The Melbourne Marathon Festival is Victoria's most renowned running event. Tens of thousands of people take part in one of several distances, between 5.5 km and 42.2 km. The mostly flat route takes in many iconic Melbourne sights and suburbs, and finishes with a lap inside the MCG (the city's largest sporting stadium). The race takes place annually in October, which for Melbourne is still relatively cool, especially in the morning.
The Lead Up
Danny and I were not runners. We never ran. I had run a little growing up, but never anything that would be considered "long-distance". So why did we sign up for a 5.5 km run without any interest or experience in the sport? I have no idea. I saw an ad for the event, asked Danny if he would be interested in signing up too, and before I knew it we were registered. We had less than a month to get ready.
Training was sporadic. I attempted running outside along the streets and on the treadmill, but 10-15 minutes was my limit. I didn't know anything about training plans, tempo runs, interval work, GPS watches, moisture-wicking fabric - I didn't even own running shoes. The closest thing I had were indoor netball shoes, so that's what I wore. Proper running shoes seemed expensive, and I didn't want to splurge on a new pair to then never run again after this race. During my "training", I was lucky if I ran twice a week.
I constantly doubted whether I should actually turn up to the event. There was no way I was going to complete 5.5 km. In my mind I was going to be surrounded by super-elite athletes who ran every day and could cover the distance without breaking a sweat. It would be like Little Athletics all over again, but with only the fastest runners taking part. They would immediately break away and I would be left by myself, at the back of the pack.
Talking to friends who had finished a fun run increased my confidence. They discussed their training, the emotions on race day and the feeling of triumph when crossing the line. Listening to their stories gave me the motivation I needed to make it to the start line. I wanted to be one of those people who had run 5 km, who had a story to tell. Even if this was the only fun run I would ever participate in, I was going to complete it.
There were thousands of people around the start line. I couldn't believe how popular this event was. Looking around at all the fit, athletic bodies in their streamlined clothing and running-specific shoes, doubt again came over me. I had turned up in knee length fleece shorts, a cotton t-shirt and, of course, my netball shoes. This was going to be a disaster.
We lined up near the back of the 5000 runners taking part in this distance, surrounded by people pushing strollers or participating with small children. Would the strollers and kids beat us too? That would be slightly demoralising.
We heard the countdown, the gun went off and it was time to start. Except that we didn't. There were so many people in front of us that it took over five minutes to crawl towards the start line, with no one in any particular hurry. I saw the line approach and thought to myself, "This is it. Let's do this."
It didn't quite happen that way. Danny and I crossed the timing mat and attempted to run, but there was nowhere to go. The crowd was too big, too dense. Everyone else was walking and there was no way to get around them. So we fell in line and walked too, feeling a sense of disappointment that I couldn't run in my first fun run.
The problem was the course. A few hundred metres from the start line the route veered off onto a path, one that was much narrower than the road we started on. This created a bottleneck as everyone tried to squeeze onto the limited pavement. For us at the back it meant we had to slowly shuffle, and sometimes stop and wait, while the runners ahead of us merged into the confined space.
The finish line, inside the famous MCG.
Once we were on this path, the field opened up considerably. We finally had the space to start running, so we took off at a slow pace. Most of the other people around us continued to walk, which meant that we started passing a large number of people. It never occurred to me that some people would walk the whole way.
Most of the course followed the Yarra River, but I barely had time to notice the scenery. Although we were running now, the course was still crowded, and we had to weave our way through the pack. We continued overtaking the walkers and even a few runners, which was a huge shock to me. For every person we passed, our energy levels were boosted. I truly believe it was this adrenaline rush that propelled us along, as it definitely wasn't our training.
The race seemed to be over before it started. Suddenly we were running into the MCG and completing a lap of the hallowed turf. Side by side we crossed the finish line, in awe of what we had achieved. Sweating and puffing, we received our medals and hugged each other. After walking that first half a kilometre, we had then run non-stop all the way to the end. We had just finished our first 5 km.
For the rest of the day we were both on a high. We talked non-stop about completing more fun runs, about training, about what other runners were doing and wearing on the course. The bug had bitten us. Finding out the results only intensified this feeling. Somehow I had finished in the top 10% of the females, and our time was good enough for top 17% overall. Even when we walked part of the course, we barely trained and we ran slowly, to attain such respectable rankings was an unimaginable achievement. And so our passion for running was ignited.
The first of many.
It is incredible what your body can do if you put your mind to it. I didn't believe I was capable of running 5 km, especially when my training runs peaked at 15 minutes. As a kid I couldn't finish the 1500 m without taking a walk break. To go from that to finishing 5 km helped me to push past a mental barrier, allowing me to dream of bigger, more exciting goals.
Having Danny beside me, trying to reach the same goals, helped. We pushed each other, tried to outdo each other, and kept each other accountable. Sharing the race day experience with Danny made it all the more special and memorable.
Talk to other runners. They have innumerable tips and pieces of advice that can assist you in crossing the finish line. The inspiration you get from listening to someone else share their experiences, particularly of a goal you have set yourself, goes a long way.
Signing up for a race is a fantastic way to stay accountable. If I had thought about running 5 km by myself, not in an organised race with a specific date, I never would have achieved it. I probably would have gone out for a few runs, made it to 10-15 minutes, then quit. I needed the excitement of race day, the positive atmosphere, the motivation of the other runners to help me push myself further than I ever could have alone.
Don't start too far back in the pack. I never considered that people would walk the entire distance. If we weren't caught up in the bottleneck at the start, and if we didn't have to spend time trying to manoeuvre around other runners and walkers, our finishing times would have been much better. While I had no time goals for this race, in the future it would become more of a focus for me and I wanted to give myself the best opportunity I could to set new personal bests.
Having the courage to try something new has changed my life considerably. Running is now one of my greatest passions, with everything else (outside of work) slotting in around my training schedule. I couldn't imagine what my life would be like without it.