Tears were streaming down my face running home from Neil’s shop a week ago. I had visited his shop to talk to him about retiring from competitive racing after the 2014 Lake Biwa marathon of which I had qualified for. Neil is my running coach who has guided my running career for over 8 years. Barely a week has gone by in this time without us talking about my upcoming week of training. The tears were due to the gratitude that was difficult to express, the sadness that things have to inevitably change, and the joy of my achievements gone by. We spoke at length about starting as a nothing runner to becoming a serious and relatively accomplished athlete. I am not a world beater, I am not a national level athlete, I would be considered a good club level runner. I am however, extremely proud of my achievements and worked really hard for them. This is a self-indulgent reflection on my running career. I write primarily for my family and a couple of close friends who have been forced to tolerate me with this obsession. I’m also pretty forgetful, so better to write some things down while they are fresh. This is deliberately emotional and hokey.
I am not a naturally gifted runner. At 20 years of age, I ran a 101 minute half marathon in a fun run. Any serious runner knows that that is not the time of a natural. At that time I dismissed those who won the fun runs as freaks of nature who must have been born with some crazy gene that enabled them to run that fast. What does come naturally to me though is sticking at something, uncompromisingly so.
I moved to Melbourne towards the end of 2005 as a 26 year old after a year living and working in Cambodia. Prior to that I had grown up in country NSW and did my university degree in Sydney at UNSW. Knowing nobody in Melbourne meant that I needed to find some friends, likely through a hobby or something. Having grown up playing sport, I figured that was my way in. I had never seen rowing before, and given I moved into a share house on the Yarra river in Richmond, I thought that might be an interesting sport to try out. When I enquired about it however, the email I got back did not make it out to be a sport very approachable for a beginner like me in his mid-20s. So I fell back on a sport I knew which was running, I mean all I needed was some shoes. Proximity dictated that I contact the Richmond Harriers. Having run in a few fun runs before, I proudly said to Paul Beauvais at the club that I had completed a half marathon and wanted to run with some people. He directed me to come to the club rooms one evening and run with a guy called Neil Ryan. What a suggestion that turned out to be.
I originally thought the Richmond Harriers was a club that people could join to go for a jog and maybe enter in fun runs together. That was my original plan. Here I met Marissa, a runner in the club who used to go out and do various runs around Melbourne with Neil. I first thought Neil was just some older guy who liked coming for a run with us. It was a lot of fun, thoroughly enjoyable running with them. Early on, I did not know what a running coach did. It took a good number of months before I realised that a coach was about having someone who would guide and set the type of training you might do. Over time, it was others in the club that told me that Neil used to be an extremely fast runner. Neil would never tell you this directly of course, hence why I had no idea. So it was Neil coaching Marissa primarily when I first began, and I just tried to keep up with Marissa. I did not have any ambitions then, just turned up and joined in. Penny came soon after I joined, both Marissa and Penny were really good fun and we just did the runs Neil told us to do. Others joined in over time, Melinda, Fiona, Lavinia, Ian. Altogether, it seemed that this running club was a really great way to meet new people in Melbourne.
Those first few years of my running were incredibly enjoyable. Joining in with the Richmond Harriers racing in the Athletics Victioria competition was fantastic. Athletics Victoria holds regular series of distance racing in addition to track and field competitions. The distance racing is in winter and has with a mixture of recreational runners, but also some seriously strong athletes, often international standard athletes. I was pretty much towards the back or middle of the pack in these races, so I got to make friends with various people from other clubs who were a similar ability to me. I just kept training with Neil, improving gradually and seeing my times get a bit faster made it all the more fun. Still I wasn’t all that fussed about that, just enjoyed training with the girls and Neil. It was often the case that our group were “Neil’s harem and Joji”. The girls often wore yellow headbands to match the Richmond uniform in the races back then. Early on, Melinda gave me a yellow Lululemon headband to run with as a gift. I think it’s a girl’s headband, but whatever. I still race with this exact same headband she gave me all those years back in all races that I compete in. The sentimentality in me cherishes this headband, connecting me to the reason I ran in the first place, to make new friends.
Backtrack to childhood. Relevant to my running are my early tennis years. From about 5 years of age when I was shown a tennis racquet by my parents in my Mittagong hometown — playing against my little brother, I was instantly hooked. I’ve played more years of tennis than I have pursued running as a sport actually. Mittagong is a smallish town, and so I played a lot of tennis at the courts in the neighbouring town Bowral. I got reasonably good as a teenager — I think I have my name on their junior championship board there. This was purely due to enjoying it so much, playing every week and getting some basic coaching. I spent so many hours, days, and years at those courts as a youngster. My parents were always supportive of this. Amongst the tennis community back then, I got the nickname “the wall”. There were two reasons for this name. The first is that at the courts I played at, when there were no more opponents to play with, I would hit the tennis ball against a brick wall which had a fake hand-painted net to hit, such was my yearn to keep playing. Secondly, I was also a retriever; I was quick around the court and very consistent, without any real weapon. So opponents who played me felt they were playing against a wall, because the ball would just always come back. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to completely flourish within tennis. I think this was primarily because in a smaller town, there weren't the coaching resources available to me to get at a higher level — that or I just wasn't good enough. I had dreams as a teenager; incredible lofty dreams as many kids do. Mine was about being a tennis champion. I honestly had visualised myself fighting for the Wimbledon title. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a champion, to know what it was like to be the best at something, to take the glory, along with its accolades and fanfare. Whilst nobody’s fault, my intense desire was not nurtured through guided coaching to get to a level in which I could really make a mark. I didn’t exactly stop playing tennis when I moved to Sydney to go to university, but tennis took a back seat to studying and exploring life and then subsequently overseas when I moved to Cambodia, tennis was all but a memory. So the necessity for me to strive to know what it felt like to be a champion obviously faded whilst other aspects of life became important. I left that lofty dream as something that was for that child in me.
Fast forward to running with Neil now. Around 4 years (in 2009) after joining the Richmond Harriers, the role running took in my life begun to change. I was continually improving in the Athletics Victoria competition each year. I was getting faster, and as I got faster each season, those I used to compete against were left behind as I started racing others up ahead in the field. All I seemed to have to do was do what Neil told me to do. Run the long Sunday run, do a mixture of other distances and speeds during the week and so on. The focus was on the track during summer distance over winter, very straight forward. Thoughts at the time were “When does this stop? Do I just keep improving until I stop training?” It was then I was getting interested in what those at the front of races trained like. I started to read a lot of books about training methods. In some of our races were guys like Steve Moneghetti, so I was reading books about how he used to train, and De Castella, legends of our sport. One thing struck out at me, all these guys were running twice a day, but the basic models of training were generally similar — always high mileage. So I proudly brought my newfound knowledge to Neil and said “I want to start running twice a day”. His answer was in the Neil manner — a firm, somewhat harsh “don’t worry about it just be patient, you’ll get better”. It frustrated me at the time, but it was in hindsight exactly what I needed to hear. It showed a couple of things though I’m sure. That I was getting more interested at performing at a high standard, and that I wanted to do whatever it took to get there. I’m so proud that I did stay with Neil, listened to him, as it would have been easy to just go and take my new knowledge and think that I knew what to do. But every year I was with him I had improved, and Neil looked after us so there was no reason to change. He also took us to interesting running locations for training like Ferny creek, Healesville and Lysterfield. It was still great being part of the group we had at Richmond, he was right behind us, right behind me, helping me improve and making it enjoyable at the same time.
So as this interest grew, I had also begun to make some pretty serious life decisions. I remember going through the following thought process “OK, so I’m now in my late 20s, heading into 30s, this is probably my last chance in a sport to get genuinely good at something”. That dream I had as a child kind of came back, that I could make something of a sport. I was working full time, so found a tiny one bedroom unit which is literally a stone’s throw away from the Richmond Harrier clubs rooms. I knew it was a nice area to live, and I wanted to be close to these club rooms. I am not sure many people would actually get a mortgage on a place and factored into the decision was that is close to their sports club and their coach, but I did just that! Then in 2010, 5 years after beginning running, I decided to go back to study. Part of this was a career choice, but there was a chunk of my reasoning which related to needing to have a bit more time to train when and how I wanted. My job at the time had me travelling interstate and therefore I would often have to do my runs at midnight after flying home, not ideal. Buying the unit and moving back to study were two extreme examples, but there were numerous other things that changed. I did not want to go out late for big nights out. It meant training 365 days a year if my body let me, including days like Christmas and just generally putting running first, even if it meant being antisocial and dull. One of the more extreme things that came out of my mouth was “I don’t care if this cuts years off my life at the other end” to which my medical friend Aparna reminds me of the insanity of such a comment. This had now clearly developed into an all-consuming passion which took a lot of my mental and physical effort.
Neil still stuck by my side. When out of the AV competitive season he would take me to various races in regional Victoria, often leaving at the crack of dawn. I would often win these races which was a lot of fun. Neil would be there each week in the club rooms guiding each of my training weeks. He would even hop on his bike on some of the longer runs to keep me company. He’d take my splits as I raced around the track. He would support me and took personal responsibility for any races that I performed poorly in. I would at times suggest that “I’m not good enough” and would receive a stern “let me worry about that” in response, as he adjusted my training to ensure I was constantly improving. My improvements were never massive, but they were always there. Eventually, Neil gave me the permission note to start to run twice a day — obviously by easing into it very gradually into my weekly routine. It felt like that was the next step in my running and he believed I was ready for it. After being patient doing that for what would have been around half a year, my results were getting better and better still. Rather than a middle of the pack runner, I was racing amongst the faster guys in the AV series, winning more fun runs. It was around here that I had developed some new friendships, they were some other serious runners, particularly MJ who has been a wonderful training buddy and friend. Kaz and Kristy too added to the mix and we became the “pinchy” group, all great fun to run with on our easy morning runs.
There was one particular race that I had always been curious about. When I was working in Cambodia in 2004 prior to moving to Melbourne, I had organised a group of ex pats to race in the Half Marathon at Angkor Wat. At the time I was not a serious runner, but I wanted to participate in this event as it looked like a lot of fun running around the temples there. I ran about 96 minutes that day, not sure what place, nothing flash from memory. Which was fine, that was the time I was running in those types of fun runs back then recreationally. But now I was a different runner, somewhat serious. So I wondered about doing it again, see if I could feature in such a race. So in 2010 I went over and competed in it. I won the event that year, it was an unforgettable experience. There is a funny combination of photos below. The first one on is of me standing on the podium with 2 friends at the time in 2004. We were pretending we were the victors of the race, you know, as idiot ex patriot Australians do. The photo underneath is of me on that very same podium, having just won the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in 2010. In 2004 I was joking that I could win such an event. Here I was standing on that very same podium 6 years later with the dignitaries presenting my medal for the win.
A few years went by, 2011, 2012 — these were very much tough grinding years of training. I really did not have any significant results to speak of but was constantly getting further up the field in AV, particularly in the cross country racing and still doing well in fun runs. Finally early in 2013 another of the requests I put to Neil was that I wanted to run a marathon. For so many years before, I had hounded Neil about doing one. “Can I do one this year?” “Not yet” was typically the answer, he had felt that I wasn’t ready. Finally in 2013, I got the all clear to be able to race the Melbourne Marathon. After some heavy years of training, this seemed like as good a time as any. Part of me at the time knew that since my study might be coming to a close that I might not be able to train so hard in a couple of years and marathon training is quite demanding. Whilst Neil probably would have preferred I wait a bit longer before I tackled the marathon, he gave in and let me do one. So then came the training.
What Neil gave me for training prior to the 2013 Melbourne Marathon was something I will never forget. After running twice a day for a few years now, he felt I was strong enough to handle it. Neil gave me the following weekly structure 12 weeks out from the marathon. It rotated each fortnight.
This training was new to me, I had not come across training that had incorporated marathon distance tempo runs amongst 2 other 16km ones during the week. The closest I had heard of others around the world doing this was some of the training Japanese athletes did. Basically this was hard training and so was not sure how I would respond to such mileage and constant tempo running. However the results speak for themselves. I ran my personal best over 21.1km during this block of training and it resulted in a marathon time of 2 hours 26 mins 34 seconds at the Melbourne Marathon. I got a gold medal in the Australian University championships, 3rd Victorian, and 11th overall in the race and I think I was the 17th fastest Australian male marathoner for all of 2013. I had done extraordinarily well and had exceeded both Neil and my own expectations. I was elated at this result at what was essentially my first marathon (other than the one that I did when I was 21 years old in 3 hours 21, but I was a recreational fun runner then). Neil does not show much emotion outwardly generally and even after this race there was nothing overtly different about him, but you could also tell he pleased with this result. It was a wonderful feeling to know such hard training could pay off. I don’t think I’d ever had such a feeling after a race before. That elation lasted for months.
Given the results of the end of 2013, I decided that I would treat myself before stepping back from running at this level — and enter in the Lake Biwa marathon in Japan. I booked the flight within a week of the Melbourne Marathon. I am typing parts of this up on the plane over to the event actually. So now 8+ years later after first stepping foot in the Richmond Harriers to meet Neil, I am about to run in a race with one of the deepest field of marathoners in the world. This is a race for elites, this is not fun running. The organisers put us up in a nice hotel. They’ll host us, feed us, and treat us as just that, elite athletes; such is the respect for the high performing endurance athlete in Japan. When I was a child, dreaming of my Wimbledon victory, I always wanted to know what it was like to be someone who could perform at the highest level of competition and succeed. I won’t win this race, unlikely I will even get in the top half of the field! But just being here is very much getting to experience what it is like at the top, to know that I am part of a select group of good runners battling it out against each other at the highest level. I thank Neil for getting me here. He has taken me from a recreational runner, to support me living out a childhood dream, albeit in a sport which I did not envisage I would be doing. It was my legs that did the training, I did the running, but this would not have been possible had it not been for his guidance. I remained loyal to him, and he in turn has only shown me the same loyalty. I am injury free again, ready to go and enjoy being part of this race, whatever the outcome might be.
I will be retiring from this level of competition after this race. When I think of retiring, I think of Australian cricketers giving press conferences at the end of their careers, then moving into a commentating job. But I understand retiring a bit more now. Even at my level, I am allowing myself to call it a retirement, to let myself move on to a different stage of life. Running is a wonderful sport, but it can be all consuming. I am not the best at balancing a healthy social/work/serious sports life. Like many serious athletes, we selfishly like to make everything work around our own sporting needs. Whilst I will always run to keep healthy, and probably still race, especially for the Richmond Harriers, I want to allow myself to sleep in on some Sundays. I want to be able to turn up to a friend’s dinner without being exhausted from a training run now and then, and also finally go on some long extended holidays again which I used to do prior to my running career. Especially though, I have 4 very cute nephews and nieces who are starting to grow up, beginning to talk. I feel that in the next few years as they begin to turn into little guys and girls, I would like to see them more, play with them more, get to know them. And so on a holiday to visit them, I’d rather play with them when they wake up rather than feel the need to go for a 3 hour run.
I feel I’ve given this sport a huge chance, and I have reaped some incredible rewards. I did not want to regret not giving it my best shot when I was in my 20s and 30s, to see what I could do at a high level. I feel I have done that or very close to it. I did not want to reach my 40s and regret wondering. I will be able to tell stories of the “crazy” training that I did, which resulted in some wonderful achievements. Some other runners will be able to say the same of course — there are a whole lot out there much better than me. But there is a much larger population of people who will never know what this training and competing feels like. I don’t know if I would get faster if I kept at it. I do know that my best chance of doing so would be to stay with Neil, keep working how we have, focussing on the next target, working out where to improve. However, there has to be a time that I have to let it go and be content with my achievements and I feel this race in Japan is the right time.
I am overcome with something right now, probably some relief, happiness, sadness, but mostly extremely scared. Our identities as athletes become entangled with our pursuits. For so long I’ve been identified as “Joji, a runner”. Whilst I have always known I am much more than just a runner, it has certainly been core to who I am in the last 8 years. Will I be content with a change to this identity? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be content with putting a past tense to it “I was a runner”. In a way it also feels like I am making it public to keep myself accountable to this decision as I do feel that I could easily fall into the trap of going back to “just get that one last PB” and sacrifice other aspects of my life again.
As I was preparing for this marathon in Japan a few weeks back, Neil had me doing 13.5 laps of Princess park at a fast pace. Neil unfortunately had an eye problem and needed surgery on it, he also got sick as he was recovering. I spoke to him the day before that I would be fine to do the run around princess park alone and that he should rest and recover. But there he was at 5:45am as I was about to run another marathon distance training run around the park for training. We began that early to avoid a heat wave that was forecast that day. He arrived on his bike because he said he couldn’t start his car in the morning. So there was Neil, unwell, having ridden his bike in the darkness of the morning, counting the laps and timing me as I did one of my final long hard runs. He would have been feeling very unwell I’m sure as he was sitting down. Whilst I did a lot of my running on my own, Neil’s presence was made felt for every single one of them. As I was training for the marathons however, Neil made it his priority to ensure that I was not alone in the training, even if it meant he kept me company whilst unwell and could only count laps of princess park sitting down. I will always define my running career including Neil as a core part of it, he was there for my very first run, and has now, over 8 years later gotten me to Lake Biwa.
Just thought to throw out some special mentions of some important people in my life that have been part of my running career. It is these friends that fundamentally made up the reason I joined the sport … Mission accomplished and exceeded I say.
Neil and every Richmond Harrier past and present. The people here feel like are my second family. Go tigers! Paul — the first Richmond Harrier I’ve come across and still running strong. Marissa, Penny, Fiona, Mel Paterson, Ian, Lavinia, “The Pinchies” — Michael Johnson, Kaz and Kristy. The Melbourne uni crew, thanks for letting me tag along on your runs and use your track. Andrew “Woollies” and with that, everyone in the Melbourne Midday Milers. The MMM club is fantastic. Competitive, friendly, love a good sledge - hope to in future do more running with this group. Strava friends — I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being on Strava the past year. Thanks to the many people I’ve never met who have written lovely messages on various runs. I’ll still be on there, but likely not on the top of the challenges anymore. All the competitors in AV I’ve gotten to know over the years, look forward to seeing you out there again this year. All the non running friends who I look forward to spending more time with in future, Stu, Aparna, Harry, Mark, the list grows. Last but of course not least my family who have endured a lot with me and my running.
There are so many more that should be on this list but that’ll do for now…
Lake Biwa Race Update
I finished in 2 hours 28 minutes 11 seconds. I am super happy with that effort, ran my guts out! Marathoning is a beast. This race is incredible, to have bunches to try sit in with the whole way around is something pretty special for a sub 2:30 runner. Feel so lucky to have been able to run here. It was a big positive split, but you have no choice in this race if you know you are fighting for a sub 2:30 time as you need to be quicker than that pace for the first 15km otherwise you get booted off the course. James Attard and I stuck together sitting right on this relegation pace for the first 5km, then we had to get a wriggle on from 5-10km to get out of the relegation zone, of which we did comfortably (thank goodness). I faded after 35km, but wow, there were some pretty big fades out there today. Right now I am very happy with this race, what a way to finish up!