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Sutherland To Surf - Doing right by the runners

2001 World Veteran's Athletics Championships Marathon
Brisbane, 14th July 2001

by Stuart Greaves - reproduced by permission of the author.

There was this bright-eyed old guy in the lift. There was no mistaking the wiry, tanned look. He had a “Two Oceans” T-shirt and an “Athlete” pass hanging around his neck. Even though they weren’t required, all the visiting athletes paraded their oversized ID-passes around town, day and night. Thousands of them, all over Brisbane.

He could be from nowhere else but South Africa, and his name was Jimmy.

“Are you running the marathon?” asked Jenny. Silly question really.

“Oh yes.” he said. “We flew over for it. This will be my last marathon”. Jimmy’s wife beamed agreement.

“Really? How many have you done?” I asked.

“I can’t remember how many ‘standards’. This year was my tenth “Comrades”, but I only started Comrades when I turned 50. And I’m 62 now”.

Jenny looked at me knowingly. And this was to be his last marathon? Yeah, right! I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard THAT or said it myself. Did Jimmy believe what he said? Possibly. Would it be his last marathon? Very unlikely I would think. Charles Coville said the same thing and meant it - maybe. Only time will tell. My friend and rival John Duck said it after his 50th marathon, the one he nearly killed himself in. He meant it and kept his word. But John is, how shall we say, different from mere mortals.

Just after the finish, one runner handed his shoes to an official. But the official just wanted the timing chip on his laces. The athlete said “You keep ‘em. I never want to see them again”. He probably didn’t mean it either.

As for me, I have said it more than once. After the race, I said it again. No more marathons. But did I mean it? Who knows.

Afterwards, I phoned my mentor. John the indestructible. John, who always beat me. Even when I was fit and he was under-trained and crook with ‘flu. He always did whatever it took to stay ahead of me. I don’t know what his problem is with being beaten. I can handle it. So why can’t he? This guy has run a half-marathon a day for just about the last 30 years, and hasn’t missed one day’s training this year. 50 full marathons, every one raced flat out. A 2:19 PB back in 1983 (3 minutes better than my best ever), a roomful of trophies and an average marathon better than 2:30. And yet, he now refuses to run marathons. Too hard, too long, and they prevent you racing frequently.

John says what he really thinks. If I was seeking praise, I didn’t get it. “I don’t understand you Stuart. I knew that you would only run as fast as you did. Why would you try to race a marathon when you haven’t done half the training you KNOW it needs? Really, you’re no different from all the people who do it for ‘the experience’. You know you can’t run fast with the training you do, you won’t be happy with that time, and you’re too old to get near your P.B., so what are you trying to prove? I think you run these things as some sort of panacea … for some self-doubt about what you MIGHT have been able when you were younger.”

He was rather unkind I thought. He’s a good friend (I think), but John doesn’t have much time for the “coulda been, shoulda been” attitude. But while he wasn’t trying to be demeaning of those who run for just “the experience”, in my case he’s quite right. Why did I want to run another marathon? Hell, I don’t know.

Perhaps it was because last year’s Sydney marathon was my personal worst. But why? Nobody else except me gives a hoot about my time, and do I really care? Perhaps I just need the excitement of months of pre-race expectation. Perhaps otherwise I’ll stop training and start working on a Homer Simpson gut. Perhaps it’s just a general confidence and well-being that comes from thinking of yourself as a ‘marathon runner’. Nah. That can’t be it. Or perhaps it’s just that I know it will feel really good after the race when I STOP - a training-free, guilt-free feeling that lasts about a month. Perhaps all of these things.

Had I done enough training? Well, I thought I’d done enough to scrape through. Sheer talent and experience would give me the 2:39:59 I wanted.

But at 32km the truth was abundantly clear. I hadn’t done the work. Not nearly.

But I’m telling the story back to front.

I felt good before the race. For once, I’d slept well, I was well hydrated, and with no injuries (probably because I had a ten-week average of only 75 km/week). A “sharpener” 10km the previous weekend at North Head in 35 and a half minutes had gone well, and I felt fresh and excited about the race. On the basis of that, past experience was that 38-minutes for each 10km of a marathon should be quite comfortable.

After all, I’d run so many, marathons couldn’t hurt me. Not much anyway.

National colours were compulsory. The foreign runners were a blaze of colours and flags. About 750 marathon runners from 59 countries. It was really intriguing, listening to snippets of conversation in all these languages… and all of them chatting about the same thing. “Haben Sie mein Vaseline gesehen?”. I ran past a dozen Austrians, walking in rank, resplendent in brilliant red and white trackies. "Schoen guten Morgen" I said in a most authoritative, stentorian voice. They jump. “Guten Morgen” they replied with one voice. I am enjoying myself.

What struck me as quite unusual was to be at such a big race, in my own country, and not know or even recognise a single person. And how damn OLD, skinny and small they all looked.

Two minutes to go. Some stride-outs in front of the pack. It’s easy to reverse into a good start position. No pushing and shoving. There’s a certain mutual respect amongst marathoners. Then a grin and a thumbs-up from someone I know. It’s Ian Graves, the former NSW marathon champion.

“G’day Gravesy”

“G’day Greavesy”.

‘Nuf said.

We’re all set, but some local pollie wants to make a speech. As we are standing right on the start/finish line, the timing chips in our shoes are triggering a continuous, raucous beeping from the timing equipment. We only hear snippets… “through the majestic parkland”, “between the beautiful flora of our sun-drenched city”, “proud to be associated”….

It goes on an on. Everyone gets restless. Two Germans beside me start chanting “BOOORING… BOOORINK…”

Finally, we’re off. There is a sudden pang of fear that I’m embarking on something that is going to hurt me. It’s bizarre, a momentary but very real, quite unpleasant feeling that I’m the novice, not a seasoned old hand embarking on marathon number forty-something. Perhaps it’s just such a looong time since I ran one reasonably well.

It sounds like we’re at a European soccer match. Whistles, blaring trumpets, those awful ratchet noisemaker things, clapping. Then, within a minute, comparative silence. Just the air past your ears, and the sound of feet and gentle huffing and puffing as we jockey for position and find our pace. It’s surprisingly easy to establish a good position in clean air, and get into a rhythm. Thankfully, the marathon is nothing like the argy-bargy of the damned City-to-surf.

The early pace is spot on. First kilo in 3:44 and I feel like I can just reach out and touch the leaders, just ten or fifteen seconds ahead. Hmm, this is very relaxed. I’m surprised that they’re not driving away from us, like the despicable Messrs Young, Degan, Truscott et al. do in the short races.

I soon latch on to two Mexicans, and Irishman who must be 55 and a young German guy (e.g. 40). These four guys really look like runners… they’ve crossed the world to be here and you can just tell looking at them that they know what they’re doing. I am not tempted to pass them. We watch two more little bunches of runners form in front of us and start to ease away from us. The Mexicans aren’t tempted. They hold a steady pace, in complete silence. No-one says a word. These guys have focus.

I’m wearing a gold singlet (actually, 1987 Australian team issue), but with blue shorts hurriedly switched from my green and gold ones when I notice all the other Aussies in blue. It’s only vaguely similar to the official Aussie uniform released for this event, and lacking the word “AUSTRALIA” front and back. In fact, in blue and yellow, I look exactly like a member of the Brazilian team. Consequently, I get plenty of foreign-language encouragement from the crowd - which I assume to be Portugese.

Our pack cruises through 5km in about 18:25. The Mexicans are picking it up slightly. Another Aussie catches our bunch. He’s done his homework and got the right uniform. Now we’re getting encouragement in Spanish, Portugese, German and English. “Go Aussie!”. We run as a six-pack for several more kilometres. I sit right behind the two Mexicans, who never even turn their heads, never saying a word to each other. They are completely unfazed by me clipping their heels. However, confusion reigns at the first U-turn, when we run back through the oncoming hordes. The marshals give contradictory advice, keep left, keep right, and we end up playing ‘chicken’ through the pack. A bit too much adrenalin flows! It soon sorts out, and the six of us roll through 10 kilometres in 37:20.

While it feels comfortable, I decide it’s still a shade too quick for me, so I allow myself to drift off the back of this bunch. The other Aussie does likewise. Don Kardong (US Olympian) once said It’s important to relax in the first half of a marathon as you’ll need all your concentration later on, so I make some chit-chat. He’s “Philip”, a Tasmanian, and running his first marathon! It seems a bit unusual, a rookie ‘vet’ travelling to try out the marathon in a World Championship event. What time does he want? “Oh, 2:36 or 2:38“. Inwardly, I raise an eyebrow. But, he’s bang on the right pace if he can manage to keep it up, and he seems relaxed. I’m planning on a little fade myself. Perhaps even treating myself to a BIG one!

He’s a taller and bigger guy than I am, and I think he might be over-cooking it. What he's done at shorter distances?

“31 something for 10km and a 69 half”. OK, now you’re talking. He’s certainly got the speed credentials. But I urge caution nonetheless. A fair gap has now opened between us and the gang of four ahead - he’s looking toey, but he would run a risk of being left in no-mans-land if he tried to bridge a gap too early. Marathon pace has very finite limits. One can be quite comfortable at a certain pace, but a couple of slightly-quicker kilos, even just 5 or 10 seconds a kilometre quicker can bugger up the rest of your race.

The drink stations appear every couple of kilos, and Philip is a slow drinker, not a splash-and-dasher. I ease the pace slightly until he catches up. I appreciate the company, and I don’t want to be pushing on by myself either at this stage. 16km rolls past in exactly 1 hour. We both feel fine.

The race has six U-turns, so we get ample chance to see the leaders. Philip tells me the leader is a another Tasmanian, Gerry Oldfield. They’re stringing out already, and first and second places are wearing the official Aussie uniform. Second is Ron Peters. John Jago is up there as well. The rest of the top ten are Europeans. Go Aussies! We shout encouragement each time they come back towards us. This is a double loop course, in the shape of a letter “H”, the centre of the “H” being the Victoria Bridge over the Brisbane River. Nonetheless, it is a fast course, and most of it is run in shade beside the river.

Most of the marshalling is good, but some marshals haven’t quite understood why they’re there : the 3km section in the Botanic Gardens is full of twists and turns : some of them just stare blankly at us approaching with their hands in their pockets, despite my very bad-mannered shouting : “Which way for Gawd’s sake?” (perhaps they only speak Portugese).

I spot my wife Jenny on the Victoria Bridge, exactly at half way. 1:19:20. That’ll do nicely. The bridge is the only ‘hill’ on the course, just a gentle rise and fall. But at the south end of the bridge is a short but steep spiral ramp. The crowds are dense and vocal here. Perhaps trying to distract myself from the tedium, I develop the rather childish affectation of calling “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” and cupping a hand behind my ear. The predictable “Oi! Oi! Oi!” reply is always forthcoming, particularly from children. Oh Stuart, have you no self-respect? Of course not! I’m an Aussie, not a Brazilian.

And there’s some runner still wearing his garbage bag and his trackie pants. Now that guy has even less self-respect than I do.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be skylarking, because by 25km, I’m taking a wee bit of strain, as our Kiwi friends say. I tell Philip that I’m going to stop briefly after the next drink stop, and that he should go ahead, but be careful to keep his relaxed rhythm. He pretends to be disappointed, but does exactly this. It seems only a minute or two before he’s out of sight. Quite bizarre. I don’t expect to see him again.

27km.. a bad patch. I’m feeling light-headed. It’s not pain, it’s not even discomfort, it’s just a hard-to-resist weariness that seems about ten kilometres premature. I stop and walk for the first time, just as Ian Graves runs past the other way. He and I had some good contests 15 years ago, including a duel up St Kilda Rd in the Big M, when we both ran 2:30. (I pipped him). Mind you, he’s 57 years old, looks to be on-track for about three hours, and might well catch me if I’m not careful.

I drink some Gatorade - a risky tactic as my tummy is easily upset in races. I can tell I’m already running out of gas. Not just gas. Everything. I’d even risk a ‘squeegy’, if I’d only thought to bring some.

Things are still not going so well, so I adopt a slightly shorter stride and start the “survival shuffle” for a kilometre or so, letting the pace fall to something over 4 minutes per kilo. A few minutes of this, the rhythm returns and I feel better again, so pick up the pace. But it’s not a good omen. Back up and over Victoria Bridge, and there's Jenny at the 30km mark. Just the excuse I need. Philip is out of sight, there’s no-one right behind, so I stop completely for almost half a minute. I don’t care, but it seems everyone else does. There are wails of 'keep going!' all around. Jenny knows that I had been aiming at sub 2:40. "Go! Don’t stop! You're right on pace". Well, that may be so, but I already know that what happens next is as inevitable as the sponsors’ messages coming at the critical moment in “Who wants to be a millionaire”.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to bail out” (which would have annoyed her). Just go to the finish and I’ll see you there … and don’t worry if I’m a little late." I’m just being thoughtful - depriving her of the sight of me with three kilos to go.

32km in 2:03. I’ve dropped a couple of minutes, already in 'survival mode'. Far from being laboured and plodding, I’m aware that my breathing is very light, and it seems like I’m just floating gently and almost silently, with an economical, short-striding shuffle. A very slow version of Alberto Salazar, if you can picture it.

It feels like my heartrate is slowing, not speeding up. I’m a little dizzy. But I don’t think I’m dehydrated, and don't feel any distress or real discomfort. There are blisters forming on my the little toes, but that’s to be expected when I wear these light, tight racers. It’s the least of my worries. I muse that I’m about as frail as a beta release of the latest Windows Operating System.

One goal at a time. Team Greaves (that’s me and my moccasins) are just trying to get from one kilo marker to the next. People are very encouraging though. One marshal, noting my strained disposition, says quietly “Keep at it soldier”. I stare back out of my sunken eyes, make eye contact, and say quietly “Thanks sport”. The leading woman sails past me, looking bouyant and strong, at 37km. I don't particularly care. Good luck to her. She’s on her way to being a (qualified) World Champion. And I’m certainly not.

Another drink station. It seems they’re round every bend. I am grateful. Evidently, I look in need of sustenance. A woman offers water, how about Gatorade, how about some jellybeans?

“Jellybeans? No thanks luv. I don’t feel like a spew JUST yet. Perhaps a chunder at the finish would be nice.” She laughs.

40km, last time over the bridge, the finish is so close I can hear the P.A. Once off the bridge, no-one is looking, so I walk again without even realising it. For about 5 seconds. Then I think “Stuff it! You big weed! Why are you walking you wooz?”. So I run. One kilo to go, and I catch and pass a silver-headed Irishman who looks about ninety years old. What gives him the right to be in front of me. And just about the only person I’ve passed since the first kilometre. Down the final straight, and finally a lovely feeling that it’s all about to end. I remember my justified apprehension from the start, the last time I was at this place.

It sounds corny now, but the irrepressible show-off ‘does the aeroplane’ and slaps hands with spectators down the finish shute. Just try not to let them see how you really feel, Stuart.

Two hours, 47 minutes and who cares about the seconds. Bloody hell. How could I have lost seven minutes in the second half? The answer is : very easily. And there's Philip Clarke, my new Tasmanian pal, who's faded too, but still managed a 2:46 debut. He’s just pipped the first lady, Dutch woman Mieke Pullen, who has finished with one of the Mexicans, also in 2:46. I congratulate and remind her that she’s now a World Champion. She beams - it seems as if the idea hadn’t struck her yet. She likes that idea. Philip is pleased too, but rolling his eyes at the effort of the last hour. He thanks me for the encouragement and cautionary advice. It just shows you - it doesn't seem to matter that you’re a sub-70 minute half-marathoner, the marathon will humble anyone who doesn’t have the endurance base. It seems he's run the last 10km even more slowly than I did.

The good news is that Gerry Oldfield has won in 2:30, Ron Peters is 2nd in 2:32, John Jago has come sixth outright and I’m the 7th-placed Australian and 25th overall, albeit masquerading as a Brazilian. Ian Graves sneaks into the top 100 with a 3:09. Not bad for a 57-year-old. Thank God he didn’t catch me.

Lots of Sydney Striders seem to lope through marathons with a smile on their face - a smile that doesn’t fade away in the final kilometres. That’s the good thing about doing the long STAR training runs. (I should try it more often!) Certainly, there were many veteran runners who had crossed the world to run in exactly that manner… participating at the WAVA games seemed to be, to them just as important as their time. Personally, I can understand this and salute the idea, but I don’t think it’s “me”. So I accept that the race went as well as it could for me, but I remain a little disappointed.

Jenny and I go to the hotel and have a Stella Artois and a tandoori chicken pizza for breakfast. Which is just fabulous. I’ve found the answer. Marathons heighten the senses! Then another couple of Fourex Gold. Then off to the Casino for a some real beers - a couple more Stellas. After five beers I visit the loo, but there’s not a lot of, ahem, action. Hmm, maybe I AM more dehydrated than I thought. A snooze, then a LOT more beer. NOW I understand!

The legs don't feel sore or even cramped, but the feet are really battered on the sides. The combination of moccasin-thin racing shoes, no arch support, plus the concrete bike-paths have made the sides of the feet really sore. The little toes are bloody, but that’s a badge of honour - no problem. Two days of limping and I’m fine.

On the plane, we get an unexpected upgrade to Business class. And have champagne. A refill, then another. The purser asks what Mr and Mrs Greaves are celebrating. I’m tempted to say “nothing.. I’m just a pisspot”, but he is so cultured, so I explain briefly about the race. He returns with a gift-wrapped bottle for later on. What a nice fella.

So, what did I learn about the marathon in this, my 46th attempt? Well, the number one rule, and the rule I’d forgotten … is to TRAIN for it. Just do the miles and you’ll get the result you want. Don’t, and you won’t. Dead simple.

So everyone - please do like I say, not like I do. Do the kilometres and the race should be a formality. You might be able to 'fluke' an extra-gutsy 10km or “half”, but the marathon will always bite you if you haven't done the groundwork. My 10km speed was OK, I was well rested, well hydrated, and pace judgement was OK. The elastic in my daks didn’t burst, so there was really only the one reason I couldn’t achieve what I wanted : inadequate preparation. You have been told. There is no short cut. This is the message I will try to remember when next I consider the question : “To marathon or not to marathon”.

Maybe I’ll take up sprinting. My pal John can’t sprint to save himself.

Stuart Greaves
Sydney, Australia

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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