Amsterdamned

“Persistence and perseverance knows no failure, if not in sport, then in life” ~ Alastair Clarkson

August 2017 came around and I decided I wanted to run a marathon. After testing myself for the first time over the half marathon distance later that month it was time to choose a location for the race. Wanting to run a Comm Games qualifier the course needed to be fast. Amsterdam and Chicago seemed the most appropriate races given they were within the qualifying period and both renowned as fast courses. All I needed to do was convince Laura to come with me so I suggested a holiday in Portugal to visit her family with a quick visit before to Amsterdam. She was convinced and I was locked in.

I travelled to Amsterdam a week before the marathon with the Team Telford assistant coach Alex Van Der Meer. He had kindly organised accommodation with Miranda Boonstra, a 15 x Dutch National Champion and experienced marathon runner herself. Conveniently located just outside Nijmegen in a small town Mook-Moelenhook. I was treated to an endless expanse of soft forest trails and bike paths, both perfect for a light week of training in the lead up to the marathon. The White Birch, English Oak, and European Beech trees created an opaque forest canopy that seemed to block out most of the natural light. Located not far from the Global Sports headquarters in Nijmegen these trails have been host to the some of the worlds greatest runners including Haile Gebreselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge. As a runner there is certainly something enchanting about running the same trails as these legends. Dusk in Holland seems endless and it takes a few hours for darkness to completely close in at around 7pm. The forest goes to sleep as the local church bells chime every 15 minutes to remind us that any man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.

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Chris and Alex training in the scenic Nijmegen forests.

I was treated like a king by hosts Miranda and Noel and had a great week of training. It’s the little things that count and Dutch pancakes, racing advice and teaching me how to walk up and down their stairs without falling over were all well received.

From my limited exposure to Dutch people in the short time I was there, they seem very pragmatic and unemotional. I could imagine if a Dutch man won the lotto, he would invest the winnings in long-term, low-yield government bonds and get back to every day life without so much as a grin. This type of behaviour fits in nicely with my personality and I could see myself living in Holland for a long time.

I relocated to Amsterdam on the Friday before the race where I was rooming with Bashir Abdi, one of the pace makers and a fantastic guy. With not much training to do and lots of time to kill before the race on the Sunday it was all about carb loading, and I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Leaving 80 elite athletes with a lot of time and a buffet 3 times day is a bit like leaving Cyril Rioli unmarked inside the forward 50. Someone is going to get destroyed. In this case it was the pasta, rice and ugali. Carb loading was a new experience for me and after three solid days of eating I was well and truly ready to run.

The race technical meeting was held the day before the race and was a sea of Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalians. The pace makers were going out in 62.45 and 63.45 with no one around my mark and it looked like I would have to run the whole race by myself. Amsterdam is a fantastic course but if anyone is looking to run around that 2.11-2.15 mark I recommend bringing your own team of pacers. The evening before the race I wasn’t particularly focused and needed to switch on and get pumped up mentally…cue the full match replay from the 2013 preliminary final between Hawthorn and Geelong. After watching Shaun Burgoyne in that last quarter I knew I was ready to run.

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The Dutch Connection. My extremely generous hosts Noel and Miranda. 

After a fairly sleepless night we caught the bus to the Olympic Stadium at 7.30am for a 9.30am start. The Amsterdam Olympic Stadium was built for the 1928 Olympics and was the first Games to controversially include female track and field athletes. It was also the final ever games for the great Paavo Nurmi of Finland where he won gold in the 10,000m. The male elite field were marshalled in a small room in the foundations of the stadium with just the one toilet for about 40 athletes. Anyone who has ever raced or competed in any sports event will know that a solitary toilet is probably not quite enough for this number of people before a competition. It soon became apparent this was true and with a combination of time constraints and nerves getting the better of some athletes makeshift toilets began popping up, including to my surprise in the corner of the call room. Apparently anything goes before a marathon.

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I might have been a little too eager at the start of the race. Photo supplied by marathon-photos.com

The race started off fairly casually and by about the 2km mark I was running solo. I was hit by a bike after about 3km in the Vondelpark and missed my drink at 15km as a volunteer at the drink station didn’t see me coming. Otherwise the race was fairly uneventful. As a rookie marathoner I don’t feel comfortable giving too many racing tips but one thing I would recommend is not letting adverse events during the race faze you. 42km is a long way and there are ups and downs the whole way…it’s important to try and stay cool and calm when things go wrong, just like Shaun Burgoyne. I used Aqualyte to hydrate at each 5km station and tried to get at least 100ml each time. I’ve been using Aqualyte for about seven years and is the best source of rehydration, particularly during a marathon as it is extremely easy to consume and doesn’t upset the stomach which is incredibly important. It’s strange what you can and can’t remember about a race. I honestly don’t remember much up until the 35km point at which point I began to blow-up to some extent. Apparently this is what my mind chose to remember. The last 7km seemed to take as long as the first 35. I knew there wasn’t much I could do and my mentality changed to survival mode and doing whatever it takes to get to the line.

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It was a relief to finish inside the 1928 Olympic Stadium.

Finishing the race was a euphoric experience even though I didn’t run quite as fast as planned. There is something satisfying and rewarding about completing a marathon regardless of the time. It was an additional bonus to finish injury free, with the exception of severe nipple rash, something I will look to amend in future races. I was completely Amsterdamned. I brought my own medical team with me, my cousin Fi, who proved invaluable as she assisted untying my shoe laces (yes I couldn’t even do that myself) and advising on what foods to eat and what to avoid. Post race it took a long time to feel comfortable again and it wasn’t until early afternoon after I had a good feed that I contemplated a bit of local sight-seeing.

IMG_6552Dr Stenning performing emergency medical treatment

Post marathon Laura and I did a bit of travelling and touristing on our way to Portugal which might have been a mistake given I could barely walk for the first three days after the race. There is nothing more manly than making your wife carry all your bags for you because you’re too weak to do so yourself and this is what it looked like for a good week. One such travelling highlight included a quick stop at the Sound of Music tour in Austria, something that has been on my bucket list for a long time. This was two days after the race and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on a bus with a group of middle-aged women singing our favourite tunes from the movie. Unfortunately my legs were so destroyed I couldn’t get back onto the bus after one of the brief stops and had to employ a few of the older ladies to kindly give me a push.

IMG_9774Chris, Frederich, Maria, Brigitta, Liesl, Marta and Gretl 

Relaxing in Portugal with Laura’s family was a great way to recover and forget about running. After a few days I was invited out for a run with the cousins and a few km in we ended up stopping for a few shots of Portugese Ginjinha (a Portuguese liqueur)…certainly an unorthodox method of hydration mid run.

IMG_0214 Left to Right: Pedro Galvao, Diogo Galvao, Tiago Pereira and Chris. 

Overall the marathon experience was a great one. Not only did I get to race against some of the worlds best athletes, I was also able to travel to some amazing places and meet some real characters along the way. The race put me in contention for the Commonwealth Games team but with the qualification period not over it was a nervous few months to see if anyone would eclipse my time. To my relief no one did. Sitting at work one afternoon in a daze of tax accounts and consolidations I got a call from one of the selectors to let me know I had made it. I was thrilled.

The Box Hill connection

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” ~ Pascal Mercier

People often ask me how I got into running, when I started running and why I always wear my 15-year-old tattered Box Hill singlet to race in. My response. It’s all about the Box Hill connection.

I spent all my childhood growing up in Box Hill. Box Hill is the capital of Australia and probably the best place in the world to live. It is often described as the Paris of Australia due to its natural beauty, romanticism, cuisine and culture. While not a hugely popular destination for tourists there is so much to do like visit the shopping centre, ride the miniature trains or borrow some books from the library. It was often a common pastime to head down to the city oval and watch the mighty Box Hill Mustangs in the VFL. My grandparents lived in Box Hill, my parents lived in Box Hill and I grew up in Box Hill. I married my wife in Box Hill only after confirming she also was of Box Hill descent.

Laura+Chris -839Wedding photos at Box Hill Athletics Track.  Photos by Aweiding

Box Hill Athletics Club has a legitimate claim to being the best athletics club in Australia. Founded in 1932 and located at Hagenauer Reserve the club has a rich history and some of the best Australian athletes over the years. Our home was a conveniently short jog to the athletics track, which was a tremendous advantage for a running enthusiast like me. I would regularly jog past Nana and Pa’s house on route to the track as they tended the camellia bushes in the front yard. Walking through the barbed wire fence still sends shivers down my spine as the smell of the polyurethane rubber track evokes memories of the past legends of the club. Peter Fuller, Graham Crouch, Stephen Foley, Peter Larkins, Bill Scott, Steve Austin, Andrew Letherby to name a few from a distance running perspective. My dad and uncles also ran for Box Hill back in the day and its still a special experience every time I pull on the singlet knowing they did the same. Wearing a Box Hill singlet is a bit like pulling on a baggy green cap. An honour to be treasured and not taken lightly. I have run all my PB’s in the revered black and silver of Box Hill and will probably be buried in the same singlet one day. I’m not a fan of tattoos but if I was ever to get one it would be the white stallion plastered across my chest.

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The famous white stallion of Box Hill. 

Wes Windsor was my first and only coach at Box Hill. I was only admitted into the group after finishing 5 seconds behind Hayley Tomlinson in a local 2km event. Anyone who knows HT will know this was not an easy task and finishing this close was a sign of talent and promise. Wes coached me from a young kid all the way through to when I was in my early twenties and is a brilliant coach. He was the one who even suggested a change to Dick Telford as he saw my distance/marathon potential from a young age. I am very grateful for everything Wes has done and it was a fortuitous set of events that led me under his guidance.

UntitledEarly training partner Andrew White and the master coach Westly Windsor

I spent most of the early days chasing the likes of HT, Andrew White and Sam Hassett up the hills of Wattle Park or around the grass track at Strabroke. When I wasn’t running up hills I was cruising the streets of Box Hill with Nick Bourke, Alex De-Greenlaw and HT. I remember Bourkey’s passion for car running and donuts and we would often run many a mile just to get our hands on the cinnamon jam variety. One fond memory was running about 20km from Box Hill to Bourkey’s place, eating donuts, and then him ditching us and leaving us to run all the way home again. He is a super guy. Often after school I would catch the train home with one of the Pocklington’s or Mel Adams and we would walk down through the picturesque Box Hill Gardens, past the empty duck pond down to the track. Dion and Joel Pocklington would inevitably spend most of their time hanging upside down from the clubrooms or eating raisin bread, but I was lucky enough to train with their old man Colin a few times. Colin Pocklington was a humble man of great Christian faith and of the highest moral character. While it was often humiliating to get smacked up by a 50-year-old man he was a great role model for many of the younger athletes and someone who has left a lasting legacy at Box Hill. It’s a real shame I’ll never be fast enough to win the annual Colin Pocklington Sprint Trophy for the fastest Box Hill sprinter.

These days I live in Canberra and it is certainly one of the best training environments with so many trails and tracks to run…however I still believe the best single location to run (other than Box Hill of course) is without a doubt Ferny Creek. Located in the Dandenong’s about a 45 minute drive from the capital Box Hill, Ferny Creek was first used as a running destination by the legendary Ron Clarke and Trevor Vincent amongst others. The original “Ferny Creek Gang” pioneered what is today a rite of passage for any avid distance runner. If you head out to Ferny on a Sunday morning I can guarantee you will still see TV running the hallowed trails. Driving up through Sassafras and Olinda always induced emotions of anticipation and excitement. As the elevation increased so too did the size of the tall Mountain Ash trees and density of the undergrowth. Often in winter, fog would creep up the steeply weathered gullies covering the thick temperate rainforest. On occasion it would snow. Ferny was and still is a magical place and unrivalled by any other training location.

IMG_8521The original Ferny Creek Gang. Photo from Ron Clarke – The Unforgiving Minute

I was first invited to Ferny by some of the Knox Crew. The Knox boys are all right I guess for non Box Hill people. Some of my best running memories were the two hour runs in the forests with the likes of Sam Crowther, Kane Wille, Matt Bayley, Slouchy and Mattress. These boys were some of the best blokes and it can only be assumed therefore that they were born in Box Hill and must have somehow ended up in Knox. Sam, Kane and Matt were without a doubt the toughest competitors I’ve ever raced and those races sometimes included the Sunday long runs.

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The Box Hill and Knox teams always had competitive battles. Sam Crowther (middle row far right) and Kane Wille (middle row 3rd from right) were two of the toughest competitors i’ve ever raced. 

Mattress is an enigma and the modern day godfather of Ferny Creek. No one has run in the forests more than him. Mattress was born at the top of two-mile hill and has lived in the forest hunting deer and drinking the fresh waters of Sherbrooke creek ever since. He probably spent a little too much time in the forest and these days his appearance resembles the native Messmate Stringybark Eucalyptus trees. Without a doubt the long runs in the forests and hills of Fenry developed my passion for distance running and contributed to developing endurance strength in the early days that laid a solid foundation for the future. Life at Ferny Creek only got better when the Toomey brothers founded the Belgrave Bakery Appreciation Society. Many an hour would be spent recovering with a few pastries.

13244211_10153796767262979_5460046992482566176_oThe modern day godfather of Ferny creek Old Man Mattress in full flight. 

Box Hill during the week. Ferny Creek on weekends. This was pretty much my routine for a number of years. The different characters and locations all contributed to a love and enjoyment of running in my formative years and built a passion that has lasted to the present day.