A few running events to kick off the year & a sub-4 PB at the Rotorua Marathon!

Round the Bays Wellington, held in February every year, is always an iconic event, generally bestowed with sunshine and an amazing turn out of people of all ages. The atmosphere for this event is like a festival, with entertainment lining the route of the first 6km, between Waitangi Park and Kilbirnie Park (where all the courses finish). I’ve participated in this event several times, either running the half marathon, the 10km (which my daughter, Sophie, did with me one year) or getting the whole family involved for the 6km event. This year I signed up for the half marathon the week before, seeing that the forecast was looking stunning (sunshine and little wind!), and I’d been running consistently over the preceding months, along with doing regular strength and stability work. I was chuffed to finish around 1 hr 50 mins, with energy in the legs to walk home afterwards, and it was such a fun event to kick off 2023.

The following weekend I participated in the Xterra Wellington Festival, doing the half marathon trail event, which consisted of a decent 491 metres of elevation gain over a mix of farm land, mountain bike trails, sand dunes and beach. This run was heaps tougher on the legs, but stunning on the eyes, with beautiful vistas over the Kapiti Coast, which is on the west coast of the lower North Island of New Zealand. The entry fee included a beer token and I was delighted to tear that off my bib at the end and enjoy a refreshing cool drink, whilst soaking up the post event entertainment and food. My husband and youngest were at the finish line to cheer me over the finish line and there was a great turnout from the ‘Life in Motion Run Club‘ (my go to workouts for strength, mobility and stretching!).

I didn’t participate in any events in March, but enjoyed a couple of stunning runs in the Wellington region, including ‘The Paekakariki Escarpment Track‘ (also on the Kapiti Coast). This is a one way track of 9.1km, and forms part of the Te Araroa Trail, which most people walk one way and catch the train back on the return (which my husband and I enjoyed in February 2021, at a leisurely pace – blog post here). On this occasion I decided jog the track, there and back, from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki (stopping off for a bite to eat, by the sea, in Paekakariki), which ended up being 21km and 851m of elevation gain (due to some slips there had been a couple of reroutes on some sections of the tail – requiring a little extra climbing). This track as the nickname ‘stairway to heaven’ as there are a ton of steps, along with a couple of swing bridges! The views are absolutely stunning and if you have a head for heights then I’d definitely recommend this track!

A week later I made the most of another sunny day to run around the outside of Zealandia Te M?ra a T?ne in Wellington, the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary. The Zealandia fenceline loop is a solid trail of around 9km of roller coaster terrain, and around 400 metres of elevation gain, with stunning views across Wellington and also over to the South Island. As I ran, the call of our native parrot to the North Island of New Zealand, the Kaka, screeched high in the sky above me, whilst red admiral butterflies flew up from the ground and fluttered around me.

To finish off the month of March I ran the Southern Walkway, there and back, which runs along the town belt tracks from Island Bay, on the south coast of Wellington, to Oriental Parade via Mt Albert (182m), Mount Alfred (133m) and Mount Victoria (196m). It’s 10.6km one way and I veered slightly off the trail around the start point (as my home is on the south coast of Wellington), ending up covering just over 21km and 691m of elevation gain. Such a beautiful trail to have on my doorstep and connecting the south coat of Wellington to the city.

Mid April was the next time I participated in an event, the Waitaere Forest Run, which had a few different events to choose from and I enjoyed the half marathon course. My husband and youngest daughter joined me and we spent the night before at an AirBnB in Otaki, enjoying a beautiful west coast sunset from Otaki beach.

On the morning of the event I headed off to run, whilst they had a lie in and a big breakfast. I met up with them later on, at Staglands Wildlife Reserve, jumping in the car soon after crossing the finish line of the half marathon (made sure to stretch down, grab a protein bar and a banana, as well as drinking some Tailwind rebuild recovery mix!).

The forest run was a pretty one and the atmosphere of the event was awesome. There was a great turnout of runners from the Life in Motion Run Club, along with some other runners I’ve got to know over social media and finally got to meet in real life (which was absolutely wonderful).

In April I celebrated my 49th Birthday and headed out for a 26km run around the bays of Wellington, grateful to my body for being free of injuries and my health gifting me the freedom to run – it is something I never take for granted, especially after a couple of nasty injuries (I haven’t tried to balance on a slack line since!). When I couldn’t run I was glad to find other outlets to support my mental well being, particularly through the passing of my Mum to Alzheimer’s disease, having to travel to the UK during the pandemic and being separated from my NZ family for four months, but running for me is the outlet that gives me the best release. So, with such a great start to 2023 on the fitness front, I signed up to run the Rotorua Marathon on Saturday 6th May – just five weeks before the event!

Rotorua Marathon

The night before, after a long drive from Wellington to Rotorua, excited to lap the lake!

The last time I’d run a marathon distance was in February 2020, when I ran the Tarawera Ultramarathon (52km), so I was nervous at the start line, but knew mentally I could do it (I just wasn’t sure at what pace!). I had been feeling strong at the finish of the half marathons I’d ran this year, but hadn’t made the time for longer training runs (other than one 26km run in April), so wasn’t sure I could hold that same pace over 42.2kms! A running friend gave me a confidence boost the day before and told me to find the 4 hour pacers and stick with them… so I lined up apprehensively at the start line, along side a group of runners and a couple of wonderful pacers with yellow balloons. There was an upbeat feel amongst the runners, as we exchanged greetings and aspirations of what we were hoping to accomplish, whilst waiting for the starting gun to go off.

With a bang we were moving, shuffling feet over the timing mat, and getting into a comfortable rhythm. In the group I was running with were two young men doing their first ever marathon, as well as a trio of young women, and also some well seasoned runners who knew the course off the back of their hands. I knew that there were a couple of hills to grind up on the course, and the pacers helped us to keep momentum to the top, whilst the heavens opened and showered down on us they hollered out positive words of encouragement. I have never ran in a pack before and at first found it a little claustrophobic, but that feeling soon abated when I slipped back from the pack a little and felt as though a warm blanket had been ripped from my shoulders. I picked up my pace again and tucked in behind a few runners, grateful to them for taking on the headwind.

I managed to stay close to the yellow ballooned pacers for most of the way around the lake, apart from a moment early on, around the 10km mark, when my peri-menopausal bladder called for a toilet stop. By the time I had done my business, and exited the porta-loo, the yellow balloons were bobbing off into the distance and I turned up the gears for a sprint to catch up, feeling my heart rate accelerating and getting a few side-eyes from the runners I passed (as they probably thought I had a screw loose to go that pace early on in a marathon!). I was so relieved when I finally caught up to those happy bobbing orbs of yellow and resumed a more normal pace with the pack, tuning in to the conversations and trying not to think about niggles in the legs and focus on keeping my momentum.

The last 8-9km of the marathon were a hard grind along the road, with a steady stream of cars passing us by, intermittent showers and puddles that periodically weighted down my shoes with water. My calf muscles started twinging and several times I thought they’d both cramp and I’d be a gibbering fish on the pavement. I tried to focus my mind on my arms instead, determined that if I didn’t allow my brain to notice my calf muscles they would behave themselves! I pumped my arms steadily forward and picked up my knees, rejoicing at the sight of each kilometre marker as the finish line drew ever closer.

Then, with about 3km to go, one of the pacers checked in on me and when I mentioned my calf muscles he handed me a couple of salt tablets and at the next aid station, with only 2km to go, I pulled over (in my head I was channeling thoughts of a Formula 1 racing car at a pit stop getting new tyres, but instead it was new legs I was hoping for – at least ones that weren’t going to cramp up on me at the last minute!). I am pathetic at running and drinking water, so I stopped, as I always do, graciously thanking the volunteer that handed me a cup, and guzzled down the tablets, before resuming my forward motion, a little concerned that the yellow balloons were once again bobbing out of sight.

It was around this point that a fellow runner drew up alongside me and gave me a pep talk. He was running with his brother, helping him to achieve a personal best, and told me that if I kept up with the pace I was moving at then I would achieve a sub-4 hour marathon and so, onward I pushed!

With about 500 metres to go, two of the outstanding 4 hour pacers, Eugene Bingham (co-presenter of The Dirt Church Radio Trail Running Podcast) and Conrad Langridge, turned around and called out,”Come on Sarah Lee!”. There was no way they were going to let me miss out on getting across that finish line in under 4 hours!

Meanwhile, my husband was just around the corner and heard the announcer say that those runners hoping to break the 4 hour mark had just 4 minutes to spare, and then he saw me, running with a yellow ballooned pacer at either side of me, shoulder to shoulder, grinning with determination (plus smiling makes everything hurt less!) and focusing on swinging my arms forward to propel the rest of my body forward to that finish line!

I did it! I actually did it!

I really can’t quite believe it and am absolutely stoked that at 49 years of age I ran my best time in a marathon, given that I only started running regularly on the cusp of my 40th Birthday. My twenties were my party years, backpacking, multi-day hikes, using annual leave tagged onto weekends, dancing into the small hours and drinking far too much, my thirties were my ‘baby years’ (three babies, years of breastfeeding – yep – years, combined with years of sleep deprivation) but at least I kept fit, rolling around on the floor with my kiddos and often pushing a double buggy up steep Welly hills, home schooling, a couple of international moves, and then come my forties, and I had a little more independent time (but not enough to head to the hills and hike for days) so I started running! I love how running can take me on a moving meditation, and thankfully Wellington serves up some beautiful trails, which is where I’m at my happiest.

Time to start planning my next adventure, as well as enjoying time with my hubby, who is my best supporter. We had a lovely afternoon relaxing at the Polynesian Spa after the marathon, what a magic place! Hugely grateful to a friend for looking after our daughters and pets. It was the first time, in nineteen years, that hubby and I had taken a road trip alone!