By Hayden Shearman We’re just a few days out from yet another Wellington Marathon and if you’re running it, now is the time to know what to expect from possibly the toughest flat road marathon course on the planet.
The toughest on the planet? I hear you say. Arguably, yes.
The simple fact that it’s mid winter in the windiest city on Earth, makes this, at its blustery best, an incredibly challenging race to run a PB on. Which is why I thought I’d share a few tips.
By far the majority of entrants are in the half distance and because the full uses the same course (plus an extra DOUBLE out and back on Shelly Bay Road to Scorching Bay) I’ll focus just on the half marathon course.
Thanks to the sweeping bays of the Wellington Harbour, you can split the half marathon course into four distinct sections. First up is the city and Oriental Bay, then the long scoop around Evans Bay and then back again on those two sections. Each section and direction has it’s own challenges and can be tackled as smaller goals along the way to the overall goal of running a PB.
So with your target time in mind and your pre-race nerves pushed to one side, let’s dig into the race course, section by section:
SECTION 1: THE CITY
Starting from the concourse at the stadium, you have a 300m sprint to the first 90-degree turn, quickly followed by a 180 (coupled with a downhill) and then another 90, before you find your way on to the navigational ease of Waterloo Quay. This early zigzag can be a nightmare if you’re stuck in the middle of the pack around the 1:50-2:00 pace groups.
The key is to begin in the correct pace group, stay calm, take the corners wide enough to avoid the traffic, and remember that the congestion will at most cost you 10-20 seconds—not huge in the scheme of things.
The going from here is relatively straightforward. Just follow the closed off lanes of Waterloo Quay, Jervious Quay, Cable St, and Oriental Parade. Use the kilometre markers to help you settle into your pace early. Don’t be focused on your Garmin, as these can be notoriously inaccurate early on and can also get confused signals amongst the tall buildings of the city.
Ideally you should have headed out on Tuesday or Wednesday of race week to practice your goal pace over 3-5k (the waterfront distance markers that start from Ferg’s Kayaks are ideal). Commit that pace to your muscle memory.
The first of the drink stations will be at Oriental Bay, so if you’re a 90min+ runner, you’ll want to take a few mouthfuls onboard here (drinking at race pace is another thing you should practice on the Tuesday or Wednesday before the race—practice with Powerade and water from a paper cup, pinching the top of the cup to make a spout).
From Waitangi Park onwards you can pick up some valuable extra seconds by running the tangents from corner to corner, particularly as the twists and turns become more prominent. Running a tangent is simply a matter of drawing the shortest (and straightest) line between two corners.
Many runners will subconsciously just run in the middle of the lane, but if you look to slice off the corners (so long as you don’t go off the course!) wherever possible, you can make gains that really add up over 21.1km (Youtube search “Rod Dixon 1983 New York Marathon” for a great example).
The 5k mark is just around the corner of Point Jerningham (100m before Balaena Bay). Section Goal: Conserve your energy and stay relaxed, hit your splits, and stay hydrated if running longer than 90mins.
SECTION 2: EVANS BAY (OUTWARD)
Chances are we’ll have a stiff northerly boosting us south towards the airport. Use this wind (but stay controlled) and expect to be a few seconds ahead of schedule. However, if we have a southerly, this is where you’ll want to find some cover.
If there’s a pace maker nearby (of which Scottish Harriers are providing 1:25, 1:30, 1:40, 1:45, 1:50, 2:00, 2:10) tuck in close behind them (in fact form a big train of runners) as this will save you a lot of energy and it’s precisely what the pace makers are there for. Otherwise pull up a metre or two behind a fellow competitor and maybe even communicate with them to take turns in the lead (like cyclists do).
The wind wand marks 8k and turns you side on to the wind. There is another drink station here if you need it.
As you make the turn northward on to Shelly Bay Road, you’ll have a good idea of the wind conditions you’ll face for the final 8km. If it is a northerly, you might like to target a group of runners ahead that you can latch on to over the next few kilometres before you hit the big headwind push for home. If it’s a southerly, be thankful that, even at halfway, most of the work has been done.
At the halfway mark, take a look at your watch, hopefully it’ll be exactly half of your target time (or a little more or less depending on the wind). Make a quick calculation of any changes you might need to make to your game plan, realising that the race really starts now.
Section Goal: Settle into your rhythm, avoid the wind, set yourself up for a big second half.
SECTION 3: EVANS BAY (HOMEWARD)
Alright, now is the time to strap on the game face and place some targets on the backs of the runners in front of you. If you have paced it right, you should be feeling okay, but those around will be starting to fade (the vast majority of runners slow up dramatically in the second half rather than run the desirable option of even splits). Being sure not to surge, set yourself little goals of gradually reeling in certain other runners by certain landmarks. For example, that girl in pink is going down by the time we reach the wind wand. Whiz by the guy in the superman costume at NIWA. Then coast by the pack of guys and girls at Balaena Bay.
The wind could well be a factor here again. Find cover behind other runners if at all possible and remember the benefits to be gained from running the tangents.
Section Goal: Get the competitive juices going but keep the pace controlled and as even as possible.
SECTION 4: THE CITY (HOMEWARD)
If there’s the slightest zephyr of a northerly, you’ll definitely feel it at Point Jerningham. You will have just passed the “5k to go” sign (there are only “kilometres to go” signs on the way back rather than “kilometres run”) so you’ll need to use some maths to calculate your splits to hit your goal.
If there is a strong northerly, you could have to work 30-40 seconds harder (or more) per kilometre to hit your usual pace. Either way, now is the time to visit the well.
Although your pace will be affected around here by whatever wind we get on the day, aim for a gradually increasing level of intensity (not necessarily pace) that will have you climaxing in a final flat sprint of 300m to the finish.
But before that, there are a few things you must know …
Firstly, don’t look at the stadium at the other side of the bay. You’ll just get discouraged. Focus on the task at hand knowing that it’s only 3k to go from Oriental Bay, and if you’ve done any sort of training, 3k is nothing, it barely raises a sweat on most winter’s mornings. It’s 90% mental from here.
Second, the 10% physical that remains can really be helped by a few checks of running form. Maintaining good posture enables you to breathe easier and allows your legs to focus on moving you forward rather than to keep you balanced. A high cadence (steps per minute) will keep the legs as fresh as possible and avoid that plodding feeling we get at the end of races. And the arms can provide that extra drive that your legs are now beginning to lack.
Finally, the course over the last 2.6k is a little different to the first 2.6k. You’ll follow the waterfront walkways, as opposed to the roads, which means some tight corners and loads of congestion from the 10k runners and walkers (if you are in the 10k, be considerate of others by walking in single file and not wearing head phones). This is always the most frustrating part of the course, but do your best to stay calm, run tangents, and allow the dodging of people and obstacles to take your mind off your pain.
You might have a “pain is temporary, PBs are forever”-style mantra to get you through these final few kilometres or you might want to think of a loved one and run this section of the race for them. Either way, you’ll need something to drive you up the ramp (and the only significant hill in the race) on to the concourse.
Pump the arms, drive the knees, grunt, froth at the mouth, roar … do whatever it takes to get up this speed bump as fast as you can. Then open up your stride and unleash all the way to the finish, saving a little bit of energy for a big fist pump or aeroplane claim or at least a smile for the finish line camera.
Enjoy the race and let me know how you get on!