HAVING done five half marathons, I think I always knew in the back of my mind I would one day try a full marathon. A lot of people asked and I’d generally find a way to fob them off or tell them the many reasons why I didn’t think I was cut out for a full. Not strong enough. Not enough time. Not while the kids were so little. I had all the reasons.
My road to running is similar to so many stories out there. After the births of my three children, the first being my daughter Hope who was stillborn at 41 weeks in 2008 after a textbook pregnancy, I stacked on a little more weight, most of it coming with the grief that had consumed my life. I had my son Angus in 2009 and my daughter Juliet in 2011 and when she was six months old, I decided to do something about it so I laced up my runners. I did the tried and tested C25K and did my first 5km fun run at the end of 2012 before building up to a 10km, a 14km then three half marathons in 2013, the last of which I cracked he magical two hour barrier.
I did two more half marathons in 2014 but had lost my way a little bit with my running and needed a new challenge to spur me along.
It was when I finally bit the bullet and joined Diamond Creek parkrun in September last year that I got a sense my full marathon dreams might be realised.
By going each week I got to know the most wonderful group of people and as those friendships formed and strengthened, a few of us shared our desire to give a full marathon a crack, and for many of us it would also be our first. We couldn’t think of a more appropriate marathon to attempt than the Great Ocean Road Marathon in Victoria. The slightly longer course (44km) and the hills meant we knew this would be a challenge like no other – not to mention being in one of the most scenic places in the country. Personally I thought if I only ever ran one marathon, I’d want it to be somewhere spectacular so this had to be the one.
Saturdays at parkrun all of a sudden became about arriving at at 5am instead of 8am to get up to 30kms done for our long runs, before finishing with the 5kms at parkrun.
My main companions were Ann Rust who had trained for a full before but broken down with injury a few weeks out from the event and Michelle Esdale who had just completed her first marathon in the scorching summer heat in Wangaratta in January. We also had a group of guys from parkrun who were happy to slow down and run with us and many other wonderful runners who joined us for kilometres along the way at various stages of our training. The people is what made this bearable – I don’t think I could have done this alone.
Most of us were at parkrun the day before the race. It felt so surreal that after many months and hundreds of kms in training, the big day was only one sleep away.
My husband and I left for Apollo Bay after parkrun and travelled the along the Great Ocean Road. It felt so surreal to think I’d be running along the road less than 24 hours later. Also gave me a chance to scope out the hills – they were long and plentiful.
In our cabin I had my first little pre-race freak out – I’d forgotten to pack my running shorts. I’d had my outfit worked out in my head for weeks so this threw me out. I had packed tights which I didn’t really want to run in, so these had to become Plan B, and honestly it was hardly a big deal but with the nerves I was experiencing, I made a bigger deal of it than what it was.
We walked in to town to collect our race freebies and I had a relaxing spa back in our room.
We then had a wonderful RMA dinner at the pub and met a few other excited and nervous running mums before heading back to our accommodation to try and get some rest.
The bus from Apollo Bay (the finish line) to the start line in Lorne was nothing short of breathtaking. The sun was coming and the horizon glowed. There was a magnificent sliver of moon hanging in the sky and it was clear it was going to be a brilliant autumn day in Victoria. If nothing else, we knew the weather gods had smiled on us. I met another friendly running mum on the bus and we used the hour long trip to chat and try to calm our nerves. The chatting also took our minds off our churning tummies along the winding road.
When we arrived in Lorne I bumped in to a very old friend and the winner of the event last year, Kirstin. She was back to defend her title and I was pleased to see her. She wished me well for the race, knowing it was my first marathon, and I did the same for her, knowing she would no doubt go on to win it again (and she absolutely did).
On the drive to Apollo Bay the day before, my husband who does endurance mountain bike events, had one piece of advice for me – he said when it gets hard, smile. He said the endorphins would help override any pain I was experiencing.
Well I don’t think I stopped smiling from the moment the start gun went.
I had one plan with this marathon – get across the finish line. I had decided pace and time didn’t matter, I just wanted to finish it.
I met Michelle and Ann at the start line and we said we’d all start out running together, but if at any point any of us needed to take off or drop back, that was ok.
It was me who needed to drop back at first, around the 6km mark. I was comfortably sitting on about 6.15min/km pace, but knew I couldn’t go much quicker if I was going to make Apollo Bay in one piece. I had them both in my sights for a few kms, but by 8km I was well and truly in their dust. And that was perfectly ok. I spent kms 6-26 all alone, still sitting on about 6.15min/km pace and loving every step. My only gripe was that no electrolytes were offered at any drink stations until 25km, but that was a minor one I suppose, as the scenery was enough to distract me from my desires to slurp down a sugary beverage.
I spent much of these kilometres in solitude a) pinching myself I was actually out there doing it, b) smiling, c) looking up in the trees to see koalas (I saw two!) and d) doing maths to figure out what my finish time might be, because at this point I’d decided I did have a rough goal, and that was to do it under five hours. With the pace I was on I was certainly well on my way to do that comfortably.
At 26km I met up with a parkrun friend Craig, who looked in a bit of a bad way. I hadn’t seen him since the start of the race and I was really surprised to see him up ahead. His back was hurting and his pace was a bit slower than mine. But at this point I traded pace and goals for company. This was also the first time in the race I took a couple of walk breaks. I was so proud to make it to 26km so comfortably without needing to walk, considering there had been so many hills to conquer, including a nasty one at Kennett River, which was the half marathon starting point.
At 32kms we came across another parkrun friend Ben who was in an even worse way and was struggling with cramps.
Ben insisted Craig and I go on without him. I felt bad but I’d also reached a point where I knew I had to keep running because I was worried if I stopped, I wouldn’t start again. The last few drink stations I took a fair amount of time to take in a fair amount of fluid, which then meant I needed a loo break at the 40km mark. We still thought we’d crack five hours, but as we both looked at our watches every 1.4 seconds, we realised five hours was slipping away from us. I supposed I had found and hit “The Wall”. My longest training run had been 35km so this was always the worry for me, how was I going to run further than that. My watch was set to pace/time and Craig’s was set to pace/distance and I think I asked him less than every 100m how long we had left to go. He was so patient with me, despite the fact I only replied with expletives. We were now counting down in parkruns. Only 2.5 parkruns to go, only two parkruns to go…
Approaching the time check at the traditional marathon distance of 42.2km I thought I could hear my name being yelled out. But I also thought my mind might be playing tricks on me, as I had become totally delirious in my full body exhaustion. I also thought I heard cowbells, but again I wasn’t sure if I had lost my mind. Truth is I probably lost it when I signed up for the event! However I was right, they were cowbells and they were calling my name and it was Melissa and Zoe (and a few others) who were there to cheer on the RMAs, cruelly ruled out from the events themselves because of injury. I hugged them and cried on them and got the boost I needed to get the last couple of kms to the finish line.
When Craig and I could finally see the finish line, he encouraged me to sprint. It was certainly a faster pace than we had been maintaining for the previous 10km but it felt like I was running up and down and on the spot and I’m sure it looked anything but gazelle-like. I saw my husband and two friends who were there to support me (Kirsty who had finished her first half and her husband Paul) and I started to lose my breath through the tears. I knew I had done it. The last 10km certainly had been hard. But that’s what I’d trained for I guess – to get to a stage where it was really hard but to have the strength to endure it. And during those kilometres I spent a lot of time reflecting on where I had come from and how I had survived much worse in life. I thought about my three children – the one no longer with me and the two who very much are. I thought about how overweight, unfit and unhappy I was just three years ago and that how my motto for running and getting through all that I have is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I crossed the line and was embraced by Nikki, the event director at Diamond Creek parkrun who had also just completed her first half and I gladly accepted my medal. My time was five hours and five minutes and while I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tiny bit disappointed, it didn’t really matter – it was done and I was a marathoner, or ultra marathoner if you count those extra few kms. My pace was about 6.51min/km which isn’t bad considering how many breaks we took at the end, and how many shameless selfies I posed for along the way. Who could blame me with views like that?
After the race I suddenly found myself with a microphone in my face to be broadcast over the event loud speakers and while I’m someone who is not normally short on words, all of a sudden I had none. “Do you just realise you’ve run from Lorne to Apollo Bay?” the guy asked. “Is this you first marathon?” “Yep, first marathon.” “Well done to Sally on completing her FIRST marathon, big round of applause,” the guy exclaimed. I then went to embrace my husband and cry all over him too. I’d done it and his hug said just how proud he was of me.
I’d had a few minor injury concerns leading up to the event, all of which played on my mind so much that I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I can honestly say I barely felt any of them on the day. When I wallowed in my moments of self doubt, everyone kept reminding me to trust in the training and of course they were all right. It all paid off in the end and came together in the most wonderful way – because I had a medal around my neck.
I found Ann and Michelle after the event who both wowed me with their times – 4 hours 18 minutes and 4 hours 31 minutes respectively. We had a chat and none of us had wiped the smiles off our faces. Maybe we never will.
I quickly found something to eat that wasn’t a chocolate flavoured gel (it was a beef and mushroom pie) and I inhaled it with an iced coffee chaser.
We hung around the post race area for a while to soak up the atmosphere and we cheered the last few marathoners over the line then we made our way to the car to head home – taking that spectacular road once more to follow the path that had just lead me to my first marathon success.
Upon returning to Melbourne and the normality and chaos of mum life, there was only one thing left for me to do while the endorphins were still cursing through my veins, and that was to sign up for my next marathon. At “only” 42km and on a flat course, roll on Melbourne Marathon in October.