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BEHIND THE SCENES: BIRMINGHAM COMMONWEALTH GAMES MARATHON

“I don’t like you getting sweaty Mum. Don’t run fast.” This was the inspirational pep talk from my toddler Billy before my first Commonwealth Games Marathon as a Mum. My husband and I chuckled as I gave them both a hug goodbye and flung my backpack over my shoulder.


THE ATHLETES' VILLAGE


It was 6.30pm on Wednesday evening when I stepped off the bus from the Welcome Centre, onto the lawns of the historic University of Birmingham. I was relieved and excited to be there. The past two days had involved a lot of travel by train, plane and a hire car to get from St. Moritz in Switzerland to Birmingham via Loughborough, where I spent one night with English friends Nick and Sonia Samuels. Upon arrival at the Commonwealth Games Welcome Centre, athletes were required to have a PCR test and then wait at least ninety minutes for the results to come in before receiving their accreditation. Whilst it was a long process, I think everyone appreciated the lengths that organisers were taking to ensure the Games could go ahead and to keep participants safe.


My room was nestled in a section of the University that was designated to team Australia. The area was decked out with green and gold banners and umbrellas, a recovery facility with inflatable ice baths, a medal tally wall and a nutrition room that contained a few coffee machines, cereal, snacks, bread and other food items that were exclusive to our team. Our bedrooms were decorated with cute personalised drawings and notes wishing us luck from Australian Primary School students. A soft toy mascot and bag of other goodies were also sitting on my brightly coloured Commonwealth Games doona cover. There were two green cases full of Australian competition and Ceremony uniforms. I excitedly unzipped the bags to try and find my outfit for the Flag-Bearer announcement and an Australian Team Ceremony that was due to start any minute. I admired the fresh pair of leather R.M Williams boots in their fancy box and enthusiastically pulled them on my feet before heading out to meet Marathon team mates Sinead Diver, Eloise (Elzy) Wellings and Andy Buchanan. The other member of our team, Liam Adams was due to arrive the following day.

RICE, RICE BABY…. PRE-RACE FUELLING


We ventured down the hill to the main Dining Hall for our first dinner in the Village - our quads did not appreciate this walk post-race! The Dining Hall featured a selection of dishes to suit the variety of cultures being represented at the Games, including pasta, curries, steamed vegetables, roast meat, baked fish and salads. We later discovered a burger truck and fresh wood-fired pizzas in a different section of the Village – options which became very popular after our race. During the two days leading up to the Marathon, we loaded up on carbohydrates and laughed about the boring and repetitive plates of rice that we were serving up at lunch and dinner times - our biggest decision was whether to have Basmati or Jasmine rice with our soy sauce. We also ate the Team AUS nutrition room out of Rice Bubbles and I put a good dent in the honey supply. Before any Marathon I follow an individualised and very precise nutrition plan that my sports Dietitian at the SA Institute of Sport (SASI), Olivia Warnes designs. We have been working together since 2013 and have gradually refined my strategy, which involves foods that are high in “carbs” and low in fibre, a little bit of protein and regular fluids. Liv also writes me an individualised race fuelling and hydration plan that is based on my body composition, sweat rate and history. In the lead up to every Marathon I practice consuming gels and drink mix during a couple of long runs and sessions at race pace.


On Thursday morning, two days prior to the race, Elzy, Sinead, Andy and I jogged to the athletics track on campus to complete our light training for the day. Despite being the first members of the athletics team to have moved into the Village, the track was buzzing! The volunteers were very friendly and always eager to help. We could already sense that this was going to be a special championship. At midday we met my coach Adam to drive over as much of the course as possible. We started on the main loop (roughly eighteen kilometres), which we would be running twice before entering the city centre for the final six kilometres. We noted the long gradual inclines and punchier downhills on the main loop and all commented on how lush the surrounding parks were. We had been expecting a reasonably warm and humid day for the race so were happy to see some decent sections of shade along the course. We were not able to gain car access to the final part of the course but knew from the elevation chart that it would feature some hills. The main thing is that we were ready for some extra ‘punches’ in the back end of the race. Our team had spent the previous three weeks training at high altitude (1800m above sea level) in St. Moritz, Switzerland to help us prepare for this championship and the challenging course.

RACE EVE – PHYSICALLY RESTING AND MENTALLY FIRING UP


On Friday morning the Marathon team arranged to meet Adam and Collis for a light ~6 kilometre jog along a canal close to where we were staying. Adam, my coach of fourteen years and I were continuing our long tradition of completing the last run before my Marathon together. Of the fourteen Marathons that I have raced, there has only been one in Toronto that Adam wasn’t able to be there for. The pace and the moods were relaxed during our run – we were all ready.


In the afternoon we gathered around an outdoor table to fill up our drink bottles, cover up any branding, attach energy gels and stick on labels to each bottle to ensure that we received the right fuel at each station. Jess Rothwell (Athletics Australia Sports Dietitian) and Collis provided updates about procedures for race day and passed on Exercise Physiologist Avish’s recommendations on how to best prepare for the predicted conditions. They organised two people to man every 5 kilometre drink station and gave them a crash course on how to best hold the bottles so that we could grab them as we ran past. Given the potential warmth and humidity and the later start time for the women’s race, Sinead, Elzy and I decided that we would wear ice vests prior to stepping onto the starting line to cool our bodies. Although it was overcast, the strong glare and potential of sunshine later in the day prompted us to wear sunglasses.


BE PATIENT, BE BRAVE, RUN STRONG


Adam and I had a quick meeting to consolidate my race plan. Earlier that day he had sent me a document containing words of wisdom from some of Australia’s Marathon greats – Lisa Ondieki, Steve Moneghetti and Rob De Castella to name a few. These messages had been written for the Marathon team ahead of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and it was special to read what representing Australia had meant to each of these phenomenal athletes. My plan for the race on Saturday morning was to be patient & run smart in the first 30 kilometres – particularly given the undulating nature of the big loop that we would run twice, be brave over the next six kilometre section along Pershmore road and run strong in the final six kilometres which wound up through the CBD. Adam encouraged me to refrain from taking any major risks until the long, flat stretch of road, which started at around the 32 kilometre mark but also not to leave myself with too much work to do in the late stages. He emphasised the importance of holding my effort through the final hilly and technical section of the course. I was happy with this plan. On the morning of my race I wrote three words on my left hand – "Smart, Brave, Strong".

After the meeting, I caught up with Sinead, Elzy and Andy to paint our nails green - we couldn't convince Andy to take part. The topic of ‘first employment’ came up and everyone ended up in hysterics when Elzy announced that she had been a waitress at a diner called the Hairy Canary. Sinead worked at Burger King and I was a life guard at the Naracoorte Swimming Lake. It was a nice distraction from the nerves and a solid little pre-work out for the abs from laughing so hard.


Before going to bed that night I spent some time reading messages from family and friends, watching a very cute ‘good luck’ video from the Junior members of my Team Tempo training squad and reading a story that Naracoorte Primary Students had written for me about a mouse called Preston who plucked up the courage to run a Marathon through the streets of Birmingham and won. All of these messages became motivational fuel for the race.


RACE DAY


By 8.30pm I felt ready for bed and I set my alarm for 6.45am to ensure that I could eat breakfast at least three hours before my race. I woke with a start at 10.30pm and then again every two hours afterwards - immediately checking my phone to see whether it was time to get up. I was paranoid about sleeping through my alarm. Fortunately I had been getting consistent, quality rest in the weeks leading up to this point so was not too worried about whether or not I slept well the night before the race. At 6.45am I showered and put on my race kit as well as a charm necklace that my parents gave to me before my debut Commonwealth Games Marathon in Glasgow. It was hard to believe that race day had arrived. I ate my breakfast of rice bubbles, toast and honey, had a coffee and headed out to meet the rest of my team and team staff. Elzy came bounding over towards the group in her extra-large green tights that looked more like 3/4 parachute pants and we all had a good laugh before walking down to the race bus. I had a quick video chat with my husband Dylan and Billy who were starting their one hour journey from Loughborough to Birmingham.


Dylan had asked me earlier in the week, where I would need his and Billy’s support most throughout the race. He came up with a plan to base himself at a park near the 4km mark, which would allow him to see me at 4km, 5km, 20km, 21km and 34km into the race. He warned me that to see us run past at 34km (a typically challenging point in the Marathon), he may sacrifice seeing me cross the finish line but acknowledged that the priority was to provide support during crucial stages of the race.


After a short journey in the bus with all of the female Marathon runners and their support staff, we arrived at the Marathon starting zone and entered the preparation room. The male athletes were getting ready to move into the final call room and the wheelchair Marathon was on a big screen for us all to follow. The relentless nature of the hills in the back end of the course became more apparent as we watched the athletes in action on television. Adam came up to me and reinforced the importance of sticking to the race plan that we had discussed the day beforehand. Eloise, Sinead and I wished our two male Marathoners, Liam and Andy all the best as they departed and we enjoyed watching the early stages of their race on television. About twenty minutes before the women would be herded into the final call room, we headed out for a warm up together and confirmed that sunglasses would be appropriate - although it was overcast, the glare was intense. The theme song from the “The Greatest Showman” was stuck in my head and stayed with me for most of the race.


I had my pre-race energy gel and untied the laces of my racing flats to fasten the transponder (timing chip) to the top of my shoe. I laughed to myself when thinking about the journey involved to receive the bright ASICS Metaspeed Sky shoes in front of me. Following a training session in St. Moritz a couple of weeks earlier I had given my race shoes to Dylan to look after while I cooled down in my trainers. When I went to wear them again eight days before the race, we realised that they had gone missing – it turned out that Dylan had put them down at an outdoor café to chase after Billy and we completely forgot about them. Fortunately, we were able to order another pair that we received a few days before the race and I guess someone in Switzerland scored themselves a pair of ASICS racing flats.

Elzy, Sinead and I donned our ice vests and headed into the final call room. Most of us scurried off for one final bathroom stop before walking out to the starting area. We completed a couple of strides and I spotted a previous team mate, Jack Colreavy, who was now living in London. We handed our vests over to the team staff before toeing the line. Adam tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hey, think of Billy’s smile out there” – these final words from the coach hit the mark. A few athletes were introduced over the loud speak and within seconds we were called to our marks. Bang. It was happening. My team mate Sinead led the pack of women down the straight, towards the start of the eighteen kilometre loop. The pace, as expected, was fairly relaxed in this early stage and I decided not to check my kilometre split at the first watch beep. I reminded myself to be smart and patient. I tried to nestle in to the pack as early as I could and made an effort to avoid cambered sections of the road in order to conserve as much energy as possible and to protect my legs. As we entered Cannon Hill park at around the three kilometre mark, I was hit with a burst of excitement. Dylan, Billy, my mother-in-law Deb, my friend from Adelaide Wubi and the Samuels family (who were hosting Dylan and Billy) were at the side of the road cheering in their green and gold outfits. An inflatable kangaroo hat on Nick Samuels’ head ensured that I wouldn’t miss them.

RUN SMART & BE PATIENT


The first (5 kilometre) fuelling station came around quite quickly. Elzy, Sinead and I arranged ourselves in a line to ensure that it didn’t get too messy when collecting our bottles from the two representatives at the Australian table. Elzy’s husband Jonny held my bottle in one hand and Eloise’s in another and the look of concentration on his face as we plucked them from his grip was priceless. I took my first sip of drink mix and found the cool, sweet fluid very refreshing. I had a few more mouthfuls than planned as I was feeling quite warm and thirsty already. I tossed my bottle and felt satisfied that I had managed the first station without any dramas - seven more to go.


There was a bit of a head breeze in the early kilometres but nothing too major. I was interested to see what these hills would feel like underfoot, after having driven up them two days earlier. As we approached the first rise at around seven kilometres there was a dramatic drop in pace by the African athletes at the front of the pack. The entire group of women stalled and almost kicked each other in the backs of the ankles. Adam had instructed me to think about staying tall on the uphills. I felt as though I could move up the early inclines with a relaxed posture and without expending too much energy. This early feedback gave me confidence in my preparation and in particular, our altitude training camp in Switzerland. I observed the postures and breathing patterns of our competitors on the hills to get an idea of their strengths, knowing that we would be confronted by more in the late stages of the race.


As we neared the ten kilometre drink station, Elzy, Sinead and I indicated to each other through hand signals that it was approaching on the right side of the road. A couple of athletes made a dramatic surge towards the tables and Elzy said under her breath to me and Sinead “don’t panic girls”. A strong sense of team-mateship amongst our Australian group was evident from the get-go for this Championship and felt like an asset during the race. I increased my pace slightly to ensure that we had enough distance between us at the drink station and felt my only backup energy gel slip out from the bottom of my crop top. It skidded along the road beside my feet as I grabbed my bottle and ripped off the gel that was taped to its side. I gulped down its sweet filling and took a few big sips of water. I wasn’t too bothered about the lost gel as I didn’t expect that I would need to use it. All in all, it was another successful fuel-up.

The rolling inclines continued but we were moving at a conservative pace. My mind kept darting back to the words "be smart" but I also took time to appreciate how special it was to be running for Australia again - my first race in the green and gold since the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The atmosphere around us was building and the noise when we passed through a section of cheerful Welsh supporters waving big flags was unreal. After a couple of years with minimal or no spectators during races, the crowd's energy felt electric. Although it was important concentrate on my form and positioning, I periodically allowed myself to look at the supporters and to soak up my surroundings. This switch of focus helped me to enjoy the moment and it was hard not to smile when I saw familiar faces. Sinead and Elzy’s families cheered loudly as our pack ran past and I thought about my parents, brother and friends at home in Adelaide watching the race from the Havelock Hotel.


The 15 kilometre fuelling station came and went without any dramas and I was happy with how easily the drinks were going down. At the 18km turn around point I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I would get to see Dylan and Billy again. Fatigue was starting to build in my legs and I hoped they would stay strong for me during the second lap. Soon after passing my support group in the park, the 20 kilometre station came into view. I made my way towards the Australian table and grabbed the bottle that I thought was being held out for me. When I saw that it wasn't mine I panicked. It turns out that I had Elzy’s and as I handed it to her, we realised that my bottle was back at the drink station. “That was my caffeinated gel bottle” I said with a hint of alarm in my voice. Eloise immediately said that she had one which she didn’t plan to use and that I could have it. As Elzy placed the little pouch of energy in my hand I felt like hugging her. The sportsmanship and friendship that she displayed in that moment filled me with gratitude.

THE HALFWAY MARK


At the 21.1 kilometre mark I vaguely remember seeing the clock but didn’t digest the time on display. I decided early in the race that I wouldn’t look at splits – I was there to race my competition rather than the clock. Although I was approaching this Marathon quite differently from a tactical perspective to the run in Perth nine months earlier, I did periodically reflect on my Perth experience during the race. I compared how I was feeling at certain points and recalled the fluctuations in fatigue that I had experienced during that run on home soil, which ended in a personal best time.


Upon gaining selection for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, people remarked that I must be chasing a different coloured medal to go with my bronzes from the Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Games. Whilst I had written down the goal of winning gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in my training diary every year since 2018, it wasn’t something that I liked to spend time thinking about. I knew that to get the most out of myself in this race, I would need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. I had a few sessions with SASI’s Sports Psychologist to consolidate my priorities and came up with strategies to stay composed and strong throughout the race.


For the next ten kilometres I concentrated on maintaining a steady effort up the hills with a strong core and a relaxed upper body. At times I visualised a big bunch of helium balloons tied to my waist that were lifting me tall and helping to pull me up the hill. I wasn’t looking around to see who was still in our pack but knew that the Australian team, Kenyan, Namibian were among it. Helalia Johannes from Namibia was the 2018 Commonwealth Marathon champion and I was aware of her personal best time of 2h 19. Whilst the Kenyan athlete was spending more time near the front of the pack, I was waiting for Johannes to pounce at some point. Elzy, Sinead and I found ourselves rotating the lead position to maintain a consistent pace and to shelter one another from the wind. I thought about my first running coach Roger and my husband’s first coach Judy who taught us so much about the sport of running and being an athlete. They would have loved an event like this one and whilst they are no longer with us in person, they will always be with us in spirit.


BE BRAVE


At the thirty kilometre station I successfully collected my third gel for the race. I eagerly chomped it down, tearing the sachet in half with my teeth in the process and almost eating the packaging! I was starting to fire up, knowing that we were approaching the four kilometre straight section of the course – my cue to shift from ‘patient’ to ‘brave’. I reminded myself that this was my fourteenth marathon and that I had completed a consistent and strong block of training. My body had done this many times before and I had every reason to dig deep. I thought about my sister Abbie who had given birth a couple of weeks earlier and how she would have endured so much pain for the greatest reward. She told me that she would be watching the race from home with my new baby nephew in her arms – I was looking forward to meeting him upon return to Australia!

“Be brave”. I repeated these words to myself as we rolled down a hill. I tried to let go and to let my legs flow but also tried to minimise the impact on my lower limbs where possible – aware that the heavy pounding could come back to bite me later in race. My energy levels were good and my body felt strong. I decided in advance that I would take another gel at the thirty-five kilometre station to ensure I was energised for the closing kilometres. Fortunately my gut was handling the fuelling well. I could no longer hear as many footsteps behind me but could see two red uniforms out of the corner of my eye. We had picked up the pace but I still felt in control. As I approached the thirty-five kilometre station I thought, it’s go time. I swallowed my gel, took a few swigs of water and splashed the rest on my head. In the distance I saw a rainbow pattern in the road, which signified the section of the course that we had not been able to access by car two days earlier. Every rise, twist and turn from here was going to be somewhat a surprise.


BE STRONG


The Kenyan athlete and I worked up the first rise side by side. I was concentrating on one hill at a time. My goal at this point was to maintain my effort and to avoid thinking ahead. I feared that focusing on the end result could be detrimental to my performance. Only one month earlier I had experienced panic mid-race when realising that my body was not on the same level as my ambition to run a personal best that day. We turned a corner and were confronted with a long, steady rise that I tried to use to my advantage. I recalled a 35 kilometre run that I had completed in St. Moritz a couple of weeks earlier with team mates Liam and Andy that involved a long climb to a stunning glacier. I visualised them in front of me with the glacier ahead.

The Kenyan athlete accelerated and I responded, ensuring that I stuck very tightly to her shoulder. By the top of the rise I was slightly ahead and I tried to capitalise on the momentum by pushing a bit harder towards the next incline. The cheers were loud and every now and then I would find myself locking eyes with a spectator behind the screen of my 'Goodr' sunglasses. Whatever my result, I had planned to take my sunnies off in the final part of the race so that I could interact with the crowd and soak up the atmosphere.


I spotted our team coach Collis standing at the 40 kilometre fuelling station in the distance. I tried to smile as I grasped my bottle and took a few quick sips. I didn’t have the energy to hold onto the bottle for long before tossing it to the side. By this stage I wasn’t sure whether I was on my own or whether there were athletes on my shoulder because the noise was so loud. I pressed on towards a hairpin turn, knowing that I would be able to sight where I was in relation to other athletes after the turnaround point.


A gap had formed between myself and the Kenyan athlete with Johannes sitting in third. I had to keep pushing to ensure that they wouldn’t catch me in a kick down. My watch beeped and although I had not checked it at all throughout the race, I was sure that beep must have indicated the 41 kilometre point. I dug a little deeper, hoping that I would see the finishing straight around the next bend. The crowd’s cheers were getting me excited. I rounded the next bend with hope in my eyes and couldn't believe it when I saw a sign with the numbers 4 - 1. Another 1200 metres to go. The realisation that I still had four plus minutes left to run was a bit of a kick in the guts as I dragged my tired legs up the next incline. “You can do it” I said to myself and allowed my mind to flirt with the idea of winning a gold medal. I used this thought to fuel my motivation and to drive my body forward. On the next bend I noticed the cheers were getting louder. I was entering a growing swell of roars and could feel the energy. In the far distance I could see a clock and I immediately felt my face start to screw up with emotion. I bit my bottom lip and held the tears, opting instead to try and smile. I did my best to show the spectators how thankful I was for their energy and support.


I crossed the line in a state of pure elation and didn’t know where to go or what to do. My coach Adam was in the crowd. I hugged him and felt a sense of complete fulfilment. This result had been over a decade in the making and he had been there to support me as an athlete and as a human from the moment we met in 2008. We didn’t need words to express our happiness. Soon afterwards I heard people calling my name from the opposite side of the finishing chute and realised that Dylan and Billy had arrived. I hobbled as quickly as I could to hug them and felt so much gratitude for Dylan’s wholehearted love and support. As I lifted Billy over the fence and went to throw my arms around him, he pushed my chest and said “you’re sweaty Mum”. I will be reminding him of that moment in years to come.


The crowd's roar became louder and I turned to see team mate Elzy running down the home straight. I couldn’t wait to hug her and Sinead. It was a team effort out there and I wanted my friends to know how much I valued their support. The sweaty embrace that the three of us shared at the finish line celebrated the not only what we had just experienced on the streets of Birmingham that morning but also our three week training camp in Switzerland and everything before it. I will never forget watching Elzy cuddle her toddler Indi after a training session prior to the 2014 Commonwealth Games and thinking – how good would it be to do this as a Mum! She and Sinead are two of my role-models. They have shown me and many others what is possible.

When I stepped on to the podium about an hour later, I could see the Aussie crew in the distance and felt all of the emotions sweep over me. As a Primary school student I had watched our Aussie athletes on the podium and dreamed of being able to sing the national anthem with a medal around my neck one day. In the moment, my emotion and brain fog made it difficult to find the words to sing out loud but it didn’t matter. Whatever was happening, I felt so happy. With love ones in my sight and the Australian flag to my right it was a dream come true.


Thank you to everyone who made it possible!


Jess xo







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