Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My marathon story...

Right now as I sit here thinking about how to write about my first ever marathon, it all just seems surreal. All the training, research on eating, tips from other experienced runners, fundraising, and race planning all came to a head last Sunday 18th September 2011. A day I will never forget!

A year ago, I ran the Blackmore’s Half Marathon, my 3rd half marathon with my Kembla Jogger’s friends, Nella and Pia. This is where we first toyed with the idea of running a marathon. As Pia was injured, Nella and I decided to make running a marathon our goal for 2011. We made the Sydney Half Marathon in May our first stepping stone and began training for this race in February. Our goal for the half was 1:45 and we finished it in just over a minute slower than goal time. Recovery took about 3 weeks and we got straight back into training for the big one.

We spent a lot of our weekly training runs discussing our training, our diet, our pre-race diet, other runners marathon stories, research we had done on the web... this all helped us to put together our race plan. We had so many people giving us their advice that sometimes it was hard to figure out what was the right thing to do.

The race plan: We based the plan on something I heard from my old training partner (and running hero) Cath Todd: “Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty and walk before you can’t run”. After months of training and research, our race plan was quite simple. Start out and try to maintain 5:40min/km pace. Take in fuel (energy gels) – one before the run, one after 1 hour of running and then one every half hour after that. Take in fluid at EVERY drink station. Stay together. Don’t be afraid to run slower to finish the run!

How did the race plan go? Well.... a race will rarely go to plan, especially when it is a marathon! That’s what makes it an adventure. I’ll start at the day before the big race.

I was at the Savvy-Delights Scrapbooking Retreat at Tahmoor and had woken up with nerves. Already. I tried to concentrate on the class I was doing but those nerves just hung around, making me lose my appetite. I had my carbo loading diet all planned out, or so I thought. It kind of all went out the window when they served zucchini slice for lunch and I had forgotten to grab some sandwich fillings the day before. Oh well... Waiting for Nella to arrive was torture! I packed up and tried to stay calm but I was full of nerves. I started saying goodbye to all the girls, trying not to get all teary (what’s with that?!)... I thought, “I need to get out of here!”... so, I sat outside just trying to breathe. Then Nella drove around the corner and finally, we were on our way!

We had booked a marathon package at the Vibe Hotel which was right at the start line and included a carb-loading dinner and express breakfast. Having learnt from the half marathon in May, not many places are open for breakfast at 5am.... and we wanted toast! We went over the plan, and the course that starts at Milson Point then over Sydney Harbour Bridge and into the city, to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, through Hyde Park then weaves around Centennial park and then back into the city through Darling Harbour and ending at the Sydney Opera House. The evening seemed to fly and before we knew it, it was time to sleep. I wish I could have slept well. The air conditioning in that room had two settings – hot or cold. But hot was too hot. Cold was too cold. So much for turning the lights out at 9:30pm... I think I finally drifted off at midnight.

5:30am and the alarm goes off. OH MY GOD... today is the day! I jump out of bed... change and we go for breakfast. No banana’s. Crap. I always have a banana before a big run. Did I really expect them to have the most expensive fruit on the market?? What was I thinking? Ok, forget that... just eat!

With breakfast done, we go back upstairs to do our final preparations for the run.... down that Gatorade (check), running belt (check), 7 energy gels (check), chafe cream (check), suncream on (check), sweet potato and chocolate (yes, these were just in case we needed extra energy in that last half hour – check), hat (check), phone (check)... on with the shoes and we are ready to go. We realise our chest bib numbers are one number apart and we are wearing the same thing – blackmores event singlet and black three-quarter tights. Hmmmm.... B1 and B2??!!

I peak out the window and the half marathon has started. Now the excitement is starting to build. Perfect opportunity to get a photo on the balcony with the runners in the background:

The weather is hotter than we expected and the $4 throw away fleece we bought isn’t needed. We head down to the startline, last minute toilet stop (nerves!) and meet up with some friends also running. Quick chat and last minute “good luck” wishes, then we jog over to our start. We spot the 4-hour pacers and follow them as they weave through the crowd to get closer to the startline.
“One minute to go” is announced over the loud speaker. We get our garmin watches ready. The race starts. We walk slowly uphill to the startline. And then we are running. We hit the first kilometre mark before we get to the bridge. 5:36mins. Then we cross the bridge with thousands of other runners. Not a car in sight. So amazing! We continue on through a tunnel and then along the expressway. We chat briefly. Nella tells me she wants to run faster, knowing we shouldn’t. I also try to hold back from picking up the pace and keep reminding myself of the advice I got prior to the race: Stick to your pace even if you feel good. After 37km, if you still feel good, you can pick it up then! Good advice. We are running around 5:35 pace, with a few 5:25 and 5:15 k’s in there. Too fast.

We turn the corner after the 5km mark and see the first drink station. We stop along with what seemed like thousands of other runners trying to get in there for a drink. I grab two. One down the throat, the other goes over the head. Ahhh, much better! We keep running and find that we took way too long at the drink station, our pace has dropped to over 6mins. Mental note: be quicker at drink stations!

We head out towards Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and see all the faster runners heading back towards the city. Such an awesome sight! Next drink station: one down the throat, two over the head! It is getting hot. At this stage we are about 8km in. As we head back towards the city up a hill, we hear someone yell out, “Use those arms!”... oh yeh... we turn into Hyde park and run over the temporary bridge they had built over the road, a spongey feeling under our feet. At the end of Hyde Park we see a runner with a flag on his back pass us... the flag says: 4hr pacer. Oh no. We realise he was the one yelling out all the good advice! We set our eyes on him and stick with him for the next 6km. During that time, Nella tells me she is starting to struggle – it is just so hot. I try to keep up the positive talk. We hit the 10km mark, “2 seconds under!” yells the 4hr pacer. Everyone cheers.

We continue on...into Centennial Park. We run past Superman. We run past Sponge bob.... Then we stop for the “ladies” room at around the 18km mark and slow our pace. We watch as the 4 hour pacers slowly run off into the distance. I can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment.

I think it took me about a kilometre to get over knowing we wouldn’t run it in under 4 hours, but that was never the goal. The goal was to FINISH the race. I say to Nella, “Let’s forget about them and concentrate on our own race”. She agrees and we keep going. We make it to the half way point and I am just trying to maintain positiveness and make small goals for us to achieve. It’s hot. By this stage we are drinking water and Gatorade as well as dumping two cups of water over our heads. I am feeling ok. Just after 25km, a volunteer at the drink station dumps a whole jug of water over Nella’s head... we continue running into the hoses that are spraying water at the drink stations. Nella wants to stop and walk. She apologises. But I know it could have just as easily have been me struggling. I convince her to try and run to each drink station but it’s just sweltering. In my head I think, “just keep running, just keep running” and then realise I have said it out loud!

At 28km, we realise we will be nowhere near finished after 4 hours. The 4hr15 pacers run past us. I text Anthony while I am running to let him know to expect us after 4 hrs 30. We continue to run as often as we can and keep walking to a minimum. At 30km, a familiar face... Pasco cheers us on and our spirits lift. As we turn the corner and head back into the city, the downhills are torture! Our feet hurt from blisters. Our legs hurt, lower back... Nella is starting to cramp up... ok, everything is hurting! We try to make small talk... to take the focus off the pain. It works at times, but it is getting harder to be cheerful.

Passing through Circular Quay there are so many people cheering. The atmosphere is amazing! We continue running hoping to see our families but we must have missed them. By this stage our pace is between 6:20 and 6:40min/km... much slower, but still we are running. Nella says, “When are we supposed to start enjoying ourselves?” I say, “Right now, Nella... start having fun, ok?!”

We run under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and head out towards Darling Harbour. It’s a long, straight, hot stretch of road. We see Geoff, a KJ’s friend up ahead, walking. “Geoff!” Nella calls out... The heat has affected his run and he is struggling. He is distraught. We can see the disappointment in his face but he is still determined to finish, despite having to walk the rest of the way – another 8km. We pass many other distraught runners along the way, a few of them collapsed getting medical attention, others struggling with cramps.

We stick to shade wherever we can and stride out when we have to walk. Nella’s cramps are giving her grief but she pushes on. Then a hill! What?! Who would put at hill in at this stage of a marathon? Right... remembering the previous advice, deep breaths, use your arms! Let’s go! The last 5km was a blur. I remember the heat, the hills (albeit small hills, but they were hills!), passing others whenever we would run, cheers of the crowd. It was frustrating that our Garmin’s were telling us we had run 0.5km more than what the course markers were indicating... so not fair!

We round the corner to run back under the bridge... just over 1km to go. Nella has to stop. She tries to stretch and just cramps up. I freak out... “Let’s just keep going, Nella”, I say. She replies, “You go on ahead, you are full of energy”. “No.” I say, “I’m hurting too. We trained for this together, the plan was always just to finish. I’m not leaving you now! Let’s finish it together.”

We ran from that point all the way to the finish without stopping again. The cheers of the crowd kept us going and another KJ’s friend, Warren, yelled out to us to go! That last few hundred metres seemed to go on forever. Finally I see the finishline. “Come on Nella!!”, I yell.... we run through the finish together. At last! Our time: 4 hours 19 minutes and 48 seconds. I shed a few tears. Nella grabs my arm and points up at our husbands and her daughters who are standing up on the Opera House Steps – waving madly! We are so happy to see them. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

We collect our event goodie bag and medal – that medal I will treasure forever! Our families greet us with smiles and hugs. We are excited to tell them all about the run and celebrate with a lunch out and a nice cold Gatorade!

Now, a few days after the big run, it feels like I am suffering from post-marathon depression. Such an achievement that I am so proud of! I can’t wait to do my next one.... and I know I could not have done this without the support and encouragement of my husband, Anthony who always believed in me. And of course my training buddy, Nella – who put up with my whinging during all those long training runs and made this race an adventure that I will never forget.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends who continued to believe in me and supported my charity, The McGrath Foundation for which we raised over $1400!

"I've learned that finishing a marathon isn't just an athletic achievement. It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible." -- John Hanc


  1. Awesome story! So glad you got it all down, you will read this back so many times. So proud of you, babe. xx

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Linda - awesome effort.