With the probable exception of my first, this is the most nervous I think I’ve been for a marathon. The work that I’ve been doing with my new coach left me in no doubt that I was in good form for speed, but I wasn’t sure where my endurance levels were at. I felt like I hadn’t run the same sort of distances that I’m used to in my preparation, although I note the overall weekly totals aren’t that different. I was buoyed by how good I felt in my last Makara two weeks before the race, which came the day after running a double 5km time trial, but the nerves were still there. The good news: there’s nothing wrong with my endurance.

This was a big year for the Rotorua Marathon, being their 50th year. As they usually do for major anniversaries, Athletics New Zealand had given Rotorua the National Championships. It made for a good atmosphere, with lots of people entering to celebrate the milestone birthday. Across all events, it was by far the largest number of entrants they’ve had and for the marathon distance, it was the most competitors since their 30th anniversary year and the third largest of any year.

Wellington Scottish had around 40 entrants across the distances. Very cool. Especially when the camaraderie between Scottish runners at Rotorua 2009 was half the reason I chose Scottish when I decided to join a club (the other half being Grant McLean).

It’s good to see that Rotorua have reintroduced the finishers t-shirt, which they had dropped when the new management took over the event in 2011. The design of the shirt is somewhat dull, not a patch on the old ones. For some strange reason, they were giving them out as part of the race pack. How is it a finishers t-shirt if it’s given to you before the race?

The morning of the race was pretty cold, around 6 degrees, and somewhat overcast. We were staying at the Princes Gate, about 500 metres from the start/finish. You’d think the closest hotel to the race would understand the importance of having an early option for breakfast. While I’m sure the 6am start, which in practice was when they started setting up and not when they started service, is earlier than they usually offer on a Saturday, I wanted to have completed breakfast three hours before the race. This time the plan was to use porridge, rather than muesli, in an effort to avoid the stomach cramps that struck in my last two marathons. We’d brought our own supplies, but in a lack of attention to detail I had not booked a place with an in-room microwave. This is not a mistake I will make again as for the third time in a row, my race was disrupted by stomach cramps. Whether breakfast was to blame, I can’t tell but I’m trying to narrow down and eliminate the possible causes in what has become a trend.

The overall target for this race was 2:45, although coach had been talking of 2:40, with a do-or-die target of sub-2:50.

My race plan was to maintain a pace of 3:50-3:55/km, apart from the hills which would be at equivalent effort, not let club rivals get away ahead of me (with the obvious exceptions of Matt Dravitzki, Dave Parsons and Grant McLean) unless they were running silly pace (i.e. sub-3:45/km), hold concentration levels on my pace through SH30 (about 27km to 36km) and to raise when we left the state highway to start the final 6km or so. Execution didn’t quite go to plan, although it wasn’t far off. Coach has me write out my plans pre-race so I can come back and review actual performance. Having the plan specifically articulated definitely helped, particularly the latter elements and made me focus when I might otherwise have let things slide.

My reason for not wanting to let any other club rivals get ahead of me was simple: only the first four from each club count towards national teams, which is a combined seniors and masters sub-event. Dave and Matt are in a whole different league and while Grant is not the same force he used to be when younger, he is still a class act ordinarily beyond my reach. That left me in a hot race for the final team spot. Peter Stevens, despite turning 50 last month, is in a rich vein of form now that he’s training properly; Jim Jones was running his first marathon since I’ve known him and is a classy runner, especially since he’s kicked the injury problems from the last two years. And Dave Kettles, Paul Barwick and Alasdair Saunders (not necessarily in that order) were threats that I was wary of – all are very strong runners.

I last ran Rotorua in 2011, which was the year they introduced the half marathon distance. Back then, the half started round the back of the course. Now it runs an out and back course from the main start, in an initial direction opposite to ours, and begins about 20 minutes before the marathon. This was fine except it meant some 4600 marathon runners crowded to the sides waiting to take possession of the course.

Sharon and I arrived at the start area a little before 8am. I had my track pants and an icebreaker top on to stay warm, but was too cold still and I gratefully accepted Sharon’s puffer jacket. I kept this on until we got about 10 minutes from the start time. It was fantastic to see all the Wellington Scottish runners gradually arrive as well as friends from ‘rival’ clubs. Soon it was time to strip right down to running gear and Sharon became the custodian for all our gear, including tops that the guys assumed they were going to have to throw away.

Rotorua usually has a haka performed before the start, but I couldn’t tell you whether that happened this year or not. I was keyed for the start, with my nerves still a little on edge and don’t recall it being done. I know they performed before the half started, so perhaps that was all, although I suspect there was another and I missed it as I was focusing on other things.

I lined up a couple of rows behind the fast, young elites and waited for the gun. Once we started, any nervous thoughts went and it was now race mode. We headed down the 400m-long straight to the park entrance. Some pillock broke race-etiquette quite badly, endangering himself and those around him. He was obviously not particularly fast and should never have been in our starting area. Consequently he was getting battered by runners as we tried to get around him without slamming into his back. I had to check my stride and give him a shove to avoid tripping over him and wanted to scream “what the fuck are you thinking starting this far forward!” I would have too, but was too busy trying to avoid creating a domino effect as I bounced around and past him.

The early part of the course takes you out to the main road, Fenton Street, where a dog-leg to the right gives you a 180 degree turn before continuing out west to start the clockwise loop around the lake. This gives you a chance to look at the stream of runners behind you heading to the turnaround as you run. It was great to see and I enjoyed acknowledging runners I recognised who had started further back, giving a small wave to anyone in a Scottish shirt whether I recognised them or not. You re-join the outward direction a little shy of the first kilometre of the race, at which point it’s time to stop looking around and start focusing on what you’re doing.

I noted Grant McLean was running alongside me. After his fantastic performance in Japan in February, I didn’t think it likely that I would get to share Grant’s company as I did for the first 17km of the 2013 Wellington Marathon. I took a few glances at my watch to make sure his proximity didn’t mean I was overcooking my early pace.

The first kilometre distance marker was placed a little bit early by my watch. The next few were about right, cumulatively, but the 4km or 5km marker (forget which) arrived late and from that point on, each marker was consistently late with the lateness for each marker remaining more or less constant. GPS is only ever going to produce an approximate accuracy, although it was weird that this “discrepancy” arrived all at once. Rotorua has been run on more or less the same course for years, so I have no reason to doubt its accuracy but I do find it interesting that the point in the race that the watch and the markers stopped aligning was after the course took a turn up along Railway Road and up Monokia Street, which is an addition only made from 2013. Still, the first few kilometres are a part of the course that has often been adjusted over the years and my watch read 42.47km at the finish, which is within the normal GPS-tolerance reading for a marathon so I daresay it’s coincidence. Note that my reported progress times in this report use my watch splits.

So the first kilometre alert vibrated on my watch with 3:50. I noted the controversial figure of Liza Hunter-Galvan in our early pack. This is the NZ distance runner who was banned for taking performance enhancing drugs after the Athens Olympics.

Heading along to run the slight downhill by Kuirau Park, I noticed a motorbike with a cameraman facing backwards filming us. His attention was on Hunter-Galvan, who was a little behind me. Sky Television are to broadcast some coverage of the race next week. It will probably be limited to 30 minutes and being ahead of Hunter-Galvan probably means I didn’t get picked up; in any case, she didn’t finish so the clip will likely not get past the editing process.

As we headed towards the corner with Lake Road, I noticed it was very misty with a cloud being lightly blown across our path to obscure visibility of the course ahead. It was very cold – I had begun to wish I’d taken gloves or sleeves to wear – so having a cloud to run through didn’t seem odd. A little later I realised it wasn’t a cloud at all, actually being sulphurous steam that vents from Rotorua’s ground at various points in the town.

The kilometres came in at 3:52, 3:50 and 3:52. All nicely controlled and consistent. We had a group of Grant, John Caie (a fellow M45) and two young guys. I wasn’t certain for a while who John was, but Grant obviously knew him and I heard them chat, including John saying he was going for 2:45. I only realised who John was when I heard supporters call his first name, at which point I figured he had to be John Caie and, therefore, an age-group rival. I knew the name, but not the face, as he’s an age-group rival I’ve never beaten.

Our group ran together for a while and I noticed a pattern emerge with John. If Grant made a little surge, John shadowed him. If Grant eased off and I found myself moving ahead of the group, John sat with me instead. Later on when our group expanded to include others, I noticed the same behaviour: whoever took the head of the group, John sat second.

Grant and I chatted briefly, where he observed the bold move from Sally Gibbs ahead. I know that Sally likes to start fast and assumed this was the usual approach in action. I also knew Sally didn’t feel like she was back to 100% performance levels, so said I thought we’d probably catch her group at some point. (Wrong! Sally would appear to be back to, or at least close to, her best after a fantastic race that saw her finish first woman.)

One of young guys in our group made a reference to the movie/tv series ‘The Inbetweeners’ calling us by that name and saying, “remember, we hunt as a pack.” No-one responded, so I said to him – “you’re running with three masters; we don’t understand your pop culture references!” Several kilometres later when another pack caught and merged with us, he used the same gag. The new guys didn’t seem to understand him either, asking if he meant we were inbetweeners in the sense that we weren’t good enough to be up with the elite guys but were well ahead of the masses.

At 5km, about 19:12. Grant surged ahead strongly. I assumed this was Grant deciding he’d had enough of slumming it with us and was now pushing on to his real race pace, so called out to him to have a good race. However, a few hundred metres he came back to us and re-joined the pack.

The kilometres were passing in consistent fashion: 3:48, 3:55 (the first little hill), 3:55 (not sure why that one remained the pace as the one before), 3:50, 3:50, 3:49. It meant we arrived at 10km (by my watch, the distance marker was around a couple of hundred metres further on) at 38:32.

The eleventh kilometre contained a decent bit of hill in it, which resulted in a 4:05 before normal serviced resumed and 3:53. Then we went down and the group splintered temporarily as the pace raised. I had to push a little to stay with the group and the 13km consequently became a quick one (3:42).

Andrea Smith was by the roadside, supporting Braden, but calling out for us while she waited. I was surprised to hear her call “go Peter” a short while after cheering me. Bugger. That meant Peter Stevens was not far from me and sure enough, the pack he was running in soon joined ours. It happened on the uphill part early in the 14th kilometre, just as I was hanging on to the back of the pack. While I wasn’t overjoyed to see Peter and Jim back amongst me, it was quite handy to have them help me re-join my pack just as I was in danger of falling off. I noticed Jim looked pretty tired and thought this was a good sign (it wasn’t). I also wondered if I would have been better starting slower with them, given we were now all together – it might have made for a more conservative, perhaps easier, arrival to this point. Then again, Jim looked like a man who had just been involved in a big surge, so perhaps not; it’s not like our pace had slipped, beyond that required for even effort over the hills.

Up the hill during the 14th kilometre, we slipped to a 4:00 split and back down the other side we ran 3:44. I didn’t really like the up-down nature of the course, which felt like we were running stop-start, but noted that the hills didn’t feel as big as in my previous encounters with this course. 15km in 57:56.

I had stashed two carbo gels in my shorts pocket with the intention of taking one at the drinks station just after 15km and another around 30km or so. I’d deliberately eschewed wearing a fuel belt or gel carrier to avoid the feeling of being encumbered around my middle, particularly in light of the stomach cramp issues of the previous two marathons. As I reached back to my zipped shorts pocket, I was very aware of the risk of dropping one of the gels as I fished the other out. I got the gel, but couldn’t tell if the other was coming out of the pocket. It was a trickier manoeuvre than I expected – the lesson here is to have practiced it. I just kept hold of the second gel but now I had both in my hand. Securing the one I meant to take, I went to put the other one back so I could zip it safely. And dropped it. Bugger. I had no intention of turning back to pick it up. Oh well. I’d been wondering how necessary they are anyway, having reduced my use of them in recent years. However, it did mean re-evaluating the plan to have one now. I decided the best thing would be to save it to after half way, say 24km or so. In the meantime, I would keep it in my hand – I’d already proved my inability to safely put a gel back in my shorts pocket.

The next three kilometres were pretty flat, for Rotorua, and our group remained tight with 3:48, 3:50, 3:51. Then not long after 18 kilometres, the climbing began. I knew from previous experience that this was to be the most testing part of the course and it would be around 3.5km of climbing, punctuated with short, sharp downhills.

As we completed a hill in the 19th or 20th kilometre, Jim and I find ourselves falling a little off the back of the rest of the pack. Knowing how difficult the second half of this race can be if you become isolated, I put on a burst to tag back on to the group. Jim didn’t follow and remembering how tired he looked earlier, I thought this might be the point where he would fall off and fade away in isolation (wrong!).

Our pace in this section was understandably slow (3:58, 4:00, 4:19) but we all held together and I was heartened by how strong a pace it was in comparison to my previous three runs over these hills. It really didn’t feel as demanding as my previous Rotorua marathons. One concern was the tendency of the group to move ahead of me during the downhill bits, but I re-joined them each time we climbed. This is pretty much the opposite way round to what happened to me and any running companions in previous years!

The halfway point wasn’t specifically marked, which was disappointing. There was a clock that could have been intended as a halfway marker. We would have gone through halfway in about 1:23, and the clock was showing about 1:23:30 or so when we went past.

Then we started the steep descent down. The group lifted their pace and once again I found myself chasing. I followed suit and accelerated down, completed kilometre 22 in 3:51. As I motored down, trying to reintegrate back into the pack with a pace of 3:30-something/km, I got stitch in my right side. Stitch isn’t a common problem for me, just something that pops up in a mild fashion now and then, never staying for long. In fact the only other time I’ve had it hit me with a problem was the first time I ran Rotorua and down this very hill. This was worse, it was excruciating and it forced me to back off. The 23rd kilometre, despite being almost all downhill, took me 4:00. It was extremely frustrating to glance at my watch and see a pace slower than I’d been maintaining on the flat. The stitch passed as I returned to the flat, but now I was where I didn’t want to be: about to enter the SH30 section of the course isolated and behind two club rivals that I needed to beat to claim a spot in the National Teams. The group had a decent gap on me and I wasn’t closing.

Kilometres 24 and 25 were completed in 4:02 and 4:03. I was not in my happy place.

Leaving behind the back hills and turning the corner into SH30 at least offers some reward. The reopening of the course for traffic means there is always a large crowd of spectators assembled. Being near the front of such a major race means you’re guaranteed good applause and it was bit of a lift to my freshly-dented spirits.

Just as I was feeling better though, things took a bad turn. Somewhere in the 26th or 27th kilometre, which I now note was during the climb up the initial hill of SH30 that lasts just over a kilometre, stomach cramps struck. Right in the middle of my gut. I eased off and took mental stock. Fucking bollocks. Third marathon in a row, despite the changes to my pre-race nutrition.

While I was trying to figure out how to cope and slowed my pace to the 4:40s, Tony Broadhead passed. I didn’t realise it was him to begin with – he was sporting a blue mohican! – but he called out something about the advantage of local knowledge (being a Lake City runner on his home turf). He was running with the second placed woman. I smiled back and told I’d been hit with stomach cramps, to which she responded before he could – “run through it!”

It began to ease but not in time to prevent Andrew Reese-Jones pass me. Dammit. Both Tony and Andrew are M45s, so with Grant, John Caie and Jim ahead this meant I was now in sixth place. Any medal chances were fading fast.

Seeing kilometres 26 and 27 go in 4:27 and 4:31 did nothing to improve my mood. At least the cramps had now gone and I was rewarded with a 3:55 split.

I was still holding my carbo gel sachet. I had to decide whether to take it or go the whole race without any. It seemed safer to use it so I kept an eye out for the next drinks station, intending to take it in the approach. When I saw one ahead, that was my cue. Except my sweaty hands, made worse from carrying it for nearly 13km, couldn’t get the damn thing to open. I tried to use my teeth. Nope. The drinks station was getting really close and I had no intention of stopping to get a damn gel sachet to open. Tried again to tear the flap with my hands, then teeth. Teeth, hands, teeth… finally. I got the blasted thing open and swallowed the gel just in time to grab a cup of water to wash it down.

Reese-Jones had moved off quite a way ahead and I could no longer see Tony or any of my former pack. It was time to grunt out the worst part of the course. I had the sub-2:50 on my mind. Each time I reached a distance marker, I’d glance at my watch and work out if maintaining 4:00/kms to the finish would allow me to stay under. It was an up/down experience. I’d see that, yes, 4:00/km to the finish would be enough and then run a 4:07 – shit. Right, still okay and 4:08, 4:11, 4:14… fuck! I was eating into the buffer for that all-important target, let alone any chance of finishing the day with a PB.

I was not enjoying this section of the course. I knew I wouldn’t, given it is the worst part of the course, but the road surface this year seemed to be worse. There was a lot of loose gravel and I kept finding myself following the camber towards the kerb. Several times I almost stumbled and had to correct my course. There was something going on with my left foot and I knew it was a blister developing. I have found a certain point on my right foot prone to blisters during marathons and apply a preventative compeed plaster, which does the trick. That exact point on my left foot was getting a blister. At the end of the race, I discovered a bloody sock from where it had burst and another on a toe that pissed blood when I drained it. During the race itself it was battered into a semi-subdued numbness; uncomfortable but not a significant hindrance.

At least the airport arrived. The infamous airport, “affectionately” known by those who run the Rotorua marathon as the longest runway in the world. It meant one good thing though: the turn off of the main road wasn’t far away. And I remembered my promise in the pre-race plan I’d discussed with my coach; when I turn off of SH30, I will lift my pace to the finish.

Just remembering that seemed to spark off my resolve and I did feel better for a while – 4:04, 4:08 was heading in the right direction. Then I was passed by a young guy in black who was moving really well. I later found out from Sharon’s photos he was Shannon Stallard and he would have reeled in a lot of runners in the latter stages. I didn’t mind him passing so much, but club-mate Katie Kemp then collected me. She was in third place for the women and moving well. I’ve raced with her twice before and never lost. So much for that record. The small hill that sits around 35/36km saw her move away from me and open quite a gap as I only managed 4:15 and 4:20.

Then, finally, it was off the main road just after 36km. I was beginning to worry about the sub-2:50 and I had that pre-race promise of lifting my pace from this point on my mind. It helps that you get back the elevation from the small hill here and that aided me in raising my tempo. I’d also seen that the gap to Reese-Jones didn’t seem so formidable as before.

It would have been nice to say I lifted for a fast finish, but it wasn’t fast – just faster than the last 10km. Kilometre 37 was my fastest since the downhill 28th kilometre, taking 4:03 and I followed that up with another 4:03 for kilometre 38. There were a lot of half marathon walkers to go around now. I was trying to minimise the need to go around them, but they weren’t making it easy for me. Some of them were brilliant. As I passed, they would yell to walkers ahead that a runner was coming through so I could get by unhindered.

I passed Reese-Jones at a drinks station. He slowed considerably on the approach to it, grabbing two cups. He threw one over himself, took a sip from the second and dowsed himself with what was left. It was very hot out there now. The morning chill that numbed the hands during the first few kilometres had long since gone and from SH30 onwards, the temperatures had been making their way towards the uncomfortably warm end of the scale. It wasn’t so bad for us, but anyone who took more than three and a half hours probably suffered.

Not long after this, around kilometre 39, I could see a runner in a Trentham singlet. Initially I thought it looked like Brian Garmonsway but dismissed that thought, knowing Brian would likely have finished by now. As I went by, he called out and only then did I realise it was Brian. Wow, Brian had crashed. I waved acknowledgement to his call as I went.

That kilometre was 4:11. I was still looking at my watch and doing the maths and it was still worrying. Why wouldn’t my legs move any faster. I was at the point where you start to question how important that sub-2:50 really is – I was going to be 2:50 and some seconds, which is still a decent time. Then I’d remind myself that the minimum performance threshold for being listed on the Athletics New Zealand is 2:50 flat. Not 2:50:01. My last two marathons have been listed (2:46, 2:48) and it was not a streak I wanted to end. While the marathon is not my best distance, the threshold times are for senior men – there is no allowance for masters men – and the marathon threshold, being relatively softer than the threshold for other distances, is the only one I can achieve. It’s still a thrill for someone like me (good, but not that good) to see my name on the Athletics New Zealand and the debate raging in my head was between the “thrill side” and the “pain side” – it was not yet clear which inner voice was going to win the argument.

After or around 39km, the course re-joins the main road. The walkers had the inside line, the shortest line, entirely blocked. There was nothing for it but to run wide around the sweeping bend. Katie was not that far ahead of me now and the simplest thing to do was to follow whatever line she took, through the gaps she followed.

The 40th kilometre took 4:07 and the 41st 4:04. The “thrill side” of my head was starting to gain the upper hand and I was hurriedly performing maths in my head each time. Damn, this was too close to call. With my watch signalling a little ahead of each distance marker, would I find it had measured the course long or would it just be the location of the markers, meaning it would “gift” me a short final kilometre? I didn’t fancy the chances of the gift scenario.

Emily Solsberg was roadside near the junction with Hinemaru Street. She excitedly yelled about Scottish being first team, which only made me think about how I was sixth Scottish and out of team spots unless someone had blown and failed to finish. I suppose it could have happened, after all it turned out I’d passed Palmerston North’s fast runner Chris Sanson at some stage – not something I would have failed to notice if he’d been running, so he must have been hidden amongst the walkers. (It didn’t happen; I was sixth Scottish.)

Anyway, when I passed round the corner into Hinemaru there was a Pakuranga runner a little way ahead. I lost sight of Katie, so I guess she took a line that forced her to weave around walkers. The Pakuranga runner took a more direct line so I followed his path, finding myself closing him as we headed towards the corner to the finishing straight. I felt my watch vibrate for the 42nd kilometre, but had no time to look (4:04). What I was trying to remember was just how long the finishing straight was – about 400m as it turned out.

I had to check slightly at the corner where the Pakuranga runner had the inside line, which allowed me to have a quick glance at my cumulative time – 2:48:30-something. How long was the straight? The sub-2:50 can still be done, right? “Dammit, I don’t know and there’s only one way to find out.”   Immediately, I kicked and launched down the straight. It was longer than I remembered!

As I went, I heard Sharon yell and I think Dave Parsons did too. I demolished most of the remaining gap to Katie and then I could see the clock. It was getting worryingly close to 2:50. I pushed even harder, watching the clock all the way…. made it! 2:49:58, with a net time of 2:49:55. Phew! The gun time is the important one, being the one used for the rankings.

I had run the final 400m in 72 seconds. At the end of a marathon! My pace peaked at 2:30/km in that section. My average pace from 42km to 42.47km (my final watch reading) was 3:08/km.

John Caie had finished just 16 seconds ahead, while Tony Broadhead (3M45 in the nationals) was 32 seconds. I can’t help but wonder if I’d been tough enough during SH30. 32 seconds away from a medal with my finishing kick available – could I have done something with that? Oh well. Bank that question and its disappointing non-answer and try to use it next time.

The club have finished second in the Men’s National Teams title. What was surprising, to me, was finding Jim had beaten Grant.

Overall, I finished 33rd and the 30th man (25th/28th of all NZ runners). From a field of 4600, I guess that’s not too bad. If, as Todd likes to say, Rotorua is worth five minutes on other marathon courses, it would count as a PB-level performance. In absolute terms, it’s my third quickest marathon and, albeit only just, my third consecutive year of staying sub-2:50. For the disappointments, there are still positives to be celebrated.