Important things first; I finished the Melbourne Marathon 9th in 2:26.01. I know many would be stoked with that result, but I have to say I am pretty disappointed with it considering my goal of beating my PB of 2:22.55, how much effort I put into the preparation over the last 4 months and how many things went wrong during the race.
Nevertheless, huge thanks to all the people that have supported me and believed in me, especially to my main sponsors ON Running, Science in Sports and BTV Aarau. Special mention to Jamaica for her tremendous support every day and Mike’s motivational words during the race that stopped me from simply pulling out. It has taken me a few days to digest and reflect, which was made easier with hours of soaking in hot springs and a winery tour around beautiful Mornington Peninsula (Thanks to Jam again for organising). Here’s how my race unfolded and the lessons we have learned:
Sunday morning 4AM: alarm goes off and I head out to the streets of Melbourne for my ritual 10min warm-up run 3h before my 4th marathon race starts. I feel fantastic knowing I have put in the best training of my life (over 2000km of running in last 12 weeks) and paid more attention to detail in my preparation than ever before. My aim for the race was simply to improve my personal best from my Zurich Marathon in April this year and consolidate my spot in the Swiss Team for next year’s European Athletics Championships.
7AM: I stand in the front start line of the biggest Marathon ever held in Australia next to eventual winner Dominic Ondoro from Kenya. The gun goes off and I start running uphill towards Federation Square with the front pack. I decided to give up on my plan A of running even split times (3:19min/km) towards a sub 2:20 end time as there was rain and wind forecast on different parts of the course, and there was no other runner aiming for a 2:20 time. A solo run would have been fatal in anything than ideal conditions. The front pack of mainly Kenyans, 1 Japanese and 2 Australian runners were aiming for finishing time of around 2:10, the pack behind me was aiming for finishing times around 2:25 – 2:30.
Luckily, I find one sparring partner in South Australian Craig Knowles, being his debut marathon with an aim to run under 2:24. We agreed to run together. My plan B of running negative splits (first half easy 71 – 72min, second half as hard as possible) seemed a wise alternative. Plan B got destroyed within the first km as I felt tightness all up my left shin into my left quad, realising I have laced my shoes too tightly. Sounds like a massive amateur mistake, but being only my 4th marathon the warm-up procedure for marathon running is quite different to any shorter distance warm-up. Before a marathon it’s important to conserve energy and minimise warming-up to about 5-10min, hence the feet don’t swell up and so the shoes can easily be laced too tight. Within the next 3km the pain was shooting up my left leg with every stride and I had to seriously consider stopping to loosen up the shoes (my worst nightmare).
A pack of around 20 runners with the first 2 girls were running right behind us and I thought if I pull over early, I might lose 20-30seconds but might also be able to catch up to that group quickly again. Mike and Jam were waiting at the 6km mark around the next corner and I pulled over to get their help to loosen my triple knotted shoe laces. Mike had some motivational words ready: “Don’t worry Pat, plenty of runners have won races after stopping to fix their shoe laces!” I sprinted off and tried to catch the group ahead of me now. However, we were running into Albert Park onto the famous Melbourne GP race track and straight into a 13km/h head wind. It took me 3km to close the gap and a lot of wasted energy in that early stage of the race, where running relaxed and conserving energy was the most important part.
The 20 strong pack around Australian Lisa Weightman and her 3 personal male pace makers was great to hide in for a while but their average pace of 3:25 was to slow for me in pursuing my goal. Before the first drink station at 11km, I moved ahead of the group to give myself an advantage of catching my personal drink bottle with my first SiS Go Isotonic Gel, which was so important for my first energy hit. After a few marathons and hundreds of times practicing in training, I was pretty confident I could grab the bottle from the table without slowing my pace much, however my second worst nightmare was about to unfold.
There were around 10 tables of 30 random bottles each in front of us and as no sticks, flags or other attachments were allowed on the bottles, we were not able to find them easily. The elite bottles were supposed to be on the first table, but someone has set up a barricade that blocked the view to even see, let alone catch the bottle from that table. That meant runners were shouting, running past all tables to the last, then turning back to the first table, where a few of us finally find our bottles but lost another 30 seconds to the group that keep running. Only later I realised that most elite runners in that pack (from previous experience at this marathon) had organised their own bottle delivery from people on bikes, private table setups and so on. I was totally relying on being able to easily find my drink and gels based on my previous experiences with Gold Coast, Osaka and Zurich Marathons, but that was the second big lessons learnt here.
Next turn and another 30 seconds to catch up against the headwind, my motivation was on a low and I was ready to pull out of the race and save my legs for a better day. The option of running at the international Fukuoka Marathon in early December instead swirled through my mind. Many elite runners pull out of races if they know they will not do a PB and save their legs for another race. I considered the pros and cons: if I can’t run a PB today, is there any point of continuing this race, versus how would I explain my decision to my friends, sponsors and people that have supported me along the way? What is easier to recover from; the physical pain in the legs with its 4-6 weeks recovery time while pushing through the 42.2km or the mental scars of giving up and pulling out of a marathon with potential career long impacts? At 13km, I was running past Jam and Mike and again it was Mike at that crucial point of mental battle in my head, shouted to me “You can still move into a good position now Pat”.
I gave myself a last chance before I would call it quits, put in a bigger gear and surged ahead to that same pack just before we turned into Beaconsfield Parade along the St. Kilda foreshore and another strong headwind. Silently giving up on my hopes to run a PB today, I was finally able to relax my mind and stride, sit at the end of that group at a comfortable 3:28 pace, while the big boys at the front were doing all the hard work to shelter Lisa and us from the wind. An option to pull out at halfway (21km) was still in my mind and just put the race down to a hard trainings run.
Surprisingly, my legs started to feel pretty good, very light on my ON Cloudracers and my lungs were pumping lots of oxygen through my body. At that moment I was feeling the fittest I have ever been in my life. I began pushing the pace a bit at 3:19, easily pulling away from the pack, while talking to Jam next to me riding a Melbourne bike share bike. I moved through 21km in 9th position in around 1:12.30, 2.5 minutes behind schedule, but full of hopes, that with a big negative split and some tailwind back into Melbourne I could still run a PB.
I moved ahead alongside Craig Knowles and he was surprised to see me again after I have left him at 6km. We had a small chat and then started working together trying to catch the Kenyan girl Eunice Kales in front of us, aiming for a world class time of her own. The next personal bottle station at 25km arrived and I was prepared to find my bottle this time.
Despite all the knowledge from the first station debacle and full concentration, I had to stop and completely scan that first table to find my bottle with my much needed SiS Go Isotonic Gel. I am very disappointed at how difficult it was for us to find our personal drink bottles. Despite being classed an “elite runner” most of us don’t have much chance of earning any prize money at these events as the top 5 prize money places are usually taken by invited world class runners from East Africa, which is fine. So all we ask for as national elite is a place at the front line start and a few personal drink bottles for a smooth race trying to run a PB and hopefully a qualifying time to represent our country at international championships.
Craig could not find his bottle at all and so I shared my SiS Go Electrolyte Energy Drink with him before we turned back into another headwind. We changed lead every few hundred meters but despite our great teamwork lost another crucial minute until we finally turned away from the ocean at the 30km mark and into St.Kilda road back towards Melbourne. Eunice was still a few hundred metres ahead and I kept the pace pushing, not realising that I have lost my partner Craig (as he later told me, he has suddenly run out of energy after running most of the race by himself in windy conditions and not taking enough energy in, finishing 19th in 2:31).
I grabbed another bottle with a much needed SiS Go Plus Caffeine Gel off Jam at the 32km mark as we luckily had arranged as a back-up. With Eunice ahead and around 8000 people chasing me down it was time to switch gears and run as hard as I could, but there was still some wind and more increasing pain to fight through. I passed Eunice and the motorbike camera at the 35km mark, just at the beginning of the 1km long hill up the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance. After working my legs hard for the last 2hrs my quads started cramping going uphill (another nightmare!) and an unknown local runner passed me.
Eunice closed the gap to me on the downhill again as she was being chased down by a surging Lisa just behind us. More and more people along the course started shouting to Lisa knowing that she is on her way to one of the best Marathon performances by an Australian woman ever. I did not intend to get into the mix of a finishing fight between those 2 girls and tried to surge away around Federation Square, marking the last 2 km of the course. In no time, Lisa passed a tiring Eunice and closed the gap to me as well. I have never witnessed such a strong run by a woman ever, let alone running right next to her. I kept trying to push away from her and get out of the camera angle on the motor bike but with no luck; Lisa was able to hang onto my heels and even took the lead just before we entered the famous 100’000 seat stadium Melbourne Cricket Ground for the last 500m run. Once inside the stadium, I was able to sprint and gain a bit of a lead to finish ahead of her and quickly run through a gap in the bunch of cameras behind the finish line so as to not interrupt her finish and remarkable performance.
Lisa’s tremendous run and time of 2:26.05 ranks her amongst the 4th fastest Australian women ever, beating her personal best from her 17th place at the 2012 London Olympic Games by 2min and the course record by 6min earning her $35’000. Kenyan Dominic Ondoro won the men’s race in 2:10.47 setting a new course record too, Japanese superstar Yuki Kawauchi finishes second, and the Australian Liam Adams (6) and Scott Westcott (7) both run 2:14 to qualify for next year’s Commonwealth Games.
My legs are hurting terribly and I walk slowly backwards into the basement of the MCG to the recovery area. After some food and massage and hours later, I was told I finished 9th overall; so it doesn’t sound too bad, but I am hugely disappointed with my race today and all the things that have gone wrong. I am still trying to come to terms on how to avoid them in my next Marathon. Despite being in top shape, this was my worst marathon experience and I am looking ahead to some recovery time and then a fresh start to run another Marathon early next year. Most likely a fast marathon course in Japan before the final selection date for the Swiss Team on April 30th. Nothing has changed; I am still ranked #6 in Switzerland for this year and will need to improve at least 1 spot to have realistic chances on making the team for the European Athletics Championships next year.
3 days later, my legs are still hurting terribly and I have developed some minor injuries in my right foot, left knee and both gluteus muscle that will require some physio treatment over the next few weeks. I am still left wondering should I have pulled out and saved my legs for another race?