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RADJournals: Matthew Coughlin recaps the Marysville 50K, his return to ultra

I haven’t run an event longer than 21km since March 2020, that’s roughly 600ish days or in other terms the length of the pandemic so far.

Those 600 days might as well have been 6,000.

With everything else that had been going on in 2020 for us, as well as everyone else, I’d also managed to slip in an episode of Atrial Fibrillation, for the first time in 5 years, in the middle of the year. That was followed by 6 months of medication, which made running harder and worse than it was when I first started, as well as all the associated psychological trauma associated with a heart issue.

So as a first event back 50km in the hills around Marysville was an obvious choice. I had done it in 2019 and vowed never again so of course I signed up for another 8 ½ hours of pain, tears and swearing.

Julie and Monika, friends from the Mitchell Runners running club, were keen to keep me company after doing plenty of training miles together in between lockdowns. If they wanted to do that to themselves, who was I to stand in the way? Our plan, if you could call it that, was to run together until we were no longer running together and take it from there. As I mentioned it was a pretty solid plan.  

It was a cracking morning for a run. About 11’, no sign of rain and very little breeze. The organisers noted that the field was about half of what it had been in 2019 which made it a much more intimate affair at the start line. Which was great for me because I usually end up missing the start trying to organise last second visits to the facilities.

The clock ticked down to zero and we all clicked our watches and we were off. The start is great on this event. Nice and flat and the single trail wends along next to the river, then at about 500 metres, bang, the first ascent. It’s not hard but it does come at you quick and sharp. We start hiking up the hill and some of the goats keep running as the field stretches out.
We cross the road, get a short reprieve and then start climbing again. Longer this time but still manageable. I turn around to get a few photos and Monika says ,”Get going!” “Are you sure?” “Yeah ,yeah, go, we’ll see you at the end.” I don’t ask again. 

This is the first catch your breath part of the course. Up the top of Red Hill track and flattens out and offers some amazing views and then drops back down sharply to the main road into town which you run alongside for the next couple of k’s. It’s all moderately downhill, firm underfoot. The type of easy running that makes you feel strong and fast, which is definitely a trap less than 10% into the race.

It usually takes a little longer for positioning to settle but because of the reduced number of runners I’ve already found my spot, 30 metres behind Red Shoes and 50 metres in front of Black Shirt, this is where I will be for the foreseeable future.

There is a sharp right turn onto Dickinson’s track and after about 1500 metres the first aid station presents itself. The crew are quite jovial and so am I, at this early stage, but I don’t need anything as I packed my vest with enough food and drink to sustain Hillary and Norgay to the top of Everest and back several times. I really need to get better at that. Maybe next time?

As we hit Lady Talbot Drive and go past the sewage treatment plant, while trying to avoid as much “mud” as possible I see that Red Shoes has made a left turn. I don’t remember the left turn from previous events out here but I do know the course is different this year. I get to the track he has taken, see the big red X and yell out, “You right mate?” Red Shoes calls back over his shoulder, “Yeah mate, toilet break.” I guess the treatment plant reminded him of something he had to do.

Lady Talbot Drive is long, slightly inclined, immersed in beautiful scenery, a raging river on one side and 50 metre tall hardwoods, and a little boring. I mean yeah it’s spectacular to look at but it’s a road in a forest and at this point it’s all uphill. And it’s not steep enough to hike so you just have to keep going and going at an even pace which sounds ideal but actually does my head in a little bit when I’m doing a trail run. I’m going well though because red shoes hasn’t caught me yet and I can see a couple of people ahead of me that I am starting to get closer to.

The boring bit

I approached the second aid station and was again greeted by an effervescent support crew. As I left their oasis I knew that I was going straight uphill so I started to unfasten my hiking poles from the back of my vest, rather awkwardly. As I was fumblingly blindly over my shoulder I caught sight of the guy from the aid station rushing over to help. It was then that I heard a fathers voice in my mind, not my father, someone else’s, sternly saying, “If you don’t let him do it himself he will never learn how to do it!” That was all the inspiration I needed and as my saviour arrived the clasp on the poles released and they both unceremoniously hit the ground and I turned around and said, “Thanks mate, I’ve got it.” I really need to get better at that. Maybe next time?

In this section I met “The Climber”. She and I were matching pace as we were trudging up the hill and discussing events we had done and events we had coming up. She was hoping to head to NZ in the new year for a 100km event at Tarawera. I think that that was when I realised that she was holding back for my benefit in order to chat. Not long after that The Climber took off and was gone in a shot. I continued my trudging for another couple of k’s and things started to flatten out, somewhat.
It was beyond my skill level and current fatigue to figure out how to put the poles away so for the time being I just kept them out and ran awkwardly with them when it was flat and walked awkwardly with them when there was the slightest incline.

As I was moving along enjoying my own company my watch notified me that I had hit the 14km mark at almost exactly 2 hours into the race. At that my mind turned to basic mathematics and the internal dialogue went something like this, “So that 14k in 2 hours so 3 times 14 is ummm, 3 x 14 is ummm, what’s 3 times 14? Oh umm try this. 13 times 2 is 26 so uhhh 13 times 4 is double 26 uhhhh so ummm 52??? Ok yeah 13 times 4 is 52 so 14 times 4 must be ummmm, huh? Why do I care what 14 times 4 is again? Ummm ok so let's do it this way. If I did 14km in 2 hours but I only know that 13 times 4 is 52 then I guess that I should be on track to do about 50km in sometime between 6 and 9 hours? Yeah that sounds right. Good deal. Well worked out!” This mathematical revelation took me at least 800 metres to quantify and by that time my watch was telling me that I was at 15km in 2 hours and 10 minutes and the process started all over again. This may have been a sign that I was much more tired than I thought or just really bad at maths. In retrospect maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.

My mental gymnastics were interrupted by the race leaders coming flying down the hill towards me. I heard them before I saw them because as they were traversing the course at speeds I would need a motor to accomplish they were also chatting. Not gasping for air speaking broken sentences as they struggled to cope with the exertion of their speed, the terrain and talking. No, they were chatting, like I do when I am running with friends on a nice easy flat section of trail on a Sunday just for fun. That’s what these guys do in a 50km race. Nice. As they passed they both told me I was doing a great job which I did actually appreciate. “4 x 14 is 56!!! Yes! I am doing a great job!” I had the answer I was looking for and it still made no sense nor helped my current situation.

I was going up, others were coming down. We each acknowledged our respect for the others’ efforts in our own way. I had many different compliments shared with me, “Well done” You’re doing well” “Great job” “Keep it up”, after a while I realised I only had one that I offered, “Good work” I said it that many times that I considered that it should be my bib name for my next race and I could save energy just by pointing at it as people came past. I quickly realised that it might be problematic if i was just pointing at a bib attached to my shorts while smiling and nodding at people during a running race, it’s not like I was the captain of the Australian cricket team. 

I was snapped out of my ruminations by someone saying what all long distance runners both crave and fear. Somebody said, “You’re almost at the turn around”. This is either and more usually some asshat giving you false hope, which you gladly accept until your dreams are crushed, or a trail angel giving you real hope that you are about to turn round and head back down hill. I may have sounded somewhat desperate when I quickly asked, “Really???” “Yep, it’s just up there!” This did provide a short lived boost until I turned a corner and saw the turn around sign which was the first time I swore audibly during this run, “F*** yeah!” I don’t think anyone has ever been as excited to be 18km into a 50km race before. It made no sense but it felt like something big.

The next 10km were great. It was predominantly downhill. About 7-8 minutes after the run around Julie and Monika were coming up as I was going down. We didn’t stop but each told the other how well they were going. I was coming up to the tricky downhill so I got the poles out, just as ungraceful as before. They made a huge difference on the rocky downhill and I passed a guy I hadn’t seen before and then I passed The Climber at a very similar point to where she had left me 2+ hours ago. I gave some faint consideration to the fact that I was passing these people and maybe that wasn’t a good thing but it didn’t stay with me long. 

I was back at 2nd aid station, now the 5th, and back on flat ground. I grabbed some watermelon, washed my hands, because I can handle sweat, dirt, mud, snot, spit, blood, but I can not abide sticky hands. I decided to run the flats with the poles in my hands lest my friend from the aid station offer me assistance in stowing them. 

After the ups and downs of the past few hours, flat running is pretty challenging. It’s relentless in a different way to hills. There is no reason to stop or slow down, no excuse for not running. My thighs are now signaling to me why those 2 on the downhill were happy to let me pass them. I run and walk for the next 2km until I am back at aid station 1 (now 6). This time I took some chips, don’t have to worry about sticky hands with chips, I’m so smart! 

I’m greeted with a sharp short uphill. It’s about 1km at about 20% so it’s a good workout but I know once I get to the top I have a beautiful section to run. 

I crest the hill and then head into the downhill section of single track that I have been looking forward to. It’s all tall hardwood trees and an understory of ferns, the type of section that trail running dreams are made of. I set myself and then start to run, except I don’t, run that is. My legs aren’t doing what my brain is asking them to do. About the best I can muster is a shuffle, not a shuffle that I might usually be proud of but a slower than slow shuffle where I wonder if it might be quicker to walk. I’ve got my poles out so they are keeping me steady as I try to get my legs going again but they are also catching the ferns and sticking in place and maybe not helping after all. I persist, because what else can you do? My legs start moving a bit better, this is ok, everything is ok, it’s all starting to come good. I get to the bottom of this amazing downhill that has been totally wasted on me and hit the flat and once again my legs are rebelling against my earlier efforts. I’m back to run walking again for a couple of k’s and finally get moving again as I approach the 35km aid station.

I come across the bridge and turn up the path and can see the start finish line which is so hellish when you know that you are only about ⅔’s done. Then Emma and I see each other at the same time. She jumps off the swing and starts running towards me. Then I see Dannii at the table. When I get to her she stuffs half a sandwich in my hand and asks, “What do you want?” I put my poles down on the table, pull my bottles out of my vest and ask for water in them. Emma goes to the aid station to have them refilled. I take my vest off and try to get the bladder out to refill it. I have lost all dexterity in my fingers and can’t manage to open it. Dannii grabs it to help but she has never seen how I twist it through, back and over so the mess I have created just looks like a mess to her. We finally work it out between the two of us and get a litre of electrolytes into the bladder and refasten it. During this time The Climber and Red Shoes come into camp and are at the aid station refuelling and that kind of gets me thinking about moving again. Dannii, “How are you? How do you feel?” Captain Obvious, me, “My legs are sore.” Dannii tries to stifle a snort. “You’re injured or your legs are sore?” “Oh I’m not injured, my legs are just sore and tired.” “OK awesome well get going, I’ll see you in what, 2 hours? Maybe less” Huh? What? Who’s bad at maths now? “Uh yeah, see you soon.” I take off and after 15 seconds turn around, run back to the table, grab my poles, and then leave again. This thing that’s about to suck would have sucked so much more without them.

I’m still eating when I leave. And drinking. And walking. I can see The Climber a few hundred metres ahead and am determined to catch her. I’m on the road, going uphill. It’s not fun but it’s progress. This hill is short but difficult. I get to an intersection and the volunteer crossing guard says something witty which I don’t catch at all so I give the thumbs up stuff the rest of my sandwich in my mouth and keep going. I’m very wary at this point. I know that this is where, last time, the wheels really fell off for me and I vowed never to come back here for this race. I was fine through 35k last time and then totally fell apart over the span of 3 horrible kilometres. This time will be different, surely.

I’m back in the forest. Poles out. I don’t think I can stretch enough through the shoulders anymore to put them away again so they are now my constant companion. I’ve started the run walk as soon as I see any sort of levelling out of the hills but now it’s more like walk walk. I really cooked my thighs on the earlier downhill where I got carried away and now they don’t want to play. I’m only 2km past Dannii and Emma, it’s all downhill if i just turn around and go back. I’ve had a few events that I didn’t start for various reasons but I’ve never had one I didn’t finish once I crossed the start line. They would understand wouldn’t they? I gave it a crack but it didn’t work out. There’s no shame in that. The truth is that they would understand. They always do. They are my greatest supporters and cheerleaders and ultra crew. It’s because of their understanding that I am able to do all these ridiculous things. But I wouldn’t understand. I’m not injured, just uncomfortable. I’m not spent, just tired. I didn’t do 700km of training to pull the pin just because I have sore legs! I did all that training so that when my legs are sore I can just keep going. 

So I do and before long I can see The Climber! How good is this? I feel like crap and I am catching someone. This euphoria lasts exactly 45 seconds. Then I hit the Marysville Rd climb. This is where I swear hiked my way to hell last time. It’s about 1500m with about a 250m elevation gain and a grade up to 33% in some parts. I’m not swearing today. Just moving. Not fast. Not well. Just moving. The Climber has gone. I have had my head down most of the way but looked up enough to see that it was just me and the poles out here today. Then out of nowhere 2 teenage girls who look like they probably have a YouTube channel that Emma would watch come strolling down the hill.
I’m covered in dirt, snot, sweat, blood, tears and here come a couple of kids in jeans and muted tones with full faces of makeup just out for a stroll. One of them chirps at me, “You’re almost there.”
OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” Almost where? How do you know where I am going? We look like we are from different planets and you know where I am going? Geez! Kids these days! Now I’m swearing. But just above the noise of my muttering of obscenities at the hill, myself, anything, I can hear other voices. Not so sweary, tired or ridiculous. She wasn’t fucking with me I am almost there! After about 32 minutes to cover a distance I might usually expect to cover in 9 I am at the Kepplers Lookout aid station (no idea the number, all maths has gone from me). 

This is both the literal and metaphorical pinnacle. I am greeted with smiles and congratulations and amazingly good vibes. I walk out to the lookout. Take my phone out and get a few photos. I am asked what I want. I take some watermelon. I am then offered a zooper dooper and they ask what flavour I would like. As my mind tries to think of a flavour I just say yes to the first one suggested because as long as it is cold and sweet it doesn’t matter. I take a small bite and straight away I am hit with brain freeze. After everything I have dealt with over 40+ km it’s the brain freeze that has me ready to break down and cry. Through gritted teeth and squinted eyes I offer thanks, get round the corner and will this pain out of my skull. After a minute it subsides and I finish the icypole, stash the trash and start moving. After a little while I realise that my legs aren’t that tired. I’m moving better than I was a few hours ago. I’ve read about this in a heap of books but never experienced it before. The point you get to in a run where you have sunk as deep into the shit as you can possibly sink and then it levels off and then you start to float until you get back to a point of comfortability. I know it’s all downhill from here so, while I’m feeling good I don’t want to get too excited and cook myself again, I try to just keep it nice and steady. Just keep moving. 

As I’m moving along nice and steady I notice some wildlife crossing the path. While I’m no herpetologist I do know a snake when it is 2 metres in front of me. On the path that I need to take to get to the end of this. I have no idea what type of snake it is except to say that it was about 4 foot long and had stripes so possibly a tiger snake. Which I process all the while as it makes its way across the path and up into the bush. While this might have been the first time I had encountered a snake in the wild and not yelped that doesn’t mean I am totally calm about it.
For the next 10 minutes I am run walking not because I want to but because every rustle in the leaves and every stick on or near the track is a potential snake I don’t want to meet. Just as I am regaining some calm a couple of guys are walking up the track towards me. They ask how far away the look out is. I tell them unironically they are almost there. One of them says thanks and then calls out, “Be careful there is a brown snake down there on the right.” “Thanks mate.”
I move along slowly, scanning the ground, the bush, everything. Then realise I have no idea where he means. Who’s right? His right? My right?! After a couple of minutes I give up looking for the snake because it’s just dumb to think a snake would be waiting for me. I’m pretty full of myself but not that much.

That’s when Round-Up comes past me. I hadn’t seen another runner for a while so it was nice to see someone. Funnily enough after seeing and hearing about snakes I’m not so worried about someone going past me. I do however make sure that I am close enough that a snake is highly unlikely to cross the path between us. Round-Up is doing well and she is doing a great job of keeping me honest. We work our way down the hill at a reasonable pace considering the fatigue and the terrain. We cross a bridge and look at Steavenson Falls from the upper lookout. Then back across the bridge and down steps, switchbacks, slippery rocks, dodging tourists, until we get to the lower falls lookout. We come back from there, follow the path and then we are at the last aid station. I grab some watermelon, wash my hands and I am ready to finish this thing. 
I look at my watch and say to Round-Up we have 30 minutes to do 3.6km to get in under 8 hours. The reply I get is, “My watch says I have 4km to go.” Right now i don’t have time for negativity or maths so i say, “Come on let’s go.”

This is the 3rd time I have run this path. 3 years ago as the last 4km of a 21km race and 2 years ago, like today as the last 4km of a 50km race. I know how it goes and in my experience it goes badly. While this section is probably the easiest running of the whole day. Nice wide well packed path in a beautiful forest setting with the river roaring next to you. After 7 ½ hours on my feet I’m not so sure footed and every little incline is like a huge hill and any slight change of pace is met with wincing as all of my muscles revolt against the effort. The poles help me a lot on this stretch. They keep me steady while the running is slightly downhill. And they give me something to rest on when the terrain flattens out and then rises. I’ve lost Round-Up and I’m trying some positive self talk to keep me going but as well as maths I seem to have lost words so all I am concentrating on now is moving. Then I see the two YouTubers! They still look like they haven’t upset their makeup with any perspiration even though they must have travelled about 5-7km since I last saw them? As I pass I say, “You were right before, I was close!” They laugh and probably have no idea who I am or what I am talking about.

There are a lot of people just out walking now. Heading up to or back from the waterfalls. Singles, couples, families, a man standing in the middle of the track urinating. Wait what? Oh yeah. I’m not delusional. Here is this guy who couldn’t find a tree in a forest, while I am trying to stay upright. I think I’d rather see tiger snakes than this.

Once I pass old mate I’m back to looking at my watch trying to figure out how far, how long equations with no idea what the purpose of the exercise is. In the middle of one of these stupors I hear cheering and clapping and am sure that I have finally lost the plot. Then I look up and see Kirsty and Paul, friends from LRC standing next to the path waiting for me. As I approach I say quite stupidly, “What are you two doing here?” Kirsty says, “We’ve come to see you finish.” To which I reply, “Oh I’m finished allright!” That all took about 8 seconds and I didn’t miss a step the whole way but now I knew I was almost done.

I wound back along the path that had first taken me out of town that morning across the bridge, turned the corner, saw the finish line, took one more look at my watch, like it mattered and then ran to the finish. As I got closer there was a lot more cheering than is usually afforded a back of the packer as Kirsty and Paul had a few other LRC members waiting there to offer support and Dannii and Emma as well hooting and hollering. I got quite emotional for about ½ a second and then realised I was too tired for that. Got myself across the line, threw the poles away, clicked my watch and was done. I stopped hands on thighs, a volunteer came and hung my medal around my neck and I made my way to my family and friends. As they were all talking to me and I was trying to not be a blathering mess, Round-Up came around the corner and across the line and then she inexplicably kept going. It wasn’t until she had done about another 400 metres that she stopped and I realised that she was going until her watch ticked over 50km. I was so glad that wasn’t me. Not long after that Emma and I went across the river so that we could cheer Julie and Monika on where Kirsty and Paul had met me. As they came down we assured them that they were almost done and then we turned to run back to see them finish. Well Emma ran and in what will turn out to be a vision of my future I couldn’t keep up with her as I moved like Forrest Gump when he was first fitted with calipers. I made it back in time and we were able to cheer them across the line. It was a great end to a pretty awesome day.

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