To complement my earlier video documentary, here is a more detailed account of my SMH HM race.
Last May I finally decided to embark on my first runcation abroad and be one of the tens of thousands of vacation-goers who pivot their holidays around a running event.
Australia became my choice of destination and so I identified two regular events that were happening mid-May: the Great Ocean Road Marathon in Victoria (not far from Melbourne) and the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon (21.1km) in New South Wales. I finally opted to go for the latter because I love city running and Sydney’s famous landmarks made it all the more enticing.
After viewing the terms and conditions of the race, I signed up without hesitation but had one major concern. The half marathon had strict cut-off times because local police would need to reopen the city streets back to traffic within a certain amount of time.
Now I was not a fast runner by any stretch of imagination, so the risk of being pulled off the course was there. What if I did not reach the checkpoints in time and had to quit the race before I could finish it? This prospect mortified me, of course!
At the same time I was determined to challenge myself and undertake the daunting task. So the weeks of training began, whether it was by myself or with friends. The treadmill became my routine during rainy days and I sacrificed sleeping in on the weekends for my longer runs in the early morning.
The Pacer & The Plan
Meanwhile, I also decided to embark on another strategy – get a pacer friend to run with me for that extra motivation.
For this, I turned to a fellow runner whose passion and diligence for running preceded her. She calls herself Dhitri and was a postgraduate student based in Canberra, about 3 hours away from Sydney. I have never met Dhitri before but we had gotten to know each other online through Indonesia’s most prominent group of recreational runners – the IndoRunners.
I told Dhitri about my plan to run a half marathon in Sydney. To my delight, she was excited about it and volunteered to run it with me. I was just glad to have her onboard without much persuasion. It is true what they say about runners – have race, will run!
The few weeks leading up to race day, Dhitri and I diligently shared training plans via instant messages; we also talked about certain dietary practices to adhere. Being the super analytical person that she was, Dhitri studied the race route and its varied terrain, and then come up with a plan to ensure that we would pass all 5 checkpoints (7km by 50 mins, 11km by 1h:15h, 15km by 1h:45m, 18km by 2h:15m, and 21km by 2h:38m) within ample time.
Pretty soon we had a game plan drawn out – kilometer by kilometer. We used spreadsheet software to make and print a pace band that we cut out and wore around our wrists to help us keep our times in check! It was a primitive yet crucial step to ensure that we met our realistic goal to finish the half marathon within 2 hours and 30 minutes.
We finally arrived in Sydney after an 8-hour flight from KL on a beautiful and sunny Thursday – just days before race day. The temperature in the city was in the mid-teens Celsius that morning. Dhitri was to arrive in the city via bus from Canberra on Saturday, so I took the first few days to acclimatize to the cooler weather, socialize with friends as well as pick up our race bibs.
Collecting the race kit
On Friday afternoon, I dropped by the Townhall in the Sydney Central Business District to visit the half marathon expo and collect my race kit. Since Dhitri was not in town yet I helped to collect hers as well. A bespectacled elderly man was manning the counter that I approached, so I gave him three confirmation slips (mine, my travel buddy Evi’s and Dhitri’s).
As the man rummaged and found our race bibs in the containers that held so many others, he exposed each one under an electronic scanner to confirm our details in the system. He rattled off our names flawlessly – until he reached Dhitri’s and stopped in his tracks. He looks at me almost apologetically and asks, “Is this the right person?” I peered over and saw that he was having trouble pronouncing “Adhityani Putri” – Dhitri’s (partially) full name (imagine if she had also included her first two Balinese names, “Desak Putu” as well!). I smiled at him reassuringly and nodded to confirm, a little bit tickled by this incident.
After that I walked around the expo to look at running merchandise, but did not buy anything except for a pair of brand new ¾ compression tights on discount from the 2XU booth, which was showcasing their fresh-off-the-press lineup colors of baby blue, purple and pink. For the first time I learned that the brand is correctly pronounced “Two Times U”!
I also met Sarah Joyce, the editor of Women’s Running Australia magazine! I personally harbor a deep admiration for editors, especially ones who write about running! So I was delighted to have made her acquaintance. Read more about my encounter with Sarah here.
Race kit culture shock
Later on, it hit me: the race kit consisted of nothing more than the bib itself and a reusable blue bag bearing the Sydney Morning Herald logo and its main sponsor. This was a far outcry from race kits that runners get in Malaysia and Indonesia where we normally receive not only a race vest to wear as part of the race registration fee, but also a few other goodies thrown in by various sponsors such as nutrition bars, adhesive heat pads for pain relief and even body liquid soap!
Did I also mention there was no safety pins included for our Sydney half marathon bibs? That truly stunned me. Later I learned from Dhitri that one gets the safety pins from the organizer on race day itself.
Arrival of the pacer
Saturday evening rolls around and Dhitri arrives at Central Station in Sydney. We finally met and hit it off instantly, like we were old friends. Later that night we wanted to grab dinner at Jamie’s Kitchen on Pitt Street (yes, the TV chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant) but the waiting time just to get seated was 2 hours! (This is normal, apparently.) So we ate dinner at another cozy restaurant nearer to our hotel: a simple but tasty meal of risotto with wild mushrooms, a nice and light balance of carbohydrates and protein. We also sinned a bit and shared a cheese cake together.
We left back for the hotel early enough to ensure that we’d have at least 7-8 hours of sleep before our race. Our plan was to wake up at by 5am to get ready to toe the start line by 6:45am. My two roommates were long snoozing before I could sleep soundly. I attribute my restlessness to feelings of pre-race anxiety!
The alarm went off and it was time to get up! After dressing up in our running gear and having a quick breakfast of protein shakes and muffins, we walked nearly half a kilometer to the race start line, which was situated on College Street next to St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Sizable crowds of runners had already formed as we crossed Hyde Park to reach the venue. The temperature outside was chilly by my tropical standards, 9 degrees Celsius. To cope with this, I wore a long running blue top and long tights, while Dhitri bravely wore capri tights and a sleeveless top!
For a while Dhitri also had on a purple jacket to stave off the cold. She tells me it’s common for runners, just before the gun goes off, to shed their old jackets and fling them to the sidewalks where they will be collected and donated to charity. Sure enough when the time came, countless jackets were thrown up in the air and landed on the pavements and metal barricades like colourful parachutes!
But first, a minute of silence was observed before the flag-off – to remember the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in April. I prayed for a safe run for everyone.
Then we were off! Alongside 16,000 other runners, we made our way through Sydney, passing by iconic landmarks such as The Rocks, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and Pyrmont Peninsula. Because I was a tourist I was so tempted to take pictures along the way, but since we were on a tight schedule I had to dismiss that thought and focus on just running!
Sticking to the strategy
We ran the first half of the race as a ‘positive split’, meaning we ran it faster than the second half – to ensure that we would make the 11km cut-off before the 75-minute mark. After then we could resort to a slightly slower pace and still make the other cut-offs. Energy management is key to distance running.
Dhitri was gentle but firm in pacing me. She made sure she never lost sight of me, that I hydrated and ate my power gels to replenish my energy levels. Whenever my pace started to slack she’d glance back and pushed me to hasten my steps. I obediently kept up; I didn’t want to disappoint her or myself. (Secretly inside, I also didn’t want to waste the race fee which could have easily signed me for 5 other half marathons back home.)
While running I also had the opportunity to test the allegation that one can run faster with slightly less effort in cooler weather – and I am happy to say that it is true! But that is not to say running in the cold did not come with its own set of challenges – cold winds will send you chills, especially if you’re already sweating profusely And when cold drinking water spills on you (I am extra clumsy when tired), that can be a bit of a shocker too.
Finished, at last!
Soon it came down to the last 4 kilometers. The weather had been lovely so far, but my energy level was depleting fast. Dhitri would not hear of it; she gave me 10 seconds to swallow my last power gel at the last water station and continued to ‘whip’ me along the way. I ran strongly through the last attraction of the race route – the Royal Botanical Gardens, which I felt went on forever. We made the U-turn to get out of the gardens area and back onto College Street, which would eventually lead us to the finish line at Hyde Park.
In the last 100 meters, Dhitri and I sprinted with all our might, and as we flew through the finish line, we both hit a finishing time of 2:29:49, 11 seconds faster than our goal! Hurray, we did it! And a new personal record for me! Sydney Morning Herald was not kidding when they advertised the race as “May 19 is where your PB is!”
Dhitri gave me a big hug and congratulated me while I could barely muster a ‘thank you.’ With our arms slung around each other, she walked and I limped (I was cramping) toward Harini, a friend and supporter, who was furiously photographing us. Then it was off to the medal collection area where we picked up our race memento. We were sore and spent but sheepishly satisfied.
Sydney was truly a runcation to remember. I can’t wait for my next one!
- The Art of Pacing: SMH HM Race Recap by Dhitri
- VIDEO: My Sydney half marathon
- Meeting a Running Magazine Editor