The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team organises numerous races across Australia every year. Danny and I had participated in their events before and we had come to love their low-key but professional races. Entry fees were cheap, numbers were low and their spectacular post-race pancake celebrations created a close-knit community feel.
The Yarra Boulevard half marathon was a held on a flat 5 km out and back course, entirely on the road. The sides of the street were lined with tall trees, and there were no cars or other vehicles within sight (or earshot). We completed four repeats of this course, plus an extra 1.1 km loop at the start to make up the 21.1 km distance. Over 500 runner competed across three distances but the road was wide enough to handle these numbers without becoming crowded. The race took place in early spring, which in Melbourne generally means cold and probably wet.
Things are pretty relaxed at the start line.
The Lead Up
The half marathon had been a long time coming. When Danny and I finished our first fun run, a 5.5 km race back in 2008, we knew we wanted our running journey to continue. Over the next 12 or so months we gradually ran further and further, reaching 15 km by the end of 2009. In 2010 we decided to start training for a half marathon, with the plan to complete this distance at the Melbourne Marathon Festival in October. Training went well and I was prepared, but unfortunately external circumstances prevented me from participating on the day. I was crushed, but determined to come back another day. About a month after this event I went out on my own and ran the 21.1 km on a marked course, to prove to myself that I could complete the distance. I didn't need a bib or a medal to tell me that.
Two years went by before I was at the start line of my first official half marathon. In 2011 Danny and I had travelled overseas, so running took a back seat. We arrived home in January 2012 and immediately started running again. We took part in a couple of trail races after a few months, and I also attempted a duathlon (my one and only). But it was the half marathon that I was set on. I didn't want to sign up for a large event, in case I had to pull out or I couldn't finish for whatever reason. I searched the internet and found a race organised by the Sri Chinmoy group, to be held in September. Knowing what their events were like, with fewer runners and a more casual atmosphere, I knew this would be a good fit for me.
I used a similar training plan to what I had used in 2010, which was ripped out of a Runner's World magazine. I ran four days a week, with a long run on Sunday. I included tempo runs and interval sessions to work on speed. Living in a hilly area there were plenty of opportunities to put hill repeats into my workouts. On Saturdays I often went out for a bike ride for a couple of hours on a local cycling path, enjoying the cross-training this provided. The gym was also my friend, participating in Pump, kickboxing and boot camp classes (plus the occasional yoga class when I was motivated). Everything went to plan, there were no injuries and I was happy with my progress.
I felt my body was prepared to complete this race; I needed my mind to be ready too. The failed attempt two years earlier haunted me. I found myself thinking that I would probably drop out again, I shouldn't be a runner, I would probably get a stitch and have to stop, I should choose a different sport - these thoughts played on an endless loop. I knew I wouldn't quit though. I was stubborn and it was going to take the world ending for me to not finish this race.
It had rained overnight but the roads had dried up by the time the race was due to start. The temperatures remained low, and the clouds prevented the sun from shining through. There was no noticeable headwind. The conditions were perfect.
I lined up in the middle of the pack, my nerves running high. I desperately wanted to tick this off my bucket list, to say I had finished a half marathon race. Despite already running the distance once in training, I felt as though this was the one that counted. When others asked, I could tell them which race I ran in and my official time. I could swap stories with other half marathoners, being able to relate to their experience. Today was going to be the day.
The three distances on offer all started within 10 minutes of each other, so we were out on the course together. It was impossible to know who was completing which event without turning around to look at their bib, so I ignored most of the other runners. Some were flying by me, others I was passing, but it didn't matter. I stuck to a pace that was comfortably hard for me, one that I could hold for the next two hours.
After completing the first two laps the number of runners dropped away, as most of the 5 km and 10 km runners had finished. Now I knew who my competition was but I tried to not let it affect me. I swallowed a gel and kept going at my current pace, not wanting to speed up just to crash and burn later in the race. I had no injuries or niggles, no hot spots on my feet, no stitches - I didn't want to mess that up by changing my race plan now.
The course followed the peaceful Yarra river, but I didn't have time to notice it.
t roughly the 15 km mark I saw a woman roughly a minute in front of me. I hadn't really noticed her before but as I concentrated on her back, I realised we were running at a similar pace. I wasn't gaining, she wasn't getting away. Weighing up my options, I decided to increase my pace slightly to see if I could close in on her.
For a while nothing seemed to change. We stayed the same distance apart. This didn't concern me too much, as I felt strong and was happy with the way the race was turning out. But after a few kilometres I suddenly realised I was right behind her. I wasn't sure if she was slowing down or if I was getting faster. On the final loop I slipped past, excited that I had overtaken someone but also worried about being able to maintain my new position. It seemed silly to be worried about this, as the result wouldn't matter in the end. I wasn't going to finish on the podium, or even in the top 10, but that one little act gave me all the motivation I needed to push to the finish line.
I gave everything I had in that final kilometre. Knowing I was so close, that I would make it put a smile on my face. I sprinted across the line, puffing loudly as I slowed down to catch my breath. I turned to see the woman I passed, finishing only 10 seconds behind me. We hugged, knowing that we had pushed each other for the last quarter of the race. I had achieved my sub-2 hour goal time, and even managed a sub-1:50, far surpassing my expectations. But most importantly, I had now finished an official half marathon race.
As is tradition at Sri Chinmoy events, it was time to celebrate with pancakes. The volunteers who cooked non-stop for hours to feed everyone were champions. Freshly cooked pancake, banana, maple syrup: I was in heaven. I tried to rehydrate and stretch as well, but the pancakes were calling my name a little more loudly. A fantastic way to end a fantastic event.
It was announced later that there were a couple of runners over the age of 80 out there on the course, one completing the 5 km and the other the 10 km. The 10 km finisher completed his event in under one hour. If I could still run 10 km in my 80s I would be stoked, let alone running it in less than 60 minutes. I was impressed.
You don't need to have an official time listed on the internet to say that you have run a half marathon. If you have run 21.1 km, in a race or in training, by yourself or with a group of people, you are a half marathoner. I know I saw this race as my true first half marathon, if someone asked I would say I first ran 21.1 km in 2010.
Smaller events are great for taking pressure off and having a relaxed race. There were far fewer emotions taking over my mind and my decision-making process, making me do stupid things (like push too hard). There were less people on the course which meant I didn't have to weave through the crowds or get caught up with faster runners. It felt like another weekend long run, but with a few more people around. Plus pancakes.
Other runners on the course can act as great pacers, as long as you pick the right people. They can help you maintain your speed when you want to slow down, or help you to push a little harder to keep up with them. Remember that you don't need to overtake within the next minute. I spent over twenty minutes catching up to the woman in front of me before I could pull ahead. Don't start running at an unrealistic speed just to pass one runner - make sure you stick to a pace that's within your limits.
Setting and achieving a goal is a wonderful feeling, particularly if it has been a long-term goal with many obstacles in the way. Don't give up. If you set your mind to it, you can achieve it, even if it takes years to get there.