Take a Breadth
What's your 'breadth subject?' My kids are required to supplement their major course work at university with a subject, or subjects, outside their core curriculum. The objective is to provide a wider outlook and an sense of multi-disciplinary study.
I think it's important to have a breadth subject, as it were, that counterbalances your professional life, i.e. an interest outside of work with enjoyments and challenges not offered by your 9-to-5. Probably more of a hobby, pastime, sport or pursuit. I have two; cycling and running.
I find the bike riding a pleasant social outing, albeit with a competitive edge, when I get out for my weekly bunch ride. Some wag has defined a bike race as when one cyclist catches sight of another cyclist. My regular riding group don't bother breaking that mould. We're all pushing hard on the flat and everyone wants to be first to the top of the next hill. It's often hard, never boring, and always satisfying.
Running is definitely more of a solitary pursuit, and that's fine. It's easy to get lost in your thoughts as you grind out the kilometres, which serves to pass the time. After all, if you concentrated too long on the physical side of your exertions then the enjoyment might wane a little. One endorphin at a time...
But as you run you may find that a bit of your bunch-ride bicycle bravura creeps in, and you begin to wonder how your pavement-pounding might measure up against others. So you try a few parkruns (5 km), maybe some 10 km outings, and discover that you enjoy the challenge of the distance and the the company of like-minded people. You note your times and splits carefully. You load Strava on your phone and ponder a Garmin for your wrist. Maybe a half-marathon is within reach? Watch out, you are entering the realm of the organised fun run.
You're Running a What?!
In April 2014 I ran three marathons in one day; my first, my last, and my only one. To explain:
My wife and I decided to participate in the Paris Marathon at the suggestion of a French friend. Stephane is an enthusiastic runner who had a few of these long distance efforts already under his belt. We thought to combine it with a European holiday and take the opportunity to see some offshore family members at the same time.
I had competed in a few short-distance triathlons and some organised fun runs up to that point, the longest of which was a half marathon in 2012. To me a full marathon was an impossible task, something that my wobbly knees - three arthroscopies and counting - would not countenance. I recall a look of mild horror on the face of my surgeon after the last of these surgeries, when I asked him if some regular cycling might be part of my future fitness regime. He must have thought he had already been clear with me about the lack of cartilage in my weary joints, and that I was one knuckle-headed patient to suggest such a thing. Oh well, if you are going to go 'off reservation' you may as well make it a decent trip.
So I found a training program on the web and got started on a slow ramp-up that would have me 'cherry ripe' for race day in six months. I read the leading authors, Hal Higdon et al, and began to familiarise myself with the culture of long distance running.
Higdon's books are informative and funny (including amusing things people say when they hear that you plan to run a marathon, e.g. "Oh you're running a marathon on Sunday? Maybe I'll come along and run it with you!") but Chris McDougal's 'Born to Run' was the most inspiring. It tells of the author's quest to find and run with the Tarahumara people in the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico; fabled distance runners who cover vast territory wearing simple sandals and native dress. A ripping yarn that made me want to get out and run every time I picked it up.
I stuck to my plan; two short runs during the week and a long run each weekend of a steadily increasing distance (topping out at 32 km by the end of the program). Remaining injury-free, my confidence grew. In time I felt like my long run had not really begun until I had covered 10 km... I have a regular 8km circuit, with some flat stretches and hilly pinches, in my town. I would run repeats of this route for my Sunday outing. Our daughters, younger then, sometimes set up deck chairs at the bottom of our street and would have gel packs and water bottles ready for me as I plodded past; once, twice, and sometimes three times.
I tracked all my runs on my Garmin bike computer, a palm sized device which I held in my hand each time I went out. That way I could see my average speed (km/h) and pace (minutes/km), as well as get used to carrying something while I ran - I thought I would hold a small water bottle on race day. I recorded distances in an Excel sheet which held the full six-month schedule of training sessions. I took great satisfaction in crossing off each one of those cells; it helped with my motivation to see my incremental advances filling up the screen, and the total distance covered steadily rising into the hundreds of kilometres.
The six months elapsed and we finally got on our plane for Paris. With some site-seeing and a family catch-up to keep us busy the race came around rather quickly. In the early morning of the big day we accompanied Stephane and his running buddy Vincent down to the starting area on the Champs-Elysées. My wife and I were separated into different pens due to our varying estimated finish times, so Vincent and I waited together. Stephane was in a faster group, penned up ahead.
It was a mild day for that time of year, the sun shone and it was a few degrees warmer than average for April. And oh, the setting; race participants filled almost the entirety of the city's most famous boulevard - there was a sea of coloured clothing to the north-west stretching up to the Arc de Triomphe, and a similar swathe of humanity when you looked south-east, down toward the Place de la Concorde. Spectators jammed the temporary fence perimeter.
We runners were released in waves of multiple hundreds with great fanfare, thumping music, blaring PA announcements and much cheering. Vincent and I shuffled forward, slowly, and then stopped as each wave took off in front. Shuffled, stopped. Shuffled, stopped. Finally we were in the starting group and the gun fired. I hit my Garmin's record button and took off for the Luxor Obelisk ahead.
The next 42 kilometres were a number of things; challenging, intensive, interesting, funny, exhausting and rewarding. Here's what I remember:
- Open air Public urinals on the Champs Élysées - the French have a different view on privacy to the average Aussie. As one of thousands of runners with pre-race nerves, I went with the flow. Pun intended.
- The sheer number of runners, we moved as one heaving mob. You never had much space around you.
- City firefighters with their truck's rescue ladder extended high across the Rue de Rivoli and spraying runners with a refreshing shower of water.
- How good it felt to get to the Place de la Bastille and the first of the water stations en route. Trestle tables groaned under tubs of cut oranges, bananas, raisins and even sugar cubes (a runner expels approximately 11,000 kilojoules during a marathon). You just scooped and ran, and tried not to slip on the crushed refuse underfoot.
- The names on our runner’s bib allowed the spectators lining the route to shout a personalised motivation; "Allez, Shern, allez!" (French people can struggle with the Gaelic spelling of my first name). Once I figured out what they were saying I enjoyed their enthusiastic mispronunciation.
- Stephane's friend Vincent, and his quick set of exercises conducted at each drink station - calf and hamstring stretches that resembled a man sitting on an invisible toilet. To each his own.
- Musicians along the way, from avant-garde to brass band – they added to the festival feel and gave us all a lift.
- The pain of running on cobblestones (it comes right up through your shoes) and the collective groan from competitors each time we reached a section of this road surface. Hey, I signed up for a marathon, not Tough Mudder.
- Feeling good at the 21 km mark, right on two hours. You tend to get a quicker time in an organised run than in solo training, and I hoped to keep up this pace and finish in under four hours.
- Trying to strike a cool in-motion pose for the course photographers, strategically placed to capture your every grimace. (And I had a few - after the finish I saw two toenails had taken on an interesting colour. Sure enough, they came off within two days).
- The tall bloke with the funny shorts who came through my group at the 25 km mark with quite a head of steam - I got in behind and stayed close for 5 kilometres, pacing him. It certainly helped me get a quicker time than I otherwise would have.
- The Aussie guy I passed with a cheery 'come on Skippy' - I was still feeling pretty chipper at that stage. Later I was not so pretentious, and I kept all the encouragement I could muster for myself.
- The dark tunnel on the Voie Georges-Pompidou at the 27 km mark, with thumping techno and strobe lights; disorienting, too warm, dark, slightly dangerous and bordering on bizarre. Who really wants a rave feel to their marathon?
- The zombie walkers of the last 10 kilometres - in the latter stages of such a long run many competitors are forced to use a compensatory stiff-legged gait due to cramp, intense muscle soreness, and chafing. They resembled the legions of the living dead.
- Oh yeah, chafing; it's a thing - and if you don't prepare correctly and invest in some quality lubricant before a long run you will suffer accordingly. Spend the cash, avoid the rash. Just sayin'.
- You needed to be careful where you planted your feet. Due to the crush it was easy to clip the heel of the runner in front and cause problems. I saw a lady in sky blue do just that at the 12 km mark, and down she went. Ouch. I hoped she would be okay as the pack of surrounding runners just parted and swarmed past her. Happily, I saw her all-blue outfit again around the 30 km mark, plodding along wearily. To my surprise she tripped and fell over again, only five metres in front of me. Double ouch.
- My struggle to stay within reach of the 4-hour pace-setting group (led by a runner with a coloured balloon tied to his wrist). That damned balloon guy. I never did quite catch him.
- You will hear marathon runners say that they 'hit the wall' at approximately 12 kilometres out from the finish, when depletion of muscular glycogen levels commonly occurs. At the 30 km mark I didn't so much 'hit' the wall; rather, I began to be slowly absorbed by the wall. It felt like I was wading through warm molasses. I became very careful with my gait, as any slight change to my leg-lift caused a twinge that indicated a cramp was trying to take hold.
My slumbering right hamstring waited until the last kilometre for its presence to be felt, and then proceeded to make up for lost time with the mother of all cramps. I clutched, grimacing, at my knotted upper thigh and quickly joined the hitherto-scorned zombie walkers in a half-hobble, half-shuffle (that was fully embarrassing) across the remaining distance through the Bois de Bolougne. My tank was emptying fast. Organised runs usually have some participants dressed in superhero costumes and cartoon character get-up. I knew I was in trouble when SpongeBob Squarepants passed me in a canter at this point. But in truth my dream of a sub-four-hour finish had faded by then.
Done and Dusted
I guess I expected euphoria after crossing the finish line on Avenue Foch but for some reason it didn't come. I was tired and sore; excited but not elated. I found my wife in the crowd and we high-fived, hugged, and collected our medals. We wore them for the rest of the day. The finish line precinct was a wonderful shambles of exhausted but smiling competitors posing for group photos, ransacking food stalls, donning after-race ponchos, and generally swarming through an ocean of litter and debris. Vincent grabbed his medal and took off, apparently disappointed with his final time. Stephane, the first of our group across the line, had jogged home to the Left Bank and returned in his Peugeot to offer us a welcome ride back to his place. We learned later that he had been feeling ill before, during and after the race. What a trooper.
We were done.
So, you never know where your breadth subject might take you. But it can be fun to find out. Stretch goals and mini-victories will keep you going, no matter which discipline you choose. And I suggest that when you have no external competitors you will happily compete with yourself.
How exactly do you run a marathon? One step at a time, that's how. One step at a time.
*In training for the 2016 Melbourne Marathon I suffered a partial tear of my left soleus muscle. That certainly put a halt to proceedings. At the 13 km mark of what was to be a 19 km outing, I heard a noise and felt a sharp pain from my lower left leg. My first thought was that a passing car had thrown up a stone and struck me. My second thought, as I hit the deck, was "so this is what a snapped Achilles feels like." It's the popping sound of the tear that freaks you out a bit.
Luckily it was not the ‘Big A’ and I was up and about (walking, not running) in a day or two. But I recognised the pain in the calf before the soleus rupture that I had felt many times in training for the 2014 marathon - I was lucky not to flame out on the big stage.