Coober Pedy Marathon Race Recap
By Kevin Patrick Coyle May 19, 2015.
It was May 2013 and Fiona and I had were just starting out on a 2 week road trip with our destination being Lorne, VIC for the Great Ocean Road Marathon. We stayed in Coober Pedy that night at an underground camping ground. With our sleeping bags and pads we slept in carved out rooms from ancient sea beds, the basis for what led to the formation of Opals. We went to the Old Timers Mine and had a tour, we also bought some opal rings for each other. While in town, we saw a brochure that had mentioned about the Great Breakaways Bolt. It mentioned how every year, the Bolt was held as a running event from the Breakaways 33KM out of town towards Coober Pedy. Of course, when we saw this we said that we definitely wanted to come back and do it.
Fast forward a year and a half to November 14th, 2014 and I had remembered the Bolt. So I emailed the Claire at the Coober Pedy Council and she let me know in January that rego was open. I knew I wanted to run it, to have the opportunity to run a marathon in the middle of the Australian Outback, in a town of only 3,500. I was slightly nervous about it however because I realized that it would be on May 16th, only 13 days after Ironman Australia. Fiona on the other hand was a little bit more cautious; rightly so, she didn’t want to potentially injure herself after she too would be competing in Ironman Australia. But, she opted instead for the half marathon and would just “go for a run and take it easy”.
Faster forward another six months, and it’s the week of the race, the same week we just got back from Ironman Australia and a 7,300KM road trip to the East Coast. Our plans changed during the week to include staying at Coober Pedy for 2 nights and we only then bought accommodation at the impressive Desert Cave Hotel where we stayed in an underground room which was a fantastic experience. But, having just got back, Fiona couldn’t get Friday off of work. And that is where the story truly begins.
We packed our things Thursday night so that as soon as Fi got home, we could leave. I had been carbo loading for Thursday and Friday eating 10g of carbs per KG or north of 830g of carbs consisting of several liters of coke, sprite, muffins, snakes, LCMs, and a ton more junk food. I didn’t get any running in and was still a bit stiff from the Ironman. At 4:10PM we left, both scared to be driving at night since the last time we did that, we hit a roo which led to a whole other story. I was moving to get as far as we could before complete darkness. We filled up once since the drive of 685KM would take about 6 ½ hours. After that we went through one area where Fi said “look out, look out!!!”. I slammed on the brakes from 80-100KPH and the 2 little roo’s still didn’t move. Fortunately, we didn’t hit them. Soon thereafter, I had been seeing a massive road train. Having remembered what a woman we met in the Hunter Valley said, we let the road train pass and then I sat on his rear for the next 2 hours till we hit Coober Pedy, safely and in one piece at 10:30PM on Friday.
We went immediately to bed, woke up at 5:30AM, stretched, had a medium redbull and coles bakery muffin. I put on all my gear including a FuelBelt that held ARO, Cytomax, 9 gels, and 4 salt tablets. At 6:45AM we drove the 2 minutes to the meeting point of the town oval. We checked in and sized up our competition. The bus departed about 7:40AM and drove us the 10-20KM on the Stuart Highway to the turn off to the Breakways. 1KM down the dirt path road, the 12 mountain bikers and 20 marathon runners jumped out of the bus. The easterly start had the low sun shining into our eyes. I felt bad for the guy that forgot his sunnies and the other guy that forgot his earphones. But, they didn’t know I had forgot to put the insoles of my running shoes back in after soaking them the week before. Now with roughly 38KM on dirt and rocky roads, I knew that could potentially be a bad thing. After the race I had a disgusting blister on the ball of my foot. But, the 7 degree C start was cold. I had gloves and arm warmers to start and was violently shaking.
Go! I used the first couple seconds to ease into it since the cyclists were right in front of me. I started out and did a 6:56 mile or about 3:02 marathon pace. I figured that this would be a good area for me to start since I had done a 3:36 two weeks earlier in the Ironman, had gone 3:28 at the Alice Springs Marathon 9 months earlier when I was completely out of shape, had a 5 year old Personal best of 3:06, and knew I was in the best shape I’d ever been in. But, was I recovered? Would I have the speed?
By the 5KM mark (roughly 21:30 into the race) I looked back and didn’t see anyone. They would have been at least 800meters or 3 minutes behind. I kept running, hitting the aid stations every 5KM and going through checkpoints via incredible volunteers. I was having my gels every 20-30minutes and started my salt tablets about an hour in. I also hit my caffeine blast at around 1hr20min. By the 10KM, I was well within the Breakaways. With yellow and red ocher colors through the small hills to my right side, the 5,300KM long dingo fence and moon plain to my left, I could absolutely feel like I was on Mars as Fiona and I both mentioned to each other later on. I also could visually picture the ancient inland sea. We would have been running where the waves would be crashing and just below the water surface. Of course, that was a long time ago. What we were doing now, was running in desert. With no trees, bush, or even weeds. Water actually comes from 50KM away through very deep water bores to provide to the residents of the town.
At the 15KM I hit the headwind which lasted for another 7KM. During this time, I kept looking back, not seeing anyone other than a few of the young cyclists that I had passed. It was here that I thought to myself, “I am going to win this marathon”. Of course, I didn’t let that thought stay there too long, even though I knew I would get through the race, I had to respect the distance. After all, it is a marathon. Anything can happen. And I am not the winner, until I cross that line first. At the 22KM and the turn westerly onto the Oondata track, the straight shot back into town, I knew I would make up time as the 20KM wind was now at my back. But, the speed never came; it never picked up. The road surface was slightly rockier and sandier, the pistons were pumping and the HR was well elevated at 151 on average. I was still working but I just couldn’t get the speed! I hit the half marathon in 1:34:12 so knew that the goals of 3:00, 3:02, and 3:05 were out of the question. But what about a 3:10 or 3:15? The last 10KM was a slugfest. Mentally, I was fine. Having competed in 6 ironmans in the last 3 years, I knew all about nutrition, I knew how to fuel my body. But the pain the legs go through in the last 10KM is just completely different from the marathon in an ironman. I reckon the pain was higher than the IM Marathon. I kept moving, kept looking back, kept dousing myself with water, drinking the powerade from the aid stations, and was walking 30 seconds at each mile. I was trying to calculate my time too.
With 2KM to go I had to walk again. My quads were in a world of pain. The hill I was climbing was just enough for me to think the course was outstanding and a must for anyone looking to get in a marathon that is more challenging than you would think. With 10 minutes to go, I saw the sign on the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs. I thought of our town, and how Fiona and I came down here to do this race, and were representing what we can do. I also thought it was funny, that we had driven 6 ½ hours to another state and were running on the same road that I ran the Alice Springs Marathon on, all of the Alice Springs Triathlon Club races on, and the road I take to work. But heading south along the Stuart down here, carried additional headwind just to make us work all the way to the finish. I pushed hard through the end just hitting my last goal of sub 3:20 taking the win in 3:19:48.
Fiona and I chatted with the announcer and organizers and gave praise to the volunteers, support, sponsors, and a fantastic course that was incredibly scenic and unique. A race in which I didn’t have to spend a thousand dollars on a packaged race (Uluru), but only $40 of which half was going to the youth of Coober Pedy as a fundraiser. Of course, over the weekend we ate at Uncle Johns Pizza which rivals the pizza of Alice Springs, ate at the Greek Restaurant which we cannot get in Alice Springs and was fantastic, bought opals from Old Timers Mine where we had gone 2 years prior and were also the gracious donators to Fiona’s half marathon, first place finish (1:40) of an amazing local Aboriginal artwork worth more than $1,000, and of course stayed at the Desert Cave Hotel. Of course, after the race we went to Cellarbrations where we bought our favorite Rekorderlig Cider, and some Makers Mark Bourbon Whisky! After dinner we went to the underground bar which was also awesome. The music was great, we had a beer, played pool, air hockey, big buck hunter, and pin ball.
On Sunday we headed back to Old Timers Mine. We had spoken with the owner, Trevor Berry, who played a key part in many aspects of the race. But the highlight was the medal. We went back to show him. What was so special about the medal? Besides the fact that Coober Pedy is 100 years old, the 420gram pure silver medal, took 3 months to concept, design, and create. It features a Coober Pedy Opal that the man appraised at $1,500 – $2,000. The silver is worth $300. But the engraving was hand done by London Engraver. Having worked on the Wimbledon Cup and the European Premier League Cup, he is the top engraver in the world. On his facebook page there are more than 20 pictures of him personally engraving the medal. But this was all donated by Unique Opal and Diamond Manufacturers located in Adelaide. So this medal worth $3K- $4K will be proudly displayed in our house. Knowing the pain that I had to endure to earn it and the amazing support that so many provided.
Opals are rare. They have been sought after for a century now in the town and the 1.5 million holes around Coober Pedy are proof of that. Silica filled a gap millions of years ago and created this precious stone. I can see Red, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Violet, and Green on the surface of this Opal in my hand. It is stunning. I have now raced in 22 marathons throughout Australia, North America, and Asia. From Dubai to Hawaii and from Boston to Coober Pedy. Marathons are no longer rare. There are thousands of them all over the world. But what is rare is an experience like we had. Coober Pedy will only have one centennial, there will only have been one Inaugural marathon, and I am so thankful to now be part of their history and hold the course record! With the local support of volunteers and sponsorship, I know the town and youth have a very promising future. I wish them all the best and plan on being back again next year.