What if a cancelled race gave you a bigger opportunity for growth?
Editor's Note: When we launched The Line back in February in partnership with Nike, our goals were pretty simple - educate our athletes on the idea of running smarter through better training, knowledge, and product, and then take aim at the Great Ocean Road 1/2 Marathon in mid May. Of course, the world has undergone some disruption since then - but our athletes were determined to get their day. While we couldn't give them a race, they each wanted to complete their own time trial. These time trials were done in accordance with local regulations around social distancing in the time of COVID-19.
Many people have said that running is a metaphor for life. Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong - I don't know. What I do know is running occupies some of the least frequented parts of our life, the parts that are difficult and uncomfortable - by choice. Rarely in other parts of our day-to-day do we challenge ourselves the way we do in a race or a time trial. In our careers, our personal lives, or our other passions, how often do we go out on a limb, leaving ourselves completely exposed?
We live in a world where our true intentions and our deepest feelings are rarely known to others, yet when we pin on a number that’s exactly what we’re broadcasting. Out there alone on course, giving it everything you can and finding out if it’s enough - on full display to the world. It’s a harsh game - you win or you lose, you succeed or you fail, and you deal with the emotional fallout from that result either way.
Nah, we don’t do that in other areas of life.
Maybe once every couple of years we take a big leap in our jobs or our relationships; we get out of a comfort zone or we take a risk, but for the most part, those sensations are not ones we feel often, which is why those butterflies feel so damn boisterous in our stomachs.
Take all of that, take that voice inside your head that says maybe-you-can but maybe-you-can't, and add the weight of having your whole build-up made public on TEMPO. Now, scrap the race you were training for, and take away the energy of other competitors, crowds, drink stations, and everything else you get from an organised race. Instead, pick a cold Melbourne morning for a solo time trial on a windswept route with no atmosphere - no crowd noise, no one to run beside, no pace groups. Just you, the road, and the weight of your own expectations.
For an amateur athlete, this is as hard as it gets. It’s about as far from an ideal set of conditions as you could prescribe. These are not professionals; there's no prizemoney, national team, or other external motivators to provide incentive. This group of athletes didn’t even have a finish line - the outlook was basically ‘run until your watch says you’re finished’. For Montana Farrah-Seaton, those final few moments before the run were about dialling in mentally and being ready to go.
“Coming off an injury you always feel underprepared for a race or time trial so for me it was just about calming my nerves knowing I’ve done the hard work. I just needed to feel the rhythm and have fun.”
Finally, at 7am on a cold Saturday morning, after months of training, interruptions and resumptions, the first athlete, Tash Sneddon, pressed a button on her watch and started her time trial. A few minutes later, Montana followed. Then Carlie, Monica, Abi, and lastly Sophie. The 5 kilometre loop around Albert Park is pancake flat but completely exposed to the elements. In fact, it's said that the three certainties of life in Melbourne over the last decade are good coffee, a vibrant arts scene, and headwinds at Albert Park.
One by one, the athletes would come into view, around the bend off the pit straight of the Formula 1 Grand Prix track. In low light and misty conditions, a common theme quickly emerged - the silence of an early morning broken first by the metronomic slap of a foot strike, then as the athlete gets closer the short sharp rhythm of inhaling and exhaling; not frantic but purposeful and deliberate.
"It was pitch black when I started. The silence and stillness actually calmed my nerves. Even though I was solo out there, I felt a deep sense of connection with the other girls. I knew that as I took another step forward, they were somewhere around the track doing the same thing."
Carlie Skerry came into The Line as an experienced runner - she’s completed multiple marathons and runs most days, but exploring her full potential in a half marathon is something that wouldn’t ordinarily be on her list of goals. Her time trial goal was to break 90 minutes - 4:15 per kilometre. Running alone, without a pacer, Carlie only ran 4 of her kilometres slower than 4:15, and closed in 4:07 and 4:02, to finish in 88:45 - a PB by over 7 minutes from 2019’s Run Melbourne ½ Marathon.
“I wanted sub 90 but I don't think I truly believed I could run that until about 14k in, when I was still smiling coming around the back end of Albert Park - it became tangible in that moment! The run was a good lesson to stop mentally limiting myself.”
By mid morning, the results and the personal bests were flooding WhatsApp channels. With social distancing regulations in place, many of those involved with The Line were unable to attend the time trials in person, which meant the outpouring of support was strictly digital. For Phoebe Di Tommaso, who was due to run the following day, seeing her teammates run so well only served to elevate her anticipation for her own time trial.
“I was so pumped up hearing and seeing the updates of the girls runs coming through! I didn't feel any added pressure because I know we all are on such different pages when it comes to our abilities and what we were there to get after. It just got me even more excited to get out there Sunday and give it everything.”
Phoebe Di Tommaso
Monica Clarke and Sophie Fitt exist at opposite ends of the running spectrum. Mon, a talented 800m runner had never attempted a ½ marathon before. Soph, on the other hand, has a marathon best of 2:42:48. Maybe that’s the true beauty of The Line - that two athletes, both talented in different ways, are able to have a shared experience; solidarity through struggle, alone on the road at Albert Park.
Sunday morning brought with it a howling southerly wind off the bay, making the ½ marathon time trial from Port Melbourne to Brighton and back a tough proposition. It was the sort of weather where you sit in your car as long as you can, all the while negotiating a shorter warm up and tying your shoes before you get out and face the elements.
For Paige Gilchrist, who ran collegiately at one of the world’s best running schools, Northern Arizona University, the time trial was an opportunity to let loose. Paige ran her first marathon in January, and freely admits she’s still learning about distance running. The ½ marathon time trial gave her the perfect chance to explore the outer limits of her current potential with zero consequences.
"I wanted to practice starting the run at a comfortably hard pace and being confident in myself to work even harder through the second half. There’s nothing to lose in a time trial, and I wanted to enjoy the work we had all put in."
As much as the weather wasn’t great, there was something poetic about it. To go through everything these athletes have been through to then be greeted by a picture perfect calm day and ideal running conditions wouldn’t have been right; no, this would be the ideal final test.
Much like the previous day, this course had no finishing arch, no drink stations, not even a marked turnaround point. It was stripped back to ‘run until your watch beeps for halfway - then turnaround’ or more simply ‘you’re on your own here’.
The southerly breeze meant Phoebe ran head on into the wind for the first 10km of her time trial. As someone who provides so much energy to others, but also who feeds off being around people, running 21.1km completely solo might not seem like her idea of a fun Sunday morning - for reference, Phoebe once live streamed an entire ½ marathon on Instagram Stories.
But whatever Phoebe might have gained through this training program, be it endurance or leg speed or simply the resilience to put her body through the training, it was commitment to the outcome that she would need the most - incidentally the same quality that saw her sign up to The Line and attack it with such rigour over the past 3 months.
For Paige, on her way to a 77:05 ½ marathon, the time trial was two clearly distinct halves. The first half, into the block headwind was quickly forgotten as she turned around to head for home. A 34:04 final 10km, (including a 17:01 final 5km) told the story; wherever Paige thought she was after her debut marathon in January, that’s not her anymore. She’s no longer that runner. Progress and growth are not simple or linear - they’re messy, elusive, and sometimes feel unattainable, but their value is in their permanence.
The team at Nike Running wanted to show these athletes, and indeed anyone who followed this journey, that running smarter can help you stay in the game and ultimately assist you in achieving your goals. And that's true - we all know you can't set a PB from the sidelines. But knowledge, guidance, and training will only take you to the big day - real growth has to include a healthy dose of self belief.
Carlie probably sums it up best, "I've realised through this journey that I'm only limited by myself! I've thrived in this environment. Sharing a common goal with a group of bold women who want the most out of themselves and the best for each other, has kind of given me permission to set running goals bigger than I ever have before"
And really, that's the beauty of our sport - when everything else in the world is upside down, and we're dealing daily with new realities and interruptions to what we know, running is still there. Running doesn't stop.
I spoke to Abi the day after her time trial at Albert Park, "for me that run was about so much more than just PBs - it was about the joy of still being able to do something that I love in a time when so much has been temporarily taken away."