Aug 28, 2014

In The Footsteps Of Pheidippides On The Roads Of Alice Springs

Read the preamble here.

It must be said that Alice Springs is fantastic for running. Mid-winter days are clear and cool. Flat, concrete paths weave alongside the ephemeral Todd River, and clear, undulating trails meander throughout the rocky hills. The views from Anzac Hill and Mt Gillen impress. I would encourage anyone to take a look. We can easily negotiate meals and accommodation. My last long run took me past the Telegraph Station and I set off exploring. I stopped by our new home for sustenance twice. But after 36km, my pains, aches and doubts returned. Again, if I didn’t do the marathon this effort would have been for little.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Counting and numbers are a fact of life in the marathon game. For the initiated, my watch told me that I usually ran 4:00-4:15min kilometres. This speed would see me finish a marathon in less than 3 hours. But my two >30km runs told me if I ran this pace I would be at risk of struggling during the latter stages. Some great advice is to ensure that the second half of your race is faster or equal to the first half. To make this happen I had to slow down. For the final fortnight of training, I concentrated on running at speeds 30 seconds per kilometre slower than I was used to. My new goal was to complete the marathon in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

My pre-race anxiety centred on two things. The first may surprise. People don’t expect Alice Springs to be cold, but the clear skies, low humidity and elevation mean that during winter it is often below 0°C overnight. It warms to around 20°C in the sun, but the cold wind bites. It takes much more energy to keep warm than it does to keep cool, and for this reason I was concerned. From the local Salvos I picked up a jumper and beanie, and I bought new gloves. I thought and re-thought my race attire. The second was fuel. I knew I would need food regularly. Organisers placed a drink station every 3km and we were able to give them food and drink so they would have it for us at the stations. My plan was sound but untried.

I have to sing the praises of Alice Springs once more (again, happy to negotiate meals and a bed, drinks on the Bugler). The running community were so keen to hold a fantastic event, they assisted in any way they could. I called the  running club president and he patiently answered questions. I arrived late to registration the night prior and was met with smiles. People went out of their way on the morning of the race to ensure that a blow-in like the Bugler was comfortable. But I wasn’t. I had to run 42.2km.

The long and lonely road during the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

The marathon is best related in chronological fact. In the pre-dawn light we set off and I immediately picked my way through the 42 competitors. As I settled into my 4:30min/km pace, I followed four others. I became a touch emotional due to the relief of finally beginning something I had thought so much about. The first 15km ticked by. The field gradually elongated and I was able to run my own race. I ate at 6km and 12km and told myself it would count later. I was all about running faster in the second half.

I awakened from my running stupor when I noticed I had made ground on fourth place. Dogmatically concentrating on a negative split, I had expected others to do the same. When I realised he was flagging, I told myself not to increase my exertions because it was inevitable I would catch him. Sure enough, I drew level and chatted for a moment. Another first-timer, we encouraged each other before I headed off.

Just over half a kilometre before the turn-around point, the race leader passed by on his way back. I clapped and encouraged him while secretly hoping disaster would befall him. Another guy went by, and then the leading woman. All three appeared to be well in advance of me and I continued to concentrate on regulating my speed.

As previously, I noticed that I was suddenly making ground on third place. Instead of seeing blacktop stretching away, I was seeing the well-worn soles of the leading female. I planned to slow and talk, but two road-trains meant I only offered a few words of encouragement as I slipped by and hunkered down against the trucks’ slipstreams.

Oddly, as I ran into 3rd my anxiety increased. Not wanting to relinquish a podium finish increased the consternation. Mrs and mini-Bugler were on hand to support. I pulled in to the 30km drink station for a quick stretch and some race updates. First and second were a long way ahead. Fourth was not long behind and fifth was a way back. I was going well. But 12km is still a bloody long way to run.

Farewelling the Ross Highway after 37km of the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

To my mind, little changed for the remainder except discomfort. I had told myself that half-way in distance is a fallacy, because half-way in effort begins at about 30km. By this stage my left knee was regularly nagging at me and a blister was expanding on my right foot. I tried to adjust my gait. I stopped to stretch on a couple of occasions. But no matter what, I had to keep running.

At 37km the news was as good as I had hoped. Unless I collapsed, third place was assured although I had little hope of catching second. The guy manning the drink station was encouraging, but wasn’t keen to run the remaining 5km. I couldn’t stomach the food and drink that I had prepared.

There was no elation during the final kilometres. No sense of relief. No overwhelming satisfaction of achievement. Only the ache in my knee, the pain in my foot, the exhaustion in my legs and the thought that I still had to keep running. After 41.4km, even 800m felt like a long way.

I feel silly about the congratulations that have come my way. In my first attempt I came third in 3:11:46. I won $200 and I have the bronze medal. I almost caught the guy who came second. The race doubled as the Northern Territory marathon championship. Despite only being a resident for 2 weeks, I am the second best Territorian marathoner in 2014. I have the silver medal.

Crossing the line of the Alice Spring Running Festival Marathon in 3rd place. Relief.

I feel silly because there are stories more incredible than mine. The 33-year-old winner was running his 49th marathon, flew back to Sydney and is flying to Adelaide next weekend for his 50th. He has a goal of running 100 marathons. He runs 14km every day. Incredible. One guy turned 71 on the day and was running his 73rd marathon. Unfathomable. Another man has three kids, is a few years older than me, and at his first attempt ran an amazing time of 3:30 with a cramping hamstring. Impressive. The winners of the 10km and half-marathon ran times I could only hope to. Respect. The winner of the female 10km was 13 years old and finished in a shade over 40min. Wow. A friend of mine had planned to run the 10km, but on a whim in the morning decided to do the half-marathon and she finished 7th. Boom.

I think I could have spoken to every participant and found a story worth telling. And perhaps that is the point. Running has its inherent beauty in its simplicity. You only need a road or a path and a pair of runners and your story will be worth telling. But I am glad to give my legs a rest. And go back to the gym. And ride a bike. Maybe I’ll even play footy again.

Aug 21, 2014

Running The Length Of Australia

It was never one of my life goals to run a marathon. I met a man a year younger than I who had just run his 49th and has a goal of running 100. Although impressed, I couldn’t fathom the effort and commitment this would take. Nor did it seem appealing to me. For a great many, there exists a drive to gradually increase their kilometres in the pursuit of a distant goal. The marathon is seen as amazing achievement and its completion the reward for months and, perhaps, years of effort. This I can understand entirely. Nonetheless, it had rarely crossed my mind.

A road near Lismore, NSW

For me, running is a necessary evil. Something one must do if they are to remain fit. In most sports, the ability to run is paramount. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes in different directions, but always running. Counter-acting its evil, running has beauty in its simplicity. Little equipment is required. We learned to do it so long ago, we cannot recall being unable to run. Not long after the mini-Bugler was able to walk, he is already attempting to run. So despite the groans from my mind and my body, I have been a semi-regular jogger for years.

Upon up-rooting the Bugle catastrophe from Melbourne, I cancelled my gym membership. My bike and football boots were left in storage. On the road around Australia, the only exercise always available was the simple, and thus beautiful, running. Occasionally I paid over-the-odds for a casual visit to pick some weights up and put them down again. A couple of times I borrowed a bike. For a memorable few weeks I even joined a football team in northern NSW. But for 6 months, running was my primary exercise.

The spectacular gorge at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in outback western Queensland

For reasons I cannot fully understand, there exists a competitive drive in my being.  Although it is undoubtedly true I can be competitive with others, my primary competitive drive is against myself. Or more correctly, my former self. As soon as I have set a standard, I seek to beat it. As soon as a personal best is achieved, it becomes the new normal. Somewhat inevitably, as soon as I began to run more often, I sought to run faster and further.

By the time the Bugle family arrived in Yamba on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, I was thinking about a half marathon. One Thursday the sky was overcast and the air was humid. Not quite a day for the beach. I set off on my solo folly and ran to Wooloweyah, then Angourie and back to the Yamba breakwall. The hill back to home seemed steeper than I recalled, but I managed the run quite well. With a new PB, my mind began drifting. For the first time I was considering a marathon.

An old caravan beside the road near Yamba, New South Wales

An interesting feature of training for a marathon is that you tend to lose perspective of normality. When you are 15km into a 25km run, you begin to think that there is “only” 10km to go. There is no recognition that 10km is a bloody long run in its own right, or that you have already been running for over an hour and that is enough. No. You stare at your watch and watch the kilometres mount, and watch the time go by. We camped in South Ballina over Easter with some friends and they were amazed that I ran a half marathon before cooking dinner and enjoying a few drinks. The absurdity of running 21.1km on a Saturday evening on holiday was not lost on them, but it was becoming lost on me.

By this time, I was allowing myself to dream. Our plan was to arrive in Alice Springs in early August. What better way to celebrate than to run 42.2km two weeks after moving in? Although my training was always done with a loose plan, I knew that I would have to start to run further. A lot further.

My first setback, only recognised in retrospect, was playing football again. I loved my brief foray into life with the Lismore Swans, but turning up to training twice a week and playing on Saturdays didn’t leave me with much energy for 30km runs. By the time a broken finger put me out for the season, and possibly career, a month had passed where my running had plateaued.

Lismore Swans gather in the three quarter time huddle during their AFL footy match against Ballina Bombers

With my finger in a brace, I tried to take up where I left off but a bigger problem presented. It took a long time and much complaining to Dr Bugler, but after a series of tests the diagnosis was giardiasis. While not totally debilitating, my ability to run long distances was severely compromised by stomach cramps and associated dehydration. By the time the week of antibiotics did their job, 6 weeks of illness and footy had set me back a long way.

We didn’t cover as many kilometres in the car, but two weeks in Cairns re-started my quest to put kilometres in my legs. I focused on speed and interval work to give strength to my legs in the hope that when the distance increased it would seem easier. The plan had some merit. But over 2000km up the coast, I couldn’t run as far or as well as I could back in Ballina two and a half months ago.

The Esplanade in Cairns has a flat and clearly designated path. Perfect for running when counting time and distance. The greatest challenge that remained was finding the motivation and roads on which to run in outback Queensland and Northern Territory. Running also had to be planned around long days in the car. The beauty and simplicity of running was increasingly not so apparent to me.

Twin Falls during dry season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Four runs stand out in my mind.

1. On a dusty, rutted gravel road in far western Queensland, I ran the 10km from Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park to our campsite in Adels Grove. The grey nomads in four wheel drives must have been astounded when they came across a lonesome jogger trying to keep his ankles and knees intact on the uneven road.

2. On a 35°C day camping at the base of Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park, I sprinted some laps of the campground. A group of fellow campers cheered and commented each time I passed. Hot and bothered, I stopped to chat to them after I had finished. One of them had run three Melbourne Marathons and I happily listened as he related his experiences.

3. I woke early in Cooinda and ran 32km on the roads of Kakadu. I had no breakfast, no food at all, and one water stop after about 12km at a ranger station. Overnight it had barely dropped below 20°C. I was a broken and thirsty man at the end. I severely questioned my desire to run a marathon.

4. The day prior to my 34th birthday, I planned to run 34km in the Litchfield National Park. I managed 12km. My left knee decided that the camber of the road was disagreeable. The walk back to the tent had me questioning my sanity.

The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I ever wanted to run a marathon in the future, I would have to go through a similar kind of idiocy. The thought of forgoing the effort I had already made was unpalatable. If I didn’t complete the marathon now, all the effort I had gone to for my goal would have been for not much. With this in mind, I felt I had little choice.

The serene waters of Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory

Redemption came in the form of remembering. Remembering what I found beautiful about running. The ability to trot off and explore without thinking. During two glorious runs on the walking trails of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park I forgot about my times, distances and speeds. My knee thanked me for the break in repetition. I ran to the top of lookouts and watched the sun setting over stunning rock formations created by the Katherine River. I stood by myself at remote and picturesque locales, confident that my legs would carry me back to camp before dark. Instead of being driven by the kilometres and minutes on my watch, it merely recorded what I had done. Perhaps a subtle change, but an important one for my mind.

To be continued.

Jul 29, 2014

Doing Good With Good Friday Footy

Long drives through the Australian outback give ample time to pause and think. Recently, on the road to Karumba, I was reflecting on the role of tradition in sport. I was thinking that traditions and ceremonies help engender mythology and reverence for sport. In AFL football, this is in evidence during the Grand Final and, more pertinently, the annual ANZAC Day game between Essendon and Collingwood. But an interesting feature of the ANZAC Day game, along with many other “traditions”, is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the AFL set to introduce a game of football on Good Friday, I began thinking of how a game of sport can create its own tradition while conflicting with the religious tradition of the day.

The sunset from Karumba Point and the Sunset Tavern

I should note quite early that despite being raised with a Christian framework, I do not support their traditions. Quite the opposite. I retain no reverence for Good Friday and would like nothing more than to watch an interesting game of sport on that public holiday. While holding this strident belief, I understand that not all others do and for the AFL to be successful in their venture they must appease a great many people.

Another challenge for the AFL is to make the fixture equitable. A regular criticism of the ANZAC Day game is that the two clubs who benefit most are already rich and powerful. A game on Good Friday would have to be shared for it to be accepted competition-wide.

While musing on this very point, my mind went to the other side of the world and a vastly different winter sport – ice hockey. Each year on New Year’s Day, two teams duke it out in the annual Winter Classic. This tradition is hugely popular and is an unqualified success. There are two interesting points to note. The first is that this is a very recent tradition with the first Winter Classic being held in 2008. The second is that two different teams play each year.

These two points should give the AFL confidence in establishing a new game on Good Friday. It is possible to create new traditions using different teams each year.

An afternoon stop at the Gregory Downs Hotel breaks up a long outback Queensland drive

But the Winter Classic is successful for other reasons. Firstly, it is held on a public holiday where there are few other distractions. Check. But, most importantly, it is successful because it celebrates an aspect of ice hockey that had been phased out of the NHL. In an incredibly professional sport, all games of the NHL season are played in purpose-built indoor arenas. All bar one that is. The Winter Classic is played outdoors, celebrating a traditional aspect of the game and the way that most people still learn to skate and play hockey. Celebrating the heritage of ice hockey has certainly helped make the Winter Classic a success.

The ANZAC Day game works because it incorporates the military traditions of the day into the ceremonies of the game. The day is a celebration of our military history and of our national game. But incorporating the Christian traditions into a game of football is problematic and, quite frankly, should not be attempted and should not occur. Not, I might add, because of deference to religion but because of deference to football and multi-culturalism. The day cannot marginalise those of us that do not believe or believe in something else.

Creating reverence for the day will be a big challenge for the AFL and it will be undermined with criticism that they are not showing reverence for the Christian faith. At this point on the drive, I interrupted the hum of the tyres and told Mrs Bugler of my thoughts. Mrs Bugler proposed a neat solution to some of the problems.

The long drive to Karumba from the back seat of the Canyonero

A former employee of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Mrs Bugler drew my attention to a very successful tradition, the Good Friday Appeal. If part of the game was based around raising awareness of and funds for the Royal Children’s Hospital in the Good Friday Appeal, the AFL would at once co-opt an existing tradition and create a broader and worthwhile cause for the game. After all, one would think doing some good on Good Friday would have universal religious appeal.

Envisage a situation in which players from both teams (different each year) spent the week leading up to the game volunteering at the Hospital. In your mind’s eye, see tin-rattlers outside the stadium with thousands of fans giving generously as they excitedly walked toward the ground. Imagine, if you will, a proud Gillon McLachlan handing over an over-sized novelty cheque to the Royal Children’s Hospital worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a percentage of the day’s revenue raising. How could you criticise the AFL for having a game of football on Good Friday when it is doing so much good for the community? And the opportunities for marketing this relationship are endless. Thank you, Mrs Bugler.

The simple beauty of this suggestion becomes greater as you think more on it. The idea is transportable in that interstate teams could do similarly in their own city. It is not tied to a particular ground and I’m confident other hospitals would also appreciate the benefits. The Good Friday game could travel, much like the Winter Classic does each year to a different outdoor field.

Sunset from Karumba Point and the Sunset Tavern

The modern success of the ANZAC Day clash stemmed from the first game in 1995 when Essendon and Collingwood fought out a storied draw in front of a packed crowd. This stroke of luck must be acknowledged in the creation of tradition. Without that stroke of luck the day may ebb and flow, more like the fortunes of Melbourne vs Collingwood on Queen’s Birthday. Mrs Bugler’s suggestion does not necessarily create a Good Friday mythology or heritage like the Winter Classic or ANZAC Day. But it does enable the AFL to use existing traditions to build its own tradition while appealing to a broad audience on a religious holiday. Hopefully, with all teams in concert everyone could benefit. Especially the kids.