Race report: Queenstown Marathon

As many of you know from past posts, I’m a runner. I am much slower than I was in my 20s, and I rarely enter races any more. I find them a bit demoralizing, not to mention expensive. I’m not going to set any PRs, so why bother?

But there was one event that I hadn’t yet ticked off the list, and that’s the marathon. I watched Marc train for and suffer through a few, and earned a healthy fear of the distance. We had hiked 27 miles one day on our Oregon hike, and I was completely trashed.

You have to seriously train for a marathon, Marc said, in a serious voice. Seriously.

I haven’t done anything serious for years! Plus, there’s all that research showing that ultra long distance running is terrible for your heart.

Maybe I should just eat cookies instead.

But this year, I decided the time had come. Enough is enough. I’m going to run a marathon!

I had read an article about the Galloway run/walk method of marathon training. If you want more info, follow the link but here’s the deal in a nutshell: you do a test mile to see your fastest pace, and then you run your long runs at a pace much slower than that while interspersing walk breaks at regular intervals. This keeps you from getting injured and doesn’t actually slow you down all that much, it turns out. The walking bits give your running muscles a break, and your brain a break, too.

This was mid-July. Galloway’s plan takes 17 weeks, so the Melbourne Marathon in late October was out. I set my sights instead on the Queenstown Marathon in New Zealand on November 17th. Not only is it in a beautiful setting, but a lot of the course is on gravel bike paths, which I prefer to running on asphalt and concrete.

The training was a breeze! I stole Marc’s Garmin watch and programmed it to beep at me at regular intervals. I only ran 3-4 times a week but they were pretty decent runs, usually at least an hour, with increasingly long runs every other weekend. I was not training to race, I was training to survive. I didn’t care about my pace.

Along comes November. My friend Pammie has convinced me that the 6-hour drive over the mountains from Christchurch to Queenstown will be “really gorgeous, dahling”, so we fly there and stay with friends of hers on Thursday night. Friday, we drive over the said mountains, which are covered in cloud, and arrive in Queenstown, where we check in with some other friends and eat spag bog for dinner.

No, that’s not pond scum, even though it sounds like it. Turns out Aussies like to shorten words and make them cute. Spag bog means spaghetti bolognese.

It’s pissing down rain, and the Air BnB is in a truly depressing little suburb in a sunken spot outside the Queenstown airport. Never mind. The forecast looks okay for the morning. I tell Pammie, who is slightly organizationally challenged, that we need to leave by 7 am in order to make sure we get a parking spot and maybe score some coffee before the race start at 8:20. I’m nervous. I toss and turn all night.

Pammie still hasn’t finished her yogurt and muesli by 7:15 and I’m starting to get agitated. Looks like I’m going to have to do this on instant coffee. I get my gear, go to the car and drive it up in front of the house and wait. At 7:25 we’re off. There’s no traffic and plenty of parking, so maybe she was right. But I’m glad to be here. Now nothing can stop me from running this race! It’s a beautiful morning, crystal clear with just a little fog hugging the hills.

We line up at the porta potties, then drop our bags, and the announcer is telling us there’s five minutes to the start and so make your way to the line. Pammie decides she needs to pee again, and gets back in the porta potty line. What is it with runners and peeing? I’m a nervous wreck and getting pretty irritated, but I do the nice thing and wait. We get to the line in plenty of time. Pammie’s all excited, jumping up and down. I do some deep breathing and remind her that I’m going out slowly, that she can run her own race. She tells me she wants to do the run/walk too, and since she doesn’t have a watch that beeps at her, she’ll stick to me.

We head out, nice and slow, walking for one minute after every four minutes. I’d programmed my watch to do 4/1 for the first hour, then 5/1 for the next two hours, and then 4/1 again until the end, estimating it would take me 4 1/2 hours to run the distance. Incredibly, Pammie does stick to me — or at least a few steps ahead. She keeps looking back, like a sheep dog, to make sure I’m still there.

The runners pour through quaint Arrowtown, then down a path along the Arrow River. It’s gorgeous! I’m so glad I’m doing this! On and on we run/walk. I refuse to succumb to the urge to pick up the pace. I’m surviving this, not racing it. When my watch beeps, I walk. Pammie needs another potty break, and finally sees an open portapotty at one of the aid stops. I jump into a second one, but when I get out, I see her back retreating ahead of me. She thinks I’m in front of her, and doesn’t look back. Never mind. I’m not speeding up.

After twelve intervals, my watch should have turned into the 5/1 mode. But it doesn’t. I never uploaded the program! Damnation! So I decide to do 4:30/30 until I run out of intervals.

We run around Lake Hayes on a trail, then a boardwalk, then another trail that climbs up the other side. I finally catch back up to Pammie because I like running on hills and she doesn’t. There’s a long stretch of road, followed by some more paths…

Honestly, I don’t remember the route details, people. But I feel good! Strong. I eat a Clif Bar and drink the powerade at the aid stations. (Bad bonking experience in a training run taught me not to run on empty). It’s getting warm out here.

At 21 km I put in my headphones and start listening to my running tunes. It really helps me tune out and relax into the experience. I’m not fighting anything. I’m just running along! This is great. Pammie fusses about the heat a bit. She’s tiring, asking me when we get to walk. I stick to my guns and we walk every 5 minutes or so.

WIth about 8 km to go, I’m starting to feel a little tired. With 5 km to go, I ditch the walk intervals because I’m worried my legs won’t start again if I stop. A couple of times it feels as if my left leg is about to collapse underneath me. I tune into my music and just carry on. There’s a young woman just in front of me who has a good, steady pace, and I focus on her. She looks strong and confident. I’m strong and confident!

Then we’re running through the streets of Queenstown. People are saying my name! “Go Mary!” Man, these legs are tired. Just another kilometer. Just 500 meters. Pammie moves ahead of me and I let her go. It doesn’t matter. I run down into the finish chute and see my friend Rachel at the sideline. I’m done!! Pammie asks the photographer to take a picture of the two of us and I try to smile. What I really want to do is lie down and not get up for a couple of years.

My legs are completely trashed. I can hardly hobble to the bag collection point to get my stuff with Rachel and Pammie. We ease ourselves painfully down on some grassy bleachers. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get up.  But there’s an ice cream stand, so I manage.

It took me 4 hours and 39 minutes to run this thing. But I survived! And it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.  In fact, it was fun and beautiful and inspiring. All these people running around me, and all the people who finished before and after me, they were all on this journey with me.

Next year maybe I’ll shoot for four hours! It’s never too late to reboot a running career, is it?


Two days later, Queenstown was blanketed with 10 cm of fresh snow. Pammie and I had already left to drive back over the mountains to Christchurch, stopping by some hot pools along the way. This time the sky cooperated and we were treated with stunning views of the lakes and mountains. The lupins were in full bloom and it was spectacular.



8 thoughts on “Race report: Queenstown Marathon

  1. Thank you for sharing Mary. You look beautiful as always. How lucky you were with the weather. the parking, the timing. the friends and annoyances. All good. I’m so happy to be in touch with you. I wish you all the best.
    Pam Johnson

    • Thanks John! If it weren’t for you guys I probably wouldn’t be a runner. Those days at High noon were epic. Miss you tons. SOmeday soon we’ll get back to Ithaca I hope!

  2. Great story, Mary! I too am still a runner, but it has been awhile (12 years!) since my last marathon. I just signed up for a half here in Ventura County, where we moved in June. You inspired me with you tale and I loved all the local expressions. I will look to find a plate of Spag Bog the night before my race. Long distance hugs to you!

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