Sensibly stupid – the Rottnest Marathon

Wadjemup Lighthouse

Taken by Dennis Tan of Paparazzi on the Run on Digby Drive, Rottnest Island.

Last year was the first year that the West Australian Marathon Club arranged a very early morning ferry to bring runners to Rottnest Island on race day, and added a half marathon to their Rottnest Island Running Festival. Instead of having to stay on Rottnest Island the night before the race, it was possible to get up at stupid o’clock, head into Fremantle to hop on a ferry from B Shed and go and run a marathon or a half marathon. It appealed to a lot of people; so much so that the previously sceptical ferry service operator moved the early morning ferry booking from the smaller capacity ferry to the larger ferry, and then eventually had to use both of them to transport everyone.

I ran the half marathon, and Jeremy and Didi ran the marathon. We loved it. It was wonderful, a multiple lap course on the settlement end of the island, taking in Thomson, Little Armstrong and Geordie Bays. Yes, it was a bit hot and exposed, but the scenery was stunning and best of all, the course had welcome variation in elevation. I’ve never been a massive fan of the current Perth Marathon course, I suspect partly because I’ve run a fair bit around the Swan River, but also because the only real elevation change you experience is when you run over the bridge at the Narrows. Until I saw Rottnest I’d never really been inspired to do a road marathon.

WAMC opened entries for the 2017 event the month after the 2016 race, and I entered the marathon. Jeremy and I decided that this time we wanted to stay on the island for a few days. Aware that accommodation on the island can book out for events like the Running Festival, in December we booked a chalet at Thomson Bay North. Now all I had to do was train for the race.

Well, as recently discussed, my preparation took a few hits early on in 2017. I neglected Sunday long runs fairly regularly until June. A July 9th 20 km run was the furthest I’d run since a spectacularly crap 18 km on January 8th. I’d entered the WAMC Perth half marathon the Wednesday before on a whim, and then Thursday promptly fell ill with a bit of a cold. I slept in on Saturday instead of going to parkrun and when I started the race on Sunday August 6th I might have been feeling a lot better, but I certainly didn’t expect a new PB half marathon time of 2h04m, but there you go.

I entered City to Surf half marathon with roughly the same amount of pre-planning. I thought the lack of parkrunning the day before might have been beneficial for Perth half, so I gave it another lackadaisical crack and August 27th ran a far slower half marathon but on a much hillier course. A few weeks later Jeremy and I bunked off to Malaysia for the Formula 1 and then on to Singapore, and on October 7th we ran a wonderful and stupendously humid half marathon race mostly through East Coast Park in Singapore.

I think what I’m trying to say is that the idea of having any plan for training for this marathon wasn’t followed through on, and might have ended roughly 2 days after I printed out a training plan from the internet.

I couldn’t bring myself to drop from the full marathon to the half marathon, but I wasn’t concerned, because I’d run the course last year, and it was a lap course. You started with a stretch from Thomson Bay Settlement out towards Kingston Barracks and back again, then off you go past the resort building, across the salt lake causeway on Digby Drive, turn right down Defence Road, left and up and around the peak at Little Armstrong Bay, to Geordie Bay and then back past Pink Lake to the settlement. Re-run that loop once more for the half, and three more times for the marathon. And finish.

I knew I was undertrained. There was no getting around the fact that if I tried to get a spectacular time all I would do was blow up spectacularly, and probably break my body in the process. I knew I had to do this sensibly. Well, as sensibly as you can when you’re planning on running a marathon as undertrained as I was.

My plan was to do the two laps that would constitute a half marathon – that held no fears, I would be able to do that with no problems. A third lap would give me 30 km, which would be useful training for Six Inch, and a fourth lap was only going to happen if I was unbroken, and likely to remain unbroken. Even though there were five drink stations on the 10 km loop course I was going to use a small soft 250ml handheld flask so I’d almost always have fluids, and I would carry food and gels as well as hold supplies at one of the drink stations along with my own drink bottle with double strength electrolytes.

When I got to the island on Friday I rode the course and worked out where I’d give myself permission to walk. It was the Digby Drive hill after the salt lake causeway, the hill at Little Armstrong Bay and the hill into Geordie Bay. On Saturday I went to the start line to pick up Jeremy’s marathon bib and discovered that the course had changed slightly this year – instead of turning right after the Geordie Bay General Store and going down past Pink Lake to the road and left to the settlement, we went a sharp left into Fays Bay and Longreach Bay, around to the Basin, past the camping grounds and down through the Thomson Bay North settlement to the start finish line. When Jeremy came over on the afternoon Saturday ferry, we both cycled the newer course, checking out the gorgeous new section around Longreach and the Basin. I gave myself permission to also walk a very steep hill just after Longreach up to the Basin.

The race started with bagpipers, as it always does, and as we headed down towards Kingston Barracks I knew that I was going too fast for someone with my training history. I couldn’t successfully will myself to do slower than 6m30s kilometres; probably because whilst more popular, the marathon field at Rottnest is generally small and fast, so I was already well up the back of the field. On the first lap I kept my walk break promises, but had inadvertently run the Little Armstrong hill before the two bagpipers that stay there for the whole race – it appeared it was easier to run up than it was to cycle up, so I decided to just run that hill for all the laps. There were spots where I considered the walk break started and finished, and for the first two laps I kept to those fairly religiously, except for one moment when I was trying to breathe at the same time as I consumed a Clif Bar.

Little Armstrong Bay

Taken by Dennis Tan of Paparazzi on the Run at Little Armstrong Bay, Rottnest Island.

All of the drink stations are manned by army cadets and I stopped at nearly every single one and refilled my small handheld flask. I had felt slightly foolish doing this, until I got to Longreach Bay on my second lap and witnessed a distressed runner being cared for by Lauren Shelley. As I was running down the chalet road I’d seen the runner up ahead almost completely lose the ability to walk or stand – Lauren had already called the ambulance by this point. After that I had no foolish qualms about topping up with electrolytes and/or water. I was going to be one of the slowest people on the course, and it was going to be midday by the time I finished. The faster runners wouldn’t be experiencing the heat I was going to, so it made a lot of sense to carry my own fluids.

At the end of the second lap I realised just before I was going to turn left out of the settlement area that I needed to go to the loo, so I double backed and went to one of the public toilets. It was actually a bit of a treat – I got to sit down in the cool for a while, I got to wash my hands and wet my hat. I gave myself a quick mental once-over. What hurt? Was it pain or soreness? Was it an injury or just the fact that I’d been running 20 or so kilometres? I was fine, so I set out for the next 10 kilometres.

The salt lake causeway was getting hotter, and by the time I’d got halfway down Defence Road I’d realised that my inner thighs felt like they needed more Bodyglide anti-chafe. This was not ideal, but I decided that I could nip into the chalet and reapply on my way through the Thomson Bay North area – the chalet was two streets off course. When I got to Geordie Bay there was a delightful lady offering runners a jug of water over the head, and I gratefully availed myself of the service. Joy of joys, not long afterwards I realised that I hadn’t needed more Bodyglide, I’d just needed to wash off the salt crystals that had developed on my skin. When I got to the Basin there was a beach shower next to the toilet block, so I rinsed off further with that, and then headed into the settlement.

At this point I knew I was going to complete this marathon. I felt fine; no tiredness or hunger, no injury or excessive soreness. I headed out past the resort with what felt like the biggest smile on my face. Over the causeway and for the first time my post-causeway hill walk break started close to the bottom of the hill rather than halfway up. I got to Defence Road and felt a little uncomfortable until I started walking halfway down the road and could then rip the most tremendously loud farts. It is moments like this that you appreciate being one of the people at the back of the pack and thus well spaced out and alone, because I’m not sure that openly speculating “ooh I really really hope this is a fart” is considered something you can say in any company, polite or not.

I got to the Little Armstrong left turn and received my gold coin that Rottnest Marathon tradition required me to pay to the bagpipers for their time. Of course, by the time I reached the top of that hill the pipers had been packed off to the finish line so I gave my coin to one of the army cadet volunteers, deputising him as a piper. I wasn’t upset at this – those poor pipers had been in the hot sun all day, and traditional bagpiper dress generally doesn’t factor in Western Australian weather.

For the first time in the race I walked down the hill from the aid station to the turn left to head towards Parakeet Bay and Geordie Bay, and then set off in my trot. I don’t know how far I had travelled when I saw in the distance the unmistakable shape of Jeremy pedalling his Cannondale. I can spot that man’s pedal stroke a mile away, and I was very pleased to see him. He was very pleased that I was where I was and he didn’t have to ride up the hill to the turn off for Little Armstrong Bay.

All race long the marathon club had hijacked one of the few cars on Rottnest Island and drove laps of the course checking on the aid station volunteers and the runners. They drove up alongside me and asked how I was and whether I needed more water, and I said I was fine, and gestured to Jeremy a little way ahead on his bike saying “he’s with me”. They headed off and Jeremy and I talked as I trotted my way up to Geordie Bay. Jeremy mentioned the heat from the sun and gave me a quick test. When I successfully multiplied 7 and 5 he decided I was fine. Two marathon club volunteers pedalled up behind me as we turned into Geordie Bay checking how I was. I reached the chalet where the lady with the bucket of water had been; the lady and the jug had disappeared, but half a bucket of water still remained, so I carefully tipped some of it over my head. The WAMC volunteers on bikes took this as a good sign that I was still compos mentis.

The army cadets at Geordie Bay clearly had the best position, because by this point they had bought ice from the shop for the drink station and were getting stuck into icypoles as well. Jeremy and I went up the hill into Fays Bay and on to Longreach where we saw Lauren and she took a photo of me, congratulating me on my marathon. I laughed when we got to the Basin hill, because while this time I was technically running up it, I think I could have walked just as fast.

Wadjemup Lighthouse

Taken by Dennis Tan of Paparazzi on the Run on Digby Drive, Rottnest Island.

At one kilometre to go, Jeremy pedalled off up ahead so that he could put the bike away in the chalet and I headed down into the beautiful grove of trees near the campground for the final time. It was so nice being able to say goodbye and thank you to all the volunteers. I came up to the final turn, and nearly got taken out by a child on a bicycle as I headed into the finish chute. I looked up and realised I would cross the line at 5 hours and 29 minutes, which amused me – had I actually trained for this, I was hoping for something around 4 hours 30 minutes, so it looks like being sensibly stupid only costs an extra hour.

I got met at the finish line by Jules from the marathon club who thrust a Powerade bottle in my hand whilst I was awarded my medal, shirt and goodie bag. Jacinta came over to congratulate me on my finish and I slightly dazedly wandered out of the finish area. I came across Jeremy now bikeless and he guided me to the bakery where we bought pies, him an ice coffee and me a strawberry milk because they’d sold out of chocolate. I felt dizzy, nauseous and massively hungry all at the same time, so I slowly ate as my adrenalin subsided and my blood pressure returned to normal.

Rottnest medal and pie.I had done it and I had enjoyed every bit of it. Even in the last five kilometres when I walked a bit more than I’d intended, it felt like the walking was more because I was happy out there rather than because I couldn’t run any more.

I realise now how helpful that race has been for my brain. When I signed up for this year’s Six Inch I knew I was only signing up because of FOMO (fear of missing out), so I gave myself a deadline of November 14th by which time I had to decide whether I was going to run the race or if I was going to volunteer instead. But by about 33 km in to Rottnest Marathon I remember thinking “Yes, I’m doing Six Inch this year”. There’s no fear about not being able to finish, about getting to Aid 1 and being too tired and an hour slower than I ought to be. It’s only 5 km longer than Rotto, and admittedly a lot hillier, but I get eight hours to run it. And at least this year I’ll have done a training run further than 29 km, which is an improvement on 2014.

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Better living through neurochemistry

3T5A7975-(ZF-0037-19875-1-001)The point I knew I needed to go to the doctor was around the 18km mark of the 2016 Six Inch Trail Marathon. I came to the conclusion I needed to withdraw from the event once I had  reached the first Aid Station at 23km. I was far too tired than I ought to have been and was at least one hour slower than I thought I should have been. The training for Six Inch that year had been surprisingly difficult – both in effort expended, and in reluctance to train. I was tired and unmotivated all the time.

Monday after the race I went to the doctors and got an order for blanket blood tests – in essence, every single blood test that you could perform on a female. Anaemia and hypothyroidism run in my family, and the symptoms of those also mirror those of depression. Going through a checklist of symptoms I was ticking off a fair few. I had refrained from Dr Googling my way through my symptoms; the last time I’d done something like that was back in 2001 when I had reactive lymph nodes. Having presented with quite obvious sizable lumps in my neck, I was puzzled at my doctor’s insistence during the consultation that it was probably glandular fever. That was until l had researched my way to the non-Hodgkin lymphoma entry in the medical encyclopaedia at the public library, and upon reading that I decided that glandular fever sounded tremendous in comparison.

I had my blood drawn on Tuesday morning and the test results came back Wednesday afternoon. I was blood perfect; even my cholesterol. So that left depression as a likely probability. The doctor suggested that if the training regime to complete an ultramarathon wasn’t giving me the serotonin boost that I needed, it might be worthwhile looking into medication options, and also talking to a psychologist about what the trigger might have been to my general malaise. He suggested that I try and enjoy my Christmas holiday break – my office closes down for ten days over Christmas and the New Year – and see how I progressed afterwards.

I went back to work January 2nd, and felt pretty OK, but it wasn’t until I found myself crying for no good reason in the shower the morning of January 12th that I realised that my upbeat mood hadn’t lasted much more than that first day. I talked to Jeremy, sent a text to my boss telling her I wasn’t coming in and that I was literally taking a mental health day to see the doctor about likely depression, then made an appointment for that morning.

The doctor I’d spoken to before Christmas was on leave so I’d booked in to see another one – the female doctor at the clinic who’d helped me out with my multiple ear infections. She was excellent. She went through the paperwork for a Medicare mental health plan, which would subsidise ten psychologists appointments, and gave me a prescription for 10mg daily of Lexapro (escitalopram).

I went straight to the chemist to fill the prescription, then came home and took my first tablet. That afternoon I had an hour appointment with the clinic’s resident psychologist, and by the end of the hour she had me nailed. It was awesome. It felt like I’d been stuck on a trail somewhere in the dark, batteries dead in my headlamp, all the while knowing that there was a dirty great hole that I had to navigate around and being too afraid to take a step. She’d swung a floodlight on the trail, showing me the way through.

I’m a pretty introspective person, and for a while I’d had a gut feeling that something was wrong, but I’d not been able to put my finger on it. I’d mentally picked through my job description, trying to work out why I was unmotivated at work and what part of my job was I not enjoying. Perhaps a change in workplace was a good idea? I’d been in my current role since 2008. I hadn’t really realised that I was unmotivated to clean at home, because – well hell, in 2014 Jeremy and I had worked out that if both of us were training for Six Inch, the housework was going to slide. And why on earth would you question being tired all the time? See: training for an ultramarathon.

I’d wrecked my left ankle June 16th, the same day as shit went down at work. Jeremy and I had gone out that evening for a run to work out my emotions, and then I hit the deck courtesy of a heap of gumnuts dropped by the local flock of cockatoos. We’d booked a holiday to New Zealand for early July, and while there I wrecked my right ankle, basically through loss of proprioception in my left. My emotional vent was crippled, and my brain chemistry did not cope well.

The medication worked fast for me, the chemist and doctor had both said that it might take up to a month to work, but after three days on Lexapro I realised I’d not felt this good in quite some time. I had probably been self medicating with exercise for about 12 months or so, and then just when I needed running the most, it was taken away from me. I described it to people as “if perfect is 100%, I think I’ve been at 90-95% for a while, and when I wrecked my ankles I eventually tumbled to about 60%.” I was still functioning, I was still able to take care of myself, but I was not whole. I was not right.

I decided that I needed to be kind to myself this year – I had to practice self care. For running, that meant I needed to be able to choose my running activities without guilt; I had to stop putting pressure on myself. I had re-injured my right ankle January 7th – not to the same extent as I had back in July 2016, but enough for me to recognise I had to withdraw from Lark Hill, and at that point I decided that any running events in the near future would be entered fairly late in the game – it eliminated any training pressure that I might feel, or the chance of training guilt weighing on my mind.

The two things I kept doing was parkrun and Tuesday night darkrun. I enjoy both; neither of them generate that pressure that I was trying to avoid. At darkrun there is a regular group of people who run intervals, and have ‘warm-up’ runs ahead of the darkrun session so their evening totals can be 12-15km, but at the other end of the spectrum there are people who just run their Tuesday evening 5km. And parkrun is parkrun – the closest you get to pressure with parkrun is what you put on yourself: beating your PB, or some secret parkrun racing where you decide you have to beat a fellow parkrunner, who is probably entirely oblivious of their nemesis status.

When I filled that first prescription of Lexapro the chemist advised me that from now on any non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs – ibuprofen, celebrex, voltaren etc) were out of bounds. They slow down kidney function, which means that the Lexapro could stay in my kidneys for longer than it ought, causing damage. Any sports injuries would have to be treated only with ice, heat, painkillers like paracetamol/acetaminophen and what I not-so-kindly call unicorn fart cream; the herbal concoctions that tend to have lots of menthol or melaleuca.

With only really being able to take paracetamol for sports injuries I generally live with the pain until it just becomes a bit too much, at which point I’ll take two paracetamol and see how I feel when they wear off. There’s the issue with painkillers that if I can’t feel the injury then I have been known to make them worse because I’m no longer getting that “oooh, don’t do that!” sense, whereas with mild NSAIDs like ibuprofen it decreases the pain because it decreases the swelling, but there is usually some residual pain that can be felt.

I remember in 2015 when we thought I’d developed a stress fracture in my foot but it turned out that I’d torn my peroneus brevis. I was prescribed celebrex; a strong NSAID and an absolute wonder drug. It took the inflammation down so much that I felt no pain, and I could stand with full weight on a foot where hours previously I’d only been able to tentatively touch the ground with my big toe. I was advised that it would take 2-3 days for it to work out of my system when I took my final dose, so after 3 weeks I stopped taking the single daily celebrex. Three days later my entire body ached, because the celebrex had stopped everything else from hurting too, so I’d not noticed my hips and glutes tightened, and the subsequent pressure on my lower back.

Ten months into no NSAIDs I feel like this is the strongest and most injury free I’ve been in years. I was never a frequent ibuprofen taker if I could avoid it, but now that I need to deal with inflammation without medication I’ve found myself more aware of and feel more connected to how my body feels. I’ve been combining this awareness with the techniques that I learnt from Lauren Shelley; the pilates moves, the self massage for runners, and the rule of thumb with my body that if something hurts, it’s rarely the part that aches that is the problem, it’s usually bodyparts adjacent that are the culprit.

When I went to the doctors in June for a repeat Lexapro prescription the doctor went through the standard form depression diagnosis questionnaire with me and said that I no longer exhibited signs of depression. He said it was up to me whether I started to wean myself off the medication (going cold turkey off Lexapro is a very bad idea). I said that I’d like to stay on it for a while longer, until I felt properly re-settled back at work.

The idea of the slow wean did percolate in my brain for a month or so until I had yet another revelation early morning in the shower: I’d signed up for the 2017 Rottnest Marathon when entries opened in November 2016, and I’d also entered the 2017 Six Inch Trail Marathon. Lexapro was the thing that had restored that interest in exiting the house for a run. It had restored my energy levels to the point that I’d not feel worn out after Tuesday night darkrun. Lexapro was the thing that made it so much easier to discern the difference between a simple desire for a lazy day on the couch and the constant flat exhaustion of depression. Who on earth would think it was a good idea to wean yourself off this in the lead up to a marathon and an ultra marathon?!