At the end of July I ran two marathons in one week. (That’s two within a period of 6 days – not taking 6 days to run them.)
Things I had no eyed deer about before training for a marathon:
- I would become an expert on wine fraud and exploding corpses
- It is as much psychology as fitness
- Your feet can increase a shoe size in your 40s
- I would learn so much about my body
- That my knees and hips could feel like they have rusted
- That I would hear a bus driver actively encourage everyone to use the toilet on the vehicle
- The great comraderie in running
- I would bump into someone I worked with 8 years ago in the UK half way through a marathon
Back in January I decided to attempt a dual goal of getting fitter and seeing a bit more of Australia. This somehow resulted in me signing up for two marathons within six days of each other – the Winery Running festival marathon in the Hunter Valley on Sunday 24th July and the Australian Outback marathon at Uluru (Ayers Rock) on Saturday 30th July. This, despite never having run more than about 10km ever – but hey, I like a challenge and I made a point of telling everyone that I was going to do it so I couldn’t back out without losing face. Plus, on the bright side, it also meant only having to train once.
I trained hard (with a few lapses) but slowly built up the distance from not thinking I could even manage 10km to doing 30km several times in training. I was on a fast learning curve of now knowing what “hitting the wall” meant, exactly what my Achilles felt like, what 4am looked like, and just how red I could go. After hours and hours and hours and hours of listening to pod casts whilst running I have become an expert in numerous topics from how to commit wine fraud, why corpses explode and how gravity works.
The day before the Winery marathon I drove up to the Hunter Valley to settle in, pick up my bib and attend the pre-race Pasta dinner. (I may also have visited a few wineries and a brewery tour for good measure.) As it turned out when I went to pick up my bib it was nowhere to be seen. I was a bit disappointed not to get the original allocated number of 101 as it turned out to be my hotel room number so I thought that might be a sign. (Spookily, it was also my position in my second marathon.) However, the lady kindly gave me an alternative number which she assured me was a faster one.
At the Pasta dinner I was lucky enough to sit at the table with the organisers and the speaker Jane Trumper and her husband. My two marathons in a week was looking less impressive against this lady who was about to run her seventh marathon in eight days and aiming for her 200th marathon in New York in November. A real inspiration, Jane only took up running 15 years ago at age 40 and in 2012, became the first woman to run across the Simpson Desert.
At the start of the first marathon I was shaking, partially with nerves, partially because it was only 4 degrees. All of the literature tells you not to do the full 42km before the race, but psychologically you are dealing with the fact you really don’t know if you can do it. You are supposed to taper down the length of your runs a few weeks before but I made the rookie error of going into panic mode and trying to do the exam equivalent of cramming, by doing a 25km run a few days before the race. Standing on the start line I was wondering how this would affect me. Plus I had managed to pick up a stinking cold. You can do all the training in the world, you can try to avoid injury but there are some things you can’t prevent and sods law meant I got a cold of the very fast running nose variety the day before the first race. Another runner kindly pointed out that I had brought my own personal running tap and should be disqualified.
The nice thing about non city runs is that there is not the jostling at the start line that occurs in big races. In fact it almost felt like everyone took a step back rather than forward when we were called to the start line. But then we were off. My only really goal was not to come last and so I panicked slightly at first as it seemed that everyone was over-taking me, but I had to learn to ignore that and keep at my own pace. This became easier as I was distracted by my surroundings and the amazing opportunity to literally run between the vines. I was just starting to relax when I hit what the literature describes as a “substantial hill” at the Audrey Wilkinson winery around the 4km point. I attempted to run up but this slowly developed into a rather unglamorous Kath and Kel style power walk, which dwindled to a walk, apart from a slight burst of energy for the benefit of the photographer at the top. If it was this hard going at the start then I certainly was not looking forward to seeing it again at around the 25km point. Indeed, I had made quite a rookie error with the number of hills on this course – which is politely described as “undulating”.
There are not many spectators along the track, so I spend a lot of time in my own head and it really does become a psychological game. They say you have good runs and bad runs, but I was having good kilometres and bad kilometres. In my head I am always looking for that next km sign, pre half way I count how many kms I have done, post half way, how many there are left to go. I could have packed it all in at the 11km mark but it is amazing where you can pull energy from. A lot of motivation comes from runners calling out to each other and from the random chats as we run along at the same speed for awhile. At the 35km mark I did think that I had started to hallucinate when I saw no one around but a big green dinosaur waving to me from the side of the road, which I found out later was one lucky girl’s boyfriend who has dressed up to motivate her running. At the finish line I know there is someone close behind me so my competitive spirit comes out and I find from somewhere a burst of energy to sprint home – pleased with myself for maintaining my position but as it turns out when I saw the results she must have passed the start line after me and actually beat me by a second. Damn!
Between the marathons I walked like I needed a hip and knee replacement for a number of days but despite not shaking the cold before the following weekend, as I got on the plane for Ayers Rock I felt ready to run.
Marathon number two was unique in many ways. It was another cold 4 degrees start as we boarded the buses to the start line, where we were greeting with a stunning view of Ayers Rock and the still glowing Field of Light installation. The buses were to perform another important role apart from getting us to the start line. At the start of any long distance race the most popular spot by far is the portaloos as everyone empties their bladder possibly for the last time in four or five hours. The race organisers had rounded up every portaloo in the Ayers Rock area – which turned out to be five. So it is the first time I have heard bus drivers actually encourage rather than discourage you to use their toilets. It is also definitely the first race I have ever done that was started with a didgeridoo not a whistle.
The terrain was very different than the previous week, on sand, we soon learned where to find the harder sand and to tread the foot steps as the person in front,
usually down the sides of the path. Like the previous week’s marathon there are very few spectators but there was the excitement of helicopter with paparazzi style photographer leaning out taking photos of the runners. Also, the US marines had come down from Darwin, some to man various points along the way, others to run the marathon. Other runners were again a key motivator as we chatted as we past each other, until the bizarre moment when one runner ran past me and we shouted hello to each other then realised we used to work together eight years ago in the UK. One marine and I did play a game of tag over the last 5km, taking it in turns to pass each other and I think that got me through to the end.
Going into this marathon I no longer had the fear of not being able to do the distance. I did, however, have a very British fear of seeing snakes and getting sun burned – it may have been four degrees at the start of the race but it was mid 20s by the end – what the British tabloids refer to as a heatwave. Thankfully the only snakes I saw were of the gummy variety as people had dropped the gummy lollies that they had picked up at drinks stations. When I did get back I had very red skin where it was not covered but thankfully that was from the red earth and after an initial panic it washed off in
the shower. I really enjoyed the race – running up a sand dune is tough, however relatively flat it is, but nothing beats the feeling of slipping and sliding down one. Post race I felt fine after one day, possibly because the ground was a lot softer. I was also excited, when a few days later I received a link to a very cool dashboard that you get to play with afterwards with videos, photos and interactive map of how I ran against other people on the whole course. It feels like my own video game – unfortunately I don’t get any quicker though. I hadn’t realised there were video cameras along the route so I’m glad I’m not one of the many boys that relieved themselves along the way.
There are two camps, those that believe marathon training makes you fitter, and those that believe it damages your body. Did I get fitter in the run up to the marathon? It depends on how you measure it. Up to this point I had been doing trampolining fitness classes four times a week for six months and had definitely been getting fitter, building
muscle and stamina and losing about eight kilos. As my marathon training required me to run longer and longer distances in training I had no time for trampolining, plus I was afraid of injuring myself. I then found I put about three kilos back on. I don’t honestly know if this was muscle or sometimes I would “carb up” for a training run and then not run the distance. (Plus admittedly sometimes my version of “carbing up” is a crisp sandwich and a beer.) However, after I ran past a number of marines in the Australian Outback marathon I decided I must be a lot fitter than I was. (I’m ignoring the fact that they hadn’t trained for the marathon and up to the day before thought they were only entering the half marathon.)
What it definitely did teach me was a better understanding or my own body and how often the injuries that were cropping up were usually because of other body imbalances that need fixing. Probably the most bizarre discovery I had was that the recurring Achilles injury that I suddenly started to get was fixed by changing up a shoe size. I listened in disbelief as a physiotherapist said that growing a shoe size at “my age in my 40s” was normal. So, I went to a sports shop at lunch time and had my feet measured for the first time in 30 years since being measured up for lace up school shoes. Sure enough she was right, I was a size bigger. Damn, I was going to have to buy several pairs of new shoes.
I also learnt more about nutrition. I hit the infamous “wall” on my first attempt at 20km at the 18km mark. My legs literally decided they were going on strike. That was the point where I was introduced to the world of gels. I’d never even heard of them but all of my reading, and a tri-athlete friend introduced me to them. Interestingly everyone gave the same advice though, drink fluids with them or you may find yourself doing a Paula Radcliffe at the side of the road.
During training I became addicted to mapping my run on my iPhone and trying to get personal bests. So much so, that whenever having to wait to cross the road I started to get really impatient with traffic that was holding me up, and I started to adopt the agitated dance of someone who looked like they need the toilet very badly. I also regularly desperately struggled to get the phone out of its holder quick enough to stop the app so my time was not ruined by not pausing it in time. Technology has certainly come a long way since my teenage days of my Mum having to stand on the front steps with a stopwatch as I ran a few times round the block. Interestingly I noticed after a few months of training that I actually no longer needed the app to tell me when each kilometre was up – I just knew.
So would I do another marathon? As one other runner I passed told me, “marathons are a bit like childbirth, after everyone I say never again, but then I forget the pain and do another.” She had done over a one hundred marathons. It’s been almost 2 weeks now, there is a marathon in Mudgee this weekend, and it seems a shame to waste the training…..