This year's Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon was a significant event for me, being the anniversary of my coming out as a foot-flap wearing freaky-footed runner. I remember how nervous I'd been last year. Not only was it the first time that I'd worn my huarache sandals in a race, it was also my first really big event with thousands rather than hundreds of runners, and only my second half-marathon.
As it happened, I had a great run last year and I was looking forward to an even better one this year. Not only did I now have several more big events under my belt, but I would be wearing my high-tech sandals. Admittedly, to the casual observer, they still resembled pieces of vandalized door mat tied to my feet with string, but to the minimalist-running afficionado they represented the epitome of traditional practice combined with space-age materials. Or so I liked to tell people anyway. Then again, I also liked to tell them that my circus pants are a new breed of compression wear.
But I digress...
The night before, I assembled my gear for the morning, checked the train timetable and carefully set my alarm. I felt organized. I felt confident. I completely failed to register these as warning signs.
I woke next morning to a quick succession of thoughts:
"I'm awake before the alarm - that's good."Later I was to work out that not only had I set the alarm the night before, I'd somehow managed to set the time so that it was wrong by hours. My train had already gone. The race was going to start in 45 minutes. I was not there.
"It's unusually light for this time of morning."
"I wonder what the time is ?"
A few minutes later I was in the car with my partner driving us into the city at quite impressive speed. We made it to the Elizabeth Street side of Hyde Park just in time to hear the race start. I bolted across the park trying to work out where to go, spotted the gear stowing area and ran as fast as I could towards it. I will be forever grateful to the wonderful lady at the table who was already writing my number on a plastic bag as I approached. She even kept a straight face.
College Street was still packed with runners shuffling towards the starting line. "I've made it" I thought and relaxed, only to lapse back into panic again when I couldn't see how to get through the %#$@ fence separating the park, and me, from the race. Another minute of frantic running and I made it onto the road. To my relief, the back of the pack was still there, inching forwards. Also there was my brother Paul, who didn't make even the slightest effort to keep a straight face.
The course seemed packed compared to last year. It also seemed to have much more life and excitement. After last month's Canberra Marathon, with its wonderful spectator support, performance artists and cheer squad, I must admit that I'd been expecting this event to be a bit ho-hum in terms of atmosphere. With the exception of the City to Surf, Sydney doesn't seem to get excited about its major road races. So the buzz on the course was a nice surprise. For the first few minutes there were cheering spectators rather than empty streets. We were entertained by a troupe of super-heroes with enormously wide shoulders and red masks, some of whom bolted along with the field shouting encouragement like deranged running coaches, whilst others performed bizarre body actions and pantomine gestures from various perches. It turned out that they were advertising some chain of fitness centres (this was Sydney after all) but they added colour and movement and hilarity, and I got a high five from one of them for being freakier than he was in my sandals and star pants.
It was great to run with Paul. He is one of the few people who can out-chat me in a race. We kept up what felt like a good pace, running steadily up the hills on Argyle and Hunter Streets and Mrs Macquaries Road while trying to keep a bit in reserve. On the first lap, half way up the Hunter Street ascent, we met the wonderful LuckyLegs, looking very comfortable trotting up the steepest section, smiling and chatting and being her inspirational self. Just as inspiring was seeing the race leaders up close, one of the benefits of a loop course, and admiring the grace and fluidity of their movement.
During the second lap I started to feel a little tightness in my chest from the snuffle that had been lurking for the previous couple of days, but it was easy to ignore this on such a perfect morning, with the sunshine, cool still air, and the buzz of being part of such a great event. When we reached Mrs Macquaries Road for the second time Paul asked if I'd like to have a go at finishing in under two hours. I hadn't been following our pace at all, content to just run at what felt like a solid but sustainable clip. But I felt comfortable and the idea of getting in under two hours for the first time sounded great. Paul said we just had to pick up the pace a little bit and offered to lead me out. I agreed. He darted through the runners in front of us and was gone.
I tried to work my way through the field, then skipped up onto the footpath and peered ahead, finally spotting Paul. a rapidly disappearing speck in the distance. I ran faster, ducking and weaving, but soon realized it was pointless. The last thing I wanted to do was spoil a good run by knackering myself before the last stretch. I dropped back down to my former pace. A couple of minutes later I met Paul, who was generously waiting for me (or perhaps he couldn't find anyone else to talk to). We rounded the turn at the bottom of Mrs Macquaries Road and headed back up the hill, picking up pace as we neared the top.
The last stretch was fantastic, running at speed into College Street, around the turning point, up the last incline (who put that there ?) and then flying (or so it felt) into the finishing straight and sprinting to the line.
How was it for you dear ?
I finished feeling that wonderful combination of fatigue, exhilaration and satisfaction that comes from a run where everything has gone just right, and from being part of a great event. I knew from the 'gun time' on the finishing clock that this had been my fastest half-marathon so far, doubly satisfying on this testing course.
Wandering around the park, I met several CoolRunning friends, including the lovely TKR who was there with her family enjoying the achievement of having run her first half-marathon. I wandered back into the city, still wearing my huaraches, and caught the train home feeling tired and happy.
The next day, my race-day snuffle had developed into a grotty head cold and was on its way to becoming a dose of flu, but I was still on a high from the race. I logged into the CoolRunning forum to read everyone's race reports and post my own. To my surprise the race thread was a litany of unhappiness and disatisfaction...
The field was too large. The course was too narrow. The drink stations were too crowded. It was no longer a race for real runners (so what did that make me ?).
Someone railed against those idiots who were dressed up as super-heroes (I thought back to the Canberra Marathon with the 'Shower Scene from Psycho' on the sidelines and the 'Ghost riders' cheering the runners on Parkes Way).
Limit the numbers ! Ban walkers ! It went on and on.
In amongst all the sturm und drang there were some posts from people who had enjoyed the race as much as I had, but they were a minority. My sails sagged. I switched the computer off.
I'm mindful that I can be vulnerable to feelings of depression during the onset of a bout of flu. But on this occasion I don't think that was all that was going on. Look at our world. Listen, watch or read the news on your favourite medium: war, disease, poverty, tragedy. Here in Sydney we have the good fortune to live in a safe, prosperous place; to have free time and the opportunity to spend it doing something that we love, like running in a great event. Reading reports of how unbearable, how truly unacceptable it was to be held up by slower runners on some part of the course or other, I wondered how it is that running can be so fraught for some.