I typically run only half a dozen or so races each year, more or less spread out through the seasons, giving me a good amount of time to recover and prepare for each one. So when my friend Roger told me he wanted to run the Puffing Billy Great Train Race on the same day that I had already committed to doing the new Wings for Life World Run I had a dilemma. As it turned out the dilemma wasn't which one to do – but whether to do both! Nervously, I chose to do the double which would mean a race in the morning and a race later that evening.
My preparation had been strong for eight weeks through February-March as I did some long runs in training for the Run for the Kids where I ran a good time but a poor race. Minor arm surgery at the end of March meant a week of no running followed by a fortnight of very slow runs; all of which added up to a good base to my ‘cake’ but no ‘icing!’
Overall I was happy with my form, though not expecting to be in top shape like last year where I had run strong chasing Dave the whole way. Unfortunately, just to mix things up, I strained my right thigh on Wednesday night whilst leaping around for photos at run club. Aargh! My Friday run was absolute pain, but ice and ibuprofen were enlisted to help and I felt ok, if a little unsure, on race morning.
Puffing Billy – The Great Train Race
With the weather pattern in Melbourne during autumn being typically up and down I was very happy to see a perfect day dawn for the race. It was cool, but not cold, with no wind or rain. Race start is at 9.30am but we left home by 7.15 to arrive before 8 and avoid the crowds fighting for limited car parks. This worked a treat and we were parked and pooped before the crowds arrived en masses ten minutes later.
Roger and I walked up the hill to the fire station and found a seat on a wall where we could relax and watched the assortment of runners go by. An hour before race time and people were already warming up and stretching, taking last drinks and depositing their clothes on the truck. We just sat and talked. No hurry just yet!
My race plan here was to run comfortably hard, hopefully with a time of under an hour. I wasn't sure if my thigh would be ok and I knew I needed to keep something in reserve for my second race that night. It was an ambitious but achievable plan, or so I thought.
We assemble pre-race in assigned groups. Once again I was in the second group. It doesn't seem to matter how fast I run or how high I place here the organiser won't put me in the front group and I see Adam on the front row with me just like at Run for the Kids. He is in amazing form and this race is on home territory for him and I know he will be minutes ahead of me.
After the national anthem sung by Mike Brady – another tradition – we’re off! I am running almost from the gun having snuck up towards the front and my thigh feels ok which is good as it is immediately under pressure on the steep downhill which comprises most of the first kilometre.
500m down the road I run up beside Tristan Miller (52 marathons in 52 weeks) and say hi for the second time this week after he was our guest run leader at run club on Wednesday. We go through 1k in 3.45 and I let him go, backing off into a more comfortable pace as we go under the trestle bridge and up the first incline to the small Selby township. In the distance I hear the toot toot of Puffing Billy - I am ahead for now but he sounds close!
After Selby is a long downhill to the first of four level crossings. These are the critical moments in the race to beat the train and, in normal circumstances, to beat the train you must be ahead at each of these points. Rolling down the last couple of hundred metres to the one and I can hear the train is very near. I don't need to, but a quick glance over my shoulder confirms that it will be touch and go whether I make it through or not.
I am disinclined to sprint a few kilometres into an hour-long race, but with only 20m or so to the crossing the bells and lights start up and officials begin dragging the barrier across the road. I sprint through on the right side in the mud just off the road, in the last three through this crossing and am pleased I did not need to stop. The train is obviously on a fast one this year and I know from experience there will be little point trying to run hard to beat it from here.
Since forever the first aid station has been at the bottom of the “big hill” right on 5km, but this year is moved to a better place a bit earlier at the 4km mark. In any case I skip this one and continue at my moderate pace. I know I am not running fast here and other runners begin to disappear ahead. My quads don't feel supple and each step is an effort. I'm running at 95% effort for a 90% return and when I hit the bottom of the Selby-Aura Road climb at 5km this fact is made even more stark.
I have no real strength up the hill and so I plod along, getting to the top comfortably and through the crossing although there is no sign of the train which is long gone. Around the corner and I grab a sip of water at the aid station. Running downhill my legs are not very happy and when I come to the really steep part I find I am blocked by runners going in slo-mo which only shortens my stride and increases the pounding. I elbow my way through and pass about 10 people in 100m.
Around the corner and through the third crossing where I hear an official say the train is about 3.5 minutes ahead, and it is back uphill. At this point I go past an unusual lady who has set up a card table by the side of the road with what looks like a tea party going on. I decline to sit down and join her though I am intrigued by this oddity!
Finally I am running strong and I go past the Paradise Valley Hotel – an inappropriately named establishment if ever there was one – to begin the long drag up to Emerald city. The feeling I am having now is that I am running in control and whilst not overly fatigued my legs are sore. The crowd at the Emerald crossing, the fourth and final one on the course, are amazing. There are lots of people here clapping and cheering and I give several kids a high five as I go past.
Once through the township and having avoided the temptation to stop by the rather wonderful bakery there, I crest the top of the final incline and begin a steady 3km of descent to the finish. Most of this is on a trail beside the railway and is just beautiful, especially in autumn with the red, brown and yellow leaves carpeting the ground.
Whilst I haven't been running to a time goal and know I will be slower than last year, I glance at my watch and do some rough calculations. I am currently on 4.33 pace and so need to run about 4.20’s to get this to a 4.30 average which would be nice. Even better, if I ran stupendously quickly I might just sneak in under an hour for the race.
There are two final tricky points to negotiate here, the first being another steep downhill section of about 150m where, until last year, there was a u-turn to head to the finish. At least now you continue straight on which makes slowing down a little less abrupt. The last challenge has always been there, a small but significant rise about 100m from the finish line. I'm not sure I've ever been a “sprint to the finish” kind of guy, but I always slow down a bit here then kind of stumble to the line.
I cross the line, press the stop button on my Garmin (can't forget to do that!) and look at my finish time. It is an hour and nine seconds; about a minute slower than last year and just shy of my aspiration of less than an hour. That said, when I could hardly run on Friday I would gladly have taken this as my finish time and with another test looming that night, I had the additional “excuse” of saving myself for that one.
I grabbed a Gatorade, found my bag then headed off to get a massage. The team of students here double up on each recipient and on one side I had Mr Gentle, with Miss Strong on the other. Needless to say within about ten seconds they had me levitating off the table and writhing in pain! But, suspecting this would be good for me, I tried to bear it (no grinning).
From there it was off to the finish line and in time to see my instafriend Gina and then Roger cross the line. The look of joy on their faces and the others near them says that this was a great event and that their efforts had been rewarded!
The last exciting part of the race experience is the Puffing Billy train ride back to Belgrave and we thoroughly enjoyed his journey on a lovely morning. After some treats from the Belgrave bakery (yum!) it was off home and try to recover for the night run.
Wings for Life World Run
Backing up for a second race is something I've done only a few times. A couple of times it was a swimming race and a triathlon. Only once was it two runs (morning and evening) but those were only 8km events . I've also done several 12- and 24-hour running relays which, whilst being a series of individual efforts with recovery bouts in-between, were largely back to back. So here I was with the hardest run (physically) I do each year under my belt looking to do a half marathon later in the day.
Ideally in this situation you'd do nothing more strenuous than lie down and have a sleep, but as a dad I had a fun filled afternoon walk and play at the local park with my daughter to look forward to. So I spent a lot more time on my feet than I might have wished.
Arriving at the race venue in Elwood around 8pm I was amazed at the size of the event. It was pitch black, save for the lights and huge video screen, but the place was abuzz.
With athletes in their mandatory safety vests and headlights it was somewhat like a miners convention but the weather was kind to us, so whilst cool, it was not raining or windy.
About 20 minutes before the start I wandered up to the start area to find it mostly empty. So I took up a spot on the second row and waited for the show to begin. Within 10 minutes it was full up with runners stretching all the way down the starting straight and around the corner.
At 9pm exactly (11am UTC) Melbourne and 34 other locations around the world began! We blasted around the corner and within a few hundred metres were onto Beach Rd. Almost immediately a runner beside me careered into a traffic bollard and hit the deck. His mates roared with laughter and he was derided as he got up and made his way back to the field.
I think it was the adrenaline that got to me and I ran the first km in 4.30. Much faster than I had planned but not a suicidal pace in normal circumstances. I did a quick body check and I felt ok. If anything, running felt easier on me than walking. Go figure!
The next few kilometres continued at this pace and I took in the great crowds along St Kilda Street, including many kids in their pyjamas who had come out to cheer. For the second time today 9and third time in a week) I said g'day to Tristan Miller who I saw standing by the roadside at Brighton. Beside Brighton Baths, at the first aid station, I saw my run club colleague Nicx and we high-fived as I grabbed a cup of Red Bull. For the second time that night I thought in retrospect that this was not so great a decision!
My pace was very even and I got to 5k in 22.30min. Right on the 5k marker near South Road a woman ran up beside me and sat just on my left shoulder. With two wide lanes of road to use and not many runners near us I thought it was odd that she would stay so close, but it didn't bother me as I thought she was just going to pass on by.
After a kilometre of running side by side I realised she wasn't going anywhere – and she perhaps came to the same conclusion about me. And so we ran. Step by step, breath by breath, no more than a foot apart from each other yet neither saying a word. This continued through Sandringham and up the steady incline towards Black Rock. We definitely weren't racing each other but it was an odd kind of silent support we were providing.
Five kilometres later we were still together, centimetres apart on a wide open road. We passed others and occasionally they passed us. And still no words were spoken. Going through the next aid station I'm not sure if neither of us wanted a drink or if neither were prepared to slow down for one lest the rhythm of our motion be interrupted. And so we kept on.
Past the Black Rock clock tower and the road begins a series of small rises and falls. They are not hills, but you certainly notice them as your pace changes. Our pace had slowed somewhat, now averaging 4.40min/km and I was starting to notice that my legs were rather tired, the strong pace we had been keeping finally catching up with me. I half suspected that I may slide off the back here but this did not happen. We continued to run lock-step, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but never drifting apart.
Almost 15 kilometres into the race and after nearly nine of running side by side like a silent Buddhist Monk I could see the next aid station just ahead beside Charman Road. I needed a drink and with overwhelming fatigue starting to set in I decided to stop and bring this duet to a close. For the third time this night I took a cup of Red Bull and, no great surprise, for the third time this night I almost immediately regretted swallowing it! That stuff is potent and deep into this race it was a bit much for my stomach which began to swirl.
By this stage I had run hard for 28.5km on the day and I was so tired. My target of a half marathon looked well in reach and so I backed the pace off dramatically and began to jog along. I could see at every car park along the route were buses waiting to take runners back to the start once the pace car had caught them and wondered if I should just get on one right now!
I also wanted to take a ‘nature break’ as they say in cycling but wearing a high-viz vest and a headlight doesn't help you to blend in if you stop by the side of the road. Aargh! A little further down the road at Mentone I ducked into some proper toilets and found relief for my gurgling stomach and intestinal tract. And so my slow jog restarted with my next focus of getting to Mordialloc.
A small but boisterous group of men greeted me at the 20km mark having just exited a local bar. I'm sure they were surprised to see me and the many other runners dressed like Emmett from the Lego Movie making our way along the road in front of them. But they cheered (or yelled something at me, it's hard to be sure!) and that made a difference. A hundred metres further on, just as the road turns to meet the Nepean Highway was an aid station.
I'm pretty lucky as many of my Nike+ Run Club run leader friends were working at this event and it was Monique who greeted me here with an enormous smile and welcome cheer which she co-opted her fellow drink station helpers into amplifying. It was great and gave me another lift.
Straight after the aid station we left the road to go under the bridge on a narrow pedestrian footpath. It occurred to me to stop here, thinking that the catcher car would not be able to find me – ha, ha, clever me! Until I remembered that I actually wanted the car to catch me up as I was so exhausted. I crossed my fifth and final train crossing for the day here, thankful that I had avoided having to stop at every one!
Onto Station Street and the final stretch. I was running real easy along here, stopping to walk every now and then or to take a photo. I was also on the lookout for the next bus to take us back and as 20km turned into 22km it occurred to me that I had not seen one for a while. My Garmin watch soon ticked over 21.1km and I gave myself a little woo hoo for achieving my goal. Unfortunately the catcher car was nowhere in sight so I continued on.
Finally, at 22.5km I saw a bus. A single lonely bus. So I stopped running and just walked as I knew the car would soon be here to end my race. Other runners, more in keeping with the spirit of the event to keep going as fast as they could until caught, sprinted past me, encouraging me to keep running! But I was well beyond that and at 22.7km, with over 36km of racing for the day in my legs, the catcher car drove past and I was done.
I turned and walked slowly back to the bus I had seen and waited with a group of other runners in the cold night air to get on. Eventually we boarded and I sat beside another run club regular, Linda, and we shared stories of our runs. We headed back to Elwood and I learned that one of the other buses nearby had broken down, stranding runners who had to wait for a replacement. The most we had to endure was a five minute wait at Elwood to get off whilst the bus driver negotiated a place to park. Getting off the bus we were given a neat WFLWR lapel pin, something different from the more common medal.
|Photo credit Instagram @nicxnick|
I returned to collect my gear bag and was greeted by more run club leaders: San, David, Debbie and Nicx who had returned from aid station duties. It was so good to see familiar faces at near 1am whilst I changed from running top into cycling top for the ride home. 30 minutes of riding later I arrived home and I “blacksnaked” into bed without showering, too exhausted to stand any longer.
Five hours later I was up for work and I struggled not only to walk, but to stay awake. I made it only to 3pm before leaving to go home and sleep. Which I did. For a long time. And it was good!
Days later I feel mostly ok. A week of easy running and good sleep will see me back to full training next week. I'm not sure I'd sign up to “do the double” again, but I'd certainly love to do the WFLWR again. It's a unique event with a cool twist. And if the weather was as kind as we had this year it would be a winner!