Breaking my Sub 5 Hour Marathon. By Catherine Ross.

So, how did I come to be running the marathon in Canberra on Sunday and trying to break 5 hours? This is my story.

As long as I have known my amazing husband of 25 years he had wanted to do an Ironman race. Once we had kids that went on the back-burner – training for a 3.8k swim, a 180k bike and a 42.2k marathon takes up a lot of family time. In May 2009, at 47 he finally trained for and completed his first Ironman Australia. He inspired me. I ran in the 5km Fun Run the day before the Ironman and decided that even though I hadn’t raced since my early 20s, I wanted to be a competitor again too – I wanted to be fitter, and on “that” side of the race fence. I wasn’t a very competent swimmer then, and still can’t ride a bike for nuts, so running it was.

In the July I ran the 2009 Sutherland to Surf 11km, having only run as far as 8km in training. Would I make it? It wasn’t pretty, but yes. By 2010 I ran my first half marathon; it took me 2 hours 25. By early 2011 I had been diagnosed with anterior compartment syndrome in the shins of both legs. I got fitted for orthotics and new running shoes, was prescribed magnesium and changed my running style. The physio said I could maybe keep running, but had to go back to the beginning again – run 100m, walk 100m and then the next week I could run 200m, walk 200m. And so on. Well I wasn’t giving up running thank you very much. I kept a chart and ticked it off every day and nursed those shins back to shiny new. I had to run more conservatively, but I could run.

By August 2011 I ran the Sutherland Athletics Half Marathon in 2:48. I wasn’t fast but I was back. By the 2011/12 triathlon season I was completing the run leg of sprint, Olympic or half ironman distance teams with my husband – Canberra Half, Husky Long, Forster Ultimate, Challenge Forster – still running the Sutho to Surf and the 8km Mother’s Day Classic and club races with Cronulla Tri Club. In April 2012 when we raced as a team at the ITU International Triathlon in Sydney – the swim in the harbour at the Opera House, the bike over the Harbour Bridge and the run (my bit) through the closed off Sydney streets with hundreds cheering (atmosphere!) – this started me thinking about the marathon. In May 2012 I won an entry to the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon. It was tough, I did a 2:37 and my calves cramped up towards the end but I knew now I could run a marathon if I tried. This would be my claim to fame! I still have the email where I asked my husband if he thought I was ready and he said go for it, and I signed up. My email in reply to him after registering just says “I’m in. 42.2. Crikey”.

And so, I trained for the 2012 Sydney Blackmores marathon. I did their on line program, longest run 36k, and I ran every kilometre on the chart. I ran the King of the Mountain 30k Trail as a B race. I felt ready. Hey, I hung out with the Ironman folks, I could do this! I was 49 and my goal was to run a marathon before I was 50, just to finish. But race day was a hot day, and I seemed to spend a week running the bit in Centennial Park. Then the last part in the hills of Pyrmont was where I found The Wall. I struggled on but coming around to the harbour again and seeing across to the finish at the Opera House I knew I would make it. I tripped (literally) over the finish line in 5:11. So now I had a time to beat. I was a marathon runner! My finishers shirt was my proudest possession! I wore it with a grin like a mad fool for weeks. I decided rather than re-doing the same marathon, I would do a different one each year. And I would go sub 5.

In 2013 I trained for Melbourne. Surely I could find 12 minutes. Or more! I could get faster! I trained to the same program and ran to a max of 34k. I ran the Coastal Classic 28k Trail as my B race. I was ready for Melbourne. On race day it was cold, it rained and a howling wind blew us all over St Kilda. I kept looking at the time and as we ran back into the city I desperately lifted, trying to get to the MCG before 5 hours. I sprinted at the end, running faster than I had all day, passing people, dodging finishers from other shorter races all finishing at the same time. I finished in 5:02. I cried. A PB, but not under 5. I was disappointed, although everyone said “but you finished another marathon!” For me there was no second prize.

Next race was Gold Coast in 2014. My sister decided, turning 42, she would run 42k too as her first marathon. So we signed up. We trained together, and as an excuse for a lot of fun post-run lunches. I followed a different program this time and ran to a max of 32k. I felt ready. This was The One, it was flat, it was a great atmosphere – and heck, this was marathon number 3, I knew what I was doing. Here I would break 5. But race day was hot, very hot. And flat, it turns out, is hard. Your legs prefer variety. I had thought my body was ready but my head gave me up. I ended up working hard in the last three kilometres so as not to come in under 5 and a half hours! I did a 5:26. These results were going in the wrong direction!

And so, this year was Canberra. This time! Between July 2014 Gold Coast and April 2015 Canberra I had worked hard. I decided I was going to race and train smarter. I raced several halves purposely (Mudgee Half, Husky Half, Western Sydney Half, Husky Long run leg) and I practiced pace, form and nutrition, and got my head sorted. I got my Half Marathon PB to 2.19 (top 10 in my age group that race!). I passed people in races (unheard of!). I held my form. I thought strong. I stayed hydrated and I kept up my calories. I built my quads with a 1000km charity spin bike challenge. I worked on my core at the gym, I was strict with rest days, food was all about fuel. I ate carbs before training and protein after. I took my supplements, and worked on speed at interval sessions and ran Parkrun. I was inspired as I watched my fellow tri club members, including my sister, push themselves to new distances and PBs. My son did his first Ironman, my husband did his eighth. I joined up to RMA! I was lifted by the stories of thousands of strong running mums with dreams like mine.

This time I followed a different program where I ran to time blocks rather than distance. I still ticked every session. I went to Canberra and practiced on part of the course when my husband rode there for charity. I studiously lost 5kg. I trained at a faster pace. I trained on the race electrolyte. I could do this. I WOULD do this. THIS would be my race.

On race day I ran with Gu Chews, a gel for the 3 hour mark, and a palm bottle of flat coke. I had some Vegemite for calf cramps. A special playlist of music for inspiration. I wore my RMA marathoner singlet. I was tapered and keen. I went out faster early, hoping to have some quicker splits under my belt so if I struggled later I had something banked. I ranged from 6 – 6.30 and tried to average the 6.20 I trained at. I felt good. I had scheduled chews every 45 minutes and kept a close eye on the Garmin. I walked through the aid stations, taking water every time and electrolyte wherever it was available. I sipped on my coke in between. At about 9km Katy Perry’s Roar came on the Ipod and I picked up the pace, feeling positive! I did 63 mins for 10km which I was happy with. I was on schedule. I looked across the lake as I ran and saw the hot air balloons in the sunrise.

At about 14km I was inspired to hear “Hall of Fame” on the Ipod – I had trained so many times to that song, the great lyrics, picturing myself crossing the line under 5 hours and how awesome it would feel. Oh how I had imagined it! I stopped at an aid station with gels and took a spare, in case I needed two. Things were good, on a loop as we crossed the runners ahead I could see the 4.30 pacer (just in front of my sister!) and knew the 4.45 was behind me! I had a buffer. Just.

But by 19km the 4.45 pacer went past! I couldn’t catch him up – another runner said to me the pacer was ahead of his set time. I kept the pacer in sight and could see the 5.00 pacer was still behind me at least 15 minutes. I still had this! Didn’t I? I ran about a 2:20 for 21.1 and was still on schedule. But not by much. I was half way. It was going to be close. Too close. I wavered between thinking “I can still do this”, and “I am going too slow, it’s over, I have lost the dream AGAIN!” I didn’t want to admit I had failed already. I had to dig deep. I ran on.

The rolling hills between 24 and 28 were tough, it warmed up and there was no shade. I had some of the vegemite for salts. I could feel my right foot had blisters. I just kept moving but my pace was slowing. RMAs went past as we ran the side loops, we grinned and waved. It was hard but we were in it together. Hubby appeared just after we crossed the dam, having run out 10k to find me, and encouraged me, saying that I HAD to run the hill up to Cotter Road as most people were walking it and I could make up some time. I stuck my head down, listening to “Bonfire Hearts”, and James Blunt and I ran it all the way to the top.

By 30km as I had my gel (ick!) I saw I was on just under 3 and a half hours. I had an hour and a half to run 12 kms. Seven and a half minute kilometres. I could still do this. Couldn’t I? No. Yes. I had to keep running. I was talking to myself – chanting, just keep running Catherine, just keep running. I sped up on the downhills. It might come back to bite me but I had to make up time.

I had run in Weston Park before in a Sri Chinmoy race but this time it seemed to go on forever. The 5.00 hr pacer came by!!!!!!!! No!! I told him I had to break 5!!! “Stay with me” he said, “I am actually a bit fast. We still have 45 minutes to run 6 kilometres”. So I tried to just stay with him, but worried what if I dropped off his pace? How could I catch up? I decided to run faster and get ahead of him. I would rather be out in front. I drained my palm bottle and tossed it. I don’t think it lightened me up very much (!) but I didn’t want to think about carrying it any more, I was too busy doing the sums. I ran off up the road, hearing the clunk of the pacers flag as he followed not far behind!

I followed the road around the lake, my calves starting to cramp. Eating more vegemite, I stopped to stretch them, looking over my shoulder for the dreaded pacer! I took off again, and soon saw the 39k banner – just 3.2k to go and about 25 minutes. More sums. Three eights are 24, I can do this! I can run eights. I can run under eights! Blimey to break 5 today I will run threes if I have to, but I can’t stop! I don’t even have a second to spare. I must keep running. Cramping calves again – keep running and have them seize up? Or stop and stretch them? Run, walk, stretch, look at watch, look for pacer, repeat. Was I breathing, I don’t remember.

Suddenly the 41k sign, and a turn left. I could hear the finish line, I could see the finish line. Keep running I told myself. Faster. Run faster. You CAN’T not break five. You CANNOT miss this AGAIN. All that training, all those kilometres, all those people wanting it for you. You can DO this. Come on legs, speed up! YOU HAVE TO SPEED UP! This is it, it’s right THERE! This is yours.

I looked at my watch again. I had four minutes left. I raced past my proud cheering hubby; Nicole from RMA appeared, running beside me on the grass, yelling out encouragement, running along with me till I turned into the shute. Just 200 metres. Would the calves hold out? The announcer called “Only 90 seconds left to come in under 5 hours!” I would do it. I would DO IT! I WOULD DO IT!! I sprinted, I saw no one, I heard nothing. I just RAN.

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And I crossed the line, to the announcer’s “Congratulations, you are a sub 5 hour marathoner”. And I stopped my watch. And I leant on the railing. And I cried. And then I screamed “yes” at the top of my lungs! YES!!!!

It felt as good as I had hoped. And it was just like I had pictured, during all those sessions on the treadmill and all those early lonely long run kilometres in the dark. And all those races before. And all those hours today. They put a medal around my neck and hubby came up and hugged me and I said “It was a 4, it was a 4!!!” I did it, didn’t I, wasn’t that what he said?? Look, my watch says 4:58! That’s right isn’t it, I didn’t miss it did I??”

And he smiled and said “No. You did it. You broke 5”.

2 responses to “Breaking my Sub 5 Hour Marathon. By Catherine Ross.

  1. This is so amazing, thank you for sharing. I am printing and putting on my fridge as a reminder. I am at the start of your story, children to run around after, but have done a couple of halfs. Just need to wait a few more years because of the time it will take for a try at the marathon. Knowing that I will be near 50, and you have done it keeps my dream alive. Thank you.

  2. Oh my goodness! I held my breath with anticipation reading that! Well done! With an ironman husband also, I am keen to give the Melbourne Marathon a go this year after doing five half marathons. This is the inspiration I need, thanks Catherine!

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