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Mikey’s 2023 Rotorua Marathon experiences: picture Bohemian Rhapsody on a muscle xylophone

In the 2023 Rotorua Marathon, I experienced more cramping than I had in the rest of my life combined.

Holy crap. I’d never experienced anything like it. Sure, I’d get the occasional bit of cramping after a 3h+ run. That I could totally understand. I’d pushed my legs to exhaustion and beyond, naturally they’d kick up a kerfuffle. If I were someone’s leg, I totally would.

But here? This time? Dear god. Here’s a delightful mental image. Picture that scene from Fellowship of the Ring where Saruman announces he’s defecting to the Dark Side and Gandalf throws a wobbly. This scene:

Now imagine that Saruman had decided that his ideal Middle-Earth abode wasn’t Orthanc at all, but my torso’s interior, and he and Gandalf were therefore to kick off their battling thither. For four friggin’ hours. Every blast from a magical staff sets off a fresh tempest of cramping. Aargh.

The marathon itself, though, kicked off bright and early. It was stunningly beautiful and I’d recommend it to anyone.

That said, there were several Things I’d found affecting me at Marathon Start:

Thing the First: there’s a phenomenon that over the years I’d found a teensy bit trying. Caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic. I adore my morning cuppa. Perks me right up. But it undeniably confers certain urinary effects.

Normally this ain’t that pesky a problem. When I’m jogging solo, I just take a quick break. Easy peasy. When banging out one of our cherished Sunday runs, I might have to hold on a bit longer, until our next stop. Inconvenient but not debilitating.

But when undergoing an actual race? When every second counts? That puts a different spin on things. I’d rather not. I can’t pretend to know exactly what the reactions of the marathon officials and my neighbouring marathoners might be should I forgo time-squandering Portaloo usage and literally piss myself mid-run, but I suspect they’d take less than a charitable view.

… It’s only just occurred to me right now to wonder: are there such things as running catheters? A quick Googling confirms that yes there are! That might solve things nicely. It’d almost be more trouble than it’s worth, but can’t hurt to at least consider it. Next year?

Athletic catheters being difficult to source within minutes of the starting gun, I thus followed a different strategy: I figured I’d swig the bare minimum of water and coffee beforehand; transport several servings of instant coffee with me; and then guzzle loads of both water and coffee during the second half. That’ll sort things. Right? RIGHT?

Thing the Second: There’s something else I’d been experimenting with. Ice. A few months ago I watched a YouTube video on athletic/gym performance which claimed that the single biggest impediment to stamina and long-duration performance was overheating. Seriously. Sure, nutrition and fatigue no doubt play their part, but the video stated that if you were at the gym, banging out heavy weight training, with sweat pouring off you and with exhaustion threatening … then simply run cold water over your hands for a minute or two and your performance will increase by around 20%. You’ll feel a new person. It’ll be amazing.

My reaction was, to put it mildly, skeptical, but … I figured, can’t hurt to give it a whirl, right? Next gym session I attempted exactly this … and holy crap it resurrected me. I couldn’t believe it. One minute I was a trembly sweaty wreck; the next, vibrant and gung-ho and keen.

Might a similar phenomenon phenom-ify itself in long-distance running? I tested this by freezing two litres of water in my Camelbak backpack, and sipping en route. Verdict: yes it’s amazing. That was two months ago, and I’ve since carried a frozen Camelbak on every 2h+ run since. When it’s a baking-hot day and you’d been on your feet for three hours already, few substances rejuvenate finer and swifter than literally freezing water. It’s friggin’ awesome.

Thing the Third: a year and a half ago, I got diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. I’d been feeling slightly-to-moderately tired, all the time, for years, and started seeking answers. Turns out I have sleep apnea. For those not in the know, it’s when you literally stop breathing during sleep. The bits of your anatomy responsible for respiration just halt. Every other bit of your body starts kicking up a fuss at the cutting-off of its oxygen supply. After enough time, you undergo a surge of adrenaline and start panting, until your blood oxygen levels renormalise. As you can imagine, this is absolute Kryptonite for deep, restful sleep. Your sleep remains shallow and unsatisfying and shite.

These apnea events usually don’t just happen once. Severe sufferers can undergo this dozens of times an hour, all night.

Treatments differ. I kicked off with using this kind of adjustable jaw-brace-mouthguard-thing. It holds your jaw as far forward and away from your throat as you can. It holds your airways wider open and makes snoring and other sleepy throat obstructions more difficult. Try it now: hold your jaw as far forward as you can, with your lower teeth in front of your upper teeth, and make snoring-noises. Then shove your jaw as far back into your neck and throat as possible, and try to snore again. The former is vastly more difficult, right? That’s the theory with this mouthguard-thing.

I wore it several dozen times … and holy crap it was uncomfortable. After a while I just gave up. But apnea remained. The place I’d sought my diagnosis from, the Eden Sleep Clinic, provided a range of potential apnea treatments: the most effective non-surgery treatment is a CPAP machine.

For those not in the know, CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Air Pressure. It’s an air mask you wear in your sleep, attached to computerised air pump, which ensures continuous in-out air flow, even if you’re asleep and not breathing.

A week prior, I bit the bullet and started renting one. The literature on user experiences is all over the place: some people try it just one night and they feel ever so sparkling and fresh the next day and they’re a new person. Most people, however, require a few weeks to get used to this damn thing splodged across their noggin.

It would appear I’m one of them. I’d used this CPAP machine the two nights before the run, and slowly accustomed myself to it. But it’s a hell of a disconcerting sensation, feeling air shoved into your lungs without even breathing it. This might have discombobulated things a tad further.

Anyhoo. Deliberately forgoing water and caffeine; hauling another 2kg of ice on my back; CPAP shenanigans. Fun fun. The fateful marathonny day itself dawned. I awoke, unpeeled the CPAP mask, drank a bare half-coffee and not much water, applied my frozen Camelbak, and embarked with Gordy to the start line. Sure, I felt a tad groggy and sluggish, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? Par for the course. No problem.

“Stay hydrated,” the marathon voice-announcers boomed. “Dehydration is a leading cause of cramping. Drink stations are every 4km. Use them! Drink drink drink! Consider yourselves warned, you friggin’ bozos.”

The starting cannon banged and off we jogged in our hundreds. An hour and a half passed without incident. I hoped to beat my 3:26:54 personal-best, so kicked off the first half by maintaining pace with the 3:30 pacer-runners, a few hundred metres ahead. I sipped small quantities of glacier water and coffee. The grog and the slug yet remained. Not debilitating, but noticeable. No biggie. Right?

Damn peculiar. At that point, I was still figuring I’d underdosed on caffeine and possibly water. But I’m still carrying loads of both, I can just guzzle more, problem solved. Right?

But then.

At 24km, all muscles in both my legs went BOIOIOINGGGNG, all at once.

For half a second I honestly wondered if I’d been struck by lightning. The weather was crap and drizzly but surely not lightninngy. But no. Cramping! Surprised the hell out of me. I had to drop to a walk. A cornerstone of the marathonning experience is that as the hours tick by and the fatigue levels grow, after about halfway, each subsequent kilometre becomes about 5% tougher than the last. Proper athletic agony usually kicks off after 30km. But at least for me, it’d always been cardiac fatigue and muscle soreness, never cramping. Cramping under any circumstances is a loathsome novelty. But beginning to cramp with another 18km yet ahead? Terrifying new territory.

I resumed jogging, guzzling oodles of both water and caffeine, determined to fend this crampy crap off and shoot for the friggin’ stars. But no, a kilometre later, a second BOIOIOINGGGNG hit. No choice but to walk it off, and the 3:30 pacer-pack overtook me. Aah.

The next hour proved a horrid thunderdome of squirming muscle. At first I wondered if I’d somehow already exhausted my legs vastly more than I’d dreaded possible, but no, even scratching my nose made every muscle in that arm cramp up too, and it’s not as if I’d already scratched my nose 27 billion times in the prior week. Can’t be muscle fatigue, then! Dehydration? Electrolytes? Possibly! I’d topped up on the latter beforehand, so who knows.

At around 37km, the 3:45 pacers overtook me too, dang and blast. Some kind of drooping speed ceiling was being forced upon me, whereby having the temerity to run faster caused some kind of cramp-based epileptic fit. At one point, Rach overtook me and offered me some of her electrolyte pills, hell yeah, yumyumyum.

Thus far, each cramping fit had damn near made me sproing airborne like a moulting tarantula, and I’d been content with walking it off and resuming jog once complete. But not near the finish! I’d cross that damn line at a run if it was the last thing I attempted. If my billionth cramp-flavoured epileptic fit catapulted me smashing up through the finish line’s timing clock in front of a gazillion spectators, than so be it.

The End hove into view, my badonkadonk went full-on honky-tonk like never before, my limbs corkscrewed like I was Animorphing into a four-rotor drone, the extra lift proved sufficient to propel me over the line, and holy damn my fifth Rotorua Marathon was complete.

The prize giving also contained its astonishments. There were dozens of podium-finish demographics: first/second/third medals for each five-year age gap, for males, for females, for the half-marathon, and for the full marathon. Took ages. The electronic race-registration systems tell you before the event whether you’d won any spot prizes and I hadn’t, so I was basically only there to support mates and pay vague attention to when to join in any clapping.

Half an hour in, I was faffing around with my phone and suddenly the venue lit up with a vast echoey “… and in the 35-39 age group third place: Mikey Clarke!”

I creaked to my perplexed feet, started making my way forward, looked back at the rest of our crowd, and the rest of them unanimously hissed back at me “No that’s the womens’ finishers!”

Oops! I made my way back to my seat, scratching my head. Maybe I’d misheard the announcer? “Micah Clarke”, perhaps?

I thought little more about it until later that evening and read my official website marathon results. Turns out I’m a girl. At least as far as Athletics New Zealand is concerned. I could have sworn I’d declared myself as male whilst signing up for this year’s marathon, but it’s totally possible I’d mistyped something somewhere. That itself ain’t overly disastrous, though turns out I’d displaced an actual real lady from 3rd to 4th. I’d unwittingly swindled her out of a medal! I’d emailed Athletics New Zealand about this … and they’ve since corrected the record. Neat.

Apart from my apocalyptic cramping Thunderdome, though, I found the marathon itself a thoroughly pleasant experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Do try it.