Tuesday, September 23, 2008

2008 Sydney Marathon

After all the training, the wondering and the worrying, the day had finally arrived.

I caught a train into the city, which was very quiet at 6am, and walked down to Circular Quay and then up onto the Harbour Bridge walkway in time to see the half-marathon cross the bridge. Two police motorbikes, which I guessed would be a little ahead of the lead runners, came into view and stopped in the middle of the road, opposite where I was standing. One rider shouted to the other "you know where we're supposed to go mate ?" to which the other replied "no f***ing idea mate". This got a loud chuckle from everyone on the walkway. Then they set off again, hopefully in the right direction, followed shortly afterwards by the lead runners. It's always exhilarating to see athletes of that standard, but on the Harbour Bridge on such a beautiful morning it was especially good. Next followed the huge half-marathon field which seemed to go on forever. I looked for friends who I knew were in the event and managed to spot MissPinky, though she was too far away to cheer.

I continued on to the northern end of the Bridge and joined the throng of runners heading down to the start area. I was very pleased to see Crabby just ahead of me and caught up with her for a chat. I also met another CoolRunner, Ewoksta, for the first time after chatting to him many times on the forum pages. I got out of my tracksuit pants, laced on my huarache sandals (having chosen the thin Cherry soles for the day) then threw my plastic gear bag up into the back of a large truck where it joined a growing mountain of other bags to be transported to the finish area.

All of the nervousness that I'd felt the evening before had subsided and I was really looking forward to the race. I wandered over to the starting area and was pleased to see that they'd signposted my end of the field (the back) with snail signs ! I strolled down the road a little, taking in the water view and feeling relaxed.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me at this stage that this unaccustomed quiet confidence was a warning sign, but it was only after a few more neurons had switched on that I realized my timing chip wasn't attached to my ankle, instead it was in one of a squillion identical plastic bags in the back of the gear truck...


This felt a lot more familiar. I bolted back to the truck and, with the amused permission of one of the race officials, climbed up the bars on the side and frantically started digging into the pile of bags. A voice on the PA asked runners to make their way to the start area. I burrowed even more frantically. There it was ! A bag with my number 5976. Yes! No... it was 5967... aaaarrrgghhh!!! Finally I found my bag and recovered the timing chip. With a huge sense of relief, and after spending a minute unwedging myself from the side bars of the truck, I thanked the grinning race official and headed back to the snail section with the chip firmly velcroed to my ankle.

The race

There were still a couple of minutes to go until the race so I did my best to calm down. I hadn't yet seen my brother Paul who was going to run the marathon with me, generously sacrificing his own record of sub-4 hour finishes by doing so. But I was very pleased to be joined by a CoolRunning friend Emjay and shortly after that by Paul who reminded me that I had been supposed to meet him at the Black Dog Institute stall near the start (another neuron that hadn't switched on). Then, all of a sudden, the race began and we shuffled forwards, then walked, then slowly jogged onto the Bridge.

I loved the first half of the marathon: running across the Harbour Bridge, along Mrs Macquaries Rd, Oxford St, around Centennial Park... I met lots of CoolRunning folk, including UpAndAtom for the first time, and the number of "Go slowmo" greetings that I got was overwhelming. With the warm weather I wasn't wearing my habitual fancy pants - instead I had a brand new pair of loud, Circus pattern shorts from RunningFunky to add a spot of colour to the event and symbolize stepping out of the shadow of the Black Dog. The huarache sandals felt perfect and with the heat I was pleased to have my feet free of shoes and socks.

The course headed back towards the city and it was at about this time that I started feeling a bit light-headed. I put this down to the warm conditions and perhaps needing a bit more sugar. I had a cache of honey sachets and apricot chews in the pockets of my tri top. I'd been careful to drink a cup of water at each aid station so dehydration didn't seem like a worry.

We continued on, across the old Glebe Island Bridge and onto an unfortunately boring and uninspiring section of the course - the Westlink Road, a barren wasteland of bitumen and concrete sidings. I had been walking the uphill sections, trying to get rid of the increasingly woozy feeling within but just before the 33km point, I started to see white fog and decided to sit down for a couple of minutes until I felt better. Paul stopped with me and many passing runners asked if I needed help. One very nice fellow thought I must need a little more sugar and gave me some jelly beans. I nibbled a red one and then spent a minute emptying my stomach contents, as neatly as I could, into a road-side drain. After that my head felt much clearer but I couldn't stand up and Paul summoned the first aid folks. My race was over.

A wonderfully friendly paramedic came and found that my blood sugar was fine but that my blood pressure was low from dehydration. She and Paul stayed with me until an ambulance arrived and I was put on IV fluids and taken to hospital. The two ambulance paramedics were terrific and had an endless stream of jokes while they were fixing me up. They had a great time making comments about my sandals and pointing them out to everyone at the hospital - "look what this guy has on his feet !!!". With some extra fluids in my system I felt much better physically, but I couldn't help being disappointed and embarrassed about my race ending like this.

After a couple of hours at the hospital for some more checks, Paul joined me again and drove me home. He had run the rest of the marathon, but had had his timing chip confiscated by a stern and unrelenting race official at the 34km point, despite only being a minute over the cut-off and having one of the first-aid people confirm his explanation that he had been helping me just down the road and could easily finish the race inside the cut-off time (which he did).

I slept like a log overnight and woke the next morning feeling more at peace with myself than I had the day before. My barefoot-running friend Sharene (Runbare on CoolRunning) had left a phone message the night before and called again in the morning to see how I was. I appreciated this a great deal and was very cheered by her advice that you're not a real runner until you've got a DNF. She also suggested I could count the kilometres I did in the ambulance and chalk it up as an ultra :-)

Shortly afterwards I spoke to Paul who reminded me that my legs had still been working well at the end and this showed that the training had built up my strength and fitness. On the computer I had a swag of messages from CoolRunning friends checking to see if I was OK and encouraging me not to let this experience put me off.

Most of all, my wonderful partner Annie told me to remember that it had been my longest run so far and that I'd raised a lot more money for the Black Dog Institute than I ever expected to.

And the moral of the story ?

Numerous studies confirm that physical activity can help many people to recover from depression and either prevent its recurrence or at least lessen its impact. Running has certainly done this for me, but I've discovered that it's racing that has been the biggest help. Even for a slow, non-competitive runner such as myself, races provide challenge, force me to get my act together enough to prepare properly, and give me the opportunity to do more than I ever thought I could. Until recently I never imagined that I would attempt to run a marathon. The fact that I bombed out, probably because I neglected to drink enough fluids before the race, just means that I will be that bit more experienced at my next attempt. If the marathon was easy it wouldn't be worth doing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taper worms

I picked up my race number yesterday and, as soon as got home, pinned it to the top that I've chosen to wear for the marathon. This is not typical behaviour for me. I'm usually pinning my number on just before, or sometimes even just after, the start of a race. No, this is a symptom of taper worms - an infection that can beset runners in the days leading up to a big event, giving rise to an uncomfortable squirming sensation in the bowels and a host of nervous ticks and twitches.

I've been thinking about the words running to help manage depression. I've often told people that that is why I began running last year, but now I wonder if I haven't so much used running to manage depression but rather channelled the search for meaning, the overwhelming obsessiveness and the needs for structure, achievement and catharsis into running rather than into other forms of eccentric behaviour. To put it another way, perhaps running has become my craziness of choice.

I suppose that it's all in the eye of the beholder. Obsessiveness expressed as, for example, really needing the colours of the pegs to match when you hang your clothes out, is viewed as slightly loopy. But obsessiveness expressed as running through the cold, wet, gusty nighttime weather, as per the training program's dictate for the day, is labelled as commitment. It might cause a few heads to shake and a few comments to be muttered, but it won't get you carted away.

I heard a wonderful interview with the novelist and scriptwriter Hanif Kureishi on ABC Radio National. He talks quite a bit about psychoanalysis and his opinion that therapy isn't so much to do with curing people of their craziness but more about helping them to use their symptoms creatively. This rings true with me, though I'm not sure how creative I'm being adjusting the safety pins on my race number for the hundredth time...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sri Chinmoy Cooks River race

Last Sunday (7th September) I took part in a 16km race, held along with 8km and 4km events, in a lovely section of park on Sydney's Cooks River. After heavy rain the previous day it was great to have blue sky and sunshine for the morning, albeit with quite a lot of puddles.

The previous day's weather might have put a few people off because there seemed to be a smaller field than usual, but perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing because runners for all three distances started together and ran the same 4km loop.

I had wondered before the run if four laps of a short loop might be a little monotonous, but with such a pleasant morning, plus the parkland setting and having the river in view most of the time, I needn't have worried. Even better, I got to chat the whole time thanks to having the pleasure of Crabby's company. Normally she'd be way, way ahead of me but on this occasion she was taking it easy as part of her own preparation for the Sydney marathon. Even though I knew this I still felt quite pleased with myself for being able to keep up while gabbling on. My ego was restored to its normal size when Crabby expressed her surprise at being awarded a placegetter's trophy, saying "but that's the slowest race I've ever run !".

The race was followed by a generous and tasty pancake feast at which I carbohydrate loaded very enthusiastically. I doubt that any of those calories will still be available when I'm running the marathon but you never know.

Thanks, as always, to Prachar and the Sri Chinmoy folk for a fun morning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It's all downhill from here...

Yesterday I did my last long run prior to the Sydney marathon. It was meant to be 32km, but a dose of some flu-like virus a few days earlier had left me feeling sluggish and lethargic so I only managed 30km, most of which I ran like a lethargic slug.

I don't want to talk about it...

Sutherland Half Marathon

This was a much happier run, a week earlier, in the beautiful surroundings of Royal National Park. It was organized by the Sutherland District Athletics Club, yet another bunch of runners who seem intent on giving everyone the most enjoyable day possible.

The course took in a little tour of the historic Audley picnic area before heading out along Lady Carrington Drive for 9km or so, and then back along the same trail to the finish. Decent rains the night before had left the trail damp and slightly soft underfoot with the occasional muddy puddle to add interest. It was an absolutely lovely run, with the sunshine breaking out from behind the clouds every so often and streaming down through the tree canopy. Bush smells and birdsong...

Being much more organized than the previous weekend I got there in time for the start of this race, complete with a brand new pair of sandals made out of Vibram 6mm neoprene soling material (see below). The only problem was that I was still trying to get them on when the race started. After fumbling my way through tying the laces, I once more found myself starting several minutes after everybody else. Moreover, I'd done such a poor job with the laces that it took another couple of stops to get them adjusted properly, followed by a long wee stop made necessary by having too much coffee before I left home. So much for my competitive edge ! Happily, I caught up to some of the other runners eventually and enjoyed a bit of on-the-hoof conversation. I finished the race feeling strong and full of that particular kind of pleasure that the best runs provide.

Many thanks to the folks from the Sutherland Club for a really wonderful day and for the photo that appears here.

Trail running huaraches

I was fairly sure that my feet were not yet ready to tackle the gravel and rocks of Lady Carrington Drive with only the thin Cherry sandals for protection. So, with a sheet of more substantial (6mm) Vibram neoprene material, which I purchased from Barefoot Ted, I made a pair of trail running huaraches. The neoprene is very slightly spongy with a much more basic and shallow tread pattern than the high-tech Cherry material.

These new sandals turned out to be fantastic for the Sutherland half-marathon. Though I was insulated from the ground much more than with my thinner sandals I still had a definite sense of barefoot-ish running, and not having to monitor the terrain ahead quite so intently made the run much more relaxing.

There's a huarache for all conditions !