The Macleay River Marathon

31 years ago, 11 runners made the journey from the Kempsey Swimming Pool to Trial Bay Gaol, near South West Rocks, and the Macleay River Marathon was born. Runners used to hit the wall…. Literally hit the wall of the gaol at the end of the run, which marked the finish of the run, 42.2km from the start, or as close as you got in those days, by a small group of local runners without GPS watches or other modern running luxuries. Much has changed since then. The event has grown, it now offers a full race program including half marathon, 10km and 5km events, and the course is now an out and back course, starting and finishing in the caravan park next to the Trial Bay Gaol.

Trial Bay Gaol, with South West Rocks in the background, as seen from the air.
Trial Bay Gaol, with South West Rocks in the background, as seen from the air.

Yesterday was the 32nd running of the event. 69 runners completed the marathon course, on a clear 22 degree C day with not a cloud in sight.  I would not consider that ideal running conditions, but it was a great day for spectators.

I admit that the start was a little hard to find. On Saturday afternoon, I arrived 20 minutes late to pick up my race number. I would have been on time, but I had spent half an hour circling the gaol (and stopping to take pictures of the kangaroos), trying to find the ‘shelter shed’ where the race registration was located. Finally, I had to stop and ask the ladies working at the National Parks office in the Gaol for directions. When I eventully made it, June from the Timing Guys was very helpful, and I was too late to get my pins or race pack, but at least I knew where the start line was for tomorrow.

On race day I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and met up with the other Night Striders doing the marathon, Anne and Lauren. Emily was also lining up for the 5k. Here we are, in our Strider gear:


The race started precicely at 7am. The course headed in to South West Rocks for about 5km, then we followed the main road out of town, and out through Jerseyville. Lauren, Anne and I ran the first 15km together. From Jerseyville, the course continued along the Macleay River, long and straight, out to the Hat Head turnoff at Kinchela. Anne and I made it to the halfway turnaround point in 1 hour 59 minutes. We stayed together until nearly kilometre 24, when it was time for me to lift my game, and chase an elusive negative split. It was so great to have somebody else to run with, It certainly made the first half of the race go by fast.

Heading back into town by myself was lonely. The road was long and straight, and stretched off into the distance as far as the eyes could see. One lane was closed to traffic, but there wasn’t much by way of route markers or race marshalls to let you know there was a race going on at all. There was river to the left, paddocks to the right, and a long road ahead, with maybe one or often no other runners in sight.


Beautiful, but mentally tough. Hard to set a pace, or use other runners for motivation. I almost wished I had brought my ipod along. (ALMOST.) After I left Anne, every runner I passed I would shout encouragement to, like ‘come on’ or something that I hoped would help them to lift for a kilometre or so, to give me company and help pass the time. As I came up to one female runner, she slowed to a walk, saying she wasn’t feeling well. I stopped to offer her water, gels or salt, as I always carry more than I need. She said she would be OK and told me to keep running, so I continued on, making a mental note to tell the guys at the next aid station to make sure she got some sports drink and was feeling ok. Since we had turned the halfway hat, we were running into the sun, and it was starting to get hot out there! Dehydration could easily become a problem if you weren’t careful. Anne later asked me after the race if I had seen the girl laying down on the roadside not long after we had separated, and I assume it was the same girl. I was relieved to hear there was people with her, but of course you do wonder if there was anything you could have done.

Heading back into town, there was a long line of idling cars, stopped due to the partial road closure. There was no footpath here, we were running on the roadside shoulder. and as I ran past that long line of cars, the heat and fumes were quite overwlelming. Thank god I wasn’t huffing and puffing too much at this point. Inhaling a big lungful of the car fumes probably would have made me pass out. I passed a guy wearing a singlet that said “I’m doing 10 marathons in 2013” and made a mental note to try and find him at the finish line and ask him about it. Shortly afterwards, I finally found another runner to run alongside for about a kilometre. He was just starting to remember why he gave up running Marathons 20 years ago! We laughed as the race marshal held up the ‘Slow’ sign to passing traffic, and I exclaimed, “Aww, Slow!’ and he said, “Yeah, I know I’m slow”. I think they should hold up ‘Fast’ signs for us. With 7km to go, they could be really helpful.

Heading back through town the way we came out, the course turned off the road and onto the footpath. I was pleased to be in the shade at this point, and run the last few kilometres out of the direct sun. Thank god for the spectators too, otherwise I probably would have missed the final turn back towards the finish. This ‘flat’ marathon course finishes with a big hill in the last kilometre, back up to the gaol. I guess this worked well for me, because I think I passed at least 6 runners in that last stretch. With a few hundred metres to go, I came up alongside another runner, Sam. I don’t like passing other runners in the last few hundred metres. (I hate the feeling when it happens to me) But I wanted to sprint home, because I knew that If I finished strong, i would get home under 3 hours 50 minutes. Torn between not wanting to overtake this runner in sight of the line, but wanting to sprint home, I started to yell at him, Come on, you can’t let the girl in pink pass you now, I’m coming, you’d better lift now and bring it home strong! He smiled and we ran together until we reached that magic word, “FINISH!” and It’s all over for another day, and ‘runner’s high’ can finally set in, because you did it.

What this race lacked in large entrant numbers and big-city marathon atmosphere, it made up for with the little quirky things that you just don’t get at the big events. Like the kid out near the halfway point in what felt like the middle of nowhere, set up with a table and a jug of  water in his front yard. Or the guy who rode his bike out to the Jerseyville bridge and sat there with a plateful of watermelon for runners. Or the lady with the spoon and saucepan, making noise and cheering for you. Yes, you. Because at 37km into a marathon with 80 competitors, chances are you’re the only runner in sight, so there’s no one else she is cheering for at that point but you!

My Nan lives in Kempsey, and came out to the Finish line to watch me run. I asked her if the remembered that first run, 31 years ago. She said she vaguely did, and that one of the runners who started it, now 80, is still running, and ran the 10km event . We stayed and watched the presentation. Lucky we did, because it turns out I got the award for first place in my age category! Ok, so there was probably only a few people in my category, but that’s another reason that this event was so great. It’s a small community event, and they acknowledge major winners, age category winners, and also the first locals home. Female Marathon winner, Shayne Falkenmire (also from Newcastle), said the event had become her favourite event on the running calendar. I am sure she will be back next year to defend her crown.

Congratulations to the other Striders: Anne, who came 3rd in her age category and finished 9 minutes ahead of her goal time, Lauren, who finished her run and jumped straight in for a swim (She should come back for the triathlon!), Sarah, who ran the half marathon and then headed out for another 9km, and Emily, who ran 4/5 of the 5k and had to stop to rescue a young boy with a dog phobia who jumped on her back when a dog ran out on the course. I finished in 3:49, with a 9 minute negative split (For new runners, that is when you run the second half of the race faster than the first half). At the finish line, I was talking to a man who has run 118 marathons, and has only run 1 negative split. Oh, the people you meet at marathons!


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