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Running The Auckland Marathon

It was late August when I signed up for the race. Nine weeks out.

Part of me didn’t really believe I could do it.

But, part of me did.

That was the only part that mattered.

There’s a long backstory to why I signed up for this race. I was battling a skin condition called Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW). It had destroyed me physically and mentally. I could write a book about the experience, but I’ll leave out the long version for now (you can read more here).

Because what I learned on race day is everyone has a unique reason for getting to the start line. The marathon isn’t a race for most, it’s a battle against yourself, trying to conquer your own limits and destroy your demons. The thing we all have in common is, we are in a fight.

On the back of one guy’s shirt, it said “Sudden cardiac arrest in May, but I’m still here.” Another guy’s shirt said something like “My wife said I needed to get in shape.”

To some it might seem like madness to wake up at 4 a.m and run 42 km with a bunch of strangers, but thousands of people had accepted the challenge. Marathons are particularly special, mythical even; a chance to undertake the impossible journey that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens. You go out there and run the impossible race, and by doing so you take your life back. Because once you finish a marathon, you can do anything.

What’s it like running Auckland Marathon?

The marathon experience is quite special, something I didn’t expect or even think much about when I signed up. People come from all over the world to run. It’s a a life changing event for many.

Below I’d like to take you through the experience, from signing up to everything that happens on race day. If you want to run your first marathon and Auckland is on your radar, I’ll include everything you need to know. And if you have no plans of ever running a marathon, hopefully this gives you an insight to what it’s like, or better yet it might inspire you to try 🙂

Signing up for the race

Auckland Marathon is owned by Ironman and administered through Active.com, but you start your registration directly on the Auckland Marathon website.

It will cost you around $130-$190 to enter, depending on how early you sign up.

You will also need to pay an Active.com handling fee of 8%, so in total the registration fee will cost you between $140-$205 NZD.

This fee gets you entry into the race with an official race number and timing bib, a gear bag, medical support on the course, water, Powerade and Coke at aid stations, an Auckland Marathon hat, and a finisher’s medal (if you finish).

The other thing you might want to buy is your race-day transport. You don’t want to be worrying about things like parking and being late on race morning, so I’d recommend using the transport provided by the event. You can either catch the ferry from Auckland CBD, which will take you directly to the start line, or there are also buses you can take from other areas on the North Shore. The tickets cost around $10-$20.

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff you can buy during registration like photos, clothing etc. but none of it is essential. If you’re thinking about buying the photos, you can wait until after the race and you’ll get to actually see them before you buy, but it is a bit cheaper to buy them beforehand.

Training

For some idea of my background, I’m new to running, I started running 4 months before the race, and started training for the marathon 9 weeks before. I would’ve liked more time, but I made the decision to register late so that was all I was left with.

Most people would have considered me fit and healthy before I started, but I quickly found out that didn’t matter much. Running fitness is a different beast!

I remember my first run in June was 2.14 km and I felt like I was going to pass out. If you had told me then I would be running a marathon in October I would have said “Impossible!” or at the very least, “highly highly highly highly unikely”. But the other thing about running fitness is it tends to improve quite quickly; a handful of short runs and you’ll already notice a big difference. So don’t be discouraged if your first runs feel like death!

As a new runner the first thing I had to do was put together a training plan. All the training plans I Googled you had to pay for, and the free ones were vague. I did find a few helpful-ish articles and used those and mostly guesswork to put a plan together.

Basically you’re going to need to run a lot (duh), but there are many different kinds of runs; slow runs, fast runs, long runs, short runs, tempo runs, threshold runs, repeats.

To be honest all that stuff just complicated everything so I just focused on one thing: Mileage.

This meant I ended up doing only three types of workouts:

  1. Short runs
  2. Long runs
  3. Weights

My only goal was to finish the race. As long as I met my mileage goal every week I figured I was getting fitter and would finish.

A typical week would be three short runs (between 6-10 km) and then a long run on Sunday (20+ km). I didn’t worry about how fast I ran or when I ran or how I ran, I just focused on finishing the mileage. Once or twice a week, I would go to the gym after a short run and do some weights (mostly hitting legs, and some circuit stuff).

“Good” runners typically get their mileage up to 80+ km per week or more, but I knew in 9 weeks I’d never get that far. The goal was to get up to 50 km per week, but I never actually made it there either. Dealing with TSW and also a few sore muscles meant the most I ever ended up logging in a week was 41 km, and the longest run I did was 28 km. Not the ideal build-up to race day, but it was the best I could do with the time I had.

Diet

Obviously you need large amounts of fuel to train for and finish a marathon, so nutrition is a big part of the training plan. I know everyone has a different view on what a healthy diet looks like, and to be honest I think you could finish a marathon on any reasonable diet, whether it’s Whole 30, paleo, vegan, carnivore or whatever else. But I will tell you what I did and why I did it.

I decided to train on the keto diet, which is a low/zero carb diet. I’d have been open to any diet, but I went with keto because it’s familiar and fit best with the TSW treatment I was going through.

The broad macronutrient breakdown on keto is 75% fats, 20% protein, 5% carbs.

This is the opposite of almost every recommended diet for marathoners, which recommends ~60% carbs and almost no fats. However I did find many people who had run marathons on keto and that was all I needed to know.

What’s the idea behind keto?

Carbs are the default energy source for most people. What happens is you eat carbohydrates, your body turns them into glycogen. The body then sends this glycogen to your muscles to use as energy.

However if you stop eating carbs, your body has to use something else. It turns to the next energy source which is fats. Your body takes fats (either body fat or dietary fat) and turns it into something called ketones, which gets sent into your bloodstream for energy.

The reason people choose the fats/ketones route over the carbs/glycogen route is because of capacity. Glycogen delivers energy faster, but your muscles can only store around 2,000-3,000 calories of glycogen at any time. When you run out, your body shuts down and you’ll get light headed and find it difficult to stand or walk (also known as “bonking”) until you eat more carbs. 2,000 calories will only last you around 1.5 hours of a marathon, so if you’re running on glycogen, you will need to eat during the marathon if you want to finish. This is why most people hammer energy gels during marathons, which are packed with sugar (carbs).

When it comes to fats, your capacity is much higher. Most people already have at least 30,000 calories of stored body fats, which is enough to fuel several marathons without eating anything. However, if you’ve been eating carbs your whole life your body’s ability to create ketones will be weak, since it’s never had to do it before. It takes time for your body to build the ability to generate large amounts of ketones, or to become “keto adapted”. Usually around 6-8 weeks of no carbs, and your ketone-producing ability will continue to improve over time after that.

If I were an experienced runner and could finish the marathon in ~3 hours, I would have relied on a more glycogen-based diet, but as a newbie with only 9 weeks to train I figured I could be out there for 5 hours or even more. So the bigger gas tank on keto made more sense to me. I’m also a regular faster so I knew my body was already keto-adapted to some extent.

So what does a keto diet look like? Lots of fish, steak, chicken, cheese, eggs, butter, and low glycemic vegetables. This was good because it also kept my food prep very simple. For all my training, I also worked out fasted, relying only on body fats to fuel my runs. This made my meal prep even simpler as I only ate one (big) meal a day.

I did learn quite a few interesting things about this diet during my prep, and for any future marathons I would tweak this strategy a bit, but overall it worked as I’d hoped.

Athlete check-in

Two days before the marathon there is the check-in, where you go to pick up your race number and your race pack. It was held at The Cloud in the CBD, and there’s a big runners expo there too with all kinds of merch and gear for sale.

It’s pretty cool to go to these things as a first time runner. You see all the other competitors and what a big event it is. Everyone is on a buzz because you’ve been training for months and now finally the race is here.

If you’re running at Auckland, one thing I’d recommend is depositing special drinks. The great thing about Auckland marathon is it lets all competitors deposit special drinks, not just the professionals. This means you can prepare your own drinks and deposit them at check-in with your name and the aid station you want it to be sent to, and the staff will make sure that drink is waiting for you out on the course.

Because I was running on keto I couldn’t drink the sugary drinks they provided, so I mixed up my own drinks with electrolytes, ketones and MCT oil and had them deposited at every aid station. This was a big mental confidence booster for me, because I knew I would have lots of keto-friendly fuel, and would be able to race with the same drinks I’d been using all throughout my training.

Race morning

I woke up around 3:30 am on race morning. I had all my kit prepared the night before. During the race I’d be carrying a race belt with my knee guard, a little box of electrolyte pills, some “fat bomb” sachets, and my phone with headphones in case I needed inspiration (I ended up not using the phone, the fat bombs or the knee guard at all, but I did finish all the electrolytes!)

I arrived at the start line early. This gave me a lot of time to stretch and do some massage ball work, more for peace of mind than anything. In the back of my head I still wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish this thing. My knee was a little soft and I knew I’d have to be gentle on it. I was just doing my best to focus and get positive.

As my parents were with me I didn’t need to deposit any gear, but if you’re alone there is a bag check where you can deposit your jackets etc and they’ll transport it to the finish line for you.

The start line is divided up into zones based on pace, so if you think you’ll run around 3 hours, you go to the 3 hour pace zone, if you think you’ll run 4:30 you go to that zone and so on. It’s a rolling start, and there’s an electronic timer on your racing bib so your official time doesn’t start until you actually cross the start line.

I started at the back of the 4:45 zone. I figured I could run between 4:30 and 5 hours, but I’m a slow starter and didn’t want to get caught in a whole bunch of people passing me. I decided it was better to start at the back and pass lots of people rather than get overtaken all the time and be reminded of how slow you are.

There was a lot of buzz on the start line. Thousands of people, all this work and it had all led to this moment. This means lots of nerves, lots of emotion. But as soon as the gun went all that faded away and I got to work.

Kilometres 1-10

I felt unusually strong for the first 10km. Normally my body takes a while to loosen up, but on race day I was comfortable from the beginning. Possibly because I started at a slower pace than usual.

It was still dark at this point, about 30 minutes before sunrise. As a summer chaser it was a little cold for me. Of course I was too caught up in the moment to worry about that. It only took a couple of slow kilometres before I was warmed up and running smoothly.

The course at Auckland is top-heavy, meaning the difficult parts are in the first half. Most of the early part consists of small hills. In fact the course basically starts on a hill (an easy one). Hills are the bane of a marathoner because not all kilometres are equal. After running for hours, 1 km on a hill can be ten times harder than 1 km on a flat. So getting the hills out of the way early actually turned out to be a good thing.

The first aid station was at 4 km. This was where I realised how awesome it is to have special drinks. The special drinks table is actually about 20 metres before the actual aid station. So how it happens is everyone is running towards the aid station, but before we get there, there’s a big sign that says “Special Drinks” with a table. And on the table I see my bottle waiting, with the blue and yellow ribbons I tied on it so I could find it easily. There’s only 2 other bottles there. I run by like it’s my own personal refreshment booth, don’t even need to stop, I grab my bottle and start sucking on it as I run right through the aid station. Everyone else is slowing down or stopping in the crowd to get water or Powerade, and I just breeze right past them.

The second huge advantage was I had a bottle, and everyone else was drinking from cups. It’s almost impossible to run while drinking from a cup without slowing down (I learned this when I grabbed some water a few aid stations down), but it’s easy from a bottle. So I was able to continue running while drinking without breaking my rhythm at all, and everyone else had stopped to walk/drink.

My pro tip: If you’re running at Auckland, definitely deposit special drinks!

The first ten kilometres was my strongest part of the race as expected. I also ended up passing a lot of people like I’d planned, including the 4:45 pacer. At least mentally, that set me up nicely for the next leg.

Kilometres 11-20

This is the area where you finish the last few roads on the North Shore and then head over the bridge to Victoria Park.

I still felt strong during this area. However, the bridge was a lot steeper than I expected. Quite a few people struggled on the uphill. It’s a lot steeper than you might guess while driving over it. I grinded out the uphill quite well, but ended up finding the downhill difficult too. It felt uncomfortable running it slowly. I told myself it’s a waste of energy to hold back on a downhill, so I let my legs loose and went down at speed.

This probably used a lot of energy anyway and hammered my legs, but it did mean I got over the bridge quickly. I also passed the 4:30 pacer group on the way.

Once you get over the bridge, there’s a few winding roads you run through and some mini hills, but eventually you get out towards Victoria Park. This is the halfway point, so you see the half marathoners going off to the finish. For you though, it’s only halfway!

I actually remember feeling pumped at this point as I still had spring in my legs, and told myself I was more than ready to fight through the second half. This is what we came to do!

Kilometres 21-28

The second part of the course is all flat. It’s also all straight – along the waterfront to St Heliers and then straight back. This makes it ideal for putting your game face on and getting to work.

My goal was to stay in front of the 4:30 pacer and maybe even push for 4:15 in the later kms. But my legs started to weaken around Kilometre 25, and eventually the 4:30 pacer group caught up to me. I stayed with the group for about 2km, but my legs just couldn’t do it and I had to let them go. That was disappointing, but I didn’t have time or energy to dwell on it. I just told myself to make sure I stay ahead of the 4:45 pacer, and kept on going.

Along the waterfront there are markers every kilometre. They seemed to come rather quickly at the start, but by Kilometre 25 it felt like decades between them. Around Kilometre 28, the hurt started to set in deeper than I’d ever experienced in training. It was the kind of pain where I would have said to myself “Enough for today” because I would’ve guessed an injury wasn’t far away. For the first time I was doubting whether I’d actually finish without walking. I hadn’t even gotten to Kilometre 30 yet, and that’s supposed to be when the “real” hard part starts.

Kilometres 29-36

The worst part of the race x100. My legs were toasted. I told myself whatever you do, don’t walk. But although I may have looked like I was running, I was probably moving at walking pace anyway.

Interestingly it was only my legs though. My cardio was fine, I wasn’t breathing heavy, and had a ton of energy (those trusty body fats). I could’ve gone straight to the gym and smashed an arm workout. But my legs just weren’t conditioned to run this long. They were being tortured.

This is also the point I started seeing a lot of people bonking, a few people walking with limps, and pairs of people just walking and talking like they’d given up on trying to run anymore.

Around Kilometre 31 was where the peak pain period started and even though I didn’t stop I felt like I wasn’t moving at all. Looking ahead was just endless waterfront, and the disadvantage of being an Aucklander was, I knew exactly where I was. Even in a car Victoria Park was miles away! It would have been better if I’d had no idea. Plus my mind was playing tricks on me. “Does that sign say Kilometre 32? I thought I already passed Kilometre 32! FML.”

Finally I did stop to walk through an aid station at 33km and finished my drink slowly. A little pep talk, and I managed to force myself to get running again.

Then after managing to “run” to the 36km aid station, I stopped to go toilet and it was hard for me to get moving again. Six more kilometres shouldn’t feel like a lot, but it might as well have been 100 more at that point, the finish line felt so far away. This is where you start zoning out, calling on Jesus to come down and save you. I gave myself a chest bump and told myself just get to the next aid station, drink more ketones and maybe your legs will come to life.

Kilometres 37-42

I was running super slowly (my splits say I ran 8’41” for Kilometre 37) but running a few kilometres slowly was probably what I needed. My legs found a little spring and as each kilometre marker went down it was a mental boost that got me moving a little faster each time. I ran Kilometre 38 in 7’47”, and Kilometre 39 in 7’26”.

When I left the 40 km aid station, my legs came back to life. Now I could visualise the finish line being only 2 km away. There was a police officer there that told me to finish strong and I said to myself…YEAH! Time to finish strong.

The crowds started growing after this point and suddenly the course was lined with people smiling and cheering. The marathon course is pretty lonely at times, especially in those later kms. You’re out there chugging along, the finish line is still so far and you realise nobody can run these kms except for you; the only way you’re getting out of here is through another hour of pain on these smashed up legs. So to suddenly get all that energy from spectators in the last two kms, it was like a pure shot of adrenaline. If you’re ever on the sidelines of a marathon, or any running race, definitely cheer and clap people on. It might not seem like much but after four hours of running that boost is everything.

Because your name is on your race bib, people were even saying “C’mon Bren you’re looking strong!” and that would pump me up for at least another 200 metres. I’d say “F*ck yeah, I am looking strong!” and beast mode became activated. Another lady shouted, “Don’t give up, and remember to smile!” and that really reminded me that it was such a blessing to be out here running this race, that I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I thought back to where I’d come from, all the darkest nights I’d been through and how I’d survived far worse pain than this. I needed to be reminded that this race wasn’t just for me but for everyone who’d been through what I’d been through.

The only thing I regret from the race is I wish I could’ve gone back and thanked all those people who cheered for me. They have no idea how much impact they had with just 4 or 5 words.

The last kilometre was all engines GO and I started to power through it. By now there was no doubt in my mind I was going to finish, so there was no reason to hold anything back anymore. Even if my ankles broke I could crawl to the finish line. I lifted my legs up and tried to get the best time I could. Looking at my race splits, the last kilometre was actually one of my fastest (6’03”).

As I came through the business park before Victoria Park, there were crowds of people sitting along the route in the sun, enjoying the race. I couldn’t see the finish line yet but I knew it was just around the corner. A lot of them were cheering, saying “Finish strong!” and “Almost there!” and this is where I started to get a bit emotional and was holding back tears. I actually still think about this moment a lot and I cry every time. A marathon means something different to every person, but it’s always about conquering yourself and achieving the impossible. It’s such a long and hard journey to get there and after months of training and hours of running one step after the other, you can finally smell the finish and all these strangers are clapping and screaming for you, it’s a feeling that can’t be explained.

When I turned the corner to the finish line, the first thing I saw was the lines of people crowded on the ASB barricades, banging on the sides and screaming. I had visualised this moment so many times during training, so to suddenly experience it was a little overwhelming and I wasn’t able to hold back tears anymore. Nine weeks ago I could barely walk up the stairs, nobody would’ve believed I would ever finish this race. The feeling of crossing the finish line will be impossible to forget. No matter how many marathons I run in my life, even if it’s the Olympics, even if I win the gold medal, even if it’s a world record that lasts forever, this marathon at Auckland will always be the one that means the most.

Post race

After the race you walk through the finisher’s tunnel and you get your medal, a banana and a Powerade.

There are a few places for you to pose for finisher’s photos, and all of Victoria Park is turned into the post-race festival/village with food and merch for sale to enjoy with your family and friends. You can also join the crowd and support the other runners who are just finishing, which includes half and quarter marathoners and the Fun Run.

However most people tend to just chill out on the grass and relax, which is exactly what you should do. You’ve just become a marathoner!

Thinking of running Auckland?

One thing that I noted during the whole build up and after the race was what a great job they do with this event. It’s one of the best organised events I’ve been to. Everything goes like clockwork and everything is made as stress-free as possible for the runners so they can focus on what might be the hardest thing they ever do in their life. It’s also small enough so that your experience isn’t dampened by long lines, crowding, traffic and all that other crap that often ruins large events. If you’re thinking of running a marathon, especially if it’s your first, Auckland is a big thumbs up from me.

Can I do it?

Lots of people say, “I could never do a marathon”, but running the marathon is the greatest equaliser of all sports. You don’t need a coach, a gym membership, natural born talent, good genes, height, big muscles, expensive gear, good teammates or anything else to become a marathoner. All you need is a pair of shoes and two working legs (and there were people with no legs and no shoes at Auckland 2019, so technically you don’t even need those!)

Finishing a marathon only requires two things:

  1. Working hard
  2. Not giving up

That’s also what makes it scary, but if you can commit to that, you can cross the finish line. Plus, you get bragging rights for life 😉

See you there!

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