Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Marathon Number 1 - Fletcher Marathon, Rotorua, NZ - 26th April 1980

Hi, welcome back.

As I promised in my last two posts, time for some Millsy Memories. I will get back to the issue of running economy and what this means with regards to training in my next post. Thanks for the two comments which I totally agree with, and hopefully will expand upon after I've casted my mind back 30 years!!!

Well as the title of the post states, I ran my first marathon on the 26th April 1980, as a 17 year old. Yes I lied about my age on the entry form! I joined Hutt Valley Harriers in April 1977, so I had 3 years of running prior to my first marathon. Before joining harriers I was your typical New Zealand boy, playing rugby from the age of 8 for Naenae Old Boys, but also due to living in the Hutt Valley, a very strong area for softball, playing softball from the age of 9 for Cardinals. For various reasons, hard to remember now, I stopped both of those sports in 1977 and started running.

Hutt Valley Harriers was a well established club, being formed in 1923 and was located underneath the tiered seating area of the Naenae Olympic Swimming Pool. The season tended to alternate with a club run and a race, (either a club race or an interclub race), each Saturday. During most of 1977 I don't recall doing any other running apart from on the Saturday, except for the occasion run during PE at school.

It was during 1977 that a new music teacher joined the staff of Naenae College, where I was in the 4th form (year10). Gary Wilby was a runner who had previously lived in Christchurch. It wasn't long before he had established a small group of runners that ran together after school. For the last 2- 3 months of the school year, from September onwards I joined the group and really enjoyed the running. Whether I would have got into running to such an extent, that I am still a runner now, if it wasn't for Gary's influence is hard to say, but I sure have much to thank him for. I still stay in contact with Gary whenever I get back to NZ. Actually I think 'The Wizard' as we used to call Mr Wilby back then and the Naenae College running group (Lucocks, Ritchies, Wah, Bryant, Higham, Teapot, Reille, Pirie, etc.) are well worthy of a Millsy Memory post in the coming months! So for now I will get back to the Fletcher Marathon and my training leading up to it.

My proper running training began on the 1st of January 1978, when I also started recorded down my training in a diary, which if you have read one of my earlier posts, I have continued to record to this day! During 1978 and 1979 I ran 1044 and 1169 miles respectively. During these years of running I was gradually improving, having improved my finishing position in the Wellington Schools cross country championships from 77th place out of 95 finishers in October 1977 to 29th place out of 69 finishers in October 1979. However, by the end of 1979 I realised that I wasn't going to be the next John Walker, world recorder holder for the mile in 1975 and Olympic 1500metre champion in 1976, but maybe the marathon was my distance, as I knew one thing way back then, I did not possess any fast twitch muscle fibres (check out my PB for 400metres!). Was I to be the next Jack Foster, who finished 2nd in the 1974 Commonwealth Games in a time of 2:11:18 (at the age of 41!)? So I decided I would run New Zealand's premier marathon, the Fletcher Marathon that attracted around 2000 entries each year, even before the marathon boom of the 80s, the following April.

The year started with running track, where I set my still existing PB for 3000metres at my key goal race of the track season, the Hutt Valley Intercollegiates, finishing 3rd in a time of 9:15.5. My best track result ever! This was a massive improvement on my PB of exactly 30 seconds. Maybe just the thought of possibly being capable of being a good runner, was actually turning me into a good runner! (How much does self expectation determine one's performance? Yes a topic for a future post there.) I had run a total of 333 miles in the first 10 weeks of 1980 leading up to 3000m race, amazingly not much different from the average of 34.3 miles a week last year training for and racing in 5 Ultras including the 103mile Mont Blanc! (but that's a different story!).

So with the track season finished I then had exactly 6 weeks and 1 day of marathon training to complete, in order to achieve my clearly established goal of 2 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds or faster. I concluded that if I could run 2 hours something! at the age of 17, then 2 hours 8mins (the world record at the time) would be well within my capabilities sometime before I reached Jack Foster's ripe old age of 41.

The 5 weeks training consisted of weekly mileages of 41, 37, 58, 71, 50, before easing down during the final week. I ran every day for the 10 weeks leading up to the marathon except for the Friday before the race. Amazing how disciplined I was then. I can't recall when I last ran every day for just one week! (Yes, a quick check of my training diaries, well not that quick I had to go all the way back to the week of the 23rd - 29th July 2001) (Another story there as well, regarding the need for recovery!)

So race day quickly arrived. Joe Franklin our club captain at the time at Hutt Valley Harriers worked within the police force so on the Friday we had a whole bus load of runners from the harrier club and the local police force runners take the 7 hour journey up to Rotorua from Wellington. Rotorua is a touristy town, even way back then, so we all stayed in two 'flash' motels. I remember sharing the room with Gary Wilby, Bernie Jensen and Clive Chandler. The morning of the race arrived and it was a beautiful sunny day, clear blue sky. It was going to get hot, probably around the mid twenties celsius. Bernie Jensen was your typically beer drinking runner with a rather rounded belly as proof of his drinking habits. I still vividly recall him appearing at the breakfast table getting his bright orange Hutt Valley singlet (vest) ready with elastoplast over both of his nipples. It was quite a sight for a young 17 year old. He had completed many marathons and was 100% sure that you had to put elastoplast over your nipples when running a marathon to avoid 'runners nipple'. I recall thinking "do I do what this guy says, listen to his 'words of wisdom'?" I then took another look at his belly and decided that maybe his approach to running wasn't the most effective, and has I have often done throughout my running, I did what I thought was best and let my nipples remain exposed, willing to accept the guaranteed bleeding nipples, as part of running a marathon. (Hi Bernie, if for an amazing reason you ever read this, many apologies, your beer tum wasn't that big, but it definitely wasn't the elite marathoners physique that I was hoping to emulate! Cheers, thanks for your contribution to the great trip 30 years ago!)

So the 2000+ runners gathered at the start. I don't remember there being signs for different speed runners to assemble at so I stood next to some of the other runners from Hutt Valley Harriers, I guess around a third of the way back from the front. I had spent quite a bit of time planning my race in order to achieve a sub 3 hour time. I decided upon running 20:30 5km pace until 20km. This being 6:36 miling, 2:52:58 pace. This would allow me some spare time to slow down in the second half of the race and still run under three hours. It wasn't quite the "run as fast as you can, while you can" philosophy I currently adopt, but even right back then it seemed logical that running a constant pace throughout the entire race was just not possible.

The gun goes, and being a third of the way back in the field, nothing happens, I am just standing still unable to move forward. I remember the frustration at not being able to start running. There was no computer chip timing back then in 1980. I finally get moving and start my adventure into marathon running.

The course at Rotorua is quite unique. It covers exactly one complete lap of the lake, starting and finishing in the picturesque Government Gardens. There are a few undulations on the course but nothing severe, the largest climb being a rise of 40 metres. At the 5 km mark I am only 7 seconds down on schedule, but I am pleased as it felt like I had lost loads more time than that at the start. At 10 kms I am now 25 seconds up on schedule and all is going well. The course between 10 and 20 kms is the most beautiful as it runs close to the lakes edge. At the age of 17 I wasn't really into the natural beauty of the surrounding environment, but this section of the race was absolutely amazing. The road was closed, so it was quiet and peaceful as I continued to run fast, running the 5kms from 10 - 15 kms in 19:55, this being 6:24 mile pace, as I ran into the unknown of my first ever marathon. I recall thinking, am I going to fast, when will I start 'dieing', when will I hit the famous marathon wall? I ignore these doubts and just enjoy the occasion, and complete the undulating section from 15 - 20 kms only 5 seconds slower in exactly 20 minutes.

At about the 23 km mark the course joins back onto a main road, where instantly the peaceful quietness is interrupted with hundreds of the runner's friends and family cheering everyone on. Just prior to rejoining the main road I catch up to Steve Malanchak, a runner from my club who is also doing his first marathon, but not only is he 2-3 years older than me, but he is a good runner, having usually finished in the first 5 places, racing as an under 20 year old junior. I am pretty excited with the way I am performing and enjoy hearing my name being called out by supporters from Hutt Valley Harriers. The photo below shows me running next to Steve at around the 23km mark. Although the photo is a bit blurred it clearly shows it was a hot day. I am race number 364.

Not too much later at around 26kms the course starts a slow gradual climb. It only climbs around 25 metres over 2 kms, but whatever it was, whether it was this climb, or the heat, or the fact that the scenery wasn't as pleasant, it being noisy as supporter's car continually overtake and stop and then re-overtake you, or I let my expectation to start dieing to lead to reality, I just don't know. Probably a combination of all of the above, but whatever it was, as if instantly I begin to struggle. I get to the top of this small rise, only 25metres, and feel really negative. How will I manage this last 14 kms?
The next 14kms are a real struggle. Although it is a cliche, I really did dig deep. I think one thing no one could ever accuse me of in my earlier days of racing, was that I was not trying hard enough. I was determined to break 3 hours, this was my last chance to be good at running. A distance that just had to suit me. Yes, I had these thoughts as a 17 year old. (Isn't it not surprising that so many teenagers drop out of sport, the expectations/ need to be in a county squad. What about the late developers, what about them? Yet another story!)

As we get closer to Rotorua the crowds on the side of the road get bigger. I remember thinking to myself, what are the crowds thinking as they see me really struggling. Was I foolish to try to run a marathon at the age of 17? Maybe there is a reason for the minimum age being set at 18? Although the crowds are cheering I do not absorb any of their positive energy, in fact I feel negative energy from the crowds. Reinforcing the foolishness of thinking that I could be a decent runner. Thinking back now, if only I knew then what I know now, on how one can really take on board the positive energy from the spectators, to truly enhance one's performance, the last 14kms to the finish would have been a cruise. However, it takes years to become wise, to learn how to run endurance events, so I 'gritted my teeth' and focused on different strategies to get me through this unpleasant experience, such as when only 10km from the finish visualising myself starting on my standard 6 mile training run that I had completed many times.

My how things had changed from the absolute joy of running just an hour earlier, which had felt so easy. Well, I somehow manage to get back into Rotorua and then the last 2 kms becomes great again as I realise that I will achieve my goal. I begin to relax, well as much as one can, being totally dehydrated, and no doubt hypoglycemic as well, as there were no carbohydrate gels back in those days, just simply water! I start to enjoy the atmosphere of the crowds cheering, lining the sides of the street. I really start to 'buzz'. All of a sudden the 'pain' of running dissipates. The pain is still there, my leg muscles are still absolutely 'shot', (as I don't have the 35000 miles in my legs like I do now), but I choose to ignore it, and focus on the positive, the achievement of the goal I set, a rather demanding goal, but a goal that meant that I could achieve at running. Although my actual running pace didn't drop that significantly over the last 14 kms (see race splits at the bottom), the effort required was substantially much, much more!

100metres before the finish line, entering Governement Gardens

I cross the line in 182nd place out of 1953 finishers, in a time of 2 hours 56 minutes and 51 seconds. I have never forgotten that time. I could now call myself a good runner!

Well, recalling that memory was quite amazing. As I got into writing the above, the memories just got stronger and stronger. I started this post thinking that it would just be a few comments and two photographs. Well I have found it quite amazing. It has made me consider, how have I changed over the last 30 years? Have I changed? Am I still wanting to call myself a good runner? I know in many aspects I have changed, I sure don't push myself during races like I used to back then. But how much of the inner self, the goals, the determination, the desires, the joy in running. How much of it is still the same?

One of the aims of setting up this blog was to get other ultra runners to think about their approach to running, little did I realise that it would get me thinking so deeply!

Time to finish this rather lengthy post. I will sign off with a thought to illustrate my current state of mind after reflecting back thirty years to my first ever marathon. "Enjoy the experience of running, try to 'live in the now' as you run, as what you engage in while you run will be a lasting memory to re-live, to re-enjoy, and to provide an opportunity to get to know your true inner self, if you allow it".

From a thoughtful and reflective Stuart, may you have many more wonderful experiences running.

PS Gary Wilby finished in 2:46:53 (81st), Steve Malanchak 2:56:32 (177th) and Bernie Jensen finished with bleeding nipples in 3:25:17 (635th)!


  1. What a great write up of your first marathon!

    I love reading sporting biographies and it often amazes me how early experiences and goals set the pattern for a lifetime.

    I look forward to all thse future posts when you write about UTMB, need for recovery, self expectation, running club mates, late developers etc!!

    So keep writing and we'll keep reading!

  2. thanks for this very informative piece.
    I also was one of the 1953 finishers back in 1980. it was my second Marathon, I was on holiday from Melbourne. It was a marvelous experience, amazing camaraderie among all the runners.
    This was 1 day before my 21st birthday so lots of fond memories.
    Keep up the beaut writing,
    Rob Davis

    1. Hi Rob, Thanks for leaving a comment. It always amazes me who reads my blog, and from where. Another younster running a marathon back in the eighties. Are you still running now? Have many marathons have you completed? I am approaching around 75, including ultras.

      All the best, Stuart