Author reflects on maiden marathon experience

Done and dusted: Latrobe Valley Express journalist Liam Durkin upon completion of the Traralgon Marathon. photographs jaci hicken


THE decision to run in this year’s Traralgon Harriers Marathon continued a belief I have carried throughout my time writing sport.

The reader generally wants the full story, so what better way to tell it than to be inside the narrative itself. So, with that philosophy in mind I entered the full marathon.

I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea what I was doing.

Had I ever ran a marathon before? No.

Had I done any specific training for one? No.

Do I know much about running technique or sport science? Not really.

What I did have however was relevant experience in other fields, which I was hoping I could draw on as I put foot to pavement for the marathon.

Having played a lot of two-day cricket, the issue of longevity regarding the marathon wasn’t going to be a problem.

If I could spend six hours in a field working at one task I could surely spend the four or so required to complete a marathon.

Cricket also teaches you mental toughness. You learn that pretty quickly as a 17/18-year-old facing A Grade bowlers trying to knock your block off.

Out in the middle there is nowhere to hide – I thought the same could be applied to a 42 kilometre run.

Fitness wise I felt I had a relatively solid base. I had a full football preseason under my belt which I figured would count for something.

I’d won our club’s 2km time trial during summer with a time of 6:40. Granted the marathon was a much greater distance, but you can’t run a 2km time like that without a decent volume of work behind you.

I’d also done a number of 20km runs along the Moe/Yallourn Rail Trail in the past, so my body was use to some form of long distance running.

Having grown up on a farm and gone to boarding school as well, you were always outside or moving.

Living out of town the only way to get around was either on foot or on your bike. At boarding school you had to be physically and mentally fit just to survive.

A lifetime of fitness and mental toughness – surely a good starting point to run a marathon.

The day leading into the marathon was a bit of a mad scramble.

Ordinarily I am one to be meticulous with my preparation for either cricket or football. I need to have everything perfectly packed and give myself plenty of time to drive to the venue to get ready.

For the marathon however, a few factors did not allow this to happen.

I normally spend Sunday’s compiling sport pages for The Express, but given the likely exhaustion to follow the marathon, I needed to get all this done Saturday night.

I religiously need to get eight hours sleep every night, but writing pages of sport is a time-consuming task and I was writing up until 11.30pm the night before the marathon.

I got to bed around midnight and had the alarm set for 6am. Not ideal, but I always remember something Sam Mitchell said when he spoke about preparation as being ‘malleable to circumstance’. He went on to explain how he once had a 38-possession game coming off two hours sleep while his wife was in hospital giving birth. The preparation obviously wasn’t great, but as Mitchell said “it was the best routine I could have had for that day”.

So, with just under two hours between wake-up and take-off, I had to get ready as best I could for what was ahead.

I’d been told of the benefits of eating bananas before a long distance run, and I had some handy, but in the end I just had what I have for breakfast every morning – muesli and Greek yoghurt topped with a few diced strawberries. Not before I have my black tea though. I fear I would go insane without my tea.

In keeping with the overall uncertainty of what to expect from the marathon, I was left in some confusion about what exactly to wear. Would shorts and a gym shirt suffice? Or was there some sort of universal get-up marathon runners all wore? I certainly didn’t have a hydration pack to put over my chest or anything high-tech to keep track of speeds or progressive efforts. Call me old fashioned but I haven’t been one to jump on the Strava bandwagon in the last few years. Do you really need an app to validate the fact you are keeping fit?

Anyway, in the end I just threw on a pair of running shorts and a lightweight cricket training top, before heading off to confront the 42 kms in front of me.

Upon arriving at the Traralgon Vineyard I was directed to a grass area to park.

I then quickly got my runners on and made my way to the sign-in shed. After getting my name ticked off and number assigned, the general small talk of “how are you feeling” was taking place.

Having told one Harriers official it was my first marathon, I was given some last minute advice. “Don’t go too hard too early”.

The general consensus I gathered leading in was that the last 10km were going to be the hardest. Everyone I had spoken to that had done a marathon before held a similar view.

With this in mind, I reasoned my best chances of completing this thing in a half-respectable time would be to maintain a gentle pace for the entire duration.

I had played a full game of footy the day before as well so I had to keep that in perspective.

Not knowing what to expect, and knowing I looked totally out of place in my current get-up, I was given a small rev-up by one of the many lovely Harriers members, the gist of which went “look at me, I am an old lady and I have done 20 of these, if I can do it, you can do it”.

With those words, I headed to the starting line, and from there, it was headband on (we all need a trademark after all) and on your marks. I wouldn’t say I was ready, but I was as ready as I could be. I was sure enough going to find out if I was not ready.

As the gun was shot the field set off along Burnets Rd to welcoming applause. Those with ambitions of setting times under three hours broke from the pack, leaving most of us to settle in for the long haul.

They’re off: The field gets going for the 2022 Traralgon Marathon.

To borrow from football-speak I was ‘just ticking them over’ at this stage, cautious of the fact I wanted to still be running and now crawling in the last 10. There was already jokes going between runners about pulling out, which served as a bit of comic relief.

A left turn off Burnets Rd heading back toward Traralgon acted as a precursor to the main drag that lay ahead. Running along the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail, we made a u-turn at the start of the trail and headed for the far off distant town of Toongabbie.

This ignited the time most of the field dispersed. I myself glanced up at a sign that said Traralgon to Stratford was 60km along the rail trail. My first reaction to that started with the letter F, and knowing the marathon length was more than two-thirds of that, there was clearly a long way to go.

In the early stages of the run I was jogging alongside a seasoned campaigner, quite some years older than me. Knowing the Harriers mantra of this being ‘the friendly marathon’, he said with an admirable sense of positivity “no matter what happens, keep smiling”. I couldn’t help, but smile wryly in response. I ended up passing this gentleman some time later, and sure enough, he was still smiling, true to his word.

As the run continued we strolled to Glengarry and further north. Those enjoying Sunday breakfast clapped us through Glengarry at the old train station, while local scouts, Lions Club and Gippsland Plains Rail Trail committee members were there in support and marshalled us along at various intersections.

A number of drink stations were set up along the course. Being the novice I was, I thought they would be staggered every 10km, so I used them more or less as checkpoints to tick off along the way. After the fourth one I knew this wasn’t the case as it was located on the outskirts of Toongabbie, which equated to about halfway.

The field had well and truly separated by then, and leading up to that point I had been feeling fine in a physical sense.

The competitive side of me had declined water up until halfway. For some reason before that I had in my head Denzel Washington’s line from Remember the Titans – “water is for cowards, water makes you weak”. Totally illogical of course, but having been brought up in a football club environment you are always looking for ways to show some sort of bravado.

I was able to take my mind off running for a while just by daydreaming. By doing so I felt my body movements were more or less automated. My football team had lost heavily the day before for the second week in a row, so I spend a good amount of time thinking along the lines of “okay if we repeat the wins we’ve had in the second half of the season and pick up points against x, y, z that will take us to so many wins which puts us here on the ladder”.

There was other random reflections I had during the run. I passed a group of kids carrying a scooter along the dirt track and couldn’t help but think “funny place to be riding a scooter”.

The encouragement continued from fellow runners, even from leaders who were so far ahead of everyone passing people on the way back. I didn’t know whether this was a runners code of some sort or just a Harriers thing, but every time someone ran past or overtook you the words of ‘good work’ or ‘keep going’ echoed around. Being reserved by nature I was caught off guard a few times when people ran past, not exactly knowing what to say, I just gave a nod of the head and raised eyebrows as if to say “hey, you’re doing alright”.

Heading back towards Traralgon I could see Loy Yang Power Station in the distance and used that as something to figuratively run toward. I thought it would get bigger the closer I got, but it seemed to stay the same size which may well have been a blessing in disguise.

Passing the second-last drink station I nabbed a few of the jelly snakes on offer, more so in the thought the sensation of chewing would act as a distraction to running rather than providing a sugar-hit.

In Glengarry on the way back I was greeted with ‘only 10km to go’ by a passer-by. That 10km mark had arrived, now I was going to find out if it was in fact the hardest. The verdict? I wouldn’t say it was any harder than the previous 30km, but I will admit to becoming delirious around this point.

Physically, the inside of both quads were starting to burn, but it was nothing you couldn’t push through. The main thing that stood out was my sense of reality. For a moment I couldn’t remember if I had run through Glengarry or not, and even after I had, I wasn’t sure if I was even going the right way. The rail trail back to the Vineyard was sealed in parts, but I could have sworn the whole track was gravel when I had run on it in the first half of the marathon.

Just prior to this I passed a woman on a bike who was none other than the one who had given me the pre-race pep talk. I knew there wasn’t far to go and once I got to a series of foot bridges along the rail trail I knew there and then the finish line was in sight.

From the last leg of the rail trail I could now see the finish line clearly, nestled on a hill at the top of the Vineyard’s driveway.

The inflatable blue finish line was hard not to take a glance at every so often in those final few moments. There you just have every football and cricket coach ringing in your ear telling you about process over outcome.

Just before the finish I went past another competitor. Knowing our times were of no real significance, I asked if he wanted to cross together. He told me to go on ahead, so I did, past the Vineyard entrance, which was being guarded by spectators with beers in hand. One of them asked if I wanted one. While I could see the funny side, I could also see the much greater priority of the finish line.

The final challenge was a small hill heading up the Vineyard’s driveway. Readers familiar with that hill might scoff at the suggestion it is small, but having grown up in Thorpdale, where there are more hills than days of the year, there aren’t too many slopes that can take you by surprise. If you want to run up a real hill check out School Rd in Trafalgar.

With the finish line only a few metres away, Harriers members gathered to welcome me across.

End in sight: Liam Durkin about to cross.

After finally touching in I was handed a red Gatorade, which was gone in the next five seconds. The most surprising part I found was how off-balance I was. Having ran at the same pace for over four hours, the mundane task of walking suddenly became a challenge.

Taking in football preseason once again, we are constantly told to ‘keep moving’, and to have ‘no hands on knees’ following a series of runs. This is all I had to go on in my immediate recovery after the marathon.

I walked, or more hobbled, around for a bit, talking to race director Steve Renehan. I confided in him I underestimated just how far 42km was, but was happy to have finished nonetheless.

By now I was starving, which was another aspect I wasn’t quite prepared for. Luckily the Harriers were prepared for this, and had enough food to feed a small army.

Lunch bags filled with ham, chicken and salad rolls had been prepared. Each bag also had yoghurt, dried fruit and a chocolate bar inside, while soup, a cheese platter and a huge selection of fresh fruit was also available.

I spoke to Harriers president Phill Mayer in the function room afterwards. His team really had done a great job putting together a great race. I then reacquainted with the runner I’d passed toward the finish. He introduced himself as Jason and gave me some gel packs to try out. Here was someone I didn’t even know less than an hour ago, and there we were sharing a meal together.

Post-presentation, those who had taken part began to head off. By this stage I could barely walk, but I managed to manoeuvre myself into my car.

On the way out I decided to drive to Toongabbie and back just to get an appreciation of how far it was. With radio tuned off and just the sound of an engine humming in the background, there was a moment I was able to privately acknowledge, in a somewhat self-fulfilling way that “yes, you did cover a lot of ground”.

The sheer soreness in my legs wasn’t a great surprise, but it was a surprise just how long the pain lasted. Even on the Tuesday night I was still feeling tender.

What really throttled me however was fatigue. I got home around 2pm Sunday, laid down, and woke up 14 hours later.

Running a marathon was something I always felt I could do, so it was pleasing to prove to myself that I could. My official time was 4.19:12, but judging by the way each finisher was congratulated, results or times didn’t appear to be the most important thing.

Playing football in winter and cricket in summer, you are indoctrinated to believe success is only determined by winning or losing.

In marathon running however, the emphasis seems to be more geared toward seeing a task through to the end.

Everyone who completed the marathon, half-marathon or 10km event as part of the Traralgon Marathon was given a medal with the word ‘Finisher’ written in capital letters.

As much as we all want to win, the word finisher evokes a quality without which winning isn’t possible.

For to finish means you didn’t give up.

And it is hard to beat somebody who never gives up.