City to Surf
The City to Surf is the most popular running event in Western Australia. The race attracts over 50,000 runners each year, taking part in one of four distances.
The marathon starts in the middle of the city at 6 a.m. The first half of the race follows the Swan River on a flat, out and back route along closed roads. After returning to the city the course leads up to the renowned Kings Park, making a loop of the hilly gardens. It then heads through residential streets before concluding at City Beach.
The Lead Up
Road racing hadn't featured in my running resume this year. I had completed a few triathlons over summer, then between March and June I had participated in a sand run, a stair climb and a trail race. Not a single road race in sight. But both my husband and I had a big goal on our bucketlist for 2014: the marathon.
In Perth there aren't many choices for road marathons. In 2014 there were three to pick from. One was in June, which I wouldn't be ready for (it was already April when I started looking). The next was August, with a great course, cooler weather and a great fit with my training plan. The last was in October, which would have worked timing-wise but it was located on Rottnest Island. The costs and logistics of getting over there, plus the fact that it was a hilly, windy course, deterred me from entering this race. So August it was - the City to Surf marathon.
There was only one slight problem with the timing of this event. In December 2013 I had found cheap flights to Lombok, Indonesia, and I had chosen a random date for us to go away on a holiday. The holiday was booked from the 1st to the 10th of August. The marathon was on the 31st of August. Those first couple of weeks of August would have ideally been my peak training weeks, getting in my longest runs and highest mileage to date. If I was serious about doing my best in this race, I would have to make it work.
I bought a couple of running books that included training plans, and combined these with programs I had ripped out of Runner's World magazines to create a hybrid plan that would work for me. I ran only four days a week, which was on the lower end of what was suggested, but included tempo runs, interval training and the weekend long run. I supplemented this one bike ride, one Pump class, two to three kickboxing classes and core work each week. I was hoping that this variety in my routine would help prevent injuries from popping up, as well as lead to improvements in my overall fitness.
As our holiday approached I shuffled around my schedule to make sure I could still get in the important runs (i.e. the long runs). The day before we flew out I completed a 32 km run, on mostly flat pavement around the local lake. In Lombok and Bali I ran a total of four times, none longer than an hour (due to heat and humidity) and only one was an interval session. I also trekked up and down a volcano for three days, which was a fantastic cardio and strength workout although the timing wasn't ideal. My legs were sore for days.
We arrived home late Sunday afternoon and the first thing I did was head out for a long run. 34 km along the streets with a few small hills thrown in to simulate race conditions. At the end I was exhausted but I felt a great sense of achievement. It was the longest run I had ever completed and gave me confidence that I could finish this marathon.
Unfortunately I picked up a stomach bug in Indonesia. Almost all training runs I went on after coming home had me running to the bathroom. I had to rearrange routes to ensure I passed either my house or a public toilet block often. I would feel fine when I headed out but then the cramps started, and I knew that meant I needed a bathroom as soon as possible. I started to panic about the race. If I couldn't run 5 km without needing the toilet, how could I run 42.2 km? Would all the toilet stops increase my time significantly? Would I even finish? For the three weeks leading up to race day it persisted, and I fretted about what this would mean for my race.
Danny decided we should stay in a hotel in the city the night before the race. It would allow us to sleep a little longer and we could walk to the start line with fewer chances of something going wrong. He searched online and found a small hotel that was advertised as "quiet". We should have sued them for false advertising. Our room backed onto a function room, and from about 8 p.m. the loud music started. It continued until well past midnight. We both lay awake for hours, worried about how a lack of sleep would affect our performance the next day. We eventually drifted off in the early morning hours, giving us only a few short hours of rest. Not ideal circumstances for our first marathon.
I had three goals for this race:
Finish in under four hours.
Finish in under four hours running the entire way.
Being my first marathon, the main aim was to achieve the first goal. If I could accomplish goals two or three as well, I would be ecstatic.
After far too little sleep the alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m. I quickly changed, ate my honey on toast, packed my bag and walked down to the start line. There wasn't much to do but stand around with everyone else in the dark, trying to stay warm and keep my nerves at bay. About 20 minutes before the start I did a brief jogging warm up, partly to prepare my legs for the task ahead but also to raise my body temperature slightly before taking my jacket off. I noticed a sharp but manageable pain in my Achilles tendon during this jog but I put it down to not being warmed up yet and pushed it from my mind.
I lined up about a third of the way into the pack, away from Danny. We both wanted to run our own race, which we couldn't do side by side. Before I knew it we were off, heading down the deserted city streets. I started at a pace that was comfortably hard, knowing I could hold this speed for a long time. I was conscious of not trying to keep up with the fast starters, likely paying for the mistake later if I did.
From the very first step the Achilles pain was noticeable. Where had that come from? I hadn't had a single foot issue at all during training and now it decided to pop up out of nowhere. I could run without changing my form, which I took as a green light to continue the race, but it was noticeable every time my foot hit the ground. Through my mind ran the thoughts, "How long could I keep this up? Would this cause me to drop out of the race?" It was difficult to remain positive.
As we were running along the Swan River, a beautiful sunrise swept across the sky. The only downside to this was that the sun was rising almost behind us, meaning I had to twist my head sharply to see the spectacle. I love sunrises, so it was difficult to ignore the magnificent patterns and colours and concentrate on the task at hand.
The first half of the race flew by. The flat course and cooler early morning temperatures made it easy to stick to my pace. I never checked my watch; I only ran by feel, as I had done in training. I didn't notice the other runners around me. Some would speed past, others would slow down, but I was never concerned about how fast they were going. I went into a zone, where it was only me on the road, running my own race.
The flat half of the course along the Swan River.
As we approached the halfway point the course led us back through the city, past thousands of other runners lining up at the start line for the shorter distances. They all clapped and cheered loudly as we ran through, bringing a smile to my face. The running community can be incredibly inspiring, and this simple act motivated me to push on for the second half of the race.
It turned out I needed that boost of energy, as this was where the hills started. None were long or particularly steep (i.e. I didn't need to walk) but they definitely slowed me down. My Achilles wasn't happy with the hills either, but then again it wasn't happy with anything. The pain did not let up for one moment, but I was thankful to have made it this far into the race without having to stop. It gave me some hope that I could hold out to the finish and deal with the issue later.
My fueling strategy was to take one gel each hour and to drink some water from nearly all aid stations (located approximately every two kilometres along the course). I had perfected the skill of drinking from a cup while running and not choking on it (which is harder than it sounds), so I never needed to physically stop. I was constantly waiting for the dreaded "bonk", the sudden decrease in energy due to low sugar levels that often occurs around kilometre 30-34, but it never came. My energy levels stayed consistent throughout the entire race, giving me confidence that I could complete this event in a decent time. As an added bonus, my stomach miraculously held out and I didn't need to take a single toilet break.
The top of the last hill came around kilometre 41. With only 1.2 km left to go, it was time to find my reserves. I pushed as hard as I could, which by that stage wasn't very hard, but I found energy stores that I didn't know I still had. I could see the finish line, hear the people cheering along the finisher's chute and I started smiling. Crossing that finish line filled me with a huge sense of achievement. I had completed a marathon, and I was on top of the world.
There were many positives to take away from this race. Namely, I had finished! Not only that, I had achieved all three goals I had set for myself. I smashed my four hour target and I ran every step of the whole 42.2 km (even while juggling the disposable water cups). Also on the plus side, I didn't sustain any injuries. The Achilles pain I experienced, while frustrating on the day, had completely resolved two days later and has never returned. Lastly, I had fun! Before the race I wondered if I would become bored running for that length of time, but it never happened. I loved it and found myself wanting more. I couldn't wait to figure out what my next challenge would be.
Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. A couple of years earlier I never wanted to complete a marathon, believing I didn't have what it takes to run 42.2 km. If you set a goal and make a plan towards achieving it, you will be surprised what you are capable of. Don't let fears and doubts hold you back.
I started conservatively to ensure I had energy for the entire race. This strategy worked well, but I was left with energy still in the tank at the end. Next time I could either start a little faster, or pick up the pace about halfway through the race if things are going well.
You never know how things will go on race day. I thought my stomach would let me down, but it didn't. I thought my legs were fit and healthy, but they weren't. Even if you haven't had the best build up to a race or have been plagued by injury or illness, you never know how you will perform during the event. Have faith that things will work out. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't but you never know unless you try.
If possible, try not to plan overseas trips during your peak training weeks. Particularly to countries where food hygiene is lax.
Your own bed is always the best place to sleep the night before a race.