Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Race Report: River Run 100, 2015

The Caboolture 48 Hour Race had been a sterling event for me. Sure, I hadn’t achieved much in the athletic performance sense, but I’d certainly hit new heights in the hippy zen kind of way. In my ongoing enlightened state, I wisely decided to sign up as a late entry in the River Run 100, a local charity event that lets runners nominate their own start times, so we all finish together.

I was looking forward to spending some time with my audiobook, and alternating laps to Toowong (10 km) and Kangaroo Point (5 km) along the beautiful Brisbane River. I should’ve read the fine print—solo 100 km runners were only doing the long loops. Oh well, at least it would make counting laps easier.

With a cut-off time of 3 pm and the earliest start at midnight, I knew I was going to struggle to finish in the 15 hours. It was strange to think that just a few months back I’d done the same distance, faster, on technical trails, and that just over a year ago I’d done it in about two-thirds of the time on road. I started to wonder if I was being too hard on myself; maybe I could do better. Maybe I should aim for something faster…

Reality check, Tamyka: last weekend, you did it much slower.

A fair point. So, in the spirit of keeping it fun, and not taking myself too seriously, here’s how I prepared:

  • I downed a pint of beer and a pint of cola at the pub with my boyfriend, Raj, and some of his mates, and watched the rugby.
  • Then I went to a restaurant and downed a big serve of duck curry with rice.
  • I lazed around on the couch watching TV when I should’ve been napping.
  • I threw gels, cookies, soft drink, and sunscreen into a cooler bag. I also threw in a few comfort items, like an iPod and a hat, but not my sunnies. Oops.
  • I did one serious thing: I taped the toe that always blisters.
  • I donned a pretty white running dress with pocketed purple shorties (because a girl needs her phone and some cash) and pink, knee-high compression socks. Hey, it matters.
  • About 45 minutes before the event started, I got my boyfriend to drop me off just down the road. Close enough, right?

I needed to average 90 minutes per lap, which is a brisk walking pace, or a slow jogging pace. So I chose the former, walking my first lap with Cassie Smith, who had started at 3 pm and was going to run for a full 24 hours with a target total of 100 miles. She’d already hit 65 km by midnight, which was ahead of schedule, but wasn’t (as another competitor calculated) an average pace of 5:30.

Goodwill Bridge

We were pleasantly surprised by how warm it was, with just a cool breeze blowing over the water. Faster runners vanished into the distance, but we knew they’d be back soon—the benefit of a lap course—and new runners were consistently sneaking up on us. Cassie and I had several months of life to catch up on, but there was another benefit of sticking together: it was less scary.

Despite the course being well lit, it didn’t feel safe. Everyone on the Bicentennial Bikeway was, let’s face it, a little odd. That includes us, of course. There was a guy out running and shadow-boxing, a few drunks, a large group of youths having play-fights, a few more drunks, and us. I was a little worried about the table of water cups at the turn-around: did it look like an oasis to drunks making their way home from the city? Would they drink our water? Or…do other things to it?

Kurilpa Bridge from the Bicentennial Bikeway

Coming in from our first lap, Cassie and I mentioned this to the event staff and volunteers, and they immediately sent more safety cyclists out on the course with us, which was a wonderful response. We also wanted a quick toilet stop, but the nearby restaurant staff had locked everything up (which wasn’t expected). The only open toilets were the ones at the beach, we were told—over 300 metres away!

But when you need to go…so we took the detour, only to find that those toilets were also closed, and just the disabled toilet doubling as a parents’ room was open. By the time we got back to the start line, we’d lost 15 minutes! Good thing I wasn’t planning on setting a record…but I was planning on cutting it very fine at the finish line. I couldn’t afford to lose so much time.

At the turnaround on the second lap, Cassie sent me off on my own way. Walking was hurting me: I’m not fit for walking, and the camber was upsetting my shins. I was also a little anxious: I needed to move faster, both to keep warm and to make up for the 15 minutes we’d lost.

William Jolly Bridge from the Bicentennial Bikeway

As soon as I started running, I felt connected again. My legs felt strong, and I had a lot of energy. I made up a good chunk of time on the next couple of laps, and then reverted to the original plan of just keeping my laps under 90 minutes. I didn’t want to use the iPod while it was still dark, because it seemed important to be able to hear what was going on around me. I remained quiet with my thoughts, except when I was chatting to another runner or one of the safety cyclists.

Brisbane River at dawn, from the Goodwill Bridge

I’d had in mind that I’d celebrate the sunrise and the completion of 40 km with a small double shot flat white from the Café on the [Goodwill] Bridge. But there was a queue, and it was hard to tell how many people were ordering coffees and how many were just standing around, enjoying the view. Maybe it wasn’t worth waiting. Maybe it was.

CBD sunrise, from the Bicentennial Bikeway

I quizzed the staff, and the barista insisted he’d be quick. Gesturing to the race bib on the front of my pink thermal top, I countered that I needed him to be a little more specific. He came back with two minutes, which was good enough for me, so I dug some sweaty cash out of my running bra and handed it over.

I waited patiently for the two minutes (or thereabouts), enjoying the rest, and was soon rewarded with a hot cup of motivation. I walked the remaining few hundred metres to the timing area so I could really appreciate the indulgence, and I made sure to thank the café team as I headed back past them over the bridge. It was a seriously good coffee, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone (not just those running ultramarathons).

Double shot flat white and a very happy runner

The course was getting busier now, both with participants and the general public, and the day was getting warmer. Intermittent cloud cover kept me from getting too steamy, but it also made it really hard to judge when I should lose a layer of clothing. Some parts of the course were still quite cool, particularly when the breeze was in my face.

Rather than dwell on it, I just ditched my warm top at the 50 km mark and hoped for the best. I realised my error in wearing my pretty white dress: exposed shoulders. I carefully applied sunscreen to all the uncovered bits…except for one part of my back, which was a lovely shade of red by the end of the race.

By that stage I was really starting to get into the rhythm of running. As I saw the same runners lap after lap, a camaraderie formed, even though we only ever had a few moments to speak. We briefly touched each other’s joys and sorrows and then passed by. This is the spirit of the ultra, felt at every event, but felt strongest at those events where you see the other participants regularly.

I didn’t need music, an audiobook, or a companion. I just needed to run. I was having a wonderful time, and felt like I could run forever…except maybe for that little blister I could feel forming where it almost always does. I suspected the tape had slipped off my toe earlier, bunching up and creating extra blistering stimulus. I also suspected I hadn’t noticed it soon enough, and it was probably too late to do much about it. At any rate, I couldn’t be bothered fighting my way out of my compression socks. They’d been hard enough to get into in the first place.

At 60 km, a woman who was crewing for another runner asked me if she could “help with anything”. It wasn’t the first time—when she had asked at the start of the race, I’d explained to her how I just wanted to look after myself. And I’d repeated that message a few laps in. So when I declined again, I took the time to explain that I really wanted a no-fuss, self-crew sort of experience. She looked a little crestfallen, but I really didn’t need her help (except maybe with my sunscreen application—I could’ve done with some help there, apparently).

I didn’t really understand her reaction. If I offer help to someone—whether it’s giving them my seat on the bus or cooking them a meal or driving them home—I try to remember they’re allowed to decline. And if they genuinely don’t need my help, then I’m even happier than if they needed help and accepted it. I think that also applies when I volunteer to help at an ultramarathon.

But crewing at an ultramarathon is the next level: I’m not just helping any runner, I’m dedicated to my runner. Any help I offer to another runner is secondary. And, given that ultrarunning can be an intensely confronting personal experience, I understand if they decline, even if they’re blunt about it. No, I wouldn’t want a stranger in my face if I was vomiting on my shoes or applying pawpaw ointment to my butt crack, any more than I would want someone else’s husband to come over and hold my hand, wipe my brow and tell me to push if I was in labour.

In some races I demand help all the time. On that day, in that race, I needed to look after myself, which is why I hadn’t arranged for crew. I was perfectly justified in declining the help offered…but maybe I felt a little shitty about that crestfallen look on the woman’s face, because my next lap wasn’t so good. (Or maybe I was just fading.)

Bicentennial Bikeway, looking towards Toowong

It wasn’t until my eighth lap that I realised I hadn’t seen Cassie for hours. Another runner told me she’d switched to the 5 km loop (wait—we can do that?) because there were more bubblers and more toilets on that course.

It was a good point—there was only one toilet block on the 10 km course and it was right near the transition area. (At least it was open now.) Once the urge hit me just a few minutes after I’d passed the toilets on the way out. I spent the next 80 minutes learning just how far 10 km can feel.

The boredom of having already seen the course so many times in the daylight didn’t help, but a quick chat with Craig Mottram did. I called out as he flew past, heckling him for not signing up for one of the ultramarathon events. He slowed down briefly, and explained he was just running a couple of extra laps after his 10 km race. But I think the real reason is because he can’t count—every time he passed me after that (and it felt frequent!) he asked how far I had to go.

Rail bridge between Roma Street and South Bank, Brisbane

Raj arrived with a cheese and tomato toasted sandwich for me, just after I had headed out on my ninth lap. He texted me to let me know he was in position, as promised. Even though he was exhausted, and even though I was just running for fun—he’d come. I felt overjoyed that he’d made such an effort for me.

(Raj insists that boyfriends are generally expected to support their girlfriends and that his behaviour is quite normal. He says I’d recognise this if my ex hadn’t set the bar so low. That one usually only rocked up at the end of my races, and once went to the pub mid-race when he had said he’d meet me at a checkpoint to mix a drink for me.)

It was torture. I wasn’t sure I could wait another eighty minutes for that cheesy goodness. (And the sandwich. Har-dee-har-har.)

I texted back that I’d be there as soon as I could, and that I was pretty sure the toastie would make my last lap super-fast. That, of course, makes no sense. I’d be walking to eat it, and then I’d be slowed down by digestion. But it actually was a fast lap, despite the walk, and despite a toilet break to wash my hands before collecting my delicious toastie.

Competitors and spectators alike hassled me about my food choice: “Is that a pie?” “Have you got pizza?” “Mmm, is that a kebab?” I felt protective. It’s not “just” a toastie. It’s my delicious cheese and tomato toastie, prepared by my boyfriend, with bread I baked just yesterday.

I felt loved, so I ran hard.

Mottram saw me and asked how far I had to go: “What’s that, a lap and a half?”

“Half a lap.” He high-fived me, and I ran harder.

At the turn-around, I paused to enjoy my water, and thank the volunteer. I told him it was my last lap, that I had just five kilometres to go before my day was over. Just one more time over the Goodwill Bridge, my twentieth time that day. I continued to share the news with the other runners as I headed to the finish.

But it wasn’t until I was back under the Riverside Expressway that I realised, if I pushed hard instead of sticking to my usual shuffle, I might sneak in under 14 hours.

Could I do it? Only one way to find out…

And that’s how I came to cross the finish line looking like this, in 13 hours, 59 minutes and 13 seconds:

Racing to finish the River Run 100
(Photo by Trevor Ross)