A back-of-the-packers lens on Sydney’s newest and most exquisite ultramarathon:
Before the race
It’s no secret I’m a slow runner. But what I’m less transparent about is how genuinely scared I was about this event, and how much I felt like an imposter. It was going to take me 30km past my longest ever run, and I genuinely didn’t know if I could do it. Walking through the doors of the race briefing, I fully expected some burly bouncers to step forward and take me by the forearm and say ‘we don’t know what you think you’re doing here lady, but you’re clearly in the wrong place. Please leave before you sully this event with your patent inadequacies.’
But for whatever reason, (perhaps the bouncers were late?) this didn’t transpire, and I was allowed to sit through the very comprehensive race briefing, drop off my bags for the aid stations and scurry off for a carb-heavy and truly delicious dinner.
The start line
Some girlfriends and I stayed in a hotel right over the road from the start line, which meant the morning was relatively stress free, just getting dressed, packed and cheering each other up with reassurances. I’m very prone to chafing and my dear friend Sally went above and beyond the call of friendship by covering every inch of my unmentionables with physio tape. This was the source of a lot of hysterical giggling and a favourite anecdote to look back on! Then over the road to the start line where we were treated to a jaw dropping sunrise, a superbly organised opening ceremony and lots of envious cheers as the elites and early wave runners took off towards Manly.
I was in Wave D, and I made sure I was at the back of the pack as I didn’t want to slow any other runners down, but inevitably my turn came and they lowered the tape and we were off! I treated myself to a big breath and a bit of a shiver as I realized I was cruising along Bondi’s iconic pavements at the start of my longest ever running adventure, in the same cohort as some of the sport’s most revered and elite. The clouds boasted salmon and aqua and gilded hues and the waves danced and the beach glimmered, and the most Instagram-worthy moment of my life blurred under my feet.
Shit gets real
It didn’t take long for reality to set in though. Most other runners could power up the hills and stairs in the early miles, while I only walked. About thirty or forty minutes in to the run the relay runners began to catch me, and I frequently opted to step off the course to make way for them rather than cause any sort of bottle neck. But it gave me a chance to admire their form, sip my hydration and reaffirm my commitment to the day.
I absolutely loved the first 40-50 km of this race. More than once I found myself thinking about how it was easier than a marathon, given the scenery, the vibe, the terrain and my slower pace. I felt like I was gliding, soaking it in, watching the event from outside myself and head over heels in love with running. It was a transcendent experience. Until all of a sudden it wasn’t.
I got lost somewhere around Taronga Zoo, purely by my own doing, and my happy bubble got brutally popped. I had been following another runner but allowed my mind to drift and I obviously missed a turn somewhere. By the time I realised I was lost I was deepest darkest Mosman suburbia and unable to problem-solve my way out of it. An ultra brain is a tired brain, and it seems I can use my legs or my head but not both. So I just could. not. figure. my. shit. out and all I kept doing was looking at the race app. Which showed me I was on course, so I just kept going. Except the app was actually showing my projected location not my actual location and by the time I figured that out the problem was almost unsolvable. Thank goodness for a kind race marshal who happened to drive past and point me towards Bradley’s head, so that I could trot my way back onto the trail and severely startle the marshal who was not prepared for me to pop out of the bushes in entirely the wrong place.
The adrenaline spike from this adventure was horrible, my easy pace and breathing was now in tatters and my confidence was shredded, but with a bit of time the Sydney coastline weaved its magic, and I calmed down again enough to remind myself of my ‘why,’ re-connect with my mental strategies and look forward to seeing my husband at the next aid station.
My race rules
I had set a few rules for myself going into the race to offset my known weaknesses. For example, I forbade myself from taking any photographs after I crossed the start line. This might seem like a strange rule given how iconic the event was, but I’m so prone to dawdling, photographing, cropping and zooming, posing and re-taking the picture that I can spend minutes on a picture which would have translated to a considerable chunk of time across the course of the 80km race. Knowing that I was going to be up against the cut offs it was my way of pruning valuable minutes and making sure I was always moving forward.
For the same reason I didn’t check my phone. Not once. I didn’t read a text message or a whatsapp or an email, even though I could hear them binging all day. It was so gratifying to know that I was getting support from every angle, but I knew that I had no time to read or respond.
I had promised myself a change of shoes at the halfway point, and this gave me something to look forward to. I also changed my shirt and socks and sported a fresh buff. The ‘clean’ feeling was a real psychological boost both before and after the changes and something I highly recommend doing.
This is easy. It was starting the race with some of my best friends, sharing jokes and reassurances and inappropriate humour, cruising the beaches and roads of the world’s most beautiful city and hearing my phone beep all day with what I knew were endless message of support from my tribe. Encountering friends who had come out to support me, getting the help and expert advice of my ultra-runner husband and knowing that my fundraising goal had been reached was some of the wind that filled my sails.
My husband supported me at the second and third aid stations, and ran with me for the last 15 or so km. He passed on all the messages I’d been getting, problem solved my wardrobe changes, reminded me to eat and massaged my sore shoulders. It was awesome knowing I had him to look forward to and it really helped chunk up the race.
And not necessarily in chronological order but another unforgettable high came as I approached the Manly ferry. Sydney’s young and beautiful were gathering in large numbers as the sun was setting and the beers were being served, and groups were artfully scattered across all the grassy banks and public benches and picnic tables. Hundreds, if not thousands of people erupted in a boozy Mexican wave as I trotted passed them, and all of a sudden I felt like Robbie Williams entertaining the concert masses. Their beer glasses punched the air, and their enthusiasm and cheers made me feel invincible and I did my best not to cry. Thanks team Sydney, I love you too.
But one of my best memories was actually the bliss of the solitude. Being perpetually at the back of the pack meant for large chunks of the race I was entirely alone. Coming out of Clontarf and cruising through Dobroyd Head and Forty Baskets I had a real out of body experience. The afternoon sun was creating long golden shadows across the national park, the wildflowers were blooming, the birds were chirping and the harbour stretched out far below me like a jeweled carpet. And there wasn’t a single human anywhere and I had the whole of Sydney to myself. I was floating above the sea on a wildflower-scented cloud and I could see forever. I wondered, happily, if I had died and gone to heaven. But sadly, as the shadows got longer and the noise from the pain in my bones began to drown out the birds, I began to realise that I was probably still alive and had to come to terms with the knowledge that I still had a f*&%ing long way to go.
I’ve already spoken about the heart-stopping panic of being lost. Which was a dreadful chapter, bookended by much happiness as I’ve said above. But the darkest hour is right before the dawn, right?. And before I could cross the finish line, I had to face my toughest challenge approaching North Head, the Endless Hill of Soul Crushing Desperation (yes, that’s it’s technical name) and the demands of navigating in the dark.
I took the alternate course up Darley Road to North Head, as the beaches were closed by that time of night, to protect the resident penguins. So there was no scenery to distract me from the relentless incline and the slog of the pavement. Up, up, up through the barracks and out to the very tip of the Head, as the amber glow faded from the skyline and Sydney sighed into her night time twinkle. But the national park was pitch black, and the footpath filled with tree roots and stairs and changes in direction. My legs were pure jelly, my bones were aching, my brain was pure marshmallow and I couldn’t see very well thanks to the misting effect of the woe-is-me-tears that kept threatening to spill over.
By now the race sweepers had caught up with me as the final runner on the course, and my husband was at my side. I was using my poles, which had irritated me life out of me in training but were now the most valuable thing I ever owned as I used them to sense my way across technical bits and to hold me up as my legs seemed to be no longer capable. I tried to eavesdrop on the sweeper’s chatter about Coast to Kozi and garmin vs coros, but it was cold comfort as I literally observed myself decomposing like Voldemort after the Battle of Hogwarts. I had no common sense, no ability to observe, no breath left in my lungs, no turgidity in my bones. The last leg was endless. Down stair after f&*%ing stair on quads that had been shredded all day in a slow cooker. Navigating through a tiny gap in an old stone wall, but I didn’t duck low enough and accidentally removed a part of my scalp. The wind had blown the directional sign the wrong way and we found other lost runners trying to descend a vertical cliff in the pitch black, and the sweepers had to coax and warn and bark to get them back on the course. Then down steep slope, more stairs, shale and tree roots in the dark, poking with my poles to find the way. Then after exactly three thousand hours finally, finally emerging on to the flat at Shelly Beach.
My actual finish time was 15 hours 11 minutes. That’s a really long time on your feet. The sweepers encouraged me to run to the finish line, but I was in pieces. I was plodding on nothing but rage and resentment and a longing for bed. Running was stupid. Runners were assholes. The cowbells that I could hear on the finish strait were grating. Hot tears kept surging up my throat interrupting my breathing. I was gasping, flailing, falling apart. But as the inflated finish line arch beckoned like a bright yellow portal to a world of rest, I handed my walking sticks to my husband, pulled up my old lady panties, and shuffled. My feet barely lifted from the floor but I crossed the finish line and the flags flapped so hard in the wind it sounded like clapping. And then the taps opened, and I ugly cried myself into my husband’s arms and wailed.
My cousin’s wife Bronwyn is diagnosed with an extraordinarily rare form of cancer, and is doing it tough under the expensive American health care system. I ran partly as a fundraiser to offset some of her costs, but also to express some form of solidarity through suffering. This is hopefully not too much of a ‘flex’ because I genuinely wanted her to know what lengths her support team would go to on her behalf. And I also wanted to remind myself of one of my central reasons for running. To mark a chapter in my life when I have a healthy body and to use and mark it, to create memories and milestones that I can look back on one day with pride, and to set an example to my children and to my community for what an ordinary body is capable of.
I had the word ‘Bronwyn’ written on my arm in permanent marker. One glance at this and I found another surge forward. I would also seek out pink and purple, her favourite colours, wherever I could see them. Wildflowers, other competitor’s clothing, race markers, sunsets. She was everywhere.
I chanted ‘always forward, always forward’ as my feet hit the ground. Every pebble, every step, every staircase, every gateway was a moment in the race I would never have to repeat.
But mostly, I used my old favourite. Pain is temporary, pride lasts forever.
The pursuit of mediocrity
I love the idea of the pursuit of excellence. But thanks to my genetic predisposition (I’m more Tellytubby than Power Ranger, more marshmallow than string bean), as well as some pretty major life choices (I’ve never been sporty and I’ve spent several decades pursuing other things than physical activity – I’ve studied, I’ve parented, I’ve worked and I’ve travelled but I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time on the couch) I just don’t have the visceral knowledge of running in my bones. I don’t run because I’m talented. It’s actually quite the opposite. I run because I made the decision to run and because I think that slow running is valid, and deserves a place in the conversation.
Bondi to Manly ultra was in some ways, the perfect medium on which to display my sheer mediocrity. My lack of form, my lack of problem-solving ability, my beetroot face and my slow pace were in traditional running terms, terrible. But for the older, bigger, injured and intimidated athletes out there, they were also hopefully an example of what what can be achieved through consistency and a sense of fun.
Let’s shift some of the focus off the high-performance athletes and the relentless ‘faster stronger better’ conversation and spend a moment thinking about how coming last can be a form of winning, and how running for a cause can be an avenue to considerable personal achievement.
The Bondi to Manly ultramarathon wasn’t really between Bondi and Manly. The distance was between the version of myself ten years ago who couldn’t run for the phone, and the version of me that showed up at the start line. The distance wasn’t 80km, it was the gap between the part of me who wanted to stop and the part who was determined to keep going. The finish line wasn’t really Manly Beach, it was that magical place where I realised I was capable of finishing. The real battle wasn’t in my aching, blistered feet, but a quiet war fought above my shoulders.
And if a book loving, coke-bottle-glasses wearing musical theatre nerd with a penchant for renovation shows and Harry Potter can transform herself into an ultramarathon runner, what else is she capable of? What are we all capable of? That’s really why we run. The answer is in the journey.