Taking the plunge: my Western Sydney Marathon surprise
One week before Western Sydney Marathon and I still hadn’t registered and wasn’t particularly motivated.
I had done hardly any running in the last month, and so far this year have only been doing about 50% of my 2016-2018 average training load.
I’d had so many persistent niggles, especially in my back which had flared up in the last month, and I’d been sick with the flu for nearly three weeks.
Just to keep me doing some kind of running, my partner and running coach, Graham, was setting most of my Training Peaks activities as “easy bookend runs” – 5mins in zone 1 (over 7:30 pace); 20-30 mins in zone 2 (6:30-7:30 pace) and 5mins back in zone 1. I didn’t even do all of those runs and I’d missed lots of strength classes, thanks to sickness, injury and being busy with work (and to be honest, a bit of a lack of motivation). I hadn’t even had a decent crack at parkrun in weeks, but at the Penrith Lakes parkrun 5th Anniversary I paced 45 minutes: and was able to RUN the entire 5k at 9min/km (oh yeah – I could run slow if I wanted to!).
While I was getting demoralised by my perceived lack of “performance”, I was also starting to quite enjoy “running slow”.
I wanted to find a way to renew my love of running, and I knew I couldn’t wait until I was running fast again. I thought about the times I’ve enjoyed running the most. They haven’t been racing, where I’ve pushed myself really hard. The best times have been when I’ve gone out for an adventure. When I’ve had time on my side and have been able to run and walk for hours, just to see how far I could go.
That’s when I got the crazy idea. I knew a PB – or even personally good-ish time – was out of the question for the 5k, 10k and half marathon at WSM. But since the only two times in my life I had run more than 42.2km were during 50k trail ultras, I realised that as long as I could finish under the six hour cut off, I’d get a huge PB for the distance, an official marathon time, and of course a shiny medal.
I had a discount code that needed to be used that day. I checked the prices. It would be probably the cheapest marathon I could ever do, and it was only 10 minutes from home. How convenient!
I calculated that as long as I kept under 8:30min/km I would finish. I can walk faster than that and knew that a bit of running would be thrown in to make the cut off even more achievable.
I consulted my friend (who just happens to be a WSM race ambassador), the amazing Leigha Wills. She told me to go for it. Within seconds I’d signed up for a full marathon, six days out from the event. LOL!
Leigha was sworn to secrecy. I relished the thought of seeing people’s surprised faces when they realised I was doing the full marathon.
My six days of race planning began.
First priority: food. An advantage of the six-lap course is that you pass a “special needs” aid station on each lap where you can pile all your goodies, meaning you don’t have to carry them through the race. Knowing I wouldn’t be raising my heart rate too high, I figured I could just eat and drink pretty normally. I don’t do gels and energy drinks much anyway, so I wasn’t worried about not having trained with race nutrition.
One night at Woolworths I stocked up on all my favourites: chocolate, raspberry bullets, musk Lifesavers. It was a challenge not to eat them during the week. Looking forward to these treats was another motivator. I’d also planned to throw in some pickles, olives and an apple for variety.
Second priority: race strategy. Lap races are great because they are easy to break down into less scary chunks. Six laps, six hours. Any lap under an hour would bank time. Even with my non-existent preparation, my niggles, and my sickness, I was confident I could easy-run at least 7k, if not 14k without walking. At 7min/km, for two laps, it would give me enough time to walk the last four laps at 9min/km and have 10 minutes to spare. Entirely doable. I was also somewhat worried about miscounting the laps. There have been times I’ve lost count of my laps at track training, so running a marathon for up to six hours would surely provide an even bigger opportunity to stuff up. To mitigate the risk I’d pin five safety pins to my singlet so I could take one off each lap, knowing once I had no pins left, it was on to the finish line.
Third priority: gear. I have been struggling with shoes for years. Knowing I didn’t have any particularly good ones, I went and bought a brand new pair on the Tuesday afternoon, just four days before the race. I broke them in with a 20 minute treadmill run that night and a 4km short course option at the BMRC Social Run on the Wednesday night. I also got a couple of new pairs of full length tights just in case it was a super cold day, but in the end I decided to wear shorts. All my other gear was tried and tested.
Final priority: the body. My back has been pretty bad and while I’ve had lots of physio and remedial massages, some days are worse than others. I made a quick appointment with my osteopath, Dr Dan, who twisted me like a human pretzel and wrapped me up in about 15 kilometres of tape. Dan was the third person I told about my plans (I’d spat out the news to Jo Nevin on Wednesday because I couldn’t help myself. Oh how we laughed!).
That was it. That was pretty much all the preparation I did.
On Friday evening I picked up the race bibs. I still hadn’t told Graham what I was doing, although he had strong suspicions since it was unlikely I’d be so secretive about any of the other distances. The other dead giveaway was my urgent requirement to purchase a 1.25L bottle of Coke for the next day’s race. When I finally told him the truth, he goes “You’ve been sick, and you’ve hardly been running, so you signed up for a marathon with less than a week to prepare?”. Yep. That’s what I did. He laughed. I think he’s used to my madness by now.
Since I’d nicked out early from work to pick up the bibs, and then had to race up to see Dr Dan to get my back re-taped, I ended up being on my laptop until after 10:30pm, and then I couldn’t sleep, so the early night I’d planned didn’t happen. But oh well. I was actually quite excited but there may have been a few nerves (symptoms included having a tantrum because I couldn’t find the right Tupperware lid for my pickles).
I’d had a nightmare during the week that I’d run really easily the whole way and was running up the steps (it was a dream, right) to the finish line when I realised I’d only done 21km. I often have nightmares before big races. Even with absolutely no pressure, self-doubt was creeping in while I slept!
I woke up and made a conscious effort on the positive self-talk, reminding myself:
- I did the UTA22 course in just under five hours about a month earlier – that’s a five hour long run, and since then it’s just been a fab taper!
- I’ve run the Knapsack lap race, 6hr pairs three times in horrendous heat, always managing to make myself run. This time I didn’t have to go that fast, and it wasn’t trail!
- I’ve done UTA50 twice, each time with far from ideal training and niggles, and always found a way to make myself run the runnables. If I could do it for nine or 10 hours on difficult trail, I definitely could manage under six hours on road
- My pace goals were realistic and the result I wanted was achievable
- I am not afraid of anything that is good for me or good for the world
- It’s only running
6.15am. Bags packed and Leigha picked me up to take me to the race. It all happened so fast from that point… it seemed that within minutes we were starting. I saw a few people I knew but I’m not sure it quite registered with them that I was in the marathon until they actually saw me running.
Easy pace. Easy pace. Easy pace. I hardly looked at my watch but tried to get into a comfortable rhythm. Gotta run the whole first lap, try to run the second. Any extra running is a bonus. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation I was in. I was actually in the process of running a full marathon, and was still trying to tell myself I could run seven km without walking!
I smiled to myself as I turned right out of the Regatta Centre gates for the first time in my life. It would be the first of six times that day. I enjoyed that little out and back section before joining the main loop, although less than two km in and I noticed my calves were getting tight. I probably wasn’t used to the shoes. I did the typical “try to ignore it, and maybe it will go away.”
I was well under expected pace but still comfortable. 5k in 30:30… I consciously tried to slow down but figured that while I was comfortable it was better to bank the time.
First lap in 43 minutes, way under expectation. My calves were really tight and I stopped at the special needs table trying to stretch them out while I scoffed a few raspberry bullets. Feeling strong. Smiling. Yeah, I’d be able to run a whole ‘nother lap. I shoved a handful of bullets into my pocket and took off for my second lap, then immediately realised that the chocolate would melt and had to pull the bullets out of my pocket and eat them straight away. Didn’t want to waste them, and it was only another seven kilometres until I could get more!
A second lap finished and my calves had warmed up a bit. More lollies, some pickle juice and I was running again. Now I was calculating that if I could run my whole third lap, that would be running a half marathon. I hadn’t even done a half marathon since November 2017, and I didn’t even run that whole thing. I was doing pretty well for all the training I’d not done!
I thought about my nightmare from a few nights earlier. Maybe it wasn’t telling me that the marathon was unachievable at all. Maybe it was telling me that I could run a half marathon easily. So I did. Graham met me on the back straight and ran with me for the remainder of my third lap before he had to race off to run the 10k.
2:18 for the half and it was nowhere near a PB for that distance, but way better than I’d expected to be halfway through my first official marathon. I felt like I’d earned some walk breaks!
My little toe was killing me and I knew I had a big blister. I had to take my shoe off and try to adjust my sock. There wasn’t much I could do about it but coat it in cream, take two Panadols and put my shoe back on. I grabbed a small bottle of Coke for the road and rewarded myself with a seven minute walk to begin the fourth lap. Then it was run, walk, run, walk, all the way to the end, mostly in 250m intervals using the markers around the lake to motivate me. The Coke leaked everywhere and I barely got to drink any. I dumped the bottle at the end of the fourth lap and decided a drink of Coke was something to look forward to each lap rather than something I needed to take with me.
I was buoyed by Leigha joining me for half of my fifth lap, bringing an apple because I’d forgotten to pack one. Most people wouldn’t run and walk and talk and eat an apple during a marathon, but it worked for me!
With one lap to go, I’d banked so much time that making cut off was not just a done deal but it was looking more like a low-five hour finish. Could I even go under? I reminded myself it’s not a good idea to set new goals during a race. I was going to smash my original goal, and that was all that mattered.
Jo Nevin and Ben Van Steel joined me for my last lap, keeping me entertained with their shenanigans.
But still I thought about how I could get sub-five. I needed to run 7min/kms for the rest of the race, and while I wasn’t off pace, at about half way through the lap, my fear of the race measuring long was confirmed. I should have only had three kilometres to go, but I’ve run enough laps around that lake to know I had more than three ks to get to the finish line.
I was really struggling now. Flitting between laughing and joking, and realising how much my body was starting to hurt (but actually less than I expected), and seriously considering amputating my right little toe. Jo kept me running, even if it was just from one witch’s hat to another. We talked a lot about poo during that last lap.
Leigha joined us and we were on the final straight. I looked at my watch as it clicked over to 42km in four hours, 56 minutes. Still so far to that finish line, which as everyone knows, gets further and further away during the last long stretch of path. I said “I could have had a sub-five mara if the course was the proper length!”. Then I realised I could still do that, so I kept running until I hit 42.2 in four hours and 58 minutes.
My friends left me so they could catch me when I crossed the finish line. I took a couple of short but purposeful walk breaks, and then ran the last few hundred metres to the finishing chute. 5:05:11 official.
I got my medal. I laughed and cried. And wondered where the hell Graham was. Turned out I had been so much faster than predicted that he thought I had another lap to go and was waiting on the other side of the grandstand, wanting to run the last lap alongside me. Oops.
Leigha, Jo and I cracked open our mini bottles of bubbly and celebrated.
A few finish line photos. And just like that, we were done. I’d survived my marathon. And unlike nearly every other race I’ve ever done, I was genuinely proud of what I’d achieved.
I forgave Graham for missing my spectacular finish. He hung around with me for over an hour while we waited for my official time to finally appear so I could get my medal engraved, and then he carried my bag and has spent the rest of the day getting me food. How good is food?
I am grateful for the support I had during the week from the people who were “in the know”, as well as anyone who encouraged me on the day, or congratulated me once they found out what crazy thing I’d done.
Normally I tell everyone what I’m doing. It was fun to do things differently. I’m not sure it would be wise to recommend signing up for a marathon, and then completing it with no specific training, for most people.
But I suppose in some ways I HAD trained for the way I approached this marathon. I had a few years of experience under my belt, knowing what running at different paces felt like, knowing what different pains in my body meant and how to adjust my stride or foot strike to give me some relief, knowing that I am a good walker, knowing how to avoid cramps, knowing what I like to eat and drink on long days on my feet. Even though I was far from my best form, I had been maintaining a base fitness level – and I had completely underestimated how far that would take me when I decided to test it.
So if you have a good fitness base, no serious injuries, the ability to focus on the process rather than performance, and enough self-belief, don’t be afraid to take the plunge. You could spend your life waiting for the right time to run your first marathon. You could spend years training to get into the right form to achieve a particular time you think you “should” get. But there’s no harm in challenging yourself just to complete the race, and having fun in the process. And as they say: YOLO!
Four days later and I’m amazed how well I’ve recovered. The only thing bothering me is this pesky toe (still considering amputation!). I’ve even started having more crazy ideas about ways I can challenge myself in the future.