Macleay River Marathon 2011 Race Report
This is gonna be a long post folks, with a couple photos too, so settle in!
We left Sydney on Friday morning and headed north in our rental car. It felt like we were taking a lot of stuff with us, but I knew from my obsessive list-making that I had everything that I needed for the race. It was a beautiful sunny day, but when we stopped for lunch in Raymond Terrace the clouds rolled in. On a whim, I bought a couple rain ponchos from a discount store. (Fortuitous!) We ended up racing the clouds all the way to the Snook family homestead in Eungai. The empty house there was freezing (his parents are away for a few more days), so Snookums spent some time getting the fire going. We ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room since it was the warmest place!
Saturday morning we made a quick tour of the place, collecting more firewood and feeding the chooks. Then we packed up and started the 50km drive to South West Rocks, stopping in Smithtown and Gladstone along the way. Finally we arrived at our hotel, the Smoky Cape Retreat. After we checked in and dropped off our stuff, it was time to head to the race registration. This was being held on the grounds of Trial Bay Gaol, and it was also the site of the race start and finish. I collected my number, timing chip, and shirt. We spent some time reading through the info sheet and studying the course map. Then I flagged down the race organiser Mary to arrange my early start. Since it’s such a small town and since they have to restrict traffic on pretty much the only road in and out of town, the race is limited to small numbers. (I could tell by the marathon sign-in sheet that there were even less than the 150 marathoners I expected.) You’re also meant to finish in around five hours. Since I knew I’d be lucky to finish in six hours, Mary arranged for me to start an hour early at 6am. Apparently one other woman would be starting with me, a local who had run the race many times. That made me feel a little more confident about not getting lost.
The rest of the day went by so quickly. The Snook and I hopped in the car and drove the course from the goal into town, making sure I knew where I was going. Basically, the 1st mile was all downhill from the Gaol running on the side of the road. At the bottom of the hill, a footpath started that ran all the way into the town center. It curved behind parks and a couple residential areas before popping out in front of the local surf club. The footpath continued all through town, though at one point you had to cross the street as it ended on one side. At the 8km (5mi) mark, the sidewalk ended and you were on the road. The majority of the race was on South West Rocks Road heading southwest out of town along the Macleay River. Once you hit the 21km mark, you turned around and headed all the way back. I felt pretty confident about the course. I felt less confident about the weather. The rain finally hit, and it hit hard. It poured all night. I tried to stay calm. I put out all my race gear (including the poncho!) and went over my checklists. I hydrated throughout the day. We ordered in pizza and pasta from the local delivery place before going to bed early. I tried to get some sleep, but I still felt like I was awake most of the night. At 4:30am on Sunday morning, the alarm went off.
I was so well-prepared that I was actually ready way early. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I avoided drinking much water, worried that I’d have to pee (like I did on my last training run). I felt pretty good. The rain had lessened to a sprinkle, and I had hopes that it would hold off. It was less than a 10 minute drive from our hotel to the starting area, and on the way we spotted a kangaroo watching us from the side of the road. “That’s a good omen!” I announced. We got to the starting area at 5:40 am. The volunteers were setting up, and the professional timing person hadn’t even arrived yet. Mary the organiser told me that the other early starter had pulled out of the race, so I was starting on my own. That’s when I realised I had a problem. The sun wouldn’t come up til 6:45am, and it was pitch dark. The hill road from the goal had no lights. How was I going to see? Mary was like, “Hmm… do you have a flashlight?” No, we didn’t. “Oh! Could your husband follow you in the car with his headlights?” Necessity is the mother of invention. The Snook hasn’t been behind the wheel of a car in over five years, but it was no time for complaining. He headed for the car while I sucked down my first gel and swallowed a couple Endurolytes. Mary put an orange safety vest on me so I’d be a bit more visible. The timer person had arrived, and she clicked a button on her laptop as Mary led me to the starting line. “Go!” Mary said. The volunteers cheered. I clicked Start on RunKeeper and took off. The opening lines of Cake’s song “The Distance” started up. It was pitch black and raining, and I was finally running my marathon.It took the Snook a few minutes to catch up in the car so I was by myself as I did a small loop of the campground. About 300m from the start, I looked to my right and realised there was a mob of 4-5 big kangaroos RIGHT NEXT TO ME. “Holy shit!” I exclaimed with a laugh. They just stared. Another good omen. As I reached the top of the hill to start my descent, the Snook caught up with me. The headlights allowed me to see as we headed down towards town. A few cars passed us in the other direction as more volunteers and racers arrived. I could see from their headlights that it was indeed raining, but to be honest I couldn’t feel it at all. I was so pumped on adrenaline. I was doing my 1:1 run/walk intervals. The plan was to go slow for the first hour, averaging around 9:00/km. At the 1km mark, the voice update told me I’d done it in 8:42. “GO SLOWER,” I told myself. At the bottom of the hill, the Snook pulled alongside during a walk break to see if I wanted him to park and run with me a bit for company. “No,” I said. “I got this. I can see enough. I can do it.” He wished me luck and headed back for the hotel. I reached the start of the footpath and headed off by myself.
As I ran I kept reciting my “magic words”, even talking out loud to myself. I felt great. The second kilometer was under 8 minutes, so I KNEW I had to slow down. “Slow down now to run faster later,” I said. I passed by the first water station, which wasn’t even manned yet. I passed a couple volunteers who were putting up signposts along the course. “First runner, comin’ through!” I announced. It amused me to think that I was in “first place.” (Sure, the other runners hadn’t officially started yet…) At the 5km mark I reached the surf club and was pleased to see that my pace was finally right where I needed it to be. At the 8km mark, the sidewalk ended and I headed down the road out of town. It continued to sprinkle rain, but it wasn’t enough to bother me. I was looking forward to the 9km mark, where I knew the Snook would be waiting. (Arakoon Road – which our hotel was on – actually looped down to intersect with the course.) As he waited, a lonely figure in an orange vest emerged from the gloom.
I was feeling good. The sun was coming up, and I was picking up speed to my goal pace of 8:30/km. I smiled and waved as I passed him and headed out of town.
The rain had stopped, and I felt so incredibly lucky. After all the worrying about the weather, the sun was actually trying to shine! I thought to myself that I shouldn’t waste this precious gift, and that I should enjoy every minute of the run. I went through my magic words again. (I’d actually brought along a notecard with my mantras on it.) At the first manned water stop, I handed over my orange vest since I didn’t need it anymore. I stuck to my plan of having a gel every 45 minutes and Endurolytes every hour. I yelled “MOOOO!” at some cows and had a laugh. I tried to guess when the other runners would start passing me. At about the 14km mark, I looked behind and saw a truck following a lone figure. A-ha, the race leader! I cheered as the young man passed me, yelling: “OH ALL RIGHT, I GUESS YOU CAN HAVE FIRST PLACE FOR A WHILE!” He grinned and waved as he flew past. There were others not far behind him. I clapped and cheered for every single person who passed me. The first girl was in about 20th place, and I gave her some especially loud cheers. Everyone was incredibly friendly, and just about all of them offered encouragement right back. I was the only person that I could see taking walk breaks, and pretty much all of them were leaving me far behind. I didn’t mind. I just really, really wanted to get to that turnaround point. The road was getting a little monotonous!
When I reached the 21km turnaround, I was still in the midst of the main pack of runners. I was feeling good. Every step was now taking me towards the finish line! My playlist was doing a good job of keeping me motivated. More runners were passing me even as I was still passing people headed in the other direction. I focussed on spotting whoever was in last place, wanting to know if and when they passed me (and I was truly in last place). Finally I spotted a very old runner being followed slowly by a truck with a blinking light. “Okay self, he’s last. I wonder when he’ll catch me?” Suddenly I became aware that the rain was picking up. I’d had three hours of not-too-bad weather, but things were changing quickly. On a whim, I pulled out my rain poncho and pulled it over my head. I made it with only moments to spare. The sky opened up and we were PELTED. My shoes instantly became soaked and every step threw up water as I lifted my feet. I had to hold the neck of the poncho to keep the hood on my head as the wind threatened to blow it off. It was AWFUL. The squall probably lasted for 15 minutes. I felt oddly positive about it though. It was like it took the pressure off. I think secretly I’d held out hope of getting some amazingly good time, like 5:30 or something, but that downpour broke the spell. All I needed to do was finish, and it would be good enough.
I quickly developed a problem though. With each walk break, I could feel the little toe on my left foot complaining. I was getting a blister. It hurt worse when I walked than when I ran. There was a water station at the 27km mark, and I stopped for some band-aids. It took me a few minutes to get my soaking wet shoe and sock off, and even as I put the band-aids on I knew they wouldn’t last long. It was only a few minutes later that I felt them slide off and move around in my shoe. Amazingly though, they seemed to lodge in a place that still relieved the pressure on my toe! I was happy that the blister crisis seemed to be averted. A new problem appeared though: my shins were threatening to cramp. Between 27-31km, I could feel the tell-tale heaviness and tightness as I lifted each leg. I went into my shuffle, but it didn’t help much. I ended up taking an extra walk break here and there, and trying to stretch as I walked. Another downpour hit. This was probably the low point of the whole race for me. My legs were hurting pretty badly, and all I wanted was to get back to town so I could see the Snook again. It was after 10:30 by this point and the race leaders were well past, so they were letting groups of cars through on the road. I remember working my way past a line of cars and campers, trying to stay on the edge of the road without being forced into the puddles and mud of the ditch. Many people honked and cheered. That was nice.
Finally, at the 33.5km mark I could see the Snook in the distance. I wondered what he must have thought, seeing this limping, bedraggled figure in a plastic poncho with squelching shoes.
I’d tied the poncho in a knot to keep it from flapping around. I told him that I was in pain, but I was going to make it. He told me he’d see me at the finish line.
I had been tempted to hand him my poncho at that point, thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore. THANK GOD I DIDN’T. Within five minutes, another downpour hit. I was running into town on the edge of the road, against traffic, limping as the cold rain bucketed down around me. The pack had thinned considerably at that point, and I could only see one person way in front of me and one way behind. I was so happy when I finally made it to the start of the sidewalk and knew I only had 8km to go.
That last hour was mostly downpour, and it really really sucked. I was pretty numb though, and the cramping feeling was mostly gone. I was occasionally stringing together a couple minutes of sustained running, and I knew that I was on pace to finish in under 6 hrs. One or two other runners passed me as I came into town, but the last place man with the truck was no where to be seen. At the 37km mark, I reached the surf club again and looked up to see the creek opening into the ocean before me. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a photo. I was nearly done. A mother was walking with her little girl and passed me going the other way. “You can do it!” the mother said as the little girl clapped. “I’ll do my best!” I said. That was really the only point where I choked up.
Then it was the last 5km, and I was back on the winding footpath running along parks and houses. I saw a figure up ahead, and to my surprise I realised it was Vibram Man! This guy running in black Vibram Five Fingers had passed me long, long ago – but here he was right in front of me. “HOLY CRAP, I ACTUALLY CAUGHT SOMEBODY!” I thought. (Yeah, his time was still an hour less than mine at that point, but still. He’d passed me and I’d then caught up to him.) “Vibram Man! You passed me ages ago! You okay?” He mumbled something about some difficulties, but he seemed to be okay. I passed him. I ACTUALLY PASSED SOMEBODY! We had less than 3km to go to the finish. That’s when the weather decided to throw everything at me. It bucketed. I actually howled at the sky. “IS THAT ALL YOU GOT, MOTHER NATURE? BRING IT ON! I CAN HANDLE IT!” (Yeah, I may have actually gone a little mad at this point.) I gave up on my headphones and tucked them down inside my shirt. For the last 2km, it was just me and the road.
That last kilometer uphill to the gaol sucked, but I was so, so ready to finish and be done. Every car that passed was honking and cheering. Most of the 10K and Half-Marathon racers had started, finished, and gone in the time I was out on the course, but the ones that were around were incredibly supportive. I made the same loop of the campground I had done in the morning, this time in reverse. (The kangaroos were up on the hillside instead.) I could hear the announcer below, so as I came down to the finish I pulled off my poncho so they could read my number.
“HERE COMES ANOTHER MARATHON FINISHER,” he said. “IT’S KRIS HOWARD OF CHIPPENDALE!” I raised my arms as I stepped on the timing mat, smiling and laughing. The first digit on the clock was still a “5”, so I knew I had met my goal. Mary was handing out medals and I thanked her again for all her help, especially with the early start. It had worked out perfectly in the end!
The Snook was waiting under a nearby tent where I was directed to take off my timing chip. That’s where he shot the video. From there, we joined a crowd huddled under the awning of the toilet block. The rain picked up again and it was pouring. The crowd cheered as each runner came through. I sucked down a chocolate milk and ravenously ate an energy bar. I knew I should be walking around, but it was just too cold and muddy and wet. The awards ceremony was about to start, but I was shivering and I knew I just wanted to be warm. The Snook offered to go fetch the car and get me the hell out of there, which sounded like heaven. As I waited for him to return, I realised that a girl standing behind me looked familiar. It was witchkitty! We said hello and shared a damp hug. It was nice to know that there was at least one other person there who knew me that was cheering me on! I limped up to join the Snook and he drove me back to the hotel for a hot shower and a hamburger.
The final results are here. My official time was 5:58:22, which put me dead last out of 101 runners. I was also last of the 28 female finishers, and last of the 5 within my age group (F30-39). You know what though? I am still totally and utterly proud. That was a really small field, and a pretty competitive one too. (I checked results for previous years and there were always a handful of runners who finished in 6+ hours. Not sure what happened this year, unless the rain scared all of them off!) I will never, ever forget the exhilaration of stepping off that starting line all by myself in the dark and the rain. I will never forget the feeling of holding the poncho close around me while cold heavy rain bucketed down on a lonely country road. I will never forget the cheers and honks from cars as they passed me. I met my “C” goal of finishing and my “B” goal of finishing in under 6 hours. I finished with a smile on my face. I cheered on every runner who passed me and thanked every single volunteer I met. I don’t think I could ask for anything else from my first marathon.
And lastly, THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who was following along on the computer or who offered kind words before and after the race. You guys rock. I thought of you all out there on the road, thinking how amazing it was that I had this community of people all focused on me and cheering for me from far, far away. I was running by myself, but I never felt lonely knowing you were all with me in spirit.