Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Puffing Billy's 34rd Great Train Race

On Sunday I lined up with over 3400 others to take on Puffing Billy in the Great Train Race. Although I was only ever going against Puffing Billy 2, the second train, which beat me by 2:28 last year. I was hoping to improve my time from last year to catch the second train this year—and while I knew it would be difficult to do due to a lack of training because of the hamstring, I hadn't suspected that the train would be over 10 minutes faster than last year!

While I knew of multiple running buddies that were taking on the train, I only bumped into Brett from my now-dead Mullum Mullum trail runs before the race. Oh, and I saw the guy who lives across the street from me* multiple times. I also spotted Teslafox (he has a real name, which I know, but he'll always be Instagram/Twitter's Teslafox until I meet him properly) before the start, who sadly was not wearing the suit he had worn the previous day to Lillydale Lake parkrun's first birthday. 

As always, the start-line was packed and I went to the back to join the tail-ending pink (although the bibs were more of a purple/magenta, tom-ae-to, tom-ah-to) group. Eventually the race started and we all made out way through the start line. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. It was busy and my time at 1km was only 5:43. Given most people start fun-runs too quickly I knew that we were only going to slow down, and it was going to be difficult to get to and hold the steady 5:30 pace I had hoped to run at in the crowd.  Having a troublesome hamstring and a lack of conditioning meant I couldn't afford small accelerations to get myself out of traffic, and so I was just going to go with the traffic.

I didn't need my watch to realise I was behind on the trains. Even as early as 1.4km, which is where the railway track crosses Belgrave-Gembrook Road via a scenic bridge, I knew that I was behind. Last year I went under that bridge as the first train was crossing, this year it was nowhere in sight (or even within earshot). Similarly I didn't need to slow down at the Selby-Aura Road crossing (3.8km) as there was no stuck-at-the-crossing-waiting-for-the-train-to-pass traffic jam this year. It was completely clear. At the end of the day we found out Puffing Billy 1 was also significantly faster this year, so I don't think I ever had a chance of being stopped by it at that crossing this year. The Strava Comparison tool does show that I was 39 seconds behind on my time last year by that point (and that difference blew out to 50s at 5km, which is significant as the climbs begin at about the 4.5km mark).

50s behind at 5km! Although needing to go by every water stop this year as my Sjogren's was flaring also didn't help.
Image from Strava.

I can only attribute my slow start this year to the seeding process. Last year I started in the third (blue) group, and this year I was in the fourth and final one. So I had to go with the bulk flow until the numbers started to dwindle on the first hill, although I was still stuck most of the time. While I couldn't accelerate on the flat because of my hamstring, I couldn't accelerate on the hills because of gravity! I just had to slow down, wait for a gap, and then revert to my normal climbing pace. I did take comfort in the heavy breathing around me, while I was still feeling fine.

It was on this hill that I spotted my first familiar face. Actually, I noticed a familar shade of blue on someone's cap, and as I overtook it I confirmed that it was Luke from the Half Marathon Club Meetup! His blue cap was always his this-is-who-you-need-to-look-for message on the meetups. I said hello on my way past, but he looked a bit confused. It may have been that he didn't expect me there, or that he was busy working his way up the hill... or that he couldn't place me without the five30runners shirt I had worn to the Albert and Maribyrnong parkrun Meetups! 

The next person I spotted was Brett from Westerfolds parkrun, who overtook me last year on the first proper hill that starts at 4.5km. This time I overtook him on the approach to the same hill and told him he'd probably see me again on the actual hill. He said he hadn't trained for the run this year, so it was probably unlikely. I doubted it as I was going to have to walk up part of that hill, but he was right in the end! I didn't see any more familiar faces on course after Brett.

As expected, I needed to walk up a lot of that hill, but as I was making my way up I noticed that I was still running past sections that I had definitely walked last year. Also, my walking felt strong rather than last year's I am completely pooped style of walking and I was able to overtaking others that were also walking this time around instead of just keeping up with them. Interestingly I noticed that my hamstring was feeling the inclines, which is not what I had typically feeling, but it was more of a my hamstring is working to push me up the hills awareness rather than the woah you're overstriding again thing it had been doing. And I won't deny that the slow start helped to limit the overstriding pain that I often notice when I begin most of my runs (just for the first few steps).  

Last year the second train train caught me within the Emerald Lake parklands, but this time it was with about 5km to go as I could hear it approaching when at the Belgrave-Gembrook Rd crossing (7.8km). The next time we went near the tracks at Edenmont Road (8.8km) a marshall told us we could still catch it as it slows going up the hill. I wonder if he realised that we slowed down too! The second train finished 1:10:43. I had only just entered the Emerald Lake parklands at this point and still had 2km to go. 

Chris and Scott from Westerfolds parkrun were staking out the finish line, so it was nice to receive a small cheer from them (and I think another non-Westerfolds parkrunner who was with them) going up the short and steep hill to the finish line. While I had a strong finish at the end it wasn't the kind of finishing line sprint I usually go for as my hamstring had held up for most of the run and I had no plans to make it worse! 1:22:07 according to my watch (1:22:03 officially). Faster than last year, slower than intended, but happy as I knew I had gone a lot better on the hills.

Once I got home I was able to inspect how my run had gone compared to last year. The slow start definitely cost me time but I made up enough time (and a bit more) on the hills that I was able to pick up a PB for the run. By the official time it was only a 1:50 PB, but still better. It's probably not enough to get me out of the last starting group next year, unless being female somehow works in my favour (apparently the women had a different seeding arrangement, which doesn't actually make sense when you consider that it's a mixed race). My placing percentages improved as there were 300 more runners this year, likely due to last year being wet and the weather on Sunday being lovely - but I finished at the 76th/24th percentile overall (and 60th/40th percentile amongst the women) which means that seeding me in the final group made sense (I finished in the 82nd/18th percentile last year, 70th/30th percentile amongst the women).

The Strava segment treasures also show that I had a slow start this year. But I'll always cherish PBs climbing up hills rather than descending them.
Image via Strava.
I know that I can do a lot better on this run, I just need to not be injured so that I can train appropriately! And while my legs did a lot better on the hills this year, I'm not sure if it's because I added a couple of hilly runs over the past few weekends (one in the Dandenongs three/four weeks ago, and a less hilly Lysterfield trip two/three weeks ago) or because I was forced to start more slowly thus had more left in the tank once the hills started.

I felt a lot stronger at the Sussan 10km in December despite the tendonitis, so I want to take on Puffing Billy when I feel like I can run at that strength again**! Next time, Gadget!

Image originally from some Tumblr according to the file name, but I nicked it from here.

* He occasionally goes to Westerfolds parkrun, we're in some of the same Facebook groups, and I would say that he is the forum personality that I interact the most with on the Cool Runnings forums. He was the one who directed me to the best parking spot for Albert parkrun a while ago, and more recently we've both been venturing into the Puffing Billy and Asians at parkrun (release the trolls!) threads. In real life he has no idea who I am, which I find hilarious. In all fairness to him, I only put two and two together recently - and I don't have my face on my Facebook profile. 

** I'd run if I was injured like I currently am anyway as it's such a pretty course. 


  1. A marshall told us we could catch it as it slows going up the hill ... had to laugh at that one. You probably didn't on the day though eh. A smart race, well done. You should be wrapped coming through that one relatively unscathed. Now for some serious training.

    1. Sometimes I wonder if the marshalls are aware that some of the things that they say clearly show that they are non-runners! Had a chuckle when he said that too, but I'm also the kind of person who bursts out laughing at the physio when it's clear that my muscles on one side are exceptionally week. Took the podiatrist a little while to get my sense of humour (and I still don't think he gets it), but I think the physio's caught on fairly quickly. Serious training is hamstring recovery mode, right?

  2. That's an impressive run. Reading your blog made me regret not entering this year and now I find myself siding with Dr. Claw...

    1. The weather was exceptionally lovely. I believe the drizzle we experienced last year was closer to "typical" weather for the event—but last year was a blast too. Yes, come join us next year!

    2. Congrats on the PB Cecilia, especially on such a tough course...takes a tough mind. Better next year I am sure. Thanx for the advice on entry. I loved it once more.

    3. No probs - I almost forgot to enter on the day this year as I was up early to drop my parents off at the airport and only realised when I checked my diary! :)

  3. Awesome run considering your recent injury woes. And I thought we gave you a BIG cheer ;) The other non-Westerfolds parkrunner was the GM.

    1. Oh, oops! I think I was a bit more focussed on that finish line ramp than I realised!

  4. Congrats on the PB, even if it wasn't as fast as hoped for. I'm in favour of "slow" (even paced effort) starts, especially for longer races. I haven't got a fast start to work at the Parkrun (a short race!) but I want to keep trying. Watching all these cyclocross races, they all sprint like crazy at the start and manage to recover, so I believe fast starting is something that can be trained for.