Guest Blogger Angus Breaks Three in Sydney

I met Angus ten years ago, when we worked together in the London office of our company. Rain or shine (mostly rain, this being the U.K.), my teammate would show up at the office before dawn in cycling gear after biking in the dark through the streets of London. After a stint in Malaysia, Angus now works in Sydney, where he ran his first marathon in less than three hours on Sept. 16. You can tell from his report that he’s a writer by trade:

“My second marathon in Kuala Lumpur in 2009 had ended badly. Fearful of dehydrating in the humidity, I drank too much electrolyte and vomited at 30km. After passing halfway in 1h30m, I walked over the line at 3h43m. Moving to Sydney that year, I knew I had to get back on the horse. It took three years.

I had always wondered how fast I could go if I devoted myself to running, so six months ago I threw myself into training. Approaching 38, I knew I might be too old to get faster, but I joined a club anyway. All in, I thought. I ran hill repeats and went to weekly track sessions, my first in 20 years. I bombarded the coach with questions, trying to find my target. I ran 3hr24m in Hong Kong in 1999. Surely I was fitter and stronger now. Should I dare to dream of three hours? Did I even have the right to talk about it?! Strange what running does to you.

And so the obsession started. I read and re-read Cécile’s three-hour race report. Ninety percent mental, 10 percent training, she wrote. Not much comfort. All the same, I started to finish weekend runs at three-hour pace, wondering if it was even possible to hold it for 42km (26.2 miles). I trawled internet forums, then I bought a GPS watch and locked the racer at three-hour pace.

Secretly I doubted myself. I feared a spectacular second-half collapse, Malaysia-style. In the weeks approaching the race, I told friends I was aiming for “close to” three hours, even 3hr15m, scared of setting a target I’d miss. But privately, I knew I would have to try. The coach warned me the three-hour pacers might start too fast, beyond my sustainable threshold. My plan: hit halfway at 1h31m and accelerate, hoping weeks of speed work would, well, work.

And so on Sunday Sept. 16 I stood under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the girders filtering the early morning rays. The starter said it was 13 degrees (55 degrees Fahrenheit). Perfect, if true. It felt warmer.

Angus, looking strong, passes by a famous Sydney landmark.

I put the brakes on for 10km, letting others pass me, and tried to stick to 4m19s for each km (6m56s per mile). I guessed I needed to leave something, but not too much, in the bag to give me a chance on the home stretch. I gave up a few seconds on the inclines and took them back going downhill. I was concentrating hard, running my own race.

My fiancée threw me a bottle of water and a gel at 16km, as agreed, but it stopped feeling easy shortly afterwards. The work began at about 18km, earlier than I had hoped. I passed 21km at 1hr30m30s. So far, so manageable. Losing focus several times, I dreamed of the line. I ridiculed myself for even going there!

Sydney’s marathon has many loops and bends, designed to add distance without taking runners too far from the city. On one hairpin, I saw the pacers creeping away, running in the opposite direction, more than a minute ahead. I strapped myself in for some hard kilometers, clocking 4m13s pace until the 30km mark. I felt a surge of energy, before the last 9-kilometer loop that retraces itself back to the Opera House and the finish.

Now, writing this account has already been therapeutic, because I feel like I’m among friends and fellow lunatics. You guys know the score. I’m only a beginner, but I know marathon running is painful. That’s our dance. Let me purge myself some more.

My body was screaming to slow down, and my mind fought to overrule it. I repeated catchphrases, threatening myself with shame if I relented. My brother had told me not to hold back. Feeling nauseous, I discarded my gel and skipped water stops.

At 35km, the two pacers were closer and I could see they had dropped most of their group. I started to crunch numbers, breaking the race into digestible chunks. With 3km to go, I was on target. I eased up, losing concentration for a few minutes. As I looked at my watch, I forgot the final 0.2km, a tiny distance that could still add almost a minute to my final time. After 40km, I entered a trance, frothing at the mouth and losing all the form gained from months of training. As I approached 42km, I knew it would be close. Driven only by obsession, I overheard a voice at the roadside telling his friend as I passed, legs and arms flailing: “He’s going to fall over.” He was right. It felt like I was running through liquid, my legs working unevenly and independently.

Crossing the line, my legs buckled and I caught the side-barrier for support. A stranger asked if I was alright and a wheelchair appeared. I don’t remember getting to the medical tent, but it took an hour of icepacks to bring down my temperature from a little over 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit), and a liter of saline in my right arm before I felt well enough to walk.

They were brilliant, the volunteer doctors and nurses. Next to me, another runner was having seizures. Someone else in the tent had run the race in thermals and had literally cooked himself. My fiancée was there. It was worth it. I had broken three hours by 28 seconds.

“It felt like I was running through liquid.” Pain is the price to pay for a marathon under 3 hours.

As I lay on the bed, I reflected on how much the mind could push the body beyond healthy limits. I wondered where that might end, ultimately, and I felt a little guilty. But I also felt a wave of elation, just as Cecile described in her blog. Selfishly, I indulged! I felt lucky, happy and carefree! And then I swore I’d never do another. Already I’m regretting saying it.”

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