Soon after I moved back to Albury in August 1995, I got ‘wired’. I’d been a bit of a technophobe even after acquiring my first Mac in Hong Kong in 1992. It sat on my desk, looking very sexy, but I didn’t actually use it. The guy I was living with at the time said that if I wasn’t going to use it, we might as well bring it home where he could.
Now, how to get them all in the lift? I borrowed a trolley from the caretaker and loaded the books on to it, and then tried to manoeuvre the trolley over the slight lip at the front of the lift. It tipped sideways and the books fell off the trolley in a heap on the floor. At that moment, a very urbane Chinese businessman entered the lift, stepped over the pile, and said, ‘You know, you can get all of that on one CD-ROM now.’ It would have made a classic television commercial.
When I got connected to the Internet I used it to send emails to those of my clients who were online and to my authors, most of whom were academics and old hands at it. But I also used it for fun. I’d read in a running magazine about an online discussion group called the Dead Runners Society. I joined and was completely addicted immediately. I would print out the DRS digests each day and lie on my couch at night and read emails from this amazing bunch of people (mostly Americans, but also a few Australians, some expats in Asia, and quite a few Brits and Europeans) all of whom were runners of one kind or another.
I had started running again a couple of months after I moved back to Albury. I really like running with others, so for a while there I was hosting social runs from my flat by the pool each Tuesday and Thursday evening. There were a few ring-ins, but mostly it was a motley collection of family members, dogs on leads and kids on bikes. It was good fun.
By May 1996, I was an active member of the Dead Runners Society. I sent off for, and proudly wore, DRS singlets and T-shirts, on the back of which was printed ‘Carpe Viam’ (Seize the Road). It was just so cool to be Dead. I’d made some friends among the group. There was the vet from deep in the American Mid-West who wrote wonderful emails about his work with farm animals and the difficulties of trying to train in that part of the country during the winter months. There was John ‘The Penguin’ Bingham, who wrote about what it meant to him to be able to call himself a runner. (I was in touch with John when I adapted a Canadian book for beginner runners for an Australian publisher. He agreed to let me use some quotes from his then recently published book on running, The Courage to Start.) Jo, a runner in Auckland, made an impression on me with an email to the group about sloppy punctuation. It was headed, ‘It’s its, not it’s’. She and I became great pals.
So, by mid-1996, I was really into running. When the big annual Albury race, Nail Can Hill, came around, my mate Robert and I decided to enter. It’s a difficult 11.3-kilometre course straight up to the top of the spine of hills that encircles the western side of Albury, along a very undulating fire trail, and then straight down to the Murray River. We didn’t do too badly, finishing together in just over 63 minutes. The winner ran it in 44.35. I got a real buzz from the whole experience of being in a race. And the fact that I placed fourth veteran woman blew me away. Wow! Imagine what I could do if I got serious about it!
I decided to get serious about it. I got myself a personal trainer, John, and we worked out a program of running (both endurance and speed work), cross-training (cycling and swimming) and twice-weekly weights sessions. I bought a hybrid bike that I christened Max, and started training.
My next race was a disaster. It was the annual Muscat Run in the winery district around Rutherglen in north-east Victoria. Ten kilometres: four 2.5-kilometre sides of a square. So boring! I made the mistake of getting caught up in the euphoria at the beginning and went out too fast. I never recovered. And then I had to pee. It was flat wine country, with very few roadside trees. I managed to find a bush about half a metre high and squatted down behind it in full view of the other runners who were now getting ahead of me. I was bloody pleased to finish that race in just over 48 minutes. I was third veteran woman.
Next up was the Wagga Wagga half-marathon and 10-kilometre fun run. I wasn’t ready to run a half-marathon; 10 kilometres would be just fine. I wanted to see if I could improve my time for that distance. It was a freezing day, but I looked very fit in my jog bra and shorts so I didn’t want to cover up. You see, I was starting to think of myself as an Athlete. Besides, I would warm up soon enough.
All the runners started together; the fun runners would then veer off for home after sharing an out-and-back course with the half-marathoners, who would do just over the same distance again.
I had a brilliant run. Very early on, I tucked in behind three very fit young blokes who were doing the half and running at a steady 4.5-minutes-per-kilometre pace. I just stayed with them and let them carry me. I was having so much fun just after the turnaround point that I was calling out to and waving at people I knew who were still on the out-leg. Finally I had to peel off for the final leg back up to the finish line, and I lost some of my momentum and even walked for a bit. My time was just over 46 minutes, and I placed third woman overall and first veteran woman. I even got a medal in addition to my finisher’s certificate!
Around this time I decided I wanted to run a marathon. John worked out a training program that, in the final months of preparation, would have me running up to 90 kilometres a week. I’d wanted to get serious. This was serious! I even started to have chafing problems from all the training I was doing. Perhaps jog bras are just for jogging, and don’t give enough support for serious training, I thought.
I went to Myer and took the escalator up to the lingerie department in search of a really good sports bra. I always feel intimidated by salesladies in department stores, but I was on a mission, so I marched up to one of them and asked to see their range of sports bras. They all had underwiring and lots of seams. ‘These aren’t sports bras,’ I said. ‘How can you call them sports bras? They’re bloody useless as sports bras.’ I must have been premenstrual, because I then started crying. ‘You don’t understand,’ I wailed to the lady in black. ‘I’m in training. I need a proper sports bra. My future as an athlete is at stake!’
It was wonderful having Dead Runners to exchange emails with about running. I was totally focused on training. The weekly massages were hell, but hey. I was sleeping like a log at night, and getting up before it was light to meet friends for an early morning run. I’d moan and groan about having to do it, but I was secretly really proud of myself. I loved seeing the sun rise over this town I was starting to think of as home. I felt incredibly fit and healthy. I was Deadly!
I visited Sydney for a few days around this time and arranged to go for an after-work run with an Australian Dead Runner called K. I was at the peak of my infatuation with DRS and the people I’d met online, and K was a great person to share it all with. He was my first real live Dead! I don’t think I stopped blathering the whole 90 minutes it took us to run around the Domain and Botanic Gardens, past the Opera House, around to the Harbour Bridge, up and over the bridge to Kirribilli, around to Lavender Bay past what had been Brett Whiteley’s house, back past the swimming centre and up on to the bridge again for the return through the city to K’s office in Phillip Street. After a quick shower, we went down to the MLC Centre and drank some beers and blathered some more. It was great!
By October (the day before my birthday) I was ready to run my first half-marathon (21.2 kilometres) in Melbourne. It was a fantastic run. I enjoyed every minute of it bar the last ten or so. I finished in the middle of the pack, which was a damned fine effort, I thought. And I was pleased with my time: just a tad over 1 hour, 48 minutes.
My next race was a bit of an unknown quantity. K (the Sydney Dead) and his wife D were competing in the Brindabella Classic just outside of Canberra in November, and asked if I’d like to join a group of runners from Sydney as a member of a two-woman relay team. I’d never met any of the others; they’d never heard of me. But they were willing for me to do my bit in a team effort. The course is really tough, winding its way for 53.8 kilometres from the top of Mount Ginini down to Cotter Reserve. B would run the first 26.5 kilometres, and I would run the final 27.3-kilometre leg. If B felt fine, she would carry on with me and so qualify as a solo runner as well as a relay runner. When she struggled up to the hand-over point at Bull’s Head, it was obvious her crook knee was giving her trouble. ‘You’re on your own,’ she said.
Big breath, and go!
I had run the distance only once before in training, but I think this was a good thing, because I decided I would just have fun. Within minutes I’d teamed up with a solo runner, a guy who was a keeper of reptiles at Taronga Zoo. As he’d already run nearly half the distance, he was down to a pace that suited me. I stuck with him for about the first 10 kilometres and felt fine. It was a beautiful place to run: a dirt road through dense bush. For the next 7 kilometres I was on my own. No problemo — I was enjoying myself. At the Seventh Heaven aid station (so-named because it was the seventh drinks stop on the course), all the volunteers were dressed as angels! What a hoot! After a drink and something to eat (jelly snakes?), I took off again. I was having a ball. I think I even laughed out loud a couple of times. I felt like I was getting away with something I shouldn’t have.
B and I were a two-member team, but some teams had four runners — wimps! At the third relay change point, I was really pleased to find B waiting for me. She’d decided to jump back in and give it another whirl. This leg of the run wouldn’t count for her — our final time would be a total of her time for the first half and my time for the second half — but she wanted to check out the rest of the course for her next attempt to run it solo. It was great to have her to run with over the last leg, as the country got really boring and dry, and it was starting to get very hot. M, another one of the Sydney runners in our group, caught us up, so we ran together and encouraged each other as the going got tougher, and tougher, and tougher. B’s knee was hurting again, so she was muttering Irish curses on one side of me, while M was carrying on like a drill sergeant on my other flank. Finally, we could see we were getting close to the end, and we dug deep, joined hands and sprinted across the finish line. We felt buggered! We felt knackered! We felt ecstatic! B and I were first across the line for a two-woman team; we’d also broken the course record in our category, with a time of 5 hours, 2 minutes, 47 seconds!
Next up was a social handicap race in Albury, the Christmas Hangover Handicap, over 10 kilometres. I had eased right back on my training in preparation for the Honolulu marathon a week later. I’ve been in all sorts of states when crossing the finish line after a race; this race was to provide something new. Being a handicap race, the slower runners got to start first. Robert and I, being middle-of-the-pack runners, found ourselves in the lead about halfway around the course. A few minutes later, as we were heading up the track that winds to the top of the ridge, I pulled or tore a muscle in my left calf. Eeeow! I couldn’t carry on, so Robert went on ahead and I limped my way down to civilisation and got a taxi. I didn’t have any money on me, but, she’ll be right, mate, I’ll get some from someone. So, I crossed that finish line in a taxi.
For the next four or so days before I flew to Hawaii, I was in a panic. I wasn’t meant to do any real training this close to the race, but I couldn’t run at all. It felt like my flesh was ripping away from the bone if I even attempted to jog. Never mind, just go to Hawaii, rest it, and then try to do a little gentle jogging the day before the marathon, to see how it feels. I was excited about the trip because I was entered to run the race with a group of Dead Runners from America, Japan and Canada; there was also another Aussie Dead. (We were known as DeadRooz, or Dead Runners of Oz.) We had all been in touch through emails, talking about our meeting and encouraging each other in our training. We were meeting face-to-face for the first time at an Italian restaurant in Honolulu for a pasta dinner on the Friday. The race was on the Sunday, so on Friday afternoon I attempted a gentle job along the canal that runs back from the beachfront It was a pretty dismal effort. I didn’t feel at all confident that two days later I could run 42.2 kilometres.
Dinner with the Deads was great fun. We were all very different people from very different places, but we had something very special in common: we were Dead Runners, and some of us were about to run a marathon for the first time. I just prayed that I would be among them.
The next morning I attempted another very short run along the beachfront path that was part of the marathon route. Not too bad. The pasta must have helped. Now it was just a matter of trying to overcome the nerves, drink plenty of water, and get to sleep early.
I was up by around 4 am for a shower and something light to eat. M, the other Aussie Dead, came by my hotel to pick me up and we joined the thousands of people (lemmings?) in shorts and singlets streaming through the pre-dawn towards the assembly point for the start of the race. It was an incredible atmosphere! We found the other Deads and wished each other luck; we were slightly hysterical from nerves. Then the gun went off and we were away, with fireworks exploding overhead. I was too busy watching where I was putting my feet to see much of the show. I was one of 24,335 runners that morning, and I didn’t fancy falling and being trampled by half of them.
A marathon is a very long way. We ran out to Diamond Head, and then out for what seemed forever along a straight route to a turnaround point. We then headed back the same way towards the city and the finish line at Kapiolani Park. It was great being able to see the wheelchair athletes and elite runners come back past us after they had reached the halfway mark. I had no trouble at all with my leg. I ran steadily, and didn’t stop to walk until just before the end for a few minutes. I was incredibly hungry, and a bystander gave me some orange slices so I stopped to eat those. Then I had one of those very corny experiences that almost make you want to start blubbering: it had been raining lightly, but had now stopped, and a rainbow formed directly over Kapiolani Park. Soon I could see the finish line, and moments later someone was placing a shell lei around my neck.
I waddled towards the rendezvous point to meet the other Deads and to find something to eat. I could find only apples and chocolate chip cookies, so I ate twelve cookies. We soon had a mini Dead Runners convention happening under a tree near the T-shirt stands; we were all as high as kites and jabbering nonsense at each other. Sitting down had not been a good idea, though; it took ages to get upright again when it was time to leave. Back at the hotel I had a shower, then went to join the others for a party in M’s room at her hotel overlooking Waikiki beach.
My time had been slower than I’d hoped for, but it was actually pretty realistic. Just keeping going for that distance is hard enough without bringing speed into the equation! I finished in 4 hours, 35 minutes, and placed in the first 20 per cent of women in my age group and in the first quarter of the field overall. A lot of people walk the Honolulu marathon, so that skews the statistics a bit. I was really happy with the way it had gone. I’d run a marathon! My leg hadn’t been a problem! I wasn’t brain-damaged from dehydration!The Deads partied the afternoon away, and we promised each other we’d meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.