Matt and I met training at the Melbourne Uni Athletics Club. We chose the same day to turn up for our first training session, thinking we were fit, we’d be fine. A delightful young lady, (now a dear friend), took us out to Princes Park in Parkville and in the most encouraging way possible showed us exactly how unfit we were. Since then, we’ve improved that fitness, lost it, found it, lost it and so on. In the process, we’ve stood on more than a few race starting lines. Late last year we escaped the Mongolian winter to run the Taipei half-marathon. We’re going to share what it’s like to toe the starting line in three very different nations.
The start of an Aussie fun run is relatively calm. There is some jostling for position, but nothing untoward. We might stop to listen to Deeks yelling at us all to give it our best shot and enjoy the day. The national anthem might be sung. A media chopper is often buzzing around overhead. The crowd hums with excitement. Then the gun is fired, and we’re off. The crowd usually pelts along for the first kilometer—it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and go out much faster than you ought. After that, things settle down and there’s space to settle into your own rhythm. Little packs of runners form and dissolve. The crowd cheers you on, and if your lungs permit, you might cheer the front runners.
At the end of the run, you swig a sports drink and stagger off to meet or wait for your friends. There’s also the obligatory show bag full of advertising material and perhaps a copy of the Herald Sun. The advertisements go straight into the recycling bin. The newspaper gets handed to the dog, who takes great pleasure in ripping it to shreds. The paper then also ends up in the recycling bin, unread. I appreciate that races need sponsors, but there must be a more environmentally friendly way of getting their messages out.
Last year we ran the Arig Bank ‘Hope and Possibility’ fun run. The event offered distances from 3km to a full marathon, on flat closed roads starting from National Park. It also included a wheelchair event, which had a good turnout. Matt and I chose to run the 10km race. A friend had run the 3km earlier in the day and sent us a message warning us to watch out for a bit of pushing at the start. That was something of an understatement. It was Hobbesian in its ferocity. The crowd surged forward, everyone desperate to be in front position. Weapons were drawn (probably). A woman wearing false eyelashes drove an elbow into my stomach to get me to move. The local elite runners looked on wearily, but allowed themselves to be absorbed into the crowd rather than fighting their way forward. Eventually some clever types decided that the rope barrier was for guidance only and climbed over it, edging the start line ever forward. There was no countdown—someone in the crowd sneezed, an enthusiastic runner mistook that for the starters gun, and everyone immediately followed. They sprinted out. Around 300 metres in, I waved goodbye to Ms Eyelashes with more than reasonable glee. I could see why the elites hadn’t stressed too much. In under a kilometer, the crowd had thinned. From there, it was wide open roads all the way.
At the end of the run, we each received a certificate. There are no giveaways. No advertising material. Matt and I were lucky enough to have scored medals in our age groups. We stay for some of the presentations. The presenter keeps saying ‘Bayan Hoorgae’, which we mistake for ‘Bayan Olgii’, one of the north-western provinces of Mongolia. We wonder why so many good runners hail from that far-flung part of the country. Perhaps it’s the higher altitude? Perhaps this is the new cradle of endurance athletes. The Tarahumara and their diet of chia seeds need to make way—the Mongolian Khazakhs are coming. Vogue will be touting mutton and mare’s milk as the super foods of 2017. We later discover that ‘Bayan Hoorgae’ means ‘Congratulations’. Disappointing.
The Taipei Marathon festival is a huge affair, with about 18,000 people running 42.2, 21.1 and 10 kilometres. Matt and I opt for the half-marathon option. Despite the huge number of participants, everything happens with remarkable ease. I find a position a few rows back from the start line. I have personal space. Australian levels of personal space. Swing a dead cat kind of personal space. No-one is trying to elbow me out of the way. I wave to Matt, who is a few metres ahead. He gives me a wide arm wave back, followed by a cheeky thumbs up. In front of the start line (to which due respect is paid), a group of cheerleaders perform power aerobics for us. A pair of Super Perky MCs offer exuberant commentary in Taiwanese, English and Japanese. They seem excited enough to explode into a thousand rainbows. All around, the glass screens of mobile phones flash in the sunlight. In Taiwan, it appears, you haven’t run a race unless you’ve recorded every moment. People are snapping selfies. High above us, several media choppers circle, and in a lower stratosphere numerous drones swoop in for pictures. On every corner, there’s a photographer with a very serious looking camera. I have never been more photographed in my life. At one point, the male Super Perky MC calls out ‘We’ve got our helicopters out. You can watch the live footage on your televisions. Not everyone has their television with them, but you all have your mobile phones.’ Wait, what? Who is carrying a television?! Hell, even a mobile phone seems unnecessary. I have sneakers, running clothes, and some emergency money and a gel shoved in my bra. I think that’ll do.
Afterwards, we queue to have our legs sprayed with cooling ‘magic spray’. Then we gather up the two different bags (each!) provided by the race organisers. We have a collection of advertising material, heat bandages, energy bars, Ovaltine samples, towels as well as a substantial lunch. So much stuff! Some useful, but most of it not. I immediately put all of the heat bandages on in an effort not to waste them. Ten minutes later I remove them all as the deep-heat throb sets in. At least they got used.
Next up is the Ulaanbaatar marathon in June. Matt is hoping to give the full distance a crack if his body doesn’t decide to betray him again. I will have a chat to my cycling legs to see what they think they can manage. In the meantime, I will continue with the martial arts training. By June I should have mastered the five-point palm exploding eyelash technique. Beware anyone who dares to poke an elbow in my direction—you take your life into your own hands.
 Robert De Castella, former world champion and world record holding marathon runner