On June 1st, 2014 I participated in the Christchurch Airport Half Marathon on the South Island of New Zealand. I say ‘participated’, instead of ‘competed’ because I was out of the mix from the start.
When I arrived in Dunedin, NZ in May, I was excited to continue my build up in training in preparation of this race. Unfortunately, my first run on the devastatingly hilly terrain throughout the city resulted in a small tear in my left Achilles. I spent the following weeks running sparingly on a grassy rugby field while nursing the injury. During the week before Christchurch, the injury seemed to have nearly healed, and I once again saw light at the end of the tunnel. However, during my easy pre race day, the tendon flared up again. The bus tickets, Airbnb, and race entry were already paid for, so I decided to make the trip and commit to the race if I felt okay the following morning.
It was a few degrees below freezing as I waited for the next public bus going towards the airport. The idea of getting on yet another bus was slightly irritating after spending most of the previous day commuting from Dunedin to Christchurch, but I had planned ahead and would save close to $25 by not calling a taxi. The morning was clear and I expected the sun to heat things up exponentially before the start of the half marathon in an hours time.
As my chariot approached the airport terminal, I could see long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the fields that had been sectioned off for race parking. As the bus came to a halt behind the queue, I asked the driver to let me out and I walked the remaining quarter mile to the race village, dodging through other pedestrians doing the same.
The village was bustling with nervous and excited runners, all committing their pre race rituals in varying displays of enthusiasm. Sleepy dads waited in line at the coffee tent while chatty moms hopped foot-to-foot in anticipation of the next open Port-o-potty. A seemingly out of shape crowd lurked around the sausage stand, greedily gobbling up a hot breakfast. I assumed they were present as spectators, ready to cheer on relatives with gusto, knowing that they were safe from the impending turmoils of their loved ones.
After asking several race volunteers the location of the elite staging area, and being directed from one Kiwi to another, I finally found the coordinator with whom I had been in email contact. The man lead me to the command HQ and started to check me in for the race. I was unable to pick up my race packet the day before due to travel constraints, so I was without a bib number and timing chip. While scrolling through his system in search of my race number, which had recently been updated since online registration months before, the tent suddenly grew dark. It was 30 minutes to start time and someone, somewhere, had kicked an extension cord, disconnecting HQ from the power source. After 20 minutes of chaos, I was finally given my race packet, allowing me to start my warm up.
I had less than 10 minutes to warm up and get to the starting line. After a quick mile around the parking lots, I dropped into the elite staging area and took off my sweatshirt. Mhmm, hell no. It was still 32 degrees and I had barely broken a sweat during my failed attempt at warming up. My body still being cold, I decided to race in my running tights and a dry fit long sleeve. I had never raced in pants, and the thought of it seemed amateur, but it was currently freezing and I was not about to risk running with tight muscles. Pinning my number to my fleece, I jogged to the front of the waiting racers, toed the line, and waited for the gun.
Pop! The runners all around me took off like spring loaded mice, fast at first in their excitement before slowing to a manageable pace. I found myself leading the chase pack consisting of 10 or more guys, already 300 meters behind the lead pack. My Achilles felt fine, even with the fast pace. The marathon, half marathon, and 10k all began at the same time, so it was nearly impossible to tell who was racing what distance. I assumed that many of the men in front of me were committed to the 10k, and not the half or full, but at that time, it was all conjecture.
We mazed our way through the frosty roads on the backside of the airport, jostling for position and eventually falling into a chorus of rhythmic plodding and heavy breaths. At 5 kilometers our pack dropped to four as the 10k runners doubled back in their pursuit of the finish line. I kept a quick but relaxed pace until we reached the shaded backroads, laden with slippery frost. Each step was draining and the lack of traction created the sense of running in place. This section lasted for a KM or two before returning to solid, sunlit asphalt.
We approached the 8k marker and to my surprise, my company continued past the turn en route to finishing the full marathon. I was left alone in No Man’s Land, at least 250m behind the leaders and another 200m ahead of the next half participant. I was exactly on race pace and only starting to feel the onset of fatigue. My Achilles was numb, and my body was growing hot from the leggings, but I knew the only way to get back into the race was to speed up and catch the runners in front of me.
I cruised and cruised, slowly gaining on my prey. The route turned once again, coursing like a bitumen river through farmland towards the halfway marker. This part of the race was an out and back section on a nearly deserted tract. As I approached the 10k mark I was momentarily confused as the road was pinched by a fence line and lots of orange cones. I began to wonder if I had run off course, but a few meters later, I caught site of a runner in front of me and kept racing to catch up to him. The lead pack doubled back and for the first time I was able to count how many competitors stood before me and a victory–12. Feeling optimistic but drained from the taxing pace of the last 2k, I doubled back in hot pursuit. I could finally see the pack of four guys who were 200m behind me, looking determined to run me down as well.
At this point, there was a sizable gap of around 600m between 17th and 18th place. I was approaching the same spot that had put doubt in my mind a kilometer before, when I was shocked for a second time during the race. The volunteer bicyclist, who was in charge of leading the top women, made a sudden turn, leading the trailing runners back along the course towards the finish. He thought this was the halfway mark and had effectively and unknowingly lead 20 or more runners to cut the course 1K short, right in front of me! I shouted to the lemmings who followed his guidance, and eventually reached a group of runners before they made the same mistake. They did not look happy to not be turning with the pack ahead of them, but they realized they had not reached the halfway point and continued faithfully on course.
I dropped from 13th position to somewhere in the 30’s or 40’s in a matter of seconds. My frustration fueled me to sprint past the troop of unknowing cheaters and up to the bicycle leader. Once there, I let him know of his mistake where he replied with a disheartened “Shit!”. At this point there was nothing to be done about the foul up and we all kept plodding along.
By 16K my pace had fallen off by several minutes and I was in distress. With the barrage of racers running in both directions and the hordes of cheering spectators, I no longer knew or cared how many people were in front of me. My leg stiffened and I could hear my left foot slapping the pavement, uncontrolled. The next 5km’s were miserable and slow. It took all of my mental focus just to place one foot in front of the other. I finished with a non-committed kick, crossing the line in 1:15:11, my slowest half marathon to date.
Upon finishing, I made my way through the chute, grabbing Gatorades and bananas, hungry to get my monies worth. I removed the timing chip from my shoes, tossed it into a waiting container, and walked off to contemplate all that had gone wrong. In the end, I decided that it was better than I had anticipated, seeing as the day before I considered not racing at all. It wasn’t one for the record books, but it was my first international half marathon and it was certainly memorable. I believe that a runner grows from every race they finish, and this was definitely a learning experience.
As I walked away from the airport terminal, waiting for another bus, I was offered a ride into the city by a couple of superheroes! Batman and Robin had also completed the half, and were in hero mode once again. They can be viewed in this video of the race.
Here is another video with aerial shots of the race accompanied by some funky soul music.