By Hayden Shearman. The last time I raced in Dunedin I woke up in hospital. The last time I raced a marathon I was rushed to ED when I collapsed moments after finishing. Today I raced a marathon … in Dunedin … and did not visit ED. I didn’t even visit the first aid tent. Success.
Our 6:30am bus trip from race HQ (the 32k mark of the marathon) to the start line took almost an hour. It felt like forever. The course follows the beautiful Otago Harbour, which is mostly flat but has wind-exposed point after wind-exposed point. I had my sleep deprived face glued to the bus window in denial that anyone, let alone my injury riddled body, could run this seemingly huge distance into a head wind for 32km back to Dunedin. Then I’d need to turn around to run another 10k on the other side of the harbour to the finish at Port Chalmers. At this point all the tweets I was considering posting all ended with #self-doubt.
All year I have been struggling with a left achilles injury that the doctors say is connected to an auto-immune problem I was first diagnosed with after waking up in Dunedin ED back in 2011. On top of this, two weeks out from race day, in the final 10 minutes of my final long run, my right knee seized up. It was a curious mix of hamstring and ITB tightness, which I later discovered to be a patella femoral issue. So my entry in the Dunedin Marathon was never set in stone. In fact I only entered at 6am on race day after contacting the race director two days before having missed the cut-off time for regos.
Anyway, the night before the race, after two weeks of very little running (my right knee was flaring up randomly and then going away randomly), I decided to go out for a light 4k run around the Dunedin streets to test out the knee and achilles.
The achilles was fine, and the knee was actually not too bad. So I made a deal with myself that I would pull the pin on the race if my knee pain was above 3 out of 10 on the pain scale at the 15k mark.
So the race started in a sleepy cove near the mouth of the Otago Harbour. The sun was just rising, lighting the opposite banks of the inlet to an incandescent green and gold. It was still cold on our side of the water, so I was glad to be wearing an old thermal top that I planned to discard once warmed up.
I had set myself a conservative goal of running at about 3:50min/km pace (2:42 marathon) and looked around the crowd and figured I would have some company at least for the first 10k. Fellow Aucklander Tony Payne (a 2:27 marathoner whose home town is Dunedin) was just out for an easier run today, so offered to keep me company for the first half.
This amazing sign of sportsmanship was, I believe, the main reason I made it to the finish line. I found that going uphill and into headwinds would aggravate my knee, so Tony kindly broke the wind for me for the best part of 30k. This made all the difference and meant that my knee pain was simmering away at a bearable 1-2 on the pain scale for most of the first half and would only flare up more than that on a hill. So I made the decision to go on.
We had the road to ourselves practically from the gun and just comfortably jogged along at 3:50-pace. We chatted on practically every topic known to mankind, including what the plural word for “albatross” is. Albatry? Albatrosses? Or just albatross, like fish and fish? I still don’t know.
We hit halfway in 1:21 flat. Feeling super comfortable. And that’s when we got talking about PBs. In my previous marathon in Chicago, the combo of heat and lack of hydration (due to getting the stitch at mile six) got to me, and I struggled home for a 2:41. So today I was only a 1:20-half marathon away from a PB. So we increased the pace.
3:50s became 3:45s. Then 3:40s and then some 3:3X kilometres.
I was feeling good. Surprisingly good. My mileage for this marathon was about a third of my training for Chicago. This time I had only run over 30k three times and had done zero speed work beyond marathon pace. So the 3:3X-kilmetres were the fastest kilometres I had run since January.
And yes, my body soon reminded of this.
At 30k, as we turned in central Dunedin to head out along the opposite side of the harbour to Part Chalmers, I farewelled Tony into the distance. He speed off and won easily in a phenomenal 2:36km. I went through 30k in 1:54, so definitely on track for a PB, and continued to run at a good clip. At 32k I was feeling not too bad. Then, at 34k, my undertrained and overly estimated wheels fell off.
There it was, the infamous marathon wall.
Like Chicago I was dehydrated and suffering with the heat. I now had the wind at my back, so its cooling effects were negated. I also had the surprisingly warm spring sun directly in my face, reflecting off both the pavement and the ocean, which was often on both sides of the bike path that the course followed. So after running the first 10k with a thermal top on, I now peeled off my singlet in an attempt to cool myself down so I could transverse the 5k gapping holes between the much-needed drink stations.
Earlier in the race I had missed a few drink stops for various reasons, but didn’t think much of it as the temps were pretty chilly. Now I was hanging out for the next drink station.
At 35km I stopped and drunk three cups (I had probably only had two cups total at that point). And then 2k later found myself asking spectators if they had any water to spare. I even asked a pair of ambulance workers on bikes if I could have some water, having seen their bottles attached to their frames, but they just cycled on by (not sure what was going on there, maybe my speech had deteriorated like my running and I just spoke gibberish to them) . Thankfully, a kind spectator drove up the road with a freshly filled bottle for me—whoever this was, thank you so, so, so much!
By 35k the thoughts of a PB were thrown out the window. Whereas just a mile earlier I was on track and hammering away at the tempo. I walked. Then jogged. Then walked some more. Stopped and chatted to some marshals, who kindly reminded me that I was only two minutes back from Tony and could still catch him. That wasn’t going to happen!
My average pace had slowed by a minute per kilometre, but now all I was concerned about was:
- not visiting Dunedin ED again (I’ve got bad memories of this place after last time when I awoke in a hospital passage way with no one around, shivering uncontrollably and unable to move or speak);
- and hanging on to second place.
On this second point, I knew Tony and I had opened up a big gap on third place, but how big? And with the leading half marathon competitors now passing me, I couldn’t be sure who was in the half and who was in the full.
I checked behind me at every corner. Trying to spot the colour of their bib numbers. Of course, if I had my wits about me I would have known that no one running 2:40-odd for a half marathon would be finishing as fast as these 70-minute half marathoners were running. But still I wanted to be sure.
I reached the final hill 2k out from the finish. I walked most of it as well as an additional hill a kilometre later (wasn’t expecting that one). Three half marathon runners had passed me and I now knew I could hold a semblance of running form to the finish.
The race was sponsored by Cadbury and although chocolate was the last thing on my mind at the 42km-mark, I was never so happy to see their purple flags waving in the warm breeze at the finish line. I gave a quick wave to the crowd and shuffled across the timing mat still in second place with a time of 2:46:01.
I was five minutes off my PB and that represented about a 7-minute drop off my projected time at 34km.
As I plied off my running shoes, to discover three blackened toenails, ripe to fall off any day soon, and a bleeding ankle from where the timing band had rubbed, I was reminded of the bigness of the marathon. It’s more than two half marathons; it is its own beast that needs to be respected with plenty of training, realistic expectations, and a religious adherence to the race plan.
The marathon didn’t send me to ED today, but it did send me to the well. Deep in the well. But I guess you would expect nothing less from a marathon. That is the beauty of the distance.
Photos: © Chris Sullivan. Seen in Dunedin