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Rotorua Marathon 2024: Mikey Clarke’s experience

I love sharing these things. Oh sure, any runner will tell you that the final third of any marathon is like being in an extra-long MMA kickboxing cage fight against five adversaries hellbent on perfecting their golf swings on your thighs. But the memories and shared experiences, in hindsight, are magical. Love ’em. That said, this is my sixth time lapping Lake Rotorua. I’d already gushed at some length about the previous five appearances, and barring the odd Godzilla rampage and Viet Cong SCUBA warrior kissing contest, for my #6, not a huge amount has since changed.

Thus, at first I’d intended to write only briefly. But … I’d been mentioning this marathon and its training regimen to my day-job workplace, Equinox Ventures. And, holy crap, they’ve only gone and sent me a congratulatory $130 voucher for https://www.primalrehab.co.nz/. One of their few non-nerd People-Person employees, Amelia, has also asked me if I might like to answer a few questions for them about the event: tell us what marathons are like, your preparation, your training, your motives, inspirations, highlights, participation experiences, advice for newbies. etc.

This seemed spectacularly reasonable! Least I could do. So I banged out a few answers … and also copied them here. Enjoy!

Amelia: Where was the marathon held? What was the name of the event?

The marathon I ran was a single lap of Lake Rotorua: https://www.google.com/maps/@-38.0924121,176.250186,12z The event itself was https://www.rotoruamarathon.co.nz/race-options/marathon, the 60th annual Rotorua Marathon. It’s neat! Thousands of people do it each year, with multiple events, distances, demographics: there’s a full 42km marathon around the lake; a 21km half-marathon venturing into the bush to the south of Rotorua; plus 5km and 10km events for those preferring shorter distances. The event itself takes over Rotorua’s Events Centre for a few days, managing athlete registrations, signups, collection of gear, spot prizes, local athletics shops selling their own gear, and various histories of the event itself. It’s massive. I’d snapped a few photos: https://share.icloud.com/photos/03dKfUVMiw5jEPdXKSsF-SazA Part of the events centre is dedicated to a gallery of each year’s event, and a while back I also got photos of the lot. Check these out: https://share.icloud.com/photos/038NQx5TBqiMTWlo_jdAljGOQ Each photo is of a massive poster summary of each annual marathon, starting way back in 1965. Oodles of local history.

How did you prepare for the marathon? How long was your training period?

My running group’s training proper lasted about four months. I’ve been a member of https://wellyrunwalk.org.nz/ since the late ‘90s, and its original name was the Wellington Marathon Clinic: for decades, you could join up as a beginner with zero fitness, and over the course of a year or two, you could join various running packs aimed at various fitness levels, beef up your own fitness, and eventually have a properly good crack at a full-length marathon. 42km. The running pack I’m part of still does this! Great fun. It’s led by my dad, Gordy, who joined the club back in 1981. He’s done 65 marathons total, and the Rotorua marathon 28 times, and he’s got our pack’s annual training schedule down to an incredibly consistent routine.

The club as a whole meets every Sunday morning at 8am, and each running or walking pack then pinballs around Wellington for a couple of hours. We normally do that weekly all year anyway. Gordy’s marathon-specific training builds on this.

For four months leading up to the event, our weekly runs alternate between the standard 2h events, and seven specific 3-4hr courses. These babies:

A few of these are brutal as hell. Especially 4, the 34km Makara Loop. You do it anticlockwise, so that you exhaust yourself for 30km, before ascending for 2km of incredibly steep road, up and over a mountain saddle. We could totally have done the loop clockwise instead, but you’re only really cheating yourself if you do the hardest bit when you’re freshest. Save the best ‘til last. If your athletic universe hasn’t collapsed into an unrelenting nightmare of agonising pain, then what’s the point?

Is this your first marathon run?

Yes and no. The Rotorua marathon is the only actual official marathon event I’ve done, though this year is the sixth year I’ve done it. I’ll happily continue it indefinitely, though. For there is a club. https://www.rotoruamarathon.co.nz/survivors-club. The Survivor’s Club is an offshoot of the official Rotorua marathon event. It’s for people who have completed the marathon 15 or more times. My dad, Gordy, has completed it 28 times and counting, and his partner Wendy has banged out her 15th, and joined the Survivors this year. It’s great fun: on the evening after each marathon, the club holds a dinner at the nearby Millennium Hotel, with some seriously good buffet cuisine in gigantic quantities. They allow plus-ones to attend, moi, and I’ve already attended all of my six times. Give me another nine years, and I too shall ascend to Survivorhood. It’s neat. You get a polo shirt, with one of those shield-insignia-things on the breast pocket, emblazoned with the number of years you’d been marathonning away. I think the club’s current record is a dude with 48 successful marathons. Seriously. 48. What a dude!

What inspired you to run this marathon?

Apart from masochism? Oh, loads of things. First up, I’d just wanted to get fit enough to run actual marathons. You know Runner’s High? It’s this alleged buzz you get after completing a really rigorous aerobic event. Apparently you feel warm and buzzy and on top of the world and only slightly tormented by your legs and lungs kersploding.

I too scoffed upon first hearing of Runner’s High: sounds like pure cope, right? Then I too experienced some. And it’s amazing. Bang out a two-hour morning jog, and not only do you feel warm and buzzy but also spectacularly fresh and vibrant and warmed up. Fatigued, sure, but counterbalanced by this delicious serene internal wumm-wumming. And neighbours mirror it right back at you. I’ve staggered into cafes, ordered lunch, chatted with the staff a bit … and then the beaming waitress also brought me coffees I’d not ordered, “on the house,” though admittedly the morning’s run had exhausted me to the point it wasn’t hours later I’d realised she’d been flirting. Can’t win them all, right?

Marathon perks aren’t exclusively flirt-based, more’s the pity. Maybe they should be. It’d do wonders for attendance. Marathonning overall isn’t exclusively unbearable agony but also sports bright spots. Loads of them. You ask me why I chose to run this marathon in particular? There are millions of factors that go into making a particular running course more special and/or fun than others. A few biggies are: the natural beauty and variation of the course itself; how rural/urban it is; and attendance from other runners and the kinds of fab culture you all build together.

First reason: its setting, Lake Rotorua, is spectacularly gorgeous. You’ve got stunning views and scenery the entire way around the lake, plus just enough hills and slopes to mix up your effort levels and keep you on your toes. Even if you’re exhausted, you can still gaze around and drink in the views and feel aesthetically nourished. For a while.

Second reason: surprise surprise, turns out the logistics and organisation of any 42km road-based event are absolutely massive. This year’s event had five thousand runners. The marathon course’s first 5km is inside the city of Rotorua itself. Every street intersection had to be blocked off and crewed by event staff, attempting to direct traffic, usually with 20-30min waiting times. The entire city is basically gridlocked. It’s a fantastic way to irritate non-runners. But luckily the vast majority of the event course is way out in the country, with relatively few blocks.

Contrast this to, say, the London marathon. All 42km is inner-city urban. And it’s got 40,000 people each year. It’s colossal. It brings the entire inner city to a standstill for the whole day. The more of a marathon’s course you can situate in the middle of goddamn nowhere, then the easier and cheaper it is to manage the event logistics. I think that’s a big reason behind the championing of extreme-terrain off-road events in recent years. Far easier to manage the oceanic flow of a gazillion runners when they’re all way out in the Styx and not spooning Buckingham Palace.

Third reason: Rotorua’s marathon in particular has kind of become known as NZ’s “runners’ marathon”. It’s in a (somewhat) central country location, and occupies a kind of sweet spot for the maximum number of NZ athletes to access.

So the Rotorua marathon in particular enjoys maximum runner numbers, a gorgeous marathon course, and minimal urban gridlock. Best of everything, really.

Any highlights from this run?

Highlights? Sure, loads from the course itself, though by this sixth event the novelty has started to wear off. The start line has cannons and a haka group, and the cannons make one hell of a starting gun. The haka group cheer on us five thousand starters with a blood-curdling Te Reo Māori rendition of It’s Raining Men, or at least that’s what I think it was based on their acrobatics. At the 10km mark there’s a magnificent demonstration of Japanese taiko drummers and drumming. You can hear it from a kilometre away. At the 15km mark there’s a bagpipe band. This year they were tootling Amazing Grace, youtu.be/89g9yMGFGlM, or possibly Denis Leary’s Asshole, youtu.be/UrgpZ0fUixs, I always get those mixed up, and you can hear it from two kilometres away.

There are loads of these impromptu noisemakers. I love them, they add so much joy and variety to the occasion.

Do you have plans to participate in more marathons or other running events?

Marathons? Not particularly. Not only are marathons themselves beyond brutal, but maintaining match-fit marathon fitness also gobbles up tremendous amounts of time and effort. I’ll happily bang out an annual Rotorua effort, but probably not more frequently than that.

But shorter events? Half-marathons, say? Sure! Bring it on. Our Runners-and-walkers club’s running pack bang out weekly half marathon distances anyway.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering running their first marathon?

Isn’t it obvious?

Fitness. You’ve either Got It or you Ain’t. Training and prep are for wimps and posers, man. Comatose on the sofa? Get out of breath after even quite a short sentence? Yearn instead for a ghastly jog? Reckon your foetal physique will withstand its rigours? Do you feel lucky, punk? If your aerobic form can’t instantly kapow from King Tut with leprosy to Sonic the Hedgehog pompoiring the Large Hadron Collider, then just you tear up your Femme-Fatale-Card or whatever insults today’s cool-kids are kicking around …

… Nah, are you kidding? No-one’s instantly an expert at anything. It’s all good. Getting properly good at any skill or pastime often takes months and months and years and years. It’s no different with running and fitness. Venture forth just a tiny bit further each day, and before you know it you’ll be banging out multiple-hour jogs and it’ll feel fantastic. Yes, the prospect of running 42 kilometres in one go makes most peoples’ souls shrivel and burst. But not even quite experienced aquajoggers would consider it a good idea to venture across the English Channel on their first day in the ocean. Unless their corpse washes up on a Calais beach. Then they’ll be chuffed to bits. Albeit dead. So pace yourself.

In all seriousness, I’d encourage anyone and everyone to bang out a lovely walk and/or jog a few times a week. You’ll feel refreshed and vibrant and chummy. You’ll get to know your local area far more intimately. You’ll get hailed on. You’ll learn to love getting hailed on. Why not join a local walking and/or running club? Their clientele adore these things too. You’ll feel right at home.

My girlfriend, Danielle, has experienced all this first-hand. She’s from Brazil, and moved to Wellington only a year ago. Before that, as far as she and her entire family were concerned, exercise was this hideous cloaked menace that abducted upper-class nancy-boys and imprisoned them in spandex. She’d never so much as walked five minutes, for recreation alone, in her life. Normally she’s all delightful smiles, but if I dared mention popping out for a walk, she’d immediately hiss like Christopher Lee and flip cars, then scamper up the nearest tree, and I’d have to entice her down with jewellery and Parmigiano.

Until she gave walking a go herself. And she adored it. She’s encountered and experienced this fabled Runners’ High herself. She and I together banged out the final event of last year’s Runners-and-Walkers-club event list, the Turkey Trot. (For those who’d not heard of such an event, the idea is, you all run/walk a predetermined route, estimate what you think your completion time might be, leave your watches/phones behind, complete it, and whoever’s actual time is closest to their estimate wins a turkey. Or at least it used to be a turkey. These days it’s supermarket vouchers.)

Danielle and I together walked 6.8km for a time of 1h53m. She couldn’t believe it. Sustained exercise for almost two hours? Impossible! Her family would never believe her! 

Subsequently, she and I have walked many other tracks and routes, and each time we build our fitness just that bit further. She and I came to Rotorua together. She wasn’t intending to enter any events herself, until Gordy and Wendy and I popped into Rotorua’s Events Centre to pick up our race numbers and swag. (They give you Hell Pizza Free Humongous Pizza vouchers, by the way, totally legit, sign up and get in quick).

There was a registration table, plus queue: “Last-minute registrations”. On a whim, Danielle signed up for the 5.5km walk/run course. How rad is that? She banged it out, and to her astonishment and delight rocketed around the 5.5km course in a mere 1h15m.

She’s done fantastically well over recent months, and I’m spectacularly proud of her. Just about anyone can build up their fitness too. Just a little bit each day, and before you know it you too will be moonwalking around Jupiter. Do join us, it’s a delight.

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