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The Anatomy Of A Race

October 22, 2008

This weekend I found myself in an unusual and unexpected situation in a race: in the lead bunch.  Instead of running against my watch I found myself in a situation where if I raced wisely I could win.  Here’s the anatomy of a race as it unfolded and the strategic thinking involved:

Getting There

I headed up top Toowoomba from Brissy with 8 other clubbies from South Pine Striders. As a new club, we admire TRR and aspire to become a club like them. They have a good history, an impressive array of events, a number of club stalwarts and servants who are knowledgeable and experienced, and and they have some excellent equipment too. That caravan is awesome! Once again, they did a great job. They even had WIN TV there to cover the race.
Conditions

Even though the weather looked mild [especially compared to previous marathons], the wind was blowing the wrong way down all the wrong roads! Our entire crew blew out on their times, but that is when you compare it to other runs. This marathon was my comeback after Comrades in South Africa and a long lay-off. My preparation was good and I achieved all my interval standards for a sub 3, but that was a bit undone by a bad bout of bronchitis which took 3 weeks out of me.

The only way I can feel better about my finishing time [3:08] is to regard it as a PB at Toowoomba, rather than compare it with a time at Gold Coast. I find the course a demanding one for the marathon, with plenty of turns and twists and some challenging sections. You have to work hard at maintaining your rhythm, unlike flatter courses where you get into a groove. However, that’s one of the reasons I like it, it makes you work and think hard.  Another benefit is that your next race will be faster thanks to the more forgiving nature of other races.
The Race Begins

The start at 6am was chilly, but I prefer it that way.  It never got too hot for the rest of the race and that was a good counterpoint to the wind which was not in our favour.

I ran the first lap in 3rd position behind Jamie, whilst John from Toowoomba led us out. The wind seemed to be pushing us back on the long climb and we tried hard to keep to a sub-3 pace. We ran through the first lap start/finish area as a bunch and then Jamie and I took over the lead at about the 15km mark and then we ran shoulder to shoulder for much of the way until about 32km, when we came through finish for the last lap.

We still had 2 minutes to spare at the halfway mark on a sub-3 but that got eaten away on the third lap and the fourth was all about hanging on. It was VERY unusual to be in a marathon and to run in the lead bunch with a shot at winning. I’m normally running against a watch or trying to get a place in a category. After a while the watch didn’t matter, it was a race and there were at least 3 contenders for the winners position.

Holding On

Jamie and I ran shoulder to shoulder for nearly 2,5 hours, which is a long time to run with someone.  Being matched for that amount of time has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the constant pressure to keep up the pace and not fall away.  The pressure comes from never being able to put distance between you and the gnawing doubts about what will happen towards the end and whether or not you will have enough to put in an extra effort to pull ahead of your equal.

This called for enormous patience and vigilance.  Being vigilant is a moot point if you are not able to respond to a sustained surge.  Patience was the key.  My thoughts were that if someone was better than me they would be ahead of me.  If they were with me they were either equal to me [at least on the day] or running too fast.  If they were running too fast that would tell from the REAL halfway mark of the marathon, which is 33km.

Patience therefore was the name of the game, and I had to ensure that I held the pace consistently and waited to see what others would do.

After running through finish for the last lap Jamie took off and started putting some distance in between us. I wasn’t looking forward to that long climb after the uni into the wind, and I certainly wasn’t up to chasing on that hill either. Just before we got to the hill Jamie slowed up and I ran past and into the long climb. At the end of the climb I committed the ultimate sin of looking back and I had put in some daylight between myself and second.  I was relieved but aware that disaster could strike me at any point, and with about 8km’s to go I could not assume anything.  Once more, patience and consistency was vital.

Bringing It Home

The run home became a balance between keeping a good pace and not succumbing to groin cramps. West street was torturous as ever, especially the second climb on it, and the dog leg past the uni is heartbreaking, even on the first lap! At the turnaround after 40km I had my next opportunity to look down the road ‘legally’ and saw that I was well in the clear. Second position had been taken by John, and third by Brett, who always had a word of encouragement for us as he passed us. Jamie took 4th. For a first marathon he’s done incredibly well, and he looks like a tough customer who will get a lot faster!
I received a warm welcome home from my club mates standing on the road and punched the air as I passed them, and then my family and some friends at the finishing chute provided plenty of noise and final high-five from my wife. Much to my surprise what followed was an interview with WIN TV and camera’s pointing at me from all directions. At the end of a marathon I like to crawl somewhere out the way, writhe on the ground in agony and feel sorry for myself. All the attention was a tad embarrassing, especially when you feel a bit like Steven Bradbury, but it aint going to happen again in a hurry so I may as well appreciate it.

The trophy for the winner is a cracker, and it went straight to the pool room! It will be a treasured memory for non-elite runner like myself.

One of my favourite quotes is

“Endurance is the ability to let your light shine even after you’ve blown a fuse.”

I think I may well have finally lived out that quote during this race.  I felt mentally weak at two particular points in this race, once on the third lap and then 2km’s from the finish.  I genuinely wanted to quit, and had to fight long and hard with myself to pull my head together.  My fuse had blown, my legs were cramping, and the rest of my body lost interest in soaking up the punishment.  Somehow I managed to let my light shine and as a result got to experience a very memorable finish.

Stan Fetting

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