Sunday 20th September – 7.13am
“Runners this is your two minute call”.
As I neared the starting gates, I spotted my husband Dylan walking towards me with our ten and-a-half-month-old Billy bobbing up and down on his shoulders. His little legs were wrapped firmly around his Dad’s neck and he wore a cheeky grin. “Billy didn’t go back to sleep then?!” I remarked with a sly chuckle. Dylan’s grand plan to catch an extra hour of zzz’s had clearly been hampered by my poor attempt to get ready in silence at 5.15am and Billy’s eagerness to start the day! I gave them both a quick hug before being ushered into a roped-off lane.
“One minute runners”.
I did a few springy jumps to energise my legs and then shook them out individually. The last time I had lined up for a Half Marathon was in Marugame (Japan) in February of 2018. My mind flashed back to the snow-sprinkled roads and a sea of beanies, as shivering runners lined up shoulder-to-shoulder that day.
As Adelaide’s warm morning sun hugged the back of my shoulders, I pulled down the sunnies that had been resting on my head and took a few steps towards the starting arch with fellow 7.15am starters. This moment couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to that of 2018.
“Your time will start when you cross the blue line. You have ten seconds”, a woman’s voice called over the microphone. I looked to my left to check that I was in the right position in my allocated chute. A couple of metres away stood team mate Jacob Cocks and to his side was his brother Riley Cocks. The new Covid-safe starting barrier reminded me of horse racing, only with fewer gates and more competitors. Three of us crouched down and moved our right hands towards our Garmin start buttons just in time for the race starter to yell “Go”.
No gun. No sharp elbows in the ribs. Just a lead bike and a few cheers from runners enthusiastically making their way towards the start line. The iconic Adelaide Oval stood proudly to our right but would need to wait for next year to welcome runners through its grand gates for a stadium finish. We passed the portaloos, manned by officials wearing masks and gloves with disinfectant spray in hand.
Excitement tingled through my veins as I tried to find a smooth and sustainable rhythm. Riley and Jacob’s blue Asics singlets and bright orange Metaracers danced in sync ahead of me. Clapping and words of support could be heard as runners departed the start line in groups of three behind us. The seeded trickle start had been introduced to achieve physical distancing in an event that would normally feature thousands of eager runners jostling for favourable positions. The only catch with this approach is that no one could be absolutely sure of their place in the overall race. The final chip times would reveal all.
As I made my way along War Memorial Drive I enjoyed that liberating feeling of fresh legs and adrenaline. I love those early kilometres of a long race, when the pace feels comfortable and you find it hard to imagine the discomfort that your legs and lungs will later endure…. It’s amazing how perception of effort can quickly change.
After a couple of kilometres the course turned onto one of Adelaide’s city ring routes, where Sunday morning traffic was starting to build up on the other side of the cones. It had been at least six months since roads had been closed for a mass-participation run and I wondered what the drivers would have been thinking. As a young girl I remember watching a Marathon live and saying to myself “those poor runners – that looks painful”!
As I worked my way over a small rise I felt a strange sensation on my chest. I placed my hand over my sternum to discover that the Maurten gel I had placed down my top earlier had worked its way up and was about to bounce out. I grabbed the pocket of gooey energy and decided to carry it until the halfway point, alternating hands. Races like this were good opportunities to practise ripping and gulping down gels at pace, as well as ensuring they didn’t cause any adverse effects.
As I made my way towards Bonython park I passed the first refreshment station. Volunteers stood cheering with gloves and masks, behind a table topped with cups of water. As part of the Covid-safe plan, drinks were not allowed to be handed to runners but I’m sure the Marathoners were very grateful that water was provided given the growing heat. I felt at home as I veered back onto the Linear Park trail, where more than half of my weekly training takes place. At the 5km checkpoint, I spotted my coach Adam waiting beside his bike. He called out a split time and a few words of encouragement before speeding off into the distance.
My favourite section of the race was near the Adelaide Oval foot bridge where my family, neighbours and a couple of training partners cheered loudly as I ran past. I felt a rush of energy and couldn’t help but smile as I saw baby Billy watching on curiously. A flash of light hit me in the face from the morning sun reflecting off the River Torrens to my left. I was very grateful for the spare pair of sunglasses that Jacob had lent me a few minutes before the start – I hadn’t expected it to be so sunny and made a rookie error by leaving mine in the car.
After a few metres of shade and darkness under the King William street bridge I popped out in front of Jolley’s Boat House to be met with bright signs and happy cheers from the volunteers on the Running Mums Australia refreshment station. Their support topped up my motivation and energy as I prepared myself for the technical part of the course.
I worked my way up a steep rise onto Frome road and started to notice a new layer of fatigue. I decided it was time to attempt ripping off the top of my gel and swallowing as much of the contents as possible for an energy lift. Before turning into the Botanic Gardens near the 9 kilometre mark I spotted Adam again with his bike. My dilemma as to where to put my empty gel packet was solved! Collecting my rubbish was beyond my coach’s call of duty and I attempted a look of thanks as I tossed the packet in his direction. As I veered towards the Garden’s entrance, I heard his words “got it” – a sign of the person he is.
By now, vulnerable toe nails that had thoroughly enjoyed their two years of rest from Marathons had woken from their slumber. The familiar pain was irritating but I kept telling myself that if I were to get through 21.1 kilometres with only a few sore nails, I would be stoked. Shortly after the halfway mark I recognised the stride patterns of a few runners in the distance. Max Stevens, Caitlin Adams and other members of Team Tempo were cruising along Hackney road on their long training run and their words of encouragement gave me a timely boost.
After a few twists and turns around Mackinnon Parade and along War Memorial Drive I eventually found myself back on the Linear Park Trail, heading in the direction of Adelaide Oval. My legs were starting to feel the effects of the sustained faster pace. Rather than panic, I reminded myself that it was a privilege to have the opportunity to test my legs over this distance in an official event and that working through the discomfort would make me stronger.
I didn’t know where my family were going to bob up next so when I heard their familiar voices near the foot bridge; this time on the other side of the river, I was pumped. My brother Jack was holding Billy beside the narrow track. With over ten more kilometres in my legs since I had last seen them, I’m sure even young Billy would have noticed the change in my facial expression and breathing! With a couple of small climbs and a hairpin turn at the weir I celebrated the realisation that I only had ten or so minutes left…. little did I realise how much the Morphett bridge hill would sting. I gained inspiration by thinking of the Marathon runners who had to endure it twice and was fortunate to receive some supportive words from a jovial runner on the downhill!
As the course took me past the finish line towards the final one kilometre loop, I caught a glimpse of Riley and Jacob, who both wore enviable looks of relief to be finished. I took notice of the courageous runners around me and marvelled at the powerful way in which these events showcase human endeavour. Everyone has their different motivators and every race is an opportunity to develop self-awareness. Having spent some time away from racing during pregnancy and the post-partum period, I had the opportunity to reflect on what it was that I loved about racing…. The sense of satisfaction that comes with overcoming those inevitable challenging moments, the elation that accompanies progress, sharing the excitement and happiness with loved ones, team members and the wider community and the unimaginable opportunities that present themselves along the way.
I told myself to relax my shoulders upon entering the home straight and soaked up the atmosphere as well as the sun’s warm rays. Waiting on the other side of the finish line were Dylan and Billy and I hope they enjoyed their sweaty hugs as much as I did. These are the moments I race for : ).
By Jessica Stenson (née Trengove)