Brendan Cooley’s Melbourne Half Marathon (16 October 2016)

16 October, 2016

Last year, I decided that, for now, Half Marathon is my preferred distance. This had a lot to do with the injuries I seemed to get from training for a full, which put me out of business for up to 3 months. So, in mid-2016 I registered for Melbourne Half, with the intention of running a PB of 1:40:00. Despite my best efforts training in the few months leading to the race, I still managed to get a few niggling injuries which softened the training regime a little, but still went ahead, booked flights, a hotel and set my focus to hitting this PB, bearing in mind it is more than 5 minutes faster than my previous best which was in Riga during May this year.

After flying in from Perth the day prior, I checked into the Westin hotel in central Melbourne, but the room wasn’t yet ready. Great chance to grab a haircut, so I followed the directions of Concierge to a small place called Barber on Degraves, about 200 metres away, just off Flinders Lane. On the way, I noticed a couple of homeless men sitting against a wall of St Paul’s Cathedral which is opposite the Westin, so when I was walking back, I decided to grab a piece of banana bread and bottle of juice for one of them. I headed over to where this guy was sitting, by this time, with his head down – probably sleeping, and put the bag quietly next to him. He obviously heard me and placidly looked up and thanked me a couple of times to my pretty generic response of “You’re welcome, best of luck”. With a few ‘feel good’ endorphins running through me, I went to my room which was now ready and the rest of my evening involved preparing for the run by getting my gear out and having a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese and steamed broccoli for dinner, and an early night’s sleep.

Race Day: Woke at 6 am, showered (which I don’t normally do before a run!), threw on my running gear (my best BTRC Shirt, of course) and made my way toward Rod Laver Arena. I was going to walk the way I knew, but instead, walked with another couple I just met in the lobby, who were also running the Half. They took a back lane which I later saw was called Chapter House Lane – running down another side of St Pauls – and there was this same homeless guy I saw yesterday, in a new position. He recognised me and again thanked me as I was walking past. So I stopped, and we chatted for a short moment – he told me he saved the banana bread for dinner that night, and couldn’t believe how big a slice it was (and it was big). It was quite humbling to understand that such a small gesture made a real difference to this guy – he had a piece of Banana Bread for dinner as I scoffed my $37 room service meal at my 5-star hotel just 50 metres away – and I bet I know who was more grateful for their meal. He wished me all the best in my run; we shook hands, and I went on my merry way to the staging area at Rod Laver, with a good feeling, and realising I now have another motivator to run well.

I experienced some issues in the Melbourne Half a couple of years ago with the bottleneck in the first couple of km, so part of my strategy this year was to start quite close to the front of the pack. At 08:00 the starting gun went off and within about 10 seconds, I was crossing the start line. The run began as well as I could hope – there was a strong wind which was on our backs, and once the first kilometre passed, I started clocking slightly better times than my target pace. Simon wisely suggested running the first 10K at target pace then assess how I was going – and adjust the pace if necessary. At the 10k mark, I was feeling quite good, encountering the usual peaks and troughs of running. But when things were feeling tough, I wasn’t thinking of the fact I wasn’t halfway through yet, or what Strava followers might say or think if I don’t do as well as I hoped – I was thinking about this homeless guy – how I am privileged to be able to do this run and that the physical pain I am going through likely wouldn’t even scratch the surface of his misfortune. So I kept on charging through, pushing myself as hard as I dare, bearing in mind that there wasn’t any point smashing out ¾ of a half marathon then tanking the last part, especially with a big headwind on the final 6 or so km. With about 500 metres remaining, I entered the MCG on very weary legs, the timer showed 1:38:48 as I passed under it, and looking around to the other side, thought I had better ‘get the lead out’ if I were to do this in 1:40:”anything” and pushed as hard as I could. Essentially I sprinted the last few hundred metres, dodging and weaving my way past other competitors as I did my “Hollywood” finish. I’d prepped my finger on the Garmin start/stop button and as I passed under the finish banner, stopped the watch. Slowly bleeding off the pace, I rolled to a stop, sat down on the grass utterly exhausted. I looked at the watch to see 1:39:59, and truly couldn’t believe what I saw… but that was my Garmin time, not the official time… did I actually make it in under 1:40:00?

When I got back to the hotel, showered, had some lunch and checked my official time… 1:39:59… Wow, just one second under my target time – I was over the moon and wanted to thank my new friend for giving me some inspiration. I went to the local 7-Eleven and grabbed a couple of apples, muffins, bottle of coke, water and a coffee and trotted up to where I saw him before my run, and he was still there. I crouched down and quietly offered the bag of goodies and told him that I ran my best race today and it had a lot to do with meeting him. His gratitude was of that which you don’t see often, and we got chatting. He introduced himself as Stewart and making genuine eye contact we talked about his life, how things are tough on the weekends especially because most of the help isn’t available then, and how more and more people are finding themselves this way for reasons such as the Ford factory closure.

It is hard to say whether I felt better from running a personal best, or for beating the apprehension that seems to come when even thinking about extending a small hand to someone on the street. Upon reflection, I’d say the run was great and something I will remember for a long time to come, but helping Stewart is something that has more far-reaching satisfaction because I was inspired by the decent (and a few utterly amazing) people who have been in my life over the years, some who have changed hundreds of lives by the good that they do. All in all, to have both things happen on the same day has left me feeling really, very grateful for a privileged life.

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