Mt Oxford Odyssey Mountain Marathon & Christchurch Marathon 2023:
Marathon # 97 & 98
Date:April 15, 2023
Prelude – Courtney is picking up my registration pack for the Mt Oxford Odyssey Mountain Marathon.
Courtney: “Number 149, Courtney Molloy for the 33km and number 36, John Molloy for the marathon.”
Crew member: “John Molloy, is that Dr John Molloy? He’s done this event a few times hasn’t he?”
Courtney: “Yes, and he’s doing the Christchurch Marathon the next day too.”
Crew member: “What’s wrong with him?”
Courtney: “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him when you see him yourself?”
Contrary to popular belief. There is nothing wrong with me. After spending a whole week confined to my 3x5m office whilst listening to my patient’s ailments (of which the majority are related to our sedentary modern day life styles), I couldn’t think of anything better than getting out into the mountains. But it’s interesting how our modern day world wouldn’t bat an eyelid at someone who sits on their arse at work for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, yet raises their eye brows when that same person decides to go outdoors and do back to back marathons on the weekend. (Ok when you put it down in writing, I can see how some would consider this extreme). However, if you kept your dog in a cage for 5 days a week, that would be considered cruelty. Yet this is how the majority of us are living currently. Regardless of what some people may think, by the end of the working week, I’d had enough of this office shit. I was off to the mountains!
It’s 5.40am on Saturday morning and I’m listening to the marathon race briefing with about 60 other competitors. It’s cold enough to keep my gloves and beanie on but I resist the urge to put my jacket on in a bid to be ‘bold and start cold’. I move around to keep warm but can’t help but notice how wet and muddy it is underfoot. I can remember it being this cold on previous Mt Oxford race day mornings, but I couldn’t recall it being this muddy. This is ominous, I thought. At 6am, we all cross the start line with our head lights on and proceed into the dark. Within a couple of minutes, my balance is being challenged as my shoes slip and slide across mud. Within five minutes, any remnants of comfort are decimated by the freshly cool, shin high river crossing. As I progress onwards, the sporadically muddy single trail suddenly becomes a huge pathway of mud. The advice during the race briefing was to go straight up the middle but my modern day life style had conditioned me otherwise. I try skirt around the side until SLUURP, one of my shoes sinks all the way down to shin height. Remaining calm, I reorientate towards what appears to be ‘firmer mud’ when SLUURP, my other shoe sinks even deeper. F***. As I wrench my mud caked shoe from underneath me, I hear the pop pop pop of air bubbles as the mud and water immediately fill the hole I’ve just extricated my foot out of. Oh God. This is going to be a long day. From then onwards, most of the time, I went straight up the middle as directed. There was way too much mud to fight so I just had to embrace it. Now that my feet were wet and muddy, it was also one less thing to care about. Besides, I had far more pressing issues to contend with (like another 40km to go and a 1300m climb up Mt Oxford [twice] ahead of me). Somewhat less burdened, it was head down and bottom up. The only thing that really mattered now was one foot in front of the other. I left the mud bath behind me and kept climbing the mountain. The ‘rewilding’ process was beginning.
As much as I appreciate my comfortable work environment, the pitfalls are that it makes me physically weak and soft. Though I’m mentally and emotionally challenged on a daily basis, physically my body is crying out for challenge. The air conditioning/heating unit means that the temperature is always perfect. If it’s not, this is easily addressed with a simple touch of a button. I have a large black leather chair with extra padding to inflate my self-importance whilst better supporting the subcutaneous tissue and muscles around my weary arse. The white walls are absolutely pristine and the white lights are at the perfect wave length to supposedly increase my mood and work productivity. Though I’m lucky enough to have a window in my office, the inconvenience of having to frequently open and close blinds when examining exposed patients means I just keep them permanently closed now. On the days I do Body Balance during lunch times, I open the blinds so at least I can see the green space beyond a car park where a church once stood until the Christchurch earthquakes. In our increasingly urbanised world, city dwellers can spend up to 90% of their time either indoors or sitting in vehicles. We are confined to office spaces and shopping malls and alienated from nature. A particular author has called this ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. Hence the importance of ‘greening up’ our communities and green space. Proximity to green space improves our health and wellness. In green space we feel less anxious and depressed. Getting into nature/green space has a calming effect, decompresses our minds, and improves our sense of wellbeing. We need to get away from our computer screens, escape our offices, and ‘rewild’ again. We need wilderness.
As I climb higher up Mt Oxford, the morning sun is just beginning to rise. As I pass the tree line, it’s beautifully crisp and the wind is amazingly light. As the sunlight spills over the mountain, it blends with the tussock and I bask in the golden natural light. The air smells good and it even tastes fresh. All my worries have gone. Breathing in the mountain air, I settle into a rhythm of breath and movement. Climbing higher again, I become one with the clouds. The clouds themselves move lightly and untroubled in the gentle breeze. When I eventually reach the top, I take a moment to appreciate the vastness of the Canterbury Plains which extend as far as the eye can see. I love the feeling of insignificance. A feeling of a force larger than ourselves. How I’m merely a small speckle in this vast beautiful world. As the wind up top is much stronger, I don’t stop for long and keep moving. When I descend back into the tree line again, I’m sheltered from the wind and shoulder to shoulder with beech forest. I’d purposedly put on my green long sleeve running shirt today. I wanted to become one with nature today. Completely disappear into the bush. Dissolve in all of it. Feeling light and unburdened, I descend swiftly towards Wharfedale Hut. When I arrive at the aid station, it’s a quick top up of food and fluids and I’m on the move again. As I approach three consecutive knee high river crossings, I think back to earlier this morning when I was guarded and reluctant. This time, I crossed freely. I’d embraced my new normal. As I leave the gushing river behind me, I tune in to the other sounds around me. In main, it’s silence. It’s so quiet I can hear myself think again. But in between are birds. Birds singing. Birds chirping. Birds returning calls. You can hear the rustle of the forest and even the noise a gentle breeze makes. As I begin another long climb towards Black Hill Hut, I’m completely connected to nature and in tune with myself. After a while, I stop thinking and start feeling. I feel the wind against my skin and the sun against my cheek. I feel revitalised. I feel refreshed. I feel free. Far away from my office, I feel wild and free again. And it’s so therapeutic! Surely a day in nature for some would be far more therapeutic than any medication I can hope to prescribe. After finally arriving at Black Hill Hut, the reward is a large section of technical downhill running. The only thing I think about is my foot strike with the ground. Eventually, I connect with the Wharfedale Track which is pleasantly runnable. The Wharfedale Track runs along the Dobson Stream so I cross over many of the small tributaries that feed into it. Where the water is flowing freely, I stop to splash my face and the cold water is instantly energising. When I arrived at the Wharfedale Hut again, I’d covered 30km over 6.5 hours. However, had it not been for my watch, I’d be none the wiser. I’d completely assimilated into nature’s own time and rhythm by now. I was lost in nature and lost in myself. It was wonderful.
Having experienced nature’s more favourable side, at some point during the Mt Oxford Odyssey you’re likely to encounter its rough side. Knowing what lies ahead, I take as long as I need at Wharfedale Hut to replenish my supplies before leaving. Just like in previous years, the jam pikelets are on the return leg menu so I help myself to a few. Whereas those who do the 21km and 33km events are directed around Mt Oxford towards the finish line, the marathon competitors have to go up and over Mt Oxford again! This is where nature reveals its raw brutality. The ascent from the Wharfedale side of Mt Oxford is one of the hardest things you could do. I mean, it probably wouldn’t be so bad with fresh legs. But by this stage of the race, not many have fresh legs to call upon! Time slows remarkably and nature really grinds you down. With my chest seemingly at the same level of the ground at times, I bravely look at my GPS which reveals a 25 degree gradient over the next 1.5km. You can expect at least a 30 minute kilometre for this one. After a couple of kilometres, the gradient softens somewhat but not by much. It really is a long grind. Hours disappear. When I finally reach the top, I give thanks to the hardy LandSAR Oxford crew who have braved the strong winds up top all day and keep on heading down. However, as keen as I was to accelerate and get to the finish, going down wasn’t much quicker. The rugged uncompromising rocks and rocky trail ensured a careful descent until at least the tree line. From the tree line, it became the turn of the tree roots to hamper any swift descent until eventually the ground levelled off and you were reunited with mud again (only this time the mud was much worse as by now a few hundred competitors had been and gone before me). Hear we go again. Like a wild animal, I start charging through the mud. For added effect (whilst making sure no one is around me), I roar like some wild boar. Chest out and nostrils flared, I descend wildly along the muddy paths. When I finally cross the finish line, it’s just after 4pm and I’ve been gone for a good ten hours. I spot Courtney waiting for me at the finish line. Her shoes are muddy but she’s wearing a fresh change of clothes. I can tell that’s she been waiting for a while but I can’t tell if she’s happy or angry to see me. I quickly transform back to a subdued man. “Man that was hard!” I exclaim. We hop into the car and exchange war stories all the way home. The rewilding was complete. Now, I just had the matter of another marathon to contend with…
Helpful tipGreen up and rewild as often as you can
It’s not often an opportunity comes by to do back to back marathons in your home town so I was up for the challenge. It’s also amazing what a couple of hot showers, good meal, and good night’s sleep can do for you. As I walked towards Hagley Park, my legs didn’t feel too bad after Mt Oxford taking into account the 10 hrs and 3500 metres of vertical gain from yesterday. The new Christchurch Marathon course revolved around a 10.5km lap course through the CBD and Hagley Park. The Quarter Marathon (one lap), Half Marathon (two laps), and Full Marathon (four laps), all started at 7.30am. As I approached the starting line assembly area, what an amazing contrast it was! Yesterday my start line was a muddy wet paddock in the dark and for most of the day, I was shoulder to shoulder with bush. Today, I’m lining up along Park Terrace shoulder to shoulder with 4000 other participants. The music is pumping and the loud speakers are blaring out instructions. I move optimistically towards my 4hr finish starting group and stand quietly and collect my thoughts. It’s funny how once upon a time, all I use to do was run road marathons. But the less road running I did, the more comfortable I felt creating my own path on the trails. I think I’ve now morphed into an off road/trail runner with a bit of a road running background. In saying that, I’ve run enough road marathons to know that the most important driver is within. All external motivators are short lived. So whilst I appreciate that the party atmosphere helps to amp people up at the start, the most important party you need to prepare for is the party in your legs from 30km followed by the battle with your mind. And whatever motivator you choose to use, it has to be greater than the desire to stop. Today my motivator was my kids. I’m conscious that the majority of the time I’m either at work or running so I didn’t want to miss out on too many important occasions. Poppi (4 year old) was scheduled to start her 1km run at 11.30am and Millie (7 year old) was scheduled to start her 2km run at 11.45am. If I could belt out a 4hr marathon then I’d be back in time for Poppi. If that was too tough, then at least a 4hr 15 min marathon would get me back in time for Mille. However, even these kind of times are challenging on fresh legs! It was a big ask but I was going to try.
As I wait for the starter’s gun, there’s a lot of nervous energy around me. I stand pretty relaxed having used up all my nervous energy yesterday. Fair to say, an overexcited fast start was the least of my worries though I was concerned about starting too slow or having to work too hard too early. At 7.30am we get the traditional on your marks, get set, go! Being so far towards the back, it’s a walking start until eventually I can jog and ease into my work. The mass mixed distance start meant there was a lot of foot traffic with a huge variation in pace so I was very conscious of establishing my own pace and rhythm. Initially my focus was on easing into things. I didn’t want to shock my body too early of the impending marathon. However, I also couldn’t afford to start too slow. I had no idea how long this process would take other than it required a lot of ‘feel’ and a bit of patience. The new course started by going past Christs College, Canterbury Museum, and The Arts Centre. Although my legs weren’t overly heavy, they also weren’t stupid and remembered what I got up to yesterday. I started drinking and fuelling much earlier than usual aware that I was probably already in deficit and would need to work much harder throughout the course of the run. At around the 3km mark, I pass an overheating lady wearing a Pikachu costume (which probably meant I started too slow) but I continued to hold back. By 4km, I’m still running within myself along the Avon River. When I hit the 5km mark, I check my watch for the first time and it shows that it’s taken me 33 minutes (ideally, I needed to be in this position by 28 minutes if I was serious about a sub 4 hour time). As I approach Hagley Park, I realise that I need to push the pace but despite my increasing effort, I struggle to go any faster and am consistently above a 6 minute kilometre pace. By the time I finished my first lap in 1 hour and 6 minutes, I was well off the required 5 min 40 sec kilometre pace required for a sub 4 hour finish. If I continued at this pace, then I’d finish the marathon in 4 hours and 24 minutes. By then, my girls’ races would’ve finished and dad would’ve missed out again. Oh man this is getting tough. It was only 10km but already I needed to dig deep.
There is this perception that if you can run a 100 miles, then a marathon would be “a piece of piss”. This is untrue. And right now I’m living proof of this. When you train for a 100 miler, you really don’t want to be running faster than 6 min per km for a prolonged period of time. Going too fast can drain your legs and leave you stranded in the later stages of a 100 miler. The terrain in a 100 miler is also much more varied with many ups and downs and walk/run transitions. So after spending hours training my body to run no quicker than 6 min per km on varied terrain, I was now asking it to hold a 5 min and 40 sec kilometre pace on a dead flat course for a much longer period of time than I had ever trained for (cue the training principle of specificity). And this is what makes marathon running so physically and mentally demanding! And excuses aside, I was finding this tough. I had to keep pushing but I needed buy in from fortress brain. The problem being, my brain was telling me that pushing the pace 10km into a marathon was too early. However, my heart was telling me otherwise. Now that it was the second lap, I knew the course had no further surprises. The field had also thinned a bit but there were still quite a few runners on the course. I knew that it was now or never. I had to make my move. Here we go. Only 10km into the marathon, I initiated my ‘finisher’s kick’. Typically this kind of rear guard action is reserved from 30km onwards but not today. I put my foot on the gas and ran like I had everything to lose. I ran for my kids. My focus narrowed immensely. Unlike yesterday when I was in tune and connected with my surroundings, today I was completely detached from anything. All I could think about was the effort. The sole focus was the drive. The drive was the sole focus. I just had to keep pushing. Although I managed to claw some time back, I reached the halfway mark in 2 hours and 6 minutes. I now needed to run a negative split to finish under 4 hours and get back in time for Poppi. Can I do this? Is this possible? The mind games started. Of course you can. Think strong. At the start of the third lap, I pushed harder again. The push became a blur. The blur became the push. When I finished my third lap, the time was 3 hours and 8 minutes. However, my legs were starting to feel heavy and less fluid. The physical cracks began to appear. I accepted that I was too far off the pace and that a sub 4 hour pace was beyond me. There’s no way in the world I’ve got a 52 minute 10km in me. Running along a painfully long straight up Kilmore Street (for the fourth time) into an increasingly strong head wind, I lamented that I was no longer in nature’s time, but rather doomed by my own self-imposed time demands. Not for lack of effort, it dawned on me that you excel in what you train in. I wasn’t trained for this. The physical cracks deepened further into mental cracks. At some point, you need to stop the rot. I had to prevent the cracks from becoming full blown fissures. I knew I had to quickly reorientate and adjust my expectations. Ok, if I can just hold this pace, then a 4 hr 10 min finish is possible. If I can do that, then I’ll be back in time to see Millie off. I just had to keep pushing my limits of perceived exertion. The reminder of the fourth lap was a greater blur. I simply ran as hard as I physically could. It was a battle just to hold a pace but I managed to hold all the cracks together. As I approached the finish line, Courtney seemed surprised to see me. “Are you finishing now?” “Yes” I respond. “Four laps is enough. How’s the kids?” She doesn’t answer (or I didn’t hear) and she rushes away somewhere so I just keep running. As I approach the finisher’s chute, Courtney shouts out to me and lifts Poppi up over the side railing. Poppi had just finished her 1km and was keen to join me. I lift her down and then we both start running down the finisher’s chute. As we approach the finisher’s line, Poppi reveals an incredible turn of pace and leaves me in my dust! “Poppi!” I shout out. “Wait for your dad!” She slows down for me and we both cross the finish line laughing whilst holding hands. After receiving my finisher’s medal, I make my way to Courtney and ask “Do you want me to run with Mille?” “No, I’ll go back to her. She’s just about to start” she responds. Poppi and I wait together near the finisher’s chute until we see Millie and then we all join her to the finish line as well! I’m smiling ear to ear. Finishing with my kids has just topped everything off. As we head back to the car, finisher’s medals around our necks, I’m so happy. I’ve had one of the best weekends I could imagine. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was challenging. But it was fulfilling. And this was what I was made for. I believed I could, so I did. Find and keep doing whatever it is that flicks your switch or spins your wheels. That’s one good thing covid has taught me. Whether it’s an off road run in nature or a big city road run with family and friends, discover what you need the most as a person and just keep fronting up. Running is medicine.