Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Canberra Two Day Medal Walk (Guest post)


Following is a guest post written by a fellow walker, Kevin, a friend of mine from Australia.  Kevin walks, a lot.  Besides walking much during the week, his Saturdays typically start off with a 42K, a marathon.  This is his story of his recent experience at the Canberra Two Day Medal Walk.

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The Canberra Two Day Medal Walk - Preface

This particular event first came to my attention late last year when I made a concerted effort to find distance events that not only accepted walkers like myself (most marathons will given you can finish within 6 or 7 hours), but more so were actually held for walkers by walkers. This particular one popped up on Google and started to seductively whisper my name. ‘Kevin’ it called, ‘in your own time, no runners to compete with, two days - marathon + 30k, you know you want to.’  An added bonus of course is that this event is mirrored in many other countries, the US, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, Germany and many others, all part of a bigger IML and IVV series of events.

The event location, Canberra, is the capital city of Australia; it sprang up from a dispute between the two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, as to which should hold the federal seat. Situated part way between both, Canberra was crafted out of the bush in an interior highland area. It is one of only a few fully planned cities in the world. Its design came from a contest won by an American called Walter Burly Griffin. Its laid out with the main roads being circular, or circuits, and has many, many biking, horse and running lanes as well as parks and recreational areas. It is a city that always looks modern, clean and green.

This event is not a race, this event gives people the opportunity of achieving walks of either 10, 20, 30 or 42 kms, with the added opportunity of tying any two of these events together on consecutive days. It has manned checkpoints with refreshments (water and orange cordial) every 5 kms, on both days, and the routes change each day so the 30 km’s on the Saturday will not cover the same ground as the 30 km’s on the Sunday. Just to keep you on your toes you don’t get to find out where your actually going till 15 minutes before the start at which time your handed a map of the course and given a verbal brief  on what’s what.

An added element of chaos is the fact that the walk uses footpaths, recreational paths, garden tracks, bush trails, and some paths I’m sure only a faulty eyeglasses prescription could discern, to get you from point A to point B. There are no cordoned off lanes, you will cross numerous roads along the way, and for directions you have a few signs mounted on any handy pole they could find along the way, but mostly you follow chalk arrows (a different colour for each distance) in much the same way as a hash house harrier run. Initially I hated this idea as I like to drift off a little when I’m walking and the arrow system requires constant attention, but by the second day I loved it, it added a sense of discovery that normal races lack. I certainly discovered more than most as I did indeed drift off a few times and explored a few optional trails, not envisioned by the event co-ordinators, till I backtracked and got back with the herd.

There is a staggered start to the events with the 42 km starting off at 7:30, the 30 km at 8:00, the 20 km at 9:00, and the 10 km at 10:00. If your a reasonably quick 42 k’er  you will end up finishing amongst the 30, 20, and 10 k’ers as the last 10 kms for all distances are the same. Each walker wears a lanyard with a checkpoint card of the same colour as the chalk colour they’re following. When you approach a checkpoint a volunteer with a bus ticket clipper will punch your ticket with an appropriately shaped hole (an effective if unsophisticated attempt at an anti-cheating mechanism  ). There is no timing of events apart from that which you do yourself. Is it a competitive event? Well everyone I talked to had a goal time, sometimes it was just the distance they had never done before. A few wanted to be first over the line (they wore high tech everything and moved with a haughty style and flourish I hope one day to emulate); so...... competitive - yes to some, a race - well not so much.

Anyhow time to start my tale of high adventure and daring; as the sun rose over the mist shrouded far off mountains and native birds began their early morning serenade, I awoke for the fifth and final time on the Saturday morning of the Canberra Two Day Medal walk, with Mordor but a few short miles away and the Nazgul hot on my tail................

The Canberra Two Day Medal Walk - Day 1

I really did wake up five times during the night, jumping out of bed followed by a slow stretch of the hamstrings, a quick drink of water and back to bed. Perhaps it was the unusual surroundings of a strange hotel room or, more likely, the anxiousness of the upcoming day. I had already done eight 42 km walks this year, so I knew making the distance was no longer an issue, but a new environment adds the factor of the unknown. While I dont really believe I would be abducted by space aliens, or run down by thieves escaping from a bank heist, a good walker mentally prepares for anything  . 

A 6:00 am wake up, a shower, toast and coffee; check the ‘walking site’ forum, make sure my partner Maryjane has her bearings so as to do some sight seeing while I’m off walking, then about 6:50 drive down to the starting point. We arrive at about 07:00 and I join a small queue to check-in and get a map of the course. There are about 50 people there for the Marathon, mostly 30 - 65 years of age, half dressed for hiking the other half for street walking, most with camelbaks or hydration belts, plus the odd backpack. After a quick brief on the course we are sent off to the theme of Monty Pythons Flying Circus with the Event Director pointing us ‘thata way’.

Off we went with 10 people taking off at a blistering pace so as to get out of the huddle and jostle for the lead; I was happy to sit back and click over at my planned 6.5 km/h, a speed that should put me at the finish line in 6 1/2 hours, a time that I hoped would leave me with plenty in the tank for tomorrows 30 k’er. About thirty seconds into the event, we had already crossed a road and had to cross a footpath and another road to get to a path around Lake Burly Griffin, I heard one of the walkers in front of me hail one of the pedestrians crossing on the path in front of him, ‘Good morning M’aam’ followed by’err Sir’. And crossing in front of us was a rather indignant 60 - 70 year old fellow in a bright blue sun-dress, out walking his dachshund. In my humble opinion he didn’t really have the legs to do the dress justice, and the sandal’s were a bit ‘last year’, but he didn’t really deserve the giggling and chuckles he received as we marathoners walked on by.

As the walk progressed I fell into step with a lady walker called Suzanne, and yes, even though my Maryjane had told me not to talk to strangers, particularly of the non-male variety , I did. Suzanne originally came from England, but had been in Australia for many years and it turns out she was married to a Warrant Officer in the Navy that I had had frequent dealings with a few years back. Even more co-incidentally the best man at her wedding had been a fellow I used to party with thirty years ago, a budding Musician and Photographer I had done a nine months training course with. Small world. Suzanne wanted to finish the marathon in as close to 6 1/2 hours as she could , so we made a deal, I would hold my pace to that and she would hang in there for as long as she could, she understood that I wouldn’t be slowing down for her, or if she sped up, keep up with her. I was, for the first 21km, her pacer. 

As we approached the lake, 8 colourful hot air balloons drifted into view, rising, all at different heights, flying silently with intermittent bursts of flame tearing the stillness. As we turned onto the path and rounded a corner the balloons were mirrored in the stillness of the lakes surface, like an alternate world happening beneath the lakes surface. The early morning sun made the mist on the waters surface all wispy, it looked gorgeous.

For the first ten kilometers the lead group pulled away from Suzanne and I, she fretted a little about that, I said that in all likelihood we would pull them in at about the 20 km mark, she however remained dubious. The route followed a multi-use track around the lake, up past the Governors house until it reached the road leading up to the Canberra Botanical Gardens. The path was surrounded by willow like trees with all the colours of Autumn’s beginning. Our exit from the path to the road took the form of a green arrow pointing across a grassy field. We thought it prudent to get lost a little at this point, but we did eventually, after a panicked exploration, find the next arrow, a case of classic overthinking, we just needed to keep walking in the direction the arrows pointed and not worry if we didn’t see one for awhile. The Botanic gardens were brilliant, we followed a terracing of wooden walkways, up and down, through damp grottos and rainforesty beauty, got a bit lost here too. then it was off to the base of Black Mountain.

As we left the Botanical Garden Suzanne noticed the lead group was back in sight, at the 20 km checkpoint we had drawn level with them and then we slowly pulled ahead. Its odd, and a little bit scary, how many people at the checkpoints assumed Suzanne and I were a couple and even complimented our colour co-ordination, and said all those things people say to couples when they do things together. The first couple of times we set them straight, but in the end it was easier to just say thank you and be on our way. 

As we approached Black Mountain the walk become a trail walk. Up walking tracks that became single person goat tracks, some areas much akin to walking up a ladder, I could feel my chest expanding and my heart beating loudly; it was great. Up and up we went through gums and bush following red and white tape hung from tree branches. At the last climb we were certainly at the stage where one more climb would be a soul destroyer; but it had ended and then we were going down. Down we went onto the bike paths of suburbia. Shortly after that we started to overhaul the tail end of the 30 k’ers and I noticed Suzanne was finding the going a little hard. Knowing she had company in the form of the 30 k’ers with a wave I bid her a fond farewell and walked on at my steady 6.5 km/h.

I was alone now, but happily motoring along. The route made its way to Mount Anslie and to a horse and walking trail that skirts the base. Along this track I passed a lot of 30 k’ers and, I believe, all but two of the remaining Marathoners (never did see them again). Unfortunately things got a little confusing along this trail as a few days previously a hash house harrier group had had an outing to Mount Anslie, ‘one step forward all those that didn’t follow the hash house arrows up the mountain............, not so fast Kevin’. Well not all the way, just to a point where I thought ‘nah, there is no way they would torture marathoners with an Everest like climb at the 35 km mark’ so down I went to find the route again. I backtracked a little and found one of our 20 km internationals, a young Japanese lass equipped with her latest purchase of fashion accessories from a trendy Canberra store (in a shopping bag clasped in her hand); talk about multi tasking. Together we found the right track and headed on our way.

At about the 38 km stage I passed three Marathoners that were to play a large part in my 30 km walk, though I didn’t know it at the time, cue the ominous music...............

The final stages of the walk brought us down through the back of the War Museum and down Anzac Avenue, an inspiring walk along an avenue of monuments to all the theatres of operation where Australians had laid their lives down for their country. To some its just statues and trees; to others its a sacred thing, a reminder of the the people we should be thankful for, those that stood up when it mattered most, and that were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

At the end there remained but a walk across the bridge over Lake Burley Griffin and then back to the start. I passed lots of 20 and 10 k’ers along this stretch. A finishing time of 6h 30min 31sec, so far so good and right to plan. Sandwiches and ‘sausage, bacon, and egg burgers’ for the hungry and all the usual beverages. Slightly tight upper quads and tight buttocks, I am so not used to hills. I sat and chatted to strangers for a while then it was off sightseeing and showing the Maryjane around and, I might add, doing the hard sell just in case work decided Canberra is the place I should be in the next few years.

The Canberra Two Day Medal Walk - Day 2

A better sleep this time, I dozed of around 09:30 pm and ,with the demise of daylight savings giving me an extra hour, got in 9 solid hours (for a 5 to 6 hour sleeper like myself that’s a lot). Same routine as yesterday but with more stretching to remove a small amount of tightness in the hips and buttocks.

Got to the start at 07:30 am, got a map and assembled with about 40 other intrepid’s for the 30 km, day 2 walk. A lot of the Marathoners from Saturday weren’t present, perhaps they were doing the 20 instead. So we were an assemblage of 42, 30, and 20 km walkers from Saturday, plus a few for whom this would be their only walk. 

The walk started much as it had the day before, even heading to the path around the lake, but this time we turned off the path just adjacent to the Governors House and headed off over a walking bridge that spanned a small chasm. Upon this bridge was a painter, his left fist holding 5 brushes fanned between his fingers. His canvas was mounted upon a pedestal and his subject was the colourful vista the Autumn was presenting before him. His out of the way place was, for a short while at least, stampeded by friendly determined walkers on a mission.

The spread from the start consisted of a power walking, highly synchronised, blue shirted couple taking the lead and pulling away, followed by a slightly older couple and then myself. About three kilometres into it I noticed two very long shadows creeping up on my unsuspecting shadow, it honestly looked like my shadow was about to be mugged......... right up to the point where the right hand shadow waved at my shadow. The two gentlemen the checkpoint staff referred to as the ‘poster boys of the walk’ walked on by and slowly pulled away. They were nice guys, maybe mid thirties and were two of the marathoners I had passed late in the Saturday walk.

Perhaps two minutes later a young fellow, six foot five or six six’ish cruised on by, his stride was long and easy, at least two of my steps to one of his, some people are just born walkers. He was quieter, and a little dismissive of starting up a conversation, than the other two, but to each his own. He cruised on past the ‘poster boys’ too and positioned himself between them and the lead couples. He too was one of the marathoners I had passed late in the Saturday event.

No hot air balloons today, but there was a lot of university rowing training going on, for a sport so strenuous it is certainly serene and graceful to watch. The occasional duck would make that distinctive splash as it dived for food, sometimes resurfacing many minutes later. Once past the lake the course meandered through the suburbs of Canberra sticking to footpaths and bike paths wherever possible. The organisers had done an excellent job in finding some of the prettiest walkthoughs I’ve ever seen. Some of the paths wound between the grander old buildings, others past experimental and modern architecture. My favourites were the paths that went for hundreds of meters through the gaps between the backs of older buildings. My parents would say the paths were for the 'dirt mans’ use in olden times (old time sewerage removal). These paths had ornate gardening around them and were overhung in a very attractive jungley way. 

My plan for today’s event was to put in a 4 1/2 hour - 30 km walk, an average of about 6.7 km/h. I stuck with that plan up till about the 20 km stage. From about the 15 km mark I had been gaining on the 'poster boys’ and the young fella in front of them was starting to slow down a little as well. One of the fellows had taken on a decided bend in the middle as he walked, one of the signs of fatigue creeping up on him. Anyhow, come kilometre 20 I felt pretty good so I decided I might stride it out a little. There was a part of me that thought that finishing a two day distance event and still feeling pretty good at the end means I didn’t put in enough. I had no goal of beating anyone at that point, just personal goals I wanted to meet. So off I strode, first levelling with the two lads, they jokingly accused me of sharking them into a false sense of security and of slipstreaming off them. Next I drew level with the tall young fellow. He wasn't so happy about that, I pulled slightly forward of him and he upped his pace to stay close behind me. I thought to myself ‘is it possible he wants a race', I sped up a little, he stayed with me. It was on  .

10 km still to go, probably a little too far to ‘make a break’ but it tickled my sense of adventure. 7 kilometers to go, his footsteps an echo of mine, picked the pace up a little more, last checkpoint in sight. Quick drink and off up that hill, faster......, faster........, footsteps behind me receding, legs feeling heavy, gasping for air, reaching the top of the hill. A quick check behind me, he’s still coming, his long legs struggling to do speed up hill (and there I was thinking my short little legs were a disadvantage). The rest of the distance all downhill. Down into the grounds of Parliament House, passing scores of walkers now, a Federal Policeman on guard duty joking threatens to book me for speeding, a lame joke I know but it made me feel good all the same. Faster and faster, passing more and more walker, almost there now. Around that last bend and...... finished, click stop on my garmin. I look around and my long legged friend is nowhere to be seen. I stretch for a few seconds then, a somewhat sweaty mess, I head into the pavilion to let them know I got back.

Just as I was handing in my checkpoint card to the lady at the finishing table my long legged racing buddy thunders in, drenched in sweat, eyes wild and hair sticking up at all sorts of angles. He walks up to me, grabs my hand and, in a booming voice, exclaims, ‘outstanding, what a brilliant walk, you did really really well’. I complimented him as well of course. At that moment I felt pretty good about myself. He had enjoyed the chase as much as I had, and, after a combined 72 kilometres, it just sort of topped things off nicely. The lady holding my card then said ‘you know you were our favorite amongst the marathoners for coming in first today, Bev and I just new you’d come in first on account of you coming in first yesterday’. I actually think I came in about 3rd or 4th on the Saturday but perhaps she wasn’t counting the people that didn’t do two days walking. I’ve never been a ‘favorite’ for an event before, my head grew two sizes at that moment. But............, its not a race, so coming in before the others means not much in the grand scheme of things. But I did really enjoy that last 10 km’s, nothing better for a soul than going all out till there is nothing more. Once you stop the endorphins just flood in.

In summary, I had a great time and will certainly do it again next year; I will even try to get to one of the overseas versions one day. Its not an event for the competative road or trail racer, its organised but a bit rough around the edges compared to the big Marathons most are used to. Its fun, you meet people, see the sights, and have a bloody good walk, or two.

So end’ith the war and peace of race reports, if you made it this far you are at one with the force and certainly have endless endurance and stamina. I really have to learn to get to the point  .

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Kevin first posted this story on the 'Walking Site' forum.  After reading it, I asked Kevin if it was okay to share this on my blog as a guest post and he agreed.  If you are not familiar with the Walking Site discussion forum, please be sure to visit it at www.marathonwalking.com/ .

Thanks again Kevin!

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