Thursday, 17 March 2016

Race Report - Brimbank Park Trail Half Marathon 2016

“The course is marked. But not very well.”

Nothing can better sum up the glorious chaos of the Brimbank Park Urban Trail Run than this perceptive but faintly concerning observation, which was announced with a sheepish grin during the pre-race briefing.

I say ‘the pre-race briefing’. In fact I’m pretty sure I heard this during the briefing for the marathon and the 50k ultra, which were both starting 30 minutes before the half marathon that I’d entered, which was itself 30 minutes before the 10k which would be followed 30 minutes later by the 5k and another 30 minutes after that, the 2k. That’s six races and five pre-race briefings if you’re counting.

With that many races spread across the day, using mostly the same trails, some with loops and laps and switchbacks, to be honest it would have been nigh on impossible to declare the course ‘well marked’. The pre-race instructions, issued by email, contained pages and pages of almost-identical maps, with ominous instructions like ‘runners are expected to have at least some knowledge of the route’ before offering navigation advice, in intense detail, based on a number of landmarks which didn’t seem to be marked anywhere. I’d done my best to understand where I was supposed to be going, and I’m glad I did. In an event with just 300 runners divided up between six distances, there is a very real chance that one could either get totally lost, or (perhaps worse) end up following someone in an entirely different race for a potentially very circuitous diversion.

These are the hallmarks of a race series that does exactly what every runner dreams of: inviting the world to come and have a go on your favourite routes. Trails+ has a shiny website and a headline sponsor in Garmin, but in the real world it’s the mission of one bloke, Brett Saxon, who set up the franchise to raise funds for teenage cancer charity CanTeen. When I stopped comparing it to a big corporate event and start appreciating it on those terms, it suddenly made a lot more sense.

Brimbank Park is a sizable and generally rather picturesque public reserve about half an hour north of Melbourne, defined by a deep gorge and a winding river and spoiled only by the inexplicable stringing of massive pylons across it and the occasional but equally massive noise pollution from nearby Melbourne airport.

After watching the ultrarunners and marathoners set off on their hapless quest to find the right number of kilometres to run, we killed some time mumbling about the weird humidity and pointing out our early favourites (the gent in fluorescent orange taking the marathon at a stern walk was mine). As ever, all too soon, it was time to get going.

Not particularly ready for the off.
I lined up with the other half-marathoners – all 57 of us – and, panicking, tried to set my watch while a local MP started an abrupt countdown. The blasted thing was still looking for satellites when I’d completed the first 400 metre loop, but before too much longer I had it going and started to settle into a rhythm, neatly ticking off the first few landmarks at around 5 minutes/km (a whisker over 8 minutes/mile, for those of you only just keeping up at the back). Despite its tiny size, the field was comprised of a real cross-section of the running world, and in the early km’s I watched people of all shapes and sizes shoot past me along the river trail. I wondered how many of them I might see again.

After a relatively comfortable run on undulating loose gravel, sometimes slipping into fine sand and other times firming up into rockier trail, I reached a bandstand at the 10km mark where a volunteer glanced at my light-blue half marathoner’s bib and declared ‘this is your turnaround!’. I grabbed a cup of water, thanked the volunteers and did as I was told. Feeling fresh and with 11km left to go, I headed back the way I’d come and started hunting down some other runners, overtaking a couple in the next few k’s. I flew past two guys I’d seen shoot off at the start, then overtook a bloke who I’d briefly chatted to in the early part of the race. I was feeling strong and ready to roll, and delighted in the weird experience of conducting hundreds of two-second conversations with runners heading in the opposite direction, still working on the out-and-back. On my way to the turnaround I’d only seen a few, suggesting I was relatively near the front of the field, but on the way back I saw the rest of the half-marathon field plus some of the marathoners and ultrarunners. Everyone assured everyone else that they were looking good and doing a great job and we all totally believed each other. It was great.

Things started going wrong for me at around 16km. It was a humid day and I was drenched in sweat, my vest clinging to my skin and feet blistering in soaking socks. I was running low on energy and the jelly snake I’d eaten was turning unpleasantly in my stomach. Weirdly I started getting goosebumps and feeling chills as well, maybe I was struggling with dehydration, or something else wasn’t regulating itself properly. I hauled myself along on the promise that it was really only 4 or 5, or was it 6km to go? My watch was 400m short, right, but does that mean I need it to say 20.7km or 21.5km? And is this definitely 16km? Have I gone too far? I’m very tired. This would be easier in miles.

An irritatingly well-marked sign turned the course away from the picturesque river path and up a truly massive and fairly grimy hill beneath a motorway overpass. I’d been hovering on a bloke’s shoulder for a while but he pulled away on the approach to the hill and disappeared up it at a fair lick, while I slumped my shoulders and resigned to a walk. It’s far from the biggest hill I’ve ever run but it was definitely placed at the worst point for my mood and wellbeing...

I trudged onwards. Two, then three, then five runners overtook me, including the three I’d caught just after the turnaround. We swapped a few murmured words of encouragement as a weird, humid wind picked up. I shivered some more and wondered whether this whole running thing was still working for me. It used to come so easily, you see. 

By now I was at the top of the hill and intermittently walking and running not very quickly along a ridge on one side of the gorge, scanning the valley below for the event village and the finish line. Was it still 6km to go? Had to be more like 4 now, or maybe even less? I ran on, cursing the very idea of races and finish lines and hills until an aid station came into view at a road crossing, where the course dropped down into the valley below and presumably on to the finish line. My watch said 19k. “No worries, only 4k to go!” chirped the volunteer. I said a bad word and mustered some energy to ride the downhill and into the bottom of the valley.

A few more confused and faintly miserable minutes of jogging later I started to hear the unmistakable chaos of a finish line, and allowed my spirits to be slightly lifted by the noise and excitement. I picked up the pace a little and ran past a few families and couples in the 5k, but quite clearly just out for a nice fundraising walk in the park rather than a race. I envied their decision making.

Moments later I was crossing the finish line, entirely on my own, and ran directly to the Crew Chief who – unable to help herself – had started volunteering by removing people’s timing chips from the back of their race numbers. She did mine for me, and I shook hands with one of the organisers as I accepted a medal and scanned the event village for somewhere that I might do a bit of collapsing in a heap.

Crossing in 1:52:12 (the clock is from the marathon start)
I lay down on a bench, soaked in sweat and still sweating profusely. The Crew Chief found me some water, then some fruit and miraculously a hot dog, which I greedily devoured along with a bottle of Gatorade and a mumbling narrative of self-pity, which she patiently absorbed in a ‘what do you expect me to do about that?’ sort of way. I didn’t expect anything of course, unless she happened to have thought of an excuse that had managed to elude me so far. She blamed the humidity, which I laid into with gusto.

Really very warm. Is this normal, Australia?
As runners continued to trickle over the finish line we slipped away back towards the car and a change of clothes for me – I wasn’t aware how I had done overall but I was confident that my services wouldn’t be required on a podium any time soon. I tried to seek out those few runners whom I’d chatted with along the way to congratulate them on their pacing, but I couldn’t find any of them so I settled for shaking Brett’s hand and slinking off. I resolved to race a lot smarter next time.

Next time is a bloody marathon, so I suppose I’d better.

Happy running


2016 to date: Km's - 347, parkruns - 6, races - 1

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