Gold Coast Marathon 2014: 75% fun….25% pain….

IMG_2255 It is early, the sun just poking its nose over the horizon on the kind of picture postcard winter morning that turns the tackiness of Surfer’s Paradise into something beautiful – all silver and gold, shimmer and shadow. It seems like a nice morning to go for a run. The air is cool but not cold, with the promise of warmth to come. So I join with a few others (well, 5000 others actually) and off we trot.

At first we go south, heading over the bridge at Southport before finding the waterfront at Main Beach and then turning to follow the beach 15km to Burleigh. Some charge like there is no tomorrow, running at unimaginable speeds, secure in the confidence that overflows from elite athletes who can do anything. But most of us are a little slower – just moving at a pace we judge sustainable, conscious of the many miles to go that day.

I don’t know anybody around me, but we run in comfortable companionship. The rhythm of pounding feet and beating hearts accompanied by cheering strangers and screaming kids becomes the soundtrack of a lovely morning. Every so often we find a table laden with blessed relief – water and sports drink – and there is a mad scramble (not quite panic….but not too far away either) to grab some of that liquid gold to feed dry mouths and even drier muscles.

And every so often I find a familiar face in the crowd. A wonderful friend, a son, daughter or wife. There are banners, encouraging words, lolly snakes, wide smiles. And a lift of spirits too, followed shortly afterward by a strange feeling of loss and loneliness as unknown faces once again crowd peripheral vision.

GCmarathon 2014At Burleigh the crowds swell. The noise raucous and infectious. Somewhere a band plays “Take me home, country road” as we turn to head north once again, faces set now into the morning sun. The sense of rhythm is strong, the miles pass easily by.  Surfers ride, crash and paddle. Kids play. Dogs bark. Coffee shops overflow onto the pavement serving Sunday morning breakfast.  Eggs Benedict invades my nostrils. Helicopters buzz over the fastest of all – showing the rest of us just how far ahead they really are. All is well in the world. I could do this again. This is fun. Somewhere else a different band plays “Today I don’t feel like doing anything“.  And even as we run, we laugh at the irony. It is still a beautiful morning. Everything according to plan.

Gradually, as the half-way point falls behind, as the 3/4 mark starts to appear in the distance, things start to change a little. The comfortable cadence becomes a little strained. Calf muscles start to burn a little more, knees ache, mouth just a little drier with each step. That 3/4 mark is welcome. Family to wave and smile and laugh with. Crowds to play with. A finish line to see as we pass by and continue on our way. Not long to go. Not long. Just 12 kilometres more I ponder as I run away, suddenly feeling all alone among the crowd. The knees, the calves, the thighs start to insist now. You haven’t run this far before. You didn’t warn us. You can’t ask this of us on such a beautiful morning.

The lovely morning sun starts to burn a little, the road hot beneath the feet, the water stations seem further and further apart. And still we run away from the finishing line, further and further from where every muscle, every cell wants to be. At each drinks station the temptation to walk a few extra steps becomes overpowering. Of course I want to run the whole way, every single step – but those shrill voices in my legs start to chant one word over and over “No. No. No.” I relent, they quieten down for a moment. I run again. They protest again. And so the cycle goes. A battle that plays out in my mind, just as the same goes on in the minds of those around me. The friendly banter of earlier is gone. Each locked in a silent war of will.

We turn, now just 5k from home. A distance I run without thinking any other day of the week. A light jog after work with friends. A quick rip around the block on an early morning before family preparations for the school day call me home. Only 5k. How can 5k be so far? So insurmountable? So impossible? And then it’s four. And three. And two. And the finish line seems just as far away, as if I’m running in quicksand, stuck fast to the one spot. I trudge on, now beside another. We share the agony of the moment. Agree to overcome our screaming legs, run one last time, to finish together. A thousand times in those last metres I want to stop. To lie down. To rest. To silence my muscles. A man is down at the final turn, being helped into a wheelchair by an Ambo no more than 250m from the finish line. I want to stop, to help, to cry with him. So close. But I know that if I do, I will not start again.

So my new friend and I run on – somehow he motivates me to keep going. Faces to the sun, the noise of the crowd at last silencing the complaining quadriceps. Carpet. Fences. Grandstands. People. My family. My blessed, loving, suffering, encouraging family. My friends who drove an hour just to stand there for this moment in the sun. The clock ticking. My target time a few minutes gone. I no longer care.

If I could capture and bottle those final metres. The moment of knowing it is all but over. The moment of finally being sure I will make it. The high fives from my girls and boy, and a thousand other kids I’ve never seen before. The announcer saying who knows what, his words floating away on the morning breeze.

2 1/2 years of running. A year since this stupid idea occurred to me as I stood on the other side of the fence, cheering a friend home while having no idea what he had just endured. 6 months of training. 600km of pavement pounding.  Countless early mornings, blisters, aches and pains. And it is done. Not one metre past the line I stop running, sure and certain I will never run another step as long as I live…not even for chocolate cake. My new running friend and I shake hands, wish each other well, knowing we’ll likely never cross paths again. We shared 2km. 12 minutes. It might have been a lifetime.

I wander in a daze. I wonder in a daze. Water. Banana. Orange. More water. T-shirt. Medal. Gate. People, so many people. Vision grey at the edges. Knees weak. Muscles empty, so, so empty. Mind blank. Emotions raw and beyond control. I find my 12 year old, so proud of her dad. I hold her in the middle of the crowd, tears in my eyes and on my cheeks, knowing if I let go I will fall. I’m sure I must smell terrible and look worse, all salt-caked, sweat-dried, haggard and showing each of my years and more. But I hold on. And she holds me back.  I love this girl in this moment more than ever.

And then Sheri, and Mitch, and MK (who is the only sensible one…flatly refusing a congratulatory hug as only the rambunctious seven year old can!). A chair. A drink. My family an island in the sea of people. The sun shining. Voices chattering. Laughter. Stories. Triumph. Tragedy.

The Gold Coast Marathon.

It is done.

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PS: The next day when I arrive at the office, somebody holds the lift for me as I cross the carpark. I am forced out of sheer guilt to break into a jog to get there quickly and not delay them. It hurts my legs. But it also hurts to know I have already broken my promise never to run again.  Oh well, promise now meaningless…..I may as well run on.

PPS: So many people encouraged me in preparing for this day. In the grand scheme of all that is horrible in our world, it’s just a guy going for a run. But for me it was a big deal. Thanks to my family and friends. To Tracey. To Steve. To Andrew. To Dugald. To Paul. To another Paul. To Matt. To Ben. To the GCAM14 organisers and brilliant volunteers. To strangers by the roadside.  Most of all to Sheri and our wonderful kids.  Thanks.

PPPS: You could too. If you wanted. I’ll do it with you (don’t tell Sheri I offered).

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the long run

Several times a week I find myself thinking “what the hell am I doing?” and “who am I, and what ever happened to the me I used to know?“.

For the first 40ish years of my life, I lived happily sure in the knowledge that running was only useful in organised team sports, and then only when absolutely necessary. I’ve never seen anybody out running with a smile on their face, and “real athletes” (like olympians) aren’t human so don’t count (plus they’re probably on steroids…right?).

I therefore knew, without having to try for myself, that running sucks and nobody normal would voluntarily do it.

And then, approaching 40, I found myself consciously avoiding mirrors, dreading trips to the park to run around with the kids, and huffing and puffing unreasonably on the basketball court.  So with a little motivational support from my family I started dragging myself down to the local park before sunrise and joining in a boot camp.  It started great, nice people, encouraging, motivating, fun variety of exercise.

Until “Week Two”.

We arrived one morning in the cold and dark as usual, but there was no gear set-up in the park, no exercise equipment. Just the trainer standing there, smiling his evil smile.  “It’s a running day” he said, before briefly describing the course and sending us on our way.  The shortest course he outlined was 5km, but there were 8km (you must be joking) and 10km (don’t be ridiculous!) options as well.  “10k in an hour boot camp session? That’s not possible.” I thought to myself.

That first morning I made it 1km before grinding to a halt, and shuffling along for the rest of the 5k loop, arriving back to see the rest of my crew getting in their cars to head for home.  I hated running that day just as much as I ever thought I would.

But little by little, the boot camp worked, fitness improved, and with one dedicated running session a week I gradually got better at it.  In the final week of my 8-week boot camp experience I ran 5km non-stop. I have to tell you, I skipped, danced, sung and laughed out loud on that last half-kilometre through the deserted pre-dawn streets of Launceston – pity the early morning shift workers who had to witness it. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined running 5k and here I was, about to do it.

A couple of weeks later I heard about the Launceston Ten – a dead flat mass participation “fun run” (oxymoron alert!) a few months away.  I kept up the training, increased distances little by little and had a crack at it, finishing in a faster time than I dared think possible, and running the whole way (the first time I managed that over the 10km distance).  It was such an adrenaline rush to set out in a field of over 1500 runners, all tackling their own internal demons and trying desperately for a personal best, or even just to finish.  I loved every step of that run (my first and last ever “competitive” run).

Stupidly as I crossed the finish line I heard a little voice inside my head say “that wasn’t so bad, what about a half marathon?”  That’s as good a reason as any never to trust the little voice inside your head.

Life intervened and we ended up moving back to Brisbane – so it wasn’t until 12 months later I had my first “half” experience – at the 2013 Gold Coast Half-Marathon.  I chose that race for one reason: the course is dead flat (see a theme here?).  I trained fairly well, including a pre-race “long” run of about 17km and set off to the coast to run 21.1km (not for the first time thinking those same thoughts I mentioned right up the top of this little story) in my second ever competitive running race.

Like many rookies I went out too fast and paid the price – hitting the invisible (but very real) “wall” at 17k and struggling home.  I crossed the line, collapsed on the ground and (I’m not ashamed to admit it) wept. The emotions of the moment overpowered me. I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe that less than two years after getting off the couch I had just run 21.1km.  I was also mighty relieved, having now run that distance and got it out of my system, I could head home, keep doing a couple of 5-7k runs a week and just go bike riding with my mates for fun and fitness. It (my two-race old competitive running career) was over. Thank goodness.

Except I made the mistake of going back to the finish line a few hours later to watch the marathon runners coming in.

Not the elite non-human athletes, but the “normal” people, finishing in 4 or 4 1/2 hours. People that (while clearly fit) look like you and I, come in all shapes, sizes and ages. And the sense of achievement written all over their faces at that finish line (along with other things like “I feel like vomiting” and “I hate running”) stirred up that little voice inside my head one more time:

I wonder what it would be like to run a marathon?

What is it that makes people think things like that? What is it that makes people run?

I’ve discovered many things about running, and about myself while running. Sometimes it’s the peace and quiet. Sometimes its the amazing sunrises on an early morning outing. Sometimes its the chance to ponder work challenges. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I just listen to the rhythm of my feet and breath, and don’t think about anything at all. Sometimes its the sheer blessed relief of sitting down after a long, painful run.

Sometimes I do hate it, but mostly I’ve come to love it.  Lacing up the shoes, slipping into something light, breathable and non-chafing (now that’s a challenge!) and heading out the door in the quietness of the early morning….I don’t know, I guess I breathe differently when I’m on the trail.

And so I run, and (so far) keep on running.

Which brings me to this point, the start of May 2014 and now just 9 weeks until I find out the answer to that last little question: “I wonder what it would be like to run a marathon?”.  I’m entered in the Gold Coast Marathon (it’s flat remember!) and will have a crack at the full 42.195km on July 6th for my third (and last!) competitive running race.

Training has been going well, I’ve been racking up lots of miles and my longer runs are building in distance – up to a 25km outing last weekend for my third weekend in a row of running half-marathon distance or more.  My training schedule (concocted with the help of My Asics and tweaked a little after some running forum conversations) takes me out to 32-35 over the next 6 weeks before a 2-3 week taper ( I know…I get to taper as if I’m a real athlete!). I hear it’s what happens beyond 30km and when you’ve been on the road 3 to 3 1/2 hours that really tells if you’re ready for a marathon.

I have to say, my family have been fantastic. There’s a lot of hours on the road, and while I mostly try and go early in the mornings, it inevitably creeps into family time…and they’ve been nothing but supportive.

So far I’ve suffered no significant injuries, just a constant state of exhaustion, dead legs and the never-ending desire to crawl into bed and sleep for a year.  I’m constantly dreading and at the same time aching for my next long run.  I sure hope that’s all normal (it definitely doesn’t sound like it to me!).

So here I am, inviting you (my 2 friends, and 2 relatives who read this!) to join me for the next few weeks.  For that period I’m going to use this blog as something of a training diary, keeping track of how I’m going, how often I’m thinking “what the hell am I doing?” and how many times I’m tempted to withdraw my entry. I promise this isn’t going to turn into a fitness blog for the future…just for a few weeks.

And if you want, come and join my on the running track for a few km to keep me company or teach me some things about running (for I am a rookie….making it up as I go along!). If you want to check in with the training runs in a little more detail, you can find all my info over at strava. If you know stuff about running, I will gladly hear your wisdom.

I have two main goals for the next few weeks. First to learn to run a little slower – to make the pace sustainable over the distance.  And second, to figure out how to shut down that little voice in my head….in case it says something genuinely stupid like “what about an iron-man distance triathlon?

I fear I’m in this for the long run.

step away from the golf ball….

golfThe other night I was out at a golf driving range, with a couple of mates.

It’s something we do whenever we get the chance, meet out there, smash some golf balls out into a paddock, tell stories, listen to each other.  Really its just an excuse to hang out together, but there is a little golf as well.

When you’re the kind of golfer I am (most accurately described as a hacker!) there are lots of experiences that are common.

There is the experience of spending long frustrating periods searching for a golf ball in the long rough.

There is the experience of watching putt after putt miss left, right, short and sometimes go straight over the hole.

There is the experience of that mysterious slice, seemingly un-correctable.

There is the experience of the ball screaming along inches above the ground instead of launching skyward in a truly beautiful arc (a phenomenon we hack golfers call “the worm burner”).

On this particular night, I was reminded of another regular experience for hopeless golfers. Continue reading

the joy of the job: a new beginning?

I was chatting with Mitch the 10-year-old this week.

As an aside, how good is it when your kids reach a point where the conversations turn interesting, and insightful and not just about crayons, lego and fart jokes (ok, I confess one of those topics of conversation is primarily my responsibility in our family)?

Anyway…leaving that mental image aside…out of the blue, Mitch said to me:

“Dad, do you enjoy your job?”

Do I enjoy my job.  Interesting question. Well…do I enjoy my job?

I made some non-committal answer like “sometimes I do Mitch, and sometimes I don’t”.

Mitch’s response?

“If I had your job Dad, I would enjoy it a lot!”

I’m assuming he was talking about my real 9-5 job, not the other in which I moonlight as a columnist and product tester for a R/C car magazine.

The truth of course, in adult world, is that most of us have parts of our job/life that we thoroughly enjoy, and parts that we don’t.  The bits of my job where I’m trying to channel creativity, getting involved in interesting conversations that unfold possibility, that help people (including me) see light…these I enjoy thoroughly. The bits that are administrative, organising events, management tasks…well….not so much.

But Mitch’s question has stuck with me, because in an adult-kind-of-way to brush it off with a “sometimes yes, sometimes no” answer seems to do it (and him) a disservice.

I think the deeper question he was asking might be something like “am I glad I do what I do? is it more than just a job? do I look forward to the opportunities I have in my work?”

Or maybe “you spend a lot of time at work Dad (subtext: when you could be playing cricket with me), is it all worthwhile?”

Maybe the truth is that while I’d like to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, I’ve accidentally slipped into a kind of pessimism about the organisation I work for and it’s challenging future. And from that point of view, the word “enjoy” doesn’t quite fit.

So my challenge, for 2014, is to reshape that attitude, to look for the possibility and the potential in every day. To remember my sense of excitement about my work in this organisation, alongside these excellent people.

To reach a point where I am able to answer honestly the next time Mitch asks if I enjoy my job:

“You bet I do”

How about you…do you enjoy your job?

And just because it’s my role in my family…here’s a little gratuitous dad humour for you: