Training for my third marathon was a joy. My first attempt – four years prior – had been interrupted by shin splints 6 weeks before the run, and after completing it in 4:30, I swore “never again”. I started training for another one 2 years later, but that was cut short by injury as well as a lack of mental strength. It wasn’t until 3 years down the track that I clocked up marathon #2 – thanks to two awesome girlfriends who let me jump on their long training runs & then encouraged me to just sign up. I did the Sunshine Coast Marathon in 4:07, despite only properly starting my training 5 weeks prior. This planted the seed of belief that I could go faster, and that long distance running is something I could actually enjoy.
My plans came to a halt over Summer, when a hip tendon injury had me off running for 3 months, from November – January. During this time, I started at F45 Sandgate, and it gave me the perfect outlet to channel my frustration at not running, and get a bit stronger & fitter at the same time!
My injury finally healed and I was back doing what I loved – running. I came back very sensibly, slowly increasing my distance, not running on consecutive days, sticking with 3 runs a week and just listening to my body. It was great being back with my running group, Coach 2 Run and I kept up my sessions at F45, which kept me occupied on my non-running days.
I was reluctant to set any lofty goals too soon, but after about 2 months, I signed up for the Yuleba Half Marathon – a small event a few hours’ drive from Brisbane, where we went and camped with friends for the weekend. I had an amazing run that day, finishing first female and running 1:47:30 – a PB by a couple of minutes.
After this confidence-booster, I knew I was headed for the Gold Coast Airport Marathon. I began increasing my distances, doing long runs with my friend Kim. We run very similar times, so we are perfect training buddies. Most runs were on Saturday morning, where we’d start early and then do the final 5km at Sandgate parkrun. It’s a great way to work on building some endurance & finishing strongly! We had made it to about 26km when Kim suffered an ITB injury. Despite resting & rolling, it kept on troubling her for the next few weeks, and so she decided to pull out of the marathon.
I kept my training super consistent, running on the same days each week, incorporating some speed work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then mostly doing my long runs at low heart rate, a technique my coach Troy was helping me with. I enjoyed every run – even the solo ones. I did the most runs over 30km I’d ever done previously – the month of May was 30km, 32km, 35km, 30km in consecutive weeks. I was amazed that not only was I staying uninjured, my mental strength was also there. In the past, I had really dreaded long runs, tried to talk my way out of them or would just give up when the going got tough. This time, I was just loving running. I would be excited when the alarm went at 3:45am and would be out the door to get my 30km in before school drop off. Some runs I’d meet up with the Coach 2 Run crew, or another running friend for several kilometres, or Troy would come along and ride next to me for a while. I just felt so strong and positive about the marathon and I knew my goal of sub-4 hours was well in reach.
Marathon day came along. Sunday 2nd July. I had managed to avoid any sickness, stay uninjured and I didn’t even consider the possibility that I wouldn’t go under 4 hours. I had everything planned out and had distributed my gels & small drink bottles of tailwind to both my husband Dean and my friend Mary, who were both meeting me at various points along the way. There was a nervous excitement in the air and I made my way to the start line, knowing I’d done everything possible to reach my goal.
The race started and I got into a rhythm very quickly. My goal pace was 5:40 min/km, but I wanted to start around the 5:20-5:30 min/km pace to capitalize on feeling fresh and to give myself some leeway for when things get very tough later in the run. I decided to break it down into 3 parts: 0-30km was “cruise mode”, 30-37km was “dig deep” and 37-42km was “hold on”. Cruise mode did me very well. I loved seeing friends & randoms running the other way at the 16km turnaround point, and shortly after, I met up with my Sandgate friends Jane & Amy. They were running really well and we ran together for about 10km, which was a lovely distraction.
I started to feel a bit tired around 28km but I knew I just had to fight it and continue. I saw my local running friends (also known as the Girl Gang) around 30km as well as Dean, who re-stocked me with tail wind and a gel. I was starting to hurt but I kept my mantra on repeat in my head – “I am strong, I am tough, I believe in myself”. My pace dropped a little from 30km onwards, but that’s what I expected, and I knew I had enough time in the bank to keep under 4 hours.
The stretch up to the northern turnaround point is very hard. It’s long and slow and there’s not much crowd. It’s hard running away from the finish line and it seems to take forever to get to that turnaround. My kids and Mary were around the 35km mark and that gave me a huge boost. I loved seeing their excited faces and they gave me that lift that I really needed to keep going. 37km and just one parkrun to go – I started counting down the kilometres but each one seems to take a lifetime. I saw the kids again around 38km and their high-fives reminded me why I was out there. My friends Brenton & Heather were also there and Brenton – despite having already run the half marathon that morning – asked if I needed a buddy. I quickly accepted and he ran with me for the next couple of kilometres. I was really starting to hurt by this stage, but just kept thinking about that finish line, and the months of training leading up to this, and how these final few kilometres were really just the 1% of this whole journey.
I remember grabbing some water at the 40km water station and thinking how close I was now, and how I was still on track for my sub-4 hour goal. Soon after this I remember the 4 hour pace runner beside me, telling the group around him that we were a couple of minutes under time, that now we just had to dig in and reach that finish line. I’m not going to lie – I was hurting. I vowed never to do this again and wondered why I had ever thought this was a good idea. My pace had slowed over the previous 2km to 6:35 and 6:15min/km but my Garmin shows me that I picked it back up to 5:57 in that 41st km.
This is where my memory blacks out, so the next part of the story is what I’ve pieced together from my friends & husband in the week following the marathon.
Three of my girl gang – Brooke, Kass & Karen – were on the side of the track about 1.5km from the finish line. They saw me coming with Brenton & started cheering me on, but they said I wasn’t very responsive, like I was really in the zone. They told Brenton they would take over & run with me for the next little stretch as we approached the finish chute. They ran beside me and I said to them, “this really sucks” – and we continued running and chatting. We ran together at a pretty quick pace for a few hundred metres when I said I had a cramp and crouched down, then sat on the road, telling the girls I had no legs. Shortly after, I told them I wanted to keep going so they helped me up and we all started walking together – at this stage I was striding out well and was pretty stable and we continued chatting.
A few hundred metres later, I went down again. My legs just could not hold me up anymore. A guy on the track came and gave me something to drink from a little bottle (I had a flash of this memory later on!) and apparently I grabbed it then proceeded to tip most of it over myself, while getting hardly any in my mouth! I told the girls I was determined to continue to the finish line. They tried to keep me down on the ground but I grabbed them to get back on my feet and continue. After the second collapse, they realized something was not right, and this was more than just feeling tired. Brooke decided to run towards the finish line, where Dean was waiting a few hundred meters out and tell him what was happening.
Karen & Kass continued either side of me, supporting me. I was still talking and they tell me I was giving some thumbs up & “woohoos” to the crowd. Kass said “they’re cheering your name, you’re famous” and I agreed! I also apologized to them for getting my sweat on them! Karen told me “you know you don’t have to do this, Ness”, but I just charged on, one step after another towards that finish line. Edging close, Karen asked me if I went them to leave me so I could finish on my own (not realized how much I was relying on them!) but I said to them “I think I’m going to need you”.
Dean had jumped the fence and met us but I didn’t really register his face or respond when he approached. The girls had me very secure so he decided to head to the finish line and meet us there. As we approached the finish line, I asked the girls if they had me. They told me they had me and that I was safe. At this point, I blacked out completely. The finish line photos show me leaning back, completely supported and held up by the girls. We were just metres from the finish line. The medics saw us coming and took over from the girls, carrying me over the line, as upright as I could manage. They had a wheelchair ready, and they put me in and I got taken straight to the first aid tent, with Dean by my side.
I was put on a bed, unconscious, as they took the vital stats. My temperature was over 39 degrees, so the priority was to bring that down with ice packs and cool towels. My heart rate was elevated so they wanted to see that come down also. I had heat exhaustion and was severely dehydrated, so they inserted a drip to begin the IV fluids.
I remember coming to and just thinking it was a bad dream. I could remember running the race but I had no memory of that final kilometer or finishing the run. I mumbled to Dean, asking if I’d finished, and he told me I had. I asked him if it was a PB, he said yes, and I’m pretty sure I went back into lala land. The next two hours were a blur of confusion. I was in & out of consciousness, barely responsive, I could hear things happening but I couldn’t always respond, and I couldn’t see properly. I just kept thinking it was a bad dream but then realizing it was happening and just being in disbelief. As hard as I tried to think, I couldn’t remember anything about that final kilometer, and that scared me. I couldn’t get my words together to ask Dean what had actually happened and I feared I’d hit my head & had a brain injury – I was just so confused and in such a blur. I could tell them my name, and that we were at the marathon, but I had no idea what day it was.
Eventually they decided to transfer me in an ambulance to Gold Coast University Hospital. I was not improving very quickly, and while I was having the drip and sipping electrolytes, I still was not really with it. The ambulance ride was a very strange experience, where I couldn’t focus on anything with my eyes, and I could just see flashes. I could feel my body being moved around but it felt very surreal, like I wasn’t in my body. Hard to explain, but nothing like I’ve ever felt before.
We arrived at hospital and I was drifting off again. After a bit of a wait, I was admitted to the ED, where I had more IV fluids as well as having bloods taken. That was an experience in itself. My veins are hard to find at the best of times – when I donate blood, I usually drink about 3L of water in the lead-up, then it’s still a struggle to get a good flow. The doctor described me as “dry as a chip” and had to get the ultra-sound machine to find a suitable vein! The fog soon cleared and I started to feel a little more normal. I started chatting to Dean more coherently and feeling more like myself. It was a huge relief. I thought I was still in dream-land when he told me the Brisbane Lions had beaten Essendon! So disappointed I missed watching the game!
The doctors & nurses were so amazing, and kept a close eye on things as I felt better and better. I got transferred to ED short stay, where I had some dinner (I did not expect to have a vege patty, steamed vegetables and potato as my post-marathon celebration meal!) It was about 6:30pm by this stage and I asked Dean for my phone. I had been inundated with messages from my girl gang and other friends who had seen me in the finishing chute, asking how I was. I started to get a sense of their worry and began to realize how bad this had been.
I responded to the messages then did a quick scroll of Facebook, checking through the posts of the many friends I had who had completed races that day. It certainly lifted my spirits to see so many PBs, happy faces & satisfied runners! Once I had successfully gone to the toilet (for the first time since before the marathon!), I was discharged from hospital, at about 7:30pm.
We headed back to our holiday apartment, where our amazing friends Leif & Mary had looked after our kids all afternoon. They were fed, showered & happy – what a blessing to have such wonderful friends who just took this day in their stride and helped out in such a practical way. I took a much-needed shower (so disgusting having not showered for so many hours after!) and had a big sleep.
The next day, I felt quite good. Thanks to the three bags of fluid, I was very well hydrated, and just made sure I kept the fluids up. My legs – especially quads – were really sore, but otherwise I was feeling great. At this stage, I was still piecing together what had happened over that final km, probing Dean and the girls. I soon realized it had been a pretty traumatic thing for them to witness and be part of. They hadn’t really known during the run just how bad I was, as that deterioration at the end was very rapid. I’ve had to reassure them that they absolutely did the right thing – I take full responsibility for pushing myself that hard and staying out on the course when things got tough. Even in my semi-conscious state, I insisted we keep going. I was just so grateful for them getting me to that finish line.
I finished with a time of 4:05:17 – a PB by just over 2 minutes. Not the sub-4 hours that I had my heart set on, but considering the end of the run – how can I be disappointed with that PB?!
It’s been an interesting week. Two days after the marathon, I decided to watch the finish line video. I had seen the photos and they were pretty confronting. To see the state I was in, leaning back and not with it, was pretty scary. The video was even more full on. I wanted to watch it once, but I don’t ever want to see it again. It’s very hard to watch something I have no memory of, when I’m in such a vulnerable and depleted state. I’ve had waves of emotion through the week, when I think about the experience and how the race played out. There’s still disbelief, and although I’ve re-counted the story to many concerned friends & family, in a way I still feel like I’m telling the story of someone else, like I wasn’t actually there.
When a gorgeous bunch of flowers arrived on my door a couple of days after, with a card saying “your girl gang has your back”, I was completely overcome. The gratitude and respect I have for these girls is overwhelming. They are brave and strong, determined and kind, fierce and loving. I literally would not have crossed that finish line without them, and the way they just picked me up and got me there is something I will never forget.
It was a pretty harrowing experience for Dean, but he was this incredible beacon of calm the whole time. He just stood next to me, holding my hand, telling me I’d be fine, never once showing any panic or distress. The girls commented how calm he’d been at the finish line, and he was also amazing in keeping them and my family updated through the afternoon, when everyone was so concerned about what was happening. I remember when I was still so hazy, but the only thing I could focus on was his face. So I was just gazing, thinking how strong and calm he was. So grateful for this man, who absolutely stepped up to the plate when I needed him and just took it in his stride.
A big part of processing this sequence of events, is of course the “why”. Why did it happen when I was as prepared as I could have been? I had tailwind in drink bottles with me the whole time. I took water at every station and had gels at 10km, 20km & 30km. Why did I get to such a point?
In reflection, I think it was just a random combination of factors. Perhaps I didn’t have quite enough to drink the day before. Perhaps I should have drunk more at each water station. All of my long runs had been super early in the morning – perhaps it was the late 7:20am start that got me. Perhaps I went out that bit too fast early in the race, and it took too much out of me. Perhaps I just pushed too hard in my pursuit of 4 hours, when I wasn’t physically ready for it. Perhaps it’s just a little bit of everything, and if the run had been the day before or the day after, it wouldn’t have ended this way.
In wrapping up, I am now feeling completely fine. My recovery has been amazing & I’ve just done a couple of very easy runs since. I’m so grateful that the outcome wasn’t worse, because I know it could have been. I have very mixed feelings as I’m really proud of the run for the first 41km but it was not the ending I had expected. What I do know is this:
- Never underestimate a marathon. It is a distance to be respected.
- Things don’t always go to plan. But that’s ok.
- The love of friends & family is stronger than anything.
So that’s my GCAM17. Dramatic, eventful & memorable. Cherish every run, my friends, and make it count.