The Yarra Valley is one of Victoria's most famous wine regions. Given its close proximity to Melbourne, it is frequently visited by tourists and residents alike. But this wasn't about drinking wine. This was about running. (The wine would come later.)
This inaugral event saw about 550 participants run between two towns in a point to point race. The terrain consisted entirely of road, which passed by vineyards and provided views across the valley. For most of the course we faced undulating hills, which were gentle and all runnable. The race was held in spring (September) with an unusually late morning start. I guess this was so people finished around midday, and would then linger in the area to eat lunch and visit the wineries. We may or may not have been one of those people.
The Lead Up
The reason I chose this race was purely sentimental. I grew up in the Yarra Valley and knew the area fairly well. I had visited its wineries many, many times, had dined out at local restaurants and even taken a hot air balloon flight over the countryside. When I saw that there was a brand new run to be held in this region, I knew I would be signing up for it.
13.2 km was a distance I had covered before, so I wasn't concerned about the length of the race. There weren't any significant hills or trails to navigate. It seemed like a great opportunity to work on achieving a fast time, as well as perfect training for the half marathon that I wanted to complete sometime in the future.
Back in June Danny and I had finished the 10 km event at Run Melbourne. As part of this event, free weekly training sessions were held in the city for a couple of months leading up to the race. There was the option of different distances, paces and interval workouts to choose from. Danny and I started with the 10 km group at a medium speed, a distance we knew we could cover. Part of these runs covered the event course, which was great practise before race day.
After a handful of runs I started to get bored. I was coming all the way into the city on a work night to run a distance I could run by myself near home. That's when I decided to mix things up and join the interval group. I had never done speed work before so I didn't know what to expect. It was a killer. Every week was different, from short and long repeats, to hill work and time trials. I learned more in those few weeks than I had ever thought possible. Once the race was over I continued to add interval sessions to my training schedule, finding different workouts online that suited my fitness level.
My training over the year had slowly progressed to more running and less gym work. I still went to the gym a couple of times a week, plus played two netball games, but I was now running four days a week. I tended to stick to the two main running/bike paths near my house, and occasionally ran along the road. The one thing that significantly changed was my long run.
After the Run Melbourne training runs had finished, Danny and I looked around for other running groups we could join. There turned out to be one that met at a large, public park not far from our house. Every Saturday morning dozens of runners would turn out to run their weekly long run together. Apprehensively, Danny and I appeared one week, unsure of what to expect. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and friendly, chatting to us about training, racing and social events. We immediately relaxed and became one of the regulars.
The long runs were split up between four leaders. With two distances and two paces on offer, there was something for everyone. Each week they changed the course, resulting in experience on different terrains and varying elevations. This was almost exclusively how I got some hill work into my training. Having the support of other runners and the motivation to push myself harder than I could when I was alone kept me coming back week after week. Plus I discovered several running routes in the area that I never knew existed, giving me a change of scenery from my usual course.
We later discovered that the group also held interval sessions on a weeknight. We started turning up to these too, learning about strides, drills and different types of speed workouts. Again everyone could join a group they felt comfortable in, so no one was left behind. The two running groups we had found this year did wonders for our running, and gave us tricks and tools that we still use today.
By mid-morning we were ready to go, along with several hundred other runners. We were excited and ready to run a solid race. We warmed up a little on the road then lined up with everyone else behind the start line.
In cool conditions we sped off along the fairly flat road for the first few kilometres. I didn't pay too much attention to the people around me. I concentrated on running comfortably hard, with the occasional sneak peek at the beautiful scenery surrounding us.
After going up and down a few undulations I noticed a pain under my lower ribcage, in the centre of my torso. I knew what this meant: I had a stitch. Usually stitches affected my sides, but this one directly hit my diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm is primarily used for breathing, so I knew straight away that a stitch here was not a good thing.
I persevered, slowing down slightly in the hopes that it would magically disappear. It didn't. The pain became more and more intense, until it got to the point where I was struggling to breathe. Every inhalation was agony. I would try to take a deep breath but my lungs froze, refusing to take in any more oxygen. The last thing I wanted to do was stop, but after a while I knew I had no choice. I couldn't run if I couldn't breathe. I held out as long as I could but it was no use. This stitch wasn't going anywhere, and now neither was I.
As soon as I stopped running I pulled over to the side of the road and bent forward, hoping my abdomen would relax and the stabbing pain would subside. This was the first time I had ever had to stop running in a race, and I felt like a failure. Eventually I was able to breathe normally, but a dull ache persisted. I started walking down the road, trying to keep moving so that I didn't lose too much time. I had recently passed the 7 km course marker, meaning I still had almost half the race to go. In the back of my mind I retained some sense of optimism, and hoped I could make up for lost time.
It was tempting to stop off for a while...
I walked several hundred metres, until I no longer felt any signs of a stitch. Gingerly, I started running. So far so good. I picked up the pace, conscious of how much time I had wasted. I wanted to get back in the game. Big mistake. Only a couple of minutes later the cramp returned, as powerful as ever. Within moments I was again reduced to a walk, bending over double to minimise the suffering. I started to panic. What if I had to walk for the next 6 km? What if I was last to finish? What would my overall pace be at the end? I had seen constant improvements in my times since I started running and I was eager for that trend to continue. Any confidence or hope I had was quickly draining away.
This pattern continued for the next few kilometres. I would sprint for a few minutes, then walk in agony for a few minutes, the pain never fully disappearing. With each walk break I became more and more agitated. I was angry with my body for failing me. Negative feelings swirled around my mind, blocking out any semblance of rational thought. Why was this happening to me? What had I done wrong? It wasn't fair.
Around the 11 km mark a long descent/occasional flattish section commenced, which would continue until the finish line. It was becoming apparent that the downhills were worse for my stitch, so I decided then and there that this was it. I was done. I was going to walk the rest of the way. I didn't bother trying to run again, even the flatter parts. The finish line came into view, and I knew I could have run 100 m to cross it without too much discomfort. Yet I couldn't think of a single reason why I should try to, so I didn't. I walked over that line, taking the finisher's medal offered but not feeling I deserved it.
My overall time wasn't that bad in the end compared to others in the field, but it didn't matter to me. My pace was the slowest it had been in over six months. I had been reduced to walking, which in my mind was a sin. I wasn't sure where this "no walking in a race" idea developed from - was it a pressure I put on myself, or did media play a part too? Was it a subject that needed to be talked about more in running circles? Maybe if I had known that this was normal, a situation that everyone experienced at one time or another, I wouldn't have been so hard on myself. All I knew was that I came away from the race feeling lousy.
On reflection, part of the problem was having high expectations of myself. I felt confident at the start of the day, sure that I was going to race well and achieve a great time. As soon as that possibility was out the window, I had nothing to fall back on. No secondary goals, no positives to hold on to. When I realised my expectations wouldn't be met, the doubts and pessimistic attitude took over. It was a lesson that I would encounter again in the future, but each time it would make me a better, stronger runner. My weaknesses would be highlighted, leading me to work on these areas to assist me in becoming a more well-rounded athlete.
I gave up. I had prided myself on being mentally tough, but today that all came undone. As soon as I took that first step, my mind said this race was over. I didn't have any control of whether I got a stitch or not. It was nothing I had done intentionally. But I became angry with myself for having to walk and that was it. If I had remained calm, waited for the stitch to pass and stayed positive, I believe I could have run out the rest of the race.
It was the first time I had needed to walk in a race, and at the time I was devastated. I thought I wasn't a "runner" if I didn't run the whole way. I now know that this is absurd. Just because you walk doesn't mean you didn't participate in a race, you didn't try as hard as others out there or that you don't deserve the finisher's medal. Run, walk or crawl, if you make it from the start line to the finish line (provided you follow the race rules), you have completed the race. You are a runner. You are not a failure because your pace is slower than someone else's, or you had two feet on the ground at the same time.
Stitches are a part of running. Some people never experience them, others (like me) get them frequently. It's great if can find out what causes them (there are many different theories out there). If not, you need to accept them and relax. Try to ease the cramp using methods that have worked for you in the past, then start again slowly.
Don't go around complaining about how everything went wrong in your race, it was the worst race ever, you were so slow, etc. I spoke to a friend later on who had completed the same race. I whinged about my stitch, having to walk part of it and finishing with a crappy time. He then told me he had run the whole way but had finished after me. I immediately felt horrible. I had essentially (but unintentionally) told him that he ran so slowly he couldn't even beat someone who walked. Yes it is fine to discuss your highlights and pitfalls, but make sure your comments aren't spoken in a comparative way. For example, instead of saying, "My finishing time was terrible," I could have said, "I was disappointed with my performance". Subtle but distinct difference.
Set multiple, realistic goals. Everyone has an ideal objective they would like to achieve in a race, but it's important to have backups. Maybe you want to finish a race in 60 minutes, but would it be so bad if you finished in 70? If you didn't reach a time goal, were there other positives to take away - practise on a specific terrain, hill training, rehearsing for an upcoming race, working out a fueling strategy? Not all goals need to, or should be, time-based. It's okay to run a race purely for the enjoyment of running.