By Hayden Shearman // Sitting in the back of a St. John’s ambulance at the 35.5k mark is not how I envisaged finishing my fifth marathon. Five minutes earlier I had just moved into third place, was on track for a PB on a tough course and was about to make a move for a possible second.
Running can be a cruel mistress. At times she welcomes you with open arms giving you painless runs and almost effortless PBs—you feel certain that Chris McDougall was right: we were born to run and born to run fast and free.
But then, with a start, you wake up from these sweet, fleeting dreams only to be greeted by the incredibly ugly side of the mistress of running. Lightyears faster than the speed at which she embraced you, she is gone, leaving a note on the kitchen table saying, “That thing we had going, it was fun, but I have other suitors queuing at my door desiring PBs and podiums that I must lavish with my affection.”
The note also includes an introduction and a phone number for her much less-attractive sisters: aqua jogging and physiotherapy.
Such was the gloom of my thoughts as I lay in the Queenstown Marathon first aid tent, screaming into a pillow as the physio prodded my Achilles.
But this race review isn’t all negative. On the bright side I ran 35.3k in beautiful surrounds with perfectly light winds and temps around 12-13C—all ideal for running except for the rain (which was very heavy at times). The inaugural event was well-marshalled with loads of keen, gum boot-wearing local support cheering us on from under their umbrellas. The kilometre-to-go marking system was also super helpful and reliably accurate too. All up, the race was well organised, barring one key point (more on that shortly).
The race started at Millbrook Estate on a leafy avenue in cool, gentle rain. We got off to a fast start with a good pack of 10-15 going through the first 200m in 40secs (this is 2:20 pace for the marathon, so you can imagine how keen everyone was to get moving and warm).
After 1.5k, order had been restored and we had five of us rolling down the hill into Arrowtown. Two leaders, Dave and Sam, soon broke away and must’ve been running around 3:20s, as I lost a good 50secs to them in the first 5k (my 5k split was exactly 17:30—3:30min/km).
The trails alongside the river from Arrowtown were really nice but the rain had made them a bit muddy and I was dodging puddles to keep my new Adios Boosts from filling up with water (and, of course, to keep them clean and shiny—I had already had three “nice shoes” calls from spectators and planned to keep them looking good for the photos!). There were a few short, sharp uphills through here but nothing compared to what was to come.
My 5k split of 17:30 was 30secs faster than planned but the downhills were steeper than expected and I was feeling okay-ish about it. I add the “ish” because I tried to ease back on the throttle for the following 5k to make sure I didn’t empty the tank too much. My next 5k split was 18:20 (this section being net uphill) and I was sitting in fourth about 15secs behind James in third, who must’ve been 45secs off first and second.
I ran the Lake Hayes portion of the course two days earlier but unfortunately misjudged my transport connections and ended up having to run all the way to Frankton (my easy 30min jog turning into well over 60mins). What surprised me about the trail, though, was all the short sharp climbs on the lake’s eastern shore and the Auckland Harbour Bridge-like grind on its western shore. On top of these topographic surprises, during the race, the heavens really opened on us, turning the lake’s firm packed trail to a gritty mud.
In an attempt to conserve energy for the second half I took it easy around the lake and on the hills, focusing on consuming carbs and fluids. Leaving the lakeshore, at 18k, I was now a whooping 75secs behind third but it looked like he had gained on second and first.
There was another hard climb from the lake up to the road and the start of the half marathon (midway point for us). I went through in 1:18, on the nose, and was feeling good (I figure this would equate to around 1:15-ish on a flatter course).
The course around halfway was flat on dead-straight, sealed roads. I love this sort of running and found a nice rhythm ticking along at 3:35min/km. I was feeling great and made up lost ground from the Lake Hayes hills.
Also, these long stretches gave me a chance to see what was happening with the top three. Third was passing second and second looked like he was hurting (after his early battle with Dave). And there was no one behind me for at least 5-6mins. It was a four horse race.
In a marathon, out of three runners, chances are that at least one of them will hit a wall, especially on a tricky course like this. When you’re conserving in the first half it’s hard to remind yourself of this but now at 23k into the race I was seeing my gamble come true.
I was taking around 6secs per kilometre out of third, meaning that I would overhaul him by 12k to go. I was feeling great and had totally found my rhythm. Unless he found a major second wind I knew third was there for the taking. And with second and first just another minute up the road, who knew what else I could pull out of the hat.
But then we dived down a super step gravel road to the Shotover River. I wasn’t expecting that and neither were my quads. They were already locking up. And then I came across a few short sharp hills on the riverside trails (weren’t expecting these either) and my hammies started complaining.
Today I was purposely running further back on my heels in order to give my calves and Achilles a break. Seven days earlier I had almost finished my final speed session and was about to run some sharpening 200s to finish the workout and my left Achilles sent me some moderate signals that not all was well. I called the workout quits and assumed I would recover alright over the next week of taper, with the aid of my other cruel running mistress: the foam roller. Anyway, in the race, by sitting back on my heels I felt my quads and hammies were over-compensating in an attempt to save my calves and this undulating section of trail near the Shotover River was really beating them up.
There were two more big surprises in the hills—one running up to Shotover Bridge and the next a few kilometres further on next to the Kawarau River. And on this note of hilly surprises, stay with me while I go on a little rant tangent …
This was the first ever Queenstown Marathon and it sold out five months before race day (almost unheard of for a new race). They achieved these sales through advertising beautiful scenes of the truly spectacular trails but also with claims that the course had a “mainly flat gradient”, using statements like “fast and flowing from start to finish”, “flat out beautiful”, “easy running on a mainly flat, fast course”. The only hills spoken of (aside for the minuscule blips and gentle downhills on the poorly scaled elevation profile) were “… a few undulations to keep it interesting”.
If you are a marathoner with no idea of the Queenstown geography you would look at their frequent use of the “f” word and think, “Okay, ‘flat’, it must be kinda like Christchurch Marathon or Wellington Marathon”. The one mention of undulations would shift that idea to something more like Auckland Marathon, which looses a few minutes in the first half thanks to a series of smaller hills and two moderate climbs—a course the first half of which you would genuinely call “undulating”.
However, as I was hauling (yes, I walked) my fatigue-ridden limbs up that final hill near Kawarau River, all sorts of quotes from the Fair Trading Act about misleading and ambiguous advertising were storming to the front of my mind. To call this marathon “flat” and “fast” is like Invercargill describing it’s weather as “warm and settled with a few cloudy days to keep things interesting”. That’s true if you compare it to Antarctica, but Invercargill’s frame of reference is other NZ cities, just like Queenstown Marathon’s frame of reference is other NZ urban marathons, not hiking in the Southern Alps. Every other marathon in New Zealand (except for the true trail marathons, which typically have an “off road” or “trail” or “mountain” in their title) are faster and flatter than Queenstown Marathon (even the notorious Legend Marathon in Auckland is equivalent too if not slightly quicker than Queenstown—I should know, I ran it two months earlier).
And, seriously, is it that hard to make mention of these heartbreaking hills in the course descriptions? Rather than just saying “mostly flat” and “undulations to keep things interesting” give descriptions of those undulations e.g. “At 31k your final major climb is 250m long and rises 30m (12% gradient).”
Race organisers have a duty to provide the product they advertise. If you can’t word your course descriptions properly or provide more detailed elevation profiles, spend some of the $149 entry fee you’re receiving and hire someone who can.
Would my thoughts have been different if I didn’t end up in an ambulance and a leg brace? Am I just being soft moaning about a few undulations? No.
I dedicated six months of training to this event, running up to 110 miles per week. I run hilly races all the time for a challenge and for the scenery. I chose Queenstown because it promised a “flat”, “fast” course in which PBs could be possible.
I encouraged a dozen or more runners who I coach to also treat this event as their main goal race for the year in which to chase PBs. And the nature of a marathon is that you only get one shot every six months, so when a race misleadingly promotes itself as fast and turns out to be slower than most marathons in the country (by 5mins for the sub-3 folks and up to 10-15mins for those running 4+ hours), you have good reason to be upset. Then there’s the pricey entry fee and the cost of traveling to, and accommodating yourself in, a tourist town.
Flat out not impressed.
Anyway, rant over. Back to my fatiguing legs …
On these surprise hills my hammies cramped on the way up and my quads screamed on the way down. These were the first signs of trouble but I was still gaining on third place and picked him up with 10k to run.
However, the hills and the sodden trail next to the two rivers had beat me up. I had planned to shift my gait to running more on my toes and engage my calves for this last push for home, but I needed some time to gather myself and sort out my tired legs.
I sat on third place’s tail using him as a wind break (which helped even though the winds hadn’t yet picked up to the cold gusty squalls that would come through an hour later—many runners in the five-hour plus group had problems with exposure and cold). This rest was just what I needed and after a couple of kilometres I was feeling good to make my move as we passed 7k-to-go.
But then the totally unexpected happened. Third place pulled up, started walking and told me to go on ahead. I couldn’t believe my luck. He just gifted me third place and, with it, a nice little pay cheque.
So I upped the pace half a gear and went up on the balls of my feet and then … Bang!
There must have been a sniper in the bushes because just three seconds after my competitor reduced to a walk, I collapsed straight to the ground, clutching my left Achilles. I had heard a noise and felt something recoil inside my calf. Not good.
The night before the race I read the pirate classic Treasure Island. It must be one of the most quoted books on the planet amongst my generation’s pirate-loving hipsters. I loved reading it actually and what stood out to me as I lay on the wet grass on the shores of Lake Wakatipu was the villainous character of Long John Silver.
Every adventure tale has to have a villain: Gollum, Wylie Coyote, the Joker, The Walking Dead’s Governor. And what makes that villain so frightful is the way they can always escape death and then return to terrorize the hero or heroin at the climactic point in the story.
My running villain for the past two years has been my left Achilles. I tweaked it in January 2013 and had nine months of very low mileage, rehab and zero racing. It eased up over the next six months to allow me to run a couple of races. And for the last six months it has been great. I had shook the villain off my trail. I had retrieved the Hispaniola and got the villainous bucaneers on the run.
Last weekend’s workout was the first sign that my old villain was lurking once more in the shadows. And then at 35.3k, with a PB and a third place (maybe more) in my grasp, my Long John Silver jumped me on a picturesque Queenstown lakeside trail, dealing his fatal blow.
As I lay on the ground, hands on face, race gone (I had tried to get up and run again but could barely even walk without excruciating pain), my mind went to one of my Tempofit runners who lay in a similar position at the 18k mark (effectively the same stage in the race as my 35.3k disaster) in her Auckland Half Marathon just three weeks earlier. Her villain of a knee injury had got her again. Mine had got me.
I tried shuffling my way toward the aid station that I knew was ahead. I could put some weight on my left leg but I couldn’t dorsiflex it at all. I could only shuffle at about 60min/km (yes, the zero is supposed to be there) which was a far cry from my initial 3:30min/km pace. It’s amazing how fast our bodies can change from athlete to old, old man in an instant.
Two incredible ladies from the half marathon, who I had earlier whizzed by, offered to carry me to the aid station. They were 15k into a race they had trained for and travelled along way to but they picked me up and shouldered me to a St. John’s ambulance. The St. John’s and aid tent staff were amazing. They consoled me and kept me warm and fed. Huge thanks to you all and to those two incredible women who stopped mid-race to carry me.
In that moment, when the mistress of running had deserted me, humanity shined in a wonderfully compassionate way.
So ended my marathon.
Third place hung on for third in 2:41. And James (the original guy in third) paced himself brilliantly to pull away for the win in 2:33, after Dave (the early leader) had a minor explosion of his own to finish in 2:37. I’ve since worked out that I was on pace for 2:35, so who knows what could have happened if my Achilles had played ball.
This whole experience reminds me that running never intends to be our eternally faithful companion. She’s good when she’s around. But sometimes she ups and leaves unannounced. And maybe she does that to keep our fascination with her affections in check.
There are other sports out there and other pastimes that could do with my attention for a few months as I rehab. And most of all, running teaches us lessons, life lessons, that are actually best applied outside of running: in relationships, in careers, in the maturing of our souls.
Maybe the mistress of running has taken off for a season to allow me to practice those lessons with other more eternal companions.
Finally, some more thank yous go out to:
- The Queenstown bus driver who lifted me in and out of the bus.
- Jetstar for sorting out wheel chairs, pneumatic lifts into the plane and an entire row to myself.
- The stranger who helped me up the stairs to the race bag pick up.
- The Queenstown drivers who waited three minutes for me to cross the pedestrian crossing.
- The St. John’s and aid tent staff.
- The two amazing half marathon women her carried me.
- And my wife who has received three too many calls from me in hospital beds after running in far away places.
Did you run? How did it go for you?