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MY FIRST MARATHON AS A MUM & A STENSON!

I was surrounded by darkness but felt alert. Surely it was almost time.

I reached over to press the unlock button on my phone (for the fifth time since setting my alarm at 7.15pm).


The screen lit up.

3.45am.


Only fifteen more minutes until my alarm would go off - not long in comparison to the years I had been waiting to race a Marathon.


I lay in bed, trying to let my body soak up these final precious minutes of rest but my antsy legs made it difficult to find a comfortable position. Despite an interrupted sleep, I didn’t feel worried. Two nights earlier I had scored my longest sleep since becoming a Mum and I was feeling well-rested. I welcomed the sound of my alarm at 4am and immediately messaged my coach and training partner Matt Clarke “Clarkey” to let them know that I was awake.


I climbed out of bed slowly, curious to see how my limbs were feeling after two days of very light jogging and a taper week. There was a lightness and sense of stored energy that told me they were ready.


As I ate my large bowl of rice bubbles with honey on toast and sipped on a Will&Co “Pour Over” coffee, I scrolled through my favourite playlists for the race day album. There it was. The soundtrack from “The Greatest Showman”. I pressed play and felt the positive energy welling in my veins. These were the tunes that fired me up on the bus to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Marathon in 2018. Ironically my brother had sent a video clip of one of the songs, “This Is Me” a week earlier, which Simon Goodwin had apparently shown the Melbourne players for inspiration during the AFL season.


After a quick shower, I pulled on my 2021 Smurf-blue Asics race kit for the first time. It was race day and I was pumped.


BREAKING THE MARATHON DRAUGHT


We arrived at the West Australian Marathon Club, near the Crown Casino at around 5.30am – one hour before the Marathon start time. The sun was rising but cloudy skies dulled its intensity. The forecast suggested temperatures between fifteen to twenty-two degrees celcius with a mild north-westerly breeze. Local runners had suggested the humidity was something to be wary of and stressed the importance of hydrating well.


I threw Clarkey a tub of anti-friction balm. The final Marathon-specific session twelve days earlier had left him with some nasty thigh chafing. Having competed in the 3000m steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics in July, Clarkey was very familiar with pre-race routines but had not yet participated in a race longer than 21.1 kilometres. His calm nature helped to ease my nerves. After a ten minute jog and shoe change, a quick Facetime chat with Dylan and Billy and a restless wait in the toilet queue we headed to the start line. I had only worn my Asics Metaspeed Sky race flats a handful of times in training for this Marathon so enjoyed the extra pep in my step during some short run-throughs at race pace.


With the striking Optus stadium to our right, the starting line at our feet and the Marathon course ahead, we crouched in anticipation of the starter’s gun. I didn’t have time to reflect on the long road that had landed me here but carried a sense of gratitude.


My goal going into the race was uncomplicated. It was process- rather than outcome-focused. “Run between 3:25 and 3:30 per kilometre.” Try to find your rhythm early and stay relaxed. I knew in my heart that I wanted to run a P.B at some point but felt that my best performance would come from running without internal-expectations.


The gun fired. I tried to capitalise on the eager energy that engulfed the field of 800-or-so runners, without getting too carried away. The first kilometre was a few seconds too fast but that was quickly balanced out by a short and sharp climb up to the first bridge. Three male runners cruised past and I tried not to panic. Matt’s blue singlet and bright red shoes danced on the bike path before me. His smooth stride made the Marathon pace seem less daunting.




AND WE’RE ROLLING….

I enjoyed some enthusiastic cheers from the sidelines and natural surroundings as we followed the Swan River east, towards the Maylands. I spotted one of my friends from school with her family and felt a buzz of adrenaline zap through my veins. Her young son yelled out a cheer and felt chuffed that they had woken up early on a Sunday morning to support me.


By the 3km mark I felt as though I had found my ‘fast but relaxed’ tempo. I tried to switch off, whilst also staying alert to any oncoming cyclists or pedestrians. At the five kilometre fuelling station I aimed to take on a decent amount of fluid (water with Maurten drink mix) to set myself up for the race. I was drinking from the Team Tempo Maurten water bottles that we use on key Sunday long runs and they still had my training partners’ names on them. Adam’s final words to me had been “Your team mates are running with you” and I genuinely felt their support.


At 10km the aim was to take my first gel. I tore it off my bottle and took a few sips of fluid before sucking down the gooey, carbohydrate-rich fuel. I then proceeded to pour the sugary contents from my bottle down the back of my head and neck. This was my first race using Maurten products and they were sitting well in my gut (and my hair) so far.


I had been visualising the section between ten and fifteen kilometres to prepare myself mentally for this technical part of the course. When we arrived at Claisebrook Cove, the tight turns and varied surfaces felt familiar and less complicated than I had expected. We navigated a small rise before weaving back down to the main river path. I had noticed a slight increase in the temperature and humidity so made a conscious effort to take on extra sips of fluid at the next fuelling station, before splashing the remains on my neck and shoulders.


WHEN PAINS START TO POP UP


At this point in the race I was still able to relax at pace however minor niggles were starting to creep in. A blister-like sharp pain could be felt at the back of my right heel, near my achilles tendon. I attempted to shake out my ankle during swing phase to adjust the position of my sock but was not having much success. For a moment I considered reaching down to quickly adjust it but knew that break in momentum and rhythm may be detrimental. Fortunately I didn’t think too much more about my new blister until after crossing the finish line a couple of hours later.


My attention shifted to The Causeway – a 1.1 kilometre traffic crossing over the Swan River, which would take us from East Perth to Victoria Park. I had been told by local runners that the old path on The Causeway was narrow and a bit uneven, so to concentrate on lifting my feet. At 14 kilometres into the race I didn’t think the surface was too bad but was aware it could be a different story on the way back with 37 kilometres in my legs. The muscle twangs, cramps, thoughts and brain fog that accompanied those later stages of a Marathon had not been forgotten despite my three year hiatus. In a strange way, I was curious to experience that unique fatigue again.


THE MUM FACTOR


Next up, was a five kilometre stretch along the South Perth Foreshore. Although we were greeted with a mild headwind, I was excited to hit this part of the course. I knew that my Mum and a family friend would be waiting near the 17km mark at The Boatshed, where we had met for coffee the day beforehand. Up until now, we had been able to stay within the 3.25-3.30min/km pace range. The wind resistance along this next stretch added a couple of seconds to each kilometre split but I knew it was important to stay calm. Hopefully the pace would feel easier after the turnaround at 25km. My Mum and Janet were easy to spot in their bright green t-shirts and hearing their familiar cheers provided a timely energy boost.


At the next fuelling station I planned to consume a caffeinated gel. I took satisfaction from successfully collecting and gulping down the contents of another sachet. Both of my calves and ankles were starting to ache with fatigue, which was a bit concerning given that I hadn’t yet reached halfway. I tried to push off using my glutes and drive more through my hips to reduce the load on my lower limbs. The unpredictable environment in which we have been living since Covid-19 arrived in early 2020, has made planning ahead very difficult. I have learnt to focus on the moment I am in at any given time and to avoid planning too far ahead. I have been better able to enter situations with an open-mind, knowing that circumstances can quickly change.


This is the mindset I took into the race. It helped me to stay composed when issues began to arise. Rather than fearing that a niggle might escalate and cause bigger issues down the road, I focused on running tall, relaxing my stride and breathing. I took confidence from the carbohydrates and fluid that I had been able to take on to this point. Clarkey’s smooth stride was like clockwork and I was so grateful.



SHOULD I CHECK THE HALFWAY SPLIT OR NOT?


After a slow and steady climb over the Narrows bridge, I finally got to enjoy the descent. Although downhill running is never as easy on fatigued legs, I still see it as an opportunity to gain some beneficial momentum. Race marshals directed on a loop around the lake and I noticed a group of policeman carrying our random breath testing on the road beside us. I knew that we must have been nearing half way and was relieved when the 21.1km timing clock popped into view. I suddenly questioned whether I wanted to see my split. Fatigue was starting to set in but I was feeling composed. Would seeing my Half Marathon time benefit me in any way? If it was slower than expected I may panic. If it was faster than expected I might worry that I had gone out too hard…. No. I chose to look down at the path as the large timing clock flashed by on my left.


As we pressed on towards the west with the river to our left and Kings Park to our right, I tried to focus on efficiency but could feel myself straining. I wearily collected my next water bottle and took a few big sips. I contemplated finishing and tossing it away but convinced myself to take a few more mouthfuls. I called on my previous Marathon experiences for reassurance. At the 25km point in the 2015 Melbourne Marathon I had felt a lull in energy, which caused me to panic. I was still able to finish that race. At the 25 kilometre fuelling station Adam handed me a bottle a shouted “You’ve got Maxy with you for this one”. The letters M A X flashed before my eyes as I took a few swigs and tore off another gel to top up my energy levels.






PHYSICAL VERSUS MENTAL FATIGUE


During my pregnancy, I started listening to Podcasts whilst training. It helped me to overcome the mental discomfort of cross-training that I attribute to less social interaction, changes of scenery and external stimuli. When returning to jogging about six weeks after giving birth, I continued to listen to podcasts and haven’t looked back since. One of my concerns with adding a source of entertainment to my solo training sessions is that I was not having to push through as much boredom – would that affect my mental resilience on race day?


As I navigated the hairpin bend and followed Clarkey’s heels back towards the start / finish line, I recognised that my discomfort at this point in the race was purely physical. Mentally, I felt fresh, composed and motivated. To my great relief the effort of maintaining 3:25-3:30 pace started to feel easier without the wind to contend with.


Running back over The Narrows bridge was a slow grind and it was a relief to tick that box. At the 30 kilometre mark I noticed a second wind of energy kick in. Perhaps it was the last gel or the realisation that I only had twelve kilometres remaining. Excitement started to trickle in as we hit the South Perth Foreshore’s footpath. Clarkey shouted some words of encouragement and I could feel his passion as he veered off to the left. “You’ve got this”. I felt ready for the challenge ahead. Fellow participants running in the opposite direction and spectators cheered enthusiastically. When I ran past Mum at the 37km mark she yelled out “Go Bellies (my nickname) – think of The Greatest Showman”. I laughed internally as “This is Me” had been stuck in my head for the entire race.


HELLO OLD FRIEND


For the first time that day, I was starting to feel the mental burden of maintaining race pace for longer than I had in training. I tried to welcome it like an old friend who hadn’t hit me up a while. I didn’t know whether I was on track for a P.B but I hoped I was close. A sharp cramping pain grasped the middle of my left quad. It was uncomfortable but didn’t limit my stride.


I once heard Sara Hall liken her racing approach to huskie dogs when they ran. She described the pure joy on their faces – wide eyes, tongues out and ears back, the effortlessness flow and the sense of freedom they exuded when dashing through the snow at top speed. I took a moment to visualise he husky dogs. There was a sudden sense that this is right where I was meant to be that I found very comforting. The challenges of finding a race, the injury experiences and the brief periods of doubt about this race had been worth it for this moment. I was so determined to make it count.


I started to lose awareness of what was happening around me and barely noticed a teenager cruise past on a long board as I turned off The Causeway. Only four kilometres to go. That’s less than my normal warm up distance. I thought about my family and wondered whether they had managed to find a way to track my race at home in Adelaide. I didn't know whether another fuelling station was coming up but I didn't feel as though I had the energy to drink anyway. As I ascended a short hill at the 40km mark, I willed my legs to keep moving as fast as possible. I crossed a foot bridge that I had walked across a couple of days earlier and took a wide right turn onto the path back down to the river. My agility, coordination and ability to think coherently were declining. I had one more hill to climb. As I turned left towards the Windan bridge, I soaked up the passionate cheers of Adam and another running friend, who stood midway along the rise. The enthusiasm in Adam’s voice indicated that I must have been on track to running a PB. I concentrated on maintaining my rhythm and keeping my legs under my body. It sounded easier than it felt. Running downhill whilst turning a corner to get off the bridge was harder than getting up it.




JUST HOLD ON


The last 800m seemed to go forever. I couldn't quite see the finish line in the distance. I was hanging out to see a sign or a crowd of people to show me that I was close. Suddenly my ears picked up on the voice of a commentator. Cheers started to fill the silence around me. This is the moment I had been working and waiting for. I rounded a bend and felt a surge of energy as a thick band of tape came into view. I saw 2:25-something on the clock. PB!


My body was empty but my heart was full. I hugged my coach and Matt, who were waiting behind the finishing line with warm smiles. Adam pointed me towards Mum. I embraced her and tried to talk between laboured breaths. This one was for my family and my loyal + patient support team. It felt good.


Thanks again for your support. It means more than you probably realise! Xo


“Running a Marathon is a life-changing experience. It enhances self-awareness and has the power to open doors. Embrace the moment and the challenge, knowing that when you cross the line, you will still be the same person inside – with a little more strength, fitness and perspective". A note that I wrote down before the race.




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