Post mortem – Bunbury Three Waters Running Festival half marathon

I write these posts to clear my head after a race, to clarify an idea or thought, and today as a post mortem. The use of the latin phrase ‘after death’ feels particularly appropriate because I died in the arse out on course last Sunday. It was the hardest race I’ve done. True, in comparison to some I haven’t done many races, but I’ve learnt from the mistakes I made at Bunbury.

1) I did not take much notice of the weather forecast in the weeks beforehand, or on the day. I’d done two Busselton half marathons in February and had absolutely no issue with either of them. This meant this time I wasn’t concerned about the likely heat; in fact I hadn’t looked at a forecast for Bunbury at all. Next time I’m going to take notice of the forecast weather and any changes in it. After the race another competitor said that they’d looked at the forecast maximum a week ago, and it said 26.C, but each day the forecast maximum for Sunday crept up by a degree – which I think is surely an indication that the temperature on the day was probably going to feel hotter than it was. Also, the temperature on the day increased by 2 degrees every hour from 6am, so combined with a headwind on much of the course we baked out there, despite things like a resident setting up a lawn sprinkler for us to run through, locals with jugs of water ready for dumping on the heads of runners and fortuitous placement of beach showers on the foreshore.

2) I decided against using my fuel belt. Whenever I’ve used it I’ve almost always had High 5 Zero in it and not straight water. ┬áThe slight effervescence in High 5 Zero tends to force it up through the lids on the bottles while I run. It gently bubbles out and leaks down my legs, annoying me hugely. I knew that the aid stations were about 5km apart, and thought that they would be sufficient, but with the heat I now realise that I did not take on enough water for the gels that I consumed. I didn’t have any obvious issues on course but afterwards I did not feel good and wanted desperately to throw up. Next time I’m going to take my fuel belt, and just use straight water in it, assuming that the aid stations (as they did at Bunbury) have electrolyte drinks at them as well as plain water. If I’d done that on Sunday, I think my issues would have been resolved. Whilst I’m a prodigious sweater, I think given Powerade (the on course drink), the sodium in gels and a prepared pre and post run electrolyte drink I should be fine for a half marathon.

My gels were fine, flavour wise. I still haven’t come across a gel that disagrees with my gastrointestinal tract, but my taste buds have been tested on occasion. I’m still afraid of ones with a large amount of caffeine so anything with a coffee flavour and more than 10mg of caffeine I’ve avoided. I know of one fast runner who when forced by slight exhaustion to have a single gel on the Six Inch Ultramarathon found he had to go to the toilet four times on course. I think my history of eating cheap lollies has given me the required tolerance of disgusting sugars to eat gels. I do promise to inform you if I’ve just managed to jinx myself and end up in a truly mortifying situation on my next race.

For the first time ever I used the virtual pacer on my watch. Thankfully I had the sense to decide as the wheels came off at the 12-14km mark I didn’t much care that I had a constant reminder of precisely how far off pace I was (12 minutes slow in the end). At 5 km to go I found it amusing that on the way back in to the finish I finally had a tailwind and no real energy to make use of it. I also managed to lose further minutes in that stretch by stopping at a water fountain along the foreshore and scoffing down some water.

When you look at the elevation profile for Bunbury it appears to be a generally flat course, with a dirty great hill at around the five kilometre mark and not much past that. Except there is a lighthouse that you can’t see on a Garmin elevation profile, and the path goes straight up and straight down. Then you get to skip through some sand dunes that at least have a concrete path on them, but still; sand dunes. For a flat course, I remember the hills the most. The voice in my head that notes how fast or slow I am going had no qualms about idly observing as I was running up to the lighthouse with probably 750 metres to go “if you just walked this section instead of tried to run, it’s entirely possible that you’d be going faster than this.” If you also sometimes have that voice appear in your head, I highly recommend telling it to fuck off. It’s quite satisfying.

Jeremy was running the marathon, so part of my brain was occupied with calculating where he would be in relation to me. I came across him at 1km in to the half marathon (the marathon started 50 minutes before me) and we managed to high five, and I didn’t see him again until 250 metres to go. He looked knackered and I desperately wanted to give him a hug but he didn’t want to stop because he didn’t think he’d start again. He had roughly 12 km to go and it looked like they weren’t going to be easy.

I finished, got my medal, downed the free Powerade then sought out our bag in the bag tent and fished out my post race banana. I ate that, and then my gut roiled for about 15 minutes. (Do you really want to know about post-race gastrointestinal disturbance? No, I thought not. Let’s just leave it at “Over the space of about 3-4 hours I wasn’t sure whether ‘not vomiting or having diarrhoea’ was necessarily a good thing.”) It took me a good 4 to 5 hours until I felt well and hungry enough to properly eat something. I forced myself to have a very small nibble on a spinach and fetta sausage roll; I went to the canteen but they’d sold out of regular sausage rolls but still had those and I needed something savoury (something that wasn’t a gel, really). You can tell that I wasn’t OK because I didn’t even twig that they were also making toasted sandwiches. Every other half marathon I’ve done I’m absolutely starving within an hour of finishing. The burger vetkoek Jeremy and I ate around 2pm at The Bread Pocket before we headed back to Perth was amazing though.

Despite my race plan crapping out spectacularly, I still enjoyed the day. There were something like 66 parkrunners on course; 6 people running the 50km, 10 in the marathon, 29 in the half marathon, 14 in the 10km, 6 in the 5km, with a fair swathe of other parkrunners and friends of parkrunners cheering. A lot of the competing parkrunners joined Sam Farman (one of the ultra marathoners) in supporting Team Mito and wearing green t shirts, raising awareness of mitochondrial disease. One of the best parts of the race was because it was mostly out and back stretches you would come across other parkrunners (some of whom I think I’d never met before!) in Team Mito shirts and high five them; which means you have to then high five the other non-parkrunners behind them. Afterwards some of the parkrunners complained of sore hands from the high fives they gave out. It was an amazingly friendly event. The number of 10km parkrun runners who are now contemplating half marathons is quite pleasing, to say the least. One of our team’s marathon runners, Michael Ho actually won the race, with a brilliant PB time of 2h38m16s, and Pip Holmes came in as first female in the 50km race.

Just as my wheels were coming off, I was asked by a friendly supporter – I think it was Karen Hagen – “Is that a grin or a grimace?”, I responded with “Always a grin!” I remember reading an article years ago about the cyclist Ivan Basso (before his drug scandal), who was called “The Smiling Assassin” because he would ride his bike and always smile, despite the difficult terrain. I remember thinking it was a good tactic of his, because his opponents never knew precisely how much he was suffering. I adopted that idea one day when I rode up a ridiculous hill and realised that it actually helped me mentally; I don’t know the science but I believe there is some sort of positive brain chemical released because of that smile. The easiest description is “fake it till you make it”. Smile, and someone will think you are enjoying yourself. Keep smiling long enough, and that someone will be you.

Going into Bunbury I didn’t have many solid post-race aims, but afterwards I’m building quite a list.

My body is a lying liar and I love it.

For the week before race day I will almost always have aches and pains. That is a known known. A practical guarantee.

Nothing that requires treatment, but more like a vague sensation that generates unease.

I will have sore legs, an ache in the arch of my foot, or toes that feel close to broken. I will have constricted breathing, or that facet joint in my neck feels sprained again – not as bad as it was when it triggered four months of physiotherapy, but it will feel like it is on the way out again. My back will be tense and sore and I will be concerned that I am about to encounter 20 acupuncture needles again.

The first time I experienced this, stubbornness was my saviour. To be honest, stubbornness is usually my saviour, but more so this time. I flatly refused to forfeit my race fee. I can’t precisely remember what felt wrong but I did not care that I was clearly falling apart – I was going to race, and it was a short distance, so I probably wouldn’t make it worse.

Of course, there was nothing wrong. I raced, and I was fine.

The next time I raced I was already injured, so my concern was not with finishing or forfeiting my race fee, but in actually being allowed to race by the physiotherapist. He said that I could run, and that my left knee would probably hurt a bit, but I wouldn’t re-injure it if I ran. So I ran, and it was awesome.

Of course, five days later I discovered the joys of compensatory injuries with my right hamstring developing a slight tear, but that’s another cautionary tale.

I started parkrunning, and after having volunteered or lined up on a start line at parkrun almost every Saturday, when faced with a 10k fun run (times two, one a bit hilly), pre-race aches and pains didn’t appear. It was like I’d been desensitised to it.

Then I decided to do a half marathon. I trained diligently, doing every scheduled run, not skipping a day. I read up on the preparation that marathon runners do (because there didn’t seem to be books for half marathoners, and I figured the principles were the same) and discovered positive mantras and envisioning your race, and what to do mentally when you have a few kilometres to go and you feel like stopping. That was when I discovered pre-race nerves.

That’s not completely correct; I’d encountered pre-race nerves before, but I thought that it was the desperate need for the loo before the race precisely when it’s much too late to go to the loo. Not wanting to eat breakfast, or wanting to throw up after breakfast. I didn’t realise that they occur well before the event, and that my general aches and pains before that first race wasn’t an incipient injury.

This discovery meant that the week before my first half marathon I encountered with delight the apparent reappearance of my shin splints. Jeremy can’t remember what ailed him, but we both agreed that it was all nerve related. Sure enough, when we raced we were fine. Afterwards my hip was a bit clicky, but making sure that I fell asleep with my legs straight instead of curling up had that sorted by the next day.

In the lead up to half marathons since I’ve usually had some sort of niggle, and this week, before the Busselton Half Marathon on Saturday I was actually concerned because I didn’t have some indication of nerves. I’m aiming for a bit of a PB – maybe a sub 2hr run if the weather

is with me – so it was like a lack of nerves meant something must be wrong.

Until this morning when I woke up

with a sore throat, and right now, my foot feels sore.

I like pre-race nerves.