2021 Canberra Marathon: recapping an exciting win and an epic day of racing

After months of training, RunCreature journalist Myles Gough was back in action on the roads, lining up at the Canberra Marathon and chasing a new personal best. He breaks down how his race unfolded on the day.

The 2021 Canberra Marathon is finally done and dusted. As I sit down to write this recap, there are lots of thoughts (and emotions) swirling around my mind. It was an amazing, humbling day and I’m going to do my best to get some thoughts down, semi-coherently.

Before my recap, however, there are a couple things that have made an impression on me since the race, and I want to (briefly) address them: people and privilege.

First, let me talk about people. In the lead-up to the race, I was very much focused on my race and my journey to the 2021 Canberra Marathon. And I think that’s normal.

You put so much energy and effort into training, and preparing for a race like this, and you want it to go well so badly, that it can be almost all-consuming. You get a kind of tunnel vision — and maybe that’s exactly the focus and mindset you need in the lead-up.

People make marathons memorable

But as I was running on Sunday, at the start line and in the middle of some of those long, solo miles, and certainly once the race was finished, I kept thinking about other people.

My competitors, all the other runners, the volunteers and organisers, my coach and teammates, my wife and our friends running and cycling around the course to cheer me on.

All the spectators braving the cold to see their loved ones chase their goals, my in-laws at home babysitting our daughter, all the people who sent me messages of support before and after the race.

The list could really go on, endlessly.

The start line of the 2021 Canberra Marathon
The start line of the 2021 Canberra Marathon

People made this event. It takes a small army of volunteers and organisers to plan and manage the logistics of putting on a running festival, and to make sure it runs smoothly (especially in the era of coronavirus).

And it takes all of us runners to breathe life into the festival: to make it vibrant, and dynamic, and atmospheric, and competitive, and fun, and memorable. The 2021 Canberra Marathon was all of those things.

I was thrilled to cross the line and win the race. That’s an understatement of epic proportions. But for me, this day isn’t defined by what I accomplished. It’s a day I’ll remember because of other people, and what we all accomplished together.

Everyone’s effort should be celebrated

When you’ve trained for a half or full marathon, you know the level of commitment required; and there’s a quiet but hardy bond in that knowing. It’s powerful. You can watch a slew of complete strangers finish a race and get an electric surge of excitement on their behalf, knowing they’ve done something incredible; profound, even.

I felt that on Sunday, watching people grimace and fight to the finish line. I felt it seeing them celebrate, and cry, and pick their friends-up afterwards. It reminded me why I love these races, and the running community more broadly.

Distance running is hard. And these races can be life-changing, and life-affirming. We do them to test ourselves, to prove something. Everyone who takes on the challenge should be commended, and everyone’s effort should be celebrated.

Yes, it was awesome to win the race, but it was even more amazing to be amongst people; to see my teammates and friends cross the line and smash their race day goals, and to celebrate the effort with my coach, and to hug my wonderful wife.

That hug, and all her support and seemingly boundless belief in me, means more than any medal or trophy, or time, ever could.

A privilege to race in an altered world

This brings me to my second point: privilege. We are so incredibly lucky in Australia to have the opportunity to run in mass participation races. I know this, of course, as do many of you reading.

But the point was hammered-home (yet again) when I picked up the phone to call my parents in Toronto, Canada after the race.

I was calling (let’s be honest) to brag. And of course, my parents were happy for me (although they know nothing about running). However, they were also concerned about the coronavirus, as they have been for more than 12 months.

On the same day of the 2021 Canberra Marathon (11 April), the province of Ontario (where Toronto is located) recorded 4457 new Covid-19 cases. It was the province’s highest daily total of the pandemic, and things are getting worse, not better. The city of Toronto is projected to average 2500 new daily cases by the end of April.

I had just finished a marathon, and celebrating at crowded pubs around Canberra, without a second thought about catching a virus.

Racing signals a return to normality

My parents, meanwhile, who are both in their 70s, are still too scared to go beyond their backyard. They don’t visit friends or neighbours, and won’t eat a meal at a restaurant. They’re even scared to visit the GP.

And they’re the lucky ones. They own a house, have savings, and are retired, able to self-isolate and take precautions to stay safe.

I haven’t seen my family — my parents and my sister, or any of my relatives — in three years. And I don’t know when I’ll see them next, or when they’ll get to meet my daughter. This pandemic has caused a lot of pain, and sadness, and heartache and hardship around the world.

We have certainly been affected in many of those ways in Australia, but when compared to the global context, we have fared well. Our lives feel, almost, normal.

As I was running, and particularly now as I reflect on the 2021 Canberra Marathon festival, I keep coming back to this notion of privilege, and just how lucky we are in Australia. This race was an opportunity, but more than that, it was privilege. A signal that we are returning to normality. And for that, I’m grateful.

Onto the race recap

Okay, let’s cut to the chase: the 2021 Canberra Marathon and how it unfolded (through my eyes).

This is a pretty long post, so I’ve listed the sections I’ll cover below (in case you want to skip ahead).

  • Concerns about the weather
  • The night before the race
  • The first half of the Canberra Marathon
  • The second half of the Canberra Marathon
  • The finish line and the post-race celebration
  • Wollongong Track Club results

Getting ready for race day: icy weather

I never expected to be worried about racing a marathon in below-freezing temperatures in Australia, but of course, an unexpected “polar blast” brought some very frosty conditions to the Bush Capital just in time for race day.

On Saturday, I was getting messages from people I knew telling me the “apparent temperature” was going to be zero degrees Celsius through the first half of the race. In Canada, we call this “wind chill”.

I seriously thought about heading out to buy arm warmers, or gloves, or a headband. In the end, however, I decided, stuff it. Just run with what you know, in the gear you’ve trained in. If it’s cold, you’ll battle through it. I’m not sure if this was a wise decision, but I made peace with it.

A crying baby and a restless night

Apart from those concerns about the weather, it was a pretty relaxing Saturday. I had a jog with my wife in the morning, a coffee, a big lunch, a trip to the race expo to collect my bib, and a healthy dinner (salmon, rice and stir-fried vegetables) with my in-laws, before stretching and hopping into bed around 9 pm.

The only problem was: I couldn’t sleep. Go figure. I lay in the dark, with ear plugs in, for about an hour-and-a-half before I finally dozed off around 10:30 pm. Unfortunately, 30 minutes later, our daughter was crying and I was up again.

Kate, to her credit, managed Milly all night (and it was a ‘bad’ night, with two wake-ups). I didn’t have to get out of bed or move a muscle, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d call a restful sleep. When the alarm rang at 4:30 am, I was actually relieved. I could stop worrying about all the sleep I wasn’t getting. I sprung out of bed, got into my race gear, and then rugged-up. It was go-time.

The first half of the 2021 Canberra Marathon

Getting started. Photo by Natalie Wong

I went into this race not knowing who (outside my training crew) would show up. And in my mind, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to win, but to improve, to learn, and to better my personal best, so I wasn’t too concerned about the competition. And if it happened that I was a frontrunner, I’d prepared myself mentally (and in training) to run solo.

After a few strides, and hellos on the start line to some familiar faces (Justin Lucas, Dom Bullock), I waited nervously for the gun. It was definitely cold outside, but not the freezing temperatures that were anticipated. It actually felt comfortable, but I suppose there was some adrenaline helping.

When the gun went, we were off, and it was instantly clear that nobody was coming with me at 3:25/km pace. I was going to be running on an island for the next 42.2km (unless someone caught me up).

Executing the plan early

I’d set my watch to 5km intervals, and was targeting around 17 minutes for the first half of the race. That was the goal, and then I’d try to ramp-up in the second half.

The early stages were smooth. I saw my support squad (Kate, Felicity and my coach Barry) at the 5km mark, and I’d already put a decent gap on the chase pack. My watch clocked me at 16:42 for that 5km (but the km markers were consistently 100 metres or so further along the road for the entire race).

I was feeling great through the second 5km effort as well, and deliberately slowed the pace to a more controlled 17:02 (roughly 3:24/km pace). The one downside was that I missed a drink bottle. Luckily, I was carrying two gels and Kate handed me a bottle at the 10km marker, so it was fine.

I also asked the cyclist riding ahead to radio the designated drink stations, to ask them to locate my bottle as I approached, which he did. It was great personalised service, and no other drink dramas on the day! (Other runners probably weren’t so fortunate).

Discovering the wind and cold

Although I was feeling good, the next 5 km were (nearly) my slowest of the race. I covered them in about 17:13, or 3:27/km pace. This section included the longest continuous up-hill stretch of the course along Adelaide Avenue. This was also when I first really noticed the wind, which had suddenly picked-up, and the cold.

I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I think it took a small toll on my pace. Nevertheless, I soon recovered. At 15km, I went into Weston Park, and there was a bit more sunlight shining down, which was enough to stave-off the cold, which didn’t bother me again.

This was the first point in the race where I would double-back, and get a good look at the chasers. There was a solid pack of 4-5 guys, including my teammate Jeff Chaseling. They were about 1:40 back at this stage. It was a fair-sized buffer, but they looked strong and were moving well. Still, I got a jolt of confidence.

It was good to see my teammates racing well and to get (and give) a few cheers, and it helped me pick up the pace. From 15-20km I was feeling strong, and clocked 16:55 for the split. I went through halfway in about 1:11.50, or just shy of 72 minutes. The plan was to go through about 30 seconds faster, so I was a bit off the pace, but I wasn’t worried.

2021 Canberra Marathon course map

The second half of the 2021 Canberra Marathon

At 23km, I saw Kate and Barry. “How you feeling?” my coach yelled. “Pretty good,” I managed, with a shrug. And it was the truth.

I crossed the Commonwealth Avenue bridge and ran down onto Parkes Way (which is essentially a freeway), bracing myself for what was destined to be the toughest part of the race, mentally. From past experience, I knew: it’s a long, exposed stretch of road, with a few undulations, and absolutely no crowd support. It’s quiet except for your footfalls and the traffic racing past in the opposite direction.

And on this day, the five kilometres heading west (before turning around) were straight into a headwind. There was a lot of time to think, and I went to some of my mantras: I thought about my family, and my daughter, and my teammates, and about all the work that’s gone into this build. And I kept running.

It was a slower-than-desired split (17:09) but when I hit the turnaround, I was buoyed. I was 30km into the marathon, still feeling strong, and the gap had widened. It was more than 90 seconds until I spotted the chase pack, which meant they were a good 3 minutes behind me. It left me feeling confident.

Between 30 and 35 km, I started to see the half marathoners, and got some very motivational yells from other runners and friends on the course. These were huge. I was feeling great, moving fast, and benefitting from a tail wind. For the split, I clocked 16:44 (or 3:21/km). I was still on pace to run 2:23-24.

Hitting the wall…

And then, things changed. It’s actually quite remarkable how quickly it can happen: the fatigue sets in, the legs get heavy, the mind starts wandering, and the kilometres seem to be getting longer and longer.

I was going okay as I came up onto Kings Avenue and crossed the bridge, and it was awesome to see Kate. She handed me a gel and a water bottle. I saw my coach a few hundred metres down the road, and he reminded me to get them both down — maybe he could tell the brain was starting to be slightly less decisive.

I followed his instructions, and quickly downed a gel and started drinking the water. At this point, I just needed to keep going. But by the 39 km mark, I was feeling rough. The legs were fading, fast, and every incline (no matter how small) felt like Everest.

But holding on…

Luckily, the bad was still mixed with some good. Struggle mightily up a mole hill, only to sprint down the other side and find some pace again. My 5km split was 17:14 (3:27/km pace). I’d made 40km.

Forty to 41 was okay; I was tired, but I still had some pace. It was in the final kilometre when the wheels well-and-truly came off. There was a little rise (maybe 8 metres or so, maybe less) to get back into the Parliamentary district. I tried to muster all my strength, but it felt like I was running in mud. And when I reached the top, there was nothing left. I had to jog it in.

There are a few videos of me coming down the finishing straight, crossing the line, and my form looks dreadful. My face is drained. My limbs swinging wildly. But I appear to be grinning, ear-to-ear. So I’ll take it. What a bloody good feeling to cross that line, and take the tape!

Finish line feels and post race celebrations

Happy and exhausted after winning the 2021 Canberra Marathon. Credit: the Canberra Times

Joy, relief, exhaustion, pain. That’s effectively the order of sensations. A few minutes after crossing the finish line of the 2021 Canberra Marathon, after the hugs and handshakes, and after the adrenaline and excitement wore off, I very quickly became aware of my throbbing foot.

I’ve been battling plantar fasciitis for a couple of months now, and while I (somehow) managed to block-out the pain while running, it hit me with the force of a tidal wave once I stopped moving. When it came time to wander outside the finishing chute, and into the masses of spectators to connect with my wife and support squad, I couldn’t disguise a very obvious limp. Every step. Agony.

I knew this pain was coming. I knew, because it was how I pulled-up after every session of this training block. A hard effort meant a very sore foot for 48 (and sometimes 72) hours. The real question is: was it worth it? Was racing 42.2 km worth this collateral damage? And the answer (at least in my opinion): Absolutely.

After watching some of my friends, family and teammates cross the finish line, I limped to the podium for the awards presentation, where I got to meet and shake hands with Robert de Castella. It was a pretty epic way to cap off the race.

Celebrating with my coach, 2006 Canberra Marathon winner, Barry Keem! Happy days.

After a short trip home to check on Milly (and her grandparents), a jump into an icy pool, and a very quick (but strong) coffee, it was back out the door, to the pub, to celebrate with lunch and some beers with the Wollongong Track Club.

The Wollongong Track Club (WTC) Takeover

If you’ve followed my training journey on Target 2:20, you’ll know I put in a lot of work with a small, tight-knit collective of athletes in Wollongong. As a squad, we went into the 2021 Canberra Marathon festival hungry, and on a mission to prove we can compete on a high level.

A few people have asked me about the Wollongong Track Club. Who are we? We’re not exactly a rigid club: most of us represent other squads in state competitions (Kembla Joggers, Run Crew, Illawarra Blue Stars) and some of us work with different coaches (Barry Keem, Gary Howard, Brady Threlfall).

What binds us, apart from geography, is friendship, a love of running and athletics, and a determination to work hard and improve at the sport, which is both infectious and inspiring. We train together on the track, run long on Sundays, talk a lot of garbage, and constantly push each other to get better and succeed.

Whether it was racing, pacing, chasing PBs, or lending some support on the course, WTC showed-up in a big way. And seeing my teammates help one another, and smash their race day goals, was probably the most memorable, humbling part of the whole festival.

Some big results for the boys

WTC in Canberra, from Left: James Tunbridge, Myself, Stefan Deane-Smith, Josh Engel, Greg Frost, Sam Jones, Pete Naseby, Mitch Ryan, Dane Ottesen, Jeff Chaseling, Russell Dessaix-Chin.

Before signing off, I wanted to share some of the crew’s results, because there are some runners in this squad to watch, with very big things still to come. The full results are here.

In the marathon, we had three — THREE — athletes in the Top 6. Jeff Chaseling was third in 2:29.55 and Greg Frost was sixth in 2:35.17 (a six minute personal best). And in the half marathon, we had three runners in the top 20: Dane Ottensen in 10th (1:12:36), Sam Jones in 12th (1:12:44) and Mitch Ryan in 19th (1:14:02).

We also saw a huge marathon PB from Pete Naseby (3:10:44) and a half marathon PB from Joshua Engel (1:19:44). And in the 10k, Wollongong legend Russell Dessaix-Chin, who is coming back from Achilles surgery, showed that he’s on track to return to some pretty lethal form.

Target 2:20 and what’s next?

And finally, my result. It’s kind of the elephant in the room, right? My goal, of course, is to run sub-2:20. And it didn’t happen at the 2021 Canberra Marathon. Am I upset about it? No. Am I still hungry to hit that goal, and to run even faster? Yes, and yes.

My race didn’t go perfectly, but reflecting on it now, with the passage of a few days, I can confidently say that it was a strong, well-executed run. I went through halfway nearly bang-on where my coach and I wanted, and I ran pretty evenly in the second half (minus the last few hundred metres when I looked like Gumby).

Still, the conditions were tough — it was cold and windy — and it was quite mentally challenging to be racing up the front. It was also my first road race in more than a year, and only my third marathon. When you set audacious goals, you have to be prepared to come up shy; and you have to be prepared to go after them again.

A learning opportunity

I’d agreed with my coach beforehand, this wasn’t a race to ‘get greedy’ and really push the pace early. This was a stepping-stone. Lower the PB, and get another solid effort on the board. I’m still learning the distance, and how to manage my race, and this run taught me a lot.

It reminded me that the distance is bloody tough and must be respected. But it taught me about what I’m capable of achieving when I’m fit and focused; how much pain I can endure, and that I’m able to grind and stay on pace running solo. That gives me confidence moving forward.

I’m not sure what’s next at this stage. A couple of weeks rest to let the foot and lungs recover, but I’ll be locking-in races soon. Stay tuned.

You can follow me on Strava. Or message me if you have any questions or tips at myles@runcreature.com. And you can help us grow RunCreature by reading and sharing our great content.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

Remember to follow me on Strava and Instagram. Or message me if you have any questions or tips at myles@runcreature.com.


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