Saturday, June 08, 2019

Winter rolls

The ebbs and flows of a blogger's urge to write can be pretty random. There have been many things that have happened that might on other days result in a blog. It was a death that tipped me over into writing. Rex Benson, also known as Kropotkin, the cryptic crossword composer whom I have often written about, died yesterday. The word down starting with C wasn't crude, clues, crossword, but cancer. He was quite a character. His crosswords were top class cryptics and the "cryptic" in the title of my blog is partly from my love of cryptic crosswords, of which his were the best. Not long after I got onto a mailing list where he'd talk about his clues after each crossword had come out. He littered them with New Zealand references, political incorrectness and his own interests. The latter often made them difficult: someone with a thorough knowledge of the movies and actors of the 50s and the operas of Wagner would have had an easier job doing them than I. But the mastery he had of the clue meant that I could figure out the answers often people's names without previously knowing them. Once he knew the supply of Kropotkin crosswords would forever be limited, he made the appropriate arrangement so that the last of his body of work would get out there. Rest in peace, Rex. (Cartoon by Emmerson in the New Zealand Herald)

The last two weeks have been a tricky period for my running. For the third time in my running career I developed ITB sydrome and this has been the hardest to shake. ITB stands for the ilio-tibial band which is a thick strip of fascia down the side of the lower half of your body between hips to the top of the shin. The previous two times were due to footware, either buying the wrong shoes for my unique feet or running too many miles in the same pair of shoes. This occurrence has been a little bit of a mystery, though. I did hill repeats one morning and noticed during the day that the side of my knee was a bit "off". I gave it a rest for one day and then ran well the next for 13km without any issues. I stopped at a public toilet briefly and when I emerged immediately felt pain through my left knee. I couldn't stride at all. I started walking back and for some periods it felt fine until I tried to run again and the pain re-emerged. I was in the middle of nowhere without my phone and had to walk back.

Perhaps it was because I was wearing newish shoes that I didn't notice the symptoms were very similar to the ITB I'd had before. ITB is funny because even though you feel it in your knee, it's caused by muscles elsewhere that are putting the wrong stress on the ITB which rubs against your knee. One of the "give-aways" of the condition is that I have a really tight sensitive strand of muscle in my quad, which isn't noticeable really except by touch. On this occasion, while massaging in the vicinity of the knee I noticed it and put two-and-two-together. In the past it was resolved quickly by changing shoes and massage. This time even with different shoes and swapped in-soles it hasn't resolved. The physio and the online resources suggested weak glutes and some brief tests seemed to indicate it. Moreover, with my fall and surgery last year, my glutes especially on the left moved the least. Marathon or no marathon, I was probably imbalanced. However, after a period of exercising the glutes it still re-emerged on runs. The second visit to the physio came up with a different solution: my hamstrings. This made sense, too. Prior to my marathon, just after I came back from China, my left hamstring had been tight, and in fact I started the marathon itself with ominous tightness that dissipated by the half way mark. I kept doing the glute exercises but did more of specific hamstring exercises. The result: Though I still have a slight sensation at times in the knee, I've done hills yesterday and speed intervals today without any re-occurrence. I hope with some more specific exercises I'll be back to my regular running. In the meantime my mileage has taken a hit but the body probably appreciates a few more sleep-ins and some more generalised strengthening work. That being said I'm 13 weeks away from another marathon, with several shorter races before then.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The faster stuff

Marathon, shmarathon, there’s more to running than going a really, really long way. Some people love “the short stuff”, such as sprints (100m, 200m and 400m), “the Mile”, 5km and 10km races. I haven’t done sprints in my adult life but I’m keen to try a mile race one day. 5km and 10km races though have always been an occasional part of my running diet. Most common of these are parkruns, which are social, timed 5km races every Saturday, and I’ve now participated in the events that are part of the Run Auckland series, which consists of 5km and 10km races, for three straight years now.

Since my surgery I’d only taken part in two shorter races, parkruns, albeit in a casual way. Now, with the marathon behind me, I’ve been primed to give one a crack full-speed to see what I can do at the distance. And I only had to wait 8 days after the marathon to have my first opportunity to run the a shorter race, the first race of the Run Auckland series at Western Springs. I’d run the Western Springs 10km last year; it was flat and fast and, to this day, is my fastest 10km race performance of my life, 40:50. I was a bit annoyed that this opportunity to run there was just 8 days after a marathon. According to the websites, you should aim to have two to three weeks of rest or easy runs after a marathon which I’ve loosely followed in the past. Prior to the race I ran easily but also with full awareness of how my body was feeling and responding. Overall, I didn’t notice any residual aches or tightness. I spent my anniversary over in Waiheke in the days before the race and on one morning gave myself a bit of a fitness test on the hills. (Waiheke has quite hilly terrain.) Overall I felt pretty good and decided I’d give the Western Springs event a reasonable effort.

My first surprise came the night before the race. One check of the website found that unlike the previous event, this was not a flat track. In fact, it would be twice around a loop that included the long grinding gradient up from MOTAT to Grey Lynn. (And a very sharp descent down Motions Road.) Hills don’t bother me much in marathons because you can take your time on them. In faster events, though, you still need to sustain some pace despite the hills. My second surprise was that after getting there early was to find that I’d understood the race time incorrectly and had to wait for the 5km race to be finished. I waited from about 7am to 8:45am for my race! I did the warm-ups twice and went on little jogs around the place to keep warm and loose.

The time came though, the horn went and everyone ran. The starting area was very tight so, just like some of the half marathons, I spent the first kilometre dodging, ducking and weaving my way out of the crowded pack. One new habit I have is to get my speeds for each 400m so that I can judge how quickly I was going and on the first lap I was generally pleased with what I was seeing. On that lap, I was only passed once and passed a lot of people, especially in the early stages. I had some friends cheer me from the mid-point, but there was a lot of cheering for “Naomi” who was clearly the person who was right on my heels. By the 6th kilometre though I knew I’d gone too quickly and struggled before and on the hill. Two people, including this Naomi, passed me and I started to dread that it would become a procession. I kept in touch with these overtakers though and running along the plateau of Surrey Crescent was enough to recover me and get the pace back. It was a great feeling on the eighth and ninth kilometres. I hunted Naomi who was at the back of the bunch ahead, briefly overtaking her, before she would surge back in front. We all dragged past some other laggards and on the final turn down the Motions Road plunge I nipped ahead of Naomi too. Speeding downhill was a thrill and I briefly was on the verge of catching some others who were just in front, but once it levelled out they had more speed than I could muster. Again I heard the cheers for Naomi but this time I could tell she was further behind. I still put the foot down to charge to the finish line. I finished 20th with 44:41. For the course and the lack of pace training, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Also with only one person successfully overtaking me in the last lap (and overtaking a bunch) either I paced it well or paced it as badly as everyone else.

I’ll have at least three other 10km races and I have the goal of getting under 40:00, another symbolic milestone mark. This weekend though I’ll give parkrun a lash. I’m pretty sure that on a good day I’d be able to do it under 20 minutes by a substantial margin. Last year though, albeit on a harder course, I could only do 20:20, my fastest 5km race time. Fingers crossed it can again be another breakthrough race!

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The definition of insanity

Well, now that is four marathons done - two of torture; two of jubilation:
- Auckand, Oct 2017: 3:46 - ran out of gas 29km, finished but lay on the ground a long time post-run.
- North Shore, Sept 2018: 3:44 - excruciating stitch at 34km
- Auckland, Oct 2018: 3:29 - had the energy to surge in the 41km, finished fine and could walk around.
- Rotorua, May 2019: 3:27 - slowed slightly at 34km, finished fine.

There is a 19 minute range in finishing times, fortunately with the finishing times getting shorter as I do more. One cold-water set of statistics though is that according to Strava, my 30km mark times for each are:

Auckand, Oct 2017: 2:26:38
North Shore, Sept 2018: 2:24:54
Auckland, Oct 2018: 2:26:31
Rotorua, May 2019: 2:24:37

Therefore, at the same point in four different races over 19 months, I only have a range of 2 minutes. That's only 4 seconds per kilometre different in pace, which isn't really significant. I've clearly been trying the same strategy but with better success each time. What have I learned? Probably that time toughens you up and makes you better. Small training changes may have lead to better finishing. My base speed for long distance hasn't really improved though. I do feel fitter and readier now than the previous events but it still meant I was only slightly faster for the first 30kms than North Shore last year.

Of course, marathons aren't 30km. In Rotorua, I needed just over one hour to finish it from that point, whereas in North Shore I needed another hour twenty. The big difference in finishing times between the first two events and the last two is whether I could run for the duration.

Since my running won't be stopping now as I have a busy winter of 10km events and another marathon-packed Spring, it means that I'm ripe to lift myself to another level. Auckland Marathon is just 6 weeks after the North Shore Marathon this year, which could mean I could use one to prepare for the other. (That's how it incidentally worked last year.)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Rotorua Marathon, finally

It was to be my first marathon, but in January 2017 I strained my calf and I downgraded it to a half. It was to be my second marathon but January 2018 was troublesome with a recovering knee, side strain and arch pain. I downgraded again to a half, and coincidentally discovered I'd given myself a hernia just after. You could say that the Rotorua Marathon, along with the Omaha Half, have been my cursed events.

But Rotorua is a hugely symbolic event too. It's one of the biggest events, around a lake of 42.2km, and notorious for its hills. For me personally it should be notorious for its Saturday race day which, for three years straight, has given me a horrendous drive south after a long work day. It'll be the last time I do this ridiculous drive and early morning run. Because yesterday I finally ran the full marathon and I did it well. 

The gun went off at 8am and I spent some time thinking about what pace was comfortable. It turned out to be the ideal goal pace that I'd planned before the race of between 4:45-4:50. It was comfortable to the point that I cast the doubts from the preceding business trip week aside and ran as I had planned to run. The bunch thinned slowly in the first ten. I noticed my watch was 300m out early on so resorted to maths to check my speed. My two incidental pacers in the first half were Lass and Yellow Sole. Lass, a 20ish lady, in particular early on was regularly passing and being passed by me. That was how similar our paces were. She overtook Yellow Sole, who I then trailed for some time until he dropped his cellphone, and then on a downward hill I passed Lass as well. So I'd lost my pacers until about 18km when just before the first major hill I heard the thudding of feet on my heels. Both Lass and Yellow Sole passed me as a group of two. I dropped my pace and we all slowly chewed through the first challenge.

Suddenly, Yellow Sole charged ahead and up the hill, bolting from our pack. He somehow made about a 100m lead and linked up with another pack ahead. I kept Lass within 10m range of me and we passed a lot who were having trouble with the first hill. Then it was down to the lake's edge. At about the halfway mark Lass was running strongly until she stopped, touched her toes and held her belly. I asked her if she was ok as I passed but she said nothing. It was the last I saw of her.

Losing Lass was a blow, but fortunately others were being cast off groups ahead so I always had people to chase and pass to keep my pace up. Yellow Sole and another, Bud, who I'd named earlier but had left our pack, were both in sight when I began second major hill at the 25km mark. Hills are a big part of my training including my Titirangi run which has significant gut busting hills roughly at the same points so I wasn't terribly fazed. I passed quite a few people on the hill, including Bud, and shortly after, Yellow Sole started walking and I zoomed past him. I didn't see him again either. 

After only passing people I was strongly passed by a familiar runner, Haoting Ma. I didn't know him personally but he was recognisable because he'd been around a while, very small, fast and young, no more than 18. His pace was amazing for the second half of a marathon. I held onto him for as long as possible but by the 35km mark I started to lag. I couldn't really sustain my goal pace any longer but was still registering in the 5:00-5:10/km range, which I was happy with. Two older gentlemen passed me. We exchanged a few words and I gathered that they were friends, regulars and knew how to pace the course well. They churned onwards. I didn't fade any further and 3:27:06 went through the finish gate. 

It was an improvement of 2:40 over my previous best. And the second time I'd run a marathon without walking. Considering my less than ideal taper and general tiredness, I'm rather pleased with the result. There are 4 more months till my next full marathon and presuming I keep improving then the next marathon will be even better. That will be North Shore Marathon that I struggled in last year. 

Now I have some 10km events coming up and I can practice getting faster. So with that I bid haere raa ki Rotorua and celebrate with hopes for the future.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The busy business trip

Over three years ago, just before moving back to New Zealand, we set ourselves up for a post-work pre-move trip within China. It was the big opportunity for both of us travel unconstrained by the calculations of annual leave and days-in-lieu. We weighed up a few places and eventually settled on the province of Shanxi. It's not the go-to province for travel but it had a lot of interesting places and a cuisine we both liked. On the verge of buying tickets and booking accommodation though, I had my shoulder bag stolen, which incidentally had my new passport, my old passport, keys to our apartment, my residence document and wallet inside. Not only was it a nuisance to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to replace everything, it thwarted our long-anticipated trip.

But Shanxi followed me back to New Zealand in a way. Barely a couple of months after starting work at my school did I teach a course that was opened for the benefit of a bunch of Shanxi students. They were a good bunch – good-natured, smart, each one pleasantly idiosyncratic but with English a few notches below what it should be for the high level course they were in. In 2017 we had two more groups of students, these students were similar to the first group. They were evidently well-raised and motivated students who again were to struggle with the high level English course that they were coming. It became a gripe for teachers who tried their best to help these wonderful young people get over the line to receive a certificate that was their "passport" to tertiary study. They often failed, and had to be lifted back up again. Their parents often complained via our marketing staff and it always felt like we were blamed despite we were doing the best we could with the students who were coming in and the standards we had to assess by. Staff from the university visited us that year and I got to meet the Professor, the main man behind the project of sending them over to us. It was a good meeting and I felt I had his trust in my judgement about how it was being handled. In 2018 more groups came and despite being the most organised for them we still struggled to get them confidently to an acceptable level. In fact, the time that was taken by staff to get them to an acceptable level raised flags with finance, who noticed the increase in wages, and I was under the pump at the end of each pay period to explain as the staffing cost went through the roof. Shanxi was as before, promising in its anticipation but bitter in its end.

Then about a month ago my boss decided rather wisely that the best thing to do was for her to go to Shanxi for an extended stay of five days. Usually these marketing visits were just for a day, as there are many agents to see and time is precious. And in a further big call, she decided to bring me rather than someone more involved in marketing to assist her. As mentioned in previous blogs, the timing was both great and terrible in view of my marathon preparation, but I was really happy to have the opportunity for professional and personal reasons. Professionally, I wanted to see things on the ground and think of ways to get it right. Personally, Shanxi had been an enigma and I wanted to experience it. And even more personally, I was also going to be stopping by Qingyuan on the way back to see my in-laws.

I flew in on Monday with not a wink of sleep and immediately went in for lunch with the Professor and a Director at the university. The Professor is an incredible individual. He is not what you'd expect. He presents himself like a simple man and looks a little bit like a teddy bear with slightly bulging features. He dresses casually and speaks in the same way. He has a thick Shanxi accent which makes it difficult for even Chinese to understand; yet he's a raconteur extraordinaire, with a story for any occasion: even if you don't understand a word he's saying, he'll be acting out every scene, with dramatic pauses, flailing limbs and sound effects. And he's not short of tales, both historical and personal. He was a non-smoking teetotaller, which is also a rarity. His abstinence has a story of course: He and some friends went on a bender on what turned out to be fake alcohol (this can happen in China). He lost consciousness and when he awoke he had lost the ability to move from the neck down. It took days for the doctors to figure out what had happened because it wasn't alcohol poisoning and they weren't sure how to treat him. Fortunately he recovered from this episode, except for the fact that his body now doesn't tolerate alcohol.

He's also rather coarse. He's the one with the inappropriate, often sexist, jokes; he's the one who will get the conversation centred around him stifling out others. He is a man of analogy and metaphor and would often drag me, usually unnecessarily, into them: "Imagine someone gave Daniel a hundred apples for free. Should he eat as many as he can now? Or eat just the best ones now and leave the others to rot?" Or something some such.

He's also rather brilliant. His archiving is a sight to behold. He was ahead of his time in how to arrange staffing and compliance. There is a lot to learn from him. He's also tough as nails. My boss is made of steel; but he is made of adamantine; when it came to final negotiations it dragged on for an eternity. He featured on every single day in some way, and slowly but surely I got more of as understanding of his accent and had more direct conversations with him without resorting to getting others to translate his Chinese into Chinese.
As the days rolled on, it also appeared he was a master strategist. My boss, who is as dynamic and quick-witted as they get, found it troubling to deal with him because he said only what he wanted you to hear and padded it with digressions and unnecessary tangents. He delayed the "point" to a later stage that was time-wise more tactically optimal. In other words, he was far more Sun-Tzu than simple teddy bear. Maybe the teddy bear look was deliberate, too, to leave you not expecting what might come. But such is business and China, as perhaps you've heard.

I only had to deal with him occasionally. I spent more time with other key people and one morning with the students, too. I must say it beats the day-in-day-out of the office on any day. But I was chronically short of sleep. Including the night I flew over, I slept 26 hours over 6 days. This was partly because of jet-lag but also my desire to run. The only way to combine some very busy days with running was to be up early, so in a way I preserved my NZ rising times but had no control over the time I got back to the hotel because dinner meals were all part of it. One night after a night of drinking, I didn't even sleep 4 hours, but having missed a run the previous day, I got up once I stirred and ran 19 kilometres (a pretty good workout too!) and then had a long day. But by 9pm I was feeling dizzy and they sent me home rather promptly. I did run far less than I had ideally planned but it might not be a bad thing. We'll find out on Saturday.

Despite the sleep, there was one rather surprising change. My Mandarin bolted back to the best it's been in years in quick fashion, especially listening. By the second day I was understanding without really even trying and by the last three days I could follow some very heavily accented Mandarin. In some ways it made perfect sense: It had been a long time that I had been immersed in a purely Mandarin environment. And I probably spoke more Mandarin for practical and professional purposes than I had in the last ten years. Bizarrely this increase in processing speed had a similar effect on my Cantonese, too. Before leaving the north for the south where I'd see my parents-in-law, I listened to some podcasts in Cantonese and was again struck that I suddenly didn't need much effort to follow the discussions. And even more extraordinarily, when I was picked up I could understand two of my in-laws who I had always struggled to follow due to their accents and speed of speech.

The county of Taigu was where I spent most of my time in the north. I'd never heard of it previously but it may have been one of the wealthiest places in China in the first part of the century. It was the hometown of Kong Xiangxi, who had an incredible life. He was born from Confucius's clan but after a miracle of western medicine courtesy of some missionaries, he converted to Christianity, went to America to study at Oberlin College and then Yale, and then returned to found a university, the very one I was visiting. Following that, he controlled a lot of trade into and out of China. He founded banks, and presumably with some government role, standardised the currency for the whole country. On one of our excursions we went to one of the remaining mansions of his vast complex which had photos of him with Hitler. Apparently one of the trades he was into, albeit secretly, was in military supplies… When the communists swept in, he swept out to live out his life in America. He married the oldest of what would be a famous trio of sisters. One married Sun Yat-sen, the "father of China" who was their first president; the other married Chiang Kaishek, the leader of China after Sun Yat-sen and later the man who was pushed out of China by the communists to Taiwan. All three had incredible historical roles in China and they were "lianjin" (the relationship word in Chinese for men married to sisters).

The Taigu county of today looks like a small Chinese industrial town, shrouded in coal dust and windblown sand from the desert, with only brief signs of its previous glory. On my first morning there I ran, I probably shouldn't have. It was the day of the worst air quality while I was there and my lungs and throat could still feel it the next day, and probably the day after that. It did improve on all the subsequent days but was never great. My hotel was recently built and my room was spacious and comfortable, but there wasn't a footpath nor any convenient eateries nearby. And the hotel restaurant's breakfasts were dire. At the end we went to Taiyuan, one of the two biggest cities in Shanxi, and I was pleasantly surprised that it had scrubbed up to be a rather nice city. In some ways, pre-trip, I expected Taiyuan to look like the Taigu I saw.

The China of today and the me of this moment are probably the most comfortable match we have ever been. I felt more or less in my element. My boss, who although having known my Chinese is decent, didn't realise I could do as much as I could, including navigating about without any support, handling vast quantities of Chinese wine and deftly handling some situations and people. She asked me why I don't live and work in China. China doesn't make itself an easy place to feel comfortable, to be clear. There isn't much freedom for a foreigner to really reside here stably long term. China can still creep you out easily too. Face-scanning technology is everywhere. Jay-walkers in Taiyuan are shown on street corner screens with two out of the three characters of their name showing, with the photo caught and the official card photo showing, for public shaming. The university had their IT students make a similar one that could recognise me from my passport photo and every time I went in, it brought my name up. On the screen it also showed that no "black-listed people" had come today.

Could I live here? Yes, I could if the country permitted me to be here long term. The country may have to think hard whether it really wants the uncertainty and the liberalism that foreigners sometimes stimulate by their mere presence.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Pre-trip (apparently not published earlier)

(apparently this wasn't published earlier)

Easter. Resurrection? New life? Well, not this time round. In front of me is a very busy time, flying to China for a packed 5 days of business and then a more sedate 3 days in Qingyuan before coming back to NZ and running a marathon less than 3 days after touchdown. It's going to be interesting.

Professionally it's a delight. I really do want to see where a large number of our students have come from, see how we can make sure they are as prepared as possible for the significant challenge of going abroad to learn English and study at a tertiary level in a foreign language. My ability to see the possibilities and make a contribution could have large ramifications for them and their project for which we are a part. It's no small thing.

And to see a place in China I'd never been before is quite a treat on top of that. Shanxi is famous for its food, noodles specifically; but it also has its local baijiu that I'm reasonably fond of. It's a pity that I won't have discretionary days to get out of the city. Of course one of the perils of an organised trip is that you don't always have the flexibility to explore. I'll probably scope out the neighbourhood in my morning runs and try as much as I can as breakfast. (Not the baijiu, though! That can come later.) Fortunately my hosts know that I can handle myself with the language so I don't need to be always accompanied or kept safe.

The trip is either perfectly timed or terribly timed. It is the beginning of my taper where I can drop down my mileage, which is pretty much forced on me by travel anyway. (Runways are poorly named in that respect; you can't run there.) There will be running tracks at the university I'm visiting so I'll probably job over in the morning and do some laps. I do hate the track but tracks are useful for some of the training.

But right now I'm still at home in anticipation of what lies ahead. One gamble I made on the running front might have been a bad idea. As I knew my travel would inhibit my running I decided to make this week a big week, even though it was right after the intensity of my half marathon effort on the weekend. Result: My achilles tendon on my right foot is "odd". It isn't swollen but has been cranky these last three days. It started with what was an easy run on Thursday. On Good Friday I was always due a big run; felt fine in the morning and started to run but I noticed it pretty quick. The heel felt stiff and not as resilient. I gave it massage and some exercise that night but this morning it wasn't worse but wasn't much better either. And whether it be the work schedule or after a lot of intense running weeks, I have the kind of sore throat that means I'm worn down. Taper week will help with that but the travel won't. I'm trying to sleep to the best of my ability on these nights to get the body back into the right state to handle the stresses ahead.

Sunday, April 14, 2019


For the majority of non-elite runners who take part in races, there is a symbolism in each 5 minute interval of time that could make up a race result. I remember my first half getting 1:50:01 and being a bit peeved that I hadn't pulled finger a bit more to go just 2 seconds faster. (I'd pulled a hamstring instead.) My next half I was ecstatic to cleanly break 1:40. I foiled myself getting a possible sub 1:35 in 2017 when I took the wrong road a couple of kilometres short of the end at Omaha. And then last year I had the sweetness of smashing that with a 1:31 time at Millwater.

But the times are a little like cricket milestones. The difference between a batsman getting a century and being out for 101 or falling short of the century of 98 for a team or a game's result isn't much. But for the batsman him or herself, 101 is so much more satisfying than being just 2 runs short of a century. You'd almost prefer to get out for even less, maybe 87, than to be so close on 98. The 1:31 was a little bit bittersweet because I'd felt like a million dollars in full flow when running and almost got within sight of another milestone: 1:30.

1 hour and 30 minutes is something of a symbolic threshold for a decent half marathon runner. 100 minutes (i.e. 1 hour 40) is a solid result for good training. 1:35 is a special result for sustained training. 1 hour 30, for most of the running population, can only really be gotten with a long sustained, focussed training. It's been my target since that 1:31 at Millwater last year that made me dare to believe. But since then I had Devonport 1:33 on a challenging course, 1:37 at the cursed Omaha course where I fell pre-race, 1:38 at Coatesville post surgery and 1:39 at Maraetai, one of the few recent races where I'd paced beyond myself and struggled. So there had been an odd trend away from my goal. There would be one last opportunity to make amends prior to trying to better Millwater and that was the Waterfront Half, the last in the half marathon series.

The Waterfront was weighed down with the expectations of a great many. It would be what most were building up to. It was also the flattest half marathon you could ever really imagine. Apart from the need to four 180 degree turns, it was going to a race to pace consistently, because there was no texture of hills, terrain, beach or otherwise to make strategy any more than an idle preoccupation. Pacing consistently isn't as easy as you'd think because you need to know exactly what pace is your maximum for your current fitness, the course and the conditions and then not go over that unless you're in the last few kilometres. But what is that pace? There can be guess-work from recent results and training. My most recent result, Maraetai, was not the best example as it was hillier and I quickly struggled with the wrong pace. But my training had gone well except for the niggle. I knew the pace that I'd need for 1:30 was 4:16mins/km which was achievable over short periods but still seemed to be a mental barrier if not a physical conditioning barrier in thinking I could do that over 1 hour 30 minutes.

The race though did start. I made the same mistake as Devonport, doing the warm-up and not realising that any shrewd racer would be in the starting chute near the front. Once the warm-up was over 1,789 people all tried to get through the start gate. It took me over half a minute before I actually crossed the start-line and again it was a tiring exercise in dodging and weaving to find some "clean air". Once I had though I locked into a 4:15 pace and found that my breathing was pretty even and I also found some good pacing buddies pretty quickly, obviously other decent runners were delayed by the start gate crush. For the first half of the race, I followed "Hamilton Old-Boy" a scrawny but dynamic runner. He was efficiently moving through the slightly slower runners and I noticed that staying with him meant I maintained speed. After the half-way point, I felt even easier and pushed past him and for a while didn't have a particular person to pace against. The hairpin turns had an advantage that you could see who was ahead. My friend Jonathan was killing the course, over a minute ahead at all points, but I could see the 1:30 pace group / cluster not far ahead of me. One bad thing was one particular hairpin puts you in the flow of runners much slower than you. When I converged with them, I quickly identified two runners who were at the same progress of the race as I was and stuck with them, then dropped one and stayed with the faster. Then dropped him and was all alone. Like Devonport and unlike Maraetai, I had the high of only passing and barely ever been passed. All but one of those that passed me got to see me later.

When I got to the 19th kilometre I felt confident that I was breaking 1:30 and even though I was feeling tired, I wasn't decelerating. In fact I "negative splitted" the race (ran the last half faster than the first half). As I went through the finish line my watch claimed 1:29:50, although it had overestimated the distance I'd run. I was exhilarated. The body felt fine and I'd finally got the monkey off my back.

When I got back that I saw my official net time was 1:30:28. It was a mild downer and couldn't really understand how the times would be different. Did it feel like it detracted from what was still the fastest half marathon of my life? Yes. Not just because I had already celebrated and shared the result but also for the very reason that those 30 seconds over 1:30 did not get over that symbolic line. Fortunately, it wasn't long before I heard that there were some problems with everyone's timings. And then by evening my time was reassessed to the rather precarious 1:29:58. 2 seconds under. How do I feel? Happy but now over it.

Thinking about the event: Putting a half marathon in one of the most popular cafe areas on a Sunday morning has got to be one of the most courageous decisions ever. They closed the Tamaki Drive completely and with the lack of parking even on a good day, an additional 4,000 people worth of vehicles in the back streets of Mission Bay was always going to be a "mission" to find a park and then get out. They did have special bus services but I didn't realise before they were sold out. I played it safe and stressless and drove early, parked far up the Patterson Rd hill and besides having a long uphill cooldown stroll after the race, I got in and out without much fuss.

And that is the end of a series. Even with the surgical interlude and two fizzers, I'm still pretty stoked to have run all five half marathons. Rotorua is three weeks away and with the business trip also in between I don't have time to rest on my (partial) laurels. This evening, tomorrow morning and the long weekend before the trip are all going to be full of mileage.