by Paul Thompson (with pictures by Shamala Thompson)
This is the second and final blog installment of my trip to the World Masters Athletics Championships (WMAC) in Perth, Australia. I actually deferred publishing in the light of world events as I needed to be sure you’d not be distracted by less important stuff in the media. To recap in the first installment I explained how I got a silver medal in the 8K cross country (XC) and concluded by saying that two weeks later I hoped to get gold in the half marathon. So here I am flying home to New York on the day of the US Presidential election (I also flew to the UK on the day it voted to exit Europe!) with a cuddly toy quokka (the games’ mascot, essentially a rat) and two more medals. The flight’s 26 hours so the article promises to be long.
These championships were the culmination of a life long journey to run for Team GB (Great Britain), as the ‘home countries’ are traditionally known in the world of sport. This is a throwback to the days of Empire. Few Brits use ‘Great’. The half marathon, my preferred distance, offered the best odds of beating all comers in my age and getting a gold to trump my silver. Indeed the odds seemed better than Trump getting the keys to the White House. I’ll try not to make, but can’t promise, too many references to the election in this post. Now before I take you through the race footstep by footstep let me briefly chart the journey and the final countdown.
The journey to this point has been a long and winding one with potholes here and there. I’ve run quite seriously for many years, typically as a solid club runner. Turning 40 was something of a turning point. Upwards. Over the years many rivals, as well as those who ran head and shoulders above me, have retired or else simply not aged as well as me. I’ve stayed the course and one by one risen through the rankings.
For 2016 I had two key goals. To run a spring marathon as close as possible to 2:30. I did 2:32:02 in Manchester. And to medal at the World Masters Athletics Champs. The final decisive element to my plan to master the world of masters athletics was Sham planting the idea of Lee Troop coaching me. It would be my fiftieth birthday gift. I’m impossible to buy gifts for.
Lee agreed and since January ‘Troopy’ has been coach, my first since 1998. He has a stable of young upwardly mobile distance runners while I am old enough to be put out to pasture or else sent to the knacker’s yard. Troopy, together with Sham’s adept skills at athlete motivation and management – “Are you sure you should eat that? Try this” (sausage and quinoa) “Isn’t it time you were in bed?” (no comment) – and Urban Athletics teammates who pushed me into the discomfort zone, have given me the crucial extra edge.
In the early summer extensive work travel crimped the quality if not quantity of my training. I somehow got the miles in but the long runs and workouts got dropped. The long flights and lack of stretching and strength work – always the first to get squeezed out when short of time and living in hotel rooms (despite my roller joining me) – ultimately made my IT band as bad as it’s ever been. By late July the travel was over but the IT band was impacting my training. In late August, with barely 10 weeks left to Perth, I raced the Percy Sutton 5K and warmed down in some discomfort.
Things started to pick-up in late August. With no job I now had time on my hands. In early September I spent two weeks in Boulder. I stretched, rolled, iced, and did strength work recommended by Heather Stites North of Red Hammer Rehab following a diagnostic session. Under Troopy’s guidance I steadily built up the miles and by the end of my stint was doing workouts, the last a hill session with Bria Wetsch. Here’s my training log.
The acid test would be the Bronx 10. I like this race and it would be the ideal bellwether given it was just a month or so out from Perth. I lined up nervous. 54:16 later I was pumped, confidence emboldened. It proved I was in great shape and trending better. After a few more weeks of heavy lifting I started a ten-day taper.
The Final Countdown
The final stage of the build-up to the half was not ideal. Rather than race the 5000m that I’d entered – won by Ben Reynolds – Sham and I flew the five plus hours to Singapore to catch-up with family and friends. This meant getting re-acquainted with running in the hot and humid climate that I’d gotten familiar with when I lived there from 1998 to 2004. Essentially each day was like one of those really sticky days in the height of a New York summer. Days where you would argue that air con is the world’s greatest invention. It made me feel sluggish and in so doing eroded my confidence.
We touched down in Perth shortly after midnight and – after nearly getting fined AU$360 for bringing in a banana handed to us by a Qantas air stewardess shortly before starting our descent and forgetting to declare it – and was sleeping by around 2am. I slept well and after a swift coffee and oatmeal ventured out for a final run – a steady shuffle to the next day’s race start followed by strides. I felt very good. The sluggishness of Singapore was a distant memory. Later that day Sham and I rode Transperth buses to get familiar with the mid race section. I was ready: physically and mentally.
I woke up at 4am on race day. The start was scheduled for 6:30am, 30 minutes after the marathon start which former MacRitchie 25 team mate Michael Craig was doing. I followed my usual pre-race morning routine – coffee, oatmeal, toilet, shower, etc. – and left the hotel to run the two miles or so to the start with Sham at 5:20ish. The conditions were looking good. The sky was crystal clear, promising bright sun, and the temperatures in the low 60s F. But the wind was strong enough to leave flags bolt sideways.
At the West Australia Marathon Club (WMAC) – the venue for the start and finish – there was a long line of marathon runners waiting to get their tags checked. So instead of continuing my warm-up I joined the tail end of the line to ensure I was one of the first of the half marathon runners to get checked.
The marathon got underway 15 minutes late but the half was only delayed a few minutes. This would exacerbate the job of overtaking. Both races shared the same course – an out and back, retracing our steps precisely, along the Swan River with the marathon runners repeating – and this delay would mean half marathon runners catching the slower marathon runners sooner than later. Each race comprised all age groups and both sexes.
The gun went and I quickly settled into the large lead group, as video evidence shows (@ 40 seconds), comprising all the main contenders. Those contenders included a number of Kenyans. This was the first time Kenya had a team at the WMA. Two, Stephen Kihara and Joel Kipkemoi Kosgei, wore M50 tags though it subsequently transpired that Kihara was actually M55. Other overall contenders included Australians Bruce Graham (M50) (1st in the XC, 3rd in the 5000m (16:14) and 10000m (33:49)), John Meagher (M50) (4th in the 10000m in 34:24 and a 2:32 marathon from 2015) and David Sweeney (M55) (gold medalist in the XC, 5000m (16:43) and 10000m (33:15)), Dutchman Patrick Kwist (M45) (gold medalist in the 5000m (15:38), bronze in the 10000m (32:10) and M45 winner of the half in Lyon in 2015 (1:10:12)), Swede Anders Dahl (M50) (3rd in the XC, 3rd in the 5000m (16:13) and 5th in the 10000m (34:52)), Czech Vladimir Srb (M35) (3rd in the M35 half in Lyon (1:11:48)), and Portuguese Davide Figueiredo (M45) (4th in 10000m (32:32) and 4th in the M45 half at the 2015 European Masters Champs (1:08:48)).
My game plan was simple. To sit tight, track the lead M50 runners and then try to run away in the final 5K. And so for the first few Ks I sat in behind Kihara and Kosgei and ran alongside Sweeney. The narrow pedestrian / bike path left little room for error and no more than three abreast. The course had kilometer rather than mile markers and no clocks. My Garmin showed 5:24 for mile 1 and 5:29 for mile 2. It felt effortless. But in the third mile the Kenyans, led by their M40 runners, and Figuerido injected some pace and got away. Kihara and Kosgei opened a small gap on me which I then worked to slowly close.
The wind started to pick up as we approached the Narrows Bridge. The course was also proving twisty and tight in parts forcing me to run a few meters on the soft verge. l covered both miles 3 and 4 in 5:27 but I’d ran much of those two miles at 5:15 pace. I overtook Kosgei approaching the bridge and caught Kihara on it. Srb was just ahead and Kwist and Sweeney just behind.
The small incline onto the bridge combined with a blustery wind slowed the pace. Soon after the descent off the bridge the four of us settled into a tight pack. I sat behind to get relief from the strong head wind towards the half way point next to the University of Western Australia’s campus in Nedlands. By now I was quite hot and perspiring. I grabbed a water at the drinks station and did the same at two more: it was in the mid-70s F.
While the course was very fast – flat, straight and smooth surface – runner traffic was starting to prove an obstacle. We were catching and having to overtake the tail end marathon runners on the left side of the bike path while dodge head on collisions with the lead marathoners on the right side. Not surprisingly the wind and congestion slowed our pace. Miles 5 and 6 were covered in 5:31 and 5:37. Soon after the sharp U turn at the half way, just after seeing Graham who was still 100m short of the turn, I decided to inject some pace.
I figured the wind would be largely behind on the 3 mile stretch back to the Narrows and that the man to beat for gold was a heavy breathing Kihara. Kwist and Srb came with me, Kihara dropped away, and for the next 3 miles we traded strides and places. As we competed against each other the pace quickened from 5:35 for mile 7 to 5:25 for mile 8. A few tight turns on the approach to the bridge and the short but sharp incline onto it with winds gusting haphazardly slowed mile 9 to 5:32.
Once off the bridge traffic started becoming problematic again. The path was full of the lead marathoners on their second lap running towards us and locals venturing out to walk dogs etc. Mile 10, covered in 5:40, proved the slowest mile of the race but fast enough for Kwist and I to get away from Srb. We ran side by side, dodging runners and walkers as necessary. I felt strong and able to maintain the pace but was hurting.
We covered the 11th mile in 5:35. The finish venue came into view with around two miles to run. I kept pressing Kwist: I was sure I was a clear first place M50 – and that felt great – but I was keen to beat a fast M45. Some 100 metres ahead, just a little too far for me to chase, I could make out John Sang (KEN, M45). Kwist and I ran mile 12 in 5:36. As we closed in on the finish I kicked hard and found myself running alone around the WAMC complex and onto the finishing straight, a bumpy unpaved surface made good by an all-weather mat. I crossed the line in 1:12:47, a few seconds ahead of Kwist after a last mile under 5:30.
I finished 6th overall. Sweeney was next over the line in 1:13:42 (the Strava FlyBy shows us head to head) more than enough to get his 4th gold and likely the best age grade performance across all age groups. Now there’s a target for me in 2021! My nearest M50 rivals were some way behind – Graham was 2nd in 1:14:58 and Meagher third in 1:15:59. Kihara ran 1:15:15 but then turned out to be M55. Kosgei ran 1:19:31 so clearly paid the price for the fast early pace. Kenyans dominated the overall race (M35-85) taking the top 3 places. Francis Komu was overall winner in 1:11:06. See here for full results, pictures (M50555), Strava data and Garmin data.
Victory was especially sweet. I was a world champion. Accepted many good caliber M50 runners were absent. But you can only beat those that make the trip and toe the line. My time takes me to the top of the UK rankings for the half to go with that for the 10 miles and marathon. And had there been less traffic and wind I would have ducked under 1:12. The Garmin data points, with Bronx 10 and Greater Manchester Marathon equivalents in parentheses) are as follows: VO2 est. of 59 (66 and 64), average heart rate of 173 (163 and 180) and maximum heart rate of 183 (196 and 201), average cadence of 177 (180 and 178) and average stride length of 1.64m (1.66m and 1.53m).
For the next few hours I did what I do best: talking to fellow runners, mainly lengthy postmortems of the race, and eating and drinking whatever free stuff was up for grabs. Finishing first meant I finally got to stand at the top of the podium with the national anthem ringing out. I felt full of pride. I also got the championship’s mascot – a soft toy quokka with WMA neck tie.
Coincidentally another Paul Thompson, an M60 running for Team GB, also won a gold. By now the wind was threatening to be gale force. A photograph backdrop blew over, taking an athlete with it. I got to revisit the podium, this time to collect M50 team silver with team mates Christopher Hollinshead (6th M50 in 1:19:11) and Graham Bungay (9th M50 in 1:22:35) behind Australia.
The quokka is now resident in the US but might head to the UK to settle. He’s concerned he’ll get evicted by an incoming Trump Government. It’s rare for an Aussie to emigrate to the UK. Troopy was happy though concerned fellow Aussies might try him for treason for coaching a Pommy. He may have to give up any designs on returning to live in Australia, even if he can’t stomach life under Trump.
The WMA was a great experience, not least because of the camaraderie amongst masters runners from all over the world. I’m now making tentative plans to do the European Masters Athletics Championships (maybe the 10000m and half marathon – there is no marathon and indeed will be no more marathons nor track 10000m at future WMAC) in Aarhus, Denmark next July / August and then the next WMAC in Malaga, Spain in 2018.