How & why I completed an ultra-marathon at 65. But only just...
Last Saturday, Christopher Zinn, with 600 runners, tackled the 80km ultra-marathon from Sydney's Bondi to Manly via the rocky, hilly, spectacular cliff and harbourside path… but why?
I had never seen myself as any kind of athlete or sportsperson, and apart from jogging and walking, I was content with being middlingly mobile.
I like learning new things, so six years ago, I went to the local evening school for a four-week course on running and gradually became, despite no fixed ambition, a bit of a runner.
Jump forward to last weekend.
In the pre-dawn drizzle at Bondi Pavilion, the spirits of the entrants seemed as high as their average age (42 years old) seemed low (compared to me, that is). With only two other entrants aged over 60, I realised perhaps too late this might be a younger person's game.
When turning 65 in February, I proposed a single goal of any substance: to run three moderately paced marathons of 42 km and cap this annus mirabilis (wonderful year in Latin) with an 80km ultramarathon.
Those three runs turned into four, and despite some overseas trips that distracted from ultra-training and a second dose of COVID, all seemed reasonably set for the big day.
The first 20 km following the cliffs north of Bondi, around the South Head lighthouse and along the harbour's southern shore, were speedy and spectacular.
For the next quarter, I ran with my pal Rick at a reasonably sober pace. We even stopped for a coffee in Circular Quay. The crossing of the Harbour Bridge was the flattest, straightest and smoothest leg of the entire enterprise.
I arrived at the halfway station in a Neutral Bay park with over nine hours before the cut-off time of 8 p.m. at Manly. Surely there would be no problem?
But the friction of steps, hills and fatigue took their toll as I weaved wide-eyed through the well-heeled suburbs around Mosman. Outside Taronga Park Zoo, the running gave way increasingly to walking. My trusty trekking poles came out, and the struggle began.
If I ran too much, I risked 'hitting the wall' by running out of all energy in the leg muscles. To walk too slowly might mean not getting to Manly beach by the deadline. It was a balancing act to finish on time.
Ahead of the three-quarter station on Clontarf harbourside beach, I was ravenous and phoned in an order to my support team for something I never eat but much needed: a burger and chips.
I had four hours before the cut-off and 20 km to go. But the final trek was through the national park, diverted along a steep, sinuous, narrow path, and I was getting more tired with every step.
Good mate Michael joined me for the final 10 km at Manly Wharf with the arduous ascent to North Head and the precipitous climb down to Shelly Beach.
We halted at the summit to take in the mighty setting sun view of the massive harbour and my meanderings along its magnificent margins.
Thank goodness Mike was there to tongue-lash me into a more speedy step. Time was running out.
It was getting dark as we saw the finish line about one kilometre away. I passed a young woman in her twenties who said her knee had given her trouble, and she'd walked for 60 km.
"Let's go," I challenged her and myself. We ran the final 1,000 metres and crossed the line together. It was the most exciting finale imaginable, even if the crowds had long gone.
I soon grew stiff and cold and in need of proper food. The plans for a pint in a local brewery seemed strangely unattractive.
Two days later, I am only slightly sore, with no apparent ill effects. There's some regret at coming nearly last, but the goal was always about completion and satisfaction, not speed. I wasn’t amongst the 42 who failed to finish.
I'm unsure if I'll try an ultra again, but I wouldn't have missed the experience 'for quids'. I am grateful to those friends who supported me, those I met in passing and the many smiling volunteers who made it all possible.
There are no goals yet for my 66th birthday apart from using another great Aussie idiom to give it all a 'red hot go'. How about you?