Australian legend Ben St Lawrence sets out to run the marathon he knows he can
“There’s two ways to attack this race. I can be conservative and avoid some of the mistakes I made in Berlin (2017, St Lawrence’s marathon debut of 2:24), which was go out at a pace that I definitely wasn’t ready for. Or I can just go for it and say what’s the point in not having a crack, maybe this will be the best preparation I ever have for a marathon?
This could be the one chance to nail one and I don’t want to throw that away by being conservative.”
It’s 18 hours from the start of the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon, and I’m sitting with Ben St Lawrence in his hotel at Surfers Paradise. Outside, the trees are fighting a losing battle against persistent wind gusts of up to 50km/h, and the streets are still drying out from earlier heavy rain.
These conditions, forecast to continue for the next 36 hours, appear to have a lot of people nervous, but not so St Lawrence. At the age of 37, he’s been to two Olympics (London and Rio), raced all over the world, and still owns the Australian national record he set in the 10,000m in 2011 (27:24.95).
“After almost retiring a couple of years ago I feel like everything that happens now is a bonus. I think that’s probably why I’ve found a bit more balance and I’m healthier. Running isn’t absolutely everything for me anymore.”
That’s not to say that St Lawrence isn’t serious about his tilt at the marathon. He tells me he’s missed only 2 days of running for the year, and has built upon an already great base of fitness gained in 2018 - a year highlighted by a tight win over Liam Adams in the 14km City 2 Surf.
“I haven’t hit the mileage highs that I would have liked but I’ve pretty much pushed to the upper limit of what my body would allow me to do. I’ve had some good 40km long runs, I’ve done long runs with a 10km effort at the end, I’ve done long runs with a bunch of 1km reps in there, all that stuff.”
“You always wish you were a bit better prepared but when I look back at my training I’m quite well prepared and I'm excited about what tomorrow will bring.”
One of Australia’s most popular runners, St Lawrence loves to race, and in the last 15 months has competed in and won events such as Ultra Trail Australia (St Lawrence set a new course record in the 22km event) and Hobart’s famous Point 2 Pinnacle (dubbed ‘the world’s toughest half marathon, P2P has 1,270m of elevation, and St Lawrence set a new CR in 2018 of 1:21:50).
Of course, St Lawrence’s pedigree goes back much further than that, and it’s here we find his motivation for racing the marathon.
“Looking at my running resume...I’ve got a decent 1500 (3:39.6), a solid 3k (7:40.48), good 5k (13:10.08 - 4th Australian all-time), good 10,000 (27:24.95 - national record), reasonable half marathon (1:02:51) and then a 2:24 marathon, and that just doesn’t reflect what I think I’m able to run for a marathon if I get it right on the day.”
This begs the question, what does getting it right on the day look like?
“I think at best I might run a 2:11 or so, and I don’t like putting it out there or limiting what I could do, but I could also run a 2:16 and be really happy with how it went. It will depend a lot on the conditions and how those first few 5km checkpoints feel.”
In the room with us while we talk is Sam Hopper, St Lawrence’s friend and roommate on this trip. The two have an easy rapport, and Hopper soaks up as much advice as he can for his own half marathon the next day. I don’t get the feeling St Lawrence is trying to distract himself from his impending marathon; he genuinely wants to make sure Hopper has a plan and follows it.
There's banter flying around when to get up, when to make the coffee (Hopper settles on making cold brew this afternoon), trying out a race look, and more. As I wish St Lawrence luck and leave the room, I can't help but be a little bit more excited for the race than I already was.
The scene pre-race is similar to any big city marathon - recreational runners are loaded into their respective corrals as the elites and preferred start athletes complete final warm ups.
While the forecast has settled slightly, the roads are wet in patches from earlier rain, and right on cue we experience a large downpour with less than 5 minutes to race start. I'm huddled under an archway next to Yuta Shitara, as St Lawrence sees me and hands off his sunglasses, "I don't think I'm going to need these today."
The men's race at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon has so many storylines - what can Zane Robertson do in his first marathon? Is Yuta Shitara here to race or train? Can Liam Adams go under 2:11:30? What about the 44 year old Bernard Lagat? St Lawrence's story fits right in the middle somewhere - our greatest ever 10,000m runner, toeing the line in the only event that he hasn't yet proved himself in.
"I felt very calm and ready to race, I had already accepted that the weather was going to be bad - and I could tell that it was frustrating other people more than me - which I was quietly enjoying."
"I found that a marathon start-line is a far more relaxed place than a big track race, with less tension and more camaraderie. I knew that the key to a good race for me was conserving energy (both mental and physical) for as long as possible."
Ben St Lawrence
With a lead group going out at 2:07 pace (apparently requested by Zane Robertson), the field quickly splits in the opening kilometers. St Lawrence ticks off the first 10km in 32:19 - roughly 2:16:30 pace, into a headwind.
The conditions early are the sort you dread on race day. Not just the headwind, but the brief soaking on the start line - just enough to make everything wet, and the U-turn at 16km meaning you have to watch your competitors heading back the way you came.
"I had a tough decision to make in the few days leading up to the race. To go with the 2:11 group and hope that I had it in my legs to carry on at that pace, or to go with the slower group, stay relaxed as long as possible and then bring it home strong to get one on the board.
I decided on the latter, but it took a lot of self control (and swallowing my ego) to let so many guys run off at a pace that seemed so easy to start with."
"I thought I was comfortable with the choice I made, but I came very close to throwing that plan out as soon as the gun went and my legs felt amazing. It felt like we were jogging the first few km and I was very worried I'd made the wrong call.
After a couple of km I was again happy with my original plan and once again found a calm headspace and settled in to start ticking off the 5km splits, making sure I got my drinks - and enjoying the ride."
Ben St Lawrence
The strong headwinds became a welcome tail at the 16km turnaround, as runners retraced their steps all the way back to the start line and beyond. This 20km stretch is where moves were made, and for a smart runner like St Lawrence he was able to open up after sitting in the pack for the early stages.
"As the pace picked up, there were just three of us - myself, Caden Shields from NZ and Daisuke Momozawa from Japan. I felt a lot better once we picked the pace up, so did a lot of the leading for our little group, but was also very happy that Momozawa was helping out and running strong. I passed half way in 67:38, but knew that if we held the pace we'd be in with a shot at 2:13-2:14."
There's something about the marathon that makes complete strangers become allies when the going gets tough. Amateur marathoners are used to it - hearing words of encouragement from a fellow runner or turning to congratulate someone you shared miles with, but it can also be common at the elite level of the sport.
"Momo and I were rolling through the field picking up guys who had gone out too fast. It was the complete opposite of my Berlin experience. Momo and I were sharing the lead, and every time I went past him to take my turn he said 'sorry'. I told him it was all good. He even warned me every time he needed to spit and tried to make sure he covered his mouth. Some of the best running etiquette I've ever experienced."
"This alliance wasn't planned at all, I'd never met this bloke before in my life, but I guess we both knew that we were stronger as a pair and did what we could to work together."
Ben St Lawrence
St Lawrence continued to work with Momozawa for as long as possible, coming back past the start line and over a rise at the 32km mark; the only noticeable rise of the whole race.
"From 32-37km my hip was getting a little tighter and I had to change my stride slightly to allow for this, there were a few places where my hammy on that side was starting to twinge a little. I finally felt like I was IN a Marathon, and would need to fight for a strong finish."
It sounds obvious, but the hardest 5km of the Gold Coast Marathon is from 37-42km. Not just because it's the final 5km, but more importantly because the athletes tun back into a head wind to come home.
When the legs are faltering, the mind can be easily persuaded when things seem to get endlessly tougher. This is the stretch of the marathon that is so hard to train for. Some athletes are able to embrace the struggle and push through to the finish, where others break down completely.
"My hip/hammy tightness was my main concern, exacerbated by running into the headwind after the turnaround. My breathing was good and I still had energy to burn, but my body was starting to falter with both hammies now showing signs that they may be about to go into full cramp.
After I took a good turn into the wind with Momo and another bloke behind me in single file, I called them though but nobody came - then Momo came through for a little while but it felt too slow and I decided it was time to throw it all into the final few km."
"If my hip couldn't handle it, so be it - I could tell that I was bleeding time and needed to leave it all out there to finish with a respectable time."
Ben St Lawrence
Go back for a moment to St Lawrence's comments to me in the hotel the day before - he lamented the fact that his debut marathon stood out on his running resume for all the wrong reasons. These final few kilometers were his chance to do something about it and post a time that reflected his ability.
"With 500m to go I could see one last guy coming back to me and knew that I'd be disappointed in myself if I didn't get after him. I rolled by him and through to the finish and was able to enjoy the feeling of complete emptiness at the end of a marathon, something I hadn't been able to feel in Berlin due to my body breaking down. I ended up having the fastest split of the day from 40km to the finish. I'm not sure whether this indicates a very well paced race, or shows that I should have gone out faster."
St Lawrence crossed the line in 2:14:27, good enough for 9th place overall. St Lawrence had said a day earlier that his finishing time would only tell part of the story of the race, and it was obvious from his rare display of emotion that this one meant a lot.
"I was relieved that I'd made it to the line, after letting some doubts about my body enter my thoughts in the latter stages. I was also very happy to see 2:14:27 on the clock. I didn't know whether I would be, but I was. It was genuine happiness which I was very glad to be feeling.
I think if this had been another blow-up, or a DNF - it would have been very hard to take - and I just knew that instead of moping around for days, I was going to be able to enjoy this result."
There's emptying the tank, and then there's the ability the professionals have to empty the tank - often a different level to amateur runners. As I caught St Lawrence after the finish, I got a first hand look at just how deep he went in the final 5km.
In the days after the race, I chat with St Lawrence about the way it unfolded, and whether he had any regrets about his strategy and execution. What did it mean to finish so strong in the final 5km?
"I wish I'd clicked into 'all-out' mode a little earlier, I just feel that I wasn't confident enough in my weaknesses, probably as a result of Berlin and my 6 Foot Track Marathon DNF. If I could have my time again in this race, this is the part I would have changed. I feel that if I had committed more from 35km I could have possibly given <2:14 a nudge..."
The day before the race, St Lawrence was confident, almost certain, that he could shave a chunk off his 2:24 debut in Berlin. Now proven right with a 10 minute PB, is this the final chapter in the book for the 37 year old?
"I can't wait to have another crack. If I can stay healthy and keep progressing I'd like to spend the next 5 years or so trying to master the Marathon. I know of many areas that I should be able to improve upon, so am already excited to get after it."
Something runners of any level can be guilty of is the lack of ability to self analyse and reflect, without letting emotion or aspiration get in the way. It's probably why so many of us suffer over-use injuries.
It's interesting then to hear St Lawrence talk about this very thing - being disciplined, knowing how much is enough versus too much, and more.
"I have already caught myself returning to some old bad habits since the race, letting the desire to be the best runner possible start to take control of my life - something that has contributed to the injury and burnout I've suffered in the past. I think for me to be a great marathoner I'll need to harness a little bit of that old single-mindedness that I had as a track runner, but also prioritise good health and a balanced lifestyle in an effort to keep stacking up the months and years of uninterrupted training."
It's telling that someone of St Lawrence's calibre, a national record holder and dual Olympian, felt that he needed to right the wrongs of his first marathon. Not for us, not for the critics, but for himself. Because when all is said and done and St Lawrence is looking back on his career, it's not just about records or victories. It's about knowing you got every last drop of potential out of yourself.