Auckland Marathon – First time standing on the age category podium!
New Zealand – 30th October
This year has without doubt produced some of the best results of my running life which is a huge turnaround from 12 months prior when an injury almost stopped me from running altogether. My weekend at the Auckland Marathon was another worthy addition to my list of achievements for the year.
After a very hectic year of racing including my first sub 3 hour marathon back in July at the Gold Coast, I was looking forward to a more relaxed approach to my first attempt at the Auckland Marathon. The plan was for this to be my last race of the year combined with a bit of holiday time but as other marathon runners know, very little else occupies the mind when you have an impending marathon in your diary !
The first way to ensure this was going to be a relaxing weekend was to put the bookings into the hands of a good travel agent and Felicity Kent at Travelling Fit did a fantastic job organizing the trip for us. We arrived on the Friday and had a great hotel within walking distance of the ferry to the start line (over the bay in Devenport) and a short distance from the finish line. On Saturday morning we spent as much time as possible surveying the course and the wife had the pleasure of chasing me in the car while I jumped out to run the sections of the course that looked like they might throw up the biggest challenges. After a number of these “running recce’s” it became clear that this was going to be no easy race and if I kept running all the challenging parts I was going to be worn out before race day. In summation it was clear that the first 17kms were going to have to raced at a “smart” pace with plenty of undulations to test the up and down hill running skills. From the 22 to 32km mark you head due east along the harbor foreshore and it looked like the perfect location for a nice energy sapping headwind. From the far eastern turnaround point to the finish line it was simply a matter of surviving the all too familiar challenge of the wall. As I was to discover the next day, I hate it when your predictions are exactly right !
Sunday morning felt more like a late Saturday night with a very early morning rise to get down to the ferry which takes you over to the start line in Devenport. A 6am race start meant we had to be down at the ferry terminal at 4:30am, an alarm call to get out of bed at 3:30am and, with a 2 hour time difference between Sydney and Auckland, it meant a 1:30am start to the day as far as the brain was concerned. This was quickly forgotten when we got down to the ferry terminal and had the great pleasure of sharing a magnificent ride across the harbor with my fellow runners. The suburb of Devenport on the north eastern side of the harbor is a stunning location for the start and the weather conditions could not have been better. Not a breath of wind in the air (yet !) and a mild 14 or 15 degree air temperature. It didn’t take much of a warm up run before I was shedding layers and working may way down to the running shorts and singlet.
0 to 10km
I arrived at the start area earlier enough to avoid the push and shove jostling for a suitable start position but was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not necessary as the self seeding was very orderly. I place myself between the elites and 3 hour pace sign and felt very lonely for a while as nobody seemed to want to place themselves ahead of 3 hours. This quickly changed though as the countdown to the start commenced and everyone moved into prime position shortly before the starters horn sent us on our way. The pace for the first kilometer was controlled by the gentle uphill gradient and it didn’t take long to settle in with a couple of equivalent pace runners. I’d recognized a fellow Sydney Marathon Clinic runner prior to the race, Martin Amy, that I knew was a similar level runner to me so we teamed up and enjoyed the atmosphere together. My plan was to keep the lead female runners in sight and I knew that Kirsten Molloy was a favourite for the race and a very strong full marathon runner so we kept her in range as we worked our way through the suburban streets up to the first drink station at the 4km mark. Kirsten was setting a very hard pace and Martin seemed keen to stay on her tail so I let him go and settled into my own pace and joined up with a couple of runners which included another Sydneysider, Enda Stankard, and a local runner, Armando Gallaraga. The next few kilometers were spent trying to source as much course information from Armando as we could and, to his credit, he was very accommodating.
At the 8km drink station I got a very clear demonstration of how taking a break to keep yourself “in tune” does not adversely affect your race time. Enda dropped off the group to take a nature break and I thought that would be the last we would see of him for the day. Unfortunately I come from the naive school of believing that every second is precious in a race but this was decisively proven wrong when less than a kilometre later Enda came flying past me and latched back on to the group again as if he had always been there. I knew then that this was a guy I had to pay close attention to !
10km to 20k
By now Martin and Kirsten were well off in the distance ahead of us but another lead female runner, Shireen Crumpton, was well within sight and there appeared to be a concerted effort within our group to close the gap on her. Knowing there was still plenty of hard work to do, I wasn’t convinced that this was the right thing for me to do so I dropped off the back of Enda and Armando and spent the next few kilometres on my own. So far the hills hadn’t posed any problems but I knew there were a few good ones to come so I continued to run my own race and enjoy a little bit of support from the small but vocal groups of spectators along the course. Northcote Point was the last suburban area we passed through before heading across the Auckland bridge and the crowd support along here was really uplifting and achieved the desired effect of making you feel invincible and ready to tackle all obstacles in front of you. It was perfect timing before the biggest climb of the day so a huge thanks must go out to the residents of Northcote point, well done guys !
It wasn’t long before quiet suburban streets were replaced by multi lane freeway conditions with guardrails and girders instead of gardens and fences as scenery. I still had Enda, Armando and Shireen in sight at the base of the bridge but from this point on it was simply a case on focusing solely on the patch of bitumen 10 metres ahead of me, head down and glutes firing for the next 800ish metres. It seemed to take no time at all to reach the summit of the bridge and I could see that I’d lost no time to my mates ahead of me but I then had a strange loss of confidence and energy on the descent. Maybe I had pushed too hard on the ascent but I’ve pushed much harder on climbs in the past and the descents are usually a chance to regather and enjoy rather than falter and fail. Back on the flat I was able to dispose of the demons that were trying to screw around with my mind and I slowly got back into a good rhythm. A short distance further on was my first chance to gauge myself against the leaders and pace runners at one of only 2 u-turns on the course.
The faster of the two 3 hour pacers was only about 2 minutes behind me, which was much closer than I’d hoped, but the second 3 hour pacer was around 5 minutes so I hoped (correctly as I found out later) that the first pacer was pushing the runners along at a SUB 3 hour pace but the second pacer was endeavouring to sneak over the line close to 3 hours. The 17km drink station was just before we looped back around underneath the Auckland bridge and I drew a great deal of confidence from the distinct lack of empty cups on the road, either the guys beating me weren’t drinking or there weren’t that many of them in front ! Up to this point I had been feeding myself SIS Go Gels but decided to switch to the Smart 1 gels (containing caffeine) one drink station earlier than planned after the scare on the downhill run off the bridge. I hadn’t had much company for quite a while so it was good to have another runner, Jason Bray, slide up alongside me and he didn’t seem too interested in pulling away. I wasn’t sure if he was the chatting type so we silently continued to glide along, side by side through the back straights approaching the city.
20 to 30km
What better way to mark another 10km knocked over than the sight of your wife cheering you on from the sidelines. Well to tell the truth it was the sound of my wife that I recognised first, from over 4oo metres away ! Needless to say this gave me a huge boost of energy that felt like I’d just topped up the fuel tank and I was back running the first kilometre of the race again. Jason could obviously sense a renewed energy in me and joined in on the ride to the 21.1km half way mark where the time clock showed around 1 hour and 26 minutes, well inside the time required to keep the horrible number 3 off the beginning of my finishing time. The course at this point wound its way through the narrow streets behind Viaduct Basin and then headed due east as it turned onto Quay St street and through the main part of town past the ferry terminal where we had started the day 3 hours earlier.
Jason had been pretty quiet up until now but we’d been sharing the same space of road for at least the last 4 kilometres and his first words were to ask me if I was comfortable with him pacing off me. Needless to say, he was helping me to manage my pace so I was more than happy for him to join me and the next 10 kilometres were going to prove to be “run buddy” crucial. At the next drink station I had my second SIS Smart 1 gel and continued to run alongside Jason as we headed out of town but it was becoming noticeable that we were going to have to battle a little bit of a head wind from here on.
I suggested to Jason that rather than running side by side we should start to take turns leading out while the other person sat in the slipstream (a common riding tactic). I lead out first and we agreed to swap around every 1 kilometre. It seemed to take no time at all for the autolap setting on my Garmin watch to signal another kilometre completed. Jason took over the lead and I tucked in as close behind him without getting so close that I’d kick his heals. We were starting to make ground on the occasional runner ahead of us but they were very well spaced apart so it was tough work picking them off. I could however sense that some runners were making up ground on us and it wasn’t long before 2 guys joined us but they only lead us out for a short time before they both slipped back in behind Jason and myself. We both continued to take turns on each kilometre and allowed the other 2 guys to choose when they would lead out. As we worked our way through Okahu Bay I was surprised to see that we were rapidly making up ground on Martin Amy (my running buddy at the beginning of the race) and as we went past I checked with him to make sure all was ok but his only response was that we looked strong and to keep going on without him. The head wind was still proving to be a challenge but every km completed was another one closer to the turnaround point and I joked to Jason that once we reached Saint Heliers it would be time to “set the spinnaker” and sail home.
30km to 40km
Saint Heliers was the perfect place to start the final phase of the race with some great crowd support and pleasant scenery to provide a distraction from the job at hand. The lead runners had passed in the opposite direction some time ago but I didn’t get much of a chance to count the number of runners ahead of me so I could only guess where I was placed at this stage. The most important task was to see where I was placed ahead of the 3 hour pacers as I took the crucial last u-turn that signalled we were heading for home. The first pacer was only 2 minutes behind but I didn’t catch sight of the second pacer so my first thought was that he must have withdrawn from the race ?? (I was later to find out that he simply lost his balloons that signified that he was a pacer). 2 minutes inside 3 hours was a little too close for comfort for me so I knew that I had to start pushing the pace a little. I took the lead from Jason and decided to stay there as long as I could now that we didn’t have the head wind to worry about and if Jason could keep up then I’d let him take a turn back on the front but from this point on the race was on and it was every man for himself. The difficulty with a tail wind is that you don’t really feel the benefit of it in unlike a head wind that is a very clear hindrance to your progress. The strange part about the course from the turnaround point was that you had to share the same side of the road as the runners heading east as the left hand side of the road was still open to traffic.
Fortunately the runners behind were still pretty thin on the ground so it didn’t pose a major problem but you still had to be conscious of runners that may not have been paying attention to those coming the other way. I was still feeling pretty strong but my breathing was a little erratic and I had to concentrate on keeping this under control also with no head wind blowing cool air on your face I could feel that it was getting warmer and the sweat was building on my chest and face. The good news was that my legs still felt great and my stride was still high and long. I was now at the 35km mark coming back into Okahu Bay and I had dropped Jason but I could sense someone making up ground on me and a short time later a local YMCA Auckland club runner, David Lear, came past at a reasonable pace but not so fast that I wasn’t was able to tag along for a little while. I took my last Smart 1 gel as we reached the drink station at the 36km mark and even though David looked to be pushing a hard pace I was able to keep him in sight even though I was a little further behind him than I would have liked. Fortunately the course widened a little further on and we had the left hand side of the road to ourselves to play with which was handy given that there were many more runners going in the opposite direction by now. The legs were starting to get heavy and the warmth of the day was adding to the potential fatigue at this point of the race so I simply focused on the city skyline that gradually got closer and told me the finish line was soon going to be within sight. I knew my pace was starting to slow and I had to work hard over the small rise over the Strand intersection and it wasn’t long before the sight of the familiar Ferry Station came into view for the last time and what a great sight it was !
40km to 42.2km
David Lear was well ahead of me by now and I thought that I could hold my place from here to the finish but I was mistaken when a female runner, Candice Hammond, came past me at a frighteningly rapid pace and I tried to grab hold of a tow from her with little success as she was going way to fast to hold on to. I settled back into my own race and tried to draw inspiration from the increasing number of supporters along the course approaching the back streets of the Viaduct Basin. All I had left to do now was to count the turns through the back streets and keep the legs turning over with every bit of fuel left in the tank. The next sight was a further indicator that the finish line was getting closer still. As I turned left onto Halsey St I could see a mass of runners heading down the right hand side of the road that were completing the half marathon whereas my side of the road was virtually empty with Candice now at least 20 seconds ahead of me and very little chance of catching her. The crowd support as I turned onto the finishing straight was inspiring and even though the actual finish line was still at least 400 metres away I felt compelled to hit the accelerator pedal early and drive hard. It didn’t take long for me to hear the all too familiar cheering from Bronwyn and I kept up the hard pace towards the line. I had a good view of the timing clock by now and was quiet surprised to see what I thought was 2:51 but I was sure this couldn’t have been right and this was confirmed when I head the announcer say 2:57 and the closer view of the clock revealed the shadow that was being cast across the top of the clock.
I was a little disappointed it wasn’t closer to my 2:54 pb but happy that it was under 3 hours given that the last 5kms of the race had been at a slower pace that I’d hoped for. My first thought as I crossed the line was to do as I often do in my gym training sessions and just let the body flop to the ground and not be embarrassed to lie down and let the body recover. It only felt like I as on the ground for a minute before I was ready to jump back up and keep an eye out to see were Jason Bray was. It didn’t take long for him to come through and after a brief congratulations and chat I saw Bronwyn in the background and ran over to see her. I was feeling pretty good by now and there were no obvious issues with muscle strains, knee pain or blisters so I walked through the finishing chute to grab some drinks and fruit, hand back my timing chip and collect my medal. It took a little longer to do this than planned as I had trouble standing back up again after discarding of my chip plus I had a chance to chat to the 3 hour pacer to find out how he went and what had happened to the other pacer.
It’s amazing how quickly the mind forgets pain and even though I knew I’d felt it for the last few kilometres of the race, the euphoria of finishing with another sub 3 hour marathon in the bank was enough to put all of the suffering out of my mind. Now it was time to focus on enjoying the moment with the one person who really appreciates why I keep doing this. I get the greatest reward, the simple sense of achievement whereas all my wife gets is a sweat covered hug !
The final important task of the day was to go back to the finish line and cheer on the runners that are battling to beat the 4 hour demon (I love seeing the commitment of people fighting to beat the clock with seconds to spare) and then follow the course in the opposite direction to watch the runners in various states of pleasure and pain as we headed back to our hotel.
It had been a pretty satisfying days work but the real thrill was to come later in the afternoon when the official results were released. I was confident of a top 50 finish and maybe even top 40 but had resigned myself to the fact that a high placing in my age category was going to be difficult given the usual quality of runners in the 40-44 age group. I was simply gobsmacked to see myself in 31st outright (later to be elevated to 30th as somebody above me must have been excluded) and 2nd in my age category, my first big city podium finish !!
This was simply the perfect finish to a brilliant weekend and a fantastic year of running.
Time to rethink my goals for 2012 !!