Along with 17,000 of my nearest and dearest I arrived on the start line, sweating as much from nerves as I did from the heat. I’ll put additional details about the race logistics at the bottom of this post but, as has been widely reported, the train platforms and the toilet queues were utter bedlam. That said, the race day vibe was stratospheric. With lockdown memories still reasonably fresh, I still get a real thrill from being in a starting line throng, surrounded by a sea of like-minded people all amped and happy and full of encouragement.
It took half an hour to cross the start line, while we nervously watched the mercury climb higher and higher. It’s one thing to tell yourself that it’s going to be a hot race but another to actually feel the cloying heat settle on your skin like a branding iron. Anyway, once we got going the field began to thin and the elation of the Sydney Harbour glittered below our feet as we streamed across the Harbour Bridge. This main bridge road only closes twice a year, once for the New Year’s Eve fireworks and once for the marathon. So crossing it on foot with the city waving at you from the perimeters and the helicopters fluttering to capture their news shots overhead is spine-tingling – a real bucket list moment.
This year we headed to Darling Harbour and Pyrmont first (so a kind of inversion of last year’s course) which was lovely as somehow the jeweled waters had a cooling effect and the few tight turns meant we could see the faster runners streaming back towards us and for short chunks of time be part of a fat, sausage-like caterpillar of brightly dressed, giddy people high on adrenaline and electrolyte. Running through the Rocks had an ear-thumping, party-like atmosphere and Oxford Street had its own rainbow-tinged fabulousness as the drag queens danced and waved us on and somebody (was he a passerby, a supporter, a random stranger?) danced his heart out on a table with the price tag still dangling from his peak hat and his eyes closed in what I suspect was a drug induced high but his happiness was totally infectious!
As I was turning into Macquarie St and starting the uphill incline towards Anzac Parade (around two hours in, at my pace) I got to see the race winners streaming back down towards Circular Quay. So I stopped for a few minutes and just cheered myself hoarse as the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Aussie elites streamed past in their chiseled magnificence and floated towards victory.
But sadly, by the time we got to Centennial Park shit had become decidedly real and the heat was sapping a lot of the joy out of the day. Volunteers did what they could to cool us down but the water in the cups at the drinks stations was tepid if not scalding and the patches between the shady trees was infernal. I had set a fairly good pace up until about 25km, but I watched my average speed evaporate as my legs and my heart had their reserves slowly bleached away by the climbing temperatures.
My saviours were the friendly faces of the other runners and the efforts of the amazing volunteers. I got such encouragement from occasionally seeing people I knew, catching the cheers and waves of friends, colleagues and clients, or just strangers calling my name (printed on my bib) as I limped along. I also got a tap on the shoulder and a quick, lovely chat with a gorgeous lady who said she followed my socials, and that filled my heart for a good few kms but soon enough the heat eradicated that too and the day descended into a sweaty battle between the part of me that wanted to die and the part of me that wanted to keep going.
Volunteers armed themselves with hosepipes and created impromptu water tunnels for us to run through, and huge troughs of ice were stationed a couple of points on the course. I picked up as much ice as my hands could carry and stuffed it into my buff. I then sucked on ice chips while they lasted before wrapping my deliciously clingy, freezing buff around my neck until the next station. In all seriousness, I’m not sure I would have made it through the day if it weren’t for these blissful moments of icy reprieve.
The race was popular, and busy. My habitual ‘zone’ amidst the quiet, focused stragglers was suddenly infiltrated by way more runners than I was used to. This is not a bad thing, it was just … strange. I am so used to being on my own and it was quite something to suddenly have to share the road. Talk about first world problems.
I had to walk far more than I wanted to, but there was genuinely nothing left in the tank and the day quickly became about survival, not triumph. The gentle decline back down Oxford Street (now devoid of drag queens, they too had melted beneath their wigs I think) was blissful as was the slope down past the art gallery towards Mrs Macquarie’s Chair but there was a big price to pay in climbing back up again before finally streaming down Macquarie Street and pouring out onto the glorious steps of the Opera House.
I had started the day with quiet aspirations of a PB and hoped that the incremental gains from the year (two 5k pbs, two 10k pbs and a half marathon pb) would somehow consolidate on the day and propel me to marathon greatness too but the gods had other ideas. I have to be honest and admit that for a while I baked in my misery a little, and the choir of critics in my head had an absolute fucking field day. But thanks to the ice, the waves of strangers, the occasional tail wind from the harbour and the memories of friends, family and loved ones doing it far tougher than me, I found another gear and ultimately wobbled my way over the finish line. So that initial disappointment is underscored by something far stronger and happier: the knowledge that I have the ability to run a marathon in a heatwave with a smile on my face. Which is actually pretty bloody awesome, even if I do say so myself.
What I did right
The best and most important thing I did right this year was engage a running coach. Having someone keep me accountable, help troubleshoot my roadblocks and injuries and quell my many anxieties was priceless but most importantly, she challenged me to take on workouts that I would never have attempted otherwise and she is the main reason I got all the PBs I mentioned above. Take a bow Anne Marie Cook.
And in the build up to race day - I hydrated really well, both before and during the race. Similarly, my nutrition was on point and I was able to keep up a really regular rhythm of eating just after every drink station. I do think this played a part in me still having energy in the final 12km.
I’m not sure if it was luck of experience but my body played along and gave me a great series of solid sleep in the nights leading up to, and the night before race day. That’s never happened before! And it was a real blessing.
I took advantage of the drink stations, the water tunnels and the ice. Oh the heavenly ice! I honestly think was the real reason I got through the day.
I paced myself quite well, in the early stages at least. I didn’t go out too fast, I maintained a decent rhythm and I felt mostly in control until the heat kicked my ass.
What I did wrong
I broke the golden rule of ‘nothing new on race day.’ I wore a new t-shirt (because I wanted to have my Slow Coach branding on the road) AND a new bra. Luckily, both did their jobs flawlessly and I had no issues. I also tried a gel which was handed to me at one of the aid stations. I had never tried it before and it was a real gamble, but again it seemed to work in my favour.
I also had some toilet issues. I drank a lot on the way to the race, and even though I stood in the interminable queue for the loo I then proceeded to drink another entire Gatorade, telling myself that the electrolytes would stand me in good stead. Needless to say by about the 10km mark I was popping and I had to stop my run and stand in another queue to relieve myself. So that cost me around 5 minutes but desperate times, right?
What the race did right
Okay, so the internet is awash with criticisms for the marathon organisers right now. And I’ve had my say on a few issues already, notably the changes to the half marathon cut off time. But give credit where it’s due, this was a tough gig and the organisers also did a hell of a lot right.
The marathon course was lovely, and I think it was a lot better than last year. And for most of the race, the vibe was absolutely alight, and it was a dream day to be a runner soaking in this city’s indescribable views, the loud music, the bubbles, the aid stations, the drag queens, the musicians, the pacers and the party atmosphere. The volunteers were amazing, going way above and beyond in tough circumstances.
What the race did wrong
There were only about a third of the necessary number of toilets. It took almost 45 minutes to have my first nervous wee. And pretty soon after that, I needed another one. I think if you register 47,000 runners for an event and they all start within roughly an hour of each other, it only takes a simple calculator to figure out you’re going to need a LOT of ablutions.
As a runner towards the back of C wave, I was aghast to discover the aid station at about the 7km mark had run out of water. It made me quite scared of what was to come and had me fearing for my ability to keep going. Luckily, all the other stations water stations were fine.
There’s no way to sugar coat this, but the marathon starts too late in the day. Yes, I know that there are other races and it must be an unfathomable shemozzle to organize the roads, the permits, the volunteers, the routes, the ambos and the race footprint. But if the planet continues to heat up and the organisers pursue the volume of runners needed to gain world major status then something’s going to have to give. The marathon needs to start at around 5 or 6am. End of story.
A slow coach client was running right at the back of the event, and only just in front of the sweeper. At some stage, the 7-hour pacer disappeared, and she lost her essential ‘marker’ for who she needed to stay ahead of to stay in the race. To make things worse, the water cups were piping hot when she got to the aid stations and the hoses were rolled up and packed away. In time she got tapped on the shoulder and had to climb in the sweeper van at the 32km mark. I’ve always felt passionately that the tail runners deserve the same level of support as the elites. They’ve paid the same entry fee, and done the same amount of work to show up. So not giving them the support they were promised is unforgivable.
And while it did not affect me on the marathon, clients running the half marathon were barked at aggressively by volunteers who were guarding drinks that were being kept for the marathoners. There has to be a better way.
And while I’ve already made my feelings on this very clear, its worth saying one last time that the treatment of the slower half marathoners was unacceptable. You just can’t move the goal posts ten weeks before a race.
It’s my fervent wish that becoming a world major event means being as inclusive as possible, and creating an event where every body is welcomed and recognizsd for the effort that goes into the preparation, travel and experience. Please don’t forget the slower runners and please create a narrative where ‘running’ is not just about being fast.
The race organisers had absolutely no control over these, but it’s worth mentioning as they definitely influenced the experience of the day. The train platform at Milsons Point was extremely crowded and it took around fifteen minutes just to exit the station.
The weather was hot. Damn hot. Freakishly hot. Unpleasantly hot. No one’s fault, but perhaps something that is going to become recurrent. So future planning needs to build this in.
A hot, brilliant, wonderful, exhausting, scary and unforfuckinggettable day. An absolute gem for the treasure box and a masterful teacher in the art of survival, endurance, community and grit.
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience another life, run another marathon.” ~ Emil Zatopek.