In 2016 I returned to run my second Boston Marathon. I never wrote a report of my first race there because I could never work out the story I wanted to tell. That first time took place in 2013 and many narratives of that race have already been told.
I was joined in 2013 by two great running mates. On a remarkable day in fantastic conditions, all three of us managed to achieve best times over the marathon. It was a day to be celebrated, and it started off that way as we enjoyed drinks in the Lenox Hotel, with a view of runners headed down Boylston St towards the finish line from one story above street level. The bombs that went off were to either side of the hotel.
By the following day armoured vehicles were parked on Boston Common, and at the airport, as we prepared to depart two days after the race we were interviewed by the FBI. The manhunt was still ongoing and they were interested in any photos or video from the finishing area.
I knew that Boston would respond and considered returning for the 2014 race, but it didn’t fit in with my travels at that time. So in 2016 I returned to enjoy a Boston Marathon trip from start to finish.
I had no company for this trip, but as I waited in a toilet queue I started up a conversation with a guy just behind me when I spotted his Seattle Running Club cap. Then it turned out that the guy in front of me was also from Seattle so we talked about favourite running spots.
I had qualified with a time five minutes faster than in 2013 but would start from the same wave and corral. In another parallel to 2013, my target was not to race flat out but rather to slip in under the three-hour mark. In 2013 I had gone three minutes under that mark for a PR.
Control every variable you can, but accept the variables you can’t control
On Valentine’s Day, I achieved my first running target for the year by breaking 17 minutes for 5 km. A month later I was ready for a single attempt in 2016 at my second target, to break 35 minutes for 10 km.
My time over 5 km predicted that I should be able to achieve my target and the intervening training had gone well. I found a perfectly flat course, although the nature of the race (predominantly targeting novice runners) meant that I would likely be running alone. But despite all of the steps you can take in preparation, a variable that cannot be controlled through training and preparation is the weather. Race day was cold, wet, and most importantly, windy.
With an extremely strong wind I would have likely called off my plans but instead, it was only stiff enough to ensure a tough day. The course featured a 2.5-km section of paved trail around the outside of Seward Park, run as an out-and-back, and then repeated once more. The headwind would be faced at the end of each “lap”.
A couple of years ago I realised just how difficult it can be to achieve great race results across varying running distances. The only times I felt in shape to mount a challenge at a respectable time over 5 or 10 km was in my training towards longer-distance races. At those times I wasn’t willing to incur the lost mileage of taper and recovery that the shorter distance race would require. Furthermore, my training was never focussed on improving pace over such short distances, so any times achieved would still have been short of my potential. With my focus firmly set on racing marathons and further I conceded that I would never achieve 5 or 10 km personal bests that would be representative of my capabilities.
Then in 2015 I had a period of struggle following a tough ultramarathon. I needed to refresh myself, and I decided to do that by focusing on shorter distances. All of a sudden I was including new speed workouts into my training plan, I had signed up for a series of short road and cross country races, and two very specific time targets evolved. I would look to break 17 minutes for 5 km, and 35 minutes for 10 km. During 2015 I did not quite make it, managing to lower my times to 17:13 and 35:17 respectively. I would start 2016 by having one shot at each target.
I signed up for a Valentine’s Day race over 5 km around Green Lake in Seattle. It was fast and flat, and other fast runners in the field meant that I would have company.
In late November I ran my 9th and final race for 2016. During that same period, I wrote only a single race report for my 100-mile effort at Cascade Crest 100.
But I have decided that this slow start can be overcome by a sprint finish. Therefore I will attempt to complete race reports for each of my seven road races over the last 15 days of the year. For each race, I will highlight a lesson either newly learnt or reinforced.
Every mountainous 100-mile race offers something different. Cascade Crest will possibly remain unique in being the only 100-mile race where I was able to sleep in my own bed the night before the race (unless someone knows of a good job in Durango). After a great night’s rest, I drove one hour up Snoqualmie Pass in early morning light for the very respectable 9am race start.
I arrived at the start line in the best shape of my life, having completed a fantastic 10 days of training at high elevation in Colorado, as well as enjoying some amazing experiences on trails throughout the Pacific Northwest. When race director Adam Hewey asked about my target in the calm before the start I felt comfortable to tell him about the 21:30 pace chart I was carrying. As a stretch target, I had also worked out a 20-hour pace chart to understand what that would entail in case I was able to pull ahead of plan.
I set off from the start line along the flat John Wayne Trail for the first mile at around 8:15 min/mi (just over 5 min/km) pace. If the profile had remained flat and the trail smooth for 99 more miles then I might have finished in under 14 hours, but we soon took a right turn and started the first climb of almost 3,000 ft (900 m) up Goat Peak.
The first race in my new home state of Washington is one that nobody seems to have heard of. Taking place in the town of Lynden, just 4 miles south of the Canadian border, even residents of the 12,000 population town had no idea that a race was taking place. While sitting down for a coffee prior to the race the waitress mentioned that she only realised the race (which ran straight past the restaurant) was taking place on her way into work that day, and vaguely recalled the first running of the event last year.
I signed up for the race as it offered a fast and flat course that is rarely available closer to home. I had initially been planning on attempting to break the 35-minute barrier, but the training disruption caused by an intercontinental relocation made that unlikely. After warming up I headed to the start line, noticing one other runner who had done likewise. It was the two of us that stood towards the front of the field as the countdown started.
Setting off from the start I needed to settle down into race pace, but I realised a problem. I had switched my watch from kilometres to miles earlier in the week, but had no idea of my required pace in min/mile. I was at the front of the race, using the first mile to perform some mental arithmetic to calculate what pace I should be running. It turned out I had set off slightly fast on the gentle descent out of town so I eased back as I ran alongside corn fields on the country roads with low-lying fog creating surreal, muted colours.
I turned up for the Athletics Victoria 15 km at Lake Wendouree in Ballarat (90 minutes outside Melbourne) certain that I would record a best time over the distance. That certainty was heavily related to the fact that I had never raced 15 km, and had therefore never recorded a time.
It is a race in which a graph of my pacing really does tell the whole story.
Taking place on a 6 km circuit around the lake, the race started with 1.5 km in an anti-clockwise direction before turning around (the sudden dip in the graph), returning back to the start/finish area and then completing two complete clockwise circuits. Still working towards peak fitness I started at a slightly conservative pace, thinking that I would speed up somewhere between halfway and the 10-km mark.
After inconsistent pacing in traffic for the first 3 km (the many ups and downs on the left) I was able to settle into a rhythm. Heading away from the start/finish area we were pushed along by a tailwind (my pace increased to follow the dotted white line of my average), so that on the return journey along the opposite shore of the lake the headwind slowed many of the runners down. I only slowed down slightly (dropping just below my average once more), starting to consistently pass runners.
Continuing my slightly disordered race reporting of late, this is a report of a race from mid-April. Having rediscovered enjoyment in my running of late, and with it satisfaction in reflecting and blogging about the pursuit, I think I should now be able to return to orderly journalistic endeavours.
After deciding that I would not race the mountainous 75 km Ultra SkyMarathon at Mount Buffalo, with the 100-km TNF100 following just a month later, my race-day mantra was “hold back”.
Prior to the race I had a chat with Landie Greyling (who would win the women’s race), having caught up with her for a run in South Africa just a couple of months earlier. I mentioned that I was planning to take it easy, so she suggested that we could run together as she would also take it easy. We were definitely using different relative levels of easiness on this occasion, so perhaps I should have said that I was planning to take it extremely easy.
The race starts with two steep early climbs, so following my race mantra I walked every single step. On the gradual ascent I had dubbed “climb 2.5” I allowed myself to use a run/walk strategy before cruising down the hill into the aid station at the bottom of the long climb up Mount Buffalo. I ran some of the gentle sections of ascent, walked the rest, and by the time I approached the top of the mountain I was feeling extremely good. After a loop around the top I started the long descent, returning back along the exact same route.
Still feeling strong and knowing that I could easily fly down the hill I repeated my mantra frequently and held back on the pace until the last couple of kilometres, when I finally let myself pick up some speed. I returned to my run/walk strategy for the reverse direction of “climb 2.5”. The second-last climb on the return starts with a seemingly vertical wall, but it was the length of the climb remaining that seemed never-ending as I had miscalculated the ascent and kept expecting it to finish based on the readings from my watch. When I finally reached the top I lay down and stretched out my back on a picnic table, before taking in the view and then commencing on my journey.
After losing some of the motivation required to maintain the running volume for ultras, I decided that I needed a bit of a change. Therefore I signed up for the Athletics Victoria winter XCR season, which is comprised of a combination of cross country and short road races. I will start the season slightly out of shape and without any training towards shorter distances, but will now focus my winter training to set new fastest times on shorter distances I have never (or rarely) raced before.
My previous cross country race took place while I was in primary school, with a distance of 3 km. Strangely I ran a loop of the park where that race was held just yesterday.
My first XCR race took place at Lardner Park, offering two 4-km cross country loops with a number of ditches and a fence jump. Despite being an off-road event the vibe was very different to the trail races I am now used to. In trail races runners will normally congratulate someone overtaking them. In contrast I noted how aggressive other runners were when overtaking or turning corners.
I arrived in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba feeling underprepared for a 100 km race. Therefore I set out running to feel with no specific target time in mind, but thinking it likely that I would struggle towards the end.
The weather at the start line felt milder than expected and an easy first 4 km of road running provided a good warmup. The race is known for its stairs and we descended the Furber Steps, which we would ascend many hours later to finish the race. At the bottom I followed a conga line of runners as we followed a contour along the base of the cliff, but as we commenced our first stair climb up the Golden Stairs I overtook the runners directly ahead of me and found myself in empty space so that I could set my own pace.
The North Face 100 2015
The North Face 100 2015
The North Face 100 2015
I ran easily past the first checkpoint and arrived at the famous Tarros Ladders. A temporary construction for the race each year replaces the metal spikes that normally allow the descent of this 17-metre cliff, so I queued behind other runners to make my way down. After passing through checkpoint 2 I tackled the steep climb up to Ironpot Ridge and during its short out-and-back section I was able to greet a number of other runners that I knew. Following checkpoint 3 I stepped foot on Six Foot Track – home to the most famous trail marathon in the country – for my first time. A long gradual dirt road climb took me to Nellies Glen, and the stair climb back into Katoomba. I was feeling really strong and overtook many people on the climb, before hitting the tar at the edge of town and continuing to push the pace on my way to checkpoint 4 at the aquatic centre. Mentally I was trying to convince myself that the 57 km loop completed was a great warmup for the trail marathon remaining, once more looping out of Katoomba.