The half marathon that was a classroomful of forgotten lessons.
We meet again, SMH…
The Sydney Morning Herald half marathon is a nice race that takes place in Sydney CBD in late cool autumn, usually in the second last week of May. I first ran the SMH half marathon in 2013, as a visitor to Australia. At the time I did it with two friends, Evi and my pacer Dhitri, who was a masters student in Canberra then. Dhitri eventually brought me to the finishing line in my then-personal best time for the 21k, 2:29.48. I was incredibly elated back then to finish it under 2 hours and 30 minutes!
Fast-forward to four years later, I am running the race again, this time as a resident of Sydney (I now work and live in this city). Because I had some friends from KL visiting me (Aniza, Ejah, and Dr. Mimi), I persuaded them to join me in the event. After all, we’re runners and who can resist paying good money to suffer… I mean, to run! I also cajoled my local running buddy, Yanti, to run along. They all agreed, much to my excitement!
There was a caveat to entering the race. I hadn’t run an event in 8 months, the last being the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival last September in which I ran with Aiza and achieved a new personal best (PB) for the half marathon with 2:17:27. My running has been slack this year because I had spent a lot of time doing Zumba and preferred that over running to keep myself fit.
But after I fell sick in February for a month, my fitness level virtually got reset because I took a break from any form of exercise so that I could recover properly. This was the second time I had gotten sick in the last 4 months. I suspected it was because I had overworked myself (regular day office work, five days of Zumba a week plus late night work) so I knew I had to do nothing until I was 100 per cent well again.
And then I decided to register for SMH HM. I was pretty pleased that I could finally register as a “Green” runner, which meant that you had completed a previous 21k race under 140 minutes and therefore could start before the last group in SMH HM, which was Yellow.
I didn’t start training for the race until late March. I started by running 5km on most days in the week, mainly on the treadmill at the office gym, and eventually made my way outside during lunch times to clock up mileage. Nothing to shout about, really. My longest runs were only about 10-11km, once a week. It was the most that I could do at that point.
And then, I had the ambition of finishing SMH HM in a time better than my last PB. Could I?
Then came the day of the race. Gun-off was at 6.45 on Sunday morning, 21 May. Since we were all registered in Green (except for Dr. Mimi who ran as a yellow), we were to start running at around 7:07am after the wheelchairs and elites had dashed off.
And we were off at around 7:11am! In the first 100m, a familiar guy wearing a buff on his head waved at us as he expertly handled a camera as we zoomed past. It was Handy, an ultrarunner friend of ours! He was tracking me via a link I shared with him from Google map and he knew where we’d be. I don’t have many runner friends in this city so it felt awesome to see a buddy in the crowd, cheering and taking our photos, especially since the night before he had declared that he’d need 13 alarm clocks to wake him up on a weekend!
I don’t know what it was, perhaps the excitement of running with other people again, that got my adrenaline pumping, but I was running pretty fast (by my standards) in the first five kilometres, which I covered in 28 minutes! I couldn’t believe it. I had smashed my 5k personal record. I thought to myself, ok perhaps I can handle this whole race with this pace. I continued along, but I had already lost Yanti, Ejah and Aniza. Man, these girls can really run.
At kilometre six as we’re on the Western Distributor highway that brings us past Darling Harbour into Pyrmont. I then saw a couple of girls with a flag on a long stick on their waists. They were pacers from the Sydney Striders running club, pacing for runners wanting to achieve a finishing time of 140 minutes (2h 20m). I thought, hey if I can keep ahead of them, perhaps I can finish under 2:20. And so I overtook them and ran along.
I found out later that that wasn’t exactly a wise decision.
There were lots of small hills peppered throughout the course. More than I cared to count. The course was undulating. It was also exhausting.
As we’re leaving Pyrmont back onto the Western Distributor to head back into CBD, I saw the pacers again at around km12. Then I noticed they were getting faster. Or perhaps I was getting slower. Well, either way, I stared at them helplessly as they got smaller and smaller in front of me. I knew my target finishing time of 2:15 was up by then. If I lost them, I wasn’t going to make it under 2:20. I decided to let it go and just finish the run as best as I can.
I saw Handy again somewhere after this incident, I can’t quite remember where. But I was happy to see him again of course, he’s such a great photographer, chasing us as closely as he possibly could. He took some more photos and then he left to head home to take his daughter Kay out after I passed him. Thank you, Handy, for your time!
More than halfway through the race, I realised that I was slowing down considerably. By the time I reached Macquarie Street, I knew I had a few kilometers left to go and would definitely not reach my goal time of 2:15. But I vowed not to walk even for a little while. So I braved the heavy legs and scurried through the Botanic Gardens to reach Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a route that’s familiar to me because I run here often to train.
The U-turn at the Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair to come back to the finish line at Hyde Park didn’t seem so daunting as it did when I first ran this course in 2013. The organisers also got rid of that stretch where you had to run down the street along St. Mary’s Church and back before you could reach the finish line in Hyde Park, which I thought was a God-send.
In the last 50 meter, I sprinted to the finish line. The talkative emcee announced that all runners need to raise their arms up, or else the official photographers won’t take your photos. Of course he was teasing us, but I raised my arms up anyway, soaking in the moment of finishing. I was done! I stopped my Garmin watch and saw 2:23:25 on the face. Okay, I’ll take it! (My official net time was 2:23:23.)
After I crossed the finish line, my left knee started to lock up (perhaps because I was sprinting so hard in the end that my joint is now protesting) so I had to limp my way out of the finishing area (which seemed to stretch forever). I gratefully accepted a golden kiwi fruit from a volunteer to eat for recovery. As I made my way to the baggage area to pick up my plastic bag of belongings, I noticed a text message on my phone from my colleague named Yousra. I noted the time of the text, which was almost 30 minutes ago. Which meant that she achieved a crazy sub-two hour timing! Wow, well done Yousra!
I finally met up with Aniza, Ejah, Yanti and Dr. Mimi. Ejah and Yanti had both achieved personal best timings, and I was really happy for them. We hung around to take photos with the event back drops and then made our way to Dr. Mimi’s service apartment to change, shower and then head out for breakfast.
I relearned a few things after running this race, points that I seemed to have forgotten because I had not done an event in almost a year:
1) Don’t start out too fast, even if other people are running faster than you. Every runner is unique and goes through a race and life in general through different experiences and skills. My friends and I got caught up in the moment and ran the first half faster than the second half, which isn’t ideal. I was overconfident with myself. So I have to remember what my capabilities are and stick to them, even if the world is flashing before my eyes, literally.
2) If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. So in short, actually take time to make a plan! I didn’t really have one in terms of pacing. I only had refueling point plan (7km and 13km) which I followed. Last year for my Blackmores HM, I actually had a pace band I wore on my wrist (the organisers actually printed them for you with your target time when you go collect your bib), which I diligently followed. This time I didn’t, and it threw my game off. I now remember that I actually need something like that to help me manage a reasonable and realistic pace. Not dart out like loose canon balls.
3) You get out of life what you put in, never more, never less. Don’t expect a better timing than your last race if you haven’t put the required mileage in. Respect the distance. Train and prepare more and follow a proper training plan with an adequate number of weeks (10-14). Last year before Blackmores I had actually done more running and more events, so I had a better fitness baseline than this year.
4) Coming back can be an emotional experience. It’s ok to cry, really. Express yourself. There is no shame in that. And be there to comfort your friend when she breaks down.
I want to do another half marathon or two this year, but not without putting in the right amount of training. So it’s back to the drawing board for me. But I’ll need to deal with Ramadan first. I will try to maintain some running throughout the holy month, but will put more serious efforts after Hari Raya.
Anyway, that’s it from me this time. To all those who observe, I wish you a blessed Ramadan ahead – and happy training!
(Photos: Handy Trisakti & Izzat)