Q: What are you doing for your wedding anniversary, Chris...?
A: Going up to Noosa to run a marathon with a mate.
In fairness, I did a bit more than run a marathon over the weekend of 15 May. I ate a significant amount of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, caught a (kind of) tan and got to run with / watch our good friend and fellow coach Michael Harvey compete in the Australian Ultraman event. Epic-ness!
On a serious note, I got so much from this trip, but before I go into that I need you to understand that Ultraman is simply beyond anything I have personally ever done, trained for or wish to do. It is a triathlon, done over 3 days, with the total distances being a 10km swim, 421km bike and 84km run. Yes, you read that right…. So as you can see, my marathon effort kind of gets lost in the midst of all of that epic-ness! That, together with the fact that this was not an event about me, with no official marathon time, no medal, no pacers, no bibs, no kilometer markers and no aid stations, but a monumental triathlon over 3 full days undertaken by only 54 athletes, made this a weird and wonderful experience for me, which I think will be unlike any of the 16 other events I do this year.
I arrived up in Noosa with a secret cohort of athletes who Michael coaches, who had come up to surprise him and another athlete on race day. I was ‘in’ on the secret and had nearly mentioned it to him about 50 times over the previous weeks, so the fact I was staying at his accommodation that night was going to be a challenge.
Thankfully my lips remained sealed and in the morning just before the swim start, everyone met up, surprised, celebrated and then began the watching, waiting, hypothesising, debating, tracking and clock watching that would dominate the next 3 days. To our utter delight, the athlete-surprise had clearly worked a treat (nothing to do with talent, years of training etc.. of course) as he came out of the 10km swim in first place, breaking the course record by 7 minutes. BOOM!
I remember that I swore a lot at that point and had goose bumps for about the next 45 minutes. What a legend! As each swimmer came out of the water, you could hear supporters voices creaking under the emotion and the pride of what their athlete had just achieved. Pretty raw stuff.
Out on to the bike for 145km they went and the supporters were once again, gradually left in clock watching, tracking and prediction mode. Thankfully there were plenty of options and during these ‘gaps’ where I fitted in a bit of training in order to keep myself focused on the marathon, 2 days later. Over the four days that we were in Noosa, my training looked like this:
Saturday: 12 km run & 1.7km swim
Sunday: 9.5km run (bit of trails exploration!)
Monday: 44km run
Tuesday: Recovery Swim: 1km
After a fair bit of training together over the previous months, Michael and I had decided that it would be best for me to begin running with him from 21km into his run, for a marathon distance, until roughly 63km. We thought that would be more useful than me starting with him, when he was fresh(ish) and would give him help at the points where he needed it most. Michael’s brother David would run the final section with him to the finish line on the beach in Noosa.
So after an eventful and simply epic day of riding for Michael on day 2, the 84km run loomed into sight on Monday morning. I had never seen Michael (or many other people for that matter) as exhausted or ‘out of it’ as after the ride of day 2. There was a brief moment as he was curled up in a ball after finishing, where I wondered how the hell he would make day 3. I also remember thinking, "No way, I’m never attempting this.”
So after watching the pack of 50 or so runners start the final part of their epic trilogy in the dark, I hopped into the car with the super-crew of Caz and David, who were catering to Michaels every need over the 3 days. You know that point when you are watching something unfold from the sidelines and you feel utterly useless? Yeah, that was me watching super crew and super man do their respective things over the next hour and 45 minutes. I just wanted to be out there running, but at the same time didn’t want to interfere as Michael locked into a decent pace and ran alongside other competitors, looking reasonably comfortable given the task that he was currently undertaking. As the previously agreed-upon 21km mark and my own start point approached I silently got really nervous in the back of the car. "What if I can’t make 42km? Shit, I shouldn’t have eaten that ice cream. I am so under-prepared. Do. not. screw. this. up."
As our support car pulled in a few hundred metres ahead of the small group of 3 runners, I hopped out of the car, chucked my hydration pack on and simply joined in as they went past, trying to hide my excitement that I was part of the most epic event I have ever been in. No starter gun, no warm up, no screams, no fanfare, no waves to the crowd, no high fives. Simply a, “Hey mate, how you feeling?"
Aside from everything else being different, I distinctly remember the moment I realised that this was not going to be a normal run. Soon after I joined in, Michael handed me a water bottle that he had just picked up from our crew. Simple gesture, but it snapped me out of the nervous excitement of my own marathon attempt and promptly reminded me that it was my job to carry the bottle, not his! I had started the run excited inside and thinking that this would be just like any training run, where we chat endlessly about random topics and debate business, running and triathlon issues in depth. Not sure what planet I was on at that point….
From the moment he handed me that bottle, my job was about making sure he had enough hydration, nutrition and ice to cool him down as the Queensland sun began to bump up the temperature into the mid 20’s. There was little ‘pacing’ as such. Michael is a stronger runner than me but thankfully he had done a bit (ok…a lot!) of work over the past couple of days, so I was confident that I could stick with him and not be a burden, which had been my one major worry going into the day. It may sound ridiculous but it was genuinely my worst nightmare to not be able to keep up the pace with him during the run. Its the only reason I held off (slightly) on the ice cream in the days leading up to it!
As the kilometres began ticking by, we kept a good, steady pace around the 5 min/km mark, letting other runners come and go, rather than racing or following anyone else's plan. We stuck to the heart rate readings that had served Michael so well in training and just kept tapping away. The course was certainly not flat, so I was grateful for the hours I had put in on the trails and on Kew Blvd near home in Melbourne over the previous months. It was a beautiful course in parts but at times it didn’t feel like we were in a race at all. Similar to trail runs I have done previously, just the odd brightly coloured ribbon dangling from a tree told us that we were on the right course, as well as the support cars for each runner, edging backwards and forwards along the parallel roads.
There wasn’t much chatter between us as we went through the never-ending process of feeding, fuelling, icing and sometimes negotiating with Michael's awesome support crew every km or so. To be honest, I didn’t really know what he was thinking for most of the time, but I guessed he had to be hurting if he was that quiet. "Think I’ll just keep quiet too then”... even though my mind was going 100 kms an hour. The first signs of that hurt and mental battle came just before his half way point when we slowed to a walk a few times, stopped to compose ourselves and take on a bit of extra caffeine or fuel.
Despite the slightly slower pace, we reached our half way and turnaround point bang on 3hr 30, just after seeing the ever-smiling Jody whizz past us on her bike. The support from friends and other athletes grew stronger as we began on our way back, seeing Judy, Carmen and Leanne in quick succession. I had a lump in my throat and suspect the others did too as we ran and chatted with Carmen who crashed out on the first day during the 145km bike. It was a nasty accident and it was so awesome to see her up and about supporting the other guys out there.
It was strange to see Michael in this kind of quiet, reflective zone as we changed to a run / walk strategy and kept the fuelling and icing coming. I remember wanting to really watch his every move, see how he was reacting, ask him what he was thinking, but i thought better of it… Amidst all this pondering, there was a brief moment of panic that hit me about 32km into my own marathon, where I realised that I hadn't really followed my own nutrition / hydration plan at all and that my legs were starting to feel like lead. Time to get on the coke.
As we crossed the non-existent marathon distance line for me, I did consider running further with him and maybe even going the whole rest of the way if I could. It would have been cool to do but it wasn’t what we agreed and Michael’s brother, David was picking up the baton with 18km - 20km to go. I ended up with 44km on the watch and a time of 4:27 for that distance. I think the marathon time was around 4:16.
We changed over duties, I quickly hopped in the car and all of a sudden marathon 6 was over. We still had a job to do. ‘Follow the blue line on the phone’ was the instruction from Caz and so that is what we did all the way back into Noosa, stopping every 1km or so to feed and ice. Thankfully the crewing involved a lot of up and down, so my legs didn’t seize up, and there was no way I was going to miss running the 600m along the beach into the finishing line as a team.
After the last agreed fuelling stop, Caz whisked us in to Noosa, where we parked up and promptly sprinted through the centre of town, dodging tourists and people on their phones as we headed for the end of the beach. There we found the Momentum Endurance Coaching ‘secret' support crew and we waited for Michael and David to appear. It felt like an age before he appeared, but it must have only been 20 minutes or so. Out came the goose bumps, lump in throat and I may have even shed a tear or 6 as we trotted down the beach, in the sun, as a group towards the finish line for hugs, smiles and reflections over ice cream.
F*ck I’m glad I did this. What an effort, what an event and what an amazing experience!