2016 Blackmores Sydney Running Festival Marathon – Damien Whittaker
Race Date: September 18th Results: 2016
My first marathon – seems a little unreal still as I’m writing – was full of highs, great times running with friends, and a sting in the tail as I’m sure many who have gone before me will have experienced in one way or another whilst grappling with The Distance. More on the sting later. This report is a little lengthy but I figure I’ll never run another first marathon so .... indulgence it is!
By way of preamble, my running life was rekindled (having been dormant since my teens) in 2012 when I decided that, having been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, I’d need to start exercising more regularly than just my occasional long bike rides. A couple of short runs a week and dabbling in the Hill to Harbour and Fernleigh 15 were pretty much it until 2014 when we moved in next door to the Griffiths family. Josh being a keen runner over much longer distances than I had contemplated attempting gave me the encouragement to have a go. So I came along to my first Flyers Sunday long run in March 2015 and I was hooked immediately! Through the year ambition grew and I entered the Blackmore’s Marathon, however the inevitable (in hindsight) injuries resulting from an increase in weekly distance from at most 25k up to 60 odd km at higher pace over a few months put paid to that, and so my entry was deferred to this year.
On to 2016 and being more sensible, following a plan and having so many caring fellow Flyers giving me guidance through the year brought me to the race. The strategy developed over winter: to have a group, all of us first time marathoners, line up and run together (as far as possible) to set ourselves up for a 3 hour or better finish. We trained together on and off through the year and shared our progress, helped along by the invaluable guidance of more experienced Flyers, some of whom were training for their own goal races. We worked through the cold and dark of winter pre-dawn extra long runs, interval and hill sessions by head-torch. I followed the generic 16 week plan that Vlad Shatrov formulated for the Blackmores Marathon event and found it pretty easy to stick with. I believe I only missed a couple of 30min runs over the program (apart from falling drastically short of the recommended “Functional Strength Work” time – room for improvement there). I found having a schedule and prescribed sessions worked well for me, I’ll definitely follow a full plan for any future marathons.
My preparation involved some mildly onerous sacrifices – minimal caffeine and no alcohol in the lead up, along with an attempt at carb loading for 3 days. Being a consumer of around 160-180g of carb per day made the required minimum of 490g per day (based on AIS information) a difficult ask, and with glucose levels going all over the place and the sickening feeling of force feeding high GI carbs I hope to have at least cured myself of sugar cravings for ever. Whether my performance benefitted I believe is doubtful. The AIS website reports an estimated 2-3% improvement benefit for efforts of over 90minutes duration with an adequate carb loading strategy. For myself, I suspect the weight gain and consistently higher glucose levels turned out to be a hindrance rather than help.
Training partner Steve Gallagher unfortunately was injured in the lead up weeks, so it was that Arnold Bartlett, Mick Loehr, Rueben Swain (honorary Flyer from the South) and I would take on the challenge together.
So to race day, and our quartet met up at the start area along with James Staciwa going for another marathon for this year. I had pre-hydrated, downed 200mg of caffeine (2 No Doz) and an Up’n’Go in readiness, no different to a usual long run – apart from the No Doz. Basal insulin was reduced to 70% of normal. Anticipation was high for we Newbies to the event as we marshalled for the start alongside the 3 hour pacers. It was at this point that a small but significant technical issue was noticed: my CGM (continuous glucose monitor) had for some reason lost its wireless connection to my insulin pump in the half hour or so leading up to the start. With only a couple of minutes to the gun I was not in a position to reconnect and recalibrate it in time so elected to just eat to plan rather than to glucose level.
The gun went and we were off and racing! Some weaving through rather slow and poorly self seeded runners for the first km was required, then on to the Bridge and we could roll into our pace. We were chatting and joking along over the bridge when a gust of wind blew off my Flyers hat and so the backwards (or ‘Lleyton’) look was again in order for the rest of the race. Rueben scored a dropped unopened gel on the bridge, somewhat alleviating his concern at having left all his nutrition at home that morning! I think we were all a little more concerned when it was revealed that his longest training run had been 25km ....... do you know how far this race is Rueben?
The Sydney marathon course really is beautiful. We cruised over the harbour, down to Hyde Park and then hit Oxford Street where we overtook the lead out 3 hour pacer and comfortably picked up a little time heading to Centennial Park. The park is sensational with tree cover, verdant fields and ponds throughout, and the opportunity to cheer on our fellow competitors from the Elites right through to the tail of the field as we doubled back on the loops of roadway throughout. There was great support all along the course from the fantastic volunteers and many spectators out to cheer everyone on, and the many fellow runners going past. Special mention to the inspiring Brain Train working through their marathon with Ben, and shout outs from Robbo with his phone out and Scott Bacon cruising past to his own big marathon PB. The supplies of water, electrolyte and gels at the aid stations were first rate. At one point Arnold kindly sped up ahead of us far enough to stop and spend a good half a minute carefully selecting the most desirable gels from the table to hand out to us as we ran past, what a gentleman.
We exited the park together hitting halfway in 1:29 and were feeling comfortable on our way back to the city, ticking through the km’s on pace and confident we would bring it home strongly. Plenty of cheering and high 5s as we came back past Circular Quay gave us a boost as we headed for the last out and back to Pyrmont, still well over a minute ahead of goal time. The Sydney course is far from flat, with over 500m of vertical elevation but largely consisting of gentle variations rather than sharp inclines. The small hills I found helpful in varying the pace, rhythm and cadence, allowing for a little recovery and picking up time on the downhills. That was until hitting the small hills of Pyrmont.
It was here at 32km or so that I first noticed something wasn’t quite right – I was feeling the twitches of cramp in my right hamstring, and also both calves. This was confusing, as I was confident that my training program had taken me well beyond this point in terms of fatigue and exertion and I had not cramped, not a single time, all through training. What was going on? I flagged to the guys that I was going to need to run to feel and back off a little. Rueben and Mick picked up their pace from 33km and stretched out ahead. Arnold hung with me and helped keep me going at 4:15 pace for another 2km but it was clear to me that I would now be just hanging on to finish and I gave him my blessing to surge for home. Arnold’s acceleration away from me to catch up to Mick and Rueben was remarkable, all 3 finishing with terrific pace to place in the top 50-60 overall. I was getting slower, cramping in both legs now and had to adjust my gait to keep on moving, dropping the pace to 4:30-35 but no way was I stopping now!
By 37km I knew something else was going wrong but wasn’t in a cognitively capable state to work it out. Was this just the normal end of race crash that I wasn’t prepared for? I had been drinking frequently and to plan, but felt strangely dry. I had an odd sense of smell, and my vision was starting to blur. I had been more concerned of the risk of hypoglycaemia without my CGM to rely on so had consumed 4 gels over the nearly 3 hours. In training I would normally have 1 per hour so didn’t think this could be much of a problem. I had felt bulletproof until 31km. Experienced marathoners had advised me that the race doesn’t start until you pass 30km....
*See the appendix to this report below for my thoughts on the why’s and how’s of what went wrong, for those with a keen interest.*
I was close enough for the desire to finish to over-ride better judgement, and pushed on for the line. Cheering from the crowd lining the finish from Circular Quay onwards was inspiring and with a shout out from John Doyle to kick for the finish, I headed towards the Opera House. I was stoked to be cheered through the last 100 by my enthusiastic jumping and shouting mini-Flyers squad of kids with Catherine, her mum, brother and his kids, and then felt the rush along with the sheer utter relief of making it across the line. My time felt irrelevant, I was just amazingly relieved to have finished! 3:00:24 was on the clock and I couldn’t have been happier. I was barely able to speak or walk, but I didn’t think I felt that much worse than how those around me were looking. (The delusion of the marathon finisher close to collapse me thinks with hindsight).
All in all I’m stoked to have finished, to have come in on the 3 hours as planned (if not exactly TO plan), and to have had a fantastic day out running an awesome event with friends for company! Net time was 3:00:13, overall place 100th.
My pace group buddies finished their own first marathons in negative split style with Arnold Bartlett 2:55:16 in 50th , Rueben Swain 2:55:32 in 52nd and Mick Loehr 2:56:08 in 58th . Congratulations guys! Fellow Flyers James Staciwa 3:21:52 and Ian Blackwell 3:37:41 ran strongly, both backing up from recent marathons, and Dave Robbo Robertson ran 3:29:19 whilst snapchatting and stopping for pics the whole way! Other notable Newy runners were Scott Bacon 3:11:22 and fellow Jewells GP Craig Roberts-Thomson 4:00:44 both achieving PBs.
Special thanks to my wonderful wife Catherine and my 3 fantastic kids for being so supportive of my running endeavours. Thanks to the Newcastle Flyers running group – the support, encouragement and camaraderie of you all cannot be overstated. The Flyers Sunday long run is a highlight of every week and the fitness and endurance benefits are remarkable. Thanks to Arnold, Mick and Rueben for an awesome day out, I could not imagine a better way to do an event like this than together as we did!
Looking forward to the next adventure and with confidence that further improvements will come,
Appendix: What went wrong?
- Turns out I had made a near disastrous error in having not respected my diabetes enough. At the finish line my CGM, which had reconnected itself a few km’s into the run, was reading around 13mmol/L – pretty safe territory for the end of a race I thought. However upon pulling out my meter and running a test that came up with 21.8mmol/L, it dawned on me that I had likely become acidotic due to ketosis during the intense exertion of the event. My CGM drop out had been long enough for it to lose calibration, and I had probably been too high for the whole run! Inadequate insulin relative to high glucose had left my muscle cells producing far less energy, creating far more toxic waste products and their function had begun to fail ..... at least I had been close to the finish. On reflection, there were a number of avoidable factors that contributed, all of which I hope to better control next time around:
- Firstly, carbohydrate loading and tapering exercise had filled my glycogen stores, but this meant that I didn’t experience the same gentle downward drift in blood glucose I was accustomed to on regular long runs, so my expected carbohydrate requirement for the event was incorrect. My usually spot on temporary basal insulin rate of 70% of normal was probably inadequate with my muscle glycogen continuing to top me up throughout the race.
- Secondly, the anticipation and excitement on race day morning had pushed up my cortisol levels, leading to being relatively high pre-race (around 12mmol/L), for which I tried to correct with a small and ultimately inadequate bolus of insulin. Having the usual 30g of carb with no bolus pre run was too much in a carb loaded and high baseline state.
- Thirdly, I had been more afraid of dropping low than going high so had eaten an extra gel - 25g of carb more than I normally would for an equivalent duration of exercise. I also had a cup of electrolyte drink instead of water at one station.
- Fourthly, I had failed to heed a cardinal rule of managing exercise with diabetes: Test your glucose when you don’t feel right!! No technology is without limitations, but being more careful to ensure my monitoring system is likely to be functioning when needed shall be forthwith prioritised. The next day upon replacing my CGM sensor it was clear that it had been kinked in my skin, probably from it catching on my clothes just prior to the start – simply using extra overtape for security probably would have avoided this.
- Another cardinal rule I should not have broken is: If you feel like you need to stop, you probably have good reason to stop and should do so.... no matter how close to the finish you are.
- I hope with the lessons learned today I can continue to be able to more safely and successfully take on many more endurance events long into the future!