome trail runners are (of course)… and we swopped Surf Coast stories. We passed through the half way mark (bizarrely labelled 20 km – c’mon Melbourne Marathon, nearly $1M in entry fees and you can’t even be bothered to label the distance markers properly?) and headed down to Elwood and, despite stiffening hips, I was feeling good.

Belle was starting to go quiet (I know… you know something is wrong, eh?) and we slowed a little as we got to 24 km. “You can go on…”, she said, but I wasn’t going to ditch my running mate so easily. I didn’t know whether Belle would respond to supportive comments, so I made a few remarks (“heading back to Fitzroy St”…. “get there and there’s only 10-12 km to go”), but over the next couple of kms, Belle started to slow… I knew that it was amazing feat for her even to be toeing the line with 100 km at Surf Coast in her legs. After holding back at a drink station, we tried to run together, but at this stage I was feeling really good and Belle was struggling. Guilt washed over me in waves as I maintained my form and kept to the 5.20 pace I had under control…. and just hoped that she could stick with me. In those few km I felt really great… calculations in my head told me that if I kept up 5.20 pace I would creep under 3.50. That had always been my realistic aim, 3.45 would have required a series of very favourable circumstances.

However, reality kicked in as I headed back up Fitzroy Street; hips stiffened, legs started to hurt more, it became much harder very quickly. I had my last gel and pushed on, immediately realising that I wouldn’t be able to maintain a 5.20 pace, but negotiated with myself that a few kilometres at 5.30-5.40 would not hurt the time too much. We passed the 32km mark – there was a guy sat on the grass verge in a lounger with a beer. I mustered enough strength to point and say “that’s how to do it” (he seemed to agree), before continuing the slow process of ticking off km by km. There was plenty of support out there – last year I had made a conscious effort to thank people, high five kids and give supporters a thumbs up. I still managed a few this year, but this was more of a ‘head down and focus’ run – and only became more so as the temperature increased a few more notches.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t hot, but we’d been running for over three hours, so it felt pretty warm. Drinks stations were a bit like war zones… bodies just everywhere. I saw a few casualties running up St Kilda Road… most looked alright, a couple didn’t. It just goes to show what a strain on the body the marathon can be. I hope that everyone pulled up OK.

Around the 34-36 km I was struggling. To keep the pace was a really big effort and I was starting to lose a little heart when I was swept up by Kellie’s crew as they had caught me up. One shout of “come on Chris” was enough to pick me up and, miraculously, from nowhere, I pulled out a sub 5 min km. To this day, I have no idea where it came from, but it was enough to kick start my final few kms. Once I reached the 39 km mark, I knew I was one lap of Princes Park away from finishing. Not that there was a lack of belief before, but when you know that you have a race in your control, the self-belief just brings such strength to your legs and body. I maintained my pace and even managed a push up the hill.

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Big crowds at the finish line outside the MCG

500 m to go: this still hurts, but I’m so close. Crowds enveloped the run in… there were cheers and shouting. I know that I’m in the minority, but this to me is every bit as good as running into the MCG… the crowds look about ten deep; I look at my watch and there’s a half a moment where I think that I can just squeeze under 3.55… but of course, my legs were shot. The final stretch and my time is 3.55.17. The overall goal was to run a sub 4h marathon – job done. I didn’t quite get the time I was after, but I know that I couldn’t really have run much, if at all, faster. I’m a very happy man. I start to sway and stagger – from running I can now barely walk. The number of people is amazing… but all I want is my medal and a drink… and I don’t care in which order I get them.

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The long sought after sub-4h marathon

Thankfully, despite the vast mass of people, within a minute I run into Pip and then the other DTR runners. The camaraderie is just amazing. Pip has run 3.33, Narelle has smashed 30 min off her PB and run 3.31. Chez and David both ran sub-90min half marathons and Josie paced her bus to the 1.45 mark. The rush that you get from your own and others’ achievement is just brilliant. Not long after, Belle comes in… she ran just over 4h and really didn’t enjoy her day. But I hope that she will realise that even to run a marathon is am immense achievement, one that few people will achieve. To do it just 4 weeks after running 100 km is doubly, nay, triply impressive. Good on you Belle.

 

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All very happy, but I cannot drink a medal…

The rest of the day is one to savour – seeing friends and swopping stories, before heading back to Chez’s apartment for a shower and some food. Alll we talk about it is running, but the day is one of huge and shared emotions, so it’s little wonder. Chez and I headed off to Digger’s after party in Richmond. Beer is good at any time, but two cold pints taste even better after a marathon! The remainder of the day was spent trying to manage the adrenaline and endorphins flowing through the body. I’m already thinking about how great a day it was and how much I want to repeat the feeling. Just need to decide where and when…

P.S. Post-writing note… ‘where and when’ has now been sorted – 50 km at Duncan’s Run Hundred in December. Let’s go…

Surf’s Up!

3.45 am. Awake… wanting more sleep but knowing deep down that it’s not going to happen. My mind has already turned to the 5 am alarm, what I need to do to get ready and getting down to the start line for the race kick off at 6 am. I’m staying in Anglesea with my wife and a group of Dandenongs Trail Runners, all of whom are running or crewing over the weekend. Eventually the clock ticks over to 5 and I’m up, getting my gear on… my wonderful wife Lorraine gets up to drive myself, Peter and Les down to the start. My first thought is that it’s colder than I reckoned for; I’m glad of the long sleeved base layer under my DTR shirt. I’m more nervous than normal, because I’m running in a team of four, all of whom I know are good runners. Obviously we’re all there to enjoy the weekend, the trails, the scenery and the friendship… but I don’t want to let them down. I want to run well… and I can hear the words from the previous night’s briefing in my mind… ‘fast and flat’ – they were the description of the first leg of the 100 km course. Also, it’s only 21 km, the shortest and easiest option, eh?

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Race HQ

Despite the disappointment of not being able to find Lorraine again at the start of the race (I hastily rushed off leaving her to park my car in fear of missing the start), the excitement was palpable. The sun was about to come up, the beach looked stunning… and here were a bunch of runners, lights bobbing on torched heads about to set off for 21, 50 or even 100 km. The hooter… and off we go. ‘Fast and flat’ goes round in my mind again. I try to set a pace that’s appropriate; not too hard, but I should be quicker than many of those doing the 50 and 100… shouldn’t I? After around 3km I catch up with Peter (who is running the 100 km and seems determined to do it in under 10 hours at the pace he’s going!) and run back through the start chute. There are cheers and we hear our names and then as quickly as it came upon us, we’re back onto open beach and the rising sun. The next 5-6 km are simply stunning. Some of the best coastal running that you could hope to do. The Surf Coast Trail Runners are lucky to have this place as their back yard – thanks for sharing it with us! As dawn breaks, the views are just spectacular and I can’t help but slow to take a photo or two.

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Anglesea beach at dawn… who are these crazy runners?

As we’re about to go around the headland, there’s a giant *sploosh* as one of the runners ahead of me misjudges the depth of the water by a rocky outcrop… it’s about knee-deep rather than ankle-deep and he took a good soaking. I caught up with him and we chatted for a while, enjoying the views but starting to feel that running hard on a beach is tougher than it sounds. At around 10 km the sand became very soft and we had to climb steps to get to the check point. My legs were already starting to burn and I felt a bit flat, knowing that I was struggling (in my mind) to maintain a good pace. Still, there was enough energy to raise a smile (though nothing else) as I passed the sign for the nudist beach and headed back down onto the sand. The terrain in the second half of the leg was tough… it may have been flat, but there were huge rocky outcrops to clamber over, slimy rock to run on and soft, soft sand that sapped energy from the legs. I tried hanging on to runners, but gradually those who were obviously fitter than me slipped away. Two or three times I stopped to walk for 30 seconds or so; it’s a credit to trail runners that everyone who passed checked I was OK. Finally, I thought I could see the end in sight, so I pushed on hard… I looked up and saw people running along the cliff, high above my head. Surely I don’t have to carry on up there? Thankfully no, they were Leg 2 runners heading off with fresh legs! I turned to climb the steep boat ramp, saw Les and Lorraine and into the check point. I high-fived Lauren who was waiting for me  – she set off for her leg. Les quickly gave me his fleece – warm as it had been when I was running, it was still before 8 am and for everyone else it was pretty chilly.

The night before we had agreed that the leg would probably take 10-15 minutes longer than a flat road half marathon, so my time of 1.58 wasn’t too far out. It might have been a couple of minutes better, but I was very tired… I must have pushed pretty hard. I downed some water and grabbed an oat slice from the well-laden aid station. It was one of the best things that I had ever eaten! Amusingly, I managed to restart Strava when in the car heading back to Anglesea, leaving my best km split at 0.59 until I reluctantly edited it later in the week!

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Probably my only airtime; just after the 10 km aid station

So, that was my race, but in reality that was just the start of the day. I headed back to the house to get showered, had breakfast with Lorraine and then went to the race HQ to cheer Lauren and Peter as they did their races. As much as I had enjoyed running my leg, I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t do a bit better and paradoxically slightly envious of those who were taking on the bigger challenges. But even being around the race HQ and supporting everyone made for a great day. We cheered Lauren in – she had smashed her part of the course, taking 2.5 hours to do her 28 km leg, a fabulous time given that it was now getting much warmer. We saw Peter in and although he was struggling a bit, the realisation that it was still before 11am gave him terrific heart and he set off again with a big lift. Narelle was pacing up and down, waiting for her team mate Ben to get to the check point… he had been struggling.

Having started with everyone else at 6 am, I didn’t really appreciate how difficult it can be not knowing when you are going to start; having to wait around, full of nervous energy. Suddenly there was a shriek – Ben was only metres away! A flurry of hydration pack and fleece and Narelle was off… headed to the ‘crawl under bridge’ that, with some justification as it would turn out, Cheryl was so worried about.

The next handover was in the forest past Aireys Inlet – even the drive there took a while, so fair play to Cheryl who was currently running it. It was rather unfortunate for Les that he should be in the car with me when we saw one of the runners wearing a pink tutu (this has become an ongoing joke amongst Two Bays / DTR runners for several months…). Cue much discussion about how Les absolutely *should* wear a tutu for Two Bays in 2015. We waited at the checkpoint in the forest and saw both Amy Lamprecht and Kellie Emmerson come through… just amazing efforts considering the distance that they had come and still had to go. Another guy came through and looked like he was struggling… we all winced a little as he almost hobbled out of the checkpoint knowing that the last 23 kmwould seem like an eternity.

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Andre waits… and Cheryl arrives!

Not long after, Cheryl came through and immediately started apologising as she had managed to get lost after the bridge and ran an extra 2 km! Later we would award ourselves the title of undisputed winners of the inaugural Surf Coast 102K! With no messing around, our last runner, Andre was off. We headed back to Anglsea and agreed to reconvene at the finish line for the conclusion of Pete’s Disciples final leg, leaving Andy and Lauren behind to check on Peter when he came through. After coffee, a shower for Chez, we were back to the finish line, expecting Andre at any moment… I started to walk back to the car to get Andre’s fleece when down on the beach, a figure clad in blue and green appeared – Andre powering home! With perfect timing I managed to get a couple of shots as I cheered him up the beach and over the line. Unfortunately Lauren and Andy weren’t there… word was that Peter was struggling badly (but had already broken his promise to his wife to drop out at 70 km!).

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Andre strides up the beach to the finish!

So that was Pete’s Disciples race… 9h 15 min for 100 (well, 102) km, ultimately ending up 8th out of over 50 mixed teams racing. We were all very happy… not just with individual performances, but that we had done it as a team. The strength of togetherness was quite humbling – so to Lauren, Cheryl and Andre, thank you for making it such a great day! To Les, Andy and especially Lorraine, thank you so much for your support; it was a long day. I know that under different circumstances Les and Andy would have been running too, so kudos to them for helping us through when they would have rather been racing themselves. We saw Kellie come in and smash the women’s record… only 14 min longer than it took our whole team of four to do the race – unbelievable! At least she had the grace to look a bit tired at the end… we regrouped back at the house and then came back to meet Peter. We had estimated he would be in around 6pm… but Pete’s Disciples underestimated the man, the legend. As we were taking self-congratulatory photos of ourselves by the finish, waving a baton around, a very tired, hobbling man with a DTR singlet a certificate and and a litre stein wandered over…! Peter had finished 20 min earlier – sheer guts and determination. We were all filled with admiration and sorrow that we had missed him cross the line… but so pleased for him. He deserved better than the cold shower he got back at the house!

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Where the bloody hell is my support crew?!

A good dinner and several beers and wine were had… at which point Les mentioned that he wanted to see Belle finish. She was on track for around 14h… so he and I set off back to the finish line in the dark and met Narelle, who was also waiting. Seeing people finishing at this time was particularly inspiring: watching in amazement as the elite athletes come home in double quick time is one thing, but seeing people who aren’t much different to yourself do something so amazing is another thing entirely. I found out that my friend Vanessa had already finished in 12.44; I was sad that I had missed her, but ecstatic that she had run so well. It’s humbling and makes you realise what can be achieved. Suddenly there was shouting and there was Belle with her fellow Oscars 100 runner Andy. As Belle said in her own post, a few years back she never would have dreamt of running 100 km and yet, there, on that sunny day in September, she did exactly that. Time to believe… surf’s up!

Olinda: These Quads Were Made for Smashing

Olinda… the land of howling wind, fog, rain, hail and water cascading down the clay on KC track into already sodden trail shoes. Three times I have now run through the Arboretum and each occasion has been a tough experience. Last week, in the absence of our intrepid DTR leader, Peter Mitchell, we ventured out to do a recce of the Salomon Trail Series Olinda 21 km course. Although tough going, it was a very social run and the absence of Peter (running up Mt Wellington in Tassie) meant fairly frequent stops to check the route, allowing time to stop and catch your breath. With apologies to Francis of Assisi, where there was rain, Dandenongs Trail Runners brought laughter… where there was hail, we brought amusing selfies and photos of our legs covered in mud! We all enjoyed the run, though we did make a mistake on the route in the final 5km that led to something of an unpleasant surprise a week later.

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Race HQ – how can it be so cold, foggy and windy at the same time?! Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

So to race day! Historically I have been a little nervous about races, no matter the distance or size. Recently I’ve had two great race experiences at Plenty Gorge and Run Melbourne that have given me a lot of confidence in my running ability and indicated that my training has been paying off. However, it led me to being a little more relaxed about this race – which together with a few other circumstances made for a tough day in my Dandenongs office. I was excited about race day as there were going to be so many friends and great people that I have met through running in Melbourne racing – plus many more that I recognise through the groups on Facebook that cost me too many hours across the week. There were the DTR group – folk like Peter, Cheryl, Narelle, Lachie, Kirra, Les, Patrcia, David, Vanessa and Lauren – some of whom were proudly sporting new tops to match our west-side counterparts, the Surf Coast Trail Runners (I think of us like a friendlier version of the two gangs in The Wire).

There were others, like Chris, Ross, Kellie and Lucy (whom I only met on race day) – folk that I have only met briefly, but who have left their mark through their friendliness or kindness as great people and runners. Finally, there was Lorraine, fresh from her PB at the Parkrun the day before, still sporting bruised toes from Plenty Gorge, all set to tackle the short course. In short, it should have been a great day… that it fell a little flat reflects that life as a runner are like the trails themselves – up and down.

Firstly, it was cold. Not just a bit cold, but howling wind cold. How can you have strong winds and fog at the same time?! I didn’t think it was possible until stood at race HQ on Sunday morning. We met up with our fellow DTR runners (including Peter who looked like he was dressed for an Arctic expedition) and a I picked up my new DTR running tech tee… great to have it, but my fingers fumbled in the cold trying to get my race number attached. As I’d signed up for the medium course and Lorraine the short course, we had time to kill and as the minutes passed in the cold I could feel the motivation waning a little. An early warning sign of negative thoughts that weren’t welcome. I saw Lorraine off on her race and then put our bag into the bag drop – remembering to put both of our race numbers on the tag, lest I come back later to find a cold and angry wife without access to her warm clothing!

I did some short jogs across the field to get warm and then we were off. Now the second reason for feeling flat – I hadn’t been running for two minutes when I saw Les walking back up the hill… my heart sank. I managed to quickly ask him what happened and heard ‘turned my ankle mate’. I kept running, but felt really disheartened, knowing how much he was looking forward to the race and how despondent he would be about yet another disruption to his marathon preparations.

The first few km are steeply downhill; I generally don’t plan too much in advance for trail races, but I was conscious of the very tough finish and tried not to go too hard down the hills in an attempt to save some energy for the second half of the race. In hindsight this might have been a mistake – after all, speed and stability down hills is actually a strength of mine and I certainly didn’t feel any benefit for holding back later in the race – and it may have taken just as much effort to hold myself back!  Despite the beautiful trails, shafts of sunlight creeping through the canopy and sounds of the wildlife, I started to struggle up even relatively tame hills… yet more doubts crept into my mind. My breathing was all over the place – suddenly the recce of the week before didn’t seem like such a good idea, I knew that KC track and other difficult challenges lay ahead and here was I struggling mid-race, perhaps I was better simply not knowing. I heard my name shortly after the long courses and medium courses recombined and there was Peter – even he said he was struggling, but slowly and surely he pulled away from me too. Then we reached the bottom of the uphill section. Running-walking turned into walking as we hit the steepest section, which left my legs feeling weak as we finally made it to the next downhill segment.

This was now the part we had missed last week – Cheryl and Narelle (who would finish 3rd and 5th in the womens’ race) had said it was really hard, even more so than Roller Coaster. I must have had this at the back of my mind, because the trails were just fabulous here, but my motivation and drive were waning… there were sections when I knew, deep down that I should have been pushing harder, but just didn’t want to or felt that I couldn’t. I walked and ran where I could and was grateful when I oriented myself and knew that we didn’t have far to go. Even the last km seemed interminable; where the bloody hell was the finish line?? The cow-bells told me before my eyes could, up and over the stile into the field and there was the finish. A couple of hardy spectators cheered, for which I was truly thankful – even small gestures like this make such a difference. I saw the Suunto Sprint sign and tried to break into a sprint, which faded dismally after about 10 metres… and I crossed the line and straight into a DTR welcoming committee.

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Crossing the finish line with fellow DTRs waiting. Photo credit: Narelle Lagergren

My time… around 1.35. I had conservatively estimated that the race might take me 1.40, but even so, I felt a little disappointed. I knew that I should have been capable of running 6 min pace for the course… that I hadn’t was pretty much down to me. Having had 48h to reflect, I still think that it wasn’t my best race, but my quads, glutes and hamstrings feel pretty smashed up… so I know that I worked hard and perhaps it wasn’t so disappointing after all.

In fact the sheen of the day had been taken off by Les’ injury; he couldn’t even walk, let alone drive, so rather despondently he was driven home with an ice pack strapped to his ankle and our best wishes. Hopefully all will heal quickly enough. Lorraine was so cold after her run that I found her huddled in the car rather than at the finish line and so I agreed that we should probably just head home and get showers, coffee and cake. It was at this point that I manoeuvred the front of my car straight into an unseen ditch, requiring the help of about half a dozen guys to extricate it and get us back on the road. Thanks to Chris P and all of the others (whom I didn’t even know) for their help – we definitely couldn’t have escaped without you and would would still be up there being buffeted by the cold winds of Olinda!

Run Melbourne Run

So my next big challenge was the Run Melbourne half-marathon. I was supposed to do this in 2013, but a stinking cold and hacking cough stopped me from even making it to the start line (though not from picking my race number up in the pouring rain). I was a bit nervous because I had a very specific goal – namely to run a sub 1.45 half-marathon for the first time. My PB for this distance was 1.53, set way back in the UK on a summers day that had seen torrential rain and howling winds in St Albans. In 2012 I had run the Melbourne half-marathon and missed that mark by around 45 seconds. Despite all my training and other races, I had not run a road half since, mainly hitting trails or running shorter distances.

Very kindly, my good friend Les, who had already offered to pace another friend of his to the same time, suggested that I ran with them. This gave me a lot more confidence – I thrive running alongside someone, my inner demons only really materialise when I’m left on my own!

However off-setting this confidence were the super early start and size of the race; these things always make me more stressed and het-up before an event, but thankfully my lovely and long-suffering wife, Lorraine, gave up her lie-in on a Sunday morning to drive me into the CBD. I walked into Fed Square around 6.20am and almost immediately heard Les’ dulcet tones and met Chrissy for the first time. There was the usual pre-race chat, but I generally felt quite relaxed, if a little nervous that my calves weren’t going to allow me to run the race that I wanted. They had been tight for a week or two and only massage and painful foam roller time had me standing on the start line feeling tentatively confident. I was also starting to deal with my own expectations – after all, the weather was perfect, the course was pretty flat and I had a proper pacer – if I didn’t do it today, when would I?

There was an interminable wait for our wave to get going, accompanied by the traditional pre-race feeling of being desperate to go to the bathroom, but as light dawned Les, Chrissy and I were finally on the way. I love the fact that in races such as these you get to run through the CBD, past great landmarks like Flinders Street Station… it feels like such a privilege to displace the cars for just a few short hours. We started quite slowly, around 5.20 pace. Had I been on my own, I might have already started to panic… I knew that we needed to run at around 4.55 pace to beat our mark. Where would I get those 25 seconds back? Should I speed up?

Fortunately, Les is a wise man. He knew that it was best for us to get warmed up and it wasn’t long before we hit a nice rhythm, making the 8km mark averaging just over 5 min pace. Although rather winding and twisty, the course was good fun, with musical support, cheering and bubbles as we passed over the bridge. I had enough oxygen in my lungs for a burst of ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ in deference to Les’ support of the Boleyn Ground players.

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Les, Chrissy and I early in the race. Photo credit: Les Corson.

Despite my early doubts, I felt strong and continued to drive forward; Les was alongside me, with Chrissy just a few yards back, but always sporting a great smile when we checked that we were still together. Not long after half-way, we saw another balloon ahead of us… surely we hadn’t caught up with the 1.40 pacer? One of the 1.45 pacers was behind us… but this guy was running with an orange balloon. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we went past… it was the 1.50 pacer! Here we were, still around 8km out, but on track for a 1.43 finish… no wonder his ‘team’ looked pretty puffed!

Around the 14-15 km mark I kept running hard and Les just backed off to stick with Chrissy – I felt good, telling myself that if I struggled, I would just drop back and run the two of them – but whilst I was feeling good I should keep going. At the 16km mark, I checked my watch – 1.18! I had never even run a 10 mile race in that time (10 miles = 16 km for those who do not hail from the mother country), yet here I was in a half-marathon! Although I knew that I was running well, this realisation gave me a huge boost. I knew that, barring a disaster, I would almost certainly make my goal time. The self-belief that this feeling instilled was amazing.

Thanks to those long hours in the hills of the Dandenongs, my running form was good and I was now hitting around 4.40-4.45 pace. Down the long Alexandra Avenue section, I saw Les and Chrissy and gave them a wave. They were still on track – that gave me a lift too. However, around the 17km mark my calves decided to let me know that they were getting tight… nothing too bad, but just a signal that I needed to be careful. My pace dropped back a little, but I told myself to stay consistent and in rhythm. I was counting the km markers…. 17….18….19! At this point I knew that I had my time in the bank, the question was how good could I make it. I tried to push on, but my body was starting to tire. 20… then just 1km to go. I pushed hard and entered the funnel of supporters – this was great! A hard run for the line and a glance at my watch told me that I had run the race in 1.42.15, smashing my PB by over 10 min and way beyond my expectations for the day.

I was absolutely elated, but that wasn’t actually to prove to be the best part of the day – there were two more great moments to come. Firstly, Les and Chrissy came sprinting down the finish chute to finish in around 1.44.30 – brilliant, objective achieved! Chrissy had really stepped up the pace in the last few kms to make sure she hit her goal – she was understandably chuffed.

However, the best moment didn’t involve Les, Chrissy or myself – we were merely spectators. After I had crossed the line, I had immediately seen our friend Josie. Now Josie is quick – it later turned out she had just knocked out the race in 1.32 and didn’t even have the grace to look like she had worked up a sweat! However, she was waiting at the finish line for her daughter, Chelsea. The minutes ticked by and Josie started to look a bit worried – after all, it was Chelsea’s first half-marathon race and she was running it on her own. We were starting to get cold and thinking about heading back to Fed Square, when suddenly there was a shout of delight. Josie had seen Chelsea coming up the funnel and over the line. Words can’t really do justice to the moment – Josie looked so emotional and the pride was just writ large over her face. Chelsea looked simultaneously utterly exhausted and equally proud to finished her first major race. Mother and daughter hugged, the emotion was all very raw, but as we all know, that’s how powerful running can be – and that’s why we love it.

Gorge of Plenty

Plenty Gorge in the Salomon Trail Series has fond memories for me. Before we even left the UK to start our Australian adventure in 2012, I had searched for trail running events around Melbourne. I’d enjoyed cross-country running with the Ware Joggers, my home club, and I was keen to continue. I had signed up for the race before even arriving in Australia; I then remember a series of increasingly worrying e-mails regarding the depth of the river crossing on the course in the days leading up to the event. Heavy rain eventually led to the course being re-designed on the day… I ran and enjoyed the race, satisfying my need for muddy trails in my new home town.

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Plenty Gorge Race HQ, 2012

At last year’s race, I had been doing some training (and would eventually go on to do the Melbourne Marathon). However, most of my running had been around Princes Park and I didn’t have a dedicated group of people that I would run with. I ran the 12 km course in 71 minutes… and remember the end of the race, where there is what Peter Mitchell (DTR guru) would probably describe as a ‘pinch’, being a tough last 500 metres.

This year would turn out a little bit different… though I didn’t really realise it. We turned up around 8.45… I had thought that those running the long course were heading off at 8.50 and I would have the chance to wish fellow DTR runners Cheryl and Narelle well before they set off. Well, had I read the e-mails properly I would know that they started at 8.40 and that was why an empty starting area stared back at me!  Anyway, we hung around and I bumped into David and Lachie (fellow DTR runners who were running the medium and short courses, respectively) before wishing Lorraine all the best as she tackled the short course.

On the start line David and I wished each other well, laughed at the announcer as he tried to intimidate the runners with claims of ‘300 m of ascent’ (what’s that?!) and then set off. I had no specific expectations of the run… I thought that I would probably be faster than in 2013, but I didn’t know by how much – or if at all. The first few km are actually pretty flat, barring the odd incline – I heard someone’s Strava app announce the 2 km mark and we’d only been running for just over 10 min. Not quick by road standards, but a decent lick on these trails. Anyway, I could see David in the distance and knew that I must be doing OK (he’s quick). I passed a few people on the steep downhill section (hence my DTR moniker, “Just Add Gravity”), but then the race opened out into an uphill section.

I’ve run a LOT of hills with DTR recently, but even so I had to resort to a brisk walk. Did this mean that I wasn’t as strong as I thought? A few guys that I had breezed past downhill overtook me… a few doubts crept into my mind. However, salvation came in the form of the long technical section the other side of the river. I was in the middle of a group of about six, all keeping similar pace – not much option to overtake, but no real way to drop back either. This went on for a few kms and I started to feel stronger and more positive.

Then the final river crossing, a few technical sections and the final strait. I was tired yes – but I pushed up the steep section and onto the road. Last year I had to walk here, but I had more in the tank this time. It probably helped that I was running alongside someone with whom I had played cat and mouse for the last few kms. We exchanged a few words and both tried to run, although our legs burned. I gritted my teeth and pushed on, managing a final sprint through to the finish line. Through the deep breaths, I checked my time – 63.49, over seven minutes faster than last year.

Immediately I saw David and Narelle (who had come in as 4th female); they told me that Cheryl had come in first female. Lachie had come in 5th in the short course, just pipped for 4th. What a brilliant day for DTR! I started to think about my time and how pleased I was – I had looked at last year’s results when trying to assess what I might be able to do. I remember seeing that Lachie had done 63 odd minutes for the medium course – well, there was no way I was going to get near that, perhaps 65-67 minutes might be closer to the mark.

It must have been a quick race – I finished 44th, but my time would have had me finish in 16th place the previous year. Probably a good job… I would almost certainly have freaked out at the thought of finishing so far up the field! Despite not running nearly as much as me, Lorraine took nearly 10 minutes off her time from the previous year… though spent the rest of the day hobbling on sore toes from the downhill sections!

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Happy DTR finishers at Plenty Gorge! Photo: Narelle Lagergren

Once back home, Facebook was quick to let me know that my friend Les had put in a brilliant effort in the You Yangs 30km, Kirra had won the 50 km event and Vanessa was powering her way through the 80 km course. Kudos to them all…

My race wasn’t even 12 km, it wasn’t that hilly and the weather wasn’t too cold. However, it showed me the progress that I’d made – and so much of that is due to running with a great bunch of inspiring people in DTR. More on them later…. but next stop is the Run Melbourne half-marathon!