Monday, September 26, 2011

Blackmores Sydney Marathon 2011

Note from PWW: Thank you so much to everyone who supported the fundraiser for CREATE Foundation. We smashed the target and raised $1,290! I am deeply humbled by your generosity. If you still wish to donate, the fundraiser is open until October 4, 2011. Just visit the fundraising site here. Again, a million thanks to all of you.

Another note from PWW: This may be a long entry. You've been warned.

It was 4 AM when my alarm went off and I got out of bed with no hesitation. Despite not having raced in over a year, I fell straight into my usual pre-race rituals: morning ablutions, gear check, breakfast (oatmeal, bananas, granola bar, electrolyte drink), last minute gear re-check, out the door. We arrived at Milson's point just before 5:30 AM, an hour prior to the half-marathon start, and two hours before my race started. Mrs. PWW and I spent the next hour going through the pre-race motions of queuing up to use the portalets, going to baggage check, then queuing up to use the portalets again. It was all very familiar, but it felt like a dream, staring at the Sydney Opera House while warming up underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Soon after sending the missus off with a good luck kiss to start her half, I sat on the grass to get myself ready for the race. The area was electric, as one would imagine it to be when you get a group of thousands of runners together in one place. In the midst of all the frenetic activity around me, inside, I felt surprisingly calm. Too calm, in fact, that I started to think there might be something wrong; like the calm before a storm. I shrugged the feeling off, and completely forgot about it when I finally saw my good friend, Kaloy. We had a chat, Kaloy ate a couple of mini chocolates, and started twitching a few minutes later (something he usually does when he consumes sugar).

Ready to go!

Just after 7:30 AM, as the first lines of Jon Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" blasted through the warm morning air, we began the journey of 42.195 kilometres with a single step across the starting line.


At the starting corral, Kaloy and I wished each other the best of luck, and agreed to meet at the end of the run just in case we lost each other during the race. I had an inkling that we wouldn't be running the marathon at the same pace, based on Kaloy's blistering fast training runs, combined with the sugar in his bloodstream courtesy of a few small bars of dark chocolate Toblerone. My prediction was spot on. Kaloy and I ran beside each other for a mere 200 metres before he sped off, weaving his way through the crowd. I tried to keep up, but figured there was no way in the world I'd be able to sustain that pace. I watched as Kaloy's figure slowly disappeared into the thick wave of runners. I later found out that he ran so quickly, he actually made his way into the 3:30 pace group.

I read somewhere that a runner is more likely to finish a race when running with a buddy, so I started looking around for someone who was running a pace which I would likely be able to sustain throughout the marathon. It was interesting how I saw another CREATE Champion (the term used for us who chose to raise funds for CREATE Foundation) so I decided to have a quick chat with him. There were, however, very few words exchanged, and I thought I ought to resign myself to the highly probable event that I would need to run this in solitude. Well, mental solitude, as running with 3,690 people is hardly solitary.

KM 0 - 10

Within a kilometre of running, we ran across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most iconic landmarks of Sydney, and Australia. I let out a few audible laughs at the bridge, thanks to my inability to contain my happiness. It was an incredible sight seeing one of the busiest bridges in the world completely overrun by fellow runners, flanked by spectators, devoid of any vehicular traffic. I was soaking it all in, giddily observing every single detail with any leftover focus I could muster.

One of the observations I made was that my Garmin beeped a bit earlier before arriving at the second kilometre marker. It was probably 200 metres or so short, and I figured it might just be because I pressed the start button too soon, even though I distinctly remember starting my watch right at the starting arch. Again, I shrugged it off, and just kept running.

At kilometre three, a jazz band was perched on the pavement along the street, on what appeared like a small cliff overlooking the road where we were running. Drums, bass, organ, saxophone, in unison played, of course, "Eye of the Tiger" to the cheers of runners. I gave them a quick few claps of appreciation as I ran past them thinking, "This is awesome."

I was running inside the Royal Botanical Gardens a few kilometres later, and ran past two men speaking in Tagalog. My initial thought was to strike up a conversation and gain myself a few running buddies to run with, but I figured I was feeling good and should try to keep up the pace if I was to make good time. Just the day before, I figured I'd be able to finish in 5 hours, easy. So I set a (not so) secret goal of finishing in 4:30 or better. I sped past them and made my way out of the botanical gardens, stopping at a first aid station along the way to slop on some sunscreen.

Running at a pace that felt like I could run in forever, I overtook a few people just before getting back on the main city roads.

KM 10 - 20

Along Oxford Street, in the heart of trendy Paddington, pub and club patrons were still enjoying their alcoholic beverages as we ran past the night spots. Some were only just emerging from the dark clubs out into the bright, 8:30 morning sun, with a few sober enough to cheer people on. (As I was writing this, Mrs. PWW told me she once was still in a pub when the marathon ran past. I am not the least bit surprised with her admission.) A big, bald, burly tattooed fella was standing behind one of the steel fences, clapping and dishing out some motivation. A couple of guys who looked to be on the verge of a massive hangover assisted each other as they tried to cross the street.

Interesting as it was to observe the inevitable end of a night out, we soon ran through roads empty of people other than runners, volunteers, and spectators. I studied the course map prior to the race, and I knew we were headed towards Centennial Park. After this section of the course, we would be heading back towards the city, physically closer to the finish. However, it seems I didn't study the course map well enough. I found myself surprised and frustrated at the way the course looped around itself, making the task feel Sisyphean.

Somewhere along kilometre 16, close to the entrance gates leading to the park, I disappeared into a portalet to answer nature's call and came out to a find a familiar face. Kaloy was walking past the water station and I ran to join him. He told me he ran out of juice and had significantly slowed down. We ran for a few metres together when he asked me how I was feeling. "I'm alright, man. You?" Kaloy said he was feeling the onset of cramps. "Feel free to have a walking break, bud" I said, and Kaloy slowed down to a walk. I continued to run deeper into Centennial Park.

What I found frustrating about this part of the course was seeing the lead pack running in the opposite direction, and I would start to think that the U-turn would probably be close ahead when in reality, it was a long way away. More mentally than physically, it was exhausting thinking about how much longer I had to run before heading back to the main road.

As if that wasn't enough, the discrepancy between my Garmin and the kilometre markers was getting bigger, prompting me to see if anyone else had the same issue. I ran beside a girl named Carmen, noticing she had a GPS enabled watch. I asked her what pace we were currently running in, and she said, 7:00. My watch displayed 6:24. It was way off.

My discovery started a snowball of negative thoughts. My head was going "If your watch had been wrong about your pace all this time, then you're not on the right track to meet your goal." Then I started thinking, "If my watch had been wrong all this time, then my training runs were all less than what I thought they were. Am I really ready for this race?" I was breaking down mentally, and it was the worst thing that could happen at this point. I knew that if I was to go on, I had to stop the train of negative thinking. I just told myself that my goal of 4:30 may no longer be realistic, and I'd have to settle for 5 hours.

KM 20 - 30

Cameras were on the ready at the halfway point. I raised my hands and flexed my biceps in a display of strength and victory, but in reality I was struggling. I did that to try and convince myself that I was strong. Perhaps if I acted that way, I'd fool my mind into thinking it was true. As if on cue, I felt the onset of leg cramps immediately afterwards. I decided to be prudent and stopped on the side of the road to stretch, a few other people followed suit. I continued to run but after another kilometre I had to do the same thing. However this time, after stretching and taking a few steps, my legs felt like jelly. Inside, I was panicking. I couldn't understand why it was happening. I kept my fluids up, took energy gels and electrolytes, yet my muscles were rebelling. So I did what I promised not to do. I walked.

I thought I'd graduated from walking in races, but if I was to prevent the cramps from setting in completely and finishing the race within the cut-off time, I had to keep moving. I ran when I could, and walked when I felt the cramps coming in. At the 25 kilometre mark, I saw Kaloy walking on the other side of the road. He said he'd cramped up five times since I last saw him. He asked if the U-turn point was still far away and I said yes, not wanting to give him false hope. Kaloy picked up the pace and I continued towards the exit out of the park.

At Anzac Parade, I was running in silence right beside this lady and she commented on my running. "Nice running style. Same as mine." She laughed and we had a brief chat. After the usual introductions, I asked her what time she was hoping to finish in. "Five hours." Perfect. I asked if she'd mind if I ran with her, as it would be nice to have someone to pace with. She said she didn't mind at all. Excellent. I ran with her for less than a kilometre until I had to stop yet again to keep my legs from cramping. I told her to run ahead, and I was on my lonesome yet again.

The stretch heading back to the city was getting tougher as the heat became more oppressive. I sought solace from the sun by running in the shade as much as possible, and by partaking in every single spray shower from volunteers on the side of the road.

KM 30 - 40

After Hyde Park, a huge Japanese group was cheering runners on near Elizabeth Street. Perhaps they thought I was Japanese, and they started to shout what I imagine were positive, motivational messages. I had no idea since the cheers were in Japanese. Nevertheless, I said "Thank you," and one of them asked me if I wanted some spray for my muscles (to help alleviate cramping). I told him I would love some, and he proceeded to spray my legs with a cool mist that made it feel a semblance of rejuvenation. I thanked him profusely, and he wished me luck for the rest of the race.

Kilometre 32. I was back in the city, close but still far from the finish line. There was non-stop pandemonium from the crowd as runners made their way closer to the Sydney Opera House. The crowd served to give runners a boost, yet it also made me cringe to think that while the finish was in sight, I still had to run away from it to inch closer. Right in front of the dreaded "wall", despite the cheers from the crowd, I had to stop and walk. It was demoralising.

Until I suddenly saw another familiar face. It was Cherie! She quickly ran beside me and paced me for the next few kilometres, something she often did when I ran races in the Philippines. She pointed towards a small contingent that was my personal cheering squad, made up of my sister-in-law, her one and a half year old son, one of our friends, and my dad. I managed a smile, and thanked everyone for their support.
My personal pacer

When I arrived at kilometre 35, I looked at my watch to check how much time had elapsed. I had been running for the past four hours. With the cut-off time at the finish set at 5:30, I had an hour and a half to make 7.2 kilometres. Plenty of time on a good day. What followed next was what I consider to be the longest seven kilometres I had ever run in my life. I could see kilometre 40 on the other side of the road and fervently wished I was already there, but I still had five more kilometres to run to hit 40. With all the strength I could muster, I started the long trek.

I stopped at each water station to keep my fluids up, eat jelly beans and suck on sachets of GU. Even though I wasn't a big fan of Orange Burst and Mint Chocolate, at this point, it tasted like survival to me. On the mental battlefield, I started to break the big challenge down into smaller, more manageable bits. I would choose a spot ahead of me, like a sign post or an intersection, and run towards it. A minute of rest would follow, then I'd choose the next spot to run towards. It worked well. After a relatively easy ascent on a flyover, I finally reached the turn around point at Pyrmont and was soon past the final cut-off point I could remember, kilometre 38, where I saw the lady I was running with at Anzac Parade. I said hi (she remembered my name!) and I ran past. A young man was on the side of the road, motivating the runners, yelling out "All marathoners are heroes!" I gave him a smile and told him I really appreciated his support.

Just before kilometre 40, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Kaloy walking about a hundred metres in front of me (together with those two guys speaking in Tagalog earlier). I yelled out to him, and he shook his head, saying they missed the last checkpoint and were redirected to the finish. He was still positive about it, which says a lot about him. Kaloy said "there's always next year" before telling me to push through as there was still one more cut-off point ahead. Again, I panicked, thinking I had already gone through all the cut-off points. At the 40th kilometre marker, I asked the volunteers if there was still another cut-off point ahead.

I had 35 minutes to cover 2.2 kilometres.


So much for Plan B. My goal to finish in five hours went out the window, and was replaced with the goal to simply finish. I was still struggling, but random people along the road and sitting on cafes continued to cheer us on, and it was enough to help me pick my feet up. About a kilometre away from the finish, Mrs. PWW coaxed a small group of people to yell out my name and keep me motivated. The closer I got to the finish line, the louder the claps, shouts, and cheers grew. It was incredible how the crowd stayed until final stragglers such as myself made it to the finish, and it was humbling to feel such unbelievable support coming from people I have never met before in my life.
Almost there. Less than two kilometres to the finish.

The Sydney Opera House was on the horizon. A sign on my left said I was 400 metres away from the finish. I ran. I ran with every last ounce of energy I had left in my battered body, and heard my name announced on the speakers as I ran over the final timing mat. A quick glance at the clock showed 5:20:23. I finished the race by the skin of my teeth. Far from the time I envisaged, but I achieved what I set out to do.

I just ran my first marathon.


My official net time was 5:14:38, almost 45 minutes slower than my goal which in hindsight, may have been unrealistic given the level of training I did (or didn't do). When I ran in the Philippines, I always finished in the upper 50th percentile of the group, just slightly above average. On this race however, I was hovering somewhere in the 6th percentile. It was a reality (and ego) check, running behind the pack when all this time I thought I was much stronger than I was. Only now do I realise that the van I saw a number of times during the race was the vehicle that swept people off the course whenever they missed a cut-off point. I was that far back.

However, I'm not sweet-lemoning when I say I'm really happy about the fact that I "just" finished. I found out after the race that 16% did not finish the marathon course, which I thought was quite high. The conditions made it difficult, and while I thought the heat shouldn't bother me being a tropical boy, it did. I won over the weather and the course, and that's good enough for me. For now.

At this point, I'm certain this will not be my first and final marathon. I'm planning to run more in the future. In fact, I now plan to run at least one full marathon a year to help keep me on my toes. At least now I can look back at this race and remind myself of the lessons I learned. What works, what doesn't. More importantly, I'll remember the wise words of Juma Ikangaa: "The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare."


yo said...

dear tropical boy,

heat in the mid-lats are entirely different! so it's perfectly normal that you had a hard time with it during the race.

we're so proud of you brotha. more than 5 hours or not, you still crossed the line. :) congratulations again!

love from us 3. :-*

Leland Pasion said...

I had a feeling it was different, and I'm glad to have a geographer confirm that! It really was quite oppressive!

Thank you guys for all the support you gave me from thousands of miles away. I really appreciate it.

Miss ko na kayo! Much, much love.

David Pascht said...

It's good to our health!